Little Street for Sex

LITTLE STREET FOR SEX

I live in the shopping center of the world, it’s open 24 hours. There are, for example, streets for luminous bodies, and there’s no end to the lights, lace lampshades, chandeliers, bulbs of every breed; then a street of screws and nuts, and an endless line of fish restaurants, a side street where you can buy sheep heads and organs you’ll never see in the anatomy books. Not far is a black-and-red street with jazz clubs, then carpets, kilims, kilims, and all of them flying, alleys of baklava and lokum, shop windows dripping with meat and honey and it continues thus until your feet start hurting, and thoughts cease.

The street for sex is an unsightly descent, one of many that lead to the water and the docks with moored ships for the Bosphorus and Asia. On the left side of the street, bulk boxes gape with condoms. Men, mostly young, sit in groups, on walls and in stairways, smoke and talk, wait their turn. On the right side there are no windows, just a massive metal door, half open. Beyond, a little gatehouse can be seen: two cops ID and pat down the customers before they let them into the brothel.

Women don’t really pass by around here, except if they get lost, except for the two of us.

T. tells me: Don’t stare like a hayseed, and no, don’t take pictures, a cop could come out. And if you could see it the day after Ramadan, the line of men is longer than the street.

Why wouldn’t I stare, I say? They stare too.

I mention Flaubert, who spent a few weeks here, visited a brothel, right here in Galata. At the time he noticed—Flaubert wrote to his friend Bouilhet—seven sores on his penis, aiee! (The start of syphilis he contracted, probably, in Beirut, but that, sources say, didn’t really stop him from whoring. For more information, consult the slightly biting O. Pamuk’s Istanbul, V&R, pg. 313.)

On the way out, toward the Galata Bridge, where the Sea of Marmara collides with winds from the Black Sea, and countless men net sardines or some similar fish, we run into a line of covered Turkish teens and little ladies under hijabs: they carry banners and Palestinian flags. While we watch them, the eyes of fishermen sail over the naked back of some tourist girl who just now crosses the bridge.

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MALA ULICA ZA SEKS

Živim u shopping centru svijeta, radi od 0 do 24. Postoje, na primjer, ulice za rasvjetna tijela, pa kad to krene nikad kraja svjetiljkama, čipkastim abažurima, lusterima, žaruljama svake fele; zatim ulica vijaka i matica, pa beskrajan niz ribljih restorana, jedan sokak gdje se mogu kupiti ovčje glave i iznutrice kakvih nema ni u anatomskim atlasima. Nedaleko je i crveno-crna ulica sa jazz klubovima, pa ćilimi, ćilimi, ćilimi, a svaki leti, aleje baklava i lokuma, izlozi po kojima curi meso i med i tako redom, dok ne zabole noge, a pamet stane.

Ulica za seks je neugledna nizbrdica, jedna od mnogih kojima se može spustiti do obale i dokova uz koje su privezani brodovi za Bospor i Aziju. S lijeve strane ulice otvorene su kutije prepune kondoma rinfuzo. Muškarci, uglavnom mlađi, sjede u grupicama, po zidovima i ulaznim stubištima, puše i ragovaraju, čekaju svoj red. S desne strane nema izloga, samo ogromna metalna vrata. Jedno krilo je otvoreno i vidi se kućica na kapiji: dva policajca legitimiraju i pregledavaju mušterije prije nego što ih puste u kupleraj.

Žene ovuda baš i ne prolaze, osim ako ne zalutaju i osim nas dvije.

T. mi kaže: Ne bulji tako ko seljanka i ne, nemoj ih fotografirati, mogao bi izaći policajac. E, da vidiš kako je dan nakon Ramazana, muški red je duži od ulice.

Što ne bih buljila, kažem, bulje i oni u nas.

Spominjem joj Flauberta koji je ovdje proveo nekoliko tjedana, pa posjetio i neki bordel, ma baš ovdje na Galati. A otkrio je tih dana — piše Flaubert svom prijatelju Bouilhetu — sedam ranica na penisu, ajme. (Početak sifilisa koi je zaradio, valjda, u Beirutu, ali to ga, navode izvori, nije osobito sprječavalo u kurbarluku. Za više informacija konzultirati pomalo zajedljivog O. Pamuka, “Istanbul”, V&R, str. 313)

Na izlazu, prema mostu Galata, gdje se sudaraju vjetorovi s Crnog i Mramornog mora, a mnoštvo ribara lovi srdele ili neku sličnu ribu, naletimo na kolonu pokrivenih turskih tinejdžerki i mnogih gospođa pod hidžabima: one nose transparente i palestinke zastave. Dok ih pratimo pogledom, oči ribara plove na golim leđima neke turistkinje koja upravo prelazi most.

Translator’s Note

Translation is a kind of role-playing. You go into it because the experience of temporarily ‘being’ someone else—in this case, another artist—is mentally stimulating. I think that as writers we need to get comfortable with shedding our skin, our identities, so that we can cultivate the ability to understand different perspectives, to refine authentic linguistic sensitivities, and to create emotionally true, no-nonsense work. Also, the process of translation feels nowhere near as solitary as writing one’s own work. But I approach both in a similar manner: with a pitcher of black coffee, some album on an endless repeat, and lots of time alone. I work for weeks at a time on batches of poems. “Little Street for Sex” is from Olja’s collection Mamasafari, a book at the heart of which is a series of poems about Istanbul. I translated the book, and this is one of my favorite poems in it.

Why Olja’s work? My inspiration comes from the fact that there is a lack of recorded narratives about our people (both Olja and I are Croatians), and about South Slavs in general—narratives that dive into both our primitivism and collective emotional scars. Also, except for Charles Simic’s The Horse Has Six Legs (an anthology of Serbian poetry), the literary talent of our linguistic region has not had much serious exposure to American readers. I am also interested in how individual identity gets expressed through one’s sexuality and as a part of a collective identity. And I gravitate toward those authors who are honest in that exploration but also whose use of language demonstrates a kind of brilliance, ambition, understated domination of it—those authors who break our expectations of literature, and then renew them. Olja does exactly that. Hers is an understated voice that carries immense strength. It’s like a whispered command. Also, her use of Croatian language is traced with dialect in a very individual manner. And I love that variety of sounds and flavors, and the challenge it creates in translation. Those dialectic shades of a language create a textual tension that often helps heighten that blood-thrashing we experience when reading a good poem.

Olja_headshotOlja Savičević Ivančević is a Croatian author whose work has been translated into German, Czech, Italian, Spanish, French, Macedonian, Polish, Ukranian, Lithuanian, and Zulu, among other languages. Her collections of poetry include: It Will Be Tremendous When I Grow Up (1988); Eternal Kids (1993); Female Manuscripts (1999); Puzzlerojc (2005); House Rules (2007), winner of the prestigious Croatian award Kiklop; and Mamasafari (2012). Her collection of short stories, To Make A Dog Laugh (2006), and her novel, Adios, Cowboy (2010), won several Croatian literary awards. Adios, Cowboy is forthcoming in English by McSweeney’s in 2015.

A_Jurjevic_headshotAndrea Jurjević is a native of Croatia who lives in Atlanta. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Journal, Harpur Palate, Raleigh Review, Best New Poets, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. She is the winner of the 2013 Robinson Jeffers Tor Prize and the 2014 Der-Hovanessian Translation Award.

Records of Rage

Over the winter of 2014, as Arctic air plunged the American Midwest into its cruelest winter in decades, my mother and I—both Thai immigrants—watched as our homeland’s political troubles reached a new low. In November of the previous year, thousands of civilians started occupying Bangkok’s streets in order to protest the government of then-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, which attempted to pass an amnesty bill that would acquit a former prime minister—Yingluck’s older brother—of the corruption charges for which he was ousted from office in 2006. The demonstrators were met by zealous counter-protests from Yingluck’s supporters, gun violence that went frequently uninvestigated by authorities, intermittent bomb threats, and mostly condemnation from Western news media, who labeled them political elitists bent on toppling a government that, for all its flaws, was popular among the lower classes and, barring rumors of rampant vote-buying, had been democratically elected. Closer to home, state media portrayed the protestors as rabble-rousers and accused them of harboring weapons. Yet, among the thousands of people who were taking the streets, I had friends and colleagues, and these, I knew, were armed only with the conviction that they marched, despite the dangers, for a better Thailand.

As the winter dragged on and every morning became a struggle to leave the house, I watched as Yingluck resigned and a placeholder government was established; as new elections were scheduled and then boycotted when the opposition called for nothing less than the complete absolution of the interim government and a constitutional reform. The country was frozen in stalemate, and neither side was backing down. Finally, there came a thaw: on May 22, 2014, the military staged a coup—Thailand’s twelfth since 1936—absolving both the protests and the government in a final bid to wipe the slate clean and spare further violence.

Wipe the slate clean. Throughout its modern history, Thailand has run through a seemingly endless and self-engendering cycle of botched elections, controversial governments, violent street demonstrations, and military coups. And contemporary Thai poets have born witness to these chains of events, “recording,” in the words of Phaiboon Wongdesh, “times of rage/throughout the three worlds.” My interests in Thai poetry have always tended towards the classical and courtly, but over that prolonged winter of 2014 and into the flowering months, I couldn’t ignore the poems that Thai poets over the last forty years have “arranged in bright patterns” over our shared political woes.

Of the following poems, the first two were written in response to the events of October 14th, 1976, when demonstrators—many of them university students demanding open elections and a constitutional reform from the dictatorship of the day—clashed with police and military forces. Although they respond to events nearly forty years past, these poems could have been written about the struggles of the present—indeed, they seem almost prophetic. Naowarat Phongphaiboon foresees gunshots “ringing in the city’s midst,” while Phaiboon Wongdesh’s catalogue of natural elements in the traditional style evokes a sense of universal mourning for fallen demonstrators. The third poem, written by Chindana Pinchleo, who is known primarily for her horror novels, uses humor to make a statement about corruption and sexual hypocrisies in Thai society, and takes place in one of Bangkok’s infamous strip clubs.

The text for these poems was taken from an anthology of Thai poetry called Kred Kawee (“Pieces of Poetry”) edited by Eakarat Udomporn (Pathana Suksa Press, 2008).

Noh Anothai
St. Louis, Missouri
June 2014

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Merely a Movement
by Naowarat Phongphaiboon (1940-present)1

Merely the movement of a vulture’s wings
beneath a blaze of sun can disperse its heat.
Merely the shiver that runs from leaf to leaf
proclaims the presence of the wind.

Merely a ripple running over its surface
shows the pool water, not a pane of glass.
In eyes glossed-over, a mere glimmer
shows a heart still beating in the chest.

When the chains that hold gates shut are thrashed,
mighty is the clamor of suffering.
Merely a shimmer at the end of a pass
reveals an escape is still possible.

My fists have been clenched until drenched with sweat,
my flesh seared, my blood boiled within.
I have panted and fallen time and again—yet
good it is to have known that taste.

When a hand can still wriggle its fingers,
the strength hidden within is made known;
and when its blade-tips pierce through stone,
then is shown the might of a weed.

For forty years a torpor has held these reaches
and forty million have never stirred.
While soil became sand, wood stone, and all crumbled,
eyes and hearts remained fast asleep.

Birds inhabit the sky, but do not see sky;
in water the fish see water not.
Centipedes have no sense of the dirt they live in
and, to perceive filth, worms have no eyes.

For me disintegration and rot are certain:
birth, death, and utter inertia in due order.
Yet there bursts out of muck and detritus
a thing to be cherished: a lotus flower.

And at last a movement has begun
of grace and beauty, and not of ill.
It may be nebulous now, its form murky,
but at least a movement is taking shape.

When the daring-voiced drums boom forth from temple,
we know another holy day has arrived.
When gunshots ring in the midst of the city—
we know that for victory the people are reaching.

 

Homage to Heroes
by Phaiboon Wongdesh (?-?)2

The moon droops, stars drop, and birds weep.
Both trees in leaf and trees in flower wilt.
The whole face of heaven is hooded in cloud
and swirls of mist rising muddle the sun.

A towering gloom closes the curtain of air
and, sullied, the water in creeks and canals
and on valley-floors rear over their banks.
The mountains themselves look like they might break.

Grains of rice lie scattered, stripped from stalks
the wind has bent over and lashed about.
—Silence. Not a sound anywhere.
I light my candle, bowing in the dark

before the bones of my heroes.
The candle casts its golden light
as we cast your ash with the moon and stars.
As moist as this water, may your souls be

and float away for the sky’s furthest reach.
Close now, eyes; know trouble no more.
The river of night will not find any peace;
the stream is disturbed by droplets in downpour.

The current oozes away, bearing your remnants
far from the bank for earth’s utmost bourn.
The wind blows; the leaves in mortal hearts quake;
and in that same moment, my candle goes out.

Although it can snuff the golden-bright candle,
the wind cannot blur these stains out of being.
Tonight no sounds are heard whatsoever,
but tomorrow a cry will rise clear to the stars;

the stars light the land while the skies are obscured;
the moon blaze forth when the dark is audacious;
arranging the words poets compose in bright patterns,
recording times of rage throughout the three worlds.

Tonight, although there be no justice,
on the horizon shines a new dawn.
Whoever does ill—commits evils actions—
soon must requite it—must pay it in full.

 

To Shame
by Chindana Pinchleo (1942-1988)3

I was watching the floorshow when—Oh my…y…y…
that woman turning up the heat over there,
bouncing her breasts, her butt, flashing her thighs,
her eyes taunting me like a girl without care—

she dropkicked shame into the wastebasket,
then lay down and started her body to bare,
hailed as a star by the room’s sudden racket—
but virtue’s standpoint was one of despair.

“My living is honest—have I done something wrong?”
with a straight face, when I asked her, she said.
“But aren’t you ashamed dancing here in a thong?”
The woman shrugged. “If I were, I’d be dead.

I have an old mother; younger siblings, five.
If I didn’t strip to support them, they’d be long gone.
I finished grade 4. Who’d stick by my side?
It’s good enough that I’m not also a whore.

But, even so, though you say I’ve got nerve
to flaunt myself and give everybody a look,
it’s because I either do it or starve
and at least none of us here is a crook.

No, I’m not ashamed—in this day and age,
when corruption’s committed open air.
Even good folk are flaunting it center stage
and when they’re found out, they don’t seem to be scared.

If people like me knew shame, then men would be lonely,
and if men knew shame, they’d probably change their ways.
If even our leaders go on being phoneys,
of whom should a stripper be ashamed?”


1One of Thailand’s most respected living poets, Naowarat Phongphaiboon received a SEA Write award for his collection Merely a Movement in 1980, and was named a “National Artist” in 1992 by Thailand’s Department of Culture.
2Has Wongdesh fallen afoul of some Thai censorship bureau? I cannot find any biographical notes for this man on the internet, and none was given in the anthology used for the translation. This poem appears online in a collection of other October 14th-related poems by Chulalongkorn University, and Wongdesh’s books can be found for sale on Thai used book websites, but the details of his life are a mystery to me. I encourage anyone with more information to contact me.
3Known mostly for her horror stories, Chindana Pinchleo wrote under several pen names in various serials, for which she occasionally also composed poetry.

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เพียงความเคลื่อนไหว (Merely a Movement)
โดย เนาวรัตน์ พงษ์ไพบูลย์ (by Naowarat Phongphaiboon)

ชั่วเหยี่ยวกระหยับปีกกลางเปลวแดด
ร้อนที่แผดก็ผ่อนเพลาพระเวหา
พอใบไม้ไหวหลิกริกริกมา
ก็รู้ว่าวันนี้มีลมวก

เพียงกระเพื่อมเลื่อมรับวับวับไหว
ก็รู้ว่าน้ำใสใช่กระจก
เพียงแววตาคู่นั้นหวั่นสะทก
ก็รู้ว่าในหัวอกมีหัวใจ

โซ่ประตูตรึงผูกถูกกระชาก
เสียงแห่งความทุกข์ยากก็ยิ่งใหญ่
สว่างแวบแปลบพร่ามาไรไร
ก็รู้ได้ว่าทางยังพอมี

มือที่กำหมัดชื้นจนชุ่มเหงื่อ
ก็ร้อนเลือดเดือดเนื้อถนัดถนี่
กระหืดหอบฮวบล้มแต่ละที
ก็ยังดีที่ได้สู้ได้รู้รส

นิ้วกระดิกกระเดี้ยได้พอให้เห็น
เรี่ยวแรงที่แฝงเร้นก็ปรากฏ
ยอดหญ้า
แยงหินแยกหยัดระชด
เกียรติยศแห่งหญ้าก็ระยับ

สี่สิบปีเปล่าโล่งตลอดย่าน
สี่สิบล้านไม่เคยเขยื้อนขยับ
ดินเป็นทรายไม้เป็นหินจนหักพับ
ดับและหลับตลอดถ้วนทั้งตาใจ

นกอยู่ฟ้านกหากไม่เห็นฟ้า
ปลาอยู่น้ำย่อมปลาเห็นน้ำไม่
ไส้เดือนไม่เห็นดินว่าฉันใด
หนอนย่อมไร้ดวงตารู้อาจม

ฉันนั้นความเปื่อยเน่าเป็นของแน่
ย่อมเกิดแก่ความนิ่งทุกสิ่งสม
แต่วันหนึ่งความเน่าในเปือกตม
ก็ผุดพรายให้ชมซึ่งดอกบัว

และแล้วความเคลื่อนไหวก็ปรากฏ
เป็นความงดความงามใช่ความชั่ว
มันอาจขุ่นอาจข้นอาจหม่นมัว
แต่ก็เริ่มจะเป็นตัวจะเป็นตน

พอเสียงร่ำรัวกลองประกาศกล้า
ก็รู้ว่าวันพระมาอีกหน
พอปืนเปรี้ยงแปลบไปในมณฑล
ก็รู้ว่าประชาชนจะชิงชัย

 

บวงสรวงวีรชน (Homage to Heroes)
ไพบูลย์ วงษ์เทศ (by Phaiboon Wongdesh)

เดือนต่ำดาวตก นกร้องไห้
ไม้ดอกไม้ใบร่วงหล่น
โพยมพยับดับแสงสุริยน
หมอกเมฆมืดมนมัฆวาฬ
ทะมึนมัวม่านฟ้าฝ้าหมอง
ขุ่นน้ำลำคลองห้วยละหาน
หุบห้วยตรวยโตรกชะโงกธาร
เพิงผาปิ้มปานจะขาดใจ
รวงข้าวลู่ลมล้มคว่ำ
กิ่งท้อกอระกำสะเทือนไหว
สิ้นซึ่งส่ำเสียงสำเนียงใด
ประจงจุดเทียนไขชัชวาล
กราบกระดูกวีรชนหม่นหมอง
แสงเทียนสีทองทอสาน
ดาวเคลื่อนเดือนคล้อยลอยอังคาร
ขอวิญญาณเจ้าจงฉ่ำดังน้ำเย็น
เรื่อยไหลไปเถิดสุดขอบฟ้า
ดับเถิดดวงตาอย่ารู้เข็ญ
คงคาคืนค่ำคงลำเค็ญ
หยาดน้ำหยดกระเซ็นกระแสชล
ชลาลัยไหลเรื่อยเอื่อยอาด
อังคารเจ้าห่างหาดไปสุดหน
ลมพัดใบไม้ไหวในใจคน
เทียนก็ดับดาลดลในทันใด
แม้ดับเทียนสีทองส่องสว่าง
มิอาจดับรอยด่างให้เลือนได้
วันนี้ไม่มีเสียงสำเนียงใด
พรุ่งนี้เสียงจะใสถึงดวงดาว
ดาวจักเรืองแจ่มหล้าเมื่อฟ้าหม่น
เดือนจะโรจน์อำพนเมื่อมืดหาว
เรียงถ้อยร้อยกวีวะวับวาว
บันทึกคราวคับแค้นในแดนไตร
แม้ไม่มียุติธรรม์ในวันนี้
แต่ขอบฟ้ายังมีอรุณใหม่
ใครก่อเวรสร้างกรรมกระทำไว้
จักต้องรับชดใช้ชำระคืน

 

แด่ความอาย (To Shame)
จินตนา  ปิ่นเฉลียว (by Chindana Pinchleo)

ดูฟลอร์โชว์โก้แท้ อุแม่เจ้า!
หญิงร้อนเร่าคนนั้น อึ๋ยย์…ขวัญหนี
ย้ายสะโพกโยกทรวงดูพ่วงพี
ท้าตาที่จ้องวาวสาวไม่แคร์

เตะความอายใส่บี๊บแล้วถีบส่ง
เอนเอ้องค์เอาผ้าออกมาแก้
คนชมกราวดาวฟลอร์โชว์โก้แท้แท้
ดูในแง่ศีลธรรมแล้วช้ำใจ

“มันอาชีพสุจริตหนูผิดหรือ?”
หล่อนพูดซื่อเมื่อเราเข้าถามไถ่
“ไม่คิดอายชายมั่งหรือยังไง?”
หล่อนยักไหล่ “ขืนอายอดตายล่ะ

หนูมีแม่แก่หงำซำน้องห้า
ไม่แก้ผ้าเลี้ยงเขาก็เน่าน่ะ
จบปอสี่มีใครสนใจนะ
ที่ไม่พะโสเภณีก็ดีแล้ว

แต่นั่นแหละแม้ว่าหนูหน้าด้าน
กล้าทำร่านอวดใครได้ชัดแจ๋ว
ก็เพราะความจำเป็นมันเน้นแนว
แต่เชื้อแถวหนูไม่มีใครโกง

หนูไม่อายหรอกค่ะสมัยนี้
คนดีดีคอร์รัปชันกันออกโผง
ไม่อายใครใจชั่วตัวชูโรง
ถูกเปิดโปงเข้ามั่งยังไม่กลัว

คนอย่างหนูถ้ารู้อายชายคงเหงา
คนอย่างเขาถ้ารู้อายคงหายชั่ว
ตราบคนใหญ่ไม่ยั่นกินกันนัว
หนูเผยตัวอวดชายจะอายใคร?”

Translator’s Note

Why do I translate? When asked, I often say—it’s because I can’t come up with my own material, which is only half a lie. It’s the same reason I don’t write fiction: I’m terrible at coming up with plots and characters out of thin air or sieving and refashioning them from those in my own life. Likewise, with translation, the material is already in front of me; my task is “merely” to convey it in English. The real answer, though, is far more selfish: I translate because I come across a poem and wish I’d written it; I come across something moving, or funny, or entertaining, and I want to transmit those sensations to other people, other readers, to share something of my own experience with another.

Strangely enough, I did not want to learn Thai growing up; I routinely balked at my mother’s attempts at teaching me to read and write, throwing my spellers to the floor and stomping on them, before eventually growing to appreciate our native language. I also didn’t arrive at the desire to translate Thai literature in any serious manner on my own; instead, it took Robert Fitzgerald’s Odyssey in a high school English class to get me thinking about translation as an art. I began to wonder how I might produce a similar work. Both my ability and desire to translate has thus been the product of nurturing, though frequently vexing, external forces; and translation itself is an art in which you need another person (or, as in my case, many people) to inspire you to produce—not least of all the original authors you translate. It’s a collaborative act.

Publications like Lunch Ticket are an essential part in furthering such collaboration; by reading and publishing works in translation as well as multi-language texts, they create a nurturing atmosphere for art forms so frequently overlooked and make it possible for them to be transmitted to new minds and new readers as well. Thus, when I think of translation, I think of legacy: of handing things of value down (or over) from one language to another, from one person to another. As a translator, I thank Lunch Ticket for supporting that legacy.

Noh Anothai

Photo: Christopher Fleck

Noh Anothai was a Fulbright scholar in Bangkok between 2011-12. In that time, he hosted cultural events and translated programs for Thailand’s Ministry of Culture and College of Dramatic Arts. He has also written poems for the First Book Project, which benefits underprivileged Thai students. He has work forthcoming in The Raintown Review.

 

The Child Who Had No Wings

“Once upon a time, many moons ago, people didn’t have wings.”

All the stories my mother used to tell me when I was a child started like that: harking back to an ancient and perhaps mythical time when people had not yet acquired the ability to fly. I used to love listening to those stories, and I would ask her to tell them over and over again, even though I already knew them by heart. There was the one about the eager hero who, lacking wings of his own, made some out of wax and bird feathers; but when he flew too close to the sun, the wax melted and he fell into the sea and drowned. And that other hero who invented a contraption out of wood and canvas so that, by launching himself from the tops of mountains, he could glide over the valleys of his country, taking advantage of the warm air currents—something that all of us do instinctively nowadays, but which, when told as a story, struck me as new and unusual, as if I myself had just discovered a phenomenon which nowadays seems so ordinary that it attracts no attention whatsoever.

What never occurred to me while I was listening to my mother’s stories was that one day, I would feel the lack of wings so immediately and so intimately, and that the story about those handicapped people would end up being a part of my life.

I never had a strong yearning for motherhood. I remember that, as adolescents, many of my friends eagerly anticipated the time when they would become mothers; it seemed that they had no other vocation in life, and their little shrieks of joy, their expressions and contortions whenever they saw a baby, used to irritate me profoundly. They positioned themselves around the cradle or pram, started making cooing and billing sounds like doves, and ended up asking the mother if she would please, just for a moment, let them enfold the little creature in their wings. And when, permission granted, they placed the infant on their chest and wrapped their wings around it, they assumed such an air of happiness that I didn’t know whether to slap their faces for being so silly and so dense, or slap mine for being so detached and so insensitive. The sight of them so full of illusions about something that left me cold made me ill.

In time, I came to understand that there was no obligation to be a mother. That was why, not far short of forty, happily married and well placed professionally, I had abandoned the idea of having children, but in an almost automatic way; quite simply, maternity didn’t enter into my plans. It was then I discovered that I was pregnant.

From the outset, my husband and I were surprised by my doctor’s solicitous concern, his insistence on subjecting me to tests and analyses, on repeating some of them on the grounds that the results were inconclusive. It seemed that something wasn’t quite right, and in fact, he was absolutely correct. I was at the start of the third month when the doctor called us into his office and gave us two pieces of news. The first, that the baby was a girl; and the second, that in all probability she would be born without wings.

I was offered the option of an abortion, but I refused. I, who had never felt attracted by the idea of being a mother, already loved that unknown little girl despite being aware that she would be a burden for life. But she was already my daughter and I would not give her up for anything in the world.

The birth went well, and was surprisingly easy. It was almost as if that poor mutilated little baby had arrived bursting with the desire to live, and all the strength, which would normally have been contained in her wings had been transferred to other parts of her body, especially her extremities. Already during the pregnancy, the power of her kicks in my womb had surprised me, and all the staff who assisted during the birth could see the strength that the infant had in her arms and legs.

When they brought her to me, still covered in blood and vernix, and put her on my chest, I clasped her in my tired wings and noticed how warm her naked skin was. I thought her the most beautiful little girl in the world, all pink and clean, without the cold and tangled feathery down which newborn babies usually had. That nakedness moved me so much that it occurred to me at that moment that ever since the human race had acquired feathers, it had lost that warmth generated by skin-to-skin contact, because the rough, dusty feathers always got in the way. And who can tell if the acquisition of feathers hasn’t caused us to lose many other soft and tender things, like unprotected skin.

From that day, the child was the centre of my life. The first months didn’t present any problems—after all, the wings of a normal baby are so weak that it cannot fly or use them for anything else, so my daughter seemed almost normal. She ate well, slept when she should, and began to recognise us, smile, and babble very early on. Whenever she saw me approaching her cradle, instead of spreading her wings, she would reach out her arms, begging me to pick her up. Apart from that small detail, there was nothing to distinguish her from any other little girl of her age.

Naturally, with each passing month, the difference became clearer. Between eight and ten months, it’s normal for a child to start squatting or kneeling, to unfold its wings and start to flap them in preparation for the first flight. Instead of that, my daughter would sit down and rock back and forth, or support herself on her hands and knees and try to walk on all fours like a cat or a dog. My husband felt ill when he saw her doing this; he said she looked like an animal. Other members of the family suggested I should tie her to the cot to rid her of the habit. I absolutely refused to do this: I defended her right to be different, to express herself and to move in a way that differed from ours, from that of all the other children. “If she has no wings, she has to move somehow, doesn’t she?” I’d say to everyone. But no-one understood: they told me I should get her used to moving about like other children, so that when she was older, she might be able to compensate for her handicap by acquiring some prosthetic wings. That if she was different, we should do nothing to encourage it. The confrontations with everyone became more and more violent: with my husband, my family and my friends. No one wanted to understand that if the child was different, then it was logical that she’d do everything differently.

One day, I discovered something new and wonderful. I’d noticed in old engravings and paintings that in pre-wing times women used to hold their children in their arms, instead of sheltering them between their shoulder blades and wings as we do nowadays. I remember it was a winter’s afternoon, I was alone with my daughter, and the little girl was crawling on the living room carpet. At a particular moment, she sat down on the floor and stretched out her little arms to me. And I, guided by a spontaneous impulse, also stretched out my arms to her and took hold of her, picked her up and put her on my lap. I can’t find the words to express the tenderness that came over me at that moment: I was holding my daughter in my lap, and my arms embraced her completely; and, what was even more surprising was that she imitated me, linking her little arms around my body. And that’s how we stayed, the two of us together, for a long time, locked in this new and previously untried position, face to face, bodies touching, she without wings, I with mine folded back, united solely by our intertwined arms.

As of that moment, I acquired the habit of always picking her up like that. Initially, I did it in secret, partly out of shame and partly because I didn’t want to provoke any more arguments with my husband, who was less and less accepting of our daughter. But soon I began to pick her up like that all the time at home, and eventually I didn’t mind doing it in public. The first few times, it took a great effort to lift the tiny infant onto my lap, but gradually, my arms became stronger from the constant repetition of the movement, and I’m even tempted to say that it reached a point where they rotated differently, as if some of the muscles had developed and adapted themselves to accommodate that pose. During the long hours spent with my child in my arms, I came to understand why those ancient pictures, which portray the theme of motherhood, convey that tenderness which we find inexplicable, and do not repel us in the way that images of disabled people normally do. The mother who holds her child in her arms communicates with it as intensely as the one who enfolds it in her wings, perhaps even more so. Naturally, though, the few times that I dared to express such an opinion in public, people lowered their eyes and maintained the sort of silence which always arouses pity for someone else’s misfortune.

I stopped working and dedicated myself more and more to my child. Or perhaps it was she who gave herself to me because, without a doubt, she was revealing a new world to me, an earthbound world. Instead of flying, she crawled along the floor; then she began to stand up and take little steps, advancing by holding onto the furniture, and in this way, she was able to get around the room. When she had nothing to hold on to, she’d fall onto her tummy and support herself on the palms of her hands. It was so unlike what other children do. They learn to fly first and then, when their wings are strong enough, they begin to walk; in this way their wings act as a parachute for their first steps and, when they sense that they are falling, they simply unfold them. By comparison, my little girl learnt to walk much sooner than normal and, even more surprising, learnt how to do it without the aid of her wings. It was amazing to watch her find ways of keeping her balance in an extremely difficult posture, her back straight and with no counterbalance apart from her arms and her head. It was incredible to see her hold herself upright like this, watch her wobble forward without falling, and save herself whenever she stumbled by thrusting out her hands to soften the fall.

I became used to getting down on the floor to be with her. My husband would become angry when he saw me like that, face down on the carpet, with my wings folded like those of a butterfly, propped up on my elbows so I could play with my daughter. But I liked to see things from down there, as she did, without the possibility of taking flight and coming to rest on top of the wardrobe or looking at the room from a corner of the ceiling. And bit by bit, I got used to not flying.

Family and friends told me to fly, to lead a normal life, to go outdoors more, because this was a living death. But I wouldn’t hear of it: I was totally happy.

My husband went through several phases, from indignation to boredom. By the time our daughter turned two, we were scarcely talking to each other, and we were hardly ever at home at the same time. He was always very busy and only turned up, in a foul mood, on the weekends; weekdays he got home so late that he would slide between the sheets in the dark, believing me to be asleep already. Soon he began to go to work on Saturdays and then to take weekend business trips. Then he went back to being in a good mood, and I knew what was going on, but I didn’t say anything: I wasn’t prepared to have my daughter grow up without a father figure, even if it was merely symbolic. A child like that needs all the protection she can be given.

At two she spoke almost without faltering; she was an extraordinarily bright little girl and I felt proud of her. But a short while later, my anguish began.

I had the first hint one night while I was giving her a bath. I was soaping her back and suddenly noticed a little rough spot at the level of her left shoulder blade. I examined it, thinking that perhaps she’d hurt herself: all I could see was a little redness, and I didn’t give it a second thought.

A few days later, there were two red patches, located symmetrically on either side of her shoulders. I could feel a miniscule lump under the skin. It frightened me, but I refused to take her to the doctor and did nothing more than apply some ointment. A week later it was worse: the lumps had grown and were now two little boil-like knobs, swollen and seemingly painful to the touch, because she complained when I brushed my finger over the top of them.

I covered them with a dressing and more ointment, but it didn’t help. I changed the dressing twice a day and still the knobs kept growing. Next I got hold of some bandages and sticking plaster, and I bandaged her entire upper body, making sure that the bandage was firm but not too tight. Fortunately, it was winter and nobody noticed the bandages hidden under the layers of clothing.

That didn’t work either. The knobs were growing bigger and harder, like a protruding bone threatening to pierce the skin. I didn’t know what to do or whom I could turn to for help.

Until what had to happen finally happened. One morning, I went in to get her out of bed and found her lying face down, something she usually didn’t do. There was the outline of a suspicious lump under the bed sheets and I knew what it was even before I’d lifted the sheets.

There they were, just starting, but well formed enough to leave no room for doubt. They had sprouted during the night, breaking through the skin, and lightly staining the small bottom sheet with blood. My world came crashing down around me.

I knew there was only one thing I could do. I lifted my daughter up in my arms, I removed the clothes from her upper torso and I bit with all the power of my anger and desperation. A revolting taste of dust and mites filled my mouth: it’s incredible how much dirt wings can accumulate in just one night.

It didn’t seem to hurt the child. She probably only felt slight discomfort, because she cried a little, and then she calmed down right away. I took her to the bathroom, attended to her quickly, and managed to stop the bleeding, disinfect the wound and dress it.

She wore the bandages for a few days and I changed them frequently. Each time I took them off I checked the state of the wound. I was relieved to see that it was healing quickly and well, and within a few weeks it had healed completely.

There’s scarcely a trace of it now. She just has a barely visible scar, which you can only see if you look closely or know what you are looking for. She’s back to being the little girl she was, and I continue to devote all my time to her. To those who tell me that I’m burying myself alive, that I should return to work, that I’ve lost my husband, that I mustn’t attach myself to my daughter in this way, I reply that I’m happy with what I’m doing, and that it’s a mother’s duty to sacrifice herself for her daughter.

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«Había una vez un tiempo en que los hombres no tenían alas.»

Así empezaban todos los cuentos que me contaba mi madre cuando yo era niña: remitiéndose a una época antigua y tal vez mítica en que los hombres no habían adquirido aún la capacidad de volar. A mí me gustaba mucho oír aquellas historias, y le pedía que las repitiese una y otra vez, aunque ya me las sabía de corrido: la de aquel héroe desalado que, a falta de alas propias, se construyó unas de cera y plumas de aves; pero, al volar cerca del sol, la cera se derritió y el cayó al mar y se ahogó. 0 aquel otro que inventó un artilugio de lona y madera para, arrojándose desde lo alto de las montañas, planear sobre los valles de su país aprovechando las co­ rrientes de aire cálido: una cosa que hoy en día todos hacemos de forma intuitiva, pero que así contada me parecía nueva e inusual, como si yo misma acabase de descubrir un fenómeno tan cotidiano que hoy nos pasa inadvertido.

Lo que jamás pensé mientras oía los cuentos de mi madre es que alguna vez yo misma llegaría a sentir como propia y cercana la carencia de alas y que aquel mito de los hombres mutilados acabaría habitando junto a mí.

Nunca tuve un.a gran vocación por la maternidad. Recuerdo que, de adolescentes, muchas amigas mías hacían planes ilusionados con respecto al momento en que se convertirían en madres; parecía que no tuviesen otra vocación en el mundo y a mí me irritaban profundamente sus grititos de alegría, sus mohines y morisquetas cada vez que veían un bebé: se apostaban junto a la cuna o el cochecito, empezaban a proferir gorjeos y arrullos de paloma y acababan pidiéndole a la madre que, por favor, les dejase arropar un momentito a la criatura entre sus alas. Y cuando, obtenido el permiso, se colocaban al niño sobre el pecho y lo envolvían entre sus plumas remeras, ponían tal cara de felicidad que yo no sabía si emprender­ la a bofetadas con ellas, por bobas y pánfilas, o conmigo misma, por despegada e insensible. Verlas tan ilusionadas por alga que a mí me dejaba fría me hacía sentir mal.

Con el tiempo fui comprendiendo que ser madre no era ninguna obligación. Por eso, al filo de los cuarenta años, felizmente casada y situada profesionalmente, había renunciado a tener hijos, pero de una forma casi automá­ tica: sencillamente, la maternidad no entraba en mis pla­ nes. Entonces supe que me había quedado embarazada.

Desde el principio, a mi marido y a mí nos extranó la solícita preocupación del médico, su insistencia en someterme a pruebas y análisis, en repetir algunos de ellos alegando que no veía claros los resultados. Parecía que algo no iba bien y, en efecto, así era: estaba ya en el inicio del tercer mes de embarazo cuando el doctor nos convocó en su despacho y nos dio las dos noticias. La primera, que el bebé era una niña; la segunda, que con toda probabilidad nacería sin alas.

Me ofrecieron la posibilidad de interrumpir el embarazo, pero no quise. Yo, que nunca me había sentido atraída por la idea de ser madre, amaba ya a aquella nina desconocida, aun a sabiendas de que sería un lastre para toda mi vida. Pero era ya mi hija y por nada del mundo quería renunciar a ella.

El parto se dio bien, fue sorprendentemente fácil. Parecía como si aquella criatura mutilada llegase llena de ganas de vivir y como si la fuerza que debería tener en sus alas inexistentes se hubiera localizado en otras partes del cuerpo, especialmente en las extremidades: ya durante el embarazo me sorprendió el vigor de sus patadas en el vientre y todo el personal que asistió al parto pudo notar la fuerza que hacía la criatura con brazos y piernas.

Cuando me la trajeron, envuelta aún en sangre y grasa, para ponérmela sobre el pecho, yo la estreché entre mis alas cansadas y noté lo cálida que era su piel desnuda. Me pareció la niña más hermosa del mundo, toda rosada y limpia, sin el lanugo de plumón frío y enmarañado que suelen tener los recién nacidos. Aquella desnudez me conmovió tanto que pensé por un momento que la humanidad, desde que tiene alas, ha perdido la calidez del contacto de piel sobre piel, porque siempre se interponen las plumas ásperas y llenas de polvo. Y quién sabe si al ganar alas no hemos perdido otras muchas casas, dulces y suaves como la piel desprotegida.

Desde aquel día, la niña fue el centro de mi vida. Los primeros meses no resultaron problemáticos: al fin y al cabo, un bebé normal tiene las alas tan débiles que no puede volar ni servirse de ellas para ningún otro menes­ ter, así que mi hija parecía casi normal. Comía bien, dormía a sus horas, empezó muy pronto a conocernos, a sonreír y hacer gorjeos. Cuando veía que me acercaba a su cuna, en vez de extender las alas me echaba los brazos, pidiéndome que la cogiera. Salvo por ese detalle, en nada se diferenciaba de cualquier otra niña de su edad.

Naturalmente, el paso de los meses fue poniendo de manifiesto la diferencia. Entre los ocho y los diez meses lo normal es que un niño ya se ponga en cuclillas o arrodillado, despliegue las alas y comience a batirlas, preparándose para el primer vuelo. En vez de eso, mi niña se sentaba y se balanceaba adelante y atrás, o se apoyaba en las rodillas y las palmas de las manos e intentaba· andar a cuatro patas, como los perros o los gatos. Mi marido se ponía enfermo cuando la veía hacer eso: decía que parecía un animal. Otros familiares me sugirieron que la atase a la cuna para quitarle ese vicio. Yo no quise de ninguna manera: defendí su derecho a ser diferente, a expresarse y moverse de forma distinta a como lo hacemos nosotros, a como lo hacían todos los demás niños. «Si no tiene alas, de alguna forma tiene que moverse, (¿no? >> , les decía yo a todos. Pero nadie entendía: me decían que debía acostumbrarla a moverse como los otros niños, que de mayor quizás podría suplir su carencia con unas alas ortopédicas, que si era distinta no podíamos fomentar que lo fuese cada vez más. Los en­ frentamientos se hicieron progresivamente más violentos con todo el mundo: con mi marido, con los familiares, con los amigos. Nadie quería entender que si la niña era diferente, resultaba lógico que lo hiciera todo de diferen­ te manera.

