Night Picnic_Cover_v4i3 eBook.jpg

VOLUME 4, ISSUE 3
OCTOBER 2021

2021  •  ISBN# 9781970033199  •  176 pp  •  6" x 9" paperback

Night Picnic is a journal of literature and art. We seek to share and celebrate all that is strange, dark, jubilant, complex, confusing, scary, mystical, fantastic, multidimensional, and metaphysical.

This issue includes:

Michael Stein, The Annihilators

Marcus Hansson, The Final Bribe

Ian Woollen, Morning, Glory

Jonathan Ferrini, Sand and Ash

Shannon Roberts, One Half

Keon Lee, A Young Man Named Sue

Rebekah VanDyk, An Expansive Sea

Emily Stevens, The Darkness

Kim Malinowski, The Midwife

Laura McPherson, Reminiscor

Rachel Anne Parsons, Shield Maidens & other poems

RC deWinter, Worth the Burning & other poems

Sara Long, Feral Sterile Honey Baby & other poems

Steven Kish, Amends & other poems

Erin Wilson, Solace & other poems

Kelli Simpson, When an Umbrella Breaks & other poem


This issue also includes Russian translations of the above titles.

The Annhilators, Michael Stein
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The Final Bribe, Marcus Hansson
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Morning Glory, Ian Woollen
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Morning Glory, Ian Woollen
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Morning Glory, Ian Woollen
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Enjoy work from this issue below:

POETRY

RACHEL ANNE PARSONS

Shield Maidens

 

You have been made into a sword.

I look into your reflective surface

and see myself a million times over —

putting myself between you and death,

standing in a dark corner, knowing

you would never ask me to dance,

stony-faced, headphones in,

failing and angry and young.

 

I have been made into a sword,

all blunt statements and cutting words.

I wonder how you prefer to remember me,

but I haven’t seen my true face

in a very long time.

I buried her beneath blankets of memory

because she is a wound, still

raw to the touch, failing, angry,

young.

 

I will be made into a shield,

putting myself between you and death,

a reflective surface in which

you see yourself a million times over —

failing, angry, young, beautiful

in your imperfections,

the perfect shape for my daydreams,

still growing each day.

I have seen your true face.


 

Questing Beast

 

I could have told you long ago,

I’m a silver doe

with a single wish to grant,

panting in the old growth,

snow,

and wilderness quiet.

 

Mine is not the kind of magic

you longed for as a child.

Don’t sidle up beside me,

don’t train your arrow on me.

Enjoy the sight of me and be gone.

 

Leave me to breathe in the cold,

watching you retreat

with a wary eye.

This wish is not for you.

 

 

Wisp

 

i.

I had a vision

of a brown-haired girl.

She was holding my hand

and we were surrounded

by little candle-lights

that filled a dusky field.

We walked hand in hand,

her smiling at me.

It felt like I had been lonely

for so long, but she

was my candle.

 

It was easier to hold

an imaginary hand

than it was to reach for yours.

There was no need to speak

words that would get caught

in my throat, no fear

of the consequences

of confession.

If you were the same person,

you could have read

my mind. I am a moth,

small and unlovely,

drawn from my old corners

to your little flame.

 

 

ii.

Once, you were my thrill.

 

I bit my tongue clean through

and didn’t make a sound.

 

You never looked inside

my mouth, so you

didn’t see the blood.

 

I had so many words there.

You could have heard

any of them, ok?

 

You had the key

in your right hip-pocket,

 

just sitting there.

 

 

iii.

It’s old hat now, I’m a veteran

of unrequited love.

Some people have no problem

talking about their feelings.

I’m not one of those people.

 

They declare their love

in such strong words and never

think for a moment to be afraid.

I almost feel bad

disappointing them.

I just can’t imagine

being with someone

who doesn’t know

how it feels to love in silence.

To bite your tongue clean through.

 

 

Matryoshka

 

I kept opening up

to show you the real me,

but every layer I peeled off

left me smaller.

 

You kept going,

taking me apart

until the child inside of me

was bared to you.

 

Line them up,

those empty shells of me,

like toy soldiers

going to war.

 

It’s fine, but please,

when you’re done,

put me back together

so I don’t lose any pieces.

RC DE WINTER

Worth the Burning

When it became clear truth and beauty
were no longer a syllogism, that value lived

only in that which could be bought
and the only diplomas being awarded
were for excellence in unquestioning belief,
revisionist history and circular thought,
I, not wishing to be a metallic duplicate
stamped in dross, packed a rucksack

and, unafraid to travel alone, hit the road.


No one noticed; I’m no loss.
Surly and sharp-tongued then and now,
I carry nothing of value to anyone but me.
Tatty clothing, a few old books, pens and

a journal in which to ink thoughts not worth

the paper they aren't printed on, along with

small talismans linking present to  past —
my collection of fingerbones to remind myself

of the treachery of love.

The road is dark; there are outlaws

exacting tribute from unwary travelers.

But it’s preferable to surrendering to betrayal,
the soul flayed to a bloody carpaccio

served back cold on a greasy paper plate.

There’s no balm in Gilead when blue-eyed Jesus —

who never walked on water — is fished up

from a scummy pond and, shrouded in the flag,

hate held fast to his cloroxed skin by a bandolier of bullets,

and crucified to serve the state.

So I walk the uncertain road, wherever it may bring me,

with a mind I can still call my own.

Though they stake heretics in this land —

and doubtless it will be my fate —

the freedom  is worth the burning.

 

 

how i got through today

as i sat in my father’s old rocker
trying to decide what to do with myself
on this cold gray day
you floated up behind my eyes
an unobtainable dream
i once thought to own
your smile an invitation to heartache

but refusing to slide down that
oh so slippery slope
i turned to the consolations
of academia and feasted on ramblings

about the meaning of art the importance
of words and other impersonal
examinations of the human condition

but when i emerged from that rarified

kingdom of footnoted opinion
dizzied by obscure references and
complicated erudition there you were
daring me to ignore you so i caved
to the inevitable allowed a few tears and

remembering your courage smiled back

 

exhaustion rag

damn!
i thought i had some toothpicks
guess not
i need a shopping list
i'll put them on there


i almost always forget to make a list
but if my brain clicks in
i scribble my few needs and many wants
on some stray scrap of paper
then forget to bring it with me


so i wander
hopelessly forgetful
through endless aisles
crammed with eighty-seven
different kinds of crackers
and a million different kinds of tea


impulse-buying fancy cheese
six kinds of olives
and a bunch of other stuff
not written on that list that i forgot to bring


brain fog's the order of the day
every day
and this just proves it


here i am lost in words
having started out
hunting for toothpicks
to prop open these exhausted eyes

SARA LONG

Feral Sterile Honey Baby

 

Your kindergarten teacher just had a baby,

so they plunked you down

with a big cats documentary.

Giggles from the adjacent desk

ask how many babies you’ll have?

You only hear lion cubs crying.

They’re always so hungry,

and there’s an old antelope

trailing behind the herd,

little sacrifice.

You don’t want the pride to starve

but the antelope doesn’t deserve

death either, but so long as they remain dancing

across the projector screen

they are safe, to you,

and alive.

 

A cat leaves a field mouse in a shoe

and you hold the small fur

in your hand

and breathe out.

You become a vegetarian.

You watch rabbits rise and fall.

The wheel is hard and turning

and you commit to be neither,

a voice that is gentle,

a long pet on the sidewalk,

an end in yourself.

Her ears flatten in expectation of your hand.

 

Where you live, people tear into honeyed

flesh as if they’ve forgotten

what bones are,

like a child who hasn’t yet learned

chicken is chicken.

You do not look away.

The sheer indifference of it all.

Giving birth

like releasing a bouquet of helium balloons

sailing up into the sun.

