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JUNE 2024

2024  •  ISBN# 9781970033359  •  87 pp  •  6" x 9" paperback

Night Picnic is a literary journal founded in 2018. We publish novels, novellas, plays, short and flash stories, fairytales and fantasy for adults, poetry, interviews, essays (including popular science essays), letters to the editors, and artwork. We seek to share and celebrate all that is strange, dark, jubilant, complex, confusing, scary, mystical, fantastic, multidimensional, and metaphysical.

This issue includes:

Samson Bulkley, Mr. Brown Finds a Bird

Hana Carolina, Neither Fish nor Flesh

Robert Stone, Moth

Teighlor Chaney, Choices & Devour

Marshall Geck, A Haunting by the Hudson

David Newkirk, Twenty-Two Coins

Mary Newton, Paying Gauguin

Oleg Olizev, Synesthesia

Lucy Rivas, Dehydrated & other poem

Lee Clark Zumpe, finality & other poems

Bobbi Sinha-Morey, A Halfhearted Prayer & other poem

Igor V. Zaitsev, Night Creatures

Enjoy work from this issue below:





I brush my teeth with my curtain open

Half-naked, prancing on my tip-toes


It’s a thrill, really—

Knowing there’s a chance

My neighbors can see my shadow.


The last time I lay here,

I drew sickly purple dots with a Sharpie

On the cold, marble bathroom floor


I typically run my showers too hot

Face swells

Skin dials red

Heart beats a bit faster than it should;

I suffocate in the heat


Like the floor against my skin,

I lay in a field of frozen flowers.

I paint myself, dancing there

Light on my tip-toes.


When I press my head close enough

To the glass shower door,

My cheek makes a mark against the condensation

Until it fogs up again


There’s a possibility my flower paintings

Have suffered from minor water damage

Did I overwater them?



I bury my fingers into my temples;

The elasticity of my skin breaks beneath my unkempt nails

Revealing ooze through my pores,

Through the seams beneath my eyelids.


I untie my belly button;

I leak gunk that runs to my ankles.

My flesh is iridescent the way I’d imagined

Finally weightless, I float on


Tied to a flock of balloons,

We drift to the sun

Waiting to burst in its flames.




this isn’t where we were.


you were standing with your back to the light,

trying to discern something invisible,

impossible to grasp,

to see something unknowable,



I woke up just in time to witness your departure,

stepping through the bedroom door,

the window, the rungs of the ladder

that led to the attic;

stepping outside with grace and agility

and more determination than I ever had,



we should evaporate or disappear when we complete each chapter,

each succeeding subdivision,

with or without closure,

cliffhanger or climax,

without the imposition of to be continued

or stay tuned,

just a clean break, leaving snapshots and memories,



this isn’t where we are.




I spent a summer living on a boat,

gunkholing along the coastline,

like some juvenile hedonist;


it was my father’s undertaking,

a clumsy coming-of-age scenario

meant to fortify our ties;


it underscored our differences,

made clear the vast ocean

that separated the generations;


skin blistered from sunburn,

sleeping under mosquito netting,

my sweat saturating the pillow;


somewhere amidst the tourist traps,

bologna sandwiches and diesel fumes,

I found a sense of profound loss.


something like ennui


something like ennui

materialized in her eyes,

her expression vacuous —


an empty wardrobe

once filled with dazzling

costumery, now home


to clinging cobwebs

and musty shadows. the

television sputters,


indistinct voices sounding

an unnecessary alarm,

splashes of lurid light


against wood paneled walls.

we lost the continuity

fine tuning tint and contrast —


wild separations in perspective,

an estrangement of acquaintances,

entrenched in solitude.


the grim masquerade


it’s like living in a small room

with shuttered windows,

the dark drapery of shadows,

and dingy, cracking walls


leaning and tottering precariously

as if at any moment

the configuration might fail

suffocating the space.


it’s an indefensible microcosm,

a faulty construct of deception

and unnecessary complexity

to project the illusion of consciousness.


it’s a façade in chiaroscuro,

populated by inarticulate figures

obliged to attend the grim masquerade

of pallid light and intense darkness.


A Halfhearted Prayer


The bruised rose finds it so

hard to breathe and she doesn't

have the will to grow, only to

stand there as her delicate spirit

begins to descend. Not even

the light makes her want to

spread her petals and shine.

The palette of the sky is so

wide above her; it has no

memory of being birthed

from underground like she

does, breathlessly aching

for warm wafts of wind to

caress her stem. No human

hand is close enough to give

her a loving touch or lazily

graze her so she knows she

is pretty enough. So faraway

from other flowers still in

bloom she made a halfhearted

prayer to heaven to part the

clouds and let her in.




Unhidden Doors I Must Pass Through


On the cusp of morning a feather from

a mother robin flew by my window and

my mind having been wandering these past

few days quietly came to a standstill. The

feather was so delicate and light that I never

saw it again but the vision of it remained

with me thereafter and it sparked in me what

I must do having been so unprepared to go on

if I am left all alone to carry on with my life.

There would be no one to help guide the way;

I'd be caught in the web of reality, vertical as

a petal or a leaf; or if heaven would have its

way, a flower untouched by the wind. Still

I resemble how firmly a begonia can stand,

and when the sun reflects its light in the pond

I gleam a sense of hope for the future; and,

bravely, one hour at a time, I move myself

forward, the god in the sky my only witness,

and I shed my old dreams, my heart now

sticky with the new, and I pillow my head,

worn-out because I've come this far. Sleepily

I waken to a new world slowly, day by day,

growing around me and I hold onto whatever

will pull me through. Those years of being

a crazy, impulsive teenager now gone. I see

chores bud all around me, I see unhidden

doors I must pass through; and deep in my

heart, a courage I never knew, a willingness

to move ahead. There is no one I cling to

anymore and I used to sleep in late all alone

in my bed. Slowly I am turning into a different

self, the dark circles under my eyes having

vanished. I trace the grey lines in my map

that lead many years away; and when I look

in my mirror, I still look young for my age.




My armpits are visual organs

that see young men aging.

My eight nipples are able to taste your sweat —

not only during coition — but even in the green distance

behind the purple horizontal line.

My fingers are faster than racecars

and are able to smell semen

even before you ejaculate inside my always ravenous hole

or on my thin, pink, and silky skin.

My nose is able to hear any noises of despair,

no matter how far away they are.  


I am a creature of the sea and I come out on land —

only in the fall

when I am starving for love.

In the Spring, I come out occasionally —

only when I am in desire of sensual renewal.

I hope to meet you soon, but you will never recognize me,

even though you know me well.


Don’t be frightened —

I come to you when you’ll be alone

and, thus, there will be nothing to fear.

There will be no one to judge us.

We will tangle over and over again.

That is our destiny.

That is our curse.



Mr. Brown Finds a Bird


Mr. Brown had been walking one day observing the many trees in his neighborhood whose branches turned upward like mossy, green elephant trunks and spun in the light as though they were caught in a stream of falling, golden water. It was because of his upturned gaze that he had only noticed a small dark spot in the path resembling a shadow or stain or some other inconsequential trash that naturally arose in this shady lane. He thought this up to the moment he stumbled over it as it squawked. He crouched as low as his portly body allowed and peered at what turned out to be a squat, ebony bird. It was not a raven or a crow, and Mr. Brown, with his limited knowledge of ornithology, knew it was fantastic but too dark to be a misplaced bird of paradise. Its body bulged as it sunk its small head low like a marble resting atop a velvet cushion, but its beak was disproportionately large and looked wooden as though it were a makeshift prosthetic made from soaked oak. The creature did not move or bite no matter how close Mr. Brown leered but simply tolerated his presence as much as it seemed to tolerate its uncomfortable place on the hard ground. Mr. Brown stood upright and looked around expectantly as though somebody were to come claim the abandoned bird or explain its odd presence. Finding himself completely alone among the lane, he considered the bird precariously sitting on the sidewalk before cupping it in two hands and carrying it home.

