Enjoy work from this issue below:
Mother of a Thousand
Upon catching the catfish
She expelled a belly
Of a thousand eggs.
As if to offer a thousand
Children for my
That would mistake
Her progeny for some
Rare iteration of sturgeon
Which she would
Salt with Caspian tears
And we’d sip with vodka
While we warm our feet
By the fire, wrapped in mink
And mull over Tolstoy.
And to digest, I’d mingle
Her moist palm in my little finger
And I’d make her khorovodnitsa.
She would tell me of Catherine
And the ballet, like the Entendre
She performed on the five-pound test line.
O’ how the Tsars turned
Art into blisters
And Bones, imperial.
Not unlike the blood that mixed
With the floods that made your home
In the Sea of Azov
O’ how the Tsars willed
An ocean from within an
Inland body of water
In exchange, I would memorialize her
In epithets of royalty and fat
And salt and
Fashion her a crown
Of diamonds and blood and
Heresy and poetry.
Or perhaps she was of
Faberge and these, her
And this, her Easter
Sunday for a thousand
Rebirths and I, her buddha.
And it was not for my tongue
But the black mouth
Of the sea, which, with
Currents would expel
Each child to
a new beginning.
One, to feed the Amazonian bufeo,
The next, to nourish the wild horse
That baths in the Arizona sun.
O’ what I mistook in
A hook for pleasure
And search for treasure —
What did I imagine the
Outcome of deceit and food
On a barbed hook would be?
What I must now cope with —
My little fish at my hip
Feeding her morsels of hope
And droplets of water.
MARTINA REISZ NEWBERRY
At the Holidays
You say that a meal is only a meal — insubstantial really — that it embodies
very little importance. You say that
a finished meal is just a somber shadow
of something outside itself. But, I say a set table is like a stunning woman,
certain of her beauty and confident
that her soul matches that beauty. I tell you
when the meal is done, clearing the table. is like clearing away the sorrows of one
hundred years — one hundred years of thunderous sobs and tears, gone in the time it takes
to put away what is cold, left over,
and clean the old dreams and passions off the stove.
Once on a September morning,
I woke to a sky exploding into white cotton clouds.
It was one of those “first” days: first day of school,
first day on the job, first day on my own in a place further away
from home than I’d ever been — like that.
I recall a delicious sense of un-ease and a kind
of wonderment at how night had folded in on itself while day,
in a sneaky fashion, weighed
and warmed the Mayan Blue sky. In those moments,
the slight thing that was me fastened itself to this planet
in a fit of loyalty to everything that could and did happen.
The Sun In Disguise*
When we lived in the desert, hummingbirds visited us
all throughout spring and summer.
We had feeders for them and neighbors had feeders for them. Everyone said, “Aren’t they cute.”
They said, “How sweet!” And they said, “Adorable!” True, I guess,
but they seemed angry to me —
angry and in a rage to
eat and eat of the world’s plates, pissed-off that they had to stay
aloft for so long to get
so little from plant, flower,
from plastic teat. Their wings weren’t
humming to my ears, they growled. Their long, pointed beaks looked like barbs of affection, not for
me but for the feeders’ stems — sugar water/food coloring,
and the miracle of sun
light over all. Each morning, the heat rolled in over us,
the hummingbirds bartered the
sight of themselves for sticky red syrup. And, each morning,
there were no “Thank Yous,” no bows
or salutes. When they were full, there was only that growl as
if to say, “See you later.
We cannot stop. Don’t wait up.”
*A Mayan legend says the hummingbird is actually the sun in disguise, and he is trying to court a beautiful woman, who is the moon.
Villanelle for the Oneiroi*
The day is full of feelings, the nights full
of ghosts. Feelings and ghosts are fragile things, part of the litany of the living.
I go to bed early — I always have.
My sleep is drowned in dreams which I recall, (memorable, though they are fragile things)
My nightclothes are damp in the morning as if my sleep had been in some ocean (the color of bruises drowning in dreams).
I watch the absorption of the moon
by the clouds; they are starved for light so they devour the moon. I see them, their shadows.
I dream of subways and hear the sound of stars — brilliant, and unwilling to surrender
to morning though they, too, are starved for light — part of the litany of the living.
*Hypnos was a primordial deity in Greek mythology, the personification of sleep. His three sons were known as The Oneiroi, meaning “Dreams” in Greek.
A Glass of Water
So clear, it seems empty at first,
till I bring it to my lips
in slow and steady sips
to quench my thirst.
Thus, as I drink,
a transfer is taking place
within a larger space.
That’s what I think,
when I see the glass
that had been full: how
water can pass
so seem-lessly, seamlessly,
just as is becomes was does.
Handwriting on the Wall
We called my father’s writing chicken scratch.
Arrhythmiatic waves of an EKG
ran rapid and jagged along the page.
His white-collar work made rough numbers talk
by talking tough, the way accountants do,
with sleeves rolled up in glass-walled offices.
He wore striped ties with a crouched tiger’s rage.
My mother’s cursive was flowing and vibrant
as her embroideries of state flowers,
buoyant and boisterous, and clean and crisp.
Taught in school the basics on lined paper,
she looped above and below its fence rails,
coaxing letters towards the horizon
in sentences of pampered penmanship.
Leafcutter Ants Promenade
in myriad shapes,
wobble down the tree’s branch,
then its trunk
and across the ground,
dropping out of sight.
All day, all night,
a sparkling chain
of emeralds move
on a wriggling bracelet —
looters making off
with a treasure trove,
heisting puzzle pieces.
After humans, leafcutter ants form the next largest and most complex animal societies on Earth.
At the airport, once I’m checked in,
checked over, relieved of baggage,
padded down and deemed good to go,
I search for my gate in the terminal,
where now a wonder world beckons
with enticements of destinations
like Singapore, Tahiti, old Cuzco.
Everyone sits rapt, looking forward,
with boarding pass and passport and prayer,
to what will greet them after they depart.
On the moving walkway, in slow motion,
I’m being passed and passing by
kingdoms of pious pilgrims, when I spy
my gate number and step off. Tallyho.
The Eyes of an Owl
They want to be familiar hills but can’t.
Sky fades to pink and they fade with it.
So much for being home.
At a time when all is dark,
you can’t even have what you think you want.
Life is just headlights on a road.
And time no longer looks for the right words to say.
It’s a fellow immigrant.
We cross paths now and then.
I wonder why it has taken me so long
to know so little.
Even my car gropes forward in ignorance.
There is no true memory.
Just the stars that have always been there.
And the eyes of an owl seen briefly in the trees.
Eyes like subway entrances.
Flashing through the hypnotic mist,
the red headlamps of
an ancient train.
Lips jerked back like
a man-hole cover.
Beneath its grid,
all the rats, all the stench,
all the dark rivers.
Shivering in her pale skin,
the last remnants of civilization.
In the fever of his feasting,
the rumble beneath
the once safe streets.
The Swan Princess
So graceful as she skims the lake’s surface,
that swan could well be a princess.
Neck held high, pure white feathers
preened by gentle breeze —
even its eye glints royally.
Maybe it’s the consequence of some witch’s curse,
a face so beautiful, it drew the ire of ugliness,
a bearing so regal, it drove a crone to despair,
a honey voice stilled by a cackled spell,
all waiting to be released but how, and by whom?
The bird is slowly gliding in my direction.
Am I the one to restore her back to human shape?
Does she sense in me the prince of my imagination?
With a kiss on the beak perhaps.
A rub of her lovely lean throat.
But then a male swan appears,
nudges her away from me
and toward the far shore.
He hisses at my unwanted presence.
