Card Poems by J4
j4 is a collective of four persons, all given names beginning with j, who are compelled to explore transindividual composition.
Ricardo says you cannot hear them. They slink like cats, he says. Ricardo says you cannot see them, not like you’d see your sister waiting on the curb for the school bus. They’re in the shadows, he says. That flick in the corner of your eye? That’s them, he says. When you see that flick, if you turn fast enough you might see the tip of a shoe or a wisp of hair. When you see that flick, you must move closer, you must look behind the utility box, around the block wall, deep into the shadows. If you ignore that flick, she will wait, not moving, not breathing. She will wait for the train and then, when it’s too late, you’ll see her. You’ll see her slide her body onto the tracks, under the crushing wheels, silently, skillfully, as if she’s been practicing all of her life for this act. She will reveal herself at the last possible moment, right as the train is passing, right as her life is ending, right as your life is beginning. And then you’ll be fired.
That’s how it happened for Ricardo. He worked security at this crossing for seven months. Seven months of watching and waiting, seven months of double-time pay, seven months of being a man. Then the teenage girl crept out of the shadows and ended it all. Now he works at fast food for minimum wage. No other boss will hire him. He is dirty, tainted with her blood. Now he wakes up in the middle of the night, soaked in sweat, replaying that day, wondering if there was a flick, wondering if he could have stopped her, wondering if he will ever be a man again.
I took over Ricardo’s shift after the accident. Now I watch for girls who don’t want to be seen, listen for boys who don’t want to be heard. Teenagers who want to end their lives before they begin.
Every time it happens, the people and the newspapers tell us who, they tell us why: Parents who sacrifice everything so their children can have better lives. Parents who expect the impossible. Parents who are themselves geniuses, overachievers, the smartest in the world, who expect their children to do better. Children who grow up on the edge of the University, surrounded by the children of the smartest people in the world, who are told that if they don’t do better, they’re nothing. Children who sit in classrooms and libraries and tutoring centers under florescent lights for ten hours a day since they were three. Teenagers who go to the funerals of other teenagers who slid under the train. Young men and women who can think of no other option than to lie down under steel wheels to end the humiliation, the shame, of not getting into Harvard, of not scoring a perfect 2400 on their SATs, of not doing better than the smartest people in the world.
I know the older brothers of these kids. I played against them on the soccer pitch, rich against poor. I saw them around the edges of their town, when they crossed into my town. They wouldn’t talk to me, wouldn’t see me, wouldn’t hear me. Now their younger brothers and sisters dive below the trains. They still don’t talk to me or see me, but I’m the one who will save their families.
Mr. Johanson says the worst is around finals, and the worst of the worst is when college admissions go out in the Spring. That’s when they come to the tracks, he says. That’s when you must be extra alert, he says. That’s also when the loud ones, the strange ones, come down to the crossing, sit on the block wall and watch. They think it’s sport, or a movie, or something to tweet about. They think it’s funny to place bets with their allowance money. Those ones are easy to see, easy to hear. I chase them away. They laugh at me. They don’t understand.
The commuter trains, they slow at the crossing. I see the faces of the conductors as they pass. Their mouths tighten, their eyes dart, the creases on their foreheads deepen with each pass. The freight trains, they don’t slow. Their cars and TVs and cattle are too important, must reach the markets. I don’t see the faces of those conductors. Do they see me? Do they understand?
My grandfather, he doesn’t understand. “Los trenes trajo vida a mi pueblo,” he says. “Los trenes eran nuestra esperanza, nuestra manera de entrar a América,” he says. He and his friends also waited in the shadows beside the tracks. They also crept silently toward the fast-moving trains. But they jumped onto the trains, they prayed to escape the crush of the steel wheels, they pulled each other onto the train cars and hid from the conductors. They rode the trains to freedom, to jobs, to a better life.
My brothers, they don’t understand. “You’re a crossing guard for spoiled rich kids,” they say. “Yes,” I say, “A crossing guard for spoiled rich kids who makes twice what you make.” That quiets them down.
My mother, she understands. “You are doing good, Joselito,” she says. “You are helping the sad niños, you are becoming un buen hombre. You are doing good.” “Yes,” I say to my mother. “I am doing good, and I will become a man.”
Mr. Johanson also says that I’m doing good. He says that I’ll be promoted, will be a supervisor, will stop watching for children who don’t want to be seen and will be the boss of other men. But first, I must see the flick. I must look deep into the shadows. I must be a man.
Mona Leigh Rose lives and writes in Santa Barbara, California. Her stories “You Be Frodo” and “Peace” have appeared in Luna Review. She is infatuated with short fiction, the shorter the better.
Cameron Bliss creates images of people, real and imagined, and somewhere in between. Her subjects are mesmerizing, moody and deeply evocative. Cameron received her degree from the Savannah College of Art and design. Her work hangs in private collections in Australia, Mexico, several countries in Europe, as well as in the United States. She lives and paints and Winterville, near Athens, Georgia, where she serves on the Winterville arts Council.
If you were to step into one of my paintings, you might feel as though you suddenly interrupted a deeply intimate exchange. I am a painter of authentic souls suspended in their mundane realness; in moments of timeless suspense. My paintings are more than just “portraits” hanging over the mantle. I strive to go beyond a nose being placed in the center of the face. My desire is that the viewer asks my subjects “What are you hopeful for in your heart, your mind, and your soul?”
Instagram – cameronblissart
The universe keeps giving me brothers.
Henry was there when I was a baby. Not technically my brother, but an uncle born so late to my grandparents that he was only a few years older. When my mother remarried, I gained two more older brothers, Dan and Jake. My first younger brother, Ollie, came a year or so later, courtesy of that new marriage. And finally, my father’s new wife brought me two more younger brothers, Todd and Jack.
And so I, an only child by blood, had six brothers by blessing.
I stood in the wings at the concert hall, rubbing my hands together and rocking back and forth from my toes to my heels. For the first time, I was going to play piano and sing in front of an audience. None of my parents could make it—my father and stepmother lived across the country now, and my mother and stepfather were away on business—four absentee parents, who could never shape my life as much as my brothers do, no matter how they (in particular my mother) tried.
I had my brothers there, and that was what mattered. For the first time, all six of my brothers were in one room. For me.
The house lights went down. I took a deep breath and stepped out into the blinding white spotlight. The polished, softly shining keys of the baby grand beckoned. My fingers fluttered over them, and sweet, soft music filled the room. My eyes drifted shut. Here, on the bench, at the black and white keys—this was my second home.
My thudding heart interrupted the moment’s tranquility. For an instant I didn’t know why, but then I remembered: I had to sing. The first note was fast approaching. My hands began to shake, and I struggled to place each finger correctly. For heaven’s sake, you practiced this forever! There’s no excuse for making stupid mistakes now.
I opened my mouth, and the first few notes came out, clear and solid, if not breathtakingly beautiful. I drew in a breath for the next bar.
A shriek from the audience flew at me.
I stopped playing and whipped around.
Though the high beam of the spotlight was meant to illuminate me, I could see the first row, and all six of my brothers sitting in it. But something was wrong. Their bodies contorted and bent, arms stretching at odd angles, necks elongating. Their skin burst into white feathers.
Before my eyes, my six brothers became six swans. As I stared from my spot at the silent piano, they took wing, and flew from the auditorium.
My lungs burned. I had been running since I fled from the stage, and I didn’t stop until I reached my bedroom. This is all your fault; you make an absolute mess of everything—I fumbled for my spellbook, frantically flipped pages, and stared at the spell I’d done last night.
I knew, deep down, what had happened. I had wanted to sing well. I had wanted my brothers, all of them, to be proud of me. I’d been thinking of my brothers as I enacted the spell, when I should have been focusing on myself. How could you have been so careless? Stupid! I’d been thinking of them when I inhaled a mouthful of sage smoke and choked on the word “swanaz.”
Why on earth would you try a spell in an ancient language that you of course don’t know? What an idiotic decision!
I sat back on my heels. My brothers were waterfowl, and it was all my fault. They’d all been there for me, and it was all my fault.
~ ~ ~
Henry sat me down at the piano bench. “Come on, let’s play piano for a while.”
I squirmed and tried to get back up. “I want to go outside!”
He laughed. “It’s raining cats and dogs! Come on, Juli, I’ll teach you a song.”
I stilled at the thought of learning something on the piano. Henry made such beautiful music come from the keys; I wanted to too.
Henry put his hand over mine and helped me tap out a four-note rhythm. “F-D-G-C,” he sang along. “And repeat, repeat, repeat.” We practiced until I could plunk it out on my own, and gradually I got faster, until I was doing it in perfect four/four time. As I continued to enthusiastically strike the keys, Henry stretched out his fingers and began to play a slightly more complicated melody on top of mine.
For a few minutes, we played together beautifully, our separate melodies intertwining into one full-fledged song. Then I lost my notes under his and began to stumble. I slowed, hit a wrong note, and my stomach dropped. My hand slid off the keys.
Henry paused. “What’s wrong? That was great!”
I studied my lap. “I did it wrong. I’m stupid.”
His brow creased. “Where did you get that idea?”
I shrugged. “I can’t do it, Henry.”
“Juli.” Henry put his arm around my shoulders. “You don’t have to be good at things right away. Making mistakes is how you learn.”
Chewing on my already-shredded lower lip, I continued to leaf through my spellbook. There had to be a way to break this. Mistakes are how you learn. There had to be a way to fix this. But spell books handed down from your great-grandmother don’t come with indexes, and looking for a counter-spell was slow going.
My neck ached and my feet had long since fell asleep, but I remained on the floor, searching, searching. For heaven’s sake, the spellbook isn’t all that difficult to use! Why haven’t you found something yet?
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. As calmly as I was able, I started at the back of the book and flipped forward. I took the time to read the title of each spell, and my entire body twitched with impatience. This wouldn’t take so long if you weren’t so careless and stupid.
And then, there it was. A spell to reverse animal transformations. Based on the illustrations of gooey-eyed figures, it was originally intended to restore a lover cursed by another jealous witch, but it would work just fine for brothers. There was one warning, right at the top of the page: The casting witch had to remain completely, utterly silent for the entire duration of the spell. I quickly scanned the spell.
My stomach dropped.
~ ~ ~
Dan started up the car. “You ready, Juli?”
“Yeah!” I bounced a little in my seat. Dan was taking me to a high school party. Me, a sixth grader! A high school party!
He grinned. His smile was crooked, like a child’s drawing of a crescent moon. “This is gonna be awesome.”
The party wasn’t quite what I expected. Instead of a houseful of teenagers dancing and flirting with each other, it was a group of ten or so people lounging around in a low-lit living room. I hung back near the doorway as Dan greeted everyone with lazy high-fives and rude-sounding names, like Swinger and Tubs.
I managed to edge closer to the circle and sit in an empty armchair without anyone noticing me, but then Dan turned and introduced me to the room. Frozen and squirming inside, I listened to a slew of names that I couldn’t focus on enough to remember, and returned half-waves with barely imperceptible nods.
Someone handed Dan a beer, and I shrank further into the armchair as he popped the tab. He turned to me and grinned his off-kilter smile. “You want a beer, Juli?”
“Jesus, Dan,” one of the girls said. “She’s just a kid.”
“She can handle it.” His grin widened. “What do you say, Juli?”
I looked around at the room of high schoolers, all older than me, all infinitely cooler. My voice stuck in my throat, so I did the only thing I could do. I nodded.
Dan handed me his beer and got another one. I took a sip. Bitterness soaked into my tongue, reminding me of when I bit my fingernails and accidentally got a taste of polish remover, except it was everywhere. I grimaced, and the entire room laughed. Heat crept onto my face as I filled to the brim with embarrassment at my own stupidity.
I spent the rest of the evening wishing I could either leave or die. I didn’t drink the rest of my beer, but I held it, feeling the metal can grow warmer and warmer. The taste remained in my mouth. Eventually, the party devolved into everyone pairing up and making out. I couldn’t ask Dan to leave, and I couldn’t call home and ask for a ride, either—I would never hear the end of it if my mother knew about this.
Trapped in the big armchair, I willed myself smaller and smaller, and stayed completely still and silent. If they didn’t hear me, then I wasn’t there.
I stood by the little pond in the woods, kicking up the newly-fallen leaves, hands shoved deep in my pockets. All six swans were there, floating aimlessly around the water. I couldn’t tell if they knew they were actually humans, but I thought they looked a bit morose.
I was feeling a bit morose too. The spell didn’t stop at absolute silence, there were other tasks that I had to fulfill, tasks that I had no knowledge of or experience with—who knew how long it might take? Maybe six months, maybe a year. Maybe more.
During my period of voicelessness, I had to collect stinging nettles, make thread from their stems, and use that thread to weave a blanket large enough to throw over all of my brothers. My silence and industriousness would endow the nettle-blanket with magic, which would transform my brothers back into my brothers, or so the spell claimed.
My silence and industriousness—I’d almost snorted when I read it but stopped myself. Was a snort considered speaking? It wasn’t an ideal spell, but it was my only option. Of course, you’ll likely mess this one up as well—why on earth would you be able to get it right.
I squinted at one swan. His beak was a little crooked, so I thought he might be Dan. Maybe. Dan always treated me like an adult instead of a kid, but now that I was pretty close to actually being an adult, he always seemed like he was on the verge of apologizing for it. There was something in his eyes that belied something on the tip of his tongue, something that he couldn’t quite choke out.
I sighed internally and picked up the plastic bucket I’d brought with me. It was time to start gathering nettles.
~ ~ ~
Jake surveyed the tall, dense patch of weeds and scrubby brush. “It’s taller than you,” he said. “You better get up on my shoulders.”
He knelt down and I scrambled up. We had been tromping through the wooded area that surrounded our house all afternoon—we did it almost every day, looking for cool places, wild animals, and interesting plants. Jake was a Boy Scout, and his knowledge of wilderness seemed endless to me.
Today, we were looking for a place to fish. I perched precariously on his shoulders, clutching the little cross-body bag that I brought along to stash pretty rocks and cool sticks. Last week, we’d found a turtle shell, bleached tan and white by the sun. It was sitting on my bookshelf.
The weeds made dry cracking and shooshing sounds as Jake moved through them. From my vantage point, it looked like a waving ocean of mottled browns and greens. The tips of tree branches combed through my wind-tangled hair. Jake’s hands squeezed around my ankles, steadying me.
As he set me down on the other side of the brush, something caught my ear. “Jake! I think I hear water!” I started to run in the direction I’d heard it from, but he grabbed my wrist.
“Slow down! That’s poison ivy over there. We have to go around.”
I stopped, looking down at the dirt. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so stupid.”
“Not knowing what poison ivy looks like doesn’t make you stupid, goofball.” He grinned. “Let’s check out that water source.”
We slowly picked our way around the leaves of three, and when we came out on the other side of the trees, there was a small pond. It wasn’t very big, but it was pretty—surrounded by sugarberry trees and flinty rock. A couple of ducks floated on its mirrored surface.
Jake grinned down at me. “Come on, let’s skip a few rocks.”
My grades were slipping.
No, they were plummeting. I’d been silent for five months now. I could take solace in the fact that I had almost enough nettle thread to begin weaving a blanket, but my senior year was basically a wash. After begging my parents to let me transfer into a fancy-pants art school, I’d filled my schedule with things like voice lessons, public speaking, and participation-heavy creative workshops. My mistake. Full of mess-ups and mistakes, as usual.
But that wasn’t even the worst of it, wasn’t even the thing making me toss and turn all night long.
The entire town was in a fervor looking for my brothers, my six swans. Witches, both local and out-of-towners, were boasting that they and they alone knew how to reverse the curse. Scientists were salivating at the chance to poke and prod them, to figure out where the human was tucked away inside the bird. Luckily, my brothers mostly stayed at the pond, and I was the only one who knew about it. None of this would have even happened if it weren’t for your positively astounding ineptitude.
But I wasn’t taking any chances. I crafted a protection charm, filling my turtle shell with dried bay leaves, St. John’s Wort, and crushed acorn, and walking a barrier around the pond as the mixture burned, releasing a heavy, acrid smoke into the air. I did this every Friday evening, just to be sure.
But school . . . school wasn’t an issue that I could resolve with witchcraft. Maybe if I’d been practicing chaos magic for the last hundred years I could trick my teachers into passing me, but until then . . . I would just have to swallow my F’s right along with my voice.
~ ~ ~
Ollie came rushing through the kitchen door after school, letting it bang shut and moving his legs in a stiff, jerky manner. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that his eyes were brimming with tears.
I cautiously edged my way into the living. He was huddled up on the couch, face crushed into a throw pillow. “Ollie? What’s wrong?”
His shoulders shook as he drew in a shuddery, tear-filled breath. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Ollie.” I sat down next to him and put my hand on his back.
After a minute or two, he rolled over and sat up. “I can’t read right. Every time I have to read in class I just can’t say the words. My face gets all hot and I just can’t say the words. Everybody says I’m stupid.” He tipped forward and crashed his head into my shoulder. I wrapped my arms around him.
“Everybody says that? Everybody?”
He sniffed. “Well, almost everybody. Trent and Mira and Nathaniel all do.”
I recognized the names. Younger siblings of kids that had been in my class at the same school, all exceptionally mean, and exceptionally unashamed of it.
“Ollie.” I rubbed his back. “Listen to me. Just because somebody says that you’re stupid doesn’t make it true.”
“No, really. You’re good at tons of stuff. Remember the birdhouse that you made for Mother’s Day? The finches love it! Could somebody stupid have done that?”
Ollie burrowed his face deeper into my shoulder, but I could feel him smiling. After a minute, I heard his muffled voice. “I can make really good pancakes too.”
I smiled too. “See? A stupid person definitely can’t make pancakes.”
He laughed, and then grew still again. “But I’m still not good at reading. And reading’s important.”
“Well, we can work on it. We can ask Mom if you can get a tutor—”
“No!” Ollie shook his head. “I don’t want to ask Mom. I—I don’t want a tutor.”
“Well, I can help you then,” I said. “Just remember that you can learn to be better at reading. Those other kids can’t learn to be kind.”
The nettle blanket covered my twin bed, but I knew that wasn’t enough. It needed to be at least queen-sized, maybe bigger. Against the backdrop of quiet classical piano music, my knitting needles continued to click and clack. Since I didn’t have a loom at my disposal to actually weave a blanket, knitting one seemed like the obvious alternative. I still wasn’t very good at it—and my hands were stiff with pain from working so closely with a stinging plant—but I was at least faster than when I’d begun. And I figured that a couple dropped stitches weren’t a big deal for a blanket that wasn’t going to be used for warmth.
On my nightstand, my phone began to buzz, vibrating until it shifted and bumped into my alarm clock. I stiffened and ignored it, looking harder at my stitches, playing closer attention to each loop. When it finally stopped, the stones in my stomach dissipated some. One more short, angry buzz sounded, meaning that I had a voicemail or text. The stones were back.
I finished the row that I was on, moving the needles more slowly with each stitch, then drew in a long breath and forced myself to look at my phone.
A text. From Bella, a friend from one of my music classes. The missed call was from her, too.
The stone churned around, grinding against each other as I clicked to open the message. It read: “A bunch of us are going out tonight. Idk why I’m even telling you, since you don’t go out or even talk to us anymore.”
I set my phone face-down, pressing it into the bedspread, as if that would make it and the people on the other end of it disappear. The school year was long since ended, and for that I was glad. I couldn’t speak and I spent most of my time knitting a giant, nettle blanket. It was easier to just ignore my friends, to fade into the background and hope they forgot about me, didn’t notice my strange behavior. They did, of course, and now our relationships were strained, to put it nicely. For heaven’s sake, take some responsibility for once. This would be a non-issue if you hadn’t made such stupid decisions.
It was for the best, though. I didn’t have even anything in common with my musician friends anymore. I couldn’t sing, and for so long now, my hands were either swollen and pussing from handling the nettles, or aching and blistered from nonstop knitting. I hadn’t touched the piano in nearly ten months.
~ ~ ~
Todd burst through my closed bedroom door, smiling and struggling to pop open a can of soda. “Hey guys! What’s going on?”
The internal sighs that came from my friends were excruciatingly audible to me, and I cringed and flushed pink. Hannah’s lips pressed into a thin line as she shut the magazine that we’d been taking a quiz from. Its glossy pages slapped together with an irritated fwap!
Todd came over and wedged himself into our circle. “So how is everybody? What are we talking about?” He leaned over and peered at the magazine. “Seventeen, huh? Any good articles?”
I could hardly bear to look at my friends’ faces, but I still saw the eye-rolls and badly disguised snickers. Janie leaned over to me and whispered, “Can’t you tell your little brother to go away?”
Todd took a long, disgusting slurp from his can of soda. I flinched. “Todd, can I talk to you outside, please?”
“Sure, Sis!” He leaped back to his feet. I ushered him outside of the room and quickly shut the door.
“Look, we’re doing some, um, girl stuff right now. Girls only.”
I watched as Todd’s smile faded. His cheeks turned pink. “Oh.” He looked down. “That’s cool. I’ll just go see what Jack is up to.”
I patted him on the shoulder. “Thanks, Todd.” And I reopened my bedroom door just in time to hear Lisa say, “He’s so lame. Maybe he should be called Toad instead.”
My friends dissolved into fits of laughter. I turned bright red and couldn’t even look at Todd as he walked quickly away. My stomach twisted as I walked back into my room and sat down among my friends. Part of me wanted to tell them that they were being jerks, but they were laughing too loudly.
By my very unscientific estimations, I only needed about another foot on my blanket. I sat on my bed, knitting frantically. It was the end of September. I had been silent for almost an entire year. At this point, I wasn’t even sure if I could still talk.
The hit to my grades hadn’t been quite as bad as I’d feared, and I was able to start college on time. Granted, I couldn’t get into a great school due to my suddenly lower-than-average GPA, but maybe that was for the best. From where I was sitting, online classes through the local community college seemed like a good option.
But it was almost all over. I was going to save my brothers. I was going to undo my mistakes. I was going to start talking, singing, and playing piano again. Maybe I could even begin to repair my lost, broken friendships.
I thought I heard the front door open but dismissed it. Ollie was a swan, and I’d been living alone for the entire year. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up when I heard stiletto heels clicking down the hall towards my room.
Not because I didn’t know who it was, but because I knew exactly who it was.
My door swung open, and there she stood. My mother.