          Mr. Brown walked up his porch holding the bird aloft so he could consider his steps though the empty space between his extended arms. The front of his home was a weathered red with a brown door laid beneath the transparent mesh of a heavy screen door. Mr. Brown was unsure how to proceed with the small bird still in his hands. He considered his porch for a spot to securely place the delicate fowl, but he found that as soon as he brought his cupped hands towards the ground, the bird squawked in a panic, extending two feathery wings with a rapid flutter while Mr. Brown shut his eyes and hugged his chin helplessly to his shoulder. It was only when Mr. Brown returned upright that the bird returned to its docile state. Realizing that depositing the bird would be impossible, he struggled with his elbows to open the screen door and prop it open with his shoulder. He then confronted the greater challenge of turning the sleek, brass knob while the heavy screen door constantly shook against his back. He entered his living room by way of a small, alabaster-white archway where he had an old, red leather chair in the corner. He stood before it and slowly dipped, bracing for any sudden alarm, but found that the bird had not registered the slightest acknowledgement of having been moved from his hands to the chair. Mr. Brown, enjoying the sight of the bird neatly tucked like the hull of a boat into the hospitable crest of a leather wave, decided he ought to fashion something more fit for a bird and less of a risk to his chair. He left and returned with a shallow, wide box he had filled with paper and twigs which the bird seemed content to occupy. Mr. Brown then placed the box neatly between the stabilizing arms of the leather chair.

          Like all small creatures recently invited into one’s home, the bird inspired a fascination in Mr. Brown that provoked him into curious gazing and humble smiling. The bird was very patient with him and tolerated his face as he brought it low and close trying to find a trace of its tucked legs and hidden feet. He wondered if it were the type of creature that, when threatened, becomes impossibly still. Then, he wondered how he should attend to the diet of the mysterious bird. He certainly had many options, but he feared if it were an exotic that it may be upset or even poisoned by some mundane item that the local fowl took for granted. Among the bookshelves, he had no reference books on the diets of birds, and when he brought a sampling of treats and critters, the bird only snapped at his dangling fingers ignoring the piece of melon that had fallen from Mr. Brown’s retreating hand. Then, Mr. Brown decided that he may have stumbled upon the bird right after a particularly gluttonous episode, and the poor thing was weighed down by the sum of its elephantine meal. This, he decided, would account for the bird’s apparent inability to fly. Then he became nervous that the exotic, pampered bird may have haphazardly bolted some foreign matter being unaccustomed to the land or the notion of feeding oneself, so Mr. Brown leaned over the black bird and slowly descended with twitching fingers and gently massaged around its deflated rump trying to discover if any oblong objects jutted from its paper-thin stomach. He was surprised to discover that the bird beneath its coils of black plumage was very firm, more muscle than bone, it seemed, and he found no irregular lumps in the bird’s small body. The bird reared its head in an uncompromising, stately way that declared no possible agitation save that which might be felt by a bored, proud monarch. With nothing else to consider, Mr. Brown placed a small bowl of water in the box and sat on his sofa adjacent to the chair glancing at the immobile bird in between the pages of some unhelpful book he had of illustrated fowls.

          The coming evening had no discernible effect on the bird. Mr. Brown had eaten and returned finding it not at all curious or concerned with the room in which it had been left alone. If it weren’t for the unblinking eye presenting its dark, unbroken focus, the bird would seem entirely unconscious to its surroundings. Every so often, it would preen its feathers which stuck out like the limbs of a sable fir tree, its unwieldy beak surprisingly effective in combing its body. Mr. Brown tried his best to out endure the small creature but felt himself constantly rising from a persistent spell of sleep. In the end, the bird seemed decidedly unconcerned with its surroundings and truthfully seemed far too small to be a danger to itself so Mr. Brown wished his small, new friend a good night and went to bed.

In the morning, Mr. Brown saw his red leather chair rivened. It lay in stripes that exposed its pale underside while the bird sat atop a mount of stripped cotton filling. Mr. Brown stood arms akimbo in grey robe and slippers, his feet angled with his elbows, the toes of his slippers upturned, and he studied the bird’s work with despair. He had been fond of the chair. He was promised it was of rare Italian manufacture brought here by an illiterate vecchia who made her humble living selling fresh vegetables on the street. It was left to her granddaughter who sold it to him for a sum consistent with their broken emotional attachment because they had no place for it after buying a large, luxurious couch which really was much more fitting for their weekend nights surrounding their vivid flat-screen TV, but Mr. Brown conceded there was nothing that could be done about it now and remarked that these are the risks when inviting strange animals into one’s home.

          The bird, meanwhile, would only cock its head and consider the nested fluff as though it were equally confused as to how it arose upon this mountain of displaced cotton. It would retain its equipoise of utterly calm and incurious squatting. Then, Mr. Brown suddenly leapt forward. He thought this bird looked different but had attributed it to its new perch on the remains of his chair, but he was sure the bird had grown a quarter in size. He quickly but gently felt along the rim of its bulging body and was certain the bird he had felt only the night before was now larger, fuller, and had a longer, denser beak. He knew that some small creatures tended towards rapid growth in a world where large, ivory-toothed predators sought out defenseless infants with slavering glee, but he had never imagined that it could’ve been anything so dramatic. It was very fascinating to him, especially because he had not seen a single piece of food pass through its flimsy, warping gullet, but there were, no doubt, many intriguing peculiarities of the natural world such as incandescent fish, aerial arachnids, and conscious fungi that would’ve seemed strange and impossible at first glance.

          So Mr. Brown, being very considerate of the law of conservation of matter, imagined the bird must be very hungry. He felt disabused of the idea that he might accidentally poison the bird for although the fowl had proven very picky, it also showed no signs of distress after destroying (and no doubt ingesting) portions of his Italian leather chair. On a cutting board, he prepared some sliced melon, a small pile of mixed nuts and seeds, pitted olives, and some vegetables leftover from his dinner. He presented it before the bird who seemed at first to decide upon the vegetables turning its head so as to enter them into its parted beak from the side, but quite unexpectantly, the bird moved in one clean motion and collected every piece of food in a shockingly deft execution of its unwieldy beak.

          After spending a time commensurate to the strangeness of the action he witnessed, Mr. Brown repeatedly produced food which the black bird quickly swallowed. It was not until early afternoon that Mr. Brown waved a pickle before the disinterested bird’s face and deemed him adequately satiated. Then, in order to maintain his good conscience, Mr. Brown put together an ad: “Exotic bird found — species unknown, black with long, brown beak.” Mr. Brown had no computer, no printer, he did not even have a television or radio. He was forced, with a confused mien of obsolescence, to have some adolescent with a rosy brush of bright red acne across his forehead print him twenty copies of his handmade flyer at a print shop six blocks down the road. It seemed, however, that the scanning mechanism malfunctioned for it turned Mr. Brown’s crisp penmanship into a bloated, dark mess which had to be deciphered meticulously with one’s face inches from the paper, and he was forced to rewrite his address on every piece of paper because it had faded into a spectral line of meaningless markings.

          With a newly-purchased staple gun, Mr. Brown made his way home in a long, ambulatory path posting these pages on as many telephone poles as he could find before arriving home and finding a strange sound, raw and violent, rising, falling, and often tripping into a sibilant ripping of the air. Quickly entering the living room, he saw the bird as docile as always while this disconcerting sound fluxed, becoming louder and clearer to Mr. Brown as he closed upon the chair. It was there, at the back of the chair, densely packed into the corner of the wall, that he discovered the source of the sound, with spine bent and fur bristling into sharp cactus like spikes, an orange tabby cat howling and hissing as though surrounded by a pack of baying dogs. Mr. Brown was, at first, afraid to introduce his hands into the space that the cat ceaselessly worked to present as untrespassable, but he found the frightened cat showed no alarm at his hairy paw as it descended to lay on its shedding rear end. He brought his hand round its trembling rump to turn and cup its sagging abdomen into the air while hissing all the time. As he brought the cat from around the chair, the cat was fixated on the bird, even swiping its paw out at the impassive fowl with feline agility. As he carried the cat from the room, it turned in his arms fighting for a perch on his shoulder where it could lock its frightened gaze on the sitting bird and hiss. When Mr. Brown dropped it onto the porch, he saw the cat work its way backwards making its horrendously mobile spine into a hump like some bent and broken piece of metal rather than scampering off as any other cat might’ve done.