I know the type. Once a swan, always a swan.
A Minor Compromise
You were living in an illustration
from an old book of fairytales:
a spectacular castle
on a hill overlooking a village.
And your prince was unsparing
in fulfilling your every desire —
the satin gowns, the gilded coach,
a luxurious bedroom,
a commodious four-poster bed.
And the moon rose full every night.
Apple orchards bloomed every season.
Who wouldn't succumb?
Sure your prince was ugly.
And you hated his slimy hands on you.
Rumor has it that, as a boy,
a witch cast a spell on him.
It left him looking no different.
Look at those sweet, sticky rolls going around
the table. I give mine a mouth with a butter knife,
then add a pale yellow smear. I sharpened
my ill-cut smile before dinner in the mirror.
I flash it for everyone to see. There are some
faces I hardly ever see, other faces I’ve never
seen. I don’t know much about my parents’
friends. They make a show out of the food.
I poke at pasta shells half-hidden in dark
green leaves on my plate. She’ll be gone for
a month, traveling Europe with her parents.
Denmark, Germany, France, Italy, Spain!
What am I going to do until August? My fork
goes jab jab. My heart quickens and leaps as
I swallow the half-chewed shells. The summer
is turning into endless chores and mindless dinner
parties and my God, this heat. The spinach sticks
in the back of my throat. I sputter and cough.
My brother stirs up meaningless talk at the
table. His nose is usually stuck in a book.
It’s all so boring. I eye the pink cocktails.
I see mother scowling at me. Is she still angry
about yesterday, when I came home sunburnt
and muddy? A glare shot from her eyes, two
dark and intimidating voids. They drilled into me.
She’s trying to give me skeleton eyes. Empty
and unforgiving, just like hers. I sip my punch.
I squash the cheese crumbles on the bed of
greens, watch them squish through the metal
prong gaps. Ha! There go the oysters, circling
dipping sauces on a platter. Then the asparagus,
wrapped in thin blankets of meat. The summer air
comes in, heavy and oppressive. My tongue folds
under me. A fork taps a rhythm I don’t know.
I hear a rustle outside the window. It could be the
wind, or maybe the wings of a warbling bird.
I don’t mind if it rises and ebbs,
as long as it comes back to me.
I won’t be startled by shipwrecks in its depths.
We are all captains guilty of fatal error —
misreading constellations in the night sky
and losing our way,
thinking we can weather a tempest,
meeting a watery death.
I wouldn’t be angry if I found a hidden
treasure chest keeping mementos from
voyages embarked on before me,
cherished memories of people parted with.
I need someone like an anchor.
Grounded, persistent, withstanding.
Because water is a maelstrom,
a red tide, a flood,
a cool mirror in my hand.
Year after year I hear stories of
green-eyed mermaids with mesmerizing voices,
alluring water sprites,
selkies with their enchanted seal skins.
But the older I become,
the more I think those tales are told by
those who have never been out to sea.
Apple & Honey
through the apple orchard. golden pinnacle. reach for it. from a wooden step ladder. sun stays put. watch closely. knife to blush-red skin. hush. the autumn wind. curled fruit ribbons. gently peeled. white face. no face. carve a face. apple doll head. crisp air. delicate wanderings. earth is for eating. wider than a mouth. in yellow-red stripes. in green and subtle crimson. in deep scarlet. what does it mean to want?
brittle cornstalk. coarse. leftover husks. scarecrows laugh. before winter. harvest skin and bone. like farmers do with crops. to grow back. renew the dead. to change. tell a truth in bonfire smoke. the end of picking season, sweet like apple and honey.
When you die, I will unfurl your skin from your body
as if you were an apple or a pheasant, carefully cut your tattoos
from your flayed skin for future preservation. When you die,
I will carefully package your organs for their various destinations,
send them off like Christmas presents to waiting hosts around the world.
When you die, I will make sure every drop of blood
finds its way into a labeled plastic sack,
I will make sure your bones are cleaned and dried
and varnished for preservation.
Everything has its place. Nothing will be wasted.
There are instructions left for my own body, too — I will not abide
horse-drawn processions, a parade of black cars
gloomy-faced children in ill-fitting church clothes
a solemn ceremony involving too many dead flowers
a noisy mechanism lowering my casket into the ground.
I would rather have bits of me scattered into the sea like popcorn for seagulls
rolled off the back of a rickety old truck for lions to fight over
propped up in a shooting range to test the damage caused by various bullet calibers
dragged off into the bushes by feral dogs or ambitious raccoons.
When is the right time
to tell your daughter
about your abortion?
When you first tell her
about sex, and birth control,
and she looks up at you and asks
“Have you ever had an abortion?”
and you know if you say yes,
this is something that’ll come out
during some family get-together,
where buried secrets don’t stay quiet,
she’ll blurt it out during some fight in the future
when you’re begging her to be careful,
to not be stupid, and she reminds you
that you had an abortion,
and you’re all right,
and maybe you should have aborted her, too
since you suck at being a parent anyway —
is this the time to offer her
We are getting older, and when my heart pounds when we’re making love
part of me thinks I’m dying and part of me thinks I’m actually dying
and I imagine how awful it’s going to be for you when you finish and climb off of me
and I don’t move for one, two minutes, five minutes,
and you reach out to push me over to my side of the bed
and realize something’s wrong,
you don’t know how long I’ve been dead.
I am getting older, and I’m afraid to say these things around you anymore
because when I do, I can tell you think it’s more of a confession than a joke
and maybe it is. Sometimes, when you drift away asleep next to me
your own breath soft and quiet, your heartbeat even and slow
I’m afraid to fall asleep myself, afraid to let go of the day
until I have to
I’m just not ready for this all to end.
The letters from my old lover show up in the mail and I leave them around casually
wanting them to be read, I am just that broken that I need my husband to know
that men in my past still think about me, are still trying to get in touch with me
are still trying to get in my pants. I am just broken enough
that I welcome the snort of derision from my husband as he reads these letters
asks if they’re recent, if this man from my past knows what I look like now
he’s welcome to come and steal me any time. I am just broken enough
that I relish the humiliation, it’s become my place of comfort.
Sometimes I wonder what I’d write about if they
hadn’t come into my life, those little people that took over everything
until I could think and speak of nothing else. Sometimes I try
I start conversations with people about other things, like
politics or work or something I read in the paper
something that’s probably much more important
than the things I really want to talk about
but the conversations always end up with my spilling my purse open
to pull out photographs of my son, my daughter, my family
the stories of their accomplishments, big or small
tumbling out of my mouth like garbled adulations compelled by the Holy Spirit
and when it happens, I don’t care.
I don’t care. I don’t care.
It’s just when I go home that I realize I have nothing else on my mind
I have nothing in common with anyone outside of my house anymore
I am nothing anymore without these people who have remade me
I don’t know who I’d be without them anymore
I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know.
I noticed them as soon as I got in our favorite gyros restaurant a mile away to order our take-out dinners. There were about a dozen of them, plastered to the ceiling with that sad look of captivity in their swollen eyes, that longing for freedom. I ignored them as I ordered our take out and had to wait for it. But again I was drawn to them. Who did they exactly belong to? There appeared to be a kids’ birthday party going on near the entrance. Several of them were tied to children’s wrists, but others clung to the ceiling in desperation. So I concluded they were no one’s. I got our dinners and placed the large brown bag in my left arm so my right arm was free.
When I passed by where the kids were I reached up and grabbed a blue balloon as I walked out to the car. It reacted strangely when I started driving, placing itself directly behind me and blocking whatever I might see in my rear-view mirror. So I opened the windows and the moon roof to make it move.
