Night Picnic_Cover_v2i3 eBook.jpg

VOLUME 2, ISSUE 3  

OCTOBER 2019

2019  •  ISBN# 9781970033076  •  246 pp  •  6" x 9" paperback

Contents: Volume 2, Issue 3
Authors: Volume 2, Issue 3
Authors: Volume 2, Issue 3
1/4

Enjoy a selection of work from this issue below:

POETRY

RC DE WINTER

 u n p a i n t e d   m e l o d y

my heart beat a steady slow pavane
as my frozen hand held the brush
hovering above the pot of scarlet

i wanted to paint the passion
of arterial blood
against a vein of midnight blue
but could not bring myself
to stain the sable

you
noticing
picked up the lute
and plucked a soft refrain
bringing the perfect touch of melancholy
to fill the room

as in a dream i dropped the brush
and turning
watched the pale sun go down
surrendering
as did i
to the ravenous jaws of night

S l o w   F a s t


Someday the words won't be enough to save me,
the beggar starving for the banquet laid
but never summoned to the table.

How long can the hungry heart linger,

denied the nourishment to sustain it?
Hope, a thin meringue, delivers just enough

to keep one breathing in the stasis
of steady state survival, an endless limbo

shadowed in blue silence.
Someday the words won't be enough to save me. 
The long fast over, I'll fade to bones,

dusted with the crystals of dried meringue.

e l e c t r o m a g n e t i c s


i long to feel
your hands
so strong
yet made for
soft caress
slide down
my hungry skin


the thought of you
lights small fires
along the length
of all my curves
no match needed

no need to speak
your eyes tell everything
i need to know
we’ll enjoy the silence
unbroken only by
the shedding of
our clothes
by firelight

and when our
glued-together bodies
magnetized in that
sweet dance
flame out
the fireball sun
will know
he has been shamed

 

N o t e   t o   Y o u   

( P l e a s e   D o   N o t   D e l e t e )
 

I know
only what you choose to reveal
in this most narrow and deceptive
of frameworks.


If I step on toes
it's usually unintentional                                          

If I bring a smile
it's probably a happy accident.


And know this:
although
I change costume
as often as the wind
changes its direction,
the woman underneath
is constant.


I will never dye my skin
to accommodate your décor.
The truth of my being
is never redecorated
to suit your circumstances.


I am, under my raiment,
as unchanging
as the salt tides ruled by the moon.
I promise nothing lightly,
which is why you will rarely hear one escape my lips.


These words may well be drowned
in the effluence surrounding,
as so much is today that must be said.


I put them forth regardless,

ever hopeful they'll be felt
and not just simply read.

 

 

 

n o t   l o o k i n g
 

so it's saturday night
who cares
every night is much like every other
ever since i cried kamerad
and quit the field of love

dressed up
dressed down
makes no nevermind to me

love’s a hardshell crab
with pincers that pierce to the quick
pocking every tender place with holes
where the pain seeps in
and your guts spill out

yeah i'm tough but not that tough
waking up in a pool of blood
gets old pretty quick

so it's saturday night
somewhere
in a lot of somewheres actually
people are dueling with rapier glances
slicing through the fancy clothes
imagining the flesh underneath

but showing off your skin is easy
if you're talking love
real love
you're undressing your soul
and i learned a long time ago
what a febrile fragile thing mine

quivering under the veneer of tough

is

heating up too quick
melting
a sloppy mess
staining every page
with the vulnerability of need

so it's saturday night
or sunday
or monday etcetera
i won't be on display
i'm a reclusive treasure
semi-tough
saving my goodies
for a rainy day

BRYAN EDWARD HELTON

O a k   H i l l   C e m e t e r y

 

I

 

The dead are sweltering in the green heat.

The worminess of time has leapt into their bodies,

entrancing them with the riot of decay.

 

A miserable angel, rough-skinned, without hands,

guards the bones which once moved under flesh,

the flesh which stood in the sun, with moon, under cloud.

 

Out the edge of the burning blue a word soars.

It lands in a tree on the tip of a branch

and vanishes in the green. It is gone.

 

Memories that burned color and light

lay forgotten in the moldering earth.

These headstones are sails to send them on

into the sea of blind ages and forgetfulness.

 

II

 

In seventeen sixty-five

you shattered into light.

Between the traffic murmur

and the oak leaf wind

 

I lean down and hear you say:

 

“Sorrow stalked me like a demon

in the goat-footed night,

edging through the shadows

to maw the joy of life.”

 

III

 

But the light step of something new moves through the grass

 

And turns my unseeing

as it breaks into being

and rises into a reverie.

 

Now, reasonless, I know:

 

This grey weary angel deceives the living.

The dead are spinning, swimming in blue joy.

B l e e d i n g   i n   S t a r l i g h t

 

Wisdom comes too late

as I’m crawling down the road

with a wound of my own making

 

Under branches burning cold

remembering days of fire

I light myself again

 

Out in the fading dusk gold

all things gather themselves

readying for my new birth

 

Now bleeding in starlight

I see my life from an abyss

hands that once held the world

 

The purpose of suffering

is the shaking of leaves

when the wind returns

 

With a wound of my own making

I’m crawling down the road

and wisdom comes too late

 

 

 

T h e   M i s t

 

The face that is forming

in the mist

has upon it the trauma of time,

time that is drifting back  

and eddying in my mind.

For the moon shattered years,                                                                  

I hold a flame in the dark

and the queen is on her throne,

and the queen is on her throne.

 

Into the moon shattered years

my memory walks.

Trampled,

Trampled is this ground

again and again

where I pluck a rose from the fire

and the moon is in her sky,

and the moon is in her sky.

 

For out of the dust,

out of the dust

of distant sands I crawled,

rational and thirsty,

all knowing and past dead,

and she gave me to drink,

and she gave me to drink.

 

The queen is on her throne

The moon is in her sky

And she gave me to drink

 

 

 

H e   W i s h e d   I t   

W e r e   H a u n t e d

 

The doorway open dark black-blank

blown by that same summer wind

that carried cloak menace clouds

away and brought out brother light

 

The child, framed, enters unafraid

and hunts for faces grey gaunt.

Is it because he is near fearlessness

that sharp shadows do not

steal a nightmare shape?

 

The floor is littered with faded

faint newspaper past pages.

The clapboard hallway stretches,

yawns saying he should have come

                                              at night.

In the kitchen he opens

cabinets and the fruit, jarred

mid-century, line spider shelves

stocked in cannibal hunger.

 

Now stairs are creaking calling

and each step gives a chest thump.

 

He enters the bedroom braced

but leaves mourning the dusty

absence, reposed upon the bed,

of ghastly clothed skeletal remains.

LAURA E. HOFFMAN

L o u i s   T h e   X V I     

 

like Louis The XVI, I was hushed

and the drumbeats inside me

gave way to the revolution inside you

 

you laid me on my empty belly 

 

your mouth was a guillotine
dropping words like blades

finding their place in my skull

forcing you to start again

 

quite separated from myself

I rolled into another’s waiting arms

and thought about Louis The XVI

W h e n   I   W a s   S t a l k e d   b y  

R o s e   o f   t h e  C i m a r r o n

 

oh, Soiled Dove

you made a western woman outta me

my fingers know the deadbolt and my six-shooter

like they’ve known sinewy outlaws and whiskey decanters

 

how are you doing, Wag-Tail?

your minivan no longer circles my neck of the woods at high noon

 

you know you could back a buzzard off a gut-wagon

Painted Cat, you sure are ugly, but I don’t begrudge you that

 

you still grittin’ your teeth like you could bite the sights off a six gun?

just make sure you do it 500 ft from my home, school, workplace and family members

 

all to pieces,

 

          -Lambasting Laura  

ALEX DAKO

A n o t h e r   D a y   i n   P a r a d i s e
 

Slurping cold coffees
casually puffing on packs of hard
labor.
Off the backs of blue-
collared, beer-
drinkers,
boasting beautifully,
in their torn t-shirts,
with their bloated bellies,
and borrowed cigarettes.
Tattooed and terrified
they talk of time,
and things too tantalizing to be true.

