Home Authors Posts by writdisord

writdisord

461 POSTS 0 COMMENTS
The Writing Disorder is a quarterly literary journal. We publish exceptional new works of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and art. We also feature interviews with writers and artists, as well as reviews.

0

The Photography of Leigh Anita

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BIO

Living in Maine is like living in two places. I spend my days walking circles in the forest, down side streets, and through pocket gardens. In summertime, days pass slowly and the crystal green ocean glistens with falling waves. Deciduous forests cloak winding carriage trails to the Atlantic. In the winter there is only silence. Seaside towns that are so empty even light footsteps echo down their streets. Stone walls that once marked property lines crumble along the forest floor. Nature reclaims the ruins of ancestral homes and resort hotels. By night, dark salt water crashes against seaside cliffs while foghorns moan in the harbor. Three of the four seasons are spent in total isolation. Memories of being submerged in the amber glow of August fall away. Cicadas sing as the days grow shorter, until one morning a fog rolls in to hover above the marshland. I cross the great Piscataqua River by foot. From the bridge I watch its powerful current. Tankers pass along the waterfront with salt, freight, and scrap metal.

I grew up on a small island, and sometimes wonder if I grew up to become a small island. There are days that I escape to the city, but find vines creeping between the bricks and cobblestones.

Winter is brittle, trees lose their leaves and reach toward clouds heavy with snow. Days are dark and fade into what feels like endless night. Roads snake along the coast without streetlights, becoming treacherous after dusk. During my adolescence, I spent a great deal of time wandering the island. My brother and I made our playgrounds in abandoned bunkers and atop timber pilings that once supported an anti-submarine net to capture German U-Boats. When I couldn’t sleep, my father tapped messages on my back in morse code.

When I came of age, I left the island and all of its architectural ghosts. Every night, I found myself wandering city streets until sunrise, searching for patterns and visiting the dark waterfront. Silence no longer existed, and the stars were masked behind the ochre glow of millions of lights. As an adult, I find myself on the mainland, but within close proximity to the island and the unending loop. Although I work primarily as an illustrator, my creative process involves wandering alone and trying to understand what it means to be remote. I have returned for it. I vanish into the trees, down side streets, beneath the waves, into the salt air.

www.leighanita.com
Etsy.com/shop/LeighAnita

Instagram
Art: @leighanita
Nature: @some.girls.wander.by.mistake

 

0

Where the Street Learns Its Curve

by Donna D. Vitucci

 

 

As a child, there is a period when you do not leave your yard, a world drawn with a grade schooler’s compass. When you finally walk down the street and spy others, it’s amazing to step outside the known pecking order, to present you, only you, with no family attached. By the time you meet Connie Marlowe, her dead mother’s name was not spoke. None of you’d known this family existed, suffering and crying and being winnowed.

As a child, when you’re driven down streets, and especially with regularity your own street, your world begins to fan out. Your sponge-mind sees, accepts, files and your base expands concentric. Your core is the core of your one tree, and you are its pith.

Soon you can skip down the road in your mind and identify Donovan’s blue ranch, Bender’s new modern black-roofed house, a peach colored brick ranch with a mystery owner; Mrs. Overbeck’s shady porch attached to white clapboard; and then Marlowe’s blond brick ranch with pink trim, where Mr. Marlowe’s red truck anchors the gravel of the far right drive. Cars park on a second driveway of blacktop to the left of the front yard, partly blocking out a net-less basketball hoop.

Mr. Marlowe has a temper. With a swarthy complexion, prominent nose, dark eyes and hair that falls insistently front from slicked-back-ness, he’s the handsomest dad next to yours. Inside his house you learn to watch your mouth. He is “in sod,” and he can mow you down.

You’re lucky he doesn’t remember your name; he might tease you to the hilt or tell you to clear out of his headache. You can’t rest easy around this moody man. You, your little sister Karen, and Shellie, the girl next door — you’re just a locus of gnats circling Connie and her younger brothers Colt and Petey. Connie’s skin tone, and the boys’ too, make you guess their mom had been of the tropics, their mom a vacant color now cold in the ground. Her being dead polishes up the Marlowes. You want inside that family.

Winter shrinks the circle to you and Karen, the school back-and-forth, sledding the backyard where Mommy can watch you from the kitchen window as she irons. Tag-along Shellie from next door might join, since she never fails to horn in on your sled hill. She calls it her hill. You all climb it and sled it and use it and claim it. You learn to share, otherwise Shellie’s brother will bean you with an ice ball. The snow is deep, winter long, and homework incessant. The Marlowes ride your school bus, but Connie’s not assigned to your classes. Whenever you see her, she’s bundled in a blue coat with a hood, she goes hatless, her brown eyes wide in her dusky face. Her laughing with the boys in the back seat intimidates and needles you. In school’s realm you don’t even act friendly. Her bus-wiles and cutting up make her smarter than you by leaps.

Neighbors learn Mr. Marlowe has married Sadie Henfair over the winter.  How? When? Where?  This was no white dress church occasion, or people would have known. Talkers easily deduce the why– to help corral his five children. Alone he sure couldn’t do it all, or do it right, not even a little bit. Children sixteen down to six, with Petey the wobbly first grader.  Sadie adds her three colts to the barn—Jeannie, Sophie and Monique—12, 15 and 8. Too many names, but names are mostly place holders. Concentrate instead on the constellations, their creep across heaven, how the seasons suck and shed light, as your legs lengthen and strengthen and you lose your baby fat.

The Marlowe-Henfairs are the one blended family on your street, in your neighborhood, in your parish. Connie acquires a same-age step-sister. Jeannie’s in Connie’s and your seventh grade.  Call neither of them Cinderella.

Jeannie rubs her fingers absentmindedly across her forehead as she watches Connie push a white leather belt through the loops of her hip-hugger jeans. Boys just won’t leave Jeannie alone. Boys glom to Jeannie like bobby pins to a fridge magnet. Her forehead’s bumpy as sandpaper while Connie’s free of blemish, but the phone ringing constantly for Jeannie’s got handsome Mr. Marlowe in one of his black moods. All three of you bolt downstairs because he makes Jeannie take it in the kitchen where he sits at the large trestle table with his new wife. None of the girls are allowed phone privacy–one reason why they each, eventually, will run away.

For now it’s much lesser crime– junior high’s worst boys calling and asking for Jeannie, and while she talks with her back turned and her shoulders hunched to guard what she can, Mr. Marlowe says, “Bees to the new hive.”

Sadie says, “Shush,” puts the hand she’s smoking with on his wind-worn hand. Dark-skinned all summer and winter, for the moment he even glows.

You’re the smartest in the room but also the most naïve. You sense something shameful in Mr. Marlowe’s simple words. You swear you won’t be caught up with Jeannie, you’ll never be named alongside her, and you’re out the door in a flash.

 

A long alcove beside where the stairs cut into the second floor serves as the Marlowe children’s closet. Their clothes hang on long garment racks like those in a department store’s back room—boys’ to the left and girls’ to the right.  Minus any electric light there, the shadowy space inspires a confessional mood. Funny how no light fosters light. Your Catechism-coated childhood is starting to crack, and why? Because  amped-up wattage in the back seat on the school bus. Because Connie’s new half-family. Because Education Night the school required junior high parents to attend, where they divided boys from girls and ran gender-specific filmstrips about your changing bodies and God’s intentions. How can a “unique woman” emerge from your squirming? You look like puberty sounds—puny, half-formed, and eyeless.

 

In the Marlowes’ finished attic all six children sleep. Four beds whose head boards meet the wall along the closet exterior sketch out the girls’ section. Beds are arranged in a line a giant rabbit could bounce across one-two-three-four, if anyone could get away with jumping on the beds. A dresser with a mirror and a chest of drawers hold underwear, folded clothes, makeup, and jewelry you can buy up the street at Chinatown.

When Sophie turns sixteen she’ll drop out of school to work there, will be promoted from cashier to service desk to front end manager. Chinatown will be her realm. Sophie sits and rats her hair before the dresser mirror. She adds two inches to her height and three years to her age, after the liquid eyeliner.  Round the attic’s corner to the top of the stairs and that dead-on area holds one bed that Colt and Petey share.  Colt’s skinny ranginess doesn’t handicap him when he’s pounding his little brother. He’s elusive and slippery, you’ll learn. Sophie may be new to the house but she’s got vibrancy. Maybe she’ll teach you how to be taller, hotter. Sophie erupts from the bench, breaking the boys apart, whopping Colt with her rat-tail brush: “Leave. Him. The hell. Alone!”

Jeannie has been seated cross-legged on the floor, in a corner of the attic closest to the window, out of any fray.

“Who’s the smart one now?” she says. She winks at you. She’s got this whole new family of hers sussed out, and you’re not related but she includes you in the sussing.

She’s been penciling darker her rather light-brown eyebrows, and as in Sophie’s case, eyeliner also makes Jeannie Eqyptian-eyed. All the girls in the Marlowe house wear eyeliner. They are sister raccoons while you are of an entirely other species; you pace, hunted, through attics and basements. You haven’t got the goods these sisters have. They see you as furniture. Among them you might as well be hairless or blind. You are the bench where they rest their backs, the step-around in the kitchen while they’re intent on the door, and still they’re careful not to knock you over.

 

 

  

BIO

Donna Vitucci’s stories, poems, and creative non-fiction have been published in print and online since 1990. Her novels IN EUPHORIA, SALT OF PATRIOTS and AT BOBBY TRIVETTE’S GRAVE are 5-star-reviewed. Her most recent novel, ALL SOULS, along with the others, is available through Magic Masterminds Press. A Midwestern girl, she has relocated to the North Carolina piedmont, where she enjoys gardening, reading, walking and yoga.

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

My GWOT, Annotated

by Paul D. Mooney

(GWOT: “Global War On Terror,” pronounced Gee-Wot. It sounds dumber every time you say it out loud. Trust me)

 

Ours was (“Is” would be more appropriate. Nearly two decades long and the fat lady ain’t warming up yet) a peculiar war. At least, the part of it I played a role in. It was not, like some people might expect, a heart-pumping cacophony of action, explosions, and movie-style badassery. That shit never happened, at least not to anybody I knew. Most of our experiences involved large swaths of boredom with random moments of strangeness and tragedy in a series of locations equal parts bland and bizarre. Big, crowded ones like the sprawl of our gravel-paved FOB (Forward Operating Base). Big, empty ones like the vast swaths of desert between the tiny strips of green tightly bracketing the Helmand River and the distant horizon of the Hindu Kush. Small, crowded ones like the tiny Hesco barrier (Large, collapsible containers made out of chicken wire and overpriced fabric that are filled with sand and dirt to create fortifications and buildings. Think big, fancy sandbags) shed we worked out of crammed with outdated government laptops and dented filing cabinets. Small, empty ones like the sun-baked port-a-shitters that provided us the closest thing to privacy we enjoyed for seven months.

Of course, I didn’t know any of that at the start. Most of us didn’t. And the ones who did, the ones who’d deployed to a combat theater before, weren’t really thinking about such esoteric hogwash. Not while our whole detachment (a military unit formed for temporary and/or non-standard purposes) sat sweating on an ugly, beat-up, run-down bus pumping out exhaust as it idled on the sun-baked street in Camp Pendleton’s (Primary base for the 1st Marine Division, located north of San Diego, California. Prone to bouts of wildfires, flooding, and ill-advised tattoos) Las Pulgas Area.

That bus was one of those small, crowded, and decidedly dull spaces. The first small space of our generation’s war-proper for those of us who’d only been through non-combat zone pumps (filthy sounding slang for deployment) or, Christ help them, recently graduated from MOS (Military Occupational Specialty. A person’s job in the armed forces. Like on a GI Joe action figure’s file card) School. And it was definitely the first one of this particular deployment for all of us. A full-sized school bus painted the same rotten white color as all buses utilized by the military and jammed to the gills with Marines, Corpsmen (US Navy Sailors who serve as medical personnel for Marine units), packs, seabags, body armor, a smattering of guitars, an unknowable quantity of well-stashed pornography (Possession of porn is illegal in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the law extends to US troops and only US troops deployed there. Same goes for alcohol. Because war isn’t shitty enough), and everybody’s personal weapons.

Las Pulgas was one of the big spaces; a wide-open patch of uneven land ringed by high, grassy hills and filled with ugly, red-roofed buildings and vast concrete lots housing the personnel, trucks, gear, and guns of the 1st, 2nd, and 5th Battalions as well as the Headquarters of the 11th Marine Regiment (The artillery unit of the 1st Marine Division. The 3rd Battalion is stationed at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center 29 Palms in the middle of the Mojave Desert, roughly halfway between Satan’s butthole and ballsack. The 4th Battalion was disbanded shortly after Vietnam). Suffice to say, there’s a lot of big machinery housed in Las Pulgas, which always struck me as a funny function for a place that’s name translates to “The Fleas” in English.

Even over the hum of the engine and the rumble of nervous chitchat echoing throughout the shitty bus I heard First Lieutenant Doggett’s girlfriend sobbing out on the sidewalk. I could see her, even from my seat near the aft of the vehicle, in the midst of the crowd out front of the trailer that served as the HQ for the Regiment’s rotating civil affairs detachments (This is a complicated one, so deep breath and bear with me: Civil Affairs [CA] is the term for units and operations focused on relations between the military, local governments and civilians, aid organizations operating in the region, and the like. The Marine Corps has several reserve units that fill this role but during the busier years of the GWOT it stood up temporary activity duty units under the commands of the artillery regiments. Personnel were assigned for periods of roughly a year; the first half focused on both specialty training in civil affairs and standard pre-deployment combat training and the second half consisting of the deployment itself. These Marines mostly came from the artillery regiments, like myself, but not all. Since the position guarantees going to a combat theater about half of us were handpicked from slews of eager volunteers. But since it’s a job with a low chance of participating in actual combat, the other half was forced into it as punishment for fucking up in some way. It made for a fun mix. Whew! I’m proud of you for reading all that. Have a cookie or something).

She had buried her mascara-smeared face into the shoulder of Gunnery Sergeant Aquino’s statuesque and stone-faced wife. One of the latter’s firm hands patted the former on her heaving shoulder with mechanical affection like some sort of hi-tech comfort robot. Something I would never describe her as to Gunny Aquino, but I filed it away in my brain as an apt description for the cold, beautiful woman currently comforting the Lieutenant’s buxom bucket of tears.

The rest of the significant others, friends, and family lining the sidewalk expressed varying degrees of emotional states running the gamut from bawling with despair to calm acceptance, the two aforementioned women representing the extremes of the spectrum. Nobody looked particularly happy, understandably. Even if some of them would no longer be significant to their current others by the time we returned from OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom, which is the one in Afghanistan). Some would be downright insignificant others (rimshot!).

Hell, Doggett’s girlfriend ended up dumping his lanky ass less than halfway through the deployment, right around ten weeks in. All those tears and weeping and ballyhoo added up to a whole lot of nothing the moment her Bikram Yoga instructor offered up a private chakra realignment session (wink-wink). Such is the risk of leaving someone you love all by his or her lonesome in sunny, sexy San Luis Obispo for a long period of time. Rumor had it that he was the very same longhaired, douchebag of a Jody (nickname for any civilian who bones a service member’s loved one while they’re deployed) who broke up the second marriage of Team 3’s CO (Commanding Officer. A unit’s first in command), Major Mercer, while he boated around with the 11th MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit. Pronounced like the sound a kitten makes. Rotating combined Navy and Marine units on semi-constant nautical patrol throughout the more troublesome/newsworthy parts of the world) two years prior.

Doggett, our team’s XO (Executive Officer. A unit’s second in command. Why not EO, you ask? Because, as energy drinks and ESPN2 taught us, X is a way cooler letter), took it well insomuch as he didn’t end up dying from it despite his best efforts. Months three through five of the deployment for the young officer were marked by a constant string of semi-passive attempts to get outside the wire where something might shoot at, explode near, or possibly even stab into him. The XO of the civil affairs team assigned to the same district two deployment prior lost two fingers to a Taliban sympathizer armed with a hatchet and a significant percentage of his blood replaced by heroin, so rest assured that kind of thing happens in modern warfare.

Sergeant Popovich and I fretted over these developments at first, particularly given that Doggett had previously been the kind of happy-go-lucky fella who freely shared smokes, called enlisted guys “bro,” and offered hyper-critical teardowns of the homemade cards countless school kids regularly shipped over in bulk to us “Marnines” and “Amerracan Heros” overseas. And to think, some folks wonder what use an art history degree could be to a fighting man.

Our team’s CO, on the other hand, didn’t give the whole emotional mess much thought. I initially took it as a sign of heartlessness, or maybe dislike towards the diametrically chummy goofball of an executive officer she’d been saddled with, but in reality it was a case of her knowing the score. After all, it was her sixth deployment, the third to a combat theater, and she’d spent enough time in a front row seat overlooking breakups, long-distance divorces, and Dear John/Jane emails. Doggett’s fruitless and woeful hunt for a Combat Action Ribbon (Award given to US Marines and Sailors who have engaged in direct combat with or received indirect fire, to include IED detonations, from an enemy. Typically abbreviated as CAR and pronounced exactly how it’s spelled) or a posthumous Purple Heart (medal awarded to US military personnel killed or wounded in action) was nothing new to a salty campaigner like Major Carol Butterfield, callsign Gold Digger.