          He was sure there was no open door or window for that cat to have used as a possible means of ingress. Unless he had some open aperture for bugs, rats, stubborn drafts, and the impossibly limber body of a creeping feline, then it must’ve been that the cat silently stole inside just as he was leaving for the printers. He apologized to his ebony guest, and after he promised to prepare some food, Mr. Brown discovered that his cupboards, his refrigerator, and a cooler he once bought to handle the overflow from a malfunctioning icebox were all entirely empty. There was not any evidence that any of these spaces had ever been filled save for a yellowed ring on the inside of the refrigerator door. Mr. Brown was sure this not the work of fowl or feline but some eccentric thief that sought to take dust and crumb in his mad scramble at Mr. Brown’s food, yet Mr. Brown could find no trace of the method in which such an odd and efficient heist was executed. He explained the situation to the bird who reacted with its selfsame complacency then rushed out the door to his neighboring grocer, returning with his arms awkwardly full of red and green colored cans, heaps of vegetables with the harder squeezing the soft into a red, pulpy mess across the breast of his coat, some spiced sausages, and a ten-pound bag of birdseed that the middle aged woman assured could not harm any class of the avian family as it plainly expressed on the packaging. His biceps strained and his fingers burnt as he came upon the porch in a rapid lumber only to pause in front of a paper tucked between the metal and the nylon of his door. Giving way to the exasperation of his limbs, he dropped his foods to the porch and opened the trifolded letter.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 7, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.


Neither Fish nor Flesh

When she returned, winter was just beginning to take hold. The paths were frosty, ice crystals shining, yet it was still not cold enough for the mud at the edges of the Basin to harden, I knew. The evergreens looked fresh, a deep green flashing behind my window, the color vivid, even in the crisp glow of the moon. It was quiet — nothing, but for the distant calls of the gulls, the soft whispers of wind. Then there was a tapping on the glass, so gentle it could have been background noise, yet irregular enough to attract my attention. Next came the quiet scratch of a nail, shuffling by the door — subtle, as if it was up to me to decide whether to respond. But that’s never how it worked with her.

          When I cracked the door open, a biting breeze hit my face and my eyes watered. She was blurry — a dark, familiar outline rippling and wavering. The oil lamps behind me flickered, their light faint and warm. As my vision adjusted to the bluish tones of the night, I realized she was still wearing the day dress they found her in, suspended in time like a colorized version of the illustration everybody saw in the papers.

          The title read: “Brutal Murder at Sleepyhillock Cemetery.” The article opened with: “Montrose, 1895.” And that’s where the factual part of the report ended.

          The print underneath was a romantic set piece. A hooded figure, its skeletal features more implied than drawn — death itself — was pushing her slim body, clothed in the exact dress I saw in front of me, into the water. She was pictured facing up, most likely to show off her exaggerated, mortified expression, hands outstretched in a theatrical gesture of desperation — naive, knowing how these things play out. The likeness was substandard — her face devoid of individuality — but the background was rendered with great precision: Old Church towered over the town on the other side of the Basin, the skyline was busy with tiny houses, and the wildfowl scattered in search of food. The tide was high, and the lines of bare branches in the foreground were contorted like twisted fingers. There was also a stretch of succulent grass, a clear sky — all almost idyllic. Only the water was unsettled — some capillary waves, a light splash around her wrist. The image was hard to forget. And so was she in that moment, framed by my open door — striking, more vivacious than reality itself.

          She must have expected me to be scared, if she was still capable of expecting anything. It was surprising that she was whole, only the fabric ripped, bodice loosened, bustle flattened by the petticoated skirt made heavy with water, greyish skin covered in goosebumps peeking through a wide tear in the silk shell below her tall collar. The ginger-gold of her hair had turned brownish from the mix of mud and rotting leaves. Her shawl was stretched and torn, and eyes milky, devoid of any expression. Their emptiness spoke volumes about what had happened but, to me, was as comforting as her silence.

          Water was running from her hair in tiny streams which followed the contours of her features, rolling down from the soaked material, dripping on the ground. It made me want to grab a towel, restart the fire, and keep her warm. Old habits. There was no need.

          Once the wind calmed down, the night was almost pleasant. They were right — such a feeble winter. It was a shame, they said. Just a few degrees lower would have made a difference. Her family wanted to put her back into that stuffy bedroom, curtains closed, mirrors covered with black crepe, clocks stopped, their photographs turned upside down so her ghost could not possess those she left behind. I chuckled when they told me. So desperate to uphold their customs and banish her forever. I wouldn’t be so eager to let her rest in peace. And fate sided with me, and mocked them as I did.

          Even once the officers explained the situation and — under some pressure her father was eager to exert — revealed more than they should, the family still insisted on collecting the body. It was as if none of them could grasp the reality of what had happened, or remembered to count the days. They couldn’t take her home. No number of white lilies with their overwhelming powdery scent could have drowned out the smell. The sickly-sweet roses with their honey and fruit notes would simply blend with the syrupy stench of advanced decomposition. And she wouldn’t have been presentable even if discovered sooner. All speculation aside, the doctors must have cut into her to see if there was water in her lungs.

          There was. I knew there was. But they had to check.

          And yet the vision before me was intact, no ribs pried open, no incision visible through the deep tear in her dress. Whatever this was, it wasn’t the body her husband had to identify at the morgue, laid out on a metal table, still relatively fresh, the only soft thing amongst the icy saws and scalpels. It also wasn’t what was lying in a triple-shelled coffin for over a week, secure behind a thick layer of lead, locked behind a heavy door of her family’s extortionate mausoleum. It wasn’t the woman who was pictured and described in newspapers and reports either. The shadow facing me was something else entirely.

          And she must have wanted me to scream when she held out her hand and grabbed my wrist, a slimy pressure digging deep into my skin, a squeeze on my bones. How wrong she was. How little she understood about me either now or then, if she expected me to recoil. She must have felt my pulse under her fingers, steady, just as steady as it was before she arrived. I smiled at her and breathed in the air which smelled like decay, the little bubbles that dance up to the surface from the bottom of the lake as one walks into the mess of rotting leaves and soft branches hiding underneath.

          That’s all she was now, and I didn’t mind. I wrapped my arms around her waist and pulled her in, the wet clothes sticking to me, mud sliding against my cheek, smell intensifying. And she squeezed back, a real physical presence, the hold a little too tight. It felt like hugging a corpse, it did, but the only word I could find to describe the warmth spilling in my chest was relief.

After that first time, she came back every night. There wasn’t much of her left. But perhaps that had always been the case. She would cross the threshold like she once did, feet light. She’d walk towards her room, sometimes stand in front of the door, still, in total silence, her back rising and falling with an illusion of breath. Sometimes I’d leave her there and find her gone on my return. No stain from the water she brought in, no mud.

          Sometimes I would wake up with her hands around my throat, pressing down with fresh force, her eyes bulging and glimmering, pupils wide and deep. I wouldn’t fight. And the pain of her nails digging into my skin was just on the verge of bearable, the breathlessness brief. It was impossible to tell what the intention was — to bring me with her, or cut me off. Regardless, she didn't have it in her, neither then nor now. So I would lay there and look at the light shining on the tresses of her hair, the golden shimmer fading.

          Some days it would just be the sound, the pacing back and forth in the corridor, the soft breathing, the shuffling of pages, the creaking floor, the echo of her everyday life woven into the fabric of our home, safe and preserved, untouchable. And if I tried hard enough and listened to her hum some melody I failed to recognize, maybe a fragment of an aria from the last concert she attended with him, I could almost make myself believe nothing had changed. Only the lack of change was what gave it away. The arias came and went, but her tune remained the same.