W e t   S h e e t s
 

Chewing cheek
in the dark,
cigarette
night of my rented
room. Selfish, in my
flat-capped,
conundrum.
You sucked my lip,
leaving me
bare-assed and
busted,
deep,
in our sheeted-shade
of symmetry.
 

 

 

T r u c k s t o p   P o e t r y

Blatantly skipping breakfast
on a bus station bench,
basking in the stench,
reveling in the sense,
of hunger and fatigue.
Craving cold cut classics on
concrete window ledges.
Forgetting the time in holy jackets,
with transit smoke,
and sausage choked,
with strips of bacon.
Squeezing the sweetness
out of citrus sunsets,
I realized I was the fool and you,
the flagon.
As I drink,
drunk,
drank,
the crackling contents of recycled water bottles.
Listening to the sound of your
truckstop,
paper cup,
poetry.  

RACHEL ANNE PARSONS

U n s p o k e n   V o w s

 

You sneak into my chambers

and you wax poetic about your dreams,

your schemes — your crazy plans of revolution.

 

How can you be surprised that I withdrew?

After all, you did the same,

and I cried in a bathroom stall all alone.

 

I went away to school and thought

that I could forget you with enough distance.

You turn up like a bad penny.

 

Just when I have moved on,

here you come to give back the cloak

you always said you would return.

 

Do not speak to me of love

when I have never known what it looked like.

You’ve only ever spoken in riddles.

 

There was a time when I was alone

on a hard-won throne,

and I called out to you before all others.

 

What did you show me in return?

Yes, I take comfort knowing that you love me,

but you never said it, and I am not to blame.

T h o r   R e s o r t s   t o   a   

C h a i n s a w

 

It was the sort of thing that Thor would do,

forgo the axe and fast-track the work

with the help of a gas-guzzling machine.

What I mean is that he looked past the lumber

and wondered when he could be off

fighting giants once more. The weight of the chore

that kept him trapped, the fact that the rain

had soaked through his hat,

made him want to be somewhere else.

 

It was his way of escaping the war,

the holy battles fought in endless succession.

Oppression and depression at war in his head.

It was self-preservation, he said,

as he sharpened the saw’s chain with a file.

For a while, he could forget about firewood

and slopping the hogs, hiking through bogs

on some alien planet,

ready to catch the world serpent by the tail

 

and pitch it into the sky.    

EVAN JAMES SHELDON

F o l d   t h e  

J a u n d i c e d   L i g h t

 

between shaking hands

because shaking hands still do good

work. You have to put away

anything dirty that touches

your skin. To get clean, fully

clean, is a myth. Something

we whisper to children

before bed, to give them

sweet dreams, a moral compass. Of course

that will wash right off sweetheart,

what you do now won’t stay

with you forever. Maybe

it is a truth, though what is

done to someone else lingers

around their eyes

like a forever bruise. And maybe that is

why our hands shake, because

no matter how much you scrape

and wring the light leaking

though an afternoon bedroom

window your own eyes

are forever bruised.

Nothing can get clean

when the light itself

is dirty.

D o   M y   O w n   

E y e s   G l i s t e n ?

 

Wash the glow from your face,

Hush now, don’t shiver. You’ll wake

it too closely mimics

the monsters under the bed.

the mirror that smiles

When a dolls’ eyes shift

when you are not.

we break these

We see humanity,

and burn them

the life in something

in self-defense, let’s say.

where it shouldn’t

Isn’t it really

exist.

selfishness and maintaining

You can’t crawl like that, love.

our isolation

You don’t want to scare people.

atop whatever pinnacle we sit?

I remember when

I  believed in hiding,

to place my hands.

only covering my eyes.

 

 

 

S o m e   S t o r i e s   A r e   T r u e

 

I wonder what kind of bird       it is that flaps beneath my skin. If it is a vulture I think you would taste         the carrion carried on my breath. If it is a sparrow I think              you would hear a sweeter song. Two brothers might live        in a river or maybe they live over         it. Their mother is         the sky. As everyone knows       she is a hard mother         distant but ever         present. I will be playing         hopscotch alone in the dark brotherless when the seas rise        to meet us         letting the cold lapping           water wipe away where I would          place my feet. I will close my eyes when I eat        so I won’t recognize the flavor         of my consumption and feed         all the small beaks and black eyes        of my belly. And I will marvel       at the lies I know         I tell myself.    

TORI BRYL

w h a t   i   f o u n d   i n   t h e   m o r n i n g

 

i watch from window panes

the black cloak       

petting roses       in ten a.m. mercy,

like a child discovering

the feeling of velvet,

the fragileness       of a still moment.

forgetful of nights deep in corners

whispering thoughts only i heard.

innocence is red

petals

          falling       between       fingertips

as clouds conspire over tree lines.

thunder calls the figure inside

as drops soak its sleeve.

 

                            i pray for doors with locks.

h a v e   y o u   e v e r   

c r a v e d   t h e   d e s e r t ?

 

when i really feel it⸻

i mean, when i really feel it all,

i drive to one outside of vegas

as the sun sets on the outskirts

of a pipe dream smoked for a century,

turning the sky black and blue

like the years have left me.

 

when water only reminds me

of tears and drowning,

i long for dry earth⸺

a landscape possessing

only silence and solitude,

a soulless vastness

giving way to lack of feeling

that is not numb or empty.

 

when there’s no reward in glory

and even the canyons only

reach so high, i stand among

the countless specks

that validate my insignificance,

and with reverent eyes, pray the wind

erases my attempts at life and death,

buried by the sands of indifference.    

MARIAH WOODLAND

o h   h o w   I   m i s s   t h e   s t a r s

 

oh how I miss the stars

that I could see out the window

on late night drives

when we were lost between cities.

 

there was nothing to outshine them

except a few passing headlights

glittering on strips of wet asphalt.

 

my dad and I were the only ones awake.

him driving, eyes on the road, and

me with mine fixed out the window.

 

I don’t stay awake like that anymore

with all these things that keep me tired.

I drive myself places with my

eyes on the shimmering road.

 

I like to imagine each spark

as a living, pulsing star

in the blackness of the never ending sky

that I used to watch out car windows

on late night drives.

T h e   d a y   t h e   s u n  

n e v e r   c a m e   u p

 

Your eyes were wide, but they could not see

through the thick grass of your memory.

Nine children, but they are drowned

in a sea of grandbabies.

Their faces swirl through the foreign

channels of your sandstone mind.

Our names, carved into cliffs,

are smothered in sloshing blue-green.

 

Was it a flash flood of muddy gray

through the slot canyons of your brain? Or      

the slow trickle of a mountain stream

collecting in your skull?

Did you see it brewing on the horizon

the way black-gray clouds simmer

behind mountain peaks? Or

was it a cloudburst on a

bright summer afternoon?

 

Grandma, I know you can’t remember,

but could you tell me how it feels,

when the sun stops coming up?