Un día descubrí algo nuevo y maravilloso. Yo había visto en grabados y cuadros antiguos que, en los tiempos de los hombres sin alas, las mujeres solían tomar en brazos a sus hijos, en vez de acogerlos entre las escápulas y las plumas remeras, como hacemos hoy. Recuerdo que era una tarde de invierno, estaba sola con mi hija y la niña reptaba por la alfombra del salón; en un momento determinado se sentó en el suelo y me tendió los bracitos. Y yo, guiada por un impulso incontrolado, también exten­ dí los brazos hacia ella y la tomé, la levanté en vilo y me la puse sobre la falda. No puedo explicar la dulzura que me invadió entonces: tenía a mi hija en el hueco de mi regazo y mis brazos la enlazaban por la derecha y por la izquier­ da; y, lo que resulto más sorprendente, ella me imitó, enlazó sus bracitos en torno a mi cuerpo y así estuvimos las dos mucho tiempo, en esa postura nueva y nunca usada, una frente a otra, cuerpo contra cuerpo, ella sin alas y yo con las mías apartadas hacia atrás, unidas única­ mente por nuestros brazos entrecruzados.

Desde entonces, adquirí la costumbre de cogerla siempre de aquella manera. Al principio lo hacía a escondidas, en parte por vergüenza y en parte porque no quería provocar más discusiones con mi marido, que cada vez aceptaba peor a nuestra hija; pero pronto empecé a to­ marla de aquella forma en cualquier momento, en casa, y luego no me importó hacerlo en público. Las primeras veces me costaba muchísimo trabajo alzar a la criatura hasta mi falda, pero poco a poco mis brazos se fueron fortaleciendo a fuerza de repetir ese movimiento, e inclu­ so yo diría que llegaron a tornearse de forma diferente, como si algunos de los músculos se desarrollasen y mol­ deasen para adecuarse a aquella postura. En las largas horas con mi niña en brazos entendí por qué los cuadros antiguos que representan el tema de la maternidad ema­ nan esa ternura para nosotros inexplicable y no nos susci­ tan el rechazo que sería normal, al tratarse de escenas entre seres mutilados: la madre que sostiene a su hijo en los brazos se comunica con él tan intensamente o más que la que lo arropa entre sus alas. Aunque, naturalmen­ te, las pocas veces que me atreví a manifestar semejante opinión todo el mundo bajó la cabeza y guardo el silencio que siempre suscita la lástima por una desgracia ajena.

Dejé el trabajo y me volqué en la niña cada vez más. O tal vez se volcó ella en mí, porque lo cierto es que me descubrió un mundo nuevo, un mundo a ras de tierra. En vez de volar, reptaba por el suelo; luego empezó a poner­ se de pie y a dar pasitos, avanzaba agarrándose a los muebles y lograba desplazarse de esa manera por toda la habitación; cuando le faltaba un punto de apoyo, caía de bruces y se apoyaba en las palmas de las manos. Algo muy distinto a lo que hacen los demás niños, que aprenden primero a volar y luego, cuando ya tienen las alas lo suficientemente fuertes, comienzan a andar; de esa mane­ ra las alas les sirven de paracaídas en sus primeros pasos y, cuando se sienten caer, no tienen más que desplegarlas. Mi niña, en cambio, aprendió a andar mucho antes de lo habitual y, lo que era más sorprendente, sabía hacerlo sin ayuda de las alas: era asombroso ver cómo se las ingeniaba para guardar el equilibrio en una postura difici­ lísima, con la espalda recta y sin más contrapeso que los movimientos de los brazos y la cabeza. Parecía inverosí­ mil verla sostenerse así, avanzar bamboleándose pero sin caer y salvarse, cada vez que tropezaba, echando adelante los brazos para amortiguar el golpe.

Me acostumbre a echarme en el suelo para estar con ella. Mi marido se indignaba al verme así, tumbada boca abajo sobre la alfombra, con las alas plegadas como las de una mariposa, apoyándome en los codos para jugar con mi hija. Pero a mí me gustaba ver las cosas desde allí abajo, como ella las veía, sin la posibilidad de alzar el vuelo y colocarse en lo alto del armario o mirar la habita­ ción desde una esquina del techo. Y poco a poco me acostumbré a no volar.

Los amigos y la familia me decían que volase, que hiciese vida normal, que saliese más a la calle, que me estaba enterrando en vida. Pero yo no les oí: era comple­ tamente feliz.

Mi marido pasó por varias fases, de la indignación al aburrimiento. Cuando la niña cumplió dos años apenas nos hablábamos, casi ni coincidíamos en casa: el siempre tenía mucho trabajo y sólo aparecía, malhumorado, los fines de semana; los días de diario volvía a casa tan tarde que se deslizaba a oscuras entre las sabanas, creyéndome ya dormida. Pronto empezó a tener trabajo también los sábados. Y luego, viajes de negocios los fines de semana. Entonces volvió a estar de buen humor y yo supe lo que pasaba, pero no dije nada: no estaba dispuesta a que mi hija se criase sin la figura de un padre, aunque fuese meramente simbólica. Una niña así necesita toda la pro­ tección que se le pueda dar.

Con dos añitos casi hablaba de corrido; era una niña extraordinariamente despierta y yo me sentía orgullosa de ella. Pero poco después empezó mi angustia.

El primer indicio lo tuve una noche, mientras la bañaba. Le estaba enjabonando la espalda y de repente note una pequeña aspereza a la altura del omoplato izquierdo. La examiné, pensando que quizás se había herido: sólo vi una pequeña rojez y no le di mayor importancia.

A los pocos días, las rojeces eran dos, colocadas simétricamente a los dos lados de la espalda. Al tacto se notaba una minúscula dureza bajo la piel. Me asusté mucho, pero no quise llevarla al médico y me limité a aplicarle una crema cicatrizante. Al cabo de una semana la cosa iba peor: las durezas habían crecido y eran ya dos bultitos como dos flemones, hinchados y al parecer dolo­ rosos al tacto, porque la niña se quejaba cuando yo pasa­ ba el dedo por encima de su superficie.

Le puse un apósito con más crema cicatrizante, pero no surtió efecto; le cambiaba los apósitos dos veces al día y los bultos seguían creciendo. Entonces tomé vendas y esparadrapo y le vendé todo el tórax, procurando que estuviese firme pero no demasiado apretado. Por fortuna era invierno y nadie notó los vendajes, ocultos bajo las ropas abrigadas de la niña.

Tampoco esto surtió efecto. Los bultos eran cada vez más grandes y más duros, como un hueso saliente que amenazase con rasgar la piel. No sabía qué hacer ni a quién acudir.

Hasta que sucedió lo que tenía que pasar. Una manana fui a levantarla de su cama y la encontré boca abajo, en contra de sucostumbre. Bajo las ropas de la cama se marcaba un bulto sospechoso y supe lo que era antes de levantar las sábanas.

Allí estaban: incipientes pero lo suficientemente bien formadas como para que no hubiese ninguna duda. Du­ rante la noche habían brotado, rasgando la piel, y la sabanita de abajo estaba ligeramente manchada de san­ gre. Se me vino el mundo abajo.

Supe que solo podía hacer una cosa. Levanté a mi hija en brazos·, le desnudé el torso y mordí con toda la fuerza que me daban la rabia y la desesperación. Me llenó la boca un sabor asqueroso a polvo y ácaros: parece mentira la cantidad de porquería que pueden acumular unas alas en sólo una noche.

A la niña no pareció dolerle. Quizás sólo sintió una ligera molestia, porque lloró un poco y se calmó ense­ guida. La llevé al cuarto de baño, le hice una cura rápida y logré cortar la hemorragia, desinfectar la herida y ven­ darla.

Estuvo unos cuantos días con los vendajes, que yo cambiaba con frecuencia. Cada vez que se los quitaba, examinaba el progreso de la herida. Vi con alivio que cicatrizaba pronto y bien y a las pocas semanas estuvo cerrada del todo.

Ahora no se le nota apenas. Únicamente tiene una ligera cicatriz invisible, que sólo puede apreciarse al tacto si se pone atención o se va sobre aviso. Ha vuelto a ser la niña que era y yo sigo entregada a ella. A quienes me dicen que me estoy enterrando en vida, que debería vol­ ver a trabajar, que he perdido a mi marido, que no puedo atarme a la niña de esta forma, les contesto que estoy contenta con lo que hago y que la obligación de una madre es sacrificarse por su hija.

Translator’s Note

“La niña sin alas” was originally published in a 1996 collection of short stories by Spanish women writers titled Madres e hijas (Mothers and Daughters), edited by Laurea Freixas. I find the collection fascinating because of its varied portrayals of the mother-daughter relationship. Many of the relationships are fraught, several of them—including this one—are presented from an unusual perspective, and all of them examine and question the expectations that (Spanish) society has regarding this relationship. My interest in the stories was in part provoked by my academic research in the work of contemporary Spain’s women writers, and of how their work reflects both their own experience of their world, and Spain’s changing attitude to women, and to their place and role in society.

The main challenge in translating this story was to capture and portray accurately the narrative voice, the tone and character of the narrator-mother. This is a woman who clearly loves her child despite the baby girl being born “different” and despite the criticism, anger—and subsequent indifference—of her husband, her family, her friends, and her society generally. She is a woman who is open to the discovery of the many new experiences her “wingless” child brings her, in particular, physical closeness and touch. She is prepared to defend her child from the attacks she will endure from her community, and willing to accept the cost this has—and will have—to her own life.

And yet the ending of the story—the mother’s final act of love?—may well leave the reader (and translator) of the story wondering whether this act owes more to selfishness  than to love. Does the mother in fact behave as she does because she does not want to lose the relationship, the physical contact and new outlook on life experiences she has acquired with her earthbound daughter, or is she truly motivated by selfless love for her daughter? Conveying the mother’s dilemma and the potential uncertainty about her true motive was a key aspect of my translation of the story.

Photo: Carlos Mota

Photo: Carlos Mota

Paloma Díaz-Mas (Madrid, 1954) is a research professor at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) and was for eighteen years professor of literature at the University of the País Vasco. She has published studies of oral and Romance literature, Medieval Spanish literature, and Sephardi culture. At the age of only nineteen she published her first book of short stories (recently re-published as an e-book under the title Ilustres desconocidos). At Anagrama she has published the novels El rapto del Santo Grial (runner-up for the 1st Premio Herralde de Novela 1983), El sueño de Venecia (Premio Herralde de Novela 1992), and La tierra fértil (Premio Euskadi 2000 and runner-up for the Premio de la Crítica); the book of stories Nuestro milenio (1987), the autobiographical tales Una ciudad llamada Eugenio (1992), and Como un libro cerrado (2005), and a book of nonfiction narrative, Lo que aprendemos de los gatos (2014). She also worked on two collections of stories edited by Laura Freixas, Madres e hijas (2002) and Cuentos de amigas (2009).

L_Thwaites_headshotLilit Žekulin Thwaites is a literary translator and an Honorary Fellow in Spanish at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, where she formerly coordinated the Spanish Program. She specializes in the society, cultures, and literatures of contemporary Spain, and in particular, the work of women writers. Her translation of Tears in Rain by noted Spanish author, Rosa Montero was recognized by World Literature Today as one of the 75 Notable Translations of 2012. The Immortal Collection: A Saga of The Ancient Family (Eva García Sáenz), was published in April 2014. She presents sessions at writers and film festivals, organizes visits by writers from Spain and Latin America, and is also a media commentator on matters Spanish. For further information, see www.latrobe.edu.au/humanities/about/staff/profile?uname=LMThwaites

New York Kaleidoscope

(excerpts from the essay collection Petit éloge des grandes villes (Small Praise for Big Cities)© Gallimard 2007)

From JFK airport, Queens; the middle of an October night

Rain lacerates the taxi windows. Between two sudden downpours, water runs in rivulets, blurs my view already dulled by sleep. It’s 9 p.m. (3 a.m., Paris time). Car headlights set the gathered raindrops afire—fragmented, reconstructed, tiny roundabout rivers in tawny colors I press my forehead against. The Caribbean cab driver talks into his cell phone in an unknown language, his voice muffled by the sliding plastic door that separates us. Green road signs outlined in white jump out of the night and disappear again: “Jewel Av.,” “Lindens,” “the Bronx,” screaming neon signs, Jamaica Hospital Medical Center, HSBC, grassy zones, persimmon trees still leafy and full of heavy mist. I shiver, my forehead frozen from contact with the window. The radio’s playing Celine Dion, “My Heart Will Go On.” A green sign, “Queensboro Plaza.” The Greek part of town. The streetlights melt under the storm in long pink streaks, blinking stoplights, neon signs; I fall asleep.

 

5th Avenue, corner of 59th Street

I pull the little plastic tab in the notch. I press my lips against the boiling hot opening. I swallow a mouthful of café au lait. I’m waiting for someone who’s not coming, or maybe I’m just early. I walk, the air is golden at this time of the morning, it’s November, the blurry contours of towers emerge from the blinding fog, their grey masses barely distinguishable. I can’t see the road or the passers-by, there’s only me on the sidewalk vibrating with light, my cheeks frozen, my palm gripping a cardboard cup, soft, smooth, lukewarm, giving off steam, and the sun flashes, makes stars, snakes of light on the facades, they ricochet under my eyelids. I’m cold. I’m waiting for someone who’s not coming. I squint my eyes, I drink some more. The hot liquid goes inside. I walk, eyelashes full of tears; a provisional warmth inside me.

 

Washington Square, Halloween

Dozens of dogs have come to walk their owners. I check out the humans’ ring fingers, idiotic reflex, in the end, it seems to be their way of keeping themselves close together, pheromones and odors mixing, jackets, elbows, hairdos grazing each other in gestures meant for the dogs, which reassure me of their single status. Not one Labrador, German shepherd, or mutt of respectable size. Apartment dogs the size of a newborn, a doll, easy to put away, to feed and dress according to one’s whim, to cuddle in front of the television. Ground-level beasts that force you to bend over, collars pop open, necklines plunge, fabric stretches across buttocks, over crossed legs. The black gates of Washington Square’s dog park are studded with orange balloons, jack o’lantern masks, purple witch faces. Someone’s plugged in a CD player—Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” “Thriller”—there’s fruit juice and special dog nuggets. The dog owners in Halloween costumes aim their cameras at the ground, flashes going off, and exchange digital exposures of miniature ghosts, canine Draculas, I see a poodle in a pink tutu and a basset hound wedged into a felt hot-dog, a Chihuahua princess wearing the same mauve tulle dress with sequins that I bought for my daughter at FAO Schwarz. Women are hanging on the men’s necks, their eyes fixed on the viewfinders of little liquid-crystal screens; they are liquid, smiling and cooing, shoulders touching, fingers mingling in dog fur. In the background, New York University, its nude red brick, its slow-moving students wearing baggy pants, grey and black cotton sweats; off to the side, the children’s playground with its slides, merry-go-rounds, bang-your-bum see-saws, log cabins with suspension bridges or real Supermen, Snow Whites, plush teddy bears chase each other around, sweating, scaring each other, crack up laughing, make faces for their parents’ cameras, soon to be framed above the marriage bed.

 

Central Park South

I’m stretched out on a rock. I smooth out the hollow of my kidneys, uncurl my spine to match the shape of the stone, its irritating irregularities, in order to feel the rock grating against my skin. The bumps and ridges prevent me from being elsewhere in a dream, somewhere other than here, in the middle of Manhattan. I close my eyes. I hear nothing but syrupy soul music pumping out of speakers somewhere down there, the light scraping of skates on iceI can imagine the very fine, melting powder deposited on the surface after the skaters pass by, the laughter that accompanies each tumble. All I see is a red glow behind my eyelids. It’s the noontime sun, and all the background images imprisoned in my pupils before drowsiness sets in: Indian-summer trees, orange and yellow, ultramarine sky, the white oval of the skating rink, pointy buildings still concealed by the leaves, transparent blue-glass cylinders still under construction, the scaffolding veiled by purple mesh, the red ESSEX House sign perched on a roof. I carry them far away with me, in my sleep, tiny sensors of softness, of giddiness and light, and when other images crop upme tidying the empty kitchen, sponging the crumbs off the table, striking out whole paragraphs from my students’ papers, tracing their faces between the pale blue lines in red indelible ink, tearing out the pages of a Moleskin notebook where I write down every perceptible scrap about New York that I have no idea what to do withI align my vertebrae with the spine of the rock; the mirrors of the skyline, the skating rink, the fiery leaves fiercely unfurling under my head, they eat away at anything that might disrupt my peace of mind.

 

Kiko and Ted, West Village

I never go to jazz clubs. But I know New York well now, so I dig underground and there it is, I’m in a real basement, orange spotlights making sparks on the horns hanging on the dark green walls. At the Village Vanguard, Lou Donaldson, Coltrane’s old sax player, calls Kiko, the organist, who hails from Alabama, to the stage. Donaldson’s gravelly voice and the presence of the word “Alabama” bring to mind a woman with rugged, suntanned skin, the same image I have of Sook, Truman Capote’s guardian during his early childhood, with a huge, warm body and the fingers of a masseuse. Kiko appears, beaming and frail. I stupidly tell myself that she has a lot of teeth for an Asian. In my preconceived notions, Japanese musicians wear long black robes in satin or silk, velour sheaths and flowing dark hair, a discreet piece of jewelry, ear pendants, thin necklace, they have a pale and powdered complexion, pink lips, barely shiny when they’re made up, and more often colorless, barely marked. They belong to the Salle Pleyel, the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, they’re pianists, violinists, lyric opera singers like my friend Yumiko, I only see them in front of red curtains, gilded moldings, dark lacquer, they have a last name and never come from Alabama. Kiko is dressed in black, a low-cut dress, bland of mouth and jewel-less, or maybe, if I’m remembering correctly, just a shiny drop on her throat held by a transparent string, a little white stone on white skin. Not only is she smiling at the whole room, she’s playing free jazz and the little stone skips furiously at her neck. I can feel my heart skipping at the same time. Her embroidered slippers dance over the organ’s pedals, reminding me of the soft foot movements of my mother at the weaving loom, and then I lift my gaze, Kiko laughs, her hands travel across, wring out the keyboard, creating waves of notes, broadside loops around the sax, sticky spots, sharp bursts on the drums. It makes light, voilà, light.

It’s the same with Ted Curson at the Blue Note the next day. Light. At first, his asthma in the microphone, his enormous belly, lungs compressed by phlegm and fat, he can’t possibly play. He can’t even sit down. He’s not going to play. But he does. He blows in the trumpet, at first you’d think it was a toy, it’s barely bigger than his hand. I see his cheeks puff up, his belly, his fingers, such a sound can’t be coming from this body. But it is. And I notice everything that shines, scintillates and gives off light this evening: his blue satin jacket, its lucky silver dragons embroidered on the front, his really white devil’s beard, frizzy and riddled with specks, his black forehead covered with sweat, the brass, the horns, the waltzing cymbals, the valves, the monumental signet ring on Ted’s left hand, the flutes of champagne full of yellow sparkles, the bubbles inside and out that tickle the mouth, the stomach, the gilded letters on the piano, Bösendorfer, the pink reflections on the record signed by Ray Charles embedded in my table; the bits of multicolored neon in the slivers of mirror stuck to the walls,  ew Yor, ork Cit,  ty Jazz,  zz-Club, the blood-red EXIT sign over the door; the opalescent ghosts downing glasses of whisky; Georgia, Georgia he sings. I tell myself that he’s going to die, there, suffocated by his own voice, Ted Curson, but he’s shimmering too, like Kiko, their auras visible right up to the end.

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New York kaléidoscope

De JFK , aéroport, au Queens, pleine nuit d’octobre

La pluie lacère les vitres du taxi. Entre deux rafales, l’eau ruisselle, brouille ma vue engourdie par le sommeil. Il est 9 pm (trois heures du matin). Les phares des voitures incendient les gouttes agglutinées, éclatées, recomposées, petites rivières obliques aux couleurs fauves contre lesquelles j’appuie mon front. Le chauffeur créole parle en langue inconnue dans son téléphone portable, la voix étouffée par la porte coulissante qui nous sépare. Des panneaux verts cernés de blanc surgissent de la nuit, s’y replongent : « Jewel av. », « Lindens », « the Bronx », des néons criards, Jamaica Hospital Medical Center, HSBC, des zones herbeuses, des arbres kaki encore feuillus et pleins de brume lourde. Je frissonne, le front glacé par le contact avec la vitre. La radio diffuse Céline Dion, My heart will go on. Un panneau vert, « Queensboro Plaza ». Le quartier grec. Les lampadaires fondent sous l’averse en longues traînées roses, les feux clignotants, les enseignes lumineuses ; je m’endors.

 

5th Av. corner 59th St.

Je coince le petit rabat de plastique blanc dans l’encoche. J’appuie mes lèvres contre l’orifice brûlant. Je bois une gorgée de café au lait. J’attends quelqu’un qui ne vient pas, ou bien je suis en avance. Je marche, l’air est doré à cette heure du matin, c’est novembre, les contours flous des tours émergent de la brume aveuglante, leurs masses à peine grisées. Je ne vois pas la route, ni les passants, il n’y a que moi sur le trottoir vibrant de lumière, les joues glacées, un gobelet en carton serré dans ma paume, doux, lisse, tiède, fumant, et le soleil fait des éclairs, des étoiles, des serpents de lumières sur les façades, ils ricochent sous mes paupières. J’ai froid. J’attends quelqu’un qui ne vient pas. Je plisse les yeux, je bois encore. Le liquide chaud entre à l’intérieur. Je marche, des larmes plein les cils ; en moi une chaleur provisoire.

 

Washington Square, veille d’Halloween

Des dizaines de chiens sont venus promener leurs maîtres. Je regarde leurs annulaires, réflexe idiot, c’est finalement leur façon de se tenir serrés, phéromones et parfums mélangés, vestes, coudes, cheveux qui s’effleurent dans les gestes adressés aux chiens qui m’assurent de leur célibat. Pas un labrador, un berger allemand, un bâtard de volume respectable. Des chiens d’appartement de la taille d’un nourrisson, d’une poupée, faciles à ranger, à nourrir, à vêtir selon sa fantaisie, à cajoler devant la télé. Bêtes à ras du sol qui obligent à se pencher, les cols s’ouvrent, les décolletés s’échancrent, les tissus se tendent sur les fesses, sur les cuisses pliées. Les grilles noires du parc à chiens de Washington Square sont constellées de ballons orange, de masques de Jack o’Lantern, de visages de sorcières violettes, quelqu’un a branché un CD player, Bad, Thriller de Mickael Jackson, il y a du jus de fruit et des croquettes de fêtes. Les maîtres en costumes d’Halloween font crépiter les flashes en direction du sol, s’échangent des vues numériques de fantômes miniatures, Draculas canins, je vois un caniche en tutu rose et un basset coincé dans un hot-dog en feutrine, une princesse chiwawa qui porte la même robe en tulle mauve et paillettes que j’ai achetée pour ma fille chez FAO Schwarz. Les femmes se coulent dans le cou des hommes, les yeux fixés sur les clichés des petits écrans à cristaux liquides, elles sont liquides, leur sourire et leur langue qui déroule des rires de colombe, les épaules se touchent, des doigts se mêlent dans le poil des chiens. Au second plan, l’Université de New York, ses briques rouges et nues, ses étudiants à pas lents glissés dans des pantalons trop grands, des sweats en coton gris et noir ; sur le côté, le parc pour enfants avec ses toboggans, tourniquets, balançoires tape-cul, cabanes en rondins avec pont suspendu où de vrais Superman, Blanche-Neige, oursons en peluche et satin se poursuivent, transpirent, se font peur, éclatent de rire, grimacent devant les appareils photo de leurs parents, bientôt encadrés au-dessus du lit conjugal.

 

Central Park South

Je suis allongée sur un rocher. Je lisse le creux de mes reins, je déroule ma colonne vertébrale pour épouser la forme de la pierre, ses irrégularités agaçantes, pour les sentir écorcher mon dos. Elles m’empêchent d’être ailleurs dans le rêve, ailleurs qu’ici, sur mon rocher, en plein Manhattan. Je ferme les yeux. Je n’entends rien que la soul sirupeuse diffusée par les baffles plus bas, le crissement léger des patins sur la glace – j’imagine la poudre très fine et fondante qui se dépose à la surface après le passage des patineurs, les rires qui précèdent ou suivent les chutes. Je ne vois rien qu’une lueur rouge derrière mes paupières, c’est le soleil à midi, et toutes les images du décor emprisonnées dans mes pupilles avant la somnolence : arbres orange et jaunes de l’été indien, ciel outre-mer, ovale blanc de la patinoire, immeubles pointus encore dissimulés par les feuilles, cylindres transparents verre-bleu en construction, leurs échafaudages voilés de maillage pourpre, l’enseigne rouge ESSEX House accrochée à un toit. Je les emmène loin avec moi, dans mon sommeil, petits capteurs de vertiges, de douceur, de lumière, et quand d’autres images affleurent – moi qui range la cuisine vide, éponge les miettes sur la table, efface les traces de vie, moi qui biffe des paragraphes entiers sur les copies de mes élèves, qui raye leurs visages entre les lignes bleu pâle au stylo rouge indélébile, moi qui déchire les feuilles du carnet Moleskine où je note tout fragment sensible sur New York et ne sais quoi en faire – j’aiguise mes vertèbres aux arêtes du rocher ; les miroirs de la skyline, de la patinoire, des feuilles chaudes se déploient férocement sous mon crâne, elles mordent toutes interférences avec ma quiétude.

 

Kiko et Ted, West Village

Je ne vais jamais dans les boîtes de jazz. Mais je connais bien New York, maintenant, alors je creuse sous le sol et ça y est, je suis dans une vraie cave, des spots orange allument des étincelles sur les cuivres accrochés aux murs vert foncé. Au Village Vanguard, Lou Donaldson, le vieux saxo de Coltrane, appelle Kiko, l’organiste, qui vient d’Alabama. A cause des cailloux dans sa voix et du mot « Alabama », j’imagine une femme à peau hâlée, rocailleuse, l’idée que je me fais de Sook jeune, la cousine tutrice de Truman Capote dans sa petite enfance, avec un corps énorme et chaud et des doigts de masseuses. Kiko apparaît, hilare et frêle, je me dis bêtement qu’elle a beaucoup de dents pour une asiatique. Dans mes images familières, les musiciennes japonaises portent des robes longues en satin ou soie noire, des fourreaux de velours avec coulée de cheveux sombres, un bijoux discret, pendentifs d’oreilles, collier mince, elles ont le teint pâle et poudré, des lèvres roses, légèrement brillantes lorsqu’elles sont maquillées, et le plus souvent incolores, à peine marquées. Elles appartiennent à la salle Pleyel, au Théâtre des Champs-Elysée, elles sont pianistes, violonistes, chanteuses lyriques comme mon amie Yumiko, je ne les vois que sur fond de rideaux rouges, moulures dorées, laque obscure, elles ont un nom de famille et ne viennent jamais d’Alabama. Kiko est vêtue de noir, une robe décolletée, la bouche fade et sans bijoux, ou peut-être, si je me souviens bien, juste une goutte brillante sous la gorge retenue par un fil transparent, une petite pierre blanche sur peau blanche. Seulement elle sourit d’un mur à l’autre, elle joue du free jazz et la petite pierre tressaute furieusement à son cou. Je sens bien que mon cœur tressaute en même temps. Ses mules brodées dansent sur les pédales de l’orgue, je me rappelle les mouvements doux des pieds de ma mère sous le métier à tisser, et puis je lève les yeux, Kiko rit, ses mains traversent, essorent le clavier, ça fait des vagues de notes, des volutes en écharpe autour du saxo, des taches collantes, des éclats aiguisés sur la batterie, ça fait de la lumière, voilà, de la lumière.

Ted Curson, au Blue Note le lendemain, pareil. De la lumière. D’abord, son asthme dans le micro, son ventre énorme, les poumons compressés par les glaires et la graisse, il ne peut pas jouer. Il ne peut même pas s’asseoir. Il ne va pas jouer. Si. Il souffle dans la trompette, la première, on dirait un jouet, elle est à peine plus large que sa main. Je vois ses joues gonflées, son ventre, ses doigts, un tel son ne peut pas venir de ce corps. Si. Et je retiens tout ce qui brille, et scintille et produit de la lumière ce soir : son gilet de satin bleu, ses dragons porte-bonheur argentés brodés sur le devant ; sa barbe du diable très blanche et crépue et criblée de paillettes, son front noir couvert de sueur ; les chromes, les cuivres, les cymbales valseuses, les pistons, la chevalière monumentale à la main gauche de Ted ; les coupes de champagne traversées d’éclats jaunes, les bulles dedans dehors qui chatouillent la bouche, l’estomac, les lettres dorées sur le piano, Bösendorfer, les reflets roses sur le disque signé Ray Charles incrusté dans ma table ; les bouts de néons multicolores dans les lames de miroir plaquées aux murs, ew Yor, ork Cit, ty Jazz, zz-Club, le rouge sang EXIT au-dessus de la porte ; les fantômes opalescents surgis des verres à whisky ; Georgia, Georgia, il chante, je me dis qu’il va mourir, là, étouffé par sa propre voix, Ted Curson, mais il chatoie lui aussi, comme Kiko, d’une aura bien visible, jusqu’à la fin.

Translator’s Note:

As I was wrapping up the translation of a cookbook for the parents of young children—my first foray into the land of parsnip purées and metric conversions—an old friend handed me a well-worn copy of Petit éloge des grandes villes by Valentine Goby. “Enough baby food,” she said. “Read Valentine’s work. You two have led parallel lives.” Discovering Goby’s essays (many of which unfold in cities I too have loved and called home), I couldn’t help jotting down rough translations in the margins. By Chapter 3 I was unable to keep reading without translating what had come before. So instead of fighting the impulse, I went with it. My brain was unwilling to let me simply read the text: it wanted to bring Goby’s words into English, right then and there.

Charlotte Mandell describes a similar process in her approach to translating Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. “I have chosen to translate right from the start of the text: I do not read ahead. I don’t read the book before I translate it. I don’t want to know what it means before I go through the actual formation of its meaning word by word. In that way, I not only try to keep the reader in mind (so that if I come to a puzzling passage I can guess the reader will be puzzled too, and I’ll try to find the best words to make the passage clear), but I also have the tremendous experience of, so to speak, accompanying the author in the act of composition.” In this spirit I present excerpts from Goby’s interior voyage to my hometown New York, which I left behind for Goby’s native France.

With my next pet project, Goby’s ninth novel Kinderzimmer, I’m forcing myself to digest the text before I translate. It’s 1944 at the German concentration camp of Ravensbrück. Amid the destruction, an anomaly: the kinderzimmer (nursery), a rare point of light in the shadows. It is here that Mila, a young French political prisoner, will give life and find a reason to keep living.

Biographical notes

V_Goby_Headshot_photo_credit_Fanny_Dion

Photo: Fanny Dion

Valentine Goby is a French writer, born in Grasse (French Riviera) in 1974. After studying at Sciences Po in Paris, she spent three years in Hanoi and Manila, where she worked with humanitarian organizations helping street children. Goby published her first novel, The Sensitive Note, with Gallimard in 2002. For eight years she taught French literature and theater in secondary school before dedicating herself to writing and various book-related projects: workshops, talks, conferences, writing residencies at schools, libraries, and universities. She currently teaches literature and writing workshops at Sciences Po. Her ninth novel, Kinderzimmer (Actes Sud, 2013) has won seven literary awards including the prestigious Prix des Libraires (Booksellers Prize) and is being translated into Spanish, Dutch, Italian, and Danish. She is also the President of the French Authors’ Council (Conseil Permanent des Écrivains).

C_Buckley_headshotChristine Buckley is a writer, editor, and translator born in New York and based in Paris after several years living in Vietnam. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Best Women’s Travel Writing, LA Weekly, and National Public Radio. The co-author of Slave Hunter: Freeing Victims of Human Trafficking (Simon & Schuster, 2009) and the translator of Bébé Gourmet (The Experiment, 2013), Buckley has earned Associated Press, LA Press Club, and Maggie awards as well as fellowships to the Poynter Institute and the Omi International Arts Center. She currently edits news at France 24, teaches at L’École Nationale des Arts Décoratifs, and is working on a memoir entitled People From an Outside Country. Her translation of Valentine Goby’s “Hanoi, Silences” recently appeared in Asymptote. She is seeking translation projects from Vietnamese. Twitter: @christibuckley

Five Poems

Aesop’s Language

The language of Aesop eludes me,
and it’s too late to be taught a new tongue;
whether they’re villains, reprobates, or robbers,
I’m used to calling the powers
that be—with no provisos, no thought
for rank or title—by their actual names.
I won’t thin complicity among the many,
or inflate an individual shame.

Passer-by, be advised: give me a wide berth!
Only your feet now can save you.
For it is not the earth’s verdict
I’m calling down here—it is God’s.
When the defense and D.A. conspire
together, one witness gathers Himself
to judge: see His face flame with righteous ire,
see His robes effulgent with truth.

From the tree of earthly fear I eat no seeds,
from the waters of fright I’ve not drunk,
for this is Caesar’s portion I spurn.
I’ve filled my belly with other things.
So you, little whimperer, flee now!
Hightail it out of here, make haste,
lest animals swathed in sermon silk attack.
Your heels will feel the hot breath of beasts.

 

Every Day

Each and every day, save weekends and holidays,
when there’s no reason or special occasion
to leave my apartment and head downtown,
the same underground train—racing at insane speeds, its
unbearable rattling and grinding, screeching

and shrieking, clanging and clawing that’s fit
to flay my eardrums to the bone—carries us past
the exact spot between two stations, Avtozavodskaya
and Pavelstskaya, where a friend, not my nearest
or dearest, but a quiet man and loving father,

the kind that’s daily more endangered, always willing
to go drinking and a book-lover to boot,
the kind whose hard work never won him a penny,
Borya Geliebter (speak his name in your prayers, ye who live!),
was blown to bits in that explosion on the sixth

of February, in the two thousand and fourth year
of our Lord, on a Friday, at thirty-two minutes
past eight, as he was commuting in the morning
rush hour, without the slightest notion that he—
the poor guy, just fifty-four days shy

of his forty-third birthday—was slated to land
(oh senseless fate!) in tragedy’s messy center; and then
a host of thoughts comes into my head, from furious
curses—“Let those who gave this sordid order,
and those who (aware of their actions) still acted,

find no peace in this life or the next;
whether they rest in cold graves or hot beds may they
get no response, for a special retribution awaits their souls!”—
to humble thoughts of heaven’s hidden works,
which reason can’t fathom nor human dimensions measure,

since our births as men, our lives and ends,
reside in the Creator’s hands, who always calls
his blessed back with “Blessed be those beloved to me!”—
to vague ruminations on things foreboding:
how, if the philosopher of the common task is correct

and the resurrection requires numerical data, here’s where
you’ll find it, thus proving (despite a certain thinker’s bitter claim)
that after Auschwitz and the Gulag, after bloody wars
and revolutions, after Hiroshima, Baghdad and New York, there can be poetry…
but what kind? Who’s to say, maybe this kind right here.

 

In Memory of East Prussia

I.

Everything here’s alien: storks in their nests—
habit led each one here—
the everyday earth, the air’s everyday breath,
++++++ithe everyday water.

Formed by some separate kind of god
there’s this heaven, the fields sliced just
right, and a sun to scorch these winding roads
++++++iand kick up their dust.

Here the roosters sing off key, crickets
chirr improperly, and strange is the screech
of foliage, growing thickest
++++++ion oak, lime, or birch branch.

Built by bellicose Teutons,
an antique castle’s a cast-wax skull.
However much its emptiness saddens
++++++iyou, it’ll never again be full.

Of everything around me, seen and unseen, the one
deep law cannot be known—
so too did barbarians, astride Rome’s ruins,
++++++ithink everything alien.

II.

The ruin’s tongue is unintelligible:
the Livonian’s no longer around—
these countless lacunae stand out,
bright against the black background.

Both first sketch and final signature
emerge from under the paint—
sad denouement that hunts
you out, no matter what you want.

On the orphaned pedestal
falls a lone shadow;
There are finer points and details
we’re too lazy to dig through.

Cobwebs now cover
the pond’s dusty mirror;
as a mother mourns her sons,
so the sons their father.

III.

“As for the truth that one day we’ll die,
the trees here wept clear amber,
back when nothing yet could portend
that those called out—i.e. you and I—
from the dark ether on God’s orders
would suit up for living…” The elegy’s begin-

ning is severed—but to prolong it, ah!
my head’s inspiration-less,
and I’ve not endeavored to drag line after line
for some time now. Gently a wave—
the Golden Fleece’s curly heiress—
floats the fossilized tears to the coastline.

IV.

For how many years has this clock-
face’s 5:30 been rusted fast—
++++++itime’s left the station.
Chronicler! Take up your coal and chalk
to mark the day more attentively. Dab your brow sweat.
++++++iAll other options

elude you. So quickly now, note this
little testament—just take it down, don’t
++++++itry to fathom it.
For the seagull’s shrill voice
greets everything that’s in the earth, or
++++++iby the earth begot.

V.

The sandy hills of the Curonian Spit,
seeded with dragon’s teeth, cleave
the sea’s elastic lap in two turbulent
halves; the Spit’s been seeded.

As usual the men arose bristling.
They awoke to discord, then strained
to straighten, like gnarled pines striving
against the frenzied elements; now they remain,

a thin strip of woods, overcast and sullen.
So it was, and so it shall be.
My blood freezes; I realize we’re kin.
I too was sown senselessly.

VI.

A bridge, nowhere-bound,
+++ispans a loathsome stream;
the waters ceased their babble,
+++ifeigning lethargy.

Not a single trail remains
+++isince there’s nothing to decide.
This spreading meadow’s still green,
+++iuncut by time’s sure scythe.

The shades take their leisure
+++iwith picnics in that vale;
wherever they gambol
+++ithey trample spring petals.

Memory and oblivion—two
+++ishores—make one.
I’ve not crossed the bridge,
+++ibut linger in-between.

VII.

An old photographer wanders, aluminum
tripod in tow, raking the beach vainly for one
who’d wish herself pictured against a horizon
of belted pines or crags of sand, but—as if to spite him—

no one’s to be found; nobody needs anything—
not the countless tourists, each equipped
with Polaroids and Kodaks—and it’s no staggering
aggravation, though regret, nonetheless, seeps

in. Shoeless, taciturn, he passes the trash-heaps
of people, dividing his feet between sand and surf.
He’s filled with sorrow, which is my sorrow,
leaving no tracks as he goes forth.

Of all gilded Apollo’s adopted sons
surely you’re the last and most beloved!
Abandon that tripod and photograph heaven—
the sea, the sun, radiating from its altitude!

 

“You Take Root in Earth”

You take root in earth; I trot blithely by,
humming some happy tune
++++++i(all by my lonesome) about how,
as your gold leaves fall, you grow
more irresistible, though you’re neither
++++++idead nor living.

You seek help, little misery’s daughter,
but what help, poor dear, might I provide?
++++++iThe death pangs attending
your final hour are just like high art, though
they refuse to be captured in sculpture,
++++++ispeech, pigment, or song.

You dwindle down to nothing,
while those buds, which bring no good
++++++ito fruition, sit fallow—
Are you the fig our Savior damned,
or the walnut that, well before Christ’s birth,
++++++iOvid cursed in a split verse?

 

“A Many-Throated, Many-Mawed, Many-Tongued Rumble”

A many-throated, many-mawed, many-tongued rumble
resounds, coming nigh, soaring high, casting wide,
to infuse each soul with horror, wrap it in fear like a shroud,
setting all, from the dead to the unborn, atremble:
What’s happening? What’s coming? What’s gone?

And the cosmos’ uncountable creatures now feel
a light on their transparent skin, transmitted
from an immutable mote, so tiny even a keen eye
can’t pinpoint it in the maelstrom of faces and events—
but it holds our questions’ answers, and our hope.

prose_section_divider

Языком эзоповым не владея

Языком эзоповым не владея,
потому что поздно учить язык,
нечестивца, вора или злодея
власть имущих – собственными привык
называть именами без оговорок,
невзирая на звания и чины,
сопричастности не деля на сорок,
не преувеличивая вины.

Обходи меня стороной, прохожий!
ибо только ноги тебя спасут, –
нет, не человечий на них, но Божий
постоянно я призываю суд,
где защитник и обвинитель слиты
воедино, свидетель – и тот один,
пламенеют гневом Его ланиты,
свет сияет истины от седин.

Я со древа страха земного зерен
не вкушал и не пил боязни вод
кесарю назло, как бы ни был черен
или бел, – иным наполнял живот,
посему, дрожащий, как можно прытче
от меня беги, не жалея пят,
а не то, напялив личины притчи,
за спиною хищники засопят.