It was a cruel twist of fate, perhaps, that our home, which was never good enough for her, became the only place where some of her remained. When she acquired the house, and later, more often than I could stand, she’d demand improvements.

          “We must get a carpet — Persian, wall-to-wall, warm up the seating area, hang up some proper paintings — landscapes — nothing drab or too realistic, mind you. Maybe a local painter would suffice?” She’d pause, expecting me to have an opinion. “God knows, I’d rather avoid going to London until autumn.” She’d pace around and stare at our empty walls as if they offended her. “Maybe more plants? More lamps, that is certain — porcelain and brass, nothing less. If we put one by the front window, it will light up our path. It’s pitch black out there at night. What do you think?”

          The paintings never materialized, neither did any of the furniture she drew in the air with her hands. All the spaces she measured with her feet remained unoccupied.

The only plant I finally bought to placate her, a tall kentia palm, sat in our reading corner — alive, until I had to travel for work, and she refused to visit.

          No, it was better to think of her the way she was at the beginning. Those days when I would look at her from a distance, her hair pinned up high, curls cascading down her back, pearls on her neck, an evening gown which cost more than my yearly wages, a fan in her fidgeting hand. I could hear her laugh, the nervous note at the last jumpy exhale seemed to betray her, and yet her posture remained relaxed. She navigated murky social waters with the confidence of a person accustomed to taking the helm.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 7, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.



He had been told over and over that he had been a happy baby if not exactly a handsome one, so often waking with a winning smile, given to inexplicable chuckling, a twinkle in his eye. He had believed this. There were photographs of him held up to the light in that white and empty nursery, or gleefully peering through the bars of his cot. The camera can see, but it doesn’t know. Rice didn’t know himself, never had.

         He had still been not much more than a child when his grandmother had told him what a querulous charge he had been. Quickly bored, diffident, difficult to please and easily distracted when doing anything that might be considered a chore.

         Years later he looked at the photographs of that smiling baby, a closed book to him now, and remembered his grandmother’s words, her impatient expression, and wondered if it were possible that the baby had only truly been happy when it slept. Had he been dreaming that dream even then?

         Only a very few months had ever passed without him having that dream. He had never spoken of it to anyone and it was hard even to think about it. The dream was of a world without words. This struggle had made him skeptical of experience, suggesting that people rarely engage with the world, merely learning the names of the many things in it.

         He called the place he dreamed of a garden but he wasn’t sure that that was right. It might have been a wilderness, although it had paths, perhaps made by animals he never saw. He had a sense of plenitude there, a world so full of things that he could feel the pressure of them. The atmosphere was denser than air. When he woke, he had the corresponding feeling of emptiness because of what could not be recalled, what had therefore been lost. The detail of the place eluded him and the immeasurable happiness he felt there was disturbed only by a sense of solitude that would not be shrugged off.

         The exception was the moth. He always saw it and even when he seemed to disregard it while dreaming, he always remembered that he had seen it, or he thought he remembered that. He had known that it was not a butterfly even though it was always daytime in the garden. It was too dowdy and he later learned that its fern-like antennae, which ended in a point and not in a club, meant it was a moth. He was able to observe it quite minutely as it bumbled over a head of yellow flowers, swung from a trapeze of honeysuckle, or rested on the trunk of a tree, apparently asleep itself. It was white and grey and black but with a crypsis that could not be resolved into any easy symmetry, not one easy to recall, one that all but defied memory. It appeared to evade pattern but that was only a function of its complexity. It might have been a message written not only in a difficult script but in a forgotten alphabet. It could almost have been a patch of washed-out lichen, a random arrangement of subtle shades hard to distinguish or name, so that a quick glance took in only disorder. He considered it to be very beautiful.

         The other thing about the garden, as he supposed he had to call it, is that his explorations of it were always frustrated, not, as one might suppose, by his premature return to the waking world, but by what you might call the garden’s maze-like circularity. No matter where he walked, in which direction, for how long, in however straight a line, he always returned to the same place, what he thought of as the glade; the place where he most easily saw the moth, an opening in the trees, covered with short grass and punctuated with a rubble of easy-to-recognize stones and boulders. Sometimes he fell asleep in the garden, his head cradled in the grass, his body lulled by the heat of the sun, like a savage or a tramp. He never dreamed there, he didn’t think. He was always happy there, even on the border of euphoria, and yet he felt he had something like a duty to leave this place, to escape from it, and he could not. There ought to be a way out even though he might not wish to take it. His footsteps were chained. He grew tired of what his waking self regarded as meaningless verdure and he longed to open a wicket gate and walk down a sandy lane in his shirtsleeves.

         He told no one of the dream and, so far as he knew, it had meant little to him as a child. It was merely interesting. He was intrigued by the moth, that really vivid thing. It was a fold in a corner of lace, crumpled, flimsy and fragile like a dreamed-of thing, but also robust with its cowl of fur in readiness for an impossible winter. It arranged its wings to make a triangle of itself, not basking, nor alert, like a butterfly.

         He was no kind of draughtsman, but he had a go at painting the moth and produced an image that was unconvincing to the point of being humiliating. That was not what he had had in mind. So early to have the artist’s experience of what it is to spoil a good idea. He didn’t realize that his decision to not throw away that painting was to prove to be so important to him.

         He became quite interested in natural history; birds, insects, flowers. He had a modest collection of the usual field guides, splendid books, some of them, really. Keble Martin on flowers and Skinner on moths. Skinner’s book is a fascinating object but a crippling challenge for those using it to identify a moth. Plate after plate of photographs of insects dead and pinned in an unnatural spread. He found nothing like the dream moth there and supposed it was, as they say, only a dream.

         Two things changed his mind about this. The first was his decision to paint the moth once more. This was some years after his first attempt but the resulting picture was no more pleasing to him. And the second thing was that when he decided to put this new picture away, he found the first one he had painted again.

         He put the two pieces of paper side by side. His skill had improved, but not so much. What was clear, however, was that these were two paintings of the same moth. For years now he had dreamed of this natural place, this garden, this clearing in a tropical forest, once every few months, sometimes at longer intervals, sometimes for several nights in succession, and he had always been dreaming of the same place, not a similar one. The moth, for the first time, impressed upon him now what he thought to call its objective reality. It appeared to him to exist separately from himself and if it was, in a sense, real, then perhaps the garden was too. He might go there, to that place where he was always more than content, while he was awake.

         The dreams continued but their importance to him was greatly increased. Now he woke from a dreamless sleep in a state of real discontent. Even a successful dream left him thwarted and vexed by the circularity of the pathways, but there seemed to be nothing at all that he could do about this. He was like a man unable to thread his way through an abstruse argument. It was too difficult for him. He found himself repeating the same few truisms.

         When he had been an undergraduate, his tutor had invited him to a party to launch a book he had written about British Surrealism, of all things. Rice was a favored student and he had pointed his tutor, Noncarrow, towards a quotation from Alan Burns’ novel Babel and, consequently, to a suitable epigram for his book: “Even butterflies educate baby, their wing utterances in higher color, deliberate labels, spots, and stripes.” Butterflies became the theme of this sparsely-attended party. The evening was one of the definitive events of Rice’s life.

         The party was not an obligation with which he was comfortable, not his environment. His first thought was when he might decently leave. His idea was to congratulate Noncarrow, making sure the man noticed that he had bothered to attend at all, five minutes’ shame-faced chat with students from his seminars, a couple of glasses of wine, a plateful of sausage rolls and be gone.

         A couple of the girls had made an effort with face paint. There were hair-slides and motifs on ties. One man had a marvelously-elaborate creature painted on the back of an old jacket, a lurid blue. Rice wore a lapel badge, the sort you can buy from those little boxes that the RSPB puts on the counters of charity shops. A swallowtail butterfly caterpillar. He thought that was playing the game and deriding it at the same time.

