“The Caregivers” by Katherine Koller

The Caregivers (The Mask of Comedy)
“The Mask of Comedy,” Photograph by Fay Henexson

Tessa ~
I was sixteen when I realized my dad was cheating on my mom. I was the only one who noticed. I had to tell her. For years after, they were in counseling and my mom was trying so hard, while my dad was just lying, deceiving, and deteriorating.

And then he started making the sketchiest career choices. Like starting his own cell phone business in the middle of the recession when he knew nothing about business or cell phones. Then he tried selling cars. Then he couldn’t hold down a job at all.

They got divorced. For so long my mom hated him. She treated him horribly. I mean, I hated him, too. I treated him horribly. We just didn’t realize. We didn’t understand that the first sign of dementia isn’t trouble remembering. It’s behavioral changes. People with Frontal Temporal Dementia lose any kind of empathy. They can’t read anyone else’s feelings. But he was only fifty. And it’s so hard to diagnose it early on.

I didn’t even notice the physical symptoms until ten years later. It started in his arms.

Carrie ~
My father had six children: me, another girl with my mom, and four more with his wife after her.

Not one of them helped when my dad got sick. It was a full-time job. I used to spend so much time at Maryhaven—the nursing home my dad was in—and the patients all loved me cause I’d come in singing My Fair Lady at the top of my lungs. I used to do improv, see. I used to do Comedy Sportz, so I’d really put on a show. Then I got into organizing ice-cream socials and music therapy—oh, and animal therapy, everyone loves playing with puppies. And I’d connect with the patients’ families—I knew what they were going through—so when a position opened at Mather Pavillion, I took it. I was basically doing the same things I’d already done at Maryhaven, but this time for pay. Except I haven’t been able to work since I broke my kneecap. I’m on my feet the entire time at work. Thank God my insurance covers me while I’m on crutches, cause I literally can’t do anything there sitting down.

Amber ~
So I’m the oldest of six, and I’m thirty. Andrew, my middle brother with Down syndrome, is twenty-three. It’s kind of a joke that two months after I got married, my mom asked when I was going to start having kids. I told her, “I spent my childhood raising your kids and I’m still looking after Andrew.”

Every summer I took care of my younger brothers. When I went looking for a real job, everyone asked, “Any previous job experience?” Um, none, technically.

So instead of kids, I have a lot of pets: two dogs, four cats, two chipmunks, a ball python, and a fennec fox. And Andrew’s the only one in the family besides me who knows all their names.

My husband, Gus, is really good about it all. His parents died when he was two and his grandma raised him. We met in high school, so he knew my story. My mom got custody of the younger boys at first, but when she moved to Vermont my dad fought for Andrew and won. Dad has nine siblings here in Milwaukee and Andrew’s very close with his grandma. But Grandma can’t really do much now and my father’s a vascular surgeon, so he’s always on call. Gus and I take Andrew every other weekend to help out. His favorite thing is pasta. Gus makes it every night he’s here.

Tammy ~
I would have Andrew out here in Vermont with me if I’d had my way. But I didn’t have an extra $60,000 a year. So, he’s there in Milwaukee. I tried making Amber his legal guardian, but my ex-husband and I do a lot of fighting so he’s the legal guardian. It should be Amber cause she actually makes the decisions. The group home calls her cause they’ve learned that her dad never answers his phone. He’s kinda not real responsible.

I told Amber I don’t want Andrew living with her cause it’s too much for anybody. She’s always wanted to move to Portland, so if she does she’ll probably bring him with her. She’s been closer to him than any of the other kids. She’s the oldest. She really goes out of her way. She’s the one I count on.

Naomi ~
When I was younger, I worked at a camp for kids with special needs. My brother called them, the Tards. He’d say such horrible things and make me cry. Like, “Why do you want to work with kids who only have half a brain?”

Years later, Caroline was born. She had the lowest muscle tone the physical therapist had ever seen, like a ragdoll. But she was a happy baby, really delightful, and my brother adored her. Then she started missing milestones. Sitting up, scooting, and each one she missed was another blow. We waited four years for a diagnosis. Prader-Willi syndrome was literally the last thing they tested her for.

Tessa ~
Finally, my dad got diagnosed with ALS and Frontal Temporal Dementia. But by then he didn’t have health insurance because he’d been let go from his job. And his crazy schemes had lost so much money. I didn’t know how we were going to afford it. His healthcare, I mean.

I finally found a nursing home to take him if he got on Medicaid. But to get on Medicaid, you need bank statements from the last five years. I knew his current bank, but had no clue which bank he’d had before that. I basically had to make a list of every local bank, walk in, and say, “Did this person have a bank account within the last five years?” And I’d show them my Power-of-Attorney papers. There was no other way to do it.

Ten banks rejected me before I found the right one. I was so relieved…until that man, with that stupid little mustache, came back and said, “You’re missing one of the Power of Attorney pages. We can’t give you the records.” Well, I started crying right there in the middle of the bank. I sobbed my whole story through tears and snot. Finally, he was just like, “Okay, okay, I’ll give you what you need. Just stop crying!”

So eventually I got my dad into the nursing home. I was still taking care of him though. You’ve got to keep an eye on the staff. You’ve got to make it clear that someone’s holding them accountable. Because they will do whatever they can get away with. I even had to teach the nurses how to get him out of bed. They were lifting him by the arms. The arms! With his ALS, that was the most painful part of his body. And I thought, “If they’re messing up when I’m around, what are they doing when I’m not?”

It wasn’t just the nurses. Uhhggg, the doctors would ask him all these health questions and then stare at him like they were expecting to get some legitimate answer. And I’m just going, “You want his answer? Or the truth? Cause if you want the truth, you should probably be talking to me.” I had to take him to the hospital once for severe rectal bleeding. The doctor asked my permission to do an endoscopy, a colonoscopy, every oscopy you can think of. He said it might be cancer. So I’m like, “If you find cancer are you going to save him?” And he said, “Oooh, well, no but…” Then why put him through those painful tests if he’s already dying? You’re going to make him suffer because you want money? No. Leave him alone. I just want him to be comfortable.

Carrie ~
Two years ago, I was walking outside my apartment, and tripped. That’s all. I tripped and broke my patella bone! Well I was healing, slowly, and then I tripped on my crutches and cut my face open! You see this scar? I needed twenty stitches! And I hurt my knee all over again. The doctor said this happens all the time because crutches are so hard to use! But anyway, I’m not even sure I believe in doctors anymore. My physical therapist has done a thousand times better for my knee than any of the doctors.

The medical system is so fucked. Like with my dad? When he was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s? I’d stop by once a week, make sure he had groceries and everything. But he got worse and I started coming every other day, then once a day, then three times a day for all the meals. It was my whole life… One night, I get to his house after grocery shopping, and I call, “Daaad,” but he doesn’t come. So I’m frantically screaming his name, expecting to see him lying on the floor. And I can’t find him anywhere. I assume he’s wandered off and gotten lost, you know? I call my friends; we’re running around Evanston searching the streets. I’ve called the police, and three hours later, we can’t find him anywhere.

So I’m lying on the kitchen floor, sobbing, when Dad just strides through the front door with his head wrapped in bandages. Apparently he tripped on the sidewalk, his glasses cut his face, and the neighbors called an ambulance. They never even bothered telling me. And then the hospital! He wears a bracelet saying he has Alzheimer’s, with my number, and no one called. They sent him home—alone. They just stitched him up, wrapped his head, and told him not to lie down.

I was so pissed. I called the hospital and I told them they’d made a big mistake. I told them if I had more time and energy, I would sue their asses. He had a medical bracelet and they never even called. At least they waived the medical bills, which saved us a few thousand dollars.

Amber ~
Andrew was diagnosed with Down syndrome before he was even born. The doctors suggested my mom have an abortion, but both my parents are pro-life. My mom actually had her tubes tied after my first two younger bothers were born, but my dad said, “If a vascular surgeon can’t have a ton of kids, who can?” So she had the surgery reversed, and had Andrew. After Andrew was born, she wanted more kids so he’d have younger siblings to play with, since the first three of us were so much older.

Tammy ~
The second Andrew was born I saw the doctor crossing her arms, shaking her head, and looking at him. She was Indian. They don’t understand why we have Down’s kids. In India, basically they’ll kill females. So a retarded child, why even have it? It’s not a fun thing, when you just have a baby and see the doctor shaking her head.

I had a blood test. Can’t even think of the name, it’s been so long. They said it came up normal. I had no idea. Except he was smaller. I thought, “God, I’m not gaining weight like I did with the others.” Makes sense though, cause they’re little people.

The hospital sent a representative from the Downs National Alliance. She came in all cheery telling me it’s not as grim as the public thinks. She was right. He’s one of my easiest kids. And the Alliance people say there’s a list as long as your arm of people willing to adopt Down’s kids. I said, “Really? Cool, but I’m keeping him.”

Naomi ~
The doctor said, “Do not look up Prader-Willi on the internet!” So of course we did. And what we found, it was just, it was just…devastating. Severely obese children eating themselves to death. Parents finding their children eating garbage, or getting calls in the middle of the night to say their kid had broken into a store to steal food.

I have had weight issues since I got pregnant the first time, so it felt like an insatiable appetite was probably worse than any other disability my baby could have. I waited for years, dreading the night I’d come downstairs and find her stealing food from the refrigerator, or worse, eating out of the garbage. I wouldn’t want to go downstairs in the middle of the night for fear of it beginning.

But it never did. To this day Caroline has never eaten anything I haven’t given her. She’s eighteen now, and it was definitely a trade-off, but I’d take the way it turned out over the alternative any day. You see, Caroline’s IQ is lower than most kids with Prader-Willi. She reads at a seventh grade level and math is much lower. So we could…brainwash her, kind of. Ever since she was four, her breakfast, lunch, and dinner have been the exact same food, same portion, every day. And since her cognitive function is so much lower, she doesn’t question it.

Most kids with Prader-Willi turn eighteen and realize that they have free will. They emancipate themselves and within three or four months, they gain a hundred pounds. There’s nothing the parents can do about it. Usually, they die. We’re not going to have to go through that with Caroline. I’ll take our situation any day.

Of course now, with her peers going to college, and prom…it hits home. She’s not going to do those things. But it’s a lot harder for me. Caroline always says, “I’m the luckiest girl in the world!” That’s how she sees it. She wakes up happy, she goes to bed happy. Her quality of life is damn good.

Tessa ~
If I wanted to go on a date, I had to stop by the nursing home first to check on Dad. If I wanted to go out with my friends, I had to stop by the nursing home first to check on Dad. And then I’d be at this hip bar, drinking a fruity margarita, surrounded by my dolled-up friends, and just feel…miserable. I was a real downer. I’d spend the whole outing wishing I were at home, being a downer alone.