That was my mistake.
Now it really got erratic, bouncing all over the place, from side to side, from front to rear. But what really got its attention was the moon roof, probably because its immediate inclination is up, where the helium points it. My blue balloon found the moon roof and headed for the skies. I should have known. I peeked in the rear-view mirror and watched it go up up up and disappear in the ionosphere or troposphere or whatever you call it way high up. That is where it longed to go. It really didn’t belong to me. It didn’t belong to any of those kids either. Balloons are funny. Even if there are a bunch of them together, in what is called a school or a bloat or a knot, they keep to themselves. They shun company and yearn for freedom. And the sad part is that once they get a taste of it they keep going up and up till the internal pressure of the helium blows their brains out. And they expect you to just stay put and watch. They want something really bad, but the thing they want is no good. It kills them. When it isn’t a balloon, it’s a washing machine or another person, or the whole stinking world that lets you down.
Never let on it bugs you. That’s the thing.
At least I had our gyros dinners. Nobody can take that from me. I paid for them. And they were really good. As I got home I parked and squinted down Main Street towards the restaurant I just left. I wasn’t bitter. The balloon was never really mine.
Still, I stared at the sky.
“You had it coming,” I finally said, without rancor, as we sat down to dinner.
Amanda was reading on the couch, sipping her wine, when a rustle caught her attention. She looked up from her book to see her one-and-a-half-year-old, Zach, standing at the bottom of the stairs.
“Hi, Zach-y,” she said, as happily as she could muster.
Zach looked her dead in the eye, and said, “Amanda.”
That caused her to stop. She had never heard her son refer to her by her real name — it was always Mommy, or Mama. She put the book down. “Are you okay, Zach? Did you have a nightmare?”
He toddled closer, and pointed a finger at her. “Amanda.”
The repetition actually sent a shiver down her spine. “Zach? What’s wrong?” She wondered whether this was an early sign of mental illness. What toddler referred to their mother by her real name? It almost wasn’t human.
“Amanda, Amanda,” he insisted, pointing. He ran up to the couch and climbed up on her lap. She embraced him, trying not to let her son see her primal fear, as she wondered what she had given birth to.
“Amanda,” her son said again, shaking her sleeve to get her attention. Again, he pointed: not at her, but over her shoulder. She turned around.
Oh, Amanda thought, just before the knife plunged in. A man there.
My dad has not been taking the divorce well.
I mean, I get it, he’s upset that my mom and him had a falling out. But that doesn’t justify him following us when we moved into a new neighborhood.
The new community was supposed to be “a fresh start,” according to Mom. But it’s pretty hard to start over when your dad has his car parked across the street from you all the time. Seriously. All. The. Time.
I’m pretty sure he sleeps in the car. And one time, when we went to the block party, I swear he was recording our interactions with the neighbors. Like, I love the guy and all, but he needs to get a hobby. Start over, like Mom and I have.
He’s tried to talk to me when Mom isn’t around. Wants me to come with him, which I always say no to. Why would I go with someone who’s basically my stalker? He’s also like, weirdly insistent that I stop going to church. How random is that?
I don’t care if we are blood related, because at the end of the day, the community is more important than any family member. When I ask her about Dad, Mom says that our problems don’t matter since we’ll all be Ascending soon anyway. I guess she’s right. Still, I can’t help but worry, and hope my dad will stop being paranoid over nothing.
I lift a box of whole wheat pasta in one hand and a box of chickpea pasta in the other. Another box of red lentil pasta sits on the shelf in front of me. There are too many options and they all claim to be the best — low starch, high protein, antioxidants, high fiber, and so on. I suppose the ‘best’ pasta would be the one that filled the largest hole in my diet, but what about when I’m shopping for others? How could I decide then? I might need protein, but they might need fiber.
My phone buzzes in my pocket and I stick the chickpea pasta under my arm to reach for it. Brandon’s name appears on the screen. “Hey,” I say.
“My parents will be here in twenty minutes. Are you on your way back?”
“Almost… is your mom vegetarian or vegan?”
He sighs. “You’re still at the store, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I’m trying to decide what pasta to get. If she’s vegan, I probably should pass on the whole wheat, right? Isn’t there egg in there?”
“I have no idea, but she’s not vegan, she’s vegetarian. Any pasta you pick will be fine. They’re not picky and won’t be able to taste the difference anyways.”
My eyes lock on the red lentil pasta box with its bright yellow lettering and orangutan mascot. “I don’t know. I’m looking at a box right now that says you can taste the difference. What do red lentils taste like?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe I’ll go with the chickpea pasta if your mom’s vegetarian. She’s probably always on the lookout for different protein sources.” I place the whole wheat pasta back on the shelf. “But, maybe that’s what she gets for herself and she’s hoping I make something different tonight.” I pick the whole wheat pasta back up and turn it over to read the nutrition facts.
“Mandy, I love you, but it really doesn’t matter. Besides the pasta, do you have everything you need? Sauce to go with the pasta? Maybe some parmesan?”
“Hm? Oh, yes.” I glance over at my empty cart. “I’ll be back soon.”
“Okay, great. Try not to stress too much about tonight. They’re going to love you.”
Not if I pick the wrong pasta. Or the wrong sauce to go with the pasta.
“Right, thanks. I love you.”
“I love you, too. See you in a bit.”
The phone goes dead and I stuff it into my pocket. I sigh as I look over my options. Whole wheat. Chickpea. Red lentil. I push the boxes onto the shelf and shove the cart a couple feet further down the aisle. I’ll buy rice. There’ll be fewer options to choose from and we have soy sauce (low sodium, Kikkoman brand) at home. I’ll pick the first bag of rice I see and leave.
I freeze in front of the shelf.
Basmati rice. Black rice. Jasmine rice. Bomba rice. Brown rice. Arborio rice.
She Who Commands the Fireflies
Myrna had always had a special relationship with insects. As a child, she would rush outside to meet the wet snails who would emerge victoriously after the rain. Lying down on the still-wet sidewalk in front of her house, she would encourage them to crawl onto her hand or over her wiggling feet. Her mother would not be impressed.
As she grew older, Myrna discovered that she also had a special relationship with the winged and feared insects of the air. Bees, wasps, flies, gnats — all would wreath her in her glory.
I am the queen of insects. All shall bow down to me in my kingdom.
There came a time, however, when steps had to be taken.
Myrna caused no shortage of problems at birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and umpteen outings. It seemed many of her family or close relations did not share her love for her minions nor did they appreciate the cavalcade of ants, termites, and slugs that seemed to infest every picnic, lunch, or celebratory dinner.
‘They can’t help themselves,’ Myrna would explain. ‘I know that it’s not easy to live with, but they’re only showing their respect to me. Surely you can understand that?’
Myrna was deloused, fumigated, sprayed, washed, and perfumed all in desperate attempts to keep her followers at bay. At the age of seventeen, she was expelled from school for her rallying of bees at the championship game (even though their school won because of her unwanted assistance). Drawing from the fields next to her school, she created mass hysteria as she orchestrated a wave of flying terror against the opposing players when the Huskers, the home team, fell behind. ‘I didn’t mean to have so many show up. I just asked a few to lend a hand and it sort of got out of control.’
Thirteen people were hurt during the ensuing panic, and Myrna was filmed unapologetically leading the assault. Authorities feared her and it was decided that the best thing to do was to arrange for a private (and distant) residence for her on the outskirts of town. While it wasn’t a prison per se, a large fence was constructed around the cottage and guards were posted to make sure that she didn’t wander too far from home.
At night, she commandeered the fireflies to paint rude epitaphs in the sky that you could see for miles.