         It was the woman with the brooch who caught his eye. She was what he, an undergraduate after all, considered to be an elderly woman, white-haired and thin of face, slender altogether. She wore a long green dress that reached to her ankles and fitted her like she was a blade in a sheath. Her white hair was gathered up on top of her head. The brooch she wore was small and arguably dull, though it could have been made of something precious, but it was where she had chosen to pin it that made it conspicuous. She had pinned it exactly over where her left nipple, presumably, was.

         This elicited no comment that Rice overheard, but Johnson had nodded in her direction and raised both eyebrows. Was she just unbelievably naive or so old as to have lost her sense of propriety? Once he had noticed it, Rice couldn’t take his eyes off that brooch and not because it glittered shyly as though it really were a metallic nipple accidentally exposed, but because it was his moth, the moth from the dream. He could not be mistaken.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 7, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.



There are a multitude of ways to kill a rat. There is the classic, of course — traps — that snap necks and crush skulls. Quick and painless and humane. This is usually the first stop to any rat problem. Why argue with success? But traps must be reset every night, corpses removed — if you catch anything at all. The rats keep appearing on windowsills and outside by the chicken feed. You think it's time to build a better mousetrap.

         So that's what you do. You seek humane methods to eliminate your little pest problem before it becomes an infestation. On the shelves at your local hardware store sits a plethora of torture devices. Poison is the obvious choice, of course. The shelves are filled with them, but the most popular are those that cause the blood to stop clotting, causing the animal to die of internal bleeding. You read online it can take up to ten days. No. You would never be so cruel, and besides, you read owls or even cats could die if they ate a poisoned rat.

         You lay awake at night listening to their chewing, their scratching, the soft but sharp squeaks near your vents. Your dogs won't quit pacing; their nails click clack on the hard floors, anxious to kill. Well, that's a novel idea — and how old-fashioned too! Dogs have been used for centuries to kill rodents, but all yours only manage to do is tear down your insulation and get themselves trapped under the HVAC vents, leaving you to crawl past a single maimed corpse to rescue them. You see the small, glowing eyes in the darkness of the crawlspace. Watching your retreat.

         You hear their squeaking when you bathe at night. Pipes rattling as they leap about under your house, leaving you unable to relax at all. Squeak, squeak. They're screaming now, fighting with each other, partaking in rat politics, and claiming your crawl space as their Palermo!

The noise is ceaseless, occurring just when you forget they exist. Exactly when there is at last silence. It makes you remember the mouse you saw once ripped in half on a sticky trap. It had fought against the bounds until it tore apart its own body. You cried and threw the trap at the hotel manager's feet. You cussed him out right there in the lobby, refusing to work for someone lacking consideration for other living things.

         Their wretched shrieking is growing louder, more numerous. It's been over five months since you saw your first rat at home. How many babies can a rat have in that amount of time? You Google it. You read they can have six to twelve every three weeks. That could mean over seventy rats live beneath your feet, like bad neighbors in an apartment complex. Or are you the bad neighbor? You imagine how loud you must be to them, walking around making coffee in the mornings while they sleep after a night shift. Their tiny ears are probably so sensitive that you bet your taste in music disturbs them. You picture them with tiny brooms banging their roof, your floor, to urge you to be silent.

         There is no silence anymore. You hear them in the walls, in the floor, in the ceiling. You smell their urine seeping into your home through the vents where they've made their ghetto. The exterminator will be $200. You simply don't have it right now to spend. You are desperate. The bucket trap you bought — guaranteed to “CATCH MULTIPLE RATS IN ONE NIGHT!" — was knocked over this morning. You didn't put the water in it like they said to on the package, but you couldn't help but think of the poor rats, swimming to exhaustion then drowning.

         Drowning always seemed a peaceful way to die. You'd panic, sure, but then your lungs fill with water, and you just drift away. You hold your head under the bath water to try and block out the rats' squeak, squeak, squeak beneath your tub. It just amplifies their voices. You can feel the vibrations of their movement against your back.

         “Pour equal parts peanut butter and baking soda into a small container and mix it well. This solution will kill rats and mice.” That's what it says online, at least. You have baking soda, and you have peanut butter. Could it really be that simple? How could something like that even work? Well, the article informs you — rats can't burp, so it will cause their stomachs to rupture, and then they will die.

         It's been seven months. At least it will be affordable, you think. It's been seven months, and you think at least it won't kill the wildlife if they eat the rat after it dies. It's been seven months, and at least you'll have silence! You think this while mixing the substances together and while placing the bait amongst the rat feces beneath your house.

         They're always quiet during the day, but as dusk closes in, you hear them again, but it's different — not like the sharp screeches, but a long, drawn-out sound. A cry of agony that seems to stretch out forever. You lay in bed after night falls, reminding yourself you had to do something. You couldn't just let rats run rampant! As you close your eyes, you hear — silence. The shrieking stopped hours ago, but only now are you hearing the silence for the first time. You don't realize you're crying as the euphoria of relief fills you up. You lay in darkness; the only sound is that of your breath. But it's too quiet now; you can't sleep, so you lay there listening to tiny claws clinging to cotton, climbing up your sheets. You watch the glowing eyes march up towards your face until the soft glow of the hallway bathroom gives them shape. As their gnashing teeth near your face, the rats inflate with air and rise up, floating like furry bubbles, eyes bulging from their skulls until they're so full of air they pop, pop, pop, pop like balloons. Only you can't hear the sound over your own screaming.





It’s funny; I never believed in Hell until I ended up here. When you die and go to Hell, what you become and where you end up is a reflection of who you were in your previous life. I don’t remember who I was. I only remember my bones cracking until my arms and legs became elongated. I remember my teeth falling out, and in their place, fangs grew. My eyes fell out too, and now I can see in the cold darkness, or the glow of the lava pits, or however Hell manifests itself to you.

             And I can find you. I can always find you.

       My only thoughts are hunger now. My body, if you can call it that, always trembles, emaciated with hunger. My only desire is to feed, and so I hunt you. Through the screaming pits of lost souls, the writhing walls covered in holes filled with maggots. No smell of rot or sound of suffering can hide you from me. I salivate like a dog anticipating the bell because the crunch of bones beneath my hands and feet reminds me of what yours will sound like and that I can remember.

         When I find you, will you scream? Will you accept what is to come? Will you try to hide even though I see through everything? Your pleas, your anger, your fear — all just remind me of how you will taste.

         Oh God, you taste good. Ha. God.

         When I finally reach around your slender neck and gouge your eyes out with my thumbs so you don’t have to see what will happen next, you will know how the crunching of bones sounds, just like me. It will become your only memory. I generally start with the arms and legs, as the bones snap beautifully and the sounds you make arouse in me a feverish urgency. By the time I get to your entrails, I’m frenzied because your screams are louder. In Hell, you must feel the pain because you cannot die. You did that once already.

         When the last of you disappears, screaming down my gullet, I am left hungry. So hungry, I turn on myself, first my fingers, then my hands, then my arms — until I’ve slurped every bone from my body. Peeled off every piece of skin with my claws. Until nothing is left.

It’s funny; I never believed in Hell until I ended up here.


A Haunting by the Hudson


The first night he came was in October 1776. I awoke to the sound of distant, thumping horse’s hooves. The furious gallop was the kind one only hears from cavalry charging into battle. Bewildered, I jittered in my woolen blanket as it grew louder. Who could be stampeding around Klaverakker in the dead of night?

         Sitting up and lighting my lantern, I looked out my window just as a black horse and mysterious rider darted out of the forest and into our cornfield. The horse flew through the stalks at a tremendous pace, kicking up soil and snorting so fiercely it may well have belonged to a horseman of the apocalypse. I gasped as it rushed straight toward my cottage. Only when it was mere paces away did the rider pull back on the reins. The horse skidded to a halt in the grass, whinnied, and reared in the moonlight, revealing the man on its back. 

         It was Lucian Lammerant. My secret lover.

         I nearly fainted from shock. It couldn’t be him; he died. I saw him buried only a week before.