Carrie ~
I don’t talk to my siblings anymore. I’m the only one of my father’s six children who did anything for him. My brothers were all too busy. Towards the end of his life, my dad started asking for my sister. She agreed to Skype with him. But after the second time she said she wasn’t going to do it anymore, because she wasn’t getting anything out if it. We haven’t spoken since.

Amber ~
Once Andrew turned twenty-one, he was too old for public school, so my dad put him in a home. It’s okay I guess. I wanted a nicer home for him, but I don’t think he minds. The really nice homes have twenty-five year wait lists. We had to find this one at the last minute, because it was always the plan for my mom to keep him at home. But she wanted to get far away from my dad, and when she moved to Vermont she lost custody of Andrew. So now I do most of the caregiving. I handle emergencies. On weekends I bathe him and cut his nails. The home’s supposed to do it, but he hates water so they don’t force him.

Tammy ~
I think Andrew is happy. My son Michael says, “Mom, Andrew likes to go to dances cause he’s with his homies.” Michael stayed and watched once, and said Andrew gets out in the middle of the dance floor, takes the microphone, lifts his shirt up. He’s got a big pasty-white belly, and is doing a belly dance in front of everyone. “He’s like a different person with his homies,” Michael says. “Like he knows those are his peeps.”

Amber ~
I end up doing most of the work because my brothers aren’t married and go out on weekends. I’ll call and say, “When did you speak to Andrew last? If you’re in town you should see him.” And they’re like, “Oh yeah, I should do that.” And it’s like “Yeah. You should do that.” In most families one person becomes the caregiver because it’s just easier that way. If you had six people responsible for Andrew, and communication wasn’t perfect, it would get really confusing.

Naomi ~
I’d keep Caroline home forever if I could, but she’s such a social kid. We’re looking to find two or three other families with special-needs kids and buy a house where they can live together. With a fulltime caregiver, of course. We’re lucky we can afford to do that.

My son’s been wonderful. My husband, too. Don’t get me wrong, Grant drives me nuts, but he’s so good with Caroline. He’s really been my partner in all this. Of course, Caroline gets a lot of her bad habits from him. Like licking the yogurt off the top of the lid. Well, that might be a Prader-Willi thing, but Grant does it, too!

If I were asked to give advice to parents of a Prader-Willi baby, know what I’d tell them? Nothing. Caroline is skinny, she’s never stolen food, she’s the only kid with Prader-Willi and a nut allergy to survive. I don’t want to give false hope. Our happiness is so rare.

Tessa ~
Everyone says, “I can’t believe you did all that. You’re such a wonderful person.” First of all, I didn’t have a choice. There was no one else to do it. It’s like you don’t realize what you’re capable of until you’re faced with it. And then you just do it. I still struggle with the guilt of wasting so many years hating my father because of that affair. I couldn’t have known what was causing it and all, but still…

You know, when we got the diagnosis, it was almost a relief. Especially for my mom. For all those years he was lying, she kept asking, “What did I do to make him cheat on me?” When we found out that his behavioral changes were a symptom, it was like a million weights had been lifted off her. It all made sense. It was nothing she did.

My mom even visited him in the nursing home. The way his face lit up, she knew he remembered her. She was sitting in that old mauve chair, the one that spilled out stuffing, tenderly spoon-feeding him clumpy rice pudding. “I forgive you,” she told him. “I’m letting this go.” And that was the greatest closure.

Carrie ~
There are two kinds of people. Those who can handle it, and those who can’t. Don’t get me wrong, I think the second kind are ultimately selfish, I’m not defending them. But I will concede that it’s hard to see your father sick and not be the man you grew up with. Since it’s hard, they leave. Anyway, my brothers didn’t care and my sister was too selfish. I was the only one at his funeral. Eight years of caregiving left me drained in every way. It’s been three years since he died, and I’m still tired, but I’m starting to feel like I have a life again.

Amber ~
It’s hard for people to relate when I tell them my brother has Down syndrome. They sympathize and say, “Wow, that sounds terrible.” But they can’t understand. My friend has a cousin with Down syndrome. And finally I could say, “You know what it’s like!” It’s a relief to meet people like that. They reaffirm that what you’re doing is hard and taxing, and difficult. But it’s something you do because it’s family and you love them.

Every aspect of your life becomes: how does this impact the person I’m caring for? My husband and I want to move out to Portland, it’s been my dream forever. But as long as Andrew’s here, I can’t leave him with my dad. I have to put my life on hold until I can bring him with us.

Tammy ~
People say, “God knows who to give those kids to. You’re so patient.” And I’m like, “It’s not like there’s an option, okay? You’re given this and you deal with it. I’m not any more special or any more patient than anybody else. I don’t have a choice.” God, I’m so sick of people saying things like that. If you had one you’d deal with it too. Cause you have to. You don’t have an option. They’re family. What are you going to do?

 

 

Katherine Koller is about to begin her career as Development Fellow for a nonprofit in Chicago called Peer Health Exchange.  She just graduated from Northwestern University, where she majored in theatre, with a concentration in performance, activism, and human rights, and a minor in creative nonfiction writing. In addition to her coursework, Katherine spent three years teaching Pregnancy Prevention in Chicago Public Schools with Peer Health Exchange, and was the Executive Director of a Northwestern course in consulting for nonprofits. She loves the theatre, and acted in many campus theatrical productions.

“Care Packages” by Jerri Bell

Care Packages (The Creation of Adam)
“The Creation of Adam,” Photograph by Fay Henexson

USS Kearsarge
June 24, 1995

Dear John,

Lisbon is for lovers and I have three days’ leave while the ship is in port, so I’ve booked a room in a romantic posada perfect for a clandestine lovers’ tryst. To reach it, you’d first turn right at the church where “Miserere mei Deus” echoes from the choir loft and the disapproving priest in the black cassock and gold filigrana crucifix is hearing confessions. You’d come to the plaza where the old men sit at sidewalk tables sipping bitter cafés negros from tiny cups. There’s a shortcut through the alley between the third and fourth restaurants whose window tanks hold live lobsters awaiting execution, claws banded so they can’t damage each other overnight in a fit of territorial jealousy. The alley ends across from a wall tiled in blue and white azulejos depicting a bullfight: the bull has gored the matador, who still raises his sword in triumph and prepares to take his brutal revenge. The next right is a straight and narrow street paved in steep limestone steps, their worn centers slick, smooth, and treacherous underfoot. Between the whitewashed houses, crisscrossed pulley clotheslines are hung with unsullied, lace-trimmed sheets. Only the spotless linen is on display; stained and tattered undergarments are hidden between the lines.

At the top, you’d have to call me from the phone box on the corner by the house where the lemon tree grows beside the back door. Tom, the ship’s medical officer, called his wife from that phone last night. He told her about the pretty lemon tree with the sweet-smelling flowers, and said he’d bought her an inlaid wooden box with a surprise inside. (I sent you a box with a surprise inside today, too. Just like the one I received at mail call yesterday. I was so excited when I saw a care package with your return address on it!) Anyway, Tom’s wife had news for him, too. She’s pregnant. And she’s four months along! Of course, since we’ve been deployed for the last seven months their divorce papers are probably following the ship from Haifa to Malta to Lisbon. She said that Tom made her feel undesirable. Less of a woman. At least she told you herself, I said. That counts for a lot. We consoled each other with gin and tonics at a bar on the Praça do Comércio and staggered back to the ship at midnight.

Remember the glamour shot I had taken for our last Valentine’s Day together? The one where they posed me on bubblegum-pink satin sheets, and everything seemed to have a rosy glow? You said you loved my blonde highlights and that negligée, the deceptively silky white thigh-high rayon with the virginal sweetheart neckline. After I gave you the photo we lingered by the dying fire with candied orange peel, and dark chocolate, and extra-dry California champagne. You joked about what might happen if you framed the picture and put it on your desk at work.

I wasn’t expecting the black leather outfit in yesterday’s care package. It’s amazing that the merry widow, the thong, even the fishnet stockings and the garters are all just my size! I was puzzled to find my glamour shot underneath, though. I was even more surprised to see the next photo in the stack. That was quite a naughty French maid costume the brunette with the green cat-eyes was wearing. And the redhead in the third photo sure has an overbite. Did whatever was under her tiger-striped teddy make up for it? The last photo – your wedding portrait, dated Christmas 1993 – explained a lot. And what it didn’t, the nice letter from your wife did. She sent me all those pictures because she wasn’t sure which of the women was me.

And now I have a similar problem. I don’t know if the leather outfit and accessories belong to the brunette or to the redhead. I’m returning them to you, so you can give them to her yourself. I’m sure that she’d rather get them back from you than from some other woman.

Sincerely,

Marcia

 

 

Jerri Bell is the Managing Editor for O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal of the Veterans Writing Project. She retired from the Navy in 2008; her assignments included antisubmarine warfare in the Azores Islands, sea duty on USS Mount Whitney and HMS Sheffield, and attaché duty at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in a variety of journals, newspapers, and blogs. She and former Marine Tracy Crow are the co-authors of It’s My Country Too: True Stories of Women Under Fire from the American Revolution to Afghanistan, forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books in 2017.

 

“Cuddle the Schizophrenic and Fear the Bipolar” by Olaf Kroneman

Pink Lily Lagoon (Cuddle the Schizo)
“Pink Lily Lagoon” by Lori McNamara, 2011, oil on masonite

1967: “The Summer of Love.” It was a great time to be in San Francisco and Haight-Ashbury, smoking pot and dropping acid. But not an ideal time to be a first-year medical student in an inner-city Detroit hospital.

Location, location, location.

For five days in July 1967, Detroit burned. Forty-two civilians were killed. It was the Detroit Riot or Civilian Rebellion from Oppression, depending on your viewpoint. They brought the dead and injured into the emergency room. I saw firsthand what a fifty- caliber bullet could do to a child. Black orderlies and white nurses and white surgical residents gently, but rapidly, placed a five-year-old girl on an operating room gurney.

I heard, “She’s still breathing.”

Her hair was braided in pigtails, held in place with pink ribbons.

It was a psychedelic mix of sights, sounds, and smells.

The lights were bright and illuminated the carnage. No shadows. Nothing left to the imagination. The entourage raced out of the emergency room. The custodians followed behind, mopping the floor. An impression of her body remained on the steel stretcher. It was like a photographic negative made in blood. I was ordered to clean the stretcher. As I did, the girl’s silhouette disappeared.

Finished, I went to the lavatory and vomited.

~

In medicine we can be witness to some beautiful miracles. Childbirth always restores me. Witnessing a sick child’s fever break and health return brings professional salvation and affirmation.