All throughout high school, I had a crush on this brown-haired woman. She was an English teacher, not my English teacher, but she taught about half of my friends. Every now and then I asked them about their readings and final projects, and none of them seemed to think twice about it until a few months after graduation, when I made some off-hand comment about the teacher and they all agreed that she was very attractive.
Since then, I’ve dated a lot of girls that look like her. One of these girls is my fiancée, Emily. Sometimes I post pictures with the doppelgängers on Facebook, where I’ve friended the teacher. I wonder if she will recognize herself in them, if she will realize that she was the blueprint for the rest of my romantic pursuits, whose trajectory resembles the silhouette of some long-necked dinosaur: a series of quiet but steady failures, until Emily.
The first thing I noticed about Emily was how she gestured with her hands while speaking. This was a habit of the teacher’s, one of the many reasons my high school friends made fun of her when they weren’t lusting over her. It wasn’t a trait that I found intrinsically attractive, more of an indirect association between Emily and her noisy hands, and then between the hands and the teacher. I’ve mentioned this to Emily, excluding the teacher part, and she said I flatter her.
Not that I haven’t told Emily about the teacher. She knows her name, knows of my mythical crush on her. If you set her loose in my high school, she would have enough information to track her down eventually.
It just isn’t as fun to talk about the teacher out loud. It feels tacky. She spends most of her time roaming the universe I’ve built inside my head, a universe which I can distinguish from the main one but prefer to keep around, like a vacation home. This delegation is mostly out of necessity: it’s been, what, twenty years since I’ve seen her face?
When I go to public places in my hometown, I like to imagine myself running into her again. I picture us in the dairy section of Trader Joe’s. She’s buying oat milk. Normally I get two-percent, the stuff from cows, but she has a soft spot for dairy alternatives, so I switch it up this time. I say hi. I know I would recognize her. Often, in these scenarios, she recognizes me. On these lucky days, her eyes are thrilled to see me, reflecting the same gravity that has always pulled me back to her.
This encounter hasn’t actually happened yet, although every now and then at Trader Joe’s I leave the shopping cart with Emily to fetch a carton of milk, alone. Emily is prone to cold and believes I am protecting her from the refrigerators.
Personally, I don’t get cold often. Maybe it’s because of all those milk runs. The last time I felt cold before the present moment was two Halloweens ago, when Emily made me dress up as the big shark to her smaller, more feminine shark. I’m talking about real cold, the kind that sits on your skin for hours unless you take a hot shower. Right now, for example, I know I could drive home, drink a glass of wine, read some daring contemporary fiction, and still be cold.
Right now, I would like to take a shower. Another place where the teacher makes regular appearances… but this time, I stop myself here. Some part of my head has made the leap from shower to bridal shower, which of course reminds me of Emily and then myself, which reminds me of the pain in my left arm and the numbness of my toes. Somewhere behind me, my sand wedge is sinking deeper into the riverbed.
Before I drove this cart into a creek, the same creek that swallowed my last two drives, golf was pretty fun. As a bonus, when I proposed the idea, Emily seemed pleased with my apathy for strip clubs, despite my friends’ meticulous mapping of every local venue. I chose a course in rural Illinois, far from my high school, our local Trader Joe’s, every place I hold somewhere within me.
When it comes to returning to my high school, I have a shining vision in mind. It’s the twenty-fifth reunion of the class of ‘96. I look slick and not too old. I’m not completely sure if teachers come to class reunions, but there is no doubt that mine is here. As for me, I am returning as a big shot movie producer, one whose appearance my former classmates have debated, having seen my name chronically spotlighted in the alumni newsletters.
The teacher notices me and approaches. Maybe she has thought of me every year since I left, or maybe she’s just networking. I don’t mind either way. We exchange niceties, and in the heat of it I tell her she has a face that deserves to be in movies. It’s true. I would cast her, someday, in a role along the lines of Natalie Portman in Closer. It isn’t a movie I’ve watched the whole way through, only the scene with the pink wig in the gentleman’s lounge, which is very tastefully done.
I haven’t yet considered whether this scenario requires me to be a bachelor. I suppose it would be scandalous for me to have a loving wife and kids. I wonder what Emily would say if, without explanation, I called it all off: the wedding, the apartment, the rest of our lives.
I wouldn’t mind spending the rest of my life with Emily. I never experienced the same palpitations for her as I did when the teacher would smile at me in the halls, even though Emily cares far more for me and has an objectively nicer smile. But I chalk this up to the narcosis of everything in one’s teenage years.
A voice is calling out to me: a voice of motherly concern, distinct from the chatter of my friends, who stomp along the bridge above. A woman lowers a ladder into the creek and beckons for me to climb. Her hair is brown. As I drag myself from under the weight of the cart, I find joy but no surprise at the teacher’s untimely return. I climb faster than my blueish limbs can handle. It’s an eight-foot drop at most, but to me, the journey is one of time, not distance.
Scaling the final rung, I see the woman up close. She introduces herself as Sandra, one of the rangers on this course. She has contacted the other rangers to help extract my cart.
One of my friends has Emily on the phone. I’ll be walking just fine by tomorrow, I assure her. Sandra hands me a towel, and I run it up and down my arms. Am I feeling alright, she asks? I try to nod. The towel is now caked with mud, so I rub my face against its cleaner side, which feels warm and damp and real enough.
We Looked Towards Things We Couldn’t See
With the addition of the pounding alarm filling her right ear, the flashing light ceased being an ambient-light and became another task she was forced to complete. She debated letting the alarm serenade her, a lovely orchestra accompanying her as she reviewed her navigation charts. Nevertheless she sighed, unlatched her harness, and propelled herself away from the wall of the craft, towards the area with red light dripping in from the alarm. Upon reaching the alarm’s control panel, she noticed a small table sized hole — at least she assumed it to be — with a vacuum-like force slowly pulling objects towards it; introducing boxes, garbage, and miscellaneous machine parts to the emptiness of the universe. She watched as the case, labelled “Genetic Material” with “DO NOT EXPOSE TO HEAT” underneath it in bright blood red letters, slowly inched towards the blackness. She had half a mind to just let it go, fall out of her world and into another, to land in the hands of some other unsuspecting victim. It would almost instantaneously lift the burden from her shoulders. Sighing longingly she took the can of Insta-Filler, strategically nestled in the side of her belt, placed her left hand on the wall to steady herself, kicked the case to the corner of the chamber, and began to close the gap.
She wasn’t worried or alarmed in the slightest at seeing a hole in the craft. Her mother had explained to her that the company on Earth shipping the materials her craft was burdened with, paid far too much to let one tiny hole destroy billions of dollars of cargo. Repairing the hole was more of an aesthetic choice than an occupational necessity. She was stationed there as a transport guard, at least that was her job’s description — “Guard.” The actuality of her situation was much less exciting. Guard made it seem like she was some armed professional protecting an important leader but that was not the case. In reality she just had to sit, eat, and pilot the craft in case of unforeseen obstacles — essentially she was also cargo, the only difference being the containers of metals, liquids, and other resources would make it to their destination on Earth.
Earth had run out of resources. The UN and various environmental organizations had predicted that humans could only survive on the planet for 50 more years unless they changed their consumption. However, this was humanity, if they changed their consumption they would cease being humans; overconsumption made them human. One of the many scapegoats humanity came up with to avoid addressing their reality was to extract materials needed from distant orbital bodies. Bodies of rock containing necessary elements quadrillions of miles away in the cosmos. Thanks to science, crafts were built to withstand the colossal journey; no thanks to science however, human’s carbon-based bodies were not. It baffled her mind as to why such an obvious fix could have been made, but perhaps it wasn’t that black and white, it was just a harsh reality; human bodies weren’t meant to survive that journey. At least not in one single lifetime.