The wheel is relentlessly turning

but it need not live in you.

 

 

 

The Vast Loneliness of Living on the Ground

 

I am building a tower in which to live.

Each day, stone by stone, it grows up and around me.

One day, it will touch the clouds.

Above the clouds, I will have windows, to fill my tower with sunlight.

Far below, the door will be sealed.

 

If there is anyone to live for, it is your mother.

Her blood is on your hands.

My mother loved a lighthouse

with an iron spiral staircase, and

miles and miles of sea.

 

When my tower is finished,

I will go where she has gone,

or as close as I can manage—

up the spiral staircase

and into the cloudy sea.

 

 

 

Perennial Ghost

 

Petrified wood

I keep in a box

buried in my cellar

from which he emits a little

light that keeps me awake

at night.

 

My father is a relic.

When I was a child,

he was already old,

great oak of my life

 

in his shade I grew huckleberries

and candy cap,

he gave me his green-brown eyes,

his rumbling laugh

 

his side of the mountain

the wind in our leaves

and the long,

quiet love of a tree.

 

He fell in late summer,

lightning cracked where he stood

and the autumn mist settled

on his bones, firewood.

 

My father said something

as he lay splintered,

gently, gently, so that I might hear,

but rot filled my ears.

 

That year I crawled into winter

certain I would not return.

 

I reappeared,

I have every year,

but with less and

less of me.

 

I’ve carved his face

behind my elbows and knees.

 

Bluebell carpets have dwindled,

but I don’t see.

Fat berries have shriveled,

so I don’t eat.

 

I can still hear his heart beat

in the pine needle forest floor.

 

The equinox again,

light under the door.

I brush away spiders,

eat egg yolks and iron,

sap the blood from my eyes,

green-brown, alive,

like melting

snow and

spring.

STEVEN KISH

Amends

 

I’m ready to make amends.

Please excuse the sarcasm.

Thanks for not giving me closure.

Thanks for the baggage you left me.

I’m sure I will carry it into future relationships.

Thanks for the depression gene you passed on to me.

I can look forward to medication and dealing with it every day.

Thanks for not showing me how to deal with my emotions.

My inner child will always be in a battle with my adult self.

Thanks for showing me how to act hostile in relationships.

I’m sure my next partner in life will feel my wrath.

Thank you for running my childhood.

Although brief, I had to grow up quickly.

Thank you for teaching me to walk on egg shells.

And never addressing any of my problems.

Thank you for destroying my life.

Thanks for all the tears.

No matter where I go my tears follow me.

Do you think I like drowning in my own tears?

I’m waiting for answers!

I’m waiting for you to make amends!

I need to learn from your mistakes!

So I don’t fall into the same pit.

It’s all your fault!

You showed me how to hate!

You showed me how to be cold!

I did what you taught me!

I really could use some closure.

I will learn to forgive on my own.

To put the past behind me.

You didn’t learn from your mistakes.

That’s why I’m trying to make amends.

With you buried underneath my feet.

 

I Was Wrong

 

I should have been a better man.

Instead of being a selfish one.

I should have listened.

Instead of yelling.

I should have made my desires clear.

Instead of keeping the rage inside.

I should have sat everyone down and talked.

Instead of throwing an adult temper tantrum.

I gave ultimatums.

Instead of compromises.

I made hurtful remarks… You’re either with me or against me.

Instead of saying… I will always be there.

I had the best intentions.

I meant no harm.

I never learned how to be a man.

And that’s no excuse.

Now everyone’s memory is faded.

Everyone was thinking differently back then.

Frozen in time.

I’m viewed as a dictator.

Slamming my fist on the table.

Screaming orders.

Telling anyone and everyone what will happen.

I was trying to be a strong man.

Even though I have a boy’s mind.

I tried to take control.

I thought that is what a man is supposed to do.

I was wrong.

I was supposed to protect.

Instead I doled out the hurt.

Now all I can do is accept.

Accept that I wasn’t much of a man.

I can only apologize.

Send messages of how sorry I am.

Saying… I love you.

To deaf ears.

 

 

 

First Time

 

The first gift I can remember was a drum set.

I hit the snare drum so hard I played it for anyone who wanted to hear.

I don’t know if it was the drums but it was the last time I saw my father before he walked out the door.

I can remember the first time I saw my mother crying.

She told me that we had to move.

I can remember living in my first apartment.

My mom had to throw away the drum set to appease the neighbors.

I can remember the first time I learned what working overtime means.

It was the first time I had to sleep alone.

I can remember my first day of school.

I didn’t have enough money to buy lunch.

I remember getting my first F on my report card.

And the first summer school I had to take.

I can remember the first time when my seven-year-old soul thought that life was too hard to handle.

I can remember getting my first puppy.

My new Golden Retriever was my only companion.

I can remember the first time taking him on his first walk.

It was the first time I felt so proud and grown up.

I can remember the first time we ran out of money.

I would always share my food with my companion.

I can remember the first time my father tried to come back into my life.

He spoke about promises to change but all I could smell was cigarettes and scotch on his breath.

I can remember the first time I saw my father get angry.

It was my fault I should have done the dishes.

I can remember the first time he spanked me.

He pulled me from under the bed and hit me until I didn’t cry anymore.

My dog licked my face dry and nuzzled his wet nose to my ear.

I can remember the first time I saw my mother with a black eye.

She told me the corner of the kitchen cabinet door hit her eye.

I can remember the last time my father left and never returned.

I can remember finally finishing elementary school.

And having to move for a second time.

I can remember the first time I couldn’t sleep through the night.

The horn from the train by our new apartment would blare every hour.

I can remember my first time I experienced death.

It was my fault.

I accidentally let go of the leash.

My first mistake I have to live with.

I can still remember my first friend and companion that got me through childhood.

ERIN WILSON

Solace

 

Marina Tsvetaeva, it is 2 a.m.

I call to you in your threadbare sweater.

To you and your dead child.

To your weak tea in your shoddy apartment.

(Just where is your home?)

To (on your luckiest days) your horse meat.

I conjure your poor round face

and your terrible haircut.

They create a seal.

Hot wax sears me.

All the Russias in the world lace their boots.

Your body is a mound of clammy grey clay

which holds, at its center, a torch's breadth for lighting.

I gather my conflicting elements to it.

The potter's bowl fills with water.

And even though you're tired,

you drop to your knees

beneath your waste-haven eyes,

wash word's feet.

You are Marina Tsvetaeva.

The world will kill you.

This is something for us both.

 

 

A Crack on Void

 

I am going to create a painting for you and you are going to hate it.

(You'll want a weighted structure, three peaches in a bowl on a pedestal table.)

 

But this will be a canvas smothered in variegated canescent paints,

with a thin pewter line surprising us on its journey across the landscape.

 

You will bawl at me for avoiding pink planks and yellow splashes,

but I will maintain that they are insinuated, present.

 

You will slap me for excluding extruding buildings,

but you'll be assaulting me from your slanted skyscraper.

 

You will weep and beg of me blushing green bushes that densely taper.

Then: bramble and blackness.

 

But I'll wrest back the bulbous claw from out of your crying gate

and lovingly wipe your dew-pale forehead,

 

forcing your eyes wider and whiter.

 

 

Raze

 

First painting:

I long to paint

a minimalist

thin red line (think: haiku)

on a panoptic white canvas,

feeling (ahead of time)

the line is not life/blood

but a variant of branch,

knowing the painting

will not be about the branch

or approach (or encroachment)

or the color red,

but really about

how whiteness

in the background

is as variable

as my stained unsatiated soul.

 

The second painting:

A bulbous trunk of peaches, throbbing thromboses,

thumbs struck and swollen, the earth refusing to lie flat

beneath the weight of the grader, beep beep,

backward/forward, the word Anthropocene

not a glint or glomming in the foreground.