But my experience in the emergency room won’t be expunged. Perhaps a neurosurgeon could remove that section of my brain that remembers. There is no debriefing in the medical profession. We are instructed to “hike them up.” Remain silent. It often works. Time is the second-best healer.

With all the women in medicine now, there must be a new expression. But the sentiment remains.

The emergency room experience was harrowing. I had to talk to somebody. I couldn’t talk to my fellow competitive classmates. Medical colleagues didn’t reveal weakness. Angst was managed with silence. Perhaps it is different now.

At age twenty-one, I reflexively turned to those with whom I shared a filial history, a strong genetic and DNA bond. I would try to reach them once again for our mutual benefit. The DNA bond was weakening, but I had to try again. It would probably be pointless; the more education I obtained, the more estranged I became. My academic accomplishments were like a wall. I was learning so much. I was learning to diagnose. I would be able to save lives. In retrospect, my enthusiasm was focused, but intimidating and threatening. I was obsessed.

My studies led me to the family secret, the hereditary curse that doomed my ancestors. At that time it was called manic-depressive illness. It was obvious. I believed it was my duty to tell them, help them. I tried once to enlighten them. I hoped they would be receptive.

My father loved it when I played football or boxed in the Detroit Golden Gloves. He basked in my glory. But once I got into medical school, there was a distance. He seemed afraid of me. My mother too. She held her breath as I talked about my studies and the things I learned. I’m sure they realized I would come to the inevitable conclusion. I would diagnose and explain why so many of our ancestors ended their days in insane asylums or prisons or as homicides or suicides. I wanted to enlighten them and educate them, get those in the family who were affected help. Help before something bad happened.

But now I needed their help. I had to talk to them.

I drove to my childhood home, which was a two-bedroom red-brick bungalow built after World War Two. My brother, sister, and parents still lived there. I looked through the big picture window. My parents sat in front of a large color television, watching Bonanza. Ben Cartwright lectured his middle-aged sons while Hop Sing waited on them.

I entered. They looked away from the glow of the television.

“Well, who’s this?” my father asked. “Too busy to see your mom and dad? Without us there would be no you.”

My mother stood. My father remained seated. “It’s good to see you, son,” my mother said. I kissed her on the cheek.

“Get your son and me a Blue Ribbon, some crackers and Velveeta.”

My mother went to the kitchen. I felt sorry for her. She was a good person but weak and lived in fear. Fear from a volatile husband who could go from paralyzing depression to a high-pressured manic zealot. During his mania he could be very funny, buying us gifts he couldn’t afford. He would entertain us with unbounded energy. He could also get rough. I grabbed my father’s arm once, when still in high school, and told him, “No. Never again.” I was his physical superior, and he was afraid of me.

I warned him about hurting any of us in the family, especially my mother. My father became an expert at psychological abuse. It left no physical marks. I asked her to divorce him. She was too afraid, and she said she didn’t want to hurt the children.

“We’re not children anymore.”

“You’ll always be my children.”

“I know, and you must protect the one with the broken wing.”

“Yes.”

She returned with the beer and snacks. “Son, what brings you here?”

I did not know how to start. I sipped the beer. “Mom, Dad, I’m seeing things in the hospital, things that upset me.”

My father rolled his eyes. Played an imaginary violin. It was what I expected. I should have left before things got worse.

My father sipped. “Beer’s not cold enough, Sue, put a few bottles in the deep freeze.”

She left to put the beer in the freezer.

“Son, when I was in the marines, there were things that were upsetting.”

“But you got in at the end of the war. You didn’t see action.”

“True, but I talked to guys who saw all sorts of things, and I saw pictures.”

I hesitated, then I told him, “I saw a young girl die.”

“How old?”

“Five years old.”

“Well it beats seeing a baby die. You ever seen that?”

“No, not yet.”

“Well,” my father said. “I saw pictures from the war.”

“What a horrible thought,” my mother said.

“I saw your sister almost die when she cut her wrists on a glass jar. It was a bad accident.”

“Dad, it was no accident. It was a suicide attempt. She needed treatment. She still does. I told you before. You can’t just keep her locked up in the house.”

“She just has headaches,” my mother said. “The light hurts her eyes. She has to stay inside, or she starts to act peculiar.”

“She has manic-depressive illness. It explains her behaviors. She’s unstable; she can’t help it,” I said.

“You think she’s crazy? Is that what you’re saying?” my father asked.

“She needs to be on medication. I told you before but you wouldn’t listen. She needs psychiatric help to undo her bizarre behavior patterns.”

They both stared at me just like before. Deer in the headlights. I could tell they didn’t get bizarre behavior patterns. I told them again about the disease; a disease that causes out-of-control emotions, anger, rage, sex drive, but short-circuits the area that allows the ability to love. The conversation ended in insults and denial. They looked at me as if I were the man from Mars speaking another language. But they knew. They didn’t know it had a name.

I changed the subject. “I’m not sure I’m cut out to be a doctor.”

“You’re not a weakling. You never backed down,” my father said. “We had such high hopes for you. You could be rich.”

My mother said, “Doctors are special people. Perhaps you don’t deserve to be a doctor.”

Her words stung. I was no longer special. I couldn’t talk. The bitterness and abuse of my father had finally leeched into my mother. She had hurt me. She’d never done that before.

“That a girl, Susie. Give him a swift kick in the ass. It’s about time.”

My mother had tears in her eyes. She knew what she did and instantly regretted it. This would be of no help. I stood. “Gotta go, thanks for the beer.”

My mother followed me out the door.

“Why don’t you leave him?”

“It would have upset you three.”

“Not me.”

“Then the other two.”

My mother walked me to my car. My sister was busily scratching the side of my car with a butcher knife. I didn’t say anything. It would be pointless now that she had entered one of her manic episodes.

“Laurel, you get away from your brother’s car. Put the knife down.”

“She can’t hurt that wreck. At least she didn’t puncture the tires this time.”

“She wants you to be able to leave.”

My sister ran toward us. I didn’t know what she would do with the knife. She waved the knife at my mother and me.

“You got into med school, but you’ll never finish.” Her voice was too loud, almost like a shout or growl. She laughed and ran into the house.

“That reminds me of those old jokes,” my father shouted. “How do you unload a truckload of dead babies? With a pitchfork. Ha.…ha…ha.”

My sister laughed as well. Her laugh was higher in pitch, but just as loud.

“I don’t know how you live with all that madness. They both have it. He passed it on to her. You have to save yourself.”

“Sometimes they’re not so bad.” My mother turned and walked into her home.

That’s all I needed. I couldn’t go back again. I knew too much. They would always be afraid of me. I decided to transfer to a medical school on the West Coast.

~

That was almost fifty years ago. In 2017 it will be fifty years since the Detroit Riot. The young girl on the stretcher would be about fifty-five had she lived. The issues then were racism, police brutality, unwanted foreign wars, and gun control. Nothing much has changed. Abortion is on the front burner again.

Naively we thought the Middle East problem was over after the Six-Day War.

Leaving Detroit was a good thing for me. I went into academic medicine. All the academic opportunity was on the coasts then, as now.

Initially I went into a psychiatry residency. I wanted to learn as much as I could about manic-depressive illness, now called bipolar disorder. It’s said that unstable physicians go into psychiatry in order to heal themselves. I don’t believe that. Unstable physicians stay as far away from psychiatry as possible. They’d be too easy to spot.

But I’ve learned enough about the disease that I can spot them. The untreated ones or the ones that go off their medication act bizarre. I saw a surgeon one time get manic, and during a surgery throw a scalpel against the wall. The scalpel ricocheted, just missed the anesthetized patient, and stuck in the surgeon’s leg.

While being sewn up, he was committed.

Unfortunately, the laws protect them. You can’t be proactive. They must do something bad. Someone must get hurt before you can intervene. I’ve seen it too many times.

The treated ones always carry water or are always at a drinking fountain. The medication, the lithium, makes them thirsty. It hurts the kidneys and they always have to pee. They chronically carry coffee because the medication makes them drowsy. I’m on alert. I’m afraid of them.

And they have a peculiar twitching at the mouth or sometimes a locked smile. The mental patient smile.

I’m not the only one with the same fear. I attended a lecture by a famous forensic psychiatrist. The lecture was titled, “Cuddle the Schizophrenic, and Fear the Bipolar.” The gist was that most violent people are not crazy, and most crazy people are not violent. But some are and psychiatry is inept at spotting the suicidal and homicidal.

This hopeless ineptitude led me to change careers in mid life. I became an anesthesiologist. I put people to sleep. I keep them safe. I control their every move while they are under. When they wake up, I’m done. I don’t have to worry if they are suicidal or homicidal.

~

I rarely went back to visit my family. I was not invited to birthdays, weddings, or holidays, but they couldn’t keep me out of the funerals. You don’t need an invitation. I never missed one. I saw them all buried. I paid for them.

Only my sister and I are left. The court got her the help she needed. She attacked her fourth husband with a hammer. Killed the dog. That husband resides in a nursing home drooling and wearing diapers.

I am one of the few physicians that smokes cigarettes, Pall Malls, unfiltered. The red pack looks regal, sophisticated. Opposite the surgeon general’s warning is the phrase “Where Particular People Congregate.” Pall Malls are hard to find. But I have a good tobacconist.

I blame the government attack on smoking as the cause of the obesity and diabetic epidemic. Smoking is a great appetite suppressant. The lives saved and the lives lost is probably a wash.

Nicotine is also a good antidepressant. It seems to me that the social ban on cigarettes caused the pharmaceutical explosion of expensive antidepressant drugs. Big tobacco’s loss is big pharma’s gain. The problem with the new antidepressants is that they unmask and unleash bipolar disorder. Add to that the lack of gun control and large clip AR-15s.

I have been spared; so have my children. But I watch for signs. So far, so good.

I sit in my library. I enjoy my Pall Malls and listen to music. I steer clear of the new antidepressants. I can’t listen to Prozac. I’ve never been adequately debriefed. But I keep myself safe: I smoke.

 

 

Olaf Kroneman has had work appear in Forge, Hawai’i Pacific Review, The Healing Muse, The Helix, inscape, Left Curve, Quiddity International Literary Journal, RiverSedge, Gemini Magazine, paperplates, and Diverse Voices Quarterly. His story, “Fight Night,” won the Winning Writers Sports Fiction and Essay Contest, and “The Recidivist,” won the Writer’s Digest short story contest. His essay “Detroit Golden Gloves” was selected as Editor’s Choice by inscape, honoring the top nonfiction piece of the issue in which it was printed.

 

“Be Still, My Growling Stomach” by Wendi Berry

red hibiscus
“Red Hibiscus” by Lori McNamara, oil on masonite

I ate a man for breakfast. My usual fare, only this one was on the gritty side. Too much meat on a stick and not enough apple. There was no struggle.