According to the manual her mother had her read time and time again, repeating “its important darling, it’ll give you all the information about this trip.” Trip. Her mother had always called it a trip, maybe because she was trying to make it sound less horrifying to her or simply maybe because for her mother, it was just that, a trip. Her mother had come from the community extracting those precious resources on an object much larger than an asteroid but much smaller than a planet, about an easy two quadrillion miles from Earth. She had explained to her time and time again, that this specific vessel would take around 350 years to reach its destination on Earth. “You’re a part of a wonderful and beautiful transportation industry” her mother would explain to her, “you’re showing grace to the Earth by supplying humanity’s economy.” Basically, she was a celestial trucker.
Her mother’s name was Idris, something she had only discovered by reading the transcripts and records of a sealed envelope meant to go to the company on Earth upon her vessel’s arrival. Her mother had simply insisted that she call her mother, and likewise she would call her daughter, something she explained to her at the end of her life, was to “institute loyalty to their task.” This was something she was expected to repeat with her daughter, and her daughter with hers and so on and so forth until the cargo arrived safely on earth. She could barely remember her mother’s face, only the faint shallow glow her face seemed to give off as they passed by various stars. It had been years since she had died, years since she had raised her and taught her how to navigate the craft, years since she gave birth, years since she had injected herself, a few inches below her bellybutton, with that liquid that would lead to her birth. Looking up at the case she felt what her mother must have felt, not fear as much as dread. Dread at what would come, dread of injecting herself with a foreign substance all in hopes of obtaining a child, slow and overwhelming dread spreading throughout her body that she would have to deliver that child on her own. In that moment she was hit worse than ever before with an existential realization that she was alone, more so than anyone else alive, anyone else in history. At that moment she looked up at the walls of the room and watched as they stretched into eternity.
According to the records, this craft was on its 45th year of its journey, she was on her 30th year of her own journey, if she could even call it that. Technically she was on her 30th year with one more day until she began her 31st. She was aware of what happened on her 31st year; she was painstakingly aware it had been ensured that it was seared in her mind. The manual that was passed down to her instructed that every individual was to inject themselves, in the lower half of their abdomen, with who-knows-what-liquid to impregnate themselves, then take tiny red round pills to ensure that the last X chromosome wouldn’t mutate into a Y. If it did, the child would be born male and her mission would be compromised, and she, a failure. The pills were essential, she could not forget to take a single one. But yet, in the back of her mind, she desired to crush each little pill between her fingers and blow it deep into space to dance and intertwine with the space dust, shimmering, immortalizing her throughout the galaxies.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.
GERRI R. GRAY
A Matter of Taste
“And in local news, more human remains have been found in a Port Devlin sewage treatment plant for the third time in less than a week. Authorities report that two feet and a thumb were found Friday morning at the same facility where a man’s leg and pelvis were found on Tuesday. Last week, a suitcase containing partially eaten female breasts and other body parts was found in a wooded area by hikers, and the week before that, a Chinese food takeout box containing an ear and a spleen was found in a trash bin by a dumpster diver. Police suspect foul play was involved and are investigating. Anyone with information is asked to contact the sheriff’s office or the Crime Stoppers twenty-four-hour hotline. All calls will be kept confidential. Now, back to the soothing sounds of classical music…”
Roberta Pickering, a woman of impeccable taste and breeding, shook her head in disgust. What is this world coming to, she asked herself before turning her thoughts to more important matters, namely the unpacking and putting away of her Chateau Baccarat wine goblets. Being the bon vivant that she was, she’d never dream of sipping her Romanie-Conti from anything less exquisite than imported French glasses costing $150 apiece.
Being married to a retired hepatologist with a fat Louis Vuitton wallet, she could have easily afforded to pay the men from the moving company to unpack all of her boxes, but she preferred doing the job herself rather than trust her treasures in the grimy, careless hands of modern-day Neanderthals.
As she was placing the last of her crystal goblets on the top shelf of her tall Chippendale display cabinet, the loud growling of a stomach and the nauseating stench of halitosis prompted her to turn around. She gasped as terror sliced through her corpulent body like the claws of a beast, causing her to drop the goblet onto the herringbone parquet floor of the dining room. Her mouth opened wide and from it burst forth a shrill scream. It was loud enough to drown out both the classical music from the radio and the sound of lead crystal exploding into an array of expensive fragments.
To Roberta’s horror, standing not more than five feet from the stepladder upon which she stood was a strange and unsavory couple that, for all intents and purposes, appeared to have crawled out of a garbage dumpster.
The man, a disheveled ogre with an acne-scarred face and slick-backed hair resembling a drowned rat, stared at her with deranged eyes. His shirtless upper body was a crazy quilt of nefarious tattoos with a large Grim Reaper dominating the front of his torso. A black spider web design covered both elbows, while lurid portraits of infamous serial killers dotted the landscape of his arms.
Sensing her fear and disgust, he twisted his cold-sore-encrusted mouth into a menacing grin revealing two frightful rows of yellowish-brown teeth, which, for a reason beyond Roberta’s comprehension, had been filed into sharp points. With his lips parted, the smell of halitosis intensified in the room and assaulted Roberta’s delicate senses. She struggled to keep the puke from rising in her throat.
The woman at his side, a musty little scarecrow with heavily tattooed arms and bleached hair hacked into a messy mullet, giggled like an overgrown urchin. Her excessively twitching eyes were rimmed with copious amounts of smudged black eyeliner, giving them the appearance of a rabid raccoon. Clad in a long, tattered tank top, ripped fishnet stockings, and mud-caked Doc Martens boots, she looked every bit like a middle-aged reject from a punk rock concert.
“Didn’t mean to scare you, honey,” she said, smacking a wad of bubblegum like a cow chewing its cud. Her husky smoker’s voice resonated with a twang that, to Roberta’s ears, was simply lacerating. “We saw you just moved in and figured we’d mosey on over an’ welcome ya’ll to the neighborhood. You know that little ol’ red house behind your backyard? That’s our love shack.”
The color drained from Roberta’s face. She was shocked to learn that any living creature, apart from vermin, would call that dilapidated, paint-peeling shack their home. Peeking out from a cluster of oaks and sugar maples abutting the rear of her new property like some leprous, inbred thing, it was a hideous eyesore — a blight upon its surroundings. Roberta had made her husband Gordon promise to have a contractor erect a high wall to block the offending view, as well as to keep out “all those horrid little animals” that she so detested. Just the thought of wildlife evacuating their bowels on her manicured lawn made her shudder with revulsion.
“I’m Raelene Borza and this here’s my ol’ man, Earl,” the blinking woman continued, gesturing toward her husband with her thumb. “Some folks call him Gator, on account of his teeth, but ya’ll can call him anything ya want. Jus’ don’t call him late fer dinner.”
Earl emitted a grunting noise that Roberta guessed was a laugh. With his eyes transfixed on her ample breasts, he began to run the tip of his tongue along his lips and a bit of drool glistened at the corner of his mouth.
Roberta grimaced and felt her skin crawling.
Raelene giggled. “Don’t you pay no mind to big Earl there, Miss Roberta. He’s just a horny old hound dog with an eye for big purty ladies.”
Roberta felt goosebumps populating her arms. “How did you know my name?” she inquired, eyeing her uninvited guests with suspicion. “And how did you…people…get in my house?”
“With a key, of course,” Raelene giggled, amused by the sudden expression of panic that flashed across Roberta’s face.