“Well.” She clicked her way into my room, thin and model-tall, smoothing down her elegant white business suit. “Word finally reached me, although it took awhile to make it through the grapevine. Thank you for letting me know about what you did to your brothers and poor Henry. Oh, and your father’s children.”
I looked back down and concentrated harder on my knitting.
She made a tsk noise through her teeth. “For heaven’s sake, Julietta. I go on sabbatical in Europe for one year, and look what a mess you’ve made. Did you think I wouldn’t find out about it?”
She doesn’t know that I can’t talk. She doesn’t know the spell. A witch so powerful that she teaches at a private witchcraft institution, and she doesn’t know the counter-curse.
I knitted faster. I only needed a little more.
“Oh, and don’t think that I don’t know about your schoolwork, either. We’re going to get that fixed right up as soon as this other mess is taken care of. Community college, what an embarrassment.”
I heard her heels clicking again and then saw her white pant leg out of the corner of my eye, right next to the bed.
“Julietta.” Her voice was sharper, taking on a more annoyed edge. “Don’t you dare ignore me, young lady.” When I didn’t acknowledge her, her fingers smashed my cheeks together and forced my head up. Her gray eyes were cold. “Pay attention. This is what’s going to happen: You are going to give me your great-grandmother’s spellbook, and then you are going to take me to your brothers and the other poor boys. I am going to fix this whole mess that you’ve made. For heaven’s sake, how could you have been so stupid?”
~ ~ ~
Jack sat down next to me on the piano bench. “Hey Juli?”
My fingers stilled, but the sweet notes lingered in the air, reverberating. “What’s up?”
“I was wondering.” His fingers ghosted lightly over the keys, touching but not pressing hard enough to produce sound. “Do you think you could teach me how to play the piano?”
“Oh, Jack.” I bit my lip. “I’m not nearly good enough. Wouldn’t you rather have a real teacher?”
“But you are a real teacher. You love piano and you’re super good at it.”
“Jack, I just don’t think—”
“Please, Juli?” He leaned his head against my arm. “You’re the smartest, nicest person I know. You can be an awesome teacher, you can. Please?”
I looked down at him. He pouted his lower lip out, and then gave me a goofy grin, unable to hold the pose. I couldn’t help but smile. I was still learning the piano myself, but maybe we could learn together.
“OK.” I said. “Here’s your first lesson.” I played a four-note sequence. “F-D-G-C. Now you try.”
I couldn’t hold off any longer. My mother, still criticizing and firing off orders, was now rifling through my things, trying to locate my spellbook. She didn’t ask why I wasn’t speaking. She didn’t ask why I was knitting a giant blanket of stinging nettles. She didn’t care about anything except doing things her own way.
I couldn’t hold her off any longer. Eventually, she would find the spellbook and try something, something that might disrupt all of my efforts. The blanket might be too small, but I would have to risk it.
When her back was turned, I quickly folded up the blanket and ran from the room.
“Julietta!” Her voice was shrill, irritated. “Come back here this instant, young lady!” Just before I banged through the back door, I heard her pointed stilettos begin to click down the hall after me.
The heavy, cumbersome blanket weighed me down, and she came out of the back door before I was able to clear the backyard and disappear into the forest. Knowing that she was behind me, I decided to take the longer route to the pond. The way that would be harder and messier on her expensive high heels and pristine white suit.
“Julietta!” I could hear her shrieking behind me. “Stop this nonsense right now, young lady! Do you hear me? Right now!”
I pushed on.
When I arrived at the pond, my brothers were floating at the far end but began to swim towards me. My lungs heaved and my legs burned, both stinging from the run through the woods, but I wouldn’t stop. I would save my brothers.
There was a crashing noise behind me, and my mother burst through the trees. Her pants were mud up to her knees, there were leaves and twigs in her hair, and her heels were gone. But, to my horror, she was clutching the spellbook.
She spotted my six swans and smiled. “Ahh, there we go.” And she flipped open the book.
I dropped the blanket and rushed at her, intending to knock the book from her hands. She grabbed my wrist and held in high in the air, so that I was forced onto my toes. “Julietta, I simply don’t understand you. I tried to train you, to teach you to be a proper, powerful witch like me, but you just insist on bungling every single thing that you do.”
She shook me. I wobbled on my tiptoes. My shoulder socket screamed, but I pressed my lips together.
“Nothing to say for yourself, hmm? Well, that’s fairly typical, isn’t it. Always the quiet, shrinking, stupid little girl.”
A large white bird flew at my mother’s head.
She shrieked and dropped my arm. I tumbled to the ground, and when I looked up, another swan had joined the first. And then another, and another. In less than a minute, all six of my brothers were diving-bombing my mother, hissing, honking, and flapping their wings.
She screeched again and flung up her hands to protect herself, sending the spellbook crashing into the mud. I scrambled to my feet and grabbed the blanket. I would save my brothers.
My brothers who taught me, who let me experience things that my mother never would, who were my friends when no one else was. My brothers who depended on me, who forgave me when I was unkind, who believed in me and my abilities. My brothers who loved me.
They abandoned my mother and landed in front of me. I threw the blanket.
Shouts and loud popping noises came from beneath the nettles, and the swan-shaped lumps shot upward, growing, twisting, changing. Human hands flung the blanket back, and there they were. I fell into their arms, sobbing and rasping their names.
I stood in the wings of the auditorium, waiting for the concert to begin.
This time, I wasn’t performing, but waiting to watch my student perform. Jack stood beside me, nervously rocking back and forth on his feet. I put my hand on his shoulder. “Hey. You’re gonna be great.”
“I know.” He flashed me a grin. “I have an awesome teacher.”
I turned and smiled back at him, but my happiness faded some as I looked at his left arm. Although technically human, it still grew large white wing-feathers, from his wrist to his shoulder. I had been right. The nettle blanket wasn’t quite big enough.
“Jack, I know I’ve said it before, but I really am sorry about your—”
“Stop it.” He rolled his eyes. “It isn’t your fault, Juli. It really, really isn’t.”
I gave him and quick hug, and he walked out on stage to a rainfall of applause. The music began to drift over me, and I closed my eyes, humming. After the concert, I would return home with Henry, where I had been living since I’d left my mother’s house after the swan incident. I had also left the spellbook, content to leave the family business and pursue music, another kind of magic. My mother wasn’t happy about it, but that was her usual state of existence.
As for me, I had the love and support of my brothers, and for the time being, that was all I needed.
Katie J. Schwartz was raised in a small Midwestern town and now lives in another, frightfully similar, small Midwestern town. She has a Master’s degree in Professional Writing. Her creative works have appeared in Journey Literary Magazine, Adanna Literary Journal, and Black Fox Literary Magazine. Like many writers, she also has a blog: katiejschwartz.wordpress.com. Author photo credit to Bryan Schilligo.
Madeline loves it
And sits as Mother would.
The priest is like her Father
Dressed all in grey,
Palms fluttering with
Legs and arms spinning anti-clockwise
Like the priest’s eyes slide
From side to side.
We are his for an hour
But he cannot touch us,
For we are jewels to be watched,
And, one day taken.
Nobody has ever held his hand
But Grandmother, with rings like
Little girl’s warnings.
This is my house of God,
Rain thundering as
Their faces are taught and chilled with frost.
He is the bee of androgyny
Thrusting candelabras as tusks.
This drone of activity,
It is all too much for me.
Faces dumb as naked dolls.
He strips them, licking them with stars
Like potential girlfriends
Or meats to be weighed.
She was a girl of the Convent.
A small girl
With big blue eyes
On Valentine’s day.
The sun set and she wanted to die,
Locked in the old house in the hill,
Rocking with emotion.
The man in the moon was black with hate
Like her Father. She was sick with paranoia,
Riddled with the voices of her children.
O God! Someone was calling.
In her dreams.
Lost in bedlam,
A thin ghost
Was running with a sword.
I am ready.
She woke drugged,
And a widow today.
Bitter as a spider.
Murderous too, with news of her Mother.
So she turned to The Other.
Bowing down to God.
A dark place
Where she would hardly know herself.
I am watching you
From the woods.
From the cold and dark
And I am touching myself,
Locked in limbs of kindling.
I am watching you.
Chimneys are rotten grey hairs,
Or persons paralysed or sad.
Look at the shrunken houses
With their space shifting through chains, like horses’ eyes
Flattened by dread. Down there, you
Grant the stench of illness, like a bed
In which a dog died one day.
Inside the breathing sea of bluebells
I notice that pretty bit of clay.
Far above, and now below, where little boys run all day,
Squashing shells of flies, whose whispers
Float about forgotten.
When they land they bang the drums
And creep out
With all their fingers and their tongues
I stand tall, my smile reaching
Because the sun is shining.
Natalie Crick has found delight in writing all of her life and first began writing when she was a very young girl. Her poetry is influenced by melancholic confessional Women’s poetry. Her poetry has been published in a range of journals and magazines including Cannons Mouth, Cyphers, Ariadne’s Thread, Carillon and National Poetry Anthology 2013.
Samantha Gates lives on a street where everyone smiles. They smile as they trim their rosebushes, as they water their lawns in the early afternoon, as they unload groceries from Whole Foods. They smile as they jog and they smile as they walk their purebreds. Samantha thinks the smiles are trying to tell her something.
She sees her children off to school each morning. Joseph is fourteen and Kathleen is eighteen and neither of them gives a shit about Samantha. Most days, they leave their homemade lunches in the fridge.
This morning is no different. She watches one of the neighbors look up from his lawn mowing and smile as the Gates children head off to school. Sipping her milk-diluted coffee, Samantha folds herself into the couch closest to the front window and doesn’t smile. Lately, she seems to be the only one not smiling.
Kathleen backs into the street. She doesn’t check both ways like Samantha taught her to. Samantha thinks that she might have to tell her husband, Todd Gates, that Kathleen is driving a little recklessly. The children listen to Todd.
Just as she’s about to retire to her room for a couple hours, something catches her eye. There’s a creature stalking Kathleen’s car, lean and black. It’s some kind of large cat, Samantha guesses. A jaguar.
She gets up, spilling coffee on the white couch and carpet. She curses the way she does when Todd’s not around and hurries to the front porch. By the time she opens the front door, the car has rounded the bend and is gone. So is the jaguar.
Samantha turns away from the still-smiling neighbor and goes back inside, locking the front door behind her. She goes to the kitchen and sits in front of the iPad Todd bought for her fortieth birthday. She had to open it at the surprise party he threw for her, in front of all the people that he invited. Even the people she didn’t know. Even the woman who called Samantha fat in high school but scribbled a friendly-enough note in Samantha’s yearbook. Todd apologized for the slip, claiming he’d seen the yearbook and thought the two had been close. Samantha forgave him, of course.
She unlocks the iPad with the password 8-6-3-3. Todd in numerical form.
Google is already open. Her last search was a recipe for steel-cut oats and before that, an erotic romance on Amazon. She reminds herself to clear the browsing history before Todd returns home.
She tries to steady her trembling hands as she types into the searchbar: Jaguar sightings in Pasadena? She’s heard of mountain lions spooking unsuspecting hikers in the Hollywood hills, but never a jaguar.
Her search yields some interesting results. A few years back, a mother claimed to have seen a family of black mountain lions with lime green eyes near her home in Waco, Texas. The article says that she called Animal Services immediately after the sighting, so Samantha digs through her purse for her iPhone. She unlocks it with the password 8-6-3-3 and dials Los Angeles Animal Services.
“Thanks for calling. You’re talking to Bradley. How can I help you?”
“Hi Bradley. My name is Samantha Gates. I just saw a jaguar following my children to school and want to report it.” As she talks, Samantha tugs hard at the thin silver chain around her neck. Todd gave it to her years ago in a small black box, and she assumed it was an engagement ring. They had been dating for almost five years and talked about having four perfect children, so marriage was inevitable. When she opened the box and saw the necklace, her look of surprise was not the same one she’d rehearsed in the mirror.
“Ms. Yates, where are you calling from?”
“It’s Gates. And I’m calling from my home in Pasadena.”
There’s a muffled sound from the other end, almost like someone ruffling quickly through a thick stack of papers. But Samantha has heard this sound before. She knows Bradley is laughing at her.
“I googled it. There have been similar sightings before. I read articles.”
“Look, Ms. Bates. I’ve read articles about Bigfoot before, but that doesn’t mean he’s real. If you see the thing again, give us a call. Otherwise, there’s not much I can do for you.”
“Have a great day, Ms.”
Samantha slams her phone down, hoping it will shatter against the granite countertop. But when she lifts it to check, the screen is still in one piece. It’s too protected by the rubber lining of her phone case.
She turns back to her iPad, narrowing her search based on something that Bradley said. Bigfoot. She types: Jaguar sightings in Pasadena? Cryptozoology?
This search pulls up fewer links than the last. She clicks on the first one because it has a very no-nonsense tagline about jaguars and cryptozoology. The site is a WordPress blog managed by a Pat Donohue. He writes about eyewitness accounts of large black cats sneaking up on unsuspecting suburb-dwellers and his personal email is listed at the end of the blog post. Samantha copies it over to her Gmail account and considers how to word her message.
Date: 12 November, 7:56 AM
Subject: Jaguar sighted in Pasadena
Hi Mr. Donohue,
I stumbled upon your blog this morning after seeing something rather troubling. It looked to me like a jaguar was stalking my children on their way to school, but I cannot be sure. In your opinion, is there any chance of a jaguar roaming my neighborhood in Pasadena?
She reads it over a few times before deciding that it is good enough to send. It doesn’t sound too hysterical or ridiculous. It is worded similarly to the exchanges she has with other PTA moms. She expects that he’ll email her back by the end of the day.
Samantha leaves the iPad in the kitchen and goes to the bedroom she shares with Todd. The king-size bed rests on a frame of ornately carved oak that Todd bought from a furniture store that was going out of business. He bought it on his way home from work one day and a van came to drop it off the next morning. Samantha called him when the men came to the front door and he apologized for not telling her about the bed frame over dinner. It had slipped his mind.
She forgave him and let the men bring the bed frame upstairs. They even installed it for her, shelving the sexless bed on top of the impressive wooden box.
Samantha takes her clothes off and gets into the carefully-made bed. She spreads her naked body out, wiggling her toes at the pockets of soft sheets that are so deliciously cold without Todd lying beneath them. She closes her eyes and stays like that for almost an hour.
When she gets up, she smoothes the wrinkles out of her shirt before pulling it back over her head. Then she makes the bed exactly the way it was before, lining all the white pillows up and working the comforter until it is taught. She goes back downstairs and checks her Gmail.
There’s a message from the cryptozoologist.
Date: 12 November, 8:34 AM
Subject: Jaguar sighted in Pasadena
Thank you for your message. As someone who dabbles in cryptozoology, I am very interested in any reports of unusual animals. As someone who lives in the suburbs of LA, I have something of a personal interest in your report. Let me tell you right off the bat that this type of sighting is not unusual. It’s estimated that across the Southwest, anywhere from ten to twenty percent of eyewitnesses calling in about big cats describe black jaguars instead of mountain lions.
In my opinion, the government does not want us thinking these creatures could ever come back. But they’re not extinct like dinosaurs–it is well within the bounds of possibility to think that a stray jaguar might migrate up from Mexico and find its way into your neighborhood.
I would recommend calling it in to the Dept. of Wildlife Conservation. Or, if you like, I can make the call for you.
Samantha’s hands are shaking as she types, so her email takes a few minutes longer to compose than usual. Finally she writes out a message asking that Mr. Donohue please call the Department of Wildlife Conservation on her behalf. She includes the street address so that the report is accurate.
Samantha turns the iPad off and grabs her iPhone off the counter. Todd picks up on the fifth ring.
“Todd, listen. I need you to come home right now. I need a car.” Once Kathleen got her license, Samantha didn’t need to drive the children to school anymore. Kathleen got Samantha’s Lexus for her sixteenth birthday and Todd kept his BMW. When they leave home in the morning, the garage is left empty until they return.
“You sound funny Sammy. Take a deep breath and tell me what’s going on.”
“It’s the kids. I saw something this morning and thought I was crazy but I’m not. I’m not crazy, Todd. Jaguars can migrate north of the border.”
“Samantha, stop. You can’t do this every time I leave for work. Don’t you have something to keep you busy? What about that scarf you were knitting last week?”
“There’s a jaguar stalking our children.”
“I have to go. Text me if you need anything.”
Todd hangs up and Samantha continues standing in the same spot, staring vaguely at the oven’s digital clock. The green numbers glow eerily at night. She knows because sometimes she sleepwalks downstairs and starts making herself a sandwich. Each time, she wakes up right after taking a bite. If she didn’t wake up at that exact moment, she’d choke on it.
Todd doesn’t know about the episodes. He takes melatonin every night, before going to bed and after jerking off in the shower. Samantha hasn’t told him because she doesn’t want him to lock up the bread and condiments to keep her safe.
The day passes slowly. She busies herself by tearing out the scarf she had started and spooling the yarn until it’s wound in a ball that looks exactly the same as when she bought it in the store. She goes into the front yard, ignoring the smiling neighbors as she checks the dirt for paw prints. She drafts several emails to the school, detailing the jaguar sighting, and deletes every one of them. Finally, the children return home.
Samantha has a plate of Oreos on the counter that they ignore. Joseph grabs a soda from the fridge and Kathleen’s headphones are playing music so loud, Samantha can hear it from ten feet away. Their feet type out a long sentence going up the stairs, followed by the punctuation of two slamming doors.
Alone again, Samantha finds Kathleen’s keys hanging on a peg next to the front door. She takes them and leaves the house, locking the door behind her. She scans the street carefully to ensure the jaguar hasn’t returned. The street is empty except for a woman walking her newborn child in a stroller, smiling as she passes. Samantha ignores her. She makes sure she has her license and the credit card Todd gave her before getting behind the wheel of Kathleen’s car.
The drive to the grocery store is short. She gets there in just a few minutes and parks in the half-empty lot. It’s not crowded because most people do their shopping on the weekend.
Samantha gets a cart and puts her purse where a baby would go if she still had one. Usually she carries a list of everything she needs to buy for Todd and the children. She writes it out the night before and brings it to the store to ensure she won’t forget any essentials. But today is different. She doesn’t have a list and she doesn’t know what she came here to buy.
She starts on aisle 1: Produce. Then she goes to aisle 2: Baking, Spices, Oil. Then she goes to aisle 3: Canned foods. Then she goes to aisle 4: Chips and condiments. Then she goes to aisle 5: Baked goods. Then she goes to aisle 6: Cereal, Coffee, Tea. Then she goes to aisle 7: Personal hygiene. Then she goes to aisle 8: Beverages and water. Then she goes to aisle 9: Frozen dinners.
The man at the checkout stand appraises her cart when she approaches.
Samantha nods, taking the box of tampons out of the cart and setting them on the conveyor belt. They cost twelve dollars and she pays for them with Todd’s credit card.
The sun is setting when she gets back to Kathleen’s car. Samantha thinks that time is funny inside a grocery store. It drags and it races.
Samantha drives fast on the way home, hoping that the jaguar will jump out in front of Kathleen’s car so that she might kill it. Then her children would see what a hero she is. And Todd would realize that she needs something more than yarn to keep her busy all day.
She parks in the driveway and takes her purse from the passenger seat, the box of tampons tucked inside. She gets out of the car and starts toward the house, hearing the click of the automatic locks behind her. She is almost to the porch when she hears another sound behind her. It is barely a sound, closer to the whooshing of wind through grass or runoff collecting in the gutters. But she knows that this is exactly what a jaguar would sound like: Almost like nothing.
Samantha turns to face the jaguar. It is crouched in the middle of the lawn, flicking its long tail back and forth. Its eyes are not lime green like the woman in Waco, Texas described. Its eyes are twin moons, golden and gathering light from the sun.
She takes a step closer and it snarls, mouth stretching back to reveal sharp teeth and a coarse pink tongue. Samantha thinks that it looks almost like a smile.
She smiles back.
Emma Fuhs spent her childhood on the central coast of California and now attends the University of California, Davis, where she is majoring in English. She aspires to be a novelist and is probably eating a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch right now.
I drove to the garden
where the river spurts a burble
at hedges, walkways, evergreens
designed in miniature
by city planners. Everything from birthing Spring
in full rotation.
Police directed me, & traffic,
funneled we holy to penance & all else
to menace. Whitepanel glare
dwindling in citric dusk. Behind the stone
the microphone smothering human throat
through tunnels of ether to others.
In a hurry of heat I saw
men leaving ports, adjourned to depart,
milling in pre-tomb,
water swishing directionless
under wind barreling
to carry crowds to sense —
Amphibia careened around Her banks,
insects crisscrossed my thighs,
their paltry roughage.
The church shadowed me to lesser wilt
towering to a point.
The river wheeled on in a furrow.
they blistered behind the stone, choirs,
our muffled erosion.
Sudden, splintered across my spine:
they trumpet their tempest,
& chilled, I swallow mine.
Crawling to stools to dine resembles itself
in coarse northern cold & oppressive southern humid:
just awake, automotive rudders shudder my empty
someday carcass to lamplight & waitress
to slurp slop twixt moonlight & lifetime cook.
Tonight the earth suffused it, like before,
the aroma too brief & perfect, in patches.
Factual gratitude, it comes — warmth;
is gone. I’d anticipated it in college
near a U-shaped stone dorm, and also busing home
teenage, around the corner from home,
that descent around the corner, falling home
an autumn leaf. Tonight
by a brown house,
tiger lilies, willows,
automobiles yielding to blue-hearted stars,
and yawns of desert wind, as if we were isolated —
There is cultivation on the outskirts of city & self,
broiling & skinbound, and there’s a clarification
grown by & dimming with twilight:
what? — as the soul travels (the soul is traveling)
it finds itself the same on every pole.
Or could merely be chemicalia simmered
in proximity to things nascent & mating — ?
I’m optimistic. I should be;
young. The dull brunt of my cleaver
keeps falling on the stems of roses.
When the time is full, they’ll resemble
a wreath for spiders to climb in.
Dustin Lowman is a writer residing in Nashville, TN. He is a prolific composer of poetry, songs, fiction, and nonfiction. His poems have previously appeared in Every Day Poems, Uut Poetry, and Five 2 One. He has self-released 2 albums of original material, Folk Songs (2015) and Thunder I: Calamitous Foe (2016), available in all digital marketplaces.
