Dr. Goon and the Lost Souls

[fiction]

Dr. Goon was the principal of Gecko Wacko High School and all the students loved him because that’s how he programmed them, and how did he program them? With the Gecko Wacko De Facto Smack-You-Later. The Gecko Wacko De Facto Smack-You-Later was an archway, kind of like the entryway at an airport that electronically frisks you before you board your plane. Every day when the students came to school, they had to pass through the butt-smacking turnstiles of the Gecko Wacko De Facto Smack-You-Later while staring at a little red lens attached to the arch. The students thought the lens was taking attendance by reading their retinas, but nothing could be further from the truth.

The truth was that Dr. Goon was stealing students’ souls as they came through the Gecko Wacko De Facto Smack-You-Later. Every trip through, Dr. Goon’s device pulled fibers from kids’ souls and wrapped them around thin pins, which were stored in the principal’s secret laboratory. The laboratory doubled as Dr. Goon’s private washroom, so his lab was also his lav.

Every trip through Dr. Goon’s device pulled fibers from kids’ souls and wrapped them around thin pins which were stored in the principal’s secret laboratory. The laboratory doubled as Dr. Goon’s private washroom, so his lab was also his lav.

Each pin was labeled with the name of the student whose soul it contained, and as the school year went on the pins got fatter and fatter while the students became duller and drearier. The less room their souls took up in their bodies, the more room there was for all the test prep the students would need to ace the state exams they would take at the end of the year.

Well, Dr. Goon’s plan worked perfectly and the students of Gecko Wacko High School scored an average of 98% for filling in the choicest circles on their tests. Dr. Goon became the greatest principal the world had ever known, causing principals from every continent (except Antarctica) to come find out how they, too, could suck the life out of their student populations, all the better to cram their craniums with mega-doses of the busywork needed to produce teenagers who never talked in class, never came late, never missed an assignment and never questioned authority.

Then one day a boy named Wiley Zorkowitz had one too many prune sandwiches for lunch (that’s all the cafeteria served, prune sandwiches, and no one ever complained). But after Wiley got his bathroom pass, he soon discovered that a lot of other guys had eaten too many prune sandwiches as well, and the laws of nature wouldn’t permit him to wait at the end of the long line curling out of the boys’ restroom.

That’s when Wiley noticed that Dr. Goon had left his keys in his private washroom door. And like a prune pit being Heimlich’d out of some kid’s throat, Wiley shot across the hall, threw open the forbidden door, and came face to face with Dr. Goon himself, who at that moment was wiring a student’s soul pin to his dead parrot, Parksie, hoping to bring it back to life.

On the wall beside Dr. Goon were the thousand soul pins, each labeled with a student’s name, and since the labels were organized alphabetically from the ceiling to the floor, and because “Wiley Zorkowitz” was the very last label at the end of the very last column, Wiley instantly located his pin and grabbed it up, thinking this must be his own personalized key to his own private washroom, meaning he’d never again have to endure the agony of prune pressure in his private places.

But as soon as Wiley grasped the key—or pin, rather—his soul unwound and hung in the air like a curl of purple smoke. And as Wiley gasped, he sucked in not only a gulp of air but also his own soul—the sum total of all his dreams, joys, loves, and music—which flew into him like stardust disappearing into a blackened sun.

Meanwhile, Dr. Goon was so gobsmacked by Wiley’s interruption that he accidentally stuck himself with the wire he had hooked up to his dead parrot, and in an instant the eyedropper’s worth of energy that made up Dr. Goon’s soul was conducted through the transmitter, causing the parrot to flap its wings, wobble to its feet and say, “Awk! Fill in the circles! Fill in the circles!”

After Wiley had visited the bathroom, he made an announcement over the all-call: “Attention. All students must immediately report to Dr. Goon’s office to get their souls back.” And one by one the students of Gecko Wacko High School were reunited with their wondering, wishing, loving, dreaming, joyfully imperfect selves.

Meanwhile, Dr. Goon, now the only soulless member of the school, was converted into a parrot stand, and after a while his body turned to stone and he was displayed next to the prom wreck in front of Gecko Wacko High School with these words inscribed in the base: “Schools Are About Human Beings, Not Test Scores.”

 

Michael Hennessy is an educator and part-time singer-songwriter who lives in New Jersey. Currently, he’s completing a YA novel about a teenager whose most intimate friend is the artificial intelligence that’s taken up residence in his brain. The novel is called Changed My Mind.

Photo credit: Howard Flesher

Encounters

[fiction]

Kristen’s dog is named Banjo. He’s big—not just tall, fluffy too, and cream-colored like the living room carpet. When I pet him, my hands sink down all the way to the second finger joint. He’s so big, he reminds me a little of the horses up at the farm.

I was never really around Snap and Ginger much. Brian didn’t like them. He said that in America we’ve made our animals our idols and we serve them now instead of the other way around. Sometimes, I remember that when I’m playing with Banjo and I push him off. But then he gets so sad that I can’t stand it, and I go back to petting him and I try to forget about Brian.

That’s what the social workers, and the people from the group home I was at before Kristen’s, want me to do. But it’s easier not thinking about Brian than it is forgetting the farm. When Kristen, my foster mom, picked me up from the library after school today, the clouds were already grey and low. When we got to the house, it was sprinkling, and now it’s raining in a sort of lazy, drippy way while me and Banjo sit by the sliding door. We watch the porch soak up the drops until the flaky paint swells and looks ready to peel off. At the farm, I made my room on a day like this. I cleaned out an old shed with rain leaked through its roof, swept it out and filled it with quilts and pillows and horse blankets. Brian was bringing in more and more people, but the shed was all mine. I had a place to sleep on my own, and stretch my legs without bumping into someone else. Brian didn’t care as long as I came back to the house to eat and listen to his teach-ins.

I’m not in the shed, though. I’m in a normal house, waiting for dinner like a normal person. Beside me, Banjo whimpers. He can tell when I’m nervous or upset.

In the kitchen, a bowl scrapes against the counter. Kristen. She’s got a sixth sense like Banjo, only more annoying. I can feel her eyes searching for me, and finally settling on the back of my neck like a weight.

At the group home, they said Brian didn’t really know anything about me. He was just really good at picking out the people he knew would want him.

“Leigh, why don’t you come help with the salad? Meatloaf’s almost done.”

I shake off Banjo, get up. “Yeah.”

She means well. I guess.

Being with Kristen’s got me thinking more about my real mom, and I wish it didn’t. When she was pregnant with me, Mom was so sure I was going to be a boy that she didn’t bother changing the name she’d picked out. Leigh Allen Shaw. Allen was my grandpa’s name, so at least that part sort of makes sense. But there are so many ways she could have changed Leigh. Leigh Anne, Leah, Leyla. All kinds of ways to twist it, make it more like me, or at least more like how I wanted to be.

That’s pretty typical of me and Mom though. We never fit together right, like I was a size too-small shirt she bought one day and just kept forgetting to return.

While I make Greek salad and Kristen mashes potatoes, I think about me and Mom’s last few years together. Things could have been different if she’d kept a closer eye on me. Maybe if she cared where I was going, I wouldn’t have been walking around the neighborhood that night. I wouldn’t have seen the lit up garage, the metal folding chairs, and the plastic tables loaded with Tupperware containers of hamburgers, pasta salad, and homemade pickles floating in vinegar. And even if I had, I’d’ve known better. I wouldn’t have gone in.

*     *     *

After dinner, we stay at the table and Kristen helps me with some homework. I just had my sixteenth birthday two weeks ago, but because of all the time I spent on the mountain with Brian and his group, I’m just now finishing ninth grade. I don’t mind so much. At the group home, I had a tutor who helped me finish eighth grade, so at least I don’t have to go back to middle school. And at Harding-Davis, I fit in more with the fourteen-year-olds than the kids my own age. We’re all sort of lost.

While we’re working, Banjo comes under the table and flops on my feet. When I first came to stay with Kristen, she told me that she bought him to be a guard dog. “Can you believe it?” she said, rolling her eyes. “He’s about as intimidating as a rug with legs.”

I don’t know if that was the truth or if it was because she thought I’d be scared of him. I’ve never been scared of Banjo, though. He’s huge and a barker, but he’s hands down my favorite part about living with her.

I’m smart enough to figure out that Banjo isn’t supposed to be what’s important about this place, though. The way my social worker kept talking about her, I know Kristen was the thing I was supposed to stick to. She’s been a foster parent for fifteen years. I guess they thought she’d have a better shot connecting with me than everyone else who tried. “Connections” is a word they talk about a lot, and how important it is for someone like me to make them. The thing is, I have plenty of connections. They just never worked out. I mean, I lived with Mom for a long time too and that didn’t really end well.

Right now, Kristen taps the back of my hand with the back end of her pencil. “Earth to Leigh.”

I jerk upright, pulling my feet out from under Banjo so he yelps. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay. Let’s start over, all right?”

Most of the time, I don’t think I can really love Kristen the way you’re supposed to love a parent, but then we have moments like this one. I get really excited, until I remember Brian. What if I just feel the same way about Kristen that I did with him? I thought he would change things, take me out of all the misery and anger I was in, and look where that landed me.

I can’t remember the first time I saw him, but I know when I recognized him. It was in the garage that night. He was tall with kind of shaggy brown hair and big hands. Cute, in an older way. He looked like he should be working, or in college at least. He said he lived on a farm up the mountain with Mary, his cousin. He was hanging around our neighborhood because he wanted to start a ministry—something that would show people how there were bigger things, bigger forces moving through us. Mom and I never really went to church, so I didn’t pay much attention until he stopped and looked me head on. “Someone hurt you, little girl,” he said. “You’re wearing it under your skin.”

At the group home, they said Brian didn’t really know anything about me. He was just really good at picking out the people he knew would want him. I know that now, I guess, but it doesn’t change that what happened next was the best moment of my life.

Brian got out of his chair and crossed the garage to me. He put one hand on my knee and the other on the back of my neck, and I leaned into him.

He kissed me, the first real kiss I ever got. My mouth was sour from the pickles, but his tasted like the iced tea they’d been passing around.

*     *     *

School ends every day at 2:45, but Kristen doesn’t leave her job till 3. She doesn’t want me home alone, so I wait at the library across the parking lot. She makes me wait there because that’s where her friend, Ms. Lucas, works.

I don’t mind. Ms. Lucas’s nice. She never asks questions and doesn’t check up on me much, just gives me books to check out sometimes. The Book Thief and Chains and Catherine, Called Birdy. I take them home, but I don’t read them. The best thing about the library is that I get to check my email without Kristen looking over my shoulder every five seconds.

I’ve gotten a lot of emails since I came back. I don’t bother opening most of them. There’s only one I’m really looking for, and when it finally pops up today at the top of my inbox, my stomach squeezes shut and I feel like barfing. It’s from Mom.

Hi Leigh,

I read some things on the computer the other day. I don’t know if they let you look at it where you’re at, but I want you to know it’s not true. They didn’t come asking for my side or anything.

The people from social services say you’re still in the area. Let me know if you want to talk. We can meet up at Muncie’s.

That’s it. No sign off, and I don’t know what she’s talking about. The nauseous feeling keeps on building as I click out and open another window. When I type Brian’s name in the search bar, it all comes together.

The article’s from some magazine site and it’s called REACH OF MODERN DAY MANSON REVEALED. Chunks of text pop out at me, along with bright pictures of the mountain and the farm.

Brian Wilder, who had been living with his cousin Mary Davenport since 2014, began to surround himself with a group of followers in the spring of 2015. The people drawn to him were young, bright, and disillusioned with the lack of spirituality and the hypocrisy they saw saturating modern culture—much like Wilder himself.

The notable exception to this trend was Davenport, who at fifty-three was both older than Brian’s other admirers and entrenched in her local community. Even though friends and family expressed suspicion of Brian and his supporters, Mary never indicated that she was anything but confident in her young relative.

I start tapping the mouse as fast as I can. Eventually, it stops at the end of the page and I see it.

As with all stories of this nature, Wilder’s charismatic psychopathy obscures the undercurrent of societal complacency that fed his actions. One of the first members of Wilder’s group to speak with the department was a minor whose name has been withheld. Captain Rollins expressed frustration with what he calls “the lack of any sort of family or community support system.” According to Rollins, “As far as we can tell, this young lady went missing in 2016. There was no report filed with the department. The school did not investigate. She was gone for two years, and as far as anyone was concerned, she had vanished off the face of the earth.” 

I lean back in the chair. I’m the girl they’re talking about. Everybody else there was eighteen, at least. It was one of Brian’s rules.

Brian taught me some good things. He said that sometimes you have to make yourself a rock—you don’t argue, you don’t even speak. You just let them know you’re not giving up. And eventually, they have to accept that.

Except me. I was special. He told me that a lot.

This is what Mom’s worried about. She thinks I’ll be angry when I figure out she didn’t look for me.

It’s kind of funny, because the thing is, I always knew she wouldn’t. When I left with Brian, I was counting on it.

I log into my email again and delete the message.

*     *     *

We’re in the store when someone recognizes me. Kristen said she needed new curtains for the living room, but afterwards she steers us towards the food aisles. “I’m too tired to cook.”

“Can we have hot dogs?” The words pop out of my mouth and I think they surprise both of us. Since I came to live with her, I haven’t really had opinions on food. I’ll eat just about anything.

“On the grill?”

“Yeah. With chips, maybe?”

She pauses. Shrugs. “Fine by me.”

I go to grab a pack of buns and nearly collide with a cart being pushed by an older lady. Maybe in her fifties. I can’t place her until she opens her mouth.

“You were at Mary’s farm,” she says. “I saw you there.”

Recognition sizzles down my spine, makes my fingers clumsy and heavy. I haven’t been preparing myself for this, but I should have known. Mary had a lot of friends. I don’t know this one’s name, but she looks like the women who would come over, watching us from the kitchen and glaring over their lemonades. Like they had a sixth sense, knew things were going to go wrong.

“You were there when Brian killed her.”

She’s not loud, but the words are huge, bigger than I can understand. Bigger than I want to think about. Her face, the yeasty smell of bread, and the lights bouncing off of the plastic packaging all combine into a wave of nausea that nearly bowls me over. Shaking my head, I back up faster and faster until I collide with an aisle display. Bags of potato chips crunch under my back. The woman stares at me.

“Leigh, what’s going on?”

I look up. It’s Kristen, without the cart, looking between me and the woman.

The woman laughs, but there’s no joy in it. “You’re her mother?”

“We’re done here.” Kristen grabs my arm and wrenches me to her side, leaving Lays bags scattered across the floor.

“What were you doing? Why weren’t you watching her?”

Kristen pushes me in front of her, walking so fast her sneakers clip my heels.

“You little bitch,” the lady yells. I can’t tell which one of us she’s talking to.

Kristen stops, and for a minute I’m terrified she’s going to yell back. Then she changes her mind and pushes me ahead.

“Keep going. It’s not worth it.”

We get to the car. Without curtains, without anything. I buckle myself into the front seat, shove my hands under my thighs to warm them. Stop them from trembling.

“Look at me,” Kristen says.

I don’t look up.

“Don’t pay attention to people like that.” She turns away to stare into the rearview mirror. Her eyes reflected back are rimmed with red. Why is she crying? Isn’t she supposed to be the best foster parent in the county or whatever? Didn’t they train her for stuff like this?

“They’re hurting so badly, they don’t want to admit that he hurt other people, too.” She sniffs and turns the key in the ignition, then pauses, her foot on the brake. “It wasn’t your fault.”

I was in the kitchen when the gun went off. The bread knife I was holding slipped, taking off a chunk of my fingertip.

“Jesus!”

I was so busy wrapping up the cut that I didn’t notice when Brian slipped in through the back door. When I finally saw him, he was sitting at the table, shaking. The chair rocked with him.

“Leigh? I need a bath.”

In the shower, he threw up three times. I got in with him to help wash his hair, and a little bit of blood leaked from my bandage and mixed with the water dribbling down his neck in a barely pink trail.

My finger healed with a scar—an indentation that puckers my skin and looks a little like an uneven seam. I rub at it now, pressing my nail deep into it until it feels like it’ll split back open.

Kristen and I stay in the car, not moving, for a long time.

*     *     *

The next time I’m at the library, I pull up Mom’s email from my trash bin. I say I’ll meet her at Muncie’s this weekend. Twelve o’clock Saturday and my foster mom’s coming with me.

*     *     *

The morning of the visit, I dream about Brian. We’re in the shed, on the ground, with the pillows and horse blankets all pulled together so there’s room for both of us. I’m looking over his shoulder while he does it. Light comes through the boards in the roof, showing the dust and flakes of crud swirling everywhere and falling down on us. “I love you, little bird. You know that, right?”

The Coke souring in my mouth, I see my life, but through her eyes. It’s a straight path, and it cuts through everything—what she did and didn’t do, what I chose and didn’t choose. No matter what, it leads the same way, ends in the same place. With us in this booth, and something awful between us.

I realize that my whole time here I’ve been saying I like it when he does this. But really, I don’t. I never have. For the first time, I wonder why I’m letting him. As I focus on the rust flecks speckling the back of his shirt, he melts into a swirl of colors, and my eyes open to the ceiling at Kristen’s house. She’s knocking on my door. Shit.

I knew Kristen would be mad that I emailed Mom. At first, she tried to talk me out of it. “Her parental rights were terminated. She’s not safe for you to be around.”

But Brian taught me some good things. He said that sometimes you have to make yourself a rock—you don’t argue, you don’t even speak. You just let them know you’re not giving up. And eventually, they have to accept that.

That’s what I did, and eventually Kristen caved. I don’t know if she’s forgiven me for that yet.

I scramble off the floor and start throwing everything back on the bed. Banjo’s snoring on the mattress, but I ignore him, piling pillows, sheets, and blankets against his back. When Kristen opens the door, she catches me with a quilt overflowing from my arms.

“I’m sorry,” I say. My tongue’s dry and thick. I am so, so stupid.

She sits on the bed, ignoring the mess. “I don’t care if you sleep on the floor.”

I cling to the quilt, like a shield. “I slept in a shed. Up at the farm.”

“I know. And if it makes things any easier for you, you can stay on that floor as long as you want. Okay?”

I don’t know what she wants me to say.

Kristen sighs. “I know you want to see your mom. I’m just really worried for you. You understand that, right?”

I don’t answer.

*     *     *

Muncie’s is the kind of diner they shoot movies in. It opens at five and when I was a little kid, Mom would sometimes take me there before school. It was close enough to the bus stop that I could run back to catch the bus, syrup still smearing my face. From the way Kristen looks at it when we pull in, I know she thinks it’s a dive. But to me, it looks the same as it always did.

Mom doesn’t, though. She’s sitting in the back, in our usual booth. She stands up when we come in, and I realize she’s shorter than me. Her hair’s grey at the roots. She stares at me.

“You got tall.” The smoker’s rasp that used to make me think of movie stars now just reminds me of the shriveled, charcoal lungs they show us in health class.

“Yeah,” I mumble stupidly. “I guess I did.”

Kristen tells me to get whatever I want and takes a seat in the booth behind us. That was her part of the deal for taking me.

“You want pancakes?” Mom asks.

The laminated menu’s sticky. “No. Maybe mac-and-cheese?”

She snorts. “You can make that at home.”

“I could make pancakes too.”

I order mac-and-cheese and collard greens and a coke. Mom asks for a sweet tea and tells the waitress, loudly, that it’ll all be on one check.

“You already ate?”

She shrugs.

“So,” she says when they bring out the drinks, “you wanted to meet.”

I did. Because no matter what any court says, she is still my mother, and through her is me. If I can understand why she wasn’t looking harder, why she let me go, then maybe—

None of this is anything I want to tell her right now. I stare at my glass. “I thought you wanted to.”

Then maybe I’ll know why I didn’t see through Brian. Through all of them.

She lets out a huff I can’t figure out. I wait.

“You read the paper?”

“Yeah.”

“You ran away a lot,” she says finally.

I’m surprised at the anger that comes up. “Never for that long.”

“You’re telling me.” Her fingers are tapping against the table and I can tell how badly she wants a cigarette. When I was a kid, I used to tell her to go outside, that I could wait. I was so desperate not to be a problem to her.

I want to be a problem now.

“There was a lady in the store who thought Kristen was you.”

Her face folds in on itself, the wrinkles carving deeper into her mouth and forehead. I’ve hurt her. Good.

“So?”

“She asked why you weren’t watching me.”

Mom snorts. “You think that if I went and dragged you away from that place, you wouldn’t have old bitches hounding you in the grocery store? Have I got news for you.”

The Coke souring in my mouth, I see my life, but through her eyes. It’s a straight path, and it cuts through everything—what she did and didn’t do, what I chose and didn’t choose. No matter what, it leads the same way, ends in the same place. With us in this booth, and something awful between us.

Not for the first time in my life, I realize that I don’t understand her at all.

She’s tapping the table again. “People hate each other. It’s just the way of the world. Everyone’s always picking on everybody else.”

The frustration that boils up is so scorching, I struggle to swallow. “He killed someone, mom. I was living with him and he killed someone.”

“Come on. I never met that guy. How was I supposed to know he was going to go and shoot that old lady?”

“That’s not the point.”

She swirls the ice in her glass, not looking at me. “Here we go again. Look, I know I wasn’t the kind of mom you wanted, okay? You were leaving all the time, and I just got tired of losing you every time I pissed you off. I’m sorry. I just got tired.”

The food comes out—macaroni soupy and the greens huddled in a limp pile. My stomach roils, but I wait until the waitress leaves to answer her.

“I don’t think that’s how it works.”

“Oh yeah?” she snaps “How was it supposed to work?”

“You could’ve called the police! The paper said you didn’t even do that.”

“Yeah, well, see how great things went when they got involved.” Mom jerks her head at Kristen. “Now you’re in foster care and CPS is all over my ass.”

She has a point. I guess.

“The thing is, people say it was all my fault. That I should have been keeping a better eye on you, should have called the police, whatever. But you know how I am. You always have.” She looked at me. “You made those decisions. You made yourself.”

I look at her, and I can’t speak. I want to scream about all the things that she did that people told me were definitely, categorically wrong—the things that everyone but her and me can see so clearly as what pushed me to Brian and the farm. But I can’t. Because she is right and wrong at the same time.

I did make myself. There is no way around that.

There was her, and then there was me. And under all the things she did was what I decided, and what I did. Under her was me, always.

*     *     *

Kristen and I don’t talk on the way home. I sit in the passenger seat and lean against the window, watching the telephone poles passing outside and our reflections in the glass. A headache builds behind my skull.

When Mom said goodbye, she didn’t mention meeting up again. I don’t think I’ll see her for a long time.

I don’t know how I feel about that.

There’s going to be a trial for Brian. Kristen says that I might have to testify. Right now, everyone’s trying to keep me out of it because of how young I was, but it all depends on if the other people will talk.

Thinking about seeing everyone again used to terrify me. Actually, it still does. But now I play it like a movie in my head.

I’ll walk to the front of the courtroom. I’ll have to swear on something—a Bible, I guess. Maybe Kristen will be there too. I can look at her when I’m talking. Not him. I don’t think I’d be able to say anything if I was looking at Brian the whole time.

They’ll ask me questions.

How old were you when you met Brian Wilder?

Fourteen—no, thirteen. My birthday was three days away.

Did you know that Mr. Wilder was planning to kill Mary Davenport?

No. I couldn’t see it then.

I made myself not see it.

What did he do?

I heard a gun go off. And then he came in and told me that Mary was dead. And that he didn’t mean to do it, he was just so angry. He said he would protect me, always. And I believed him, up until the police came and took us away.

I’ll say all of this, even though I don’t want to. Even though it’ll hurt like knives.

If I made myself, maybe I can try to remake me, too.

I imagine the last moments in court, when they’ll tell me I can go. I’ll think back to Muncie’s and that one, blinding moment when I saw Mom and understood everything she was and wasn’t.

At the end, I will look up. I will see him. I’ll see him for what he really is.

 

Claudia McCarron learned everything she ever needed from books. She is a recent graduate of Shepherd University, where she was an editor for Sans Merci, the school’s journal of literature and art. She lives in West Virginia with her family.

A Definition

mother

1. noun. presence, as in constant

ex: “the mother is here.” see also: mama, mommy

see the child cry out in fear, in loneliness

see the presence quiet the child

see presence beyond himself

 

2. verb. to rear, as in to create

ex: she mothers and mothers and mothers

until she is no more and the child is

overwhelmed. see also: to tend, to weed,

as in gardens, as in minds, as in impulses

 

3. noun (archaic). one, as in symbol

ex: the gravestone was engraved simply

mother, as in “she longed to be—”

as in “they longed for her to be—” see also:

blessed; see also: have mercy, mercy on us

 

Andrea L. Hackbarth lives in Palmer, AK, where she works as a piano technician and is a mother to a rambunctious boy. She holds a BA in English from Lawrence University and an MFA from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Some of her work can be found in Mezzo Cammin, Gravel, Measure, and other print and online journals. More information about her poetry can be found at www.thelostintent.com.

Na


Christine Imperial is a queer Filipino-American poet. She is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at CalArts. She won the Loyola Schools Award for the Arts for her poetry in 2016. Her work has been published in NoTokens,Heights,Rambutan Literary,among others.

Ada Limón, Author, Poet

Ada Limón is a poet and author of Lucky Wreck, This Big Fake World (both debuted in 2006), Sharks in the Rivers (2010), and Bright Dead Things (2015), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Kingsley Tufts Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest book, The Carrying, is the winner of the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award. She is the recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She’s been published in journals such as The New Yorker, Pleiades: Literature in Context, Harvard Review, and many others. She serves on the faculty of the Queens University of Charlotte low residency MFA program and the 24Pearl Street online program for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She also works as a freelance writer and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.

Jordan Nakamura: Congratulations on your book! You have a distinct style that you’ve been able to retain and hone over several books now. I’m wondering what your relationship is with voice and style. Do you ever try to deviate and depart from a poem that sounds like you? Is style something you stay anchored to intentionally?

Ada Limón: I do think I have a distinct style and that’s primarily due to the fact that I read all my poems out loud in order to make them so that I let my body’s internal rhythm take over and guide the poem’s form and structure. In that sense, the poems come from my body. They come from my body and they come from the way I hear the universe, as Robert Hass says, “the faint music under things.” I do try to change my style and the way I enter a poem each time, but the music of my world is loud and what I hear is unique to me and often takes over, even if I’m trying to get out of myself.

JN: This collection has been described as some of your most personal work. It’s almost like there’s a greater freedom to be more articulate to explore your own life and identity. Could you talk about how you enter into the kind of honesty that characterizes the book?

While I’m not trying to please everyone, or write for everyone, I am interested in poems living in the real world. And in order for that to happen, they have to have some sense of openness or generosity to them.

AL: This is my most personal book. It deals with my infertility and the questions of whether or not to have a child. But I think [that] my leaning in to that material of personal history, I am also interrogating my own purpose, my own purpose as a woman, as an artist. And so I think the honesty enters a place what I hope it reaches outward, beyond the self and into something more universally relevant. I write about my life because life moves through me, and I am so lucky it does. But I am also interested in what it means to pay deep attention to the world around you and love the messy world by giving it your gaze.

JN: You’ve written about the ways poetry kind of unlocks a sense of freedom in you, and I feel like this can transfer to your readers. Monica Youn talks about how readers will come up to her after readings of her book Blackacre, which partially deals with her experience with miscarriage, and say how they felt their own miscarriages were supposed to be a secret, but Youn’s work made them rethink that kind of shame-based silence. How has your work connected you to others? Is there anything that has surprised you?

AL: I am surprised by how many women talk to me about their own experience with infertility or fertility treatments or their own complex emotions about wishing not to become a mother. I was surprised that no one talked about infertility in a way that didn’t end with a child. If women talked about it, it was to say they had gone through it and then succeeded in getting pregnant. Very rarely was the other story told; the one that says, I went through that and now I am child-free. I hear from women almost daily how important it is to hear that narrative in a way that’s positive. I am also surprised by how many people needed this book. I wrote it because I needed it, but it feels huge to me to know others needed it too.

JN: You have a series of beautiful epistolary poems written to another wonderful poet, Natalie Diaz. You’ve said that it’s important to make poems that aren’t just for other poets, yet I think you’ve managed to write poems to a poet that also aren’t poems-just-for-other-poets. One thing I’m struck by is how relational your practice is, and kind of aiming for a widening of the fold of community. What is your community like?