 

Throughout the third painting:

The Artist wounded by the atomic bomb, I resist Rothko.

I resist Rothko. I resist Rothko.

The canvas flips from black to white.

 

In the end:

It is late into the night when the storms arrive.

The roof is perforated, lifted, little serrated circumference.

The wall becomes: stain, then: rupture.

 

A quarter of a century later

a chestnut tree well establishes itself,

its trunk thrusting through rubble. A goldfinch

(which is not a goldfinch as we know them),

comes and goes, comes and goes,

not-an-olive-branch in its transmogrified beak. 

KELLI SIMPSON

When an Umbrella Breaks

 

When an umbrella breaks,

it brings 7 years of rain.

If the umbrella is white,

the rain is black.

If the umbrella is black,

the rain is amnesia.

I forget the other shades

of damage done, but you

 

are familiar as a Friday

on the 13th day of the month;

welcome as a black cat in my path;

a ladder

I can't stop myself

from walking under.

 

 

The Terminal Cafe

 

The newspapers are three days old,

and the coffee is strong enough to walk to my table,

but I like this place.

The wind has taken all the birds,

but there's a bell over the door

to sing me inside.

In a well-worn window seat,

I count breaths and sink

into a murmur of waiting.

Might you be the next ripe thing?

I've lost track of the seasons

and come to doubt even the migration

of the stars.  You are my only sure

constellation; my steady navigation

from a kiss to this cafe

                                    and back again.

From corner to corner, always turning left,

circling.  The coffee is strong enough

to walk to my table, but I like this place.

The wind has wasted all the bird

song, but the bell over the door

rings every

well-worn hour.

I sink into shallow breath

and wait for you,

a long ago rotted thing.

Your fingerprints fade with every season,

but I stay sure as your constellation;

sure as the songs

that sing me inside.

I like this place.

From kiss to cafe

                           and back again.     

FLASH FICTION

REBEKAH VANDYK

An Expansive Sea

​​

               The black blouse that I decided to wear today has three pearl buttons. Like little white stones, they lead a singular trail from my collarbone to the center of my breasts. Black was a bold choice of color to wear on the hottest day of the year.

               Together, the boy and I lay side by side on rainbow towels we spread out on the beach. The sun glares down on us, and beads of warm sweat seep into the dark fabric of my shirt.

               “Aren’t you hot?” the boy asks, turning his body to face me and propping his head up with his wrist. While he feigns concern, the coy tilt of his smile and his raised brows indicates something more. His fingers tread playfully up my arm to eventually fiddle with the small button that’s settled against my neck.

               “Maybe this would help?” Pinching the topmost button, his forefinger and thumb push it carefully through the fabric. His hungry eyes watch voraciously as the fabric splits away, and a small pool of salty seawater collects in the crease of my breasts where the fabric used to be. I study the enraptured look on his face as he counts the multitude of tiny sea anemones at the bottom of the tidal pool. They are vulnerable and exposed. Just like goosebumps, they stretch their multitude of pale arms towards the brilliant sunshine that now illuminates their dark home. I have seen them glow before, in the moonlit darkness, only for me.

               His curiosity gets the better of him, and he pinches another button between his greedy fingers. The tidal pool swells larger, and suddenly little brown freckled fish appear, under the ocean of my sweat, skirting nervously between the small anemones. They mimic the anxious way my heart throbs, swimming fervently against the growing tide of my rising and falling chest.

               Any farther, and he might discover my soul. Sometimes it is a ship that floats aimlessly, following no direction. Other times it is an anchor. Heavy and steadfast, it buries itself deep beneath the crushing blue. Only rarely is it a shark. The beast’s desperate and passionate hunger is never satisfied.

               What would he do with it? Would he become the captain to my ship, searching for buried treasure? Or would he emerge as the kraken, green and furious, strangling my heart until it is crushed into a million pieces?

               He reaches for the third button, but the rapidly rising wave threatens to flow over my head, and I quickly press a hand to his eager fingers. His expression sinks as I slowly shake my head in his direction. Neither of us are prepared to navigate these waters. If he continues to unbutton my skin, I know we will both drown.

EMILY STEVENS

The Darkness

              I am not afraid of the dark. It’s why I moved here late last year. I love not having the light and sound pollution I’m used to in the city. And there are other things too. I love the sound of the birds singing in the morning. I love the smell of the woods, and the way the grass feels under my bare feet. The landlord was surprised to find out that I was interested in renting. He says there was an incident in the house several years back and now no one wants to go near the place. But the price was so good and my need for escape was so great that the Devil himself could have resided in the house and I still would have jumped at the offer. It’s certainly different, but I’m glad to be living here.

              I am not afraid of the dark. But the darkness in the house is so complete at night, that I leave a small light on in the hallway so I can see where I’m going if I need to use the bathroom or get a drink of water. I’ve tripped over Sal, my old yellow lab, several times as he slept on the floor next to my bed. If I ever got hurt living here in the middle of nowhere, no one would ever know.

              I am not afraid of the dark. But I could certainly live without the noises around the house at night. I’m not crazy and I don’t believe in ghosts. I know the noises that sound like heavy footsteps are just the house settling and the whispering that almost sounds like words is the wind through the trees. The strange howling I hear at the edge of the forest is just coyotes or wolves. I’m not sure about the screaming sound that comes from the basement. Probably something wrong with the pipes. I should call the landlord and get that checked out.

              I am not afraid of the dark. I am afraid of losing my mind. My mother had Alzheimer’s, and that was horrible to watch her go through. I don’t think I have Alzheimer’s, but my memory and attention span seem to be suffering lately. I walk into rooms each morning to find doors and cabinets open, and yesterday, I discovered my entire bookshelf had been dumped on the floor. I don’t remember even being near it the day before, but I must have been, and the forgetting is what scares me. Not as bad as the morning I woke up to find a knife on my pillow though. That was really bad.

              I am not afraid of the dark. I miss Sal though. He disappeared three months after moving in. He always hated this house, and one night he just bolted out into the woods barking and growling the whole way, and I never saw him again. I walked through the woods daily looking for him until one day, about a week later, I found his collar hanging from a tree branch at eye-level, bloody. That was almost enough to make me move back to the city, but my lease is for a year, and I can’t afford to pay for a house I’m not living in.

              I am not afraid of the dark. But it’s so much worse to have nightmares when you’re alone, because there’s no one you can wake up to comfort you. The best you can do is lie in bed and ignore the shadows creeping along the edges of the room, and the voice calling your name from the woods. I seem to be having more nightmares since Sal disappeared. I can never really remember what happens, just waking up in a cold sweat with a feeling that I am in some sort of mortal danger. Not quite sure what that is all about.

              I am not afraid of the dark. But tonight, as I’m writing this, I feel shivers up and down my spine. The pipes in the basement — that horrible, terrible screaming sound — are worse than ever. And I think I was cooking or something earlier and forgot about it, because I’ve misplaced all the knives in my knife block. With every step I take in the oppressive blackness, I can’t shake the feeling that someone is creeping up behind me.

I am not afraid of the dark. Maybe I should be.

KIM MALINOWSKI

The Midwife

 

              She came hesitantly. Step. Slower step. She was strongly built, thick in waist, carried herself as queen, even though she was clearly a peasant. She eyed my house — drums the foundation, dusky wood. She would think witch or ancient poor woman. I am the midwife — but I only help those I judge worthy. I could tell She had power, would have more. She stared at my hut trembling — would she go further into the wildness, go to almost certain death? She propelled herself onward, her feet preparing for the necessary. Because of the man, willing or no — she had no future. Birth or death were her only options. Her fists were bruised. She either fought with herself or the man and the consequences were the same. It didn’t matter. Something in her gate and her gaze — perhaps how her shoulders were set — I knew I would help her. I would make her thrive.