Michelle Vella is a contemporary portrait artist known for her unique Big Eyes. The NY fashion scene quickly embraced Michelle’s style from the start. Fashion icon Diane von Furstenberg discovered Vella on Instagram resulting in a meeting in NYC and delivery of her custom portrait which is now part of the DVF collection. Vella has garnered commissions and collaborations with high fashion magazines, fashion designers, corporate and private collectors. Having an education in Fine Arts and a graphic design business for a decade, it was only recently that Vella unleashed this new found passion which has now become her full time career. Vella’s recognizable style is ever evolving and crosses the line between illustrator and artist. Michelle is based in Toronto, Canada.
All images are copyright ©Michelle Vella 2016
I bartended at a joint that featured live music. I accumulated a few bucks and bought a small, three-bedroom house on a busy street in East Austin that I rented to musicians who played at the bar. The legalities on rental property were onerous, so I stayed under the radar with word-of-mouth as the source for new tenants.
The last act in the evening, three guys with long black hair and beards that made them look like Sikhs without the turbans, were renting my house. They were tuning their instruments on stage, starting their set, when a police call came for me. Some poor bastard had lost control and drove his beater, pea-green Chevy into my house doing eighty. You can still see the skid marks on the asphalt. The driver was impaled by a two-by-four and died instantly. The house was thrown off its foundation severing every utility connection. The firemen turned off the water and gas, but the EMTs wouldn’t enter the house to remove the body until contractors installed braces to stabilize the roof. When I told the Sikhs, they wanted me to put them up at a hotel. I refused. One of them said that they’d turn me in for renting illegally. I walked away. Even musicians can be assholes.
The driver of the car was Farley Matheson, twenty-three, unemployed, living with his mother about ten blocks away. It seemed right that I see her. I arrived late morning. Before I rang I saw that the door was ajar. I called out, but there was no answer. I stepped inside. A woman with blue eyes, and pulled back gray hair sat scrunched into a corner of a thread-bare couch. She stared out a side window.
No answer. I took a few steps forward. “Mrs. Matheson, I’m Paul Nardelli. I own the house where your son’s accident occurred.
She didn’t stir.
I didn’t want to stand over her, and I didn’t want to sit. “I came to express my sympathies for your loss.”
She let out a deep sigh. “It’s not your fault.” Her eyes were red-rimmed. “Farley was a good boy. He made me warm milk to help me sleep.”
I glanced around the living room. There were three framed pictures. A man in his thirties, a younger man I guessed was Farley, and a rather old photo of a little girl with blonde pig-tails and a tender smile. “Mrs. Matheson, do you have someone to help you?”
She pointed at the pictures with a hand veined like a tobacco leaf. “Bobby was killed on the BP oil rig. Little Mazie was lost to me many years ago.” She sighed. “Strange, don’t you think? If you hit a little girl with your car, you’d stop to see if she could be saved?”
I gulped. The thought of grieving for three dead children hit me like a tsunami. My eyes moistened. I cleared my throat. “Your husband?”
“He left soon after Mazie died. We couldn’t stand the blame or the guilt.”
Mrs. Matheson’s blue eyes were in turmoil. “I try to understand. What sin did I commit that so offended God?”
My mouth opened and closed. She turned her head toward the window. Above the pictures I noticed a mark on the wall where a crucifix once hung, now just a white shadow. After a few moments, I slipped out of her home.
The insurance company sent Mr. Charles Smallman, from Kansas City, as claims adjuster. He was bald, and the sweat on his pate threw a glare that could’ve lit Sixth Street. He wore a brown-suit, yellow tie, and complained about Austin heat.
Farley’s Chevy had torn a hole through the living room as wide as the Congress Avenue Bridge, and the house was half on the grass. Smallman rooted around the debris with his tape measure for an hour.
Finally, I called out, “What are you calculating? The house is a total wreck.”
Smallman hadn’t unbuttoned his jacket. He produced a massive handkerchief and wiped his considerable forehead. “There’s a lot that can be salvaged.” He left in a rental car, and I stood, hands on hips.
Within a few days, I received a settlement offer for a fraction of what was required to restore the building. My face got hot.
One of my friends from school, we called him Outlaw Dan, rang me. Dan had been three-hundred pounds before his stomach was banded. He was down to two-twenty but still binged on Nacho Cheese Doritos. The year before, Dan hacked into Wells Fargo and changed account names to silliness like “Joaquin Barfly.” No money was taken, but Wells Fargo couldn’t calm customers for months. The FBI wanted Dan’s ass. He lived in a caravan and moved every night. He said, “Did you see the blog about your house crash?”
I couldn’t give a Longhorn’s turd for politics, but a well-known political tweeter had written about Farley Matheson’s death: “Another East Austin slacker bites the dust. Good riddance!”
My first thought went to Mrs. Matheson. She’d never read such trash, but a neighbor could call attention to this calumny against her dead son. My ears reddened like chili peppers.
I said, “Dan, we need to fix this prick. Will you help?”
Dan had an evil sort of laugh.
The blogger’s name was Reginald Crawley, and I hoped we’d find kiddie-porn on his hard drive. Crawley was surreptitiously an on-line hit-man for a nationally-known Texas politician. The politico paid Crawley to attack enemies while he disclaimed responsibility. Dan found copies of correspondence and proof of payment to Crawley, which we leaked to the Austin American-Statesman. You heard about it because the national networks picked up the story, and the politico’s Presidential hopes evaporated like Lake Travis in a drought. He didn’t resign. Narcissists like him are like clown punching toys that keep popping up with the same molasses grin. Embarrassment isn’t in their lexicon. Crawley, on the other hand, left town. He set up shop in California. I worry that he’s thriving.
Meanwhile, I had a long think about the paltry insurance settlement offer. By some amazing coincidence, the house must’ve been struck by lightning and burned. Anyway, that was my story. The insurance company had a different take, because I received a knock on my door late one evening from Sheriff Rufus Tyler. Ole Rufus brushed past me without a word and ensconced himself into my favorite chair. Tyler had a gunmetal crew-cut and a girth like he’d swallowed a dinosaur egg. He folded his hands over his belly. “You set fire to your house.”
It wasn’t a question. My eyebrows rose. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Tyler looked at his fingernails. “I knew you’d deny it.”
I leaned a shoulder against a wall.
Tyler said, “Trouble is that an orca-fat dude was seen leaving the scene, and he doesn’t fit your description.”
Instinctively, I pulled in my stomach.
He continued. “I know you had it done.”
“It was lightning.”
Tyler laughed so hard that he went into a coughing fit. He said, “You rented the house without the proper permits.” He smiled. “If I tell the insurance company, they’ll void your coverage.”
He really had my attention.
He said, “There’s a rumor that you’re responsible for harpooning –.” He mentioned the Texas politico by name. “I hate that son-of-a-bitch.”
Breath returned to my lungs.
Tyler stood. “You won’t like me so much the next time we cross paths.” He passed out the door like a cold front.
A week later the full insurance check arrived. I went to see Mrs. Matheson. “Farley’s life insurance came through.”
She was surprised that Farley had any insurance, but allowed that the money would come in handy. She agreed, and I went through her finances. We paid off her mortgage. She didn’t have much credit card debt, but we wiped that away. She picked a nice marble headstone for Farley, and we settled accounts at the funeral home.
I dropped by Mrs. Matheson’s every couple of days to buy her groceries, take her to the doctor, or to the senior center. One evening I made her some warm milk. She said, “Thanks, Farley.” I didn’t correct her.
One day we were sitting in her living room. She said, “It wasn’t God.”
“The death of my children. It wasn’t God, it was the devil.”
That’s when I noticed that the crucifix was back on the wall.
Joe Giordano’s stories have appeared in more than ninety magazines including Bartleby Snopes, The Saturday Evening Post, decomP, The Summerset Review, and Shenandoah. His novel, Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, was published by Harvard Square Editions October 2015. His second novel, Appointment with ISIL, an Anthony Provati Thriller will be published by HSE in May 2017. Read the first chapters and sign up for his blog at http://joe-giordano.com/
Occasionally I receive painful emails from my family about my writing. Usually they come in the form of a rant, and the rant is essentially the same: My stories are hurtful, inaccurate, and the feelings I express in them are just plain wrong. I have no right to publish such things, and I am a bad, bad very mean person.
I first shared these stories about my family when I was in a fiction workshop at San Francisco State University. I wasn’t sure what sort of reception they would receive—I suppose naively I thought people would find them funny. However, instead of laughing, most of my classmates found the material disturbing. “Who are these people?” one woman asked. “Why are they so narcissistic? What’s wrong with them? Why doesn’t this girl say or do anything? Why is she so passive?”
The seriousness of some of their comments made me wonder. While my father’s irresponsible nature and flagrantly bad parenting had always been openly discussed in my mother’s family, my mother’s highly unusual behavior as a parent was never mentioned. I remember being repeatedly warned by one of my aunts not to smoke pot with my hippie father, but apparently drinking, smoking, and going to punk gigs with my mother was okay; not one of my five aunts ever said a word to me when I started doing these things with her at the age of fourteen.
I received the first flaming email from my mother not long after my stories began appearing in online literary journals. In her email she accused me of lying about and distorting the past, of enjoying being a victim, and of (ironically) abusing her. She then threatened to get an attorney if I got to “defamatory.” “Why don’t you wait until everyone’s dead to publish your work, like other writers do,” she concluded.
I also received a series of similar emails from my brother. And the most recent angry outburst came in the form of an attempted comment on my blog by one of my aunts.
I understand why my family finds my writing upsetting. But what I don’t understand is why they direct their anger at me. I have never made any attempt to share my stories with them; they found them because they sought them out online. I am also careful to classify my work as fiction, even though it is heavily based on personal experience. My stories are the product of a creative process, and I have never claimed them to be journalistically accurate depictions of my childhood. In many I have freely played with time and place, and imagined feelings I might have had at the time.
However, in no way did I deliberately distort the characters of those involved, merely to demonize their real-life counterparts. Nor did I make anything up—all of the events I wrote about actually did occur.
No one should be expected to remain silent about their childhood, simply because certain revelations will embarrass or upset others. Requiring an adult to adhere to a code of silence with regard to their underage experiences is to sentence that person to a form of emotional imprisonment. And yet this is exactly what my family expects of me; I am to remain silent about my past, specifically as it involves my mother, no matter how detrimentally this affects me. A family like this is no family at all. I was too afraid to speak up as a child, but I’m not afraid anymore.
Mira Martin-Parker earned an MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State University. Her work has appeared in various publications, including the Istanbul Literary Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Mythium, and Zyzzyva. Her collection of short stories, The Carpet Merchant’s Daughter, won the 2013 Five [Quarterly] e-chapbook competition.
6th December 1999
As I sit here writing at my desk it will shortly be midnight. The halls are deadly quiet and the quad is still. No sounds come from the window, only the twitch of my curtain in the sharp winter air. It is now three hours since I returned from my uncanny encounter, three hours of tobacco-fuelled meditation and self-interrogation, and I have resolved at last to set down with unfailing accuracy the weird events of the evening just gone. It is true perhaps that I am tottering on the brink of inebriation, but let it be said that drunkenness might yet prove propitious, and not simply for the good of my nerves. I mean that it might serve the truth of this telling, too. A sober mind would likely prove a hindrance when trying to recount the full irreality of my meeting with that shaman.
To provide a context for the future reader, curious of mind: today was a harsh crisp cold December day. I emerged sleepless from the fog of my room at eighteen past eleven in the morning, a freshly-printed essay in my bag and with barely sufficient time remaining to land at my destination, on the other side of Jesus Green. Noon was the deadline, the arbitrary cut-off, past which my labours would risk casual dismissal. Through the awkward letterbox of my awkward supervisor’s flat the script had to go, and thus to that place I was compelled to go, and in haste. What it argued, this essay, through which I’d agonised the night, I presently forget. All I can tell is that it had been assembled from the words of arcane secondary texts, texts that I barely understood, and that the whole thing stank of a final-year student in search of vindication.
But worry not, dear reader, for that was then, and this is now. Upon submitting the script I succeeded in disposing of all of my academic neuroses, along with what little interest I’d briefly aroused towards the History and Philosophy of Science. And, most significant and joyous of all, by dispensing with that terrible essay I managed to liberate myself for a few dear hours of all concern and care about my dreadfully impending future.
I sidled into a favoured tavern just as the streetlights were flickering on, the essay out of sight and bloody blessed mind, a successful book browse behind me and an overpriced hotdog from a street vendor resting in my gut. Dismissing the cruel world with a cheery ‘Fuck off!’ under my breath, I headed straight on into the back of the pub, into the warmth, the candlelight.
Oh, it was a welcoming old abode, this streetside boozer, all unpolished wood and candlewax and a thick and prohibitive smokiness to the air and no awful jukebox to ruin the mood. Reporting to the bar of this smoky paradise, I acquired a glass of the darkest stuff they had and retired to a table, where I rolled a cigarette, lit it luxuriously, and presently opened my brand-new second-hand book. And then, with my three forms of nutrition to hand – serving body, mind and lung – I reclined along the bench seat, my God did I recline, I was bare degrees from the horizontal. I may as well have been decked out in a silk lounge suit, a gentleman supine in a backstreet opium den in some far corner of the Orient. I daresay a few other aspects of the experience contributed to this fantasy, which now strikes me as increasingly vivid and true: the redolent, premature candlelit darkness of the room, placing it already in the realm of dream; the poetry of the magnificent smoke, a ceaseless hypnotic motion like Chinese dragons dancing; and finally, and above all, my sleep-deprived, thoroughgoing exhaustion, which was nigh-metaphysical in stature. In sum, I felt perfectly stoned, as though a chasm had been woven around me into which perspective could not penetrate, and as I lay there on my bench in this warm womb of a room I daresay I wore a very milky smile.
It was from out of this narcotic dream haze that he then emerged: suddenly, forcefully, not at all like a ghost. ‘Excuse me son,’ he said, ‘I see that you’re reading, would you mind if I sat here?’
I looked up from behind the pane of glass that had formed on the surface of my face and I beheld a giant, a corpulent monster clad in wax jacket and flat cap, who stood there poised, across the table, to react to my response. I scanned the room, registering that all but one table were presently unoccupied, and I looked at him again and replayed his words in my mind. It was striking, was it not, the incongruity between, on the one hand, his acknowledgement that I was busy with my reading – that I was engaged in a rewarding private ritual, one that would benefit greatly from remaining private and undisturbed – and, on the other hand, his request to impose himself on my table? When he had at his disposal no fewer than four other free and ample resting spots from which to select? And when I was almost guaranteed to deny the request, to dismiss him with incredulous refusal? And yet it was precisely this same fabulous incongruity, I suspect, and perhaps this alone, that caused me instead to drop my feet to the floor, wearily push my ailing frame upright – so that while I continued to slouch I was now approachable at least – and to lift my hand from my book and wearily beckon him to sit down, ‘Please,’ thereby breaking a long-ingrained habit of avoiding interaction with strangers at all cost.
Now, I should make clear that my immediate feeling was that this man had chosen me. That this messenger had specifically been seeking my table, and no other, through the strange, dilated time-fog of the room. That he wished to make contact. As I replay it now, I cannot find words to explain or justify why this intuition had stolen upon me with such clarity, but it is integral to my purpose that it is noted here in its chronological place.
Now, it was a large round table that I’d acquired and he sat down opposite, so that he was still two yards away from me, still out of my space: unreal. For some perverse reason it felt to me like a game of some sort, and I made a secret decision to entertain his every conversational whim.
And already I was enjoying the reflection that here I was, about to join the ranks of pint-supping men who talk to other pint-supping men, those proficient in conversing with other men of similar ilk, irrespective of familiarity and free from all prejudice, and not only that but I was presently engaged to do so with a companion of highly eccentric manner and quite gigantic proportion. I smiled and took a better look at him. His head was the size of a large watermelon and he was ruddy of face, but with huge sad eyes beneath his farmer’s cap. I became temporarily fixated on the size of that massive head and on how much it must weigh, and this thought discomforted me to the extent that I was compelled to look away, so that I noticed the half pint of ale that was gripped helplessly in his giant fist like a thimble inside a boxing glove, and I gulped and instead looked back at the massive head and took a nervous draught of stout.
‘John,’ he said, extending a massive arm, and I replied with my own name, though it did occur to me to do otherwise. I unfolded my limb and tensed it as contact with his outrageous paw drew near. He was gentle with me, though, I could tell, even if I could still sense the power in that monstrous appendage.
‘What do you do?’ he now enquired.
‘Student,’ I replied, and he nodded.
He cocked his head to one side, craning his neck, and cast his eyes at the cover of my book. ‘Graham Greene.’
‘Brighton Rock,’ I confirmed.
‘Haven’t read it,’ and he leaned back and took a tiny sip from his tiny glass.
I’d read it once before, at school, but refrained from disclosing this. Nor did I mention what had animated this impulsive new purchase: the fact I’d recently see the film and had been left terrified by Richard Attenborough’s face.
‘My wife’s read it,’ he said, breaking what was swiftly becoming a challenging silence. ‘My wife’s read everything.’
Something in his tone or bearing caused me to glance at his ring finger, which was unadorned, and I smiled and sat up straighter still and said, ‘Really?’ and he nodded.
‘I read non-fiction,’ he said. ‘Facts,’ and then he was possessed by a grave mood, and he leaned in with wild eyes, his voice conspiratorial. ‘I can remember everything, Chris. Everything!’ He raised his fist from the table. ‘People say it’s a gift, but it’s not.’ My eyes widened. ‘It’s a curse!’ And he thumped down his fist and leaned back with his declamation still resounding in the haunted space between us.
I didn’t know what to say, not least when I noticed the tortured expression he was affecting, as if the mere mention of his affliction had unleashed a plague of memories upon his tortured mind. I shuddered at the strain on his enormous brain.
Still he was awaiting a reaction, though. Despite summoning all of my faculties in response to his plethora, all I could manage was, ‘Really?’ and he nodded once, apparently meaning business.
‘Ask me something,’ he said, ‘anything. Something I wouldn’t know.’
By way, perhaps, of my recent studies, the first such question that appeared to mind concerned the year of publication of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, a successful book, all told.
My companion nodded and leaned back. His thick fingers pressed against the tufts of hair that protruded from his cap around the temples. He strained his face for several moments, turned a shade of red, and then began to mutter a strange incantation, a chant of what I can only assume were related facts: mental hooks for the elusive date that was drifting through his infinite mind. I was captivated. When eventually he located the answer he delivered it with confidence, setting out first the question, and then the vital year that had been requested. Unperturbed by my astonishment, he proceeded to detail of what the treatise comprised, where it had been written, how old the author had been upon publication, and finally with which Cambridge college he had been affiliated, and he then concluded his performance with a great wag of the head and a fold of the arms, and I do not exaggerate when I tell you I was agog. Absolutely everything he said had been wrong. Coming to terms with the stature of the man, several moments passed before I was able to speak.
‘But wasn’t he a fellow of Trinity?’ I said.
‘No,’ John confirmed, ‘he was not.’
And with this firm rebuttal I decided not to provoke his wrath any further, instead fleeing this danger by changing the subject. I asked him how he made his living. To what end did he exert his extraordinary powers? As a spy, perhaps? An inventor? A quizmaster? No, alas. I was disappointed to learn that he was in fact a businessman. He assured me that his wealth was significant, but that he had struggled for every penny. And with a shake of his finger he now changed the subject again, a tactic that left me dizzy.
I reflected: I’d never before met such an astounding liar. So serious was he that he may well have believed every word of his ridiculous spiel, and I saw no human reason to challenge this fanciful faith.
His discourse now turned to space, and it was clear that the possibilities of the vast black nothing had him rapt. He told me of wild inventions he had read about, and I sought to explain why I didn’t think they were possible, given my errant grasp of physics. This failed to diminish his interest in these matters, however, since he was a firm believer in alien technology far superior to our own. He carried on in real wonder, his outlandish descriptions punctuated by pauses of intense cogitation as he stared at a candle that was flickering to my left. ‘A man told me…of this ship…that can go so fast…’
His performance to this point had excited me so wildly that my patience was now rudely diminished, and I quickly tired of these science fiction fables. I wished to hear him speak again of human matters. Fortuitous thus was I that his huge jukebox of a mind then skipped to the matter of government conspiracies and I had the quite remarkable wisdom to ask him about the assassination of JFK. I was certain that of all men John would know what really went on, and I was glad when he agreed that Oswald could not possibly have done it by himself. His reasons for thinking so, however, were entirely his own. As he unfurled his explanation I waited silently, both attracted and repelled by the possibility of what I was about to hear.
‘You see, Chris, for Oswald to have made those shots…well, he would have had to be superhuman. Back then, when was it, 1969? There were only two people on the planet who could have made them…and me and my brother were on this side of the pond,’ and this time he didn’t even bother to acknowledge my incredulous reaction, just folded his upper body into a shooting stance, his muzzle pointing towards the window, and fired off shot after shot. ‘Paoww. Paoww.’
As if caressed by this reassuring memory of childhood he began to settle down again, and we then conversed in relaxed demeanour about his family, and about his working life and wealth, the source of which I could not quite discern. He had felt the bite of poverty, though, he assured me and no doubt, once owing twenty thousand pounds. He’d lost his house, his car, everything, but, he told me, this didn’t matter. ‘It’s only money. Doesn’t mean anything,’ and once more he gave me a testing stare from his great sagging eyes, but this time with grit in his cheeks, and I swear for a moment he looked like a genius.
I felt compelled to affirm the values he’d set forth and so complied: ‘No, I try not to worry about wealth,’ I said, and he nodded, satisfied with my answer. At which point the face of a lunatic returned.
‘I’ve dug the earth, Chris.’
I need not add that his ability to confound and unease was that of an expert. I stared back, slightly manic of a sudden, a confused smile playing at the edge of my mouth.
‘That,’ he said, ‘is hard … I’ve earned the right to my money,’ and he looked indignant as he said it.
‘Yes,’ I answered: that much was clear. ‘I worked in a warehouse last summer,’ I offered in return, eager to exploit my sole contact with working class life. ‘I was picking grocery orders and shifting crates…It wasn’t too bad for a few weeks, but then I didn’t have to support a family like most of the other men,’ and I shook my head to convey my respectful awe at the stoicism of the working chap. And then I noticed a dreadnought shadow swallowing over my glass and I looked up and saw him looming there over me, his arm thrust forth, massive, his girth seeming to encapsulate my entire field of vision. The surface of his appearance wobbled like a candle-flame, flickering occasionally. I couldn’t define his boundaries. I saw sunspots. His eyes focused on mine.