“Was that particular sobriquet your idea, ma’am?” Popovich asked with an eyebrow raised nearly to the Neanderthal-esque hairline that topped his pudgy face one evening after Doggett tramped off on one of his woulda-coulda-shoulda-suicide patrols.

We’d grown accustomed to them by that point. And I learned to take a little selfish relief from the fact that his patrolling kept me from having to share the burden of being the CA representative regularly outside the wire. Popovich was too vital to risk, being the only one who knew the overly complex computerized requisition system, and the Battalion didn’t allow field grade officers (majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels) like Butterfield beyond the FOB walls unless necessary due to their being choice targets for the bad guys.

She guffawed in that biting, staccato way of hers; a throaty burst from a Ma-Deuce (Affectionate nickname for the M2 .50-caliber heavy machine gun. It’s huge, armor piercing, and a ridiculous amount of fun to fire) made human and awarded naval aviator wings (that description give anyone else an erection?), “Yeah, not so much. Nobody picks their own and they’re all pretty much on the stupid side. But that’s the whole point of call signs for us Air Wingers (personnel who serve in the aviation units of the Marine Corps).”

“Sexism?” I theorized.

“References to popular rap songs white people can’t justifiably pick for karaoke no matter how badly they want to (“Gold Digger” by Kanye West, featuring Jamie Foxx, Def Jam Records 2005)?” Popovich speculated.

“Both wrong. It’s mockery plain and simple,” she corrected us. “Though I suppose Uunaia (My last name. It’s Samoan) guessed closest, so he wins.”

“Ha! Suck it, Sergeant!” I gloated. Turning to Butterfield, “What do I win, ma’am?”

“You win attending tonight’s BUB (Battle Update Brief. A semi-weekly or daily staff meeting where the key members of a unit brief each other on the tactical, administrative, and strategic goings on of said unit. They’re very important and totally suck balls) in twenty minutes instead of me,” smirked the Major.

“Fuck.”

“Rumor is this one’s 214 slides long. New battalion record.”

“Fuuuuuuuck.”

“What do you have to do tonight that precludes you from such suffering, Skipper (traditionally a nautical term for boss or captain, but we Marines use it to refer to a commanding officer whenever we want to picture them as a flustered fat guy smacking Bob Denver with a hat)?” Popovich asked Butterfield with a sideways grin aimed at my misery.

“Nothing. But they never listen to me and it’s 214 slides so they can fuck right the hell off.”

“As can I, apparently,” I grumbled in defeat.

“Rank has its privileges, Lance Corporal. I’ll be in the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Readiness) tent. Let me know how it goes. And somebody come get me if my XO ever gets back. Or dies,” and, on that cheery note, she sauntered off to Skype her husband alongside all the other Marines and Sailors quietly weeping/engaging in phone sex in that sandy, tent-shaped conduit to home.

“Look on the bright side,” Popovich suggested my way.

“Which is?”

“Damned if I know. Better hurry up and grab grub. By the time you get out of that briefing the chow hall will be closed. Shit, the war might be over,” he chuckled and redirected his attention to typing away on his SIPR (Secure Internet Protocol Router. Government Internet for stuff classified as secret or higher) laptop, meaning he was either hard at work answering Gunny Aquino’s request for permission to order more school supplies or firing off dirty emails to his wife while she floated somewhere near Catalina with the rest of the USS Stockdale’s crew. In which case he was also “hard at work” (wink-wink). Privileges of rank indeed.

“By the time I get out of there, the goddamn sun will have exploded and wiped our solar system from existence.”

“Then you won’t have to worry about going to the next BUB. Hop to it, dicknuts.”

“Aye aye, sergeant. By which I mean: fuck.”

“Fuck’re you doing here, dicknuts?” the infantry Battalion’s CO, Lieutenant Colonel Llewellyn Hebog, politely queried of me through the tight lips of his wrinkled, angry, trailer-park-Dracula face. He sat at the apex of the giant, U-shaped plywood desk that nearly filled the whole briefing room of the command bunker.

Arcing out to both sides of the old fucker sat the rest of the Battalion brass (Slang for high-ranking personnel. Comes from back in the day when their shiny insignia was made of brass. I think) along with representatives from each section of the unit and it’s supporting elements: our team, the FET (Female Engagement Team. Small units comprised entirely of women formed to gather intelligence from other women firsthand in countries where the local men don’t allow their wives/daughters/sisters to speak with the opposite gender. Sound vaguely sexist? It sure is. Because that’s how shit often works in the third world), the HumInt (Human Intelligence. People who gather intelligence directly from other humans) guys, a hatchet-faced woman who always wore Oakley sunglasses and black polo shirts and “absolutely did not work for the CIA so don’t even bring it up,” a team of Army PsyOps (Psychological Operations. They fight the enemy’s brains with science! And sometimes leaflets) drunks who somehow maintained a steady supply of illegal hooch, et al.

In addition to the true bigshots a crowd of underlings and note takers lined three walls, shoulder to shoulder. And all of their eyes peered at me as I stood off to the side of the projection screen upon which the accursed slideshow glowed. Well, the eyes that weren’t distracted and/or bored as shit. Or hidden behind sunglasses and definitely not CIA.

“Sir?” my quizzical response was the first thing I said in the BUB. Hadn’t even gotten to my spiel.

“Where’s your boss? Why the fuck I got a lance corp’l gawking at me instead of your Major?”

“Major Butterfield has a pressing personal matter to attend to, sir. But I am fully prepared to answer any and all questions that may arise from the CA update.”

The Colonel grunted and waved at me to proceed in a fashion his ancestors likely used when they required another mint julep fetched by someone they owned.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen, the construction of the main irrigation weir is ahead of schedule, despite the initial use of sub-standard concrete in the spillway. Coordination for distribution of food to the poorer families in the southern end of the district has begun with USAID (United States Agency for International Development. Government agency that helps people in impoverished countries. I’d mock them but they’re pretty all right) and the governor. Latter’s promised to lend us some ANP (Afghan National Police) support to get that done.”

I’d lost the attention of pretty much everybody in the room, though I didn’t hold it against any of them except the PsyOps Staff Sergeant snoring loudly into his threadbare maroon beret. Not because of the snoring, but because I smelled the whiskey on it and those greedy doggies (adorably PG-rated, insulting nickname US Army Soldiers) refused to share. That aside, I felt everyone’s pain. Not like I wanted to be stuck in this PowerPoint purgatory, let alone forced to participate in and prolong it.

War is hell. Which I guess makes PowerPoint some kind of double hell. I pressed on.

“The big hurdle coming up for us is the girls’ school we’re looking to build outside Shamblatan, about ten miles downriver from here on the west bank of . . .”

“Hang on,” Hebog slammed a flat palm on the desk and leaned in. “Girls’ school? Ain’t that gonna piss off some a them more hard-line locals? Like that ah . . . err . . . help me out, Charlie. The bearded feller.”

The downright aggressively likeable and absurdly muscular Battalion XO, Major Charlie Blank, shot me a sympathetic shrug before turning to his boss, “I have no idea, sir.”

“Fine, whatever. That Elder Hajji Whatever. He ain’t gonna like folk coming in here teaching their gals to read and math n’ shit. Ain’t he?”

“I suppose he won’t at that, sir,” Major Blank concurred.

“Ain’t asking you. I’m asking Lance Corp’l . . .” he trailed off and leaned forward in an attempt to read my nametape from across the room.

“Uunaia, sir,” I assisted.

“Sure, why the hell not. Well?”

“Well? Oh, still my turn to talk? Hajji Whatever. Thing is, sir, we’re working on that now and have a potential solution. We offered to pay for a bridge to go up over the Helmand right next to his compound. He’s so stoked about the prospect that he promised to publicly endorse the school if it’s made official. It’s a pretty sweet deal. A crossing there would cut the travel time for most of the wheat farmers from further south to the big market in town to boot, so it’ s a win-win.”

Hebog rolled his eyes towards the ceiling in contemplation, stealing further irretrievable seconds from my life.

“Bridge, huh?” he muttered at last. “Gonna have to think about it.”

“If I may, sir, we need to get the project approved and started ASAP if we want to continue the school construction uninterrupted.”

“Think about it, Lance Corp’l. That’s all. Who’s next?”

Somebody nudged the inebriated Army PsyOps Staff Sergeant, who indeed happened to be next, into relative consciousness and I returned to my seat at the table.

I reentered the CA office a few dozen eons later, my mood having failed to improve in the meantime. There I found a distracted Popovich and a cheerful Butterfield both typing away at their laptops in addition to a surprisingly present Doggett cleaning his disassembled M4 (carbine model of the M16 rifle you see in war movies, carbine being a fancy word for “shorter version of a gun”).

“Intermission over at the Bijou, Uunaia?” Doggett hummed without looking up from his task.

“Uh . . . sir?”

“The BUB, dude. Popovich said you’d be over there at least another twelve hours. New Battalion record and all.”

“No, it’s over. Thank Christ. At least I think it’s over. I kind of blacked out during the weather portion and now I’m back here. Unless I actually died of boredom, which would make this purgatory. Yeah, that adds up.”

“Wouldn’t this be hell?” Butterfield smirked crookedly.

“No, that would be another BUB.”

The others all muttered and nodded in consensus.

“Anything of note to report?” Butterfield asked while snapping her blocky computer closed.

I listed the highlights, “The PsyOps team has switched from vodka to whiskey, that guy with Bravo Company whose buddy accidentally shot him in the ass is gonna be okay, and the Taliban cut off another police captain’s head in front of his family outside Jarham. Also the Colonel says he’s gonna think about the bridge/girls school exchange proposal.”

“Goddamnit,” Popovich rapped his knuckles against his laptop.

“At least he didn’t say no,” I pointed out.

“No, not that hillbilly and his bullshit.”

“Hey,” Butterfield cautioned semi-seriously.

“Sorry, not that glorious and shining example of the finest tenets of our Corps who truly deserves to command over a thousand of our brethren. And his bullshit.”

“That’s the spirit.”

“Trouble on the home front is all.”

“Your wife accidentally forward another one of your erotic emails to the rest of the Chiefs’ Mess (Separate mess hall aboard US Navy vessels for enlisted personnel ranked E-7 and higher. Because they’re usually pompous dicks who can’t get along with personnel of other ranks) again?” I asked.

“Nah, she bribed one of the comm (short for communications) sailors to smash the boat’s server with a fire axe in case she does that again. Our daughter got in a fight at school is what happened. Some shitheel picking on her.”

“She win?” I asked

“The trans one?” Butterfield asked simultaneously. Popovich, long having considered himself the father of two boys and a girl, learned on pre-deployment leave that his eldest was a transgender teenage girl. As if falling into each of those categories individually doesn’t make attending middle school on a Marine base difficult enough.

“Oh yeah, kicked the shit out of the little butthole.”

“Nice. But I still think he’s looking to get some shooting started,” Doggett muttered absentmindedly.

“The other kid?” I asked.

“No, dumbass. Colonel Hebog.”

“Ah, of course. Wait, what?”

“I believe my currently-scatterbrained XO is jumping back to the first half of this conversation,” Butterfield surmised.

“Right. That. Stuff. What were we talking about?” Popovich sighed.

“The Colonel is holding out on giving the thumbs up to the bridge deal and the Lieutenant thinks it’s because he wants to provoke some gunfights with the local Taliban,” I recapped.

“Come on, this is an infantry battalion. They want to fight,” Doggett pointed out. “Why do you think they’ve conducted, like, three raids a week since we got here? In a district with eight Taliban left alive?”

“There’s eight now? Did they recruit two more since the last BUB I attended?” Popovich harrumphed. “Please, that hillbi . . . beacon of great officership or whatever I called him before wants to prove he’s the boss and demonstrate that building schools and handing out cash isn’t as important in a war as shooting people in the face.”

“If wars could still be won solely by shooting people in the face, this whole clusterfuck would have ended in a tickertape parade down 5th Avenue a decade ago,” Butterfield noted.

“They didn’t shoot Bin Laden in the face until 2011, ma’am,” I pointed out.

“Well they would have held the parade then. Shit, I’m not a ‘what if’ kind of person. My point is I agree with Popovich. Hebog’s flexing his muscles. He’ll give us the bridge after he gets some blood flowing back to his wrinkly, old pecker. Which is a sentiment that does not leave this office my young, gossipy Devil Dogs (One of the many, many nicknames for Marines. One of the least insulting ones).”

“Aye aye, ma’am,” we three subordinates chorused.

“He’s wants to get the shooting started in our district, mark my words,” Doggett added in a defiant singsong.

“Sir, with all due respect . . .” Popovich began.

“Oof, that’s never a good start,” Butterfield guffawed, her eyes and Doggett’s both rolling almost in unison. Privileges of rank indeed.

“. . . Isn’t that what you’re doing?” Popovich finished.

“Hey, I’m trying to get myself shot. Or at least shot at. Lightly shrapneled, perhaps. But myself and only myself. I don’t want anybody else getting hurt,” Doggett protested.

“Fair,” Popovich conceded.

“This may be the weirdest goddamn conversation of the deployment,” I pointed out.

“So far,” Doggett crooned as he slapped the upper and lower receivers (hey, what did I tell you about the diagram?) of his weapon back together with bemused finality.

“Hey there, Major,” Hebog’s inescapably ear-stinging drawl echoed across the FOB four BUB’s worth of evenings later, catching Butterfield halfway between our office and the COC (Command Operations Center) a few minutes after the latest PowerPoint purgatory’s conclusion.

From under the ramshackle gazebo that served as a smoke pit (designated area for the smoking of tobacco on any US military installation), with a Marlboro Light in mouth, I watched and heard as she made no attempt to hide her annoyed sigh. God love her.

“Word is your Sar’nt Poppinfresh raised his self a queer son,” Hebog chuckled like a corrupt sheriff in a cheap western. “Must have caught that from you feel-good, pussy-ass civil affairs fuckers, huh? Just kidding. Hear the little weirdo knocked out Staff Sar’nt Bucket’s kid.”

“Well sir,” my Skipper didn’t so much trail off as allow her attempt at a polite, appropriately subservient answer evaporate before it could condense. “If by ‘queer’ you’re referring to the Q in LGBTQ which stands for those who identify specifically as queer, or ‘questioning,’ regarding their sexuality, then I’m afraid you are incorrect. Sir.”

The squinty hillbilly’s eyes narrowed further.

“Matter of fact, Sergeant Popovich’s eldest is a transgender woman. Which would be the T for any weak spellers overhearing this exchange,” Butterfield ignored but definitely saw the double thumbs-ups that I and the two members of the FET smoking with me that evening flashed behind the Battalion CO’s back. “Her choice of new name is pending. But as I understand it, the modern Marine Corps is an all-inclusive, all-American fighting force where tolerance is extended to all but our enemies. Sir.”

“Point taken. But ain’t sure I appreciate your confrontational tone, Butterfield,” At least the old prick pronounced her name correctly.

Butterfield shrugged.

“Mm-hmm. Officers can get can Ninja Punched (Deceptively goofy term for a Non-Judicial Punishment or NJP. What happens when you get caught fucking up in a serious way but not serious enough to warrant a full-blown court martial like you see in the moving pictures. A Few Good Men and such) too, you know,” he finally cast an irked eye toward us enlisted types.

Butterfields shoulders sank a teeny tiny bit, succumbing to the difference in metaphorical weight between the brown oak leaves on her collar and the black ones (The rank insignias of majors and lieutenant colonels are both oak leaves, colored gold and silver respectively. Officer insignia worn in the field and combat theaters trades those shiny hues for matte brown and black so it’s harder for snipers to spot them and blow their brains out because that’s what snipers do) on Hebog’s.

“Apologies for my tone, sir. Been a long . . . decade. Give or take. But I’d appreciate you not disparaging the families of my Marines. Stick to insulting my idiots and me directly. Like good, old Lance Corporal Unpronounceable over there.”

I clicked my boot heels (though heavy duty rubber makes more of a thud than a click) and dramatically doffed my cigarette in deference to my Skipper.

Hebog snorted victoriously, though the exchange struck me as a more of a draw. Until the next part.

“Since I have your undivided attention for the moment, might I follow you to your office and further discuss the subject of the girls school/bridge project, sir?” Butterfield’s reserves of feigned subservience ran low.

“No.”

“O . . . kay. Perhaps tomorrow?”

“No. Full no.”

“Sir, I . . .”

“Ain’t approving’ it.”

The cigarette nearly dropped from my mouth. Motherfucker.

“Beg pardon?”

“Ain’t approving’ it. It’s a bullshit deal and I ain’t gonna allow it. Not in my district.”