 

 

M     i     d     s     u     m     m     e     r

 

Clouds           brew     on           the   horizon

A                                                      mirage

This      fever      won’t      break      and     I           suffocate

Beneath                              an                          indifferent                     sky

That’s    void                     of              depth   and                  distance

I              don’t     know     how                        much            longer

I    can    stand    smothered    in    this    cheery      blue

I              need                     the                        air          to           feel                       electric

To               see          turmoil                      in      the                    heavens

To                  let                   rain             batter                             my    arms

And     get      caught      in      my eyelashes

 

Give                      me                         fog                        in          my           lungs

Dew                      drops                    on                         my                       toes

And  snowflakes      melting    on     pavement

 

I’d    take  as    much   as   a    simple  breeze to save

Me           from      summer’s    maddening    consistency

 

E y e s   C l o s e d

 

I close my eyes in a silent

Prayer for peace and darkness,

But I can already hear the brakes screeching—

The car flips over the railing,

And falls into a familiar abyss.

I am weightless.

 

I flick my eyes back open, and lock them

on the dark wall of my bedroom.

I take a few deep breaths and count

The ridges on the ceiling.

If I stay awake long enough, it won’t come back.

Roll over, roll over,

Relax.

 

Roll over, roll over,

My hands grip the steering wheel and

Try to hold it steady, but the windshield

Is a blur of

Sky Cliff Ground

Clouds Rocks Pines

Raindrops Moss Riverbed

 

My sister is frozen in the passenger seat.

Her mouth is open, but I can’t hear her scream.

We lock eyes.

She blinks.

I blink.

 

Back in the blackness of my room, I

Reach for my water bottle.

The cool water shocks my throat as I gulp.

There’s an ache behind my eyes from staying

Awake, but it’s better than

 

Screeching Brakes

Rolling, Rolling

Falling Down

The ground is coming

Closer

 

Closer     

 

Glass shatters and plastic snaps as the car

Embraces the trees

Metal moans louder as we roll through the branches

Farther Down

Down

Down.

 

 

 

A   W a l k

 

There’s a spackling of snow on the grass

but it is raining now.

Drips hang on branch tips

glowing like a thousand fairy lights.

 

Puddles seep through her worn sneakers,

but she’s lost up high.

She has gone to visit that home in the sky

where her mother will soon reside.

 

She can feel her father, already there,

with a fishing pole in his hand

and a river riffling around his feet.

His heaven is a tug, a smile, and a flick of wrist.

 

Twenty-one, they say, is far too young

to have watched your parents die,

but it is hard for her to imagine her dad

anywhere but the rippling sky.

 

Raindrops spill down her cheeks

like the tears she cannot cry.

She can sense her mother’s cancer

between the clouds as she flies.

 

They turn a purply shade of green

as her wings begin to tire.

She can feel the fall coming like

cracks in the side walk ahead,

 

She’s thousands of feet from the ground.

 

A   P a s t e l   S e a

 

Wild fields of columbine

dance in a cool summer breeze.

Droplets left by an afternoon shower

shimmer down their leaves.

 

She walks among them capturing

soft sunlight in her blonde hair.

Rain dribbles onto her legs

and into her Mary-Jane’s.

 

She wades through a pastel sea

of cream and lavender trumpets.

Her hands tickle the surface

where blooms bend to meet her finger tips

 

The flowers dance in the spotlight

of the early evening sunshine.

Her steps split the tide in front

as stems lean to close the gap behind.

 

She is trapped forever between the waves

of this endless sea of columbine.

The sun never quite sets and

the leaves are always wet.

IGOR V. ZAITSEV

Soldier by the Lake

 

I

There was the middle of autumn.

It was a warm, blue day.

Topless;

barefoot;

he lay on the shore of a lake.

Drops of lake water trickled

from his strong,

young body

onto the small stones

rubbed smooth by the tender movement of the lake.

 

He was free.

Once again, he was breathing

clean, soft air.

The air that had neither

the oil-metallic smell of guns

or the stench of corpses

from war-torn fields.

Just the fragrance of the forest

and the water.

The world that he once knew

came back to him once more —

the chasm of water

Next to whispering trees

at the feet of rocky mountains.

He could not remember what happened to him…

He did not want to recall.

He knew that something terrible

was over.

And now

the lake, the forest, the rocks

were given back to him for his irreproachable service.

He dozed off.

The rest of this poem is available in Volume 2, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

FLASH FICTION

MADS BOHAN

Y o u r   I d e a l   S e l f

 

               I know they say that we all have twins, or lots of twins, and who knows how many doppelgangers died centuries before we were born.  Maybe he was one of them.  But it didn’t seem true.  The sense wasn’t there.  Occam’s razor was failing at this one.  It seemed that the most improbable was simultaneously true. 

               The stranger sure did look like me. He still had his hair.  That was one thing.  And although it would make some strange internal logic that we were the same age, he looked a good ten years younger.  Nothing eerie, just the thirty to sixty corridor in which some men lie, where age is nearly impossible to guess.  More fit too, though the suit covered most of his physique.  He wore it well.  I always had trouble with suits, too long in the cuff, or just a bit too much on the waist.  More like a costume than an actual suit.  The stranger looked commanding.  He smiled, showing straight, white teeth.  Probably caps, as even at their best my teeth were never that toothpaste commercial perfect.  The service had promised perfection, after all.  Though that wasn’t exactly true.  The service promised “the most ideal possible self”.  Sneaky phrase, probably to stave off lawsuits from people whose perfection was still pretty shitty.  How they did it was a mystery, at least to the common folk.  Talk of a probability matrix, advanced cloning techniques, inter-dimensional duplicates.  Some mish-mash of the three.  Magic or science.  Far enough along, what’s the difference?  The operator smiled at me, both proud and a bit patronizing.  “Are you all right, sir?” 

               “Sure,” I said, though I wasn’t too convinced about that.  The stranger continued to look on, placidly.  I wonder what they do with the personality.  I sure wouldn't stand there like some handsome idiot while a lesser version of me gawked.  I turned to the operator. 

               “How come he doesn’t say anything?”  I asked, attempting to compose myself.  Probably why they do the final pitch after the big reveal Make sure you’re on your heels a bit, softened up for the hard sell. 

               “The Ideal Self is trained to behave in compliance with regulations.  We find that communication between client and subject can become... uncomfortable.  In the event of a transfer, certain engrams will be duplicated to approximate a basic template of the client’s personality.  Minus any deficiencies, of course.” 

               The operator’s smile became apologetic. 

               “I assume we can speak frankly.  I tend to find our clients painfully self-aware.  At this stage, some social niceties can be dispatched.”  Huh.  Frank indeed, but why not?  This was not a place for the contented or the overly defensive.  This was the end of the line. 

               “Of course,” I said, attempting a smile of my own.  Just a room full of grinning fools.  “And when would this transfer occur, exactly?” 

               “Whenever you’d like, sir, though we do find it advantageous not to prolong the experience.  A brief trip abroad, a job opportunity that takes one away for a month or two.  Just enough time to establish credible doubt.” 

               Wasn’t that a slick phrase.  Credible doubt.  The man did have a point.  My people did have to accept this... thing.  And with the service becoming so public it was all the more important to establish a series of transformative events.  To plant credible doubt. 

               “Uh, huh,”  I said, nodding a bit, still examining the doppelganger. 