“You…have a key to my house?” Roberta hurried down from the stepladder and held out her hand, palm up. “I’ll take that key if you don’t mind.”
Raelene’s giggling abruptly ceased and her face went serious. “But I do mind. Earl and me came here with the very best of intentions, we did. But now you’re givin’ me the feeling like you don’t trust us or something. Or maybe you think you’re better than us lowlife crackers, Miss high-and-mighty in your Estee Lauder lipstick.”
Grinning like an amused gibbon, Earl let out one of his laugh-grunts.
“I asked you, politely, to hand over that key,” Roberta reiterated. She was fighting to maintain her composure; however, her voice revealed a tone of irritation. “Now, I would appreciate it if you—”
Raelene slowly turned her head from side to side. “Now, Roberta, don’t you go and be like that. It ain’t very neighborly of you. And you don’t wanna be un-neighborly now, do you?”
“The key!” Roberta shouted, no longer able to contain her outrage.
At that moment, Gordon Pickering limped his way into the dining room, leaning on a sterling-silver-handled walking stick. He was well past middle age with graying temples framing his bespectacled, yet kindly, face. And like his wife, he was encumbered with corpulence.
“Is everything all right?” he asked, his voice unruffled. “I thought I heard someone scream.”
“Oh Gordon!” Roberta cried out with relief as she ran to her husband’s side. “Thank heavens you’re here! These people,” she pointed to Earl and Raelene, “they’re from that red hovel behind our property. Did you know they have a key to our house? And they’re refusing to relinquish it! Do something!”
The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.
The Witch’s Daughter
I began my collection when I was very young, before I even knew what I was doing. I’d go out from the dark, silent walls of my mother’s house in the shifting light of dawn and bundle up everything I could find in my skirt — moonstones, pebbles smoothed to a shine by the river, small rough gems churned up by rainstorms. As I grew older, the objects grew stranger: a great hunk of glistening rock dug up in the garden, brambles and rose thorns, sweet wine someone had left on a stone wall and forgotten about. Later, I would wonder how I knew what to select, how my hands flitted over one thing and landed on another. I didn’t care when people stared, shielding their eyes against the cool island sun. I didn’t mind being watched; I just didn’t like when they came closer, inching towards me as if I would suddenly turn and strike.
Once, a woman stopped me just outside her garden gate. I’d seen a bloodstone in the earth, so red it seemed to be glowing, and as soon as I picked it up I could feel the heat of it against my fingertips. I didn’t even notice her until she was standing over me, blocking out the sun. She demanded to know what I was doing near her cottage. She frightened me so suddenly and thoroughly I couldn’t even speak; I just let her stand there and tell me how worthless and horrible my mother and I were. My cheeks were wet before I even knew what was happening. When I got home, the bloodstone left behind, my face had turned crimson and white, and I looked like a helpless child. I looked like someone who needed looking after, which I hated very much. All the same, my mother stopped me at the front door and demanded I hand over whatever I’d taken. She had no pity for me at all.
“People say you’re stealing,” she accused. “They say you go out and pocket whatever you like. They’re afraid you’ll start taking their food next. Look, what is this?” She held out a hand holding a tiny pebble, yellow shot through with white. I’d sifted it out from the weeds along the dirt road that ran past our cottage.
“A stone,” I said simply, looking back at her. I’d just turned seventeen and we were of a height now, twin mirrors of blue-green eyes and nut-brown hair. She didn’t frighten me in the least.
My mother nodded. She turned and gestured for me to follow, stepping lightly through pale strips of dirty sunshine. Our windows were old and thick. There was a room in the back of our cottage, closed off by a plain-looking door with my mother’s needlework hung half in front of it. I’d never been inside. It was forbidden, and I’d refused her my curiosity, pretended not to mind. I was the one who chose what I wanted, after all. I’d decided long ago to never show weakness.
When she finally did lift the curtain that day, I was disappointed at what lay behind. I’d been expecting stores of treasures, hidden bolts of silk and fat purses of silver, an ancient crown dug up from one of the bogs around our cottage. But all I saw was a dusky little room, with no light save the small fire in its center. It smelled so strongly of mildew and dampness I took a step back. She shot me a dangerous look. I couldn’t imagine why she’d spent so much time in there, breathing in the decay, surrounded by cold stone. I couldn’t imagine why she’d think I would want to see such a thing.
“It’s my herb cellar,” she said after a moment. “This is where I work. This is where our silver comes from.”
My eyes had adjusted enough to the gloom by then to see rocks the color of blood and bitter grey herbs lining the shelves, which had been cut right into the stone. Trickles of water ran down the walls. I couldn’t tell if the red-brown stain in the corner was rust or blood.
“You know what they whisper about me,” she said. I nodded. Of course I did; all I’d heard my whole life was the word witch. All I’d seen were the backs of other children as they ran from me, afraid I would curse them. Women came in the night, knocking on our door as soon as the moon rose. My mother would take one look at them and know exactly what they needed. People in the village would watch me as if I held secrets, as if they were too reverent or afraid to come closer. They’d give us strange looks as we passed by, but none dared come too close. They didn’t accept us, but they wouldn’t outright banish us, either. In fact, they were terrified of what would happen if they did. As a result, I learned not to concern myself with what people thought of us. They would never love me or hate me. When I understood that my mother would never tell me the truth of why we were treated this way, I decided I didn’t care at all. I’d just be invisible, if it was all the same to them. When the woman had accosted me outside her cottage that morning, I’d been shocked she could actually see me.
“Well? D’you think it’s true?” my mother asked now.
When I didn’t answer, she stepped closer to me. She repeated the question once, but I didn’t have to answer. We both knew as soon as I met her eyes that it was true. I felt the world shift under me, tilting back. My mother — my strange, distant, cool mother — was a witch. No one had been lying. No one had just been trying to hurt me by saying such words. Things seemed to fall into place, then just as soon out again; questions were resolved, and then they unraveled into more complicated ones altogether.
“You, too,” she went on. “You’re one of us. It’s in your blood, you can’t avoid it. I couldn’t, either.”
She gestured at me. “Look at you. Dirty feet, dusty skirts, always out there gathering your precious stones. What d’you think you’re collecting them for? It’s not because you think they’re pretty. You’re not such a foolish girl as that. It’s because they’re the tools of your trade; you just haven’t learned to use them yet.”
“And how do I learn to use them?” I asked. My voice sounded distant, even to me. I felt strange and hollow. If I wasn’t careful, I could disintegrate entirely. Rocks filled my pockets, but I felt so light it made me dizzy. I hadn’t eaten since the night before.
“You just do,” she answered unhelpfully. “You just know. Figure it out.”
The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.
ROBERTA HARTLING GATES
Klaus lay next to Marianne in her big bed, watching the play of shadows on the ceiling and feeling vaguely out of sorts. He’d met Marianne at the end of 1942 when she’d barged into his office wearing a full-length mink coat and demanding a pass to visit her sister in Paris. She was older than Klaus by a good ten or fifteen years but she wasn’t bad looking (French women of her class never were), so when she invited him for dinner, he accepted without knowing quite what to expect. The meal had been excellent, though, and what followed was even better. In fact, she’d shown him a very good time. But that was six months ago, and the enthusiasm she’d exhibited then had pretty much worn off. Take tonight, for instance. Things had gotten off to a good start with the roast goose and a very nice Châteauneuf-du-Pape. But as for the rest of the evening — well, it had fallen short of what he’d hoped for. She just hadn’t lived up to her end of the bargain.
Peevishly, he glanced over at her and said, “You don’t respond much, do you, Marianne?”
“Comment?” she asked sleepily, lifting her head from the pillow. “Did you say something?”