              My door opened before her. I wondered if she would have knocked. When she saw me, long nose, stooped, she did not flinch. Her eyes met mine.

              “Mother, I’m in danger.” She hesitated. “A man had his way and now—”

              I cut her off, “Do you want to keep it?”

              Her eyes understood my offer.

              “I want it to live.”

              Yes, there is a difference. I nodded. She paled and ran back outside, heaving. I prepared ginger and lemon balm tea. When she returned several minutes later, she was ashen. This was clearly her first. I handed her the tea. “It isn’t poisoned this time.”

              She looked grateful. “I’m not sure after that I’d mind poison.” Her wild stomach continued but soon eased enough for her to sit. The long journey had done her belly no good. I told her the tea would ease her discomfort as I stirred in a bit of lemon — rare here, but needed. I explained the properties of the tincture so she would know how to make it herself and what to give others. She smiled for the first time as she sipped. She did not glow as much as glisten with sweat and dirt. That is how women truly look when newly pregnant — dusty, of earth and water. She was transitioning — not yet a mother — full of child, but still one — she had time.

              Something in her gave me feelings of more than pity. Recognition, understanding, some primal need to raise a child again? I had given birth alone. This one would not have to and it could be secret. Still, she would know the same pains.

              The woman-child blushed at my inspection, at the salted meat and still-warm bread. I nodded at the humble plates. “I am used to cooking for one. Now we have to worry about cooking for three.”

              I knew she thought the sage and thyme would kill her, but they would give protection,  strength, and good health. And the bit of psychic power wouldn’t hurt either. I am not pleasant when misunderstood or questioned. She cleaned her own dishes and asked of recipes. She knew her place and her duties. I sent her to the stream to wash with lavender and rosemary soap. She needed to believe she had the scent of him off and with the water flowing over the pebbles, she would feel the muck and guilt wash away. With the snowmelt she would gain back her vitality. The sun would give her blush and let winter ebb away.

              The woman did come back. Brave of her. She asked to help. She did not mean to knead dough. She was not as hapless as I thought. I showed her how to mix rosemary and lemon balm — burn it to give thanks to whom and whatever she needed to give grace to. The smoke wafted and silence fell. Thankful or not, more women would find the path here before the child would. I told her I would teach her my ways.

              One day, four women, heavy with child and nearer to labor than the girl, were granted my expertise. I am soft for women when their men had no patience and sought conquest and competition even in sacred birth. Women came to escape. They were willing to labor in meadows or by rivers — anywhere but their homes — anywhere away from doctors and the men that hurt them or loved them or could not understand. I would hear them, lift my magic to those that would not fear. Those with primal desire and with great need, and they would find my hut.

              The girl knew me as enchanted grandmother. She helped each woman with teas and tinctures, rubs, and washing away sweat. She learned to ease hard births, turn infants, and save both babies and mothers. All four would have died and we all knew it.

              They would leave as quietly as they came. My veil lifting and then covering the girl and me. Her belly swelled with time. We lit the incense. Chewed bitters. She learned to bake the herb bread we shared. She felt all that potent magic between us as we chewed morsels.

              It happened as she was milking a goat. Her water broke and she came running. Faster than any pregnant woman I ever saw. She was jittery, but unafraid. She had learned her own magic by helping the women. She made her own tea. Measured out the proper amounts for pain even as she gasped. She placed honey on her tongue without instruction, said a blessing, and drank down a dark elixir. I heard her whisper, “Spare us.” That meant she knew who I was. She knew I held the life and death of those that came to my hut. Thrice I would help her — and once was done. Now the second. Labor.

              It was long for her and short to me. She knew no harm to her or the boy she carried. The man might want him as heir. She rested, dazed, pained but meditative. Psychic from drinks.

              “Good mother,” she called. I caught her gaze and came. I appeared unknowing and left the fire.

              “Thank you for teaching me. I will help others with this sacredness.”

              I sneered — “And what if you are called a witch like I?”

              “I will say my grandmother taught me of herbs and blood, baking, and helping women with birth.” She hesitated. “And I will not have died in birthing.”

              I nodded. “The boy?”

              “Keep him.”

              Thrice.

              “He will not be of his father,” I said.

              She shook her head. “He will know of women and how to tend instead.”

              I stared at her. “I am a witch.”

              “My baba yaga. My grandmother. I will leave you to harvest your garden and tend your boy.”

              Even in pain she was hasty and went out over threshold. She could not return. “Love him.”

              That would be four. But I would.

              She went through the fields of yarrow and oats and as the sun rose.  She was wild in the mustards and sunshine. My final gift. She would dazzle with grit and thyme and would charm the world with savory love cast by mortar and pestle. She carried my cauldron before her where once she carried a child. My veil fell as the sun rose higher. The boy and I began to practice and we both began to learn.

LAURA MCPHERSON

Reminiscor

              They are taking out the duplicate memories almost as fast as I can write them.

              The other people are painting, using thick brown water that muddies the colors on their brushes because there isn’t enough water for art and the helper-wardens won’t let them use their drinking supply. I write down my memories and put them in a pile and the helper-wardens sort through the pile and take out the duplicates.

              If there wasn’t ink for me to write, I would steal anything in this room, from these people, from myself, to do it: they are so important, now. My memories, my wife, my children.

              Sometimes I forget a word and if I wait long enough it will usually come back. Sometimes I forget the letter “—” but I remember that the number of possible arrangements of four Rubik’s cubes is approximately the same number as the estimated total number of atoms in the universe.

              What was I doing?

              I know many words, and even if I don’t remember the words, I sometimes remember what the words look like, but I can’t always force the words out to make people see. They talk about me like I am not here.

              “He doesn’t understand.”

              “He doesn’t remember who he was.”

              The publisher’s agent talks to me. She is nice to me and does not steal my duplicates and says that I was famous and that when my book is printed, people will recognize my face again. She believes my memories, my wife, my children are important.

              I am frustrated because today the only memory that wants to come out is a useless day. The sun was blinded by the dry red and orange October trees and the American flag above the quad mocked the way the leaves rustled in the wind. Before the invasion and the retreat. I was young.

              Outside of my memories I see the new helper-warden reaching for the wrong pile.

              “Don’t want it! No, can’t! Don’t take duplicates!”

              My yell propels the memories outwards, shy bats startled from deep inside curling limestone caves that are now screaming, lost, through the humid air. Many will never come back. I know. “These are not duplicates, stop!”

              The publisher’s agent comes running over from her discussion with the doctor and gently directs the offensive helper-warden away. “That might be enough for today, ok?” she says to me.

              I suddenly remember her name. “Ok, Helen.”

              Helen smiles broadly. “That’s right. Helen. Are you hungry, Andy?”

              I have to think hard. I don’t understand. Stupid, stupid. My palms feel hot and wet. I am Andy and Andy is…my memories, my wife, my children.

              What was I doing?

              Andy is also…

              “Yes. Hungry.”

 

***

The false window on the wall of my room hurls a cold and jaundiced simulation of the sun at my back. I wait quietly for the hour when I am allowed to make my memories, my wife, my children, live on paper again.

              Yesterday I forgot how to use the toilet, but I remembered that abstract expressionism was funded in part by the CIA as a covert op to confuse the Russians, and this choice has had an extraordinary and largely uncredited influence on the subsequent development of Western art. This morning I remembered how to use the toilet, but I cannot remember any artists.

              What was I doing?

              Helen appears in the doorway and opens her mouth to say something. The penetrating klaxon of an air raid comes out of her surprised carmine mouth. She pulls me through dim hallways and my feet slap a clumsy bembé beat down a ramp that slopes gently like a beach pulling away from shore.   