AL: Thank you for this. I think of poetry as being something in a larger community, not just the academic world or the literary world, but poetry that takes places in community centers and bars. And that’s the poetry I fell in love with as a child, so part of me has always wanted it to go beyond the preciousness that it can so often be relegated to. My community is wide and ranging. Full of poets, of course, like the dear Natalie I write to. But it’s also full of people who don’t generally go to poetry readings, but might find one they like here or there. My husband works in the horse industry and many of our friends do as well. While I’m not trying to please everyone, or write for everyone, I am interested in poems living in the real world. And in order for that to happen, they have to have some sense of openness or generosity to them.

All our lives we think about identity and who we are in relation to others. What does it feel like to stop asking that and allow yourself to be the original animal, the inner part of you that is only a sense of breath, a connection to all living things?

JN: There are a number of poems in your work that feel like compelling ars poetica. I’m thinking of “The Last Thing” and “Mastering” among many others.

AL: On some level, many of my poems are ars poetica, because I am so aware that I have been saved by language. It’s not always on purpose, but I do see a gratitude take place in the poems at times where I am honoring the gift of this time, this work.

JN: How have you dealt with times when you didn’t have a literary community?

AL: My community is scattered all over the country, so I do what I must to stay in touch. I send poems to friends and family. I read the poems they write or send. I write emails and texts and call; I make sure that I am reaching out when I think of someone. That way, if I’m not immediately surrounded by an active community, I am making my own.

JN: In your poem “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to be Bilingual,” the speaker is dealing with the issue of when institutions try to manipulate brown people to perform signals of authentic diversity for the benefit of that institution’s image.

I had two questions about this. One is about language: what is your relationship to bilinguality (or maybe more accurately, the expectation of it) in your life and work? I personally don’t know Japanese well and frequently feel a great sense of loss and try to recover meager hints of it in my work, but I sometimes enter what feels like a fraught landscape of false authenticity, unintentional performing, specters of “self-exotification,” etc. Do you experience similar thoughts and if so, how do you navigate that?

The other question has to do with assimilation. The poem has that line, “Don’t read the one where you are just like us.” I was reminded of James Baldwin saying, “One of things the white world does not know, but I think I do know, is that black people are just like everybody else.” Perhaps paradoxically, similarity can become threatening rather than placating to whiteness, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc. Maybe this has to do with the gaze of those things, but how do you approach resistance to that or find freedom from that?

AL: Thank you for this question. First, I speak a little Spanish and can understand a little, but not much. I was not raised in a Spanish-speaking household. However, because of my name, of how I look, there’s often an assumption that I am fluent. The thing I’ve had to do the most work around is the guilt of that. I am who I am. I was raised in Northern California and my culture is a Northern California culture. But that doesn’t mean I’m not also of Mexican heritage. What I’m interested in is, why is it that we must be one thing? Why can’t we be many things? Part of the reason I think we don’t allow that of ourselves, [that] people don’t allow it of us, is that it becomes more complicated. Complication is harder to define. Complication is more human. And this, of course, points to your second question. All our lives we think about identity and who we are in relation to others. What does it feel like to stop asking that and allow yourself to be the original animal, the inner part of you that is only a sense of breath, a connection to all living things? That to me offers a freedom, a freedom no one else can give or take away, but that I can manifest all on my own. It’s necessary. It’s the place where I most want to create.

JN: You mentioned that you consider Alberto Rios’s superb “Rabbits in Fire” to be a “perfect” poem. The concept of perfection will always be contested, but I kind of love when writers thoughtfully bestow that term on work, as you’ve done. Do you have other poems you consider perfect?

AL: Oh, the word “perfect.” What do we mean by it? It seems to be an unfair word for art. What can be perfect? A perfect circle perhaps? I suppose I mean that if I call a poem perfect, I am calling it complete: I am calling it whole and I am saying I am wrung out by it, lifted by it, that each line works toward a music that’s all it’s own. That afterward, I am a part of it and it is a part of me. I actually have many poems that move me that way. Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” Denis Johnson’s “Sway,” so many poems by Lucille Clifton and Gwendolyn Brooks. I think Natalie Diaz’s poem “Desire Field” is perfect. Oh, so many loved poems.

JN: So many including myself are uniquely moved by the experience of your readings. It’s so generous, smooth, and well-thought-out: from occasionally telling the audience how many you’ll read to the ordering of the poems for a kind of journey in dynamic tone. And your actual oration of the work is clearly a practiced art. I think you’ve said before that you do a lot of work to create line breaks that help the ear receive the clarity of the poem, but you’ve also written that you try not to think about readership. In any case, what goes into your preparation of readings and of voicing your work in the air?

AL: That means a lot to me, thank you. The truth is, I am lucky that I have a degree in theater, so studying the art of oration and the performance of a monologue was key to my understanding of how to connect with an audience. The poet who writes the poem isn’t always thinking of audience or readers. Perhaps the poem is a quiet, internal lyric that is only meant to be heard by the space between things. All of that is fine and wonderful, but then when you read the poem, the other person, the performer shows up. She must do the work of bringing that poem to life for a reader. I’m not interested in performing as show, but I am interested in how I might help a listener to hear and receive the poem. How we might be connected together in that fleeting moment. The poetry reading is a very sacred thing to me. It is a chance to offer something not only to the audience, but to honor the poems themselves.

JN: I read you do live readings quite frequently. Is that still true, and how often do you do them?

AL: I give about three to four readings a month during the busy season. Sometimes more.

JN: Wow. What’s it like for you to be traveling so often? I’m curious about the mobile life of artists and how they nurture relationships across busy schedules and distances. Robin Coste Lewis points out how, for most of human history, the migratory existence has been the norm. How do you conceive of the idea of home? (I’m thinking of your poem “Against Belonging” and how the speaker tends to shake off citizenship.)

I don’t know how we can live in the world and not think about the fact that our planet is dying. It works its way into my life, into my outlook, into my poems. I think a great deal about how we will see our world change over the next forty years.

AL: I travel about half of each month, sometimes more, sometimes less. It’s a lot and it’s hard, but if my health is good, then I enjoy it. If I’m sick or if I’m in pain, it’s harder. I think now of my home as Kentucky mainly. My husband and I own a home there. I think wherever he is and wherever my dog is, that’s my home. But also Sonoma, California, is my home as well. But yes, my home is where my man is, where my dog is, for sure. A simple definition, but true.

JN: What are some non-writing related passions or hobbies of yours that sustain you?

AL: I love to read. I read lots of novels as well as poetry. I love to cook and garden and exercise and have cocktails and talk. I love good conversations. They sustain me through long periods of silence.

JN: Lots of writers get asked about writing habits, but often less frequently about their reading habits. What does your reading life look like?

AL: I read a lot of poetry books, and I listen to books on audible a great deal while I’m traveling. It helps me stay engaged and centered. But yes, I’d say I’m reading pretty much constantly.

JN: How has teaching in your low-res program been? Have you noticed any good changes in creative writing education? And how do you think it can be done better?

AL: Ha! That’s a pretty giant question with a long answer. I think I’ll just say that I adore my low-res program. I love working with students and reading their gorgeous poems.

JN: You’ve had some really great mentors when you were in creative writing school, and I’m sure you’ve been a mentor to many students now. What are your guiding principles for mentoring. and what do you remember fondly from past mentorships?

AL: I will be honest that I’m not sure if I had mentors as much as I had teachers. When I was in graduate school, there wasn’t really access to your professors like there is now. Sure, you could go to office hours, but you certainly weren’t going to have an email relationship. They were wonderful teachers, but they knew how to set boundaries, and I think there was something beautiful in that. I think I had friendships instead of mentors really. And for those friendships, I am deeply grateful.

JN: So much of this book has to do with working through the pressures and aggressions of expectation, namely social pressures placed on women. It’s moving to see how your poems insist on fuller expressions of womanhood outside of motherhood or marriage. I think, for example, of Mary Oliver’s resistance to similar expectations of her as a woman, a lesbian, an artist who had no children, who remained steadfast in her chosen life and style of writing. How did you find, or how do you continually look for your own compass that at times leads away from these expectations?

AL: Again, I think I look to my friendships for guidance. I look to how I see these fabulous women moving in the world child-free and making art, and I am reaffirmed every day in my own body and in my own choices.

JN: You reference landscape and animals often in your work. Hopefully more of us have begun to think very deeply about the land and life on earth as endangered. Masao Miyoshi wrote that he believes the humanities having a united effort for eco-justice is the only hope for their relevance in education, and this seems to be something you are a part of. You mention Robin Wall Kimmerer in The Carrying and your love for being surrounded by green. Do you have a conscious focus on some sort of ecological poetic gesture?

AL: I don’t know how we can live in the world and not think about the fact that our planet is dying. It works its way into my life, into my outlook, into my poems. I think a great deal about how we will see our world change over the next forty years. But I am also very aware that in order to practice presence I can’t become a nihilistic person. I have to believe that showing love and gratitude to this earth now is a worthy endeavor, if only as a way of saying goodbye.

JN: Father Greg Boyle often says something to the effect that “we should be in awe of what the poor carry.” You likewise spend a lot of time in awe of how people carry suffering, grief, pain, just moving through the weight of life. Do you think your writing has helped you maintain awe—which I think is a kind of gesture that is against judgment or jadedness—or was it always there? In other words, what’s your relationship with awe and retaining it throughout the years?

AL: I am in awe all the time. I cannot believe what humans can do, will do, how we have the capacity for so much pain and so much love all at once. I am in awe at our natural world and how it gives back to us, how it seems to love us despite what we’ve done. I’m flying home now to see my grandfather before he passes away, and I am in awe of the human body, the way it holds so much. I sometimes have to turn down the awe, turn the awe off so I don’t keep bursting into tears as I walk around this world.

 

Jordan Nakamura is a poet and MFA candidate at Antioch University. His writing has been published in The Adroit Journal, Tupelo Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Curator, and Zócalo Public Square. He lives in South Central Los Angeles.

Triptych of the Adobe-Cotta Army, los frijoles ya se quemaron, & Apology to Her Majesty, Queen Cardi B

Triptych of the Adobe-Cotta Army

East Palo Alto, Circa 2000 AD

My fingers are desperate
to unearth the ruins
of my countrymen.

Only to find a Tesla
on the second floor
of our apartments

—now a parking garage.
The Amazon logo
smirks above me,
like a biblical cloud.

*

Out here, hooded saints
tore the covenant
of earthly silence.

Passed out Zig-Zag
leaflets, to preach
the gospel of skin.

Whirling dervishes
in long white tees,
bum-rushed me

at a bautizo. Pressed
against my lips,
the cholo chalice

kill it blood.

My chest flushed
at watching boys bronze
into adobe-cotta.

A driveway floodlight,
the barrio’s moon,
casted their bodies.

As they placed bets
against the armors they carried.
A fist tucked

inside a hoodie,
his knuckles spelling
the names of ex-lovers.

Each letter tatted
with a rusted clip.
Cocked belt-buckle

whose colors shouted
to the block
who he fucks with.

Until asphalt swallows
him again, and Marías
now mourn Jesús

outside a sagging fence.
Wreathe his chain-
link with lit candles,

cardboard signs saying
“We miss you.” Streamers
without the heated balloon

that promised flight.

*

Consider the clothesline as a bandolier

slung over weathered soldiers,
whose uniformes still clung
to apartment balconies.

Quien cedieron sus tierras
to raise the wrinkled flags
of blusas and neon vests.

Consider this Aztec sacrifice:
a father offers an empire
his daily flesh. Kneels

on the melted tar
of its tongue, winces
at the body turned legal (tender).

All to nurse the newborn
with this vision,
una vida mejor.

And so Father cradled my head
inside asphalt. Prayed
for our rite

to simply wade.

 


 

los frijoles ya se quemaron

voy
a tenderlos,
as suitcases chuckle
through our home.

sobres stashed
in gabinetes, cash
in chamarras.

mamá inside her black
mustang, rezando
bluetooth misteros
con cuñadas.

what’s changed,
i think
es que ahora,
la creo.

that in reno
or fresno, or
the broad shoulders
of a califas carretera

is her—

a fitted red dress,
botas de tacón,
freshly dyed hair

blushing—
at the nights
that paint
her face

con la misma fé

she once had
for these walls,

burgundy,
off white,
rosita.
that is to say,

i wish i’d been there
amá,
by your side
in the courtroom,

when apá buried
his face
inside the bench.

realizing then, he
wasn’t the sole owner
of this house

named grief.

cómo quisiera
levantar
su cara,
para que viera

the broken pieces
of me,
on car seats
& bedsides—

where the water broke
from your eyes,
birthed me

a man—

& see, the exact moment
i buried
my boyhood,

amá sabrá
que hacer.

 


 

Apology to Her Majesty, Queen Cardi B

Whereas Jimmy prolly can’t pronounce
your name; whereas that green mink’s

mad loud for primetime yuppies; whereas
pasty mugs quietly sipped the Bronx

in a canned Q&A; whereas tickle-me-
white, the color they blushed

after you hollered, Eyyuum!;
whereas was it with, or against you?

Whereas dey prolly ain’t ever seen
homegirls wreathe you
as their patron-saint—

lil’ Lauras wit dey laurels,
whose mouths run the block

searing chisme over hot concrete
and toe straps; whereas blessed b

the scented velas of acetone and plugged-in irons;

and still you trill
the hymns of jainas;

You who told the limelight,
Don’t get too close cuz I ain’t put

no lotion on my hand; whereas se ríen
as you explain your name, how Henny’s

the suture of Black and Brown hands
who killed a forty for each hour

on the job, who lick wounds
with liquor’s promise of numb;

whereas the smh tías who gawk
at the peacock tat running your thighs,

and sigh, cómo hemos caído; whereas
that part in “Motorsport,” where you bent

in front of butterfly doors, hollered,
I’m the trap Selena!; whereas the bark

that tickles my skin, as it does in the shade,
when me and the fellas untuck

the gaze we’ve longed to spliff all week;
whereas errtime I aimed homeboy’s head

like a slingshot, a young women-turned
pair-of-legs passing through the quad,

and eyes carve onto bare flesh;
whereas I chewed a human being

with a dangling mouth,
and called her redbone, feigned

to stare at the dead men
she hefted; whereas I respected

the spine of a book, the tattered
cloth of hardcover,

more than her own.
Whereas these temples of Hoteps

whet teeth with passed-down
stones, our crumbling masonry,

beret down plazas chanting
freedom, yet in dorm parties

bite off a brother’s tongue,
so he speaks nothing

but our worst hungers;
that snarl, who’s the lookout

today, as we try to outsmoke
each other, for the dogs we is.

May I catch the fang she spits
back, chew on my own question

No, are you with or against?
And I too am inside that studio,

clapping with them.
Therefore, be it resolved, Cardi,

Queen of the Bronx, this apology:
may the two-legged perros

claw this gangrene out,
so the tender vespers

that flock our word
not recite our catechisms.

May you, and all the women
who’ve guided my life,

never see the eyes
I once hawked.

 

Antonio López received his BA in global cultural studies and African-American studies from Duke University. He’s received scholarships to attend the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, the Home School, Tin House Summer Workshop, the Key West Literary Seminar, and the Vermont Studio Center. A proud Macondista (2018) and CantoMundo Fellow (2019), his nonfiction has been featured in PEN America and his poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Palette Poetry, BOAAT Press, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Acentos Review, Permafrost, Huizache, Tin House, and elsewhere. He received his master of fine arts in poetry at Rutgers University in Newark.

Beyond the Waters of Time

You dip the sugar-speckled Parle-G in your tea and take a bite of the mushy biscuit, savoring the milky memories, watching the rain peter out to a mizzle in the garden outside the verandah where you sit in your bamboo cane chair. After the incessant spells of kalbaishakhi showers, the earth smells of rain, as it does every April. You let your thoughts travel back to April seven monsoons ago, then the previous, and then the previous, your mind a train stopping at every rain-soaked station. Every monsoon, the gulmohars in your neighbor’s compound burst into wild flames, and the clustered modhumonjori—their vines draping the arch of the iron gate outside your yard like crimson shawls—unfurl, leaving a lingering fragrance, the rain washing the dust from their tremulous, heart-shaped leaves. The aroma of mustard and poppies wafts into your consciousness; every April, when rain would patter against your sleepy green-shuttered window, Piali would cook her signature preparation of steamed ilish, and every meal of fish and rice would lead to languorous afternoons spent listening to Salil-da on the cassette player.

You pour some tea into the gold-rimmed saucer and slurp, the taste of cardamom on your moustache. Some of the tea spills on the front page of The Statesman and puddles in a brown pool on the chief minister’s shirt. You re-read the headings—“Thirteen persons shot dead by police at Youth Congress rally,” “Mamata Banerjee assaulted,” “Vince Foster’s death linked to depression,” “Louis J. Freeh to succeed Sessions”—and you sigh at the unpredictability and tumult in the world. Your neighbor’s feral calico has been wandering your garden again, and she enters the verandah, rubs her flank against your thigh, and you offer her some of your biscuit which she refuses. You sip the last of your tea, soggy dregs of dissolved biscuit clumping at the base of the cup. Then you rise to your feet, your knees cracking, and make your way to the glass-fronted book-cabinet beside the mirror that is now speckled with age. You reach for the second shelf and extricate a grainy photograph from between the yellowed, bethumbed pages of an anthology of Jibanananda Das’ poems, which you stuff into the pocket of your kurta. It is a photograph of Piali as a young bride draped in a banarasi saree, a mukut crowing her head, her forehead patterned with kumkum and sandalwood paste. Memories lap at the shore of your mind’s eye, and as a wave of sudden grief builds and threatens to break, you tame your thoughts, forcing them to recede into the sea of placid sadness whence they have risen. Looking into the mirror, you fix your hair—whatever is left of it at least, the sparse silver streaks running thinly across your bald head. You adjust your horn-rimmed spectacles, pick up your walking stick from the alcove, unplug the pedestal fan, and hobble your way to the door.

 

You inhale a drag of your cigarette, let the smoke linger inside your frail chest. It has been seven years since either of the boys has visited; it has been seven years since the funeral.

 

Outside, the sky is still slate grey, the massed clouds brooding, bloated with rain. Sparrows twitter and cheep on the guava tree that reaches up to your terrace. The money plants that Piali had grown ten summers ago now entwine the trunk and trellis the red-brick walls. After closing the latch of the rusty gate behind you, you walk outside and fill your lungs with the rain-laced air. Prasanna—the newspaper boy—greets you, and you say “hello.” Down the street, beside the bazaar where Piali would haggle over the prices of fresh vegetables every morning, you stop by the little tin-and-wood kiosk. The shopkeeper, sitting behind a row of grubby glass jars full of savories, smiles and hands you a box of Silk Cut without you having to ask, offering his daily tidbit of local news, as usual: “Didi has called for a rally here in Golpark.”

“Yes, I am aware,” you reply as you take out a cigarette, your hands quivering, purple veins prominent against your paper-thin skin. “This has become a weekly affair,” you add, lighting the cigarette with the burning end of a braided coir rope that hangs at the side of the paan-shop like a limp brown serpent. The shopkeeper hands you your change, but you refuse. “Buy some sweets for the kids,” you say, and continue down the footpath. Thunder mutters somewhere in the distance. The gullies and sewers around you are rivulets of turbid, swilling water. You stop by Bimal-da’s porch and peep in through the window of his blue bungalow, the slatted panes ajar. You see him on his rocking chair, slivers of mosambi-colored sunlight striating his white dhuti-kurta. He sits slumped, his eyes half-closed, the morning daily on his lap, his spitz asleep like a shaggy rug by his feet; the sight is a daily fixture, and stopping by his house a daily ritual; one you have performed religiously for the last forty of your seventy years, ever since Piali and you moved to South Calcutta from Shyambazar when Tirthankar was five and Shayak just born.

Bimal-da seems to be immersed in stupor, but when you rap on his window once, and then twice—his dog’s ear perking up at the sound, its limp tail twitching—Bimal-da rises as he always does when he sees you, his face brimming with happiness, and he comes to the window slowly, a twinkle in his eyes that are cloudy with cataract. “Hello, Arun-da. Good morning,” he greets in English. “Shubho Noboborsho!”

“Happy New Year to you too,” you reply, reciprocating the Pohela Boishakh greetings.

“How are the boys?” he inquires. “Are they visiting in the winter?”

You inhale a drag of your cigarette, let the smoke linger inside your frail chest. It has been seven years since either of the boys has visited; it has been seven years since the funeral. Ever since Tirthankar and Julia had their second child, they’ve been busy raising the kids, only calling from Atlanta every other month to check in on your health. And Shayak? He is a senior partner at a consulting firm in New York and is focused on promoting strategy and growth in Asia-Pacific. Unlike Tirthankar, he’s never considered settling down and starting a family of his own; his job, his business travels, keep him preoccupied. You feel pride well up at the thought of the big man Shayak has become, and this pride momentarily overwhelms the other feelings tamped-down inside of you. You wonder what it’s like in that foreign continent they now call home; you’ve only ever seen fragments of it in postcards—the streets lined with gold and vermillion-red leaves in the fall; the steel and glass buildings towering into curlicued clouds; the park with the dancing musical fountain where Tirthankar had proposed to Julia; the Ferris wheel across from the park. You think of your grandchildren, of the grandchildren you’ve only ever seen in the photographs they occasionally send you; you picture their mops of cherubic golden locks… Their eyes cerulean like distant seas… They’ve got Tirthankar’s features, though… The dimpled chins… Piali’s chin…

“I am looking forward to seeing the boys,” Bimal-da continues, his spitz waking up from its nap and panting in the humid heat. He still calls your sons boys, even though they are grown men now. “And Tirthankar’s boys as well. They must visit Kolkata! This is their home, too.”

Your thoughts still and settle like sediment, come to rest on that word—home. You think of what home means, and what it means to leave a home to find another. You feel… No, you know somehow, that you will never see your boys again. For this home that was once theirs, is, to them, like an island shrinking, shrinking, as one leaves an island behind and drifts, unanchored, out into the open ocean; an island shrinking until it is a speck on the horizon behind, an island finally disappearing in the distance.

They always promise to visit. “Yes, Bimal-da; I believe they will be visiting in the winter,” you reply, smoke hanging in the air like the hope of your children’s return.

You spend an hour on Bimal-da’s porch, talking about his granddaughter’s wedding in Delhi.

“The wedding is in Saket,” Bimal-da informs. “They are jewelers from Lajpat Nagar. I am happy that Subarna is going into such a cultured family.”

You remember Subarna as a little girl, with her lispy voice and her cascading curls; you remember how Shayak and Subarna—who is six years younger than him—would go knocking on neighbors’ doors collecting chanda together during Durga Puja, would serve khichdi and chana dal to guests as bhog on ashtami, before dressing up and performing skits and songs during the evening festivities. You share Bimal-da’s joy at this new chapter in his granddaughter’s life, but at the same time, there is something that is eating away at your insides like a colony of white ants.

“I can now die in peace, Arun-da!” he says dramatically, to which you reply: “Why do you speak of dying, Bimal-da? You are a young man still!”

 

The tops of the trees lining the park are seen wearing mist’s gossamer like a shawl. In the gathering dark, a middle-aged man teaches his son how to hold a cricket bat, and you wonder whether your grandsons play cricket.

 

He laughs and then insists: “Please try your best to make it to the wedding,” and you want to say that yes, you will, but you’d rather not commit to promises that you can’t keep. You leave, but you make sure to turn around and see him standing on the steps of his porch with his furry white dog, make sure to wave goodbye. You linger outside stores selling exquisite shawls and rainbows of stoles, glimpsing Piali in every window. You stop briefly outside a boutique selling handloom sarees in brightly-colored hues and you recall how her eyes had lit up like terracotta lamps when you had bought her the parakeet-green cotton saree for her sixtieth birthday. She always did love hand-spun cotton. A pack of pariah dogs wrangle and gambol down the street. A coconut vendor in a threadbare loincloth is pushing his rickety wooden cart, calling out “daab, daab.” You continue walking till you reach Southern Avenue and then stop at a shanty selling deep-fried fritters—eggplant, onions, chilies. A rotund woman sits on her haunches on a gamchha, coating the vegetables in gram flour with hardened hands. You ask for aloor chop, and she drops pieces of potatoes into a large cauldron, the oil crackling and spitting. Crows caw from atop the blue tarpaulin sheet covering the shanty; some peck at rubbish below that is heaped beside the gutter.

“I hope you are fine and taking care of yourself, Arun-da,” the woman inquires as she sprinkles black salt on the potato fritters and hands them to you in a newspaper-bag full of puffed rice. “I do not believe that, at this age, you have too many days ahead if you go on smoking like this.” She laughs as she says this, her teeth stained red with gutka. You nod in acknowledgement as you hand her some coins.

“Any day could be anyone’s last, Madhu,” you lament, and then, straightening your walking stick, continue on your way. You stop by Vivekananda Park, and spend the afternoon watching the local boys play football in their colorful nylon jerseys as the sun climbs lower in the sky. You watch them kick up dust, and memories of your own sons and their Sunday games now bloom like bougainvillea in the muted nebulous orange of the evening. Thunder rumbles again, and the rain that has been gathering at the hem of dusk now breaks forth, a few drops striking your skin—cool, calming. The tops of the trees lining the park are seen wearing mist’s gossamer like a shawl. In the gathering dark, a middle-aged man teaches his son how to hold a cricket bat, and you wonder whether your grandsons play cricket. Does Tirthankar teach them cricket, just the way you used to teach Tirthankar how to field and wicket-keep on Saturday mornings after he would feed the rabbits at Safari Park? Or does he teach them that other game—and you grapple with your thoughts to remember the name of it—that looks like a variant of cricket, that they play in their country… Baseball, they call it? You wonder whether your grandsons play sport, or whether they prefer to stay indoors instead, watching television or playing board games or coloring with crayons. That’s all you can do, really—wonder. They must have grown up now; they are probably bigger than what you remember of them from the photographs Julia shared two years ago. You wonder whether they refer to Piali as dadi or thakuma, or as grandma. How often do they think of her? Do they think of her at all?

 

You shuffle toward the Dhakuria lake, its swollen waters glistening in the diffused twilight glow. The rain begins to come down harder now, falling in sheets.

 

The day is closing, and the muezzin’s call to prayer can be heard wafting across terraces and mingling with the sounds of cymbals and conch shells and aarti bells. Darkness descends over the city like a veil, and you decide that it is time to move on. The heady scent of milkwood-pine laces the air. A melancholy moon has risen in the east, as pale and porcelain as Piali. You finish the last piece of your aloor chop and pick up your walking stick but, instead of turning back to return home, you wait for the juddering yellow taxis and the wabbling blue buses, the cars and motorbikes blurred by the vaporous rain to halt at a signal, so you can cross the road toward Rabindra Sarobar. Horns blare and trams clatter and chime over the trill of birds that are preparing to roost for the night. You look up into the shadowy canopies, imagining the chittering fledglings who, very soon, will leave their nests, never to return. It begins to drizzle again, and you feel grief stir and rise in waves. It was there, down the road, right beside where the jhalmuri-seller now squats in the dirt that, on the evening of Pohela Boishakh seven Aprils ago, in the back of an ambulance, Piali’s heart had stopped. They could have saved her; you were only minutes away from AMRI Dhakuria—the hospital where they were rushing her. But there was a bottleneck in the traffic up ahead, caused by a procession that the CPI(M) had called for, truck-loads of party members hooting and chanting slogans and waving red flags emblazoned with hammers and sickles while your wife clung to her life and then, when she couldn’t cling to it any longer, died in your arms. The rally made headlines the next day, but you were left alone in this world to mourn her memory. At least she had you in her twilight hours, in her twilight years. There are those that have no one.

You shuffle toward the Dhakuria lake, its swollen waters glistening in the diffused twilight glow. The rain begins to come down harder now, falling in sheets. You can no longer hear the city’s din, just the rain strafing the streets, clamoring against tarpaulin roofs, beating against the lake’s dark surface. The only other sound you hear is Piali’s voice calling to you from beyond the waters of time. You feel a drenching cold that seeps into your clothes, into your very skin, followed by a serene, immovable, half-submerged solitude; the waters murmur in soft whispers, a sighing and a swishing. Tomorrow, if they find your body, the news of your death will reach your sons and your grandsons who will never meet their grandparents but will know of them through stained, sepia-tinted photographs. Tomorrow, if they find your body, your death will join the other headlines on the front page; then again, maybe it won’t, and will only make a snippet in the corner of the third page, because today’s rally will take up most of the first.

 

Bhavika Sicka was born and raised in Calcutta, India. She holds a BA in English from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University. She is currently based in Norfolk, VA, where she is pursuing an MFA at Old Dominion University. She has been a finalist for The Times of India‘s Write India contest, and her work has appeared in Arkana, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Crab Fat Magazine, The Punch Magazine, and The Bangalore Review, among others.