 

Каждый божий день, кроме выходных и праздничных

Каждый божий день, кроме выходных и праздничных,
когда без надобности особой смысла нет
из дому выдвигаться в сторону центра,
с невыносимым скрежетом, скрипом, сипом,
визгом и лязгом, царапающим и дерущим насквозь

барабанные перепонки, на сумасшедшей скорости
поезд подземный привычно проносит меня
мимо того самого места, между “Автозаводской”
и “Павелецкой”, где моего приятеля, не из близких,
тихого человека и семьянина, каких ещё поискать,

собутыльника мирового и страстного книжника,
ни гроша не стяжавшего честным себе трудом,
Борю Гелибтера (помяни в молитвах имя его, живущий!)
разорвало в куски во время взрыва шестого
февраля две тыщи четвёртого года от Рождества

Христова, в пятницу, в тридцать две минуты девятого,
едущего на работу в утренний час пик,
не подозревая, что ему, бедолаге, за пятьдесят четыре
дня до сорокатрёхлетия в самое средоточье
угодить (о случайность бессмысленная!) суждено,

и приходят мне в голову то проклятия гневные:
“Тем, кто отдал, не дрогнув, страшный приказ, и тем,
кто, сознавая и ведая, что творит, исполнил,
пусть не будет покоя ни на том, ни на этом свете,
ни в холодных могилах, ни в жарких постелях телам

их не спится, а душам готовится кара сугубая!” —
то смиренные мысли о том, что непостижим
человеческому разумению небесный промысел тайный
и к нему подступаться с мерой земной бесполезно,
что рождение смертных, жизнь и кончина в руках

у Творца, всех блаженных Своих обратно зовущего:
“Да пребудет благословен возлюбленный мной!” —
то предчувствия смутные, мол, если общего дела
философ окажется прав и точнейших данных
для грядущего воскрешения понадобится цифирь,

можно будет её почерпнуть отсюда, и в опровержение
горьких слов иного мыслителя доказать,
что поэзия после Освенцима и ГУЛАГа, кровавых
революций и войн, Хиросимы, Багдада, Нью-Йорка
может быть, но какой? — кто знает, — возможно, такой.

 

ПАМЯТИ ВОСТОЧНОЙ ПРУССИИ

I

Здесь все чужое: аисты на гнездах,
привычкой занесенные сюда,
обычная земля, обычный воздух,
++++++iобычная вода.

Сотворены другим каким-то богом
и небеса, и дольние поля,
и солнце, по извилистым дорогам
++++++iпылящее, паля.

Здесь петухи поют не так, не этак
кузнечики стрекочут, странен скрип
густой листвой отягощенных веток
++++++iдубов, берез и лип.

Основанный воинственным тевтоном
старинный замок – череп восковой.
как ни тоскуй о безвременьи оном,
++++++iне сганет головой.

Всего, что зримо мне и что незримо,
таинственный закон непостижим, –
так варвару среди развалин Рима
++++++iказалось все чужим.

II

Язык руин не внятен:
ливон не вышел вон, –
немало белых пятен
легло на черный фон.

Проступят из-под краски
и надпись и чертеж, –
трагической развязки
дождешься – ждешь не ждешь.

Стоит на пьедестале
осиротелом тень;
в подробности, в детали
вникать, вдаваться лень.

Затянет паутина
зерцало озерца,
но матери без сына,
что сыну без отца.

III

“О том, что мы когда-нибудь умрем,
деревья здесь рыдали янтарем,
когда еще ничто не предвещало,
что вызванные из небытия
велением Господним – ты и я –
сберемся жить…” – Элегии начало

оборвано, – ее продлить, увы!
нет вдохновения, из головы
не тщусь тянуть по строчке и подавно,
пока выносит на берег волна,
курчавая наследница руна
златого, плач окаменелый плавно.

IV

Полшестого на проржавелом
циферблате который год, –
++++++iвремя выбыло.
Летописец! углем и мелом
дни, со лба утирая пот,
++++++iибо выбора

нет, прилежнее отмечай-ка,
не пытаясь понять, внемли
++++++iзавещаньице, –
то приветствует криком чайка
все, что в землю иль из земли
++++++iвозвращается.

V

Усеяны густо зубами дракона
песчаные горы на Куршской косе,
делящей бурливое надвое лоно
упругого моря, – усеяны все.

В урочное время по всем косогорам,
разбужены распрей, они прорастут,
согбенными соснами встав под напором
стихии безумной, – останутся тут

полоскою леса, угрюмой и хмурой.
Так было, так будет, – из жара да в дрожь
при мысли: на них несуразной фигурой,
на прошлых и будущих, сам я похож.

VI

Мост, ведущий в никуда
+++iчрез ручей смердящий:
говорливая вода
+++iпритворилась спящей.

Ни тропинки никакой,
+++iибо жребий брошен, –
луг, уверенной рукой
+++iвремени не кошен.

В праздник там, на том лугу,
+++iвеселятся тени,
разбивая на бегу
+++iчашечки растений.

Память и забвенье – два
+++iберега – едины:
мост не перейден едва
+++iмной до середины.

VII

Старый фотограф с треножником из дюрали
бродит по пляжу тщетно в поисках тех,
кто пожелал бы снимок на фоне дали
Бельта ли, гор ли песчаных, но – как на грех –

никого: никому ничего не надо, –
отдыхающих тыщи снабжены
кодаками, поляроидами – не досада
неимоверной, но сожаление – глубины.

Бос, молчалив, минуя свалку людскую,
он по песку одной, по волне другой,
полон тоской, которой и я тоскую,
не оставляя следов, ступает ногой.

Из сыновей приемных златого Феба
самый последний – самый любимый ты!
брось свой треножник, фотографируй небо,
море и солнце, блещущее с высоты.

 

Ты в землю врастаешь, – я мимо иду

Ты в землю врастаешь, – я мимо иду,
веселую песенку на ходу
++++++iсебе под нос напевая
про то, как – теряя златые листы –
мне кажешься неотразимою ты,
++++++iни мертвая, ни живая.
Ты помощи просишь, страдания дочь, –
мне нечем тебе, бедняжка, помочь:
++++++iтвои предсмертные муки
искусству возвышенному сродни,
хоть невпечатлимы ни в красках они,
++++++iни в камне, ни в слове, ни в звуке.
Сойдешь на нет, истаешь вот-вот, –
благой не приносящие плод
++++++iпускай не расклеятся почки,
поскольку ты – смоковница та,
которую проклял еще до Христа
++++++iОвидий в раздвоенной строчке.

 

Гул многоустый, многоязычный, многогортанный

Гул многоустый, многоязычный, многогортанный,
вширь раздаваясь, вглубь проникая, ввысь устремляясь,
души живущих ужасом полнит, страхом объемлет,
в трепет приводит всех от умерших до нерождённых:
что происходит? что исчезает? что возникает?

Вся во Вселенной тварь ощущает плотью сквозною
проникновенный свет, исходящий из ниоткуда,
из неподвижной точки ничтожной, зоркому глазу
неразличимой в круговороте лиц и событий,
но и ответы в нём на вопросы есть и надежда.

Translators’ Note

Our collaborative translations began as a novelty but became an extension of family. We started making them in 2009 when Anne—in Moscow on an NEH Collaborative Research Fellowship for three months—met Maxim Amelin, an “archaist innovator” of a poet, whose clever neologisms and classical leanings deserve to be better known in English. A scholar of Soviet literature by training, Anne had only ever translated prose. A poet and translator of Latin, Derek had no experience with Russian verse. And yet we were both game for a challenge, newly married and eager, we suppose, to attempt a union of literature to follow our union of love. So we set to work, slowly carrying one Amelin poem after another into English, using—in Jascha Kessler’s description of collaborative translation—a “method, which is really quite simple, and hardly a method at all.” Anne picked the poems, wrote the cribs, and glossed terms, tropes, and themes, festooning the poems like Spanish moss. Derek massaged the whole packet back into sonorous verse. And then we’d talk, and talk, and talk some more.

If this setup sounds like a test of marital communication, it was, at least for a time. While the Soviet satirical duo Il’f and Petrov, much translated by Anne, could complain that “writing together isn’t twice as easy, it’s ten times as hard,” how much more difficult is translating together, when there are three minds in the mix? Still, collaboration’s challenges are little different from those faced by any translator translating alone: what’s the line between sound and sense? There’s always going to be some nuance or artful consonance that will vanish, and as Joanna Trzeciak recently wrote, “translation is the art of choosing one’s regrets.” If we, as collaborative translators, are bound to admit and explain those regrets, we’re at least buoyed by a partner who comprehends and empathizes with the loss. And the final product benefits from two attention spans and two sets of eyes. To put it another way, we are the team of relay sprinters who’ve snuck into a marathon, pacing ourselves against life’s other exhaustions. In 2010, we became parents of a son. Now four years old, he speaks both Russian and English, hearing the former from his mother, the latter from his dad. If these translations are for anyone other than Amelin, they are surely for him.

D_Mong_headshotDerek Mong is the author of Other Romes (Saturnalia Books, 2011); the poetry editor at Mantis: A Journal of Poetry, Criticism, & Translation; and a doctoral candidate at Stanford where he’s finishing a dissertation on marriage in the lives and afterlives of Whitman and Dickinson. The recipient of fellowships and awards from the University of Louisville, the University of Wisconsin, The Missouri Review, and the Hopwood Program, he now lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and young son. His poems, translations, and essays have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, Pleiades, Court Green, and (most recently) the anthology 99 Poems for the 99 Percent. Last summer, he and his wife—Anne O. Fisher—published the first English language interview with Maxim Amelin at Jacket2. He can be reached at www.derekmong.com.

A_Fisher_headshotAnne O. Fisher’s translations of Ilf and Petrov’s novels The Twelve Chairs and The Little Golden Calf, as well as their 1936 travelogue Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip, have been widely praised. She has also translated the prose of Margarita Meklina and Leonid Tishkov, and—with husband and co-translator Derek Mong—the poetry of Maxim Amelin. Their Amelin translations, supported by an NEA translation grant, have appeared or are forthcoming in The Dallas Review, Cerise Press, Big Bridge Magazine: An Anthology of Twenty-First Century Russian Poetry, and Chtenia/Readings. Fisher’s translations have also appeared, or will appear, in Cabinet Magazine, Squaring the Circle: Winners of the Debut Prize for Fiction, and Flash Fiction International. She has a PhD from the University of Michigan, and now lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and son. Her current favorite Russian children’s book is Vitaliy Bianki’s Сказки о животных (Fairy Tales about Animals).

M_Amelin_headshotPoet, critic, editor, and translator, Maxim Amelin is among the last generation of Russian poets to grow up in the Soviet Union. The recipient of numerous national awards, including the Moscow Reckoning Award, the Anti-Booker, the Novyi Mir Prize, and the Bunin Prize, his work has been translated into over a dozen languages. In 2013 Amelin won the prestigious Solzhenitsyn Prize for his contributions to Russian poetry. The author of three books of poetry, including Cold Odes (Холодные оды, 1996), Dubia (1999), and The Horse of the Gorgon (Конь Горгоны, 2003), as well as a collection of prose and poems, Bent Speech (Гнутая речь, 2011), he is also an accomplished translator of Pindar, Catullus, Homer, and other ancient and contemporary poets. He currently lives in Moscow. He is a member of the Russian PEN-Club and editor-in-chief at OGI, a leading publisher of contemporary literature.

Among the Trobairitz

Lady Maria,

+++++++++++ivalue and valiance,
joy and beauty and intelligence,
+++++ihonor, worth, and hospitality,
noble speech and pleasing company,
fine, sweet face and merry countenance,
+++++igentle gaze and loving glance—
all these, in you, and not the trickster’s art,
they draw me toward you with an honest heart.

I pray you, if it please you, fine amours
+++++iand jouissance and sweet humility
may bring the solace I’ve been longing for,
+++++iand grant me, lovely lady, if it please
you, the gift from which I’d draw all hope and happiness:
+++++iin you lie all my love and lust and liking,
through you I drink up all I taste of gladness,
+++++iand for you I’ve spent many hours sighing.

+++++iAnd since your valiance and beauty elevate
you over other ladies—none surpasses you—
I pray you, if it please you, in song I dedicate
+++++ito you:
+++++++++++iDon’t love a wooer who’s untrue!

Lovely lady, whom worth and joy exalt,
+++++iand noble speech, to you I send my song,
+++++++++++ifor gaiety and gladness are in you,
and all good gifts a man might choose among.

prose_section_divider

Na Maria, pretz e fina valors,
e.l joi e.l sen e la fina beutatz,
e l’aculhir e.l pretz e las onors,
e.l gent parlar e l’avinen solatz,
e la dous car’ e la gaja cuendansa,
e.l dous esgart e l’amoros semblan
que son en vos, don non avetz engansa,
me fan traire vas vos ses cor truan.

Per que vos prec, si.us platz que fin’ amors
e gausiment e dous umilitatz
me posca far ab vos tan de socors,
que mi donetz, bella domna, si.us platz,
so don plus ai d’aver joi e ‘speransa;
car en vos ai mon cor e mon talan,
e per vos ai tot so qu’ai d’alegransa
e per vos vauc mantas vetz sospiran.

E car beutatz e valor vos enansa
sobra totas, qu’un no.us es denan,
vos prec, si.us platz, per so que.us es onransa,
que non ametz entendidor truan.

Bella domna, cui pretz e joi enansa
e gen parlar, a vos mas coblas man,
car en vos es gajess’ e alegranssa,
e tot lo ben qu’om en domna deman.

Translator’s Note

I am interested in the original song less for its literary merit than for the fact that it composed by a trobairitz for a lady—in other words, from one woman to another. Although Bieiris’ original, and also my translation, may seem at first glance to be nothing more than a catalogue of attractive personality traits, these were the attributes which the troubadours and trobairitz deemed essential to the art of fin’amors, or perfect love (a phrase I’ve rendered, in modern franglais, as “fine amours”).

Are these verses a love song? Perhaps. Many scholars tend to view the poetry of the troubadours and the trobairitz as a literary means toward increasing the writer’s social and economic prestige, rather than as “authentic” expressions of romantic or erotic feeling. But I’m inclined to think—though this may be merely a personal hope—that this particular song was sincere.

I’ve translated the Old Occitan gausiment not as “rejoicing” or “enjoyment” but as a loan-word from French, “jouissance,” which corresponds more exactly to the religious—and sexual—ecstatic connotations of the original. In the case of the Occitan om, which can mean either “one” (like the Modern French on) or “man” (like the Modern French homme), I have opted for the latter translation because I would like to draw your attention to the tension between, on the one hand, the traditional masculinity of language, and, on the other, the challenge which lesbian/women’s poetry poses to that tradition.

Editions of the original may be found in Meg Bogin’s anthology The Women Troubadours (1988), together with Bogin’s facing-page literal translation, and in Oskar Schultz-Gora’s Die Provenzalischen Dichterinnen: Biographien und Texte (1975). Bogin lists the poem’s manuscript source as Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale Fr. 15211.

It’s difficult to write about translation when so much has already been said. I find myself resorting to adages and stock phrases: the notorious traduttore traditore, the one-liner about poetry mis-attributed to Robert Frost, or the idealistic (and exaggerated) claim that every human act, from breathing in air to placing one foot in front of the other, is an act of translation. And this is what drives me to translate in the first place: there is nothing new to be said under the sun. Why write when you can cite? Why compose when you can translate?

I would like to think that I follow Gayatri Spivak in pursuing an “intimate reading,” a “surrender to the text” that is “more erotic than ethical” and in which the self “loses its boundaries” and comes into close contact with something uncanny, something else both self and Other. If the Author is dead, then the translator may be compared to a medium channeling her spirit. (Sometimes, when I’m working late into the night, I take this comparison literally.) When translation becomes simply the breaking and re-making of a text in my own idiom, I know it is time to move on.

Samantha Pious is a Ph.D. student in Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Some of her translations have appeared in Lunch Ticket’s Amuse-BoucheDoublespeak, ConstructionGertrude, and Rowboat.

Bieiris de Romans was a trobairitz (a woman troubadour) who composed at least one lyric in Old Occitan, presumably during the first half of the thirteenth century in the south of France. About her life or identity, nothing else is known.

From the Diary of Madame Mao

Just Following Orders

With its forelegs a mantis pins down its prey

there are circumstances
just following orders

a strip of rabbit fur
by the incense burner
releases the wood’s fragrance

how can I warm the hearth
when all the cranes fly over to the north
without stopping to drink water

 

If You Raise Crows

I am left
at the mercy of the mob

where are my guards
those handsome young men
with their fish eyes

they used to eat from my hand
now they deny knowing me

beyond the sharp blade
caressing my throat

the buzz of the swarm

 

My Daughter Nah’s Visit

There was a time when I loved deeper than I suffered
a time when from every man I desired a child

as a girl I’d hunt rabbits
roast them on a crude fire
then clean their bones and string necklaces

nothing’s left of that girl but a faint penchant
for setting traps

daughter help me
save me from a bullet to the head

why are you ashamed of me?
a widow is a bird with just one wing

when you come to say goodbye bring cellophane
to wrap my heart tender and throbbing

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Sólo obedecía órdenes

Una mantis extiende sus patas y presiona la presa

hay atenuantes
sólo obedecía órdenes

junto al incensario
un resto de piel de conejo
hace a la madera despedir fragancia

cómo puedo calentar el hogar
si todas las grullas pasan hacia el norte
sin detenerse a beber agua

 

Cría cuervos 

Me he quedado
a merced de la turba

dónde está mi guardia
esos hermosos jóvenes
con ojos de pez

comían mendrugos de mi mano
ahora me desconocen

detrás del filo cortante
que acaricia mi garganta

el zumbido del enjambre

 

La visita de mi hija Nah

Hubo un tiempo en que amé más allá del dolor
un tiempo en el cual de cada hombre deseaba un hijo

de niña cazaba conejos
los asaba en un fuego rustico
después limpiaba sus huesos y los hacía collares

de esa niña sólo queda un ligero impulso
por armar trampas

ayúdame hija
sálvame de una bala en la cabeza

¿por qué te avergüenzas de mí?
una viuda es un ave con un ala

cuando vengas a despedirte trae papel celofán
y envuelve mi corazón que aún palpita

Translator’s Note

We initially got to know Ogliastri’s work several years ago, when a mutual friend brought us a copy of her previous book, Polo Sur, a sequence of poems relating her father’s imaginary journey from the Amazon jungle to the South Pole. We fell in love with her distinctive poetic voice and translated the book (South Pole/Polo Sur, published by Settlement House, 2011). When she told us that her next book of poems would tell the story of the Mao era in China through the voice of his wife, Jiang Qing, we were immediately eager to translate it.

From the Diary of Madame Mao emerged from the author’s extensive research on the lives of both Jiang Qing and Mao, as well as Chinese history, culture, and literature. Thus, before we could embark on the translation, we had to become familiar with the subject matter. We believe that translating poetry requires the translator to “become” the author, as we are tasked with writing the poems in a new language. We have to be able to put ourselves into the poet’s mind, to visualize the same images. So we started out by reading a biography of Jiang Qing, as well as a historical novel (Becoming Madame Mao, by Anchee Min), recommended by Ogliastri.

Because of the multi-layered nature of the project—where the language is Spanish, but all the cultural references are Chinese—the translation process was also multi-layered. First, we applied the collaborative process that we had developed in translating Ogliastri’s previous book (South Pole), which involves “identifying the essential elements” of the author’s style so that we can maintain consistency in the voice of the translations, regardless of who is working on a particular poem. For Ogliastri, the key elements are concise language, using line/stanza breaks in lieu of punctuation, and a strong emphasis on imagery. In fact, with Ogliastri’s poetry, the image often takes precedence over the words, so that the process requires translating “image by image” rather than line by line. (A fuller description of our approach can be found in our essay “One Poet, Two Translators: Toward a Single Voice.”)

The second, added layer in the Madame Mao collection involved researching the historical, biographical, or cultural references to ensure that we were representing these accurately and using the appropriate English terminology. An example is the first line of “My Daughter Nah’s Visit,” which literally could be translated, “There was a time when I loved beyond pain/hurt.” But we knew from our reading that Jiang Qing’s childhood had been traumatic and involved a great deal of suffering: poverty, domestic violence, social humiliation, and then abandonment by her mother. Thus, we decided that Ogliastri’s dolor would be best be captured by “suffering” and that más allá in this case implied the depth of emotion and passion rather than distance, hence we chose “deeper” rather than the standard translation “beyond.”

We hope you find these poems as compelling as we do.

Maria Teresa OgliastriMaria Teresa Ogliastri was born in Los Teques, Venezuela, and lives in Caracas. She is the author of five collections of poems: Del diario de la señora Mao (From the Diary of Madame Mao2011), Polo Sur (South Pole, 2008), Brotes de Alfalfa (Alfalfa Sprouts, 2007), Nosotros los inmortales (We, the Immortals, 1997) and Cola de Plata (Silver Tail, 1994). She has been featured at poetry festivals throughout Latin America, and her poems appear in several anthologies of contemporary Venezuelan poetry.

 

Yvette Neisser MorenoYvette Neisser Moreno is the author of Grip (2011 Gival Press Poetry Award), co-translator of Ogliastri’s South Pole/Polo Sur (2011), and editor of Difficult Beauty: Selected Poems by Luis Alberto Ambroggio. She co-directs the DC-Area Literary Translators Network (DC-ALT), teaches at The Writer’s Center, and works as an international research analyst.

 

 

 

Patricia Bejarano FisherPatricia Bejarano Fisher, originally from Colombia, is a multidisciplinary language professional who has worked as a translator, teacher, and learning materials developer in both government and academia. She began her poetry translation career in 2007. In addition to Ogliastri’s South Pole/Polo Sur, her work has appeared in several poetry journals.

Antecedentia

Page 17

Don’t let me leave with little Jamie Bulger, he’s so puny and so scared. Don’t let me let go of little Jamie Bulger, he screams for his mum and wants to go home. On the guard’s monitor we are small jointed dolls in grainy black and white. Two thwarted explorers. Two embalmed children. To the police I say: If I wanted to kill a little boy I’d have picked my own little brother. To God I say: You can’t be everywhere at once. That’s why you created shopping centres. If anyone asks I say he’s my brother.

Page 45

1.
High up there in the cabin of the tallest crane, he sees himself being found in a park, sees himself taking the way of the window, or however it’ll come to him in the end. It is coming to him. He comes out into the daylight with a jack of hearts in the band of his hat, a politician in exile, a treat for ornithologists. Time to wake up now. There, lift your head. I asked you a question. When he was five years old they opened his heart. He thinks he knows what they found inside

Page 46

2.
The low tones in long phone conversations while autumn loads its barrel. His clothes heavy with darkness and prison life. He is a rare insect under the tweezers he himself holds in thin fingers. He is also a child, a boy abandoned in the woods to the night and the wolf, a baby forgotten outside the shopping centre. This is a reconstruction

Page 47

3.
Everything that every single time resulted in a thwarted explorer, sleeping in the anarchists’ café. Believe nothing a woman says, but everything she sings. I hold back the empty space: a chalk outline of a body on the sidewalk. You hold a bouquet of carnations in the May sunlight and turn to look at people you know. Your children too will die in rooms like his

prose_section_divider

Side 17

Ikke la meg gå med lille Jamie Bulger, han er så pytteliten og så redd. Ikke la meg slippe lille Jamie Bulger, han roper sånn på mamma og vil hjem. På vaktas monitor er vi små leddstyrte dukker i kornet svarthvitt. To stansede oppdagere. To balsamerte barn. Til politiet sier jeg: Hvis jeg hadde villet drepe en liten gutt hadde jeg vel tatt min egen lillebror. Til Gud sier jeg: Du kan ikke være alle steder på én gang. Derfor skapte du kjøpesentrene. Til mennesker vi treffer sier jeg at han er lillebroren min.

Side 45

1.
Høyt der oppe i førerhuset på den største krana ser han seg selv bli funnet i en park, ta vindusveien eller hvordan det kommer til å komme til ham. Det kommer til ham. Han kommer ut i dagslyset med en hjerterknekt stukket i hattebåndet, en politiker i eksil, en godbit for ornitologer. På tide å våkne nå. Sånn ja, løft hodet. Jeg spurte deg om noe. Da han var fem år gammel åpnet de hjertet hans. Han tror han vet hva de fant der

Side 46

2.
Det lave toneleiet i timelange telefonsamtaler mens høsten tar ladegrep. Klærne hans tunge av mørke og fangeliv. Han er et sjeldent insekt under pinsetten han selv holder med smale fingre. Han er også et barn, en gutt satt ut i skogen for å møte natta og ulven, en baby glemt igjen foran kjøpesenteret. Dette er en rekonstruksjon

Side 47

3.
Alt som alltid endte med en stanset oppdager, sovende i anarkistenes kafé. Tro ingenting en kvinne sier, men alt hun synger. Jeg holder igjen tomrommet, en kritta kropp på fortauet. Du holder en bukett nelliker i maisola og snur deg etter kjente. Dine barn skal også dø i rom som hans

Translator’s note:

My older sister took out Niels Fredrik Dahl’s Antecedentia from the library when it came out in 1995 and showed me the untitled poem about Jamie Bulger on page 17. I was fourteen at the time, and of course I remembered Jamie Bulger, who was three when he was abducted from a shopping center by two ten-year-olds in Merseyside, England two years earlier. They tortured and killed him on a railway line and became Britain’s youngest murderers, causing fervent debate about how to understand children as killers. Considering how disturbing and ugly this case was, the poet’s choice to enter the head of one of the killers was shocking to me. As far as I can remember, this is the first poem that truly fascinated me.

When I had to pick a translation project for a workshop at Columbia University’s MFA program, Antecedentia was a natural choice. I was a complete novice, but I’d been working in the territory between English and Norwegian ever since I started writing as a young teenager. Like everyone else in Norway, I grew up with TV and pop music in English, and started honing my knowledge of American idioms and slang early on. I spoke English with parts of my family, and it felt more intimate than Norwegian did. Writing felt natural in this English, which was full of satisfying, cool phrases. I felt free to pour out things that were too painful or embarrassing to express in Norwegian. I think I share this sensation with many Norwegiansalmost all Norwegian pop stars, for example, write their lyrics in English. Later, I would translate my writing into Norwegian. When exposed to the bright light of my native tongue, these pieces curled into themselves and tightened up, until only the strongest and smallest possible structure of terse Norwegian remained. This became my modus operandi for years. I was primarily a poet until I switched to fiction and left Norway to pursue my MFA in America. Attempting to bring the no-nonsense clarity of the Norwegian language into English via Dahl’s poems has been a very interesting experience.

Antecedentia is Dahl’s third collection of poetry. The book has big themes: love, time, suffering, ill fortune, and humanity’s dark sides. But it’s also filled with the local and specific: references to places, news events, pop culture, and real people, done in an elegant and sometimes humorous way. It has always given me a feeling that the world is large and rich with hurtful detail that one can access through poetry.

Translating poetry can be frustrating, so I try to consider anything I can manage that carries over a little bit more of the original’s unnamable qualities a bonus. Dahl uses punctuation sparingly, changes verb tenses and tone midway through a poem, and generally keeps things interesting. Translating his tightly packed sentences without losing even their most straightforward meaning is sometimes challenging. I hope I’ve been able to do the poems justice.

Niels Fredrik DahlNiels Fredrik Dahl, born in 1957, is one of Norway’s most well-known writers, poets, and playwrights. His international breakthrough came in 2002 with his second novel, På vei til en venn, which was sold to several countries, including Germany, Italy, France, and Holland and received the Norwegian Brageprize. Dahl has since published two more novels I fjor sommer (2003) and Herre (2009). His latest work is the critically acclaimed collection of poetry Vi har aldri vært her før.

 

 

Karen HavelinKaren Havelin is a writer and translator from Bergen, Norway. She attended Skrivekunst-akademiet i Hordaland, and has a Bachelor’s degree in French, Literature, and Gender Studies from the University of Bergen and University of Paris Sorbonne. She completed her MFA in Fiction from Columbia University in May 2013. Her poems have been published in Norwegian literary magazines. She currently lives in Oslo, Norway and is working on a novel about themes of the body, such as illness, pain, and sexuality. An excerpt from this novel is published on NarrativeNortheast.com.

 

Blas Falconer, Poet

Photo: Bethany Ann Kenney

Photo: Bethany Ann Kenney

Blas Falconer is the author of The Foundling Wheel (Four Way Books, 2012); A Question of Gravity and Light (The University of Arizona Press, 2007); and The Perfect Hour (Pleasure Boat Studio: A Literary Press, 2006). He is also a co-editor for The Other Latin@: Writing Against a Singular Identity (The University of Arizona Press, 2011) and Mentor & Muse:  Essays from Poets to Poets (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010).

He teaches at University of Southern California and in the low-residency MFA program at Murray State University.

Falconer’s awards include a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, a Tennessee Individual Artist Grant, the New Delta Review Eyster Prize for Poetry, and the Barthelme Fellowship.

Born and raised in Virginia, Falconer earned an MFA from the University of Maryland (1997) and a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston (2002). He currently lives in Los Angeles, California with his family.

I first met Blas Falconer during the June 2014 Antioch residency. I had not only attended his workshop, but also introduced him as the guest poet for an evening of readings. The night before this interview, Falconer was part of “Without Bridges,” a PEN Center USA poetry reading. I was fortunate to be in attendance.

Rochelle Newman: Do you have a writing ritual or structure?

Blas Falconer: I keep in touch with a few friends from grad school. We usually check in on Sunday to encourage each other. We give each other—give ourselves, really—a focus, a poetic element or device like compression or metaphor, tone, diction, or syntax. Then, we work on our own throughout the week using the focus as a lens to write something new. That keeps poetry in the back of my mind all the time, even when I’m picking my kids up or taking them to swim class or whatever it is I’m doing. Maybe I’m grocery shopping or even teaching, but I can go back to the page whenever I have time. My friends and I stay in contact throughout the week—asking, Hows it going? Are you having trouble? Then, we exchange our work that following Sunday, no matter what, and start thinking about the next week.

We do this for a few reasons. One, it feels great to be writing and just thinking about poetry when everything else in our lives is demanding our attention. Two, it keeps our skills honed while pushing us to try our hands at something new. And three—every once in a while, we get a poem worth keeping. What I realized recently is that because I’ve been dong this with my friends for a while, when I do get a chunk of time to write, there isn’t that painful beginning. You know, when you haven’t written in a while. The muscles haven’t atrophied. You’re right there.

RN: I really enjoyed attending your workshop, The Finished Poem, at Antioch this past June. In describing the premise, you quoted Brazilian poet Adelia Prado. She had been asked, as Im sure you have been many times, how she knew when her poems were finished. She responded (in Portuguese) when they are better than I am.You covered great territory in that workshopfrom knowing when youre finished to pushing yourself to the edge of your own limitations. When, for example, do you know you’re finished, and how do you give yourself that push?

When I can call home and not feel guilty, then I know that the poem is done.

BF: You know when your poem’s not finished. You know when you’ve taken an easy out. You just do. One of my professors once said, “Do you want to write one hundred good poems or one great poem?” I’ve never forgotten that. I’m not saying I’m going to write a great poem, but at least I want to aim for it, so I don’t want to stop short. And the other thing is this, when I’m writing, I’m not with my family. When I’m writing, everyone makes a sacrifice. When I go to a writer’s conference, for example, if I don’t really push myself and challenge myself, I’m not only letting myself down, but I’m letting my family down. I’m not using that time well. It would be better for me to stay at home and be with my kids—that would be time better spent. So, how do I know the poem is done? It’s done when I feel like whatever it is that I was desperate to say has been said, in the best way I am capable of saying it at that time. When I can call home and not feel guilty, then I know that the poem is done.

RN: You also spoke a great deal about “turns” or “voltas” in the workshop. How do you help your students to really leverage turns? 

BF: Sometimes students don’t think to turn, like I don’t think to turn sometimes. They hit a wall and think that they’re done. But if you just start poking a little bit and start asking questions, you realize that within the poem itself there are clues as to how you can push yourself: maybe there’s a reference to a narrative that you want draw on. Maybe there’s another narrative that can be brought in to juxtapose with the first. Maybe there’s a pattern that’s trying to emerge. If there is a pattern, then you can break the pattern. Maybe it’s metrical, or some sort of rhyme scheme, or even some sort of rhetorical device, so that’s a way my students can turn—it really depends on the poem itself. Once you start to look at it and see what you’ve begun with—the draft invites some play, some possibilities—you may want to counter the idea and undermine the argument you made in the first several lines. What I like to do is ask students to explore. Sometimes the poem is done, and there’s nothing left to do, but it’s always fruitful to consider how you might push the poem before you let it go.

RN: I believe you were once a gymnast, which makes me think of turns and dismounts. Do you think your training as an athlete, specifically a gymnast, plays any role in your poetry or your process?

BF:What an interesting idea. Actually, I have written about it, there’s a section in the prose poem sequence “Another Kind of Music”from The Foundling Wheel where I write about gymnastics explicitly. In the poem, I describe dismounting from the horizontal bar and being spotted by my coach, to convey what it was like to be in the closet and wanting to be loved, and being in love with someone who was straight and who didn’t know. It was about trust, trying to trust. So in the analogy, the coach—when he spots you, he stands below you—you fly up in the air, you do whatever trick you’re doing. Often times, especially when you’re learning a new move, there’s a blur and a disorientation. You’re out of control; you don’t know where you are. As you do it more and more, you can sense where you are in the air, you can spot the ground and land on your feet, but until then the coach is there to catch you, make sure you don’t get hurt. Sometimes he can’t prevent that. So in a way, that is also like writing, I suppose. You do kind of get lost and you’re trying to spot the ground. You’re trying to land. Sometimes you crash, sometimes you don’t, and sometimes it’s fine.

Training could also be a good description of revision, because when you’re learning something in gymnastics, you do it again and again and again, and you fail again and again and again, usually—until it feels right. Then you get it and once you get it, it’s like your body, muscle memory kicks in. The feeling you get when you do a move well, for example, is a little bit like the way it feels when you finish a poem, and it feels like everything is where it’s supposed to be.

Another reason it’s a good analogy is this: there are a lot of parts to an acrobatic move. If you want to complete it, you may have to kick, you need a certain amount of momentum, you need your body to take a particular shape, your arms might have to do something in order to turn or spin. Everything must be timed right. You’re thinking about distance and height, you’re thinking about when you release from the bar, there are all these components that make the move successful. So within a poem, that’s true as well. It’s not any individual device that matters, it’s all of them working together to create the whole experience.

RN:What drives you to the page?

BF: It’s a good question: why do we write these poems? What compels us to “speak?” I think it was Jorie Graham who said, “When I write a poem, I imagine I’m talking to someone who’s walking away.” That’s a really great way to think about urgency in a poem, about what you need to say. One of my professors once said, “Every poet needs to learn how to not write about himself or herself,” but he also said that every poem that he has ever written is somehow about his father. There are several subjects that I keep returning to—belonging, for example—subjects that I clearly feel the need to address, whether I write about them explicitly or not. But also the act of speech is important. I write because the act is empowering and self-affirming. I lived with a secret for much of my life, and keeping that secret made me feel shame and self-loathing, so to speak my truth seems to defy those who would deny me my small place in this world, it is to insist that I am here, as well.

I often return to Heather McHugh’s poem “What He Thought,” where an Italian gentleman defines poetry by telling the story of Giordano Bruno, who had been burned in the square for public heresy. His captors, fearing what he might say to the crowd, placed an iron mask on his face, so he couldn’t speak. “Poetry is what/ he thought but did not say,” the poem famously ends. In that moment, what was Bruno thinking, I wonder, what would he have said? I’m drawn to poetry because there is the potential to say what I can’t say in my life, not even here, in this interview, because of the mask, either self-imposed or imposed by social coercion or by language itself, language’s shortcomings. How lucky, I sometimes think, to have found poetry.

RN: Whats the first poem you remember hearing?

I didn’t know where I was. I was lost, but I was also kind of thrilled about it and I wanted to go back and try it again and again and again.

BF: What’s the first poem I remember hearing? That’s really interesting, because if you think of hearing…you know, with the word underlined…I loved children’s poetry when I was growing up. But the first poem I heard, that I really heard was as an undergrad in a contemporary poetry class. When I heard Sylvia Plath read out loud, I couldn’t even process the words. My ear kept going back to all the rhyme, the internal rhyme, and the class had moved on, but my head was still spinning and before I realized it the poem was over. It was like I was doing that gymnastic move and I couldn’t spot the ground. I didn’t know where I was. I was lost, but I was also kind of thrilled about it and I wanted to go back and try it again and again and again. So maybe that’s it, maybe my first poem was “Lady Lazarus”, or “Daddy” that I really heard.

RN: What about the first poem you ever read? And I guess read can have a few meanings tooread in a book or read aloud. 

BF: So if I had to say hearing, I would say Sylvia Plath, from that class. And reading, I would say Lucille Clifton because Quilting is the first book of poetry that I bought. And I was so thrilled to have it and to read it through. That was probably the first poet I read thoughtfully.

RN: Youve mentioned that the Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa can really move you. How are you inspired by other art formsmusic, painting, photography, sculpture, for example? I found a poem you wrote based on a photograph of zinnias and it made me curious about the role of these other influences.

BF: When I listen to Mercedes Sosa’s voice and when she’s singing about something profound, you just listen to it, it’s kind of like when you’re around someone who is in a very profound emotional state. You can’t help but feel it. When I was a young child and I would see someone cry—I mean grieve—even If I saw someone struggling to hide the grief, holding it back, I would burst into tears. I could not control myself. And I think that when you are in front of an artwork that is emotionally engaging, if you keep being present with it, eventually the boundary between you and the work starts to blur. You start to feel whatever it is…something. That work speaks to something I want to say.

The emotional register helps me to articulate something. So for example, with the poem that you’re referring to, it’s from the Harvey Hix ekphrastic project, Inquire. Harvey gave me Bruce Checefsky’s photograph of three zinnia elegans. The photographer used this technique that blurred the blossoms. My son had been, my older son had suffered from febrile seizures, and there was this moment in particular when I watched him have a seizure—he was about one and a half years old. It was hard to watch because you can’t do anything, there is nothing you can do. I remember my husband Joseph running to the bathroom to get something and I was like: Thats not going to help. It’s kind of like, go boil water. Im going to sit here with him. I spent a lot of time looking at this photograph and I didn’t know what I was going to write about, but finally I got this, the feeling I had when I was watching my son’s body shaking and it was like it was blurred, time blurred, and I thought it was like these white blossoms, they were on fire…they were like fever. So I was just looking at them and it was through the emotion, somehow they tapped into this experience I had and the emotions behind it, when I watched my son have a seizure.

In that poem I was able to bridge those two experiences—looking at the image and saying that was my son—how else do you describe that? I mean there are probably many ways, but that was the best way for me. I guess that’s what I—it’s kind of like a way to get underneath everything and behind the brain, or around the brain, and get to the more emotional center of whatever it is you’re trying to write.

RN: Do you believe that a love for poetry starts in the womb, or does it have to be introduced and reinforced?

BF: In my older son’s case, it seems to be the latter because he has expressed very little interest…but I am determined. At bedtime, after reading one or two of his favorite books, usually something to do with superheroes, I say, Now, we can either read these nursery rhymes, or you go to bed. He groans and complains before eventually caving. Sometimes, we read one or two before he’s ready to sleep, but other times, he keeps asking me to read the next and the next until we get through the whole book. What begins as an attempt to stay up really late sparks some interest, I think. He still prefers reading about Power Rangers, but he seems to be more open to poetry.

RN: Where do young people get connected to poetry today?

BF: You’ll have to ask them. I don’t know. Probably from many different places. From music, from slam, performance poetry…many performance poems go viral, they’re very powerful. From the classroom, from the Internet, people are posting them on Instagram. Also, there are a lot of organizations that do a great job of making available lots of great poems and helping people access them. Poetry Foundation has a really great website. PEN Center USA and Poets & Writers, which put together last night’s reading, and a lot of other organizations all over the country are working to create a presence in communities.

RN: Can you take us back to your childhoodHunters Wood Elementary School in Virginia and then to Puerto Ricoand share some perspectives on how your poetry has been influenced by your duality, or perhaps I should say plurality of identity?

BF: Plurality. My dad was of German and Scottish descent. My mom was Puerto Rican. I don’t know how much of this sense of duality is because my mom was Puerto Rican and we were in Northern Virginia, or because we would go to Puerto Rico and I was, then I was very, not Puerto Rican—

RN: Or Nuyorican.

