My quirky story “Dirty Bird” is up at A Thousand and One Stories. Give it a read! Happy Tuesday.
We are what is left when everything from the accident is carried away – the driver, the smashed car, the branches from the bush that crumpled thin metal. We are the detritus, the pieces, the bits – the piece of reflector, the broken glass of the windshield, the broken cross dangling from the rearview. The bush the car crashed into was as crushed as the frame. The conclusion of the police was that the young man was drunk. But we know it was a deer. He swerved to avoid a deer. But he died. The deer lived.
The mother who came to collect pieces of us the day after had it right. This is what she told the police, that her son had swerved to hit an animal, but his intoxication level had been a more solid forensic indicator. It was a deer, or a cat, or a squirrel. The boy loved animals, she said. She told it to the ground, she told it to the bits of debris.
We are a reflection of stars and lost dreams and yet should we be able to tell the story of that lonely boy riding through the night in the city of lakes at Christmas we would tell the truth only a mother’s heart knows: The purity of her son’s heart, that, drunk though he was, was responsive to the natural world even in a city like ours where people careen around lakes without their licenses because of last year’s DUI, believing they can save the world despite themselves. The law does not allow for the best of what someone could possibly be but more often what is the worst.
A mother’s heart is not law. We are testament.
For my brother
Thank you, John King, for your wonderful interviews, and this great resource. I loved hearing all about fish and fishing which reminds me of my girlhood. I look forward to reading this author.
On this week’s show, I talk to the poet and memoirist Henry Hughes about how to get over rejection, poetry, the freedom of ekphrastic work, memoirs, and fishing,
Plus Todd Boss reads his poem, “One of the Joys of Dry Fly Fishing.”
Fall was Ms. Myska’s favorite Little League baseball season. Her son used to play in the neighborhood league. He had long since graduated and moved to another city and yet there she was, working the concession stand, having kept a key. Not only that, she tidied the field and toilet, picked up the trash, wiped down the metal bleachers. The city janitor assigned to the park had been shooed away by a smiling Ms. Myska and the young mothers were also summarily dismissed when they tried to insist that she should be sitting outside, enjoying the weather. She merely smiled and turned the oil on for the fries, made the coffee. For all they knew, she kept a cot in there, they said to themselves.
By the end of each season the players and their parents had always developed a strange fondness for the rodent-like woman who scurried from task to task, never speaking much, never making much eye contact. They would have been surprised to know she remembered their concession preferences, knew their faces and voices, knew whether they were confident, shy, slow, smart, funny, knew who their friends were, knew their family members, beloved and otherwise.
Little did they know that each summer, when they were vacationing, she was scurrying to the store for the secret ingredients to her chili. Making the chili every year made fall her favorite season for baseball. Who could resist a good chili on a cool evening? No one, and certainly no one who had tasted her version, contained as it was in a tiny bag of corn chips, the corn chips serving in lieu of pasta, the small bag a portable meal, ready to eat with a spork.
Nor did they know of her harvest moon night when she turned cartwheels in the field and tilted her head back and sang her full-throated songs. Other mysterious women, bodies worn from giving life and sustaining it, joined her, dancing, singing, drinking wine, running the bases and laughing until they ran up into the night sky and they transformed into other beings entirely, birds and butterflies and delicate moths. At daybreak, they became human again.
The season after she died, a young mother found a chili recipe in the cash box. “Make it with love,” the instructions said, “and you will be blessed.”
He stood at the foot of her son’s bunkbed. She had slept there the night before, her son being grown and in college. He had been dating her for about six months, but had not succeeded in getting her to sleep the entire night with him. She slept alone.
She reached out and touched the name stitched on his shirt. He kissed her lips. She wore only gloss. He liked that.
“I want to make you some coffee,” she said.
Her hair was mussed up. He wanted to forget his scruples, drop his pants, and climb right into her child’s bed, but he was running late.
“I don’t have time.” It was cold outside. He had to get the truck started. “OK, make me coffee, would ya? And chop, chop.” He patted her bottom.
She would pour him a steaming pint in his big thermos with cream and sugar and he would drink from it slowly to make it last. He would make sure everyone noticed its presence too, clinking it down here or there.
When he came back into the house, she was on the kitchen counter, kneeling, stretching for a bag of sugar.
“Watch it now, baby,” he said, trying to scold her, though he had caught a glimpse of her dimpled thigh under her nightshirt. He knew he would remember it all day. He pulled her down and retrieved the sugar. She took it from him with her icy, thin fingers.
“Let’s get married,” he said.
She didn’t look up to meet his gaze. She held the bag over the mouth of the thermos. As he watched a seemingly endless white stream fall into his coffee, he felt a pressure on his chest.
“Yes,” she said. When he looked up, he saw that she was watching his face, was not watching the sugar, was smiling in that way she saved for things that secretly pleased her.
A couple of months ago, my son noticed a change in me. He said, “Hey Mom, what’s wrong with your eyes?”
I was no longer able to hide it from him, the full throttle visitation of my manic depressive illness, the illness I secretly called my black bitch, a nod to Winston Churchill’s “black dog.” This time, my bitch was frustrating my concentration and numbing my senses. The last time she pounced on me this hard my son was a baby.
I didn’t answer him but he knew. He was a smart boy and knew about me taking the medications, knew how much the illness had cost me and his father, knew it was the kind of thing that could become dangerous.
When I got up from the sofa, he followed me into the kitchen. I opened the fridge and poured him a Coke. He was staring at the knife block. When I first told him why I was on meds, he started asking me and his dad about all the ways a person could kill himself.
I knew it was vital I get ahold of myself right away, that I send that slathering hound back to a dark corner with a bone. So I took his chin in my fingers and moved his face gently to mine. “Hey,” I said. His eyes slild away. He didn’t want me to read him. “Hey,” I repeated softly and when I caught his gaze, I looked at him as steadily as I could manage, right into those light blue eyes and said, “I would never do that, son. Never.” And then I took him in my arms and I held him for a minute.
And then he went off to play.
“Bitch,” I said, under my breath. And for a moment, I was free.
First appeared in A-Minor Magazine under the title “Needful Words”
Our vantage point for the total solar eclipse was a mountain top in north Georgia. Darren insisted on driving down from Tennessee to meet me on my way up from Florida though I had originally planned on watching it alone. I was early to the lookout, having scrambled over that last purchase of rock face, breathing hard, sweating. I didn’t want to be with him at the site the whole time. I wanted to carry out some of my plan alone although of course for the actual phenomenon, he’d be here with me, long legs stretched out, resting, assured, the climb having cost him nothing.
The rolling landscape below seemed to have drawn breath, the contrast between green trees and shadow sharpening even since my sitting down and taking out my binoculars. The color of the sky had intensified as if it were the abyss of the ocean. There were no clouds and I noticed the birds were silent.
I did not want to be here with him, especially not alone. I would not have always said this when we were younger, when we both lived in Florida, when we were in middle school and high school. There had been a kind of silly camaraderie between us. And then a bit of a romance though I broke it off, being too absorbed in my studies and plans. “You broke his heart,” my mother said when he slipped into a coma before graduation. Though no one really knew why he became ill my mother’s words stuck with me being that they were both true and not true at the same time and had the power of a crucible. Before I left for college I visited Darren several times a week to talk to him and read to him while a machine helped him breath. When he woke several months later, I went to the hospital to visit. What hit me were his screams and inaudible complaints echoing down the hospital corridor. It was worse than the silence and again I felt selfish, self-concerned, but worried too. What was wrong? What would happen? No one spoke to me. I couldn’t go into his room to see him.
He recovered. He was fully functional again, eventually, even went to college. Rumors had it he had brain damage given that his tendency to make things up, to “get creative with the truth” had become vastly exaggerated. I was not in touch, however. At the time I only considered how his hurting made me feel, and by that time, I had begun to have challenges of my own, black shadows of depression, inexplicable highs. I was private and protective and I didn’t want to see someone who may handle me less than delicately.
I heard him climbing the mountain before I saw him. I could hear him walking along the path below in this newly silent world. It was like when he appeared to me many years after his coma: I, newly divorced and diagnosed with cancer, dealing with an angry son had been open, curious about my friend. The silence surrounding me during chemo had become an intense fog, friends had drifted away, some out of fear and some having been the friends with whom I had merely partied. And there he was, on the phone, talking to me like I had never left and he had never become ill. Admittedly, the attention from a man was soothing as well, as the chemo had taken my looks. He remembered what I used to be.
“Hiya, hot pants,” he said, that last scramble involving a climb on all fours. I wanted merely to watch the darkness spreading over the valley. I wanted merely to listen to the cicadas – to screech or remain silent – the verdict was still out. How little could I say and still be here with him.
He twisted down to sit and gave me a quick side hug with his massive arm. He was warm but not dripping with sweat like I had been. I was glad I arrived soon enough to look cool.
“Whatcha been up to?” he said, gulping down a water bottle from his pack.
“Nothing, Darren. Just waiting.”
I was over the cancer, thank God. It had involved strange and convoluted experiences with treatment. My hair was back but my appearance had finally caught up to my actual age. I was all of forty nine, and feeling it too.
He said, “Did you know we’ll be able to see millions of little half eclipses in the shadows of the trees?”
“You don’t say.”
He took another deep swig of water. The wind mercifully caressed my skin.
When he first started talking to me again after a twenty five year sabbatical, he spent hours describing in minute detail the horrors of living with his ex wife Debbie and her child, a boy of about eight. They also eventually had a child together, a daughter.
“I plan on looking at the sun,” I say. A squirrel skitters up a pine just beyond the rock. I don’t want to indulge him. After this, I would drive down to Birmingham to meet my son and his father and stepmom to get him installed in his new dorm room. I wanted to keep this short.
“There are cultures that believe that the sun and the moon are fighting it out,” he said, shading his eyes. “Some even believe it’s actually a time of resolving old fights.”
That’s rich, I wanted to say. In the depths of my chemo treatments, our long distance conversations over the phone had wandered into territory I could never have guessed when we first took up, when first he had presented himself as the well rounded, traveled, accomplished man.
By the time the fissure in his self presentation occurred, I was having frequent experiences with mental confusion and the highs and lows of my moods had intensified. And I was lonely, so lonely. I remember where I was the first time I heard him paint a picture of himself that shocked me: I was in the kitchen of my parents’ home. They were letting me borrow the home for the summer as they were away and it was a shorter drive to my chemo treatments than from my townhome outside of town. “Debbie accused me of sexually molesting the kids” he said. “Can you fucking believe that?”
To whom was I speaking? I remember thinking. I had no idea. Though we were long distance and his job would keep him from making spontaneous trips down, I could feel my chemo imperiled heart beating hard when he described the number of times he was picked up by the police and his incarceration in the local jail before his hearing. He was manacled he said to a huge man, accused of rape. “That bitch Debbie,” he said. “At first it was supervised visits, and then: nothing. What a bitch.”
I managed to end the call and get out of the house in the sweltering heat to walk my dog around the retention pond across from my parents’ place. I was sick. By this time, he knew a great deal about my life. I had emotionally begun to lean on him. And I had confided in him regarding my problems with child rearing.
And yet over the months, he had managed to convince me, somehow, that the accusations had no foundation, and to remind me there had been no actual conviction. And against my better judgement, I believed in him. Part of it, I think, was the effect of the chemo, my inability to hold onto facts and ideas for very long. And part of it, maybe, was that I felt I owed it to him to consider it, his innocence, maybe it was the old guilt working on me that I had left him when he was ill. And maybe he knew it. Another thing he knew was how much I needed a friend. I wanted to believe perhaps because at the time I felt I had to believe.
And so now, he we were. He checked his watch for the total eclipse countdown. An impulse arose in me at that moment to kind of shove him a little with my shoulder, as in a friendly gesture, and see what happened. The drop off to the trail below from the overhanging face was several hundred feet. I shrank back in horror from my own thoughts.
“You know there is no way he is innocent,” said a friend who ran a daycare. We were out to celebrate the end of treatments. I hadn’t confided in many people because I was afraid that once more I had been duped by the liar I had been friends with as a kid. “A guy doesn’t just lose all contact with his children,” said my friend. My single friends always liked to remind me how sheltered I’ve been, having been married for twenty years.
We were having dirty martinis, a drink I yearned for during treatment. It reminded me of the ocean of my good Florida, of my life. My friend and I had been close since I graduated college, longer than I had been friends with just about anyone, except Darren. It took that moment with her and a moment on the phone with Darren to clear my mind. Darren said that the judge who had been so friendly to him at first, someone he had known around town, wouldn’t even speak to him after the trial. “And why is that?” I said. “Because when she heard all of the evidence, it sounded convincing, like I had done it,” he said. Something in his voice sounded confessional. An eighteen month confessional. That’s what my cancer had been. Someone else had wiped their dirt on me. And he had lied and the lie threatened my sense of safety and safety for my son. Maybe this was his revenge for what he said had been my abandonment.
How had I wound up on this rock with him, this rock that would witness the rapid cessation of heat and light? How had I let myself become guilted into contact once more?
“Maybe on this day,” I said, “Just about anything could happen.”
Once upon a time there lived in Numbskull Village an unusual little girl named Flower. Now this particular Flower was unlike all other girls in the village in that she was such a simple thing, she believed everything anyone ever told her. Even though this was Numbskull Village, almost everyone knew you could never trust anyone one hundred percent of the time. They knew this because one night when they were partying, some of them saw shadows on a cave wall and believed people who walked in front of the fire became bigger, ergo you could not trust people because you could not trust them to remain the same size.
But Flower was an anomaly and as she grew, she continued to say things like “a rose is a rose is a rose,” thereby demonstrating her belief in her teacher’s interpretation that “a thing is what it is.” Flower also said things like “Jesus loves me” without a hint of doubt and this is because other people she respected and admired told her this was true and besides, Jesus’ statue stayed the same size Sunday after Sunday and therefore Jesus could be trusted to be who he said he was.