         Perhaps the shadows of the night tricked my mind and sight? But there was no mistaking his flowing black hair, tied back with a red ribbon. There was no mistaking his handsome round face, framed by firm jawline and ovular chin. Or his dark blue Continental army uniform, complete with white waistcoat and stained by the same bloody splotch over his heart where he had been bayoneted. 

         I was stupefied and petrified all at once.

       He dismounted his horse and strode toward my cottage, his gait wobbly but determined. A horrific bang erupted on the door, followed by a series of thuds and the crackle of splitting wood.

Fearing he would break down the door, I leaped out of bed and ran to open it, my longing to see him overcoming my terror. The door creaked open, and there he was.

         "Lucian! But how?" I screamed, tears flowing from my eyes as we stood face-to-face. 

         This was not the Lucian I remembered. The glint in his granite-blue eyes was gone, replaced by a glazed and vacant stare. His skin was ashen grey, drained of all its vibrancy. His uniform was tattered and speckled with dirt, a shadow of the proud regalia he wore the day he left Klaverakker. I didn't know whether to embrace him or run for my life.

          But I didn't have time to ponder it. His arms shot out and gripped my shoulders like a vice. 

          "Lucian! What are you doing!? It’s me, Johan!" I shouted.

         It all happened so fast. He whistled for his horse through crusty, decaying lips. The black steed, which I now recognized as the Lammerant family stallion, likewise slain in battle, appeared immediately. Lucian thrust me up and onto its back like a child manhandling a doll. In an instant, he had mounted the undead horse in front of me, and we were on a mad sprint across the cornfields, past our barn, and back into the shadowy forest from which he had come.

         It was a hellish nightmare. I shook violently as the horse galloped in full stride. My fingers seared with pain as I grasped Lucian's dirt-encrusted uniform, straining not to be thrown off the berserking creature. My nightgown flapped like a sail on the high seas. Tree trunks, boulders, and hillsides streaked past in a dark, tangled vortex. 

             What’s happening? Where are we going? were my only semi-coherent thoughts.

         Suddenly, we burst into a clearing. Slabs and stones smothered in pale-blue moonlight whipped by us on all sides. Headstones. Their ominous appearance forced me back to my senses. Peering around Lucian's shoulder, I could see his grave. It was open and inexplicably hollowed out. Next to it lay the mound of fresh dirt that had been shoveled over it only days before.

           He was taking me right toward it.

      In a moment of unthinking panic, I thrust myself off the horse and soared through the midnight air. Everything blurred as I tumbled onto the hallowed ground, narrowly avoiding headstones. Ignoring the pain from the hard landing, I sprang up and dashed in desperation back toward the woods, entered the trees, but did not get far before my legs gave out. I collapsed on the leafy forest floor. Scampering around, I curled up behind a tree and covered my head, terrified it would be only moments before I was trampled or snatched up again.

         But there was nothing. Nothing but black stillness. I breathed out in pulsing puffs as I sat there, immobilized. I covered my mouth to muffle my whimpers.

The horse’s screeching whinny once again echoed through the night. Peering around the tree from my fetal position, I gazed back toward the graveyard. Lucian’s horse reared in the moonlight and began frantically trotting around the grounds in search of me. 

         He continued for ages. I feared his hunt would never end. 

         But, finally, he came to a halt. As if exasperated, he guided his horse around and began walking it toward his grave. When he arrived, the two strode into it as one and disappeared underground, like demons descending into Hell itself.

         He reappeared a moment later to shovel the adjacent dirt back on top of his resting place and plunged himself back under the freshly-piled soil. And then he was gone.

         I sat motionless until the night’s stillness reigned again. I trembled, wanting to flee, but too terrified to move. I cried until the wells of my eyes were drained, besieged by a thousand colliding emotions. I even feared my hair would turn from brown to white from the ordeal. It wasn't until the blue light of dawn appeared that I dared to stir. 

         Exhaling, I pulled myself to my feet and brushed off the leaves and dirt. I shuffled forward like a babe just learning to walk, stepping warily onto the road leading back toward Klaverakker. But not without many red-eyed head turns to check that my banshee lover wasn't after me again.


* * *

For as long as anyone could remember, it was said that the devil loped and lurked around our village north on the Hudson. No one felt safe. Sitting in the pews at church every Sunday, my family listened with tense spines to the minister’s news about who in the village the devil had been tormenting, plaguing them with failing crops, disappearing sheep, or distressing rumors of war with the Redcoats.

         The devil was everywhere. Yet, he seemed to take a particular interest in me. From the moment he struck my father ill, cast us into poverty, and left me to tend the family land on my own, my mother was certain the devil had infiltrated my mind. If I felt too overwhelmed to work, it was the devil trying to destroy our family with hopelessness. If I was indifferent or protested, the devil had slipped me a spiteful poison. If I dreamt about leaving Klaverakker, sailing to the East Indies and returning to New York with enough spices that the family would never have to work again, that too, she claimed, was the devil trying to lure me astray with foolish endeavors. I contended with the devil every day, but nothing could prepare me for when he struck me with impure temptations.

         It started a year before Lucian’s first undead visit, in April 1775, the day after my seventeenth birthday. I was miserable. Father lay in bed, sweating, moaning, and convulsing as he had done for weeks. Mother cared for him and my baby sister, Grietje, along with the rest of the housework. I was alone in the fields, trudging through mud, feeling more weight on my shoulders than our horse pulling the plough. A layer of leaden clouds stretched overhead, colluding with the black hills and forests in the distance, making me feel as though I were in a cage. Our sodden field, interlaced with dead corn stalks and soaked from a recent spring rain, seemed to stretch on for miles. It was too much for one soul. 

         How this could be anyone’s dream was beyond me. How anyone could sell everything they owned, leave Holland forever, and come to this dark wilderness just to spend the rest of their life breaking their backs over crops, made no sense to me. This was my father’s dream, not mine.

My resentment had reached its peak the previous night when, instead of mother preparing her usual birthday Slagroomtaart, she had simply brought me some candies from the village shop. She claimed it was all we could afford, and in any case, father had been so unwell that day she could scarcely leave his bedside. I could bear it no longer.

         "Mother, I’ve had enough!” I spoke. “How did it come to pass that we can’t even enjoy a birthday anymore? I'm tired of making endless sacrifices for that useless man in bed!"

         "Johan Van Ham! How dare you speak of your father that way!" she blurted out, her eyes wide with shock. "He has given us everything. Be grateful, honor him, and close your mouth while the devil has your tongue."

         I did not obey. We fought bitterly until, in tears, she ordered me out of the house before I dishonored the family any further. I stomped out the door, across the field, and into the Van Ham garden cottage, where I slept from then on.

         So, there I was, moping and plowing away at a sea of cropland the next day, moving at the pace of a turtle. It was then that Lucian Lammerant approached from the field opposite of our barn. He had just finished his work for the day, which was made light since he had a father and several younger brothers. Removing his hat and holding it in front of his chest, he looked at me with humble blue eyes and said, "Hello, brother, I would be pleased to offer my assistance if it so pleases you."

         I was stunned, unsure how to react to such an unexpected offer. Although I knew Lucian — Klaverakker being a small dorp — I did not know him well. Our families were not close, and he was a few years older than me. Yet, I could not have been more pleased. Lucian was taller and more able-bodied than me. Just what I needed to help steer a plough. 

         I nodded slowly. Lucian strode over, grasped one side of the plough, and motioned for me to hold the other side. With a kitsch kitsch from his lips, our horse clopped forward again. 

We were quiet at first, as if the matter was all business. But eventually, we began talking. At first, it was nothing more than Lucian correcting my stance, showing me how to create a firmer base to steer. Soon after, we spoke of any little thing to pass the time; how our families fared, the latest rumors of war with the British, excitement over the coming warmth of summer. The conversation distracted me from the storm in my mind. Between this and the increased pace we made with two in the field, the work became much more bearable.