BF: Yes, exactly. I wasn’t even Nuyorican. Then on top of that I was gay—within— almost always within a straight environment that created a big internal world, an internal life in which I was always considering how I was being perceived. Am I being straight enough? Have I just given myself away? So just having that at a very young age, you know, you have to develop a very strong, or developed a very strong imaginative world. For me, writing invites a similar turning inward—toward that private voice, which I became attuned to at an early age because of that plurality, I suppose.

RN: Your first collection, A Question of Gravity and Light,explored the challenges of moving between cultures and specifically underscored the cultural tensions inherent in being a gay man, particularly one with maternal ties to Puerto Rico. You have connected solitude and sensitivitywith your poetic drive. Are solitude and sensitivity still what drive you? Or, is your need for poetic expression driven by other characteristics at this stage of your life? 

BF: The subject matter is only one component, of course, in what drives the poem. I wrote the first book and I was thinking about these larger issues of identity, but the second book—

RN: The Foundling Wheel.

BF: Yes. I was just writing about what was happening in front of me, my son’s adoption, my father-in-law’s death, my husband’s absence. There was an immediate and constant drama or tension in my life that I was trying to capture. In both cases, the sense of solitude and sensitivity are there because, when I write, I want to be as quiet and alert as I can be, so I can hear the poem. That’s where the work comes from. Now, I’m writing new poems, some of which have little to do, or anything to do explicitly, with my personal life. Yet what I’m describing or witnessing is still my perspective—they’re still coming from that same place—that stillness, so I think they often still convey that sense of solitude and sensitivity.

RN: Youre one of the editors of Mentor and Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets, which I personally found very accessible and inspiring for writers, whether they are poets are not. In addition to that book, craft-focused or not, what should poets be reading? 

BF: I think they should read what excites them, and I think they should read what frustrates them and confuses them, and I think they should read what doesn’t sound like them, and what sounds like them. I want to read poetry that is very different from my own because it challenges me to think beyond my own aesthetics or themes. Often, I turn to poetry that’s very different from my own when the skills or techniques I’m most comfortable with aren’t enough for me to write the poem that I’m trying to write. Someone once told me to think of poetic devices and modes as keys on a piano. If you rely on only a few keys, you’ll have a very limited repertoire.

RN: And what about how should poets be reading? Is there a how?

BF: What I do in my workshops is I often have—we read a poem out loud—and I just want students to be sensitive to the way they are responding. Be open and alert to the way they are responding physically, emotionally, to the experience of the poem. I think that’s the most important thing. Intuitively they can often grasp the poem and they grasp what might be working or what might not be working. And they just sense that this is not quite right, or Im drawn in right here, but I feel pushed out over here. So I guess I want them to do that. I ask them to do that with poems that we read together and if they’re confused and frustrated, ask themselves, why? Why is something challenging? In the end, when composing their own new work, I want students to look to themselves, to trust their judgment, and I’ve found that this is an effective way to help develop that confidence and to help them start thinking about what they want to say and how they want to say it.

RN: You mentioned out loud. Is reading a poem out loud an important “how” for a poet?

BF: Absolutely! It’s necessary. Sometimes I just read my students’ poems back to them, and have them read them to me, and have somebody else read them. But also it’s when the poem comes alive for me. I love reading on the page too, because you can see more clearly how it comes together, how it’s working. But the music of the poem is as important as any other element, if not more important.

RN: As you know, I saw you read at a PEN USA event just last night. You are an excellent reader of your work, but not all poets are. Any tips for the reluctant reader?

BF: When I read now, I try to embody the speaker of the poem. I just want to—I don’t want to pretend like I am that person, I want to be that person. And I want to speak as though I am speaking these words for the first time and speaking them to someone in particular.

RN: At that same event, you made it a point to read some of your newest poems. But days old new, I think you said. I believe the idea of always reading something new was advice you once got. Can you talk more about that?

BF: It was Paul Guest who said it. I was reading from my first book a lot. I was reading the same poems over and over again, and so when he said that he tries to read something new every time, I thought, yeah, I should do that. It’s very good advice because it creates a little bit of fear—there’s immediacy, there’s a freshness there. The risk and the fear you feel about reading the new, the vulnerability comes into the voice, doesn’t it? And that’s what it is that I’m trying to get at—the vulnerability. I mean not every poet is aiming for that and that’s fine. I guess that’s what I’m aiming for.

Rochelle NewmanRochelle Newman is an MFA candidate at Antioch University of Los Angeles. She is an award-winning playwright. Her one-woman show, Hip Bones and Cool Whip, received critical acclaim in both the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly. Originally from New York’s Lower East Side, Rochelle currently resides in West Hollywood. A multicultural marketing specialist, she blogs for Advertising Age and is Chief Strategist for US Hispanic Marketing at Walton Isaacson in Culver City. She is working on a documentary entitled Popeye and the Poet, with actor Carlos Carrasco and poet Jimmy Santiago Baca.

Antonia Crane, Author of Spent

Antonia Crane, "Spent"

Antonia Crane’s Spent is a memoir for readers who enjoy gritty, surreal narratives and stories that eschew easy conclusions. In Crane’s world, vicious cycles can’t be broken, self-reflection doesn’t lead to happiness, and lessons aren’t always learned. There’s a weariness to Spent that emphasizes the title, an undercurrent of longing for a job that doesn’t come with such high physical and emotional demands. But this isn’t a memoir that goes easy on its author: Crane owns her mistakes as well as her choices, without attempting to explain or apologize for either. If this sounds contradictory—well, Crane owns her contradictions, too.

Spent deals with a variety of events in Crane’s life—her relationship with her mother, her education, her bisexuality, and her sobriety are all woven into the narrative—but the memoir’s main focus is on her series of jobs as a stripper and sex worker in San Francisco, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. The premise’s potential shock value wears off quickly: the day-to-day work is portrayed as routine to the point of dull, with money as the primary reward. During a typical day as a dancer, “time moves like peanut butter;” she describes one customer’s loneliness as an emotion that both “[makes] her sick” and “[feels] like the best thing in the world.” Although Crane claims stripping holds an undeniable, addictive allure for her, it’s easy to believe her when she states that “dancers always want to quit, but we never do. We’re ghosts, dragging our chains from club to club.” At best, Crane depicts dancing as occasionally fun and immensely lucrative; the economics of this work are always at the forefront. At worst, stripping renders her nameless and invisible and trapped.

Crane isn’t always as straightforward about the non-stripping aspects of her life. While there are some standout scenes—the decisions she must make about her mother’s end-of-life care are particularly resonant—some of her choices seem propelled by indistinct motivations and result in few resolutions. These non sequitur aspects of Crane’s writing may frustrate readers who appreciate clear cause-and-effect narratives. Yet although its stream-of-consciousness tendencies sometimes muddy the storyline’s waters, there’s no question that Spent’s style makes a statement. Crane’s still living the life about which she writes; she’s not examining a part of her life that’s already passed, but focusing on experiences that continue to shape her present. If the events of twenty years ago still feel incomplete, it’s because the objects in her rear view mirror are much closer than they first appear.

It’s obvious that Crane has a personal relationship with her work, and not just because, as she says, “without [stripping], I felt ugly, useless, and numb.” During her years in San Francisco, she protests the unfair practices at local dance clubs and helps form the first-ever strippers’ union, a vital need in an industry that exploits women from underprivileged backgrounds. And in some ways, writing a memoir about sex work in unstinting detail is also an act of social justice: Spent isn’t exactly a third-wave feminist cri de coeur, but rather a portrait of a trade in which many of the workers struggle with addiction, abuse, and poverty. It puts a face on at least one of society’s “ghosts.”

Beyond her fight for unionization, Crane doesn’t take much of an outright political stance on the issues facing sex workers; the memoir doesn’t explicitly advocate for legalization, for example, or dwell on the overarching institutional injustices that contribute to an unfair system. But through Spent’s series of anecdotes, Crane makes it clear that for herself and for many of her colleagues, sex work is an unending cycle of survival and punishment. Nothing pays as well or as quickly—a must for women struggling to pay rent, support a family, feed or overcome an addiction, or pay for school without other financial help—but as a result, Crane is harassed, recorded without her consent, and arrested, all for a job that has significantly narrowed her other possible career choices and that will turn its back on her as she ages. “I have no clue how to leave this industry and enter the work force,” Crane says in the book’s final pages. “This is the work force.”

Yet for all the ending’s brutal honesty, Crane also offers a glimmer of hope, although it’s weighed with reality. “This is where I am: I’m still doing this,” she says. “I will climb out, the window is open a crack, but I don’t know when.”

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Antonia Crane is a writer, adjunct professor, and performer based in Los Angeles. She is a graduate of Antioch University Los Angeles’ MFA program. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Rumpus, Slake, PANK, The Los Angeles Review, Salon, and Black Clock. She is the founder and senior editor of The Citron Review. Crane’s memoir, Spent, was published in 2014 by Barnacle Books. Cheryl Strayed praised Crane’s work as “bold and beautiful and glimmering with light,” and Kirkus Reviews called Spent “a raw, searing self-portrait.”

Rachael Warecki interviewed Antonia Crane via email.

Antonia Crane

Photo: Sheila Rose

RW: In your memoir, Spent, you touch on the fact that words have always been an important part of your life, especially in your childhood. Spent focuses more on words’ importance in your adult life, but I’d love to hear more about how books influenced you while you were growing up. Looking back, were there any books that held a particular resonance for you?

AC: There was not much to do in my small town except climb redwoods, so one of the things my mother and I used to do together was go to the public library. I escaped to my Alice and Wonderland and my Frankenstein with Judy Bloom, V.C. Andrews, and Beverly Cleary, and later I found J.D. Salinger and Jane Austen. I loved stories about heartbreak and families, unrequited love and betrayal.

RW: Your relationship with your mother—an accomplished, fearless, dignified woman as portrayed in your memoir—has clearly been another strong influence in your life, even after her passing. In what ways do you hope your life resembles hers? In what ways are you glad you’ve chosen a somewhat different life path?

AC: I don’t think my life resembles my mother’s at all. My mother went from one long-term marriage to another, kept horses, and belonged to half a dozen women’s organizations. She had kids and was miraculous in the kitchen. However, I am exactly like my mother in other ways—certain facial expressions and gestures are exactly like her, especially in the eyes and mouth. I have followed her lead in the way that she mentored young women and I invest a lot of time helping others, whenever and however possible. I think my path worried my mother some and in other ways, she admired my independence.

RW: You mention that you mentor young women—correct me if I’m wrong, but I heard you volunteer with WriteGirl here in Los Angeles. How long have you been involved with the program? What support do you give young writers as they’re moving toward adulthood? What resources does the program provide that you wish you’d had at that age, and if you could mentor your younger self, what advice would you give her?

AC: I have been a volunteer for WriteGirl’s in-schools program since 2011. I volunteered to teach creative writing to incarcerated teenage girls at Camp Scudder/Camp Scott, where the girls obtained art and English credits towards their GED for participation in our class every Thursday. Our writing exercises approached the personal essay in a lyrical way that offered girls a chance to express themselves and articulate their struggles and obstacles in a meaningful, artistic way. It seemed as if many of the teenage girls had never been told they were smart and creative. When they were acknowledged by reading their work to the class, performing it live, they were elated.

On a pragmatic scale, WriteGirl has a 100% success rate getting girls into four-year universities. We help girls write their college essays in order to springboard them into educational settings, which can change their lives dramatically. In this way, getting involved with WriteGirl and other after-school programs where I’ve worked, such as Woodcraft Rangers, Arc, and Living Histories, embodies social justice.

RW: In Spent, you make several strong economic arguments for why stripping and other types of sex work should be unionized and, in some cases, legalized. In what ways do you see this as a form of social justice? In what ways do you hope to continue this social justice work moving forward?

AC: A group of young women and I unionized a strip club in the ‘90s and it was a powerful time, but it didn’t solve all of our problems by any stretch. Acknowledging strippers (sex workers, dancers) as a work force deserving of basic rights is a good start. Legalizing sex work alone will not keep sex workers safe from domestic violence and exploitation, but it’s a step in a good direction. The goal is toward decriminalization of sex workers in a way that protects some of the most vulnerable members of society from harm and exploitation. It’s a complex issue that deserves attention, time, and change, and every change made won’t be perfect, much like universal health care.

RW: What other steps do you think would make concrete, positive differences in the lives of sex workers?

A_Crane_readingAC: I think a program that helps women segue into the mainstream would be helpful. Years ago, Sharon Mitchell tried to launch a program for people retiring from the porn industry called “Life After Porn,” but her grant was denied. Sex work is the most difficult job to leave, and it’s difficult to fill in résumé gaps and not be shamed in society for spending a decade (or more) in the adult industry. Going back to school is not enough by itself. I have done that several times. It takes community support to help a person dive back into the mainstream and adjust. It would be helpful to get advice, résumé help, and jobs from folks who are already established in positions to help a sex worker get a steady job.

RW: Your memoir presents a layered and sometimes contradictory portrait of your own role as a sex worker. You mention several times that “every dancer you know wishes she could quit,” but that you personally are drawn back to stripping for the thrill of it, even when presented with other job opportunities. That said, in the scenes depicting your work as a stripper, you often present it as dull, unrewarding work. Can you talk a little more about your relationship with your work, and what aspects of it you find personally rewarding?

I was neither lost nor found. I am just a woman with a couple of cats who needs to write in order to breathe.

AC: All work is rewarding whether I am cleaning houses, waiting tables, or teaching a writing class. If work is a place to be of love and service, which I believe it is, then stripping is the perfect place to demonstrate that kindness. Stripping is physically and emotionally taxing, as well as particularly lucrative. Performing and receiving sexual validation from strangers can be intoxicating. Fast money is a drug. As a job, sex work has been the most difficult to segue out of into the mainstream for the reasons listed above. Other than providing men with a warm body to confide in, there’s a common loneliness that tugs at us when we long to connect to our families, friends, and coworkers in a meaningful way, but fail to do so. I think men search for genuine human connection in a strip club, and that women provide that in a way that can be temporarily satisfying for them [men] and lucrative for us [women]. It’s also a great place to mine for stories.

RW: In your depictions of stripping and sex work, there are many workers and customers who engage in drug use. Has your sobriety ever affected your relationships with clientele or other workers, either positively or negatively (e.g., a client who’s a little too insistent that you drink or get high with him/her, or a fellow sober coworker with whom you form a stronger trust or friendship)?

AC: Drugs are rampant in every workplace. People like to party and tune out. When I worked in a law firm, one of the paralegals was dealing coke throughout the office. People in the medical profession do drugs. As a bartender, obviously it affected my interaction with the customers because I had to cut people off or call them a cab. I have a lot of compassion for anyone struggling with a substance abuse problem/alcohol, and I try to help them get home safely, if possible. Sex workers have a reputation for doing drugs and drinking because it’s expected of us. Personally, I think being sober makes me a better employee in that environment and a more productive person, so I try to be a positive influence.

RW: You mention the difficulty of grad school—of living a life so different from many of your classmates—and yet based on your acknowledgements section, Antioch University Los Angeles clearly provided a strong community for you. How did you learn and grow as a writer during your MFA program years?

AC: The decision to do sex work while in grad school was my own solution to creating as much time to write as possible. Antioch provided an incredibly rich community of mentors and peers, many of whom I still have close relationships with. My graduating cohort, The Citrons, has been checking in every Sunday since 2009. When I attended Antioch, it was like I could finally give myself permission to write and to have access to writers I admired, like Rob Roberge, Emily Rapp, Cheryl Strayed, Leonard Chang, and Steve Almond.

RW: At the end of Spent, you acknowledge that you have not yet achieved your ideal vision of happiness—no partner, no agent, no publishing deal. Obviously, with the publication of Spent, some of that has changed. How have you come closer to achieving your personal and professional goals? What’s next for you?

AC: Every day, I work towards my goals and aspirations regardless of my circumstances. The end of Spent was more of a comment that sex work itself can be its own happy ending. I didn’t need to be rehabilitated or killed or saved, imprisoned or forgiven; I wasn’t married off or carried off on a magic carpet ride. I was neither lost nor found. I am just a woman with a couple of cats who needs to write in order to breathe. So, I’m going to keep doing that and see what happens next.

Rachael WareckiRachael Warecki holds an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work has received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s New Writers Contest and a 2014 Best of the Net nomination from Spry Literary Journal. Her fiction has appeared in the Masters Review, the Los Angeles ReviewMidwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. You can follow her writing adventures on her websiteFacebook, and Twitter

Janet Fitch, Author

Janet FitchJanet Fitch is a long-time lover of history and Russia. During a student exchange in England, Fitch realized she wanted to be a writer. She published her first book, Kicks, in 1996. After her second book, White Oleander, made the Oprah Book Club, she was swept up in a whirlwind of critical acclaim. In 2002, “White Oleander” was made into a movie and just four years later Fitch published Paint It Black. She lives in Los Angeles and is presently working on a new book set in Russia.

Tai Farnsworth: Your book Paint It Black is in production to become a movie. Did you ever imagine that this short gothic story would grow into a book, and then into a film?

Janet Fitch: What I end up writing, it’s always a surprise. Some small kernel of inspiration, which magnetizes other concerns and moods and characters, a small stream joining to other small streams, growing wider and deeper. It’s interesting, that this book began with a favorite film, Bergman’s Persona. Then I took that inspiration and wrote a short story, which then, following a strange twisted pathway, became a literary novel. And now—based on a reader’s enthusiasm for the book—it’s going to become a film—a very different film from the original inspiration.

Paint It BlackTF: White Oleander was so brilliantly cast. You probably don’t get any input, but do you have any thoughts on who you’d like to see as Josie or Meredith in Paint It Black?

JF: I do, but I can’t go too far into this because there will be a Josie, and a Meredith, and I won’t have chosen them. I always saw a Meredith as kind of a combination of Marisa Berenson and Anouk Aimee…actresses from the sixties and seventies, so no way could they play Meredith now in any case. And Josie was based on a friend of mine, as she was at 19, so I’m looking forward to seeing a 19-year-old—who would have been all of 7 or 8 when I started writing the book. But I’m hoping for someone equal parts fragile and tough, elegant and punk.

TF: What does it feel like to have your books turned into movies? Are you worried about not liking the result? Does it feel exciting or nerve-wracking, or both, to have your work reach a whole new set of people?

It can’t ever hurt a book—if it’s a good movie, it will bring people to the book, if it’s a bad movie, people will say, “Oh the book was better.”

JF: It’s a great pleasure to have books turned into movies. A film allows the book to reach an entirely new set of readers. It can’t ever hurt a book—if it’s a good movie, it will bring people to the book, if it’s a bad movie, people will say, “Oh the book was better.” Either way, more people find the book. You hope it will be a good movie of course, but you have to just let the filmmakers make their film. You have to know it’s not a miniseries, it’s not going to be a word for word translation. Someone is making a work of art inspired by my work of art. That’s flattering as hell.

That said, I think it’s harder on readers who love a book—and hope to see that book on the screen. When filmmakers have departed significantly from the book, especially aspects of the book they particularly liked, it’s always disturbing. But to take a 450-page book and turn it into a 2-hour movie, significant portions have to be left behind. Filmmakers have to take what they feel to be the most significant part of the book, the mood, the central drama, and let the rest fall away.

And if I end up not liking the result, well, I didn’t have to make the movie! It’s a very difficult process and something I would not want to have to do myself. I wrote the book. I’ll write another book. It’s just flattering as hell.

TF: Your next book is also likely to appeal to an entirely new group of readers. Russia has always played a big part in your life. Is it comforting to find yourself back working on something so directly related to your first love?

JF: I don’t think comforting describes the sense of being engulfed by an immense historical novel. It’s more like being swallowed by a whale. Like Ahab, I have my own obsessions. Russia is my Moby Dick, I hope it doesn’t kill me. Then again, I’m not trying to kill it—I’m trying to capture it alive.

Still, it is incredibly satisfying to explore a time and a circumstance in Russian history I always wanted to examine. Everybody in the West writes about the Stalin era and World War II. But the Revolution…even the Russians didn’t know that much about it because the history had been rewritten so frequently…and now there is access but politics continues, people have their own agendas. And revolutions have a peculiar logic of their own—what they start out as and where they end up, that is of keen interest to me. I’m very interested in the psychological and moral process by which people believe in things, believe in ideas—what do they do when the idea they have fought so hard for doesn’t match up with the unfolding reality? Do they admit it? Do they continue to defend the idea, which is becoming a lie?

I love spending this much unbroken time in this fascinating time and place, these terrific characters, completely non-American. There’s a challenge, trying to inhabit a Russian sensibility through the progress of a big novel. But my first idea of what a novel should be was the Russian novel—Dostoyevsky in particular. So my love of Russian literature preceded my interest in Russian history. Without the Russian novel, I don’t know if I would have undertaken anything this ambitious. Sometimes I see what I’m doing and I just freak out. But I keep telling myself, an ant can move a mountain, one grain at a time.

TF: Are you worried that people who are attached to Los Angeles as the setting and one of the main characters of your books will be disappointed you’re moving away from that?

JF: That remains to be seen. I think it would depend if it was Los Angeles per se people are attracted to in my work, or my sense of place generally, and how that is always intrinsic to the story. If it’s the latter, I’m on safe ground—the Russian novel is set in revolutionary Petrograd [St. Petersburg during the ten-year period between WWI and the death of Lenin in 1924]—and I’m absolutely obsessed with that city. I was an exchange student there during the Soviet era, and have gone back twice for research….I hope if I do it justice, that people will recognize my hand.

TF: When Los Angeles is the focus do you do a lot of your writing in the diners, restaurants, bars, or popular sites that your characters frequent? Do you ever drive around Los Angeles looking for inspiration?

JF: First question no, second question yes. I don’t need to write in the locations I use—I know them. Like, do you need to do research about your grandmother’s apartment? Sometimes you are creating something that isn’t even there anymore.

Second question—I see things that inspire me every day. Driving around, walking around is even better. Driving is just an instant. Walking, you can stop and consider. Sitting and hanging out and watching is the best of all.

TF: Do you ever regret moving away from history? Do you think being a historian would have been an easier career path? Would it have mattered?

JF: Writing historical fiction is the best of both worlds, I can do the research and ask the questions, but I can do what I love best, writing fiction—inhabiting and bringing historical phenomena to life through the point of view of a single human consciousness. I never really moved away from my love of history, only from my pursuit of a career as an historian.

TF: How many hours a day do you write? What does that writing process look like? Are there outlines and pre-writing or mostly just rough drafts? Do you have to be alone? Do you listen to the music that’s so woven into your stories?

No outlines. I know, scary. I usually start with a character and a situation that’s already wound up, like a little spring toy, you wind it up and you let it go.

JF: I usually write about four hours a day, more if I’m on a roll. I do rough drafts, rough rough drafts, and rewrite and rewrite as I go along. I also write short shorts on my blog, www. janetfitchwrites.wordpress.com, for the pleasure of finishing something! I might write from prompts or scents or objects, just to tune up, or even use a photograph related to my work and write my way into it. If I’m completely flummoxed, I might go somewhere and write, throw headphones on and listen to something droning, like Bauhaus, or Russian Circles, or London After Midnight…

I have used music to keep me in a mood—when I was writing Paint It Black, I had a tape called The Saddest Songs in the World I used to put on when I was feeling too cheerful to write it. I was in a very dark place when I started the book, but it takes me four or five years to write a novel, and by the time I was finishing it I was in a very different place. The Russian composer I listen mostly to is Prokofiev, it gives me the right feeling.

But mostly, it’s silence, so I can hear the music of my own prose. I often read poetry before I write, so that music is in my ears—Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot (especially the Four Quartets), Joseph Brodsky, sometimes Allen Ginsberg. Ear-poets.

No outlines. I know, scary. I usually start with a character and a situation that’s already wound up, like a little spring toy, you wind it up and you let it go. It sometimes takes me up a blind alley, and I have to back out and find the story again, jump ahead or switch point of view for a little to find myself again. But I like a stable unified point of view. In each book, I have tried writing from more than one person’s point of view and ended up discarding the various voices for the one strong central character—much like pruning side blossoms to encourage one big bloom.

But for me, place is everything. I have to know WHERE.  If I know WHERE, everything else comes. Crazy, yeah? Maps have been hugely important to the writing of this Russian novel.

TF: What would you say to budding authors who are worried about working in a field that is so rife with rejection and subjective reviews? How do you keep the motivation going? Do you ever get to a place where you can think, “Who cares what people say? I’m Janet Fitch!”

JF: Hahahahahaha. Janet Fitch, what’s that? A writer facing doubt and terror every day, who also has problems and has to pay the rent and so on. What I’d tell those budding writers is—don’t worry about the competition, just make what you’re doing as excellent as it possibly can be. Keep learning, find people you trust and listen to their critique. Read the best, read like a writer—which is like being a magician, don’t just sit out front in the audience gaping like an idiot, watch and figure out how the tricks are done. Pull people’s sentences apart and see how they’re constructed. Learn the craft, aspire to greatness. Motivation—a lot of this is what Paint It Black is about—how all artists have to live on a sliding scale between permission and perfection. There is no set point. Sometimes we cut ourselves too much slack and have to hold our feet to the fire. Read something insanely beautiful and become reinspired. At other times, the greatness of others paralyzes us, and then we need to cut ourselves more slack, give ourselves permission just to make a sound. Punk rock.

Yes, there are moments when you think, “Dang I’m good!” But I mean, these are MOMENTS.  My writing teacher Kate Braverman used to say, “There’s no such thing as a permanent state of grace.” You come down from that mountain pretty fast. And then you’re just working again. You never know if it’s any good, really, until the book is in the hands of its readers. The worst moment is when you get the galleys back—the first time you see it set in type, the way it’s going to look on the page—and GOD it looks terrible.  But I’ve been through it twice now, and I know, that’s just the way it is.

Rejections—it’s about making it as good as you can, using every resource available, refining your skills as brightly as firing a sword, and then braving the numbers game. Reviews—terrifying. I usually make someone else read them first. I’m very thin skinned; I take everything personally. I just keep reminding myself, not everybody likes chocolate. Not everybody wants a dirty martini. Who are you writing for? Do you want to be a bag of Doritos, or do you want to be an interesting highly flavored appetizer, or do you want to be a four-course meal? Everyone has to answer these questions for themselves.

Tai FarnsworthTai Farnsworth is an LA based writer in the midst of an MFA program and a snuggle battle with her cat. She lives with her upsettingly talented partner and many mason jars.

Dana Gioia, Poet

Dana Gioia with Frogs, Rats, and Bats from his new opera, The Three Feathers

Dana Gioia with Frogs, Rats, and Bats from his new opera, The Three Feathers

I don’t know how long I’ve been staring at this blank page, fingers poised over the laptop’s keyboard. But it feels like a long time. A very long time. And my thoughts are all over the map; I see them as an army of impossibly tiny steer running in every direction and there’s me without a horse to give chase, standing dumbstruck, as they brazenly scatter across my boot-tips, safe in the knowledge that the lone impossibly tiny lasso dangling from my shaking hand poses no threat to them whatsoever.

Oh, look, another bill just landed in my email. Thanksgiving is upon us, Christmas is right around the corner and why is it these holidays now bring me more anxiety than pleasure? And then there’s the perfectly timed article over at The New York Times’ website in which two established authors are attempting to answer the question, “How Has the Social Role of Poetry Changed Since Shelley?” I know it’s coincidental but that doesn’t stop my irrational racing mind from asking, “Am I being mocked?”

And then, finally, a more pertinent question—ferried upon the impossibly tiny shoulders of a wayward steer—breaks through the pack: Does this kind of thing ever happen to poet Dana Gioia? He’s the former chairman (2003-2009) of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and in 2011 was named Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California where he teaches in the fall. (Other Judge Widney Professors at USC include world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and now-retired General David Petraeus, and conductor, pianist, and composer Michael Tilson Thomas.)

During one of our first email exchanges in which we’re attempting to set up a time to talk on the phone, Gioia remarks, “Next week is pure madness, but I should be okay by the weekend.” But then the following day brings this missive: “And today I got word that I have a German professor staying with me and another one who wants me to come to his lecture, and my older son just sent me the manuscript of his latest magnum opus which needs immediate care, and tomorrow night I must be the interlocutor—I’m not making this up—for a historian who has written a history of double entry accounting (a pretty interesting book, by the way). I also have a piece due for the program of an opera for which I’ve written the libretto, lyrics for a jazz song cycle, and half a dozen letters of recommendation, all urgent. This is what they call a contemplative life.”

I want to believe that Gioia sometimes finds himself staring numbly at a blank computer screen and, if not feeling mocked by it, at least wondering, Why me? Why today when I really need to get this done? But the further I dig into his literary history and the more we communicate via email and, later by phone, well, I just don’t see how it’s possible—or even an option for that matter.

He has published four full-length poetry collections (one of which, Interrogations at Noon, was the 2002 American Book Award winner) and eight chapbooks. Gioia is also an acclaimed critic and essayist whose 1991 compilation, Can Poetry Matter?, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. Then there are the anthologies, of which Twentieth-Century American Poetry and Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing are just a couple. His poems, translations (Latin, Italian, and German), essays and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New York Times Book Review, among many others. Not to mention three libretti: Nosferatu (with composer Alva Henderson), Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast (with composer Paul Salerni), and The Three Feathers (with composer Lori Laitman). The latter, a children’s opera based upon a fairy tale of the same name by the Brothers Grimm, had its world premiere at the Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech back in October.

And I haven’t even mentioned two Word documents sent to me by Dana as reference—one titled “Musical Settings of Poems” encompasses eleven pages of his work and collaborations, the other a “List of Books” (a few of which I’ve already noted) clocks in at a mere three pages and is by no means comprehensive.

He’d warned me in advance that he was “a talker” and when we finally spoke on the phone some weeks later I understood why. We were about twenty-five minutes in when I realized I hadn’t yet asked Gioia a single question from the list of about fifteen or so on the notebook in front of me. But the thing was, I didn’t care. I’d intuited after just a few minutes that Dana was someone who couldn’t help but talk passionately, regardless of the subject at hand. Combine that passion with his unassuming, jovial demeanor, and sonorous voice and you soon realize the best course of action is to simply sit back and listen.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m very working class Italian, and the main topic of conversation of adults when I grew up was misery and deprivation. You know, the theme song could have been Noel Coward’s “There Are Bad Times Just Around The Corner.” When his father retired from work due to health reasons he had no pension to fall back on but Dana was glad to help out—just as he was glad to help put both his brother and sister through college. “I never let myself think of quitting. I might go to another job but I will not quit working. It was just, like, a given…and I did it because once you start allowing yourself to hate your job then when are you going to stop? (He laughs.) Especially for a poet. I mean, there’s always other stuff you want to do. So I just wouldn’t let myself go there. And it was probably a pretty good spiritual discipline.”

That discipline saw him through fifteen years at General Foods and the publication of his essay “Can Poetry Matter?” in The Atlantic. The essay garnered attention worldwide, and ruffled more than a few feathers within established poetry circles. But it was also the impetus for Dana to decide to try and make a living as a writer. “So I asked my wife how much was the smallest amount of money we could get by on, and she gave me a number which, I have to say, in retrospect, was pure fantasy.” (He laughs.) They had two kids at the time. Still, Gioia says that there were only two really bad years when he was cutting his financial teeth as a full-time writer (one of which, after deductions were taken for his children, he had no taxable income). “There are times that I felt bad about quitting [General Foods] for my family’s sake but I never felt bad about quitting for my sake… If you put yourself in a new world and allow yourself to be open to possibility, things happen.” 

American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.
—“Can Poetry Matter?” (The Atlantic, May 1991)

During our conversation, Dana references a huge survey of adult readers that the NEA regularly conducts. And while he didn’t have an exact figure on hand, he noted that the number of adults reading poetry continues its downward spiral.

“We’ve created a profession of poetry [for] which we have employment, we have grants, we have awards, we have civic positions…but an ironic counterpoint is that the number of people in our society reading poetry has gone down. If you look at “Can Poetry Matter?” the basic insight is really very simple: generally, at any moment of culture there are just simple things to be said that nobody wants to say. It must be hundreds of millions of dollars a year being spent on poetry (professors, scholars, writers, etc.). We have a culture where almost everybody agrees it’s beside the point. And I just say, well, let’s explore that paradox.

“Maybe one of the reasons that poetry is declining [is] because of the very way that we teach it, we profess it, and we institutionalize it. And I believe that. I believe the professors, the school systems and even the poets, you know, lost touch with why people need poetry—you know, what it does, why they like it.”

In case you’re wondering, Gioia and I did finally get to those questions in my notebook. And, as it turns out, he has a workaround for that blank, mocking page: take a pair of pruning shears to it.

Michael Passafiume: How would you describe the state of poetry today in relation to print versus electronic publishing?

Dana Gioia: The state of poetry in print and electronic media is oddly similar. A huge amount of poetry constantly appears in both media, but the audience is small and increasingly fragmented. The internet makes poetry more easily accessible, but it hasn’t grown the readership. I love the convenience of the internet. If I become interested in a poet, I can usually find something instantly on the web. That’s nice, but in such cases the poet gets neither sales nor royalties. That’s not so nice.

MP: In “Can Poetry Matter?” you called poetry “a modestly upwardly mobile, middle-class profession—not as lucrative as waste management or dermatology but several big steps above the squalor of bohemia.” That was written in 1991. Has your view on the profession of poetry since altered?

If I become interested in a poet, I can usually find something instantly on the web. That’s nice, but in such cases the poet gets neither sales nor royalties. That’s not so nice.

DG: I was, of course, talking about the academic profession of creative writing. Over the past twenty years things have changed but not for the better. Like many other middle-class professions, the university creative writing trade has suffered significant damage. Nowadays there are virtually no new full-time jobs. There is also a generational split between the older tenured faculty, who are comparatively well-paid, and younger people, who lack full-time employment, job security, and benefits.

The situation for writers is actually worse than for most other fields. English departments need lots of graduate students to teach freshman composition courses, so for the past three decades they have deliberately admitted far more students than can ever be placed in permanent jobs. These young writers and scholars are openly exploited with poor pay and little likelihood of career advancement. It is a shameful situation. Academia has created a lost generation.

MP: In the title essay of your book Disappearing Ink, you said: Finally, there has been a decline in the quality and seriousness of poetry reviewing itself… Consequently, the reader seriously interested in following contemporary poetry finds that criticism now comes mainly in four varieties: invisible, incomprehensible, inaccessible, and insincere.

And in “Can Poetry Matter?” you again turned your sights on the topic of poetry reviewing: Several dozen journals now exist that print only verse. They don’t publish literary reviews, just page after page of freshly minted poems. The heart sinks to see so many poems crammed so tightly together, like downcast immigrants in steerage.

Today, unless it’s a collection by a well-known, well-regarded poet (“well” being relative), you might find coverage about a new book of poetry in The New York Review of Books or The Cortland Review, but coverage will likely be scarce in publications such as The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times.

Do reviews matter to anyone beyond the narrow scope of literary scholars and creative writers?

DG: Literature does not exist in a cultural vacuum. Criticism creates the conversation about literature that informs and enlarges the audience. When criticism is healthy, literature becomes more relevant and vital. Reviews give us the news of literature. These reviews matter greatly when they are intelligent, well-written, and honest.

When I finish a piece by a critic like Clive James or Adam Kirsch, I not only feel more alert and informed.; their writing whets my appetite for poetry.

Reading a first-rate critic, we enjoy the privilege of following a fellow reader’s mind and emotions as he or she engages in a literary work. Their efforts amplify and refine our ability to read the work. Unfortunately, so many reviews nowadays feel dull and untrustworthy—full of bland approbation and generic blather. Those reviews don’t matter because they don’t offer much that’s useful to the reader.

And, at least in my case, they dull my appetite for the art.

MP: You told me that A poem should be personal but it shouldn’t be autobiographical. A poem is about us…a common space both of us can occupy. You should feel as much ownership of it as I do.

I’m a poet whose work is highly autobiographical and whose style often pitches a tent in the confessional camp. Even so, I strive to engage a reader on multiple levels: I want them to learn about me but I also want them to learn something about themselves, to experience that Zen-like moment of “Hey, I’ve been where this guy’s been before; I’ve had those same feelings!”

What’s your yardstick for transforming “this is about me” to “this is about us?”

Prose can gain by the slow accumulation of detail, but poetry usually loses its energy and edge. A poem should evoke memory and emotion, not just catalogue them.

DG: There are two ways of answering this question—first from the reader’s perspective, then from the author’s.

As a reader of poetry, I worry that contemporary poetry has become too mired in needless private details. I often come across poems that would be twice as good if they were half the length. It’s not merely a matter of lost intensity. It’s about leaving some room in the poem for the reader to bring his or her own life. Prose can gain by the slow accumulation of detail, but poetry usually loses its energy and edge. A poem should evoke memory and emotion, not just catalogue them.

As a writer, I try to make my poems personal but not exhaustively autobiographical.

What I leave out can be as important as what I include. I want to invite the reader to bring his or her own life into the poem. In fact, I’ve come to believe that this need for the reader to “complete” the poem is part of the particular frisson of poetry. That is why poetry is a bit harder to read than prose. We need to do part of the imaginative work, and that effort brings us deeper into the text. For that reason, I try to cut out any detail that doesn’t seem necessary, and then I cut some more.

MP: In a lecture you gave to Antioch students last year on “The Poetic Line,” you claimed that the line is the key factor that separates poetry from other forms of literature. You also said that “in a poem, the microcosm is the macrocosm.”

DG: The most obvious difference between prose and verse is lineation. In art, obvious elements are always important—although that is often what experts ignore. Poetic technique consists mostly of exploiting the expressive possibilities of lineation as a formal principle to communicate and intensify meaning. Formal verse does it in auditory ways; free verse in syntactic or visual ways. The line is like the frame on a painting. It shows us where to pay attention. I spent an hour examining, refining, and explaining these points. So my summary is really just a few headlines.

Now on to your second question. One of the interesting things about poetry is that one can take a line or two—say from Yeats or Eliot or Dickinson—and it has the weird quality of recapitulating the power of the entire poem. “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” “The Soul selects her own Society—/Then—shuts the Door.” “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

A few words have the ability to evoke the larger structure of meaning and music. That is why people quote poetry in a way that they don’t quote fiction or drama. This social practice recognizes that a special power of poetry is its quotability. Offer a few lines from a great poem, and you already create a heightened state of attention in the audience.

MP: Taking into account today’s reading audience, what is the value of rhyme and rhyme schemes to creative writing students?

DG: Rhyme is a powerful and perennially popular technique. Over the past thirty years it has become even more popular with the rise of hip hop. Rhyme may also be one of the obvious ways in which to expand the audience for poetry since it appeals to the ordinary reader. Any aspiring poet should learn how to write in rhyme. Even if they don’t find the technique useful for their later work, it improves their eye and ear.

There is also something that I’ve seen again and again among young writers. If you make writing students learn a dozen different verse-forms—not just rhyme and meter but even different types of free verse—they are astonished to discover that they have a particular talent for some technique they’ve never tried before. The forms allow them to discover things about their own imagination. At the start no writer really knows what he or she does best. By learning the craft of writing they learn about themselves.

MP: I’ve seen you give readings and read your work. Rhyming seems to come natural to you. Is that a fair assumption? What about it do you enjoy? How do you avoid the dreaded “chime effect?”

DG: I have complicated feelings about rhyme. Over the years I’ve noticed that about a third of my poems rhyme—exactly the same proportion that are in free verse. I find it an intoxicating, mysterious, and maddening technique. Used well, rhyme offers pleasure and musicality to a poem in ways that most people can immediately apprehend. The trick is figuring out when a poem wants to be rhymed. As a new poem starts to emerge in one’s imagination, what shape does it want to take?

Rhyme moves a poem from conversational speech towards song. That is not always the right direction.

For me, rhymes either come at once or they take forever. I’m delighted that you find my rhymes so natural. It takes hard work to make them seem effortless.

When I hear people talk about “imposing” a form or rhyme on a poem, it seems to me that they have the process backwards. You can’t impose a rhyme on a line without making it sound false or awkward. You have to lure the rhyme out of the words. That usually means revising the whole line, not just the final words. Richard Wilbur once told me that a poet rhymes lines not words. That observation struck me as right.

MP: Suppose that you have a day or two, unfettered from social or work obligations, and you want to get some writing done. What is your process?

DG: My process is terrible. I usually have trouble getting started. I waste hours doing everything except the task at hand. I do the dishes. I go outside and prune trees. I answer letters. I drink lots of coffee. Finally, I get so angry at myself that I become depressed. I boil in self-contempt. About half an hour later, I start writing. I’m sure if I had an analyst, he or she would have a great deal to say about my need for psychic disturbance.

I should add that every now and then a poem just comes in the window and lands on the page. In those cases, it seems that I have been writing it for years in the back of my mind. On those days the dishes sit in the sink.

MP: Do you ever tire of poetry—either reading or writing it?