I became crudely conspicuous of myself: my torso was pressed against the back of the bench, my arms flung behind it, and sweat was stinging my eyes. I reached out, trembling, trying to maintain a smile as I closed my hand upon the mighty wrist he held out for me, which looked like a leg of lamb in a farmer’s jacket. It was by far the largest arm I’ve ever encountered, three times the greater of mine. I was convinced even before I’d felt it that this man had dug the earth. I tried not to press too hard on the wax cloth. He was satisfied by my limp grip, however, and he returned oddly to his seat, grinning triumphantly, taking his time, as though hoping that others would note his prowess.
At this moment I fidgeted awkwardly because three unfriendly-seeming men at the bar were now staring at us with suspicious eyes, causing me to look down and notice that my glass was empty, an observation that was marked by John.
‘What are you drinking?’ my stout companion swiftly enquired.
‘Stout,’ I said, and smiled.
His features lifted, rampant with incredulity. ‘That,’ he spluttered, ‘is what my mother drinks! It’s shit! You should drink the real ale, my son.’
Now, I honestly did not know how to respond to this and therefore did not, and fumbled instead for a cigarette. He ignored my discomfort and lurched erratically to the bar, telling the barman loudly that I drank an old woman’s drink. He ordered in accord with my wishes, nonetheless. He took another half for himself, despite his own glass still sitting an inch from full, a level it had not deviated from since the moment he’d sat down.
As he made his order the three regulars at the bar observed him from their perches. He seemed to amuse them, which made me smile. Then he turned to them, his head wobbling and sporting its most affable lunatic smile. ‘Now, can I buy you gents a drink? Anyone? Anyone?’ With barely concealed amusement the three declined the offer. John, however, was particularly insistent, which to my great distress prompted the synchronised draining of the men’s glasses, a coordinated action that was frankly uncalled for and which surely had humiliation at the base of its design.
‘Time to go, lads,’ the eldest of the three said, and they all left presently, the last of them looking over at me with an expression that I inferred to mean something like, ‘Get out while you can, he’s a fucking fruit.’
John was quite aware of what had happened, and perhaps was even as sentient as I to the likelihood that these drinkers had walked directly to the next pub, three doors along. I caught his eye as he looked across at me, forlorn, and I mustered all of my resources and smiled vacantly back at him. This, remarkably, seemed to do the trick of reassurance, spurring him to turn sharply about. ‘Do you know,’ he informed the sympathetic barman, ‘I think I’ll have your largest cigar,’ and he patted his belly opulently and the barman smiled. I lit a roll-up, eyes glued to the drama, and pulled greedily on it. ‘Chris,’ he called, ‘do you want a large cigar?’ and I shook my head, exhaling my smoke in a controlled fashion and holding my device aloft. ‘Or are you managing with what you’ve…’ he continued unnecessarily, his voice trailing off. He paid up and wandered pack, the cigar in his pocket, and he set down the glasses exactly. Then he lit the mock-Cuban at length and puff-puff-puffed. His composure returned.
‘Do you want to see a magic trick?’ He wagged his head at me, leaning back in his chair and raising his eyebrows enthusiastically. I looked at him blankly, the fresh stout lapping at my lip. ‘I,’ he whispered, ‘can levitate.’
I put down my drink. ‘Really?’
‘My brother showed me how.’
Dispensing with his cigar, he seemingly floated to the centre of the empty room and stopped. His feet moved daintily on the sticky pub floor, arranging themselves with esoteric precision. He took many deep breaths and looked up. As vital as composure, it seemed, was posture: he gripped his jacket like a nobleman, as though clutching two imaginary lapels between thumb and fist.
I expected him to do it.
Then, daintily as a ballerina, he lifted his entire body up such that the foot closest to me now hovered a full inch above the ground. The ball of the other foot, upon which he had assuredly transferred all of his weight, was cunningly obscured from view. He paused for a moment in mid-air, and then drifted calmly back to earth. As he returned to his chair he looked distinctly smug. ‘It’s good, isn’t it?’ He puffed on his cigar, spluttered, and returned it to the ashtray.
I couldn’t speak straight away, and I cannot swear that a spot of dribble didn’t fall from my lip as I stared, taking him in. ‘You didn’t … actually, though … did you?’ I shrugged, smiling apologetically, and then right away regretted my words, realising that the only noble course of action was to have roared in approval at his sleight of foot. He fell silent, and looked straight into me. A candle flickered.
‘Well no…I mean, of course I didn’t…but it’s clever, isn’t it? It is what is known as,’ he added, ‘an optical illusion. Do you want me to show you again?’ My urge to politely decline this offer was immediate and overwhelming, yet was nevertheless too late in arriving. Before I’d had a chance to draw breath and select a negative word or two he’d already positioned himself in the centre of the room, arranging his feet, breathing calmly, all eyes in the bar now fixed on him, then…’Ah-ah!’…and he victoriously returned to his seat. ‘Now,’ he winked, ‘did you work out how I did it this time?’ I looked down and noticed that the glass in his hand was full. To the left of his fleshy paw was a now-empty half pint jar, and I hadn’t seen a thing. I looked up, nodded nervously, and drew deeply from my glass.
A silence then passed that would have suffocated the hope of many a man, but John possessed fortitude like no other. He simply sat and concocted his next move. The tension was unbearable. I closed my eyes and braced myself.
‘Do you know…Chrissy,’ he started of a sudden, wagging his head with visible glee, ‘what I wanted to be when I was a boy?’
‘No,’ I answered confidently.
‘No…well, of course you don’t know,’ he conceded. ‘But guess!’ His tongue stroked the inside of his cheek as you would a cat. He waited with raised eyebrows, tapping his cigar. The relief that only moments before had surged through me now drained ominously away. I bowed my head in concentration.
‘A racing driver?’
‘Nor that. Not a driver.’
‘An actor, then?’
It occurred to me to facetiously suggest ‘A businessman,’ but instead I simply said, ‘I give up.’
‘Do you give up?’ he demanded. I was unsure whether he was seeking the pleasure of forcing me to repeat my concession, or if he was simply operating a few seconds behind reality.
‘Yes,’ I confirmed, and awaited the revelation.
‘An explorer!’ he whispered ever so loudly, his eyes lighting like fireworks at the sound of the word. ‘Marching across the South Pole! There, son,’ he confirmed, ‘you’d really be alone.’
This last detail skittled my thoughts, which initially had conjured public school types with groomed blonde moustaches, nasal voices and army-issue backpacks, leading a legion of men into unknown territory in the name of the Queen. And now of a sudden something entirely different had been brought to mind, a vision that provoked in me an immediate suffering and which haunts me still as I sit here in the Witching Hour writing at my desk: the image of little boy John, awake at night and shivering under his sheets, praying to God for the solitude, the intense cold, the emptiness of the South Pole.
‘Why would you wish to be alone like that?’ I asked him, my voice uneasy, the vision of the schoolboy’s prayer already fixed in my mind.
‘Because that,’ he said, ‘is what makes the explorer the best of men. Forget success or fame, I’m talking about glory. An explorer is the bravest of them all. You do it all on your own … walking on land where no man else has trod. There’s no one there to help you. That,’ he nodded, ‘is a strong man. When you’re truly on your own, forging a path in the world, that’s when have to be strong.’
He fell quiet. His incredible elastic features had subdued and the notion came to me that he was now recalling every occasion in his life when he’d relied on another, that he was reliving shame about his every moment of weakness. And all of a sudden I was possessed by an acute feeling of guilt, for was I not now an accessory to this repeated suffering of his? He’d sought my company, after all. But then I looked him in the eye and I felt certain that despite the pain it might cause him, he wanted me to stay. He was seeking a moment’s respite from his life’s burden, I believe: sympathy, perhaps, or just a little understanding. In any case, he’d be alone again soon enough. I decided to let him take all the time he needed. It was not long, however, before he spoke again.
‘What are you going to do,’ he coughed, ‘when you finish your studies?’
‘I haven’t a clue,’ I blushed.
‘You’ll be rich,’ he said. ‘No doubt about it. With your degree you’ll walk into a career. Mark my words, Chrissy, you’ll do well.’
Now it was my turn to evoke discomfort. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to do a job just for the money,’ and I avoided meeting his eye, quite aware of the privileged position my place at this institution afforded me.
He smirked back at me, no less aware. ‘What do you want to do, then?’
‘I don’t know,’ I repeated, and I smiled frankly at him and reached for my tobacco. It was hardly an inquisition, and in any case I felt I owed him something, but on this particular topic I truly had nothing more to give. ‘I’m actually a bit worried about it,’ I mumbled, a cigarette filter obstructing my speech.
As I licked the paper and sealed my roll-up my eyes flicked up at him and I realised that my confession of anxiety had caused him pain. He sat up and his speech became uncomfortably sincere: ‘Chrissy…look at me, Chrissy…You are the…strongest, most intelligent person I’ve ever met.’ I felt he was pleading with me, as though he’d seen into my future and witnessed a terrible fate. ‘You’re going to do fine,’ he said, his thick voice quivering at its edges, ‘Fine. Nothing to worry about.’
I gulped. I didn’t understand what had occurred. Had he truly looked into my soul? Or was his speech nothing other than heartfelt nonsense? Had his artifice really fallen apart? And all of a sudden I saw him standing there naked, squirming in the candle flame that flickered in the huge, dark pool at the centre of his eye.
‘What have you got to worry about?’ he persisted. ‘Money?’ His frustration was clear. He still appeared to believe, despite all protestation, that I’d allowed myself to be subjugated by material worry. ‘Chrissy, if you’re ever short of cash I’ll lend it you.’ He laughed and looked at the cigar in his hand, which was clearly not to his taste. ‘What do I need money for? A few thousand, no interest. Don’t you worry…Heck! What am I saying? A good friend like you? You can have it!’ As embarrassed as I was by this crazy offer, I was relieved that my companion had regained his form. ‘When do you want it? Any time! A few thou, you just say the word, Chrissy! You can’t worry about money, you know!’ He was excited and truly serious: about the point, if not the offer.
I thanked him, told him money wasn’t really a problem. I simply wanted him to change the subject. He had no need to impress me. I’d felt uncomfortable enough when he asked for that ridiculous cigar. I don’t think he realised how much I took for granted over this table, and even if he did, I’d lost all desire to pick away at his ridiculous façade.
‘Have it your way,’ he said, ‘but the offer’s there,’ and I said nothing. I then feared that once more a frightful silence was about to descend on us, only for him to burst with an irreverent chuckle and I looked and could see that he’d managed to relight the flare behind his face.
‘What, then,’ he said, ‘did you want to be when you were a boy?’ He twiddled his cigar, which was now proving a helpful prop, if nothing else. ‘Don’t be shy!’
Now, I must explain at this point that I’d anticipated the question. He was doing his best to disorientate me, of course, by changing topic erratically, such was his genius, but the revelation of his dark desire to be an explorer had lingered nevertheless. It seemed to stand out as a clue to the meaning of his visit: a flag in the snow, cracking in the wind, beckoning me towards it. I tried to recall my own childhood dreams, to unearth something of similar character, but my mind remained a blank. I remembered our home and how I used to climb trees in the woods; playing on the Down’s Banks, the Plot, the Mudleys, the Mole-Hole. I’m not sure I wanted for anything in those sweet, carefree days. I’m not sure I ever much imagined growing up, and honestly I can’t remember wanting to be anything particular when I did. And now, years later, fully grown, I still struggle to imagine growing up, and still don’t want to be anything particular when I do, the only difference being that these days, unlike in my childhood, I feel like I’m permanently wanting for something.
For the last few years I’d been set on training as a physicist, but that had blown up spectacularly. It turned out that those scientific studies were not conducive to my wellbeing, they did not nourish my soul. And since abandoning that straightforward and decided course, something in my life had been lacking. Meaning, direction, purpose: call it what you will. It is the void that drives my father’s relentless questioning on our weekly call: ‘What are you going to do with yourself after you graduate?’ he demands. ‘What are you going to do? What?’ I had no present desire to go over all of that again. At least my about-turn meant I didn’t have to tell John that I wished to be something as urbane as a man in a white coat. That wouldn’t have done at all. Not after what he’d shared.
Then the thought occurred. I saw it coming to me in slow-motion, dancing through the fog of the room. An image from a film; a sequence that had captured my mind. The slow, graceful waltz of a little craft as it slowly floats inside a majestic, turning space wheel: how they corkscrew together in perfect harmony.
‘I wanted to be an astronaut,’ I told him.
He was ecstatic. ‘Well, you can be an astronaut! You’re clever, you’re strong: that’s all they want!’
I shrugged and watched his face as it frowned in concentration.
‘When I was a boy, Chrissy, I always thought I’d be the first man on Mars. The red planet. Have you seen Mars?…It’s amazing!’ He looked at me now with that same boy’s wonder. ‘It’s bright red, of course, and it’s got canyons hundreds of miles deep. That’s where they are, if they exist.’
‘If who exist?’ I knew what he meant, of course, but I hoped I was wrong.
‘Tell me, Chrissy,’ he asked as he stroked his lip, his eyes gazing at the ceiling and perhaps envisioning the infinity beyond, ‘do you believe there could be life on Mars?’
I stifled a grin and replied soberly, quoting at length a few scientific explanations as to why it was highly unlikely: mostly bits of chemistry and biology I’d picked up here and there. Sadness descended on me as I spoke, not from quelling his Martian hopes, but from the belief that the profundity of our encounter may well have run its course, that this turn of conversation signalled that his interest had reverted to speculative themes. Reflecting on it now, I suppose my reaction reveals just how acutely and ambiguously I’d already come to depend on the man. I’m no mystic, dear reader, but more than once this evening has the word ‘supernatural’ visited itself upon my mind. But anyway, as a way of concluding this digression, I note that my fears proved in fact without foundation, that he had no intention of divorcing our debate from his profound discourse on the human condition.
‘It doesn’t matter of course,’ he said, ‘whether they exist or not. The first man on Mars will be the greatest explorer of all time, aliens or none. The first of our species to set foot on another planet…but we’re a few years off that yet.’ He looked up reflectively. ‘Otherwise I’d go.’
I laughed. ‘No offence, John, but I think they’d send someone younger than you. A scientist, perhaps?’
‘No, no, no,’ he said. ‘That may be the case when you’re talking about the moon, Chrissy, but this is Mars. What is it? Three years away in a fast ship?’
I shrugged. I had no idea and didn’t care. I wanted only to hear what he had to say.
‘You’d come back from the moon soon enough. They can send who they like for that.’
‘But you’d come back from Mars!’ I exclaimed. ‘Eventually! There’s no reason why not!’
He bowed his head so that now I was faced by the checked surface of his flat cap. It seemed to dissolve before my eyes and smile. I looked at his hand, which gripped the diminutive glass of ale, as ever an inch from full. I sensed that beneath his cap he was grinning, but when he raised his face it had been wiped of all discernible emotion. I stared at him and awaited his judgement with trepidation. And then finally he shook his head, slowly and at length, and a chuckle broke from his cheeks, a chuckle at the innocence of my youth.
‘You wouldn’t come back,’ he said. ‘Not from Mars.’ And he looked at me with intent once more, netting me in those huge sincere eyes. Their sadness haunted me, haunts me still. His countenance had come to possess a futile quality, and through his recumbent jowls I could trace twitches that betrayed a clenching of teeth. At one point I thought I saw those great eyes of his well up, but I cannot be sure as no drops fell. I stared, unblinking, as he spoke.
‘You have to understand, Chrissy…Space…it’s cold…It’s cold and you won’t come back, and when you’re up there you’re on your own.’ He looked down at his drink. ‘They wouldn’t send you, Chrissy. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. But me? It doesn’t matter about some old sod like me.’
‘But what about your wife, your children?’ I demanded, my voice cracking. People were looking. I would have shaken him by the shoulders if only I’d possessed the courage to make a scene.
‘They’d understand,’ he said, now cupping his miniature glass inside both giant paws. He looked up. ‘But it’ll be too late for me. You’ll be my age before they’re ready to go to Mars. And that’s why you’ll be the one to go.’
I couldn’t believe my ears. My hands gripped the edge of the bench.
‘Your wife will understand what you have to do; your kids will be proud of their old man. The strongest man in the human race.’ He lowered his head once more and I smiled, unsure of what to say.
‘John, you were born too soon,’ I tried, suddenly feeling as though I was in a soap opera. Yet a hint of a smile on the injured face suggested I was on the right track and I was spurred to persevere. ‘You can’t choose the time you live in,’ I said. ‘All you can do is make sure that you’re ready, if ever they need you. And you would have been ready, John. You would have been ready if you’d got the call.’
He held his smile for a moment, and then the corners of his mouth fell down, sliding those great cheeks across the vast flanks of his face, and with this sage expression he nodded slowly into space and raised his glass. ‘To you, Chrissy. Thank you.’
And for a long time we sat at one with our silence, both rocking our heads in that same wise rhythm, our eyes exchanging through the magical fog the final sentiments of our meeting. Outside now the darkness was pitch, and at some point the candles inside had been bolstered by dull electric lighting, though in all the time we’d been there the illumination in the room seemed not to have deviated from that single dark shade of ochre. I sank the dregs from my glass and pocketed my tobacco, got into my coat and slung my bag over my shoulder.
I went to shake his hand. ‘Thanks for the drink, John.’ He took my hand in his giant mitt and stood up. Before I could react he’d embraced me, enfolding my tired torso in cold wax cloth. Into my ear he spoke:
‘Good luck, Chrissy. You’re the strongest, nicest bloke I ever met. You’ll go to Mars. Be ready.’ And he pulled back to look me in the eye a final time, to check I’d understood. For a moment I thought he was going to perform a salute. ‘Remember that only the strongest can go.’ And again he clasped me, too hard this time, and I felt a terrible urgent need to leave, to remove myself from this unhinging of emotion.
‘It was good to meet you, John,’ I said.
When he released me I thanked him again but by then I was already walking away, overcome by the desire to escape his world, and now I did not look back. In the front room I caught a gust of chill evening air as I broke into a trot. The barman, collecting glasses, looked at me quirkily as I passed by and asked, ‘Do you know that guy?’
‘Fuck no!’ I laughed, suddenly red with embarrassment, and as I turned up the street my laughter continued, it continued all the way up the hill and back to college, in fact; and it was no longer laughter of embarrassment, I think, but from some other, blacker well of anxiety and joy that the strange events of the evening had sprung. And, as the hours passed subsequently in my room, as I paced and smoked and drank and continued to spasm with involuntary nervous chuckles, I attempted to grasp just what precisely was at the root of this disturbing levity. Yet try as I might I could not find my way around the edges of the problem, could not remove myself from it, so to speak, and consider it from a distance. And at the end of much strained cogitation I conceded that the meaning of John’s visit was likely for now to remain a mystery to me, no less than the shape of my future self must remain a mystery to the present chap.
And so, defeated by the problem, I determined at the very least to set down the tale in pure honest detail, to set it down here as you have just encountered it, unabridged, full and fresh from the mind, such that one day hereafter some other enquirer, perhaps even my own grown-up self, might review this strange encounter afresh. And considering it in light of the subsequent twists and turns of my life, my successes and failures, it is sincerely hoped that the investigator might thereby come to some conclusion as to what truly passed inside my soul this odd December evening.
Christopher Branson was shortlisted for the 2016 Impress Prize for New Writers and has recently been published in The Ham. He is close to completing a comic novel about a young man trying to recover from a profound love affair that never happened. Prior to focusing on fiction he wrote a doctoral thesis on Nietzsche. He lives in London, England. @tarkovskysdog
I demand to know,
the origin of cardamom,
rose water and coriander,
the moments in history
they became necessities
for our recipes.
Expecting an answer
of a chiseled diagram in limestone,
roasting in an undiscovered ruin
that transgressed its way
to a flap of papyrus paper,
I am reminded
to stir a figure eight
on the pan with a wooden spoon.
In the process of confinement,
I inquire aloud about substitution,
the introduction of binders,
fruit grind garnishments,
the simple dusting
of confectioner’s sugar
through a sifter.
They warn of a testament,
a threat to reveal
the shame for innovating,
for wanting to invite
the strangers in.
When I was younger,
stories about racism
(and I’ve understood since the attacks
that racism is just
a pressure valve),
and I remember conditioning
to absorb the abuse
as some form of pity,
to see the treatment
as proof of my existence,
a recessive nerve
captivated by pain.
Today, I sit in the car
next to my father’s dark brown skin.
I listen to his accent
mercifully trying to dissolve
into another language
he will never master.
how hard to understand.
And I remember you.
No slumber can overpower me,
the waft of alcohol has left
my breath, the sins are toted,
a horizontal balance pole
held across my torso,
leaving one platform atop a tight wire.
I’m visited in intermittent periods
by reflections, an earlier identity
of myself, separated
like sheep wool fibers disentangled
in a drum carding machine.
I’ve sought to reattach with congregation,
display an innate prologue of survival,
the absence of food and fluids
for a protracted time period.
Won’t you die someone asks.
Losing patience for autotomy to manifest,
I dig the dust with my claws,
patting the earth
for the buried legs of an orb weaving spider
seeped in honeybee venom,
hobbled to exhaustion.
No, but I’ve been close to it before.
Tamer Said Mostafa is a Stockton, California, native whose work has appeared in various journals and magazines such as Confrontation, Triggerfish Critical Review, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, and Phantom Kangaroo, among others. As an Arab-American Muslim living in Sacramento, he meditates on life with the reinforcement of family and the music of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.
In a far corner of the Bronx zoo, sits a dignified creature. Thick skinned and two-horned – the rhino is endangered. Leash kids, parents, and childish adults marvel at the creature – they “ooh” and “aweeee:” attentions only afforded to endangered animals in captivity. My friends and I do the same. Our curly haired friend approaches the fence.
“Hey! Hey rhino! Yeah, I’m talking to you, you sack of shit! Think you’re so tough? You’re just a grey bag of skin!” He points and laughs.
“But why?” We ask.
“Somebody has to heckle those rhinos.”