“I said you don’t respond much anymore.”
Marianne was taken aback. She’d heard him quite clearly the first time, but she’d been generous enough to pretend that she hadn’t. She’d given him a chance to rescind what he’d said, or at least rephrase it. But what had he done? He’d repeated it almost verbatim. It was maddening, especially after everything she’d done for him. The cooking alone would have felled a less desperate woman.
But that was Klaus for you. France might be starving, but he couldn’t do without his five-course meal. It was part of their deal: He sent her the food (ridiculous amounts: eggs, butter, poultry, produce, seafood, anything you could imagine — even beef and chocolate) while she struggled alone in her kitchen to meet his culinary demands. This time he’d asked for roast goose stuffed with prunes and foie gras (it was a classic, he’d told her, as if she didn’t know), and so she’d spent all day pitting prunes, mincing goose liver, then basting and turning her nine-pound bird until it was as glossy and brown as mahogany. By the time she set her tribute before him, she was almost too exhausted to eat. But was he happy? No, he wanted ardor too.
“Careful, Klaus,” she told him, trying to keep the edge out of her voice. “I’m not one of your little cocottes, you know.”
“Apparently not,” he said. “They actually manage to muster a little passion.”
Marianne lay back and looked around in an attempt to take comfort from her surroundings: the finely carved bedroom suite, the delicate pieces of Limoges, the stuccowork angels some long-ago plasterer had molded over the mirror. It didn’t matter what Herr Obersturmführer thought. How could it? He was an arrogant little pup, a boor, an occupier — in other words, a Boche. It rendered his opinion irrelevant. Yet she’d done so many nice things for him, things that would have made her gag only a few months ago. That bath, for instance: soaping the blue-veined penis, dragging a washcloth through the cleft of his buttocks, then wiping him with a towel, all the way down to his toes, careful to dry between each one, on her knees while she did it, a big Turkish towel in her hands, perversely intent on humiliating herself. The maîtresse de maison being retrained for geisha service.
“Oh, for goodness sakes, Klaus, don’t be so naïve,” she said. “Those girls are supposed to show you a good time. It’s a performance, that’s all.”
Beside her, Klaus grunted. He wasn’t going to waste his breath by responding, but honestly, what a lot of Quatsch. And the tone of her voice, did she really think she could get away with that — with him? He wondered if she had forgotten who he was: not just another lieutenant, but the chef, the man who kept order here in Lyon. If she didn’t remember, well, others certainly did. All he had to do was walk through the streets to see a path clear in front of him. Even without his dog, Wolf, even without his uniform, the Lyonnais knew who he was and got out of his way.
Absently, Klaus glanced around the room, its every surface crowded with knick-knacks, and wondered how her husband, the captain, managed to sleep in it. Well, perhaps he was blind as well as impotent. But at least the man was alive and well, which might not have been the case if he, Klaus, hadn’t made sure that the captain’s name was removed from the gendarmarie’s card file. But if Marianne wanted him to, if that really was her preference, he could easily have the card put back.
“Perhaps you’re no longer satisfied with our arrangement?” he suggested, letting a certain implication leak into his voice. He sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, then added: “I don’t even know what I’m doing here. A woman your age. It’s ridiculous.”
Marianne, left to stare at his back, felt a numbness at the base of her spine. She was a fool, that’s what she was. Her husband, a Jew, could be deported at any moment, and she was busy defending herself against what — a complaint so shallow that every married woman had probably heard it at one time or another?
“No, Klaus, don’t say that,” she said, sitting up and throwing her arms around his neck from behind. “You know how dull my life is. Except for your visits, what else do I have to look forward to?”
Klaus, hearing the panic in her voice, permitted himself a small smile. As threats go, his had been a modest one, but all the same it had worked. He decided to wait a bit, just to see what she would do.
But Marianne wasn’t fazed by this strategy. Long years of living with her husband had taught her to deal with silences. Édouard simply wasn’t the type to yell or engage in scenes. No, his pattern was to withdraw. This made it easy for her whenever Klaus was scheduled to visit. All she had to do was tell Édouard that the Milice was out looking for Jews, and he’d retreat to the countryside.
Just wait for a little, she told herself, watching as a moist April breeze pushed the crocheted curtains into the room. It wasn’t hard to figure out what Klaus was doing. He was punishing her, putting her in her place, reminding her that he had the upper hand. And the worst part was that he did. She thought of M. Adelman, the German Jew with the dry goods store who'd been led away early one morning by a pair of gendarmes. By now, he was probably in Rivesaltes or one of those other detention camps. But Édouard was French and had served in the La Grande Guerre — had even lost an arm to it — so that made a difference. Or did it? Everything was so confusing these days, so topsy-turvy.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.
BARTON DREW PERKINS
I was born too small.
I fit snugly in my Father’s callused hand.
I was covered in my mother’s blood, sticky and salty.
She died making me, you know.
“He was born too soon,” the midwife claimed. “Too small, too fragile. I doubt he will last the night.”
My Father ran a finger across my ribs. Thinner than matches, they felt more fragile than glass under his fingers.
“Isn’t there anything that can be done?” He asked the midwife — three dead daughters, and oh how he wanted a living son.
The midwife thought and shrugged. “Keep him warm,” she suggested.
My father placed took a large glass jar and filled it with chicken feathers. Red, grey, black, and white, plucked from the cold dead skin of slaughtered poultry.
He lay me within the jar, and I watched as oblong glass walls closed around me.
I nestled in the downy feathers. They clung to my sweat, my spit, and my tears.
And that was my world.
Every day Father would give me warm milk from the goat, ladled into my rose petal pink mouth with an old metal spoon. Father never took me out of my jar, even when he fed me. Drop by drop milk was ladled down to me. It felt cool against the toothless nubs of gum I carried in my mouth. I would watch him as he smiled and cooed down at me like a mother hen.
Every night he wept over my departed mother. I would watch from my glass world as he sat on in a leather chair, a glass of wine in one hand. He would take a sip of wine, and then weep a single crystalline tear that trailed down his cheek. Then he would take another sip, weep another tear. And again and again, until he feel into a restless sleep.
Night and day, we lived this odd little cycle. Milk in the day, and tears in the night.
Day and night I lay nestled in my glass jar. Quills prodded my skin and made me itch and twitch. Down tickled my nose and made me hack and sneeze.
My breath rattled in lungs that could have been spun from glass.
My skin grew yellowed and creased like old paper.
My eyes stared out, milky and bulbous, a pair of off-centered marbles.
And yet I still lived.
Days dripped into weeks. Weeks pooled into months. Months gushed into years.
I lay, cradled in my feathered jar. My glass world. I shivered in the frigid heat of summer. I sweltered in the winter's chill.
Years passed and passed, yet I did not grow.
Thirteen years and I still fit snugly in my father’s hand. He sighed and fussed over me.
“Sweetling,” he’d call me in a velveteen voice.
I’d call him nothing, and stare into his eyes with unblinking vigor.
On occasion, I would try and leave the jar. My hands, bony and froglike, would scuttle up the glass sides of the jar. Cool to the touch, I would work my fingers up to the lip of the jar. With finger tipped with uncut nails, long and splintering, I would grasp the jar’s lip. My bones would creak as I would start to pull myself from my glass cage.
Then, as he always did, Father would appear. With a single finger he would push gently against my chest. No matter how hard I gripped, my fingers would fall away from the jar’s lip. I would collapse back into my bed of feathers, and I would look up to see Father’s face smiling down at me.
“No sweetling,” he’d say, “You must stay here, where it is warm and safe.”
So I would stay.