DG: I honestly love reading poetry—good poetry. What happens, however, is that after one gets bombarded by bad poetry, it just kills the appetite. I remember Elizabeth Bishop telling me that after reading some literary journals, she didn’t want to look at another poem for months. In order to read poetry well, you need to be open and vulnerable. That’s why bad poetry is so excruciating.

Writing poetry is an involuntary process. A poem either comes or it doesn’t. I can’t write a good poem as an act of will. I am at the mercy of the Muse. Sometimes she stays away for months, even years. Then she barges in and starts dictating. I never tire of seeing her. I wish she would stop by more often.

MP: What authors have influenced you and your writing?

DG: Some writers influence your ideas. Other influence your style. A few provide useful models for your life (or cautionary examples of what not to do). The modern poets who have served as models for me have been W. H. Auden, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Rainer Maria Rilke—each in different ways. They helped me clarify what it means to be a poet in the modern world. But I’ve learned a lot from prose writers, too. Jorge Luis Borges, Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov, and John Cheever taught me a great deal about writing poetry.

MP: Speaking of reading, what occupies space these days on your nightstand or iPad?

DG: Reading is one of the great and constant pleasures of my life. I can’t recall a time in my life that I didn’t read for pleasure. I still read a great deal of fiction—at least one novel or book of short stories a week. The trouble is that I often feel I’ve read most of the books I’m likely to love. So I reread a great deal. This past year I’ve reread four novels by Friedrich Durrenmatt as well as much of Chekhov. Last night I finished Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, a short novel that consists entirely of letters of recommendation by a teacher of creative writing. It was very witty and at times quite touching. The best new novel I’ve read lately is Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. It is in some ways a conventional Bildungsroman about a young poet trying to find himself on a fellowship to Spain, but Lerner’s prose has such remarkable richness and bite. He portrays the delusions of a young male artist with merciless accuracy. Lerner is also a poet. His verse is good, but fiction is his true métier.

For poetry, the best new book I’ve read is J. Allyn Rosser’s Mimi’s Trapeze. I’m still not crazy about the title, but the poems both moved and fascinated me. Rosser’s poetry is smart and clever, but her work seethes with such quiet emotion that the effect is deeply emotional. I don’t understand why Rosser isn’t on everyone’s list of the best younger poets.

MP: If time travel becomes a reality tomorrow, where will you go?

DG: I would go back to December, 1987 and try to prevent the death of my first son.

MP: Do you write for an audience or only for yourself?

DG: I suppose a poet might write only for himself, but that situation doesn’t appeal to me. A poem without readers seems a diminished thing. I have always written for an audience—but not the small, cantankerous audience that exists for contemporary poetry. I write for the sort of person who reads novels, listens to jazz, watches old movies. These people don’t pay much attention to poetry. But it’s my experience that they like good poems when they encounter them. It’s not a bad thing for poetry to compete with fiction or film. I’ve always assumed that I would have to create my readership as I went along.

MP: What advice would you give a fledgling writer pertaining to the craft of poetry?

DG: Love the art. Be passionate. Immerse yourself in it for hours every day—reading, writing, memorizing, reciting. Learn poems by heart. Bring them into the center of your being. Take pleasure in mastering technique. Study great poems and not so great poems, so that you can tell the difference. If you don’t love poetry so much that all this labor seems like fun, then try something else. Fame and fortune are unlikely outcomes for the poet. The main reward is doing work you love.

Michael PassafiumeMichael Passafiume is co-poetry editor of Lunch Ticket. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The AlembicThe Blue Hour MagazineDirty ChaiDrunk MonkeysKNOCK MagazineMinetta Review, and The Subterranean Quarterly, among others. His chapbook, I Know Why the Caged Bird Screams, was a quarterfinalist for the Mary Ballard Poetry Prize for 2015 from Casey Shay Press. He lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.

Jill Marr, Literary Agent

Jill Marr

Photo: Roz Foster

Jill Marr is an agent at the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. She graduated from San Diego State University with a BA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing and a minor in History. She has a strong Internet and media background and nearly 15 years of publishing experience. After writing ad copy and features for published books for years, she knows how to find the “hook” and sell it. Jill is interested in commercial fiction, with an emphasis on mysteries, thrillers, romantic suspense and horror, women’s commercial fiction, and historical fiction.

David Bumpus interviewed her via email.

David Bumpus: What is the relationship between author and agent like today? What sort of relationship should authors realistically expect when they seek an agent?

Jill Marr: These days an agent is more of a jack of all trades than ever before. Most of us are heavy with the editorial process, as projects need to be as perfect as possible when we take them to market. Then even after we place the project with a publisher, we are there—pushing for the very best jacket art and every little thing. Then at pub we help to promote the author and the book and are constantly thinking about the author’s career, not just the one book.

DB: What is the relationship between agent and publisher like in today’s marketplace? Has there been a shift in the way that book deals are struck—similar to the way that, say, record companies now tend to produce one-hit wonders instead of career musicians?

JM: This is really one of the aspects in the industry that hasn’t changed much, though many of the players have. We are all out to find great art, books that people think and want to read. We want to discover writers and mold careers.

DB: As an agent specifically looking for commercial fiction, what do you look for in a manuscript? What makes or breaks a manuscript for you?

Usually I’ll give the writer about 10-15 pages to get me hooked. If the voice speaks to me, if the pacing really moves and if the characters are strong and interesting, I’ll keep reading and hope for the best.

JM: I’m always drawn to a great concept and a unique voice. I have a difficult time reading manuscripts that clearly need editorial help and I always caution writers to be sure that agents are not the very first people who read their work. I’ll first look to make sure that the overall concept is new and fresh and if it’s something that excites me, I’ll take a look. Usually I’ll give the writer about 10-15 pages to get me hooked. If the voice speaks to me, if the pacing really moves and if the characters are strong and interesting, I’ll keep reading and hope for the best.

DB: Do you feel cinema has changed the way we write books? Do people simply not have the patience for books anymore? What aspects of writing do you think cinema has influenced (when reviewing manuscripts that people have sent you, do you see trends such as they are all action and dialogue, no thought given to detail or inner sensation, gratuitous sensationalism, etc.), and what do you think the effects are? And how does all of this factor into what you, as an agent, want to solicit?

JM: I don’t think that film has changed literature much at all. If anything, some of the best movies are book-to-film projects, so the film world is coming knocking, looking for content. Because of our close proximity to Hollywood, The Dijkstra Agency does a lot of book-to-film deals and often when I’m reading a manuscript that I think I’ll pick up I’ll be thinking about film agents at the same time.

With regard to trends, most of the derivative projects I get are from writers who really don’t know the industry or the market to which they are hoping to sell. What we are seeing published today will be yesterday’s news in 18-24 months when the books I am selling to publishers now are released.

DB: What are your thoughts on the role of entertainment in books? As an agent specifically geared towards commercial fiction, how big of a role does entertainment play when seeking to get a book published? Is there room in today’s publishing landscape for a ruminating, existential, plotless tome, or is commercial viability king? And are these things mutually exclusive? 

JM: In publishing there is room for everything. But will it sell to a wide variety of the reading public? That’s another question. Most people pick up a book and hope to be entertained, so it’s just a matter of how they want to be entertained. I like it when a book makes me think and I like when one stays with me long after I put it down. But I personally don’t like it when a message is forced down the reader’s throat. And I like a narrative that really moves (and that’s with any genre). Plus, in general, the gigantic tomes, no matter how wonderful, are difficult to translate, so the foreign sales and outreach will be limited.

DB: There is an idea that place affects writing. There is also an idea that NYC writers are different from LA writers, who are different from Portland writers, who are different from Southern writers, and so on. Are we becoming divided? And are these biases prevalent in the industry—does place affect who is interested in publishing you?

I love a book that is so well written that the setting almost becomes a character in itself.

JM: I think if anything, we are becoming less divided. I love a book that is so well written that the setting almost becomes a character in itself. One of my authors is writing a thriller that is set in Peoria, IL. The author and his family moved there a couple of years back for his wife’s job, but he does not like the city. In the novel the city took on a life of its own. When he asked me if he should change the setting I said, absolutely not! It was one of the strongest aspects of his first draft. It’s great to read a novel that is set somewhere I’ve never been.

DB: Do you see any biases in publishing–between gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.? How do you think we can overcome or otherwise dismantle those?

JM: I don’t, really—sorry, not the most entertaining answer but the literary world is likely the most open and inviting.

DB: There seem to be two major career trajectories writers are encouraged towards right now: to teach, or to try to make it as a commercial writer, and this seems largely tied to where the writer is coming from (specifically if the writer has an MFA, where MFAs are often encouraged to go into teaching). What are your thoughts on the NYC publishing route versus the push to become-an-MFA-to-teach-in-order-to-create-more-MFAs-who-will-do-the-same situation? What counsel would you provide to an MFA graduate signing on with you who is looking to make writing a viable career path?

JM: A big part of being an agent is managing expectations. Even after a nice sale to a publishing house, I always tell my authors not to quit their day jobs. So I’d advise an MFA graduate to look for work that is related to the field, whether it’s teaching, writing ad copy, website copy, anything. And then continue to write that book. That way they continue to develop their skills (and let’s face it—it’s nice to get paid to write) while working toward the ultimate dream of getting published.

DB: Due to how easy it has become in recent years to create and run a website, many major literary journals are going online, and numerous other journals are cropping up (and disappearing) left and right. How do literary journals, online or in print, feed into this new generation of writers? And how do you think they’re affecting the landscape for short story writers, specifically? If you’re published by a number of online literary journals, is that enough?

JM: It’s all about getting your name out there. When looking over the bios of prospective writers, agents love to see that they have been published in literary journals, magazines, and even online. That said, we also really like to see that the author is savvy about social media and getting their name out there in any way. Bloggers who have a good following are always interesting to us as well. There are so many ways for writers to get exposure these days, that those who are not getting out there really don’t have any excuse.

DB: What are your thoughts on going indie versus seeking publication with the Big Five? There is a growing notion that the dedicated, passionate members of the literary community are moving towards the indie publishing houses because that’s where all the other people who are passionate about the community are. Do you feel these tensions as an agent when deciding along which route to push a book?

JM: I recently heard that when an author goes the traditional publishing route, approximately 70 people will be involved with that book at some point in the process. So if an author can negotiate a contract, is a talented editor or has access/funds to one, can design quality jacket art, get the distribution to bookstores and clubs like Costco, obtain reviews, and national coverage for their book, then I’d say feel free to consider the indie route.

The unfortunate part of the indie movement is that there is a lot of garbage out there that is being self published. There are editors for a reason. So the waters have kind of been muddied in that regard. But there are some great self-published books as well. The beauty of the way that the publishing industry is moving is that there are more and more options for agents and authors. If an agent helps one of their authors go the indie route, we want to make sure that it’s done well and will ultimately help the author’s career.

DB: When you’re looking at a manuscript or negotiating with an author, are there any deciding factors that tend to incline you toward either wanting to work with the author on one project, or that would move you to seek a symbiotic, career-long contract?

JM: My preference is always to work with the author and help shape the career for their entire body of work. But I have worked with authors who, for instance, were presenting me with a nonfiction project when they already had an agent for their fiction. I never think that I’m just “one and done” with an author.

DB: What would you say are the do’s and don’ts of writing a query letter, and a hook?

JM: There are so many—too many to mention. We could do an entire interview just on the writing of the query letter! But if I had to narrow it down to the top three pet peeves it would be, sending out the mass email query to dozens of agents at the same time (doing homework is so crucial and picking the agents to whom you submit is not unlike dating—see who you think represents the types of book you are writing), this just comes off as lazy. If someone simply writes “check out my project” and includes a link, that isn’t going to work either. Be sure to look at each agent’s website to see how they like to receive projects. I’m guessing that not one will want to click through to a link. And finally, treat the query letter like a cover letter to a resume. Be professional, smart, and courteous. You’d be surprised to see how that goes a long way. Every time I open a query letter I hope that it’s going to be something I’ll fall in love with.

D_Bumpus_headshotDavid Bumpus is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles, and the Editor-in-Chief of Lunch Ticket. He graduated from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is working on getting his motorcycle racing license.

Three Poems

Navigating wind in the chest

I walked the path between two solstices
with a swarm of angels
a flock of insects, miniature jaguars
and the rattle of day still reverberating.
Those seminal forces
luring me to the honeycomb
where the hummingbird and winter cicada whirred.
Navigating toward high seas
dad and mom
are two coasts
glued on the scorched edge of the map.

I wonder what language I will speak
++++++++++++++++ion my deathbed.

 

Flock of one

…your sheep that were wont to be so meek and tame, and so small eaters, now,
as I heard say, be become so great devourers and so wild, that they eat up, and
swallow down the very men themselves.
Thomas More, Utopia

It was so white. Freshly shorn
seemed as if they had removed
++++++++++++cottony clouds
and about a foot of him had fallen
defeated           by its own weight.

In his view
a lake               surrounded by reeds
++++++a body of water
embedded in the gentle hand of evening.

But they came, mostly women.
No one                        noticed
when the fluffy tail grew a stinger
the bleating tongue split in two
++++++and the snowy fur
began to grow scales
between misty tangles of hair.

No one                        noticed.

 

Letter to Khaled

Khaled, I carry your people on my back like a stone. Will we be condemned to this long climb, Sisyphus of red pearls encased in their box, you inside me like marrow in bone, fire in the sun, silver in the moon? And sand from all the world’s hourglasses would not be enough to cover the dead in Gaza cemeteries.

Khaled, if only I had beautiful enough words, and an angel to whip me with his quill, words as luminous as dawn, caress, petal, quetzal feathers, so the stone might roll off my back, plummeting lead that sinks to the dregs where your dead have ended up.

prose_section_divider

Navegación viento de pecho

Recorrí el camino entre dos solsticios
con un enjambre de ángeles,
una parvada de insectos, jaguares en miniatura,
y la sonaja del día que no ha dejado de tañer.
Aquellas fueron fuerzas seminales
para atraerme hacia el panal
donde zumbaría el colibrí y la cigarra de invierno.
Navegación hacia alta mar,
papá y mamá
son dos litorales
pegados en la orilla chamuscada del mapa.

Me pregunto qué idioma hablaré
++++++++++++++++ien mi lecho de muerte.

 

Rebaño de un solo miembro

Los corderos que tan mansos y dóciles acostumbraban
ser y de tan poco apetito, dícenme ahora que se han
convertido en  devoradores tan grandes y feroces que
se  tragan y engullen incluso a los propios hombres.
Tomás Moro, Utopía

Era tan blanco. Recién trasquilado,
parecía como si le hubieran quitado
+++++++++++inubes algodonosas,
y hubiesen caído a un palmo de él,
vencidas            por su propio peso.

En la mirada tenía
un lago             rodeado de juncos,
++++++un cuerpo de agua
incrustado en la mano dulce del atardecer.

Pero llegaron, la mayoría mujeres.
Nadie                       se dio cuenta
cuando la cola espumosa desarrolló un aguijón,
la lengua que balaba se partió en dos,
++++++++iy el pelambre nevado
empezó a cultivar escamas
entre marañas de pelos neblinosos.

Nadie                      se dio cuenta.

 

Carta a Khaled

Khaled, llevo tu pueblo a cuestas como una piedra. ¿Seremos acaso condenados a este largo ascenso, Sísifos de perlas rojas encerradas en su caja, tú en mí como la médula al hueso, el fuego al sol, la plata a la luna? Y todos los relojes de arena del mundo no alcanzarían a cubrir los muertos en los cementerios de Gaza.

Khaled, quisiera palabras tan hermosas, y el ángel me latiguea con su cálamo, palabras tan luminosas como alba, caricia, pétalo, pluma de quetzal, y la piedra rueda de mi espalda, plomo que se hunde en picada hasta la hez donde tus muertos han ido a parar.

Translator’s Note

Robert Bly’s eight stages of translation is a fair representation of my general technical approach to translating a poem. However, before I begin translating, I like to read as much work by the poet as possible—even if I am translating a single poem. If the poet also writes essays or prose, I like to marinate with those as well. I like to build a personal relationship with the poet. I’ve been told that translating poets long dead is safer because you don’t have to fear them hating the translation, but I enjoy building a relationship with a living, breathing (and often under-represented) poet. I don’t know the mechanism, nor can I provide any empirical evidence as to how it makes me a more effective translator, but listening to the way a poet speaks, how she forms logic or expresses passion, knowing how she likes her coffee, etc. all help form a poetic intuition unique to her work. Of course, with poets who have already passed, you can do research, listen to recordings, etc., but that artery for feedback won’t be there to nourish you. What intrigues me about Françoise’s work is how it reflects her background in and love for the biological sciences and natural history. Given my B.A. in Environmental Science, it isn’t surprising that Françoise’s work speaks to me, but studying how she draws upon these inspirations helps me contemplate new ways to do so in my own work. I appreciate how Françoise shares her success with me. For example, she recently shared that she had taken my English translations of her poems to a literary festival and workshop in China where they were explored in a common language. Hearing that the work I have done has helped her challenge borders and boundaries too—that is empowerment. I like that this process allows us to empower each other as artists and women. Approaching translation with gratitude and amazement is also essential—after all, becoming part of another artist’s process is an inimitable experience and privilege. Discussing with a poet her intentions and choices is such an intimate way of learning about poetry and language. And isn’t that why translation is such a good investment? I’ve had peers and colleagues ask why I spend as much time on my translations as I do on my own work. The two are interconnected—the immersion into someone else’s mind and expression influences my ability to express myself and benefits my work. It’s miraculous how another artist’s poetic nuances, once experienced and analyzed and savored, become part of my own poetic DNA. I am grateful for every opportunity to translate because not only do I build relationships with new members of my ever-increasing poet-family, but also, translation provides an ideal occasion to produce work that both crosses and questions boundaries of language, culture, and politics. And beyond the intellectualism and gifts of translation, I very simply find translating poems to be fun (think syllable Sudoku for the language-obsessed) and meditative.

Françoise RoyFrançoise Roy was born in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada, in 1959. She has a Master’s degree in Geography with a Certificate in Latin American Studies (B.S., University of Maryland; M.A., University of Florida; as well as a Certificate in Translation from English to Spanish (O.M.T., 2000)). She has worked as a free-lance interpreter and translator, and as an editor, apart from having been a French and English teacher. She has also given writing workshops. In 1997, she was awarded the National Literary Translation Award in Poetry (INBA, Mexico). In 2007, she was awarded the Jacqueline Déry-Mochon Award for her novel Si tu traversais le seuil (L’instant même, Quebec City, 2005). That same year, she also won the Alonso Vidal National Poetry Award in Mexico. She has published one novel in Spanish and one in French, a book of short stories, one plaquette and eight poetry books, most in Spanish, two of them being bilingual (Spanish-French). She has translated close to fifty books, mostly in poetry. In 2002, she co-founded Tragaluz, a monthly art and culture magazine, where she worked as an editor until it ceased to exist in 2007. She lives in Guadalajara, Mexico.

 

Amanda FullerAmanda Fuller is a native San Diegan who has circumnavigated the earth via ship. She is a poet, translator, and co-founding editor at Locked Horn Press who currently teaches at San Diego State University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry International, Serving House, San Diego Poetry Annual, BlazeVOX, Fugue, and elsewhere.

 

Anne Ursu, Author

Anne Ursu

Photo: John W. Ursu

I recently spoke with Anne Ursu, who has written both adult and young adult novels. She lives in Minneapolis and teaches at Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children, which is a low-residency program.

Ursu is the author of five middle grade fantasies as well as two novels for adults. Her most recent book, The Real Boy, won the Horace Mann Upstanders Award and was on the longlist for the 2013 National Book Award. Breadcrumbs, a contemporary retelling of “The Snow Queen,” was named one of the best books of 2011 by Publishers Weekly, Amazon.com, School Library Journal, Bulletin for Center of Children’s Books, and the Chicago Public Library. She is also the recipient of the 2013-2014 McKnight Fellowship in Children’s Literature.

Lisa Trahan: What inspired you to become a writer? Have you always wanted to write or is it something you discovered you wanted to do later on in life?

Anne Ursu: I read a ton when I was a kid. I loved books so much that it seemed natural to me that the next step would be making them. And I think I had an identity as a writer in my school—in seventh grade, we had a scary story competition and I won, and I remember feeling like I only won because I was considered the writer in my grade, not because the story was that good. So, clearly, I’d already mastered the internalized self-loathing that comes with being a writer.

LT: Your novels are written for the middle grades. How did you choose this age group versus younger children or teen fiction?

AU: I started by writing two adult books. It sounds odd, but it didn’t occur to me really that writing children’s books was something you could actually do. But a friend of mine published a middle grade book, and that made it seem possible. And then I read Harry Potter. I loved those books so much and it put me back in touch with all the books I loved as a kid. And then I read a lot that had come out in the last few years and I thought, “I want to do this!” And I never looked back.

I feel like you have a lot of freedom in kids books to play around. It seems you have so much more freedom to switch narrators, use magic, play with structure, and just play around with reality and time. Kids completely expect the world to be more than they understand so when you present them with something unfamiliar it doesn’t bother them at all. So to me it’s a very freeing place to write in.

The middle grade age is such an important age, when you’re trying to figure out what the world is really made of. And that’s a real theme in middle grade fiction, which gives you a lot to write about—especially in fantasy. I would love to write picture books, but I’m not good at it. Picture books are a lot like poems—you need to have such control, such technique, such density. They are very very hard.

LT: I read your book The Shadow Thieves and I felt it addressed a lot of issues and as an adult I really enjoyed it. I didn’t feel like it talked down to kids at all.

I don’t sit down and think, “I’m writing for a child now. What does the child need to hear? What’s appropriate?”

AU: I don’t sit down and think, “I’m writing for a child now. What does the child need to hear? What’s appropriate?” For me when I sit down to write a middle grade book, I think about the kid at the center of the story who needs a character journey, begins in a place where they have to grow, the events of the book will make them grow, and that specifically makes the book appealing to a child reader. And I feel a lot of freedom. But I never ever think I have to simplify anything.

LT: Why did you choose Greek mythology for your series, The Cronus Chronicles?

AU: I loved myths as a kid and when it came time to sit down and write a fantasy, that’s what came out. When the book came out I discovered kids weren’t reading myths in school anymore. But thanks to Rick Riordan and his massively bestselling Percy Jackson series, they now all know the myths. Not because of school, but because they are the books that kids want to read. I just did it because I liked it.

Ursu_CronosImmortalFire_book_coverLT: Speaking of Percy Jackson, you tweeted about The New Yorker and their criticism of children reading Percy Jackson.

AU: We as a society always have to have this conversation about popular literature versus literary fiction; we don’t talk as much about “here’s a shelf of literary fiction and here’s a shelf of genre fiction.” I mean fantasy can be literary, or not, and kids read all kinds of things. And now our intelligentsia has realized that criticizing adult popular fiction makes them sound kind of like out-of-touch elitist jerks, and so they’re moving to YA, which apparently everyone can denigrate.

I was enraged that the New Yorker picked these books, in particular because Rick Riordan was a seventh-grade teacher, he’s really concerned about reluctant readers, and he made a whole career out of writing books that will start kids reading. And then they keep reading. The New Yorker article offered no evidence, just snobbish speculation that by reading commercial books, kids will be somehow ruined for other books. A friend wrote a response to this essay by pulling out all this actual research about kids and reading; it shows that all it takes is the hook book, the one book they love, and it gets them reading for a lifetime.

But mostly it was so offensive because parents who read the article might not know any better, they want their kids to be smart and good readers, and now they’re thinking, “Are these books bad somehow?” And then the kid who needs that book to get hooked on reading doesn’t get this book—and these books have gotten approximately a jillion kids to get into reading.

I also have a particular problem with the snobbery towards fantasy and I think she was displaying a good deal of it there. She’s saying these books are myths, pretend,  fantasy,  gods and monsters—when in fact this genre allows you to deal with very serious and very epic themes, about personal responsibility, about social hierarchy and structure, and dismantling societies and the like. Fantasy is very serious business.

The peculiar thing about being in children’s books is listening to the way people outside of it talk about it, and most of the time, they don’t know anything about the field. You see all this stuff about teen books where people are just spouting off all over the place about how these books are ruining America, and they’ve only heard of three teen books. It’s frustrating because I don’t want the conversations that grown up people are having amongst themselves at their erudite cocktail parties to affect the way that kids get books. That’s why we’re all here—to help kids get books. And for me, particularly, having found kid readers to be much hungrier and intellectually curious, creative, and open, than adult readers, it gets me going a little.

LT: I won’t mention John Grisham then (regarding his comments defending a friend of his who was arrested for child pornography).

AU: An interesting thing about 99.5% percent of people who write for children is that they love children. J.K. Rowling loves kids and she’s out there and she’s interacting with them and answering her fan mail, and you feel that Grisham wouldn’t have said any of those things if he really cared about children, and I don’t exactly feel like his books came from a sincere desire to interact with kids. I have nothing against highly commercial books, but I have a lot of trouble with profiting off kids when you don’t give a damn about them.

LT: I’m not sure how much you know about Antioch University and our focus on social justice, and the social responsibility we all have through our art, and representing writing and art as a whole, but when you have a famous writer who makes those comments, it casts a negative light on all of us. We as artists have to take responsibility for what we represent.

AU: I think that’s exactly right. When you are writing for children and teenagers, and when you are an artist in the world, it is important to think about what your place is in this world and what your place is in the broader literary conversation, no matter what you’re writing. You believe the art form matters. You believe this interaction between writer and reader matters, in everything you do and everything you put out there, and when you write for children you hope that somewhere in there you are advocating for children—even if it’s just by giving a crap about them. I love Antioch for that. I think a lot of times in writing programs we can get so internalized because it is our art and our work. But it’s so important to see outside yourself. I love that Antioch teaches that being an artist is about community and the world, and that’s a conversation we have in writing for children a lot, too.

LT: We have been focusing a lot on diversity, racial and otherwise, and how to include people with disabilities, or who don’t just look like us. And I know your novel, The Real Boy, deals with a boy who has autism and even in The Cronus Chronicles, Zee is half black and his grandmother is Malawian, so how important is it for us as writers to bring in characters who are different and not necessarily like typical kids, into children’s literature?

AU: Well, I think we need to expand our notion of what a typical kid is. The white, able-bodied, neurotypical child is the minority—but in children’s books that’s the overwhelming majority. And that’s a huge problem; we’re not serving kids, any kids, and that includes those who see themselves in books all the time.

I wrote the character of Zee to honor my own cousin, who is biracial and his father is Malawian. At the time, I didn’t know anything about the crisis in representation. A few years later when I started to write Breadcrumbs, kids publishing had just gone through a series of conflicts over whitewashed covers. I was spending a lot of time on the internet reading things (instead of writing my book) and so I discovered the broader ongoing conversation about the unbearable whiteness of fantasy, and how kids who aren’t white never get to see themselves as heroes, and then my Cronus Chronicles started showing up on lists of diverse fantasy. And on one hand I was really happy to have written a character on these all-too-short lists. On the other, the realization that there’s such a paucity of diverse characters in children’s literature that Zee, who is the secondary protagonist, showed up on these lists, kind of broke my heart. Then I read a heart-wrenching essay by a teenage girl about what it was like to walk into a bookstore and never see herself on any covers.

So as I was starting this book, I just couldn’t bear adding to the immense list of fantasies that don’t star kids of color. So Hazel, the protagonist, became adopted from India. And my publisher put her right there on the cover, happily.

I think things are going to get better, at long long last. There is a group of amazing authors who began an organization called We Need Diverse Books, and they’ve just raised a few hundred thousand dollars to do all kinds of amazing things. This is the most important conversation in kids books right now. It has been for decades, but social media has allowed the conversation to amplify, and people to organize.

I think the most important thing we can do is attract as many diverse voices to the field as we can.

I think the most important thing we can do is attract as many diverse voices to the field as we can, and then promote their books as loudly as we can. I’m so happy people are talking about it, and I think it’s actually been really good for the community practically. So many great things are happening for writers to think about their role in the broader community.

Ursu_Breadcrumbs_book_coverLT: I see the discussion come up a lot about writing one’s ethnicity, and non-white writers say, “Just because I’m Chinese, why do I always have to write about Chinese people?” And then we have white writers who say, “How can I write from the Chinese POV if I’m not Chinese?” And then you have racism and reverse racism, but the whole point of writing is to explore. I think we get a lot of criticism for trying to write outside of who we are, as both diverse and non-diverse authors.

AU: Of course, there’s a huge power differential in those cases, and for people of color to question whether white people have a right to tell their stories is a whole different issue than writers of color getting boxed in. And I think if you’re white it’s really important to listen to this argument and try to understand everything behind it. And if you make the choice to go ahead, to be really cognizant to take a lot of care.  Listen, and do work, and understand the ways this can go wrong. And I don’t think this work ever ends.

I feel like I’ve learned so much this year. Authors have been talking about clichés and tropes, and some of them I knew, but some I didn’t. When we create we have no idea why our minds reach for certain things, and sometimes it’s because we’ve been fed clichés our whole lives. You don’t know what you don’t know. And now so much information is out there for you.

LT: Like in The Hunger Games, when people were upset to find out Rue was black, when she lived in the South, and I think it was implied fairly well, but people see what they want to see when they read.

AU: That was awful. To me, the real problem with those movies, racially, is that there is no way our dystopian future is going to look that way. There’s no way it’s as white as it is—unless something really cataclysmic happened to people of color, in which case you’d think it would have come up at some point. In the movies the black people are mostly in one district and then almost everyone else is white, and that’s so offensive and absurd. And when we erase people of color from movies, as we keep doing, that allows the racism we saw with Rue.

But in literature we’ve created this very white world—to an absurd extent in fantasy and sci fi. This is how the literature has been for so long that it’s easy for white writers to make a kneejerk mistake and perpetuate all that whiteness—and it takes a step to think past that and to think about the world as it actually is, or, in speculative fiction, how it could be. Which is another reason this conversation is so important. My Real Boy is a fantasy that takes place on a fictional island, and I realized when I was crafting the world that it would be so easy to just make them all white without thinking, and I didn’t have to do that. Everyone on the island is of color, and I’m really embarrassed to say it never would have occurred to me to do that if people weren’t pointing this stuff out.

LT: Are you working on any new projects?

AU: Sort of. I’m very slow. I write really quickly but then I take a long time in between books, so I’m kind of at the point where I’m trying to put something together, but it’s hard and frustrating and I need to kind of get to the point of absolute self-loathing before something comes to me. I keep thinking that I can’t possibly get any more self-loathing than I am right now, but apparently there’s still more to go. It’s been about two years between every book so I’m almost at that point.

LT: What is your writing style? Do you have a set routine?

AU: Well, I used to before I had a child. I would just sit down and write, and I’d write all day, every day, until the book was done and then put it down and give it to readers, and then revise, and go on like that. But now, nothing like that is possible. As much as I try to have a routine, it just doesn’t work, so my challenge is to try to figure out how to fit everything in, and carve out that time for writing, in addition to teaching and taking care of my kid. Somehow being a mom of a young child and being a writer aren’t that compatible.

LT: Do you have any advice you would give writers who are interested in writing Young Adult or middle grade fiction?

AU: Yes, I would just say read a ton. Read in the field, read widely, and figure out what it is that creates a spark in you and why. What do you love? What kind of stories do you want to tell? And I guess, don’t think it’s different. While the characters are of a specific age, I don’t think the writing is that different. You tell a story that you want to tell, the way you want to tell it. If you read enough you’ll see there’s no formula. I imagine at Antioch writers are interested in pushing boundaries and experimenting with form. That’s what pushes everything forward in children’s literature and YA literature. Kids are hungry readers and they want to read something that’s new and then they want to read something that’s incredibly familiar, and they want to read both books fifty times, and that’s what is so great.

LT: I know you said you read Harry Potter. Are there any other books you are reading right now or middle grade books that are particularly your favorites or that you’re looking forward to?

AU: There’s a book coming out in the spring that I want to throw it in the face of anyone who says YA literature is facile—Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby. The language is wonderful, you just want to roll around in it. And it’s really complicated and innovative, and shows what this lit can do. And while we’re on this theme, I just finished a book called The Bone Dragon, a harrowing story of a girl who’s gone through some brutal abuse and now she’s part of a new family. The language allows for magic in a really interesting way, and the author plays with the idea of what’s real and what isn’t—and if you insist on strict realism, you don’t get those kinds of stories. People in the greater world think YA only comprises the blockbuster books—dystopians, vampires, and John Green. But just as in adult fiction, there are all kinds of books for kids and teens.

LT: With these books and with your own writing, you seem to focus more on the magic side of things. Is that your preference or where you find yourself, or do you just love magic?

AU: I came from the theater and playwriting, and the program I studied at taught us to think outside the realistic formula of mainstream American theater. In theater, you can do whatever you want once you stop thinking representationally. You can mess with time and narration and reality—whatever you need to do to tell your story in the best way possible using that medium. You don’t hide the theatricality—you use it. And stories are the same way—we’re not limited by anything but our imagination. I think fantasy allows us to explore more about the human condition. I do read a lot of realistic fiction as well—I like a good story, and also I think it’s really important for fantasy writers to read realistic fiction and really study how the character journey works. But I am drawn to magic. I like magic. Why tell stories if you can’t have magic?

LT: What is your most rewarding experience or what do you love best about writing for middle grades?

AU: Oh, you go to a school visit and the kids are so happy, they’re so excited to meet an author. They’re so excited to talk to you and ask questions. We hear so much about the child reader and what they do and don’t like—gender is a huge issue in middle grade and we keep perpetuating this idea that boys don’t read and girls do, and boys will never read a book with a girl on the cover, etc. etc. etc. And you go and meet kids and realize they are just really hungry for stories, and it’s usually adults placing limits on them. I think so much of our conversation on kids and reading devalues the kids themselves. But then you meet them—the reader on the other end of the book—and they’re so wonderful, and you are very happy you had a story to give them. They deserve our stories.

Lisa TrahanMs. Trahan is an MFA student at Antioch University in Los Angeles. In 2004 she traded the chilly coast of the Atlantic for the friendlier shores of the Pacific. She plays and watches soccer, when not writing about the crazy events viewed from her windows.

No Voy a Forget

No Voy a Forget

Mi amor, espero que
Yo recuerde the way
You sound with three
Buttons undone, tu voz
Baja, cariñosa.
Will I remember the feel
De tu nombre the first time
I wrapped my lips around it?
When I made the exception
To my rule that yo sólo
Me casaría con un hombre
Si sabía cocinar
So I could marry you?
No quiero olvidar pues
I will sear into my memory
El sabor de tus besitos
And the way you held my tears
El día que murío Joan.
Cuando yo soy una mujer
Vieja y cascarrabias, I will
Remember watching ducks with you,
Los noches cuando me hacía
Cosquillas to wake me,
Your face of untameable ardiente love.

Author’s Note

“No Voy a Forget” is my very first bilingual poem. I didn’t set out to write bilingual poetry in the beginning, it was more of a happy accident. I set out to write a love poem, and I hated the result. I had a few Spanish phrases rolling around in my head so I threw them in as an experiment and it turned out well.

I love the rhythm and pace of Spanish, and I love how it dances with the rhythm of English. Spanish quickens the pace of the whole poem, like in the lines “To my rule that yo sólo / Me casaría con un hombre / Si sabía cocinar.” The natural cadence of Spanish is much faster than English and it is especially evident in this section of the poem leading up to a shift. On the other hand, in some places the English slows the pace of the poem down, emphasizing certain words’ significance. This is important in the beginning to set the mood with the words “the way / You sound with three / Buttons undone” and to emphasize the determination in the line “I will sear into my memory.”

I tend to follow the path of the poem when deciding which words should be in which language based on what sounds the best and which words in which language pack the most punch and convey the most meaning. I also consider how quickly I want the poem to move. I try to have enough lines in English to make sure readers can understand the overall tone and subject of the poem, but my main goal is more for readers and listeners to engage in the music of the languages.

Recently, my work has focused in on exploring the dance of the two languages in combination, often embracing more Spanish than English and Latin American cultural themes as well as my own everyday life.

Chelsea RisleyChelsea Risley is pursuing a BA in English Creative Writing and Spanish at Berry College. She won the Southern Women Writers Student Writing Contest in Poetry in 2012 and her work has appeared in Berry College’s literary magazine. She currently lives in Rome, Georgia with her husband.

Coiffure / Hair-do, Deficit Spending, Pouf Tossed Salad

Coiffure / Hair-do

The beautiful American word hair-do
lacks the élan of the French word coiffure.
Hair-do is flat-footed & matter-of-fact.
It does what it says it does; Americans adore that.

I could run hairstylist up the flagpole as a word
to salute—that’s as Cadillac as our idiom gets.
But Cadillac looks suspiciously French—about
as Yank as Yangtze or American as freedom fries.

The strange but beautiful French word pouf,
if given two o’s, stands for fag in British slang.
Also note that in pouf—when said by the French—
lurks the inimitable Ouf! of Gallic lips pursed to rue

gauche American gaffes—like the war in Iraq . . .
Gaffes which my mom tried not to make, studying
French in Paris that summer and shopping every day,
quite patriotically, at Les Galeries Lafayette.

At the beauty salon near L’Opéra, they couldn’t
get her beehive quite right. Your air-dew, Madame,
eet iz not verry moderne! they said with hauteur.

Air-dew?—That’s the beautiful American word for my mother.

 

Deficit Spending

Chasing luxury is buying a trompe l’œil eternal life:
Like that set of miniature Parisian landmarks done as jewelry—
minus the burning banlieues, street barricades
or mounds of dog poop. These fantasy gems

are meant to distract. They’re perfect for
the economic downturn, when fine things are so cher
that only someone as rich as the Duchesse of Windsor
could purchase the Palais Royal made of amethyst.

Deficit spending demands caution: if you have to
check the dollar-to-euro exchange rate,
this kind of luxury is beyond you & forget it.
If you do take leave of your senses, buy

the cheapest bauble—the one spelling out Á Bas l’État!
Or, go ahead & get that citrine fleur-de-lis, or that
“Let Them Eat Cake” necklace of marquise diamonds.
Wear it to the Hotel Ritz in honor of the late Princess Diana.

Or blow all you’ve got and get the ring inspired by Notre Dame’s
rose windows, remembering how Marie Antoinette gave her
hand-me-down gowns to the priests there.
Then say a (guilty) prayer, like my mother in Paris—

modest of means, but still shopping: “You’ll have to
forgive me,” she wrote to my father. In Vogue, she read
that “women have been spending their last sou
here for hundreds of years!” It made her feel less alone.

 

Pouf Tossed Salad

Its body is of Bibb & frisée lettuces

garnished with pearl onions, Crimini

mushrooms & julienned carrots.

A craze for simple food

began when the ladies-in-waiting

saw the queen trying a new régime

ridiculously lean of meat.

Cornucopious display of bio- 

logique got tossed with tomatoes

and the house piss-&-vinaigrette.

I’ll never wear anything but vegetables

again! one duchesse said, catching sight

of the pouf Salade Composée.

It’s better to have vegetables in

the puff-pastry of one’s headdress

than to be dull as a turnip at table,

or pea-brained as a trophy queen.

Author’s Note

I was monolingual until I took French in college to fulfill a language requirement. My mother had gone on a kick to have me learn French when I was about 10, but I hated it and must have been a pill about it because her campaign didn’t last very long. Then I took a trip around Europe the summer I finished college. My first stop was Paris, and though I’d had a year of French, hearing it spoken on the street as a living language was a coup de foudre, but what I fell in love with was a language.

I returned to Paris and took classes at the Alliance Française. In order to ramp up my learning curve, I decided to speak only French as much as possible and even to make myself think in French. This intensive, mental effort grooved the French I practiced so deeply into me that sometimes French words actually came to mind and mouth before the English.

Even when I was back in the U.S., French appeared most insistently when I wrote. Sometimes my prose got so studded with French that it read like “Coiffure / Hair-do.” This effectively limited my potential readership to French-English bilinguals, but I’d made friends who’d also studied in Paris, and a kind of idiopathic, belle-lettriste franglais became our lingua franca. It was perhaps just a snooty way of setting ourselves apart, but it also kept that immersive cultural and linguistic experience of cultureand language-learning alive for us.

A few years later, I returned to Paris with my mother. This time she was the one studying at the Alliance Française, as recounted in the poem. Watching her tangle with the language, I finally really understood that what I’d thought of as English is, yes, “suspiciously French”—even if a twang-mangled, excessively dipthonged and diffidently ungendered French.

I think that once someone who’s monolingual becomes conscious of all the different linguistic ways to skin un chat, the more French (and German and Arabic and Spanish and Iroquois, etc.) one finds in one’s English. It’s a decentering experience that can’t come soon enough for those of us who haven’t been compelled by colonialism, migration, geography, or violence to know that our way of saying and doing things isn’t the alpha and omega of anything. Being even serviceably bilingual provides mind-altering new lexicons, tastes, and tonal registers. It puts two sides on every coin. Bilingual, one has more real and faux amis; more poetries, more worlds in which to think.