I didn’t have to forage, hunt or capture. He walked in to my cave. When he shined the flashlight on my pretty barbed tail — that’s where men’s eyes always seem to go first — his Adam’s apple made a little dip. He reached in and groped one of my scales. Now his picked bones lay strewn about the corners of my cave. No one ever said I was a good housekeeper.

Men are so easy to find this time of year. As soon as the temperature gets a little warm—all it has to do is rise to 50 degrees on the little thermometer posted above my door—and they come over that hill. Imagine walking twenty miles just to find a cave, but that’s what they do. They want to discover “the mystery.”

The men climb, they scale the boulders, and when they stop to set down their backpacks, that’s when the dark opening begins to beckon. Beneath a rocky overhang, behind the olive shrubbery with the small white flowers, they can’t help themselves; they have to explore. I wish they would pack better lunches in those backpacks of theirs. Guys, fewer processed meats. More celery, more apples, please!

Even if they hesitate and are a tad shy, all I have to do is flash my scales—it could be my tail, my delicate knobby ankles, or the nape of my neck—I have a really long nape, and they rush in. Fools.

No need for conversation.

To be fair, most don’t want to talk anyway. They go right for the scales, gawking at them, reaching out their small, veined, hairy paws.

If I were more of a conversationalist, I might say, would you please try not to stare while I bludgeon you. I hate the way their eyes bulge as if they were watching some creepy horror flick. It’s really unappetizing. I knock their heads off with a swift blow and pile them up for later, for when my blood sugar gets low and I need a snack.

The main course I baste with succulent plants from around the cave, mosses, lichens and spongy spores, and scorch with a little fire. Easy does it on the gas. No one likes charred meat. Best to keep it a little pink inside.

If I want something really tasty, I’ll roast my meal slowly on a spit. Felled pine makes a good skewer. And on those spring and fall days when there’s too much of a good thing, I make shish kebabs with the choicest thighs, rump, or rib meat and throw everything else to my friends in the woods. I brush on my special liverwort marinade, a family recipe, and let it soak for a few hours.

When I taste the meat, it’s tender to the bone, which I often gnaw on for added calcium. For the most part, I spit out the necks. They’re all tendons and gristle.

This next guy is different. I’m in no hurry. He isn’t either. He slumps at the entrance and observes the thermometer, actually strokes his beard. A thinking man. Haven’t seen one of those in a while, not since Sir Thomas Elyot.

Sir Thomas waited and asked permission to enter but not before convincing me on bended knee that drakons, from the Greek word “to gleam,” have the right to be respected, to be admired for our intelligence and wit, and not just for our sleek scales.

“Call me Tommy,” he insisted, after I invited him in. When the fire built in my chest, I shot it away from him, and he marveled at my power, exclaiming “what a wyvern!”

Fire proved our undoing. On Day 2, he began coughing from smoke inhalation and on Day 3, left as I slept. Had I known, I would have consumed him, rather than let him go.

After, I lost my appetite, and my mother had to come from ten hills over to spoon-feed me boiled intestines. One night, when I refused to eat, she told me about her Sir Thomas.

“He professed his love, said he would take me to an island with so much fruit I would never have a sugar low. But his wife got sick and he couldn’t let his daughters be orphans.”

“What happened to him?”

“Oh, Sir George told a story about slaying me—to save face—he didn’t want people thinking he spent all that time with an ophidian for nothing. But then he died from typhus on the boat back, after bragging to his mates. Or so I heard, from a hydra.”

“I never realized. Do you mind if I ask…?”

“Fire away.”

“How’d you meet my father?”

“He was passing through . . . No one ever said love has to love you back.”

Eventually, my appetite returned. And nothing quelled my growling insides. For five hundred years, my flames have scorched every man who dares approach. I swore never to lose my appetite over a man again.

This guy, this thinker, takes an ink pen and scribbles into a book. I want to get my hands on it. My last good read was The Book of Lost Tales. He sits on a boulder and continues writing.

I flash my scales, undulate a bit. That’s all it would normally take, but this one’s oblivious. I wonder just what I am dealing with. He keeps jotting down notes and I creep to the entrance, my head bumps the roof, and I peer out. My tail is fully out, the barb waving in his face, but he does not react.

I step outside. Usually there is no need.

This man wears shorts with many pockets, a baseball cap and windbreaker. I wonder what is so interesting that he must write it in that book. The suggestion of soft ferns at the entrance? The promise of the pit behind the flowering privet? The lure of bacterial odor and bursting spores? But no, he doesn’t notice any of that. He looks up, glances back at his notebook, looks up again.

I wave my tail. But he stares deeply into my canker-lidded, diamond-shaped eyes. This thinker, this notebook scribbler sits on his boulder, his worn wool socks drooping around his ankles, and meets my gaze.

“Hello,” he says.

“Hello.” I try not to breathe too much fire. I don’t want to scorch him. Yet.

“My name is Rodney,” he says. “What’s yours?”

“Jormu.”

“It’s a pleasure,” he says. Where’s his sword? I know he has one. They all do.

“What are you writing about?”

He looks down. Blurt it out. You can do it. “I came to figure out what to do.”

Okay, so I’ve had dramatic types before, projecting their voices, extending their hands. Of course I end up scorching them. I scorch them all. I do, I do, I do. Dragons like things in threes.

This one sits and writes and scratches the thinning hair on his scalp, he bleeds ink onto the page. I’m expecting at least one good monologue before I strike.

“My wife always told me what to do.”

My tail twitches. I don’t know whether to feel sorry, or be on high alert. Ever since my encounter with Sir Thomas, I don’t trust them not to become lunch.

“Leave you in the lurch, did she?”

His pen stops. I stab the notebook with my tail, lift it to my eyes and read. It is blurry. Must get more vitamin A. More sweet potatoes, guys. More leafy kale. The gist of it is, “I want to die.” Poor numbchuck. He’s wounded. I knew, knew, knew it. Men cannot resist my tail.

I sit on the boulder facing him. “Let me tell you a secret,” I say. I can feel the methane building.

He clutches his backpack.

“The answer you seek is not on this hill.” I strive to be dramatic myself.

“What if I am not seeking answers?”

“Why did you write, ‘I want to die’?”

He shakes his head.

“Okay, tell me why your wife left.” I encourage him to speak by sitting on my hind legs and tucking my wings. “You can tell me.”

“She died,” he says. “A plane crash, a Cessna four-seater. She was flying in a fog and hit a mountain.” He releases a huge exhale, completely devoid of fire. Men. They just don’t have it. “She planned my days. ‘Go to work. Tie your shoes. Balance the checkbook. Eat your spinach. Don’t forget to stretch.’” His shoulders shake, he does the self-hug thing.

I put my tail around his waist.

“But she was already dying. Ovarian cancer.”

I squeeze his shoulders with my wings.

I should have told her: do the chemo, don’t fly today.” This man heaves great, wet sobs. He rests his head on my scales. I pat his tears.

“I have something to show you,” I say. “It grows in the darkest place and has a smooth velvety feel. Would you like to see it?”

“If it’s dark…?”

“You don’t need to see it. It’s feeling it that’s so fantastic. Go in.”

He hoists his pack. An apple rolls out. He sees me glance at it.

“Want it?” he says.

“You keep it.”

I swear, when he reaches for a scale, I am going to pummel him, put the apple in his mouth, and give him a good roasting. But he goes inside the cave instead and feels the furry algae. I let him put some in his backpack.

“I must say, this is not what I expected.” He follows the light back to the entrance. “I’ll never forget this.”

You’ll never forget, I think. Heard that before. It’s not worth explaining the loss and the heartburn, and asking myself three times a day, what if that was Sir Thomas? and then being left with only bones.

One more step and we would have both been safe. Rodney would have pulled up his socks and climbed down the boulders. Instead, he asks, “May I touch your scales?”

I knew, knew, knew it. No man can resist. This one, though, I feel truly sorry for: he misses his wife, and he asked permission first.

“If I let you touch me, I’ll have to eat you.”

He shuts his eyes.

“What?” I say. Little puffs of smoke shoot from my ears.

“I was hoping you would.”

“Eat you?” My wings flap gently, dispersing methane. “What makes you think I would?”

“A feeling.”

I curl my tail, trying to think. Here is lunch, and my sugar is low. Sir Thomas got away. I know I should let Rodney go—he is sad, he wants me to eat him. But I promised myself…

“Take the algae,” I say. “Go.” My wings flap. “Never speak of this.”

“You want me to leave?” He coughs.

“Yes, and don’t forget the algae.”

He stops inside the entrance. “Want my apple?” Still trying to tempt me. When I shake my scales, he turns his back. I no longer see his eyes. He no longer meets my gaze.

I keep my promise. I pummel him on the occipital lobe. I will never miss another meal. Not on account of Sir Thomas.

 

 

Wendi Berry divides her time between Richmond, Virginia and the Outer Banks, where she dreams of having a writers’ retreat, with an ocean view. A technical editor by day, she’s published in storySouth, Prime Number Magazine, Hulltown 360, and Hayden’s Ferry Review blog. She previously taught composition at the University of Richmond and J. Sargeant Reynolds and is seeking representation for a novel set in present-day Richmond.

Read an interview with Wendi here.

“Time to Go Home” by Patty Somlo

Time to Go Home
Painting by Lori McNamara, oil on masonite.

Warrior noticed the blue and white CHIERS van before the bus crossed the bridge to downtown Portland. His bare gums showed where his teeth were gone, soon as he stretched his lips into a smile. He didn’t find anything particularly funny about a drunk being hauled off to Detox. No. That sly grin wouldn’t quit lifting Warrior’s lips because the poor old wino wasn’t him.

The bus crossed the bridge, as sunlight leaking through the window on Warrior’s side caused scattered silver strands in his hair to shimmer. Since Vietnam, where he got the nickname Warrior, he’d kept it long. On the streets, his hair let everyone know. He was still a warrior after everything that had gone down.

~

When Warrior got sober this last time, the city social worker moved him to his own apartment. A new approach we’re trying, the social worker said, after handing Warrior a thousand pages of forms.

Out on the sidewalk, under a dull, wet sky, Warrior couldn’t help but feel like punching somebody. This ain’t gonna work, he mumbled to no one in particular, and no one in particular responded. He palmed an unfiltered Camel, gulping puffs, until the cigarette singed his knuckle. Then he used the tip to light another.

A wide-hipped black woman named Leticia led him into the apartment building and down a dreary hall that smelled of food frying. In the kitchenette, on the back wall of the one-room studio, she turned the knob on the gas stove and flicked it off.

“Make sure you check before leaving the apartment,” she scolded Warrior. “Don’t want no fires.”

The place even had its own refrigerator.