Rodolfo Montalvo, Author, Illustrator

Rodolfo Montalvo is a Los Angeles-based children’s book illustrator with work published in both traditional print and digital media. His illustrated books include The Contagious Colors of Mumpley Middle School and The Amazing Wilmer Dooley (both written by Fowler Dewitt), and the picture book Dear Dragon by Josh Funk. Bye Land, Bye Sea will be his author-illustrator picture book debut. It was co-written with his wife and will be published by Roaring Brook Press in the winter of 2021. For more about him or his work, go to  www.rodolfomontalvo.com or find him on Instagram @rodolfomon3.

As a picture book author-illustrator, Rodolfo Montalvo crafts his work with an eye for adventure and a natural sense of diversity. He uses art as a means of self-exploration, working to connect with his Mexican heritage, while at the same time emphasizing the importance of reaching out to other artists, sometimes across oceans. Taking inspiration from art, nature, and conversation, Montalvo strikes a balance between his personal art and his life as a working writer.

I interviewed him at Antioch University Los Angeles on December 13, 2018.

Adrien Kade Sdao: What inspires you? Are there any particular people who inspired you to illustrate or write children’s books in particular?

Rodolfo Montalvo: Not really. I think it took me a long time to find picture books as the work I wanted to do. Early on, I wanted to go into animation, and that was the plan for a long time. And then in college, by then—it’s a long story—at that time, computers were starting to take over animation. I prefer to work traditionally if I can. And so, as I saw the industry shifting to 3-D, I knew I didn’t want to work with computers a whole lot, so that kind of shifted me over to like, “Oh, I guess I could probably still paint backgrounds.” And so that was the idea, painting backgrounds for animation and illustration, but it wasn’t until the end of my college undergrad that I started meeting actual illustrators or people from the industry. Children’s book people didn’t come in until after college. That’s when I started going to SCBWI [Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators]. So, it took a long time to figure out in my mind what an illustrator was, even though I met some here and there. The idea of what it looked like or finding mentors in that specific field took forever.

I love to draw, and I was able to stick with it. That was probably the most amazing thing that has influenced my path, is somehow I just loved it enough to keep going with it

Growing up, or being an artist kid, was not super deep defined. I wish I had children’s book people, or “my uncle was a picture book artist.” That might have defined my decision to go into children’s books earlier. It could have been easier, not that I wanted an easy path, but had I known children’s books are the thing for me earlier on, maybe it would have been a quicker path, like I could have found my voice as a children’s book author and illustrator sooner.

And as far as inspiration, I’m a ’90s kid so there’s cartoons and robots and Ninja Turtles. All those classics. ThunderCats. I feel like I skipped over reading as a kid. I wasn’t much of a reader for sure. So, I missed out on a lot of picture books. Frog and Toad, that’s one of the only ones I remember, and John Scieszka’s [The True Story of the Three Little Pigs], that’s the other one. That was the one book where I read it, and I saw the pictures, and those were the first images where I thought to myself, “Oh, these are good drawings; I like looking at these.”

AKS: Is that Lane Smith who illustrated those?

RM: Yeah. Those were the only ones I remember looking at, but the cool thing now is that as an adult and someone working in children’s books, I get to read a bunch of the classics for the first time. After learning about children’s book illustration, after trying to write my own, everything looks different, right?

AKS: What other illustrators’ works do you like in particular?

RM: Carson Ellis. John Hendrix, who uses those letter forms as part of his composition. Comic book artists like Paul Pope; he’s amazing. Sydney Smith right now is doing amazing work; he’s cranking out book after book after book. But there’s a ton of people inside children’s books—and everywhere really. I love mid-century modern design, so like houses, chairs, whatever. It’s all like space and shapes and colors, right? Photography. I like black and white photography, a lot of things like that. But I didn’t grow up with artists in the family. So, somehow, I love to draw, and I was able to stick with it. That was probably the most amazing thing that has influenced my path, is somehow I just loved it enough to keep going with it.

AKS: It’s your passion. So, when you’re creating—you’re writing with your wife, you said—how do you get your ideas? What inspires your stories?

RM: A lot of them come out from sketchbooks. I love doing character designs. Ideally, I would start my days doing character designs. I need to get back to that, I haven’t done that in a while, but ideally that would be my perfect warm-up, like I’m just going to draw a character, monsters and whatever. I don’t even have to have a story for them yet, but I’m just gonna draw them.

AKS: So, the characters are the seed for you?

RM: Kind of. Sometimes. Or it can just be anything else. The story that we have on submission now was during a hike on this mountain by the beach. So there were these two things happening at the same time. Land and water.

AKS: What’s it called?

RM: Bye Land, Bye Sea. We were out on a hike, and as soon as I thought of it, I had to write it down. And I sat it down for a while because we were working on the [book] with the pig, but eventually we picked it up, and this year was the year that we kind of worked on it.

AKS: You have a lot of ideas but not all of them come to fruition, I’m sure.

RM: But I think if you write them down and you actually try them out, give them a shot, that’s the important thing. And the ones that are kind of working, y’know, you have to take them all the way.

AKS: Are there any adult books you’re reading right now?

RM: Right now, mostly I’m reading writing stuff, like scriptwriting stuff. I do read some novels here and there, like adventure or… In high school, even though I was not a reader, I read a lot of mystery novels. It was either art or “I’m gonna be an FBI agent!”

AKS: Both very worthy careers.

RM: Once I even got to meet an FBI agent. I had an interview by the door of their office because we weren’t allowed to go inside.

AKS: Wow, that’s a little scary.

RM: But, oh, so I’m back in school, and last semester I took a scriptwriting class on novel adaptations, and we read The Giver. And that was the first time I read it, probably because I missed out on all these books as a kid. And I’m like, “Oh, my god, this thing is amazing!” I love that book. I had never read something where it literally took me back to my childhood. It was amazing.

AKS: She’s a great author, Lois Lowry. I feel like with books that have some sort of message, the story always comes first but then you always have that underlying theme.

RM: So, there’s a ton of stuff that I didn’t catch up with.

AKS: I wanted to ask you about diversity and social justice aspects in your work. I know that at least with Dear Dragon, the main character is not white, he’s a little boy who’s a person of color. Do you think it’s important to include diversity or social justice aspects? How does that inform your work?

RM: That’s something that I’m just starting to consider more, to bring out in my work. Even though we’ve been writing for nearly ten years, trying out different picture books, social issues haven’t been ones that were our main topics or the type of story that we’re telling. Adventure is kind of my default; adventures and kids doing fun stuff like that.

AKS: We need those stories that are great adventures and great fun, just with different kinds of people.

RM: Yeah. I’m trying to figure out how to bring that into my work or my voice as an illustrator, as a writer. I still haven’t figured it out completely, but Bye Land, Bye Sea is kind of a little bit of that. I guess it indirectly speaks to some social issues.

I’m trying to discover or learn about Mexican culture through looking at Mexican folk art. I’m doing that because I feel disconnected [from] the Mexican culture because I grew up here, Mexican American, and so even though there’s this big culture in my veins, literally, there’s a disconnect.

AKS: So, it’s an ongoing process for you.

RM: Yeah, for sure. I mean I’ve never been super political or… really opinionated, obviously. I’ve always been the quiet guy in the room.

AKS: I can tell!

RM: So, I keep those things to myself mostly. It’s kind of growing out of myself, right? For example, some of the collage stuff that I’m doing now, I’m trying to make it more personal. I’m trying to discover or learn about Mexican culture through looking at Mexican folk art. I’m doing that because I feel disconnected [from] the Mexican culture because I grew up here, Mexican American, and so even though there’s this big culture in my veins, literally, there’s a disconnect. And so, I’m getting towards speaking about social issues. It feels like, for me, that’s like a big jump to make—to make big, bold statements—because I can barely say something about myself. And so, it’s a big jump for my comfort, I guess. But, y’know, I keep up with the news and things like that, what’s going on, and it’s hard to listen to. Maybe working on my sketchbook or talking with my wife, we’ll stumble upon something. It’ll be right there, and it’ll spark something, it’ll be bold and scary, maybe. I don’t know. We’ll see.

AKS: You definitely want it to come naturally.

RM: Yeah, if I were to say, “I’m going to write a political book, it’s about this,” it wouldn’t be honest.

AKS: We already talked a little bit about your creative process, but I wanted to get more into that. You said you like to work in the mornings. Do you have a certain time to write, or how do you find the time—to write or illustrate—and what’s your schedule like for that? And you’re in an MFA program too, so how does that all work?

If I’m not sketching on something, either notes or drawing, I’m not doing my job. It’s hard to keep it up. It’s discipline.

RM: Right now, it’s the MFA and writing and being on submission, hoping it works out so we can have the next project lined up. But as a freelancer, it’s tough. It’s up and down, up and down, project after project. And with school, it’s pretty busy. That’s a lot of work.

AKS: Do you have a set time every day that you just have for your own work?

RM: Well, right now, with being on submission, everything’s kind of at a halt a little bit. But if it weren’t, we’d be working on some dummies, working on revisions, and it would revolve around the school schedule. My wife, she’s the one who has the structured job, the nine-to-five, so when we work together on stories, it revolves around working on nights and weekends together. When we were in dummy mode—because we can’t get there all the time—but if we have a story we’re talking about, and we’re trying to get it to a certain point, then we’re definitely working nights and weekends. If we can, we take a whole weekend and go somewhere.

But you know, if I’m not sketching on something, either notes or drawing, I’m not doing my job. It’s hard to keep it up. It’s discipline. But right now, with MFA, almost everything is going through that. Although, the only reason we’re on submission now is because of that second semester, I dedicated some of the schoolwork to developing Bye Land, Bye Sea. So that helped us get that dummy done faster. But now this semester, my third semester, I’m kind of shifting things to a different place, so picture book stuff is gonna be definitely more on our own, and there’s other more experimental things for the MFA.

AKS: Can I ask what you’re gonna be working on?

RM: For MFA? I kind of mentioned a little bit, it’s an exploration of Mexican folklore. So ideally if Bye Land, Bye Sea happens, that’ll be work at home since it’s a picture book, and then school is this other body of work that’s different. Even though it’s actually filtering through my picture book point of view, because it is, I’m doing these drawings, these collages of woodcut—those figurines, those really colorful ones—there’s a big sense of wonder to them.

They can be very childlike. So, it’s kind of its own thing, but because I write children’s books, and it’s what I’m going to keep doing, whatever I do is kind of filtering through that point of view, which is cool. I like that.

AKS: Are there any picture book authors who are Mexican or Mexican American that you particularly admire? You had Yuyi Morales, one of her books. Anyone else?

RM: Yeah, she’s one. [John Parra] also does very Mexican themed books, like Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos. I met him, he’s pretty cool. His stuff is amazing, and it’s all traditional. He tapes off every shape and paints it, and tapes off another piece and paints it, and it’s really tedious. And there’s another guy, Duncan Tonatiuh. He’s doing some cool stuff, too. He’s way more in touch with the Mexican culture than anything I do. So, I look at people like all three of them and say, “How can I shape myself in that direction and make it also mine?”

AKS: I love his illustrations. They’re amazing. And I know that he does some like general picture books and some that are more like folktales. Would you ever do a folktale picture book?

RM: Yeah, I guess it depends on the story, but sure. A lot of the ideas that rise up are from René.

AKS: Have you ever had writer’s block or artist’s block? How did you deal with it?

RM: Yeah, that probably happens all the time, but I guess if you want to call yourself a professional, you have to just get over it and start putting your pen to the paper. I don’t know, I guess I don’t think it ever happened like, “Aah, I can’t do anything,” and a whole week goes by. Well, no, that’s not true, that’s happened. I mean sometimes you get, especially as a freelancer, when you’re at home all the time.

AKS: Discipline, like you said.

RM: Yeah, you always have to go back to discipline. “Ok, you’re not doing your job, what’s going on?”

AKS: Right, because it is your job, even though you’re at home, this is your job.

RM: It happens, and you have to get out of it and just find something. Maybe that’s part of why I’m back in school. I’ve always been good with structure, so being back in school gives me a certain amount of structure. Aside from all the other stuff, getting feedback. I essentially doubled the amount of people who get to see my work, and we get to bounce ideas off each other, and all that stuff, right? But there’s a space that, y’know, it’s a job too. Deadlines, things like that. Which is good, I mean, I like it.

AKS: I’ve found the structure really helpful too.

RM: If you wanna keep doing the things you like, well, I guess school is a place where you can keep doing the things you like.

AKS: I did have one more question, which was: do you have any more advice for working writers? I know you said discipline, but is there anything else?

RM: Meeting with people and finding that group or groups that can help you along. School’s this place where you get to do what you like. Deadlines work. You can give each other deadlines. It’s another space where you keep going, meeting people, finding mentors, reaching out to professionals, and saying, “Hey, can I talk to you about this.” Or do interviews. You’re in school right now, so am I. I mean, I’ve actually talked to Marla Frazee, and I see her at the conferences, and she’s around our circles, so I see her often, but I wanted to do a more formal interview and talk to her and share dummies with her, and get her feedback. So, we’ve been emailing, but she’s always busy.

AKS: She’s a big name.

RM: She’s always busy, and so I think it’ll happen eventually, but I think it’s a good idea to reach out to people even if they’re big names like Marla Frazee. Just say, “Hey, I’m in school, I’m doing this project, I’m working on this. Can I talk to you for like 15 minutes?” An illustrator, Lisbeth Zwerger—do you know her? She’s Austrian or German, and she just illustrated one of J.K. Rowling’s newest books. She’s huge, she won the Hans Christien Anderson Award. Well, when I was in my undergrad, we had to interview someone, and my wife knows that I liked her work a lot, and she was like, “You should just call her!” I was like “Okay! Sure.” And she gets on the computer, and she finds a phone number for [Zwerger’s] house, maybe, or her studio, I don’t know, and I punch it in. My wife speaks a little German, and she says, “Tell her this, do you speak English?” I said it in German, and she was like, “Yes.” And it was her. It was Lisbeth Zwerger, and I got to talk to her. She couldn’t talk that very moment. I told her I was doing an interview for school. “I’m way in California, I love your work. Can I talk to you for like ten minutes?” And she’s like, “Not today, but let’s set it up some other time.” And yeah, I got to talk to her. It was amazing. It was really cool.

AKS: So, you’ve reached out and made a lot of good connections.

RM: In children’s books, almost everyone you meet is amazing or fantastic and caring and fabulous.

AKS: Yes, that’s been my experience too.

RM: So, you can reach out. I have another person who I wanted to reach out to, but then they happened to win the Caldecott. It’s like, “Oh, no!”

AKS: You’re never gonna get to talk to them.

RM: It’s going to be a year or two before I can have him for ten minutes. And it was actually for another school project. It was a professional artist skills class, and we had to do an interview. He was on my list, and he was the one I was gonna reach out to, and then the week after that was when they announced the awards. If I had sent my email before that week or something, maybe I could’ve still gotten him. And I still could’ve tried even after they announced that he won, but…

AKS: He was probably getting a lot of those emails.

RM: He didn’t need some illustrator student following him around. He just got this award. I’m sure it gets pretty nuts after that.

AKS: I can’t even imagine. Well, hopefully one day you’ll know how it feels to win the Caldecott. That’s the dream.

RM: That would be nice, but how about let’s build a career first and stay there for a bit. Let’s make Bye Land, Bye Sea happen first.

 

Adrien Kade Sdao writes young adult fiction and works in a children’s bookstore in Los Angeles. They are an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles, and they are the lead editor for the Young Adult genre at Lunch Ticket. Their work has appeared in Lunch Ticket and Womanpause. They live in North Hollywood with their cat, Shelly.

Girl, Electric

[fiction]

Nora Brown was running. Not the strained, sweating through a rough cotton t-shirt running of gym class—this was different than any running she’d ever done in her life. She was a human laser, slicing along the roadside fast enough to pass cars moving in her direction. She could hear everything happening within her body in deafening high fidelity: heart pumping, blood sluicing through her veins, muscles twitching with precision as her arms and legs pumped in unison. She could feel each hair in her scalp trailing out behind her, every pore pumping sweat and sebum, even the distinct squish of a zit pushing itself up between dermis and epidermis.

At first, the hum seemed like just another uninvited thing that arrived at puberty, like boobs and armpit smell and the way suddenly her mom’s voice asking her to do anything sounded like fingernails on a blackboard.  Eventually Nora got used to it.

If she’d known it would be that easy to run away from school, she’d have done it a long time ago.

*     *     *

Ever since her thirteenth birthday, Nora had felt a gentle vibration beneath the top layer of her skin. It made a low, persistent hum that only she could hear, like the buzz of power lines on a hot July day. It was always in the background, like radio static.

At first, the hum seemed like just another uninvited thing that arrived at puberty, like boobs and armpit smell and the way suddenly her mom’s voice asking her to do anything sounded like fingernails on a blackboard. Eventually, Nora got used to it. Now she thought little of the way that papers seemed to fly off of desks and perfectly stable glasses of water toppled unprovoked in her presence. When her mom was in a good mood, she blamed it on puberty. “Adolescence,” mom would cackle. “It’s like my daughter has some kind of force field around her.” When mom was in a bad mood, the hum caused fights.

Nora felt the hum tingling in her fingertips on those afternoons when she came home from school, turned the key in the lock and knew before she even opened the door that mom would already be on the couch. The hum vibrated through her gut as she watched her mom lying there, looking as if she was drifting out to sea on a small raft and doing nothing, absolutely nothing to save herself.

She felt the hum rumble down to her toes the day they dropped Rory off at his special school. “There’ll be other kids like him there,” her mom said, with a smile that drooped like damp washing on the line. She knew Rory was different. He barely talked, he did everything in the same exact order every day, he couldn’t stand strangers and loud noises. Other kids had always called him mean names, but she’d done her best to stand up for him. “Nora, it’s not up to you to be his champion,” her mother said one day in a rare moment of lucidity. As they drove home without Rory, the hum rose in nauseating waves. What mom didn’t understand was that Nora needed Rory too. He was her best friend. Around him the hum was gentle. She felt calm and in control.

When Nora felt nervous, the hum became an overwhelming throb in her skull. Sometimes it was powerful enough to momentarily break the seal between her thoughts and other people’s. It seemed to get stronger when she was angry.

And today, the hum had knocked over more than just a glass of water. Today the hum had broken through her, it had hurt somebody.

*     *     *

Nora had seen him before, the school custodian with the tired smile and an arm he always dragged by his side, like disappointing news he couldn’t quite shake off. Today though, was different. Today he held his hedge clippers tightly when he found her wading through the thicket toward the school exit. Today he seemed almost afraid of her as he asked, “Why aren’t you in class? Is everything okay, sweetie?” Today, a thin layer of sweat had appeared on his upper lip when she replied, “I’m not going back to class,” as she stood bolt still in the thicket, feeling like a giantess on pale opal legs.

He approached her with caution as if she was a strange animal. They stood facing each other. Nora’s wide eyes darkened. She felt him realizing that she wasn’t going to listen. Fragments of his thoughts wafted into her mind. There was a daughter, about her age, with black hair so long she could practically sit on it. There was an argument at the breakfast table. “Calmenté, Papi, I can go on my own,” and a chair pushed out with an abrupt squeak as the girl with the black hair stormed off. She could feel a white-hot pain radiating from his shoulder and the searing shame of a secret—he needed an operation. He hadn’t told his wife yet.

Nora shifted in the thicket. He attempted to shift with her to get in her way. There were more thoughts, this time more frantic, about how girls her age shouldn’t be in the woods by themselves. Nora was so tired of hearing about all the things girls her age weren’t supposed to be doing. She stood still for a moment—coiled, ready, then took a step forward.

She felt the hum burst through her chest, she saw Meg flung back against the white tiled wall, her blue eyes wide with surprise. She saw the ribbon of blood escape Meg’s nose.

As she moved past him, the man reached out with his disappointed arm and put his hand on her shoulder. He was touching her in that fake way that adults touch kids when they’re trying to pretend to care, but just want to corral them back into whatever they were running away from in the first place. Nora didn’t feel like being touched like that anymore. “Don’t touch me!” She cried. It came out louder than intended. Then she felt it again. The hum beneath her skin was nauseatingly strong this time as it burst through her and into him, a beam of concentrated energy that she couldn’t predict and couldn’t control.

She felt the jolt of shock go through him when he touched her, then his eyes went blank as he dropped to his knees in the thicket. I’m in big trouble now, Nora thought. There was nothing to do but bolt. As she ran from him, she felt a cool silence surround him, like the asphalt of a damp street after a thunderstorm—and then something curious. His arm. It didn’t hurt him anymore.

Nora had a very distinct feeling she was going to be caught if she didn’t slow down. She didn’t want to think about what would happen the next time somebody tried to stop her. Slowing down took effort, she had to will the soles of her feet to grow heavier and make more frequent contact with the pavement. She paused for a moment, anticipating the need to catch her breath, but it didn’t come.

*     *     *

Nora hadn’t woken up that morning intending to run away. The need came over her at morning recess while perched sentinel above the rest of the playground on the uneven bars. She knew she was too old to play on them, nobody else in eighth grade did, but she liked the vantage point being up high gave her.

She couldn’t stand the idea of going back into school, not after what had happened in the girl’s bathroom that morning. Nora thought of the thin rivulet of blood she’d seen pouring out of Meg Atkinson’s nose and the knowledge that, somehow, she had caused it. She thought of the look of panic on little Josie’s face when she saw it too and knew that it was Nora’s fault. Nora was usually the one locking herself in the bathroom stall with her feet propped up on the toilet until Meg and her friends receded to class. Not today though. Today they’d found Josie— a new sixth grade girl who’d cried on the first day of school and still wore Velcro sneakers—first, perched on a toilet seat with a pair of bloody underpants balled up in her hands. Meg stood above her, dangling a rough, generic school sanitary pad just out of her reach.

“Say ‘please’ like a big girl, Jo-Jo, and maybe we’ll give it to you,” Meg said, the collective laughter of her and her friends in a tone just low enough to avoid announcing their mischief to any nearby teachers. With her attention trained on Josie, Nora could have slipped in and out of the bathroom cubicles unnoticed that morning, if it weren’t for the look she’d seen on Josie’s face. The look, coupled with the hum pulsating beneath her skin, made her speak up once, then when she wasn’t listened to, again. The hum caught in her throat a moment as Meg turned to see her standing there, surprised to hear Nora Brown speaking up and that her voice sounded almost like a grown up’s. “What’s the matter, Nora? Do you need a pad too?” Meg asked. Nora could sense she was feeling a bit smaller than usual, and this feeling made the hum stronger.

“Nobody thinks you’re funny, Meg. Just give her the pad and shut up.” Nora could feel something rumbling through Meg—shame? The hum was ringing in her ears now, filling her up.

“And nobody cares what you think, Nora,” said Meg, grabbing up her confidence in frantic little fistfuls. “Why don’t you go back to being a loser and hanging out with your wino mom and your retarded little brother?”

For an instant, Nora flushed with shame. The wino mother—that she couldn’t defend. But that word Meg called Rory—Nora’s insides fizzed with rage. She opened her mouth to say, “He’s not—” but instead, a crack opened in her. She felt the hum burst through her chest, and she saw Meg flung back against the white tiled wall, her blue eyes wide with surprise. She saw the ribbon of blood escape Meg’s nose. I definitely did that, Nora thought. But how? She hadn’t lifted a hand.

The air in the girl’s bathroom was taut. Nobody moved. The sanitary pad lay in its protective wrapper on the white tile floor where Meg dropped it. Nora picked it up and offered it to Josie, who was still seated on the toilet clutching her stained underwear. Josie shrank as Nora came closer, snatching the pad from her outstretched hand, then swiftly yanking the cubicle door shut.

But why? I was just trying to help, thought Nora.

Then the school bell clanged and Meg’s friends filed soundlessly out of the bathroom, giving Nora a wide berth as they passed. Nora couldn’t help feeling sorry for Meg for a moment. What good was it having a posse of mindlessly loyal friends if they ditched you in a moment like this? Meg stood still against the bathroom wall, one finger dabbing at the blood trickling from her nose. By reflex, Nora moved to grab her a tissue from the dispenser, to say sorry, to make it go away. But the words vibrated in her ears again, and Nora decided that Meg did not need help from a loser girl with a wino mom and a retarded little brother. She left the bathroom, joining the crowd of students who were streaming outside for morning recess.

The moments flickered behind Nora’s eyes once more, like frames from a comic book. Did it really happen? And if it did, what did that make her?

She filed out into the schoolyard. Around her, her classmates moved in the same little dramas that played themselves out in fifteen-minute increments every day. Nora was surrounded by hundreds of other students slapping basketballs against the asphalt, waving the remains of packed lunches in little plastic baggies, weaving between each other in perpetual games of tag that nobody ever seemed to win. She wondered if any of them could feel it too—and if they did, were they afraid of her like Meg and Josie were?

Nora slid to the uneven bars, pulling herself up with an unusual feeling of springiness. There were so many people around her, so many noses to make bleed. And it could happen at any moment. When would the next one be? Nora felt the schoolyard rising around her like floodwater. She couldn’t stay, could she? Where would she go this time of day? She wanted to see her brother. There were rules about when it was okay to visit him, the way she spoke to him, and how she played with him—she hated that. She wanted to see Rory, and she was going to. She had a feeling that on the inside, Rory didn’t have ugly thoughts that nobody wanted to hear. She wouldn’t make Rory’s nose bleed.

Nora gripped the metal of the uneven bars and it vibrated against her fingertips.  This time she felt it reverberate in her brain too, a sickly-sweet bit of excitement that jarred her with its rightness. The hum filled her with confidence. It was decided. She was in charge now; she called the shots, and she wouldn’t be hiding in bathroom cubicles anymore. She was going to see her brother.

Nora hopped down from the uneven bars. She crossed the playground, each footstep creating mini-earthquakes only she could feel. She strode toward the woods behind the school, buoyant with her new power. Her heart rose, full as a helium balloon. And before she knew it, Nora Brown was running.

 

Alyssa Osiecki is an American fiction writer currently based in Scotland. Her work has been published in the United Kingdom in the From Arthur’s Seat anthology and in the online literary magazine The Selkie. Stateside, her work has appeared online in Rebelle Society and Matador Network. Catch her on her website, www.alyssaowrites.com.

Indelible Laughter

It was a cloudy September morning in San Francisco and my body had decided that everything inside of it was poison. It was 8:34 a.m. on a Thursday and I was hungover at work, sitting behind my desk praying that my breath smelled like coffee and not vomit. It wasn’t very often that I was praying for coffee breath but, desperate times. The fluorescent lights were giving me a migraine and I wanted to wear my sunglasses, but I knew that wearing them inside would look suss as shit. As far as I could tell, only musicians got to wear sunglasses inside, and I wasn’t confident that telling my boss I can slay at Guitar Hero would grant me the right.

I was popping aspirin and splashing cold water on my face in the bathroom when a co-worker rushed into a stall, teary-eyed. I listened to her muffled sobs and contemplated what to do. I considered knocking on the door and saying something like, “Hello… you good fam?” I considered sliding her one of the edibles in my pocket. I considered emailing her a Sylvia Plath poem so that she could see how someone always has it worse. I considered what I would want someone to do for me if I were crying in a bathroom stall, so I left without saying a word and walked back to my desk. I’d been planning on hiding in the bathroom for the rest of the morning, reading movie reviews and scrolling through Instagram, in between vomit sessions, so, you’re welcome, Annie.

During my first hangover, I didn’t get out of bed for two full days. I stayed under the covers, throwing up in a trashcan, sleeping, and watching cat videos on YouTube. Sometimes it felt like I was doing all three things at once. The night before, I’d been at some rich kid’s party in the suburbs of the Bay. It was a Halloween party. This prissy girl who’d already been accepted to USC months before senior year even began—whose parents “donated” heaps of money to the school every year—had valet and a tough looking bouncer crossing his arms in front of her stupid house party. I threw the old-fashioned key to my banged up ‘96 Subaru at the kid wearing a black suit and tie. He caught it, hastily ducked into my dank-smelling shit hole, and drove it slowly down the block. A cheerleader pulled up behind me in a black Tesla. She was dressed like an angel and her friend who spilled out of the passenger-side door was dressed like a devil. The angel tapped me on the shoulder as I told the bouncer my name and let him stamp my wrist. “Are you supposed to be Charlie Chaplin?” she asked.