One day, some boys got together and decided to have a little fun. They decided to stick it to this Flower babe and give her some love poems. Yeah! That’ll get her going! They said, slapping each others’ butts. Well, actually, they decided to have the girls write the poems. They requested that the girls phrase the lines in such a way as to evoke a mad passion. They said: Put just enough in there about Flower to make her believe she is the recipient, OK? So, you know, do girls smile? Put some stuff in there about smiles. Do they have hearts? Oh yeah, put that in there too. Also, bunnies. Girls love bunnies.
Then one of the smartest of the girls – which in Numbskull isn’t saying much – spoke up and said: So what happens when she believes these poems were meant just for her? What happens when she falls in love with you? What will you say then? The smartest of the boys said, Well let’s just say we give these poems to all the girls and even to some of us guys, that way it’ll look like we didn’t give them just to her, it’ll look like everyone got these poems, you know? Hence, The “Well-Meaning” Poets Society was born. (And they used air quotes too, in referring to themselves, and it made them feel funny and they bought beer and bashed their heads against boulders.)
So Flower took all of the poems the postman gave her and ate them all up, she gobbled them down whole. She really did. They were like sugar candy, like hot lava rocks that blew her socks off, that steamed her little hot tamales. Her parents didn’t need heat all winter and the snow melted from around the base of the house so that bulbs shot up early and the flowers bloomed. And when spring came, Flower couldn’t contain herself anymore. She had to go out and find her own true Love. She went searching, searching, everywhere, but she only saw mirrors on all the Numbskull faces. What had become of her Love? But she had not written the poems, had she? So why did she only see herself? That’s when one mirror told her she was mistaken to think she was special. When that mirror spoke, it sounded like it could have been the one who wrote the poems because he made reference to the unspecialness of a billion black bunnies.
And so, inevitably it seems, her heart broke. She ran through the village and up the hill to her tiny house. Her parents held her as she cried and cried. They had waited for this Moment. They knew it was coming and now they thought they could relax a little and help teach her by Hard Experience what all the other children seemed to know. She would likely become something less like a Hothouse Flower and more like a Dandelion or Weed.
But that which is called a Flower by any other name would still be as trusting and they were not to change her. In fact, she grew only more Hothouse-gorgeous as the bitterness poured down and off and around her and flooded the town, fertilizing crops, drowning fields, providing new homes for water birds and their babies, and bringing people from villages all around to swim in their beautiful blue lakes and marvel in the wonders of a village no longer called Numbskull but instead “Miroslava” which means “peace and glory.”
First published in State of Imagination
Using one of my pen names, Quenby Larsen, I created a memoir style blog “How to be Alone.” I created the site over a year ago and this most recent post this past spring. In this and other posts, I explore my struggle with illness, but especially, mental illness, a struggle which seems to inevitably inform my fiction. May God bless you in your fight, whatever fight it might be, for all of us are engaged in something. I hope you will visit “How to be Alone.” Maybe it could be a comfort to you or someone you know. Maybe it could serve to show that really, we are none of us alone. Sincerely, Margaret
I’ll have to admit that recently, I haven’t been as comfortable spending time alone being quiet. I believe this largely has to do with midlife circumstances that are not all that unusual though not necessarily a given for everyone at this stage – having a child preparing to leave home, adapting to life as a single person, grappling with health issues and family problems, facing regrets and limitations. Added to that has been the turmoil of a new government: The fear and anxiety it has created regarding the welfare of the earth, the sick and elderly and young, threats from menacing foreign powers to name a few. I feel attached to a roller coaster I cannot afford to be riding. I know many of us feel this way. What’s your stress level right about now?
Last summer, I titrated off of klonopin, a controlled substance used to treat anxiety as well as psychotic symptoms. My challenge is the former and I had managed to be drug free after much physical and emotional havoc. Then a new president was sworn in who would by his actions and words began to create cause for concern for many, and for me, triggered the depths of my anxiety. I had to finally admit this week: I needed a partial dose of klonopin again if I was going to sleep and get back to a regular routine.
It is hard for me to admit my limitations. As a girl growing up in a pastor’s home, a pastor who share what he believed and spoke for justice and peace, I was always told I was strong. After this past inauguration, when I heard my fellow concerned citizens say things like everyone must do their part every day all the time to deal with the upheaval and threat on every front, I agreed with them on the one hand. And yet, on the other hand, there have been times when I’ve had to say, wait a minute, I have to stop. And sometimes I have to stop to tend to my child. Yet more recently, honestly, I’ve had to stop, or at least walk away for a while, to tend to myself.
The thing I’ve noticed about anxiety is that it’s like the action of the waves coming up along a beach when there’s a storm approaching. The waves start to pile one on top of the other, crashing more chaotically on the sand, disrupting the relatively regular ebb and flow of the tide. It’s a collective effect of the force of building waters, the weight of building incoming waves that increase and punish the coast. I have to stand in the gap of what builds when the chaos overwhelms. For me this has become having to take a pill. Once the storm goes past a certain point, I am lost and doing well only to remember my life preserver – take my pill again, call my nurse psychiatrist.
This is a hard lesson to learn. I remember the words of my father: Meggo, you are strong. And yet, these are the times I haven’t felt this way at all.
Besides taking a pill, something else I’ve felt absolutely critical when I have felt overwhelmed are times of silence, silence from the news, silence from corresponding, silence even from music. And yet this has only been a recent development. Recently I’ve escaped the anxiety that silence brings, the regrets and bad memories, the negative emotions about so-and-so, the flotsam and jetsam of a brain littered with old unfinished business. When the pain from this is excrutiating? Turn up the television, turn on the radio or youtube, listen to a book livestreaming, watch a movie on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Get busy.
For three years after my divorce, up until quite recently, I dated, met people online, kept myself insanely active socially. When my child was with his father, I couldn’t stand being in the house alone. And this is what that amounts to: I couldn’t stand being with myself. Talk about psychic noise. I had failed my parents getting a divorce, I had failed my son, I had failed me, I had failed extended family. And then, probably partly because of my lifestyle which started with marital difficulties, I got sick with two diseases, cancer and diabetes, not to mention the ongoing challenges of bipolar, and so I failed myself in the most fundamental way imaginable. I was on a collision course with myself and though my life is calmer now I still feel the effects of that collision, that storm, the beach is still littered and road repair is needed.
I used to read quite a bit. I used to write a lot more. I had ambition not long ago I think. I used to rarely watch television. The world was a refreshing break from so much silence and contemplation rather than an escape from what has felt like forced silence and separation. And yet, I think we sometimes make the choices we know that we should make even if they cause us pain. A choice to remain on the outskirts of town has given me the chance to get used to being alone, has given me space to begin to heal and figure out how to conduct myself and structure my time, to make a plan. I am vaguely remembering who I used to be and what I used to dream about, and that I actually used to dream. Cancer treatment can rob you of memories, of dreams, of a sense of self. So can experiencing extreme psychic pain. So can mental illness.
I am sitting on my bed now that I decided to get to replace my old bed. The old bed reminded me of divorce, of cancer. The new bed doesn’t look anything like my old bed. I liked my old bed, but I like this one much better. It is my new cocoon containing my new dreams, my new self, the place I lay my body down in recognition of my weakness, in recognition of my pain, in sorrow for my sins, in hopes of returning dreams, in expectation of stories read and enjoyed and inspirations to come, new friends to be made, old friendships to re-establish, family among whom to re-fashion roots, a world to think about and engage, letting no detail slip by but rather holding each in my heart as an object of concern and prayer and re-imagining.
We think you should know, but you do, don’t you, dear ones, ones who have passed on, ones who now live in the street, ones who have killed and molder in prison, ones who live in underground spaces forgotten under cities until money and children and food go missing, until abandoned houses are destroyed, until libraries parks and public places reek of unseemliness, we will never leave you, the representatives of who you were before you were placed on operating tables, drilled clean through your skull, hammered through your eye socket, shocked with insulin and electricity, precious memories flying, shrieking, from your skin, old personalities, pleasures, predilections lingering saddened, forlorn, in corners of the operating room. See? The doctors and nurses and orderlies said. We don’t have to put them in cages. Look! We don’t have to put them in straight jackets. No longer the padded cell! And yet we said to you, we pointed this out dear ones: Your tongues are now so jammed in your mouths you can barely speak. They congratulate themselves, the nurses, the doctors, the orderlies while you convalesce in the infirmary. There are cigarettes outside behind the surgery, there is wine and beer on breaks, a cake to celebrate the next hundred batch, and sex in the janitor’s closet. And finally, families can bring their smiles to the common areas and feel relieved they are not pretending.
We the spirits of this place, the spirits that gathered when the town said – we will build buildings for a keeping of those not fit to live among us – we those spirits want you to know we have been watching you and know you, and not your spirit of violence and destruction, of hate, but the one you can’t remember now, the one born of God, but the one we believe must exist somewhere, the one you believe you will capture and get married again, the one you believe will help you regain the respect of your children and community, the one your mother and your father believe is wanting to break through the face you present, the blank mind, the addled tongue the hand that drifts up uncontrollably to pat the space on your head where a drill bored through, the drill taking you though it didn’t care, not really, leaving you sensitive to light and noise, any loud noise, any disruption to a mellow day which nowadays means just about any sound, sound now like a flow finding its lowest drain center in the top of your head. And for those of you who became like power plants with nothing but current running through, for those whose bodies veins were flooded through with insulin over and over, you were just as fucked. We have your memories up here on a shelf. You may never get them back but we keep them and send them back in little batches like molded leaves rotting on trees, memories of leaves, veiny outlines, lace.
When you come back in your mind to us no matter where you are, the flophouse, the prison cell, the cardboard box, the bungalow with a picket fence, we know you want the whole thing back, what you were, or, more accurately could have been. You are with us in spirit and we meet you in the air while you are adrift in your dreams, we meet you to try to help you find what you are looking for. In your mind you go back to the place where you lost yourself, you go back to your old bedlam, you come home to us, your home you never intended to feel as home and yet it was the site of this terrible new self you were born into, and there is no place like home my dear ones for here we keep who you were for you, you will find it here, we promise, if only you return, to make yourself whole among us again, to confront your executioners as they say. It is not as haunted as tourists say, you know that, those foolish people who want to give themselves a shiver spending a night in restraints. Idiots. We have half a mind to show them real fear, but it would be a waste, alas.
You were the real beauty and the romance, my how we miss you, our beautiful, broken ones. Bring your old and weary bones to lie here again and let us give you back your self. Your memories await. So too the tears you cannot cry being too feeble to feel. We will give your self to you whole, along with your pleasures, as well as a deep and lasting sleep if you come to us and find your home once more in the bosom of health. It did not happen the first time, the wholeness, the health, but let us try again. Please.
Deep in winter during the Little Ice Age, a frosty, bitter Empress Anna Ivanovna of Russia whose cheeks were like hams, commissions a palace of ice, the blocks carved from the frozen river and sealed together with water. It was to stage the humiliations of her broken heart – her uncle Czar Peter the Great having orchestrated a cruel imitation of her wedding purely in jest just two days after the ceremony and her husband dying two months after. Anna begged for new prospects for marriage. Peter turned away all future suitors.
As she remembered the dwarf ceremony her uncle had arranged as a way of mocking her wedding ceremony, she ordered the servants and artists to construct a thirty three foot high, eighty foot long ice palace. She would humiliate a man who had loved and lost someone, a Catholic, an infidel. They had been so happy and he so devastated when she died. Love was not possible said the dictates of Anna’s frozen heart and certainly he deserved the grief he received from choosing a wife outside orthodoxy. He would be an example of ill-fated, misguided love.
Up went blocks of ice, a bridal suite of an ice mattress, pillows, a frozen clock, and outside, a frozen tree with frozen birds, a frozen elephant inside which a man sat blowing a trumpet. Anna had chosen a servant woman to marry the broken hearted nobleman. She was old and unattractive. They were to sleep naked in the ice palace on the ice mattress. Though the lovers survived the beastly treatment of the Empress, the servant woman died several days later of pneumonia.
It is said to this day, though I’ve never visited this particular part of the world, nothing grows on the site of the palace during the warmer season. No grass, nor weeds. Only a flowering bush of roses where the broken couple huddled together in the palace, having purchased a coat from a guard and survived the night out of mutual compassion and care.
Anna was the worst ruler in Russian history. She hated lovers, Catholics, the physically disabled, the ethnically “undesirable.” She meted out her misery on others. A biography of her life can be bought at $400 for reprints are not desired and so copies are rare. There is nothing more to say.
Back when the sky stayed the blood red all day, when the beasts in the undergrowth ate gardeners and sunbathers, when workers came to hotels rising up from the scrub from which they had always lain and slit the throats of sleeping tourists, when the rumbling of the hurricanes did not stop but shook the earth in constant tremors, when we held our infants tight for fear, when we cried in the dark and ran from falling trees, when live wires threatened our walk to stores bereft of goods, when our computers were good for nothing but as paperweights and a place to drape our soaked clothes, when rumor had it our president was in an underground facility at his vacation address, when gas generators poisoned families because people didn’t know how to use them and there was no one to take them to hospitals, when it hailed afternoons in summer, when our children went to bed crying and woke up in terror, when there were no more leaders, when there were skirmishes and death among us over food, candles, matches, the dead walked out of the sea and dwelt among us and made it their course to banish the divide.
He jumped off the train and went into the station, the conductor in the gray cap. He was shriveled and hunched, like a shrimp. It didn’t seem to Julie he’d be capable of doing much more than riding up and down the rails, taking tickets, but he always had a coin for Buddy, a penny the train had squashed between Mt. Dora and Winter Park. Buddy fingered the oblong copper and put it to his lips as if it were a thick shaving of chocolate. Julie slapped his hand. The heat rising up from the pavement made her short.