“It’s not your district, sir. It’s the Afghans’ district,” the cigarette actually did fall from my lips, either from opening them to speak or out of shock that I’d spoken.

“Shut up, Unpronounceable!” snapped Hebog without looking at me.

“Not now, Uunaia!” snapped Butterfield in the same manner. “Why is it a no to the bridge? Elder . . . Whatever will not be happy if we nix that end of the deal and go ahead with the school construction.”

“And he can eat shit because I don’t want every fuckstick Islamic Fundamentalist in a hundred mile radius knocking at our front gate demanding concessions over every project he claims pisses him off.”

What a shockingly good point made in a relatively comprehensible manner.

“Fair enough. But we’re not giving up the girls school project, so . . .”

“Good, you shouldn’t. Deserves being built.”

“And if the Elder vows reprisals against the school like we suspect he might?”

“This is fucking Afghanistan, Major. And it ain’t your first rodeo. Every-goddamn-body and their mama vows reprisals every time a sheep shits on the wrong side the Helmand. Hajji Whatever’s pissing in the wind.”

“And if he ends up telling his people to start winging grenades, rockets, and those ever popular rocket propelled grenades at us in response?”

Hebog chuckled in the fashion of a born killer you at long last realize you’re glad is on your side, “Then we shoot ‘him in the fucking face.”

Doggett presented a sanitized and summarized version of the information exchanged in the above conversation during the fifth hour of his next eleven hour patrol, throughout which nobody shot at or exploded him to any degree to his continuing dismay.

Two days later Elder Hajji Whatever ended up throwing us a curveball and opting for the middle ground between Butterfield and Hebog’s predictions: paying one of the impoverished locals working construction on the expansion of the ANA (Afghan National Army) compound connected to our FOB to convey his displeasure in a most unsubtle fashion. While the Afghan troops prepped for their weekly Thursday night orgy (Real thing. Seriously. Just Google image search . . . no, wait . . . eh, do what you want) this enterprising young lad laid down his sledgehammer, snatched a stray Pakistani knockoff Tokarev (Old Soviet pistol model. Ever see one of those WWII movies where the Russian commissars start shooting their own troops for retreating in the face of the Germans? These are usually what they’re doing that with. Yay for fun facts!), tucked it into his robes, and furtively flip-flopped over to the gym. Even when cheaply made, a pistol’s firing pin striking primers sends rounds downrange. This semi-pro assassin managed to get off five before a quick-thinking, mid-CrossFit scout sniper with no neck crushed his skull with a precisely hurled 16kg kettlebell.

Of those five rounds one nicked a dumbbell, another put a hole clean through the padding of the bench press, the third shattered the cheap elliptical machine’s console, and the last two took Popovich smack dab in the heart as he cranked out a set of lat pulldowns. Our hirsute sergeant died before his killer’s twitching corpse hit the deck. It happened so fast he didn’t have time to look shocked.

Popovich, that is. Nobody could tell what the Afghan’s final mien might have been before the avenging CrossFitter grabbed an even heavier kettlebell and made sure the motherfucker was dead. Hard to read the expression on a concave face.

So for all their supposed hootin’ and hollerin’ and raidin’ for a big, brassy fight with the enemy, the only Marine the Battalion sent home in a flag-draped steel box was Sergeant Alexander Popovich. Slightly pudgy, extremely hairy, idealistic, directly supporting (term for when an individual or a unit is operating in a role alongside a specific unit but not fully tied into its chain of command), never patrolling Sergeant Alexander Popovich.

Before Colonel Hebog could arrange for a bullet to pass through Hajji Whatever’s skull, the Elder piled his favorite wife, favorite son, second favorite chai boy (Tweenaged house servant/sex toy that many middle class and wealthy Pashtu Afghans own at least one of. Let that sink in and then tell me how despicable America was for trying to instill some of its values on the locals. Eat a dick, moral relativism), three AK’s (general term for all weapons in the Kalashnikov family, the most famous being that classic staple of generic bad guys in both movies and real life: the AK-47), and twenty pounds of opium into a pickup truck and escaped across the border to Pakistan where he eluded authorities for several months before being captured and garroted by a Taliban officer who refused to forgive the guy for working with us infidels in the first place. So the whole affair turned out pretty disappointing for all parties across the board.

Somebody from S-1 (administrative section, or “shop,” of a unit) plugged a pair of travel speakers into an iPod and blasted a tinny rendition of “Taps” as six grunts (nickname for infantry personnel) carried Popovich’s coffin out the open flaps of BAS (Battalion Aid Station. Central medical facility of a . . . wait for it . . . battalion) two days after his death. Butterfield, Doggett, and I stood at attention in a row along the path of packed dirt the pallbearers took to the waiting Osprey (The V-22 Osprey is a Vertical Takeoff and Landing, or VTOL, transport aircraft that looks like the deformed baby of an inbred propeller plane and a helicopter with fetal alcohol syndrome. They’re great in theory, but in reality they’re terrifying death traps that have killed 39 people in crashes. Lowest bidder and all) while a dozen or so members of the Battalion staff assembled similarly to our left.

“That’s what they almost called me, you know. For my callsign,” Butterfield half-whispered in a sad, dreamy tone that broke my goddamn heart all over again as our shipmate’s body passed by.

“Ma’am?”

“‘Taps.’ They almost made that my callsign Taps. Because of Dan Butterfield.”

“Dan . . . Wait, the Civil War general? The bugle call guy?” Doggett queried from the corner of his mouth closest to the Skipper.

“There was both a Civil War general and a bugle call writer named Butterfield?” my grief-stricken brain played catch-up.

“One guy. Same person. My great-great-great uncle or whoever. Wrote ‘Taps,’ though I think they called it ‘Butterfield’s Lullaby’ at the time,” Butterfield explained.

“That’s a way creepier name it,” I opined.

“Right? Given its use,” Doggett agreed.

“So true. Which is why I’m glad they passed on calling me ‘Lullaby’ as well.”

“Also creepy. And somehow a little condescending,” I mused.

“Ah-ah-ah-ahem!” Hebog cleared his throat, thereby drawing attention to how loud our whispering had grown and the fact that none of the other assembled Battalion staff gave a shit that we conversed. We responded by not giving a shit about the Colonel in turn. Popovich was our Marine, after all.

“So, ma’am, they didn’t call you Lullaby because it’s too creepy even for the air wing. And they didn’t go with Taps because . . .” I prodded.

“Too depressing. And foreboding.”

The recorded trumpet notes ended. Then started over. That whole tune is barely a minute and a slow walk from the aid station to the LZ (Landing Zone) takes that long even without a coffin to carry.

Very fucking depressing.

The grunts reached the open ramp of the bird (Slang for aircraft. Because flying) and carried the coffin up into it, disappearing into its shady bowels with Popovich’s mortal coil.

“So why Gold Digger?” I pressed on, hoping new knowledge might temporarily edge out the melancholy.

“After the war Butterfield, apparently, went into government and got busted for some gold related scam. Think he was Undersecretary of the Treasury (He was actually Assistant Treasurer of the United States. Totally different thing) at the time.”

“Man, they really took your historical footnote of an ancestor and ran with it, huh ma’am?” Doggett ventured.

“Yeah, well, everybody gets pretty wasted at the get-together were the callsigns get handed out.”

Doggett and I nodded to each other. Of course.

“And, frankly, it could have been worse. They usually are. One guy in my first squadron wound up as ‘Shit Stain,’ for example.”

“Yeesh,” I breathed.

“Rough. Not as creepy as ‘Lullaby,’ at least,” Doggett pointed out.

“And not as depressing as ‘Taps,'” sighed the Skipper.

The Osprey’s rotors began their slow starting spins as the six grunts filed back out, unencumbered and blinking at the kicked-up dust.

“All right,” Butterfield sighed louder this time, her boots rustling the gritty ground as she turned away. “We’ve got work to do.”

“Like what, ma’am?” I asked earnestly.

“Damned if I know, but we gotta do it.”

That we did. Nearly two months of deployment remained ahead at that point but little of it turned out worth telling. Things stayed sad until rolling into predominantly boring and then, when we started turnover with the advance party (members of a unit who deploy ahead of their shipmates in order to liaise and coordinate with the unit they’re replacing) for our replacement team (who thanked us profusely and repeatedly for all our great work and then blamed us for every single fuckup they made over the first half of their deployment as is standard procedure), life got too busy to be much of anything else. Then we packed up our gear, chucked it into a series of aircraft across the world over a period of two weeks, and landed at last on the ugly, weed-lined tarmac of March Air Force Reserve Base (Riverside, California) one humid midnight.

From there another ugly, beat-up, run-down, rotten white bus drove us back to Las Pulgas to greet the dawn, a bedazzled  “Welcome Home” banner, and those others who remained significant. And so ended our madcap participation in OEF: twitching with impatience as we clambered off another rumbling, cramped, crummy vehicle surrounded by the big guns (M777A2 155mm howitzers) and rockets (M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems or HIMARS) in the heart of The Fleas.

 

 

 

BIO

Paul D. Mooney is an NYC born writer with pieces published in American Writers Review, The Big Jewel, three minute plastic, Task & Purpose, and more. You can see more of his work on his website, thewritepaulmooney.com, so long as he remembers to update it. He received a BS from BU, an MFA from SLC, and served four years in the USMC. He currently works as a copy editor at a marketing company and loves tacos, sailing, eating tacos while sailing, and his two cats (the dumb one and the fat one).

 

 

 

 

0

Broom Dance

by Dilantha Gunawardana

 

Someone complimented me, saying
That I have beautiful hair; which either falls

From my ankles, or rises above my forehead.
Depends on which way you hold me….

I collect dead cockroaches and gecko droppings,
Like a spiky comb catches trespassing lice,

While dust, seemingly like dandruff, lifts
From a body and is assembled in

To a little collection. I’m no genius though!
I keep the little sorrows, or my melancholic blues,

Of seeing my hair fall, strand by strand, deep inside,
And still the floors, are like autumn earth,

Filled with fallen leaves. I pray piously,
That my days will not be numbered,

As I look at a partially-dead cockroach,
Frantically struggling to get back up

And I like a merciless guillotine,
Coming down on it, crushing the gauzy wings.

Sometimes, I see my tall dark master,
Dance with me, his hands curled like

A skipping rope around my waist, and I drifting
In and out, like a broomstick flame,

Braided locks, radiating around my ankles,
Those metatarsals lifting, and grounding;

My little toes at the very end, sliding
On a surface letting my feet – and heart –

Be led, knowing that a man who
Can take a woman places, on the dance floor,

Can take her anywhere, la la land, Emerald city,
Xanadu, orgasmic utopia, or the moon and back.

I let him take me away slowly, his hands
Going deeper down my slender hips, his grip

Gentle enough to yield, like a kite string from
A kite runner, and not as adamantine, as God’s hold,

Letting an electric feeling enrapture me,
Like how a kiss sends a current down the spine,

To the quiet whereabouts below a navel.
You can say, I’m a perennial woman

On a dance floor, my meadows of goose bumps,
Giving away secrets I try valiantly to hide,

Like a brilliant moon behind cumulus clouds.
How I let myself be glided on a surface,

My little toes like the front line of a war party,
My fingers, convulsing with feeling,

Letting a man with unassailable wrists,
Sweep me off, my featherweight feet.

 

 

Paper Boat Dreams

 

Tumbling down in a rush, in panic,
broken clouds, as white and loopy,
as Santa’s cotton wool beard, while in Africa,
conga drums are being played by zesty palms,
while dancers, do their magic around an open fire,
Calling upon the rain gods, to intervene.
The pitter-patter, the growl from the heavens,
the neon flashes, the evergreens turning greener,
while, beads of raindrops, on jade surfaces,
are funneled down a tubular leaf, as a child
with Gene Kelly shoes on, looks at a kaleidoscopic rainbow,
with a sense of glee, like a prophetic Noah,
who looked at seven bands of parallel running color,
on the heavens, as a harbinger, a beautiful sign,
that the floods were now finally over.
How that man, Noah, cut the boughs of Cedar trees
In modern day Lebanon, to build a sturdy boat,
while a little child of 7, folds an A4 paper, to build the softest hull.
How beautiful, that a miniature boat,
inside a child’s palms, made of commonplace paper,
can carry something more exquisite, than a timber body,
holding a cargo of paired animals.
How a little ragamuffin, carries on his paper ark,
a consignment, many folds richer,
than the merchandise on board
Noah’s cedar hull.

 

 

Wooly Mammoth Tusks

 

How tons of ivory, are found,
deep beneath Siberia and Alaska,
as the worst kept secret of the Arctic tundra.
A reminder that being big was a casualty
10000 years ago, and is now.
While the modern day elephant
plods on the savannah, knowing that
their distant cousins, paid the ultimate price
For being too conspicuous, for
being too gargantuan.

How African elephants have more
tusks than the Asian counterpart,
the former called by the genus name Loxodonta,
Which means slanted tooth, of which,
there are two extant species;
africana, the bush elephant, and cyclotis, the forest elephant.
While the Asian elephant, walks
in troupes, less threatened by modern-day poaching,
Although they too fall easy prey
to man’s lust of ivory.

How paleo-indians brutalized mastodons
In the Americas, while hunters in Siberia,
killed wooly mammoths, to the point of extinction.
How ivory, in the contemporary,
is a prized item at auctions, and precious memorabilia
for collectors. While a businessman in Shanghai,
impatiently awaits, for the delivery
of two wooly mammoth tusks,
to embellish his study.

How the behemoth phenomenon
scientists call climate change, has bred
a new form of ivory trade;
how wooly mammoth tusks are found,
below a melting permafrost, like,
a milk tooth beneath a pillow,
waiting for the riches,
of a magnanimous tooth fairy.

 

 

BIO

DILANTHA GUNAWARDANA is a molecular biologist by training, yet identifies himself, as a wordsmith, papadum thief, “Best Laksa” seeker, poet of accident and fluke, hoop-addict, a late bloomer on all fronts, ex-quiz-druggy and humor-artist, who is still learning the craft of poetry. Dilantha lives in a chimerical universe of science and poems. His poems have been accepted for publication /published in Kingdoms in the Wild, Heart Wood Literary Magazine, Canary Literary Magazine, Boston Accent Lit, Forage, Kitaab, Creatrix, Eastlit, American Journal of Poetry, Zingara Poetry Review, The Wagon and Ravens Perch, among others. Dilantha has two collections of poetry, Kite Dreams (2016) and Driftwood (2017), published by Sarasavi Publishers, and is working on his third poetry collection and a book of haiku poems. Dilantha was awarded the prize for “The emerging writer of the year – 2016” in the Godage National Literary Awards, Sri Lanka, while being shortlisted for the poetry prize, in the same awards ceremony.

 

 

 

My Most Constant Lover

by Miriam Edelson

 

 

I am never truly alone in this place.

Toc-toc-toc. Bleary-eyed I crawl out of bed. Toc-toc-toc. Shuffle to the washroom. Toc-toc-toc.  A downy woodpecker has staked a claim in the mixed forest outside my door. The day comes alive to the rhythmic sound of its search for bugs and beetles in the bark.

Later the loons call, plaintive and insistent. It is said the same loons return to the lake year after year and that they mate for life. I admire their constancy.

My own story is different, of course. Loves lost and found, a myriad of stories like threads woven to textured cloth. And in this colourful fabric is my centre, this land, my most constant lover.

Shoreline dappled with craggy rock. In the shadow of the trees, maple, pine and cedar, a canopy emerges. White birch trees pop against the green and brown canvas. The green belies the dust on the road that accompanies me, a gravel and stone plume trailing my arrival to this place.

I come alone now, seeking the refuge that I can only find here. A serenity beyond the noisy highway to a lakeside cabin that bears my touch. Children playing in a lifetime of photographs, paintings and sculpture adorn the knotted pine walls. In this place I am quiet, mistress to a trunk load of books chosen carefully for company during the long summer nights. Their tattered covers explode with stories to transport me and yet, I always return here.

Breakfast of coffee and yogurt with berries picked by nearby farmwives. I write until one p.m. and then walk for an hour through the woods to the gate that greets the main road. A light lunch and then, on a good day, the sun is on the dock below. I take my pocket radio and a towel and listen to CBC radio in the afternoon while sun tanning for an hour or so. I am never alone here.

As a young woman, many years before a shelter graced the property, I sat and watched by the sunlit rock, astride a still-watered lake. Covered with soft green moss, the rock anchors cedar trees with their majestic crowns. A fresh, almost citrus odor wafts from the cedar fronds, reaching me below.

Sitting on the rock, in the indented space I claim as my own, I am sunbaked and naked. I chase away the odd fisherman in my brazen nudity. As I feel the mossy texture beneath me, the water now churns amid the fishing boat’s wake. In the distance, a small island beckons. It sports one lone, spindly pine. The island is always named for the youngest visitor to the lake. To give the power of place to the children and gather hope in their outstretched hands.