I would nestle in my feathers, and stare up at the ceiling for company.
I listened to the song of birds, robins, swallows, and jays. I dreamed of flying among them, of escaping my glass cage.
Then one day, my father brought home a woman. Her hair was as golden as wheat and her eyes as blue as cornflowers.
My new mother, Father called her. She smiled down at me, rose red lips pursed in sympathy. She smiled with her mouth but not her eyes.
We fell into a new routine Father, Step-Mother, and I.
Every day, Father would work in the fields. Step-Mother would tend to the home.
She swept the floors with an old wooden broom.
She cooked meals in a large iron pot.
She would feed me milk from a wooden spoon.
Step-Mother would stand above me and my glass jar. She would stare at me with her cold cornflower eyes as she ladled drips and drops of warm milk down to my mouth. My tongue, wet and sticky, black as pitch, would dart out and catch every drop of the white liquid. It would trickle down my throat, and make my belly swell in pleasure.
When the task was done. Step-Mother would lay the wooden spoon down beside my glass jar. She would continue to stare down at me, and I would stare back into the blue infinity of her gaze.
She would pause then, each and every time she would stop and think.
Then, she would raise a lily-white finger and place the lone digit at the top of the jar.
Slowly, ever so slowly, Step-Mother’s finger would wander down into the jar with me, and it would hover above my chest.
I would watch it, with my eyes too large for my small head, watch and wait.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.
It had been a long winter followed by a burst of warm that tried to make you forget. A camper van with diamond-shaped windows set in its side glinted sun as it slowed for the driveway. No need for turn signal, it just leaned a little for the shoulder and then bounced into the mud puddles of the drive.
Pete Wardell sat in a patch of sunlight and looked past the yard to the rise of Flambeau Ridge. Trees there were just leafing out, taking on a shadow of bright green amid the cold black bare branches. The grasses below the trees were pale yellow and sour whey. Wardell scratched idly at a dark spot on the back of one hand. His people were said to have some Chippewa in them, way back and Wardell wondered if it was a little bit of that emerging as dark spots in his skin. He was ninety-two last summer and stayed mostly inside the farmhouse he had built in 1937.
Cale leapt from the driver’s side of the van. He wore a t-shirt with a long-sleeved tee under it. The top one was black and the lower a dirty ash. He flicked a butt into the gravel and grinned when it hissed into a puddle.
“Granpa,” he said, “how you doing?”
From the passenger side emerged Cale’s friend, Miles. He was a tall man who had once broken his neck and now could not turn his head. He reminded Wardell of a scarecrow and so he couldn’t remember the man’s name.
Cale’s woman, Amy, met Cale at the door. From a few steps away Wardell watched them.
“What’s he doing here?” she asked.
“We got work to do. In the pump house.”
“I thought we were done with that.”
“Got to eat, babe. Taking care of Granpa only pays so much.” He pushed past her into the kitchen.
Miles paused at the base of the steps. He seemed to be listening, his eyes rolling left to right as his head remained still.
“Hear that?” he said. “Swainson’s thrush.” He closed his eyes. “We look for those back in Ohio. Means spring is here.”
Wardell heard a low buzz that might be bees, a scattering of squeaks and pipes from the low brush that encroached on where the barn used to be. Maybe the taunt of a crow.
“You hear them?” Miles asked, again.
Wardell shook his head. “Mostly I look for robins this time of year. What does this bird of yours look like?”
“Nothing to look at. A little brown bird. Gray on the belly. Robin sized, maybe.” He opened his eyes and looked hard at Wardell. “Mostly you got to listen for them.”
“Listen for what?” Cale let the door bang behind him. He held a six pack of beer in one hand and peeled one from the pack to hand to Miles. He tugged another can free and popped it open before handing it to Wardell. Then he opened another for himself.
Wardell sipped at the beer. While Julia was alive, by God in nearly sixty years he never had a beer on the place. Now, not noon and he was letting its gassy tang rise in his nose. His grandson and Miles walked away. He watched them pause at the pump house and tug its thick door open.
“Watch for snakes,” he almost called. Too early. Too late. This time of year the pump house would hold the chill in its stone walls. In the center, a lipped well where they used to submerge cans of milk into. Letting the cans rest on a shelf to cool and wait for tomorrow’s ride to town. Around the well thick shelves jut from the walls and hold crocks of hissing sauerkraut. A wax dipped wheel of cheese. A few loops of sausage dangle from hooks, and other naked greasy hooks wait where venison and beef quarters used to be.
Wardell had not been in the pump house for ten, fifteen years. Now it held a water pump wrapped in fiberglass insulation to keep it from freezing. Surrounding the pump were five-gallon cans of chemicals plus mixing pans and measuring beakers. One shelf was given over to a hot plate and others to stacks of cold medicine. A fan was lodged in a window. What made it a great methamphetamine factory was the lipped well. Cale or Miles would wear respirators and goggles but if anything went wrong they knew to jump into the water. Plus the stone walls couldn’t burn.
The kitchen door banged again as Amy stepped outside. She had her hands full with a plate for Wardell and a Diet Coke. She set the plate on his lap — sandwich and potato chips. She plucked the beer can from his hand and set it on the floor next to his chair.
“You got to eat,” she said. Amy had worried eyes in a pretty face. All winter she had worn a knit stocking cap and Wardell had forgotten how fragile her ears looked. Julia had thin ears like that, where the sun shone through them like a lampshade.
Wardell felt a belch rising and held it in, squeezed the life from it. “Ah,” he said, “ain’t you going to eat?”
She drank from the can of Diet Coke. “I’ll wait for Cale. You go ahead.”
Wardell hesitated. When he was first married to Julia she had served him like this. He had fidgeted under her gaze and felt his tongue become a slip of leather.
“Why don’t you eat with me?” he had asked his bride.
She was startled by his ferocity and he was instantly sorry. “Please,” he said. “Sit and eat with me. I don’t like feeling like you are waiting on me.”
“Your mother ate after you,” she said.
“You are not Ma,” Wardell had said, “trust me, I know.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It don’t mean nothing. I would just like you to sit with me.”
“If you say so.”
“I don’t say so. I’m just asking.”
It had been their first fight, the new couple in this house with a roof but only canvas walls. The rest of the wood went on in fall, after the crops were in. Out of habit Wardell looked over his shoulder at the front door. The frame there was thick elm his father had helped him nail in place, the two disagreeing on whether it was straight. Wardell said no, but Pa insisted. Those nails in elm are never ever going to come out and so he had a crooked door frame for life.
“What are you looking at?” Amy asked.
“That door frame. Did I ever tell you that my father helped me build this house?”
“Cale said you built it.”
“Well, I did but my Pa helped.”
“Is he the one ran moonshine?”
“You heard about that?” Wardell sounded hurt.
“Well, yeah. Cale said his great-grandpa was a tough old bird. Said he made moonshine and fought with Al Capone.”
“Hmph.” Wardell wrapped a hand around the sandwich and raised it for a bite. The bread was a little stale and he chewed awhile to get saliva enough to choke it down. The sandwich needed butter on it, or something. This was just ham and a rubbery leaf of lettuce. “Cale wouldn’t a knowed him,” he said.
“It’s what Cale’s Dad told him, I reckon.”
“Hmph.” Wardell reached into his memory. Robert would have been a little boy when Pa died. He recalled his Pa lifting one of his sons by gathering a fistful of shirt, then growling at the boy to make him laugh. Robert or Jesse. One of them. He recalled him mother watching from across the room, her smile.
That other memory of his father came. The bad one, the usual one, the which even decades later made his heart plunge to bottom of his chest.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.
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