On Wednesdays, she and Buddy came down to the station. They stood on the tracks and waited for the rails to vibrate with the motion of the oncoming train. It made Buddy coo to feel the shimmying metal tickle the soles of his feet and he put his face next to the track, his baby flesh on the forged steel. Julie tested herself to see how long she could wait before she pulled him off, how long she could stand it. She knew it was wrong to tempt fate this way but it felt as if the palm trees and the bushes and the sun itself held her. And then one time she saw the light of the train and she quickly, with a pounding chest, snatched him by the waist.
After the train stopped, the shrimp man came to where they were standing. He had eyes with uneven patches and he seemed to be watching her through a pool of opaque pebbles. She thought he was going to say something, but then he gave Buddy a coin and brushed his cheek with a curved finger.
Julie liked wearing clothes from the thirties and forties. She shopped online and found dresses with flouncy sleeves and slingback shoes with open toes and platforms. She liked vintage hats and wore them to the station when she brought Buddy. It was not a place she was likely to see anyone from the Country Club or anyone her husband Frank knew. Frank asked her why she didn’t go to Neiman Marcus or Bloomingdale’s. She liked looking like ladies from old movies, she told him. Her mother died when she was thirteen. Though sometimes her husband Frank wished she were like other women, he liked the way she wore things only dead people had worn. People didn’t invite them to many parties and if they did, they kept their distance and talked about them behind their highball glasses. Her mother died in a boating accident. Her father had been driving the boat. This was what happened and this was what people knew. That and the fact that her mother was from money and had lots of it. Now her father drove all over town in a restored Model T.
Julie took Buddy to the roses when the train wasn’t due. He pricked his baby fingers on the thorns. She read the signs which told them their names: Louis Philippe, Belinda’s Dream, Old Blush, China Doll, Clotilde. Sometimes he grabbed a fistful of petals and she slapped his knuckles. An old man usually watched her from the bench. He watched the seam on the back of her hose and he smiled when she bent to slap the baby and her rear jiggled. He wanted to reach out and grab her but he knew she was too fine for him, too fine, that much he knew, though he wore his Agua Brava and a linen suit, crumpled as a napkin. She knew he watched her. She didn’t care. It was better than the college boys who whistled at her under their breath and told her what they’d like to do with her right there in front of Buddy, his pie face intent on the pink petals in his sweaty palm. She watched the boys, her eyes following them while her body stayed still. She stood in the rose garden until they were well past.
Last Wednesday Julie wore her hat that was open at the top. It showed the hair she had dyed a bright auburn. Buddy wore the coveralls with the choo choo. The suitcase was hidden in the bushes. It was vintage with straps like belt buckles. After the train pulled up, Julie scooped something into the suitcase. At that time of day, Julie had the privacy to do whatever she wanted. There was no one at the station. The train ran by the provision of the federal government. When the pebble-eyed man died, someone else would replace him, someone equally infirm. It didn’t matter who took the tickets. No one was there to buy them. There were no bags to lift or arrange in the rack over the seat, no ladies to hoist up the stairs.
Julie expected to ride that day. She had come from a different time, before Buddy, before Frank even, before modern clothes made women look like men, like whores. She wanted to take the train to Hollywood. She wanted to be in the movies. She wanted to be a star.
The shrimp man tore her ticket. “Where’s the boy?”
“Resting,” she said, as she lifted her bag into the overhead rack.
He gave her the pressed coin. She put it to her lips, blotting her lipstick. “You keep it,” she said. He turned. The back of his neck was a hollowed out place.
She closed her eyes and felt an ache in her belly. She drifted between the pain and her dreams. She was walking in a warm rain on a California beach. She stood in the shower. She would not think of the boy. She would not think of Frank.
They got her in Mt. Dora. The shrimp man had seen the first red drop fall from her bag onto her hat brim and blossom into a dark peony. He stood in the back and watched the incessant dripping of blood, like rain falling from trees. They would have to replace the seats. He called ahead to the next station to alert them as he slumped on his bench in the caboose. He felt for the paperwork for his retirement in his jacket. It was in there somewhere.
First published in Colored Chalk
When they marry, they have a double. It is her box-spring and mattress. She bought it with her mother who taught her how to shop scratch and dent, to decorate with little.
They take it with them to Vermont where he teaches college and she works in the library. A river runs by their window. Birds perch in the tree outside. She makes stir fries and soufflés and stews. She writes thank you letters. She smoothes the wedding ring quilt over the small expanse of their mattress and straightens the dust ruffle. There is no money for paint but she hangs sheers on the windows. At night she lies in bed and wonders how she will sleep while – she finds out years later when she knows more about men, knows about her man – he dreams of other women. While his dreaming goes on unabated, she thinks of their next meal, how she will shop for it, and when she finally can’t sleep, she gets up, empties trash cans, has a beer. They are young; their bodies are thin, almost pubescent, though they are in their twenties. Their love is small. It is more on the surface. It has little depth. But in the double they make do. They are lithe.
Things are different in the next town. This is where it gets rough. She is not interested in a baby and they are very, very busy. He is getting his PhD. She is chasing an ambition to know God. She is getting a Master’s at the seminary. When he protests, she reminds him of their first date and what he said he liked about her: She had goals. They live in the seedier parts of Denver, in the only available apartment they can afford. She cries for the simple beauty of their place in Vermont, and maybe something else, but it seems the narrow bed accommodates only so much, either visions of beautiful girls and delicious meals or visions of beautiful girls and delicious texts she devours whole. At this stage, she is not much of a housekeeper or cook. As if in rebellion, the plumbing under the sink breaks several times, the halls stink with boiled cabbage, the twisted vine on the balcony yields only one flower. Yet they see Leadville, fly fish in the South Platte, make it over icy passes in their tiny Japanese cars, camp in the desolate Rockies under the stars, ride through mountains on bikes.
They are more tired and yet she makes sure they celebrate holidays, makes sure they have parties. They are around more people with children who don’t always understand the delay in what is supposed to come next and why she would sit in classrooms of men training for something most women don’t do. When she is not full of energy and stress, he finds her on the double, stretched out in an inexplicable bout of near catatonia. When he finds her there after a day’s work he is filled with fear and talks her out of it, away from it, whatever brink she’s on. Eventually she gets on meds, he takes care of her, and she gets moving again and she doesn’t need him as much. But he has no one either, not really, he’s on his own, but she doesn’t see that. Thin love and depression causes her to see him in only one way — how he can help her or how he can hinder.
In a wooded college town in Florida, he’s up for tenure. The women there are more beautiful than ever, than any other town in which they’ve lived, yet he feels a sense of peace about it somehow, as if he’s not so tempted, as if his dreams are not so wayward. He’s going to have a baby, a son, and he lives in a beautiful house, an old wrap around clapboard house with a yard big as a lake, a “piece of land”,” he brags. “Every man’s got to have his piece of land.” By now, she’s convinced she’s not a theologian, but she knows she’s something. How could she not be something? She makes peanut butter cookies with honey and vegetarian noodle dishes. She watches deer outside her window and a new flock of sheep down the road. Before the pregnancy, she drinks scotch on the porch, sometimes in her nightgown. No one is watching, there is so much land and that gives her freedom. When she knows she’s having a baby, she switches to iced tea. She watches the birds on the telephone wire. She walks to the pecan orchard across the street and down winding roads of broken down shacks and grocery stores. When she returns, she sees a black snake crawl out from the bushes beside the house and slither down to the foundation. It is mesmerizing, beautiful.
An interior designer helps her find a scratch and dent queen size that will follow them for years. She admits it fills a space with a presence, though it is too ostentatious for her husband’s taste, but now they are making separate decisions. She sees him almost never and she must do what she must.
He gets used to it, though, as a necessary evil, but also simply as a necessity. The bed is big enough for their baby and eventually, she buys the baby a little bed adjoining theirs and she can nurse him in the middle of the night. She spends hours on the bed, looking at their child. Their big bed is big enough for a big dog that loves to lounge and although it is not big enough for the four of them at once — dog, baby, father, mother — it’s big enough for failed plans and forgotten dreams, for tears and bitter fights, for cold refusals and private physical love, for family times in front of the television, for random naps during the day, for a scared child seeking the comfort of his parents, for a sick child seeking to watch cartoons and fall asleep. When the big dog must be put down, a smaller dog takes its place. It crawls on their backs while they sleep and on their pillows and there is not much worry or fuss about this. When there’s been a bad night of too little sleep or restlessness, they chalk it up to the needs of their child, and, later, when the child is grown and doesn’t wake them in the night, to the pressures of the day or to the pressures of the times in which they are living.
They are planning for a king size. The pool of worries and unmet desires and fears and depths of their prayers has widened. The unspoken desires and unmet needs pass between them. Their child, coming in to say goodnight, makes them forget for a while. So does an early nodding off so that the other must pull off their glasses, make them roll over, turn off the television and lights. They want one of those beds that will accommodate the late night movements of the other without disturbance of the sleeper’s sleep, the dreamer’s dream. They no longer have to dream the same dream, or fill the same space as in the early thin love days. There is no worry about this. Is this good or is this bad? There is no consensus.
First published in The Dos Passos Review
My father is a birdman. By instinct the birds know him as a living man and not a statue and so they hover near his still, sitting frame, standing on their little bird legs, perching on his shoulders and knees, poking their heads into his pockets looking for seed.
My mother declared him petrified, useless. That was before she left him, she a bird herself flown from our little yellow kitchen of continuous spaghetti dinners and fried bologna sandwiches.
My father is quite an active man though as I grew I came to understand just not active in the direction desired by my mother. “Son,” he says to me, “Every bird in the city will be fed by sundown, he says, every bird will get their taste of my cones.” At night he coats pinecones with peanut butter and rolls them through birdseed.
He teaches me what to do so I can help him after school. Rather than show me how to play ball or take me fishing, my father teaches me the ways of his art.
“When you are with the birds their feathers become your wings,” he says, “their cooing the secret stirrings of your heart.”
His oddity never occurred to me though kids at school laugh at us saying my father shampoos himself in bird shit, my father would one day be taken up into space by a huge flock, my father was about to sprout wings and strut around like a pigeon, my father was CEO of birddom, my father was Bird Jesus and some birds were going to be saved from the birdpocalypse in which there would be a birdbath lake of fire and the 666 bird.
My father lost his job when he came back from the fighting. His eyes were torn away he said. His heart was in the gutter. At work he kept his jaws locked when he was supposed to speak and he kept getting lost and not able to find his way to meetings and conferences. That’s what he told me the first night we smeared the pinecones with peanut butter then rolled them through the seed spread out on the newspaper on the basement floor.
“A man is not meant to see another man’s bone, the skin torn from muscle, another man’s guts, his brains,” he says. “It is not meant for man to see man disassembled for at the sight, you lose yourself. Both you and the man so disassembled lose the dignity it is meant for a man to have. Without dignity many things are not possible.” As he says this, he slides one of mama’s silver knives over a pinecone. He doesn’t specify exactly what he means by this and I didn’t ask.
That first night we do a few practice pinecones for the backyard. We hang them from the trees with the yarn Mama left in her sewing basket. My father has me climb up among the branches and tie them around the limbs.
Then we sit on the porch and drink sun tea.
“When I got back,’ he says, ‘your Mama was the only one I wanted to see, well, besides you and your sister. I felt guilty because what have I done to earn her, Lord. That’s what I said to the Lord. Nothing, said the Lord. But she’s yours, love her.
“I did love her but I couldn’t love your Mama well enough. That’s a lot of pressure on a man, to love an angel. No matter, son, you have to try, when you have the chance, when God sees fit to bless.”
Nights we hang lanterns from the tree, lanterns we make ourselves with mason jars and candles. They were the jars Ma had collected over the years for canning and since she hadn’t come back to can strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes, corn, okra, beans, by fall it seemed she was not coming back. On these nights we take our pinecone operation to the picnic table out back and work by the light of our homemade lanterns.
“We’re gonna roll these pinecones for peace right out there to those birds.”
I thought what use my classmates could make of such a line.
“Once I rolled grenades into enemy zones,” he said. “I saw what no man should see if he expects to stand come judgment. I am paying for grenades with eyes that don’t stay shut at night.”
“It’s ok, Dad. You are doing better now. You take care of things.”
“Don’t hurt another man, son. Let them lock you up before you take another life. Promise.”
“Ok, I promise,” I said and put my hand out to shake and he hugs me with what I recognized as a man’s dignity.
First published in Still Crazy: A Literary Magazine
At the posh Mexican restaurant where her writer friend would be lecturing Ms. Myska ordered a margarita but in “not too crazy a glass, please.” The other women in attendance thought that amusing. Ms. Myska thought the likelihood of accidents quite strong especially since attendees were sitting in rows of chairs and not around tables and she only imagined herself tipping a top heavy vessel. Besides, she had grown, she suspected, somewhat queer in her manners, having sequestered herself for so long, and probably rather queer in speech too, hence the laughter.
And yet, there was the long lost friend, acquaintance really, that despite Ms. Myska’s hesitation to get out again and risk embarrassment, she was determined to see and show support for her friend’s literary efforts. Ms. Myska felt, after the sickness that nearly took her life, she had become a bit of an animal, a rodent, really. She had also grown depressed. She had also developed deep worries for her son. Many days she was speeding to catch up after all that had felled her. She was amazed someone could come out with a book, was a bit jealous perhaps, her own efforts having spun into tiny stories of which she was proud, but her attention on more meditative projects had proved itself to be as brief as a turn of the second hand.