I sit in the far corner of my bed – knees to chest. My four-day hair is matted and sits in a semi bun on top of my head. I press the mascara stained sleeves of my red sweater to my eyes – trying to catch the tears before they fall. It has been twenty-four hours since my friend was declared brain dead.
I cry as I pull on any tee shirt I haven’t worn to bed. I cry as I pull on a pair of pants that pass as clean. Tears drip onto my shoelaces as I tie them. I stuff Kleenex down my sleeves. I pull on my thick skin and sharpen my two-horned wit. I go to work.
My boss and coworkers handle me with kid gloves. They speak in voices so soft I have to lean in to hear them. I field the “ah, I’m so sorry-s” and the “are you okay-s” with clenched teeth. My curly haired friend sits next to me on his couch – “this sucks. THIS SUCKS.” He shouts through rigid jaw.
Rhinos are hunted for their horns; folk medicine indicates a powder made from the horn of a rhino has healing properties. They are sprinkled over food as a seasoning; they’re brewed into tea. They feed one’s lust. They cure fevers, arthritis, and gout.
“What poor animals! What precious creatures! Hunters need to be stopped! These rhinos must be protected!”
“What a stupid looking horn. Big nosed idiot!”
On the drive to the hospital, we listen to sad music and don’t talk much. I take my two-horned wit and thick-skinned strength and grind it into a fine powder. I serve it as a condiment on the sandwiches we pick up for our friends who have been at the hospital all day. I brew it into the tea I hold with two hands because the warmth has been sapped from my body. We sit down the hallway from his family, laughing at things we remember about him, making sure everyone eats, taking turns crying and rubbing backs. They ask if we want to say goodbye. My throat closes up – I don’t know if I can. My curly haired friend takes my hand and says he’ll go with me.
You know in movies where the main character is standing at the entrance to a hallway that leads to a big plot development and the camera zooms out so it seems like the hallway is light years long? That’s what this hallway looks like. We walk with solemn slowness. As long as I could keep him as the squinty eyed, smiling, sassy boy I’d talked to on Thursday he’s still alive.
The sterile room is too warm. His face is still swollen from where his head met the hot, black road. My blood rushes from my head to my feet. His body is slowly being vacated of organs. The machine on my left beeps out a steady heart rate, his chest rises and falls – but it’s not him. He’s gone – I am saying goodbye to a machine.
I leave the room clutching the hand of my curly haired friend. Snot runs out of my nose – I use an entire box of Kleenex on the way home. It’s quiet until something not at all funny happens, but we laugh anyway. We get lost in suburbia and yell at the carbon copy houses.
Rhinos, depending on the type, live in grasslands, floodplains, swamps, or rain forests. They spend their days and nights grazing – but will sleep during the hottest part of the day, coating themselves with mud to stay cool.
“Ha! They’re covered in mud! Exotic PIGS!”
We spend three days in Dayton – with his family, with his friends. It’s an open casket. At his funeral, I think Marina is the most courageous person I know. Her best friend is dead but she gives a eulogy and only cries a little bit. At the reception afterwards we eat because it’s daytime and it’s the polite thing to do.
Afterwards we sit on the edge of the pool at the house we’re staying in, still dressed in our funeral clothes. One by one we all jump in, fully clothed. We create a whirlpool – grabbing each other’s ankles and pool noodles, pulling each other along. We laugh because it’s the hottest part of the day and our only mud is each other’s voices.
“He was the worst.” Marina says through tears and laughter. We share stories about him, even the bad ones. Someone has to heckle the rhinos.
The rhino is usually a solitary creature. But sometimes, they socialize with birds. It’s a symbiotic relationship, but a rhino will make a “mmmwonk” noise when it’s happy and a bird will perch on its back.
We’re usually solitary creatures. But sometimes a bird – well a bird lover – will bring us together. Because here’s how it ends: I can lose my friend in a bike accident. I can stand on the precipice of depression with outstretched arms ready to fall. But at the end of the day – as long as I have someone who will heckle the rhinos with me – their arms will grasp my waist and pull me back from the edge.
Noelle will graduate in the spring of 2017 with a B.A. in Writing and English from Indiana Wesleyan University. She believes in writing as a catharsis for the grieving and healing. She hopes to work for a publishing house or in the entertainment industry writing for SNL or Jimmy Fallon. Her work can be found in Indiana Wesleyan’s literary magazine Caesura. This is her first piece published in a real literary journal.
File the welcome and bury
the cheer in the backyard
next to the grill where no one
will suspect it. Rip
down the fence—what are you containing?
Paint the house a different color.
Sand it down and lock away
the syllables of sparrows
when you first moved in.
Don’t focus on the dead
bougainvillea or the rotting lizard
on the front porch eclipsed by ants.
Don’t think of the good times.
Hide the key under the mat.
Lie even when the sun is on the marigolds.
Remember to step over yourself.
Erase the footprints in the hall.
Elbow the fingerprints
off the bathroom mirror—
what is there but your own eyes—
the whites and deep pupils,
your lips—a bow, undone.
I’m in the world without my father
for thirteen years today.
Time’s passed—blasé—as if it’s been easy:
the dislocation, the lacework of grief
beneath my jeans and t-shirts, the premier
washing of his State Trooper windbreaker—
patchouli traces fizzed away with Tide.
He’s a spirit in a wave—
its teal and splash. The lapping too
and the long strings of moonlight
on crustaceans. Fleas and leeches.
Tonight a shield bug illuminates my kitchen
with its bright green body, circling as I am
sipping tea in the stove’s ever dimming light.
I keep your room the same, despite
frequent frissons of loss and the way
Occam’s razor says you won’t return.
Twenty years erased in an ache
of waves despite “wait,” keepsakes.
I am the song that lost her voices.
Instead, I bend into the nocturne pen
of specters, drop down next to
your slowdancing Doppleganger.
We’re swaying bodies, the orbit of oddities
in this shapeless no-man’s land.
When I breathe, I see you breached
on an undiscovered planet. I arch
awake, search for your familiar nightshirt—
tiny, alive—quiet in your waiting for me.
Follow the light to flat feet, wide eyes,
lips loyal over roaring. I came here to fall.
Burn the ancient, and fuck in the rubble
drunk, crazed by the mystery of what
we could be. Me through a keyhole
before we ever met: “that one.” The truth
is dawn and sparrows, unrelenting glimmer.
Let’s enact the formative creeping
of our ancestors, use our gilded bodies
to bind the sun, wooers of God
ripe, lewd. I love your gnarled
borders busy with cicadas, your smirk.
Arched backs, our burning a panacea.
So this is what it means to be a universe.
Melissa Watt holds an MFA from Emerson College. Her work is featured or forthcoming in Black Heart Magazine, Poetry Quarterly, Ohio Edit, Lunch Ticket, Visitant, Cheap Pop and elsewhere.
5 November 1767
“If it weren’t for that snotty kid with a fever, I would have gotten out before that damn sun set,” muttered Dr. Alex Hitch as he paved his way through the dark and smoky streets of Haymarket, streaked with the rotten detritus of yesterday’s fruit vendors. “These streets are creepier than the cellars of that old meeting house,” he concluded, as if not talking to himself but rather a medical colleague over some finely steeped Harbor tea. The cacophony of cobblestones assaulted Hitch as he paced the market block and rounded up to old Faneuil Hall, the cellar of which he spent many a late night, after his last house call, poring over archetypal witch trial documents, many of which were forged, copied accounts, but hey, you get what you get.
Hitch had been right smack in the middle of the transcription of one Mary Bradbury’s records and testimonies before Judge Hathorne in the Court of Salem, one of the more enticing case files. Poor Mary claimed to live out with due diligence the words of the Gospel, obeyed the ministry, and preached against heathenry. Even pledging obedience to the patriarchy isn’t enough to exonerate oneself these days. Not as juicy as Bridget Bishop’s testimonies, but a rich text nonetheless. Never in his 25 years did Hitch imagine fulfilling the dull and dirty work of his father, also a man with a medical profession, and with a particularly sterile sense of humor.
Hitch tugged at his graying overcoat and its frayed collar, stalking closer to the string of boozie Irish pubs lining the walk. “Better stick close to the shadows. Much better to avoid the horse shit.” Not bothering to glance in his periphery, Hitch swept across Treaumont and Common Streets and took the frigid stone steps of the Hall two at a time, managing not to trip until the top one this time. Hitch careened over and into the side of the hall, blackened by the half crescent moon on the adjacent side of the sky.
“What the hell was that?” Hitch reared back on his feet and smoothed out his black hair over his widow’s peak as he looked to see whether the folly was his or the steps, which seem to be in continual disrepair. “Revolutionaries these days,” shrugged Hitch as spun around and saw—
“Is that a body?”
Hitch was thoroughly unsurprised at the lump of flesh strewn across the stairs. “Did I just trip over that…?” Hitch swung around, looking around for another human with which to validate the strange occurrence and realized at that moment that a body lying out in the night, unclaimed, probably wasn’t a normal occurrence. Not one to be deterred by decaying bodies, Hitch knelt down to identify it. Despite his medical professionalism Hitch almost gagged when he saw the face of Henry Cabot, rector of the North Church, peering up at him with hollow eyes and a mouth occupied with hundreds of maggots, slowly but surely inching their way out of Cabot’s extremities. Hitch gently prodded Cabot. Other than the gross maggots, he could identify no other physical evidence to diagnose this odd situation. Hitch found, after plugging his nose and removing Cabot’s shoes, what looked like to be the symptoms of dropsy: swollen hands, face, and feet.
In his vapid exhaustion combined with the dizzying confusion of the late hour, and also the peculiar observation that no one seemed to be walking near the Faneuil block at all, Hitch sighed a deep breath of sleepless annoyance at this new patient (of his apparently) and burst into the Hall, proclaiming to a few men crouched over sketches of town streets and battle outlines dripped with mucky wax, “We’ve got another one…”
Darin Flyte sat slouched against the backside of her sparsely cushioned wooden booth at the Green Dragon, one of Boston’s more dingy but homey hidey holes, the pub always playing host to a motley group of eclectic characters across the town, from politicians to the plain old town drunks. With her rump pressed firmly into the wooden frame of the booth and her shoulder slouched against Mary, one of her only longtime and dearest friends, she swore out of the grimy windows stacked with soot that she saw a crowd hustling past the pub and across the street to Faneuil.
“What do ya think they’re up to?” Mary twisted under Darin’s alcohol-weighted stupor to get a better look out the window. The crowd continued to jog past and tapered out to a slower trickle of stragglers.
Darin rolled her eyes and let her head lop back onto Mary’s shoulder. Slapping herself awake, Darin shook her head in an attempt to wake from her self-induced stupor. “Meh the usual … Probably a flock of late night worshipers groveling at the heels of Henry Cabot to “repent” their desperately kept hidden sins.”
As Darin raised her eyes to the door, she saw Dr. Alex Hitch storm through, dragging in some of the brief drizzle, which deposited in puddles around his well-worn boots.
Though not one to command the center of any sort of attention, Hitch blurted out, “There’s been a MURDER!”
“Wait what?” Felix Amory, owner of the pub, pitched up from his seat at the rear of the room, amid a flock of receipts. “What could you possibly be talking about? We’ve kept this town pretty clean over the past year.”
“I don’t know. I don’t yet have an answer,” Hitch admitted, placing his hat on the top of the coat rack by the rust-hinged door and stalking to a high seat by the bar, so all could hear. “But it was Cabot. Henry Cabot. I can’t believe it myself.”
“Cabot? Holy shit…We’ve got a serious one this time…” Felix said. “Although I s’pose it’s technically on your hands, you being the doctor and all. Shit.”
Hitch heard a chorus of incoherent mumbling and exasperations throughout the pub, which, when he held up his hands for a moment of silence, dulled to a sullen hush as those gathered there decided to shut up and listen.
With a heavy sigh, Hitch blew out the nervous breath he’d been holding in and said, “Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll get to the bottom of this somehow…Since I’m the only capable medical professional. I am in need of new patients after all, and I just happened to stumble across this one.”
And before the chatter rose to a dull roar, he added into the chaos of the pub, “I haven’t had a proper chance to inspect the good Father Cabot of course, but there does seem to be something strange about his murder…Something not altogether…natural…you understand.”
A drunken and confused chorus of “Wait!” and “How so?!” erupted from the contents of the pub, affording Hitch only choppy moments in the intermediary remarks to shout, “I won’t say anything until I’ve had a closer look!”
From the corner, Darin rolled her eyes further into the back of her head in boredom and, turning as if in exposition to those around her, commented, “There is no such thing as magick.” Then she worked herself up a bit louder, standing so Hitch could hear her.
“Come on, Alex,” Darin scoffed, “You know as well as I do that all that magick stuff is bogus. This is the eighteenth century after all…”
“I didn’t say a thing about magick.”
“Well, I intimated where you were going with this…Salem’s not too far away, you know.”
Hitch shrugged and took a step back from this particular bombastic Bostonian. “Nice woman, but you never know when the temper’s going to flare,” he muttered into the sleeve of his overcoat, and then proceeded to respond with, “Ahem, actually, I prefer Hitch if you don’t mind.”
“I know you as Alex and I’ll address in kind.”
Hitch bellied up to the bar and dumped half the contents of a stout down his throat, and after whetting and clearing it, he plowed forth. “I’m just saying, didn’t look like natural causes to me. Or maybe it was meant to look that way. I don’t know. It’s late and I’m tired. Once I get Cabot back to my house, I’ll inspect him further and uhmmm…”
Sensing the loss of his argumentative momentum, Hitch mumbled and pushed his way through the crowded pub to the chilly street corner and huffed off. The passersby had by now flocked either home or sought the warm stocked fire of the Green Dragon and other such dives nearby, so not a soul heard Hitch as he exclaimed loud enough to hear, “East-coasters these days are such a disagreeable sort.”
Harper Ratcliffe sniffed and hocked a wad of saliva into his fist as he leaned back in his rickety wooden chair in the butt end of the pub, with a clear sense of satisfaction. There was nothing Ratcliffe enjoyed more than a friendly but heated disagreement. “Well that was fun.”
Ratcliffe tipped his head back in exasperation and proceeded to bob forward until his chair clattered back on all fours in front of his table. Ratcliffe sucked on his burnt out cigar, trying in vain to make the smoky vanilla flavor last until he could pawn another via a passerby five-finger discount.
Ratcliffe sucked and spat on his cigar, chewing the ends a bit, notebook still lying spread-eagled on the table. Harper Ratcliffe fancied himself a bit of a writer, a purely freelance amateur. He very much enjoyed, and staked a good deal of his pride on, transposing real life “characters” into his many fictive universes.
“That Darin Flyte would make a great one,” Ratcliffe thought underneath his ale-scented breath. Ratcliffe had planned to take a note or two during the encounter just witnessed with one particular Dr. Alex Hitch, but instead decided to trace his own signature with a finely-tipped pen, until the ink bled through to the other side of his loosely stitched notebook pages. His notebooks were a lot like Ratcliffe himself: well-worn, seams bursting, well-used, ragged, yellowing and dank.
“She’s quite interesting indeed.” Behind him, he pricked his ears at another of the townies gathered in this late hour, Felix, the innkeeper. Ratcliffe’s ears picked up a vague snide comment whispered from Felix’s mouth, something along the lines of “mmmghhmmmmmm…hygiene…”
Ratcliffe cleared his throat rather loudly and exclaimed in a manner more emphatic than necessary, “What was that, Amory? If you’re going to insult me, please speak louder, eh?”
Felix squinted and scoffed at Ratcliffe from a few tables over. After a brief interlude of pointless indecision, he decided to spit back with notable vehemence, “Awww fuck off, Ratcliffe. Pall around in someone else’s pub for a change, I have half a mind to revoke your room and pitch you out on the street.”
Ratcliffe spun in Felix’s direction and afforded him a seductive wink from across his table. “You mean you don’t find me charming? Come on, man. Plus, you know as well as any I need the room.” Another wink.
Felix’s face registered somewhere along the spectrum of former lovers between awe and appalling dejection. “No,” Felix said with a less than certain conviction, “As a matter of fact I don’t.”
“Well, you’re not as strapping as you were, my dear Felix Amory. And to think, if you still had held onto that boyish charm I still might want you.”
“Excuse me? Want me?”
“Yeah, but like I said, not anymore.” Ratcliffe shot yet another wink and tongue-click, followed by a soft and subtle deep-throated purr, before spinning back around to stun him, as well as silencing the rest of the bar company.
“Mmmmm yes,” hummed Darin, “Poor Alex really is going to have his hands full with all this bloody business going around.” She sipped her nightcap of brandy before continuing, “I do wonder how he’ll manage it.”
Mary frowned at her friend, fresh from the town’s streets after having finally departed the pub. In a harsher tone than she meant, Mary said, “No need to be an ass. What’s gotten into you tonight, eh?”
“Nothing. Murder and rumors of murder are so tedious.”
“You’re saying you believe it didn’t happen?”
Darin sipped, waving her free arm. “I’m just saying, where’s the proof? Where’s the body? Hitch has nothing, no proof, and he didn’t even produce Cabot’s body to corroborate his claim. I’m as dubious as anyone.”
“And moreover, that nonsense about magick? There’s no such thing. And to claim a murder committed by such is ridiculous. Ludicrous, I can’t even.” Mary plopped herself down on the leather chair adjacent her friend in Darin’s sitting room. Darin kept a timeless aesthetic, the finest leather and goose down-filled furniture, though the crimson colored walls of the room often gave the impression that the walls were pressing in on oneself.
“Hitch never said anything about magick.”
“What did he say, then?” Darin gulped the remainder of her drink and half slammed the glass back onto the wooden serving table beside her.
“You know as well as I,” said Mary, with a hint of odd suspicion dripping from her words. “You were there. He said ‘may not be natural causes.’ That’s all, nothing specific about magicks.”
Darin leaned back, stretched out on her down sofa, and closed her eyes. “Yes, I suppose that is what he said. Still either way, I don’t believe it.”
“Oh come on, you came from the northern towns. You don’t even believe natural magicks and such phenomena exist? What about wiccans?”
“No!” Darin stood in a rush of fury and, gasping, tried to keep her words guarded and under control. But the wave of anger was sure and steady, and Darin’s voice level grew at a crescendo until she was yelling at Mary: “There is no such thing as magick. All that stuff, that “magick” was bullshit, nothing more than the accusatory claims of children running through the streets of this city claiming that this person or another was a witch. It was a campaign. Nothing more than the naïve mutterings of children looking to get a rise and panic out of common folk. You of all people know how I feel about this.”
Mary shrunk back in Darin’s chair and exhaled an exasperated sigh of defeat. She shut and rubbed her eyes, hoping the tiredness and pain would recede. “I know, I’m sorry. I do know. I’m just saying it’s in the realm of possibility of belief for me, still.”
“Not for me.”
Darin dropped back into the sofa and spread herself along its length. “It’s been a long day, Mary. Please leave me be.”
“Okay.” Mary knew there was no use arguing with Darin, stubborn and steadfast in her ways but a good and benevolent person at heart, Mary swore to it.
Darin waited until she closed the sitting room door and sat down in her guest room, picking at the silver rose locket that hung around her neck. It had been a gift from her mother before her untimely death.
“What a messy, messy affair. I wonder what can be done to ameliorate it.” The later the clock struck, the more often Darin talked to herself. Darin rubbed her eyes, rubbing over a few freckles on the bridge of her nose, and smoothed out her messy dark brown locks. As her grandfather clock struck twelve, Darin sunk into a sobering sleep, deciding how best to approach Hitch.
6 November 1767
“You know, maybe Hitch could use some help with this investigation after all.”
“Oh yeah?” Felix was rinsing out glasses at the bar before the dinner rush. Darin liked frequenting the Green Dragon, not for its rowdy crowds, but more for Felix as well as the intrigue. There wasn’t a Bostonian who didn’t know that if you were after secrets and information, or the transmission of either, Felix was your guy. “Help from whom?”
“Why, me of course,” Darin smiled in that sly, intelligible, and knowing manner. “I was a member of Cabot’s congregation after all, so I knew him pretty well. I could be useful to his investigation.”
“Yeah maybe. It’s just Hitch working on it so, I’m sure he would at least appreciate the help.” Felix replaced a glass on the underside of the bar and stopped mid-motion. “Wait, what about that huge stink you made the other day? This initiative seems all of a sudden.”
Darin shrugged Felix’s remark off, “Eh, I was out of line. I probably shouldn’t have shit on Hitch like that, but I can make it up to him by helping it out. Though I do sincerely doubt magick had anything to do with Cabot’s timely end.”
“Uhmmm,” Felix shot Darin a skeptically browed look from below bar level, “Don’t you mean untimely?”
Darin’s eyes widened for a fraction of a second. “Oh yeah, of course. Untimely it was at that. Anyway I think Hitch could use the help. And so I want to help.”
“Well that’s good of you, anyway. If you and Hitch can cooperate, I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.”
“Indeed,” agreed Darin. “The good doctor, like many of the authority figures of this town, could always use a bit of advising from someone else.”
“Plus, I have a reputation to uphold. I should not have been so foolish with him.”
Felix hummed an “mmmmm” in agreement. Though he may not come out and say it, Darin was one-hundred percent right. Not just about Hitch, though Felix thought the doctor would probably perform fine on his own. She was right about the town, their dear Boston, with its old world conservativism still imbued with older narrow-minded and patriarchal sensibilities. This town, though settled, was still explosive. “And I want to be right in the thick of all the action,” Felix mumbled under his breath, now frosty from the door opening and closing as Darin left the pub with a trail of fresh rainwater behind her.
The following afternoon, Hitch leaned a bit closer to Henry Cabot’s body, now stowed on the slab in Hitch’s cellar and mortuary room. Dark and dingy, like most cellars, Hitch’s had the added element of housing all his medical playthings, various metal instruments, syringes, tape and bandages, and all such things macabre that he was unfortunate enough to deal with in his daily work. Having afforded a squat house of his own right in the town, Hitch thought it most convenient to place his medical practice right in the forefront living room and cellar of his home. Though economic in decision, Hitch now resented the choice. “How horrid and gross. Why did I ever choose the medical field? So depressing and nasty, and I do so hate getting my pressed shirts dirty,” Hitch muttered to Cabot’s dead corpse. “Not like you can hear me anyway, so I may as well complain all I want.”