              In the community room, the other people are huddled together in their brown clothes, crying. The helper-wardens look worried as the rumbling begins to shake the foundations — the shaking is the fighter jets, the bombs, Debra crying in the corner and smacking her balled-up toddler fists in frustration against the wall.

              Helen hides me under a table until the rumbling stops and some of the others get out from under their tables — but even though there is not shaking from the planes and their bombs there are different sounds — the sounds of shouting and slamming doors and a noise like dry beans being dropped into a tin can in front of a microphone: tattattatrattatttatatatat.

              I don’t remember the word, but I know the sound and the sound is what came before the bile-yellow haze that took my memories, my wife, my children, and I do not have enough left to share with it a second time.

              I reach for my memories, stacked where they were left yesterday, the first page in my fist dripping with Helen’s blood, its bright chili-red mixing my memories into ugly and qualmish smears. I run outside with them. I won’t wait for the haze to find me. I remember that it will come and I am tired of running after words I can’t remember anymore and backstabbing memories that fly away as fast as bored lovers after an insignificant fight.

              A man with a respiration cylinder for a face stares at me from behind the scope of his memory-shredding gun. I turn my body away from him, clutching the last of Helen and my memories to my chest. I am only afraid for the memories, held tight against my sprinting heart. The man looks at me for a long time before he lowers the gun, nods, and walks away.

              What was I doing?

              Tired. Far away there is more tattattatrattatttatatatat as I sit with my back against cold damp brick. Dandelion-colored clouds sink from the sky, warm and suffocating like August rain. Everything floats away with it, piece by piece. Helen, Helen’s blood, the words on the paper.

              My memories. My wife, my children.

              My memories.

              Me.

SHORT STORIES

MICHAEL STEIN

The Annihilators

              “Wait, you mean they left it like that on purpose?"

              "Well, yes… as a memorial."

              "It just seems so weird. In America, we would fix it."

              We all stood gazing into the church’s dark interior, the traffic rumbling at our backs. Our tour guide, Lavinia, was staring through the glass wall too, the wall which filled a gaping hole created by aerial bombardment, and to which Jessica, in her slightly condescending but well-meaning way, had just objected to.

              "We have also fixed many churches and buildings," Lavinia answered coolly. "This was not the only one hit by bombs. They chose to leave it like this to be remembered. I believe that at your Pearl Harbor you can look down through a glass floor at the sunken ships."

              I glanced back at Jessica’s freckled, smiling face, wondering whether the comparison would take hold or not. Whatever the case, I had already sworn a solemn, internal oath never to take an organized tour ever again and to avoid collegiate backpackers like the plague.

              "But this isn’t underwater," Jessica responded. "You could still use this church."

              For the first time our tour guide’s composure showed signs of slipping.

              "No, you are right… uh, Jessica… we’re not under the water."

              The idea was to go east of the obvious. We were content to leave Budapest and Prague to all the Hemingway-wannabes, to the impressionable and aimless with their dog-eared copies of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, to those who look forward to correcting their nervous grandmothers with a firm but gentle, ‘No, it’s not Yugoslavia. It’s Czechoslovakia, and there’s no war going on here.’

              This had nothing to do with reckless daring on our parts. We likewise had no interest in making our way to war-torn Sarajevo or Azerbaijan and braving whatever chaos there was to brave there. Nor were we aiming to navigate our way through the crime and corruption of post-Soviet Russia. Our ideal destination was a middle ground, uncharted territory, a place where the roles of two Americans stepping off a train wouldn’t be established the moment our feet touched the ground.

              So we ended up here, in a provincial city we had never heard of, whose name consisted almost entirely of consonants. We were off the beaten path. That was our primary objective.

              After we arrived, I'd left Aaron in our shabby room by the train station and went out to do some reconnaissance. A few blocks away, past a row of grimy starless hotels and one-room casinos, I began looking for the city’s historical center. I didn’t have a map so I was hoping to guide myself by spotting church spires or stone towers but had yet to see any set off against the smoke-filled backdrop that passed here as the sky.

              I gazed down street after street looking for cobblestones but saw only asphalt and potholes and an absence of the kind of souvenir shops that are the surest harbinger of the quaint old world.

              After an endless search, I realized that there was no historical center here and was about to head back when I spotted a flyer taped up on a lamppost that had a few words written in English, German, and French. It was an ad for daily historical tours. What a surprise that even here in the middle of nowhere it was possible to get a guided tour.

              Lavinia had so far brought us to the bits and pieces of history her hometown had left on display. A sculpture or an architectural wonder here, the house of a writer or artist there, all surviving and hidden among a rebuilt, indifferent city like Samizdat documents tucked away from the prying eyes of the secret police.

              But, for Aaron and I, the most compelling part of the tour didn't come from history or architecture at all. It was our tour guide. And it wasn't only her beauty, which was substantial. There was just something about her focus and determination. Now she was telling us about a 17th-century stone fountain of an archer surrounded by a kind of grotto with such passion that we stopped seeing the broken glass all over the ground, the  streetlamps stripped of wiring, and an abandoned, overturned baby carriage with a wheel missing that I was hoping didn't have a story behind it. We were entranced.

              She showed us an Art Deco movie palace that looked like the deck of a sci-fi spaceship, a  World War II bunker that now housed a music club, and a metallic, minimalist mini-golf course from the communist era that had rusted from disuse and wouldn't have been out of place in a contemporary art museum back home. She brought each of these places back to life, even the ones that had their doors and windows boarded up, even places that had never had much life to start with.

              Not that her passionate explanations always came across to the full contingent of backpackers.

              "But if the damage isn’t visible… well, isn’t that, you know… a good thing?"

              Lavinia didn’t roll her eyes this time. They wandered upward, half imploringly, but more out of frustration that she couldn’t express what she wanted to say. This time it wasn't in reference to a bombed-out church but a renovated villa we had just passed.

              "Look, I don’t want to sound a little condescending to you or anything like this, but I have the feeling very often when I talk to Americans or western tourists generally that for you history is a place you visit on trips with your school… you know, where tour guides wear the powdered wigs and there are cannons and some other historical decoration.  

              It’s like your history has nothing to do with you personally. You need to learn it for exams, as you learn math. I know it’s not true for all of you. Maybe it isn’t true at all. It is just my impression. I’m sure many of you know so much more than me, but you talk about it like something that just happens, in a good way or bad way, maybe like the weather."

              I didn’t need any more reasons to fall in love with her, but the guilty look she had when she finished speaking, as if one of us might be offended being told that history isn’t a vital aspect of our lives, made my knees tremble.

              "Here, it is different," she continued. "Here, the consequences are always present… sometimes too much. Everyone has a theory, an interpretation… and not only the old people who lived through so many great and terrible events, also young people, children. I mean, you can go… oh, I don’t know… you can go to a horrible, dirty pub and find a young man drinking like a Swedish foot soldier… or no, in English you say…"

              "Like a fish."

              "Yes, that’s it. You see, even your expressions have no history. A fish! It doesn’t even make sense. Oh, anyway, you can find such an alcoholic who blames his own mess on the world history. Really! And he truly believes this is the reason."

              Suddenly, all thoughts of history, fish, and Swedish foot soldiers vanished from all of our minds as a truly incongruous and unexpected sight appeared from around the corner. It was a group of three backpackers, but not "travelers" as Aaron and I fancied ourselves, or even the budget-variety tourists like the rest of our group. These were the kind who sported upscale guidebooks indicating where to eat at restaurants with Michelin stars, restaurants which didn't exist in this country, let alone this provincial city. In fact, their guidebook couldn't possibly include this city at all except mentioning it in passing in the historical introduction.