Warrior tapped his right foot without planning to and the tapping traveled up to his hip, making it wobble. His head bobbed up and down. His hand shook, as he jerked the burning cigarette up to his mouth.

An hour later, in the crowded waiting room of the counseling office, his bones rattled in one continuous spasm. Smoking wasn’t allowed, so he turned and faced the wall, his fingers lifted to his mouth as he sucked in imaginary smoke. He couldn’t be bothered with what other folks thought. It was easy to slide down into his own private box, like he’d done on the street and in Vietnam.

“Are you Mr. Yazzi?”

He turned around, shaking the whole time, then followed the woman down a long, narrow hall, into a room that was dark.

“Where would you feel more comfortable, Mr. Yazzi?” the counselor asked, after flicking on the fluorescent light. “In the chair or on the couch?”

Warrior studied the room. His eyes blinked too many times. He took in the woman at his side. Her hair flowed straight down like a black waterfall. She reminded him of girls back home. Even made him think of Betty, his ex-wife.

“Could I just stand?” Warrior asked, his foot pounding a depression into the pale carpet.

“Sure. Whatever you like.”

“I’m Mary,” she said and held out her hand. “Mary Rivers.”

“Mary Rivers,” Warrior repeated, his head wobbling some.

They talked, and eventually Mary convinced Warrior to take a seat. His official name in the file was Thomas Yazzi. She agreed to call him Warrior and said she’d like to try something to start.

Once he’d dropped into the hard wooden chair across from her, she told him in the nicest way to put his feet flat on the floor and relax his hands that wouldn’t stop shaking in his lap. After that, she asked him to close his eyes, take in a deep breath, and imagine the breath pouring into his lungs, filling his belly, swirling around his thighs and calves and ankles, then shooting out his feet and his two big toes.

~

This crazy March day, it should have been pouring down rain and windy but the sun was out. Warrior wasn’t ready for what Mary had to say.

“I have some bad news, Mr. Yazzi.”

She scooted her chair close and rested her hand on Warrior’s wrist.

“It’s about your nephew, Justin,” she whispered.

“Your sister called. She was trying to reach you.”

The last time Warrior was on the reservation he’d stolen from his sister Lorraine. He’d barely seen his nephew Justin since he was born.

“Your nephew was killed in Afghanistan by a roadside bomb.”

The words came at Warrior like bullets. The news splintered his mind, even with his feet anchored on the floor.

“I’m sorry,” Mary said and patted his arm. “How are you doing there, Mr. Yazzi?”

How are you feeling, Mr. Yazzi? Mary asked all the time. Day after day, in this chair, his feet connected to the earth, Warrior scouted his body for the tight pinch in his belly that signaled fear or the ache that had to be sorrow.

“Mr. Yazzi. Are you all right?”

He nodded.

What did he remember about his nephew, Mary asked. Memories collided. Days he left his kids, Lilly and Robert, to party with friends, sometimes for days, over in Gallup. Waking up, sick as a dog, hearing those kids bawling, and smacking them ‘til they stopped. Last time he’d seen Robert all grown up, the boy scowled at him on the front porch, before he slammed the door.

“I feel,” Warrior said, trying to get a breath. His stomach clenched up. “Like it’s my fault.”

“How could it be your fault? Your nephew was in the Marines. He was fighting a war.”

“Everything I did. To my kids. My sister. Everyone.”

“It’s not your fault. It is not your fault.”

~

A few days that felt like a year went by before the breeze brushed Warrior’s forehead, as he stepped from the airport terminal into the bright sun. He stopped and let the breeze say hello. He wanted to tell the wind he had forgotten the feel of home. But everyone would think he was talking to himself, a habit from his drinking days he’d been trying to give up.

He moved his attention from the wind to the sky. His heart climbed up and scratched his throat. It was – well, what could he even begin to feel about it? Like no sky in Oregon or Vietnam. It was cloudless and blue, shimmering and wide. It was a sky that had no end and no beginning. It was a sky the Creator had dreamed of making. A sky that blessed all the children born under it. It was a sky Warrior had banished from his mind, to live where such a sky couldn’t survive.

He smiled to himself and looked around. Cars were circling the terminal. People dragged suitcases on wheels. Everyone was going about their business, as if the wind and sky had no meaning or purpose.

It was time, Warrior reminded himself, to go home.

~

The sun was low in the sky when Warrior pulled into the parking lot of the motel in Window Rock. He stepped out of the car, his back and shoulders stiff, his butt sore. The sorrow he felt, looking around at the red rock he’d only seen lately in car commercials, was enough to drown him.

Whenever you’re feeling on the edge, like you might relapse, call me, Mary Rivers had said.

The phone rang three times before she answered.

“Mr. Yazzi. Are you all right?”

~

He slipped out of the motel room before the sky grew light. The world was as quiet as a world gets. Few cars passed, as light gathered along the horizon in a thin bright line.

When he turned off the highway, Warrior heard Mary Rivers’ words again.

You must forgive yourself, Mr. Yazzi. The past is done and you can’t go back and change it. What you did before – the drinking, how you treated your family – and what you did in the war, those are things we have grieved here. Now, you must forgive yourself and go home. You must tell your family that you’re sorry.

Warrior drove until he was surrounded by red rock on all sides. He knew where he wanted to end up. But could he find it after being away so long?

All of a sudden, he slammed down the brake peddle and pulled the car over to the side of the road.

He stepped out into the cool, quiet morning. The sky hung overhead, like a throbbing heart. Smooth reddish-brown sand beckoned. He waited at the bottom of the dune for the sun to pop out.

The top of the dune was soaked in golden light. He became temporarily blinded.

At that moment, he heard the soft tinkling of bells. A goat cried, and he heard a sheep bleat.

His sight returned and the sun inched up. He watched the small goats and sheep step over the rise. Behind them, a man appeared on a horse. Like Warrior’s, his skin looked warmed and hardened by the sun. Atop his gray-streaked black hair, he wore a white cowboy hat, set a comfortable distance back.

Warrior waved his arms in two wide arcs. The animals moved down the sand, leaving a curved line of tender hoof prints behind. The man on the horse followed. Warrior waved again, and then, as if preparing to salute, he lifted a hand to his forehead, to shield his eyes from the light.

Suddenly, there was no Vietnam War. There were no cold wet streets to sleep on and no cramped jail cells. No waking up in his own vomit. The life Warrior forgot about had been waiting here all along. This life, with its sand dunes and red rock, the sky that went on forever and the people, his people, and their goats and sheep.

Feelings jostled inside, until his mind grabbed one he couldn’t remember having felt for a long time.

Happy, Warrior thought, and the tears streamed freely from his eyes. They dampened his cheeks and wet his mouth. He made no effort to wipe them off.

That’s what I feel, he whispered to Mary Rivers now.

 

 

Patty Somlo has received four Pushcart Prize nominations, been nominated for storySouth’s Million Writers Award and had an essay selected as a Notable Essay of 2013 for Best American Essays 2014. Author of From Here to There and Other Stories, Somlo has three forthcoming books: a short story collection, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil); a memoir, Even When Trapped Behind Clouds (WiDo Publishing), and Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing). Her work has appeared in journals, including the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, Under the Sun, Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, and WomenArts Quarterly. Find her at www.pattysomlo.com.

Read an interview with Patty here.

 

“Funk Island” by William Woolfitt

(Argument with Myself) Big Fish
“Big Fish” by Laura Didyk, Sharpie on paper, 2015.

You secure a research grant, you rent a dory at Seldom-Come-By, you want data about the extinction of great auks on Funk Island. You ramble about their plumage and diet and social habits, the sea is smooth glass and you call it a good omen, you are animated and gleeful until we step ashore. I feel the sinking in you, the crumbling, the let-down, as we stand on the bare flat rock that seafarers called the Funks. Everywhere, the cacophony of birds, a continuous and grating squabble, the whirr of wings, and when we breathe, the reek of excrement and decayed fish. Your shoulders droop, your eyes look tired, your face loses color. Murres still nest here, covering the ground like great patches of snow, and black-legged kittiwakes who chatter to their eggs, and a mercy of puffins. You drive tent stakes into the lumpy turf while I light the camp-stove; you strike something solid, tiny, pale, one something, then several, then your hands are full, too many to count. Gizzard stones, I say; maybe the Beothuk tribe feasted here, used the stones for a game. You scold me for my sunny outlook. Sleeping on a massacre site, you say. At times like this, you are mercurial, prickly, superstitious, swinging between highs and bottoms, dreamy anticipation and sour disillusionment, back to soaring dream. I know from my study of you. You have two moods, high and low, and if I favor one, you go scrambling after the other, and that means you also scramble away from me.

Two centuries ago, the Beothuk paddled their birch bark canoes here, killed the great auks for meat, dried the yolks of their eggs, made puddings and cakes from the egg-powder. We are surveying the island, lowering ourselves into a gulch. I provoke you so that you will counter me, forget to mope. I say, some might argue that the Beothuk were as ruthless and inhumane as the Europeans. You look over your shoulder, frown at me. Think about the colonists and sealers, you say. Stopped here when their provisions were low, butchered and barreled the fatty auk-meat with salt. And the cod-fishermen who stoned the great auks. And chopped them up or snatched auk chicks for hook-bait. And the eggers of Labrador who tramped through the auks’ nesting grounds, and ensured the freshness of their product by crushing all the eggs beneath their heels, and then returned a week later to gather whatever eggs were newly laid. And the feather hunters who ripped feathers from living auks and let them bleed to death, or clubbed the auks and drove them into stone corrals. Boiled them in kettles to loosen their feathers. Used their oil-rich carcasses to fuel the kettle-fires. Gathered their feathers for mattresses. That was cruelest, I say. Flightlessness cost the auks dearly, you say. And trust in humans.

In the dome tent, both of us cocooned, poured out, limbs around trunk, haunch against shank, curled together like snowberry creepers, like blood-vines. You are cheery when I wake, energetic, whistling, you offer me French press coffee and oatmeal and half a tangerine, you tell me that your auk data will help you brainstorm strategies for the survival of the animal kingdom. Many or most species, you say. Even our kind. At the dig, I set out brushes, scrapers, and picks; you mark a square foot, bite your lower lip, take a trowel, gently run the long edge over the packed earth, the lightest of pressures, loosening a few granules and bits, a few more, and I feel the tender in you. The bright angle in you, the stony road. If you come up empty-handed, I will tell you that there’s a flyaway chance, light as sweater fuzz or stray hairs, for creatures to come here and hope. The vagrant black goose, for one, and the naturalists who came, bringing kegs, clam-hoes, arsenic soap, labels, and gauze. We both call out when you find our jackpot, sunken in the guano and ash, bones, more bones, thousands of bones.