Hitch proceeded to peel back the thick layer of now rotted skin and fat from Cabot’s chest to his torso, then took care to break Cabot’s ribs and breastbone in the process, for further inspection of the hollow husk that was once a full-grown man. Hitch almost gagged as he remarked at the thousands of maggots feasting on Cabot’s insides. By now the swelling on his extremities had stopped, but Cabot’s hands and feet still remained inflamed and pungent.
“Mmmm but the real question is, how did he get like this?” Hitch’s monologue reverberated off the stone cold interior of his darkening cellar. Candles were interspersed on various shelves and examination tables to give light to the whole of the room. However the waning daylight did nothing to help his cause. “You, Cabot, I just talked to you the other day, and you seemed to be in perfectly good health, other than being a bit of an alcoholic, rotund, self-important bastard…I had no reason to suspect your ill health at the time…”
Hitch walked up closer to Calbot’s head, intending to poke it here and there to check for cranial inflammation. To his disgust, Hitch spotted a wad of earwax caked on the inside of an ear.
“There’s also the matter of how you got to Faneuil Hall. You may have dragged yourself there? But how, when you had no independent use of your insides and thus mobility? There’s no way this could have happened in the course of a night, nor could you have made your own way, so someone dragged you, perhaps?”
Hitch shrugged at Cabot’s corpse and proceeded. “Then there’s another question of how someone did this to you—since I doubt you would self-impregnate with maggots—where they stowed your body in the meantime—and of course, again, why…”
Hitch answered himself:
“The circumstances are indeed peculiar,” just as the doorbell rang from aboveground at his front door. Grumbling and groaning, Hitch washed himself of Cabot’s innards and mounted the cellar stairs up to his crimson-carpeted front hall. He swung open the door, only to find the person he least wanted to see and last expected to be at his home: Darin Flyte.
Not knowing what else to say, Hitch offered an, “Oh, hello Darin.”
Darin bowed her head a fraction of an inch towards the doctor and offered up the cheery greeting of, “So sorry to bother you, Hitch, I know you must be insanely busy, what with all this disturbing Cabot business…I wanted to first apologize for my behavior the other evening, and second, to propose an offer that I think you’ll find quite beneficial.”
Hitch raised a dull eyebrow and let the bags of his eyes droop to full extent, in evidence of how tired and bothered he was to be interrupted after office hours. “Ah, using my preferred ‘Hitch’ like I asked.”
“Yes. I spoke out of line the other night. I didn’t mean to offend more than usual. Too much to drink and a long day, you know?”
“Yes. That is, uhm, I mean thank you.”
“May I come in?”
“Yes, of course, forgive me.” Hitch backed from the doorframe to allow Darin to enter the house, all the rooms of which were outfitted with hardwood, and a bit creaky at that. As he closed and locked the large entryway door, Hitch continued, “So you say you have an offer for me?”
“Yes, I do,” Darin undid the buttons on her dark navy pea coat and revealed her button-up black trousers, tucked into what looked to Hitch like knee-high riding boots, complete with a loosely fitted cream-colored undershirt that billowed out at the sleeves and tied just below her neck. An awful lot like a gentleman’s clothes, Hitch thought.
“What with the impending colder seasons and all, I know you have a lot of patients on your hands—literally. You’re quite the busy man, Dr. Hitch, and I know you could use a bit of extra help, especially on this Cabot case.”
“What exactly are you proposing to me, Darin?”
“That I assist you of course, in the manner of your investigation into Cabot’s murder.”
Hitch near stumbled on the carpet, on his way to offer Darin a seat next to the hearth in his kitchen and a steaming cup of tea. “You want to help me? After that nasty show in the pub the other night, you can understand why I would be a bit skeptical, no?”
Darin shrugged her shoulders and agreed, “Of course, I know it sounds a bit odd considering the spectacle I sort of made. It may be hard to believe, but I do mean what I say. I would most definitely like to help you in your diagnosis and investigation.”
“I don’t mean to offend,” admitted Hitch, “And I appreciate the offer greatly. But how would you know so much about diagnoses and medical afflictions.”
“My mother was a healer and herbalist. She taught me a great deal.”
“Well I do hate to admit it, but I could use a second set of eyes…from anyone really. You may as well come on down.” Hitch ushered her inside his home. “I’ll get you a smock…”
Equipped with his new assistant, Hitch and Darin were bent over Cabot, both dawned with fresh, white smocks and peering into Cabot’s decaying innards. Thanks to Hitch, most of the maggots had been carved out of Cabot’s body, but an errant bug or two remained.
“I would rather have you inspect the body on your own and see what you find for yourself, but for the sake of expediency in the waning daylight, I want to tell you a few of my vague theories.”
Darin, thinking she would rather have a first look herself, stifled an argument. “Okay, give it to me, doctor.”
Hitch sucked in a deep breath and fired off his observations: “So, from what I have here, which thanks to the accelerated rate of decay as well as the host of feasting bugs is not much, I’ve noticed an oddity or two. I managed to swab a small piece of Cabot’s stomach lining, as well as his intestinal tract and found the remains of some drink very high in alcoholic content.”
“What like beer or ale or mead? Maybe the rector liked to drink or something.”
Hitch waggled a finger and continued. “Hah, no way, those drinks are child’s play compared to what we have here. I’m talking a drink consisting of over 50 percent alcohol.”
Hitch continued, “Well it could be any number of things, but I’ve heard whisperings of a spirit called absinthe…It’s made by the Swiss, very potent, and can cause hallucination, delirium, and in excess amounts, death. It is a botanical spirit, made with several types of herbs including fennel and wormwood.”
Darin crinkled her brow and asked, “Well from who, and when, did he procure it? I’ve never seen nor heard of anything like this, so it must be rare.”
“That’s the thing, I don’t think he drank anything of the sort.”
“Okay, well then how did this happen? He clearly had to have gotten some, if it was in his system.”
Hitch corrected Darin with further insistence, as he built up some confidence in his argument. “There’s no doubt there are traces of the ingredients of absinthe, but I’m not sure the good Cabot here drank absinthe.”
“So you’re suggesting that whatever the cause of his death, it was made to look like he ingested the drink?”
“Exactly!” Hitch scooted over to a side table, on which rested notebook with some messy, scrawling cursive inside.
Darin inched forward, near plunging her face into the belly of Cabot’s formerly infested gut. “Maybe it was one of those ingredients, made to look like the drink itself that killed him. In that case, it was a someone who killed him.”
Hitch hummed in agreement, “Mmmmm mhmmm…”
Darin continued, “And if I were to guess, the fatal ingredient, or one of the fatal ingredients, would be wormwood.”
“I thought as much, too. But why wormwood?”
“My mother told me wormwood, though used as an old and archaic remedy for removing anger or protecting one from curses, cannot be directly ingested. It’s poisonous.”
“Yes! Yes!” Hitch had to admit though frustrating she could be, Darin was intelligent, and her mother taught her well. “I’m glad I’m not going crazy down here, as one is prone to do in the dark with no one but a corpse and one’s own illegible notes to keep company.”
Darin raised herself and finally took a step back from the body. The rank smell of decaying organs and flesh was finally getting to her, so she plugged her nose as she asked, “Wait. Hitch, how do you know so much about herbal remedies and botanical properties?”
Hitch raised an index finger once again, pretending he was delivering a lecture to a hall full of eager students. Seemed he did like attention after all. “I confess my profession does not do much to satisfy me. While carrying on my father’s tradition of the medical field after his death, and while my job does afford a stable income, I get bored easily. I spend my free time, what little I have of it, in enjoyment of poring over historical documents in the cellar of Faneuil Hall.”
“And they just happened to have a fully stocked “botanical herbs” section?”
Hitch frowned. “Well, no. But there are many documents copied from their originals sent from the north shore, detailing the witch hunts and trials in this area. But a fair number of the sources I’ve poked through recount the reasons for accusing one woman or another of being a witch, and many mention wiccans and herbalists who were apt in healing with certain kinds of botanicals.”
“Hmmm yeah, I could see where you would get that sense,” Darin said in mock agreement, her back tensed. “So…this evidence of wormwood…that is why you think Cabot’s death wasn’t an accident? That someone forced it upon him?”
“Maybe…” Hitch trailed off. “But I think it’s more than simply just suspecting wiccan activity. I think the wormwood was used as a cover, either to poison Cabot initially or deflect suspicion from the real crime: the swift, subtle, and rapidly induced decay of his innards.”
Darin rolled her eyes from the corner of the room, propping herself on the edge of another wooden table. “So you think, just because you cannot fully explain the reason for his death that the cause was, what? Magick?”
Hitch removed a glove and scratched the back of his neck in an absent and anxious manner. “I know it sounds suspect, or maybe too far a stretch, but I have to explore every option, you see.”
“I see,” Darin mused as she unfolded her arms and walked back to Hitch’s side. “I really don’t think it’s any type of magick though. Magick doesn’t exist.”
Hitch shrugged. “Like I said, I know it sounds crazy.”
Darin puffed out an annoyed breath and resigned. “Well if you want to keep on believing, I’m sure as hell not going to be the one to stop you from your own delusions.”
“At any rate, I should probably call someone else to come help me with this case. I mean, between you and I, I know we can make progress, but it doesn’t hurt to have someone else on the force? I do have a friend, Henry, who is an officer of the town of Lowell, and he moonlights as a P.I of sorts. May see if he can help us for a bit.”
“Good idea,” Darin resigned again.
Hitch’s eyes flitted from Cabot to the small cellar windows, to Darin, noting that the room was almost devoid of light save for the ten or so flickering candles still interspersed around the room. He sighed, “Anyway, I’ve taken up too much of your good time.”
Darin rubbed her eyes and admitted, “Yes, it probably is time for me to be getting home. Thank you for having me, Hitch. Please let me know if there is any way I can help further.” She untied the white smock from her waist, affording a small smirk. “Though I hope for the sake of your argument and reputation you’re not too invested on this theory reliant upon ‘magick.’”
“Well, we shall see where the evidence leads me, shan’t we?”
“I think we shall.”
As Hitch leaned in a bit closer, squinting at Cabot despite the obvious lack of daylight, Darin motioned toward the door. “I had better take my leave.”
“Ah, yes, of course.” Hitch answered in an absentminded manner as he kept one eye on Darin and another on the corpse still on his dead table. “I’ve kept you too long, please, I’ll walk you out. Thank you again for the help.”
As Hitch and Darin ascended the steps from his cellar, and Darin assumed her coat, she mentioned, “I hope we’ll do this again soon?”
“You don’t mind the trouble?”
Darin scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Please, Hitch, I have more time than I know what to do with. And it’s not that I think you’re incompetent or anything. But I do very much enjoy your company.”
Hitch dealt her a dead-pan stare, thankful but surprised at the odd offer.
“As long as you don’t mind?”
“Oh no! Of course not! Please, I welcome your assistance.” Hitch shook himself of the daze, just in time to hear Darin say, “Well good! I shall see you soon then!” and made her way out into the icy Boston night.
Hitch shut the door on Darin. Just as she hopped down his stoop and headed towards Newbury Street, she noticed an irregularity in the shadows cast by the homes across the street from Hitch’s. She recognized the dirty, plaid-patched pants, worn and frayed wool jacket, and what remained of a derby hat perhaps, from the pub the other night. She had picked him out smirking and stinking at the back of the pub.
“Ratcliffe, what do you want?”
Ratcliffe slunk out into the faint moonlight, now replacing the orange, fiery sunset with its lackadaisical glow. Darin saw him shove something—a notebook maybe?—into the pocket of his coat as he jogged across the way over to her. “Oh, you know, just a stroll in the moonlight.” His attempted smile looked more like a snarl to Darin.
“But it’s not even dark yet.”
“Getting an early start. Little do some of the people here realize, much happens in this city when the lights go out.”
“Mhmmm I bet.”
“So,” Ratcliffe continued, “What were you and, ah, Mr…Hitch was it?”
“What were you and Hitch doing together so late in the evening? After office hours, might I add.”
Darin’s eyes widened in disgust and she spat, “Are you intimating that I’m having an affair? Well if that’s what you think, you can stuff it.”
“Is that so?” Ratcliffe’s nasty grin widened.
“Yes, that is so.” Darin plowed on. “First off, it’s none of your business what I do with my free time. Second, Hitch is a respectable physician, and a friend. And I am a respectable woman.”
“Didn’t seem like you two were, how should I say, too chummy the other night when you made your scene after Cabot’s murder.”
“We have since resolved our issues.” Darin drew her coat tighter and pushed past Ratcliffe back down the street, shouting behind her, “Now if you don’t mind, I need to be going back home. Good NIGHT.”
Ratcliffe chuckled as Darin made her way in the direction of her home. Ensuring she was out of earshot, Ratcliffe scribbled two words in his notebook (“temper temper”), and thought aloud: “I wonder what this town would think of ‘Darin, the model, upright landowner’s wife’,” sarcasm dripping from his mocking tone, “when they learn about these trysts with Hitch, and her clearly unresolved anger issues … hmmm … I should hate for her reputation to suffer for it.”
“Where were you all day?” Arthur Flyte asked Darin, as he plopped down at their intimate dining table. The Flytes’ dining room was much like the rest of the rooms in their quaint, but certainly rich house on the outskirts of the Common: decadent but just so in a tasteful manner, with a dash of gold in their curtains and other decor. These private residences on Newbury were of the clapboard colonial type, featuring thick black shutters on smooth, greased hinges, and stately without being too lavish. This room, unlike that of the sitting room in which Darin spent most of her nights reading and entertaining Mary, had rich, cobalt colored walls and artwork from local craftsmen. Many such paintings depicted a vast jungle, with reddened horizons and sprinkled with sailing fleets here and there: the New World.
“I was just out and about, as I am most days,” Darin offered. “You know I have the time.” At that moment, Bartholt, a butler, serviceman, and valet to the Flytes entered from the two way, swinging door that led to the kitchen just beyond, and delivered their roast pheasant dinner, complete with bountiful harvest vegetables which were imported from Arthur’s land west of the city, and a fine syrah red wine. Darin offered a smile and she placed a silk napkin on her lap and cut into their meal.
“I know you do,” Arthur spoke through a mouthful, forcing Darin to wince at the sound of his talking and chewing. “You’re lucky at that, to have so much time, being a landowner’s wife and all. The investment I’ve made in some of the farms out west have provided well for us, have they not?”
“I cannot disagree with that.” Darin scoffed in her head at the improbability of herself owning land. You’d think in the process of colonizing a new world, they’d at least think to restructure the social systems, Darin thought to herself. Even if Arthur could, she wasn’t much sure of his willingness to cut her in on the “family business”. Arthur wasn’t an unbearable spouse; in fact he could be quite handsome with his milk chocolate eyes and dirty blond hair, bleached by the sun in his early days of boyhood and undercut on the bottom half of his head to reveal a natural brunette. He cleaned up rather nice, she thought. But as with any man, she was reluctant to bear him children, despite their marriage of two years. Darin decided to throw him a bone. “I was helping out Hitch today, in fact. He seems to require a certain amount of my expertise, and since, as you yourself say, I have the time, I figured I would lend him my assistance.”
“You’re helping him with this whole…Cabot affair, panic about which is spreading around these streets like wildfire?” Arthur looked up with a glance of brief skepticism. “He’s a medical professional, he can’t handle this himself?”
“It seems not.”
“Hmmm very well then. You know you don’t need my approval.”
“I certainly don’t.” To lighten her remark, Darin once again gave her husband a reassuring and genuine smile, with a hint of devilry contained therein.
“Will you be seeing Mary tonight?”
Darin had no clue if her husband thought anything suspect of her friendship with Mary, considering the frequency of the girl’s attendance at their dinners and the late hour she left their residence most nights of the week. She didn’t really care either. Darin suspected Arthur was caught in his own elicit affairs, too.
“No, I don’t think so. I’m feeling rather exhausted tonight.”
At the conclusion of their meal, Darin rose from the table and paused briefly before padding upstairs to her sitting room. She walked to Arthur, planting on him a substantial kiss, and said, “I grow weary, and I must away to bed. Goodnight, my dear.” And thus she made her way up to her room for a usual drink.
9 November 1767
Hitch’s ears pricked up as he heard the three knocks on his door, signaling Darin’s arrival. Popping his Yorkshire pudding from its cooking tin on the fireplace and placing it with gentle hands next to the cooling lamb roast on his mahogany counter, his boots thumped along the hallway and he made his way out to greet her. He remembered to smile, something he did not do very often, though he was in a pleasant mood, having the opportunity to entertain a rare dinner guest. He was happy to have some company and grateful for Darin’s continued assistance with this whole troublesome Cabot case.
With a bit more gusto than his usual expressions afforded, Hitch opened the door and said, “Hello Darin!” Hitch had grown to appreciate Darin’s refined and sophisticated sensibilities. Though at moments uncouth and raucous, she did offer terribly good dinner company. “Welcome!”
“Hitch, thank you,” Darin said as she stepped out of the nippy air. Her eyes looked crinkled and saggy at the edges, as if she had just woken from a long nap or managed to survive the day with a minimal night’s sleep. “I do so appreciate your company this evening.”
“The pleasure’s all mine.”
Darin hoisted the jingling contents of the cloth bag she’d been carrying, and placed it on the hall floor as she removed her jacket. “I hope you don’t mind, but since you were so kind to provide the food, I would supply the drink for tonight.” Darin winked and laughed, “You do know I love a good drink.”
Hitch perked at the word “drink” and said, “Ah, wonderful. What are we having, may I ask?”
“It’s a surprise, you’ll see!”
Hitch vacated the kitchen, accompanied by the roast and pudding, placing them on his dining table just so.
“I’m starved for good company these days,” Hitch admitted with his own little embarrassed shrug, before he realized Darin couldn’t see him from the kitchen, from which he heard the audible clinking of glassware.
Darin chuckled a bit from the nearby kitchen and added, “Well it’s a good thing we’re about to sit down for dinner right?” Darin stepped into the room bearing a curious looking beverage on a bronze tray. Spying the roast, Darin sighed. “Ahh I wish you had let me know what meat you were preparing. This drink goes particularly well with fish. Alas, we shall make due.”
Darin delivered two pint glasses of sparkling, spiced amber liquid to herself and Hitch. The glasses each contained a full pint of the liquid, a warm amber hue, rimmed with a sliced lime and a thin line of sugar. Only then did she notice Hitch’s table setting. “Are those bayberry candles?”
“Why yes, they are. How did you know?”
“Bayberries are a popular source for candle wax. Expensive though, and not very sustainable.”
“True, all the more luxurious though. Even though it takes 15 pounds of berries to yield one candle.”
Darin rolled her eyes. “They’re better off used for their medicinal purposes, such as fits and fevers.”
“I do love your table presentation, though.” Hitch’s table boasted extensive amounts of artisanal fruits, golden, green, and macintosh apples and red grapes, arranged in silver fruit bowls with grape vines wrapped around towering candleholders, the candles themselves made of bayberries. In the direct center of the long, rectangular table, at which a chair was placed at each end, was a pheasant, also on a silver platter. Hitch preferred to spare no extravagance when entertaining dinner guests.
“Thank you. I do pride myself on appearance.” Hitch sipped his drink, slurping a bit of the drink into the back of his mouth. “This drink is delicious, what is it?”
“Do you know poison sumac?”
Hitch gagged and spat the drink out onto his precious table décor, near spraying Darin in the face. But she was too busy laughing doubled-over, and then straightening to resume her usual smirk, her mouth tipped up in a knowing smile.
Darin added, “Hah yeah well, that’s not it though.”
Hitch’s eyes near popped out of his head, trying to register that he had almost been poisoned. Or had he? “What?”
“Don’t worry, there’s no poison sumac in that drink, “Darin laughed. “I was just playing with you.”
Hitch shot Darin a most unamused, low-brow glare as he wiped his mouth and his place setting of the cocktail detritus. “Okay…So what exactly is in this?”
“No need to worry,” Darin reassured the good doctor, “it’s non poisonous sumac of course.”
“Why in the name of God do you make drinks with sumac anyway?”
Darin took a harmless and generous gulp from her glass. “Like I said, old family recipe passed down from my mother.”
Hitch took another tentative sip of his drink and admitted, “You have a weird, sick sense of humor.”
Darin smiled, “And I take pride in that…So do you still plan on inviting your friend, whatshisname, to the town to help our investigation?”
“His name’s Tudor, Henry Tudor. And yes, I do. I’m thinking he can ask around for Cabot’s usual whereabouts, friends, any enemies he may have had. Though I don’t know why he would have any enemies.”
Darin smirked, ready to jump at the mention of “Tudor.” But as she opened her mouth, Hitch added, “Yes, I do realize the peculiarity of his name…Tudor, as in Kings Henry VII and VIII of England…”
Darin added, “Maybe he can keep an eye on that slimy Ratcliffe, too. I’m sure he’ll be sneaking around, poking his nose into our business, or your home, where it doesn’t belong.”
“Mmm good point. That, too.”
She slurped at her drink once again and cast her probing eyes across the table, in Hitch’s direction. “So tell me Hitch.”
“Why do you keep to yourself so much? When I see you around town, it’s only ever you walking between appointments, and I don’t see you taking company with very many people. If any at all. Why is that?”
Hitch lowered his gaze once again. “Why do you want to know?”
“Oh, no reason in specific,” she said. “Just wondering was all.”
“Well if you must know,” Hitch offered, “I came here, to Boston, when I was just a young lad. I was under my father’s tutelage for most of his remaining years, until he died. Then, with no other viable choices before me, I look up his profession and that’s been that. All work, and not much opportunity to make friends.”
“Ah I see … I’m sorry … You know, and I don’t say this with a light heart, I can be your friend, Hitch.”
Hitch’s face reddened and he stuttered a bit in surprise of Darin’s forward statement. He coughed a bit to clear his throat before saying with a genuine, wide smile, “Yes, I would very much like that, Darin Flyte.”
Darin collapsed in her posh sitting room after hearing the door’s lock click in its place. Her eyes were squinted and pained in the dimmed, candlelit room. “Why do my eyes hurt so damn bad?” She rubbed her brow in frustration. “Maybe all the actual intellectually challenging conversation got to me more than I thought?” Darin chuckled.