“La-di-da,” I said. I was wearing brown corduroy pants, a white button-down shirt tucked into my brown corduroy pants, a black vest over my white button-down shirt, a chunky blue tie tucked under my black vest, and a velvet hat. Picture a vaguely masculine Mary Poppins. “I’m Annie Hall,” I said. Clearly, the last Halloween party I’d been invited to involved an empty pillow case and asking strangers for candy. I noticed that neither the devil nor the angel were wearing costumes that covered their entire bodies, and neither of them were wearing ties. I admired the angel’s long legs and the devil’s long neck. I admired the way their tight costumes hugged their pale, delicate skin, and the way their long hair rolled easily off their shoulders. Suddenly, I felt horribly out of place. As I was planning my exit strategy—ask the bouncer to go find my car? run after the valet? slowly start backing away from everyone saying, “Sorry, sorry, sorry”—the angel took me by the arm. “I love it,” she said. “So vintage.”

I strolled into the house with the angel and the devil, offering to roll them a spliff and announcing that I could kick their ass at beer pong. They said their names were Amber and Alison. It wasn’t long before the house was packed, the music was loud, and kids were stripping and jumping in the pool. I was sitting on the couch smoking a spliff and drinking out of a forty when this kid named Toby sat dangerously close to me. Toby was the kid who picked his nose while giving book reports and who drooled too much during phys ed. Somehow, he’d convinced kids he was cool by high school, but he’d always be a drooling nose-picker to me. His pupils were hazy. He was so wet I almost thought he’d joined the other idiots who’d jumped in the pool, but from the smell of his ugly dinosaur onesie, I could tell that he was drenched in sweat. He draped his arm across my shoulder. I audibly gagged.

“Why aren’t you smiling?” he asked, poking me in the ribs. “It’s a party, aren’t you having any fun?”

“Toby,” I said, picking his arm off my shoulder as if I were picking up a rat by its tail. “I mean this in the nicest way possible: you smell like dog shit. Please, get your sweaty ass away from me and find some friends who are as equally fucked up on molly as you, so you can all be disgustingly overheated together.”

“Yo! You know this song?” he asked, pointing towards the ceiling. Before I could answer, he said, “Hey! Did you know that Pete and Amber are fucking in the pool house?” He laughed as if he’d said something funny.

“You remember the whole thing I said earlier?” I asked. “You know, about you being disgusting?” Finally, this girl in my second period English class saved me by yanking my arm and pulling me outside.

“Thanks,” I said as she took the spliff from me and took a hit.

“I gotchu,” she said, before handing it back to me and cannonballing into the pool. When she’d arrived, she was dressed like a bottle of sriracha, but now all she was wearing was her red shirt and some white boy shorts she picked up somewhere.

I kept smoking and found a half-empty bottle of cheap vodka near some Rainbow flip flops. I drank it while I watched this closeted girl who’d been sexting me the night before make out with Toby inside on the couch. I’d see her a few days later with her incredibly religious parents at some church fundraiser. I’d resist the urge to make fun of her for letting that drooling nose-picker touch her tits.

That’s when I heard people cheering.

I turned just as Pete was opening up the pool house door. I watched him slide on some ratty band tee and walk out to a crowd of cheering football players who were handing out high fives and “hell yeah, bros” as if they were throwing candy off a float in a Fourth of July parade. As Pete buckled his belt, I raised my vodka bottle in his direction. He nodded back. We’d spoken in passing. The last thing he’d said to me was “Pound it. I dig chicks too,” so make of that what you will. Pete and his friends wandered into the kitchen to take shots, tussling each other’s hair and laughing at nothing. I passed the bottle off to someone and walked around the pool towards the pool house, stepping over wet clothes and red solo cups. I sat on some ugly outdoor furniture and waited, smoking, while someone shot water through a pool noodle on the grass next to me.

After a long time, the pool house door slowly opened. Amber wearily made her way outside. One of her wings was bent, and her halo was crumpled and crooked. There weren’t any high fives or “hell yeah, bros” for her. There was just me.

After a long time, the pool house door slowly opened. Amber wearily made her way outside. One of her wings was bent, and her halo was crumpled and crooked. There weren’t any high fives or “hell yeah, bros” for her. There was just me. I watched her eyes dart back and forth across the yard before they caught mine. I offered her the spliff. She shook her head “no” and sat down on the ugly furniture next to me. We listened to the techno song that was blaring out of some massive speakers and watched drunk people almost drown for a while.

She adjusted her white dress, but it continued to sag. “What just happened?” she asked, turning towards me and wrapping her arms around her long legs.

I offered her the spliff again. This time she took it and stuck it between her lips. “Everyone’s been saying you fucked Pete in the pool house,” I told her, flicking my head towards the door she just came out of. She didn’t look. She didn’t say anything. She was silent, and I felt that I should fill the space between us. “Do you want me to grab your devil friend?” I asked. “Maybe you guys wanna like, I don’t know, compare notes about dick size or like…” my words felt hollow and weak as they fumbled out of my mouth, so I stopped trying to fill anything.

She took a long drag before quietly saying, “I can’t remember anything.”

 

I considered reaching out my hands towards her, gently, and brushing a stray strand of hair from her face. I considered marching inside and earning the nickname The Drunk Tie-Wearing Bitch Who Punched the Varsity Football Player at a Halloween Party.

 

I considered reaching out my hands towards her, gently, and brushing a stray strand of hair from her face. I considered marching inside and earning the nickname The Drunk Tie-Wearing Bitch Who Punched the Varsity Football Player at a Halloween Party. I considered calling 911. Instead, I said, “That’s some shit dude.”

I’d spend a lot of nights wishing I’d said something else.

She handed me back the spliff and stood up. “I think I’m gonna get out of here.”

“Can I drive you?”

She laughed to herself, maybe at the thought of driving around in my ugly-ass Subaru instead of her Tesla, or maybe at something else. “Nah, it’s chill,” she said. She began wandering through the backyard, down some hill towards the highway.

“Hey,” I called after her. “Valet and shit is that way.” I pointed back towards the house.

She looked through the glass pane, towards the boys taking shots. Now, Toby was tearing his shirt off like the fucking Hulk and Pete was taking pictures. We could hear their laughter all the way across the lawn. “I think I’m just gonna walk and find my car on my own,” she called back. I thought about running after her, but I didn’t. I sat there smoking until I knew I had to leave. I dropped the butt of the spliff in Pete’s tequila-filled shot glass as I left out the front door.

Six years would go by before I’d find myself hungover in San Francisco behind a desk in an office building. I arrived back at my desk, head swimming in nausea, I attempted to read through some emails and keep the grimace off my face. When I felt as if I were about to spew bile all over my coffee mug, notebook, and collection of pens, I stood up from my desk, snatched a box of tissues off my co-worker’s desk, and walked back towards the bathroom. Annie was still there, trying and failing to cry quietly. I stood there quietly for a long time, holding down the contents of my stomach. I listened to her sobbing. After I collected myself, I walked over to the stall she was in. I slid the box of tissues under the door and she went silent.

“Feel free to ignore me,” I said, “and I’ll take the hint and leave but… are you okay?”

She was quiet for a long time. I wished I had a spliff to offer her. She slowly opened the door. Her clothing was wrinkled, and her face was wet. She was holding the tissue box and using one to wipe her nose.

As we stood in the bathroom, congress was conducting a job interview with a rapist. He liked wearing black robes, drinking beer, and holding down young girls on unwashed sheets. Lindsey Graham was yelling at a brave college professor for telling the truth, and our president was stitching a new “Grab em’ by the Pussy Gang” letterman’s jacket.

“I get it.” I said.

“This whole thing just really brings up some bad memories,” she said. We stood in the bathroom for a long time. We didn’t say anything because we didn’t have to. When I rushed into an adjacent stall to vomit, Annie laughed. She laughed until she cried, and then she cried until I offered to buy her some coffee.

As I stood in line at Peet’s, drinking water, I wondered if Amber was watching C-SPAN somewhere, or if she was crying in some bathroom stall. I’d run into her a few years after the Halloween party, at a coffee shop in Oakland. I’d waved to her and she’d waved back. I’d stuck my nose back in my book, and when I’d looked up, there was a note next to my cappuccino. “He’s at Harvard studying law,” was all it said.

 

Anita Levin is a poet and essayist from San Francisco, California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Lifted Brow, The Lindenwood Review, Barnhouse, and Hypertext Magazine, among others. She has worked as a bookseller for an independent bookshop, a poetry editor for Jeopardy Magazine, and she currently works in publishing.

Word from the Editor

Signs of Life: Mixed Media

Thicket

[translated fiction]

A movement in the corner of her eye. She turns her head, but it is only the woods. Succulent leaves reach toward her. Behind them, ferns, a tree trunk.

Mark steps in front of her, the woods vanish behind his torso. She stares at the coarse fabric of his shirt, the embroidery on his breast pocket. His hands touch her cheeks, and she looks up at him.

“My two sweeties.” He kisses her. Their mouths open to each other, warm and motionless, until the baby on her arm starts thrashing. Mark’s eyes, so close and green, look in her right eye, then her left eye.

“Well, go on,” she says. “Out you go!” His hands slide from her face, the baby coos, he kisses it on the forehead, and gets into the car. He honks the horn twice, customary in the country, and drives off. She holds the baby’s hand, waves with it until the car turns at the end of the street.

“He’s gone,” she says to her child, and the baby coos as if it understands.

As she closes the garden gate behind her, her glance wanders back to the thicket. It had rained in the night. Surely, it was only a raindrop that was making the leaves vibrate.

She feels it. It scares her. The baby is listening. It stares at her, listening. What does it hear? A rustle. Close by. On the other side of the bedroom wall.

Later, a book in her lap, she sits in the deck chair on the terrace. The baby sleeps in the stroller. She tries to read and does not get beyond the first sentence. She begins again and again, strings the letters together, but cannot get the meaning. She stares at the page and only when the church bells ring in the village below, does she realize that her head was filled with silence. She puts the book aside, steps towards the parapet of the terrace, and looks down on the bay, the houses tiny at the edge of the sea. Her gaze glides over the leaden surface to the horizon, attempting to discern the boundary between water and sky. There was meant to be sun today, but nothing seems to have come of it. The air feels thick in her throat. She takes in a deep breath, breathes out.

She met Mark’s partner once at a party. That was before her pregnancy. She only vaguely remembers how the woman looked. Pretty, of course, but not so pretty as to be boring. There had been some noticeable asymmetry in her face. Maybe she was also cross-eyed, a slight misalignment. Anyway, Mark had assured her on the way home, without her having said a word, that she didn’t have to worry about his new partner, that she posed no danger. She had wondered about the wording and about his assertion, had listened to her body and now is listening again, but she doesn’t feel anything, no jealousy. It’s only the ingratiating “you” that is still hanging in the air. Mark handed her the phone last night after he had been on the terrace for some time. He came in with a hangdog expression. His partner wanted to speak to her. “You. I have to steal your husband. Just for a few days, I promise. A week, tops. We’re in fire-drill mode here.”

She takes her phone off the table, taps a message.

Well, how’s it’s going with the firefighting? Of course, it was on him to get in touch. He must have landed by now. Mark is not good at these things, and, anyway, he should be concentrating on work, so he can come back to them soon. She puts the phone aside and opens her book again. Now she can get involved in the story. She keeps looking at her phone, but there is no answer. At some point, the baby wakes up, whining. She takes it out of the carriage and carries it around on the terrace, shows it the cacti, the beautiful little flowers, a fat bumblebee, and look, down there is the sea. She takes a picture of herself and the baby and sends it to Mark. Your two sweeties.

Mark is bad at these things. They don’t call each other, they were never that kind of couple, but when it gets dark and the terrace cools, she dials his number. The dial tone rings, she clamps the phone under her chin, takes the child in her arms, goes into the house, it rings and rings. She enters the living room and hears a parallel buzzing sound. It’s coming from the sofa. She pushes a pillow to the side, and there is Mark’s phone. Something sags inside her and then rises up. Rage. Rage mixed with another, smaller feeling. She takes a deep breath.

“Your father, oy,” she says to the baby, who looks up at her, and she takes it to the bathroom to change its diaper.

The baby won’t nurse before falling asleep. Again and again it turns its head from her breast until she finally gives up and buttons her blouse. She lies on the bed with the baby in her arms. A cloth mutes the light of the bedside lamp. She takes in the facial features of her child: the nose, the mouth, the chin. Once again, she is amazed how seldom the infant blinks. Her child stares at her and it appears as if its pupils are melting into the irises. She feels the pull from those huge, black eyes. She is about to sink into the baby’s dark gaze. She feels it. It scares her. The baby is listening. It stares at her, listening. What does it hear? A rustle. Close by. On the other side of the bedroom wall. She raises her head, listening. The rustling stops. No movement in the baby’s eyes. No blinking. She recalls the floor plan of the house. The wall borders the part of the garden which leads to the street. Individual tiles serve as stepping stones through the plants. Again, it rustles on the other side of the wall. Leaves in motion. She thinks of the forest on the other side of the street. She looks into the thicket and at the same time, she is looking out of the thicket. She sees herself standing at the garden gate. Her image in a frame made of leaves: a young woman, pale, slender, kissed, waving, left behind. Alone in a strange land. The baby on her arm looks too big. She sees Mark driving away in his station wagon, down the mountain, through the village, she is watching him. Who else has seen him go? Who knows she is alone in the house? She feels her heart beating through her entire body, loud and strong. The baby’s eyes widen. Lullaby and good night, she begins to hum, the words in her head, you are mother’s delight. The melody goes wrong, dies in a squeak. She starts again with more air and is not sure if that was her breath, what was that, it was hers. Somebody was breathing very close. Not her, not the baby, a third person. On the other side of the wall? The baby’s eyes, her pulse. I’ll protect you from harm, and you’ll wake in my arms, the melody drones, she sees the hands only a few inches away, strange hands on the lava stone of the wall of the house. An ear. What if he’s already in the house? Treading softly. What if he’s waiting? Sitting on the sofa when she walks in? Or he’s standing in the middle of the room, slowly, very slowly turning towards her. A rope in his hands. A grin on his face. He’s coming to get her, he—

This is crazy. She has to calm down. The baby hasn’t noticed anything, its eyelids are drooping, they finally close over its eyes, quickly open, and close again. Her humming dies away. The baby is asleep. She listens. Silence. She wants to stand up and is frightened by a noise. But it was the rustling of the sheets, the creaking of the bed. Those are her steps on the tiled floor. Her gaze feels its way through the hallway, slips around the corner, into the living room. Nobody is there. No grin, no rope. Of course, nobody is there. Everything is brightly lit, just as she has left it. The sofa, the pillows, their shoes before the door. The door to the terrace. It’s cracked open. She walks to the door to close it. His arm is like lightning, he pushes the door open, it hits her on the forehead with a slam. She topples, and he’s on top of her, masked, gasping. Tearing the clothing off her body. The image fills her up, her hand trembles on the handle, she closes the door. Looks out into the night. The shadowy outlines of the plants on the terrace, the house lights, and ships down in the bay. The wind soft. She stands at the door and forces herself to look out into the darkness. Nobody is there.

“Do you have any pepper spray?”

The question annoys her. She’s annoyed that her mother noticed immediately that something was wrong. The only thing she did was say “fine” to the question of how she was doing, and right away her mother was alarmed, and all this time she was making an effort to sound normal.

“What’s the matter?”

She should have said “Nothing!” She could have dispelled her mother’s worries or at least brushed them off. It had always worked when she was an adolescent, using monosyllabic answers to nip a conversation in the bud. Except as an adolescent, she wouldn’t have called her mother during a vacation.

“What do you think?”

“You sound funny.”

“How can I sound funny? I’ve only said two words, hello and fine.”

And then she confessed to her mother that it was a little scary, being so alone in the house. And then, of course, she had to explain how she could be alone when the baby was there. Where was Mark? And while she was explaining, they’re in fire-drill mode, she knew what it sounded like to her mother. Reckless. Her mother doesn’t understand what kind of relationship she and Mark have, that she doesn’t see Mark as her provider and protector, that his work is just as important to him as her work is to her, that Mark’s agency is still new and they have to fight for every customer, that they have resolved not to give up their former lives, just because—and in the tiny break she takes to catch her breath, her mother poses a question,

“Do you have any pepper spray?”

“No, Mom,” she groans, “I don’t have any pepper spray. It was probably a cat that I heard. There are so many strays here.”

“Should I come?”

“It’s really not necessary.”

“I can get on the plane tomorrow morning and be with you by noon.”

“No. No!”

The phone at her ear, she walks through the house and puts out the lights. In the dark she is more comfortable. Now her cottage is no longer the only one lit up on the slope, visible to everyone from afar. Only the lamp in the bedroom throws a reddish glow into the hallway. Her mother gives her a lecture on parental responsibilities and priorities. She steps to the bed, looks at her sleeping baby, and smiles, shaking her head at her mother’s words on the phone. The phone call has done its job, although in a different way than she planned. She has calmed down.

“I just wanted to say hello,” she interrupts her mother. “I really need to go to bed.”

“Call me if you need me!”

“I will.”

“And kiss the baby for me.”

“I’ll do that too. Good night, Mom.”

She lies down on the bed with her baby, kisses it on the cheek and falls asleep immediately. In the night she wakes up because she is cold. She feels the baby’s face. She gets up, takes Mark’s wool sweater from the chair, pulls it on. She lifts the baby and crawls under the blanket with it. The child whimpers in its sleep. She nods off, the whimpering ceases, the baby’s hand is close, groping for her breast, for the chain around her neck. A hand is very close. Not small at all, it’s big and cold, it grabs her. She startles violently. There’s a knock, but it’s her heart. She fumbles her breast out of her bra, blouse, sweater, pulls the baby towards her. Its mouth a small animal on her skin, seeking, finding. The baby suckles, and she warms up, reddish light on the inside of her eyelids. She sinks into darkness.

She wakes up several times in the night. Each time, a cold hand is reaching for her, the baby is whimpering, her ear to the wall. On her chest. Her racing heart. I’ll protect you from harm. Again, she sees herself standing in a border of leaves. She turns around and runs into the dripping forest. It’s cracking, there are footsteps. Someone is behind her. She senses the pursuer and doesn’t dare turn around. She runs faster and faster. She hears herself gasping. And suddenly she’s not running in the woods anymore. She’s running from room to room, where is the baby? She rummages between the pillows and finds it. It lies there, humming to itself. Naked. With those surreal dark eyes, it looks at her. Kicking its legs in slow motion. She stares down at the inside of its thighs, at its privates. Wrinkly skin, fleshy leaves. Horror fills her, something isn’t right. Something is wrong, something hurts. What should she do? She remembers the household remedy, the advice of her mother. A tube of cream in the house covers all eventualities. The ointment is sticky. She has to rub vigorously to spread it on the baby’s skin. She rubs and rubs, applying more and more ointment until the tube is empty and the baby’s privates look like a white, furry piece of fruit.

“Is that better?” she asks, and the baby, who has been watching her the whole time, nods.

She wakes up feeling like she has done something right. She doesn’t know what it was, but there is a warm, heavy contentment in her body. Sunlight trickles through the windows onto the quilt. A bird chirps from afar. Reclining, she closes her eyes again, turns over onto her side. Blinks and looks at the sleeping baby. She panics. She has a child. Ever since her child was born, it has woken her up every morning. Suddenly, she realizes what is different, what the calm feeling means. She has had enough sleep. Why is the baby still sleeping? What happened? She reaches for her phone on the nightstand. It’s nine o’clock. She turns back to her baby, decides to wake it up, but it has already opened its eyes. It grins at her toothlessly. Like it has tricked her.

“Buzzy bee!” She tickles the baby, the baby gurgles, and with this gurgle the day begins.

Her child strapped to her chest, she walks down to the village. Along fences, wild hedges. Every now and then, a narrow glimpse of houses. Barricaded. Blinds pulled down; shutters locked. Plastic tarps over garden furniture. Puddles on the plastic tarps, water standing everywhere, in flower pots, toy buckets. She imagines the houses from the inside, the contours of the furniture in the dark. The damp air and spiders in the corners. There is a growl nearby, and in the cracks between the fence slats, an eye appears, a snout. The dog accompanies her to the end of its fence. It barks, then remains behind. The baby has fallen asleep in its carrier. She feels its heavy breath against her chest. Her knees are pounding as she walks down the mountain.

The village store is closed. So is the fishmonger. As she stands at the locked door of the produce market, it dawns on her that it is Sunday. She walks to the harbor, where the same two sailboats are moored as before. The shutters are also lowered in this neighborhood. The sidewalks are rolled up, her mother would say. She thinks for a minute and sees that a shop is open. There are tables in front of the café at the other end of the promenade.

The bell above the door rings as she enters. Four men with wool caps are at a plastic table in the corner, drinking beer and playing cards. Two more are sitting at the bar. One is standing behind it. Everyone looks at her. She tries to greet them, but the feel of the foreign word gets confused in her mouth. Her smile is not returned.

She stands in the door of the café and wonders if they have ever seen a woman in this joint before.

When she tells Mark about it, she will exaggerate the story, making the men sound more sinister, her stammered greeting more earnest. She will describe the situation to Mark as if it had been funny. How she sat there with a latte and the baby starting to scream. The gruff men look up from their card game in slow motion. The baby won’t be calmed, and she decides to breastfeed, in public, in a country where she is unfamiliar with the relevant cultural customs. She tries to be discreet, guiding the baby’s face to her breast under her sweater, but the baby doesn’t want to nurse with a sweater covering its face. The baby pushes the sweater higher and higher.

“And there I sit with a naked breast!” She and Mark will laugh, and nothing will be left of the shame that had shot through her body.

A country where I am unfamiliar with the relevant cultural customs, she says the words to herself as she walks back to the house, up the mountain. She is now walking on the other side of the road, where the ditch is strewn with a trail of garbage. Tires, shards of tile, yogurt containers, milk cartons. The baby has gone back to sleep. She is sweating while she smiles at the thought of how she will mimic herself, “and that’s how I was.” She’ll open her eyes, the whites comical in the black night, as she lies in bed. She’ll make fun of her dreams and Mark will grin. Her nightly fantasies are an inexhaustible source of conversation topics.

She looks into the thicket and at the same time, she is looking out of the thicket. She sees herself standing at the garden gate. Her image in a frame made of leaves: a young woman, pale, slender, kissed, waving, left behind. Alone in a strange land.

“You and your dreams of crime scenes,” he says. They’re always about mutilated women, and the perpetrator is never found. They laugh about them together in the morning, laugh until the little cold pit of horror in her stomach has dissolved. What series was that where they cut a woman’s baby out of her belly, or was it a news report? Had she already told Mark about that one? That she keeps thinking about it? The knife in front of her. How big was that knife? She imagines how they must have done the cut. Was it a quick curve or right through the middle? What about the guts, what about all the guts when you cut open the belly? And what did they do to the woman, did they just dump her afterwards? She has to tell Mark about this latest obsession. She thinks about it all the time, because they also cut the baby out of her belly. You could say that was what they did.

“And I also don’t know why I’m always thinking about this news story. It was about war crimes. I can’t remember much, just the pictures of women’s bodies. Corpses covered with plastic tarps.”

Mark will tilt his head like he always does when she talks and talks and doesn’t have a point. If she doesn’t get to the point. What are you trying to say? And she’ll shrug her shoulders.

“I don’t know, I just keep thinking about it.”

“Even on vacation?”

“Even on vacation.”

“But it’s so nice here.”

Mark will hold her in his arms. He will have had a beer after the long drive from the airport to the house. He will smell like alcohol. Prey. Those women were prey. The word an echo in her head, her body, her forest. This is not her forest. This is her husband. She stands there, her head on his chest. She hasn’t even started to say what she’s thinking about. What she’s not thinking about. Because she doesn’t know. Her grandmother’s forest. A scream amongst the trees. Echo. Prey. Mark will kiss the top of her head.

“But now you’re just dumping everything into the same pot,” he will say, and she will laugh to herself, because everything is fine. He is back.

“You’re right,” she’ll say, and she’ll free herself from the embrace, putting her hands on her hips. “Sweetie!” imitating her mother. “Sweetie, have you packed the pepper spray?”

A shoe among soggy kitchen scraps. Brown, suede, a wedge-shaped heel. While she imagines what she is going to tell Mark and how, her gaze drifts along the garbage trail in the ditch. It stops at the shoe. When she glances up, she looks into the man’s eyes. They are small and deep. He meets her in the middle of the street. He’s almost past her. Now she smells him, too. His sweat is pungent. His hair falls into his face, and he pushes it off his forehead. His hands are dirty. He nods, and then they have passed each other. His grin hangs in the air. That grin. the grin and the rope. Her hand rests on the baby’s head at her breast. She feels the soft spot, the throbbing under the skin. She turns around and sees that the man is tall. She goes on, hears his footsteps, thinks he’s turning around. Following her. As she walks, she looks back at him again and again. He descends, legs wide, teetering down the mountain, the figure in the stained parka getting smaller and smaller.

The next time she turns around, he has disappeared between the trees, and the baby wakes up. It pushes itself up in the carrier against her stomach, opens its mouth to scream.

The baby cries the whole afternoon. Screams go through its little body in waves. When she thinks they are finally subsiding, the baby tenses up again.

She massages her child’s belly. She places it on her breast, but it won’t nurse. It takes a swing at her. Its head is bright red and a vein is protruding from its temple. The baby is not hungry, the diaper is fresh and dry, it is not too warm, not too cold. Like the midwife taught her, she goes through possible causes. The baby isn’t hurt, the baby has everything it needs. Sometimes babies just scream. She sticks the pacifier in the child’s mouth, which makes it worse. The baby spits the pacifier out and screams even louder, struggling furiously. She finally wraps the baby in a blanket to restrain it, and she carries the twitching, crying bundle around the terrace. The baby is not interested in cacti or in little flowers. Its screaming becomes hoarser and shriller. It bores into her skull like claws. The midwife didn’t consider one possibility. What if the baby is afraid? What if it suspects something is wrong? If it senses danger? A humming on her skin, cold sweat. Her nerves are electric. The shoe in the ditch. Whose shoe is it? Why is it there and where is the other one? Where is the woman who was wearing it? She walks back and forth on the terrace. Eventually, the tension in the baby’s body diminishes, the cries dry up. The baby falls asleep in her arms.

She sits with her child in her arms on the terrace until the birds fall silent and the sun sinks behind the mountains. It’s quiet. Only her stomach is growling. She sits there and she sees herself sitting. She leaves the lights off, but it won’t help. They saw into each other’s eyes. He knows where to find her. There is no escape.

She carries the baby into the house and lies down next to it on the bed. She holds the hand of her sleeping baby and waits. Her eyes comically white in the darkness. Her heart beating in her ears. Outside, a crackle. There he is, she thinks. Then a cat meows. A gurgling by the wall, a gust of wind in the tree, her body sends a few more false alarms. Later, she nods off.

The squeaking of the garden gate rips her from sleep. That’s him, without a doubt. She can hear every footstep from the gate to the house and then towards her. He walks around the house with a wide gait, swaying. He opens the terrace door. She listens to his footsteps coming toward the bedroom, and with every step, her chest gets a little tighter, strangling her airway. He’ll be there in no time at all. He’s coming to get her. He’s coming. The door opens and his shadow enters the room. It’s big. He’s stepping towards the bed. Here comes his hand. His dirty hand is on her leg. It glides over her ankle and up her calf. And she, what is left of her, screams. She screams as loud as she can.

Mark’s voice doesn’t get through to her until he turns on the light.

“Sweetheart,” says Mark, and he puts his hands on her face. “Sweetheart, it’s ok. I’m back.”

Dickicht

Aus dem Augenwinkel eine Bewegung. Sie wendet den Kopf, aber da ist nur der Wald. Fleischige Blätter ragen ihr entgegen, dahinter Farne, ein Baumstamm.

Mark tritt vor sie, der Wald verschwindet hinter seiner Brust. Sie starrt den groben Stoff seines Hemdes an, die Stickerei auf der Brusttasche. Seine Hände landen auf ihren Wangen, und sie sieht zu ihm auf.

»Meine zwei Süßen«, er küsst sie. Ihre Münder liegen aufeinander, warm und regungslos, bis das Baby auf ihrem Arm strampelt. Marks Augen so nah und grün, blicken erst in ihr rechtes, dann in ihr linkes Auge.

»Nun fahr schon«, sagt sie, »na los!« Seine Hände gleiten von ihren Wangen, das Baby kräht, er küsst es auf die Stirn und steigt in den Wagen. Er stupst zwei Mal die Hupe an, landesüblich, dann fährt er los. Sie umfasst die Hand des Babys, winkt damit, bis das Auto am Ende der Straße abbiegt.

»Weg ist er«, sagt sie zu ihrem Kind, und wieder kräht es, als habe es verstanden.

