How to Brew Tea for a Funeral

[creative nonfiction]

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Photo Credit: J.M. Ellison

Plastic

[fiction]

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

 

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

Magic

[fiction]

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

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

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

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

 

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

O’er the Fields

[creative nonfiction]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Photo Credit: Lawrence Lenhart

The Boy Who Loved Red Bishops Too Much

[fiction]

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

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

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

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

He continued his watch from his secret hiding place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But no Red Bishops grace his garden.

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

 

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

Butterfly

[fiction]

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Four Walls

[fiction]

There is a room with twenty desks. Five across, four deep.

“Small class size. You should feel lucky,” the principal tells him. Each desk with a book: America the Beautiful: A Sweeping History 1776-2027. Red, white, blue, and all in mint condition. They better stay that way, for his sake.

The desktops are all a greyish plastic with a groove on top for writing utensils to rest in.

A chalkboard, blank except for his name, Mr. Garza, walls the front of the room. The name is written in cursive and stands out strongly against the slate.

The chair in which he will sit is located in the back by his station. It is wooden and squeaks.

He will sit there outside of teaching hours, when he is unbound, to compose emails on the computer supplied to him. Each day he will type twenty reports and email them home. Not all of the Parents demanded this. The truth is most didn’t. But the assertive voices won out and it became required. These voices now make up the Administration—they have total control.

He is to update the gradebook daily.

Please look up.

The tracks on the ceiling are metal, and carve out a path aligned with the gaps between the desks. For safety, but also for equity. Movements are pre-programmed to ensure that the teacher spends time with each student. A forceful dance in which only one is taking the lead. Oftentimes, the harness does not sync up properly with the teacher’s height, so that you will have an instructor who is too short and is forced to float eerily throughout the room, suspended. Or someone who is too tall, so their legs drag behind them along the brown carpeted floor. He is of medium height. Hopefully it fits.

He will be restricted in this manner for at least his first month. If he has no infractions, minor or otherwise, he may be unbound. Of course, that is unlikely. Even the smallest of offenses are counted against them. It is quite easy to add more time to one’s sentence.

According to the government, it’s an incredible solution. The extreme surplus of prisoners and massive deficit of teachers brought together to make a perfect fit, like a key into a lock.

He walks with his hands behind his back as the principal and two Parent guards lead him down the hallway. It’s a hall that looks familiar to you, except the walls are blank and the doors are closed with heavy metal bolts. The library they pass is not recognizable. Old and decrepit books lay randomly scattered within. A severe lack of funding for public schools has resulted in unsatisfactory conditions. The white paint is chipping as they pass the Parent Lounge.

They reach the room. The one he will be in for at least the next ten years for illegally selling bulletproof vests.

The room he used to learn in just one year before.

The Parents shove him in.

“Tomorrow you will teach chapter 22 from the textbook. Get prepared,” the principal states as the door is shut.

He is locked into the room that is his, and theirs, and ours.

 

D.H. Valdez teaches social studies at his former high school. He holds a Master’s degree in teaching from the University of Washington. He and his wife Holly grew up together in Seattle and continue to live in the city. They are avid sports fans and desperately await the return of the Sonics.