Despite being at the peak of her contentment as of late, having found a new and decent friend, she was drained. Darin often felt that at the moment she was closest to sustaining a significant connection with another person, she felt most like retreating. Friendship, love, acquaintance, Darin realized, while wonderful, was always fleeting. No person, feeling, object, nothing was permanent, such affection including. This sensation was an odd and uncanny one, one Darin had fostered in her short life from countless flings of trust and betrayal.
Darin was both unsurprised yet shocked when she found herself thinking of Hitch, and that if she were to lose him, she wouldn’t mourn terribly. “Life’s just a series of expectations and eventual disappointments. Sure it’s great now, but what’s stopping something horrid from happening?”
Oh hell… Darin thought, as she heard a weak knock on her door. She slouched over anyway and fumbled with the door knob, revealing Mary standing alone in the shadowy hallway beyond the threshold. Darin’s face fell in exhaustion, and she swore she could feel the bags under her eyes in that instant.
“Arthur let me in again.” Mary stepped through and into the room, a bit breezier than usual, or maybe that was just the late autumn chill Darin felt on Mary’s coat. “I thought it best just to come up.” Darin nodded as Mary removed her scratchy wool pea coat and plopped down on the plush sofa.
“I’ll get you a drink.” Darin opened a wooden chest adjacent the door to reveal a set of fine china, glassware, and bottles upon bottles of wine and cider, saved for private entertaining.
Darin offered Mary the glass of red wine and sat gingerly next to her, careful not to deflate the cushions, nor rock Mary too much in her spot. Darin placed a cautious hand on Mary’s thigh and squeezed it in reassurance.
“Mary, I’m going to be completely transparent with you for a moment.”
“Of course, my dear,” Mary said, as she planted a firm kiss on Darin’s salty forehead.
Darin sighed. “You know that moment when you’re sharing an absolute, wonderful, intimate moment with someone, timeless it almost seems. Yet despite this person’s physical closeness, their body pressed against yours in a hug or an embrace or a kiss, you can already feel them retreating. They retreat, you feel their inertia drawing away from yours, leaving you alone.”
Mary wrapped her arm around Darin, cushioning her as Darin’s dead eyes drifted up to hers. “Darin, what brought this on?”
“I have this distinct and repugnant sense that things will soon be changing in ways that I cannot begin to realize.”
11 November 1767
Darin was hunched with her back and wool coat collar against the wind to fight off the brisk air. She had just arrived at Hitch’s house after a short walk from hers, when she heard mumbling in Hitch’s cellar. Darin decided to forego her usual politeness and let herself in.
Darin quickly wiped her boots on Hitch’s front rug, slouched off her jacket, and proceeded to tromp down to the cellar. Before her stomping presence could interrupt the conversation between Hitch and his supposed guest, Darin caught the words “His Majesty” and “undercover” in the string of conversation. She almost stopped in her tracks, mulling momentarily over Hitch’s political leanings. No bother, she thought. I’ll inquire later.
Reaching the end of the stairs, there Darin found Hitch’s table filled with a medical chart on which was drawn the outline of a body, appended with the notes of Cabot’s condition, the swelling on his extremities, and a list of potent alcohols; a diagram of the Boston roads surrounding the common, pricked with labels like “North Church” and “Faneuil” as the streets stretched out to the harbor; and the beginnings of a suspect list, on which was drawn a huge question mark. These papers now replaced Cabot’s own dead body. She also found Hitch himself, engaged with a middle-aged man who looked to be in his 40s, with a belly that outweighed his three-piece suit, and whose face was plump, rosy, and which boasted mutton-chop side burns.
Hitch glanced up from his absorption in his files for Darin’s entrance, and immediately swept across the floor to greet her. He gave her a light and amicable hug. “Ah Darin! I’m so sorry, I hope you weren’t waiting upstairs long. I confess I didn’t hear you knock.”
Darin returned the greeting, lightly kissing him on the cheek. “No need to worry doctor. I wasn’t out there long. I heard you down here and figured it would be okay to let myself in.”
“Of course.” Hitch wheeled back to his guest. “Actually, we’re due for introductions. Darin, remember when I said, during our first meeting, I had a friend whose help could be of use to our cause?”
“Yes, of course.”
Hitch gestured to the ginger-haired, pudgy man and said, “May I introduce Inspector Henry Tudor. He’s from Lowell, and he traveled an awful long distance to help us. And Henry, this is Mrs. Darin Flyte.”
Darin offered her right hand, a slight smile, and a terse “Pleased to meet you.”
Tudor bent and kissed Darin’s hand. Darin was sure it was meant to be a polite gesture but it made her skin crawl anyway. “You as well,” Tudor grinned.
Hitch interrupted with an anxious, “Anyway! Henry was just glancing through our various files on the case. He’ll be following up with leads and interviews while we continue on the back end of things, if that’s okay with you, Darin?”
“Ah,” she answered absently, still thinking on Tudor’s and Hitch’s conversation before her arrival, “of course.”
“Hitch,” said Tudor, going back to the mess of papers, “I think I’ll continue with the investigation you and, Darin was it?”
“…the investigation you and Darin began into Cabot’s congregation. I’ve seen my fair share of surprisingly spiteful churchgoers. Maybe there’s an opportunist of some kind among them.”
Hitch offered, “Darin, didn’t you attend service at the North Church?”
“I did.” She nodded.
Tudor grinned a slimy and toothy smile. “Well, then Darin, I may need you help me organize some testimonies, after I’ve had a chance to interview some of Cabot’s flock. Do you know these people well?”
“Some of them. Most are my husband’s friends.”
“But you could help me, then?”
Darin smiled despite her disgust with the man and real desire to slap him. How pushy. The hungry look in his eyes suggested his thinking “We should see more of each other.”
“Of course,” Darin replied. “I would be happy to help.”
“Well, Hitch,” Tudor slapped Hitch’s back. “I must be off. The wife promised to make a hearty stew to celebrate our arrival in the city. Goodbye!”
Tudor waddled up the stairs, only bothering a nod and a tip of the hat in Darin’s direction, and not two minutes passed before Hitch and Darin winced as Tudor unceremoniously slammed the door on his way out.
Darin’s immediate reaction was to crack her knuckles, and her second, to alert Hitch to her observations. “Hitch, I don’t like that guy.”
“Darin, you just met him.” Darin felt the familiar tone of annoyance, however she knew from the edge of that tone that Hitch respected her opinion and would justly consider it.
“I know, but Hitch, you know I have decent instincts.”
“Yes, I do. Which is why I’m worried. Henry’s my friend, and I don’t think he’d do anything to screw over this investigation.”
Darin shrugged. “But he seems the type to take credit where his credit’s not due, if you know what I mean.”
“Hmmm maybe…” Hitch considered her sentiments. “I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now. But you didn’t exactly make it subtle that you disapprove of him.”
“For lack of better words, he gives me the creeps.”
“I could see that.”
“I don’t trust him.”
“I know. Just let him proceed for now though. Help us out a bit.”
Then Darin switched directions and nearly sent Hitch flying with her sudden question:
“Hitch, are you a Loyalist?”
Hitch stopped dead, in the middle of piling together his papers and clipping them in a bunch. “Excuse me, what?”
Darin took a step closer towards her friend, offering her unusual sympathetic eyes. “Are you a Loyalist?”
“Why does it matter?”
“Hitch, you know I like to ask things out of nothing. It’s just who I am.”
Hitch pressed on, palms sweating, unsure of her direction. “Does it matter?”
“Not to me,” Darin admitted. “I just want to know is all.” Darin sighed and offered Hitch her hand, taking his in hers and giving it a reassuring squeeze. “Honestly. It’s just my natural curiosity.”
Hitch dipped his eyes down to his shoes, and Darin swore they were misty. Hitch was not usually this reluctant. He slumped against his table, which gave a little under his weight, and Darin put an arm around his shoulder as he admitted, eyes still trained to the shoe-trodden floor, “Yes.”
12 November 1767
“What? Wait, who’s dead?”
“There was a guy, he came into town yesterday afternoon…He may have stopped here for a drink?”
“What was his name?” Felix asked.
“Tudor, Henry Tudor…” whispered Hitch with a sigh.
“And, now he’s dead?” Felix raised an eyebrow and walked out from behind the bar to sit face to face with Hitch.
“Yes!” Hitch whispered again. His wide eyes were red and panic-stricken. He turned around, glancing out over the frosted glass of the Green Dragon’s street-side window. “Look, Felix. Can we talk about this elsewhere?”
“The pub’s not open yet. It’s just us.”
Hitch’s eyes darted to and fro, overcome. “I’m paranoid. Indulge me. Please.”
“Hitch, what’s wrong?”
“I—I don’t know…but…his death must have something to do with the investigation…But I only employed him yesterday…and if that’s the case, I could be in some deep shit…Felix. Please.”
Felix led Hitch up the creaky, wooden back stairs to his lonely office, off to the left. Cramped and receipt-strewn, the office boasted wooden walls that matched the pub below, empty candle holders on the roll-top desk overlooking the cobbled street below, and two chairs.
“Please,” Felix gestured to one of the chairs as he shut the door and sat adjacent to Hitch. “Now tell me what’s going on.” He placed a hand on Hitch’s leg, then thought the better of it and retracted himself immediately.
Hitch began, “So. I brought in a friend of mine, from Lowell. He was to help Darin and me with our investigation of Cabot’s murder, right?”
“And he only arrived here yesterday…He visited my lab, met Darin, and left for dinner. That was it! I don’t think he even had the chance to begin his investigation of Cabot’s congregation yet. He said he was going home to his wife and that’s the last I saw of him…Then this morning a constable came knocking at my door telling me the news…”
“Why did the constable come to you?”
Hitch bent over to rest his head in his hands, rubbing his eyes. “Henry’s wife told the constable that I was a friend of his, and that Henry saw me last night. He didn’t come home last night. They found his body in the Common. The constable asked of my whereabouts last night and if I knew why Henry didn’t return home … or if he had other plans … I can’t believe it…”
“Okay, well, this guy, Henry. How was he killed?”
“They didn’t say! But I’m terribly concerned … Why the hell was he killed? No one knew he was a part of the investigation…assuming that is why he was killed in the first place … I mean, I don’t think it was his wife, so…”
Felix’s last words came in an exasperated rush, pent up with the nervous energy in which one knows one has to tell a friend some horrible truth in a hurry, but simultaneously dreads the moment in which those words realize themselves. “Look, Hitch, there’s something you should know…”
Hitch’s head shot up so last his neck cracked. “Ow! Crap…” Rubbing his temples, he proceeded, “What?”
“You said there were only a few people who could have known Tudor was working with you, right?”
“I think they’re starting to suspect, well, you.”
“WHAT? How? Why?” Hitch reeled with incredulity. “What? No way….what?” Of course the moment in which Hitch felt like Cabot’s murder investigation was beginning to close, chaos just had to erupt, didn’t it?
“Well, before you came in this morning, I had another visitor.”
“Who, besides myself, could possibly be up so early as to visit you at this hour?”
Felix lowered his gaze to his writhing hands and blew out a deep breath he’d been holding in. “Darin.”
“And what was Darin’s purpose in coming here? It’s too early for a drink.”
Felix reached out on a whim and took Hitch’s hands in his. “Hitch, Darin heard about Tudor this morning. You know how such things spread in this town.”
“Yes, and? Stop beating around the damn point.”
“Sorry. Darin told me that she suspects you. I think she was going to one of the police with her suspicions.”
“What the hell? No way would she say that. No way.”
“There’s no way.”
“But she did, Hitch. Whether you believe me or not, I’m telling you the truth.”
Hitch went back to rubbing his temples. “Well…well…do you believe her?”
Felix retracted his hands and crossed his arms. “No, of course not. That’s why I’m telling you.”
“What reasons did she give?” Hitch kicked into a solemn survival mode: his voice was flat, dull, and exhausted.
“She told me you had extensive knowledge of supernatural magick and botanicals. And that such knowledge had been made obvious in the course of your investigation…Is it true?”
“Yes, I do know an awful lot about witchcraft, natural magicks, wiccan history, pagan religions and the alike…But that doesn’t mean anything. I didn’t kill Henry Tudor.”
Felix nodded. “She’s not only accusing you of the murder of Tudor. She thinks you killed Cabot as well.”
“What connection could I possibly have to Cabot?”
“I don’t know, Hitch. But is there anyone else who knows you know about this stuff?”
“Just Darin herself.”
“No one else?”
Hitch considered all the nights spent in the cellar of Faneuil, neck-deep in records and reports of the witch trials, and medicinal herbs and spells. “Uhm…well anyone who saw me conducting my research too I suppose…”
“It’s just a hobby!” Hitch stopped. “Well at least it was just a hobby until I got wrapped into this murder investigation. I’m a doctor. I’m the one trying to solve this…Why in hell would people possibly believe, including Darin, that I would be the one to do it?”
“I dunno,” Felix shrugged. “Maybe Darin thought it was the perfect cover…You have to admit, having yourself inserted into the investigation as the knowledgeable medical professional attempting to solve it is a pretty good cover. Hitch if I were you, I’d skip town…People will come asking.”
“God, but I don’t want to,” whined Hitch. “I have to solve this murder! Well, now two murders…I need to talk to Darin.”
Felix led Ratcliffe upstairs to his office, leaving an unnamed new employee to man the bar downstairs during the end of the lunch rush. It’s not like he was supposed to know everyone’s name when they started working for him. Ratcliffe clutched at Felix’s hand as they ascended the stairs, and in a half-minded trance, Felix allowed their fingers to link. Damn that Ratcliffe…
“Come on, Amory, I’m getting antsy here…” Ratcliffe continued to mumble as he and Felix burst through the office door and Ratcliffe began making quick work of removing Felix’s apron…
Felix protested faintly against Ratcliffe’s advancing and aggressive lips, managing a “Call me Felix, you dumbass,” before he gave in and allowed Ratcliffe’s kisses to push him back up on his desk. He scooted to the back edge of the desk, pushing bills and receipts alike aside in a haphazard manner when Felix’s finger cut on a stiff piece of stationary and he could only yell, “Fuck!”
Ratcliffe jumped back. “What the hell? I was just getting started for God’s sake…”
“I cut myself on something. Hold on…” Felix pushed off the still-advancing Ratcliffe and fingered the note. “Who left this?” He swiveled to the pointed edge of the desk and hurriedly opened the odd note.
Ratcliffe heard him gasp another, “Oh fuck…That bastard was right.”
“Oh, poor Hitch…”
“What?” Ratcliffe kept pestering Felix until he handed the note over, on which was written only a few words, scrawled in a hurried mess of what Ratcliffe could only figure was Hitch’s cursive:
Leaving town, but first: it was Darin.
13 November 1767
“It’s about time the Flytes hosted another of their infamously decadent, pre-Winter Solstice parties,” remarked Felix. “Take some of the craziness away from the pub and get me out for the night.” Little did he know, Felix was unintentionally talking to Ratcliffe, who was lurking just behind him in the corner of the room, breathing in the chill from the adjacent window.
“Mmm yeah, well don’t just sit there skulking, go and get me a drink would ya?” he whispered in Felix’s ear, firing goose bumps from Felix’s neck all the way down his body. Ratcliffe’s eyes darted to Darin across the room, honing in a suspicious glare. “I need to make the rounds.”
“Yeah yeah.” Felix swatted him away and waded to the alcohol, feeling a bit out of place with all these well-to-do, upper class townsfolk. Though being a “mere innkeeper” was nothing to shirk at, Felix knew. He did get all the gossip of the town for sure, and being privy to snippets of information often came in handy in times like these.
“I think I may have messed up.” Darin’s posture gave the impression of a breezy calm but her eyes darted to and from the various guests in her living room. Her elegant black satin evening dress showed elegance, grace, and composure. Darin’s inner demeanor and panicked voice did not.
“Messed up how?” Mary asked.
“I think they’re onto me.”
“Who’s onto you? And for what?” Mary asked with a quizzical smile. She sipped her drink.
“I don’t know. Hitch, Felix, everyone. They think I did it.”
“Please, Darin, you’re being paranoid.” Mary placed a hand on Darin’s shoulder. “Get yourself a drink and enjoy your own party for once would you?”
“Harper Ratcliffe has his eyes on me tonight too. I see him in the corner. I can only suspect he thinks the same.”
“Just ignore him. Ratcliffe doesn’t think much of anything these days.”
“Just the revolution.”
“Yeah just that.”
“Calm yourself,” Mary said.
“If only it were that simple…” Darin sighed as she ran a trembling hand down the side of her face.
“Darin, may I talk to you for a second?”
Darin whipped around in surprise as she felt a prick of static on her arm. Even more surprising was the face that met hers. Ratcliffe, sneering and smelly as ever, a pen alight in his hand. “What do you want,” Darin spat. She paused and recovered herself, permitting a small “sorry” for Ratcliffe. “Sorry, didn’t mean to shout. These sort of social scenes are exhausting.”
“They don’t seem to become you, as they do for the other rich wives in this town, hmm?” Ratcliffe said.
Darin sighed and placed her cider on the silver platter sitting next to the makeshift bar, ready for Bartholt could remove discarded drinks from the scene.
“I’ve a few questions for you,” Ratcliffe continued.
“About what? What could you possibly have to ask me? I told you about me and Hitch: there’s nothing between us, so bugger off.”
Ratcliffe licked his lips. “I think you’ll change your tone when you hear that I know what you’ve been doing in the Common on nights of the new moon. Hmmm…? How careless.”
Darin dragged Ratcliffe off by the elbow and waded through her mingling guests to the entryway. She managed to avoid the gaze of her guests as she padded up the scarlet-colored carpeted stairs to the second-floor landing, still dragging Ratcliffe behind her. She grabbed his forearms and shook Ratcliffe so that strings of his greasy hair now fell in his face. “What the HELL are you talking about?”
Ratcliffe smiled. “The fact that you even have to ask means you already know.”
“Weeeeellll,” Ratcliffe began, “Let’s just say I saw a certain someone out in the Common one night while I was snooping around the town—as you know I am inclined to do.” Ratcliffe circled around Darin so his face was in the shadows, veiled in part of the landing light from below in the bustling party. “Now, there’s nothing wrong with a good walk in the moonlight, but since it was a new moon, there wasn’t one. Saw you digging deep into the soil near the oldest, decrepit oak in the Common, so I decided to snoop further. I’m not saying I believe in magick, per se, but I certainly don’t count it out. After you sunk your arms elbow deep into the rocky dirt, I saw a green spark or something…Anyway it looked to me like some magick ritual. It was creepy,” he finished, matter-of-fact.
“And thus you assume I know magick? Because of a hunch?”
“Well, there’s more than just a hunch. Cabot and Tudor, or at least Cabot anyway, seemed to be killed by supernatural means, as Hitch suspects. Funny, it happens right after I see you in this little ritual—or whatever it is—of yours. That and your raging outburst that night in the pub, when Hitch merely suggested the cause of Cabot’s murder was magickal. Seems like a whole lot of coincidence to me. I don’t believe in coincidence.”
Darin shrugged off the accusations and suggested, “Well aside from thinking you saw me in the Common that one time, most of the incidents involving your accusations involve Hitch, too. I don’t see you accusing him.”
“Hah, why in the heck would I accuse him?” Ratcliffe laughed. “Sure Hitch may know about magick from his studies, but I doubt he has the strength of will to possess it. Not that I know much about it, but I’m assuming magick takes a particularly strong-willed person to possess and manipulate it. I believe you do have such strength. That is why I am accusing you.”
“Also, Hitch left Amory a warning note before he suddenly blew outta town, and he seemed to think that you were the culprit,” he added. “Even if these are just hunches, I know I’m right.”
Ratcliffe took Darin’s subsequent silence as a sign of assent, and proceeded with his argument. “The real question is, of course I’m dying to know, what kind of magick do you possess? I don’t think you’d waste your time on anything weak, if you’ve come this far and performed this well, in covert manners. Also why? Why use it at all? Why kill them, these men?”
Darin considered shutting her mouth, but no matter her false refusals, she had a sneaking suspicion that Ratcliffe wouldn’t drop his. May as well get credit where credit is due, she thought. “As you said, I don’t put up with bullshit magick. And this source is immediate and easy to access, so why wouldn’t I? Wouldn’t you?”
“Is this because you’re a redcoat supporter? Masking your identity as a Loyalist by pretending to be a well-to-do-housewife?”
“Or maybe because you’re a true revolutionary, eh? Fighting the good ol’ blue jacket cause against the crown?”
“Then what could dear Darin Flyte possibly gain from murdering those men? Don’t tell me you did it for no discernible reason?”
Darin dealt Ratcliffe, whose eyes were alight with nervous energy and excitement, a dead-pan glare. Her eyes were listless, dead, giving her face an expression of absolute apathy. She looked as if she could growl in fear, anger and triumph.
“That’s exactly why murdered those men. Because I wanted to.” Darin paused, near grinning as she remembered Ratcliffe’s words just a moment ago. “Ratcliffe, didn’t you just say that this was information that you would die to know?”
Ratcliffe swallowed and began backing down the stairs. “Well, technically I said I’m dying to know. There’s a difference in verb tense there.”
“I don’t see much difference.”
“Given your proclivity for murder, I don’t see why you would.”
Darin snickered, an expression she rarely displayed except in few moments of heinous ecstasy. “Even if I let you go, and you stupidly tried to expose me, I don’t see why anyone would believe you.”
“I do have your confession.”
“Hah yeah, okay, see if that counts for anything. The opinion of a repulsive, snivelly little nothing writer like you against mine, a woman of upstanding and intelligible repute in this town? I don’t think so. Not even Felix will believe you.”
Darin let a wicked smile rip across her face as she reached down the stairway to caress Ratcliffe’s stiff jaw line, before digging a long, sharp, green magick-infused nail into his right eye, gauging it out, and dragging him back up the stairs.
Shalen Lowell is an author, blogger, and poet hailing from Boston, Massachusetts. As a trans author, Shalen specializes in fiction which represents the intersection of fantasy and postmodern genres and queer literature. Shalen currently holds a B.A. in English Literature and Environmental Science, and their work often focuses on the crises of environmental degradation as figured through fantasy media. Their work is also featured in Aether and Ichor.
The values I was taught
did not fit
the reality of my needs
the reality of my needs
did not fit
the nature of your wants
the hunger still gnaws
and we must feed
elsewhere if we must
or starve together
I took you for granite;
You took me for steel;
But we were not strong,
more brittle, crumbly,
better at making a mess
than supporting the world
or each other,
or even a bridge
that could have, should have
been there between.