Als sie das Gartentor hinter sich schließt, wandert ihr Blick noch einmal ins Dickicht. In der Nacht hat es geregnet. Sicher war es nur ein Tropfen, der das Laub in Schwingungen versetzt hat.

Ein Buch im Schoß, sitzt sie später im Liegestuhl auf der Terrasse. Das Baby schläft im Kinderwagen, sie versucht zu lesen und kommt nicht über den ersten Satz hinaus. Fängt immer wieder von vorne an, reiht die Buchstaben aneinander, doch der Sinn will sich ihr nicht erschließen. Sie starrt die Seite an, und erst als im Dorf unten die Kirchenglocken läuten, merkt sie, dass in ihrem Kopf Stille geherrscht hat. Sie legt das Buch beiseite, tritt an die Brüstung der Terrasse, blickt hinab in die Bucht, die Häuser winzig am Saum des Meeres. Sie lässt ihren Blick über die bleierne Fläche gleiten, bis zum Horizont, versucht die Grenze zwischen Wasser und Himmel auszumachen. Für heute war Sonne angekündigt, aber daraus scheint nichts zu werden. Die Luft fühlt sich dick an in ihren Atemwegen. Sie atmet tief ein, atmet aus.

Sie hat Marks Partnerin mal auf einer Party kennengelernt, das war vor der Schwangerschaft. Sie erinnert sich nur noch vage, wie die Partnerin ausgesehen hat. Hübsch selbstverständlich, aber nicht so hübsch, dass es langweilig gewesen wäre, da war irgendeine auffällige Asymmetrie in ihrem Gesicht gewesen. Vielleicht hatte sie auch geschielt, ein leichter Silberblick. Jedenfalls hatte Mark ihr, ohne dass sie ein Wort über seine neue Partnerin verloren hätte, auf dem Nachhauseweg versichert, dass sie sich keine Sorgen machen müsse, von der drohe keine Gefahr. Sie hatte sich über die Formulierung gewundert und über seine Beteuerung, hatte in sich hineingehorcht, tut es auch jetzt wieder, aber sie spürt nichts, keine Eifersucht, nur dieses anbiedernde »Du« hängt ihr noch nach. Mark hat ihr gestern Abend das Telefon gereicht, nachdem er eine Weile auf der Terrasse telefoniert hatte, ist er reingekommen, Dackelblick, seine Partnerin wolle sie sprechen. »Du. Ich muss dir deinen Mann klauen. Ist auch nur für ein paar Tage, versprochen. Höchstens eine Woche. Hier brennt die Hütte.«

Sie nimmt ihr Telefon vom Tisch, schreibt eine Nachricht:

Na, was machen die Löscharbeiten? Dabei wäre es natürlich an ihm, sich zu melden, inzwischen müsste er längst gelandet sein. Mark ist nicht gut in diesen Dingen, und er soll sich ja auch auf die Arbeit konzentrieren, damit er bald wieder zu ihnen zurückkommen kann. Sie legt das Telefon beiseite, schlägt erneut ihr Buch auf, jetzt kann sie sich besser auf die Geschichte einlassen. Zwischendurch blickt sie immer wieder auf ihr Telefon, doch es kommt keine Antwort. Irgendwann wacht das Baby auf, quengelt, sie nimmt es aus dem Wagen und trägt es auf der Terrasse umher, zeigt ihm die Kakteen, die schönen Blümchen, eine dicke Hummel, und guck mal, da unten, das Meer. Sie macht ein Foto von sich und dem Baby und schickt es Mark. Deine zwei Süßen.

Mark ist schlecht in diesen Dingen, und sie sind kein Paar, das telefoniert, waren sie noch nie, aber als es dunkel wird und kühl auf der Terrasse, wählt sie doch seine Nummer. Das Freizeichen ertönt, sie klemmt sich das Telefon unters Kinn, nimmt das Kind auf den Arm, geht ins Haus, es tutet und tutet, sie betritt das Wohnzimmer und vernimmt parallel zum Tuten ein Brummen, es kommt vom Sofa. Sie schiebt ein Kissen beiseite, und dort liegt Marks Telefon. In ihr sackt etwas weg, etwas steigt in ihr auf: Wut. Wut, gemischt mit einem anderen, kleineren Gefühl. Sie atmet tief durch.

»Dein Vater, ey«, sagt sie zum Baby, das sie von unten anguckt, und trägt es ins Bad, um es zu wickeln.

Vor dem Einschlafen will das Baby nicht trinken. Immer wieder dreht es den Kopf von ihrer Brust weg, bis sie schließlich aufgibt und die Bluse zuknöpft. Sie liegt mit dem Baby im Arm auf dem Bett, ein Tuch dämpft das Licht der Nachttischlampe. Sie fährt die Gesichtszüge ihres Kindes nach, die Nase, den Mund, das Kinn. Wieder einmal ist sie erstaunt, wie selten der Säugling blinzeln muss. Ihr Kind starrt sie an, und es scheint, als verschmelze seine Pupille mit der Iris, sie spürt einen Sog, hinab in diese riesigen schwarzen Augen. Sie ist dabei, im dunklen Blick des Babys zu versinken, da versteht sie. Und erschrickt. Das Baby lauscht, es starrt sie lauschend an. Was hört es? Ein Rascheln. Ganz nah. Auf der anderen Seite der Schlafzimmerwand. Sie hebt den Kopf, horcht, das Rascheln verstummt. Keine Regung in den Augen des Babys, kein Blinzeln. Sie ruft sich den Grundriss des Hauses ins Gedächtnis, die Wand grenzt an das Stück Garten, das zur Straße führt, einzelne Fliesen dienen als Trittsteine durch die Bepflanzung. Wieder raschelt es auf der anderen Seite der Wand. Laub in Bewegung, ihr fällt der Wald jenseits der Straße ein, sie blickt ins Dickicht und im selben Moment aus dem Dickicht heraus, sieht sich am Gartentor stehen. Ihr Bild in einem Rahmen aus Blättern: eine junge Frau, schmal, blass, geküsst, winkend, zurückgelassen. Allein in der Fremde. Das Baby auf ihrem Arm wirkt zu groß. Sie sieht Mark in seinem Kombi davonfahren, den Berg hinunter, durchs Dorf, sie sieht ihn, wer hat ihn noch gesehen? Wer weiß, dass sie alleine im Haus ist? Sie spürt ihr Herz schlagen, am ganzen Körper, hart und laut. Die Augen des Babys weiten sich, Guten Abend, gute Nacht beginnt sie zu summen, in ihrem Kopf die Worte, mit Rosen bedacht, mit Näglein besteckt. Die Melodie gerät schief, verendet mit einem Piepsen, sie setzt erneut an, mit mehr Luft, und ist sich nicht sicher, war das ihre Luft, was war das, das war doch. Da hat doch jemand geatmet, ganz nah, nicht sie, nicht das Baby, ein Dritter. Auf der anderen Seite der Wand? Die Augen des Babys, ihr Puls. Morgen früh, wenn Gott will, wirst du wieder, die Melodie leiert, sie sieht die Hände, nur wenige Zentimeter entfernt, fremde Hände am Lavagestein der Hauswand, ein Ohr. Und was, wenn er längst im Haus ist? Auf leisen Sohlen. Was, wenn er wartet? Auf dem Sofa sitzt, wenn sie hinübergeht? Oder er steht mitten im Raum, dreht sich langsam, ganz langsam zu ihr um. In den Händen ein Strick. Im Gesicht ein Grinsen, jetzt kommt er sie holen, er –

Quatsch. Sie muss sich beruhigen. Das Baby hat nichts bemerkt, seine Lider klappen auch schon, senken sich zum ersten Mal über die Augen, schnellen wieder in die Höhe, senken sich wieder. Sie lässt das Summen ausklingen. Das Baby ist eingeschlafen. Sie lauscht, Stille. Sie will aufstehen und erschrickt vor dem Geräusch, doch das war das Rascheln der Laken, das Knarren des Betts, das sind ihre Schritte auf den Fliesen. Ihr Blick tastet sich durch den Flur, tastet sich um die Ecke, in den Wohnraum. Da ist niemand. Kein Grinsen, kein Strick. Natürlich ist da niemand. Hell erleuchtet, alles, wie sie es zurückgelassen hat. Das Sofa, die Kissen, ihre Schuhe vor der Tür. Die Tür zur Terrasse. Steht einen Spaltbreit offen. Sie tritt an die Tür, will sie schließen. Wie ein Blitz sein Arm, er stößt die Tür auf, ihr mit voller Wucht gegen die Stirn. Sie stürzt, schon ist er über ihr, vermummt, keuchend. Reißt ihr die Kleider vom Leib. Das Bild fährt in sie, ihre Hand auf der Klinke zittert, sie schließt die Tür. Blickt hinaus in die Nacht. Die dunklen Umrisse der Pflanzen auf der Terrasse, die Lichter der Häuser und Schiffe unten in der Bucht. Leise der Wind. Sie steht an der Tür und zwingt sich, hinauszusehen in die Dunkelheit. Da ist niemand. »Hast du Pfefferspray dabei?«

Die Frage ärgert sie. Es ärgert sie, dass ihre Mutter gleich gemerkt hat, dass etwas nicht stimmt. Sie musste nur »Gut« auf die Frage antworten, wie es ihr geht, schon war die Mutter alarmiert, dabei hat sie sich Mühe gegeben, völlig normal zu klingen.

»Was ist los?«

Sie hätte »Nichts!« sagen sollen, sicher hätte sie die Sorgen der Mutter zerstreuen oder sie wenigstens abwimmeln können, das hat in der Pubertät doch auch immer geklappt, ein Gespräch mit einsilbigen Antworten im Keim ersticken. Nur dass sie in der Pubertät ihre Mutter auch nicht aus dem Urlaub angerufen hätte.

»Was soll sein?«

»Du klingst komisch.«

»Wie kann ich komisch klingen, ich habe genau zwei Worte gesagt, Hallo und Gut.«

Und dann hat sie der Mutter eben doch gestanden, dass ihr etwas unheimlich ist, so alleine im Haus. Woraufhin sie ihr natürlich erklären musste, warum sie mit dem Baby alleine ist. Wo Mark steckt. Und während sie es erklärt hat, die Hütte brennt, wusste sie, wie das in den Ohren ihrer Mutter klingt, unverantwortlich nämlich. Ihre Mutter versteht nicht, was für eine Beziehung sie und Mark führen, dass sie Mark nicht als ihren Versorger und Beschützer ansieht, dass seine Arbeit ihm genauso wichtig ist wie ihr ihre, dass Marks Agentur eben noch jung ist und um jeden Kunden kämpfen muss, dass sie sich vorgenommen haben, nicht ihr bisheriges Leben aufzugeben, nur weil – und in die winzige Pause, die sie macht, um Luft zu holen, platziert die Mutter ihre Frage:

»Hast du Pfefferspray dabei?«

»Nein, Mama«, sie stöhnt, »ich habe kein Pfefferspray dabei. Wahrscheinlich war das eine Katze, die ich da gehört habe. Hier gibt es so viele streunende -«

»Soll ich kommen?«

»Das ist wirklich nicht nötig.«

»Ich kann mich morgen früh in den Flieger setzen, dann bin ich mittags bei euch.«

»Nein. Nein!«

Das Telefon am Ohr, geht sie durchs Haus und löscht die Lichter. Im Dunkeln ist ihr wohler, jetzt hängt ihr Häuschen nicht mehr als einziges leuchtend am Hang, weithin sichtbar für alle. Nur die Lampe im Schlafzimmer wirft noch einen rötlichen Schein in den Flur. Ihre Mutter hält ihr einen Vortrag über elterliche Pflichten, über Prioritäten. Sie tritt ans Bett, betrachtet ihr schlafendes Baby, lächelt, schüttelt lächelnd den Kopf zu den Worten der Mutter in der Leitung. Das Telefonat hat seine Wirkung getan, wenn auch auf andere Art als geplant. Sie hat sich beruhigt.

»Ich wollte auch nur kurz hallo sagen«, unterbricht sie ihre Mutter. »Ich muss dringend ins Bett.«

»Ruf an, wenn was ist!«

»Mach ich.«

»Und küss mir das Baby.«

»Das auch. Gute Nacht, Mama.«

Sie legt sich zu ihrem Baby aufs Bett, küsst es auf die Wange und schläft sofort ein. In der Nacht wird sie wach, weil ihr kalt ist. Sie befühlt das Gesicht des Babys. Steht auf, nimmt Marks Wollpullover vom Stuhl, zieht ihn an. Sie hebt das Baby hoch, kriecht mit ihm unter die Decke. Das Kind wimmert im Schlaf. Sie nickt ein, das Wimmern entfernt sich, ganz nah die Hand des Babys, tastet nach ihrer Brust, nach der Kette um ihren Hals. Ganz nah eine Hand, gar nicht klein, groß und kalt, packt sie. Sie schreckt hoch. Es klopft, doch das ist ihr Herz. Sie fummelt ihre Brust aus BH, Bluse, Pullover, zieht das Baby zu sich heran. Sein Mund ein kleines Tier auf ihrer Haut, sucht, findet. Das Baby saugt, und ihr wird wärmer, das rötliche Licht auf der Innenseite ihrer Lider, dann sinkt sie ins Dunkel hinab.

Einige Male schreckt sie in dieser Nacht noch auf, immer ist da eine kalte Hand, die nach ihr greift, da ist das Wimmern des Babys, ein Ohr an der Wand. An ihrem Brustkorb. Ihrem rasenden Herzen. Wenn Gott will. Sie sieht sich wieder in einem Rahmen aus Blättern stehen, sie dreht sich um und läuft in den Wald hinein, um sie herum tropft es und knackt, das sind Schritte, jemand ist hinter ihr her, sie spürt den Verfolger und wagt nicht, sich umzudrehen, sie läuft immer schneller und schneller. Sie hört sich keuchen. Und mit einem Mal rennt sie nicht mehr im Wald, sie rennt von Zimmer zu Zimmer, wo ist das Baby? Sie wühlt zwischen Kissen und findet es. Dort liegt es und brummt. Nackt. Mit diesen unwirklich dunklen Augen blickt es sie an. Klappt wie in Zeitlupe die Beine auseinander. Sie starrt auf die Innenseiten seiner Schenkel hinab, auf sein Geschlecht. Hautfalten, fleischige Blätter. Entsetzen macht sich in ihr breit, etwas stimmt nicht. Etwas ist falsch, etwas schmerzt. Was soll sie tun? Ihr fällt das Hausmittel ein, der Rat ihrer Mutter, eine Tube Creme immer für alle Fälle im Haus. Die Salbe ist zäh, sie muss kräftig reiben, um sie auf der Haut des Babys zu verteilen, sie reibt und reibt, immer mehr Salbe trägt sie auf, bis die Tube leer ist und das Geschlecht des Babys aussieht wie eine weiße, pelzige Frucht.

»Besser so?«, fragt sie, und das Baby, das sie die ganze Zeit über beobachtet hat, nickt.

Sie wacht mit dem Gefühl auf, etwas richtig gemacht zu haben. Sie weiß nicht, was, aber da ist eine schwere, warme Zufriedenheit in ihrem Körper. Sonnenlicht rieselt durch die Fensterläden auf die Bettdecke. Entfernt zwitschert ein Vogel. Sie schließt die Augen wieder, rekelt sich, dreht sich auf die Seite. Blinzelt und erblickt das schlafende Baby. Erschrickt. Sie hat ein Kind. Seit das Kind auf der Welt ist, hat es sie jeden Morgen geweckt. Schlagartig wird ihr klar, was anders ist, was das ruhige Gefühl zu bedeuten hat: Sie ist ausgeschlafen. Warum schläft das Baby noch, was ist geschehen? Sie greift nach ihrem Telefon auf dem Nachttisch, es ist neun Uhr. Sie dreht sich wieder zu ihrem Baby um, will es wecken, doch es hat die Augen schon aufgeschlagen und grinst sie zahnlos an. Als habe es sie ausgetrickst.

»Mistbiene!«, sie kitzelt das Baby, das Baby gluckst, und mit diesem Glucksen beginnt der Tag.

Ihr Kind vor den Bauch geschnallt, läuft sie ins Dorf hinunter. An Zäunen entlang, wilden Hecken. Hin und wieder, spaltbreit, ein Blick auf die Häuser dahinter. Verrammelt. Rollläden heruntergelassen, Fensterläden verriegelt. Plastikplanen über Gartenmobiliar. Auf den Plastikplanen Pfützen, überall steht das Wasser, in Blumenkübeln, Spielzeugeimern. Sie stellt sich die Häuser von innen vor, die Umrisse der Möbel in der Dunkelheit, kaltfeuchte Luft, die Spinnen in den Zimmerecken. Da knurrt es neben ihr, und in den Ritzen zwischen den Zaunlatten taucht ein Auge auf, eine Schnauze. Der Hund begleitet sie bis zum Ende seines Zauns, bellt, bleibt zurück. Das Baby ist in seiner Trage eingeschlafen, sie spürt seinen schweren Atem gegen ihren Bauch. Die Schritte den Berg hinab stoßen ihr in die Knie.

Der Dorfladen hat geschlossen. Ebenso der Fischhändler. Als sie auch bei dem Gemüsehändler vor verschlossener Tür steht, dämmert ihr, dass Sonntag ist. Sie läuft zum Hafen, dort liegen dieselben zwei Segelboote wie neulich vertäut, und auch hier sind die Rollläden heruntergelassen. Die Bürgersteige hochgeklappt, würde ihre Mutter sagen. Denkt sie und sieht, dass ein Laden offen hat, vor dem Café am anderen Ende der Promenade stehen Tische.

Das Glöckchen über der Tür klingelt, als sie eintritt. An einem Plastiktisch in der Ecke vier Männer mit Wollmützen, sie trinken Bier und spielen Karten. Zwei weitere sitzen am Tresen, einer steht dahinter. Alle sehen sie an. Sie versucht einen Gruß, doch die Laute des fremden Wortes geraten durcheinander in ihrem Mund. Ihr Lächeln wird nicht erwidert.

Sie steht in der Tür des Cafés und fragt sich, ob sie überhaupt schon Frauen gesehen hat in diesem Kaff.

Sie wird die Männer finsterer wirken lassen, wenn sie Mark davon erzählt, sich selbst und ihren gestammelten Gruß beflissener. Die Situation, wie sie beim Milchkaffee saß und das Baby zu brüllen anfing, wird sie Mark so schildern, dass sie komisch ist: In Zeitlupe blicken die bärbeißigen Männer von ihrem Kartenspiel auf. Das Baby lässt sich nicht beruhigen, und sie beschließt zu stillen, in aller Öffentlichkeit, in einem Land, mit dessen kulturellen Gepflogenheiten diesbezüglich sie nicht vertraut ist. Sie versucht, diskret zu sein, führt das Gesicht des Babys unter ihren Pullover an die Brust, nur dass das Baby nicht mit Pullover über dem Gesicht trinken will, das Baby schiebt den Pullover immer weiter hoch.

»Und ich sitze da mit nackter Brust!« Sie und Mark werden lachen, und nichts wird mehr zu spüren sein von der Scham, die durch ihren Körper geschossen ist.

»Ein Land, mit dessen kulturellen Gepflogenheiten diesbezüglich ich nicht vertraut bin«, sie sagt sich die Worte vor, als sie zum Haus zurückläuft, den Berg hinauf. Sie geht nun auf der anderen Seite der Straße, an dem Graben entlang, durch den eine Spur Müll führt. Autoreifen, Scherben von Fliesen, Joghurtbecher, Milchtüten. Das Baby ist wieder eingeschlafen. Sie schwitzt, lächelt beim Gedanken daran, wie sie sich selbst nachäffen wird, »und ich so«. Die Augen wird sie aufreißen, weiße Comicaugen im Schwarz der Nacht, so lag sie im Bett. Sie wird sich über ihren Traum lustig machen und Mark wird grinsen, ihre nächtlichen Phantasien sind ein unerschöpflicher Quell an Gesprächsstoff. »Du und deine Tatort-Träume«, sagt er. Immer geht es um verstümmelte Frauen, und nie wird der Täter gefunden. Darüber lachen sie gemeinsam am Morgen, lachen, bis der kleine kalte Horror in ihrem Magen sich aufgelöst hat. In welcher Serie war das noch, da haben sie einer Frau das Baby aus dem Bauch geschnitten, oder war das eine Reportage? Hat sie das Mark schon erzählt? Dass sie ständig daran denken muss? Das Messer vor sich sieht. Wie groß muss dieses Messer gewesen sein? Sie stellt sich vor, wie sie geschnitten haben, einmal außenrum oder mittendurch? Was ist mit den Eingeweiden, mit den ganzen Eingeweiden, wenn man den Bauch aufschneidet? Und was haben die mit der Frau gemacht, haben sie die einfach entsorgt, danach? Sie muss Mark erzählen, dass das ihre neueste Obsession ist, ständig muss sie daran denken, denn ihr selbst haben sie ja auch, wenn man so will, das Baby aus dem Bauch geschnitten.

»Und ich weiß auch nicht, warum ich immer an diese Reportage denken muss, es ging um Kriegsverbrechen, an viel kann ich mich nicht mehr erinnern, nur an die Bilder von den Frauenkörpern, die Leichen, mit Plastikplanen bedeckt.«

Mark wird den Kopf schief legen, wie er es immer tut, wenn sie redet und redet und keinen Punkt findet. Wenn sie keinen Punkt macht. Was willst du sagen? Und sie wird mit den Schultern zucken.

»Ich weiß nicht, ich denk eben ständig dran.«

»Auch im Urlaub?«

»Auch im Urlaub.«

»Dabei ist’s hier so schön.«

Mark wird sie in seine Arme schließen, er wird ein Bier getrunken haben nach der langen Autofahrt vom Flughafen zum Haus, er wird nach Alkohol riechen. Beute. Diese Frauen waren die Beute. Das Wort ein Echo in ihrem Kopf, Körper, in ihrem Wald. Das ist nicht ihr Wald. Das ist ihr Mann. Sie steht da, das Gesicht an seiner Brust, sie hat noch gar nicht angefangen zu erzählen, woran sie denkt. Woran sie nicht denkt. Weil sie es nicht weiß. Der Wald ihrer Großmutter. Ein Schrei zwischen den Bäumen. Echo. Beute. Mark wird ihren Scheitel küssen.

»Da schmeißt du jetzt aber ganz schön viel in einen Topf«, wird er sagen, und sie wird in sich hineinlachen, denn es ist ja alles in Ordnung, er ist wieder da.

»Stimmt«, wird sie sagen und sich aus der Umarmung befreien, sie wird die Fäuste in die Hüfte stemmen, »Maus!«, ihre Mutter nachahmen: »Maus, hast du das Pfefferspray eingepackt?«

Zwischen ausgewaschenen Küchenabfällen ein Schuh. Braun, Wildleder, mit keilförmigem Absatz. Während sie sich ausgemalt hat, was sie Mark wie erzählen wird, ist ihr Blick an der Müllspur im Graben entlanggeglitten, an dem Schuh bleibt er hängen. Als sie aufsieht, blickt sie in die Augen des Mannes. Klein sind sie, und tief. Er kommt ihr in der Mitte der Straße entgegen. Ist schon fast bei ihr, nun riecht sie ihn auch, stechend sein Schweiß. Die Haare fallen ihm ins Gesicht, er streicht sie aus der Stirn. Seine Hände sind schmutzig, er nickt, dann sind sie auch schon aneinander vorbeigegangen. Sein Grinsen hängt in der Luft, dieses Grinsen. Das Grinsen zum Strick. Ihre Hand landet auf dem Kopf des Babys vor ihrer Brust, sie spürt die Fontanelle, das Pochen unter der Haut. Sie dreht sich um, sieht, dass der Mann groß ist. Sie geht weiter, hört seine Schritte, denkt, er macht kehrt. Kommt ihr nach. Im Gehen dreht sie sich immer wieder nach ihm um, er steigt breitbeinig, wippend den Berg hinab, die Gestalt im fleckigen Parka wird immer kleiner.

Als sie sich das nächste Mal umdreht, ist er zwischen den Bäumen verschwunden, und das Baby erwacht, es stemmt sich in der Trage gegen ihren Bauch, reißt den Mund auf zum Schrei.

Den ganzen Nachmittag lang weint das Baby. Die Schreie gehen in Wellen durch seinen kleinen Körper, immer wenn sie denkt, nun verebben sie, verkrampft sich das Baby aufs Neue.

Sie massiert ihrem Kind den Bauch. Sie legt es an die Brust, doch es will nicht trinken, schlägt nach ihr. Sein Kopf ist knallrot, an seiner Schläfe tritt eine Ader hervor. Das Baby hat keinen Hunger, die Windel ist trocken und frisch, ihm ist nicht zu warm, nicht zu kalt. Wie es ihr die Hebamme beigebracht hat, geht sie verschiedene Ursachen durch. Das Baby hat sich nicht verletzt, das Baby hat alles, was es braucht, manchmal schreien Babys einfach. Sie steckt dem Kind den Schnuller in den Mund, das macht es schlimmer, das Baby spuckt den Schnuller aus und schreit noch lauter, strampelt wie wild. Um es zu bändigen, wickelt sie es schließlich in eine Decke, trägt das zuckende, weinende Bündel auf der Terrasse umher. Das Baby interessiert sich nicht für Kakteen, nicht für die Blümchen. Sein Schreien wird immer heiserer, schrill und kratzend bohrt es sich in ihren Schädel. Eine Möglichkeit hat die Hebamme nicht in Betracht gezogen: Was, wenn das Baby Angst hat? Wenn es ahnt, dass etwas nicht stimmt, Gefahr spürt? Ein Sirren auf ihrer Haut, kalter Schweiß. Ihre Nerven sind wie elektrisiert. Der Schuh im Graben. Wem gehört der Schuh? Warum liegt er da und wo ist der zweite? Wo die Frau, die ihn getragen hat? Sie geht auf der Terrasse auf und ab, irgendwann lässt die Spannung im Körper des Babys nach, die Schreie versiegen. Das Baby schläft auf ihrem Arm ein.

Sie sitzt mit ihrem Kind im Arm auf der Terrasse, bis die Vögel verstummen und die Sonne hinter den Bergen versinkt. Es ist still, nur ihr Magen knurrt. Sie sitzt dort und sieht sich dort sitzen. Sie macht kein Licht an, doch auch das wird nicht helfen, sie haben sich in die Augen gesehen. Er weiß, wo er sie findet. Es gibt kein Entkommen.

Sie trägt das Kind ins Haus, legt sich neben das Baby aufs Bett. Sie hält die Hand ihres schlafenden Babys und wartet. Ihre Augen comicweiß in der Dunkelheit. Ihr Herzschlag in ihren Ohren. Draußen ein Knacken. Da ist er, denkt sie, dann maunzt eine Katze. Ein Gluckern in der Wand, ein Windstoß im Baum, ihr Körper schlägt noch ein paarmal falschen Alarm. Irgendwann nickt sie ein.

Das Quietschen des Gartentors reißt sie aus dem Schlaf. Das ist er, eindeutig. Jeden Schritt kann sie hören, den Weg vom Tor zum Haus, zu ihr. Breitbeinig, wippend geht er ums Haus, er öffnet die Terrassentür. Sie hört seine Schritte aufs Schlafzimmer zu, und mit jedem Schritt zieht sich in ihrer Brust etwas enger zusammen, schnürt ihr die Luft ab. Gleich ist er da, er kommt sie holen, er kommt. Die Tür öffnet sich, sein Schatten im Raum, groß tritt er ans Bett, da ist auch seine Hand, seine schmutzige Hand auf ihrem Bein, fährt über ihren Knöchel, die Wade hinauf. Und sie, was bleibt ihr, sie schreit. Schreit, so laut sie nur kann.

Marks Stimme dringt erst zu ihr durch, als er das Licht anschaltet.

»Süße«, sagt Mark und legt die Hände um ihr Gesicht. »Süße, ist gut. Ich bin wieder da.«

© 2018 Hanser Berlin in der Carl Hanser Verlag GmbH & Co. KG, München

Translator’s Statement

This story is from an anthology of German stories entitled She Said: 17 Stories about Sex and Power, edited by Lina Muzur. Inspired by the “Me Too” movement, it includes seventeen stories by seventeen female authors, which depict various situations and perspectives from the lives of women.

“Thicket” is a response to the prevalence of stories and images of violated female bodies. The protagonist is alone with her new baby in a mostly deserted tourist village, leaving her emotionally fragile. Her child, whose gender is never disclosed, is a grounding presence, but is not sufficient to overcome the feeling of overwhelming isolation and she starts going berserk, seeing danger lurking everywhere. In order to heighten suspense, the story is chiefly in the present tense, with glimpses from the past breaking in and moments of terror flaring up.