               His hands were in the hip pockets of his suit pants now, and he was rocking back and forth on his heels, whistling a bit.  Some Irish tune.  Maybe “The Auld Triangle”?  I never could whistle.  Just escaped me.  Susan could whistle while doing chores around the house, washing a dish, or folding clothes.  The picture of domestic bliss.  That was before, of course.  Before the kid, the long, circular talks, the quiet resentments.  The trial separation and inevitable divorce.  There was still hope, in a way.  If I could just show her I was capable of being a better man, the man she thought she was marrying. 

               “Sir?”  The operator asked, formal in his concern.

               “Sorry,” I said. “Wool-gathering I guess.  Big decision.” 

               “Indeed, sir” he said, kindly ignoring the obviousness of my statement.  “And after the transfer... ?” 

               I let the question trail off. 

               “Ah, yes.  Well, once the transfer is complete, your observation period begins.  Our system allows for regular, discreet surveillance of your Ideal Self in its newly integrated environment.  Any adjustments will be made during this period.  The standard observation period is thirty days, though many clients choose to discontinue before then.” 

               “Why?”  I asked, feeling perplexed.  Wasn’t the entire point of this the satisfaction of seeing yourself?  Of knowing that you were accepted?  That you could be loved? 

               “You would have to ask them, sir, though that would, of course, be quite difficult.” 

               And here we come to it, the real meat and potatoes of the whole business.  The price paid.  The operator cleared his throat. 

               “Once the observation period expires or is terminated, payment commences.  You have been made aware of the terms, sir?” 

               I had, of course.  We both knew that.  The stranger, apparently aware that he was no longer required for inspection, had taken a seat, legs crossed at the ankle, suit button undone, and was examining his nails with great interest.  Manicured, I’m sure. 

               “Humor me.  Once Mr. Perfect has taken over, you what, chop me up for parts, or set me in shackles?”  I wanted to ruffle this man, this official who spoke of life and death with such detachment.  He did not appear ruffled. 

The rest of this story is available in Volume 2, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

DOUGLAS BALMAIN

D a r k   W a t e r

 

               I know what’s coming. I know both the impossibility of the situation and its inevitable outcome. Terror’s inescapable grip crushes down on me. My breaths are short and affected, reduced to strained gasps as my lungs struggle against my constricted chest ;  my heart rate surges, my muscles tense, my movements become severe and difficult to control.

               It begins with an abrupt transportation of perception. I am floating in open ocean — no ships, no wreckage, no shoreline. My mind looks out across the unfathomable expanse without any indication of direction or location — nothing to offer a clue as to how I had gotten there.

For a moment, I relish the quiet and the gentle lulling of the cold, rolling waters. I marvel at the brilliance of the unadulterated night sky. But my peace, my feelings of awe and stupefaction, are fleeting and overshadowed by dread.

               I am not alone.

               The water is dark, unknowably deep, and perfectly clear. The moonlight beams through the surface, casting the form of my fate in an ominous, silhouetted contrast.

               A remarkable creature  —  a stunning specimen in many respects  —  shares these dark waters with me. The confidence this predator possesses is enviable. I wonder if this is a common experience for it — the feeling of being all-powerful?  Of course, the experience of this animal is not one I can access. The ocean is immense and alien .  Who knows what untold challenges this enigmatic hunter faces?

               It didn’t have to make its presence known to me; it would have been entirely capable of surprise attack. The force of its unexpected impact, the rows of serrated teeth piercing and ripping flesh, intestines, and organs — severing veins and arteries as its jaws crush through my torso  —  its devastating first-strike would throw me into shock; I’d likely never regain conscious.

It’s broadcasting, flaunting its dominance.

               I am repeatedly underwhelmed by my own panic response. After all, there are no options to assess and choose between, no responsibilities, no battle to be fought . The outcome is known, so should not the good thinker be able to let go? To experience freedom in powerlessness?  Freedom in the acceptance of one’s inalterable circumstances?

               My mind is not concerned with what comes after. I am not looking back through my timeline; it is not dying that I am afraid of. I am utterly present, concerned only with the here-and-now. It’s the sheer violence that will be inflicted upon my being, or the anticipation of that violence, that consumes my mind and fills me with anxiety. 

The rest of this story is available in Volume 2, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

IGOR V. ZAITSEV

T h e   B i z a r r e   D r e a m

 

               For almost twenty years, Curt would wake up at the same time as his wife Ann on Sunday mornings. Each time, their morning conversation went something like this: “Good morning! Did you sleep well?” Curt would ask. Ann would then reply with: “I did. But I had a wild dream. It was so bizarre.” “What sort of dream was it this time?” Curt would ask indifferently.

               He knew that there was never anything wild or bizarre in his wife’s dreams. In fact, there was nothing special about them at all. Usually, a single sentence could summarize them: “I was in a store, and I saw a dress similar to one Barbara Streisand wore in a movie”; or “I was walking on Broadway and I thought I saw my sister in the window of a coffee shop”; or “I was preparing a special salad for dinner and couldn’t find the salad bowl.”

               But, even after twenty years of the same morning routine, Curt would remain tactful:

               “That’s really a bizarre one this time; I wonder what it meant, my dear?”

               Once he bought a book on dream interpretation to help her find some meaning behind these dreams. But, to her disappointment, there would never be any information on what she dreamed about. Ann eventually lost interest in the dream book, placing it where she could no longer find it.

 

               This morning, Ann began the Sunday ritual with:

               “I had a wild dream. It was so bizarre. I was about to eat an egg and, when I broke the egg shell, there was another one inside. I wonder what that might mean?”

               “Too bad you misplaced that dream book,” Curt replied.

               “I’ll have to find it. Have you seen it anywhere?” asked Ann.

               “No, dear, I have not seen it.”

               Unlike his wife, Curt did not dream often; he could count every dream he’d ever had on one hand. One of these dreams was a nightmare he had when he was eight years old, yet he still remembered it vividly. He could not understand why he had been so scared at the time. He could still remember how shaken he had felt from the nightmare. The horror was the appearance of an ordinary middle-aged man who was trying to approach Curt. Of average height, somewhat chubby, with dark circles under his eyes above glossy cheeks, he wore a plain gray raincoat with large navy-blue buttons and heavy brown boots. Despite his plain appearance, something about the man exuded peril. Curt would run away from the sinister man, only to have him reappear repeatedly either in front of or behind him. It was hard to say what was so scary about the man, but his appearance left young Curt terrified.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 2, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

LITERARY SKETCHES

PENEL ALDEN

T h e   B u s   J o u r n e y   to   a   M e e t i n g o f   t h e   T h e o s o p h i c a l   S o c i e t y

 

               We were to attend a meeting of the Theosophical Society by special invitation, as the previous week we had gone there to inquire about their library holdings and had found ourselves engaged in a heated debate on the role of Saturn and its effect on melancholy in humans of a certain disposition.  I was of the opinion that with the discovery of Neptune and Pluto[1] we must upgrade our astrological models in order to create a more accurate picture of the effect of the planets on our destinies, whereas Catherine maintained that the best astrologers have lived and died and we would do well to follow their strict advice, resisting the temptation to tamper with an already perfect system.

               Taken by our passion and our demonstrated knowledge, which far exceeded our years, the president of the society, Dr. John Worthington, MA (Hons), MPhil, DLitt (Oxford), requested our presence at an important meeting the following week, which was to decide the future, he said, not only of the society, but of the entire world.  After taking a stroll along the twisted corridors, enjoying the aspects from the various large windows, and musing over his offer, we returned to Dr. Worthington's office to accept his invitation.