In the hills, in the hills
where green grass grows
and the dead stay dead,
in the hills, in the hills
where boulders sit
half out of soil
and half in air,
where tree roots cling
and dig and pierce,
and the raindrops fall
and grow into streams
that slide past cities
far away, and whisper
to the ocean
of the hills, of the hills.
Joseph Farley edited Axe Factory from 1986 to 2010. His novel Labor Day is available from Peasantry Press (peasantrypress.com) and Amazon. His poetry books and chapbooks include Suckers, Longing for the Mother Tongue, and Her Eyes.
A few years ago, I was standing beside one of the four aisles of cashiers at Reading Terminal Market in Center City Philadelphia. My cashier, like her co-workers, wore a tiger orange t-shirt with “Iovine Brothers” written in white across her chest. With a young forefinger hovering over the button that would total my items, she turned to me and said, “Do you qualify for the senior discount?”
She’s trying to be nice, I told myself, forced a smile and said “No.”
I paid full price, trudged away from the market stall clutching two supermarket bags of vegetables and fruits, and recalled the hairdresser I stopped going to a couple of years earlier. She pleaded with me to let her color the band of gray framing my face. She said it would take off ten years. People would think I was in my 40s again.
Whenever I considered her advice, I recalled events that began in the seventh grade when Scott S. called me Big-nosed Blumberg. Piecing the events together chronologically, I remember in the seventh grade I tried to distract attention from my nose by begging my mom to let me wear makeup, hipper clothes and longer hair.
Mom, and Dad, wanted me to turn off my stereo and study more in school. I couldn’t fathom how this would improve my situation. I remember sitting in my assigned seat in seventh grade English class, and surveying my classmates tucked into their own desks in different rows. They were all paying attention to Mister Binkley, even the students sitting in the back. I thought: Don’t they get it? They’re where the action is. In other words, whether or not they considered me cool was much more important to me than Mister Binkley’s explanation of number three in a grammar exercise.
In the eighth grade, Mom finally let me get a tube of frosted rose-pink lipstick from the Woolworth’s in the Abington suburban shopping strip across the street from Sears. I had fantasized about wearing a “Slicker” frosted pearl-white lipstick by Yardley of London, but a Woolworth’s lipstick was better than no lipstick at all.
I snuck on eye makeup in the girl’s bathroom in-between classes until Mom, whose only makeup was a shade of love-that-red 1950s lipstick, let me wear eye makeup the following year. I remember getting up extra early before going to school to work on my large brown eyes that classmates said reminded them of Paul McCartney.
I sat in front of the face mirror I had propped up on my desk, and pried open my tortoiseshell compact with three shades of brown shadow. As the saleslady at Wanamaker’s instructed, I applied medium brown shadow on my lids, a darker taupe on my creases, and buff shadow beneath my brows. Next I dipped a mini brush into a Dixie cup of water, and swept it across a cake of mahogany-colored mascara. I wiped a hand dry on a leg of my bellbottom jeans, and this hand kept an eye open while the other hand brushed on the mascara. After blotting out accidental globs, I placed the pads of a metal eye curler around my upper lashes, and gently clamped the pads together. I had heard a story of a girl who pressed too hard, and all her lashes fell out. Then I rested the curler on my desk and sat back to view my whole face. I expected to see Twiggy’s doe-eyes, but my coated lashes seemed to make my lids droop down over my eyes.
Because of my bad grades, Scott S. was no longer in my classes. Guys in my eighth, ninth and tenth grade classes simply ignored me. A saleslady showed me how to deflect attention from my nose by covering my face with skin-colored foundation, and then blending a darker shade around the sides of my nose. I also wrote to Dear Abby for advice on how to wear my hair, with a drawing of how my nose uniquely hooked at the end to ensure an accurate reply. Abby’s typewritten letter said I should part my hair on the side, not the currently fashionable middle. This would draw attention away from the center of my face.
Makeup, hairstyle, mod clothes, a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine—nothing seemed to get the boys’ attention. After one particularly frustrating day at school, I took the scotch tape dispenser from a kitchen drawer and brought it into the upstairs bathroom. Using the medicine cabinet mirror to guide my hands, I taped the end of my nose to curl up like a ski slope; like how Mom used hair tape to create pincurls beside her cheeks.
I kept on the tape for ten minutes, returned to the bathroom and peeled off the strips. I looked past the red marks left by the adhesive, and swore I saw the end of my nose starting to curl up. I applied new strips to set my nose for an hour, and came back downstairs. Mom saw me passing through from the living room to the kitchen and asked what in the world I was doing. I explained, and she squirmed with distaste and told me to take the tape off before I hurt myself. I had my father’s nose and there was nothing I could do about it.
“I could get a nose job,” I said.
Who actually gave me this nose wasn’t clear cut. My pretty mom had her father’s Roman nose, but her mother had an eagle’s beak bigger than mine. Nana told Mom she would have done anything to get her nose fixed at my age. Nana convinced Mom to let me get a nose job, and they both convinced Dad. A morning during the summer before my senior year of high school, I awoke on the operating table, looked up at my masked doctor, heard him scraping away at my nose, and fell back into an aestheticized sleep. I re-awoke in my semi-private hospital room with my nose covered in white tape.
About eight months later, while shopping with Mom at Woolworth’s, we bumped into Mrs. Corcoran, my English teacher senior year. Mrs. Corcoran told Mom what a good student I was, and Mom told her this wasn’t always the case. Just a few years ago, I brought home report cards with five D’s…I drifted away to another aisle while Mom went on with her usual spiel.
In English class a few weeks later, we finished the Wife of Bath’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales. Mrs. Corcoran’s weekend assignment was for us to write what we would do if forced to make the Knight’s choice. Would we choose an old and ugly spouse who was kind and faithful, or a gorgeous spouse who was cruel and promiscuous?
That weekend I recalled my friend, Joanne. She was gawky, taller than most boys, and her overbite had reminded me of a horse. As I got to know her sweet personality, her mouth seemed to resemble Sophia Loren’s. So using metaphors I thought would make F. Scott Fitzgerald proud, I wrote that I would choose the ugly spouse because my perception of him would change as I got to know his personality.
On Monday I handed in the paper, and later in the week Mrs. Corcoran returned it with a big red “A” at the top, and the word “Beautiful” beside my favorite metaphor. When she finished returning the rest of the papers, she came back to my desk and said, “Did you show this paper to your parents?”
I shook my head.
“Show it to them.”
After the school bus dropped me off, I found Mom working by the kitchen sink. I read aloud my composition while she leaned against a kitchen counter wearing a short teased hairdo, A-line dress, and sensible black pumps. At the end she shrugged and said, “I don’t see what the big deal is about.”
I squinted with disbelief: “This is how you respond to your daughter’s composition, that her teacher recommended she read to her parents?”
“I’m not going to lie.”
I couldn’t wait for Dad to come home and get her in trouble. His sports car roared up the driveway a couple of hours later. I reported what happened as he stepped through the back door. He stopped in the kitchen and I read my composition as he stood beside Mom, eight inches taller and dark and dashing in his pinstriped suit. At the end he shrugged and said, “I don’t see what’s the big deal.”
My mouth fell. After all the times he sided with me against Mom’s ridiculous ideas, and a few years later would divorce, I couldn’t believe he was siding with her on this one.
Mrs. Corcoran, who dressed like Mom but without a trace of makeup, came up to my desk the next day. “Did you show your parents?”
“What did they say?”
I couldn’t tell her the truth. “They really liked it.”
About ten years later, I was sitting in the dark office of my therapist, Betsy. She was helping me get past my own brief marriage and my parents’ bitter divorce. Betsy claimed Mom was a better parent than Dad, so I brought up this incident. “Are you sure your mother was putting down your intelligence?” Betsy said.
I threw out my hands. “What else could it be?”
A few days after our session, I thought about how I began studying during my junior year of high school. I had attributed my behavioral change to the heart-to-heart I had with myself while walking home from a girlfriend’s house one afternoon the summer before. Like my father, an attorney, grilled me, I asked myself what I was good at. I thought of how I wasn’t good at drawing or doing other things with my hands; and two years of piano lessons confirmed that a dormant musical talent wasn’t veering me away from my schoolwork. I decided if I wanted to get anywhere in this world, I needed to go to college.
I earned B’s and C’s my junior year, and when I became a senior, I got report cards with A’s in everything except Math. Mom boasted to everybody that I achieved those A’s because my nose job had boosted my confidence. I was positive Mom shared this theory with Mrs. Corcoran that day in Woolworth’s, and this explained why Mrs. Corcoran wanted me to show Mom my composition. Mrs. Corcoran was a nun before she married a priest.
I recounted this memory about my nose job to Betsy during our next session. I also confessed that I used to look in the mirror and think I was beautiful before Scott S. called me Big-nosed Blumberg.
Betsy, an attractive woman in her mid-thirties with thick black layered hair and jingling jewelry, took the door mirror resting against one of her wood-paneled office walls. She held it in front of me and said, “What do you see?”
Sitting on a black cushioned chair sat a 26-year-old woman in jeans and a black tank top that revealed thin yet muscular arms; thick brown hair streaming past her shoulders; a band of natural gold highlights framing her pale unblemished face; and naturally long lashes fringing cinnamon-colored eyes.
“That’s real,” Betsy said. “You’re really that pretty.”
I crossed my arms over my ample chest, not knowing how to integrate this.
After the session, inside my studio apartment, I considered how knowing I was pretty could change me. In my family, Mom was typed the pretty one, and Dad the smart one. How could I be both? I didn’t want to become one of those people who are always conscious about how they appear. I didn’t want my looks to go to seed either.
I decided to forget about how good I looked and just live my life. I focused on getting A’s in college, eventually teaching, and maintaining my health. It wasn’t until 25 years later, when people asked me about the senior discount that I panicked about my looks again. I had procrastinated in my search for another mate, and without some major renovations to my appearance, I feared I was now too late.
After the comment at Iovine Brothers, I examined my face in the bathroom mirror of my current apartment. Since my late 30s, the dark marks under my eyes stopped disappearing after I got more sleep, but the corners of my eyes weren’t crinkled with crows’ feet. Worry and the sun had lined my forehead, but young people had worry lines too. What they didn’t have, was the band of gray replacing the gold highlights around my face. The hairdresser was right.
Yet I remained hesitant about coloring my hair. In addition to my nose issues, I thought about the men who were perceived as more distinguished-looking when they grayed. Look at Richard Gere and George Clooney. Someone who thought I should color my hair bet that Gere’s salt and pepper shade came out of a bottle too.
I also debated with myself about what is natural. Simply washing my hair or brushing my teeth could be considered unnatural too. Personal maintenance was always a balancing act between what you’re born with and what you can change.
I realized if I could do it again, I wouldn’t have fixed my Semitic nose. As society grew more accepting and I grew into my features, I would’ve been considered attractive with the schnoz. The surgery also dulled my sense of smell. So this time around when my looks weren’t conforming to the cultural ideal, I could be a pioneer. My embrace of aging could help expand future definitions of beauty. But I wanted people to think I was pretty now!
I remember the surprise of Michael, the colorist a friend highly recommended, when I announced that this would be the first time coloring my hair. “Let’s make you into a red head,” he said.
“Whaaat?!” My eyes were popping out in the mirrored wall before the salon chair.
Michael clasped my smocked shoulders and laughed. “Relax. I do suggest you go a shade or two lighter. Skin pales as we age.” I bet the pale-blonde hair color blending with his pale lined complexion covered a full head of gray.
Since most of my hair, except for the front, was still brown, instead of covering the full head, I opted to frost my hair with dark-blond and pale-brown highlights and left a few gray strands untouched. After Michael unwrapped the foil sheets and blow-dried my hair, he swirled my chair so I faced the mirror. I thought I looked the same…Maybe a little more rested.
I paid the 100 dollar fee, Michael’s tip, and paraded my new look along Chestnut Street’s brick sidewalks. It was lunchtime in Center City, and I peered at the business-suited men for their expressions. No one that day or in the days that followed paid attention to me in the ways they paid attention to me when I was ten years younger. Did the highlights make me feel more confident about my appearance nonetheless?
While brushing my hair in front of the large mirror above my bathroom vanity, I discovered orange-tinged gold streaks in my hair. Ewwww! I wondered how this blatant artificiality could be considered more attractive. Michael changed the blonde highlights to caramel during my next appointment, but even these seemed too synthetic. Plus I was getting some kind of itchiness on my neck, and one of the first questions a dermatologist asked was if I was coloring my hair.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?
A month ago, I walked past the decorative mirrors in my apartment building’s lobby. I glanced at a sweet elderly-looking woman with dark hair except for the gray framing her smiling face. I did a double-take and walked back. This elderly-looking woman was me, and I was still ineligible for the senior discount.
I pressed the up button and waited for an elevator while I considered going back to Michael for a full head color. Inside the elevator and riding up to my floor, I considered never stepping outside of my apartment again, like how Greta Garbo handled aging. Walking down the carpeted hallway and inside my apartment, I decided to forget about how old I looked and focus on staying healthy and sharp. I’d still strive to be attractive, but also embrace that attractive at 59 was not the same as at 26. Maybe I’d even find an eligible geezer whose love for my inner qualities would transform me into his beauty queen.
Of course I wavered on this decision later that day and during the days that followed, especially after Comcast posted photos of blonde, 61-year-old Christie Brinkley, in a bikini. Then a few days ago, when I thought about visiting my mother in Florida, I finally pieced together another memory. I realized that the summer I got my nose job was the same summer I read about ten hours a day, every day. My 16 year-old-self calculated that by reading this much, I could make up for the years I goofed off in school. Unlike taping my nose, maybe this idea of mine actually worked: the disciplined reading enhanced my study skills, and the enhanced skills, not my enhanced nose, brought about all those A’s.…
After piecing together this memory, my mental fog lifted. The decision was final: I’m not coloring my gray hair. It’s like what Doctor Freud said about recovered memories … And after election of Mr. Beauty Pageant, I won’t even be tempted by model pictures for a long time. Standing up for more inclusive body images is imperative.
Lynne Blumberg has written for various national and local publications about topics in health, religion, education, and urban living. She lives in Philadelphia, and when not writing, teaches English as a Second Language at the Community College of Philadelphia.
July 22nd, Wednesday, Sun at 75 degrees in the northeastern quadrant—I lost my watch, or maybe—I hope—I misplaced it somewhere in my gear as I packed up to leave camp. The little Timex was already on its last legs. The plastic band had broken, and I had it attached to my wrist with parachute cord. The watch’s calendar showed a day behind because it always shows a thirty-one day month, and I couldn’t reset it correctly for the beginning of July because the adjustment knob had broken off. Without the watch, I feel naked because I cannot at a glance reduce my world to a number.
It is early morning and calm. Beyond that what can I say about my place in time and the world? My latitude lies just above sixty degrees forty-five minutes. The sun stands at seventy-five degrees by my compass reading, and I haven’t figured out how to use the crude clinometer on the compass to get the angle of elevation of the sun above the horizon. To measure the sun’s elevation with any accuracy would mean looking directly at the sun.
I use the watch for pacing. If I hurt after four or five hours of paddling, I have the tendency to take a breather and continue. If I feel good after twelve hours, my tendency is to quit. Many athletes recommend that you listen to your body, a cute enough expression, but only the simple-minded fail to realize that the body lies.
Sun 87 degrees—If the sun is at 87 degrees, and my shadow falls directly in line with the canoe’s bow, I must paddle on a line, which amounts to approximately due west. I hadn’t attempted to use the sun or its shadows for much of anything in the past. The sun and its shadows are one of the few navigational tools an ancient wanderer would have known. By rarely using the sun, when I do use it, I do it with uncertainty and clumsiness. I always wonder if I miss the useful and the obvious or whether my dissatisfaction with generalities causes me to look for specifics impossible to determine with the means at hand. I don’t want “about west.” I want the 273-degree reading of a graduated dial.
My compass readings lack refinement. The 87-degree reading I use for the position of the sun comes off a spruce that seems to stand directly below the sun, but no matter how big the rose on this Suunto Compass or how accurate, I don’t use the compass with a level. To further introduce inaccuracies, I read the compass from the unstable platform of a canoe shifting in the breeze.
Sun 103 degrees—I have my system. The sun makes one, or rather the earth—I almost went back to Ptolemy—does one revolution in about twenty-four hours, or moves about 1/24th or fifteen degrees of the full 360 degree circle each hour. I can easily get enough readings for sunrise and sunset, which will change only slightly each day, to calculate the remaining daylight by comparing those readings against the sun’s apparent fifteen degree per hour movement across the sky. Time elapsed doesn’t seem like an hour since my last entry. Whether it is or isn’t, I will soon be accustomed to the difference and begin to take more accurate readings more quickly.
Sun 112 degrees—It occurred to me that perhaps a back reading using the compass lanyard to make a shadow across the rose might have more accuracy on much the principle of the backstaff replacing the quarterstaff. I have entered a world of altered values. At home, this red nylon lanyard attached to my compass could sit in a drawer for years, an unremarked item of clutter, as superfluous as the ivory billiard ball or the sewing kit that might not have been examined or moved since the Second World War. If someone in the next generation living in the old house after my time fished the compass out of the clutter of the drawer, he might speculate that the compass would fit into the pocket more neatly without the lanyard. The person looking into that cluttered drawer sometime in the future would never guess the importance this simple piece of red nylon string had in my life and fortunes, as I fail to appreciate the small items left over from the generations before. Life is lost, and holding the small item in my hand and wondering what it could have meant will never quite bring it back.
I can’t make the islands I see in front of me match the map, but where else but this outlet bay could I have traveled for so many hours toward the north? Wishful dangerously wrong reasoning.
Sun 118 degrees—I have made the map fit my position. Even a back reading, which is easier, subjects itself to wide variation. The compass requires a dead level surface and the string held exactly perpendicular. Suunto rates their compass as accurate to within two degrees. If I had a solid surface, and a pair of levels, I see no reason why it wouldn’t hold to such a standard.
Sun 128 degrees—A haze in front of the sun made a back reading impossible. Doubt checks my speed. It must have been the same for the early hunters moving into this country. To learn this country must have been the work of generations, as a man in his prime hunted a bit farther afield than his father.
Moments later—Perhaps I should give stage directions rather than continual readings. I will try. The decrepit man’s legs hurt. He is perhaps lost, but only moderately concerned. He proceeds through his country with an eye for anything he might use. Were he to use his compass mirror for self-examination, he would discover that he had let himself go. His attention to grooming has dropped far below the level of the civilized man, who is aware that he may be seen at any time. Our man, if he itches, scratches.
I like this. After all how different am I from a character in a novel? I have the power to create myself as I wish, don’t I?
Fewer minutes later—To a degree I create myself. I can be physically strong or not based upon the amount of work I do. I won’t, though, run the four-minute mile. I can be intelligent or not, as I choose to read, but I am past being hailed as the new prodigy. The genetics of my makeup limit. Chance also is an element. Lesser men have done more, better men less.
The vast majority of humanity is a combination of no more than the effects of genetics and crass chance. There are those few, however, who fight, and every skirmish is not lost. It is a man’s job to fight the unequal fight.
Sun 166 degrees—I pulled up on the bank to make bannock and tea. I am lost. When I hit this big open stretch, I knew I couldn’t be where I thought I was. Blue goes into blue in the southwestern quadrant, where sky touches lake. Nothing in the area of the outlet matches that scenario.
I spent some time, when I first stopped here, with the map and compass. I only made things worse until I decided to build a fire and have tea.
My first order of business demanded that I deal with my anxiety. I had to ask myself if I expected to do this trip without mistakes, and now that I had made a mistake, how serious was it? My answer had to include the two basics: I had not hurt myself, and I had not lost any gear, which meant I had the means to deal with the problem.
Sun 240 degrees—I finally made a place on the map fit. It lies on the north shore of Wholdaia on the main shore north of a chain of islands just west of the 104th meridian, and on the eastern edge of map 75A. I thought I had moved much farther east. I don’t have and may never have a reasonable explanation of how I arrived here. I may have lost a full day of paddling. I don’t care. I just wanted the anxiety to be over. Before I matched this place with the map, I had to fight the impulse to just follow my instinct and move. Had I allowed my instinct reign, I would have moved in exactly the wrong direction.
Loaded and paddling east—I could have stayed where I stopped to make tea and bannock, according to the sun, I have been out ten to eleven hours since I left camp this morning, but to stay at that campsite would have made for a very bad night. The place had natural beauty and an easy place to load and unload a canoe, but it was as if the place had been trashed, although that’s not exactly it. At the sight of somebody’s liter, I could have felt righteous indignation, not a completely unpleasant emotion. In that place, I fought the worst of myself and came near to losing. All afternoon, I had the impulse to load up and go, and figure within hours I would be in the Dubawnt River’s current. I wouldn’t have been. I would have paddled in the wrong direction. The memory of the rising panic tainted everything about this otherwise beautiful and untouched place.
Sun 268 degrees, Camp XLVI—I will accept the setbacks of the day with the best grace I can manage. If the season depended upon the success or failure of a single day, I wouldn’t have a chance.
Thinking about today’s solar observations makes me realize just how little I know of the actual mathematics of the universe. Though I know some of the history of science from the Greeks to Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton, and up to the moderns, I couldn’t personally produce the mathematics to refute Ptolemy. As far as having knowledge of the visible motions of the heavens, and how these motions relate to the day, the month, and the seasons, I know less than the ancients. I don’t usually concern myself with the movements of the sun. I use a watch. I don’t usually track the phases of the moon. I use a calendar. I don’t watch for the rise of the Pleiades in the east, or the setting of Orion in the west. These things the ancient mariners knew, and lived by, feel strange and clumsy to me. I have gained from my instruments, but in so gaining sometimes I feel as if I have become less man.
Edd B. Jennings runs beef cattle on the banks of the New River in the mountains of Virginia. Since spring of 2016, he has placed work with Trigger Warnings, The Scarlet Leaf Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Jotters United, Bedford 87, Thread Magazine, Quail Bell, Roane Publishing, Sicklit, Ginosko Literary Journal, Tell us a Story, Sleet, The Blotter, REAL magazine, Literary Orphans, and Quarterday. His nonfiction Arctic canoeing books and his novel, Under Poplar Camp Mountain, are with the Leslie E. Owen Agency.