Lucian came to offer his help again the next day. I was in another sour mood and did not feel like talking to anyone. But with so many tasks in front of me, I could not turn down his kind offer. I nodded again, and the two of us tended to the work in silence just as we had the previous day. 

After an awkward stretch of time, Lucian finally asked why I always seemed so glum. I said nothing at first, surprised he did not know the reason, as every family’s troubles were common knowledge in Klaverakker.

         But my desire to release the burdens on my mind overcame my desire to brood in solitude. I poured out my frustrations about my sick father, the drudgery of being left to the farmwork on my own, and my longing to escape, sail the world, and become a spice merchant. 

Lucian listened intently as I lamented, though did not react. When my diatribe ended, we returned to silence. This time, I could not bear it. The longer he did not react to what I said, the more self-conscious I felt for sharing. 

       n  “Well, what do you think?” I said impatiently. 

         “I think the answer is work harder,” he said. “If you really want to go to the East Indies, you should grow more crops than your family needs, sell them at the market, save until you have earned enough money for them to live off for a few years while you sail the world, and return with all that wealth from the spice trade that you speak of. Have faith in the dignity in labor, and I believe it will take you far. Resign yourself to moping, and I believe you will forever remain on this farm.”

         That was his way. He brought me back to reality with the tough honesty of a big brother I never had.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 7, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.


Twenty-Two Coins


How much is written of Fairies, Leprechauns, Sprites, Nymphs, Apparitions!

Tho not the tenth part be true, yet such words could not spring from nothing!


— After Reverend Robert Kirk,

“The Secret Common-Wealth” (1691)



It was clear that time had been as kind, at least as kind as time ever is, to the old man. The wrinkles in his face hinted at decades of gently curving smiles, smiles that had little competition from frowns. His eyes were alive; bright, almost shining things that hinted at wisdom and kindness. His frayed woolen coat and the shepherd’s crook beside his chair were signs of a life of honest, simple work. Despite the stoop of his shoulders, he held his head high as he gazed at the children around him.

          Nearly all the village’s children, from toddlers who could barely walk, to the ones on the edge of being adult men and women, had come. It was Friday evening, and like every Friday, they knew that the old man had a story to tell.

          The old man sat down and took a puff from his long-stemmed pipe as the room quieted. “I were not always a good man,” he began. “I were a dishonest child, at least until I learned what that could bring. I dinna’ know the power of the fairies, the sprites, the leprechauns — any of them. Most of all, the very most, I dinna’ realize the value of friends.” 

          The children listened; their gazes fixed on the old man. His smile faded for the briefest second. “It’s best you know. It’s best you respect the spirits around ye, and not have to learn why ye should, as I did.”

          He set the pipe down. “It all happened just before sunset. I were ten, barely, and three of us were playing the slapping game. Do you lot still play that?” 

          Blank stares. He ran his fingers through his thin hair and continued. “Before yer’ time, I guess. It’s like this. One kid closes his eyes, another says a rhyme, fancy as he can make it, and holds up some number of fingers. The one with his eyes closed guesses how many fingers. If the other kid guesses right, they gets to slap the rhymer.”

          A lanky, older-looking red-headed boy interrupted. The boy said, “Or you slap ‘em anyway. For the fun of it.” The children laughed.

          The old man pounded his fist on his chair arm, quieting the laughter. “Nae’, Aiden Boyle, ye do not. Nae’ with yer’ friends. Ye do not,” the old man said, almost crossly.

          The red-headed boy bowed his head, chastised, and the old man continued. “Twas my turn to rhyme and Connor O’Bannon’s job to guess the number of fingers. Sean Massey — that’s yer’ grandfather, Cara,” he said, pointing at an older girl, “he had his hands over Connor’s eyes. Me, I held up three fingers and said me rhyme:


‘Mad Jack, Mad Jack

Searches the land

How many show

On my wee small hand?'


          “Connor made a pig-snuffle-rabbit-sneeze kinda noise and yelled ‘Three!’ But I hid two fingers and said,           ‘Wrong! One!’ I dinna want his know-it-all hand slappin’ me face. Back then, I dinna care for him much. A smarty-pants, I thought. Little did I know what a true friend he was, or that being smart were nae’ a bad thing.

          “Then he yelled, ‘Yer’ a cheater, Shannon Dougal! Twas’ three! I saw—’ 

          ‘No, ‘twas one!’ a voice yelled from behind us.” 

          The old man seemed to shiver. “We turned. He were short, with puffy red cheeks, a nose like a beak, and green-grass eyes. He wore a green cap and cloak, and these pointy, curly shoes, like doll shoes. ‘Twas it not, Shannon?’ he asked. ‘One?’ 

          “Now, back then, I knew nae’ of the leprechauns, them who bow down to the Unseelie queen, and how they come to steal children. Them face-of-stone nuns who sometimes came to town told us it were blasphemy to speak of them. But ‘tisn’t. Tis’ just statin’ facts.

          “But I knew no better, then, and says ‘Yes, yes it ‘twas.’

          “‘Indeed it ‘twere!’ the strange man repeated. He pulled a purse from his pocket, and a shiny gold coin fell to the ground. I kept counting as he dropped twenty more, one by one.

          “‘Now, Shannon Dougal, play my game!’ he said. Mind you, I shoulda’ thought on how he knew me name. I dinna. So he says his rhyme: 


‘See-saw, see-saw, darkest night

Keep the gold if you are right

But if thy guess doth prove a lie

be thou mine, until thee die.’ 


          “Connor, he tried to warn me, he did. ‘No, Shannon!’ he said, ‘Don’t say, he’s—’

          “I dinna’ let him finish. All that were on me mind were the gold. ‘One and Twenty!’ I said.

          “The man, ‘cepting that he weren’t no man, he laughed and laughed. He waved his hand around, in as big a circles as his stubby arms could make, then shoved his hand at me face and opened it. He were holding one more coin. ‘Alas, Shannon, you lose. ‘Twere two and twenty.’

          “‘But…but… you cheated!’ I yelled.

          “‘Aye,’ he answered, ‘as did you with your friend, so you canna’ object, ya’ see.’

          “I felt a spinning. Things around me, started to . . . fade. Dark trees, a black castle began to appear. I heard the growl of red-eyed dogs. He were taking me to the Unseelie court. Where the fairy folk, the bad ones of them that love to vex, lived. It’s all very real, I tell ya’. Dunna’ let anyone tell ya’ different, I’ve seen it. And the man-thing, he were laughin’ the whole time, his voice getting’ deeper and deeper as things faded.

          “But then Connor yelled out to the man. ‘Wait! You! You play my game. Answer me one question. If ye’ can answer right, take us both. But if ye’ can’t, ye’ leave with nothing. Nothing at all.’

          “The man-thing stopped laughin’, and my vision cleared.

          “‘A most intriguing wager,’ he said. ‘Very well.’

          “Connor smiled, a sunrise-smile, bright, it were. Then he said:


‘In a cauldron, steaming hot

Most like me, and few do not 

cursed with eyes that never see

What name now do you give me?’”


          The old man paused, looking at the children. They were rapt, completely silent. Even Aiden Boyle. 

          “The man, though leprechaun he were, really, stood silent. He knew not.

          “Now Connor were laughin’, big belly-laughs, at him. ‘I’m a potato, ya’ numptie!’ he shouted.

          “The leprechaun dropped his last gold coin. He started spinning, thinning and fading mist-like, and he were gone. There were only air.

          “Connor were a true friend, even tho’ I were not worthy. Connor’s family got the gold. A year later, they moved to Dublin, and I ne’er saw him again. I miss him, even now. But I learned.”

          The old man looked wistfully at the children.

          “I learned, I did, as ye’ should now, that the Fairy folk, all kinds of them, are real. I learned to mind me tongue, to be humble, and to nae’ be greedy. I learned to nae’ talk to strangers on the road, for ye dunna’ know if they are man, or no.

          “But most of all, young ones, I learned that a true friend has the most value of all.”