 

As always, this place offers up the quiet for reflective practice, for writing. Two decades ago, I charged my laptop on a marine battery, red and black cables spilling akimbo, to create a memoir about my son’s short and difficult life. Now, having harnessed solar energy, I am able to write night and day. Power and light now accompany even the most blustery, sodden days of late autumn.

In the early years of my daughter’s life, I nursed us back to health here at this land after the breakup of my marriage. Folded together on an Adirondack chair, we read stories overlooking the lake at dusk. It was a sad time but also, a time of renewal and the sun, shade and wind helped us both to heal. After all, I had chosen the separation. But for my young daughter, abandonment reared its worrisome head. Fortunately, those fears never unfurled and this land helped to nourish her enormous strength and resilience.

Now, late afternoon, time to think about an evening meal. The rustic pine table is big enough to sit eight comfortably. It sprawls in the area once a screened-in porch, now rebuilt into a room with windows that open onto the lake and forest. The table is covered with blue and green woven placemats that set off its honey-golden hue. Sometimes it’s just me, while often we’re two or three and, on occasion, several more gathering around. There is something in its sturdiness that encourages the sharing of pleasure, of friendship. The cast of characters changes with each passing week; the table, in its constancy, endures as witness.

Lying on the dock again in the early evening. Summer sun readies to set. As if a stage prepared by professionals, the western sky turns golden, then amber-orange and finally, to pale rose. An evening grosbeak sings from his perch on the large cedar branch overhanging the dock. As the sky colours fade and darkness gathers, the temperature falls slightly. A lone canoeist on the lake seeks shelter in a cove across the way. It is evening and we all must take heed.

Night falls. It has been a productive day, I’ve fashioned a few new lines for my piece. I prepare for bed, taking my little radio with me for company. I am never alone here. The loons pierce the darkness, making their presence felt and I am content in the knowledge that we share this remarkable place.

 

 

BIO

Miriam Edelson is a social activist, writer and mother living in Toronto, Canada. Her literary non-fiction, personal essays and commentaries have appeared in The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and CBC Radio. Her first book, “My Journey with Jake: A Memoir of Parenting and Disability” was published in April 2000. “Battle Cries: Justice for Kids with Special Needs appeared in late 2005”. She has completed a doctorate at University of Toronto focused upon Mental Health in the Workplace and is currently at work on a collection of essays.

 

 

 

 

0

Vulvae

by Steven Ratiner

 

The plural, tongued by Latin.

Tight-lipped like oysters,
a muscular desire holding fast
to their brined solitude.

Just the tip – the pleading of
ten thousand thousand smooth-
cheeked boys – but, with a quick
thrust and twist, the fervid blade
shucks the universe.

And where does that leave us?
Sun horned like a minotaur, still tethered
at the center of things.
The wavery desire of revolving stars.
And homeward sailors with
full sails on turbulent seas,
longing to sleep again in their own beds,
leaning into the Pleiades.

Vulvae is what the Roman gods
murmur, pretending to say love,
preparing to rain down
disaster via bolts
of priapic lightning. Vulvae,
the weary sigh of those open vowels,
that oldest of mortal odes from which
all worlds, sacred and profane,
are ushered into being.

Vulvae, I am old now and
seasick with fever. I close my eyes,
let memory slip its moorings,
and count them like sheep.

 

 

Old Satyr in a Second-hand Tux

 

I don’t care to belong to any club
that would have me as a member.
He’d cribbed Groucho’s good line,
made it his gospel. And copied,
as well, the black smear across his upper lip
as if he’d been gobbling darkness.
Like it or not, Member in Good Standing of
The Fraternal Order of Breathers and Weepers.
Late night – his breath a miasma of
good scotch, bad snatch, rancid tears – he’d
mope by the wrought iron gate of the cemetery,
thinking: look how damned pristine their
marble pillows! Mossy beds laced in moonlight,
how goddamned beautiful! I’d
lay my head there in a heartbeat if only
that tight-lipped quiff would let me in.

 

 

King David

 

wielded both harp and sword, and guess
which did the most damage? Which
one’s flourish yielded the most tears?

As sovereign, he could make love his guest,
conscripting the loyal husband for a sandy ditch
beside a battlefield. (Psalms have tongues but no ears.)

Between rivers, between a woman’s legs – the surplus
by which kingdoms flourish and kings touch
history’s bloody hem. The old gods are buried here.

 

 

 

BIO

STEVEN RATINER has published three poetry chapbooks and his work has appeared in scores of journals in America and abroad including Parnassus, Agni, Hanging Loose, Poet Lore, Salamander, QRLS (Singapore) and Poetry Australia. He’s featured in the new anthology Except for Love – New England Poets Inspired by Donald Hall. The poems appearing in The Writing Disorder are part of a new full-length manuscript entitled The S in Sex. He’s also written poetry criticism for The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Washington Post.  Giving Their Word – Conversations with Contemporary Poets was re-issued in a paperback edition (University of Massachusetts Press) and features interviews with many of poetry’s most important figures.

 

 

 

0

The Garden

by Leslie Boudreaux Tidwell

 

Thoris lay in his favorite tree and tried to remember his home as it had once been. He closed his eyes. Memories came and went as they pleased lately. On the days when thoughts could be summoned at will, Thoris tried to live slowly, letting each breath be its own morning, noon, and night.

There it was. Now he saw it. His forked tongue flickered on its own, already hunting for supper without him. But for now, his mind was still his mind, and the image of his old, perfect garden washed over him.

__

Everything in the garden–alive or not–had been special. It was how the Master worked. Thoris’ home tree was his favorite thing in the garden. In the morning, bark was green, soft, and new. At midday it was dark, rough, and brittle. Each night its dry branches leaned over and waited to be born again. It had lived hundreds of lives, each one a little different. Sometimes the leaves were greener, or more branches sprouted, or the fruit changed from small and red to fat and orange. Thoris memorized the detail of each life. It was the only thing in the garden that had to die, and he wanted to honor it.

At night, the Master spoke through the pores of every living thing. An instant before the sun disappeared, the garden would erupt with joyful humming. Every piece of creation served as an amplifier for his love. This love never translated to speech–at least not the tongue of the garden creatures. He remembered it as a dissonant, yet sweet song paired with the chattering of birds and the sigh of the woman when she felt sleepy. Sometimes the grass and leaves shivered, but he wasn’t sure if this meant the plants were being spoken through or were answering back.

After that chorus of heavenly noise, Thoris’ tree would die, and he would curl up to sleep, looking forward to its rebirth. He always chose the thickest branch as his resting place. It was the perfect spot to watch the sunrise. In the afternoon, after its leaves had come in fully, it provided plenty of shade for his afternoon nap. Somehow, the wood felt as soft as sheep’s wool.

It had felt that soft.

__

Snapping back to his current life, new corner of Thoris’ mind took hold. Eat. Hunt. Eat. He ignored the command to hunt–while he still could–and plucked a puny piece of fruit from a branch. He nibbled on it slowly, as mindfully as he could, and watched the sky. It was a clear day, but the sun felt hotter than usual.  Mice and lizards below him crept through the grass.  An urge seized him, and a chunk of fruit came rolling from his mouth. It painted his teeth like bloody flesh.

How effortless it would be with his speed and stealth to creep over and swallow them whole.

His eyes flashed from their normal yellow to black.  He shook his head and took another bite of fruit. Drops of dew leapt off the skin as he tore out large pieces to chew.  Not only did the fruit taste bitter this morning, but he could only bring the very edge of the surface to his mouth.  Most of it would have to be thrown away for the ants, or else he could place it on the ground and roll it around with his nose to reach the middle parts.  Thoris could no longer see his shriveling limbs. It would not be long.  Within a week, his legs would be completely gone.

Not only would he lose his legs, but he would completely lose the power to communicate with man.  That didn’t matter, though, for he had not seen the man in days.  He gazed off in the distance, and there stood the mighty creature appointed by their Master as a guard for all eternity.  It looked sort of like the man who had been born here; he had once been cloaked in that same light.  Unlike the man, this guardian’s eyes were not welcoming; nor were they cruel.  They seemed to be made of stone.  No newcomers were allowed, and the garden’s old tenants were slowly retreating to the new, frightening world.  It didn’t matter anymore where they lived now. The Master’s protection was gone.

Thoris could no longer stand the taste of the fruit. He rolled it off the branch with his nose and watched as one fly after another landed on it. His hunger gone, he waited for clarity to return to him. He tried again to remember the past, ignoring the raspy, cold thoughts that were creeping closer to the center of his being.

He thought about the day the announcement was made. It hissed out of the pores of every being like steam. Thoris remembered freezing in place as that heavenly noise came softly, sorrowfully, from him and every other creature and plant. The leaves of his tree rustled with the sound. The Master had spoken to them plainly. Thoris squeezed his eyes shut so tight that tears came out. Words were hard to remember. He focused on them. Cherished them. He begged them to come to his mind.

“We will try another way.  You beasts may stay or go, but you will not hear me for a while.”

“Where are you going, Master?”

“Ask the serpent.  The changes to come give me no pleasure, but something must be done.  This offense must be remembered.” 

“Serpent? Master, how have I offended?”

“It was not you, child. It was your neighbor.”
Thoris’ eyes flew open and flashed black again. His mouth opened in a twisted grin, and another word came to him. It felt similar to the word hunt. Kill. Kill. Kill him.

No. He shook himself so violently that he nearly fell from his branch. He steadied himself and spoke aloud. It hurt his throat.

“Olfrid. Cannot. Kill. Olfrid.”

The withering away of all serpents’ legs, the exile from their home, the fading away of music and thought… this was Olfrid’s doing. Those words, your neighbor, has blossomed into a vision from the Master. A final act of kindness. Thoris concentrated as hard as he could and asked for the vision again.

“If I see it again, perhaps it will stay with me when I am gone. Perhaps I won’t be completely lost.”

__

“The mornings come so quickly,” Olfrid grumbled as he crawled out of his hole. He hadn’t considered the inconvenience of an opening facing the east.

“The morning comes exactly when it must.” The answer came from the tree above him.

“Then why do I still feel sleepy, Thoris?”

“Because it’s time to eat. You’ll feel better after you’ve had breakfast. I was about

to go and pick fruit. Come with me.”

“I’ve eaten fruit with you so many times my teeth are stained red.”

“Such vanity, Olfrid,” Thoris teased. “Come on, the company will improve your mood.”

“If it’s all the same to you, neighbor, I’ll go for a little walk to wake up … get used to the light. Is it hotter than usual?” Thoris looked around and shook his head. Then he  descended from his branch and crept away.

‘I suppose I could cover the entrance at night,’ Olfrid thought as he walked away, eyeing the ground for fallen leaves.

The morning was damp and breezy. The grass sparkled and shook as he walked. It was almost too thick to move through. He spread the blades apart with his claws and lifted rocks with his pointed snout in search of leaves. The ground was perfectly clean–not even a speck of dirt out of place. He walked on, moving closer and closer to the end of the garden, to the place where trees got shorter and grass felt drier under his feet. Still no leaves.

Olfrid frowned. He had watched Thoris’ tree shed leaves in the late afternoon. Where did they go after they fell? Did they disappear into the ground? Were they carried away by the ants? Anyway, couldn’t he always climb a tree for leaves? But that doesn’t answer where the fallen ones go… He frowned and lowered his head to think.

The garden was home—a beautiful place. He enjoyed plentiful food, courteous neighbors, and a warm place to live. After a hard rain, he could count on the Master to open up the clouds and blanket him with warmth. The river provided him with cool water but also a place to admire himself. All creatures were proud of their looks, but Olfrid had a feeling that a little extra effort went into the serpents. Their scales were smooth and caught the sun’s light so nicely. He loved to look at himself in the water. His scales were large–much larger than Thoris’. They were a greenish brown with darker stripes wrapped around his body, with the occasional spot of white. His head looked noble, wide and pointed at the jaw narrowing to an upturned snout. His narrow eyes looked serious–the eyes of an intelligent creature. Many lazy afternoons were spent reflecting on these facts.

Olfrid also admired the beauty of his home and the grandeur of the evening song. It made him feel important. ‘Whoever made all of these things wants to speak with me,’ he would think. But the Master never waited to hear his words. As soon as the song was over, so was that feeling. That soft little squeeze near his heart and the buzzing of his mind returned to stillness. Peace. Absolute silence. Was it a satisfying silence? He could not say.

Olfrid’s body twitched again. New thoughts were making him feel uncomfortable, like the itch that came before shedding. But it wasn’t that familiar discomfort. When was the last time he had felt uncertain? Olfrid could not recall. When was the last time a question went beyond ‘where will I bathe today’ or ‘when will I have supper?’

Creatures for miles around might have heard Olfrid’s stomach rumbling, but he could no longer think of finding food. Instead, he spent a good part of the morning watching the treetops. He waited for the wind to pick up and make the branches whip wildly from side to side. Surely just one leaf would fall. Nothing. For some reason, this harmless leaf mystery had birthed questions that would never leave his mind as long as it was working.

‘Why have I never wondered before? About this or anything?’

He wanted to think about it more, to try and remember more about himself. Where had he begun? When had the garden begun? His heart squeezed. Then he felt another new discomfort. His stomach cramped painfully in a way he had never experienced.

‘Better to think about this later,’ he thought.

Berry bushes and fruit trees surrounded him, and a variety of tasty root vegetables were hidden underground. He only needed to scrape the earth gently, and one would appear. But none of these things sounded good to him at the moment. After half-heartedly prodding at the dirt, Olfrid decided to wander closer to the border. Maybe there would be something new to try there. He would put up with this growing discomfort and observe how it made him feel. The urgency was a little frightening but exciting at the same time.

‘I need to find food. Need?’

 It was a word he’d never used. The Master used it when he lay down rules. They needed to share with one another. They needed to sleep at night and give the garden time to rest and revive. They needed to stay away from… he could not remember.

Stay away from what?

Olfrid met the stranger at the garden’s edge. He was sitting on a large rock just inches away from the grass, and a violet robe was draped over his gaunt form. Beyond the stranger lay an expanse of orange and brown earth with a few scrub bushes poking out of the ground. Though Olfrid felt a breeze on his skin, it did not reach the land beyond the garden. None of the sick plants moved, nor did the stranger’s long hair. It was like looking at the pictures that the man drew for his woman in the dirt.

The stranger’s head was in his hands, and his shoulders were bobbing up and down. Olfrid recognized this. The man had done this on the nights before his woman was created. The noise was never heard in the garden after that, but he remembered what the Master had named it.

“Why are you crying?” Olfrid asked.

The figure startled. Then, after a pause:

“I am crying because I have no home.”

“How terrible. Would you like to live in the garden?”

“That garden is not mine,” he said.

“But it could be yours as well. There are creatures like you here.”

“They are not like me,” muttered the stranger.

“But they are.  They walk on thick legs.  They have fur on top of their heads.  They talk loudly and have long fingers,” Olfrid wiggled his own stubby fingers to demonstrate.

“Can they fly?”

“Why, I’ve never seen them fly.” Olfrid reared back on his hind feet, staring at the man with interest. “Can you fly?”

“I could once,” said the stranger, touching his shoulder tenderly.

“What happened?”

The man turned away from the serpent, refusing to speak.  Two holes in his robe revealed the parallel scars on his back.  Olfrid cringed at the shapes which did not seem to belong.  The wounds gave off a foreign stench, and the edges were moist and sticky.  At that moment, Olfrid realized the stone he had been sitting upon was also red. This substance looked like berry juice, but it smelled like something else. It smelled like Thoris’ tree at the end of the day, like the end of life.

“Those marks are not good,” Olfrid said, though he could not say why.

“No. I had wings there once. They were ripped from by body and torn to pieces.” The stranger returned to softly sobbing.

“Who did this to you?”  he asked, taking a single step forward.

At this, the man snarled and stared greedily at the garden. “The Master of your home did this to me. The tyrant. He saw my power and ripped it from me.”

Olfrid stepped away from the man and his venomous words.  He had heard from the Master that lies were a like a disease.  The stranger in violet scoffed at this reaction and looked down upon the animal.

“So he’s fooled you as well.”

“Quiet!” said Olfrid.  Don’t you know he can hear everything?”

“I do know.  Doesn’t that frighten you? How can you abide someone rattling around in your brain?”

“I’ve done nothing wrong and have nothing to fear. But if he hears you lying—”

“He tolerates lies,” the stranger leaned closer, clenching the parched earth.  “What he hates is the truth.”

“The master only wants us to tell the truth,” Olfrid recited.

“We can only tell what we think is the truth.  If the real truth is never given, we can claim innocence, even if what we say is a lie.”

Olfrid fell back on all four legs and lowered his head to the ground.  He frowned.  It was a strange feeling when words made sense in his mind but felt bad to hear.  Stranger still, the words reminded him of his own worries. His stomach churned.

“Don’t be afraid, now.  I have learned many secrets,” he crept closer now, inching toward the grass but never touching it.  “I could tell you the truth about your Master—about many things.”