A powerful woman stood as master of ceremonies, someone Ms. Myska had known in what felt a former life, a woman who, having been exposed to a Ms. Myska story, let her have it when asked for a critique. “There is so much static in your story,” the woman had said, “that when you read it out loud, I just want to plug up my ears with my fingers like this,” and she demonstrated what she meant by plugging up her ears and squishing her eyes together. It made Ms. Myska sorry and yet she revised the story and gave it to a small journal who quietly published it, having found it acceptable to the eyes at least. Still, the rift was beginning to form between Ms. Myska and her city, and that was one of the points of contention. Of course she wanted to belong and was moved very deeply in a way that negatively affected her mood after that point. Was she fooling herself? Ms. Myska would always ask that question. And yet she wrote anyway and rarely asked anyone what they thought after she read her work out loud.
“Energy vampires” the lady master of ceremonies, the representative of establishment literature “are people we want to avoid. “People who complain, people who are passive aggressive, people who drag us down.” The margarita was just the right balance of sweet and tart and salt, which Ms. Myska didn’t mind flicking her tongue to the edge of the glass to taste. She didn’t even mind if someone saw. The lady was thin and wiry, a fairly attractive person for about seventy whereas middle aged Ms. Myska had become a bit more plump and matronly, something the MC hinted at when Ms. Myska re-introduced herself to her secret long lasting nemesis: “You look so different,” the wiry lady said, “I hardly recognized you.”
The MC woman had apparently moved on from teaching writing to some kind of coaching which taught every moment was a chance to live up to one’s fullest potential. As part of the introduction she was giving a snapshot of how she could help everyone move to the light, which was what, apparently, Ms. Myska’s novelist friend had done under the tutelage of the grand MC.
It would always be thus, thought Ms. Myska, thinking of the chips and salsa she had seen someone order at the bar. It had looked so delicious she had wanted to place her own order for the conference room but then she would have to juggle too many things without a table and then people would really look.
The sweet face of her friend made her happy she had come. At last she spoke of her twenty five year effort to produce her successful work.
When Ms. Myska got home she found she had forgotten to take the dog out and so she had had an accident and so she took her out and gave her a snack. The sink was full and her son had called, wondering if he could speak to her on the phone before he went to bed. Clothes were strewn everywhere, old projects still waiting. She was home.
Along the shore of his lake in the city of lakes, he fashions boats from waxed paper, affixes huge tissue heats to the corners, sets candles inside and lights them so that the miniature craft are drawn along on the dark water. Lovers pay fifty cents to see their hearts set on fire and set adrift only to witness their incineration somewhere near the opposite bank, the cinder and ash ascending into the grey twilight, the smell of burnt paper, like kindling that flames and is quickly gone, filling the air, an acrid, comforting smell of home fires and warmth.
No one asks him any questions about the meaning of all of this or how or why he started, nor does he think of it too much. He thinks only of the delicate feel of the tissue, the lightness of the string, the slippery paper smoothed and sealed by wax, the fire on the water, the lovers’ faces as they stare at what they have paid for, prompted by who knows what, fascinated to see what becomes of their boat though they all must know what will be so why do they stay to watch? It is a mystery. Are they sad or satisfied somehow in the justification about their beliefs about tissue and hearts and fire, or had they hoped to see their boat, of all others, land on the other side?
Every night a woman who brings him a snack of rice and vegetables wrapped in a tortilla pays him fifty cents to place something small in her boat – tiny babies from Mardi Gras cakes, bodkins she wore in her hair when she was a girl, pieces of wool from her sewing basket in which she kept materials to make socks for soldiers, crosses she buys in packets of ten, pieces of kibble. She always has a prayer and dedication which she asks the man to recite though every night he protests he does not have his glasses and every night she gives him her late husband’s readers from the nightstand, and as the boat floats out, he says her prayers for the soldiers, the young life, the married couple, the single women, the woman herself and her cat and her grandchildren.
He found himself saying a prayer for himself one night as he set a boat in the water containing a gold heart. He snatched the boat back, soaking his trousers. He retrieved the heart. This is my gig, he said gruffly, as if she had affronted him with something. She asked for his blessing upon the heart. She asked him to kiss it. Instead, he chucked it out into the lake with all of his force where it plunked into the dark center and disappeared. They stood for a moment, the frogs screeching in judgment. It’s time to get a move on, he said. People are waiting. Indeed, a line had formed and that was the last night he saw her.
Every night he was hungry for the food she gave him and every night he had nothing to wonder about, what she would put into her boat, how she would ask him to pray, the feel of her late husband’s glasses upon his nose. How he missed that feel, strangely enough, and the strange prayers she had written, not like the coherent prayers he knew, but her erratic thoughts upon a subject, not a petition, but a statement as if she were telling someone how things were. He missed it.
And so he collected things for her, things he thought she would like, things he liked too, things forgotten and dusty in closets, things from childhood and a career and family from another life, and he put them in boats and watched the hearts burn and the boats sink with prayers on his lips uttered in a strange tongue, her way of speaking and thinking that had infused him and he believed himself capable of finding that gold heart had only there been money for proper equipment and younger lungs. In its depths the dark lake held his gift and he did not mourn but for the first time understood why couples waited until they saw what they knew would come to pass, and that in the waiting they anticipated what was most beautiful, a beginning and an end, all at once.
Now Ms. Myska lives on the edge of her city, her townhome overlooking a small forest, more like a stand of trees, where once she had found an old dollhouse, where once she had found a muddy salsa CD without a case, where once she had seen a Florida black bear wandering through the scrub oak and pine. It was the place of meeting between Ms. Myska and people who also lived on these outskirts or who dumped their things here, people she had never met but got to know through the objects they discarded. It was also the place of meeting between her and animals, her and trees, her and the moon which peeped first through the trees on inky nights and then rose overhead, attended by a smattering of stars still visible in her relatively undeveloped part of town. Her home extended out onto the woods and she welcomed whatever came to her through her doors and windows.
The son of Ms. Myska had made it clear to her he did not want doors and windows open when they had any of their noisy electronics on and this out of respect for their neighbors. Though she was normally compliant with this line of thinking, when he left for school on the morning of the eve of the inauguration, she opened her door and let the forest and the bears and the folk who may be sleeping among the trees hear her winter music: pieces by Liszt, Vivaldi, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, thoughtful pieces, pieces reminiscent of snow, pieces reminiscent of the holiday just passed, pieces reminiscent of the silence of space on a cool evening, pieces reminiscent of the majesty of the Florida black bear, pieces reminiscent of the hope of trees. On this eve, she played for trees that they may have what they need through a cold winter, or longer, through a holocaust of trees. She played that their seeds would burrow deep into the earth to be kept for a time not quite possible to image but the fulfillment of which was the fervent desire of Ms. Myska.
If I start thinking, “I have to restore my historical consciousness!” or “My life depends on reknitting the past and future into my experience of the present!” I will feel overwhelmed and probably implode into depression. But maybe changing my experience of time can start with more simple decisions.
It has been well known for quite some time that on the outskirts of Munir, a city that could well be considered a test city for a heretofore untapped source of fuel, the bodies of the useless women currently are housed. We use the term “bodies” to denote that for all intents and purposes, such women as these are barely alive by today’s standard of living and for all intents and purposes will soon be dead, either through despair or other natural causes induced by such. And we say “useless women” to mean that such unfortunates have no use in our mainstream consumer society and must therefore be removed in order to fulfill their highest potentialities: The usage of their bodies as an alternative fuel source, their heroic sacrificial contribution to our community.
We have found marginalized groups have the highest wattage output per kilogram and though findings remain uncertain, we surmise this must have something to do with the epic operations of the soul that is crushed and aggrieved. Having observed the transfer of energies of suffering beings into ghost forms upon death, we are determined to tap into this energy surplus and use it to the good use of the operation of our fair city.
Our future alternative fuel source are the bodies of women who die naturally in our community center designed to house them, women who have lived well past their prime, those women who, in life, have been neglected by husbands, who, by sheer neglect or harsher means, express their displeasure as well as women considered burdens by their offspring where once they were considered vital sources of nurture. These women have cadavers that will burn most efficiently and we will see to their disposal as we honor them for such, giving flags and medals and ceremonies for families, large mass punch and cake gatherings with balloons.
Unless such women have managed to overcome the barriers against them and build a world for themselves based on talents apart from chasing male providers’ affections and the nurturance of children, midlife women often find themselves at a place we provide a death house we call sunny meadows to signify heaven though we do not by any means indulge in the practice of euthanasia. In addition, we attempt to meet the essential needs of our residents of sunny meadows while practicing restraint in the spiritual fulfillment mandates for housing a human being, realizing the energy potentials would be compromised should happiness be complete.
We are not beyond taking women or any beings for that matter who, lost to despair, are simply searching for a place to exist, beings who have lost functionality in our free market including but not limited to politicians and activists labeled “nasty,” beauty queens labeled “pigs,” actresses labeled “overrated,” pre-menopausal women who bleed, violated women labeled “liars.” We anticipate the bodies of all such marginalized women and others whose psyches are crushed by the current oligarchy will make excellent sources of fuel in our alternative energy program and we anticipate in fact an uptick in fuel reserves to get us through times of famine, that is, more benevolent future regimes, should that eventuality become realized.
When evil flourishes, either privately on the personal level in homes – between family members, a husband and wife, children and parents – or when it flourishes in our public sociopolitical machine, we are operating in the black and so we say, unofficially, of course, may evil reign, yet it always does. It is simply a matter of degree and so this method of securing this previously untapped fuel source is flawless.
They say the selkie is an embodiment of a dead soul, manifested in the form of a seal. The first day of spring dozens of seals washed up along the Jersey shore and it was among this wreckage of creatures I searched for you. How else to account for your disappearance into Grand Central the day we watched the silent protestors lying down to mark the murder of an innocent woman gunned down by the police? We met under the Pisces constellation, do you remember? I held your hand. When I let go of you, you disappeared in the crush of people of the terminal.
They say a man can capture a selkie and make her his wife if he captures the skin she lays aside while she sunbathes and frolics in the sea. He must hide it or she will put it back on and swim away. You may be somewhere off the shore. We have been told not to go near the seals along the beach, as if I have ever had the right to approach you in your freedom. But still I miss you, Maire.
I lit a candle for you at St Patrick’s. I listened to the young choir, their voices piercing the clutter of scaffolding, caressing the Pieta partially obscured by a tarp. A rose lay at the feet of Christ and Mary, the mother of sacrificing and long suffering. I went back to Grand Central and looked for you among the people who may have seen you in the station. I described your long dark hair, your chocolate eyes, your long limbs. I spoke with the man who slept beneath Orion’s belt, to the woman playing a saw with a bow, to the copper man still as a statue. I wondered if they may enjoy some special frequency not accessible to the rest of us as they lay closer to ground tremors, stars, tears, accidents.
You used to say whenever we visited the city it didn’t matter we didn’t have a plan. We must at least always meet here, at the Station, by the café, the place of our first meeting where we each enjoyed a madeleine and cappuccino. We agreed upon this. Do you remember? Remember when we spoke to the Portuguese couple new to the United States, whose grandparents had migrated through Ellis Island a century ago? They were so proud to use their newfound mother tongue. And I learned something about you too, as we spoke to this couple. I learned of your Irish roots.
I cannot find you and I cannot find the skin you left along the shore. As I said, the police have told us not to approach the seals who will bite. Is it any coincidence I still have the marks from where you bit me? Was that a sign, warning, a portent? We are told the seals are hungry and have come closer to shore to wait for the tide to bring them herring.
Are you happier there, in the deep? Is that where you are? I would like to be gentler with you now in my attitude toward you. I would like to be able to say I am happy if you are happy. But here is what I think: You may as well be dead, you are so thoroughly missing and no one has been of assistance, not even the police in all of their brutality and misguided energies.
I have not given up hope. I have found the remnants of a seal, long perished, not quite the skin as in the legend, so I did not embark upon that turn. But I will find the skin of your being and take it for my own and hide it in a place you will never go and you will have no choice but to love me if you are still among us and not lost to the abyss.
Today, I consulted the woman playing the saw. She sat near the entrance to the crosstown train releasing into the air a song like the music of the spheres, of the sirens. She said to expect you, but that you would not come in the way that is proscribed but through an alternate portal. I was to go lie on a grave in Brooklyn and she wrote a plot number down on a piece of trash. How did she die? I say. But the woman who plays the saw pretended not to hear and so did not answer.
I have no proof to myself now whether you were real or wholly imagined, we never exchanged rings or any little thing, only intimacies and whisperings, shiftings between sheets, our bodies in light and shadow. And yet how to explain this hank of hair I keep in my pocket?
I boarded the train to Brooklyn. Passengers boarded a train on a parallel track. We leave together, both trains, going at the same speed, passing through tunnels and stations, the pillars between us framing parallel cars like the frames of an old movie. Do you move parallel to me now? At the cemetery, where I am directed, there is no sign of you.
At day’s end, the day before I have to leave the city, I go to the museum and find a giant statue of a woman, made of candles, burning. I stand for hours, watching her melting, thinking of you shedding your pelt. I want to put my hands into the melting wax, feel its softness and heat but the museum guard is watching. What if I told him what I was searching for, would it matter to him? Perhaps he had a love like me. Perhaps he had only a dream, would it matter? Shouldn’t men share their dreams?
I should talk to this man, brusque and stern, share what I found of a selkie song. I copied it from a big book at the library and kept it in my pocket so now the paper is soft and worn, the writing faded. Shouldn’t men share their dreams?
One of my favorite forms of the short story is “flash fiction.” This is variously interpreted, length being one defining element. Though I prefer working in the longer end of this, it is a challenge to see if I can convey something of a shapely story in 250 words, a word limit of some flash fiction journals and slam competitions. Though I leave the competition to the competitors, it is still satisfying when something feels finished. I don’t always know why, something clicks inside and says: “Done!” And then I am just pleased I somehow pulled it off. Alex Pruteanu, prolific writer and this month’s co-editor of Flash Frontier says this of flash fiction and the rationale behind his editorial choices:
“Something I always look for in flash fiction is urgency: the urgency of the writer, but also the situation that I, as a reader, am being presented with. I want to be thrown into a scene and left there for me to figure out how to get out. I like that. And so I made sure that a complete story wasn’t being spoon-fed to me, even severely compressed as it must be when the word limit is 250 words. I also enjoy controlled chaos and have a visceral reaction when I read well-constructed flash that seems out of control and about to explode in my face. And finally, I just like things that come at me from obtuse angles. It’s hard to somehow verbalize this but…flash fiction for me reads like Thelonious Monk’s piano playing. Something hits you from a never-before-seen angle. And you think: holy moly, this actually works.”