              There were three of them, all wearing baseball caps and toting shiny new backpacks. They were each holding bottles of water in their hands and passed us by without a word. Clearly, they weren't interested in joining the tour.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

MARCUS HANSSON

The Final Bribe

             Every year, with the first shuddering gasp of winter, the dead visit Ionos. Their music precedes their caravan, stealing into the skin of those waiting, making it jump and prickle. Jaunty and fast, their tune beats to the rhythm of abandoned worlds. When they emerge from the whiteness, the citizens of Ionos can see them dancing on the roofs of their ramshackle carriages, stomping, clapping, whooping, and laughing. Merry and itinerant are the dead. At their head, the dusky driver grins, his gold teeth flashing beneath his hood.

             It had been a year since Elyas last saw his Tali, and the memory was already fading. In death, his memories faded too fast. He leaned precariously from the side of the wagon to see, but a fellow pulled him back in, pushing an old rain hat into his hands before returning to his fiddle. In the hat, gold coins slid over one another. Of course. The bribe. Elyas patted his pockets until he found his coin, then dropped it inside. He offered the hat to a woman staring towards Ionos with bright eyes, a smile appearing and disappearing on her pale face, but she shook her head and pointed to the head of the train. To the driver.

             Thinking only of Tali, Elyas advanced through the train, climbing over carriage after carriage of all shapes and sizes. And all pulled by the driver’s four red-eyed bulls. He climbed in a daze, wondering what to say when he saw her. What words would be sufficient? How could he explain that he barely remembered their time together? The anguish of feeling every treasured moment drip away. Like oil on skin, they left only a track to show their passing. The loss hadn’t tempered the ache he felt for her, only rendered it desperate with confusion. Like a boat with sails, love didn’t need reasons to exist, but would drift on endless doldrums without direction until it did.

             Not for the first time, he wondered how many times they’d visited, how many years? He tried to ignore the pit in his stomach. He tried to ignore that he couldn’t remember her face.

             The driver sat hunched on his bench, his long switch dangling over the bulls’ masses of bunching black muscle. They groaned and complained like the world itself, muddy snow churning and cascading between the flurry of their legs. The bones of the driver’s shoulders and spine protruded from his dark cloak in the shape of a T. Elyas placed the hat on the bench next to him. The driver turned slightly, nodded. Elyas heard a chuckle and the clicking of teeth, before quickly turning his attention to Ionos. Nestled into the slope of the valley, it looked lonely and forgotten. As they got closer, he could spot the bundled figures waiting outside their houses. The jubilant music and stomping behind him seemed to grow all the more frantic. While he distrusted its frantic joy, his dead heart twitched and shivered to see his wife. A few hours every year, that was all they had, and it was enough to go on. It was like waking up in the middle of the night, eyes full of mist, mind full of quicksand, chest wrapped around the sun.

             Was she healthy? Did she still make a living repairing shoes and clothing? He gathered some of his shirt in his fist and squeezed. Once, all his clothes carried her scent. Would she still welcome him? Every night he played out scenes of being with her in his head; limbs wrapped together on the carpet by the fire, whispering quiet words that were like things grown from the earth. But the ground had grown cold and hard, and he couldn’t find words for the meeting itself. If the day came that she rejected him, he would leave the caravan and wander into the fields, where he would fade with the snow come spring. He’d been told by the other dead that it was peaceful; a return to nature, to sleep. He rejected this; Why would one seek oblivion? He sought experience, life. He sought Tali.

             The caravan was a way to go on, to see her again. But the past of his death was veiled, along with his previous visits with Tali. As though viewed from underwater, they were bright with sunlight and warmth, but distorted, blurred, and distant.

             They entered Ionos’ main avenue. First he saw their house, and then he saw Tali. Wrapped in a red and white blanket, shuffling her feet in the cold, she was there. His mind bloomed like a sun and he remembered how she felt, her sweat and copper hair and cold hands that he always warmed between his. All doubt drained from him. She was all that was right with the world. She filled the cracks and made things whole, and Elyas felt, as he did every time they visited, as though he was breathing again. But the circle didn’t complete; it missed and continued in ever-descending spirals because he couldn’t see her face.

             Like a hand had wiped across a portrait while the paint was still wet, her face was destroyed. It wasn’t only Tali; it was all of them. Then he realized, or remembered — he wasn’t sure — a law of nature deeper still than those they broke by visiting; the dead must not witness the faces of the living.

             The train halted with a jolt, shook with the stamping and the music, bursting with life. The driver brought out a great hourglass from beneath his bench, bones creaking and popping with effort. He lifted the hat with the coins, testing its weight, then flipped the hourglass and waved a hand above his head. On that signal, the dead leapt from the wagon. Like a dam breaking, they rushed to embrace the friends, family, and lovers they had left behind.

             Elyas stepped off and turned to Tali, words still frozen in his mind, when a man came between them. His face was also a smear, but Elyas recognized him immediately as Alexios. Angry, jealous Alexios. Elyas cupped his left forearm in his right hand, where Alexios had cracked it with a stone one night by the well. Unlike his death, the memories of his life were clear as meltwater; when Alexios had raised that stone and looked into Elyas’ eyes, he’d found nothing he could break within, not even bend. He’d snapped Elyas’ arm with as much frustration as finality. Elyas had won. Alexios would not have Tali, and Tali would not have him. Nevertheless, here he stood between them again.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

IAN WOOLLEN

Morning, Glory

             A dab of toothpaste is enough. Do not run the tap while brushing. Slowly floss while selecting an outfit. Check the clothes diary to prevent a costume repeat because students notice that sort of thing. Double-knot bootlaces, per Momma’s advice. Anybody else want to chime in?

             Gaby White is a mix-tape of internal voices. Load the orange backpack with slides and index cards and lunch. Careful with the slide boxes.

             “Hello, Gaby, is that you?”

             “Yes, Poppa, right here.”

             “Am I still alive?”

             “Apparently so.”

             “What are you doing?”

             “Getting my slides together for tomorrow’s lecture.”

             “More Winslow Homer?”

             “Good, you remembered.”

             Nobody else in the art history department uses slides anymore. A fixation dating back to Gaby’s childhood. Her father, a retired architect, pilfered outdated slide film from his office to photograph their summer vacations in Maine. Months later, in the middle of winter, he’d get the film developed and emcee an evening slideshow with big bowls of popcorn. His finest moments, really. And perhaps the root of Gaby’s attraction to art history. Her preferred lecture style: a dark hall full of students listening to her expound on slide reproductions illuminated from the back of the hall by a long, humming cone of light.

             “We’ll see you for supper?”

             “Not tonight. I’ll be home late. A gallery in Philadelphia wants me to authenticate a new Van Gruen. A chicken farmer found it in a hayloft in Altoona. Nurse Janis is here all day. You like Janis, remember. She’s friendly and she massages your feet.”

             “And she keeps the bud vase filled with morning-glory blooms from the vine on the porch trellis.”

             “Yes, exactly,” Gaby says. “The hospice tech is coming in an hour with more pain meds.”

             “I think your mother is dead.”

             “Well, let’s look into that.”

             In the musty bedroom, one withered body rolls over to peer at the other. Gaby steps in from the hallway and opens the window shades. Influx of yellow and pink on the rumpled quilt and the two bodies huddled underneath. Gaby’s mother, self-described as a “pug-nose .38”, lies cocooned in dementia. Her stubby nose (which Gaby inherited) poking out from under the quilt, still breathing faintly.

 

A year ago, Gaby had instructed her parents to get their affairs in order. Her mother took it literally and wrote a series of letters to her former lovers. Letters that Gaby barely managed to shield from her father, intercepting a few missives from the mailbox on the street and later, another stack of unstamped envelopes on the table in the hallway.

             “You told me to get my affairs in order.”

             “That’s not what I meant.”

             “It’s very hard to remember all those scoundrels.”

             “I’m so sorry for you.”

             “I wonder if they remember me.”

             “No doubt about that. You are unforgettable, Momma.”