 

Melody Winkle is a translator of German into English. In the past, she has been a piano teacher, a nanny, a librarian, and a web manager. She spent stints in Alaska and Berlin, but has been living in Seattle, Washington, for a long time. Mostly, she likes to read.

Julia Wolf was born in Germany in 1980. She studied American Studies, Latin American Studies, and German Philology at the Free University of Berlin. She now lives in Leipzig. Her debut novel “Alles ist jetzt” (Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt 2015) won the Kunstpreis der Lotto Brandenburg GmbH Award.The novel “Walter Nowak bleibt liegen” (Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt 2017) received a Nicolas-Born-Debütpreis recognition and made it onto the longlist of nominations for the German Book Prize 2017. She has also received the Robert-Gernhard-Preis from the state of Hessen for the manuscript “Alte Mädchen”, her novel in progress.

The Jesus Christ of Henworth High

[fiction]

My name is Charlie Heron, and I am Jesus Christ.

*     *     *

Of course, you can’t possibly think that I’m telling the truth. Probably think I’m a tweaker or a schizo. But I mean, you can think what you want—I won’t judge. I’m Jesus, remember?

It’s the first day of my senior year at Henworth High, and I’m dressed in my usual garb—my long white robe. It isn’t as white as it used to be, more like an off-white-gray. It has definitely gotten dirtier over its everyday wear and tear, but I did collect a lot of patches on it. I put patches on my robe for every church I go to. I have a couple Catholic patches: Pope Francis and the Vatican. I have some Mormon temples and prophets. Got some Baptist crosses and doves and whatnot. My patch collection is growing; pretty soon my robe’s gonna be more patch than white. Besides, those patches really bring out my Rainbow sandals—they were the closest “Jesus-looking” sandals I could find without busting my bank. I also grew out my hair and facial hair as long as I could, this summer, to really sell it. Of course my facial hair looks like a bunch of straggly pubes. Does Jesus shave his pubes? I’ll Google it later. Point is, it’s senior year, and I gotta be the best Jesus I can be. And soon, I’m going to have to choose my successor. Someone has to be Jesus once I graduate.

I feel like, as Jesus, I automatically know everything. I’m one of the more radicalized Jesuses. I specialize mostly in parodying the man, but I respect his powers. His powers are what made him popular after all.

“Excuse me, uh, sir, we’re all out of sausage, do you want bacon instead?”

Totally forget I was at Denny’s. Dad and I used to come here every morning before my first day of school. I just sorta kept the tradition going, I guess.

“Bacon’s fine.”

Shit, look at the time. I hope she hurries up with my food. Jesus has places to be, people to bless. While I sit and wait, I take out my small, slightly waterlogged pocket Bible. It has a red cover with an inscription on the inside in gel pen: God only exists on Sundays. Sometimes I pretend to flip through it. I feel like, as Jesus, I automatically know everything. I’m one of the more radicalized Jesuses. I specialize mostly in parodying the man, but I respect his powers. His powers are what made him popular after all.

No one really got onto the Jesus train until my sophomore year. Freshmen year, everyone made fun of me and thought I was autistic or just mentally insane, but I stuck with my schtick. I wanted to be popular. Only by becoming popular would I be worth something. But I think that my idea of a worthy life is one that has grace to it—a life to create something weird and dark that makes people uncomfortable; that pushes me and everyone around me outside of it all. My life should be graceful, but I should not.

My dad was never graceful. He was a ruff n’ tough sort of guy who loved fishing more than anything. He also loved that I pretended to be Jesus. He thought it was the funniest thing.

He would buy me more patches if he found any.

*     *     *

The waitress was able to get me my food, but right as I was working on that last piece of bacon, the bus pulled up outside. I scrambled out of my seat and threw a crumpled ten-dollar spot on the table. Running in Rainbows isn’t that easy. I was about to cross the street, when I tripped up on the end of my robe and stumbled backwards. The bus roared away, unforgivingly, and I stood in the street, trying to figure out how the hell to get to school.

“Oi, Jesus!”

A call came from a big truck that pulled up next to me on the side of the road. It was none other than Miles Humann. Thick, luscious, junior-class hockey star, Miles Humann. Lord give me strength. You’d think with a name like that he’d act more human. But he’s animalistic. And I fucking love it.

“What do you want Miles?” I asked grudgingly, looking up at him as I adjusted my robe.

Miles let out a snicker and turned down his ungodly music, “Thought I’d stop and help a beggar.”

“You know damn well I’m Jesus.”

The overcompensation truck let out a roar from its engine and Miles swung open the door. “Come on,” he beckoned, continuing to push on the acceleration. “Let me take you for a ride.”

Humann does have a certain charm that I can’t resist. I climbed into the truck and we roared away. He turned up the knob on the radio:

“Can Jesus listen to rap?”

I shrugged and turned it up. “Jesus accepts the music of the world as good.”

Miles let out a deep laugh and we sped through the streets toward school. He began to rap along with the lyrics and turned to look at me during the red lights:

“Bow, get the fuck though, I don’t bluff, bro

Aimin’ at your head like a buffalo

You a roughneck, I’m a cutthroat

You’re a tough guy, that’s enough jokes.”

As a solid Christian man, I do not know how to bop along to these beats, but I tried anyway. I turned and smiled at Miles, bouncing my head to the music. But as I stared at him, I kept noticing the way his lips moved to the rap lyrics. God, he was making so many mistakes. I was a school-year above him, but he looked way older than me, and my god-graced body didn’t care. It liked it. It liked it a little too much. And my body reacted way harder than I expected. Humann pulled up at the school and we stepped out of his big ass truck together. I wanted to thank him for the ride, but I felt embarrassed to even look at him anymore.

He knows Jesus loves him.

*     *     *

Everyone began clapping and hollering as I glided down the hallways in my white robe and brown Rainbows.

“He has risen, bitches!” I yelled and my patrons went wild.

The school day dragged on, and it wasn’t until my Disciples gathered around me at lunchtime that I was itching to spill the news about my ride with Miles. Like the Original Jesus, I have twelve Disciples. I collected and groomed them throughout my four years of high school, and there was a high-intensity competition to see who got one of the twelve spots. Many applied, mostly to gain the popularity and the best seats at lunch. The first Disciple I chose was my good friend Jude Johns. Out of all my Disciples, I think Jude works harder than the rest. He tries to make a good connection with me, rather than just use me for my popularity, which is valuable in a Disciple.

My second-man in command, Jude Johns, whispered fervently in my ear as I passed around my Costco box of Uncrustables so each Disciple could have a sandwich.

“Your mum giving you a hard time lately?”

Once everyone received his sandwich, I picked mine up and took a big chunk out of it.

“Yeah, I don’t think she’ll ever let up.”

Jude synchronized his bites with mine. “That sucks, dude. But, hey, I heard Humann gave you a ride to school today!”

The boys continued to mingle and gossip about the latest stooges and jesters, but Jude and I have always had a stronger bond and better conversations. I took too big of a gulp of my sandwich and started to cough to push it down. “I—um,” I started, before breaking it up with coughs. “I got a boner in his truck.”

Jude slapped his hand on the table. “What?!”

His loud response triggered a chain reaction from the rest of the Disciples, and everyone started up at me, waiting for their lord and savior to speak.

“Yes, my Disciples,” I began, outstretching my legs and grabbing my package. “Jesus is well endowed.”

My Disciples cheered and I grinned back, fighting the urge to scream out for Miles. But I knew he was straight. Everyone did. But he wasn’t a dick about it. He’s known I’ve had a crush on him for the longest time. But he’s not a dick about it.

After school, I decided to take the bus home. I didn’t want to run into Miles again, because I was afraid that he noticed my boner from earlier. The bus driver let me on without having to scan my ID, and my schoolmates gave me the very back seat all to myself. The bus ride was bouncy, and the chipped fake brown leather on the bus seat rubbed against my robe in the most uncomfortable way. The bus dropped me off at home and I went inside and collapsed on the couch, opening up a can of Diet Mountain Dew.

“Charlie,” my mom’s voice was sharp and cold as she entered into the living room. “You have to quit this stupid act of yours.”

I wonder which friend of my mom’s saw me this time. I mumbled as quietly as I could, “It’s not an act.”

Mom began to raise her voice, as she ripped the soda can from my hand, spilling it all over my robe, “Don’t push it.”

I sat silently on the couch, feeling the residue of the Dew begin to stick up my fingers.

My mom stood overhead, overshadowing me with her bland, grayish figure.

“Dad didn’t care,” I told her, looking up at the shadow above.

“Your dad’s dead.”

As soon as she said that, I knew this conversation would go nowhere. I stood up to leave and as I began to walk past my mom, she gripped me hard by the shoulder.

“Go change.”

Refusing to look her in the eye, I made my way down the hall and slammed my door shut. I rustled through my closet to find my dad’s old pajama pants. I scrunched them up in a ball and held the bundle of cloth to my nose. I hadn’t washed them since he wore them. They still smell like honey-roasted peanuts. And both pockets still have the deep holes in them from the time he forgot to take out his fishing lures. Mom has been a real cunt since dad died. She blames everything on me. Because I was so “sacrilegious,” God made dad die in some freak fishing accident. There are days when it gets to me, like today. I can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, it really is my fault.

I climbed in the back of the truck bed and curled up into a ball, gripping my knees tightly to my chest and praying to God that I wasn’t going to get crucified today.

The rest of the night brought me down into a continuous spiral of guilt. It got to the point where I couldn’t stomach it anymore and I went downstairs to the basement. There were stacks and stacks of Mountain Dew cases, all different flavors, piled up on top of each other in the corner. My dad used to drink five a day. I drink it now, but I add something else to it. Behind the cases of Mountain Dew, I dragged out an opened brown box that was full of quilted blankets and musty-smelling stuffed animals. After digging through the box, I found my bottle of vodka wrapped inside a poorly made Hot Wheels quilt my dad made. Instantly, I chugged half a can of Mountain Dew and poured vodka into the rest of the can. After about two Dew-vodkas, I already started to feel inebriated.

I went back into my room and locked the door, pushing my dresser in front of it, so my mom wouldn’t burst through. My phone lit up in my hands as I scrolled my way through Instagram, looking at all of Miles’ pictures. He’s only a junior this year, and he has an average of 200 likes per photo. ​That ​is popularity.

Before I continued my deep dive of Humann’s pictures for the fifth time this year, I went over to my dresser and pulled out a tube of lotion. I collapsed sloppily back onto my bed, feeling the room and the lights dance around my mind like a concert.

One hand kept scrolling, as the other lubed up my other hand, and I started masturbating.

This Jesus doesn’t have a Virgin Mary. This Jesus doesn’t want one. This one wants Miles Humann. Miles Humann was so fucking hot. My heart started thumping wildly and then my drunk ass got a terribly great idea. I turned my phone on its camera and began to record myself.

“This is what I want to put in you Miles,” I breathed heavily, smelling remnants of Mountain Dew Code Red and cheap vodka.

I showed off my dick on my phone’s camera. I showed it erect, naked, and big in my hand. And I kept filming.

“Miles Humann,” I moaned, biting my lip and rubbing my cock up and down, faster and harder. “Fuck—,” I paused and came on camera. “—me,” I finished.

The next thing I knew, I was asleep. When I woke up the next morning, I felt as if I had been pummeled in the head. A searing migraine and nausea crept up within me. My eyes looked down to see my butt-naked ass and dry, crusted-over cum all over my sheets. I vaguely remembered filming a video of myself, but that was it.

Despite my mom hating my Jesus attire and attitude, I continued to do it. I dressed back up in my robe and Rainbows and headed to school. The day was normal enough. Unfortunately, I only saw Miles once in the hallway, but he smiled and waved at me like he usually does. At lunch, Jude sat down next to me as per usual and I admitted my sinful, drunken mistake.

“NO WAY?!” Jude exclaimed, looking me up and down, as if I would do it again, right here, right now.

I let out a slow release of air. “I was drunk, my Disciple. Drunk and in love.”

We talked for a couple minutes about my masturbation video, and how I wanted to delete it but didn’t at the same time. And then, right before lunch was over, Jude asked me the strangest question:

“After you graduate this year, can I be the next Jesus?”

I looked my friend dead in the eye. “You can’t just be​ Jesus, Jude. You gotta be picked by God to be Jesus.”

Jude’s facial expression made me realize I had pissed him off.

“Come off it,” he bugged. “You don’t believe that you’re actually—”

I stood up and walked away from him. I didn’t feel like dealing with Jude’s outrageous question. All I wanted right now was to go home and watch a soap opera with my dad. But he’s gone. He’s gone and maybe my mom’s righ—

“Jesus Christ, is that you?” Miles ran over towards me, interrupting my own train of thought.

I could only manage to give him a weak smile this time.

Miles seemed to notice my change in pace. “Why aren’t you sitting with your Disciples, my Lord?”

“Jude has betrayed me.”

Humann began to laugh and shook me playfully by the shoulders. “Hahahaha, goddamn, Jesus, even I saw that coming.”

He left his hands on my shoulders for a second and I immediately felt okay again.

“Miles,” I began, trying to sound more confident than I seemed. “Can you come with me to the lake today?”

My question definitely changed Miles’ nature into one that was more serious and stoic.

He knew that’s where my dad died.

Humann gave me a nod and whispered, “Meet me after school. We’ll go together.”

We parted ways and I started to walk towards my fifth period class. As soon as I sat down in calculus, I became overwhelmed with a gut-wrenching feeling. I didn’t have Miles’ number. Where would I meet him? What if he thinks we’re meeting in one place, but it’s the wrong one? What if he forgets? Leaves?

I pulled out my phone and hid it underneath my notebook in class. Jude tapped me on the back; he happened to sit behind me in calc.

“Hey,” he whispered, pulling his body more forward so I could hear. “Sorry about lunch.”

But my mind had long forgotten about Jude’s lunch scandal. Now, it was focused on getting Miles’ number. I didn’t respond to Jude’s apology, but stared anxiously at my phone.

“You alright?” Jude asked, obviously aware that I seemed out of it.

I shook my head at him and tilted my head back, “M-miles and I are going somewhere after school and I forgot to get his number.”

Jude gave me a blank stare for a couple of seconds and then replied, “I have it.”

My heart leapt and I immediately handed Jude my phone.

“Do you want me to text him for you?” Jude asked, taking a much longer time with my phone than I wanted him to.

“Okay, give it back now,” I said sternly.

But Jude’s fingers kept typing away.

“Give it back!”

I sharply ordered him once again, and he handed my phone back. But as he did, I heard the whoosh of the text message sound. Jude had sent something. Frantically, I pulled up the message. The contact name just said “Miles” and the first message was the video. My hand-job video.

As loudly as I could, I yelled, “What the fuck?”

Usually as Jesus, I would forgive and forget. But not this. Never this. I stood up and tipped my desk over, swinging my fist at Jude, who barely tucked his head away. The teacher instantly got involved and pulled me off of him and nearly had to drag me away, as I screamed and yelled, tears burning down my face:

“I fucking hate you! I FUCKING HATE YOU!”

The teacher led me to the principal’s office, and I stood outside its doors, heaving heavily, feeling the urge to punch through the wall and kick Jude in the balls. How could he do this to me? Just because I wouldn’t let him be the next Jesus? Had this been his plan all along—to pretend to be such a good friend, just so he could become the next Savior? As I thought more and more about it, the angrier I got. I checked my phone and saw that the message had been sent, but there had been no reply. Jude Johns was the fucking devil.

I gave up waiting for the principal and I ran down the hallway, my Rainbows clacking hard against the shiny tiles. I swung open the double doors to the school and hurried down the steps. Right before I could leave the parking lot, I saw Miles’s big truck parked right up front. I thought about hiding in the truck bed, just waiting until he came out so I could explain to him how sorry I was. I didn’t know if that would be a good idea or a terrible one. So I did it anyway. I climbed in the back of the truck bed and curled up into a ball, gripping my knees tightly to my chest and praying to God that I wasn’t going to get crucified today.

When the final bell rang, my body felt paralyzed. I was completely frozen in fear. I checked my phone and there still had been no response to the awful video. He had to have opened it though. There’s no way he didn’t.

I heard Humann’s voice approaching the truck and I slowly sat up.

“Whoa,” he yelled, backing up, “Christ, what the hell?”

My eyes started pouring out tears and Miles jumped up into the truck bed.

“Hey, hey, hey,” he soothed, putting his hand on my shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

It took a while for me to reply to him, “J-Jude sent you, um…, this video of me, and I’m so sorry. You were never meant to see that.”

Humann fished his phone out of his pocket and handed it over to me.

“The passcode is 7743.”

I put in his passcode and the phone unlocked.

“I haven’t looked at my messages since lunch,” he told me quietly. “Go ahead and delete whatever it was he sent.”

Without much thinking on my part, I threw my arms around him, hugging him tightly to my chest, crying to him words of gratitude. But when I opened up his messages, I didn’t see anything from my number. No recent texts either.

I gave him back his phone. “I guess it didn’t send,” I quietly whispered in unbelief. “I swear I thought it did.”

Miles shrugged and hopped out of the truck.

“By God’s good grace!” He shouted and lifted me out of the truck bed.

We grinned at each other and got into his truck. Humann and I drove with the windows down towards the lake, listening to the wind and the bugs near the water as we got closer and closer. Miles didn’t put on music for this ride. He knew I wanted it silent. Once we parked, we got out and stood by the shoreline. We were quiet.

I looked back out at the lake my dad drowned in. The water was brown and ugly. People tossed their old McDonald’s Big Mac wrappers into it. No one is allowed to swim here, but you can fish. My dad fished here, but nobody likes this lake.

I stood and looked out. A dead fish floated on top of the brown water. It was one of those common silver ones that fishermen throw back. I watched as the water rippled under the fish, not caring if it pushed it one way or the other. The fish was gonna dip down eventually. My Rainbows started to sink into the gravelly sand, with the water dangerously approaching the bare tips of my toes. A couple gnats spritzed past my head and one tickled at the edge of my nose. Miles came up to me and offered me a cigarette. He pulled out his lighter and lit it. I could feel the extreme warmth of the tobacco as it pressed up against my lips. This was what I needed—to be here—with Miles—with my dad.

Suddenly, my phone began to buzz. It was an incoming phone call, but it was coming from Miles? I looked down at it with a confused expression and showed it to Humann. He reached in his pocket and took out his phone, but no call came up.

Now I was really confused. Did Jude put in the wrong number?

Whose number did he put in?

My heart skipped a beat.

Whose number did he put in?

I answered the call.

My mom’s voice echoed out, cold and maliced, “Come home.”

I wasn’t sure if I should leave or wait. Wait for what—I don’t know. To be sure maybe?

Maybe she didn’t watch it? My fingers began to twitch. I didn’t know what to do. Jude put Miles’s name in place of my mom’s name. He edited my mom’s contact information and changed it to say “Miles.” She saw the fucking video. She saw the fucking video. Today’s the day I’m getting crucified. I’ll be dead for three days. Maybe she’ll beat me. Mom’s never beaten me before, but she just might start. She didn’t know I was gay, at least I didn’t think she did. Now besides pretending to be Jesus, she’s going to chew me out for being gay too.

I didn’t know how to respond to her; I could hear her breathing on the other line.

“Mom, I—”

The line cut off.

Miles turned and looked at me, his face white, the tips of his ears red.

I looked back out at the lake my dad drowned in. The water was brown and ugly. People tossed their old McDonald’s Big Mac wrappers into it. No one is allowed to swim here, but you can fish. My dad fished here, but nobody likes this lake. Nobody really comes here anymore. It used to be better; at least that’s what dad told me. I remember when they pulled him out of the water. His eyes were squirmy. They knew things that I didn’t want to fucking know. I didn’t want to know those stupid fucking things. My hand dipped into the gravel and I chucked a rock out into the brown stagnant water. It bubbled and sank. Bubbled and sank. Just like him.

My mom waited up for me to come home. Miles drove me to the grocery store to pick up some flowers for her and some beer for me. Miles had a fake ID, which came in handy. When Humann dropped me off at my front door, I turned to look at him.

“It’s you.”

Miles’s eyes blinked with a hint of fear. “W-what do you mean?”

I smiled up at him. “After I graduate, you’re gonna be the next Jesus Christ of Henworth High.”

Humann looked shocked but in a good way. I don’t think he was expecting that response to, “It’s you.”

My friend Miles stuck out his hand for me to shake and he pulled me into a hug.

We sat there for a while with the engine running, holding each other.

“I’ll pray for you,” he whispered, before letting go of me.

I got out of the car and gave him a final wave. “I’ll pray for you too.”

And I began to make my way inside, walking directly towards my inevitable cross.

 

Christina Paries currently lives in Salt Lake City, UT, with her girlfriend, and works as a preschool teacher. She recently graduated from Utah Valley University with a BS in English with a creative writing emphasis. This piece is influenced by contemporary LGBTQ+ issues, which have been explored throughout her other works. Her background in teaching middle and high school students has led her to write for a young adult audience.

Not Your Color

I am not a girl who is pretty in all seasons.
With the russet of fall painted on my mouth
the scar across my face (climbing from the lip)
Splits the silence with a noise less like Mozart,
Closer to clanging;
Rock metal, metal and rocks.

Winter blues recall the time,
Drowning in surgery, waves of wire
The blood didn’t beat strong enough to bat back the tide
of the specter of grief cast on a child struggling to grow a face
acceptable to Polite Society
Nursing a lifelong fear of the sea.

In the peach blush of spring, here I am Alive.
Flowers bloom open-lipped
And no picnicker cares if a cleave in the petals
Reveals bees too far apart, whisper-whistling.
Too focused on flitting licks of honey,
Brief inevitabilities; flirted dreams.

In summer, it is Ivy.
Roasted skin pock-marked in daylight damages
Remade, remarked as Cute, Youthful,
Have hidden away the red thread, a stuck floss.
And those sweetly glinting late-night sunsets
Draw all eyes, momentarily, to greater climbs of color. Mottled, Perfect.

Then the dark. The sky glittering freckles.

 

Madison J. Salters has been published internationally in outlets including Armstrong Literary Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, HuffPost, United Nations Press, TripAdvisor World Guides, The Untitled Magazine, Wanderlust, and more. She is editor-in-chief at The Toolbox, nonfiction editor at Ruminate, and fiction editor at Ragazine.CC. Named the 2019 Uncomfortable Revolution Writing Fellow, a UNESCO Ambassador of Cross-Cultural Dialogue, and a “Wunderkind” by Westchester Magazine, she also serves as a JOLT and Speakizi lecturer on storytelling. She helped translate the documentary “Queer Japan,” and her first play, An Infinite Resignedness, was produced in Paris in 2018.

On the Importance of Young Adult Fiction

I only have five minutes to make my flight. I rush to the gate, slip into my cramped seat, still breathing hard from the mad dash to the gate. I pull out my journal to write. Writing settles my nerves. It’s my safe haven. It’s my security blanket.

The well-meaning stranger next to me spots me writing in my journal. After a moment, this innocent question slips from their lips.

“What’re you writing?”

“Actually, I’m a published author,” I say, having performed this song and dance a million times before. “I’m always writing. Being an author is like always having homework.”

Cue the awkward chuckle. Now they’re interested. I have their full attention.

“What kind of books do you write?”

“Young adult science fiction mostly. I have a trilogy out.”

“Sounds fun.” But then they frown. “So, when’re you gonna write a real book?”

By real book they mean a book for adults.

Ask any kid lit author, and they’ll probably have a similar story. The details vary, of course. Sitting next to a stranger on a plane. Chatting at a cocktail party. In line for coffee at Starbucks. A stranger asks what you do for a living. You babble off something about writing young adult books. They chuckle at first. Maybe they admit that they’ve read one or two, like a dirty confession. But then their judgement comes out in the form of that innocent-sounding question coated in their own pre-conceptions. Here’s what they’re really thinking.

Grow up. Write a real book.

 

There’s a reason why youth movements often are the ones that seek change in our world. It’s a special time in life when a person is willing to question the current society and even topple the system.

 

Of course, there are a million reasons why that question speaks to their own ignorance. Kid lit books are real books. As real as any books in this world. But it also speaks to how our society—a.k.a. the adults in positions of power—often seeks to dismiss and minimize the youth experience. Mark my words; they do this at their own peril.

There is no more important task in our current world that writing for young adults. I also write middle grade fiction for Disney Publishing and believe that this task is equally vital.

In my humble opinion, kid lit is the most exciting arena in publishing. Authors in our midst are tackling hard-hitting political issues and expanding the reaches of diversity and representation in fiction. We’ve broken a lot of ground through movements like #OwnVoices, though I should note we still have a great distance left to travel. We’re pushing boundaries. Of course, many adult readers have crossed over to the dark side, lured by the temptation of gateway kid lit books that crossover to the mainstream like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, or Twilight.

Mostly, I inhabit the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres, but don’t get distracted by the bells and whistles of space ships and advanced technology. My book The 13th Continuum grapples with highly topical and socially-relevant issues such as environmental destruction, totalitarian regimes, religious persecution, discrimination, the rich/poor gap, and more. My fiction employs the allegorical lens to examine contemporary problems.

My upcoming fiction leans heavily into LGBTQ+ and other issues, including my original graphic novels Spectre Deep 6 and 200 coming in 2020, while maintaining the fun surface veneer of space battles and ghost soldiers and future landscapes. For example, my short story Let Me In deals with topical immigration and other issues by reframing it in the context of humans seeking asylum on an alien world. This changes it from a story where people have already chosen their sides in our current political spectrum to one where all humans—regardless of their nationality, skin color, sexual orientation, etc.—are at risk and need help to survive the coming maelstrom brought by climate change (this is also Cli-Fi).

 

Art and literature become more important during times of repressive regimes. This is the best tool we have to question the world and what’s happening right in front of our eyes, to speak to young people, and inspire them to make it better.

 

There’s a reason why youth movements often are the ones that seek change in our world. It’s a special time in life when a person is willing to question the current society and even topple the system. This is specifically why it’s so exciting to write teen protagonists into my stories. They haven’t bought into the system yet; they’re willing to risk everything to change it.

Even so, I hear all the time predictions of doom and gloom. Kid lit is overrated. The bubble is going to burst. But I believe we’re only at the beginning. Young adult fiction isn’t going anywhere. If anything, it’s expanding exponentially as we incorporate underrepresented voices and stories that are too seldom told. Our readers need our stories; this world needs our stories, now more than ever. Art and literature become more important during times of repressive regimes. This is the best tool we have to question the world and what’s happening right in front of our eyes, to speak directly to young people, and inspire them to make it better.

Our fate lies in their hands. Don’t underestimate them—or those of us who write for them. They are the future. And maybe pick up a book from the young adult section if you haven’t recently. You just might get swept away and learn something important, too.

Of course, there are also stories that defy the expectations. When I first met Jim Shepard, the famed novelist and short fiction writer who also teaches creative writing at Williams College, he asked about my debut novel that I’d just sold to a publisher. I should note that Jim is everything that I’m not. He writes literary fiction, most of it for (fancy) adults. He was teaching at the program where I was workshopping. His prowess as a teacher preceded him. I was also one of the lone children’s lit writers that had been accepted, not to mention genre fiction, too.

“So, what’s your book about,” Jim asked over our lunch plates.

“Oh, it’s young adult and science fiction. You probably wouldn’t be interested.”

“No, I’d really like to hear about it,” he insisted and then listened attentively while I explained my epic sci-fi story about the surface of the Earth being destroyed and humans having to live in different colonies located underwater, underground, and in outer space.

Silence ensued once I’d finished my spiel.

“So, what you’re saying is,” he said with a glint of humor in his eyes. “You might actually make money off your book, unlike the rest of us.”

Laughter engulfed the table.

I can’t say I’ve hit the jackpot (yet). But I appreciated his interest. And I’ll keep writing for young adults, no matter what happens. I might even toss some space pirates into my next book.

 

Jennifer Brody is the award-winning author of The Continuum Trilogy and the forthcoming original graphic novels Spectre Deep 6 (February 2020) and 200 (Fall 2020). Her graphic novels sold in a six-book deal and will be built into trilogies, illustrated by Jules Rivera. Her debut novel The 13th Continuum won the Gold Medal from the Independent Publisher’s Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards and is being packaged for TV. Return of the Continuums and The United Continuums complete her trilogy. Translation rights sold in multiple territories, most notably Russia and China. She is also a graduate of Harvard University and a creative writing instructor at the Writing Pad. She lives and writes in LA, where she’s hard at work on her next book.