“You—You’re a bad creature!  That’s why you’ve been punished!”  And with that dismissal, he ran away as quickly as he could.

__

Thoris felt ashamed.  He had stumbled upon this conversation during his morning walk.  He could have stopped his neighbor.  I didn’t know it was my responsibility, he said, knowing that the Master would hear but would not answer. He had gone home with a resolve to speak up if he saw the stranger again–to protect his friend Olfrid from the dangerous words of this intruder. But the pleasing sights and sounds of the garden had distracted him. That evening had been so lovely. He thought of that time while his memory still functioned.

__

A flock of white cranes made elegant shadows against the canvas of dusk. A black female serpent crossed his path–one with whom he had hoped to mate. She chose a smaller male with shiny yellow scales that rivaled the sun. They still smiled at one another and behaved cordially. There was no need for jealousy in this land filled with gifts. If he was meant to have offspring, the Master would also provide a companion for him. Perhaps the black serpent didn’t enjoy berries and the evening music as much as he. Perhaps the Master would mold a sweet and friendly creature from his own claw or one of his scales, much like the human’s mate.

Thoris loved the woman. Some days were veiled in vague feelings of contentment, but her birth was as clear to him as the first day he felt breath rushing into his lungs. He recalled her immediate affection and curiosity for everything around her. Her first question to the man was about his favorite place in the garden. The man obliged, taking her hand and walking her to a brook filled with silvery fish and swaying reeds. She scooped up her first mouthful of water and laughed her first laugh, unable to contain the fullness of those first moments. Then they walked together, reviewing the names of things. Unsatisfied with calling every serpent ‘serpent,’ and every deer ‘deer,’ the woman moved her mouth around to get accustomed to her language. Then she named them–she gave every creature a second name so they could be more like her and the man. Thoris cherished his name and the love he received from the woman.

There was so much to be grateful for and so much to do, Thoris thought as he climbed the dry, peeling wood of his dying tree. The leaves fell and curled themselves tighter and tighter until they were nothing. But he did not notice this. He was too busy reveling in the song and smacking down the last of his berries. Tomorrow would come just at the right moment, and he would go about his normal day. And there was something else that he would do. Something very important. What was it? Well, no matter. He would remember, precisely when he was meant to.

 

The following morning, Olfrid and his new companion were debating again. Thoris had forgotten his task and was far away, making the woman laugh with a song about beetles.

__

Again you call me a bad creature,” the stranger rolled a stone between his thumb and forefinger, sounding very bored. “It is not bad to oppose slavery.”

Slavery.  It wasn’t a word that anyone in the garden knew.  The part of Olfrid that loved the Master begged him to run away, to find a branch in the cool shade and never think of the stranger again.  But instead he allowed a trance to take him.  Slavery.  The word made his head ache a little.  The sound left a foul incense around him.  It sounded as wicked as a lie.

“What is that?”

“Slavery?” The stranger flicked the stone away and spread his arms wide.

“Slavery is this garden.  Slavery is what keeps his voice in your head.   I know, because I lived by his side.  I have seen what you’ve never seen.”

“You’ve seen the Master?”

“I have.  Even when I could not see him, I felt him.  There was no rest.  When I tried to drive his voice from my mind for one moment—when I tried to remove him from my heart just for an instant, he devoured my strength and cast me out.  My old friends chased me from home.  Some followed me, but they are even more mutilated and powerless than I.”

“And… their wings are gone, too?”

“No one here may have wings.”

Olfrid didn’t speak for a long time. “You think you’ve been wronged. You think you’ve been punished unfairly. You seem to be truthful. But this is more than I’ve ever had to think of in my life.”

He’s seen to that.”

“But all he wants is to be near us. Why try and be apart from someone who loves you and provides for you?”

“To know which thoughts are mine!” When the stranger’s voice raised, it sounded like a crackling fire. The air felt warmer around him. “To have one moment’s peace! Don’t you ever wonder?  Don’t you ever wish to know which decisions are truly yours?”

“I … don’t think of that.”

“Because he won’t let you.” For the first time, the stranger reached out for his companion. He gripped the serpent’s limb, and Olfrid thought he felt a searing pain upon his scales. When he pulled back, there were no scars, but the sensation remained.

“I can’t listen to you anymore.  These are all lies.  They’re lies!”

“Talk to the master tonight,” he called as the serpent made his escape.  “Don’t depend on my words! Find out for yourself!”

Olfrid crept away, almost free.  That night, he could not feel the Master singing through him. Instead, whispers of doubt circled him and kept him from sleeping.  By morning, his mind was neither his nor the master’s.  The garden’s little pleasures failed to satisfy him as they did when something small troubled his mind.  These new worries were so much greater than anything else in the garden—so much greater than a splinter in his foot or a cloud of dirt in his drinking water.  It felt like prickles in his chest.  Olfrid shifted from side to side until there was nothing to do but sit, and that didn’t help either.

The stars and moon were all pointed at him, staring, asking him questions.  What troubles you?  Why are you afraid? Whom do you seek?

“Is it true?” he asked aloud.

The lights of the night sky gazed back, unmoved.  Olfrid could not remember what the master’s song sounded like.

Every sunset ritual felt as distant as the birth of the world.

“I just want to hear you say it,” he pleaded many nights after. “Just once.  Say he’s lying.  I’ll believe you.  I’ll believe whatever you tell me. Just once. Aloud.”

Olfrid returned to the edge of the garden after days of waiting.  The stranger was not there.  He stared at the desolation, gently moving one toe towards the wasteland beyond his home.  He searched for green in the distance, but there was none.  The serpent could not imagine surviving there.  Moreover, he could not imagine an offense terrible enough for such a prison.  He had nearly disappeared into the brush when a voice emerged from the dead world.  There stood the stranger. His robes looked cleaner than before. His shoulders, straight and strong.

“Did he speak to you?”

Olfrid had many questions, but the sick feeling in his stomach told him to run.

“Leave me alone.  Stay away.”

“I am away,” he said, sitting down on the same rock where Olfrid had found him. It was also cleaner, the blood washed away.  “I thought I made it clear before that I won’t harm you. Now … Did. He. Speak. To. You?

“He … he didn’t,” Olfrid wanted to cry. “It was so strange.”

“And how did you feel?” He clasped his hands together and cocked his head. Listening.

“I felt … covered in mud. Buried.”

“And free,” the stranger clenched his fist, claiming a victory that Olfrid was not sure of.

“I feel sick.” The serpent lowered his head.

The stranger made a soothing, clicking sound with his tongue. Olfrid thought he’d heard an ape make this sound when its baby was chattering and fussing late at night. He drew back but could not turn away from this man who was not quite a man. The words the followed kept him in place.

“It’s odd at first,” he admitted, “but what you experienced was not a bad thing.  You challenged him, and he surrendered.” The stranger lifted his arms towards the sky.  “You … bested him.”

“He didn’t speak to me because he knows I was talking to you.” It was the first time Olfrid could truly admit his guilt. He stared at the grass–the grass that was still his if he wanted to walk upon it.

“Do not fear him, my little friend. Now that you know what I know, I’ve come to share another secret with you.”

“What can you tell me? I know what you are.  You doubted him and so have I, and now he’s sent you to live in a world with no life.” Olfrid panicked, stricken with a new realization.  ”It’s what he’s going to do to me. It’s why I can’t hear him!” He threw himself to the ground. If he begged, could he be forgiven?

“No life?” The stranger laughed for the first time. It wasn’t the quiet scoffing sound that Olfrid was used to. His voice was full of excitement.  “My friend, you haven’t seen all the corners of my home. I’ve explored it myself.”  He pointed out past the dusty hills. “Believe me, there is life. There is food. There is water. There is music sweeter than the Master’s. And best of all…”

Olfrid felt another pull. “What’s the best of all?”

“Everyone there has the Master’s eyes … the Master’s voice … the Master’s mind. Everyone is his own king.” The stranger’s lean arms and long fingers painted an idyllic picture in the air.

“How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“Unlike the Master, I am happy to show you.” He was leaning towards Olfrid now, his voice small and secretive. “I only need you to help me first.”

Olfrid thought for a long time. He sniffed the air, looked back at the greenery, and waited for a breeze to hit his face. Any sign. In those moments, he gave the Master one more chance. If he is bad, tell me. I’ll believe you. When no answer came, he walked forward, lengthened his neck, and spoke:

“What do you want me to do for you?”

“I am afraid for the man and woman who live here. You can help free them. You

can go where I cannot,” he whispered.

“How can we free them?” Olfrid asked, matching the stranger’s voice.

“I remember when your home was created. The Master warned his children of a place they should never go. Do you know this place?”

“The tree,” Olfrid pointed at the garden, stretching his arm as far as it would go to suggest a long distance. “The one in the center of the garden.”

The Master often sang images of that tree into his creations’ heads. With it came woeful melodies and dark colors. Thoris had nearly chosen it as his home, but its trunk could not be climbed. Though its bark appeared coarse and covered in knots, to an animal it felt as slippery as the slime-covered stones in the water.

“That’s it. I’m sure he never told you why it was forbidden,” said the stranger.

“He only said it would harm us.”

“Why would he put something harmful in your home?” Another question to turn Olfrid’s stomach and make his feet feel restless.

“I never thought about it.” How many times had he said or thought those words recently?

“Think about it now,” the stranger pressed. “Think hard.” Now he was inches away from the serpent’s face. Without realizing, Olfrid had inched closer and closer to the garden’s boundaries. One claw had crossed that line and rested on the stone.

“I don’t know. I can’t. I just… I don’t feel well,” Olfrid said, his head swimming. Suddenly hot and thirsty, he gasped and drew back on his hind legs. The one traitorous claw backed away. The heat of the outside land left him feverish after barely one touch.

“Stay with me!” He reached out to Olfrid. The impatience in his voice might have betrayed the gentleness in his eyes of the serpent hadn’t felt so ill. “Stay strong. I have felt what you are feeling. It will pass.”

“My chest,” Olfrid gasped, a tear rolling down his scales. “Something is squeezing inside me.”

“Yes. It hurts,” the stranger purred, inching closer.

“Why does it hurt?” His legs bent and twisted from the pain. He curled up, his tail close to his snout. He closed his eyes tightly. Does the hurt come in through the eyes? The discomfort of hunger could not compare; it would have felt like a shallow splinter now. Tell me the truth and I’ll listen,” Olfrid begged. Tell me to run and I’ll run. I’ll never return to this place. The stranger watched the serpent’s eyes searching past the clouds, past the sky, past infinity.

“You’re dying,” said the stranger. His words were like a lullaby now.

“What is dying?” The word tasted like that other word. Slavery. Olfrid wanted to rub his tongue in the dirt after speaking it.

“Dying… is what’s inside of the fruit,” he said, stroking Olfrid’s back. The stranger’s hands looked smooth like the man’s but felt like the old bark of Thoris’ tree in the evening, and cold as the morning stream. “You were able to bring yourself to this moment without the magic of the fruit. Few can. Dying is good. It is the end of powerlessness. Your body and soul stops, and then you awaken a king. Like me.”

“I don’t like it,” Olfrid squirmed at the stranger’s touch. He pulled away.  “I don’t like it!”

“Take my hand. Now I will tell you. The Master thought for a long time about it—about whether his creatures should have his powers. It was fear that stopped him. If he shared his power, he would no longer be needed. Do you see? Do you see what your Master is now?” The stranger stretched out his hands towards the serpent.

“I don’t like this,” Olfrid repeated, breathing more heavily. “I don’t want this!”

Olfrid had known the stranger for only a few days. In the garden, that was enough time to love someone. This creature was more confusing. He seemed to know when Olfrid felt fearful or uncertain. Was that not like the Master? Didn’t he also know the minds of his creations? But what good was that knowledge if he ignored Olfrid’s pleas? Would the Master ever answer his children’s call? Would more of the Master’s children wake up wondering why they had never wondered before? Or would he be lonely in the garden forever, yawning through conversations of fruit and weather?

What happened next shocked the serpent, because it was so unlike his new companion. The stranger took Olfrid in his arms and cradled him. He suddenly felt as warm as the Master’s song. The roughness of his skin disappeared, or at least it no longer mattered. This was the answer Olfrid had craved. Every caress was an answer to his call for love, for attention, for acknowledgment. I am a living being. I have begun to wonder. Show me that you hear me. Show me that you understand. Answer me. In one motion, the dying creature’s doubt washed away.

“I am with you,” whispered the stranger. “Let the death come. It will soon be over. Then you and I will save the world from slavery.”

“Slavery.” The word made him die faster. “Death… will save me from slavery?”

Now a sweet taste filled his mouth.

“It is the only solution.” Gently spoken, simple answers. Olfrid accepted them hungrily. He relaxed his body and nestled in the soft robes of his master.

Olfrid felt a final spasm in his chest. It spread to his limbs, tail, and head. He felt something like spiders crawling around in his skull. A song rose up from his heart, a terrible song made of shattering and screeching. The noises scraped at his ears and eyelids. Flashes of coherence exploded amid the madness. Words. Lost. Death. Never. Betrayed. Soon, the noise and pain retreated like a wave, and Olfrid opened his newborn eyes.

The garden was as red as his new master’s back. He looked out to the lifeless world and saw a halo beyond the hills that had once been invisible. For a moment Olfrid was sure he could hear music. Different music. Vibrant, straightforward music with rhythm and words. He turned back to the redness and saw Thoris’ head poking out of a bush, but his neighbor looked different. There was a vibrating silver chain around his neck that had never been there–or that he had never noticed.

“What is that thing he wears, master?” Olfrid asked.

“What you see is a shackled beast,” the stranger hissed. Shall we free him as well?” The stranger’s voice sent Thoris running.

“This is slavery? This is what I did not see?”

“This is it, my friend,” he said, petting Olfrid’s head. “You finally see. You will free the man and woman, and then we will claim our kingdom. Go. Go into the garden while you still can.”

Olfrid hopped out of the stranger’s arms and into the tall grass. The ground felt hot, and a dusty wind pushed him in the direction of the dry world. Still, he was able to struggle against the unseen current. Thoris found him bounding out of the brush moments later and spoke to him frantically.

“Olfrid!  Olfrid! What did he say? What did he do? What’s the matter with your eyes?”

“My eyes? My eyes and everything else are new. I have been reborn by dying.”

“Re–” Thoris did not know the word. There is only birth. How could anyone be born again? Like my tree?… best not to think about it. “You look the same except… there is something missing when I look at you. I can’t find… something.” Thoris struggled as Olfrid once had, and Olfrid felt pity. “Please. Tell me exactly what he told you.”

“I cannot explain to a beast who has never wondered,” said the newly awakened Olfrid.

The reborn serpent looked into the face of his old friend and saw a stupid animal. Thoris’ words were like the single-minded babble of a stream running towards the open water. The shackle around his old friend’s neck made him want to cry, but then pity turned into disgust.  How could anyone be this blind? How had he ever lived like that? He pushed past the beast and ran towards the center of the garden.

__

The time had come. Something like a breeze was pushing all of the creatures out of the garden and into the barren world of punishment. Thoris marched along in rhythm with another serpent beside him, a female. They usually said good morning to one another, but today, he could not find that word. And anyway, her eyes were completely blackened. She is still a good female, he thought. I should find her whenever we settle. I will take her as my mate. Before he could move closer, another, larger serpent came from behind and nudged her forward. For a moment, his anger flared, and the word kill rose up in him.

“I am here. I’m still here. Forgive me,” Thoris said to the sky as he shook the thoughts away. “Forgive me.” He moved obediently with the current with his eyes on the ground. After days of uncertainty, the Master’s wishes were finally being set into motion. Birds flew toward the gray horizon. Trails of insects filed out onto the sand. The wails of the man and woman rang out as their bare feet touched the hot ground. Thoris could have fought the wind that pushed him away. It was more of a whisper than a shout, but he felt he should display obedience. Perhaps there was a chance for forgiveness. And if not…   A thought came to him.

“Master, just one more night in my beloved tree. Please.”

The wind pressed on a moment longer, then it stopped, and then it changed direction.

He bowed his head and crept home, plucking a berry here and there. They were bitter and made him feel sick. He could not get to sleep until he vomited them up again.

Other creatures were with him in the night. A wolf paced beneath him as the sun rolled away. It hoped that he would fall from his branch. Thoris had never been hunted before, but somehow he recognized the look of a hunter immediately.  I am like you, he wanted to say to the wolf. We hunt. We kill. The part of himself that was disappearing fought back. He listened for the music, for a voice, for the any pleasing residue that could sustain his mind.  There was no music, only the rustling of sleepless living things.

When the wolf gave up and prowled away, there came the serpent and a female. They had also decided to sleep in the garden. His female. He had not taken her as a mate, but she knew. She knew that she was his.  She knew and he knew, and she is using him to anger you. Show her you are strong enough for this new life.

Thoris woke up with the lifeless body of his rival under his foot. A red river cut its path in the dirt. His female had fled. He licked his lips and felt a quick pain. Slowly and carefully, he ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth and felt something small and sharp. He poked around with his finger, felt a sting, and then curled up his little body.