             “Gaby, you should give romance another try. There must be somebody out there who could put up with you.”

             “Thanks so much, really.”

 

 The raw sunlight cleanses the bedroom of its nocturnal pallor. Gaby squeezes the old lady’s big toe.              “Momma, are you still with us?” she asks.

             “Still here.”

             “What’s that?” Poppa says.

             “It’s okay. She just takes a lot longer to wake up than you.”

             “Oh, too bad.”

             “I know you’re hoping she gets lucky and passes in her sleep.”

             “We’re both ready to go, Gaby. We are both so ready to go.”

             “The doctors agree and that’s why we made the decision to call in hospice,” Gaby says.

             She fluffs the pillows and checks the catheter bags and turns on their trusty Panasonic to the morning news.

             “Why not just give us a double dose of that endgame stuff they stored in our fridge. That’s what it’s for, right, the morphine. For you to feed us at the end.”

             “It would be against the law,” Gaby says.

             “Goodness, where did we go wrong with you?” her father replies and then proffers one of his oldest jokes, “What’s on your veranda today?”

             ‘Veranda’ instead of ‘agenda.’ He still thinks it’s hilarious. The conversational merry-go-round.

             “Typical day. I teach my class and then do a phone interview with Art Slant magazine about the new Van Gruen. I’ll swing home for a couple minutes to say goodbye, if you aren’t napping, and catch the train for Philly. Back around midnight.”

             “You tell ‘em like it is.”

             “Just the way you taught me,” Gaby says.

             On the way out, Gaby stops in the kitchen to greet Nurse Janis. The woman is exhausted, having come directly from a night shift at the hospital. “Morning, Glory,” they both chant. Their daily refrain. Janis swings her arms and stretches. One, two, bend, lift. Compatriots in caretaking, they exchange a quick hug. Janis’ wide smile is a tonic.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

JONATHAN FERRINI

Sand & Ash

             The desert wind blows through my tiny home. The wind speaks to me of the many souls it’s transporting, reminding me my time will come soon when I join the windy cavalcade.

             My granddaughter, Anna, retreats to where her grandmother is buried, laying on her back and staring at the stars. I was told by my Native American neighbors that the stars show Anna her destiny, and the wind will lift her away from the unhappiness she has endured in her short life. Anna will be reunited with a boy who couldn’t return the love she had for him.  The hearse delivering Stoney for cremation will arrive in the morning.

             Anna idolized Stoney from the day they met briefly as children when the hearse delivered Stoney’s beloved grandfather, a Vietnam veteran, for cremation. Anna followed Stoney’s athletic career from Pop Warner football to high school quarterback, keeping scrapbooks filled with press clippings of Stoney’s gridiron heroics. Stoney led his high school to a state championship. He received football scholarships from every top college but chose West Point.

             We live on an Arizona ranch bordering a Native American reservation. Once a prospering cattle ranch, it’s become a desert, including a tiny wood frame home and a metal warehouse with three smokestacks. Our ranch has been in the Montez family for generations.

             I own and operate a crematorium incinerating medical waste delivered from Arizona, California, Utah, and New Mexico. When the unrefrigerated trucks arrive, I quickly unload the orange bags marked “Biohazard” and place them into my refrigerated crypt inside the crematorium. The smell is horrific, and when the wind whips up, the putrid odor is carried for miles, making the Montez family unpopular with our neighbors. The three cremation chambers run from morning until late night, seven days a week. The uncinated remains, often hip replacements made of stainless steel with titanium alloys, are given to my Native American neighbors, who sell the metal for scrap. In exchange, they ceremoniously remove the incinerated ashes and scatter them into the wind, providing a dignified, Native American ceremony.

             I keep Anna away from the crematorium. I don’t want her around the sights and smells of death. She was born to my daughter, a heroin addict, who succumbed to a lethal fix. My departed wife, and myself, relished the opportunity to raise Anna. My daughters’ drug and alcohol abuse created birth defects and Anna was born with a club foot and partial paralysis on one side of her face, creating slurred speech. She also has learning difficulties. Anna is sweet and kind, and staring into her big brown eyes reveals only love, creativity, and eagerness to explore life. I’ve reconciled myself to the reality that her birth defects will deprive her of finding romance.

             Anna learned to cook and clean from her grandmother and keeps the house spotless. She has a green thumb; makes roses bloom in the desert and maintains a garden growing fresh vegetables. Anna loves her Native American neighbors. They named her “Soaring Heart.”

             I taught Anna to handle the office duties. A funeral home conglomerate has been after me to sell to them for years. When I die, Anna might sell.  I’m confident she’d make a fine bookkeeper for somebody.

             Anna was deprived of a loving female mentor to guide her into womanhood. She has no interest in buying clothes, makeup, or fragrances. She lives in a secret world she crafted for herself, including her scrapbooks. Her secret world doesn’t protect her from the cruel taunts and humiliation from her classmates, though.

             One day, I sat with the school bus driver, Pam, at the town coffee shop.  She is a no-nonsense, retired prison matron, who revealed the cruelties Anna never mentioned to me.

             “Mr. Montez, I couldn’t prevent the bullying your granddaughter endured. Little Anna was the last to board the bus and struggled to make it up the stairs into the bus with her club foot. Anna always resisted my offer to assist her, knowing it would slow down our departure and create more taunting. She sat in the front seat that’s reserved for handicapped students, which felt like a ‘Scarlet A.’ The children were cruel, shouting out,

             ‘Scuzz Montez, what’s in your lunch box?  Human organ sandwiches? We can smell you coming a mile away.’

             Anna always held her head high, Mr. Montez.”

             I regret I couldn’t drive Anna to and from school myself, but my ranch is too far away. One time, I remember receiving an emergency call to pick up Anna early from school. On the last day of Junior High, Anna’s classmates celebrated by running amok; Anna quickly became their target. They dragged her into the bathroom, placed her head into a toilet, doused her hair with powdered hand soap, and repeatedly flushed the toilet, chanting,

             “This ‘shampoo’ is called a ‘whirling’ and will get the smell of death out of your stinky hair!”

             On another occasion, I received a call from a young man introducing himself as “Stoney.” He said,

             “Sir, I’m with Anna. She needs to get home right away. Can you pick her up? We’ll be waiting for you at the flag pole out front of campus.”

The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

SHANNON ROBERTS

One Half

 

             The Faerie that lived in The Wife’s jewelry box preferred silver but always stopped to marvel at the magical properties of gold. She’d prance with the grace of a dancer, her wings collecting the sun’s rays with each turn and twist.

             Humming with all of her joy, she’d take her time to admire each piece, noticing new beauty within each one. The emerald pendant had a golden speck in the center; the diamond earring carried the scent of citrus; the bracelet with the smoothest links… Catching her breath, she pressed her back against the closed door of her home and considered herself lucky.

             Most faeries cleaned miniscule places around the home, like cabinets or shelves — the nooks and crannies that people always forgot to tend to. But when she saw the jewelry box left open so many years back, she couldn’t resist all of the glamor that was inside. It had all she could ever dream of: necklaces, earrings, brooches, bracelets, pendants, anklets, and even a pocket watch and thimble.

             Ever since her homecoming, her residence had been perfectly arranged and free of dust. It was her oasis, her realm.

             The Wife had a way of tossing the jewels into the box without care. She was always in a rush — often to work, other times to do a favor for one of her siblings. The Faerie saw only two of the sisters, and that was years ago. The Faerie knew that The Wife had a handful of siblings — maybe five — but she only ever heard from them when they wanted something.

             “I have to do everything,” The Wife had hissed one day, tossing in a silver bracelet. Wearing scrubs, she sighed at herself in the vanity mirror above the jewelry box. “Whatever happened to their perfect husbands… They don’t even thank me anymore.”