Paying Gauguin


Buckley Roe polished his cap gun with a wash cloth, irritated at how dusty it got on the floor by his bed. It was made of a light, silvery metal, a zinc alloy, and had a handle of off-white plastic that looked like ivory. His mom wouldn’t let him use the caps indoors, but when his grandparents let him play with it in their backyard, the six-shooter made loud, pleasing firecracker noises.

         He walked toward the mirror on the closet door, his hand hovering at his side, ready to draw the gun from its plastic holster. The seven-year-old in the mirror was a tall man in his imagination and his mortal enemy. Buckley didn’t know exactly what his enemy had done, only that there wasn’t room for both of them in this apartment.

         He drew the gun and yelled, “Pow!” but the guy in the mirror didn’t die. In fact he looked pretty deadly, and Buckley found himself admiring his enemy.

         “Slick.” Dolly, his mom’s new roommate, lingered in the doorway, smoking a Tareyton.

         “Does it look real?” Buckley pointed to his hip. “If you didn’t know it was mine, would you think it was real?”

         “You mean it isn’t real?” Dolly raised an eyebrow in mock surprise.

         “Naw. But it looks like a real gun. So I can use it to protect my mom and you. If anyone bad came around I’d get it out and they’d run for their life.”

         “But what if the bad guy didn’t run? What if you two got in a shoot-out?” Dolly pointed at the reflection. “That other guy has exactly the same six-shooter. And draws as fast as you. So it seems like you’d both be killed.”

         “He’d run for his life,” Buckley insisted.

         Buckley was worried about his mother, Charlene Roe, who had been accepted by the acting college at Pasadena Playhouse, just outside L.A., where they lived. She was thrilled, but anxious about the tuition, steep for a single mother working cocktails in 1959. Friends remembered her as tense in those last weeks, with a surprising startle reflex. They recalled her borrowing money. However, Dolly said the cash wasn’t for tuition, but to repay a loan from someone Charlene wanted out of her life.


* * *

She wouldn’t have met him if not for a lift from her friend Claudia, who’d driven past the stop where Charlene sat waiting for a bus to a local shopping center. Buckley was with her parents for the day. Claudia was driving a new convertible and wearing her boho cowgirl outfit: jeans and braids made rakish by dark glasses and the bongos in the back seat.

         “Howdy stranger. Want a ride in my new vehicle? There are rewards for staying single.” Old friends who’d married immediately after high school had to spend their money on rent and diaper services but looked down their noses at Charlene for being an unwed mother and Claudia for being unmarried at twenty-four and hanging around with beat poets.

         “You look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.”

         “When in Sunnybrook, do as the Sunnybrookians.” Claudia worked as bookkeeper at a riding ranch, but Charlene doubted people there wore pigtails if they were any older than twelve.

         “Hey, I’m off to a poetry thing at the Gas House,” Claudia said, as Charlene climbed in. “Wanna go with?”

         Charlene soon found herself at a bookstore on the boardwalk in Venice, full of bearded men and barefoot college students. And after the readings, as people shmoozed, a sharp-looking guy in an expensive leather jacket introduced himself as “Rick” and asked if they were poets.

         “Not really,” Claudia answered. “More fans of poets. But Charlene here, she’s an actress. At least a student one. She just got accepted at the Pasadena Playhouse’s acting college.”

         “Hey, no kidding?” Rick turned toward Charlene and made intense, flattering eye contact. He said he knew people in the movie industry and could introduce her to someone if she came out to dinner with him sometime.

         Charlene dated him for a few weeks. They went dancing, to movies, and to dinner at the Brown Derby. Rick spent a lot of money, but there were no introductions.

         One evening he showed up very manic, with a wad of cash, bragging that he’d just come from Vegas where he’d won big. He offered to loan her the Playhouse tuition. The deadline was approaching and she couldn’t resist. When she worried about how and when she could pay him back, Rick waved his hand and said, “Whenever it’s convenient.”

         This heightened Charlene’s euphoria. However, on their next date Rick said, “You could easily get your start in movies that are, you know, a little racy.”

         About this time Charlene began to realize that Rick was not her type, and was in fact some kind of gangster. He had way too much money for someone who could never explain what he did for a living. It dawned on her that his friend “Mr. Cohen,” whom he spoke of often, was Mickey Cohen, the mobster. After that she turned down dates with Rick.

         To her relief, he seemed to have the same sense that they weren’t each other’s type. However, he still called. He called to ask, very politely, if she had the money. By that time Charlene had given it to the Playhouse.

         Charlene borrowed money from Dolly, Claudia, and Babs, a coworker at the lounge, but it was nowhere near enough to repay Rick. Alex Pope, a high school friend who played sax in a doo-wop band had hocked his late father’s wedding ring to buy his instrument and suggested a pawn shop. But Charlene found she had nothing she could exchange for cash.

         One night at the lounge, a gentleman with thick white hair gave her a large tip, then asked if she’d been to the Brown Derby. She didn’t like the way his eyes scanned her face, as though he meant something else. She’d only been to the iconic restaurant with Rick, and it dawned on her that the man had seen them together there. One night she came home to find the man sitting in front of her building in his car.

         Charlene hated confrontations, but she addressed the man through the window.

         “Excuse me. I think I waited on you the other night?” She recognized the ice-blue eyes in the lean, aging face. “Do you live in this neighborhood?”

         “I have occasion to visit the area. I park here to fill out sales reports.”

         He handed her a business card: “Godfrey Mitchell, Sales Representative. H & J, Inc.”

         “What a coincidence that I ran into you again so soon.” She scanned his inscrutable face.

         “I could swear I’ve seen you in a movie.”

         She didn’t like the way he said it, or the knowing look in his eyes.

         After that afternoon she noticed him sitting in front of her building almost daily.


* * *

One evening she came home to find the phone ringing and answered with the painful anxiety that was becoming familiar. To her relief it was Gil Wood, calling to invite her to lunch, as he occasionally did. Gil was the one friend she’d been hesitant to ask for a loan.

         In high school he’d worn button-down shirts tucked severely into his pants, got straight A’s, and was approved of by adults. He took her to movies and dances but unlike other boys, who talked about sports and radio hits, Gilbert told her about the kind of home insurance his parents had and what Nikita Khrushchev had said to President Eisenhower, according to the Los Angeles Times. Still, he wasn’t bad-looking, could be funny, and was reliable. On the other hand, he asked her out all the time, which made it hard to meet anyone else. Eventually, she told him she wanted to date other guys. He took it well and continued to call even after she was seduced by her high school drama teacher and got in trouble.

         Charlene and Gil were soon ordering sandwiches at Friar’s, a diner whose logo was a shield with an “F” on it in medieval script, in spite of its space-age architecture. After the waitress walked away, she told Gil about the Playhouse.

         “I can’t believe you’re still trying to be a movie star.” A familiar, indulgent grin made its appearance.

         “Actress,” Charlene said. “I hate the word ‘movie star.’ Anyway, I borrowed the tuition from someone, someone who turns out to be unwholesome. And I want to pay it back as soon as possible. So I’ve been borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, as they say. I’ve hit up Claudia and Dolly.”

         “Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. Dolly, Claudia, and my possible self, being the Peters?”

         Charlene nodded, nibbling at her BLT without tasting it.

         Gil shook his head.

         “You should’ve been married long ago.”

         One summer afternoon, when Buckley was two, Gil had shocked her by proposing marriage. He’d renewed the proposal several times after that, and each time she’d told him she wanted to be an actress, was taking theater classes at Santa Monica City College, and wasn’t ready to marry anyone.

         “How much do you owe this Paul person? We’ll call him Gauguin.” He grinned. “Like Paul Gauguin, the painter.”

         He made the check out to Charlene Harper Roe. Charlene gasped when she saw the amount, though it was still not enough to cover what she owed.

         “Gil! Are you sure you can spare that?”

          “I can for you.”

         On the way home Charlene agreed to have dinner with Gil on the coming Friday night. She was leery of encouraging him, but she considered him an old friend and was grateful for the loan.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 7, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.

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