The theme for this month’s Flash Frontier is “Motels.” It is interesting to note the variety a well chosen, concrete theme can inspire, especially one that makes us think of travel, or even waywardness, an on-the-fringes existence. It doesn’t always have to suggest these things but a built-in opportunity exists for the writer who will grasp it: Tension. This is the torque of any story. The best stories employ multiple layers of human anguish and difficulty, not a melodramatic presentation of course, but a visceral one so that by the end we are so close to what is happening as to feel we are inside a world that is not our own. Good stories humanize us by letting us experience the lives of more people we can ever know in a lifetime. In this sentence about the function of stories, I am roughly paraphrasing Harold Bloom, one of our most erudite literary critics.
The Old Woman from Ipanema
Coastal processes assessment, Brevard County, Florida
The night we met at The Red Fox Lounge at the Mount Vernon Inn, I started to lose my vision. Lorna Lombey was singing ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ and handing out tambourines and maracas and castanets and suddenly there were two Lornas and two of you and two of everything else. After that weekend, the historic Florida inn would be destroyed by land developers and Lorna would no longer play where she and her late husband of thirty years had a Vegas lounge act.
I held your hand, tears in my eyes, and watched the room double.
“Let’s get a drink,” you said, knowing nothing. I had not been open about my health. Dating at fifty was one long sales pitch.
We checked into a room. You laid me onto the bed and hovered over me in twos. “I’ll never leave you,” you said. When I was twenty-five and newly married my husband said the same thing though I left him first.
In the morning, I woke to a note: Goodbye Angeline. My double vision had fled, long enough for me to drive home and watch the news that night, including news of the destruction of a Winter Park landmark, yet another link to our past, this David Lynchian concatenation.
My dog rolled over and I thought: This is the one true thing.
I scratched her belly.
“Our city will be lonelier without strange things such as these,” I said.
First published in Flash Frontier, September 2016
If you love the short story as much as I do, you will likely be interested in what’s happening in the world of short stories. As Michael Czyzniejewski, professor at Missouri State and editor at Moon City Press notes, the National Book Award has not recognized a story collection this year. Provided in this post is a list of fresh off the press collections to suit your story appetite. Michael’s blog also covers at least one short story a day or more from a collection. Insight into one collection a day for a year: That’s a lot of collections! Maybe one day, stories will get their due. In the meantime, enjoy, and check out Michael’s blog.
Way to be, Story366! Today is an interesting day in that Karen is headed east right now, visiting her mom in Ohio. That means it’s me and the boys for the next four. Check back often to see how that’s going. Should be fun.
In other news, the long lists for the National Book Award came out today, and in the fiction category, there is a list of ten novels. My friend Amber Sparks was the first person I saw speak up about this on FB, noting that short stories are vital, there were a lot of great books released this year, the novel is so etc., etc., etc. I couldn’t agree more, because if you couldn’t tell, I kinda like short stories. Taking Amber’s lead, I put together a list of the story collections released in 2016 that I’ve covered so far on this blog, plus a bunch…
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A perfect beginning. I don’t think I took a breath that first paragraph. What a surreal scene described with compression and power. And how interesting: To take a catastrophic weather incident, describe its most sensually stunning details and then move two weeks ahead. In Florida in the fall we have had our share of devastating hurricanes, memorable enough to write about so I feel duly inspired. What weather occurs in your end of the world and how can it start a fantastic flash piece?
Branches thwack the pocked metal roof. My car windows are smashed, and I sweep shards from the seat before sitting behind the wheel. Boots crunch pedals. A warning hums, and I watch, dazed, as neighbors rush to close doors and cover cars with mattresses as the hail returns.
Two weeks later, we walk along the river with hands clasped, fingers held together like mittens. We are not cold, we are comfort. I always forget my sunglasses, and you always bring an extra pair, a ridiculous pair. Today, a red and black checkered frame, clunky readers that you position on the bridge of my nose, above my ears. They wobble as you kiss my cheek.
The weather is one shitstorm after another. Hail, tornado, extreme heat, extreme wind. There was something called a firewhirl forty miles from Cincinnati. But the skies are perfect now; the light is more flattering than before…
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I knew something was calling me in Portugal. Beautiful, 1001 Scribbles.
This reminds me of ‘the year’ concept I played out in a piece of my own which was published a few years ago in Dark Sky Magazine online, even down to the length and tone, though I will have to say I love the author’s poetic approach. I would love to collect flash fiction prompts for a book and if I did, this would certainly be one of them. I didn’t work from a prompt but seeing a pattern makes me wonder if this would be a good one. I have copied and pasted my ‘year’ piece below and I will let you compare/contrast. Maybe you will want to use it as a prompt for your own work. If you do, post the link!
The year it snowed in Texas
The year it snowed in Texas was the year Mama bought me red cowgirl boots. It was the year I stomped on my daddy’s grave for leaving me, the year Mama smacked my legs in front of everyone. I was not going to the funeral unless I had the boots. Daddy had promised, promised, but Bobby Rearden said he was rotting with the maggots in his face. Well I stomped on Bobby too, stomped hard on his toes with my roach-killers and made him cry. I got sent home from school and Mama slapped me for sassing her. I slammed my door and wrapped up in a quilt like I was a hot tamale. The little ball of fire was moving through my body. It would move ever outward ‘til I was consumed, always consuming. It would make me sorry, that little ball, that little ball that was never quenched.
The year it snowed in Texas was the year my brother was born. It was the year my mama, standing in the flurries of that brief visitation of winter dust, made me love her, the filaments of her hair lifting in the puffs of wind. I didn’t know you could fall in love, just like that, at the sight of someone standing. How can a woman give away love so everyone felt it, even the birds, the trees, the snow itself, come to bless Kilgore. I would never love as she did. I would love only in that one brief moment. How we are spared from knowing who we are.
Years later, I found a note in my brother’s lonely apartment in L.A. “Bury me here,” he instructed in a scrawl on a map he had drawn of Woodlawn Cemetery. He had spent all his savings burying his lover and I couldn’t even buy him a headstone. The county would keep him ‘til they made him ash – my shame. I dyed my hair, changed my name, moved to Arizona. I camped beside a positive vortex but I could not escape Mama’s sad eyes watching me from the shadows of the twisted junipers.
First appeared in Dark Sky Magazine online
How to Fall Asleep and Never Wake Up
The year they discovered my best friend, twenty years old and silent under the heap of her wrecked car, I learned one can sleep forever and never wake up.
That year, her sister, only seventeen, ate magic mushrooms and lost her mind and her brother, fourteen, started running and stopped eating and I didn’t eat magic mushrooms but lost my mind anyway as everyone watched my skin, too white to be real, disintegrate before their eyes.
That year I flew to Colorado to see an urn surrounded by pointe shoes. It reminded me more of a wastebasket than the last I would see of the only person I actually spoke to. The cassette that held my entire life was broken. No – not broken – lost. Her sister ran naked through the street a few days later after ingesting a…
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The sky was overcast, threatening a downpour. We were sprawled out on blankets enjoying a picnic, some of us having traveled overseas to celebrate the installation of a former classmate as senior lecturer at a university in Sheffield. Most of us had used the excuse to go to London, and some of us, like Trace and myself, to the Lake District. The lecture had been the day before and we were told, by a queer little woman who gathered trash off the lawns, to beware of the spirits who hounded people who didn’t belong. Oh, we had a laugh over that, oh my how we had a laugh! Especially here, now, under the darkening skies, champagne flowing, little crackers dotting tiny plates, each cracker topped with brie and preserves or pâté. We were drunk on the wine and with our foreignness and here was a woman reminding us the spirits of hell were against us too.
Our friend, our pride, the man who conquered Vanderbilt as an undergraduate and graduate and then went on to Yale was our entrée into this sacred, rarified world. And he always seemed to us the fresh, humble, brilliant man he had been to us in our undergraduate days when many of us, awkward, but bright, stumbled through our classes in a hungover daze. Henry never drank with us but instead worked a spell all his own, bringing diverse people together, creating parties, setting many of us up together. He was part magician and we felt he belonged to us though now it seems Sheffield had claimed him. There was a sadness to this somehow though we had most of us been apart from each other for years now, scattered to the winds, except Trace and I who married and settled in Cleveland. We were both artists, though Trace was the more successful, if income is the measure. The city was cheap enough to live in, and vibrant enough. New York would have been preferable, but we knew who we were.
“That woman was the gatekeeper to the Elysian fields,” said Trace. “It’s clear none of us are destined.”
“Hey, speak for yourself,” said Mark who ran a successful brokerage firm. Of all of us, he had seen the most wealth. And he was happily married with a wife, not from our set, but a lovely person, and children.
“I’m just saying,” said Trace, “be warned. Some of us are destined, some of us are not.” There was an edge to Trace I had never heard before, something approaching jealousy and despair and it surprised me, embarrassed me.
“I think what my darling is saying,” I said, “Is that none of us is above riding coattails. Let’s drink to a long life and success for all of us and as many of these trips as we can afford and our Senior Lecturer can tolerate.”
“Here! Here!” said our American friends raising flutes to the river drifting past, to the forest beyond, to the spirits waiting to scare us away from whatever blessing we found in this foreign land.
On the way home, I chided Trace. “Did you really have to do that? Do you think that’s any fun for me when you get that way?”
We were taking a walk through the woods before leaving for the train station. I broke away from him to walk ahead on the path. I was grateful I had worn low heals for the ceremony.
The stream bubbled next to us. It was beautiful here. I know it is next to impossible to get any kind of extended visa but I wished at that moment to disappear into the helplessly lush green, to become an inhabitant among those lichen covered trees, mossy stones.
There was a soft padding among the trees, the rain beginning to fall. I waited to walk with Trace. We huddled together. He reeked of wine. Another sojourner on the path directed us to the café. We laughed that it would likely be as expensive as the remote vegetarian bed and breakfast we had discovered in the Lake District. It was the same the world over: The more precious the commodity, the higher the price one pays for it.
We found a place in the cramped restaurant. Everyone was trying to get out of the rain for a while. I ordered some tea and scones and to my dismay, Trace a pint.
I was enjoying the warmth of the teacup when I heard a woman trying to comfort a baby. The poor thing was inconsolable. I went over to the woman and began a conversation. I asked her if I could hold her baby. She was at wit’s end and was amenable to the offer of my ministrations. I held the child on my shoulder and patted its back. When it was cradled in my arms, fear began to grip me.
Trace’s words at that moment struck me: “Some of us are destined, and some of us are not.”
It came to me swiftly then, remembering the secret of my miscarriage not long before our trip to come here, the Elysian fields and the possibility they are unattainable. A woman sitting in a corner of the café caught my eye. It appeared to be the woman who told us: “Beware the spirits who hound those of you here that don’t belong.” I couldn’t be sure but she was smoking a pipe and she had a gleam in her eye. I gave the baby back to his mother and clung to Trace’s arm. We would have each other, then, but Trace would never know. I would never tell him. I kissed his mouth and he smiled his boozy smile. “My girl,” he said.
Written for Nancy Stohlman’s 2015 Flash-Nano
There is a murderer staying in the ice hotel. He sleeps on his ice bed which is covered in reindeer fur. He drinks Absolut vodka from a frozen shot glass. He cries to the walls made of the clear, pure, bubble-free ice harvested from the nearby Torne River. The snow cementing the ice block muffles his grief. It absorbs what he cannot bring himself to say: he killed his girlfriend when he caught her with another man.
The ice in his room shifts, sighs, drips. It is April 6, the end of the season. A dripping snow column beside his bed pulses with multi-colored LED lights, He is calmed by this, this lifelike column a beating heart, a gentle mother watching over him as he lies upon his bed. He finally falls asleep in a room that is twenty-four degrees Fahrenheit.
The next morning, the murderer goes on a tour to meet the indigenous people, the Sami or “reindeer people.” A group of men taking the tour are hung over and worried about getting to Heathrow. They make fun of the guide who fries reindeer meet before the fire in his ancestral tent. The guide tells them about his culture and the men ask him where he gets his clothes and the guide says his mother sews them. “Oh,” says one of them. “I would have said Saks.”
There is a woman with them too but she watches the fire intently. After they have eaten, they ride in sledges behind reindeer. The men are thrilled with the bull who is so fast, pulling each of them, they are tossed into the snow. The woman quietly rides in her sledge behind a cow. The murderer takes over her sledge when she is finished and doesn’t mind the pace.
He wonders if he could escape to this place, ingratiate himself among the people, learn the language, tend the herds. He wants to live among the reindeer with their large brown, wet eyes. Could he escape into the wilds of Lapland, where in winter the temperatures hover around zero and snow would not be shared with another for miles? He could change his name, adopt their belief in an animated world, exact his own punishment or wait for it to come.
As it stands, the ice hotel is melting. Soon it will no longer be structurally sound. He buys equipment in Jukkasjärvi and a pack of dogs using the remaining money in his account. The trees stand around him like thickly frosted decorations on a thickly frosted cake. He sets out on his sled, making his mark upon the snow, a mark that will be gone when the snow falls again that night, a wet spring snow but a blanketing one. Even the hotel will melt into the Torne River and be resurrected the next winter with no traces of anyone having slept there before.
* Some of the details regarding the hotel and tour are loosely based on Barbara Sjholm’s beautifully written travelogue, The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland.