 

 

William Woolfitt teaches at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. He is the author of two books of poetry, Beauty Strip (Texas Review Press, 2014) and Charles of the Desert (Paraclete Press, forthcoming). He is also the author of a fiction chapbook, The Boy with Fire in His Mouth (2014). His poems and stories have appeared in Shenandoah, Michigan Quarterly Review, Threepenny Review, Tin House online, and elsewhere.

“Flame” by Chloe Ackerman

Flame
“Black Fish” by Laura Didyk, Sharpie on paper, 2015

Mouse leans against the wall, close to the door. “This doesn’t look like a doctor’s office,” she says. The room is warm, dark, and messy. There are puzzles and trucks scattered on the floor, books thrown haphazardly on shelves, and stuffed animals littering the couch.

An old woman with gray hair in a bun sits on a rolling chair. “That’s because it isn’t.”

Mouse can’t see what’s on the chart in the woman’s lap, but she’s pretty sure it’s about her. “I thought you were a doctor.”

“I’m Dr. Hernandez. A psychologist. Sit down where you like.”

“I don’t want to sit down. And I don’t need a psychologist.” Mouse crosses her arms and stares at the woman, who doesn’t look up.

“Your case worker says you do.”

“What are you going to do to me?” She digs her nails into her palms.

Dr. Hernandez looks up. “I’m not going to do anything to you.” She crosses her legs under her skirt and considers Mouse. “You don’t look like a mouse.”

“Yeah, well, that’s my name.”

“It says here you’re Mary Palmer.”

“My name is Mouse.”

“Does it mean anything? Like you’re small and quick, or good at hiding?”

“I don’t hide.”

“Who calls you Mouse?”

Mouse is tired of questions but she knows that anger is what got her here in the first place. She says, “Are you a pedophile or something?”

“No, why do you ask?” Dr. Hernandez doesn’t seem offended.

“You bring little girls into your office? Ask questions about their life and shit? It’s weird.”

“You can leave if you’d like. But you’ll have to come back next week.”

Mouse glares.

“If you sit down, I won’t ask you any more questions about your life today. I promise.”

A minute passes. A minute and a half. Mouse throws herself on the couch, hood shadowing her face.

“Sometimes when I first meet people,” Dr. Hernandez says, “I don’t like to talk. I’m shy, or I don’t trust them. I’m afraid they’ll use things I say against me.” Mouse jerks her head up, more like a hawk than a rodent. “Sometimes, when I first meet people, listening feels safer.” She stops, considering, then says, “I know a story you might like—”

“You don’t know anything about me.”

Dr. Hernandez nods. “You’re right, but I think you would like this story. I could tell it over the next few weeks and when the story is over, you can think about talking.”

Mouse narrows her eyes. “I’m twelve. Too old for kids’ books.”

“This isn’t a story for children.”

Mouse glares, crosses her arms. “Are you going to tell the story or not?”

Dr. Hernandez smiles, settles in, and begins. “Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a place where people were happy. This place had showers and sunshine, brooks with bridges and gardens with lovely flowers. In this place lived a little girl named Fiametta. Fiametta had a mother and father, the kind who tucked her into bed at night after making sure she brushed her teeth. They played hide-and-seek with her, took her to fairs and the park, gave her birthday parties and bear hugs.

“Fiametta loved her parents, and they loved her, but most of all they loved each other, and that made Fiametta feel happier and safer than anything in the world. Even if she had a bad dream or got lost at the zoo, she knew her parents would save her, and she would always have a happy ending.

“But then one day something horrible happened. It was after Christmas, and everything was snow and crackling fires and eggnog. There was an accident, and Fiametta’s mother went somewhere Fiametta could not go, and her father told her she wouldn’t see her mother again.”

“She died?” Mouse’s hood has fallen down, and her face is visible – light skin, dark hair, green eyes and freckles. Deep circles sink under her eyes; a scar traces her chin. She looks hollow and small.

When Dr. Hernandez nods, she looks sad, too. “Yes, her mother died.”

“But…what happened to Fiametta?”

“I’m afraid our time is up,” Dr. Hernandez says, as though she’s apologizing. “I’ll tell you more in a week.”

On the way back to the foster home, the case worker chatters on and Mouse thinks she sees Fiametta on the street in a blue dress, holding her parents’ hands. The case worker wants to know what Mouse and the psychologist talked about but knows she shouldn’t ask, and Mouse isn’t just going to tell her. She counts on her fingers how many days until she goes back. Six.

~

Dr. Hernandez wears a dark red and navy skirt this week, and Mouse briefly longs to own a skirt like that. She would twirl and dance all day.

“How are you today, Mouse?”

Mouse shrugs. “What did you do?”

“Nothing.”

“Do you want to hear more about Fiametta?”

Mouse shifts her gaze to her shoes. She knows how it works when someone has something you really want, so she doesn’t respond.

“Mouse? Do you?” She settles on a minuscule shrug and Dr. Hernandez clears her throat.

“Fiametta had just lost her mother, remember? And Fiametta’s world became cold and damp and nothing grew because there was no sun. One by one, Fiametta’s treasures disappeared, until all that remained was the dark. She forgot her dolls and how to play imaginary games and how to read storybooks, and instead drifted through the house humming old songs. Her father, instead of taking her to the beach or museum, wandered by himself at night, so when Fiametta had nightmares she woke crying for her mother, but found the house empty, her father roaming in the dark.

“Fiametta’s clothes were gray, her father’s hair was gray, and the sky was always gray. But she was not. She was clear, like she could walk through walls or stand very still in a room and disappear. Her father felt the same way, she thought, because sometimes he would just stop in the middle of a room and stare at the walls. Then Fiametta would take him by the hand and help him take off his cardigan and slippers and tuck him in to bed, where he could fall asleep and forget. Fiametta would sit in the dark and watch him frown in sleep because there was no one to put her to bed.

“She was scared of the dark. Darkness carried her mother away to a place she could not follow, a place her father searched for as he wandered shadowed streets, calling his dead wife’s name.

“And so Fiametta began to steal candles, slipping them into her pockets when no one was looking. She gathered one hundred of them, arranged them in her room, and lit them one-by-one in the same order every night before she tucked herself into bed. Those nights her room flickered with yellows and oranges, with color, warm like summer, with a smell like winter fireplaces. This way Fiametta could dream and not wake.”

Mouse is silent, even though Dr. Hernandez has been watching her. Mouse knows she will cry if she moves.

“I’m not going to tell you anymore today.” Dr. Hernandez speaks gently, like breaking bad news. Mouse nods. “What do you think of the story so far?”

“It’s sad.”

“Yes. Do you want to hear the rest?”

Mouse hesitates, measuring, then says, “Yes.”

“Even though it’s sad?”

Mouse thinks hard. The story doesn’t make her feel good. “I need to know what happens to Fiametta.” She bites the inside of her cheek.

“I want you to do something for me this week,” Dr. Hernandez says. “I want you to make me a picture every day, anything you like. It can be big or small, made with paint or crayons or glue and dirt, whatever you want. Can you do that for me, and bring them with you next week?”

Mouse nods. She can do that.

~

Each night, Mouse sits at the kitchen table with a piece of paper. Her foster brothers and sisters pass through, her foster mother makes dinner and everyone eats, then they come back into the kitchen to clean up. They don’t ask what Mouse is doing because they know therapists ask people to do weird things and if someone told Mouse to stare at a blank paper every night for three hours, they’re not going to comment. Mouse has already fought three of them since she moved in. No one wants to be the fourth.

And then, with the TV blaring in the living room and loud music coming from upstairs and the streetlights turning everything orange and forlorn, Mouse lights a candle and begins tracing the shadows that fall across her paper: bits of furniture, dishes, even her own hand, and then she colors them in. At the end of each night, Mouse has a piece of white paper covered in shadows.

~

Dr. Hernandez’s skirt is black this week; the color folds sorrow into Mouse’s belly. She clutches her seven sheets of paper but her hood is down and her eyes are on Dr. Hernandez.

“How was your week?”

Mouse shrugs.

“Did you do what I asked?”

She nods and clutches her pages, soft from her sweaty palms. “You aren’t going to take them?”

“Only if you want me to.”

Mouse looks at the one on top, and all she sees are stupid lines. They aren’t drawings at all. She’s done it wrong. “No.”

Dr. Hernandez nods. “Okay.” And that’s it. No argument, no pushing. “Are you ready to hear about Fiametta?” Mouse nods hard.

“Fiametta lit candles every night, remember? So she could sleep alone in the dark. And Fiametta lived like this for many years, slipping candles into her pockets as she wandered through stores when she was supposed to be in school. Every night, she lit them when the sun dipped beneath the horizon, until her room was ablaze and she could sleep.

“And then one night, as she lit her hundred candles, one tipped over, knocking over two more, and soon the room was hot and dark and Fiametta fled through the window as her room went up in flames.”

“Oh no…” Mouse whispers.

Dr. Hernandez’s eyes are sad, her voice low. “Fiametta ran and ran until she came to a river. She took off her clothes that smelled like ash and threw them in the black water, then jumped in herself, scratching the soot off her skin and out of her hair.

“In the morning, people found her shivering, naked and blue on the rocky bank, and they told her that her father had been in the house, that he had been burned up, and that they would take care of her. Then they washed her and gave her cast-off clothes that didn’t fit, then told her she would be sent away.”

Several seconds pass before Mouse realizes Dr. Hernandez has stopped. “Where is she sent?” she asks, too urgently, but she doesn’t care anymore.

Dr. Hernandez shakes her head. “That’s all for this week.”

“But…I have to know what happens next.”

“You will. I promise. Will you show me your pictures now?”

Mouse stretches out her hand. The pages are wrinkled, the pencil smudged. Dr. Hernandez examines each one. Mouse tries not to squirm.

“Will you tell me why you drew these?”

“That’s what grownups say when the drawing’s too bad to figure out.”

Dr. Hernandez raises an eyebrow. “You’re very perceptive. But I know what these are. It’s a clever idea. I never would have thought of it.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. I’m interested in why you chose to draw shadows.”

Mouse shrugs. “That’s what was on the page.”

“What were you thinking about when you drew them?”

Mouse chews on the inside of her cheek. “I was thinking…about shadows.” Her words fall lamely between them. It was a stupid idea.

“What do shadows mean to you?”

“Darkness. And…and hiding.”

“Safety?”

Mouse squeezes her eyes shut. “No. Because there’s still light. I can still be found.”

“…and you’re still afraid.”

Mouse’s eyes snap open. “I’m not afraid of anything.”

“It’s not wrong to be afraid.” Dr. Hernandez’s voice is gentle. “Fear makes us protect ourselves or run away.”

“I don’t run away.”

“I know. But it’s okay if you do.”