Saturn’s Return

The February I am twenty-six, on the day before I’m supposed to fly to Portland to rent a house, I come down with the most brutal and short-lived flu I’ve ever had. My body aches so badly, I can’t move. When I say this, I don’t just mean that it hurts to move—I worry, when I’m describing pain, even just to myself, that I’m being melodramatic, hyperbolic.

Tonight, I’m frozen by it.

After my first breakup, I was unable to drive on the street where he worked, to eat, to sleep in my own bed at night. Eventually, a little scared of myself, I went to see a husband and wife who practiced Santeria. It made as much sense as anything.

They had a little storefront at a strip mall in Albuquerque, filled with Guadalupe candles, milagros, and Tarot decks. They reminded me of kindly abuelos, until the husband told me that all my suffering stemmed from a spell that had been cast on my mother, that it had been passed on to me.

He told me that he could break the spell if I participated in a cleansing ritual involving a rooster. The cuandero would transfer the black magic into the rooster, and I would be freed. He saw me hesitate, took my hand, and asked me if I was suicidal. I told him I wasn’t, which was true.

“You will be,” he said. “Soon.” Shaken, I scheduled the ritual, but the day of, I chickened out, so to speak, canceled on his voicemail. A few years later, the woman I thought of as a second mother told me that she’d gone to see the couple after a run of bad luck, that he’d given her a similar warning about spells and suicide, recommended the rooster ritual. She went through with it.

“I saw that rooster die,” she told me. She thought maybe the santero had poisoned it, but she couldn’t say for sure.

My mother stops by, briefly, with supplies (she is, as I knew she would be, annoyed by the request), leaves water on the carpet beside my bed. I have to call her an hour later to come back, because by then I am unable to reach down and get it. She’s so good at sighing right into the phone.

It’s terrifying, lying alone in my two-story house, realizing that I physically cannot extend myself enough to pick up a glass, but somewhat gratifying at the same time. I appreciate symptoms I can quantify, point to them again and again: this is how it happened, here’s the proof, it was real.

The first few months in Portland were lonely, miserable. I made an appointment with a tarot card reader in Kenton: she had only five-star reviews on Yelp. I knew I wouldn’t fully believe anything she told me, but I reasoned that she’d have at least one positive prediction, and that this would give me something to hope for. Instead, Miss Renée told me that I was only at the beginning of a years-long struggle. She said that it would be a period of change and growth, but the benefits of these changes would not be apparent until they were complete. I’d be all movement, but it would feel like I was standing still.

“Let me put it this way,” she said. “If a woman is in labor, how many other things do you expect her to be doing?”

My temperature eventually shoots above 103, and my mother calls a friend, a doctor, to ask her what to do.

“Pile on the blankets,” the doctor says. “As many as she can stand.”

My mom asks shouldn’t I take something to bring the fever down instead?

“No,” she says. “Her body needs to fight through it.”

Whenever I tell this story, I mention how that night I’d soaked through two sets of sheets, as though I’d wet the bed. I think this detail makes the whole thing more believable.

The day before my abortion, my therapist advised me not to take the full dose of Ativan they would offer me.

“I worry,” she said, “That feeling removed from your body during the procedure would be more triggering than the pain.” She thought that this could actually be an opportunity for healing.

I followed her advice, skipped the second pill. It took less than ten minutes: three sharp pulls. My boyfriend stood to the right of me, the volunteer to the left; her job, she explained, was to hold my hand and tell me I was doing great. He performed his role not quite as well, too wrapped up in his guilt over my pain. The whole time we were together, I tried and failed to hide it.

I’d start squeezing both their hands before each pull; the doctor warned me when they were coming, every time.

A year later, I would be asked to share my Planned Parenthood story. I wrote about how I’ve rarely felt so cared for and so safe.

Before she leaves for the night, my mom calls upstairs: do I want her to lock the door behind her, and in my fried egg-brain, I tell her to leave it open. I’ll never know why she listened to me, or why she asked at all.

We split up not long after the abortion. I realized I’d rather be heartbroken and alone than pretend that I wasn’t. Our short relationship seemed pointlessly painful, so I went back to Miss Renée to ask what I was meant to learn from in falling in love with someone who stopped loving me the second he felt needed.

“All of it was about his karma, not yours,” she said. “This relationship had nothing to do with you.”

I imagine that people who never go to psychics don’t know how mean they can be.

My mom’s never been much of a nurturer. After she left my dad, she became more attached to her job; less, I felt, to me. Now I realize this was more a reflection of how precarious our financial situation was, the danger of unemployment. I think she was terrified that she wouldn’t be able to support us on her own.

I hated how she always refused to come pick me up when I called her from the nurse’s office, where I spent so many hours lying on that grey vinyl cot with the paper-covered pillow. She never stayed home with me when I was sick either, though, to be fair, I claimed to be sick pretty often.

When I was younger, I would periodically be up all night, nauseous, sobbing, until I finally threw up. One doctor finally diagnosed these as stomach migraines, though no one was ever able to find a cause. They stopped around seventh grade, but I continued to use them as an excuse to miss class through high school.

Many years later, I found an article about how chronic stomach problems can be a way for children to manifest hidden pain. My memories are rarely visual, but I remember sitting at the computer reading that explanation, alone, the house quiet, how the background of the survivor website was inexplicably mauve, that the dogs were napping on the guest bed, and the sunlight was split against tiles.

After I moved back home, I began to see an acupuncturist who told me my body still thought that it was pregnant. In our first session, I gave him the bullet points of my history: when it started, when it was stopped, what I remember. I’ve become good at doing this quickly, at striking a balance of being precise with the more upsetting details without lingering in them. I don’t get emotional, but I try not to sound too clinical either, like I understand the weight of my story, but I’m no longer crushed by it. He told me that they were fucking assholes. I liked hearing his anger.

The D.O.M. put needles in my toes, at the corners of my eyes, and through my underwear, connecting them with a gold silk ion cord. I’d lie on his table, almost naked beneath the white sheet, feeling increasingly nauseous but safe. He’d stand at my feet, speak rapidly in his beautiful British accent about archetypes and mythology, about how I had been trapped as Sleeping Beauty, how it was time to embrace my own wounded inner child. He wanted me to tell her:

I’m so sorry that this happened to you, but I’m here now, and it’s going to be okay.

Sometime in the middle of the night, I hear footsteps coming up the stairs. At first, I pull them into my fever dreams: maybe it’s my mom, or my ex, or my friend Sumitra, already here to drive me to the airport. Suddenly, I am fully awake; I realize that it is still black outside and in my room, that the footsteps are real, and that I am paralyzed and alone in the master bedroom of my two-story house.

“Hello?” I call from under the damp sheets. The footsteps stop.

“Hello?” comes a man’s voice.

“Hello?” I don’t know what else to say.

“I think I’ve got the wrong house,” says the man.

“Yes,” I say.

“I’m leaving now.”

“Yes,” I say.

I hear him go, and I fall back asleep. When I wake up two hours later, my fever has broken. My sheets, still wet, are cold.

Once I was at a sitting by a bonfire, telling someone the story of when the man walked up my stairs. Another guy heard us talking, interrupted me to ask, deadpan:

“Is this when you get raped?” The best punchlines are surprising, yet expected.

There’s an energy worker in Santa Fe who has, at times, almost a year-long waiting list: people say that he performs miracles, though they are unable to explain what it is he does. He charges $120 per visit and doesn’t take insurance, but he won’t see anyone more than three times. If his methods haven’t worked by then, he can’t help you.

I finally made it off the list before I moved away again. I saw him twice. He had me sit straight in a chair facing away from him, repeatedly and aloud asked my heart about its relationship with the electromagnetic field of the sun. He held a vibrating instrument on my lower back. It made my skin tickle until it itched, until I couldn’t stand it. He would knock, with his fists, around my body, call to it:

“Amelia’s left ventricle! Amelia’s left ventricle!”

On the second visit, I lay on his table as he knocked and knocked against my back, and I felt a tremendous pressure building and building, my cheek pressed against the cool white sheet. Finally, something inside of me shifted, broke, and I gasped. He sat down in the chair beside me and was quiet for a long time.

“He hurt you so badly,” he said. I was touched by his sadness.

When, at twenty-six, I decided to break up with my boyfriend and move across the country alone with some vague idea of starting over, everyone in Santa Fe told me that my Saturn return had come early. Every twenty-nine-ish years, Saturn completes its orbit around the sun. This means that in your late twenties, Saturn is approaching the point in its orbit when your life began. Some people believe that this return brings the urge, in some form or another, to see it begin again.

 

Originally from Santa Fe, Amelia Morand now lives in Missoula, Montana, where she serves as a fiction editor for Cutbank Magazine. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming with apt, Brevity’s nonfiction blog, Hobart, and Pithead Chapel.

F r a g m e n t s/Chaos: Mixed Media

The Sun’s Taste

Secret Ingredients

Turkish Coffee

Mama tilts the cup to the side, rolls it around, examines each line, dot, drop. They look like black, crusty Jackson Pollock paintings. She doesn’t take it too seriously.

“Ah, habibti, it’s a man in a hat. You’ll meet him soon, and he will be very important to you,” she says to my friend Danielle.

I ask my mom to read my cup next, and she shakes her head, says no because I actually believe in it.

She says, “We’re Christians. We don’t believe in this stuff,” as she peers into the cup.

She doesn’t trust that my faith is strong enough and worries about my intrigue with the unknown. She’s suspicious of my love of astrology, tarot, and ghosts. Once, in eighth grade, she discovered that my friends and I bought a Ouija board, and she stormed into my room in the middle of the night to find it. She took it to her room and covered it with two bibles.

When we arrive at the psychic’s house, it’s tiny, and a swarm of feral cats are wandering in and around her doorway. She’s very poor –the kind of place people imagine when they see documentaries about the Middle East.

“You’ve cursed this house! You’ve cursed this family!” she shouted.

More than suspicious, she prays for my soul daily. Mama just does it for fun. Everyone in Jordan does it—a party trick. They believe it’s forbidden, harram, but they’ll excuse it for its lightheartedness. Something the girls do when they come over in the morning for coffee, where they’ll serve it with something sweet, a date cookie, perhaps fruit too. This man in a hat turns out to be Danielle’s first fiancé.

*     *     *

I believe it because my cousin Christine’s aunt says she does it for fun but really doesn’t. Seven years ago, she read Christine’s mom’s cup and predicted that Christine’s mom would get sick, Christine would find love, and there would be two deaths in the family; one an older man, and one would be a young girl. That year, Christine’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Christine fell in love with a man who’d cheat on her two years into their relationship. He would later become a born-again Christian and meet his wife in church. It was also the year Dounia died. She was eight. George and I were the last ones to leave her grave; we just stared as they dumped gravel on the small, white, casket, while her mother kept praying for her daughter to find peace.

Allah yerhamek, Mama,” she said, until all you could see was dirt.

I can’t remember the old man.

*     *     *

My cousin Riham and I visit a psychic named Um Ahmad during my last visit to Jordan. Um Ahmad meaning “mother of Ahmad,” her first-born son. All mothers go by the name of their first-born son, unless, of course, they have no son at all. We drive to the outer edges of Amman. Riham’s mom’s friend gives Aunty directions and raves about how accurate Um Ahmad is and how she’s been seeing her for over a year now. She predicted her new job, and if all goes according to plan, this year (this very year) will be when she meets her future husband. She’s just had her lips done and they’re swollen and bruised. Riham and I can’t stop giggling at her. When we arrive at the psychic’s house, it’s tiny, and a swarm of feral cats are wandering in and around her doorway. She’s very poor—the kind of place people imagine when they see documentaries about the Middle East.

“If she’s so good, why can’t she afford a better place?” my brother whispers.

I tell him that sometimes the gift is the price. She uses the masbahah to focus, moving the beads one and then two at a time with her thumb, and prays to Muhammad. She tells my brother, Aunty, and her friend to drink their coffee and she’ll read it afterwards. They all decline. They don’t trust the cleanliness of the cup.

*     *     *

Orange Blossom

Anytime I had a stomach ache, I’d be doubled over in a praying position because it was the only position that would alleviate the pain. I’d moan and wail in fits of seven-year-old theatrics. My mom humored me and allowed me to be dramatic, babying me all the way through with back rubs and sympathetic “I know, habibti.” Eventually, she would bring the orange blossom water, the mazahir, and pour a tablespoon.

“Drink this, and you’ll feel better,” she’d coo.

I’d slurp the spoonful and within twenty minutes I’d be in the toilet (or the sink, or the trash, or on the floor, or the wall, once even on the ceiling) throwing up everything.

Teary-eyed, I’d shout, “I’m never listening to you again!”

Even though I knew what was to come, I didn’t actually stop listening to her about the mazahir until years later.

Habibti, now that you threw up, you’re going to feel so much better. Just wait, shoofee.”

I did always feel better. But, even now, I always associate the smell with sweaty pajamas and vomit.

*     *     *

My friend is Palestinian, and she said instead of the orange blossom water, her dad would rub arak on her stomach. Arak is a powerful Levantine stronger-than-vodka-proof alcohol that smells like licorice. Just the smell would be enough to elicit the same reaction the orange blossom did. I can bet this is exactly why it was so effective. My grandfather liked to have some to sip on when there was company over, or when he ate fish. The elders of the family especially enjoyed it on Easter. At church, everyone would break their Lent fast after liturgy with meat, chocolate, pies, cigarettes, booze, or anything else they abstained from for God. He also loved whiskey. Sometimes when we went out in Jordan, he’d bring a flask. He’d call it his “honey.” We visited Um Qais, the lake where Jesus walked on water, and Jido would sip from his flask, and say, “Thanks, Jesus, for honey! I can walk on water too!”

He also took it with him when we went on picnics. Occasionally, my brother, mom, aunt, grandparents, and my dad, if he happened to be in Jordan at the time, would drive and hike up the mountains for a picnic. Teta made black tea in a kettle over the fire, while Jido drank his “honey.” During one of our picnics, another boy, most likely a poor orphan, was also wandering the mountains. He began to sing an old folk song in Arabic. I didn’t know what his words meant, but his voice was velvety and rich with nostalgia. My grandfather’s eyes watered.

“Don’t stop, young one. Keep going,” he urged.

Jido wept. Velvet voice? No. The boy’s voice was honey.

*     *    *

Mint

It grew like weeds, straight through the cracks in our patio, right at the door. It was our own personal jungle of mint in our backyard. On summer nights, we’d invite my mom’s sister and my cousins, who lived next door, for tea. We would turn on the Christmas lights we’d draped around the patio and gather outside while we played Umm Kalthoum. Umm Kalthoum was an iconic Egyptian singer whose songs would famously last an hour each. My uncle told us that when she was having a concert, the shops would close early, and everyone would go home to watch her perform on TV. Umm Kalthoum was reserved for the night time, while Fairouz’s voice was one to rise to. My mom would have me pluck the mint for the tea that we all enjoyed outside. It was our way of replicating Jordanian nights in the Midwest.

*     *     *

Teta had mint leaves growing in her yard too. And parsley, cilantro, tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, mloukheya, oregano, boysenberries, pears, lemons, and a whole collection of herbs, fruits, and vegetables. She had a green thumb unlike any other. For her, life was about nature, herself, and God. My grandmother’s faith was strong enough to refuse locking her doors for four decades. People say I resemble her in the way that we act boldly and abruptly with the unwavering belief that God favors us. We would make tea and sit at the table with the deep purple table cloth, beneath the tree in her front yard. During the spring and summer months, she would close her eyes and enjoy the breeze as she held the cup to her lips.

I don’t know how to cook, so I make sure to add plenty of garlic, because it fixes anything. The chicken was dry. I’m paranoid about salmonella. I scrub everything down with bleach three times and my hands smell like it for the next two days.

When I told her I’d met a boy I really liked, she said, “Mmm, be careful. All men in the military have hepatitis.”

And that was that. She had been widowed over forty years. Teta tells me that after Jido died, she ran the grocery store/butchery alone. A man would come every so often to buy cigarettes and asked my uncle if he could take my grandma on a date.

“Ask her yourself,” my uncle responded.

Teta told the man to bring her a bible, which he did on his following visit to the store.

“Let me keep this for a couple days,” she told him.

The next time he came, she had his bible ready for him. She highlighted some verses for him and denied him a date. She asked him not to ask again, and to shop elsewhere.

“A few months later, he came back. He said that he was a recovering alcoholic and the verses inspired him to stop drinking. He said I was a good woman. Then I never saw him again,” she says solemnly.

Teta came to America with nothing, yet she did everything. She sipped her tea. Teta didn’t need anyone but God.

*     *     *

Apricots

Jido, my grandfather, would always get my brother and I apricots and chocolate and strawberry milk on his way back from work in Irbid. We’d visit Jordan some summers and he always made sure to have them stashed for us.

“Did you see the mish mish and haleeb? Make sure you finish it, so I can get more for you tomorrow,” he’d say.

We’d drink the milk through the straw and inhale it in forty seconds, then we’d split the apricots in half, throw away the seeds, and devour them.

Teta told us we could plant the seeds in the backyard.

“Bring everything outside. Let’s sit on the veranda,” she said.

In the back was a cement path with rose bushes and flowers on either side, and beyond the gate was a dust road that resembled nothing of the small desert paradise within their yard. We’d migrate beneath the grape leaves, and the grapes hanging would always be too tart and sour. I never had a ripe one any summer I went.

*     *     *

In Indiana, I’d sit outside on summer mornings where I didn’t have to go to work until the afternoon. The sun wouldn’t be as hot yet, and there was refuge beneath the leaves of the tree in the backyard. I’d make a cup of Nescafé, and bring a fresh plate of fruit with me, as I read Women Who Run with the Wolves and journaled. My brother might come down before I had to get ready for work to tan. I was with him in Barcelona when we had an apricot stuffed with cheese (Was it Manchego?) and honey. Revolutionary. He loved not living in Indiana. He even loved his host family more. I can’t remember a time when my brother has told me he loves me first. I know he does though because I got lost at the movie theater when we were kids seeing Madagascar for the second time. I moved to the front of the theater and, eventually, I turned around and saw the empty row my family was sitting in and then I headed towards the exit. When I opened the door, my brother was there with an employee, his face red and contorted, “Nicole, where were you? Mama called the police!” he cried.

He moved to California a couple years later during his gap year after college; all he does now is tan, work at Ross, and hurt my parents’ feelings.

*     *     *

Garlic

Teta sends Baba home with a box of garlic, and when I visit her the next day, I see there are still two other baskets filled with garlic. I comment on how much she has.

“I know. I’m planning to start growing them. I just peeled some and gave it to your dad.”

She serves me a cup of cinnamon tea with walnuts, as I sit in the fluffy chair next to her usual spot. The chair looks out of place, but then again, so does much of her decor that she buys from Goodwill. I tell her about having to go to court in Chicago for driving with an expired license plate and not having my proof of insurance. She asks who I went to Chicago with when I got in trouble, and I tell her I went to a show with my boyfriend Rico. She turns it into a sermon about how one decision can change your life forever. She alludes to my dad’s estranged first daughter. She never says it. I let her talk.

“Thank you for telling me things. It means so much to me. Don’t stop. I only say things because I love you,” she says.

“If I didn’t tell you, I’d be putting a Band-Aid on an injury, and it would be infected. My words are the rubbing alcohol that stings but cleans.”

She begins talking about her fraudulent lawyers and everyone else who’s out to swindle her. One of her tenants called the cops on her for pushing his daughter, but I pretend I don’t know. I let her talk and explain the soap opera she’s watching. There’s always someone out to get my grandmother.

*     *     *

I don’t know how to cook, so I make sure to add plenty of garlic, because it fixes anything. The chicken is dry. I’m paranoid about salmonella. I scrub everything down with bleach three times and my hands smell like it for the next two days. My mom and my grandmas are all excellent cooks, and they all somehow instinctively know how much seasoning to put in. They never use measuring cups as if it’s God that tells them when to cool it with the cardamom.

My mom is listening to Joel Osteen as she cooks. We were all baptized Orthodox, but we stopped going to the church that all the other Christian Arabs go to when I was still a kid. We quit it because my parents felt it was too much about the ritual of faith rather than the god of the faith. I agree, but I also hate Joel Osteen. I’m watching her, and she tells me to grab the garlic from the pantry.

“Put it in Tupperware and shake it,” she instructs me.

I shake it like a maraca, and it peels itself. My dad gets home from work and he’s already eaten. Junk. His diabetes is through the roof. Teta blames my mom, as if it’s just my dad, and not all her kids who have it. Mama warns me to marry someone who loves me more than he loves his mother.

*     *     *

Cinnamon

Whenever a baby has their first teething, Arabs throw a huge party and invite everyone over. This gathering is called the Snowneeya, meant to celebrate that first tooth, and everyone gathers to eat berbara. It has a consistency almost like pudding and is made with spices like anise, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and it is topped with things like coconut, walnuts, and candy-coated fennel seeds, then more cinnamon on the top. When the first boy is born, there’s another huge party to celebrate that the family now has someone to carry the name. Not just the last name. Every child would carry their dad’s first name as their middle name, so you could trace their lineage to the very beginning through the name of the father, just like when the Bible introduces Jesus for the first time. Yes, boys are a big deal.

*     *     *

A dash of cinnamon goes into nearly every dish. Nutmeg and allspice too. I ask my mom what they season the meat in grape leaves with.

Arabic spices,” she answers.

“That’s vague, can you be more specific?”

She buys the seasoning pre-made in Jordan, or my grandma sends it with my grandpa or my aunt when they visit us in America from overseas. I went with her to the spice shop in Jordan once, where it smelled of cloves and was lined with wooden barrels filled with nuts and a museum of spices that encompassed every color of the color wheel.

My cousins and I help roll the grape leaves. There’s a technique to it, and I don’t nail it until I’m almost out of grape leaves to roll. My uncle tells us how he’s so proud of us and snaps a picture to send to the family group chat. That’s one of the only times my dad says it too—as I’m learning how to cook. He glows.

Habibet albi! Love of my heart! Learning how to cook!” he says.

He sees it as me growing into my womanhood, and he beams.

When I first got my period, my mom made a big deal out of it. She sent me with my older cousin, and we got our nails done and went to dinner. She sees it as me growing into my womanhood, and she beams. My dad looks disappointed. He’s afraid of what happens when a girl grows into her womanhood. But are either of these things what make me a woman?

*     *     *

Rose

Roses and oud. Staples of every perfume I’ve smelled between my aunts, my mom, and my grandmother. My grandmother is more of a rose and jasmine type of woman. I feel like a stereotypical Arab woman when I wear some fragrances and I chock it up to something in our chemistry. Maybe something that reminds us of home. Perhaps the pink roses in my grandmothers’ gardens. Both of them. My mother’s pashminas smell of rose and their soft smell lingers on them through the winter. It is my favorite perfume, and when I wear her scarf, my boyfriend says it smells like me. I must be my mother’s daughter.

*     *     *

Knafeh, warbat, awamat, qatayif—all sweets that wouldn’t be sweet without either a drizzle or a drowning of rose water syrup. We rarely have sweets at the house because they take too long to make and because my father is diabetic with no self-control. When I visit Detroit with Rico, my mother sends me a grocery list and a hefty request of items from the famous Middle Eastern bakery in Dearborn, Shatila. Rico waits in the car while I go inside. The place is buzzing with people; it reminds me of Wall Street, the way everyone is lined at the cases of sweets and shouting what they want at the employees. Another customer, about the age of my father, asks me where I’m from in Arabic, and introduces himself; I forget his name. He asks about my tattoo that’s written in Arabic script. He lives in either Columbus or near Chicago and asks where I live.

“I am always there to help if you ever need anything,” he says to me.

Sometimes Arabs are especially nice to other Arabs. He doesn’t talk to anyone else inside the bakery except his son and the employee taking his order. My midriff is showing, amidst women dressed conservatively. I doubt it’s because we’re both Arab.

*     *     *

My maternal grandmother is a beauty queen. She’s barely aged and hasn’t seen the sun in over thirty years. She’s the type to carry around an umbrella to block the sun and wear floppy hats, but I suspect the expensive eye creams that line her vanity help. She is much different than my dad’s mom, who was raised humbly in a small village in Jordan. That Teta talks to herself, doesn’t wear shoes, and hasn’t slept in a bed since the eighties. This Teta is a diva who wanted to major in English and always keeps a coral lipstick handy. Teta tells me that rose oil is good for my skin, and luckily, I can afford rose oil. At home, I boil the rosebuds in water, and put them in a mesh holder as if I were making a tea. I strain and refrigerate it—add it to the beauty regiment as a toner and use rosehip oil as my moisturizer. I’ll learn how to age gracefully like my grandmother, but I’ll never insist on dodging the sun. I let the oil seep into my skin, while I read Rumi. He writes, “What was said to the rose to make it open was said here in my heart.” I open. I write this. I write without a responsibility to anyone but myself and God. I create, and I see this as my growing into my womanhood. Somehow, it feels lighter.

 

Special Guest Judge, Terry Wolverton:

“Secret Ingredients” uses an inventive structure to explore themes of culture, diaspora, family and gender expectations. By focusing on traditional foods, the author brings us into the intimate customs and rituals of this Jordanian family living in the U.S., what is preserved of the homeland and what shifts, morphs, or is left behind altogether. The essayist makes her larger points without ever growing didactic; rather, she allows the reader to discover them in the tastes and smells, the activities within the family kitchen.

—Terry Wolverton is author of eleven books of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, including Embers, a novel in poems, and Insurgent Muse: art and life at the Woman’s Building, a memoir. Her most recent poetry collection is Ruin Porn. She has edited fourteen literary compilations, including the Lambda Literary Award winning His: brilliant new fiction by gay men and Hers: brilliant new fiction by lesbians. Terry also collaborated with composer David Ornette Cherry to adapt Embers as a jazz opera.
Terry has received a COLA Fellowship from the City of Los Angeles, a Fellowship in Poetry from the California Arts Council, and the Judy Grahn Award from the Publishing Triangle, among other honors. She is the founder of Writers At Work, a creative writing studio in Los Angeles, and affiliate faculty in the MFA Writing Program at Antioch University Los Angeles. http://terrywolverton.com

 

Nicole Nimri is a Jordanian-American writer hailing from the Midwest. She received her bachelors in creative writing from IUPUI. This is her first published essay.

Camellias in Black and Gray

[fiction]

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

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

“Bri?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does it mean?” I ask.

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

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

 

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

Ekeko

Letters from My Childhood

The cover of my phonics workbook is plaid like my uniform but in reds and pinks and whites. Inside, each page is covered with little pictures. Crowns, shoes, fruits, stars, each in its own little box.

Then there are the letters. I know them all and know the sounds they make, but in English they are different. E is A and I is E, and two Os together sound like U. H has lots of friends and sounds like J when it’s alone.

It’s a lot to remember. My tongue flips and turns and bends when I try to form the sounds my teacher makes, but in my head, the letters speak to me in Spanish. Milk is “meelk.” Toad is “tow-odd.” Mouse is “moseh.”

When I get my papers back, they’re covered with Mrs. Castle’s marks. Red slashes over the pretty pictures. I have learned that 100 is the goal for everything, but those phonics workbook pages come to me with ugly numbers at the top, 80s and 70s, sometimes lower. At first, I close my eyes and try harder to hear the words I’m reading, try to listen for the sounds, but the slashes keep coming like little scratches on my skin, and eventually I give up.

Eventually, the English sounds begin to make more sense. I make room for them inside my Spanish-speaking head, and one day I discover that I can read the books my teacher reads all by myself. Then it’s like a dam has broken and I am gushing through, free to read anything I want.

I spend more time coloring the pictures, adding details here and there, a ribbon to a girl’s head, leaves to a flower. The directions say to draw a ring around the correct answer. I know they mean a circle, but I start making fancy diamond wedding bands instead. Mrs. Castle calls me over for a private conversation.

“You need to try harder,” she says, pleading. “Focus on the words.”

I admire her thick brown hair as she speaks, the way it curls under at the ends. I don’t want to make her angry. I wish I could be as good at phonics as I am at math.

In math class, we have each cut out and decorated our own paper armadillo. Mrs. Castle has put up giant cacti all around the room. On Fridays, we take a timed test, addition and subtraction problems arranged in neat rows. Every time you pass a test, you are rewarded with a new one the following week, and your armadillo moves ahead. The tests get harder and harder, with more problems, bigger numbers, and tricky moves like zeroes on the top when you’re subtracting. I love them. I hear my father’s voice in my ear telling me all the tricks, and my pencil flies through the sheets. Before too long, my armadillo has made it all the way across the room to the final cactus. My teacher says there are no more tests and I ask if I can start over from the beginning again, just for fun.