First published in Blue Fifth Review: Blue Five Notebook Series under the title “Melting”
It was a problem Nula Myska was unable to drift to sleep in the normal way. I say this because in her village, no one went to sleep without the others sleeping too. If someone was hungry, they all went hungry. If someone was laid off from their work, they all stayed home in protest. Imagine during times of war in the bombed out city when all wanted to die in solidarity with the innocent who had fallen. It took someone outside the city to convince them otherwise, someone as it turns out, who was able to use them for cheap labor and conscriptions into armies not their own. They were gullible, yes, and yet compassionate almost to the detriment of sense.
Ms. Myska was a spinster who lived in a tiny hovel at the edge of the city square. “Myska” seems the perfect name for her for it was a word meaning mouse. In fact, no one could remember if she had always been Ms. Myska or if the town had invented the name, her features and mannerisms were in alignment with said creature for she scurried a bit, scurried around the market. She nibbled, nibbled on what the cheese maker or baker featured among his wares, her little spinsterish whiskers quivering. When she was offered cider or wine, she held the cup in her tiny paws while she seemed to lap the sweet liquid. She was too old for anyone to have remembered her family. That was before the war, when bombs decimated stately old homes and government buildings. Ms. Myska’s family must have died then, her mother and father and brothers and sisters, though she never spoke of them. In point of fact she never spoke of much at all. In most villages she would seem as inconsequential as a crumb or a tiny pebble, the kind that gets caught in the ridges of your shoe and which you pry out with a rusty old knife.
But when her sleepless nights began, no one could see the moon or stars. A veil fell over the world. It was unknown at first the cause of the night’s deep impenetrable ink. Lanterns were commandeered for the purpose of checking on residents. It was thought perhaps this was a kind of plague though the only deprivation was a lack of natural light. The town leaders found almost everyone asleep except for Ms. Myska, who was, in fact, at the moment of their discovery, foraging in the forest for mushrooms and nuts. What are you doing? they said. Why aren’t you asleep? How can you even see? But she went on picking through the undergrowth, putting things in the pockets of her apron as if their questions were none of her concern. It became apparent as the leaders drew aside to discuss her, that there was something deeply disturbing to the disorder of a villager acting apart from her village and that this was having ramifications on the larger universe. Ms. Myska had indeed gone off the rails a bit. Perhaps she should not have been named for her animal likeness or once the likeness was realized, her name should have been changed to an animal that went to bed every night, a dove maybe, that coos from the eaves.
Also: Why had they let her stay in a little hovel, the kind a rodent might build for itself from scraps and bits of fabric and paper? It wasn’t healthy. They would move her immediately to one of the wealthier residencies where she would be fed sufficiently and given a warmer bed as well as have the chance to enjoy some semblance of fellow feeling, of humanity. Perhaps, sitting by a proper kitchen hearth, she would begin to speak of her life and the dark oppression of black nights would lift and Ms. Myska would receive her proper due.
Yet it was not that easy. Even after receiving a fresh frock, a bath, a full meal, Ms. Myska found it impossible to close her eyes. In fact, the intensity of her wakefulness increased so that it almost seemed as if Ms. Myska were reacting to the intensity of their sudden and inexplicable attentions. Maybe there had been something about the privacy of her wakefulness and the secrecy of her unnatural habits that had soothed her or felt somehow to be leading her to the natural disintegration of her mind, the steps necessary before her release into the void, the chaos of death. The village was too young to understand the steps leading into that final release. She was unconcerned about the skies. They were always looking for rational explanations. And why would this be her concern. In a month, a year, two years, she would take herself out beyond them and fall asleep on the earth.
And yet, she noticed their frantic concern. She resolved quietly to pretend and then perhaps they may leave her alone.
They had decided to host what they called soothing ceremonies. And so they made offerings to the sky to bring about once again the cycles of the moon and rotation of the stars and so they sent up to heaven in hot air balloons their prayers for one another and for the world so that a predictable peace would rule them. Many of the balloons caught on fire from the candle that gave the parachuted balloons loft and the glittery fabric that was supposed to inspire the stars to shine came falling down like ash and yet no light penetrated the thick black down that wrapped round them when the sun sank below the horizon.
Ms. Myska was treated like a queen. Preserving her modesty, they bathed her in milk while she wore her white gown, they bathed her under the wisteria trellis. They added hyssop and lavender to their ministrations as well as the sound of gentle percussion instruments simulating rain. They laid warm towels over her eyes and wrapped her head in a cotton wrap infused with rose oil. They gently massaged her hands and feet.
Ms. Myska, buried under fabric, soaking in warm milk, wanted to bring her little paw hands to her mouth to nibble on a nonexistent crumb she often kept in her pockets but now no longer had. They believed she wanted fatty lamb and huge boiled potatoes, pies and pastries, sweets they crafted on slabs of marble with precious sugar and chocolate. She wanted to bring her hand to her mouth out of habit. She at least wanted to stroke her whiskers but they had plucked them so there was nothing remaining. Her descent into the animal realm and then beyond that to the subanimal realm of dirt and water and remains and then yet further still to the underworld, her destiny, had been met with protest, resistance. You will feel more human, they said, let us help you. She felt just the opposite.
Every night, Ms. Myska feigned sleep, although, in actuality, that is where the problems really began because what happened is that the skies unleashed a torrent, which as it turn out was worse than complete blackness for the water could not be kept back but seeped into their homes under door frames until at last it had risen to the level of their windows and their furniture and cows started floating away. Houses and buildings were becoming unmoored. What had happened? They wondered one night, sitting on a roof top, the falsely sleeping Ms. Myska sleeping on the pallet they had brought with them.
Because of the extreme compassion of the village, they began to realize they may have brought this onto themselves some of this natural disaster. Why hadn’t they just accepted Ms. Myska for who she is? Why had they sought in her so quickly an instant scapegoat? And so they let Ms. Myska go. They gave her a boat to be free and do as she wished and as soon as she returned to her hovel, the water had receded though her little spot had never been effected. It was dry as a bone, just as an old lady’s hovel should be. At last the young ones will let her do which they all will some day must and inside she did not feel them crowded around her anymore but blessedly at a distance, their benign tolerance sufficient.
The body is in a bag. The body is on a cart. The body rolls out of the bedroom. The body rolls out of the living room. The body rolls by the family pictures. The body rolls through the kitchen. The body bumps over the threshold to the garage. The body rolls past the family cars. The body rolls past the hedge trimmed just last week. The body rolls by the neighborhood children. The body stops so a child might tie a red balloon to the cart. The body bumps down the sidewalk. A girl showers it with flowers. The body sits next to a homeless man for a while. The man unzips the bag and relieves the body of its wedding band. The body leaves the man behind and zooms through the traffic. The body runs a red light. Cars careen around the body. There is screeching, smashing, crunching, grinding, someone screaming, metal and glass flying.
The body goes to a museum. It rolls past the canvases thick with paint, heavy with fevered dreams. The body visits animals at the zoo. It is shat upon by a monkey who tries to feed it peanuts where a mouth should be. The body rolls past a river where it races a barge filled with coal. At the dock, the body is saluted by a soldier. At the church, it is hurriedly blessed by a Father who sprinkles holy water on the shitty body bag. Downtown, a whore straddles the body and gets off. A dope dealer smuggles his stash under the torso.
At the hospital, nurses shake their heads knowingly as the body rolls through the halls and out the exit. At the bank, the teller willingly gives over all of the money to the body she’s so frightened. The money flies out of the surrendered bag as the body flies down the street. Men and women and children take what they can. The children buy candy. The men and women go to bars, take their spouses out, plan parties.
The body crushes a wife beater. The body rolls over a rapist. The body cuts a politician off at the knees. The body goes to a concert. He rolls through a mosh pit. He helps carry a crowd surfer. The concert goers find the dope and are grateful. The body gets arrested. The body gets put in jail. The body busts out and goes on the lamb.
The body finds a family who needs a body, a family who isn’t upset by a body but who just wants some other body to hang out with somewhere on the outskirts of town where a body can be a somebody and not the nobody which many would have him believe he is.
First appeared at The New Absurdist and later, Bizarro Central, Flash Fiction Fridays
Image from page 18 of “East of the sun and west of the moon : old tales from the North” (1922) Authors: Asbjørnsen, Peter Christen, 1812-1885 Moe, Jørgen Engebretsen, 1813-1882 Dasent, George Webbe, Sir, 1817-1896 Nielsen, Kay Rasmus, 1886-1957
Sometime after the original publication of this blogpost, I was thrilled to be able to use it to participate in a conversation regarding audio books with Tony Huang’s Metacircle. To see some this conversation, including the Chinese translation, and track other exciting endeavors at Metacircle, go here.
Divorce, cancer, bipolar, single parenthood, failed dating relationships: All of these mishaps and more have become a part of my midlife experience. Fear for my life, feelings I do not fit into religiously conservative circles, the occasional pain of being “different,” concern for my child, an acknowledgment I may not find the next special someone, a realization my romanticism and sometimes my perfectionism rule out a “modern” relationship in which texts serve for conversation, people can be swiped away by a finger running across a digital screen, and porn has dictated that women look twenty five and behave as objects: I have been touched by all of these things and sometimes they have ruled over my ability, once sharpened by more frequent use, in letting go and forgetting troubles.
On a lonely night the other night, suffering still from a failed relationship – Was it me or was it him? Who knows. What a bother, what a pain. I will never do this again. etc. – I turned to Libri Vox, a recent discovery. I have not been one to turn to this way of imbibing my literature but I have recently discovered the beauty of having a portable narrator spin me a yarn while I lie on my bed. My narrator, I have discovered, is good for a walk with the dog, a car ride across town, the grocery store, a dish cleaning session in the kitchen, and more. If I release myself to the voice, I don’t feel as lonely. In fact, I sometimes find myself to be quite thrilled by it. Here is a volunteer, somewhere from around the world, doing their level best to put the literature of the world out there for listeners to enjoy. The experience feels personal and immediate and sometimes, just the thing.
Recently, I started listening to fairy tales, and the other night when I was suffering I began The Blue Book.
I have always been a person driven to extract meaning from texts or to gravitate toward texts whose purposes are didactic or could be construed as such, somehow, with the right manipulator, you know, someone like me. Yet in listening to what I sense are many of the “untamed” fairy tales – those who have not been given an obvious “lesson” – I am completely charmed. These speak back to someone like me with my heavy hand, my heavy pencil who is just dying to construct an analysis. They speak back to me and tell me to be quiet. They speak back to me and tell me to let them stand on their own. Though fairy tales, at the time of their development, may have used a number of conventions, to my modern ear, these stories seem to insist on their freedom from convention. Like a person who is not bound to convention, bound to explain themselves at every turn, worry about the impression they make, a fairy tale often seems to live in complete freedom.
I like to imagine that I, an ordinary woman, have something to share with the women who, over the centuries, created these stories together as, over time, they told these over fires and in the midst of chores, when they were resting. I like to imagine these stories, begun in the minds of women while they were about their repetitive labor, were told to others and the work of the storytellers’ imagination was supplemented by the imagination of her sisters when they retold the stories to others – their families, other women, their children. Over time, the inventing and sharing created stories smooth as pebbles or rough hewn but originating from the same rock.
I like to imagine these wild tales connect me to those who invented them in that though we now have more luxuries and in many ways, a different worldview, we are in search of the wild beyond the hard work and the worries, the will to survive. We seek rest and invention, re-invention and creativity and beauty. Of course this goes for men as well as women but there is a homespun quality, a stark quality that speaks of a woman’s voice in many of the tales. Some have been recast by male writers who have collected them and written them down. Some have a more embellished voice. Some have been stripped of racier elements, harsher elements. Some have an appended lesson. Some seem overly romantic versions of their grittier sisters. I sense in the realism and absurdism of the wilder tales a woman’s voice of what it means to be a woman in a man’s world and how one must resolve to be resilient, resourceful, wise, cunning, full of spirit.
I like to think I might understand, finally, something about fairy tales because on the eve of my forty eighth birthday I think I finally understand the value of wildness, individuality, a free spirit. It is in the story of Job confronting God in all of his sufferings and God providing no direct answer, no direct reason, only a catalogue of his wonders. God, an unpredictably free spirit and vast, full of love and mystery. It is like that, she said (Me, speaking to you, of God, of suffering, of that which we cannot predict or control, of the wildness of spirit embodied in the most unpredictable of tales, and at last, all of our own divergent tales and voices.) A person who is 48, 49, 60, 35, 18, 70 or whatever age who has encountered a wild wood in their experience, a menacing troll, an embittered stepmother, a greedy lover, a witch, an empty misleading temptation has encountered the tale of their lives. Most of us have encountered quite a few of these and more.
When I was a girl, my family went on “Toad’s Wild Ride” at Disney and from that time on, the memory of it was invoked to describe any particularly wild driving experience or traveling experience or anything unpredictable at all. To me, this is the essence of a fairy tale: A wild ride. We have television shows in the modern world which serve as the evening fires and narrators both but they are dim reflections of the tales of our ancestors who faced life in the teeth. When we can let go of our demand for logical sequences, we can more fully face life as it really is, ripping away the scrim that protects us from realities. When we let go of our demand for logical sequences, we can more fully enter a dream state, we can be taken, captured, enchanted, relieved for a moment of our defenses and need for control.
I felt lonely one night and so I turned to The Blue Book on Libri Vox and I allowed someone I didn’t know to tell me a story. I tried receiving it as a child and thought I did not accomplish this perfectly as my mind drifted back to my worries or I began to “not see the point.” I began to realize I wasn’t “doing it right.” There is a way to relate to that which is wild and unpredictable. It is allow yourself to be unpredictable too. Stop making so much sense. I wonder if there is freedom in that.
My inability is a lost container I cannot find in my house.
My love is a plant in a basket I abandoned in the flower bed. Though the basket rots and I do not water it anymore, the plant lives on, fading in the sun, spreading, blooming.