“I didn’t run away.” Mouse’s fury is ebbing, her chin quivers. She will not cry.

“But it’s okay,” Dr. Hernandez says again, “if you do.”

That night, Mouse sits at the kitchen table with a pencil, a piece of paper, and a candle. A path of shadows falls across the paper. She draws it, then gets another piece of paper and draws more path, darker path, and on the next a smaller and more etched path of shadows, until the candle drowns in its own wax and she has to go to bed. She dreams her house is burning and everything is light, and she is safe.

~

“You brought me something.” Dr. Hernandez accepts the papers from Mouse’s clenched hands. She flips through them. “Let’s lay them on the floor.”

Mouse kneels and together they organize the papers into a long trail. The old woman surveys them, chin resting in her hand. Her red skirt fans around her, and Mouse only just resists the urge to rub the crinkled cloth between her fingers.

“Shadows,” she finally pronounces. “But I don’t know what they make.”

“It’s a path. To here.”

“To this room?”

Mouse nods.

“Because it’s safe here?”

Mouse pauses, then nods again.

“Will you tell me where it starts sometime?”

Mouse rests in that sometime. She nods.

“Okay. Fiametta’s house burned down, remember? Her father died, and she was being sent away.”

Mouse moves to the couch, Dr. Hernandez to her chair. Shadows stretch between them.

“’Sent away’ meant boarding school. Old musty smells and scratchy blankets and loneliness. In boarding school, Fiametta learned modest fashion and penmanship and manners. She learned to cook and type and balance a checkbook. She also learned to sneak out and smoke and sweet-talk strangers on corners at night and be back under scratchy sheets by the six o’ clock wake-up call.

“Fiametta didn’t burn candles anymore. The dormitory didn’t allow it, and the other girls made fun of her for being afraid of the dark. Instead, Fiametta took her solace from the simmering glow of cigarettes in the dark, from the flare and sizzle when she sucked in, and she held that image close as she tried to fall asleep, plagued by memories of happiness she no longer believed in.

“In the cold nights Fiametta leaned on door frames in bars and smiled at men who reminded her of her father, men with sad eyes and limp wrists and sloping shoulders, who stared at the mirror behind the bar waiting for someone they missed to walk up behind them. And so Fiametta would. She would call the man Joe and touch him like she’d known him a long time, and she would leave him sleeping with a smile on his face, the hollow shadows on his cheeks diminished.

“But each morning Fiametta felt as though the hollowness she’d taken from him had nestled behind her ribs, and she felt a hook there, pulling her out again each night to find another lonely man and offer him her name to call as he wandered empty streets.

“It didn’t help. The cigarette’s flame was not bright enough, the man never warm enough, and Fiametta shivered until her teachers thought she was ill, and she hoped she was dying. They gave her pills to stop the blue in her lips from spreading, and the pills were warm. Dissolved in gin, they were warmer, and injected warmer still.

“Slowly Fiametta forgot about the wakeup call. She forgot about the boarding school, and met in alleyways with other shivering junkies to hover around flaming barrels until they could score enough cash for a fix.

“Fiametta called herself Flame now and belonged to a man named Joe. She was sixteen years old, half-starved, half-dead, lonely and lost.”

~

“Mouse?” Dr. Hernandez whispers. She kneels by the couch and peers at the girl.

Mouse shakes her head from beneath her hood. She’s folded in, hiding in her baggy clothes. “Mouse. Will you tell me what you’re feeling?”

Mouse stifles a sob. “It’s not right.”

“What isn’t?”

“Fiametta didn’t do anything wrong. But everything went wrong anyway and she couldn’t stop it and no one helped her. No one even cared.” Mouse is now sobbing uncontrollably, barely managing words, barely managing breath.

“I know. I know. It wasn’t her fault.”

“Her parents left her!” Mouse roars. “They were supposed to keep her safe and they left her!” She pounds on the arm of the couch with tiny clenched fists.

“Is it? Could her mother have kept from dying? Could her father have stopped being sad?”

“They should have! If they loved me, they would have done anything!”

“Oh, Mouse,” Dr. Hernandez whispers. “Oh, my dear Mouse.” She places a hand on the girl’s shoulder.

They sit there for a long time, the woman with her hand on Mouse’s shoulder, Mouse curled up and crying until her head hurts and she can’t breathe through her nose. She sits up and wipes her face on her sleeve. “You have to finish the story.”

“Are you sure?”

Her nod is resolute, her face firm. Dr. Hernandez sits beside her. “What do you think happens to Fiametta?”

“She runs. She runs as fast as she can. Until she sees a policeman.”

“Are policemen safe?”

“No one is as bad as Joe.” Mouse shakes her head, clenches her fists. “But the policeman won’t help. She’s got crack on her, so she turns herself in. He takes her to jail. She’s safe there.”

“And then?”

Mouse falters.

Dr. Hernandez waits a moment. “Mouse, where does the path lead?”

“To the end of the story.” She fidgets. “Here.”

“What is the end of the story?”

“I don’t know.” Such a small voice.

“You know, Mouse. What happens?”

Silence. That inward folding.

“Mouse? Are you ready to tell me what happened?”

“…yes.”

 

 

Chloe Ackerman hails from the Land of Enchantment but currently resides with her dog in the much rainier (but no less enchanted) Pacific Northwest, where she recently completed a doctorate in clinical psychology. She has edited or contributed to a small number of literary magazines and anthologies and has been published in Mirror Dance. She hopes to one day be both a famous author and a renowned psychologist because she believes in having it all, but she would also be happy with a supply of tea and a tiny house in a forest.

“Europa Hides an Ocean” by Jennifer Williams

Europa Hides an Ocean cropped
“Rainfall” by Mia Avramut, wax on paper, 5.8 x 8.2 in.

The creek that runs through the fifteen-mile canyon north of Sedona is lined with box elder and ash trees. Their campground, terraced into a wooded slope, overlooks a rocky bend, and towering limestone hugs the opposite bank. The girl sits on the largest boulder, midstream. She wears checkered flannel, her last clean pair of jeans. Her shoes are good for slippery stones. She waited all morning for the light to hit the water. Now, she closes her eyes and lifts her face.

A rustling noise makes her jump. She hasn’t forgotten the host’s warning. “Rattlers,” he’d said, poking through dark vegetation. All weekend, he carried around a bucket and pronged pole. Now, she scans the bank grasses and bower vines. But all she sees moving are some white butterflies and the shifting leaf shadows on the graveled shore.

Her new walking stick lies within those shadows. It’s smooth and dove gray, with purple-rose shading along its textured lines. She wants to take it with her. She looks up at her mother wrapping the breakfast mugs in towels. Their tent is gone, stuffed into the duffle to be hauled to the car. They’ll cart things out this way—in bundled loads up the concrete steps. From where she sits, the stages are clear: bank rise, then campsites, then cars. Her gaze slips across the narrow parking lot and up the steep ramp that cuts to the road. Through the mingled canopy of pines and creek trees, the girl makes out a red car flashing around the highway curve like an apple on the move: there, then there! then gone.

When they’d arrived, someone was parked in their spot. It was late Friday, and three tents were already clustered on the site next to theirs, the largest glowing from a lamp inside. The two smaller tents were the low-slung type meant just for sleeping. They glowed, too, though more softly, and only on the side that faced in.

Her mother had dimmed the headlights coming down the ramp, and now they idled by the other car, staring through the darkness at the tents, until the host brought his face to their window. “One campground, one car,” he said, marking his clipboard. “I’ll have them move.”

The girl slides down the big rock and tests a few stones for balance. If she wanted to, she could make it to the opposite bank. But there’s not much shore, and the wall of rock goes straight up, higher than any building she’s seen. Besides, she’s already tried what she could to engage it: on their first morning, she crouched with both palms against it and pushed.

Now she balances on two flat stones and squats down, eyeing a shallow pool for the flicker of trout. She’s quiet, patient, but only something minnow-sized glides through. When she twists up she sees her mother again, closer, standing with her hands on her hips. Just above the crest, the girl can make out the tops of her mother’s boots, but the splashing of the creek makes her still seem far away. The girl frowns when her mother points towards those boots, towards the ground where she’s standing.

It takes both hands to climb up the bank. She leaves her walking stick propped at the base of a tree and uses roots and vines to pull herself up. Near the top, a wolf spider darts across her thumb. It vanishes under leaves before she even registers what it was.

“I called you three times,” her mother says, pulling a white scarf over her dark hair. The scarf reminds the girl of her old pirate costume, and she wants to make a joke—after all, this weekend was different. They’d played cribbage and cards, plowing through every two-person game they knew. Her mother didn’t try to let her win, and she won anyway.

Instead, the girl looks up. A fat squirrel sits above their heads. Flakes of what it nibbles float down, and a piece lands on the scarf, then another one. The girl is getting taller. She can see the little pieces like pepper on a tablecloth.

They start hauling bags to the car. The biggest they carry up together, with the girl pulling, stepping backwards at the top. The neighbors are cooking bacon, even though it’s lunchtime, and it smells like the pancake restaurant near their house.

“If you lived on another planet,” the girl says, stealing glances towards the campfire, “how many moons would you want?”

Her mother arms her forehead, but doesn’t stop. “How many can I have?”

“Neptune has thirteen.”

“Too bright! I’d never sleep.” They drop the bag near the trunk. “I don’t know,” her mother says, slowly thumbing a knuckle, “maybe last night’s moon was enough.”

They fill the trunk, the passenger seat, and all the space behind the driver. It’s not the best arrangement: the cooler only opens partway, and on sharp turns the aluminum chair slides off the bedrolls, smacking the girl’s shoulder. She wishes aloud that they still had the truck. Her mother is bent away from her, leaning into the stacks to make everything fit. Without looking back she answers, “I know, baby. I know.”

The girl has the same hair as her mother, dark and wavy. They used to wear it in similar braids, and it pleased the girl when people joked they were twins. But her mother recently had hers cut. “Chopped,” was her word, and she had tried to explain about fresh starts. The girl still likes her braid, but she knows the only way to match her mother again is to cut hers, too. She reaches back now, considering this, and hooks the braid forward to suck on the end.

Side-by-side, they survey the empty site. They hear less of the creek where they are now, and more small noises from the trees and other campers. Nobody talks too loudly, but they hear a few tent zippers and a short beckoning whistle that echoes. Even after the sound dies, the girl lets the fragment pulse in her memory. Her mother says the canyon is like a church.

Everything’s loaded, but they don’t leave. On previous trips, they would have been gone right after breakfast. There would have been concerns about traffic. This time, she and her mother are continuing north, passing over mountains and through national parks.

A great deal has been explained to the girl: the trip will take all summer; they are not in a hurry; they will zigzag and sleep in the tent or a cabin, every so often a motel; some of the mountain roads pass above 10,000 feet. They’ll visit old mines and swimming pools, and eat ice cream cones in every town. Everything her mother can promise has been promised.