I cannot stop this? Your desire is for me to kill?  Master, I’ll venture to any corner of the world if you’ll save me from these desires. Master, can you hear me?

The mist thickened. He couldn’t breathe without coughing. While words were still with him, he thought of all the ways he could make amends. When an idea came to him, it immediately dissolved into nonsense.

In the morning, Thoris couldn’t wait to open his eyes and watch his tree come to life. He stared at the shriveled leaves and black bark. The sun kept rising, a handful of leftover birds chirped, but the tree would not awaken. In fact, as the sun climbed, the branches bowed even lower. Leaves turned to dust when touched by the wind. The wind. Thoris could not recognize the word, but he could feel it on his back, pointing him towards his new home. His new home filled with hunters, blood, and no words.

Olfrid and Thoris crossed paths many times after the garden’s end, though they didn’t always know. Most days, they reared back and struck at one another with their dripping fangs filled with a death less potent than the stranger’s. On rare days, Thoris could remember flashes of the old times, and he wished he could not. On these mornings, he could only remember his and Olfrid’s last meeting as thinking, speaking creatures:

__

“Where is your friend now?” Thoris asked as he stumbled toward his neighbor.

He was still adjusting to his new body.  Olfrid said nothing.  “Where are your songs as sweet as the Master’s? Where are your all-seeing eyes?” he demanded.

Thoris trembled at the dead, black marbles inside the slowly emptying head of his old friend. Olfrid slinked away, fixated on something else. He coiled up and watched a nearby mouse who sat bobbing upon a stone, as if thinking of a song.  “Olfrid, don’t—” But before he could finish the plea, Olfrid had stricken and swallowed it. Then, with a flicker of his fiery tongue, he slithered away.

 

 

 

 

BIO

Leslie Boudreaux Tidwell is a native of Lafayette, LA and lives there with her husband, Jake. When she is not teaching third graders or performing in one of her improv troupes, Leslie spends her private time writing and submitting short stories. In the 2019 NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, she was awarded Honorable Mention for her crime caper, “Jane the Brain.” In her classroom, Leslie prioritizes writing instruction and aims to mold a new generation of authors who are excited to share their work with the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Where You At

by Jerry Tyler

 

Childhood dreams. Play acted without boundaries or borders. Destination unknown. Past perspectives. By design or default. Dreams can come true. Children are true believers in dreams. Relay and rewind your dreams. Design. Past dreams/future designs. Dreams may feel “gone” but not forgotten.

I see the future as yours, already arrived. Time planning, for seeing fortune as reality. Define. Definite dreams can become goals. Goals are achievable dreams. There are no restrictions on the yet unseen. If you believe, you can conceive your future.

Where you are may not be “where you at.” If you want change to where you want to be. Shift your present self. Today! If it’s in your power. If you are “where you’re at.” Congratulations your future is infinite. Refine. Where you are today is fluid to change as desired. Push hold not stop. Present is fluid.

 

UFO

Kyomi and I were leaving Asakuma Sushi at dusk. As we walked up the hill to my car, Kyomi turned toward the South. UFO Jeremy-san. UFO.

There they were. Five UFOs. Four colors apiece. Spinning between the stars and LAX. Flight pattern. Jetting and dancing. Oblivious to our startled gaze. Other diners joined us. There is a flash and they eject and disappear. Silently we drive to drop Kyomi at home. Goodnight, Jeremy-san. Goodnight, UFO.

Why are you so late. What do you say? UFO. Really. Yes, really. You really expect people to believe that? No one believes me save my parents who saw them during WWII. 1944.

 

The Inside Job

The you only you know. Stripped bare. Your deepest, purest being. The you nobody knows. What do you see in the dark? The you when no one is looking. Purely you. Straight, no chaser.

 

The Us Factor

How you relay and interplay with those close to you. Ideally 1+1 = 3. Synergy. Synchronicity. What you want and seek in others. Give and take? Do you lead or follow? Game observer, player or gamechanger. What do your players look like? Interpersonal intimacy. Honest exchange.

 

The WA

Public person. Who is your fanbase? Perception versus reality. Public versus private. Alignment or disparate. (Polar opposites). Collective persona en mass. The super you. Image/reflection. What is your “we?”

Personality multiplicity.

 

 

BIO

Jerry Tyler is a “Contemporary Classic Writer.” His background ranges from LA Noir to Interpersonal Growth Counseling and is reflected in his style of writing. He is an in demand educator and facilitator for creative writing at Studio 526 as well as a world published contributing columnist in various genres.

 

 

 

 

 

0

 

Hung from a Mitzvah Cross

by Mark Tulin

 

April 6, 1968, was the day they tried to make me into a man.  I remember the menagerie of Jewish images that filled the synagogue that morning:  The Star of David shining through a big circular window on the ceiling, a man with curly sidelocks blowing the shofar, the Torah’s ancient scroll being unfurled by a young boy in a suit, worshipers rocking back and forth in prayer, and a white horse flying through the sky engraved in Hebrew lettering.

Despite this surreal moment, the day was not pleasurable. I wasn’t prepared to become a man.  I just wanted to be a goofy kid in short pants, a T-shirt, and Hi-Top PF Flyers.

I didn’t understand the custom nor liked the fact that I would have to get up in front of a room full of people and read an ancient language.

The barrel-chested rabbi with his thick black book called me to the podium.     “Marvin Hopper,” he said. “The only son of Mr. and Mrs. Hopper, please come forth.”

Maybe I should have practiced my Hebrew more. The tutor, Mr. Hershey, came over Grandma Edna’s house every Tuesday night, six-sharp. I spent an agonizing hour with a man I’d rather not know. While learning about my Jewish heritage was interesting, trying to pronounce Hebrew words was not.  I’d much rather be outside with my friends, swinging a baseball bat than being cooped up in the living room with a man who smelled of garlic.

I blamed the whole bar mitzvah debacle on Grandma Edna.  She wanted me to become a man in the worst way. She kept telling me that this is what Jewish people have done for centuries, and I was not going to “screw up” such a beautiful tradition.

Mr. Hershey, with his duct-taped bifocals and sparse hair, stood over me during our Hebrew lessons. He wore a white sleeveless shirt, revealing his ape-like arms. The bushy arm hair traveled all the way from his neck to the middle of his fingers.  All I could think about was how hairy his arms were and not the Hebrew lesson I was supposed to be doing.

Grandma was in the kitchen boiling eggs and chopping onions for tuna fish salad. The grinding sound of the electric can opener signaled to me that she was prying open a can of Star-Kist White Albacore.

Although I was grateful for Mr. Hershey’s help, I was hungry for a tuna fish sandwich on toast with a slice of tomato.

“Chhhah,” Mr. Hershey said, making a guttural sound with his mouth wide open.  “Like Challah.”

“Chhalah,” I said.

“Now close the back of your throat as if you were going to cough up some phlegm.”

“Chhalah,” I said more forcefully.

“Good boy,” he smiled and handed me a tissue to wipe the phlegm from my lips.

Eventually, I was able to say, Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha ‘olam without too much struggle.

I repeated the words over and over, hoping that some noble truth would click. I’d go to sleep reciting these words and dreaming about them as if they were people.

The longer I sat with Mr. Hershey, the more he perspired a garlicky odor.  It wasn’t the worst smell I ever encountered, but bad enough. I kept watching the cuckoo clock on top of the television console, hoping that the mechanical bird would pop out to notify me that I could unloosen my hands from the mitzvah cross and run for freedom.

On the day of the big event, I sat near the podium, scanning the crowd, watching my aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends nervously crumple the napkins with my name printed on it.  They waited in quiet anticipation for me to give them something to cheer about.  I hoped that they would be forgiving when I embarrassed myself.  My leather tefillin, silk prayer shawl, and plush yarmulke could not hide the fact that I was a bar mitzvah boy fraud and had no idea what I was doing.

An old man wearing a black trench coat with a long, flowing beard caught my eye at the buffet table. He stuffed his deep coat pockets with prune hamantasch, rye bread, and assorted meats.  He took a bottle of Manischewitz Concord and promptly put that into his pocket as well. I wrote him off as nothing more than an employee of the synagogue who was just doing his job.

The rabbi spoke a few words to open the service.  I secretly prayed that he’d forget that I was to his left and proceed with a regular Shabbat service without me.  But then he mentioned my name and the bar mitzvah in the same sentence, and I knew that I was doomed.

Once at the podium, I looked out into the crowd of staring faces and froze.

Seeing my wide-eyed stupor, the rabbi sneaked behind me and whispered, “Read these three lines in Hebrew. I’ll take over from there.”

I took a gulp of air, and this time I was all right.

I uttered the three lines of Hebrew, not worrying if I pronounced them correctly.  Most of my family members didn’t know a lick of Hebrew, so they wouldn’t know the difference between a good reading and a bad one.

When I finished my three lines, the crowd applauded like I just gave the Gettysburg Address.

The rabbi led a song in Hebrew, and everyone in the place was bobbing back and forth in their seats trying to repeat the words.

After the ceremony, my father stepped to the podium in his Florsheim boots and polyester suit and gave me and a giant hug.

“My little bar mitzvah boy,” he said, and gave my neck a squeeze for good measure.

Rich Uncle Sy didn’t say a word as he handed me a white envelope. He just winked.

My cousins, Hermie and Jacob, congratulated me with awkward handshakes, then nudged by Aunt Joanie to hand me their envelopes.

Grandma Edna, with her head full of hairspray, planted a sloppy kiss on my cheek while she stuck a lime-green envelope in my hand.

My alcoholic, Uncle Leo, was sleeping in the back of the synagogue with one hand in his pants and the other holding a card with a check inside.

My mother snatched all the envelopes out of my hand and put them in an old cigar box that she saved from elementary school.

As the rest of the family and friends congratulated me, I felt like I had truly accomplished something, even though it was only three lines of Hebrew.  For the next hour, we ate sandwiches, potato salad, and drank Pepsi. Uncle Dave from Shamokin played the accordion, and his son Louis played the snare drum. I was happy that everyone was having fun even though I didn’t like Polka music. In another few hours, I could remove my suit and tie and act like none of this ever happened.

“Where’s the box?!”  Where’s the box?!” my mother screamed, breaking up the festivity.

“I put all the envelopes in the cigar box—now it’s gone!” she cried.

“Where did you have it last?” my father asked.

“Right here, on the chair for Christ sakes!”

“Please, honey, you can’t say Christ in a synagogue. Are you sure you didn’t leave it in the lady’s room?”

“No, it was right on this chair—now it’s gone!”

My mother was very organized, especially when it came to money.  She would never misplace something so important.

The rabbi went to console my mother, who, by now, had worked herself into a full-blown panic attack.

I stood near the podium, looking at everyone in their suits and fancy dresses searching for the cigar box. Rays of light shone down from the big circular Star of David in the ceiling window. The mosaic of the white horse on the wall seemed to glimmer from the sun. Then I remembered the old man with the long, flowing beard.

“Rabbi!” I said, tugging the back of his sport jacket.  “There was a strange old man with a long white beard who hung around the buffet table, shoveling food and wine into his coat pockets.”

“Old man?”

“Yes, he wore a long black overcoat, a big dark hat covering his eyes, and had a white beard that came to his chest.  I thought he worked for the synagogue.”

The rabbi scratched his neatly-cropped goatee, trying to think who I was talking about.

“I don’t know anyone by that description, Marvin.  He certainly didn’t work here.”

After thirty-minutes or so everyone calmed down.  My family figured out that most of the money was in the form of a check.  And all they had to do was cancel the checks and write me out new ones.

Uncle Leo finally woke up and took his hand out of his pants.  “What’s all the commotion?” he asked.

Everyone laughed because they knew that my Uncle Leo was a hopeless drunk and out of the loop. The rabbi motioned people to get back to their seats because he wanted to make an announcement.

“I’m so sorry that this happened.  The thief will be reported, I can assure you.  Let us not concern ourselves with him any longer.  What has happened on the podium today far outweighs what one individual might have done to dampen our celebration.  There’s a young man to my left who needs all of our love and support as he continues his journey into adulthood.  It is all our jobs to see that he becomes a moral and responsible person in society—to harness his intellect, emotions, and actions in the service of God.  It is he that is our priority. Today he took the first step.”

“Such a young man!”  “So handsome and mature!”  I heard people shout out.

Everyone was so proud of me, but the only thing I thought about was that in another few hours I could take off my Glenn plaid bar mitzvah suit and cordovan wing-tips and go back to being a regular kid.

 

 

BIO

Mark Tulin is a former family therapist who lives in Santa Barbara, California. He has a poetry chapbook, Magical Yogis, published by Prolific Press (2017), and he has an upcoming book of short stories entitled, The Asthmatic Kid and Other Stories. His stories and poetry have appeared in Fiction on the Web, smokebox, Friday Flash Fiction, Amethyst Magazine, Leaves of Ink, Vita Brevis, among others. His website is Crow On The Wire <http://www.crowonthewire.com/ >

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

You Are My Brother

by George Cassidy Payne

 

I don’t give a damn about Ancestry.com.
You are my brother.
And I don’t give a damn if it’s on a census
or family tree.

You belong to me and I belong to you.

We are both spear points among the found
bones of our children’s great grand-children.
We both work to figure out the clues of expansion–
those notions of what may exist if we are not afraid.

We are brothers.

We are mapped out by a shared cosmic background,
both sculpted by the same glowing sheets of bodies
bathed in big, solitary, Texas-sized machines called egos.

 

 

The Same Sorcerer

 

It takes light about
a second to travel
from the Moon to the Earth.

It took me less than
a second to know that

I was in trouble by the way
you hold a cigarette.

You hold it like a wand
of lit magnesium.

In your index finger it has
a snap to it, and I wonder why
I am suddenly chasing my own tail.

That’s not red
you are wearing.

Red does not fit like that.

That is a color painted
on the wall of a pyramid.

Rust-hued and magnificently
unfamiliar, it is brighter than
the gold shining off the handle
bars of a king’s royal tomb.

And then there is that look in
your eyes. They throw sparks like
two nickels thrown into a campfire.

Smiling like a blowtorch, your gale-
roiled black waves blow up
in a magical black mushroom cloud.

I believe we are cursed by the same sorcerer.

 

 

 

BIO

George Cassidy Payne is a poet from Rochester, New York (U.S.). His work has been included in such publications as the Hazmat Review, Allegro Poetry Journal, MORIA Poetry Journal, Chronogram Magazine, Ampersand Literary Review, Pulsar, The Angle at St. John Fisher College and several others. George’s blogs, essays and letters have appeared in Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, USA Today, the Toronto Star, The Havana Times, Nonviolence Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, the South China Morning Post, The Buffalo News, Rochester City Newspaper and more.

 

 

 

0

A Semblance

by Mateusz Tobola

 

 

Prologue

She was a creature of instinct, a being of distilled focus and unbridled appetite. She was determination personified, and she was a seething storm of desire. She was many conflicting things, but above all, she was whole.

Perched atop a low-hanging spruce twig – her favourite spot, she waited, seemingly idly. Hours went by, and with them came an unrelenting downpour, before she finally took notice of something worthy of her attention. Or perhaps it was just the hunger and weather that finally got to her. In the grand scheme of this particular late-autumn day, the trigger didn’t really matter.

Her body twitched, ever so slightly, as her focus eagerly shifted from the dead surroundings of her realm to the lone, chaotic movement in the air. The traveler was clearly weary, and looking for shelter, but in her mind – the prey was marked, and blissfully unaware of her presence. She enjoyed that part. The moth circled around the branches of an adjacent pine, frantically dodging the last of the subsiding rain, before it finally settled down against the mossy side of the trunk in exhaustion, a faint glow of fluorescent mushroom below. There, it would safely rest before further journey.

Plenty of that would be granted, soon.

It was a short trek, and one she was anxious to take. She retracted along the shaky sprig, and swiftly disappeared into the thick of needles, faint rustle of leaves the only proof of her existence as she made her way down her outpost. The wet mulch between the trees did little to hinder her silent approach, and before long she was scaling the opposite side of the pine. The climb up was a test of patience. She could easily discern the moth’s seductive movements coming from the other side.

Amateurish. Careless. Sweet.

She quickly reached well above her mark and coiled along a thick, curvy branch. There was little tactical advantage to be gained, she was well aware, but she was still a slave to her whim – and watch she must. The moth had spread itself flat against the tree and continued to remain stubbornly oblivious. Its dusty, scale wings were in full display, naked, and she could not help but admire them, if only for a bit. It was a tapestry of shape and dim colours, a flowing image she could not hope to imitate, only enhanced by the ever-present moisture in the air. Before she would take the moth’s life – the spider tilted its head rapaciously to the side – yes, she would take it all in, too.