             The Wife never noticed when The Faerie tidied the box. She’d untangle necklaces and made sure that The Wife could see each piece when she opened the wooden doors. The Faerie didn’t seek recognition. What she did made her whole.

             The Faerie particularly loved matching each earring with its pair, if it had one. There was a special shelf for the earrings that were missing their other half. Some days, The Wife’s gaze rested on them longer than even her newest necklace. The urgency in her eyes would soften, and The Faerie would recognize the wonder in The Wife’s face.

             Would she ever see the missing piece again? What would she do with the remaining half if she didn’t? Who had the missing piece?

             The Faerie had her own fantasies, always about the next holiday. The Husband gifted The Wife a piece of jewelry for every occasion. Christmas, The Wife’s birthday, and the marriage anniversary were the biggest ones. After all the years passed, he still found something new, and The Faerie always made space for it.

             The Wife would wear it for that day before it joined the collection. She couldn’t wear jewelry to work. It wasn’t safe and could scratch patients, The Faerie had learned years back. The Wife was a nurse.

             “All those girls go in wearing their hoops and costume jewelry and they never get written up. But if I wore all that, they’d fire me. I’ll never take off Billy’s crucifix,” The Wife had told her Daughter one summer day when they were both much younger.

             They had sat side by side on the bed, a fan spinning in front of them. The Daughter’s curls had hung close to her face, and she didn’t wear glasses back then. The Wife drew the crucifix from beneath the neckline of her shirt to show her Daughter Jesus Christ on the cross, golden and shining. “Watch those girls give someone an allergic reaction and I bet they still won’t say anything.” It had made The Faerie’s heart sink to think that someone could get a rash from the reason for her glee.

             “That was really his?” The Daughter asked, pointing at the chain.

             The Wife had grabbed the frame from the nightstand that held a photo of her late brother. “Look here.” The Daughter squinted and pulled it close to her face. “All of my brothers and sisters wanted the most expensive stuff when he died.” The Wife pressed her fingertips against the chain. “This is the only thing I have from him. This way, he’s always with me.”

             “Where’d he go?”

             The Wife pointed toward the ceiling. “In heaven. He’s waiting for me up there. I’ve put up with too much. I deserve to go there.”

             The crucifix never touched the box, so The Faerie could only admire it when The Wife was nearby. It gleamed differently than even the newest jewels. There was something there beyond the gold.

             The Faerie got the best look when The Wife opened the box to return jewelry. Before The Wife’s hair had gray locks intertwined with the brown, she’d put each new piece away with such care. She’d admire her collection a little longer before closing the box. Those times, The Faerie didn’t have such a grand job to do.

             Back then, The Husband and Wife spent more time in each other’s company, and they would kiss or hug just because. The Husband would take the extra moment to admire the jewelry on his Wife’s wrist or around her neck. He’d chuckle to himself as though The Wife had made a quaint joke.

             As time passed, the joke lost its humor, and The Husband and Wife spent fewer moments together. Then, The Wife could go weeks without even glancing at the box.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

KEON LEE

A Young Man Named Sue

             Only two people had remained in the bungalow when the surrounding forest started to engulf it. Specks of rotten wood and grime-ridden windows were seen through small parts yet to be obscured by the greenery, and these glimpses were all the bungalow had to prove it was still a home.

             Inside the dilapidated house lived a young man named Sue and his very old grandfather who, unfortunately, had forgotten his name halfway through the twentieth-century, though he swore it rhymed with Wyatt.

             The old man didn't do much apart from lie in bed and eat the leaves that grew on the walls around him. This made sense because he had the eyes of a cow — brooding, brown, and patient. And Sue, like his grandfather, had the eyes of a sleepy bovine.

             As a result of the old man’s forgetting his own identity, Sue spent most of his days in their run-down living room hunched over a rotting round table searching through obituaries, phone books, and encyclopedias for the name that rhymed with Wyatt.

             On occasion, tired of his frustration, Sue would storm into his grandfather’s room and say, “I tell you, grandad: there is no name in existence rhyming with Wyatt!”

             Sitting up in bed with a mouthful of leaves, his grandfather would always retort the same words, “Keep searching!” And usually, on days when it rained, these words would bounce around and reverberate off every wall in the house for quite some time and, for a while, Sue could not escape them.

             Today was one of these days. And like so many of these rainy days past, he ventured into the nearby forest to find solace. Surrounded by vegetation, Sue sat on a tree log as the sound of light rain on leaves complemented the tender chirps of the blue, red, green, and yellow birds in front of him. Yet the smell of wet soil and these sounds that humans are so fond of seemed not to be soothing Sue today.

             “How lucky you birds are to not need a name,” Sue said, giving vent to a sigh. He sat in thought for a moment then went on, “You know, birds, I had a dream last night. A woman the color of a copper coin told me that if I’m a boy named Sue then I should at least cut my hair short to make up for it. So I told her I like having long hair. And you know what she said, birds?”

             A chick with blue feathers fluttered onto Sue’s shoulder. Sue tilted his head toward it and smiled. It shit on his shoulder. Sue chuckled and said, “Ah, you don’t even know that that’s meant to be disgusting. Funnily enough, I don’t find it disgusting. That actually reminds me what the woman in my dream told me, birds: she said I’d be better off if I were a bird.”

             All the colorful birds started to tweet in chorus. Then, all together, they fluttered above Sue’s head. Sue looked up at them with a child’s grin and each bird that flew above Sue defecated all at once.

             As he sat there, covered in the colorful bird’s shit, feeling the warmth of it covering him, Sue started to laugh. He laughed and laughed and laughed. Then, still laughing, he wiped the white and green splodge from his bovine eyes with the back of his hand. He felt the warm creamy liquid inside his mouth, in his nostrils, dripping down his skin. For a long time he sat there like this, laughing.

             The gentle sound of rain on leaves began to become an aggressive one. Sue slapped his hands on his thighs and stood up. “Well,” he said, “I think it’s time for me to go, birds. Please stay the same, and I’ll see you soon.” He turned and made a start down the dirt path leading through the forest. The heavy rain poured on him and caused the shit covering his body to become liquified. He found that he liked being covered in bird feces, so this upset him. Though he wasn’t upset for long. Sue realized the bird’s chirps were not fading away as they always did on these melancholy walks back to reality. He turned to see that all of his colorful companions were following him down the dirt path.

             Sue and his vibrant entourage arrived outside the bungalow. Beaming, Sue turned the moss-covered doorknob and entered the vegetated corridor to be immediately greeted by his grandfather’s voice. “Sue,” he shouted, “come to my room immediately. There’s a man here trying to sell me a name!”

             Upon entering his grandfather’s room, Sue saw a man dressed in a burgundy three-piece suit. His skin was the color you see when you close your eyes in the sun, and he had the curled moustache of a comic-book businessman who cannot be trusted. The businessman did not take his eyes off of the old man upon Sue’s entry. The rain had stopped and, for a moment, there was a silence so severe that neither the birds nor leaves dared make a noise.

             A bird tweeted and a breeze crept in, causing the vegetation to rustle. These two noises of nature seemed to break the men from their silence and the old man’s gruff voice started. “I don’t care,” he said, “it’s my real name or nothing.”

             The businessman sighed, shaking his head. “That’s a shame,” he said, “a real shame. I hope that you realize a name is all you and this young man need to become human beings. In fact, I’d go so far as to call your refusal an outright tragedy.” And the businessman did not stop at that. He went on to tell the pair sad stories of sailors who had forgotten who they were after staring at the sea for too long, and he talked of nameless babies who grew up to be chickens. And though the moustached man talked a good game, the long-haired boy and the old man with no name could not be persuaded.

             “No,” said the old man through a mouthful of leaves. “Real name or nothing.”

The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

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