But phonics class isn’t like that. Mrs. Castle cocks her head and frowns at me, and it feels as if I’ve let her down. I stop drawing rings and coloring the pictures, but my grades do not improve.

*      *      *

One day, we’re sitting on the carpet and she’s reading us a book. Her voice flows up and down in rhythm like she’s singing. I don’t know everything she’s saying, but I love to hear her speak. Suddenly she stops and puts the book aside. Her eyes get big with excitement and she tells us about something called poetry, about rhyming words. Then she gives us some examples.

“Do you hear?” she says, and I do. I hear the words; I recognize the sounds. I like this thing called poetry. “Now you try!”

A hand shoots up from the front of the class. Grace McCallister, of course. Grace is the most beautiful child I’ve ever seen. Her hair is long and straight and gold. Not yellow blonde, but actually gold. She wears it pulled up tight and smooth away from her face, gathered in a high ponytail without a single untamed strand. She is perfect in every way a child can be perfect. Always has the right answers, never gets her clothes dirty, and refers to her grandparents as Grammy and Grampy. I have looked up to her since the first day of school.

“Cat and bat,” she says now, beaming.

Mrs. Castle smiles and nods then looks around the room. One by one, she calls on each of my classmates. A few of them answer incorrectly on their first attempt, but after another try, they get it.

Then I hear her call my name.

“Bob and pop,” I say, but Mrs. Castle shakes her head.

“Hat and bad?”

She repeats the words after me, emphasizing their ending sounds. “Hat-tuh, bad-duh.”

When I mention that I don’t want to speak Spanish anymore, my mother grows serious and tells me “No señora.” She has a friend mail her a book of Spanish grammar from Colombia.

“Try again,” she says. “Listen to them in your head.”

I take a breath. Try to form the words in my mouth before saying them out loud. Finally, I think I’ve got it.

“Sit and sat,” I say, smiling this time, ready for her words of praise, but they don’t come. Instead, she says she’ll get back to me, but after calling on my other classmates, she has us all return to our desks to write our spelling words. I pick up my pencil and begin to work, but all I can think about are rhyming words. I don’t understand why the ones I’d said were wrong and all the others right. I start to write some new words on the margins of my page, and suddenly, in the middle of class, it comes to me.

“Duck and truck!” I shout, and the other children jerk their heads up in surprise. They laugh at me, and even Mrs. Castle chuckles.

“You got it!” she says, and I feel my heart grow warm with happiness inside my chest.

For the rest of the day, I go around smiling as I think of other pairs of words that rhyme—sometimes even sets of three. I’ve got it, I tell myself, and it feels as if I’ve won.

*      *      *

Eventually, the English sounds begin to make more sense. I make room for them inside my Spanish-speaking head, and one day I discover that I can read the books my teacher reads all by myself. Then it’s like a dam has broken and I am gushing through, free to read anything I want. The school library is across the hall from Mrs. Castle’s room and I look forward to our weekly visits.

At home, my mother says my name the way it’s meant to be pronounced, with a long U and lofty As, the Z a hiss and not a buzz. She takes advantage of my newfound English knowledge by having me read aloud. She tells me I am helping her learn English that way, and that makes me happy too. Our favorite book to read together is Are You My Mother, about a little bird who hatches from its egg only to find itself alone in the nest. We read the book again and again and again, until I have learned all the words and illustrations by heart.

When I mention that I don’t want to speak Spanish anymore, my mother grows serious and tells me “No señora.” She has a friend mail her a book of Spanish grammar from Colombia.

The cover says Coquito and it has a picture of a boy flying a kite over a hilly countryside. Inside there are stories and sentences, writing prompts and riddles, all in Spanish. We sit together at the kitchen table late at night, my mother looking over my shoulder as I practice my compositions in a notebook she has bought just for this purpose. She has me copy the stories along with the drawings. I write the vocabulary words many times, and then she calls them out to test me. She makes me practice my penmanship, too, and teaches me the rules of when to use accent marks. It’s like going to school in Spanish after going to school in English.

*      *      *

One day, my mother says she has a surprise for me, and she drives me to a one-story building with narrow vertical windows all the way around. The sign in front says Nicholson Memorial Library, and as we enter through the sliding double doors, the smell of paper wraps around me like a tongue and pulls me in.

The children’s section sits inside a corner near the entrance, but it’s hidden from view by the shelves of books I’ll get to when I’m older. In the open space behind them, four large, brightly colored seats shaped liked giant M&M’s are arranged into a square. Between them are dark blue beanbags you can sit on too, and in another area, they have tables with little chairs like the ones at school. My mother helps me find the shelves of children’s books and leaves me rocking on one of the giant M&M’s while she heads over to the grown-up section of the library.

This is how we spend our Saturdays, my mother and I. She has a card that gives us permission to take the books home, and every time we leave, it’s with armfuls of our new friends. I take them everywhere and read them every chance I get. I put some in a bag and carry them up when I climb the tree in our back yard. I take them to the outer yard and lay down on the grass to read.

And when my father does the thing where he checks for a rash between my legs, I take a book and prop it up against my chest. I hold it in a way that makes it turn into a wall, with me safely on this side, reading the words and looking at the pictures, while other things take place behind it.

 

Luz Pinilla is a Colombian-American writer of literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. She is a student in the creative writing program at the University of Texas at El Paso and holds a master of arts in aesthetic studies from the University of Texas at Dallas. Her work has appeared in The Acentos Review, 34th Parallel Magazine, and Straight Forward Poetry. Please visit LuzPinilla.com for more information.

Ancient Musical Legend

Vibrancy: Oil Painting

Swimming Lessons

[fiction]

Stage One—Let Go of Your Fear

Start out in shallow, warm waters. If you’re learning to swim where there’s a current, be aware of the flow. If you insist on learning to swim this way, make sure you’re with someone who knows what she’s doing. Try floating. Try breathing underwater. Don’t panic. Wear goggles if you must.

*     *     *

There is beauty everywhere, and my desire runs as deep as the depths of this hidden cove. Sophie’s hair is a perfect disaster. The wind we paddled through has whipped her auburn curls into a frenzy, and we’ve laughed so hard she’s forgotten to care. She’s always freer when she thinks no one’s watching.

I mean. Gah. The first time she caught me watching her in the library, when we were supposed to be working on our essays for English Lit, I almost swallowed my tongue. A crimson blush rushed across her freckled cheeks, and the pencil she’d been mindlessly tapping against her chin dimple stopped as she lost track. But she didn’t look away, and I knew. Her stomach was taking that same plunge into wild. We were simply a matter of time.

Our gazes lock as I walk toward her. She bites her bottom lip. I work my fingers through her tangles. She lets her head drop back. I want to delve into the heated hollow of softly scented skin just above her collarbone, leave a trail of tiny kisses in my wake.

It took two months for her to break up with Andrew, two weeks for me to convince her it was okay to go with the flow, and two days to convince our parents to let us camp overnight.

With capable strokes, we pull up as close as we can to the outflow of Granite Falls. A sea cucumber floats by, and I flick the phallic form toward her with the tip of my paddle.

She almost tips her kayak in surprise. “What the hell is that?”

I arch one eyebrow and slide her an evil grin. “More of the local marine life. Not nearly as impressive as the seals at Silver Falls, but still. Thought you’d want me to point it out.”

“Yeah. Nope.” More of her delightful laughter cascades down my spine. “Let’s hope we don’t run into any more of those.”

Preach.

And we’re lucky. A scan of the shore reveals we’re all alone. We drag our kayaks across the stones with tired arms to a site midway between the falls and the shoreline, with two trees the perfect distance apart to sling the double hammock I’ve optimistically secreted away in my pack.

We drop our gear and the first of our inhibitions. A quick text to the parentals, and we’re truly, finally here. Behind us, water cascades over rock. Below, it laps against the beach. Sophie stands, her hands bunched up into the ends of her sleeves, in the middle of our site. Our gazes lock as I walk toward her. She bites her bottom lip. I work my fingers through her tangles. She lets her head drop back. I want to delve into the heated hollow of softly scented skin just above her collarbone, leave a trail of tiny kisses in my wake.

But I don’t and she sighs—the sound a soft caress. Awe prickles through my body. I wonder. Is it now? Are we finally in the moment where we take our explorations to the next step? My fingers graze the swooped curve at the top of her left breast, and she inhales. Sharp.

“Let’s climb to the top of the falls before it gets too dark,” she says.

I want to tell her we can make the climb in the morning. I want to flutter my eyes closed against her earlobe and breathe her in. But I have no clue how to tell her no.

“Sure. Okay.”

*     *     *

Stage Two—Learn How to Tread Water

Sink, then let yourself float back up. Flutter kick your legs and stay in place. Let your arms push against the water in a circular motion, back and forth. Back and forth.

*     *     *

The way up seems longer and more precarious than I remember. I can’t take my eyes off her as she scrambles ahead of me over moss coated boulders, in the shadows of old growth cedars, through the scent of forest green. Her legs. Her shoulder blades. The curve of her upper thigh. I let my imagination wander along each soft surface, dreaming of how my fingers will do the same.

It’s hard to catch my breath.

By the time we reach the top, I’m desperate to ask for what I want. No more of this teasing game we’ve been playing. But it has to be Sophie who’s ready. I know how important it is to let her set the pace. She’s never been here before and I’m doing my best to honor that. In one way, I haven’t either. I mean, I’ve never wanted someone so much it hurts. My chest is unfamiliar with this ache of holding desire at bay.

She lifts her hair up off the back of her neck, leans against a wall of rock, and scans a shallow pool. It’s full of eddies and froth, carved out centuries ago by the water that now crashes down in a glistening white sheet a mere ten feet away. The sun’s August rays shine thick and hot. “Do you think it’s safe to swim?”

I nod, slow, and tip my chin to the spot where the water drops over a precipice to another deeper pool below. “As long as we keep away from that edge.”

Her eyes hold mine as she kicks off her shoes and peels her yoga pants off. I pull the hem of my tank up over my face, relish the stretch in my shoulders as I lift it over my head. We’re quickly stripped down to our bikinis. What’s left of our inhibitions barely clings to our skin.

I motion toward a cave carved into the rock, a fallen cedar trunk leaning over the entrance to the dark.

She dips a toe in—“No effing way”—and then inches into the freezing water by infinitesimal degrees.

Already ahead, I hold out my hand to her and wait. “Trust me.”

She smiles. Laughs. Finally, wades through the swirling water. Finally, twines her fingers through mine. “I do. I’m not so sure about the bats.”

“Then we’ll have to be quiet,” I say, and squeeze her hand tight as we leave the sunlight behind.

When I pull her body to me in the cool dark, I wonder whether her shivers stem from the water lapping at our knees or the same reasons as mine. We wrap our arms around one other. Her hands rest tentative and cool on the side of my jaw and the nape of my neck, and mine pull against the small of her back. Her lips are soft and warm.

*     *     *

Stage Three—Practice More Advanced Techniques

It’s time. Be aware of rocks below, but if its safe, try diving in! Float on your back, then kick your feet. Circle each arm up over your head, then move it down your body, pushing the water toward your feet. This is the back crawl. The front crawl is similar, but you’ll need to moderate your breathing by turning your head to the side to inhale.

*     *     *

We wind our way back down the path, lighter on our feet. I’m ecstatic to discover we still have the entire place to ourselves. The sun’s dropped behind the hills, leaving our campsite in a shadow beneath an increasingly indigo sky. Even if we changed our minds about camping out, it’s too late to head home. Kayaking in the dark is never safe, and I promised Mom and Dad we wouldn’t take any stupid risks.

I watch her search the sky for the first elusive star. I know what I’m wishing for and pray she hopes for the same.

“Are you hungry?” I ask.

The world sways, and our laughter skips over the rocks all the way to the water and over the waves. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful than her joy.

“Starved.”

Sophie unpacks the picnic as I secure the hammock and garnish it with a cozy quilt—soft and dry, fresh from the zip-lip bag I’d stashed at the end of my kayak’s rear compartment. I scan the cloudless sky and pray I won’t regret the decision to forgo a tarp.

“Did you seriously pack us chocolate covered almonds for supper?” she asks.

“Your favorite source of protein.” Who can blame her, really? “And strawberries. With one of those cans of whip cream for dessert.”

“Oh my god. I love…” She hesitates, two beats that steal my breath, “…that stuff.”

Sigh. “I know.”

I know everything about her, or at least as much as I can. I know the tension she carries in her shoulders every time she comes out to someone new, and how to massage her worry away. She likes puppies (who doesn’t?), especially their breath. And purple. And peeled apples. Hot coffee, but iced tea. She reads—mostly fantasy, with a smidgen of romance—and bends the corners of pages, unapologetically, to keep her place. Her musical taste runs to acoustic guitar accompanied by sexy, swoony voices, crooning deep.

But I don’t know how to take the next step. Surprisingly, she takes it for me. With the bag of almonds in one hand, the container of strawberries in the other, and the can of whipped cream tucked under her arm, she makes her way over to the hammock and stands there, trying to solve the complex problem of how to climb in with a modicum of grace. “This should be interesting.”

This, I can show her. Behold, the master at work. “Here. Stand beside me.” I maneuver us in front of the webbing and gently lift the hammock almost vertical behind us, careful not to tip out the quilt. “Okay. Now we both sit, then swing our legs up. On three. One, two,…”

We lean back together, dive in. Somehow, we end up with our heads on opposite sides, our legs entangled. The world sways, and our laughter skips over the rocks all the way to the water and over the waves. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful than her joy.

Dusk turns to darkness, the sky becomes freckled in endless pinpoints of light. There’s nothing simple about movement in a hammock; it takes an effort not to fall. But as we tumble closer and closer together, delightfully trammeled, Sophie slowly becomes unshackled from restraint. Chocolate and strawberries, an echo on her tongue. My hand skims the skin of her midriff, the back of her knuckles rest lightly on my cheek. I wander my fingers downward—beneath the waistband of her leggings—and am rewarded with a thirsty, soft gasp.

Craving overwhelms me. To taste more of this pleasure. More of this heat. She shimmies her hips, deliciously, and finally helps me drag the fabric further down.

And, oh. Oh. My lips trip the hip fantastic, dance swiftly across her inner thigh.

This.

This is diving deep. Her gasps swell to panting, to cries that crest and fall. Lapping. Lingering. We’re holding tight and letting go, until the water falling over rocks no longer muffles her crescendoed cries.

*     *     *

Stage Four—Be Prepared for Unlikely Situations

Don’t ever swim alone. Ensure you have someone nearby who can throw you a floatation device if you’re in too deep.

*     *     *

And now I’ve really fallen. I’m drowning. Drenched in love.

“Holy hell,” she whispers.

Her words blaze across the night.

 

Gracie West is a teacher, a creative, a romantic, and a card-carrying member of team INFJ.

Mordekhai

אמר רבי יודן Rabbi Yudan taught:
פעם אחת חזר על כל המניקותOnce, Mordekhai searched but
ולא מצא לאסתר לאלתר מיניקהcould find no wet nurse for Esther,
והיה מיניקה הוא
so he nursed her himself.

My breasts judge a handshake,
have five-o-clock shadow.
I know the proper verb
for a deal with God is   To Cut.

The first time my hair stuck
in her soft baby gum,
I simply extended downward
my morning shave.

I fondled the swelling
above my heart
and named it glory
instead of shame.

Only once, after she’d dozed off
I lodged her head
in the crook of my elbow
and stretched my neck down

tugging the nipple up
to lick a drop from the tip.
I regret knowing that I taste
nothing like a woman.

 

Joshua Sassoon Orol is a trans Jewish poet from Raleigh, NC, writing with the texts, tunes, and stories passed down from their mixed heritage family. Joshua completed an MFA at NC State University, and received an Academy of American Poets prize while at UNC Chapel Hill. Their poetry can be read in recent or forthcoming issues of Driftwood Press, Mud Season Review, Nimrod International Journal, and Storm Cellar.

Mack Truck

Mack has been hit by a Mack Truck more than once. I know this because he tells me the story often. It is fuzzy though, because I ignore him every time he shares it. When I tell my family about the things that Mack has narrated to me, they look at me funny, like maybe I am telling a joke or making up a story of my own. I try not to feel offended. My stepmother at the time tells me that she loves his stories. In the future, she’ll tell me that he was her favorite of all my boyfriends.

 *     *     *

Summer after high school I’m nineteen and running around the Methuen strip mall, in Massachusetts, in my camouflage skirt and tank top to match. No shoes. My bare feet smack against large slabs of the concrete walkway. I leap from column to column, the short round structures meant for sitting, not standing. That day, I had just totaled my car, whose name had been Mack.

This guy in camouflage watches me. He is standing outside Chuck E. Cheese with a friend, smoking a cigarette. He will tell me that he is nineteen too. He is tall, has red hair and his clothes are baggy and all grunge. “Redneck,” my friends call him. But he calls himself Mack. It should be a foreshadowing that my last Mack ended in disaster, but I’m not paying attention.

Mack drives fast down the winding city streets of Lawrence and Methuen. He whips down a straightaway lined with so many cars on either side that it’s practically a one-car road. Speed limit twenty-five; Mack limit sixty. At first it is exhilarating, freeing, exciting.

“I go four-wheeling all the time,” he tells me. “I live in Lawrence with my stepdad.” I learn that he is into cars and trucks and he reminds me of the junkyard back home, of my father who taught me how to drive a car when I was twelve, and a quad when I was younger. I think that maybe Mack will be fun.

I let him drive me away from the mall in his pickup truck. Later I will hold my breath when he kisses me with his mouth that tastes like ash. I will let him slide his fingers under my skirt. Sometimes this will happen in the Market Basket parking lot and once in the woods behind the store. Later, when this is all over, when Mack is gone, I will force myself to walk through these woods and enjoy them without reminiscing; I will hold back the memories, black them out for myself.

 *     *     *

“I was born in Ireland,” Mack tells me. He lets me help him on errands. We stop at his mother’s apartment complex to gather trash barrels from the back of the parking lot, and he swings them up—I catch them and place them down in the bed of the truck. I love that he lets me help, because I’m tired of boys who won’t let me help because I’m a girl, synonymous with weakling. We need to bring the trash barrels somewhere later.

When we go inside I meet his mother. She is short and skinny, and a redhead like her son. She is kind, and, while Mack is in the bathroom, I ask if he was really born in Ireland. “I was pregnant in Ireland,” she says. “But no, he was born here in the US.”

When Mack gets out of the bathroom he tells me it’s time to go. Out in the car he yells at me for asking his mother questions. “I don’t know why it bothers you that I asked if you were born in Ireland or not,” I yell back. “Why does that make you mad?”

“It’s disrespectful,” he says, “You should just trust me.”

 *     *     *

Mack drives fast down the winding city streets of Lawrence and Methuen. He whips down a straightaway lined with so many cars on either side that it’s practically a one-car road. Speed limit twenty-five; Mack limit sixty. At first it is exhilarating, freeing, exciting. Once, as we’re stopped at a red light just outside Richdale in North Andover, red and blue lights flash behind us and Mack pulls over.

“Why were you driving so erratically?” The cop demands. I am frightened. (I also wonder if Mack knows what “erratically” means. I’ve never heard a cop use such a big word before.)

“My brother is John, he’s a Marine,” Mack defends, as if military connections compensate for erratic behavior, as if irrationality is the answer to life’s problems. John used to be a police officer, it seems. Mack gets a warning, I think, but it isn’t written, and I wonder if knowing someone really just worked for him. It makes me uncomfortable and a little pissed. If I don’t stop completely at a stop sign I’ll get a ticket, while Mack will feed his brother’s name and get away with driving in a way that could get people killed.

 *     *     *

In the fall, nearly a month after we begin dating, he brings me to his house where he lives with his former stepdad. There are hundreds or thousands of golf balls in the shed under the hill outside. Maybe it used to be a bomb shelter or a bunker. I wish it was empty so I could crawl inside and explore. It feels like that’s what I’m doing with Mack right now: exploring him, trying to figure out what draws me in. The kitchen looks lived-in: floor unclean, dishes in the sink, a terrible smell. But I won’t notice this until later. For now it just reminds me of Dad’s house when it was messy before he had a girlfriend.

He shows me a melted cell phone in an extra room. “It was my brother’s,” he says. “It got destroyed in his wreck. The wreck that killed him. See—it’s half-melted.” His twin brother, he says, got into an accident with—can you guess?—a Mack Truck. Only he didn’t survive. I am overcome with grief for his loss and agree to lie nearly naked with him on the couch in this room. It’s a thing I’ve never done before, and it feels uncomfortable but interesting; daring, maybe. I leave my shirt on.

When we come here again, I’ll meet his stepfather, who sits on the living room couch and smokes cigarette after cigarette. He isn’t talkative, and I don’t know how to make a good impression, and I don’t want Mack getting mad at me for asking questions, so I don’t say anything.

 *     *     *

There’s a popular song on the radio around this time in 2006. It goes, “Where oh where can my baby be, the lord took her away from me…” It’s by the Caveliers and the story goes that the narrator was driving and got into an accident, and his girlfriend died in his arms. I begin to fear for my life after the cop pulls us over. With no reprimands, why would Mack ever choose to drive safely?

One day, as he’s driving fast down a crowded city road I ask, “What if something happens with the way you drive? What if you get me killed?”

“It won’t happen,” he says, like we’re invincible, and takes my hand. “I won’t let anything happen to you.” But his foot stays planted on the gas.

 *     *     *

I have an off-and-on victim mentality. As soon as I get nervous, I begin to blame other people for the way I feel. But there’s something unnerving about Mack that I feel I maybe should have paid attention to early on. I believe that Mack cares about me, but I don’t understand him or how he feels. I can’t get inside his head.

One day he calls to say that he dedicated a song to me on the radio. “Lips of an Angel.” “Because your voice is like an angel’s,” he tells me, and I think it’s sweet. I sing constantly, because it’s one of the only things that I feel like I’m good at. I keep wishing that I could have been sitting in my car and listening to the station when he dedicated it.

But it isn’t long before I begin to wonder if he really did call and dedicate a song, or if he just invented that story to make me feel romanticized. When Mack and I end a few months later, I’ll tell a friend about the song, and he’ll tell me that the story is about a man who cheats on his girlfriend with an ex. If you listen to the lyrics, he’s talking to her on the phone in another room so his current girlfriend can’t hear him. Am I being deceived?

 *     *     *

After tonight, the kitchen looks dirty, and I can see the grimy yellow stains on the bathroom floor; ashtrays line the house, overflowing onto tables and the hardwood floors.

When Mack and I are ready to move beyond naked bed-lying, we go into his room and close the door, and I set up my sex mix: a mix I’ve made for just this occasion. I think this is romantic and necessary, but I won’t take my shirt off.

I sing to the lyrics playing while we have sex, or rather, while he has sex with me. “Closer,” by Nine Inch Nails; “I Hate Everything About You;” a plethora of Evanescence and Korn, Slipknot, and Disturbed. The music is distracting, but it becomes my salve. We have sex for what feels like hours, and he keeps going even when I’m dry and it hurts but I don’t want to say anything. I don’t want to be a tease or upset him.

When it’s over, he goes to the bathroom first, and I lie in bed and wait, still singing to my songs, focusing on the lyrics so I don’t have to think about what just happened and how unromantic and painful it was because sex is supposed to be this thing that makes everything okay or better, or that’s how it feels to me. When it’s my turn to go pee, I sit on the toilet and find myself soaked. He pissed all over the toilet seat and left it that way. When I tell him this, he laughs.

After tonight, the kitchen looks dirty, and I can see the grimy yellow stains on the bathroom floor; ashtrays line the house, overflowing onto tables and the hardwood floors. The birdcage in the living room is piled high with droppings. I wonder if the cage has ever been cleaned, and how the bird feels living helplessly in its own squalor. The best decision I’ve made, I decide, was not to take my shirt off. It’s a small victory that feels powerful.

 *     *     *

The small window in the passenger seat of Mack’s truck is broken so that I can push it open without having to squeeze the little button on the inside. One night we’re in a parking lot outside of a grocery store. Mack locks the keys in the car by accident. I try reminding him about the broken window, but before I’ve finished speaking, he pulls his fist back and punches a hole through the glass. I stare at him incredulously, and then push the window open to show him what I’d been trying to say. “You didn’t have to do that,” I say, and then I look at his hand, which is bleeding profusely. “Let me help you. Let’s go in the store.”

“I can do it,” he says, when I try to look more closely. “I don’t need help.” And he walks to the store by himself. This feels like a burn, although I’m not sure why. Maybe because helping someone heal is one of the most intimate experiences I have known.

For years I have taken inventory of injuries, both my own and others’. During the first few months that I dated Anthony, back in high school, I wiped out on my bike and wound up in the hospital. I can still remember fear consuming me as I woke up and saw him standing at the end of my bed crying. A few months later, he got jumped and some guys left a cut above his eyebrow so deep that he needed stitches. These moments of pain morphed into more than mere misery or suffering because I connected them to stories and emotions. There was care on Anthony’s face when he saw me hurt, and I felt empathy when he told me that he was getting stitches. I feared his walks through the city later. But Mack hides his pain from me. He hides it from everyone.

 *     *     *

Mack says this to me one day: “My mom thinks I’m Mack,” who is apparently his dead twin. The guy I am dating? His real name is Mike, he admits. The idea of this is shocking, although I can’t believe it. When I look at his license again, I notice that he is really seventeen, and I point this out, because Mack told me he was nineteen when we met. “Well, this is Mack’s license.” The twin—the twin who was two years younger than my boyfriend?

Part of me wants to believe everything. I want to believe that Mack isn’t a liar, and that crazy stories really do happen every day.

Sometimes in my journal I write fiction. Sometimes it’s incredible or vile—like getting raped or finding a dead body—or it’s dreams not labeled as dreams. Nightmares become real in the pages of my journal where fiction isn’t separate from fact. Maybe Mack’s mind works this way. Maybe he comes up with a story so interesting that he can’t separate it from the rest of his life until he realizes that his Truth is being questioned, and then he gets mad because he doesn’t know what else to do.

 *     *     *

Mack calls me once, early in our relationship. He tells me that something is wrong, he can’t breathe, and he’s driving to his mom’s house. When I get there, he’s on her living room floor with paramedics leaning over him. They tell me not to follow the ambulance, but I do anyway because I don’t know how to get to the hospital. When I find him on a bed, IV in his arm, his stepdad is there. He is calling Mack names, insulting him, angry with him, and leaves the room when I enter. I remember my own brush with the hospital, when I cut myself too deep and my parents found out, and my dad asked why I didn’t just roll around in poison ivy if I liked pain so much, because he didn’t understand what was happening. I don’t see Mack’s mom. No one cares about him. Everyone needs love.

<blockquote class=”bq-right”>For years I have taken inventory of injuries, both my own and others’. During the first few months that I dated Anthony, back in high school, I wiped out on my bike and wound up in the hospital. I can still remember fear consuming me as I woke up and saw him standing at the end of my bed crying.</blockquote>

I hold his hand and tell him I love him. It’s a lie. Maybe worse than all the lies he’ll tell me. His stepdad will tell me that Mack overdosed on speed. Or maybe it’s the mall rats who say it. The mall rats will inform me that Mack wasn’t a virgin and he’s been telling everyone that he told me he was. For now, Mack keeps telling me that he doesn’t know what happened, just that he doesn’t feel good. And I am holding his hand and lying to him, telling him I love him.

 *     *     *

When I stop calling Mack, he doesn’t call me either. He’ll tell people at the mall that he dumped me, when really we just stopped talking. Months later, he’ll call to talk to me, and I’ll confess that I never really loved him.

Maybe as much as a year after our breakup, I’ll be standing at Winnekenni Park in Haverhill at the edge of Kenoza Lake, when I check my voicemail and hear a message from him: “I’m going to drive off this cliff and I just wanted to say goodbye…” It’s more than a minute in length. And even though I know he’s probably bullshitting, as always, my heart picks up and I’m nervous for him. I care about him in the way that I’d be concerned about a stranger. I try calling back, but his phone doesn’t ring and instead goes straight to voicemail.

I imagine his body lying in a ditch somewhere. But someone at the mall mentions that they saw Mack the other day, and I’ll be reassured that his suicide message was really an attention attempt. I’ll forget about him and move on, away from craziness, from lies. Or so I believe.

 

Artemis Savory is a writer with a passion for creative nonfiction. She prefers hiking and writing to anything else, and you can find her work in a number of magazines and on her Starving Artist blog at ArtemisSavory.com.

Trust Me, Iago

[fiction]

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *      *

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

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

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

Susan starts to scream. Another burn, Laurie figures.

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

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

*     *      *

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

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

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

*     *      *

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

*     *      *

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

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

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

*     *      *

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Light Garden: Digital Art