               The following week, on the day of the appointment, our driver was on holiday (these things can't be avoided, even in the twenty first century), and we decided public transportation was in order.  We thought that taking advantage of the city's famous bus service would show both our appreciation for services available to other people, and how “in-touch” we were with wider society.  However, as we were approaching the plastic and metal bus stop, we noticed a remarkable man waiting beneath its shelter.  He was of average height, with the most unkempt brown hair, and eyes that seemed to match that dark, voided chaos.  His long black overcoat shrouded his figure as he leaned over the bench, focusing his attention on an unknown book, which he shielded from the wind and from sight with his hand and arm.  His appearance and stance immediately signaled his covert and unseemly purpose, and knowing that the Society of Theosophical Studies had long been trying to destroy the very foundations of the good Theosophical Society, I whispered a warning to my dear friend that this strange character which stood before us was likely to be a spy, or worse, an assassin.

 

[1]      The downgrading of Pluto from planet to dwarf-planet is insulting to astrologers everywhere.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 2, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

LIZA SOFIA

T h e   M u m m y

 

There’s a mummy on display at the museum, lying in an age-old stone sarcophagus adorned with faded hieroglyphs. There is silence on the exhibit floor, although some restless observers move as quickly as breaths. On the inhale, I am one in a crowd of a dozen onlookers. On the exhale, I am alone. A new crowd flocks around the display by the very next breath. There is so much motion around me that I begin to find the mummy’s profound stillness unnerving. I place my hand on the cool glass, expecting it to shatter under the weight of the stillness, but it does not.

 

Beneath my palm, I can feel four millennia of space between us.

 

With my eyes, I unravel the mummy’s linen bandages starting at a fingertip. I reconstruct the corpse as I undress it, mending fragmented bones and replacing rotted flesh with olive skin. I inject life where there is hollowness until I am left with what appears to be a sleeping man.

 

As I stare at his newly formed face, I can’t help but wonder if he had a distaste for Moonfish or a collection of handcrafted figurines made from Nile River silt. I wonder if he had a lover who reminded him of blossoming lotus flowers. The dichotomy between the sleeping man’s rejuvenated skin and the archaic sarcophagus reminds me that he is my future, and I am his past. I feel the space between us begin to wane.

 

Time passes as quickly as breaths.

 

On the inhale, the Great Wall of China is built.

On the exhale, Rome falls.

 

On the inhale, the plague wipes out a third of Europe.

On the exhale, the first man sets foot on the moon.

 

On the inhale, there is a man with a distaste for Moonfish, and a collection of handcrafted figurines made from Nile River silt, and a lover who reminds him of blossoming lotus flowers.

 

On the exhale, there is a mummy on display at the museum, lying in an age-old stone sarcophagus adorned with faded hieroglyphs. 

KAYLNN MICHELLE COTTEN

S c h r ö d i n g e r ' s   S t a r s : P u t t i n g   D a r k   M a t t e r   i n   t h e   B o x

 

 

​               A cat in a box is both alive and dead at the same time, as once described by a Nobel-prize winning physicist thought experiment. If one were to take a handful of movies and books, it would not be hard to find a text that references the famous cat or uses the concept of superposition behind it. This idea can not only be applied to waveforms but quantum states as well. Quantum superposition explains that particles can act like waves and exist in multiple states at the same time (Romero-Isart et al 2010). This concept lends itself to the multiverse theory where the waveform does not collapse, but instead the two possibilities branch into two different realities or universes. Perhaps quantum physics extends itself to a cosmic size scale.

               Due to gravitational effects on visible matter unexplainable by other visible matter, scientists have hypothesized a type of material termed dark matter. It appears to present throughout the universe (Timble 1978). It is estimated that 23% of the universe is composed of dark matter, yet scientists are not quite sure what it is (Panek 2011). This dark matter is nonluminous and directly unobservable. There are multiple theories that attempt to explain this hypothetical form of matter including it being composed of undiscovered subatomic particles. Other theories indulge in the idea of extra dimensions or universes (Tegmark 2003), saying that dark matter might just be “bleed through” from other realities. What if the dark matter is not just the result of two universes overlapping, but instead exists in all the universes at the same time and space, but in different states? What if we put dark matter in Schrödinger's box? Instead of dead or alive we might just have both dark and normal matter occupying the space. What if we put the entire universe in a box and left it closed (removing the observer’s effect in a way)? The matter branching off into different states could create other universes in the same space if quantum mechanics operated at a larger level.

               If dark matter obeys the same principles of quantum mechanics that regular matter does, then based on the principle of quantum superposition matter could exist in (Friedman et al, 2000) visible and non-visible states at once. Each different state could inhabit its own dimension. If more dimensions or universes exist than the regular four, it is possible, just as time overlays the three physical dimensions, that they lay on top of our own visible dimension. Dimensions might be superimposed layers. Matter in one of these universes may be present or detectable in the others that they overlay. All matter possesses gravity, presumably even if it cannot be observed (yet). As matter transcends through all these theoretical dimensions its gravitational force can be observed throughout. However, depending on which dimension the observer is in, the matter may or may or not be visible. It is possible that these extra gravitation forces we are detecting and calling dark matter are matter in another dimension that is interacting with our own universe, but we simply cannot see it because the matters’ state in our dimension in nonluminous/visible.

The rest of this essay is available in Volume 2, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

SHORT STORIES

MAX HALPER

N i s k i

               Something terrible must have happened because when Simon turned his car onto Harrow Street in Low Forest, where his Tinder date claimed to live, he found it choked with emergency vehicles. He tried to reverse but by then traffic had closed in behind him, so he could do nothing but sit and stare dumbly at the epileptic spate of flashing lights. He texted his date that he was stuck just down the street from her and that he would be there as soon as he could, but she never responded, and an hour later, when the police cars and fire trucks and pair of ambulances finally dispersed, Simon made a U-turn and drove home.

               When he arrived, he discovered that someone had spray-painted a red circle on the outside of his front door. He glared around the dark street, to challenge the perpetrator, whom he suspected was crouched in the bushes, snickering. But nothing moved, the street a clot of shadows, and finally he let himself inside and went to sleep. He dreamt someone was hiding in his house and when he awoke the next morning, he found he had flayed the sheets from his bed and lay sweating on the exposed mattress. Later, when leaving for work, he discovered that someone had also spray-painted a red circle on the inside of his front door. He stood rigid in the hall, his mind hemorrhaging tiny, irrelevant thoughts. Something fluttered in the attic. Last spring he’d found a bird trapped up there, smashing itself against the low ceiling as if it believed the way out was inside its own skull. 

 

***

 

               Luis had a dream that his skin was made of mesh. Stuff swam in and out of it, wind and dirt and hair. When he awoke, he did not remember this, but in the shower he washed himself gingerly, as he would a wound. He walked to school along his normal route, cutting through the cemetery to bypass certain intersections. The trees cast gangly, decussated shadows across the headstones. Someone wept from out of sight. He found the eastern gate shut and locked. It had never been so before. He considered trying to climb it but the ornate, speared finials along the crest seemed cast expressly to impale him. He followed the wall north in search of another passage and soon came to a second gate, also locked and equally menacing. He could only backtrack to the western gate, where he’d entered. He would be late for school.