Coco OwenCoco Owen is a stay-at-home poet in Los Angeles. She has published in the Antioch Review, 1913, The Journal, Rio Grande Review, and CutBank, among other venues. She also has a mini-chapbook with Binge Press and has been a finalist in several recent book contests. Owen serves on the board of independent publisher Les Figues Press in Los Angeles and more of her work can be found at: www.cocoowenphd.com.

Papeles / Papers

Papeles

No tengo papeles.

Así, tengo papeles
En el carro en la silla.
En la casa en la mesa
En el cuarto en la cama.

Papeles de la corte,
Papeles del avogado,
Papeles del estado,
Papeles de la migra.

Papeles que me notan,
Papeles que me representan,
Papeles que me llaman y
Papeles que me dicen ir.

¡Tantos papeles tengo yo!
Una fábrica de papeles,
Un bosque de papeles,
Un montón de papeles, sólo porque

No tengo papeles.

 

Papers

I don’t have papers.

And so I have papers
In the car on the seat,
In the house on the table,
In the bedroom on the bed.

Papers from the court,
Papers from the lawyer,
Papers from the state,
Papers from la migra.

Papers that take note of me,
Papers that represent me,
Papers that summon me and
Papers that tell me to go.

So many papers!
A factory of papers,
A forest of papers,
A mountain of papers, just because

I don’t have papers.

Author’s Note

I live in two languages. As a bicultural individual, I go between Spanish and English all the time.

This particular poem was written after unsuccessful attempts to keep a friend from being deported. I was amazed at how much red tape surrounded his life, and “Papeles” emerged from that observation. I wrote “Papers,” the English version of the poem, shortly after completing “Papeles.”

I have read these poems many times at literary and community events. I think it’s important for people to hear the beautiful language of an ever-growing part of the US population, and to hear about the harmfulness of US immigration policies.

Mariana McDonaldmariana mcdonald’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including poetry in The Anthology of Southern Poets: Georgia, Les Femmes Folles, Fables of the Eco-future, Southern Women’s Review, Sugar Mule, and El Boletín Nacional; and fiction in Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers, and So to Speak.

Weird Gelatinous Things

Baby, let’s not go to the place where you and your other lover go. That place is ugly. Let me take you to the reservoir instead. We’ll go in the middle of the week, in the middle of a drought, the worst one in decades. When we get there we will be alone.

The water will be low, and you’ll barely be able to see it, coiled shallowly in the mountains’ crease. From the empty parking lot, we will be able to see the trucks and boat trailers turning around, defeated. A big white man will pass us, going the opposite direction, carrying a tiny red cooler. We will have to walk down the deserted, thunderstruck boat ramp, and in the noon sun it will feel like miles. I will carry the ice chest, fretting it from one hand to the other. It will be so worth it.

The long, high banks of the reservoir will look like a crater, a scar. They will be a quarter mile of dried, deeply cracked clay stretching from the tree line to the water’s edge. We will never have seen anything so fractured, so broken before. Because the reservoir is manmade, the grey skeletons of trees killed during the initial flooding will be visible; will surround us as we walk toward the beach. This drought is no joke, we will say, approving of the dramatic evidence. California is so fucked, we will say, laughing and crazed. You will see how excited we are, you and I, to be surrounded by this place of aftermath, this landscape that we fantasize about, post-apocalyptic, charming, and strange. Like us, like us, we’ll say.

At first we will feel the fears: What if we are found out? What if someone comes and they know we are gay and alone? But in the silence of the mid-afternoon, these fears will fade, I will take off my shirt and you will grow to love the abnormal glamor of the landscape. We will be animals then, wallowing in mud, stretched out, lazy. We will feel beautiful in this forsaken place. I’ll make us a shade structure from branches, and it will delight you. You will pee in the water, and the thought of Californians from Fresno to Monterey unwittingly drinking the piss of transexuals will delight me to no end.

I will notice something that looks like a plastic bag draped over a sunken branch. I won’t mention it to you. When we go swimming, our feet, our legs will be swallowed by twenty inches of wet clay and muck. The water will be perfect and deep enough to swim. It will be an aquamarine color, but slightly off, slightly grey. As we begin to swim you will see the thing too and ask,

“What is that?”

We will tread water beside the half submerged tree, poking gently at a clear mass of solid, gelatinous matter. Jellyfish-like, it will be motionless, something scarcely zoological, arguably botanical, covered in a leopard’s spots. We will begin to notice that the queer gelatinous sacks are everywhere, hanging from trees and rock outcroppings. You will say, that hanging there, they look like lingerie. You will brush against one underwater and ask,

“Was that you?”

We will laugh.

“This would be the perfect opening to a horror movie,” you will say, “But then I guess we would have to die.”

I will be sitting much lower in the water than you, and will have to lift my chin to say,

“Can it turn out that we are the monsters in the end?”

It will seem especially unearthly then, the place, the emptiness, the temperateness against our skin. You’ll want to race me across the water. Lithe and muscled in your flowered suit, you will swim much faster than me.

The breeze will dry us while we eat cold figs, and we’ll see wildlife, an eagle, a heron. We will hear the occasional blip of fishes, and every once in a while an army helicopter will fly by heavily, a sick bee. You will lift an empty Coors can to my ear like a seashell, and I will hear the lisp of wind in pines. I’ll point out the footprints of birds, children, and coyotes hardened into the clay. The grass will be the color of bread and the mud will be the color of ash. We will rub this mud on ourselves because, really, it’s as if we’re at a spa. We will make sculptures. Over and over, we will marvel at being the only two people there, and, secretly, I will relish this more so than you. You will be my scarcity. And I will squirm with the desire to possess, like other Californians, the little that remains.

In the afternoon it will be in the high 90’s but an elephantine cloud will pass overhead and giant droplets will fall for about five minutes. I will practice questions:

   What if this squall

   What if this drought

   What if we

   What if weird gelatinous things

The wind will change direction. The sun will not.

Migueltzinta SolisMigueltzinta Cah Mai Solís Pino was raised in Mexico and California. He has been a woman, a man, and the queer sum of these things. He earned his B.A. from The Evergreen State College in Interdisciplinary Studies. His work has appeared in Midnight Breakfast, PANK, and Apogee, and he is a VONA/Voices 2014 alumnus. He is also a visual/performance artist.

How He Leaves You

This is how he leaves you. Door pulled quietly closed, last glimpse of a weathered leather bag and brown hair matted to the back of his head. You sit on the couch in a pair of running shorts—knees up, legs crossed, heels tucked underneath you. He doesn’t look back.

That night you drink orange juice and vodka and write letters to him, one after another. Some of them you fold into thirds, tuck into envelopes, and stamp with two stamps each before putting them in your desk drawer. Twelve letters until your roommate comes home and pulls away your pen and drink and makes you take a shower as she unbuckles her velvet heels. It’s three thirty in the morning.

The water is too hot and the steam is suffocating. You kneel by the drain, noticing the mold creep across the grout. The monsoon has turned Bombay green and grey and things grow in every crevice of the city. You wonder, as the water pelts your still-plaited hair, as the rain slams relentlessly into the window, if you are crying or just silently screaming.

 *     *     *

He leaves you on a Sunday in June and on Monday you are back at the office checking every e-mail he has sent you in the last two years, watching the signature switch from Best to Kisses to Love.

There’s a drawer of birthday cards and notes that were taped to the inside of your bag on weekday mornings. And underneath, on a crumpled piece of yellow pad paper, is the first letter he ever wrote you and slipped into your purse when you boarded a train to Delhi. You sat in the doorway of your sleeper car that morning, reading his tiny blue scrawl, peeling up words at the corner to look for hidden messages.

I’ll think of you, he wrote. I’ll think of you when I run down Marine Drive, slowing down by the bench where I kissed you for the first time, cutting off your laugh and getting my fingers stuck in your uncombed hair.

The letter looks different under the fluorescent lights, without Indian Railway cars chugging along the Madhya Pradesh countryside. His scratched out words look careless, not spontaneous. The middle paragraph, you realize, was more for himself than you. You fold the letter into a perfect square, slip it back into the drawer and wave off coworkers when they offer you a ride home.

Weaving back through the crooked, cobblestone streets you are so close to the sea that your jeans are damp with salty spray. For a second you lean over the fence and watch the rough grey water and breathe into the empty pit of your stomach until you almost feel full.

*     *     *

August days are long, the nights longer, and in the morning, when sleep finally comes, you stay awake by watching the rain fall on the street where a man peddles flowers for a nearby temple on Pali Hill. An imam calls namaz over the mosque speakers next door. Bells ring at St. Andrews church. There is faith everywhere but your dark bedroom, where light bulbs flicker on and off. Some days you walk the length of your bed, back and forth, raising your hands up to the ceiling as if to throw a question at whatever exists beyond the fan.

Kanika still says, Good Morning, still brings you a cup of chai she makes with all milk and no water. But she is growing restless and you are letting the dust settle in your room, turning your feet black and your books musty. The silk curtains have faded from orange to peach. And when she asks you for rent money it takes you the entire day to find your checkbook.

He owes you money, you remember. Not just a little, but for a flight ticket to Goa because he missed a train. For at least a dozen dinners when he forgot his wallet. For the time his card got declined when he was buying his sister a present. He always said it was the American bank account, but none of the other white guys from his office had the same problem.

You wonder what he would do if you called him right now, asking for the exact amount you penciled in your budget notebook.  But then there’s the chance that you would have to hear his voice and not just the echo of last words.

*     *     *

That voice haunts you. It’s the sound men make when they stop caring. When they no longer notice your long eyelashes and tiny hands. Or the way you say the word water so delicately without the twang of his American South. Wotah, wotah, he used to practice out loud, lying next to you with sweat dripping off his brow. He could never get used to the heat—antsy and frustrated through each Indian summer, complaining when you didn’t want to turn on the air conditioning.

Now that voice keeps you up at night, convinced that he is watching his ex-girlfriend wake up in Brooklyn, his hand on her creamy, perfect white skin, relieved that he no longer has to look at your pockmarked back or the stretch marks where your thighs meet your hips. He used to call them your tiger stripes when you tried to cover them with the palms of your hands in the early days of discovering each other’s bodies. But you both knew they were just scars.

That night you walk into Kanika’s room and leave your phone on her nightstand and tell her to keep it for the week. But she puts it back on your dresser the next day—insisting your mother will call her to find out where you are.

Your mother does call. She calls in the morning and the evening and sometimes at night because she knows the break in your voice. When she asks about Nick you say he flew back to America—that you haven’t heard from him in a while.

Such a nice boy, she says, and you are suddenly furious that he ever stepped foot in your home, corrupting the sacred space where your mother does her surya namaskars each morning, where your father makes ginger tea. You remember how Nick said, I love ghar ka kanna, and charmed everyone by eating yogurt rice with his hands like you taught him. But when you were alone in the room he complained that the food was too heavy, complained that the dessert gave him indigestion.

You wondered that weekend if you loved him but he was already there in your childhood room, reading you lines from your third grade diary and kissing you, it seemed, whenever you wanted to ask him a question. By the end of the night your parents insisted on dropping him off at Pune Station with a bag of sweets and snacks.

He’s not a nice boy, you say into the receiver, and wish for your mother’s cool, strong hands on your forehead. She doesn’t say anything more. When you hang up you don’t miss him, or the chords he strummed each night on the guitar, or his thin pink lips, or his attempt to say your name the right way, with a soft th and a long o. There is anger where the longing used to be, and you put all of your letters and his letters into a plastic bag and walk all the way to the dumpster before you turn back and toss it under your bed.

*     *     *

He leaves you with the start of the rains but it isn’t until the sun dries off the roads that you don’t think of him when you brush your teeth every morning.

You take the train home for Diwali in October and notice some extra space between your ribs, between your brows, in the vertebrae of your neck. Your body has released him and you find yourself in tears because you remember what it was like before his scribbles filled the margins of the story you were writing when he showed up. Before he wooed you with his guitar and his dollars and the way he high-fived the bai who cleaned his house.

When you reach the station you are suddenly so hungry that you buy a huge chocolate bar and eat the entire thing in the taxi on the way to your house, hardly noticing the firecrackers that explode dangerously close to the car, or the driver’s curses.

At home you and your mother spend hours creating rangoli patterns in the driveway—drawing careful lotuses and mango leaves with colored powder and placing tiny, illuminated diyas amid the designs. By the time night falls and the guests start to come, your hands are rainbow-stained and your nails lined with red.

You light lamps until there is no dark spot left in the house.

A_Rao_HeadshotAnkita Rao is an American journalist currently based in India, where she writes about health, education, and worldwide inequality. Her articles and photographs have been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, and Quartz, among others.

 Before moving to India she covered health care disparities and policy at Kaiser Health News, a non-profit news service that regularly serves the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and NPR. At the height of the Obamacare debate, she wrote features and breaking news about how the health law impacts the people most vulnerable to poor access, from coal miners in rural West Virginia to the homeless in Washington, D.C.

Ankita is originally from Tampa, Florida. She attended the University of Florida, where she studied Journalism, Religion, and Creative Writing. She is also an alumnus of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

I call the suicide hotline

The man on the other line calls me doll
speaks in exclamations: don’t do it
you crazy fool! Someone loves you out there!

I’ve spilled a beer on my lap
and sit in wet jeans with a blanket
at my feet. Outside it’s like I always
imagined it would be – a dark and dreamy
fog arranged delicately over the yard
like I’m in my own Lifetime movie,
beer cans scattered over my coffee table.
Sometimes I have all the fight
in the world, I think, but don’t say
because all I really want
is for this man to call me doll
so I can imagine his voice
coming out of a soft boy mouth.
Mostly, he just says he understands
and I ask him if he knows what it’s like
to drink two-day old coffee over lipstick stains,
to drag a road-sign with your mother’s
maiden name out of the ground, only to leave it
on your front porch in the rain,
if he knows what gravel feels like
stuck in your palms.
I can hear paper shuffling,
phones ringing – he’s very busy,
I realize, and I’m very drunk
and I don’t even sound like I’m in danger.
Sometimes, I tell him, I just want
to get drunk alone and watch Braveheart
but tonight I just want to hear
someone say my name
and sound like they know
who I am

Mary Stone

Mary Stone is the author of the poetry collections One Last Cigarette and Mythology of Touch. Her chapbook, The Dopamine Letters, was published in 2014 by Hyacinth Girl Press. She currently lives and teaches in St. Joseph, MO, where she co-edits Stone Highway Review, serves as a poetry editor for Sundress Publications, and coordinates the First Thursdays Open Mic Reading Series.

 

Weighing the Rain: Archival Pigment Prints

I Love You, I Hate You, Don’t Leave

My therapist says it’s normal for people to touch themselves. Ew, not like that. I mean, not sexually. She says it’s not weird, and that feels like the permission slip I need to do it whenever I can. I touch my knobby knees. I never feel like they point in the right direction. I poke my thighs and watch the skin jiggle until I get up to my hipbones. They jut right out. My dad says hugging me is no fun, it’s like he’s getting stabbed in the gut. I wrap my middle finger and thumb around my wrist and go up my arm like that until my fingers no longer touch. I can go almost up to my elbow. Part of me wants to be able to go past my elbow, but I’ve always had big arms. I avoid my stomach. It’s this vast and kind of unruly white space that never seems to do what I want it to do. My boobs…I have no boobs. My dad has bigger boobs than I do, which is kind of embarrassing for both of us in my opinion.

“Hannah!”

That’s my dad, roaring at me from the bottom of the stairs, as usual. It’s my sister’s thirtieth birthday, so we’re going to the fanciest steakhouse in town. I whined and complained already, but there’s no getting out of it. I checked out the restaurant’s menu ahead of time and wrote down the salad I want with all the things I want them to take off of it.

“Hannah Banana!”

You know those childhood nicknames that never seem to crawl away and die like they should?

“I’m coming!”

“I don’t hear you moving!”

“That’s because I’m like a cat in the night!”

I’m pretty light on my feet, and I’m proud of that. My dad’s weight announces his presence wherever he goes.

“Hey, Miss Cat in the Night! Get down here.”

That’s my sister, Jen. Oh no, that means…

“Auntie Banana! Auntie Banana!”

The brats, I mean, my nephews are here. They refuse to call me Aunt Hannah like dignified children would. They can’t even say Banana like five year olds should. It’s baNAnnnA.

I take my time going down the stairs. I stop by the table in the hallway. It’s an antique Dad inherited from some old aunt. It’s heavy, made of real solid wood with cherubs lining the legs. There’s an open envelope lying on the top. We’re not supposed to put anything on that table, so I pick it up to move it downstairs. Then, I notice it’s from Dad’s doctor. I move back down the hall toward my room and pull out the test results inside. Dad’s cholesterol is still high. No surprise there. But his glucose is slightly elevated too. Does this mean Dad has diabetes? My chest hurts. After a couple more shouts of “Auntie Banana,” I put the envelope back and head downstairs.

It seems kind of unfair that life, or at least adolescence, is about getting away from my parents, but the older I get, the more I seem to carry them along.

When I meet my family at the bottom of the stairs, I notice my sister looks older. I guess single motherhood can do that to a person. Other than the whole looking old thing, my sister could be my twin. We have the same long reddish-blonde hair and brown eyes. We’re the same height, about average. And we both have our father’s cheeks and our mother’s nose and hips. No matter how much the rest of me shrinks, I can’t seem to get rid of my father’s cheeks or my mother’s hips. It seems kind of unfair that life, or at least adolescence, is about getting away from my parents, but the older I get, the more I seem to carry them along.

“That’s a nice skirt. A little short though, don’t you think, Dad?” Jen turns to him.

Dad shrugs.

“Happy Birthday,” I say as I hug her. She grunts when my hip hits her side.

“Geez, Han. Good thing we’re going to the steakhouse. You need to put some meat on those bones. That’s the goal, right?”

That’s actually not the goal of treatment, or at least not the only goal. But Jen doesn’t get that. And pointing out the hip bones? So not necessary.

I gently run a finger along the side of her face. “Those wrinkles, babe, you really should do something about them.”

I turn away from her real quick before I see her hurt look and I start to feel bad. But I end up turning right into my father’s glare. His dirty looks never last long though. He’s basically Santa Claus. Round face, huge cheeks, overflowing girth, fat legs, and black boots. He’s always wearing black boots. He almost went to Scotland in college but couldn’t afford the trip. Ever since then, he’s collected kilts. Half his closet—what used to be Mom’s half—is full of kilts. Dress kilts, casual kilts, hunting kilts, camping kilts, dancing kilts. The only reason he’s not wearing a kilt this night is because my sister forbids it. He wears them “regimental style.” That’s code for commando. My sister doesn’t want her kids getting the wrong idea. Can’t say I blame her.

I do all the laundry for both Dad and me. He wouldn’t know what to do with fabric softener if the directions kissed him on the lips. And I’ve never seen underwear in his hamper… I try not to think about that too hard.

Dad hugs me. Whoever came up with the term “bear hug” must have been hugged by my father at some point. His hugs are tight and overpowering. It’s like he’s trying to fill me with love from the outside in. “I love you,” he says. But I hear: Fighting makes me uncomfortable.

When he pulls away, one look at Jen’s face tells me she got a similar hug, probably longer and harder, since it’s her birthday, so I shouldn’t complain.

“Let’s go!” He says, looking from me to Jen and back at me. “To the car!”

The boys, Mark and Matthew, run out the front door to Dad’s truck. “Han, you and Jen can ride together. I’ll take the boys.”

It’s a punishment, I know. I try to think of a way to smooth things over with my sister. We walk side by side, our arms almost touching. I look down and wonder exactly how much bigger her arm is than mine. When I first look at it, I think hers is twice as big, but when I look for a little longer, it’s like my arm starts to grow until I can’t really tell a difference. I just stop looking.

“I’ve always wanted to go to this steakhouse. At some point, I’m going to have to get some man to take me there on a date because I would like to actually have a drink there. They get their beer from local breweries.”

This is the first time we’ve celebrated Jen’s birthday since Mom died almost a year ago, so I’m trying to be polite. We each responded to my mom’s death in a different way. Jen got all control freaky. She’s never broken a rule, not even jay-walked. Her kids are out of control and her ex-husband is out of control, but I think that’s because she tries so hard to control them. Rebellious buggers. Dad got overly affectionate, like smothering us with love. I guess the opposite would be worse. But once you hear “I love you” a thousand times a day, it starts sounding like “I need you” or “Don’t leave me.”

And me? I got skinny. I got skinny to the point that I was passing out. And then, there was an incident at a breakfast fundraiser thing at school. I threw all the bacon into a dumpster and set it on fire. The school made my father force me into treatment. That’s where I learned bacon is a trigger food, but I don’t tell anyone that because, really, who in the real world has trigger foods?

Food killed my mother. No, wait, I’m not supposed to say that. Therapist’s “orders.” Food didn’t kill my mother. Her lack of self-control around food did. I’m not supposed to say that either, but it’s true.

Here’s the party line: my mother died from complications from diabetes involving her kidneys. She was on dialysis for three years before kidney failure tragically took her life.

Here’s my line: my mother ate herself to death. She got type 2 diabetes even without being at high risk because her eating was out of control. The diabetes destroyed her body.

Mom died less than a year ago, and she was sick for years before that. I can only remember her as a sick, fat person.

When we get to the steakhouse, I can smell grease and fat from the parking lot. Okay, I don’t really know if you can smell fat, but whatever they are cooking with smells disgusting.

When we get out of the car, Dad is sniffing the air. “Smell that, honey? Smell that? That’s what heaven smells like.”

I roll my eyes.

“I love you,” he says. What he means is: don’t act up.

Once we are sitting at the table, Mark and Matthew start fighting over the crayons for their menus. Jen manages to ignore them for a full five minutes before separating the pile of crayons into two separate camps. I’m glad she said something because I was about to snap on both boys.

I never open my menu. But I can’t help but notice the food that goes by our table: a double helping of mashed potatoes, broccoli with a slab of butter in the middle, rare steaks, huge steaks, steak strips. My chest starts to constrict. I can’t eat here. Whatever they cook will surely be dripping with butter and other unnecessary calories that could kill me.

“What are you going to get?” Jen asks. I’m thankful. Her question pulls me out of my head and reminds me that I have a plan.

“A salad,” I reply.

“Just a salad? Why don’t you try one of the small steaks?”

“No thanks.” I rummage in my purse looking for a piece of gum. Chewing calms me down.

“Oh come on, Han. It’s my birthday. We’re all getting steak. One steak isn’t going to kill you.”

Jen never went to the family meetings I had in the treatment center. She didn’t learn that she isn’t supposed to push me. Dad figures as long as I’m eating something, everything is fine and there’s no need to adjust anyone else’s behavior.

“I’m getting a salad.”

“But what about this steak right here. It’s in thin strips on top of a bed of cooked spinach. Doesn’t that sound healthy and yummy?”

I groan, look around, and spot our waitress just in time. She is one of those goody-two-shoes types who is probably only sixteen and already working to save up for college. I can just tell. The way her hair is pulled back in a high ponytail with a scrunchie. I didn’t even know they still made scrunchies. Her fingernails are all painted the same pale pink. Who paints all their fingernails the same color anymore, other than old people?

She gave us the usual spiel: “Hi, my name is Amber and I’ll be your server today. What can I get for you?” Her ponytail pops after every word, like it’s adding punctuation. She places a basket of breadsticks on the table. Each of the boys grabs two before anyone can say something. I smile and wish they will eat all of them before anyone can ask me if I want one.

I order their Garden Salad Supreme without the potatoes, the meat, the dried cranberries, the croutons, the fried onions, and with the dressing on the side. Jen glares at me. She and Dad order the special of the day: a twelve ounce steak with two sides. Jen chooses broccoli and mashed potatoes. Dad chooses two baked potatoes.

“I’d like both of those loaded, please.” Dad puts all our menus in a pile.

“Loaded?” The waitress puckers her lips out.

“Yes. With bacon, sour cream, chives, cheddar cheese, and maybe a little bit of onion.”

“Oh. We don’t have bacon.” I can’t take my eyes off of her ponytail. It has a mind of its own.

“What do you mean you don’t have bacon?” Dad asks. He asks it a little loudly in my opinion. But Jen doesn’t seem to mind. He laughs a little, like the waitress is playing a mean joke on him. “You mean you don’t usually put bacon on the baked potatoes. That’s okay, dear. Make it a special order.”

“No, sir, I mean we don’t actually have bacon in this restaurant.”

“At all?”

“Dad, please calm down. Or at least quiet down,” Jen says.

See? I told you he was being loud.

“Fine.” He folds his arms over his Santa belly and stares at the waitress. “Do you at least have sour cream and butter?”

“Yes, sir, we do. I’ll make sure I bring that out with your baked potato.”

Dad turns his attention to the twins, his way of avoiding his anger. Or, more likely, his way of avoiding the judgment of his daughters.

“Do you want a breadstick?” Jen asks.

“No, thank you.” I reply. My back stiffens, preparing for the fight to come.

She bristles but decides not to push it. I exhale.

She turns to me with this bounce like we’re best friends. “So, Han, what’s going on in your life?”

“What do you mean?” I’m not doing the best friend bounce.

“I mean, what’s going on in the world of Hannah?”

Was that actually meant to be a more specific question? “Nothing much. School.”

“It’s your senior year, isn’t it? Are you still making up credits?”

I can’t believe she’s bringing this up. I had to take a couple months off of school in the beginning of the year, half a year after Mom died, because of the bacon incident and the passing out. That’s when the therapist came in with her Marching Orders for Food and Life. She doesn’t like it when I call them that. But I think that’s just too bad for her. I “graduated” from treatment three months ago.

“I was never making up credits, Jen. I still completed my homework while I was out of school. Took tests and everything.”

“How’d you do that if you weren’t in school? Like if no one was teaching you?”

“I taught myself the stuff,” I mumbled. It wasn’t really something I liked to admit. I really like school. But from October through January, I didn’t need teachers to understand the work.

Jen just nods. This is why I hate telling people this stuff. It’s like suddenly people have nothing to say. But she had plenty to say when she thought I was struggling to keep up. Like just because I spent a couple months in “treatment,” I’m supposed to be broken.

“You look good,” Jen says after a moment.

I want to ask her her motivations. But socially competent people aren’t supposed to do that. I smile and pretend I’m not suspicious.

I wonder why she says it. Is she fishing for a compliment? Trying to get me to say, “oh thanks, you look good too”? Or is she confused by my eating habits? Does she think all I want is to look a certain way so somehow validating that I “look good” will make me want to eat? I want to ask her her motivations. But socially competent people aren’t supposed to do that. I smile and pretend I’m not suspicious.

“Thanks.” I say it even though I don’t mean it.

The waitress comes back with our food. When she places Dad’s steak in front of him with two large baked potatoes on either side of the meat, Dad gets to his feet.

“I’ll be back.”

I figure he’s going to the bathroom, and so I don’t look up from the salad I’m poking when he comes back.

“Dad, seriously?” Jen says.

My head snaps up, and my mouth drops open. I actually can’t keep my lips together. “What are you doing?” I know I’m loud. I know it. And the look on Jen’s face confirms it.

But you have to understand: my father came back into the restaurant with a chilled pack of bacon.

“Did you seriously go to the store?”

“I had it in my truck.” He grins, and I know he’s proud of himself. I can’t believe it. He rips the packet open and takes out seven strips of bacon. He starts ripping the bacon into pieces and mushing it into his potatoes.

My lip curls to the left. My hands start to tingle with anxiety and frustration. Bacon, seriously? What is he thinking? Is he trying to be like—

A picture forms. Mom on the couch. Her swollen ankles propped up on an ottoman.

And I am cuddled next to her on the couch while we watched some Disney movie. I had missed most of the movie because I had to get stuff for Mom. She couldn’t move around well by that point. I had just gotten her a glass of water and some gorilla in the movie was complaining about something. Before that, I got her a magazine and cookies. Before that, it was ice cream. Before that, it was her pills and a Coke.

Finally, the oven beeped. “Can you get that for me, baby?”

I was nine years old at the time, and that night for dinner, it was just me and Mom. Dad was still at work, and Jen was doing school stuff. We were having thirty-two wieners wrapped in bacon. I had prepared them myself. I took out two plates. On one plate, I set aside five small wieners for me. The rest was for Mom.

When I think back now about watching her eat all that bacon, it makes my stomach turn. I watch Dad basically doing the same thing, going everywhere with bacon in his truck, like he can’t be separated from it for a single moment. And I’m the unhealthy one?

Doesn’t he know that bacon is what landed me in treatment to begin with? Doesn’t he know that I hate it? Oh wait. I shake my head. He doesn’t know. I didn’t tell him that. And Dad’s not the kind of guy to pick up on subtle hints or clues. He has to be told stuff directly. What I told him when I left treatment three months ago is that I couldn’t be better, that I’ve been cured. I didn’t actually think he would believe me. I grunt and cross my arms over my chest. My whole family is clueless, and I’ve lost my appetite.

Dad winks and says, “I love you.” What I hear is: calm down.

I don’t say anything for the rest of the dinner. You may not believe this, but I really did try to think of something to say. I don’t want to be a drag at my sister’s birthday dinner. I mean, it’s kind of pathetic that she was spending her birthday with me and Dad instead of friends or a husband. I don’t want to make her feel any worse. Plus, she’s thirty. I’m trying to be nice, but can’t get the image of Mom and the bacon out of my head.

Dad finishes the whole pack of bacon while he and Jen sit and talk. Jen doesn’t seem bothered by it at all.

When I get home, I go straight to my room. Dad and Jen stay and talk long after Mark and Matthew fall asleep. I hear their voices murmuring and every so often Dad tries not to laugh too loud and fails. On my bed, I touch my arms, squeezing from wrist to shoulder. I reach down. I think I have longer than average arms. My fingers grab my toes and then the balls of my feet. I lean back and rest my hands on my thighs until the house is silent. I realize my hands are touching my body, but I don’t feel my body. I’m here but not here.

Then, I do something I haven’t done since before “treatment.” I tiptoe downstairs with a notebook and pen ready in my hands. I take inventory of all the food in the house, except the spices. I can’t explain why, but the spices don’t seem important. There’s nothing out of the ordinary—chicken breast, frozen broccoli, canned soup, canned peas. The list goes on and on and is three pages long by the time I’m done, and notice something’s missing.

I creep out to the garage. I know Dad has an extra freezer out here, but this is his man space, so I’m rarely in it. He’s changed it around since the last time I brought him a beer during a football game. The television is larger and flatter than before. The couch is leather and there are two overstuffed recliners, also leather. The freezer is all the way in the corner. I stare at it from across the room. I can’t tell you how I know, but I know what I’m looking for is in it.

But even though I know what I know, I’m not prepared for what I see. Every shelf, from the top to the bottom, is filled with bacon. Boxes and boxes of bacon, like he bought it in bulk from one of those discount-buy-in-bulk stores. I don’t move for a while.

I stop thinking. My therapist says this happens sometimes. People stop thinking and just end up feeling all their feelings. My feelings push me closer to the freezer. My feelings push me to grab a box off of the top shelf. My feelings prompt me to open the box and stick a whole pack in Dad’s personal microwave. Once it’s thawed, I double check to make sure it’s really ready. And then I start.

*     *     *

By the time the sun comes up, I feel nothing. That’s not true. There’s a mild tingling in my toe. I’m on the leather couch, surrounded by boxes of bacon. The freezer is about half empty. I shove another three slices in my mouth at once and chew slowly.

To say food is complicated would be an understatement. In this moment, I want my father to understand that I will sacrifice myself to keep him around. I can’t lose another parent. Not any time soon.

I’m surprised I’m not nauseous. Or maybe I am, and I just don’t know it yet? I lean back against the couch, and that’s when I see the picture of Mom. She’s on the beach, her toes buried in the sand, a white cover-up shrouds her body from her shoulders to her knees. She’s smiling at the camera. My mom had a pretty face. She was the only one in the family with blue eyes, and they were a deep blue, like jewels. Her round, high cheekbones naturally had a rosy tint, so she never needed blush. Her skin was clear, smooth, and radiant. It used to make me mad when people would say that, you know? Like that’s what you say about fat people: she has a pretty face. But in my mom’s case, it was true. She did have a pretty face.

I remember that day at the beach. Even though it hurt, she rolled around in the sand with us for hours. We made a sand castle that was actually big enough for me to sit in and pretend to be a princess. She would always tell me she loved me. And it didn’t sound like anything else.

I open my eyes.

“What did you do?” Dad bellows.

“I am saving you.”

“What?”

“You’re diabetic.”

“No, sweetheart. That was Mom.” He looks at me in confusion.

“But the test?” I open my eyes again and try to sit up, but I can’t. It’s like I’m stuck.

“How much did she eat?”

Oh great, Jen is here. I can tell from her tone that she’s judging me and feeling a little superior. I’m too tired to argue even in my head.

Then, the pain sets in. I start to moan. The stabbing begins, it travels from one side to the other and back again. Then it moves to my belly button and stays there, stabbing, over and over.

“We’ve got to get her to the hospital.” I don’t know who says it. I close my eyes, wishing that my body wouldn’t be my body for a little while longer.

The next hour is a bumpy one. I bump in my dad’s arms as he carries me to the car. I bump in the car as we travel over speed tables. I bump on the raised yellow thingies when they wheel me into the emergency room. I bump as they push the gurney down the hallway. After all the bumps, when it’s quiet, my body leaves again. Peace.

When I open my eyes, I feel empty. Or more accurately, I feel emptied out. My mouth feels funny. I reach up and rub against it. When I pull my hand away, it’s covered in black stuff. Charcoal. They must have pumped my stomach. Dad is sitting in the chair across from me, tossing something in his mouth but I can’t tell what it is. He’s wearing his comfy kilt. They are his equivalent of comfy sweatpants.

My voice croaks, whatever they gave me makes my throat hurt. “I love you.” But I mean: don’t leave me.

Jasmine EvansJasmine Evans is a writer and curriculum designer from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is earning her MFA in Creative Writing at Mills College. Her short stories have appeared in The Copperfield ReviewHeater, and Bread for God’s Children. When she’s not working on a story or article, she loves to browse used bookstores for gems and play with her cat, Yuki.

The Walls Are Too Blank, The Holes Are Too Deep

As my father did with me and Tobias, I took my family camping. When I told Roberta that it was time to prepare to lose one of our sons, she walked into our bedroom and packed. Her eyes were pooled with tears, but she didn’t cry.

“Roberta,” I said, shutting the door behind me.

“Please don’t,” she said. Her lips were quivering, and her entire body was flimsy as she folded clothes and rolled socks into one another, as though someone had removed her bones. She wouldn’t look at me.

“You knew this would happen eventually,” I said.

She dropped a shirt into the open suitcase. “How can you be so calm?”

I swallowed and exhaled. “Because someone has to be.”

Roberta refused to answer Tommy and Jason’s questions as she dropped their backpacks and sleeping bags in the trunk. The boys followed her back and forth up the driveway and wore looks of fright and confusion, disturbing expressions on the faces of seventeen and fifteen-year-old boys. I knew that even adolescents can feel tension when it rises up and seeps into all parts of a house, because I’d felt the same thing when my mother began moving like some spectral shell of herself after my father told me and Tobias with no warning that we were going camping. It had sounded like any other announcement of a family trip, but the hollow look in my mother’s eyes, the hushed whispers coming from my parents’ bedroom, and the way she wouldn’t look me in the eye as she filled our battered cooler all twisted my stomach and told me that the gloomy air around her was about more than going into the woods together.

The car was silent: Tommy and Jason didn’t whisper dirty jokes they thought their mother and I couldn’t make out; Roberta wasn’t humming along to the radio; even the air didn’t seem to be whistling through the cracked windows. I hated that silence, and I gripped the steering wheel hard enough that my hands hurt, but I ignored the pain because it wasn’t real pain. It was nothing like what was to come.

I looked back at my sons through the rearview mirror. They were each looking out their respective windows, glancing back at one another every now and then. Eventually their youth broke through the thick dread hanging in the car and they started whispering to one another and hitting each other in the arm every few minutes. But Roberta kept staring forward, unable or unwilling to look me in the eye. I knew she was feeling a mixture of rage and sorrow. Even though I’d assured her no one would die—at least not now, not today—perhaps she didn’t believe me, and I couldn’t, didn’t, blame her for that. Perhaps she’d forgotten, but how could she? How could my wife of twenty years forget the secret I’d told her years ago, only days after I’d first told her I loved her, after I knew that I would marry her one day? How could she forget that her son was going to get sick, that his body would fall apart, and that no doctor, no specialist or scientist or anyone in the world would be able to do anything about it?

The car was silent: Tommy and Jason didn’t whisper dirty jokes they thought their mother and I couldn’t make out; Roberta wasn’t humming along to the radio; even the air didn’t seem to be whistling through the cracked windows.

Perhaps she hated that it was going to start somewhere that held such vivid memories, ones filled with laughter and warmth, even the mishaps, like when Tommy was nine and nearly fell into the campfire, coming out with only a sprained wrist and a first degree burn on his right hand that healed quickly, leaving behind a quarter-sized blemish on the knuckles of his ring and pinky fingers.

But I had to do it there. The first rule: it needs to be somewhere familiar.

*    *     *

My father gave me a small ledger when he told me. The foremost rule, he said, more important than where you do it, even, is that no one else, not even your wife, ever reads this book. He tapped it and then held it out to me. Only you and your son, he said, can ever see it, can ever know what it says.

When I first looked through it, I half expected the letters inside to transform into words that would spell out, step-by-step and word-by-word, exactly what I should say—what I could say—to my own son. What I should feel when I sat him down and told him our family’s secret. How I could begin to understand and accept the truths of our family’s wretched legacy, and how I could make my son do the same. But what I found was paragraph after paragraph of vague directives, threadbare advice, and blunt, angry rules. Rules without explanation. Predictions—accurate ones—without consolations. Things that would happen to your brother—“your,” the book said, that vague, malleable word, “your,” impersonal and wide enough to apply to me, my father, my son, my ancestors, my descendents. A word that represented the hollowness, the uselessness, of having clouded answers. Letters that would never numb the pain of guilt that hangs on “your” shoulders, heavier when you know that, really, none of this is your fault. But if not you, then who? Who else can carry that burden?

When I first read the book, I threw it across my bedroom before I was finished. I knocked over a family photograph, shattered the glass in the frame. I thought about burning the book, watching our family’s curse disappear into the sky as nothing more than ash. These dreams left me drenched in sweat and out of breath.

No one in my family has ever known why these rules exist, or why this thing happens, but, as my father told me, we know they must be followed, or the consequences are worse: instead of losing one son, he said when he first told me, one hand still gripping the book, the other gripping my knee, you’ll lose both. I’ll lose both. His smile was thin and limp, one that I would see for the rest of my life when I looked into a mirror.

You must wait until your elder son—you will have two (and this you will not control)—has been seventeen for three weeks. You must take both of them somewhere familiar, somewhere they can be at ease, without explanation or warning. Send the one son off, then explain things to the other. You may take your wife, but you do not have to. This, of all things, is the one flexibility you possess.

So I took Roberta, because I needed her. But afterward I wished that I had not.

*    *     *

Tommy and Jason pitched our tents on opposite sides of the fire pit, and I watched Roberta set out the boys’ things in the smaller green one. Neither of them asked if she needed help or said they could do it themselves, even though they’d been doing so for years. They watched their mother unfurl the sleeping bags, smoothing out the crinkles and bumps as though her hand were an iron, and fluff the pillows she’d stuffed into the trunk of the car. She sniffled audibly, coughing a few times. I wanted to be angry at her somehow, feel ire at her for making it clear that this wasn’t a normal camping trip, but I couldn’t. She was, I realized, doing her best to fake a sense of calmness, but the pain she was feeling was breaking through, cracking the steady exterior she hadn’t had time to practice or perfect. I looked at my sons: Tommy had his arms crossed, and I could tell he wanted to ask what was going on, as if he could smell something amiss tainting the air like rotten fruit. Jason looked up toward Tommy, waiting for his cues, always walking in the shadow of his older brother.

When I tried to bring up collecting some wood to make a fire, Roberta’s forehead wrinkled like a stormy sky and she waved the idea away, suggesting we eat some of the sandwiches she’d packed first. Tommy and Jason warily agreed, taking them out of their plastic baggies as if they half-suspected they were poisoned. The air buzzed with mosquitoes and the thick paste of discomfort. We sat on logs, Roberta with Tommy, Jason and I opposite them. Sitting next to him, I realized just how tall he’d gotten, almost as tall as Tommy was, his golden legs dusted with tiny blond hairs that shimmered in the setting sun splayed out in front of him like long, lean yard sticks.