She followed further up, around the trunk, and directly above her inattentive guest, before she even started closing in. Each step she took from this point on was graceful and calculated. She was soon barely inches away, blending into the moist bark just above her meal with astounding ease, when she suddenly broke her advance. The moth was well within reach, yet she remained motionless, each limb perfectly still – a fleshy extension of the unswerving focus she bestowed upon her target. In that moment alone, the moth was special. And from that moment on, it was all part of a dance. What she really yearned for, however, was a participating partner.

She tapped her heel just once against the damp of the bark, and bared her fangs raw in budding anticipation – a smile, really. It didn’t take long for her unwitting partner to take the cue, and the grisly festivities to commence. The moth finally realized the peril it was in, but it was a realization hatched far too late. Within half a flick of its wings as it desperately tried to break free, the moth was no more, cuddled oh-so lovingly in the spider’s embrace.

Day 1

A sweet, sickly scent brought her out of a long, cold slumber. An unfamiliar element had taken root in her domain during her absence and now shamelessly teased her senses. She was well sated and comfortable, curled up deep in the safety of her nest, but a familiar blend of anger and curiosity washed over her. She started for the surface.

She cleared the entrance to her mound of the remnants of season past, and confidently peered out, as she did countless times before. In an instant, a barrage of threatening sounds assaulted her. And what followed shortly was a shattering earthquake, one her fragile frame could barely handle. Somewhere in the distance, a tree fell under heavy onslaught of steel and muscle.

Her poise broken, she took a step back. But her curious nature would not be easily swayed. She emerged again, with unprecedented caution this time, and took a quick survey of her surroundings. No immediate threat was spotted, and she quickly realized she needed to get higher. The neighbouring pine served the purpose well, and high up the tree, she understood – her realm had changed. The sea of foliage she remembered so vividly was unmistakably thinner, and the towering, almighty trees, far fewer in number. There was a growing commotion coming in from a glade not far up ahead, filled with growls of hungry steel and animated by a stir of rising voices.

Her mind was racing.

She dropped to the ground and darted across the slowly waking plains, quickly closing in to the edge of the clearing. A small rock formation provided a temporary shelter, but for the first time in her adult life she found herself hesitant to advance. She pushed through the uncomfortable sensation with mounting disregard, and forced herself atop a flat slab of stone overlooking the site. What she saw gave her a pause.

The camp was bustling with life. Gargantuan figures going on about their business, yelling and pointing at each other as they carved the glade a bit wider with each command. Their loud tools did not know rest, it seemed, and the recognizable sickly-sweet scent of labour filled the air. There was a purpose to all of that, she quickly picked up, and the seeming disarray of movement and noise hid something far more sinister under the surface – a working structure. Chunks of the forest were ripped from their rightful places, dismantled on the spot with startling efficiency, and their carcasses hastily dragged in pieces back into the heart of the camp, only to be thrown next to a similar pile. Then, the process would repeat until another area was cleared. The more she observed, the more evident it became – her kingdom had a new master. And she watched for hours.

As the sun started setting down, a sharp, piercing sound cut the air – a herald of a day coming to a close. One by one, the woodsmen abandoned their posts for a promise of rest. And as she watched the titans retire for the night, and their tools grow silent, her calm renewed, as did her desire to return home.

Day 4

The earth trembled a bit more today. Like greedy fingers, the vibrations reached deep into the ground, and shook the foundations of her lair. But she was already awake. Ever since she had scouted the glade, rest eluded her, and thoughts of relocation intensified. The past few days saw the felling advance in all directions from the clearing. The tremors became more frequent, and the hours at which they occured bolder, stretching well into late night now. She had her extremities pressed tightly against the soft soil of one of the tunnels leading to the surface, and dared to miss nothing from above. Least of all the slowly growing, unnerving hum at ground level she just picked up.

Perhaps she should as the next thundering wave came in with a force unmatched. The tunnel contorted and the earth above her gave way to an avalanche of soil and gravel. Panic struck her as the weight of the world came crashing down upon her. Half-buried, she gasped for air.

Nature gave up another inch today. The spruce tree she liked to frequent – the one she was so strangely fond of, has just been unceremoniously ripped from where it belonged, its deeply seated foundations tearing deep at the ground in a hollow scream of protest. She knew, there was no going back.

She worked hard to get herself loose, her free limbs clawing with abandon at the ground, and finally, after what seemed like hours of debilitating labour, she managed to build enough leverage to pull herself out from under the rubble. Still dazed, she dashed deeper into the labyrinth, bouncing off the walls until she regained full composure. She went straight for the pantry. It was an expansive chamber, advisedly hidden deep, and by far the largest in her nest, built that way only to match the host’s appetite. High up the uneven ceiling, strung tightly side by side, wisely preserved, hung the sweets. Her mind was made up, and she would need all the energy for the journey ahead.

Day 5

She spent the waking hours of the next day relentlessly digging an exit. And when she finally emerged among moss and flowers, the surface greeted her with eerie silence. She picked up a wing flutter not far up, a bluebird spring-nesting, no doubt, but nothing else of substance made its way into the crosshairs of her acute senses. Confusion quickly settled in, and with it – as it happens, curiosity forced its ugly head into the conscious, taking over the steering wheel almost immediately. The camp was not that far away, after all, she started to muse, and she did not plan on coming back.

The journey to the glade was a brisk one, almost automatic, marked only by a passing realization of just how much thinner the usually lush, surrounding area had become in the recent days. On the spot, she found herself met with stillness. A carcass of the once thriving centre of giants’ activity stretched far wider now than she had anticipated. The stone slab she had visited previously was no longer at the edge of the clearing. Now, it was sitting uncomfortably close to two sets of brown-stained tents, serving quietly and with humility as a base for someone’s neglected fireplace. Mountains of logs, piled up as high as she could see in the glow of the rising sun, were spread strategically in between the lodgings – a lingering proof of atrocities past. But other than that, the place felt dead. Or just on the verge of dying, because right about that moment she spotted him.

A giant silhouette, appearing and disappearing between the shabby dwellings – a single man was walking around the corpse of the camp, whistling, undisturbed, as if he owned the place. He made his own pace, a twig playfully dancing in his right hand, and was soon reaching dangerously close to her position. This would not do, the thought crossed her mind with a lightning speed – barely split-second before she scurried between the safety of the tall grass around her. And from within the safety of the only allies she had left in this strange place, she continued to observe.

The giant sat down near the fireplace, and with the stick still firmly in his hand, he started poking at the fading embers. He let out a loud yawn as he did that, arching his back against the side of the tent behind him, and stretched his legs along the revived hearth. He seemed restless. His eyes wandered all around, undoubtedly looking for a cure for his boredom, before finally setting down, in defeat, on the freshly resuscitated flame once again, and then a bit higher up – upon a steaming, metal container atop the makeshift stove. He was clearly waiting for something. And as the sluggish passage of time could not be defied, he apathetically began to run the tip of his stick in the ground where he was sitting. The dirt under the titan’s feet must have proven a suitable canvas for someone of his talent, because before long he managed a satisfied nod, and a grin appeared on his round face as he inspected his handiwork. And what a marvel of art it must have been that it had distracted him enough not to notice the edge of his pants catch a stray spark from the hearth.

The fire took eagerly to the linen, like an overzealous lover, consuming as much as it was allowed to before it would be inevitably put out. With time, the spreading heat became too much to ignore, and the man finally became aware that a part of him was in fact on fire. She never heard a pitch that high. He jumped up in the air and started beating furiously at one of his legs, desperately trying to keep the hungry element at bay. And as he did that, the sizzling stove had the audacity to get in the way. A blur of motion and noise followed his fall.

First, a hollow thud of the massive body hitting the ground, joined shortly after by a clang of the stove falling over, and then another shrill scream as the boiling contents of the metal container emptied itself all over the man’s already panic-struck face. During all of this, to his credit, he never stopped wrestling with the burning piece of clothing. He finally rolled to the side and got the last of it off himself. He threw it away, with all his might, over his head. Right atop the tent behind him. She never imagined flames could shoot up this high.

Fascinated, she followed him all day.

Day 11

Watching the man had become a habit by now. He was a kind, if not a bit daft, creature. The empty camp already bore several scars from his shenanigans, the most recent one – a crushed storage shed, the result of an ambitious attempt to single handedly re-organize one of the largest log piles on the site. He almost died that day. To her surprize, she was even beginning to grow fond of the sketches he left all around the place. He draw in ground and carved in wood whenever tedium and inspiration happened to struck simultaneously. She understood none of the etchings, of course, but some of them did begin to feel familiar somehow. Mostly, though, she was attracted to the process behind it. If she learnt anything from her time spent shadowing the man, it was that his sort and too much free time didn’t mix well.

When the trips back and forth between her lair and the abandoned glade had become too much of a hassle, she dug up a temporary nest much closer to the vicinity of the camp. The past few days quickly blended all her actions into a singular focus – observation, and little else. She barely hunted, and she did not take to repairing the damage done to her nest at all. The man provided a degree of entertainment, true, but there were increasingly frequent moments when she found herself wishing she could approach him in a more direct way. For whatever reason, she knew not.

On that particular day, she hardly realized it was close to midnight before she decided to head back. The deep of the night caught her out in the open again, perched atop a tent and watching her subject under a full moon for the first time. She could not help it. He was fast asleep, and his resting, emotionless face finally started making sense to her in the glow of the withering flame he was cuddled by. His body turned, unexpectedly, and she saw burns running the length of his arm, a distant memory of a fire. And then, a sliver of something shiny on his wrist caught her attention before she could even begin to resist, instantly mesmerizing all eight of her usually vigilant eyes. It called out to her, with an undescribed intensity – begging her to draw just a step closer. Just. One. More. Step.

She slipped.

The fall was short and far from fatal, but still embarrassing. She rolled down the texture of the tent, much like a clueless child down a slide, and the momentum threw her between two soft layers of fabric, right atop the chest of the resting man. She froze immediately, but he did not wake up.

She was equally terrified and excited. They were never this close. From where she was sitting, she could feel an enormous power pumping life into the body under her. Up and down his chest went, not skipping a single beat. Suddenly, she felt like a sailor, in a scrappy, little boat, lost in uncharted waters, just barely hanging on against the raging storm under her. She clung tightly to a button on his shirt, with a desperate hope of getting used to the unyielding rhythm. Soon enough, she managed to find her balance. Encouraged, she crept in closer towards his face, a shy length of a button at first, and after a brief, hesitant pause, up the length of another one, nearer still. And she was getting ready to close the distance even more, until she sensed it.

There was an unseen presence lurking just outside the edge of the light’s reach. A low, hungry growl soon confirmed what she already knew – a different breed of predator was nearby. Not long after, a pair of mercury-liquid, silver discs came slowly into existence against the pitch-black background of the camp. Her body tensed immediately, and she promptly began backing up. She was ready to run, too, but in that decisive instant, she felt the warmth of the man’s breath brushing off against her body. Without thinking, she addressed her initial instincts with an aggressive jump instead, landing flat on the man’s face. The giant woke up instantly, and just before she was surprisingly gently slapped aside, she did find a peculiar comfort in the fact that she probably bought him a precious few seconds to react.

She was right. The man noticed the encroaching danger just in time. He jumped in front of the fireplace and kicked hard at the pool of embers. Neglected for far too long, the flames replied with indifference, sizzling out in the air way too fast to serve as an efficient deterrent against the feral cat. The cougar responded in kind with a vicious snarl and lashed out, barely missing its mark as it gracefully landed on the other side of the fire. The man ducked to the right and almost lost his balance in the process, the bottom part of him still half-asleep. A brief pause followed, with the two adversaries circling slowly around the flicking hearth, their eyes locked in an uninterruptible exchange.

During all of that, she managed to put a healthy distance between herself and the two combatants. She found a shelter under a thick layer of canvas, right at the entrance to one of the tents. She could not take part in this struggle, that much was obvious, but if there was a way to tip the scales even a bit, she thought. Backing up deeper into the safety, she stumbled upon the answer. Inside the tent, half-covered under a stained pillow, lay a tool she saw the man use repeatedly before with brutal efficiency. If only he could have access to it now. She mustered all her strength and pushed against the heavy object. It budged.

Outside, the encounter was beginning to reach a boiling point. Somehow, the man managed to get a hold of a thick branch and put the tip of it on fire, but the hungry animal was having none of it. If anything, its attacks grew more vicious by the minute, and it quickly became clear that its patience, as well as its fear of fire, were growing thin. At this point, even armed, the man was barely capable of holding his own. He was clutching at his burned arm all this time, a thick streak of red running fast down his elbow and onto the ground. There was precious little time left before the curtain call of this grisly play, and both participants seemed well aware of that. The stage was thirsty, and demanding more.

Soon, the loss of blood started to overwhelm his conscious, and dizziness began washing over the edge of his mind with ruthless ferocity. His vision blurred, and his perception became a slideshow of the events taking place before him. He registered a fall, then, a slowly rising growl started ringing in his ears as he struggled to command his senses back into order. He also felt an immense weight bearing down on his chest with tremendous force, but, surprisingly, it was the sharp, piercing sensation at the tip of his index finger that dared to demand the most of his attention. The supporting actor in this drama had finally entered the stage.

When the man collapsed, she knew it was the moment to act. And she did make sure she was noticed. She made a dash towards him and bit hard into the flesh of his hand, plunging her seasoned fangs deep into the soft tissue of one of his fingers, almost reaching bone. When he turned to her, she run, just slow enough to make sure his wobbly vision could follow the path she took, right towards the tool she had worked so laboriously to recover. He spotted it – a gentle flicker in the grass just outside the tent, and a faint spark crossed his eyes. Using what little remained of his strength, he desperately reached out, his hand shaking as he did, and greedily grabbed at the blade of the hunting knife. He let out a powerful howl, and even though the strength behind the scream quickly died, turning it into a pitiful yelp mid-breath, he still managed to execute the swing, driving the razor sharp head of the tool deep into the beast’s eye socket. The cougar howled and winced, his paws dancing on the man’s chest as if he were a plush toy, and soon enough its massive, muscled frame dropped to the ground, lifeless.

The man was breathing hard, weaving in a heavy wheeze every now and then. He was safe, finally, and all he needed was a little bit of rest.

Day 12

She did not sleep at all that night. She found a spot up a tree, near the edge of the camp, from where she could watch over the man as he rested through the night and well into the next morning. As the dawn was setting in, she decided to make her presence known. She dropped from the branch she was sitting on, slowly spinning down her thread with growing anticipation of their second encounter – lower and lower, until she finally reached the cool of the ground. She approached the man openly this time, wading through a pool of sticky, scarlet liquid before she gracefully climbed atop of him. He didn’t even notice. Why should he, she was little more than a breeze, and all his senses were occupied fighting off his condition. His breath came in labouring gasps, each next one audibly more shallow than the one preceding it, until all that was left of it was an unsteady rhythm of a drying up puddle. Perched atop his chest, she felt it all, and how wildly different it seemed to her from the ferocious ocean she fought against once before.

He was still drawing breath, but barely. His eyes were bulging out, unfocused, lips parched, smacking at some illusionary salve, and his hands, no longer at his sides, spread wide, hungrily grabbing at the blades of grass around him. She knew he was ready, and she was there to witness it. A life was coming to its fragile conclusion, but to her surprise, this time, she was not involved, merely an intimate observer.

She gently tapped at his cheek once. Then, she did it again. And when no response followed, the spider tilted its head curiously to the side and paused. A movement in the air has caught its attention.

 

 

BIO

Mateusz found out very early on that there’s a boundless amount of ideas floating just above his head at any given moment. The tricky part was always to pluck one at the right time and gift it with a form it truly deserved. Mateusz works in creative fields as a designer out of Central Europe, and revisits the writing outlet whenever he gets restless.

 

 

 

 

 

0

Inverted Perspective

by John Zedolik

 

Tree reaches to grasp the sky
with angled talons, while its roots—
fierce—wing through the soil
that supports the pressure and weight

upon that nest of blue or rain,
under which leaves, buds, and fruit
may bloom then drop, dying to more earth
that will support the chance of flight

upon seasons of current and clime
though not of song, which, buried
in the rich, deep dirt that douses notes,
may only induce the tremor of a lone green blade.

 

 

Full Time

 

The streets of Tarquinia are sparse
and even more so where the town
ends at weathered walls and drops

            into steep, forested scarp,

So reaching the limit, it is time
to wend out of these old-blocked

confines into fields that undulate
like Van Gogh’s

Wheat Fields after the Rain (The Plain of Auvers)

but more parched, old gold on this peninsula
farther south though near the sea

Le domeniche sono vuote,
Ma questa è una buona cosa

                        *

The way winds like a long wavelength
to tombs named for the painted
leopards, augurs, bulls

—as D.H. Lawrence described
in his literate guide to Etruscan places—

and steps down to the depth where progress ceases
at Plexiglas, younger guardian of those fragile
beasts and men

to step up again to another until all resting places
are taken in

                        *

And some day west across the ocean
alone atop a bicycle on the South Side
ascending the thickly-housed slopes

where
Sundays are empty,
and that is a good thing

to pause on the incline and shake
for a gentle moment a once tended tree
whose green apples still draw the birds

the augurs—like those in the pigment of millennia—
might study in flight

to know the future, which lingers
even until and after the tending of orchards
that still blossom and burgeon into fruit.