               As he neared the middle of the cemetery he heard the weeping again. Luis passed a mausoleum the color of an overcast sky with a name engraved upon it, and along the side of it he saw a group of older boys standing in a circle. The weeping issued from their midst. They were not wearing uniforms, and they were a few years older, which meant that maybe they went to the public high school on the Westriver side of town. One of them saw Luis and pointed. The others turned their bodies to look, and Luis saw a shape huddled on the ground, long brown hair draped around it, its knees drawn up. Luis raised his palms in a gesture that he hoped connoted impartiality and tried to continue along, but the boys quickly flanked him, blocked his passage. “What did you see?” one of them said. Luis shook his head. All the boys seemed to have the same face. “If you tell anyone what you saw we’ll chop up your mom into little pieces and put the pieces in a wheelbarrow and hide the wheelbarrow under your bed.” Luis’s mother was two thousand miles away in Honduras, but he appreciated the sentiment nonetheless. He nodded and the boys stepped aside to let him pass. He jogged away, nearly tripping over a low grave and snagging his face on a branch that groped out over the path.

               Despite his nagging anxiety that it, too, would be shut, the western gate was open, and he noticed only now that it also brandished jagged finials along its crest, like teeth. He jogged up the street along the northern perimeter of the cemetery to an unusually desolate intersection and crossed it diagonally. At the second intersection he waited for crossing traffic to get a red light and then stepped off the curb.

               Elizabeth Hantz was distracted by her husband’s incessant text messages and did not see the light bidding her to stop. By the time she looked up and hit the brakes she was halfway into the intersection. There was a crunching enunciation from beneath the tires. Everything in the car came rushing up into the front seat. When she emerged from the car, her heart rattling out a code, and crouched down to look, she saw the boy’s head had been mutilated in such a way that he had four faces. The car’s automatic headlights blinked to life and shone askew across the intersection.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 2, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

BRIAN ROSTEN

D u m p s t e r s   i n   M o s c o w

 

               Tom didn’t care whether or not he was actually hungry; he was determined to visit a street vendor. He was currently navigating an underground tunnel under what he surmised was the Garden Ring of Moscow. The publishing house was located a few miles outside of the Garden Ring, near the Third Ring.

               Tom knew Moscow’s underground was, in some places, even prettier than above. A rail card had appeared in Tom’s pocket once he’d gotten off the plane, which led him to the Koltsevaya station; outside, there was a small fried food cart for his convenience. He asked for his cheburek and then reached for money in his pocket. However, his pocket was empty. He’d felt cash in it a minute ago. But now, there was none. Despite never learning Russian when he had been alive, Tom fluently explained to the native short order cook that he’d misplaced his billfold. The man shrugged, and put the cheburek back into the tin, turning away to clean his counter.

               Tom knew he hadn’t been robbed. Many tourists couldn’t have been as confident about this as Tom. And even though Tom could have hypothetically been robbed, which wasn’t the case here, it didn’t really matter. Tom du Parque was dead and was running errands for an afterlife that orchestrated his money, supplies, and destinations at its own whim. A plane ticket appeared in his backpack. Money materialized in his pocket when he’d needed a cab. No effort went into attaining the passport he carried and the same was true for his rail card.

               But, apparently, the whims of those planning his travels would not grant him a quick cheburek. A shame, he thought.

               He didn’t even have the consolation of righteous indignation, because he never really needed food in the afterlife anyway, so he couldn’t be angry about the denial of cash for take-out.

               He never got tired either but it surely wasn’t best to wander the streets of Moscow all night, no matter how many 24-hour Teremok places there probably were in the Third Ring to loiter in.

               So, he tried the Moscow Hyatt. He figured that a reservation would be secured for him, and the appropriate credit card would be in his pocket when the time came. Unfortunately, he was denied at the Hyatt.

               And the Raddison.

               And Hotel Moscow.

               And the big fancy gold tower near Red Square.

               So an irritable Tom got on the Metro and sulked for a time. It was clean, well-lit, bombarded with advertisements, and carried a diverse clientele. There was even a short man in a black sweater and sunglasses using a typewriter set on particle board atop his lap. Tom breathed a heavy sigh, then felt a piece of paper in his pocket.

               It was a handwritten note, telling him to look in his bag. It held a scratchy blanket that he remembered using whenever he’d visited his Aunt Eustice. He looked up to find the only passenger left on the late-night train walking out, typewriter under his arm. Then the lights flickered quickly, and went out, though the car still moved.

               Tom took the hint and settled in for the night.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 2, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

JACK WILDERN

H e l l

 

               Hell was a tiny place at the end of my garden. It occupied a corner plot, sandwiched between the forget-me-nots and a nest resided in by a hedgehog named Kevin. How Hell came to be in my garden I do not know. I discovered it quite by accident one Tuesday evening while taking the bin out. At first, I thought it was one of the blasted solar lights that never seem to work properly, but the crimson glow was unusual and I decided then that I would never have invested in something as garish as a red bulb.

               I had been studying this little patch of damnation ever since. Magnifying glass in hand I watched Wretched Souls the size of a fingernail digging in the pungent earth. I've no idea what they were digging for. But they never stopped, under the watchful eye of what looked like a Minotaur who occasionally got off his perch to give them a good whipping.

               Now, to start with, I didn't mind. I supposed that even the devil had to live somewhere and I liked being outside. I've always been a keen gardener you see. My wife Sandra says we should hold an open garden in the summer, but I'm not fussed. Who wants a load of geriatric busy bodies poking around the Camellias?

I digress. Hell started to grow. By the second week of study the Wretched Souls had built a wall, a craggy looking thing with tiny symbols emblazoned upon the depressing grey rock. Past the blackened earth this wall extended, perilously close to my log pile border; beyond that were my dwarf roses. Years of hard work had gone into those plants and I was not keen to see them enslaved to the dark lord.

               “Hello.”

               The Wretched Souls stopped; the Minotaur looked up. I must have looked enormous, yet he showed no sign of fear. If anything, he looked annoyed and, with a crack of the whip, sent the Wretched Souls back to digging. Then, to my amazement, he shuffled off toward the wall, pulled from the ground a perfectly concealed trapdoor and vanished. When he reappeared a short time later, I took no time to express my concern.

“Look, I don't mind you being here, but I have to ask you to stop extending that wall. See, those roses in there are miniatures and—”

               Below me the little Minotaur was brandishing a sign. I had to look quite closely to read the inscription.

Master wants to know if he can have the giant elf?

               Giant elf? I sat back, confused. “I'm afraid I don't understand.”

               The Minotaur pointed toward my potted tulips. Nestled between them was a dumpy little gnome with faux bucket and spade.

               “Absolutely not.”

               Scrubbing a gloved hand over the sign he scrawled, Why?

               “Because it was a gift from my sister-in-law.”

               Master can get you gifts. He can give you whatever your soul desires.

               “No. Thank you. Now, about those roses.”

               But that was the end of the conversation. With a crack of his whip the Wretched Souls downed tools and they all disappeared through the trapdoor. The red light dimmed before going out altogether. All that was left was about two square feet of scruffy dirt and that hideous wall.

               “Charming.”

               A rustling in the hedge caught my attention. Kevin emerged, sniffing the air around the vacant cesspit.

               “I wouldn't go any closer, old man,” I told him. “Hopefully we've seen the last of them."

               Just then Sandra poked her head around the door.

               “Tea dear?”

               “Yes. Please. And pass me the wheat biscuits, will you? The hedgehog wants feeding.”

The rest of this story is available in Volume 2, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

FAYETTE FOX

I n v e n t o r s

 

               “What do you mean you ‘invented sex’?” Cleo said, narrowing her eyes. She wore a yellow halter top and held a plastic cup of white wine. It was too sweet for her, but it was all they had and she needed a little something-something to deal with the tech bros, hipsters, and her own social anxiety. Heading over on BART, she’d repeated the night’s affirmation to herself, “I am my own hot date to the party.” She’d felt powerful and confident — until she walked up to the house, which was full of people she didn’t know. And here was some guy trying to impress her with the most outrageous claim. “Sorry,” Cleo said, “there’s always been sex.”