I felt an immense sadness, and couldn’t look at him, not at any of them, so I stared toward the sun as it disappeared, spackling the ground with the light that shone through the holes between the trees.

*    *     *

Both sons will come home from the woods, of course. You don’t have to actually do either of them any direct harm, but you know that they will both be damaged. The hurt may not appear yet, no bruises, no limps, no wincing external pain, but you know it is there, because you feel it, too. You feel it every day, have for the last twenty-five years, but it feels sharper, more acute, when you first step through your front door when you return home. The son who doesn’t know will shrug off the strange, strained trip, his teenage hormones distracting him from the quilt of sadness strumming through the car on the drive home. You will look at the other son’s face, drooping and pale, through the rearview mirror on the way home, knowing what he is feeling and thinking because you have thought and felt it, too.

While you are out there, though, you must have the conversation. Wait until the one son is far off, out of earshot, and then explain as much as you can to the one sitting next to you, the one trying to look away from you even when you tell him you’re being serious. Be prepared for the disbelief and doubt, then the wonderment, the questions about how and why and where it comes from. You must simply tell him, a sick understanding of his anger and confusion toiling through your stomach, that no, you don’t know where it comes from. You can’t explain it. No one has, for as long as you can remember. Be ready, after you’ve quietly berated him, to see the hollow look on his face, the one you’ll be able to discern through the darkness. He will ask how you can be so calm, so unwavering and blunt. Be ready for the plaintive sigh you’ll hear peep through his lips despite the overwhelming sound of crickets humming through the trees.

When it’s all over and you are home, you’ll find him staring at the wall regularly, when he’s not looking at his brother for signs that it’s started, that is. Any time his brother coughs or complains of a headache he’ll worry, so much that sometimes he’ll get sick too, or be unable to sleep, his eyes bleary and his eyelids puffy as he eats breakfast before school. Your wife will roll away from you at night, and you’ll look up at the ceiling, awash in the silent loneliness that has followed you for so many years. And when your doomed son has to stay home from school sick, your wife and other boy will cry while you must be steady, clench your jaw, and tell them in quick whispers that no, this isn’t it. It hasn’t started yet, because it’s too early. He still has time.

You must accept your teenage son’s flimsy excuses for his tears, ignore the sucking of snot as he inhales, trying to compose himself. You must do so because you are putting him through a hellish thing, forcing him to be aware of but unable to say anything about what awaits his brother. You have gone through it as well, because you were the chosen son, chosen by nothing but your birth, and you understand what he feels, the gloomy tremor in his bones, the wondering: Why me? Why him? Why my brother? The what can I do? The knowing that the answer is nothing. I can do nothing. The worst answer. The answer that eats at you, the stagnant answer, the not-your-fault that drills into your bones with searing pain.

There are two other rules with unknown origins that no one dares defy: no one can explain why it must happen, or how. And no one may go seeking answers. Trying to understand this thing, this curse, this dark mark that follows the shadows of your family endlessly, will only cause illness, cutting, eating pain, to spring up in you, too, where it does not belong.

*    *     *

I finally separated the boys. Roberta insisted we hike to a familiar outcropping of rocks a little less than a mile from our campsite to watch the sun set, its light pooling over the tops of trees we could see stretched out below. As we hiked there, the boys leading the way and me at the rear, Roberta kept herself between them and me. Enough sun was splotching through the tree trunks that I could see the bitter look on her face whenever she looked back at me, the almost taunt in her empty smile, the conviction that she would somehow stop the inevitable from happening.

We finally reached the tableau of rock, a long slate of clay-colored stone that looked like a barren plain, beyond which the forest dropped off. Leaning out, I could see the tops of trees below me, the highway a few miles away, a little stone river cutting a winding path through the swath of branches. For a while we stood in a row. I put my arm around Roberta’s waist and squeezed her hip, but when she turned her head just so, enough that I could see the skewering look in her eyes, I dropped my arm to my side. No one spoke as the sun crept down until Tommy announced that he needed to pee and walked off.

I turned to look at Roberta, who took my hand, squeezing it as hard as she could; I didn’t let the pain she was causing cross my face.

“Jason,” I said. “I need to talk to you.”

His fifteen-year-old eyes were filled with light from the sun, which glossed them over so I couldn’t quite see the look on his face. Roberta started crying, but she shuffled in the direction Tommy had gone. I knew she would keep him busy. Despite her hatred, her indignation, her resistance, she knew that losing one, years from now, was better than losing both, something neither of us would ever say, knowing it wouldn’t fix anything or make what was happening any better. She must have felt the betrayer, the Brutus stabbing Tommy in the small of his back, slowly drizzling his blood out over the years to come. My hands trembled again, and I wrapped them up together.

“Yeah, Dad?” Jason said. His voice had started getting deep, lower in pitch than my own.

I took a deep breath and then, as the sun disappeared and night fell over the woods, I told him our family’s legacy.

*    *     *

When you are alone with him, you must hand him the book and begin to explain what you’ve kept hidden from everyone else in your life. You must tell your son that, for as long as anyone can remember, each generation in your family bears two sons, exactly two sons, but that one of them must be sacrificed for the sake of the other. You don’t know why. No one knows why, and it isn’t worth wondering why, because wondering—why him and not you, or why either of you, or why any of it—does no good. It just leaves you raw and scared. Weak. Crumbled. Tired.

Be prepared to snuff out interruptions, to tell your son to please not ask questions now because there is little time to explain. You will feel guilty for your tone, and you will let that guilt seep into you, getting clogged up in the rest of the self-hatred that is stacked up inside you. Then tell him as quickly as you can: he’ll need to read the book on his own and keep it secret, but that for now, you can tell him that his brother is going to get very sick in a few years, and that no one will be able to fix him. That he must get sick so that you do not, and if you tell him about this then you, too, will grow ill, and you know all of this because you’ve been told by your father, who was the younger brother, just like you are. Just like your son is.

Your son will cut in, point out that you don’t have a brother, and then you will tell him the whole story, that your brother does exist, in a hospital not far from your home, that yes, his mother does know but couldn’t say anything, because if the elder son ever finds out about his predecessors it will all fall apart and the illness will spread.

You will stare at him when you’re done explaining, when he tries to come up with loopholes, ways to help his brother, and you must smile sadly and tell him you know, that you thought the same things, that all of his solutions will result in both of them getting sick, and you, and your father, if he is still alive, as well. He will be quiet then, as night falls and the woods come alive with buzzing insects and a howling predator or two. You will dwell on this quiet. The silence from both of you will come from shock and pain, a hurt deeper than you will ever be able to put into words. Shortly thereafter your wife and elder son will reappear, him laughing at some joke he’s just made, she quietly staring through the burgeoning darkness, trying to catch your eyes. You will avoid her gaze.

Your son will stare at his hands, folded in his lap. You’ll put a hand on his knee and nod because he’s already hidden the book away in his back pocket. You’ll feel a queasiness because you won’t have had a chance to tell him about the guilt, to tell him that it’s normal and that he must expect it. His brother may get sick, but he, too, will be plagued, not by some mysterious, invisible poison coursing through his bones, but by a cloud of guilt that will follow him for the rest of his days.

But you needn’t worry about failing to communicate this. You know he will discover it quickly.

*    *     *

The only sounds in the hospital room were the blipping of a heart monitor and the soft whoosh of a ventilator; the only light came from a few fluorescent bulbs buzzing down a harsh, too-bright light that made the white, blank walls even bleaker. I stepped forward and rested my hands on the cold metal bedrail. Up close, I could see the bumps and veins of his skull, his head bare like a cue ball. His mouth was open, a gaping dark hole, ventilator tube poking out on the left side like an oversized straw. The plastic mask across his upper lip was a stark, rigid mustache.

“Hello, Tobias,” I said. I reached down and grabbed his palm. The skin of his hand was smoother than I expected. An IV needle was embedded in the back of it, leading up into a maze of plastic tubes connected to various bags and machines surrounding him like candles around a statue.

He looked, by and large, like a normal person in a normal coma. Except in the eyes. You had to look close, bend down and really look, to see that something wasn’t quite right behind those sealed eyelids. Not only did he lack eyelashes—those, too, had fluttered off in the days before his final collapse—but the curve of the skin covering his eyes wasn’t as it should be. Instead of curving outward, over the pupils and irises, Tobias’s eyelids curved inward, as though they were made of putty and someone had pushed the soft dough in with an index finger. His eyes had begun to retreat.

It was almost over for him. The final rule: the eyes retreat last. When the holes where they belong get too deep, too deep for eyes to exist there any longer, you’ll know he is in his final days.

“I told Jason, Tobias.” I squeezed his hand and stared at him. I didn’t expect any response, of course. My voice sounded too loud. “I told him. He knows about you. He knows everything.”

I hadn’t asked Jason if he wanted to meet his uncle. He didn’t need to see what would happen; he was afraid enough. He hadn’t spoken much the rest of the night, opting to lie in his sleeping bag, staring at the curved ceiling. When Tommy had asked him what was wrong, he’d rolled away from his brother and said he had a stomachache. We’d left the next morning. I tried to catch his gaze in the mirror as we drove, but he refused to look at me. I didn’t blame him, or Roberta. They would both turn from me in their anger, and I had accepted long ago that they would do so.

I held Tobias’ hand, staring at his face, the wrinkles on his forehead, his crooked nose, the cleft in his chin. I wondered how I would remember that face, the bumps of his cheekbones, the expansive space of his forehead. When he was gone for good and I would have nowhere to come back to if I needed to know what he looked like, what would I do? Where would I go? I’d had to remove all photographs of him, just in case. There would be no remembering. There would be no funeral. I gripped his hand tighter, trying to memorize the bumps of his bones.

“I told him. He knows about you. He knows everything.”

I couldn’t help but imagine Tommy, and I saw him growing up, his hair receding, the pains in his bones, his athletic build shrinking like some wilting flower unable to find water.

Tobias had decayed. It started with his hair, falling out in clumps in the shower, at the dinner table, when he went running in the evening after work. Then his teeth, his fingernails, his leg hair. It all fell away as though anything that could was jumping ship. I knew, the day he told me that he lost a tooth while eating a banana, that this was it. His skin had become smooth and blank, a wasteland, a pale desert. The tips of his fingers hurt, he said, when he pressed the buttons on the TV remote.

Something deep inside him was poisoning the rest.

He was at my house when the worst of it happened. He’d been staying with me for a while, before Roberta and I married, before Tommy and Jason were even a thought. He couldn’t live on his own anymore; Tobias had grown weak, his skin dry and cracked, his bones poking against the flesh at his elbows. His kneecaps looked like the rims of soda cans. He fell over in my living room, looking at a photograph of the two of us when we were kids, before any of it began. When I couldn’t wake him up, I knew the coma had come. I knew then that he’d finally paid the price for both of us. He never left the hospital after the ambulance carted him away.

I avoided looking at Tobias’ eyes, those sunken craters of ashy flesh. I couldn’t let myself picture Tommy’s own murky blue eyes swallowing themselves up, shrinking into little marbles as they retreated back toward his brain, leaving behind holes that one could fill with pennies.

I tried to picture Tobias’ face when he was still awake, when he was still really him, alive and full. I tried to see his eyes, wishing that I could see them, sharp and alive and happy. Conjure up some memory, I told myself, willed myself, commanded. Know what he looked like when he was happy, damn it, when you were happy, when everything was still alright, before you had this, this thing, this load on your arms that you didn’t ask for and you can’t cast off.

I shut my eyes, squeezing them tight. Colors burst through the blackness, fireworks that were dull, like everything was dull. Like Jason’s smile was dull. Like Roberta’s skin, and hips, and tears, her smile. I screamed to myself to remember Tobias’ eyes. I wished, I imagined, I cried. Tears started to fall, and, in that room, alone with the brother I’d had no choice but to abandon, I cried, hoping I could remember his eyes. Such a small thing, please, please, to hold on to, to let in. But no matter what, the sticky pool of my family’s curse blocked my way. An expansive, gray mass, a thing that will always plague us. I tried to see Tobias’ eyes, but I just couldn’t. I couldn’t remember what color they’d been.

J. Baumann HeadshotJoe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Tulane Review, Willow Review, Hawai’i Review, SNReview, Lindenwood Review, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College.

The Water Understands

My eyes adjusted to the Monday morning light peeking through our bedroom curtains and I looked at Jen, my wife, who stood by the side of the bed, the goddess of patience. My checklist started as I prepared to meet my son, our firstborn. Pre-packed bags of baby supplies: already in the car. Car seat: two in the car, just in case. Full tank of gas: the hospital is 5.17 miles from our house.

I noticed Jen’s side of the bed was covered with amniotic fluid. In the birthing classes we attended, nurses told us Hollywood had dramatized this occurrence so much that many women believe they will experience a “gush,” although this was a rarity. Around a gallon of water accumulates in the uterus during human gestation, but most women just leak once the amniotic membrane ruptures. Jen didn’t leak; she gushed, then leaked.

Jen was prepping herself for the ride and stay at the hospital when she stopped in the living room.

“What are you doing?” she wanted to know. I stood at the kitchen sink washing the dishes. I ran water over a plate to get flaky mustard and dried cheesecake off and then loaded it in the dishwasher to be scoured by high temperature water.

“Oh, yeah,” I said, and we got in the car.

On the drive Jen told me, “When my water broke, I just held him. This little guy and I were the only two people in the world who knew he existed.” And it was true. And it was beautiful. And her speech was much more poetic.

I dropped Jen off at the hospital’s front door. I had never seen her looking as gorgeous as she did holding her belly walking into the hospital. Not on the day we first met, not on the day we married. I found a spot in the garage and parked. Looking around the car again for any forgotten supplies, I shouldered the bags we had stashed in the backseat several weeks prior. Then, I noticed the passenger seat covered in water.

*     *     *

Civilization well;

Individual Americans use 176 gallons of water per day; African families, five.

It wets my foot, but prettily,

I met Jen at a University Writing Center where we both served terms as graduate assistants. Lucky for me, I am accident prone. I broke my leg (bone 22% water) after a friend of mine’s beer-fueled wedding reception. Beer ranges from 90-97% water, but that other 3% is what made me get into a fight with one of my best friends at three in the morning. So, I walked back—crutched back—into work at the WC the following Monday. Jen just smiled, shook her head.

Later that week Jen said, “Hey, you want to hang out sometime?” We were both graduate students in English so we used phrases like “hang out.”

She drove over to my house and we ordered some pizza, talked about my disdain for Virginia Woolf and her love of South African literature, typical nerdy English-lover type conversation. We were through three bottles of wine (75-90% water) before the ten o’clock news came on. Tom Smiley told us about the weekend weather forecast as Jen excused herself, stepping onto the front porch. I hobbled to the bathroom and struggled to urinate (95% water) while on crutches.

When I returned to the living room, Jen still wasn’t back inside, so I looked out the screen door to see where she went. I thought she was gone, just left, tired of my ramblings. She was lying in a fetal position on the AstroTurf-covered porch, crimson-tainted pizza crust spewed down the three steps that led up to her mouth. I asked her if she was okay.

“Grebrrrgaba,” she said.

I crutched to the side of my house where I hooked the hose nozzle onto my crutch handle, turned the water on, and then crutched back to the front porch. “Go sit inside,” I told her.

She stumbled in and fell onto the couch. I hosed her vomit into the street using ten gallons of water per minute for about five minutes.

It chills my life, but wittily,

*     *     *

Aristotle dubbed Thales of Miletus the first philosopher. Thales’ cosmology differed from his predecessors because he attempted to explain the universe, the earth, mankind without relying on mythology or religion. He wanted to use sciencey-type stuff, and Thales believed the originating principle, where all beings sprang from, was water. Science today, 2560 years after Thales, proves the majority of organic compounds are carbon based, like you and me, 20% carbon. But, we are predominantly water, over 60%.

It is not disconcerted,

*     *     *

“Oh, sweetheart,” the nurse told Jen, “you’ll keep leaking like that until the baby comes, and then you’ll leak for a while after.”

And she did. She leaked and leaked. After we were admitted in the Women’s Evaluation Unit at the hospital, we were transferred to a labor and delivery room where Jen leaked some more. The doctor told us the baby would be in our arms within twenty-four hours. The next few hours were waiting interspersed with the screaming (5% water vapor), sweating (98% water), and crying (98% water) that precede birth.

“Oh, sweetheart,” the nurse told Jen, “you’ll keep leaking like that until the baby comes, and then you’ll leak for a while after.”

“Do you feel like pushing?”

Nurse one adjusted the bed to the birthing position. A second nurse came in. I knew the baby was getting close if the hospital was sending in reinforcements. Within fifteen minutes, medical professionals were entering the room at the rate of one per minute. Jen was laboring hard. More nurses. Making some progress. Residents. Getting closer. More residents. More leaking. Jen had a cheering squad, and she was working very hard. I love you, Jen…

*     *     *

It is not broken-hearted:

I almost lost Jen. We went on a float trip to a spot where her family had been going for the previous five years, the Niangua River. There were no kids around; this was an adult float. When we arrived at our campsite there was a twenty-foot sailing ship made of cardboard sitting next to the fire: plank, oars, mast, all of it, all cardboard, all built by her family. This campground had a theme contest every year and we were pirates.

I quoted Twain, “Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.”

Everyone “Arrrrred” agreement. The family had placed second the previous three years in the theme contest and this year they were going to win.

We floated down the river the next day after very little sleep, and I got separated from the group. I floated along at the river’s pace, drinking and drinking. I slurred with a few people and had a lot of laughs, not worried about catching up to the group since our float ended at the camp site. When it started getting dark I started getting a bit concerned, because floating down an unknown waterway in the dark is not safe for a drunken accident-prone asshole. Moving water is ruthless. Grand Canyon.

I made it back to camp after dark, a few hours after everybody else, with the help of a boy scout paddling a canoe. I sea-legged up the river bank to the campsite. When I got there everyone stared, then Jen started screaming. She was worried. I scared her. I was a grown man and needed to start behaving as such.

I didn’t want to hear that. I wanted to laugh by the fire and drink, so Jen’s well-meaning concerns got convoluted in my alcohol-addled brain. I picked up our assembled tent and stuffed it into the back of our minivan without removing a tent pole or our supplies. The poles just snapped and what wouldn’t fit, I cut with my pocket knife to make it fit, cutting myself deeply across three fingers. I heard the ice in the cooler slosh out as I pushed, then I heard the air mattress pop.

Security showed up to scatter the other campers who had formed a circle around our campsite to watch. I told Jen I was driving home, but security advised me they had already called the police and they thought I should just sleep. I sat in the front seat of our van and steamed until I passed out. Jen cried the whole time I threw my tantrum, and I am lucky she stayed with me. The majority of my conduct was later relayed to me because I didn’t remember much. I do remember it was the first time I had grilled cabbage (93% water). Jen’s family didn’t win the theme contest that year despite the effort they put into the ship. It was the first time they didn’t place.

*     *     *

Well used, it decketh joy,

The Proposal:

“Hey, you want to go to Shane Co.?” I asked Jen.

“Why?”

“Get a ring. Get married or something?”

Romantic shit.

We decided on a destination wedding: Jamaica.

The water in Jamaica is a blue that makes a person living near the Mississippi River appreciate water for its beauty rather than just its transportation potential. But, it is deadly. Less than one percent of the water on the planet is potable. 98% is saltwater.

Since Jamaicans can’t drink the brine, they drink rum, just like pirates. After our too-long flight from middle-America to paradise, we had a three-hour bus ride to the resort. I remember going up and down sparsely populated hillsides where we saw more goats than people. One-car-wide dirt roads winding through the tropical green of the foliage. Shacks pieced together with scrap metal, each piece a different color, a crumbling rainbow of poverty.

Halfway to the resort we stopped at a seaside store and had a few Red Stripes. Then, when we got to the resort, the bar was free, all-inclusive. I ordered a beer before we checked in. We had to be on the island two days before we could get married, and several of my high-school/college buddies made the trip with us.

I walked with a few of my friends, dubbed the “Brew Crew” in high school, to the bar where the bartender mixed an island specialty in small glasses. As she poured the syrup from a gallon jug into our glasses, I said, “Can you mix me up a gallon of that?”

“Ya, mon.”

Jen cried most of the first night as I carried my gallon jug up and down the beach. I made what should have been the best experience of our lives miserable for Jen. She wanted to relax and have fun; I wanted to keep up with my bachelor friends. I was scared of getting married, of losing my independence, of being responsible to another person, of choosing a life-long partner. So I drank and Jen cried. Somehow, she agreed to marry me two days later.

So I drank and Jen cried. Somehow, she agreed to marry me two days later.

*     *     *

Adorneth, doubleth joy:

Sometimes when a mommy loves a daddy, despite daddy’s shortcomings, flaws, and lack of maturity…

Sperm cells make up 2-5% of human ejaculate, accompanied by citric acid, acid phosphatase, calcium, sodium, zinc, potassium, protein-splitting enzymes, fructose and fibrolysin, but 90% is water. The sperms’ goal, their only goal, is to reach the egg (85% water).

“How long do you think I have to lay here?” Jen asked.

“It’s already done,” I told her. “You’re going to have my son nine months from now.” And she did.

 

Ill used, it will destroy,

In perfect time and measure

I’m a boob man. I love me some boobies. Pregnancy boobies are even better because they not only embiggen, but they also glow the glow I assume angels exude. The fascination men have with breasts is primal. We look for a mate who can nourish our children and for some reason we think bigger is better, like a car’s motor, or a paycheck, or a…although size has no impact on milk production. Milk is sweat; it comes from modified sweat glands called mammary glands. Boob sweat however, contains nutrient proteins, non-protein nitrogen compounds, lipids, oligosaccharides, vitamins, minerals, hormones, enzymes, growth factors, and protective agents. It is 90% water.

I am proud of my wife for numerous reasons. She has great boobs. She is a published writer. She is a respected, tenured professor. She is funny, smart, happy, honest, and a great mother. One of the things I am most proud of her for is breastfeeding my son. I don’t think there is an argument that says breast milk is a bad idea.

So why am I proud of my wife for doing something every woman should be doing? It is hard. It is hard to get a newborn to latch on for the first time and the fiftieth time. It is hard to dedicate hours a day to feeding your child or pumping the milk from your breasts. It is hard to wake up every two hours to feed a crying baby. It is hard to keep breastfeeding when formula can be shaken in a bottle with water. It is hard. But, Jen persevered as her eyes blackened. She breastfed our son for over a year, even after he started growing teeth (4-22% water, depending on part). Baby teeth are hard, and they’re sharp, a nipple in a bear trap.

*     *     *

With a face of golden pleasure

Elegantly destroy.

(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

When Max showed up, he was accompanied by water, and I began my new adventure with water. Max started as a single cell composed of water that joined with another cell composed of water, in water. Then he lived in water for nine months, and escaped his prison with the help of water. Water became more plentiful after Max’s arrival. On the outside, he cried, urinated, defecated, projectile vomited, all water. How many extra loads of laundry do you do with a newborn? Dishes? Baths, pools, sprinklers?

One day when Max asks me where babies come from, I’ll tell him exactly what Thales would have told him. We come from the water.

Ean BevelEan Bevel lives with his wife in St. Louis, but dreams of living on the road. When he is not chasing his toddler or teaching English classes or swinging a hammer, he puts pen to page. His work often contains the grotesque and/or magical realism. He began collecting rejections a few years ago, then completed his MFA in writing, and continues to collect rejections. His fiction has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Literary Orphans, and Bareback Magazine. His CNF has appeared in Lunch Ticket.  

Dear Masha (to the one I once called Peanut):

Have you eaten today? I doubt
you’d answer. Still, I ask, hoping you open
your mouth, that this letter reminds you
how I peeled grapefruit on my bedspread,
and you pecked, in the way of your fascination
with birds and the daintier things, the fruit’s
pink flesh right out of my palms, admiring
the thinness of my wrists. You said my hands
would forever carry the scent, bitterly
citrus, remember? Can you still smell them
across three thousand miles and three years
of not speaking since I started eating again?
It hasn’t been easy you know, to let myself
feel hunger, to feed it the way we never did,
to linger in the taste of peanut butter, recalling
the flavor, yours: the first time I felt another’s
tongue in my mouth, the desire to swallow it
whole, (restraint was it?) to keep from biting down,
and your collarbone, so worn, it stunned me:
your mouth then, was all I ate for days.

Replete now, would you still touch, still recognize
this body? Even at rest, your fingers softly pressed
would fall, would fold into hips and stomach,
unable to find the bones we were so fond of
reaching down to once. What would you make
of all this flesh? No need my dear, stay hollow
as you’ve been, and I will bear its weight for you,
but if you ever come, I’ll show you where
I’ve grown, show too where there is room
for you to perch, or even build your nest,
though knowing you, you’ll only leave a plume
against my chest, then fly away, starving and weightless:
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++iyour mouth, open.

Julia Kolchinsky DasbachJulia Kolchinsky Dasbach emigrated as a Jewish refugee from Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine in 1993. She holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Oregon and is in the University of Pennsylvania’s Comparative Literature Ph.D. program. Julia’s poetry has appeared in Green Mountains Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Guernica, and Nashville Review, among other journals. Her manuscript, The Bear Who Ate the Stars, won Split Lip Magazine‘s Uppercut Chapbook Award, and can be purchased from Split Lip Press. Julia is also the Editor-in-Chief of Construction Magazine. Find out more by visiting her website.

Joyful Canvases: Mixed Media

The Magic Hour

The man who had been nicknamed The Count wanted to know if I was a painter.

“Not really,” I said. But I could see why he would think that. I was standing in the middle of the alley holding a heavy painter’s brush and looking down on a row of dusty cans of Benjamin-Moore blue, and Sherman-Williams yellow among others. I had just finished covering the graffiti scrawled across the back of my dad’s garage the day before. But the white paint over the stucco wall seemed too clean for the alley. It needed to be scarred.

“Paint me. I am handsome, yes?” The Count said, then offered a wide grin. He placed the two plastic bags he had been carrying down, and struck a pose pointing one foot slightly forward, then put his right hand on his hip. He thrust his rounded chin out and cast his eyes toward the sky. Even in our worn down alley, where weeds sprouted from cracks in the asphalt, he reminded me of oil paintings of Napoleon, or George Washington.

“I don’t paint people,” I told him. “I just thought I would add some color.”

For almost two years since he moved into the neighborhood, The Count always dressed in a midnight blue, three piece suit. On colder days, he would wear a black wool cloak draped over his shoulders. A black felt beret always covered his head, and a long, thick, graying ponytail hung down the back of his neck. The Count always carried bulging plastic bags that dangled from his gloved hands. The bags came from the Walgreens nearby on San Fernando Road. Neighbors in the area had nicknamed him The Count not only because of the way he dressed but also because his eye teeth were long. He was like Count-Chocula in real life. The very sight of him coming down the alley made boys turn their bikes and skateboards around toward the opposite end.

The Count lived in a converted garage behind a house that belonged to an older woman I knew only as Mama Sarkis. She was at least 90 years old and she ate a lot of yogurt with diced Persian cucumbers. People said that’s likely what kept her strong and healthy enough to maintain a house and guest room on her own. The entrance to The Count’s room faced the alley and he had a clear view of the back of my dad’s garage from a small window just to the right of his door. Sometimes, boys dared each other to bang hard on the wall of his home hoping to catch a glimpse of The Count’s room before they ran. But The Count would open then shut the door quick, leaving most kids to imagine a coffin, candelabras, and cobwebs. I had watched him a few times from my bedroom window which also faced the alley. He always kept his eyes down and never spoke to anyone, which is why I wondered if The Count was experiencing a late case of spring fever. He seemed giddy as he struck a pose in the alley and his voice was nothing like I had imagined. It was kind of gravely, like that of a man who needed to clear the phlegm from the back of his throat. He spoke with an accent similar to my dad’s. He pulled a long, thin cigarette away from his full lips and smiled, exposing his yellowed eye teeth.

“That’s OK, my dear. You paint what you like,” he said, as cigarette smoke flowed from his nostrils.

“I don’t know what that is yet,” I said.

Before he paused to speak with me, I had been staring at the back of my dad’s garage for about a half hour, kind of hypnotized. They say if you look straight into a white wall long enough, you’ll get that way, like you’re stoned or stuck in a day dream.

“You have no school?” he asked. I was surprised.

I thought of The Count as someone everyone else watched, but who never gathered information on us.

“It’s summer break,” I said. “I’m supposed to be at a special arts and photography program in San Francisco, but my dad wouldn’t let me go.”

I’m not sure why I told him that, but I was still so mad at my dad that I think I had to complain.

“Photography? Will you take my picture?” he asked.

“No. I can’t,” I replied. I was trying to be nice, but I was annoyed.

“What kind of pictures do you like to take?” he asked.

“I want to be a photojournalist,” I told him. “But I probably won’t be.”

The Count had been standing in the sun while we talked. He placed the cigarette back between his lips, picked up the plastic bags he brought with him, and walked across the alley to stand under a rusted awning that hung above the door of his home. He stayed there for a moment, then changed his mind. He placed his bags on the ground again. He found an abandoned shopping cart nearby, pushed it over to the shade, then tilted it so that it sat on its side, its wheels suspended and twirling around. Before sitting on the cart, he lifted the tails of his suit, then folded his hands in his lap and looked up at me.

“I really can’t.”

“You do your best,” he said.

I kept going, every now and then turning around to memorize pieces of The Count’s face—the shadow under his bottom lip, slightly over the meat of his chin.

I turned my back to him and opened a few cans of paint. I poured drops the size of pancakes into my mixing tin. I played with the colors for a while, blending white with yellow, and adding some brown. I created a dark beige, then lightened it up again with white, and tapped in some red. What I made was a pretty good skin tone. I held my breath as I gripped the brush with the new color and began to dab it over the white stucco, feeling the hairs move over the tiny bumps of the wall. Little by little, dabs came together and I created a giant oval shape as tall and wide as I could reach, then brought my brush back to my mixing tin, caught some brown and a little black. I kept going, every now and then turning around to memorize pieces of The Count’s face—the shadow under his bottom lip, slightly over the meat of his chin. I grabbed more black for his thick, arched eyebrows. I started to feel good. I lightened the color for the nostrils set at an angle from his jaw line. I dipped my brush in again and found some red to create melon, the color for his generous lips. I ignored his teeth that jutted out. I took more brown and black for the shade of darkness under his eyes. His eyes. I hadn’t looked.

“You OK?” My mom had been standing in the alley watching, her arms crossed over her chest. She used her eyes to point at the man on the cart.

“Yeah, I’m just painting The Cou…our neighbor.”

My mom turned toward him for a moment. I knew she wasn’t afraid of him, but she didn’t expect to see me hanging out with a stranger. She kept her arms crossed, and I blushed with shame as she spoke to me in Spanish, asking if I really was OK, as if The Count was holding me hostage.

“My mom asked if you would like some water,” I lied to The Count.

“No. No, thank you,” he replied bashfully. As my mom walked away, she looked back, but I pretended not to see her. I didn’t want The Count to feel as if we were gossiping about him through our stares.

“Your mama is Spanish?” The Count asked.

“She’s Cuban,” I said as I painted.

“Ah, I visited Cuba once. Muy boe-nee-toe!” the Count said in his best Spanish. “I once sat in the place where Hemingway used to drink.”

“Really?”

“Yes…your father…Cuban too?”

“No. He’s Middle Eastern,” I said.

I felt the tips of my ears burn. For a moment, I wanted to put the brush down and walk away. Instead, I dabbed faster, harder, the anger resurfacing as I thought of my dad.

“From where?”

“From Iraq” I said. “He’s Assyrian.”

“Syrian? Me too! I am Armenian from Syria,” he said.

I kept on painting. I was going to let it go as I usually did because I hated everything about this conversation. I was angry that people kept asking me if I was part of a terrorist group. But I felt I had to correct him because I also was tired of not existing.

“No, he’s Assyrian. Uh-Syrian,” I said, then I paused to give him a chance to tell me he didn’t know what that was, or that Assyrians were a prehistoric race long gone as one librarian once said to me, or that there was no “Assyria” on any map according to my sixth grade teacher, or that a people without a country, who were scattered across the world, were as good as nobodies, as my dad always said after drinking two cans of beer.

When I told my aunt once I felt invisible, she nodded in understanding.

“We are a people who are the color of wet sand and hearts filled with sorrow,” she said. “To be one of us is to be forgotten by the world.”

But The Count’s expression changed.

“Ah, yeah, yeah…Ashouri,” he said with glee. “We call them Ah-ShOOR-ee. They are a very ancient people, once very good warriors. I knew an Ashouri once. He was my friend. We built big buildings together in Damascus. When I see your father, I will tell him, hello my Ashouri friend!”

I turned toward him and I noticed The Count was looking down. I could tell his mind was somewhere in Damascus, maybe even remembering the Assyrian.

“Were you an architect?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I built houses for dignitaries and generals. Mansions with many rooms and fountains in the gardens. They threw parties for me. I wore this suit…”

He had kept his hands folded on his lap the whole afternoon. His closed lips formed a slight smile, but I could tell he was choking on sadness.

“I came here because of the war,” he said. “My wife cried all the time in Syria. When we came here, I found no work. They told me I needed to go to school again to be an architect. I once built palaces. But here they won’t even let me build a garage. I wanted to go back to Syria, but my wife told me she wanted to be free. She took my daughter and went to San Jose. Now she lives with another man.”

A car passed through the alley as he spoke, forcing me to move my paint cans back and forth, but I continued to dab and add color. As The Count remembered his former life, I realized I hadn’t looked at anyone or anything in weeks the way I looked at him while I painted. I suppose there are worse things than to be an artist who isn’t allowed to see. When I was invited to attend a free summer program for young artists in San Francisco, I told my friend Anita, who warned me during lunchtime that I should forget about it.

“You won’t go,” she said, before she bit into a pita bread, feta cheese, and tomato sandwich.

“Your dad is too overprotective. Our parents don’t go for that shit.”

So I was ready to defy her and my dad. He was unimpressed when I told him I had earned a spot in the class. I had always sketched and painted. I started taking candid photos for the yearbook last year and I asked my teacher to help me apply to the program.

“Why do you want to go so far?” my dad asked, when I looked at maps on the Internet, eager to learn everything about San Francisco.

“You’re crazy,” he argued. “You have a house, a bed, and food. You’re 14-years-old. Everything you need is here.”

Yes, I was 14. But I didn’t care about boys or beer or the black tar heroin my classmates bought in the parking lot of the strip mall we called the tar pits. I didn’t spend hours at salons straightening my thick, dark brown hair, or waxing my eyebrows until they were perfect black strips across my forehead. I just wanted to go. So much so, that during algebra and history classes my leg shook up and down like a jack hammer under my desk. I twirled my pen around my fingers like I had seen drummers do in those music videos from the 1980s my mom liked to watch. I sketched in my notebook the girls who sat next to me or else the back of boys’ heads. My teachers complained that I was restless. But I was as focused as anyone could be. I wanted what I wanted and the only one in my way was my dad, who didn’t appreciate that I didn’t give him any trouble.

“I have to go!” I had yelled at him the day I was set to leave. Why couldn’t he understand that I needed to travel, to be in the world, to see it inside out, to capture people in motion, people living. I never asked for much, I told him. This is who I wanted to become. But he wanted me home, to sit and wait out my desires in the tiny Glendale home where I grew up, in a neighborhood packed with small houses and apartments where the pretty Armenian and Middle Eastern girls rarely ventured out and only met boys at church. He wanted the neighbors to know I wasn’t wild hearted, or that I had left because my family was bad to me.

“We are so few,” my dad had said with calm. “A family that is split apart is nothing.”

But I walked away anyway that day toward the bus stop with my backpack slung on my shoulder. I knew if I took bus No. 92 on San Fernando Road, I would get to Union Station in downtown L.A. There, I would buy a train ticket with the money I saved to San Francisco. I also knew as I walked away that I shouldn’t have looked back. But I did. There he was, standing on the corner of Irving Avenue and Glenwood Road where I used to wait for him to return home from work. He looked wounded, and even from where I stood, I could see his hazel eyes watered.

I was not as brave as I had imagined myself to be all those months before summer started, when I lay on my bed to stare at the dozens of pictures I had torn out of old National Geographic magazines that the library didn’t want anymore. In my mind, I was Margaret Bourke-White, documenting wars or else finding the remaining Assyrians in the mountains of Iraq my father told me about. I imagined I would be like Graciela Iturbide, discovering villages where roofs sagged under sun and dust. I would arrive into cities filled with people with expressions that revealed anguish or pleasure. I thought of myself walking through towns, cool and friendly and laughing as children pointed and stroked the camera around my neck. I even made up conversations I would have with locals while I drew them in my sketch book. They would invite me into their homes, offer me black tea and baklava. The photographs I would take would be featured on the covers of those same magazines I memorized. I wanted to make each man or woman I met a somebody to the world.

But he had always gotten his way. My father, who wasn’t even a very tall man, whose people had no country, whose language was almost dead, could hurt me with a few words and then silence. Even as I sat inside Union Station, a train ticket in my hand, his stare pulled me back. I stayed there only an hour before I took the No. 92 bus back home. It was too hard to hurt him. The Count was right: Assyrians were good warriors.

The first week into the summer I didn’t talk to my friends. I just kept to myself, and slept almost all day on top of the new, lilac colored comforter my mom bought for me because she thought it would make me happy. I listened as trains passed on tracks only two blocks away, their horns blowing loud as they sped by. I tried to imagine all the places where they stopped. My hands started shaking during the second week while I was unpacking the clothes from my backpack. My dad had come home from work, from the factory where he assembled airplane seats, and found me sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor. I rocked back and forth and cried. My legs felt weak even though I wasn’t standing.

“Why are you crying?” he asked. “No one has died. Come and have dinner.”

But I felt like he was killing me inside and my mom understood. She had seen the way my foot shook under the kitchen table, how I popped chewing gum into my mouth, then threw it away and took another. In the meantime, dust began to gather between the lever and shutter speed dial on a classic Pentax K-1000 I had bought at a second-hand shop a few blocks from my house. I told my mom that if I couldn’t use it the way I wanted, there was no point in having it at all. She never was the type to listen to my dramatic proclamations. Instead, she had noticed the graffiti on the back of the garage and asked my dad if I could paint over it. I heard my dad tell my mom that the alley was no place for a girl. I knew he was imagining me getting dragged into a garage or beaten and robbed by tweekers. But my mother insisted. She said she would buy the paints for me herself. They argued like that for a while until she came into my room, winked, and gave me the thumbs up.

Both she and I knew there was little danger in the alley. The Count was like the neighborhood stray cat that chased away the mice. Only a few neighborhood boys had chosen to gather further down the mouth of the alley to smoke bidis or play kick ball with giant avocados that had fallen into the alley from an overflowing backyard tree. It was obvious many feared The Count because whomever spray painted on my dad’s garage was in too much of a hurry and wrote “Fuk d cops.” As I worked and tried to forget how I gave up and gave in to the familiarity of home, the dabs of colorful paint came together and the Count’s face began to surface from the stucco. But my arm began to hurt and I stopped.

“How can I know what to look for if I’m not allowed to go out there to see?” I said aloud to the wall.

“Nothing out there is different than it is here,” The Count replied.

I turned to him and he had stood up and lit a cigarette.

“But it is,” I said.

“You can find battlefields of suffering anywhere,” he said. “You can find the people you imagine in faraway places right around the corner. Everything and everyone you need is right here.”

I threw my brush down hard, and some melon-colored paint splattered onto my sneakers and the cuffs of my jeans. A drop hit the painting, right on The Count’s cheek.

“Maybe your wife left you because you didn’t let her live,” I said before I could stop. The words shot out of my mouth like a rock in the hand of a neighborhood bully who pelted anyone who came in his field of vision. The Count gave me a long look, then turned his back. He pulled a set of keys from his pocket, picked up his two plastic bags and walked to the door of his apartment.

I remember learning that it was the time of day known to photographers as the magic hour, when the sun dips below the horizon and there’s a gold tone to the sky, making the sharp edges of buildings look soft or the lines around the eyes or lips seem harmless.

“Wait here,” The Count said. What I told him just kind of hung over the alley along with the smell of my mom’s fried plantains from my house and the Persian kabobs on barbecues from neighbors’ backyards. Even though it was still light out, it was getting late. I remember learning that it was the time of day known to photographers as the magic hour, when the sun dips below the horizon and there’s a gold tone to the sky, making the sharp edges of buildings look soft or the lines around the eyes or lips seem harmless. The Count opened the door to his room. I froze, thinking that maybe he was going to get a knife or a gun. After a few minutes passed, I took a deep breath and walked toward the open door. As I got close, I felt cool air come from the darkness.

“Hello?” I said into the darkness. “I’m sorry.”