 

 

Work Ready

 

Mr. Konipki kept O’Connor
in the small, glassed-in classroom
that muffled the kid-industrial clangs,
with its high tables and chairs

of matching, creaking height
until he could do his fractions,
while we were released into the forges
of the shop where we would toss

pennies and express our amusement
as they heated Lincoln to a glow.
We might have melted pens as well
while O’Connor sat in a high chair,

Konipki red-faced (rumored to enjoy
his immoderate drop) and white-fingered
from the endless chalk nubbed to his cropped
nails in repeated blackboard scrape.

I don’t remember if O’Connor (in five
years, reported to have blown off two-fifths
of his right-hand fingers, firework-foolish)
made it out while we—competent crunchers

of numerators, denominators, true—worked
the alloy of adolescence in the flames
and coals with few useful implements twisted
and hammered to show and ever fewer goals.

 

 

Pons Modestvs

 

I ask only for a hand at the end,
a last bridge to the living,

the pulse of blood under skin
at ninety-eight degrees

and the support of carpals
and their meta kin, firmer

than those craft Xerxes and Caesar
lashed ’cross Hellespont and Rhine,

respectively, though of similar
spring but much less pride and durance,

just a wisp of a warm strand before my struts,
beams slacken, grow cold and still

—withdraw across the gulf to a shore
no flesh-heat will ever reach.

 

 

BIO

For thirteen years John Zedolik taught English and Latin in a private school. Eventually, he wrote a dissertation that focused on the pragmatic comedy of the Canterbury Tales, thereby completing a Ph.D. in English. For the past four years, he has been an adjunct instructor at a number of universities in and around Pittsburgh. He has published poems in such journals as Aries, The Bangalore Review (IND), Commonweal, Orbis (UK), Paperplates (CAN), Poem, Pulsar Poetry Webzine (UK), Poetry Salzburg Review (AUT), Third Wednesday, Transom, and in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He recently published a full-length collection, Salient Points and Sharp Angles (CW Books), which is available on Amazon.

 

 

 

“I’m No More Rabid than Usual”

by Catherine Moscatt

 

 

When people find out you like to hurt yourself, they look at you in a different way, like clouds of pity are dotting their irises accompanied by flecks of fear. They regard you as alien, dangerous, to a certain degree, even radioactive. You have become unfamiliar. Being psychotic is like that stupid saying about boiling frogs in water to the point they don’t know they are dying.

The voices layer on thick like some evil choir in my head. Before I realized things were not okay, I’d scribbled nonsense all over my favorite notebook, screamed at a few people and tried to commit suicide in my dorm room. And then?

The frog panics but it’s far too late for either of you. Even in the safety in a hospital, disaster can happen. I had asked the medication window for my as needed anxiety medication but it did not work and suddenly I was much more aware than any frog could ever be. I found my whole body doused in sweat which dripped down under my arms like a thick glaze. I went to my room because the chorus had started to sing. Pillow pressed against my ears but when there is a speaker in all four corners of your brain there is no way of blocking it out unless your make your noise so I started screaming.

I hate the sound of my screams like I’m some wounded animal abandoned by God on the side of the road. I hate how my screams make me sound helpless like there is nothing I can do. Let’s face the truth. No I can’t. I’ll only scream louder. The voices were not just indistinguishable mumbles. They liked to give me clear instructions. That’s why I let that blade dance across my wrists in the first place.

But there are no blades in a psych ward. I felt desperate. I must obey the voices but I couldn’t. I could hear the doctors telling me to stop but I couldn’t. I used the quickest tool available and started smashing my head against the wall. I was disappointed when I saw no blood. I guess that blood means different things for crazy people. In some way sick way blood would mean I had succeeded.

The doctors and nurses sprang into action, pulling me away from the wall. The sweat had spread across my entire body, sacs of air trapped beneath it, forming painful bubbles along my skin, cracks appeared where myself control fought my dangerous brain. Body weak, limp I let them bring me to the quiet room. It was padded. Still. I collapsed onto the mattress.

My psychiatrist was in the doorway talking a low voice about getting me a stronger medication. What if it never goes away? The urge to hurt myself? What if it’s like this the rest of my life?  Tears rolled onto the mattress as I fought to hang onto hope, it was so small. I tried to cup it with desperate hands. Please.

One nurse with a kind face knelt down beside me. Some time had passed.

“Are you okay, Catherine? How do you feel?”

Like all my emotions had been vacuumed out of my head. Like my body had been through a shipwreck. Like I had, trapped between two clammy hands, the only spore of hope to ever see the inside of this room.

“I’m no more rabid than usual”

 

 

Note: “I am no  more rabid than usual” can be attributed to Dian Fossey, a primatologist in a letter to her mentor.

 

BIO

Catherine Moscatt is a 22 year old counseling and humanities student who enjoys working at the local library. She plays volleyball, listens to loud music and drinks a lot of lattes. She is passionate about mental health awareness and helping those who suffer from mental illness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Moon vs. streetlight

by Casey Killingsworth

 

In the morning
I watch raccoons
or rather raccoon shadows
moving across the lawn,
the animal itself
somewhere else, probably
still asleep, while the shadow
of it skinks around looking
for food. Before the
imperious sun has time
to chase these shadows
away, I watch lighter
light compete with
itself, watch the
moon, shy as she is,
stretch to overcome a
streetlight, neither
of them strong enough
to turn a shadow into
a raccoon.
I watch the moon
assert herself,
momentarily, and
then defer to the sun
as it comes
from what we
recklessly call
the east, watch her
wither against a brother
too hot and too light
to fight, until I come
back down the stairs
tomorrow morning,
you know, another day.

 

 

 

BIO

Casey Killingsworth has been published in The American Journal of Poetry (forthcoming), Common Ground, COG, Two Thirds North, and other journals. He has a book of poems, A Handbook for Water (Cranberry Press, 1995), and a book on the poetry of Langston Hughes, The Black and Blue Collar Blues (VDM, 2008). He graduated from Reed College.

 

 

 

 

0

Gray Yogurt

by Cecilia Kennedy

 

 

The lotus flower on my laptop will devour me.  Its creator chose the most desirable qualities, magnified them ten times, and set the whole thing afloat, drifting through an eerily dark void on my screen.  The petals reach for my chin. I take the bait, click the mouse, and check my status:  unread, pending . . .

People once crossed networks of roads and took sidewalks lined with green grass and tulips to enter office buildings and drop off resumes on creamy, weighted paper. If they were lucky—and sometimes they were—they might meet the CEO and get a tour, shake a hand, and leave behind a trail of perfume or cologne—a hint of an impression that lingered.  That’s how I got my first job— and the last one I held for ten years before moving and discovering that the rules have changed: “No potential candidates allowed on the premises in physical form.  Send links instead to portfolio websites. Include a bio in X amount of characters or less. Use key words.”

For practice, I invented stories of 66 words or less:  Armed with a cursed pen, Cliff writes a memoir that haunts the Internet forever; To save her life, Ann drowns in the pages of a book. She lives on; A tragedy takes Lyn’s memory, so she writes the future on fortune cookie slips; Sparks fly as a mad scientist kisses her lab rat, turning it into a zombie.  I didn’t send any of these in. Instead, I spliced them together for my own social media pages in an attempt to attract jobs as a “content writer.” My Professional Summary link now reads:  Uses cursed pens to haunt the Internet and write the future zombie apocalypse on fortune cookie slips.

I check my status and hit “refresh:” unread, pending.

Minimizing the page, I start a new search and discover the elevator pitch, which answers questions that people may want to know about me: Who am I?  What do I do? How do I do it?  What do I do it for?  Who do I do it for?  The answers don’t form readily in my head, so I drive to the grocery store and stand under the fluorescent lights for a while.  Who am I? At the moment, I’m a consumer. What do I do?  I make lists and shop for the items on the lists, but sometimes, clever displays and non-food items distract me.  How do I do it? Quickly. The lights hurt my eyes and the man who beats me to the frozen food section every Saturday strangles me with a scent that penetrates my skin. What do I do it for?  I think that’s obvious. I can throw that question out.  Who do I do it for?  Again, an obvious question, I think . . .

–My side feels as though it’s splitting. I have to double over the shopping cart, until the pain passes–

When I return home, I put the groceries away and let the lotus flower on the screen lure me in again. Closing my eyes, I imagine that the petals are stroking my chin.  I click the mouse and check my status and hit refresh three more times. Pending, pending, unread . . .

There’s my profile picture.  It makes me look like something is suddenly funny and I’m tossing my head back with laughter. I’m just so struck by some secret punch line that I have to share the joke with the viewer, who will never understand and who will perpetually ask, “What could be so funny?”   This picture, which took over five hours to take and edit, makes the hysterically laughing woman, with the creased forehead look too old.  The light perhaps makes her hair slightly gray, though it’s not.  She’d never admit to that.

I minimize the window.

One of those social media surveys pops up:  The color of the outfit I’m wearing and what I just ate is my gangster name.  I’m gray yogurt. Who am I? I’m gray yogurt.  It doesn’t sound gangster enough, so I shout it out loud and listen for the echo.  I’m convinced I’ve convinced myself I’m gray yogurt. Now, I just need to figure out what I do.  I search for ideas through job postings and decide that I could tailor my qualifications to fit those for an administrative assistant in a medical arts building, but the pain returns to my side—as if hot needles were piercing into my flesh, over and over again—stitching something up inside me—or attaching something to me, but I’m ignoring the pain— typing furiously now because the deadline is approaching and I need to create a Twitter account with a very clever handle.  When I’m finished, I realize I won’t be able to get into an elevator with the hiring team for this position because actual physical candidates are never allowed “in person.”  So, I call the number listed on the job posting and leave my elevator pitch message, shouting loudly and clearly:

I’m gray yogurt—ready to deliver stellar customer service with my hardcore humanities degree! I’m all about hardcore customer service—able to write effective, meaningful, 25-character Tweets that will rock the Westside Medical Arts Building staff and potential patients—and existing patients—with a 100% zombie prevention rate.

When I’m finished, I cry. Of course I sound ridiculous—and I just sent my resume without including the key words. The pain in my side intensifies and my sobs echo off the pale walls of my windowless apartment. The burning, knitting together of needles in my side won’t stop.  Minimizing the window on the computer screen, I watch the lotus flower open its petals wide, to eat me I suppose.  The pain grips me—rips into me—and I have to pull my chair back from my desk, so I can bend over.  I believe that if I just hold my middle together, I can soothe away the agony, but the crease in the center makes the burning sensation stronger and I notice a leak—a trickle of thick, puss and liquid, angry and red, seeping out onto my shirt.  A round, lumpy mass bulges from the gray cotton fabric, as nausea pours over me in waves of hot and cold.

On the screen, the lotus seems to pulse and bloom in steady staccato rhythms. It grows a head with teeth, yet I’m more frightened by the lump beneath my shirt.  My body twists, convulses, and expels the contents of my stomach onto the carpet.  The air is ripe. Stepping outside seems to be the only relief. So, I stand up and gather the courage I need to look at the lump that’s seeping and oozing. My trembling hand pulls away the fabric, and I take in the sight of some kind of fluid-filled sac that’s purple, blue, and riddled with veins.  It too pulses in time with the lotus on the screen and I can see the stitches.  They are thick and black, holding this thing together.

The fowl stench in the air grows unbearable, and I remember to go outside. If I can manage to get outside, I can at least overcome the impulse to retch, which only prolongs the burning.

Outside, it’s raining.  The heavy drops cool my skin. I let the rain fall on the sac that’s stitched to my side.  The fluid mixes with the water and sloughs off into the muddy soil below. The whole thing simply detaches, and I’m left with just the stitches, which I begin to pull, carefully from my skin, letting them untangle and fall onto the shapeless sac in the mud.  The driving rain forces the gel-like material and the black stitches into the ground, making them into a form that’s much larger than it ever was before—and something about it looks familiar.  The blues and reds mix together with the outline of the stitches to hold them in place, if only temporarily. I recognize the beckoning petals unfurling.  A new lotus floats on pools of water in the mud.  It occurs to me to snap a picture and post to my social media page—to capture it for likes and comments—to attach it to my Professional Summary, but I don’t. I let it dissolve, and I walk away.

 

 

 

BIO

Cecilia Kennedy earned a doctorate in Spanish literature and taught English and Spanish for 20 years in Ohio before moving to the Greater Seattle area with her husband, teenage son, and cat. In 2017, she began writing fiction for the first time. Since then, about sixteen of her short stories have appeared in eleven different literary journals/magazines online and in print.  She also has a blog called “Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks,” where she chronicles her humorous attempts at cooking and home repair. (https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/)

 

 

 

 

 

INTERVIEW: Mallory O’Meara

Author of The Lady from the Black Lagoon

 

Photo by Allan Amato

 

BIOGRAPHY

Mallory O’Meara is an author and filmmaker. She has been a producer for the independent film company Dark Dunes Productions since 2013. Her latest film, the live-action puppet feature Yamasong: March of the Hollows, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Fillion and Abigail Breslin, was released in spring of 2019.

Her first book is bestselling nonfiction work The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick.

Whether it’s for the screen or the page, Mallory seeks creative projects filled with horror and monsters. A New England native, she now lives in Los Angeles with her two cats.

Every week, Mallory hosts the literary podcast Reading Glasses alongside filmmaker and writer Brea Grant. Reading Glasses is part of the Maximum Fun podcast network.

 

 

As a teenager, Mallory O’Meara was thrilled to discover that one of her favorite movies, Creature from the Black Lagoon, featured a monster designed by a woman, Milicent Patrick. But for someone who should have been hailed as a pioneer in the genre there was little information available. For, as O’Meara soon discovered, Patrick’s contribution had been claimed by a jealous male colleague, her career had been cut short and she soon after had disappeared from film history. No one even knew if she was still alive.

As a young woman working in the horror film industry, O’Meara set out to right the wrong, and in the process discovered the full, fascinating story of an ambitious, artistic woman ahead of her time. Patrick’s contribution to special effects proved to be just the latest chapter in a remarkable, unconventional life, from her youth growing up in the shadow of Hearst Castle, to her career as one of Disney’s first female animators. And at last, O’Meara discovered what really had happened to Patrick after The Creature’s success, and where she went.

A true-life detective story and a celebration of a forgotten feminist trailblazer, Mallory O’Meara’s The Lady from the Black Lagoon establishes Patrick in her rightful place in film history while calling out a Hollywood culture where little has changed since.

 

 

WD: Congratulations on your new book! It’s quite an amazing story. How long did it take you to write — from concept to completion?

This book took about three years, from first getting the idea to handing off the final draft.

 

WD: When writing a book or script, what is your typical routine for the day?

I don’t have a day routine at all! I’m a night writer. I can only work creatively when the sun is down. I spend the day doing administrative work with my film company and working on my podcast, Reading Glasses. Then, I write for 3-4 hours in the evening, as soon as the sun sets.

 

WD: Where do you usually write?

I write at my desk at home in my little office. If I have to write in public, I prefer going to a library.

 

WD: Describe your work space, and the tools you use?

All of my projects start out in notebooks. My work space is filled with notebooks, outlines, highlighters and index cards. All of these eventually coalesce into what gets typed into my laptop.

 

WD: Bela Lugosi lived in the Valley, lots of famous people did. I always find it interesting to see the homes celebrities lived in. Is Milicent Patrick’s home in Sherman Oaks still there?

It is, but it is no longer in the family.

 

WD: What was your best research find/person, besides her family?

There were so many great research finds on this project! One of the best was getting access to all the production materials for CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON in the University of Southern California’s Cinematic Arts Library.

 

WD: What was the most difficult part of writing your book?

Tracking down all the different parts of Milicent’s life was the most difficult part. The actual writing of the book was a breeze compared to the years of research and detective work.

 

WD: What are you working on now?

I am working on several new books, hopefully which I’ll be able to announce soon!

 

WD: What music do you listen to? Do you listen to music when you write?

I listen to a wide variety of music, but my favorites are metal, 50s doo wop and Tom Waits. I always listen to music when I write and I try to match the feel of what I’m writing to the music I’m listening to.

 

WD: Are there any other stories about unheralded/unsung/unknown women you would like to tell?

There are, but I unfortunately can’t talk about them yet!

 

WD: Name your favorite writers and filmmakers—past or present?

My favorite writer is Shirley Jackson, the queen of American Horror. I have many favorite filmmakers, but the two at the top of the list are David Lynch and Guillermo del Toro.

 

WD: Any advice for writers or filmmakers starting out today?

Don’t be afraid to make bad art! It’s much easier to fix a bad piece of writing than it is to fix a piece of writing that doesn’t exist yet.

 

WD: Thank you for participating. We appreciate your time.

 

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION: malloryomeara.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

STAY IN TOUCH