               “Not always,” Mitch said.  He had an athletic build with well-defined muscles and a dated haircut, reminiscent of Cupid’s. He wore jeans and a t-shirt that said, “Just Doin’ It” with a cartoon penis shaped like the Nike swoosh. He continued, “Lots of single-celled organisms just divide.” He smiled to show he was accomplished, yet approachable.

               It was Doug and Felicia’s housewarming. They’d just moved into this Victorian in a perpetually foggy part of town with pour-over coffee shops and artisanal avocado toast. The neighborhood boutiques sold succulents and cushions embroidered with slogans like “All the bacon” and “I’d rather be binge-watching.”

               “Okay,” Cleo said, “so how’d you ‘invent sex’?”

               Giddy, Mitch involuntarily wiggled his toes inside his beat-up sneakers. “Well,” he gulped his beer and took a deep breath. “I thought there’d be more genetic diversity if everyone crossed their genes to reproduce.”

               “Uh-huh.” She looked around, searching for Felicia or any familiar faces. The open-plan living room and kitchen were crowded with people appearing to have more fun than she was. She didn’t spot anyone she recognized and envied the strangers’ quiet revelry.

               “And I figured if certain parts went inside other parts,” Mitch mimed with his fingers, “the genetic material could transfer more easily. Then I thought, if it felt really good to everyone involved, they’d want to do it. You know, like how eating food is pleasurable and also necessary for survival?”

               “So you invented sex.”

               “Eventually, yes. There was a lot of trial and error first.”

               “Sure, like Edison and the light bulb,” Cleo said. Her top was pinching her neck. She wished she’d stayed home, catching up on The Wire in her PJs, rather than putting up with this bullshit. She had better wine at home, too. Why was she being so accommodating to this idiot? In her “How to Be a Badass Woman” workshop, they’d talked about girls being conditioned to be nice and not rock the boat, and five steps women need to take to reclaim their power.

               Mitch sensed he was losing Cleo and searched for the best way to change the subject. Favorite pho restaurant? Bay Area property prices? Which do you like better, pirates or ninjas? Cleo beat him to it.

               “You look really good for your age,” Cleo said. “You must be like a billion years old.” Step three: Not everyone will like you and that’s okay.

               “Thanks,” Mitch blushed, “but I don’t experience time like you do.”

               She rolled her eyes. “Uh-huh and I bet you’d like to show me how your invention works — for science.”

 

The rest of this story is available in Volume 2, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

CARYL GOBIN ULRICH

I n   t h e   S a d d l e

 

               The Friday when my parents died was the hardest Friday of my life, no question. I think yesterday may have come in second. What helped me keep it together was the thought of a Saturday ride with Diamond.            

               Diamond loves it when the weather turns cool. The proud arch of her neck displays an extra elegance and her stride is longer, faster, stronger. She’s gorgeous any time, but when all the world is dressed in the latest fall fashion, she acquires a special glow. With her mane and tail of caramel honey, beautiful body of some unnamed color between rose gold and burnished chocolate, her aristocratic mien and deep brown eyes that seem to say she knows a divine secret, Diamond looks like the magical steed imagined by every child who ever dreamed of horses. Riding her in the October woods among maples dripping scarlet flame, mottled sycamore trunks crowned with verdigris and the trail lined with scepters of goldenrod in riotous bloom, I always feel a bit unreal. It’s as if the whole thing is a scene from a movie in which I am an extra and they put me on the queen’s palfrey by mistake.

 

#

               There in Deonte’s office it was all I could do not to shriek aloud. I’d taken him some routine paperwork for next week’s board meeting. Deonte was kicked back in his big leather chair, fingers laced behind his head, smiling like a kid with a shiny new toy.

               “Here are the San Angelo reports,” I said unnecessarily. I never quite know what to say to Deonte. He’s an awkward number of levels above me. Too many to be anything like a peer, too few to be completely out of my sphere. He insists on being called by his first name. I can never decide how I feel about that.

He kept smiling while he unlaced his fingers, took the reports and beamed, “Thank you.” He kept looking at me. He kept smiling. His smile stretched the silence into discomfort, though seemingly only for me.

“You look awfully happy,” I offered, mostly to have something to say and end the silence.

               “I am. I am, and do you know why?” he queried merrily. “We just got the numbers back on the Thompson deal.”  The Thompson deal — J. J. Thompson & Sons to be more specific — is an acquisition our company was considering. It was a major decision.

               The “& Sons” part is a misnomer these days. J. J. Thompson ran a decent charter boat operation with his sons for many years, but that was several disasters ago. The tourists disappeared along with many of the hotels after the big hurricane. Just when they were returning in respectable numbers, the oil started washing ashore.

               That sounded the death knell for a lot of small, struggling businesses. J. J. managed to hang on by his halyard and the grace of a bank president who knew him. First one son and then the other abandoned ship to seek his fortune in safer waters, metaphorically speaking. Tyson is selling insurance these days, which I hear is going pretty well. He tells prospective clients that he understands the risks, he’s lived them. They believe hi — and why shouldn’t they? It’s true after all. Andrew went off to college to become an engineer. I don’t know how that’s going. I know he doesn’t come home much. Maybe he’s too busy, maybe he feels guilty about leaving, maybe he’s just happy to be gone.

               Our CEO, CFO, COO, and other members of the alphabet had a fairly sharp rift concerning the Thompson deal. Those in favor of the acquisition argued that we’d be gaining not only the hard assets, which were kept in excellent condition by J. J. and his crews, but also the goodwill associated with the Thompson name. This goodwill, they argued, was substantial, and at least as valuable as Thompson’s small fleet.

               Those opposed to the acquisition believed that J. J. had somehow finagled his credit line far beyond anything justifiable on paper by virtue of being J. J. If this turned out to be true, it could prove disastrous for us since we — not being J. J. Thompson and thereby lacking his talents in sweet-talk, hail-fellow-well-met and the trademark Thompson sea captain smile — would be unable to get the same unreasonable credit.

The purchase of Thompson & Sons would take a financial stretch. If, in the process of this deal, we also took on debt enough to put the Thompson fleet underwater, opponents of the deal said, it might well sink us completely.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 2, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

ELIZABETH PAXSON

T h e y   L i v e d   i n   T r e e s

 

               I didn’t see it sprout. It came up in a corner of the garden where I’d left nature, for the most part, alone to do her thing. Torrential rains had brought flooding and softened the ground to a soggy mass. My garden was on high ground but still saturated and dotted with mushy pools. A foggy mist hung on everything, and trees dripped. Unprecedented warmth created a tropical feel. By the time I noticed the thing, it was a round, brown hump pushing out of the ooze, about the size of a small melon. At first, I thought it might be a puffball; one of those fungi that pop up suddenly and expand into a fleshy, white ball. Eventually they explode revealing a thick brown spore powder. I even ate one once, slicing the white mass and stirring the pieces in butter. It was the consistency of flabby egg white and tasted about the same, except for the butter. This was not a puffball.

               A week went by before I looked again. The hump had grown and taken on the unsettling appearance of a human skull. The part where eyes, nose, mouth and teeth should have been was still submerged in slimy soil. Most unsettling. My first instinct was to grab a shovel and cleave it in two, but it was so disturbing I couldn’t bring myself to do it. How is it a thing that simply resembles a human head can prevent me from digging it out of the muck? It looked somewhat like a skull but also like a mushroom in texture. I had to touch it.