My uncertainty is a walking stick. I do not know for certain if I will live, or, if living, for how long. A stick is more reliable than a person. People fly away when they want to, even when you might die. A stick can defend while people are shutting their windows, going to bed for the night.
My eyes are what are left after I have seen everything. I see lies coming at me now, aiming for the kill. I avert my gaze, in hopes they miss.
A pen is better than a stick or a sword and frees the weave of my heart. At some point, every friend is an enemy, but even if my life is counted for nothing, a pen is more loyal.
Evan Travers, Climb Every Mountain, flickr
“Have you ever watched the sunrise? Not over luxurious tropical greenery which knows all about the sun, which lives for the sun and anticipates its appearance with academic certitude. And not over a calm, grassy forest meadow, which is itself a particle of sunlight, which believes in the sun and experiences its rising as the most intimate of feelings. We had in mind sunrise over the lifeless rocky cliffs of the north. What good, you might ask, is life to the dead? What would the cold rocks want with the sun? The rocks lie there calmly, ponderously, monotonously in the depths of night, remote under their covering of ice and snow; the rocks greet the grey light of the brief day with indifference, their breasts insensitive to the keen blasts of the wind. But still the sun rises over them. A feeble imitation of the torrid, fructifying sun or gently caressing sun we know, a sun which would strike fear and anguish into the subtropical foliage or the forest glade. And suddenly the cliffs change. The rocks become pink, moss and lichen appear, and a rather unprepossessing insect crawls out of a cleft in to join in the brief holiday. Perhaps it is not even aware of where the light has come from, or why the wind has died down, or why its indifference to the cold has been replaced by a new feeling, or rather, sensation, of warmth and calm. But if the southern sun, or even the mild temperate sun, were to rise over the northern cliffs, it would mean disaster. The cold rocks would crack, the lichen would dry out, and the unprepossessing insect would die. The cold north needs a cold sun.”
I haven’t dreamt in a long time, I haven’t slept well in months. This afternoon, an inspiration came over me to slip into my purple grey room and tuck myself under the soft white comforter borrowed from my son’s room while he hikes the Blue Ridge. It has been so long since I’ve dreamed, I’ve been in mourning for it. Grief, anxiety, the chemical pall of chemo and medications, the despair for things I have lost seems to have shrouded my mind, at least temporarily, taking my concentration and the release needed to let go of conscious thought.
I dreamt of a street I have driven down many times which runs through the heart of my Florida town. I am driving my SUV and a car driving slightly behind me to my right swerves into the lane of a motorcyclist. The man on the motorcycle is not hit and he doesn’t fall but when I look out of my rearview mirror, I see both the driver of the car and the cyclist have stopped and pulled over to the side of the road into the entry of a parking garage. The cyclist, his sunglasses flying off, is beating the driver through the open window of the car. My heart racing, I do a U-turn, speeding the wrong way on a one-way but otherwise deserted street, back to the scene of the violence, unsure of what I will do when I arrive. I awoke abruptly, my heart racing, relieved it was only a dream.
I haven’t dreamt for three years. I’m not sure what it means to be reintroduced to dreaming through terrifying visions, but dreams are as unpredictable as people and all must be accepted eventually.
This past spring after my son played baseball at a field close to the beach, I said good bye to him for the night. He was going with his father and stepmom to join the team for a post game dinner. They turned inland and I turned toward the coast down A1A. If I had to spend the night alone, I may as well be spending it on the beach at sunset, and in particular at a beach where my high school friend’s family owned a condo. We are no longer friends. After I married and moved to various cities with my ex, coming back into town only briefly for holidays, my friend told me if I didn’t see her more often when I was home, I could forget about our friendship. I chose to spend time with my family rather than more time with her. Now, ironically, I have lost both. Except my child still calls me his mother. And I have a sister, a mother, a father.
My friend and I used to spend the night on the balcony of her condo, listening to the waves crash on the sand.
As I am driving to the beach, an old VW van swerves into my lane, right in front of me, forcing me to slam on my brakes. The motorcycles behind me – two – slam on their brakes. Through my rearview mirror, I see, to my horror, a bike skidding along the pavement and a body flipping up through the air and landing on the shoulder of the road. I pull over to the median and put on my hazards, grabbing my jacket, running with my middle aged body, my weight jiggling from my frame, to the place where this cycling couple cry out to each other, the man in tact physically but falling apart with disbelief and panic, hovering over his wife, the woman lying face down and moaning, crying out in a way I had not heard before, blood matting her blond hair. The man turns her onto her back. I give him my white coat to protect the back of her head from the asphalt.
I never found out what happened to her. I stayed to answer questions, stayed until the ambulance took the couple away. Oddly, I took my coat back. An emergency technician put it in a bag. I would throw it away the next day. It would never come clean. I never made it to the beach, wouldn’t try again for months. My sister answered when I called her as I drove back to our town. She talked me through the ordeal of getting back to our city after I had experienced an unanticipated calamity.
A few months before this incident, my son and I went to California and I wore my white coat then. A few hours before the dream this afternoon, I posted a picture of my child and I on social media. We are smiling on the beach at Sausalito, me in my white coat I was wearing before we headed into the deep heart of Muir Woods to reach sunset on the other side.
She talked him into this, everything so new between them. She wanted to go to the beach, an easy trip for a Saturday evening, a drive to the east coast, a place of her growing up years, a place familiar. He had warned her, in their planning, of rain as predicted on the weather channel, warned her of the heat. But here is what she knew: There was a difference between the middle section of the state and the beach. She knew the rhythms, when rain was likely in summer and how long it would last, what temperatures were like by water, how beautiful sunsets were and of course she hoped they might walk and she hoped, if they did so, he might hold her hand. She saw it in her mind, but she coached herself: Let him do it. In a previous broken relationship that crushed her heart, that other man could not be counted on. This was a chance to test this new one’s feeling.
She felt a little deflated, upon their arrival at the public beach pavilion, to see a young woman with hair like a mop, each strand a worn color of a flag. She felt irritated. Why did so many people insist on calling so much attention to themselves? She went to Venice Beach to see the freaks, but now not even her childhood beach was sacred. She felt guilty because she knew this new man would not share her attitude. He was a much more generous spirit than her previous one and would not indulge the ugliness she felt inside at this moment. And it might turn him turn him away. Of course she would not show her true self, at least not at this moment.
The woman wore huge pants that ballooned outward though she was skinny, had a nice figure evident from the flat tummy between the midriff. What was going to happen? A woman like that does not show up at the beach just to hang out in the sand and watch the waves. She was there to compete with all of that. A young man was with her. But he was hardly noticeable by comparison.
As she and this new man put their shoes in a pile and blanket on the sand, the woman with the hair and the pants starting working a huge hula hoop, wrapped with strips of tattered cloth, her hips undulating in a slow, seductive gyration.
What the — ?
She couldn’t take it any more.
“Some people like to be seen,” she said.
“Oh, haven’t you been to the drum circle in town?” said this new man.
She knew of drum circles, what a lot of people did, what they looked like. She had stumbled across a huge drum circle when she was with her child and husband in Asheville, her husband now her ex and who would not have hung out among drum circles.
She felt a little pressure. Would she be expected to go to drum circles?
She had to confess, beneath all the layers of her identities that had come with each relationship, she didn’t know who she was any more. She was a pleaser. The only time she seemed to feel her true chosen identity coming through was when she was a senior in college and finally free of all relationships that would bind her to a course. Her dream was to work for a nonprofit and help people with AIDS. The horizon had been ever before her in that moment, a span that lasted several months but then disappeared again under the weight of expectation.
(Perhaps this is why she sought so vehemently the horizon of the shore at the break of this new relationship, perhaps, she thinks, as she writes this. She sought it to the point of arguing her way to it even as she was concerned about making a good impression. The horizon over the ocean: an ever visible inspiration when you are standing before it. Walls are false pretenses. Water is stronger. The sky is forever.)
This new man brought with him a set of new beliefs. She felt pressure. But not too much pressure. She only felt anxious she would disappoint him as she had the men before. Maybe in a different way perhaps, but wasn’t it all the same when you could boil it down to one word? Disappointment.
They walked on. He held her hand.
What if she can’t believe what he believes? What if she can’t be as nice as he expects, as open and free? What if she can’t be open to his teaching? He seems to want to teach her things. (In fact, as she is now recalling as she writes this, all of them had.) She didn’t want to be lonely again. Her heart ached with the possibility of it but she knew, deep down, she would have to be true to herself. Was it the woman’s burden always to bend? Sometimes she had bent to the point of almost being broken: don’t write; don’t write this; you’re not political enough; you’re not intellectual enough; you’re not organized; you’re too fat; your face is round; your butt is big; you talk too much; you talk too little; I like women in dresses; I like women in heels; women should not wear pants suits; a real woman doesn’t wear her hair short; I like a woman who keeps up with her nails, sometimes the glitter art helps her express her creativity; I think your hair should be blond like it used to be when I knew you years ago; if you bought a platinum blond wig and wore a white dress you would look a lot like Marilyn Monroe; I would like to read your stories at some point (An ever receding point, she thinks as she writes this, fading off into the distance like the sun setting over the Gulf.)
No one knows you really, no. No one wants to know. They want to imagine, something. And when you show them who you are, their dream is gone and so are you.
When they return from their walk, the woman with the ragamuffin hair has taken the hair off for as it turns out it is a wig and she is sitting in the sand, in her hoop, looking slightly deflated.
She and her new man spread the blanket out. He says he has something for her he wants her to smell. He pulled something from the bag but told her to close her eyes. She did so. She hoped she would be up for it. There was fear she would not be. It was an oil he said while her eyes were closed. She knew the meaning some people attributed to oils. It smelled like a rose perfume she used to wear until she reacted to a comment that it was something for old ladies. She had thought, up until that point, it was wonderful to always don the scent of her favorite flower. She said it was rose bergamot. He said it was not. He said he didn’t know for sure but he knew that much. He said “This is intention.” Here it comes, she thought. “You breathe it in.”
She thought of something she intended. She wanted a good, long relationship with him though she never would have said that. She intended to lose weight and so she turned to him to say that but he was facing the water, eyes closed, as if in meditation. She hadn’t done the right thing. Was this what you were supposed to do when you smelled oils?
For that moment, she felt no harm in the man sitting on the blanket with her.
When he opened his eyes she spoke clumsily of her intention. She looked at the sand. She knew she was dependent. There was even a term for it, not co-dependent, but something else, a term her therapist used to describe her and her clingy woman self, though she could be other things too, she was mainly this way in relationship, dependent upon the opinion of men, particularly the man she was with.
She looked at the sand. thinking of the oil and the many things he had said already, and she thought of his look in profile as they sat there on the blanket and what she decided for that moment was this: He was good. She knew this. And that was all for now. And for now she would keep her secret belief to herself, except, dear reader, what you are reading here now. She would play along with these notions for a while because they seemed important to him and frankly, she liked him. And he seemed ready to care about her and so what he showed her was something meaningful and that in and of itself would be the gift and she would allow herself to receive it though she had no idea of what it was, only that it had been given. In and of itself, she realized, that was enough for the moment in which she found herself and it seemed to be something different from what had happened to her before and so what if she had secret unbelief? A nice man sat on a blanket with her.
Five Flashes from DEAR PETROV by Susan Tepper (Some serious genius by my friend Susan Tepper)
anna Osu’s “walking on water,” flickr
Shuffle through the silent wood to worship, past loblollies and scrub oak hung with flowering vines, your sick feet, affected by the chemo, the nerve endings numb, barely registering your footfalls. The glittering lake beckons beyond the Bishop’s Walk and the Church of the Incarnation where someone sits at a piano, someone mixes water with wine, someone is blinded by the sun streaming through a window as they think about what they would like for dinner.
Step high over roots, concern yourself not with the sand slipping between your toes, breaking down your best sandals. Enjoy the sand and how it falls out of your shoe in a playful way because you cannot walk because of your numb feet and it is as if you are doing this on purpose, like when you were young and flopped your legs in front of you, flinging sand on your brother, on your sister, and you had more time then, all the time in the world.
It doesn’t matter you are late. You have nothing to contribute. There will always be voices in worship somewhere. There will always be worship. Not even the forest needs you though it will take you. There will always be bodies who, once animate, return to earth and you, no longer a child, see how it begins as you fall off out of time beginning with the feet that can no longer run, the flesh that is no longer thought of or desired by those in time, and you, having once participated in a chorus, live on an edge without recognizable features or breath, where eternity has caught up with you and you had thought yourself not ready and yet here you are, venturing on your own.
Those you thought should join you cannot follow through the divide, they cannot pass. You have tried to carry them but the overwhelming nature of their fears have led you to focus instead on the little white dog who waits for you on the edge of town, the new ferns that must be watered, the meals you will make with the ingredients you just bought at the market, the son who will be home from his father’s next week.
In the twilight worship hour, you must go alone through the loblollies and scrub oak hung with vine, the sparkling lake in the distance, until you reach the lip of it all, where the worshippers’ voices coalesce and become strongest, like a ring of sound around the world. And yet, you only see the glittering eye of the abyss in the distance and it is not in the depths of the earth but suspended and it is not dark but filled with light and fills the skies from the waters it takes from earth and one day you will be taken up from the earth and one day you will return again as rain.
Published in Ginosko Literary Journal #16
David Adamson’s Snow Capped B & W (flickr)
When they come to capture Father, they do so with ropes and sticks and feed him bear containing a tranquilizing substance. We watch as he devours the flesh, its blood resting in the fur I use to kiss. He had been starving and in mourning for my mother, who had been captured, tagged, and taken away to higher regions. My brother and sister and I do not make it obvious to him we could see his defeat. We eat our grains and cream in silence in cupboard spaces and we do not crowd him or come near.