I tried to keep my eyes down in respect, but I couldn’t. I looked inside and saw dozens of boxes lined neatly against the walls, piled from floor to ceiling. The Count had disappeared into a maze of cardboard, so I dipped my head inside further. The boxes were all new. Each one contained some kind of small appliance, like a toaster oven or a clock radio and those mini-grills on special at the drug store. There was a blow dryer, a curling iron, a coffee maker, and Corningware dishes, all still in boxes. The Count emerged suddenly. He offered me a fresh, damp towel for my hands, but without a smile.

“Thank you,” I said, not looking at him. “You have a lot of things. Do you sell them?”

The Count ignored the question for a moment, then looked up at the mural of his face.

“I have no house and I have no wife,” he said. “All I have is a few clothes and this suit, and many things for my daughter who is getting married.”

I kept wiping my hands, wondering if he was a hoarder of some sort.

“Do you ever get scared someone will come and rob you?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “No one comes here.”

“Don’t you ever think of moving to a bigger place? It’s too small for you and your things. You deserve better than to live in this…hole.”

The Count shook his head, then smiled at me, his eye teeth resting on his full lower lip.

“My dear, we come out of a hole when we are born,” he said. “They put us in a hole when we die. If you have no one to love and no one loves you, you may as well live in a hole too.”

He disappeared back inside his home and closed the door. I stood there with the towel, waiting for him. I felt as if I had ruined our time together. I turned toward my painting. The sky began to darken. An alley light flickered on and I saw my father standing close by looking at the giant face. My dad had told me a story once about how his father had bought him a pencil for his first day of school. But when his father discovered that my dad used the pencil to sketch soldiers and racecars into his notebook, my grandfather yanked it from his hands. He slapped my dad across his forehead, and yelled that the pencil was only for school. I remember asking my dad how much that pencil had cost, if it was a fancy one that had to be refilled with lead.

“No, it wasn’t fancy,” my dad had said. “It cost only a penny.”

I asked him why my grandpa had gotten so angry.

“I think he was afraid,” my dad had said. “He was afraid of what I could do with that pencil. He was afraid my dreams would take me away from him.”

As I thought about that story, my dad studied my painting of The Count. He pointed out that there were no eyes. I told him I wanted to finish it into the night and just as he was about to argue, The Count opened his door slightly and peeked outside.

“Shlama Ashoury my friend!” The Count said. He laughed a little as he tried to greet my dad with the few Assyrian words he knew. My father went toward him, but with some caution.

“Barev, barev,” my dad said in the Armenian language.

The two men shook hands and stumbled around with each other’s languages for a few seconds until they settled on Arabic. I listened to them speak as I moved my brush to add strokes of highlights and shadows. Finally, I was ready. I read in an art magazine that people think it’s the color of the eyes that reveal the soul, but really, it’s the skin around them that tells you more; the droop of the lids, the fragile lines etched at the corners, the crease between the brows. And then it is the color that comes through, the light green, like that of sun-nourished spring leaves, surrounded by a hint of caramel brown.

“Soon, it is my daughter’s wedding day,” the Count told my father in English. “I have many presents to give her, but she does not want these things from me. I am nobody to her.”

My father spoke to him in Arabic again and I didn’t understand what they were discussing, only that it sounded as if they were arguing and my dad kept shaking his head.

The Count then sighed heavily and I turned to see that my dad nodded and the men shook hands again. The Count then closed the door.

“That looks good,” my dad said turning to me. “Come inside and eat.”

All night I thought of my painting, of what I could do better, where to add light to the iris, how much more depth I could give The Count’s beret. I fell asleep to the sound of the train’s horns blowing long and loud down on San Fernando Road.

In the morning, I dressed and went to inspect my work. The paint had almost dried and it seemed to me that the colors had dulled. It was early and I didn’t want to knock on The Count’s door. So I spent part of the day dabbing more color to add texture. I was still angry at my dad, but I also felt sad I had nothing to look forward to in the summer. In two months, I’d be starting high school and that made me wonder if I would change and leave all my dreams of going to faraway places behind. I wondered if my dad was going to win. I left my painting to look for finishing spray inside my dad’s garage, and when I came back to The Count’s image, I found three neighborhood women had gathered around and were speaking in Armenian. I knew they were all widows, because they all wore black. And they all wore their gray hair in buns.

“I am sorry. My English no good,” one said to me. “But it’s very good picture. Very good.” Another pointed a wrinkled finger at me.

“You come tomorrow and paint us. We three are friends since little girls.” She then pointed toward her house and told me they would wait for me there. I looked up the alley and imagined the back of each garage with images of the neighborhood.

As I went to tell my mom what had happened, I knocked on The Count’s door,   excited about my news. It was late afternoon, but there was no answer.

“I’m worried,” I told my mom later.

“Maybe he sat outside in the sun too long and he’s tired,” my mom said. “Try again tomorrow.”

The next day I set up my paints and brushes ready to paint the three friends, but I couldn’t start. I went to see if The Count was home. I needed to ask him his name at least, something I was ashamed of not doing sooner. I knocked hard on his door. Nothing. So I turned the knob. The door opened. I hesitated when I felt the cool air on my face.

There was a smell of Pine Sol. I took a few steps into the maze of boxes until I reached a tiny twin bed. It was neatly made up with a pretty lilac comforter. My Raggedy Ann doll sat on a pillow and next to the doll was my camera. The space between the wind lever and shutter speed dial had been cleaned. Raggedy Ann held a note in her hands. The words were written in cursive.

“My dear,” the note began. “Me and your father talked. These things are yours to keep or sell. This place is yours to come and go for the summer. I was a nobody, but you made me into a somebody. Be patient. Listen. See the world with both eyes open even when you look through your camera lens. I promise, one day you will feel like you are part of the world. You will be a somebody. Your friend, William. The Count.”

Susan AbramSusan Abram is a reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News where she covers issues relating to public health, homelessness, and human trafficking. She was previously a reporter in Connecticut, where her series of stories about the lives of day laborers earned her an award from the Society of Professional Journalists. Her short stories and nonfiction work have appeared in T/Our magazine and WriteGirl: Nothing Held Back.

Intention

Pittsburgh Center for Complementary Health and Healing, one Sunday morning in late spring. My feet, immersed in a mineral bath of mint and lavender. Candlelight reflects off the vanilla walls; Native American flute music floats to my ears. Rebekah, the therapist, sits across from me, her chestnut hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. This isn’t the usual spa massage; this involves energy work as well. Our seven major chakras are the energy centers in our bodies; if one or more chakras are blocked, we can feel physical and emotional effects. I’ve been feeling something lately, somehow out-of-sorts, and want to see if this work can help.

“Shauna, do you have an intention for our session?” Rebekah’s voice, liquid like a stream.

Intention. The word slams into me like it’s foreign to my brain. Some days I operate automatically, doing what needs done, not keeping myself open to my intention.

“It’s okay if you don’t. But if you do, I’ll put it with my own.”

*     *     *

intention [in-ten-shuhn] noun 1. an act or instance of determining mentally upon some action or result. 2. the end or object intended; purpose. 3. meaning or significance. 4. the person or thing meant to benefit from a prayer or religious offering.

*     *     *

A framed photo sits on my office desk. It’s from Andy Bloxham’s first exhibit at West Virginia Wesleyan College, soon after he was hired as an art professor. Denise, one of my coworkers, had walked across campus to the Sleeth Art Gallery with me so we could check out his work.

“Shauna. This one’s you,” Denise said. She walked several feet ahead of me. I walked over to her and viewed the piece of art.

The colors: tan, cream, sepia. The greens: green-yellow, tropical rain forest, spring green, sage. Touches of dandelion and apricot, mahogany and maize. Colors of the earth. No electric lime or cotton candy or ultra red or razzmatazz like in a Crayola box.

The right half of the photo captures a female facing away from the camera. A teenaged girl? A woman? We see only her left leg from mid-thigh down. She wears a gauzy dress, soiled with grey-brown mud, not a spot of whiteness left. Her youthful shin and ankle are bare and tanned with random splatters of dried earth. Syrup-thick mud immerses her foot, water pools around it. The grass beyond the puddle bursts bright with a sunburnt yellow tint.

The left half of the photo shows a male’s right hand. The bed of his thumbnail alternates flesh-pink and white from gripping a Polaroid photo of the same scene. It’s panned out, giving us a little more perspective. We see the girl from the shoulder blades down: pale arms, small waist, slight curve of her hips. The grass: darker, softer, lush. And beyond: a thicket of trees, forest green, a hint of sunlight coming forth. In this snapshot, the dress is white, pristine. No specks of mud. Her shins are clean. She is pure.

“Wow.” After a moment, “I think I’ll buy it.” And so I did, and it became mine after a couple of weeks, after the exhibition was dismantled. I could take it home, but I don’t. Most of the time, it blends in with the everydayness of my office, but when I look up and see it, I am moved, just as I was upon first sight.

*     *     *

Most mornings, when the alarm sounds, I lie in bed for a moment. God, thank you for this day. Thank you for keeping us through the night. Help me to treat others with love today, especially when it’s hard. My silent, sleepy meditation upon awakening. My base intention. I manage this one pretty well. I struggle with other intentions: practice temperance and moderation. Be satisfied with what I have. In my mind, this is different than gratefulness. I am grateful for what I have, but often want more. More affection. More joy. More wildness. My intention should be: Be satisfied.

*     *     *

A tattoo decorates the inside of my left wrist. The word “intention,” inked in black typewriter font, nestles between a red outline of a lotus blossom. The lotus is a central image in meditation practice, in chakra work.

*     *     *

Sunday mornings of my childhood: sitting at the kitchen table with a plate of soft-boiled eggs, bacon, buttered toast. Pa-Paw, listening to the Florida Boys singing “Daddy Sang Bass” on television. He sits in his spot on the couch, where he’d sat the night before listening to Roy Clark on Hee Haw. Ma-Maw, telling me to hurry, so she could get my hair brushed. I was the only one who went to church. Usually, Volkswagen Charlie picked me up along with two or three other North Charleston neighborhood kids who needed a ride.

The best part of the morning? Choosing my dress. Most of my them hit a couple of inches above the knee, most had Peter Pan collars, most had some sort of floral pattern in those early elementary school years during the mid-seventies. In the summers, I wore white sandals and bare legs that showed my knees—knobby and usually bruised and skinned up. In the winters, I wore black patent leather Mary Janes and tights. I got to wear pantyhose and felt very grown up on special occasions like Easter.

One thing was for certain: I wasn’t to get my dresses dirty. Volkswagen Charlie dropped me off and I threw open the back kitchen door. “Change into play clothes,” Ma-Maw directed, even before asking me if I’d put my fifty cents in the offering plate or asking about the Sunday School lesson, never turning to face me as she turned the chicken sizzling in the skillet.

As much as I loved dressing up for Sunday School, I couldn’t wait to change into play clothes. I wasn’t allowed to go outside until I did. I could never seem to play—really play, that lost-to-the-joy play—without getting dirty. I loved turning over rocks and finding earthworms and potato bugs. I loved painting dream houses on my easel. I loved climbing into our backyard tree and sitting.

It’s tough to make discoveries without getting dirty.

*     *     *

I look at Andy’s dirty girl/clean girl photograph on my desk and ask myself which image I find most appealing. I know the correct answer, the expected answer. Clean, of course. Pure and pristine. I don’t know that it’s my honest answer, but I also don’t know that it’s not.

Does an artist rely on the viewer to create her own intention, her own interpretation, or does the artist attempt to force his intention upon the viewer? What was Andy’s intention for the photograph?

*     *     *

In the flickering glow of the treatment room, Rebekah and I continue talking. The footbath cools but still soothes. I’m semi-reclined in a billowy cream chair, feeling like I’m snuggled against the chest of a large, loving grandmother.

“Do you have any spiritual practices?” she asks. Her brown eyes scan my face.

“Prayer. Reading and writing. I’ve become more interested in meditation the past few months. I wouldn’t call it a practice yet. I’ve burned incense and have a meditation cushion.”

She smiles. “What do you do for relaxation?”

“Read. Soak in the tub. Drink wine, probably too much. I don’t exercise much.”

“Do you want that to change, or is that where you are right now?” Her hands rest in her lap. I covet her calmness.

“My intention is…to feel more balanced.” The fingers of my left hand stroke the ones on the right. “Relaxation, for sure. But I feel out of sorts and I’m curious to see if energy work can help.”

“Good.” Rebekah leans slightly forward, her knees coming closer to mine. “You have an open mind, which makes a big difference. Everyone’s experience is unique. You may have visions, see lights. I don’t want you to be afraid. Some people feel very little, but either way, enjoy the massage.” She stands up and creaks open the door. “I’ll leave so you can get prepared. I’ll knock before entering.”

As I undress, I say a quick prayer: “Let’s work together on this.” I slide onto the table, pull up the blanket, close my eyes. The warmth of the flute strokes me, encourages me to still myself.

*     *     *

Meditation therapist Yogi Cameron says on his website, “Though it is positive to want to have good intentions over bad ones, the most relevant quality we can assign to an intention when building a spiritual practice is whether or not it is beneficial to us.” He continues, “The final step of setting a beneficial intention is, quite simply, to decide to pursue a practice with the purpose of attaining greater contentment from within instead of seeking gratification from your surroundings.” I struggle with this, impatient, wondering if I will ever attain it, like I wonder about other aspects of my faith, thinking maybe hearing that still, quiet voice is something only certain people get gifted, like a melodious voice or powerful throwing arm or mathematical acuity. What if I can’t still my soul, if I can’t enter within? I know that’s not entirely true—I hear the voice when I’m in water, when I am transported by music, when words lift off the page. Those seem like gifts presented, though. It’s not me setting an intention to find these quick bits of bone-shaking joy; they happen. I am not in control of them. My friend Mary, who leads a “Writing Through the Chakras” retreat deep in the tree-lined soul of a Virginia valley, gets impatient with my impatience. “You’re trying too hard,” she says.

*     *     *

I polled my friends on Facebook one evening. I told them I was meditating on the word “intention” and asked them for meanings and examples.

My friend John referenced, “The road to Hell is paved with good intention.”

“And what do you take that to mean?” I pushed.

“Oh I suppose in terms of that phrase that many of the greatest tragedies, failures, even horrible things people have done in the world could have begun as the best intention,” he typed back. “Things like: I want to be a leader—I want to give glory to God—could have become things like I became a despot, I killed in the name of God—who knows? Intention can probably come from such a pure and honest place. Of course, I guess there can be bad intentions too!”

My brother, Brandon, said it was a determination to take action and used an example about God. Nancy eloquently described her intentional parenting practice, writing that her “end goal in a nut shell, is: ‘love God, love others.’” April said intention was wish, feeling, direction, resolve. Danielle and my Aunt Debbi offered input, and the thread ended with Bob typing, “God bless you and yours” to Nancy, and she responding with “Thank you, and God bless you as well.” Two people who have never met.

Is it a coincidence that the majority of examples mentioned God?

*     *     *

It could have been my imagination, but during our energy session I swear that when Rebekah held her hands over my heart, I saw golden light. An eye mask covered my closed eyes, so I couldn’t see, except that I could. Rebekah wasn’t touching me, but I felt the heat of her hands over my heart, which felt like it wanted to levitate into her hands. My body wanted to float, hover only on energy, Rebekah’s and mine. This lasted just a moment or so.

A couple of minutes later, she held her hands over my womb. I sensed her there, but I didn’t have much of a reaction. I didn’t see color. I meant to ask Rebekah later if this meant my sacral chakra was blocked. The emotional issues related to this energy center include a sense of abundance, well-being, pleasure, sexuality.

The only other spot I had strong sensation was on my forehead where Rebekah placed warmed crystals along my third-eye chakra. I think having my eyes closed intensified the heat. Odd feeling, like the stones were imbedding themselves in my flesh. No. More like melting. Not painful, just not ordinary. Later, Rebekah told me she’d felt the strength of my heart chakra and that I could take the light with me into my private meditations.

If only it were that easy.

I forgot to ask about my sacral chakra.

*     *     *

I sent Andy a Facebook message and asked him the title of the photo and what his intention was.

“The title is…I believe…Polaroid #4. The intention was from my niece wanting to jump in the puddle, so I spent the time with the Polaroid capturing the past, the clean stages, and used the frozen history in the ‘present’ with the digital shots. Just as a way to juxtapose.”

I was a little disappointed in his answer. “Polaroid #4”? I wanted the intention to be deeper, more spiritual. I realize that the artist wasn’t forcing his intention upon me. Instead, I wanted to make his answer conform to my intention. I wanted him to send a big message about dirty girl/clean girl, about sin and redemption. I wanted his art to do something different than what he intended. I wanted him to create an experience for me. An impossible task.

*     *     *

Is one state of being better than the other; is it better to be clean than dirty? Isn’t that what we’re taught, that we need to be washed white as snow? That dirty equals sin? But isn’t it true that some people who portray themselves as clean hide the dirtiest hands? And isn’t it true that Jesus didn’t hang out in the sterilized synagogue, but instead, sought out those who were dirty? And when He showed them warmth and light, that He didn’t expect them to sit still in their Sunday best, that He hoped they would get a little dirty helping others, connecting with others? Wasn’t that his intention? His prayer? His offering?

I think I do okay with my intention of looking out for others, offering up my time, talents, money, prayers, voice. My continuing struggle is settling on an intention for myself, with diving deep into my inner waters.

*     *     *

Am I afraid of the truth that I am both the clean girl and the dirty girl? I don’t want to be pigeonholed into Freud’s Madonna-whore complex, either a saint or a sex object. We like things to be “either/or.” Either I’m Christian or I’m against God. Either I’m straight-laced or I’m loose. Either I’m quiet or I’m a raging storm. Either I write from my body or from my brain. I am not that simple. None of us are. At least we’re not intended to be.

Shauna JonesShauna Hambrick Jones is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s low-residency MFA program. She lives in Buckhannon, WV and respectfully reminds people that WV is its own state, not part of VA any longer. Her favorite spots to read are in or near bodies of water: baths, rivers, lakes, and oceans.

 

 

The Wife of Michael Cleary

The day before the party, Valerie asked her boyfriend Andrew to buy her a book.

Actually, that’s not how it happened. It was Andrew who volunteered to get Valerie a book, and in the end he bought her two.

“I know tomorrow’s going to be hard for you,” he said. “Is there anything I can get for you? Just a little thing to pep you up a bit?”

That’s how he remembered that moment, his phone cradled against his shoulder as he pulled out of the Stop-N-Shop parking lot (he’d forgotten mustard and paper plates, both of which he was supposed to bring to the party). But what he actually said was: please let me get you something that will make you feel better.

Valerie, though she didn’t seem like it at times, was a sensible girl, sensible enough to know that nothing Andrew bought her would make her feel better. Andrew knew this, and asked anyway.

“Just please come,” she said. Her voice trilled weakly as she stopped. Andrew could tell from her tone that she was eaten up with fear that for some reason—a flash flood or a mudslide, or a more mundane car accident—he wouldn’t come to the party. Her voice contained a profusion of disasters.

“Val, come on.” He wasn’t supposed to be on his phone while driving, and as a cop car lazed past him he stuffed the phone into his crotch. He shouldn’t have called her Val—he only called her that when he was mad at her, which wasn’t often, and he wasn’t mad at her now. He was mad at himself. Not for the mustard and the plates, that would come later. He was a bit stupefied by his uselessness; he always thought of himself as a resourceful, bootstraps type, thought that he could fix what needed fixing like it was an economics problem set, but he couldn’t help Valerie and that frosted him.

“Please, Valerie,” he said when the cop car was safely out of sight. “It would make me feel better, anyway. How about a book?” Andrew was always buying Valerie books, after a lucky guess led to him to a volume of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats as a six-month anniversary gift. Valerie’s euphoric reaction led to more books for more occasions: The Works of Edmund Spenser for Valentine’s Day, Sotheby’s Tour Through Parts of Wales for her birthday. Andrew had a vision in his mind of a wedding present, something extravagant and rare. The collected writings of somebody or other. Gilt pages, an embossed title page with gold lettering. He would have to do a little more research. Of course, he couldn’t tell Valerie this, especially now. Any talk of the future made her fold up into a sharply creased little packet, unopenable even to the most skillful fingers.

He could almost hear her biting her lip through the phone. That was her nervous habit, one of many. Andrew sometimes marveled that she hadn’t chewed right through it, that he couldn’t see her bottom teeth when she closed her mouth.

“A book would be nice,” she said finally.

“I’ll bring you two,” Andrew declared, feeling manful and tough for a moment. “I can stop at that used bookshop you like, the one that Mandy’s cousin owns?”

Valerie sighed. She was also sensible enough to know that there was no point in arguing with Andrew, or at least that was why Andrew thought she was sighing. “All right,” she said. “Just—make sure you’re here. I won’t be able to do this without you.”

The next morning, Andrew set out for Valerie’s house in Masonville with a little package of books next to him on the front seat. The mustard and the plates, which he had remembered as soon as he pulled into his driveway and had returned to Stop-N-Shop to buy, sat on the floor in the back. The morning had begun with a spiritless, clammy spring rain, but by the time Andrew turned south onto Route 63 the sun had burned away the early murk and the blacktop gleamed, slick as sealskin.

Andrew’s parents lived in Ashford, about forty-five minutes from Valerie’s house; he was home on Easter break, technically, though no one in his family celebrated Easter. He and Valerie hadn’t met—and he had never given Masonville much thought—until they both went to college in Rochester and he saw her the winter of freshman year, the first day of second semester. They were in the basement of the cafeteria, which had been a bar before the school half-heartedly turned it into a coffee shop. Andrew never went down there, if he could help it—the place still smelled like stale beer when the air conditioning wasn’t on, and it was too dingy a room for studying. His engineering textbooks could be dreary enough as it was. But Valerie liked it. She told him that it was empty and quiet, quieter than the library on most days, and she liked to pretend that she was hidden away inside the bowels of an ancient monastery where no one could find her. Andrew would discover that Valerie liked the idea of entombment, but not until much later.

It was her fingers that had pulled him in—not literally, although he probably wouldn’t have resisted if they had. He couldn’t remember why he had gone to the coffee shop that day—caffeine to get him through the afternoon? Some kind of premonition?—but nevertheless he was there, with a chewy bagel pocked with burn marks and a café au lait. From where he was sitting, he couldn’t see her face or her yellow-white hair (though he would, eventually, when he craned his head around to get a better look at her, like a schoolboy who had just realized he could be interested in the alien creature girl); he could only see two delicate arms in a pale pink sweater, and two long hands, hairless, with arched fingers that bent gracefully at the knuckle and delicate, square nails. They moved elegantly, quickly, folding and unfolding like crane legs over the keys of her laptop. He had never been so taken in by someone’s fingers. He thought about how it would feel to put his mouth on them, and then he was mortified at himself, though not enough not to ask her name and sit down with her. It was his only moment of competence with the opposite sex, ever, and Valerie wasn’t any better; she was his first girlfriend, and he was her first too.

That was three-and-a-half years ago. He had never quite become used to her delicacy, her smallness, could never quite shake the instinct to protect her, whether or not she wanted it—or needed it. The first time they had sex, following some poorly proportioned vodka cranberries about a month after the day in the coffee shop, he was afraid he would crush her; she finally had to wrap her slender fingers around his wrists and pull him down on top of her, crimson with impatience.

*     *     *

There wasn’t much to the village of Masonville: two parallel roads, a school, a motorcycle shop, a dry goods store run by a family of Mennonites, and no less than four pizza parlors. Valerie’s family lived on the village’s only dead-end street, three doors down from an abandoned paper mill that sagged under the snow and the wind in winter, and wilted under the brutal sun in summer. The village had recently torn up the railroad that used to connect the paper mill with the Buffalo and Rochester markets. The railroad ties stood stacked across the street from Valerie’s house in a perfect cube, like an ancient monument whose sacred purposes were guessed at but not known. A fairy mound. A phrase Andrew had learned from Valerie, from some book of mythical places she had, or perhaps it was a calendar, one of the page-a-day ones with Celtic knots and foggy seascapes, she had hundreds of those. She was forever teaching him things; though she would never say it, Andrew knew that she resented, on some level, his ironclad belief that the world was fundamentally understandable through physics and mathematics, that little messes could be put right and lumpy edges smoothed out. The only time Valerie had been even slightly interested in Andrew’s work was during his class on Boundary Value Problems. She saw rough and wild borderlands, fens and swamps and things. Boundaries of a more romantic sort. Andrew didn’t have the heart to explain differential equations and Dirichlet’s principle to her.

Andrew parked his car along the road; most of the other guests had already arrived. The party was conveniently timed to celebrate a lot of things at once: Easter, Valerie’s impending college graduation, her father’s 60th birthday, Mother’s Day. It didn’t make any sense, Valerie’s mother said, to have a separate party for each of them, it was so hard to get the cousins to come up from Utica in the first place and as long as they were here you might as well do it all at once. Mrs. Garret met Andrew when he reached the mailbox and said these things to him while she took his plastic bag; someone was already asking after the mustard, as if they couldn’t just wait a damn minute, the food wasn’t even ready yet, she said.

“But thank you for this, dear.” She unscrewed the top of the mustard and took the seal off with her teeth.

Whenever he looked at Mrs. Garret, Andrew couldn’t help but think of nutmeg. There was no reason for it, really, but nevertheless. Her dark brown hair curled in a bob near her chin, her skin tanned to leather, a khaki skirt tightly belted a bit too short. She was round in a pleasant way, with full calves and a nice rack and a tiny waist, almost the opposite of Valerie, who was thin and boyish to the extreme, neutered almost. Valerie wasn’t like either of her parents. Her father was bulbous and pink with popped blood vessels; tufts of brownish hair stuck out over his ears like an ostrich. He worked as a construction consultant, ripping the asbestos out of people’s houses, and he was as broad and boxy as his wife was round and sultry. Valerie had two older brothers too, both of them beefy and calloused like their father, with buzz cuts to boot. The older one, Mike, was in the army, flying a helicopter in Afghanistan. The younger one, Matt—though Andrew had trouble telling them apart sometimes, because of the buzz cuts—worked for his father, fighting the asbestos. Andrew often thanked his stars that he wasn’t a philosophy major or something equally pathetic—the Garret men respected engineering.

Valerie was the imp of the family, the changeling. That was another word Andrew had learned from her—before Valerie, he had never stopped to think about whether or not trolls would steal your baby if it wasn’t baptized, or whether a small, sickly child in an otherwise healthy family could be of fairy stock. She told him stories when they lay in bed, unable to fall asleep because of the heat, of people who were so convinced their child was a fairy hundreds of years old, sent to do them mischief, that they would hang the wretch over the fire or leave him out on piles of manure in the winter. It drew out their magic, or at least that was the theory.

“They believed sometimes that the child was just a piece of wood, ‘a fetch’ they called it, that had been enchanted,” Valerie said. She ran her fingers up and down Andrew’s stomach, which he suddenly wished was more defined. “The spell upon the wood caused the child to appear to sicken and die, so the family would never guess that their real child was taken. They would assume it died under their care, and then bury it. When it was buried, it would turn back into wood. There were no bones.”

“But there were no real changelings, right?” Andrew asked. “So there had to be bones, somewhere. Maybe they just weren’t fully formed yet, so they disintegrated.”

Valerie sighed, her usual sigh when Andrew completely missed the point. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand this time; he willfully misunderstood. It was too gloomy, thinking about those poor superstitious people, wearing clothes made of burlap, always covered in dirt from picking rutabagas or whatever peasants did in the old days, roasting their babies alive on spits. Coming up with excuses as to why their children starved to death when there wasn’t enough to eat. That’s what most of those stories were, anyway, just a way to explain the hideousness of human suffering.

“But there were no real changelings, right?” Andrew asked. “So there had to be bones, somewhere. Maybe they just weren’t fully formed yet, so they disintegrated.”

“There was comfort in it,” Valerie said after a moment.

“In what?”

“In magic.” She shifted her weight so that she no longer touched Andrew’s sticky side, and stared up at the ceiling. “What a terrible thing, to have to bury a child. If your child was dying, or you were dying, wouldn’t you rather think it was because of the fairies?”

*     *     *

She was wearing blue. It was her color; it suited her, though her eyes were green. There was something about that blue, robin’s egg and sky and forget-me-not, and her yellow-white hair. Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps it had something to do with the color wheel, Andrew was never good with that stuff. Every time he saw her wearing that blue, he imagined she was a provincial milkmaid, gathering flowers on a French hill. Untainted.

“It’s not a good time to tell them.” Her face was flushed pink and sweat had formed on her upper lip. She actually wrung her hands, like a nurse in a World War II movie at the bedside of her wounded soldier-fiancé. “There’s already been a fire on the grill, and the Utica cousins are fighting. Everyone’s angry.”

Andrew had been afraid of this, that she would back out. “You’ve got to tell them, hon.”

“I could let the doctor call and tell them. Right now he hasn’t because of confidentiality laws.”

“Would you want to hear news like that from someone else?”

She bit her lip. His insides shook to see her like that, so afraid. He didn’t want to feel like he was yelling at her. “No, of course not,” she said. “It’s just—complicated.”

“Come on,” he said, “let’s go inside and you can open your presents.” He held out his bundle, wrapped in brown paper and twine. He had chosen this combination himself in the bookstore, hoping it looked earthy or woodsy or something like that. Intriguing, at any rate. He knew she would be less excited if he gave them to her in a gift bag.

They took an obligatory walk around the house to the backyard, to greet everyone and be seen before they ducked inside. Mr. Garret waved them over to the grill with a burly hand. Though his wife was by far the better cook of the two, he always insisted that she put him in charge of the grill, lest his man-pride be dented; the burgers and hot dogs, and the occasional Italian sausages were usually blackened on the edges and undercooked in the middle.

“Nice to see you, Andrew,” Mr. Garret said, taking Andrew’s hand and crushing it. He paused to yell at one of the littler Utica cousins, who was chasing around his brother with the seed spreader. “Your mother’s family,” he said to Valerie. “I don’t know why we even invite them.” She smiled tremulously at him and he melted, wrapping his arm around her and kissing the top of her head. Andrew knew that feeling; when Valerie gave him that little smile, he felt like sap was running down his front, warm and gummy. Though he supposed her father felt something different.

“My little queen bean,” he said. “You’re not going to leave your old man alone with them, right? You’re always going to be here with me?”

The breath hitched in the back of Andrew’s throat.

What a terrible thing, to have to bury a child.

“No, of course not,” Valerie said in a small voice. “I’ll always be here.”

Andrew would like to say he wrapped his arm around her, comforted her somehow, took her hand at least, but he didn’t. He stood rooted in place, gawky and arms akimbo (another one of Valerie’s favorite words). She shivered and looked down.

“You’re going to have to fight me for her,” Mr. Garret said, waving the grill tongs at Andrew like a sword.

“The sausages are burning, Mr. Garret,” Andrew said finally. To Valerie he said: “We should probably go inside.”

These weren’t connected thoughts, but they worked well enough as an excuse. Mr. Garret turned to focus on putting out the fire, and Valerie and Andrew slipped away. As they turned back towards the house, Andrew glanced at the road over his shoulder. The stack of railroad ties stood solid and black in the distance, a portent of grave happenings, a somber warning.

Andrew wished that they were telling Valerie’s parents that she was pregnant. How much gentler that would be, for them. She would graduate college in time, with a degree, he could put off grad school for a few years and get a job to support them. A good job, engineers earn good salaries. It would be hard but it would be bearable. He would take the brunt of it, from the Buzz Cut Brothers. You knocked her up? they would say. You knocked up our baby sister? Knocked up, as if he had punched her around. As if he would ever be violent with her.

It was a wild daydream, of course, a fantasy that would make most twenty-one-year-olds shrivel up with dread. What Valerie was actually telling her parents had nothing to do with Andrew. She had to tell them that she was sick, which they knew, or at least they knew part of it. She had had pneumonia in March, right around spring break, so bad she had wound up in the hospital. Andrew had stayed in Rochester for break, bringing her things to read, amusing her, sneaking in some chocolate. He hadn’t had any plans, anyway—he couldn’t afford to go anywhere worth going. And it wasn’t so bad—pneumonia was unfortunate, but at least the doctors had caught it early. Caught it, like the infection was a hog running rampant, scaring the chickens and knocking over fences that someone needed to jump on and tie. A wild thing that could be controlled. But at least they could treat it, and Valerie could come home after her lungs were clear. She hadn’t even missed class, which would have bothered her.

This was as much as her family knew, that she had been in the hospital for a little and then gotten better. What they didn’t know was that she had continued going back for tests. The doctors were concerned. That was the word they used, concerned. The nurses took a liking to Valerie when she was in the hospital, it was hard not to, she was so otherworldly, such a sprite. They liked to whisper about her in the hallway, when they thought Andrew couldn’t hear. So sad, the rest of her life, they said. She’ll never be able to have kids. Life expectancy of fifty years, if that. Such a shame. This was only after they finally diagnosed her, of course—at first they thought it was lung cancer, and that was terrifying enough. Valerie couldn’t sleep; she spent nights in Andrew’s room, lying stiff as a starched sheet in his arms, her green eyes wide and wet.

Cystic fibrosis had come out of left field, or at least it had for Andrew. He thought that was something that only babies got. Valerie was in her twenties. She had hosts of other health problems to worry about in the near future, possible disorders which she could start exhibiting signs of now, but she should have been past CF. That was all Andrew could think about the first few days after she told him. He couldn’t have been much help, he realized later; he was too befuddled, in too much shock. He still was now, in a way. She continued going in for tests and treatment, without telling her parents. When the bill came for the services, Valerie told them that it was follow-up for her pneumonia, and the insurance company paid for most of it anyway. She assured her parents that she was better, and they had no reason not to believe her. For the first few weeks when she kept the news from everyone, even Andrew, and he hadn’t expected a thing.

The doctor sat her down at the beginning of April and told her that her siblings should be tested, because they were at risk too. Even if they hadn’t exhibited signs yet, they could have CF, lurking somewhere like an eyeless monster, ready to strike. Ready to sting. Especially, the doctor said, your brother in the armed forces. He was the most at risk, because there was nowhere to get CF treatment in the Afghan mountains.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Andrew said, as they sat across from one another in the hospital cafeteria. The more time Valerie spent in the hospital, whether for tests or consultations or anything, the more Andrew ate. He had a piece of lasagna, two breadsticks, a bowl of scalloped potatoes, green beans and corn, and a brownie on the tray in front of him. Valerie had only tea.

“It will crush them,” she said quietly. “I should be the one taking care of them when they get old.”

“You might live long enough for them to find some cure.” Andrew didn’t know who would find it—he assumed there were scientists, somewhere, working on it, fiddling with pipettes full of liquid, or growing yeast in petri dishes, or doing whatever pharmaceutical researchers did. He knew his answer didn’t touch what was so upsetting Valerie, and he didn’t know how to get there.

“It will crush them,” she said quietly. “I should be the one taking care of them when they get old.”

“Yes, that’s true.” Valerie rubbed the outside of her teacup, massaging the hot porcelain like she was trying to break it apart in her hands. Crack it open and read the omens written there. It was as good a way as any, Andrew thought, to work through this problem. It was better than anything he had suggested. Maybe there was comfort in it.

*     *     *

The Garrets’ living room was the ugliest room Andrew had ever seen, worse than some of the apartments he had lived in during college. He had a hard time believing that Valerie’s saucy mama would let a room in her house remain decorated in such a way, but in the almost four years he had known Valerie, barely anything about the room had changed. The same faded lace curtains hung in front of the windows, the same garish pink floral couches stood in front of the outdated TV, the same mottled brown carpet, not shag but something close, displayed dubious stains from bygone years underneath his feet. Someone had arranged a collection of ceramic figurines on a shelf above the TV—Andrew remembered Valerie once saying that they belonged to her grandmother—but they were too tacky to be worth much. Andrew always felt sticky when he left the room, like there had been tape on his skin that left a residue behind after it was removed.

Valerie sat down on one of the detestable sofas and Andrew set the bundle of books in her hands. She breathed in and out, as if steeling herself for something sad, something trying. The first book she opened was The Victorian Book of Plants and Flowers. That was a stretch on Andrew’s part; he had held it in his hands for close to fifteen minutes before finally deciding to buy it. What had sold him on it was the dark violet ribbon slid in between the book’s creased pages, to mark the reader’s place. That was something Valerie would appreciate. It looked old and ethereal, a little enigmatic, just like her. Of course now he felt like an idiot, sitting next to her in the cramped living room as the smell of the grill wafted in from the backyard. The lace drapes, the barbecue, the ugly brown carpet—these were concrete things, real things, parts of her life that were tangible, or at least more tangible than a book about plants. He couldn’t imagine what her parents would think, when they stared down at this ridiculous collection of drawings, lovingly but somewhat uselessly captioned in calligraphy. Agapanthus africanus, the Lily of the Nile. La Ville de Bruxelles, a necessity for any rosarium.

“Open the next one,” he said, a little breathlessly. Was he sweating? How stupid it all was. It wasn’t like the next book was going to be any better. He had tried to get closer to what he knew Valerie liked with the second one—a book of Norwegian folktales in a new translation. She was the one who had taught him that there were different kinds of fairy tales. He had assumed there was one version of a story that had existed forever, and that everyone more or less knew it if they watched the Disney movie. But apparently there were lots of different kinds of stories—the original source material, which in most cases had been lost, and then the accounts by Europeans going out into the hinterland and “discovering” the stories, which Europeans seemed to think they did a lot. And then a lot of the tales were adjusted for children, and given morals, and most of the gore was taken out—the ogre mothers-in-law, the rampant cannibalism. Then there were knock-offs and rewrites and retellings, and the movies, which was where Andrew came upon them first.

“Didn’t anyone read to you when you were little?” Valerie had asked, her green eyes wide with what could have been pity. Of course someone had read to Andrew. His parents were great believers in the Power of Education. But he remembered the Berenstein Bears and Clifford, none of the grisly stories of boys being roasted and eaten and girls dancing to death that Valerie treasured so much. He thought of his mother, overworked and always dieting, sitting down on his bed with her bathrobe plastered to her and her make-up removed so her eyes puffed up like bread dough, reading to him from the Brothers Grimm. It wouldn’t have happened. He liked Thomas the Train books, and Sesame Street. No one had ever told him about changelings, until Valerie.

“They’re beautiful, Andrew, both of them,” she said. He had never felt more helpless.

She held on to the flower book; the book of fairy tales ended up on the floor. Andrew knew it made sense, somehow; he had been wrong earlier, flowers were real things, they could be planted in the earth, and afterward you could see the remains of the dirt on the creases of your palms. She ran her fingers along the corners of the book, her long, lovely sylph’s fingers—sylph, yet another one of Valerie’s words—and pressed down on the cover so hard the tips of her fingers turned white. Andrew was seized with the urge—seized, like his walls were overrun by a foreign desire, invaded—to take her hands and kiss them, to crush the palms to his lips and run the fingers in and out of his mouth.

A distraction, merely. There wasn’t anything substantive he could do anymore, besides make her forget sometimes. That’s what the books had been too, a diversion, like magazines at the dentist’s office to take your mind off the wait. Taking your mind off. He imagined drilling into her head, cutting off the top of her cranium and lifting the pulsing pink mass underneath it out. In a way, they were also a bribe. Giving a dog a treat when it fetches a stick.

“I’m glad you like them,” he said finally.

A pause. Actually, several long pauses strung together with little sighs as Valerie looked at the floor.

“You know,” she said quietly, “it wasn’t just the simple people, the medieval cowherds and ignorant swains who believed the fairy stories. As late as the nineteenth century, there were incidents. An Irishman killed his wife because he thought she was a changeling. In front of witnesses. He didn’t even go to jail.”

A pause. Actually, several long pauses strung together with little sighs as Valerie looked at the floor.

“Come on, Val, you know that’s not—”

“There was a children’s rhyme about it.” Valerie hugged The Victorian Book of Plants and Flowers against her chest. “Are you a witch, or are you a fairy? Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?” A hysterical, shrieking laugh bubbled up from her throat and burst into the room. She clapped a hand over her mouth. The sound vanished into the air as soon as it was emitted—and yet it hung there, tangled in the drapes and soaking into the ratty carpet, bouncing off the figurines. It was a big, ugly blister of sound. To Andrew, that horrible, horrible screech was now indelibly lodged into his gut, and would be forever.

“Baby, what’s the matter?” Mr. Garret stood in the doorway. Behind him, Mrs. Garret held a tray of hotdog buns.

“Valerie?” said Mrs. Garret.

Andrew thought about taking her hand then, but he didn’t want to feel how badly she was trembling. He sat apart from her, his hands on his lap, while she, the fairy child, shrank before his eyes, shrank and shrank until she would leave no bones to bury.

C. Moran HeadshotCaitlin Keefe Moran has written for The Iowa ReviewPost Road, Pleiades, and The Toast. She graduated from Boston College and now lives in New York City.