               Taking a small stick, I gently pushed the top. An indentation formed and the surface rippled. A second later, it had resumed its former globe shape. Clearly, this was not a skull. It had resilience. It had life. This was worse than I had expected. If it was a skull, I could have called the police and reported a possible cold case; headline, “Body found buried in garden!” Or maybe the local tribal council would need to know if this was human remains that needed reburial. But this was not a skull. It was something alive that looked somewhat human but clearly was not. I could not tell if it was animal or vegetable. If I dug it out, what might be connected to it beneath the soil? The thought made my skin crawl. Perhaps if I waited, it would disappear, like an exploded puffball.

               I had to leave home for a few days to visit my aunt, whose home had flooded. I packed up the car and pulled away, having locked all the windows and doors. I couldn’t bring myself to check the blob before I left. I had all but forgotten it when I got back. It was a lovely, rare sunny day and my flowers were blooming in a profusion of colors due to all the rain the previous week. Admiring the foxglove, sweet William and coreopsis, I suddenly remembered it. When I came to the place where I had discovered it, it was gone. Only a small depression in the muddy soil remained. I felt relief wash over me and went inside to make some tea. Checking my mushroom identification books, I could find no fungi that resembled what I remembered. My relief slowly dissipated.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was still out there. We had never had so much rain and heat in northern Michigan. As the climate grew wetter and warmer each season, new diseases, insects and other challenges increased.

               Later, as I tended the garden, I heard a cardinal scolding in a tree above me. When I looked up, I saw something on the branch of the spruce, a few meters above me. It was the same color and texture as the bark; well camouflaged. I did not remember the tree having any burls on it, and this had the distinctly rounded head shape I had seen before, only now the “head” had eyes; two milky orbs with dark slits running horizontally across them. They were looking at me. It was hard to see clearly among the boughs, but we stared at each other for some time. A chill ran through me. Then the most extraordinary thing happened — it changed color. It turned pink; the flesh undulated and instead of a tree bark texture, it became instantly smooth. I blinked in astonishment, and it blinked back. Rooted to the spot, curiosity overcame my fear. I could now see the outline of the creature and discovered that it had multiple arms, each wrapped like a monkey’s tail around the branch. There appeared to be eight, and as it raised one and reached toward me waving gently, I could see small suckers along the length. Octopus. It was an octopus, an octopus in a tree.

               My head spun. This was so bizarre, I had to document it or no one would ever believe me. I ran to the house to fetch my cell phone and get a picture. When I returned a moment later, it had disappeared, no doubt returning to a camouflaged state among the still-dripping branches. I suppose it felt safe up there. I looked on line at every article I could find on cephalopods, and there it was: the tree octopus of the Northwest arboreal spruce forests. It said that for centuries, they lived among the Sitka spruce trees along the Northwest Coast until they went extinct. Considered bad omens and persecuted by loggers because they gummed up their equipment, they were routinely killed. They were even used as decorations on women’s hats in the nineteenth century. Typical, I thought. But what was a tree octopus doing here in northern Michigan? We had plenty of lakes, it was true.

               I read voraciously about the habits of the tree octopus and discovered that these octopuses are highly intelligent, possibly approaching humans, but with drastically different ways of perceiving the world. They eat insects, birds’ eggs and small rodents, all of which are plentiful in our neck of the woods. I wondered if some laboratory had been studying them and this one had escaped during the flooding. I began to like the idea of the tree octopus occupying a place in my yard. I resolved to keep my new friend a secret, lest it be hunted and killed.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 2, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

PATRICK TEN BRINK

T h e   C a r p   a n d   t h e   M a g p i e

 

               Many centuries ago, a giant carp roamed the cool streams of the moss-lined cedar forests of Japan. She had bright green eyes in a white face that glimmered like fresh snow. Orange patches adorned her belly and sides; her back was black, her fins and tail silver. She glided through the water in silence, two long barbells drawing lines on its surface.

               One night, as she floated in a calm pool, she poked her head out of the water, gazed at the heavens and sang — her mouth wide open, her gills vibrating. Slow, deep notes filled the air and rippled the water. Fish, big and small, gathered around.

               A magpie, perched on a pine branch above, cocked its head, one little black eye watching the school of fish.

               Barbells rising and falling, the carp said, “Tonight I sang of the red phoenix in the heavens. It dies but lives forever, reborn from the ashes. It is the noblest and most magic of all birds.”

               The magpie ruffled its feathers noisily and squawked, “Magpies are as clever as any Phoenix.”

               “Clever perhaps, but who has heard of a wise magpie?”

               “Oh, so wise carp who claims she can read the stars. In the heavens, there are two celestial fish, joined at the tail. Why is that so?”

               “Together they can swim up any stream, brook even the fiercest of rapids. If they swam against each other, they would never leave the quiet ponds and never reach the stars.”

               The school of fish nodded, and the magpie asked, “If there are two fish in the sky, why do we see only one carp in these waters? Where is the other?”

               The carp was silent, scanned the stars and said, “The fish in the sky are two but one.”

               The magpie said, “Nice answer, but you are still only one.”

               “As you are one on that branch,” said the carp before swimming away to a quiet pond. She slept and dreamt of meeting another fish like her. Maybe there were two, like in the sky, maybe more.

               At sunrise, the carp awoke and poked her head out of the water. The school of fish had dispersed. The magpie perched on a branch above the carp said, “Why did nature only make one of you?” He sidled up to the end of the branch that bent down close to carp and whispered, “Don’t you ever feel alone?”

               The carp closed her mouth and stared at the last stars fading in the morning heavens. The magpie’s words took hold like a water louse and itched in her mind.

               “Oh, wise and lonely carp. No constellations honor my kind in the skies, but as I fly, I discover the secrets of the land. I can show you things you’ve never seen.”

The carp opened her mouth but said nothing.

               “I’ll show you a secret,” said the magpie, spreading his wings wide. “Behold.” There was a line of black kanji along one feather. “I can help you understand things you’ve never even dreamed of.”

               “And what do I need to do in return for the wisdom you promise?” asked the carp.

               “Sing me the songs of the stars as we travel these lands. I, too, wish to learn, to be the songbird of the skies.”

               “That is a request worthy of the phoenix,” said the carp. “But it comes from the mouth of a magpie.”

               “Our trip will take three days and three nights to swim. Meet me at the next still waters.” The magpie flew upstream.

 

               As the first stars came out, the carp reached the calm pool where she saw a frail old man carrying a bowl, a brush and an ink stick, the magpie perched on his shoulder. The man sat down on a large flat rock at the edge of the pond in front of the carp and pulled tight his coat against the evening breeze.

               The magpie settled next to the old man’s feet and said to the carp, “Sing the constellation of the stars that befits this poet, and he will write on your scales.”

               The carp gazed at the heavens, seeking one of the  twenty-eight constellations for the poet. She opened her mouth and sang in rich, deep tones of the constellation of the bear — with its pointed nose, great arching back and powerful clawed paws.

               Once the last note faded, the old man said, “Oh, wise, kind, carp, you have offered me the warmth and resistance of the bear. I should make it through the harsh winter now. What can I offer you in return?”

The carp scanned the stars; her eyes alighted on the constellation of the two fish and she murmured, “I am alone under the stars. I wish to feel loneliness no longer.”

               “As in the stars,” said the old man, grinding the inkstick in the bowl.  He raised his brush and added, “I am but a man and can only start what you have asked. For that, I need your tail.”

               Arching her body, the carp offered the poet her tail.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 2, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

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