The men hoist him onto a stretcher, their pipes set in their teeth, the smoke from the bowls drifting down over our father’s limp frame, as if he were powerless, as if he were lazy and never chased deer and wild game, as if he had not laughed at our games in sunshined fields and watched for danger along the shadowed edges.
I touch his paw as his body moves past and it seems as dead and yet it has steadied me while I took my first steps. With it, he has lifted me onto his back where I would ride holding onto his fur, the nape of his neck smelling of burnt wood and leaves.
My brother and sister are calling out for my father, my brother and sister are crying. It is the new people who do not understand, I say, though I know my brother and sister, being young, do not know my meaning. I have no words of comfort for them while the presence of the men lingers heavily in the air. Drink your milk I say and they drink the heavy milk at the bottom of the bowl, the last of the milk my father stole from the farmer further down in the valley.
I am not ready to speak for my mother and father both. I am not ready to guide.
I take them out to play where they can run among the stones of the people who have died. They should not have to watch as their father’s body jars as if lifeless on the open-bed truck while men’s ash falls on his fur.
I tell them these are the stones commemorating all who have returned, though I know they will not believe this in the literal sense I wished it to be understood. And yet it comforts them, children of tombstones and loss, that in some sense, this is true, and that even men with stiff lipped bearded faces have no say in what cannot be contained, or shot, or beaten.
And when the sun is high we take a picnic on the stones and when it rests over the mountain range we lie among the memorials to people who were and wait for the chorus of animals that contains the voice of our mother penetrating the mists of the dreaming dead.
First appeared in Chrome Baby
photo: Ambiance by Jacques
Katya ran her finger over the round warm ceramic of the coffee mug. She had to admit to herself it was a comfort to have this portion of her life, her life with Nina, finished. Though just as soon, she was horrified. Her friend had died an awful death – sick from cancer, alone except for Katya with whom she split rent, estranged from wealthy parents, divorced, the mother of one selfish daughter who hardly visited. Katya believed herself to be a terrible person for thinking about her own relief.
In a silly moment, Nina had asked Katya to pour a cup of coffee on her grave at least once a week, maybe more, for as long as she was missed, then Katya was to be free of the routine. They drank bottomless coffee at a diner during mornings they worked in the shops on Park Avenue, during the days Nina was well. Nina also asked Katya to burn a letter that she had written out and placed in her jewelry box. This act of the burning seemed a bit more serious than the coffee ritual, and yet both involved performing an act over her friend’s grave. Nina made Katya swear not to look at the letter before the burial.
One day after work, Katya stopped by Nina’s grave. She pulled Nina’s letter from her purse. It was in an envelope, sealed, and written on several sheets of small square pink papers, the stationary she started to use near the end of her life to make out grocery lists and requests for Katya. It read:
You have been my sole confessor in these last few years and on you has fallen a great burden and for that, I’m very sorry. Had I allowed myself to entrust my worries and cares to anyone else, I would have. Maybe it was the illness that stirred up fear in me but in my growing physical weakness, I could not always trust others to be as tender with my heart. People are a bit like animals in this sense, especially when there is a sick person among them. But you, dear Katya, have been more than humane.
I am scared of dying, because of bitterness I have inside, bitterness I fear will keep my spirit wandering. I am scared of my sins. I am scared of the reality of the woman I’ve been, the woman I fear my daughter sees and the woman God has punished with disease. Therefore I have left this one task up to you, to burn this list of the things I have held onto in bitterness along with the sins I have committed. Please leave no corner of these papers intact, but burn them wholly over my grave and let the cinder mix with the soil and be my penance, my last confession. I’m not Orthodox, as you know, I have no priest. Please, dear Katya.
It rained the morning Katya intended to burn the papers. She was so surprised by the fervor of the note and the length of the list. She sat out beside her grave longer than she had anticipated. Her coffee grew cold. She fed the grave what was left of her drink, but it was too wet to burn the papers. After work that night she sliced vegetables and brought water up to a boil in their lonely apartment. She ate dinner and watched TV and went to bed but felt in the moments before sleep a presence watching from the corner of my room. Was it Nina?
She was able to burn the list of Nina’s sins the next day and prayed that her soul would be released from the burden of the guilt she felt, from her bitterness. And yet she noticed as she burned the paper, the soil was dry as if from drought, even though it had rained through the night. She bought a watering can and from that time on, watered Nina’s grave every day. To no avail. It drank in every drop of water fed to it and produced nothing. It lay barren as the day she was buried. No grass grew. No flowers that were planted there would thrive. Had she missed some opportunity to make things right for Nina that first morning she sat beside her grave, procrastinating until it rained and it was too wet to burn her letter?
Several years later she met Nina’s daughter. The young woman came to the apartment to find out how things had been for her mother during her illness. Katya revealed the mystery of the gravesite. She was careful with her description of the letter.
“I’m sure my mother was upset I never called or came to visit,” said the young woman.
Katya remained silent.
“I will try to water her grave. Maybe it will work for me.”
The grave did not respond to the daughter’s ministrations.
Again, Katya felt the intensity of a presence in the corner of her room that evening.
She decided to write to Nina’s parents and friends and ask them to visit. Upon their arrival, they knelt beside the grave, tending to the soil, but the plot of land rejected their efforts.
Perhaps there was something perfunctory about how they went about things, Katya considered. Perhaps this was the difficulty. She did not know how to change this since likely there were so few who truly loved tending a grave. And sadly, few truly seemed to love Nina. The cause of this seemed to have nothing to do with Nina herself. It was just her fate. Any grave tending would be perfunctory. Even Katya had not been the friend Nina needed.
One night a man knocked on the door. It was New Year’s Eve. Katya was not going out and had not expected anyone. She did not feel the festive spirit.
The man, she noticed, had skin as white and translucent as parchment. His hair was a soft yellow.
“I have come to pay my respects to Nina.”
When Katya told him the plot number, he watched her with his clear blue eyes, a blue she had rarely seen.
She went back to Nina’s grave before heading to the shop a couple of days later. A profusion of lilies grew there from soil as rich as loam.
The only thing Katya could figure in the weeks following, as flowers continued to bloom there, in the space where an unregenerate woman lay, is that someone loved Nina, someone her friend had not remembered during the torturous months of her illness, or there was someone alive whose love, until then, had remained undeclared.
First appeared in Quail Bell Magazine
Photo: Aku no musume by Anna Theodora
Pablo Neruda: XVII (I do not love you…)
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way than this:
where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.
I want to meet you this Christmas under a new sky, not Florida’s, not like the night we watched the Christmas parade and the snow made of soap bubbles and the trombone your son never played because the one that worked was somewhere else.
I want to meet you on a snowy city street: I, dressed in white, a long white coat, and you in dark wool.
I want you to smile at me as if I’m the only woman you will ever want. I want to know you love me and are concerned about me. I want to hear you say the words. I want to hear you say my name Margaret. I want you to kiss my lashes.
You don’t know how much I have been yearning for an arm that fits neatly over my shoulder, a laugh that embraces me, care that could be lavished on a queen. So many lonely nights, terrified of my dreams, longing.
I have wanted to make you into this, this dream fulfillment and it has been unfair. A person isn’t what they’re not meant to be. How I have craved gentleness and attention. You are so handsome, yet it has been unfair – my dreams – an imposition.
You were meant for another, one who wants for nothing, at least not too many words or undue attention, one who understands a certain approach. Or maybe she will be the one to receive your attention because she is the one for you.
After I acknowledge you have only been a dream, I will walk away into the snow and leave the ghost of your body. There will be bells from another man’s sleigh and when he thinks – this woman should not be allowed to walk like this nor should she feel hunger or any kind – he will lift me up and ask me if I am ok and I will begin a journey.
Happy Holidays. I hope you do not mind me speaking directly. Maybe you can indulge me, please, though I usually “tell it slant,” minding this principle of Emily Dickinson.
I thank you for reading my blog this year. Last year, I published a flash fiction “Christmas in Florida” journal and hope to return to it next year. I received some great submissions. This year, however, I want to complete my tale of unease, among shopping for Christmas, planning a trip, wrapping up year end things. I have the perfect cocoa ready and waiting for a good writing session, which usually takes place sitting on my bed though I have set up “writing stations” throughout the house. All for naught. I write where I dream.
I don’t have much to say, unslant. I have been watching American Horror Story and have been quite unsettled, but the unsettling has good effect: It causes me to re-evaluate, take stock. Maybe that is why those Victorians loved a ghost tale at Christmas. Being unsettled is a precursor to finding beauty in one’s life, finding rest, and if the story comes with a bit of a morality tale which many great tales of unease do, there is the added benefit of having the chance to see, and maybe, as a response, “do.”
Drink your eggnog, now, my good friends – writers, readers, editors, artists extraordinaire – and may visions dance in your heads.
I do not mind living for you. You are my note to the world. Foolishly, I have believed, at times, I should write other notes. As it turns out you are the biggest, most important note there is.
If life contained a million lifetimes, I would: hold your hand in each one, run my finger through your hair in every day of each, kiss your forehead whether you are sick or well, take you to a million lifetimes of soccer practices, watch a million lifetimes of your games, drop you off for a million lifetimes of first dates, drive you to a million lifetimes of first days of school, take you to a million lifetimes of movies and buy you buckets and buckets of popcorn.
My role is dwindling now my young one, just in time for me to fully appreciate what I am about, the raison d’etre of my magnum opus to the world. You said you would drive your friends when you got a license, you speak openly of missing the friends who have moved away, you speak appreciatively of the friends you have now. How my tears run silently down my face when I think of what you are.
The majority of my life has passed before me. You are now your own best work. I speak into the air and if you wish to catch a falling leaf of a word of mine, you put your hand out, but you do not need leaves. What usage, leaves, but for the fire?
May God forgive me, but I am proud. May your song never end.
Bless my mother on this, the day of her late son’s birthday.
Remember that day I gave the man with a face on fire the one dollar bill when he asked for the fare to go home to see his family and he replied “I am probably the world’s only box dweller” and you said not to worry about it, not to think of him anymore even when he also said to me “you’re the reason vets like us come back from the war and shoot people.” We later went down to the beach on that holiday when we would normally have been with other people but here we were thrown together and in a hectic mass of humanity, down by the pier, as if the ocean had belched us onto the shore. People had set up make-shift encampments under the massive structure, deceiving everyone with its capacity as a bulwark against the elements though no one would be able to sleep there as shade was its only offering.
I said I will not take from the pipe even if I’m in a lot of pain and you said that is a lot of senselessness and I said there are a lot of ways people numb themselves. Whatever I said was dictated by my white girl reaction to the drum circle and the beautiful dancers not far away. You just can’t let go, can you, you said. I said so what. I was still upset by the box dweller, murderously unhappy with my dollar but the focus on what I believed I deserved was a relief. The world’s only box dweller had a point. The reason I was no longer a family with someone else was my fault which was the reason I was with you which was the reason I had come into contact with an angry vet who threatened to kill me.
You insisted on the tacos with the two tortillas, a huge dish. You insisted on the appetizer. You always made sure there was an equal division of expenditure. You wanted your pound of flesh though I’d not cheated you out of anything that I knew of but that was just it you had been sent to exact something from me, something I owed in a more universal sense and that close accounting I knew I deserved too. The restaurant on the pier was hot. I could not stop sweating. Below, the surf and bikini contestants were going home. I said do you love me you said yes of course and this kind of question and response had been as regular as the ebb and flow of the tide and so there was something unconvincing in it, of that I had felt since we first used the word love and how did I know that was the last time I would use this word with you and how did I realize there was no shelter.
It was appropriate she lived on the edge, the edge of town, the outer edge along the woods that will sometime be subsumed by buildings but for now she caught a glimpse of what it was like to look into trees, the dark hollows they created by their limbs. She lived in a small house three stories high and each story faced the pines and scrub oak and the hidden homeless, black bears, and garbage people in the town threw out. The woods sometimes yielded odd things she collected and saved, such as a Merengue CD covered in dirt and filth she washed and played in her CD player, the words foreign but the tune and beat so upbeat she had to move her hips a bit while she sashayed across her small living room, the tune spilling out into the inky darkness.
One morning she found a dollhouse exactly like the dollhouse of her girlhood. It was only soiled a bit, but it was the same basic white frame house, three stories, interestingly, she thought to herself, the same structure as her own house though the rooms were distributed differently. She brought it inside and cleaned it. Her suitor, a Norweigan who liked to fix things, patched the tiny broken furniture inside and the tiny shingles on the roof. He painted each room and the exterior as well. The one requirement, she told him, was that he was to leave the kitchen table legs and dining chair legs as they were: White with brownish red tips. When she was a girl, she had nightmares the table and chair legs were really matches and that if you scraped them the wrong way, the house would go up in flames. She didn’t know why she wanted them the same way. She just did.
I started telling the story by saying it was appropriate the woman of our story lived on the edge of town and maybe that is because in her beige little living room where she lies down and stares at nothing sometimes and wonders whether she will make it she is constantly reminded of another edge: The edge of death, of illness. It is an edge, she knows now, that not everyone has to face, at least not in the middle of their life. It is an empty edge, the edge of oblivion. When you stare at that edge, you stare into your own silence. She is glad for the red pillows that dot the beige sofa, ottoman, chairs. They catch her gaze. They ignite her interest. Each is different and she has selected them carefully. She is glad for the dollhouse that reminds her of her girlhood, the table and chairs in the dollhouse whose tips reminded her of matches. She enjoys the memory even though in her younger years, she was frightened, she was frightened the night of that Christmas day when she saw all she wanted – a beautiful house her parents had constructed for her in secret – whose very existence might be threatened by what’s inside. She hopes the woods will never go away. Even if she finds a bear there, if one should meet her on the doorstop as she is fumbling with the lock or if one day, in her foolhardiness, she should wander out into them with a compass and a sandwich, she hopes she will stay in the place she bought, her own death, chosen and full of danger.