The girl thinks she sees a Painted Redstart and whispers to her mother. They crisscross the parking lot, trying to spot it again. It becomes a race and they split up, creeping around different cars. Her mother almost laughs when they bump into each other, both of them backing up, scanning opposite trees.

Back at their own car, they spot three boys climbing single-file over the rocks down by the water. The girl recognizes them from next door, and the first boy carries her stick. “That’s mine,” she says, but her voice is quiet. He’s older, and in any case, she is never allowed to take things out of nature. Sticks, rocks, even wishbone wands: everything stays. It’s still a family rule.

The night before, the boys set up cots to sleep under the stars. The girl fell asleep thinking about whether she’d like to do the same, and in the morning, she poked her head out. Two boys had disappeared into their sleeping bags. But the one with her stick now had his face turned towards her. After a second, he pulled his arm from the warmth of his bag and gave a small wave.

The girl watches the boys reach the tree where she’d found egg-shaped stones in the space between two roots. She doesn’t protest about the stick again. She’s already pushing the want away, packing it up, taping it closed like all the boxes: winter clothes; Mom bath; tournament albums, SAVE.

Her mother looks over at the clustered tents. The adults are eating at the picnic table. Suddenly, the girl is glad about the family rule because she wouldn’t want her mother going over there, explaining. But when she looks back her mother is already hopping down the steps, striding across their campsite—not towards the adults, but towards the water. The tall boy stiffens and glances at the girl. She wants to drag her mother back. But it’s too late, her mother has dropped over the bank and is at the water’s edge, extending her hand. The girl has never seen her mother do this to a kid. The boy takes the hand slowly and shakes it.

He quickly relinquishes the stick, but her mother stays down there. She reaches out and because of whatever she is saying, they all look in the direction of the towering rock. While the girl waits, she kicks at the old retaining wall edging the lot. She looks around the treetops, the parked cars, then over at the neighbors, who don’t seem to notice her mother at all. The girl hears one of the boys laugh as she toes the crumbling mortar.

In September, she’ll start a new school. They’ll live in Spokane, first with her grandmother, then, when the boxes arrive, in an apartment. Her mother doesn’t know if the school has many stories, a lot of kids, or even if the playground has swings. The girl is almost too old for swings, but she’d like them to be there anyway.

When she spots her mother again it’s her hands that show up first, over the edge of the bank. Then come the scarf and new haircut. But the girl quickly forgets both these things because her mother’s got the stick between her teeth like a dog. At the top, her mother steadies herself and looks up. Even with the stick, the girl can tell she’s grinning. She spits it out and stands there with her hands on her hips, panting in an exaggerated way. The boys are laughing. Her mother laughs, too. But the girl covers her mouth: she’s too happy to make a sound.

Her mother starts the car, cracks the windows. Sunlight strikes their knees. “Those boys just saw a snake,” her mother says. “In the rocks where they were standing. Can you believe it?” She turns in her seat, but she doesn’t look scared, or even relieved. Just happy.

The girl smiles back. “I wish we’d seen it, too.”

Their little car crawls up the steep drive. The girl rolls her window down the rest of the way and the boys wave from the abandoned site. “Say, Bon Voyage,” the girl yells to them. At the top of the ramp, she’s surprised to realize she can still hear the water. She closes her eyes to capture the sound.

When they’re past the first big turn, the girl pats her stick propped against the stack to her left, holding back the bedrolls and aluminum chair. She feels the coziness of the car, the gentle strobe of sunlight as they skirt high walls and break away past the trees. “Jupiter has sixty-three moons,” she says, resting her feet up against the seat in front of her.

“Why so many?”

The girl shrugs. “And some of those moons are huge, with names from Greek mythology.” She pulls her braid forward, flicks the end. “They’re practically planets, too.”

 

 

Jennifer Williams is a graduate of Pacific University’s MFA Program. Prior to writing, she worked as an engineer in Phoenix. Her short story “Gore Junkies” appeared in the Oregon anthology, The Night, and the Rain, and the River and she lives in Portland, Oregon.

Read an interview with Jennifer here.

“Fulfillment” by Avital Gad-Cykman

Fulfilled
“Womb” by Mia Avramut, wax on paper, 5.8 x 8.2 in.

The magazine “This World” proclaimed Cassit Café an upscale Bohemia where poets and journalists drank together, and writers and singers shared stories. The article was embellished with photographs of models and air-hostesses, however, it must have been a crock.

All she saw was a half-empty darkened place with an intimidating aged waiter in black and white, standing at the entrance and staring at her until she dropped her eyes and withdrew toward the edge of the sidewalk. She didn’t want to enter anyway. A two-hour bus drive away from home, and the pavement almost danced under her feet.

Instead she was determined to find another restaurant where people ate chicken and French fries with their hands, no table manners or polite conversation, only a full mouth and oily fingers. She’d find that perfect place.

Walking tentatively toward the north, she stopped when a masculine voice called, “Hey, hello, want me to read your palm?” As expected, the man, unkempt and in his thirties, wearing an oversized jacket, leaning against a rare robust tree, was looking at her. People always thought she was easy prey. She shook her head, able to sense the rough surface of his blackened hand rubbing against the palm of her hand, and what good future could come out of that?

Despite the electric pleasure of the city, it became harder to speak with people as the hours advanced. She coughed, to hear her own voice without appearing to be crazy. She didn’t have to talk with anyone, anyway. Being a stranger made her an explorer, a magician, anything except just a girl. Back in her home town everybody knew whose daughter she was, whose friend, where she lived, where she studied, her grades, her hobbies, and who had left her for another. She really wanted French fries. The chicken must be pretty special too. Everyone assumed the other girl had something she didn’t, which was probably true. The chickens, she hoped, did not go through a slaughterhouse, like the one oddly located not far from the city center, back at home. She went there, once, out of curiosity, and despite the jutting blood she didn’t become a vegetarian, because, as her boyfriend used to say, “that’s life.” If you didn’t have what it took to survive, you didn’t.

She had thought she was pregnant, and wondered if she’d still grow up to be an air-hostess, or, if nothing else worked, a poet. She could never tell what she was or what she might be the way others could. She believed she was pregnant, though babies should happen with maturity, and not because you see a bleeding featherless chicken. Either way, he would never take her back with a baby. She was so certain, she stole money from his wallet and her father’s, and also from her mother’s purse, and though she wasn’t sure how much she needed, she assumed she had enough.

Above all, she believed it would be easier to find a doctor in the city. But now, walking down Dizengof Street, she knew that her growing belly didn’t house a baby, just the way the café didn’t house poets and writers and air-hostesses, despite its potential. She simply needed a lot to eat because nothing filled her up.

The busy street with its food stalls, clothing stores, graying three-story buildings and a ramp with a tub aspiring to be a fountain stood on the verge of greatness, like a superhero still wearing an office suit. She recognized the restaurant thanks to the large sign announcing liberation from silverware. The young waiter in a red t-shirt offered a bib and rubber gloves, which she declined. He smiled at her, he did, and as she chose a stool at the counter, he served her a large metal plate full of French fries and half a chicken.

Her face shimmered, and her eyes released dragonflies to the air. She sighed in relief and ripped the food with her bare hands.

 

 

 

Avital Gad-Cykman‘s book, the flash collection LIFE IN, LIFE OUT was published by Matter Press in 2014. Her stories have been published in The Literary Review, CALYX Journal, Glimmer Train, McSweeney’s, Prism International, Michigan Quarterly Review and elsewhere. They have also been featured in anthologies such as W.W. Norton’s International Flash Anthology, Sex for America, Politically Inspired Fiction, Stumbling and Raging, Politically Inspired Fiction Anthology, The Flash, and The Best of Gigantic. She won the Margaret Atwood Society Magazine Prize, placed first in The Hawthorne Citation Short Story Contest, and was a finalist for the Iowa Fiction Award for story collections. She lives in Brazil.

Read an interview with Avital here.

“Gong Bath” by Kristin Walters


“In” by Allen Forrest, oil on canvas

Tina listened to the hostess list the potential side effects of the gong bath: anxiety, nausea, flushing, feelings of cold. “Muscle paralysis,” said the woman, folding the pinky and fourth finger of her right hand spasmodically to her palm. She was lit in an orange glow, the votive candles at her feet reflecting off the gong and casting the yoga studio and its forty or fifty occupants in a soft coat of gold. “Just a mild paralysis,” she continued and slipped off her shoes, settling cross-legged next to the gong in front of a half circle of singing bowls. “But these things aren’t certain to happen,” she assured them.

Except Tina was pretty certain they would happen to her. She immediately regretted not wearing socks, a chill across both feet already blooming in soft little bites. The woman continued to talk, introducing herself as Shoshanna, and her silent, bearded husband, as Richie. They were percussionists trained in reiki, all kinds of yoga, massage and voice. Shoshanna mentioned something about Tibet, but Tina zoned out for a second, transfixed on the giant gong, and the way the candlelight danced across its five-foot diameter, turning the hammered metal into a golden, rippling sea. It was tuned to the Cosmic Octave, the frequency of the earth’s rotation around the sun, and its vibrations were supposed to be healing. After seeing the event advertised outside the yoga studio near her work, Tina had mentioned the sound bath offhand to her husband over dinner the week before. “You should do it,” he said, his mouth still full of her pasta carbonara. Tina laughed, knowing how embarrassed she and her husband felt for the people who believed in those things. It was silly, she thought and looked at her husband, for a sign that he was joking. After a minute of silence he placed his silverware across his half finished plate, walked to the computer in the living room and registered her for the event online.

The room would have to warm up with all these people and candles, Tina thought, rubbing her icy feet together, eying everyone else kneeling on their mats, looking temperately excited and expectant. She admired this about the new-agey yogi types, all so eager and calm about being vulnerable. She wanted to be more like them. She did. She did or she wouldn’t be here.

Shoshanna instructed them to lie on their mats, heads towards the gong. She asked them to close their eyes and choose an intention, one word or idea for them to focus their energy on. Acceptance, Tina thought immediately and she felt for a second that coming to the bath was the right decision. For two months now her husband had been trying to get her to accept that “these things just happen”. Which she knew. She did. It happened all the time. But still, everything just happens all the time to everyone until it happens to you. And then it doesn’t just happen all the time, it happens once and that once is real and haunting and infects you not once, but all the time.

“Illumination,” said Shoshanna, giving intention suggestions for the less prepared people in the room. Either Shoshanna or Richie started playing the singing bowls, rounds of dings like small bells, their notes expanding and floating over Tina’s head like a silk scarf. Even as one thread of the song went silent, it didn’t seem to Tina to die out, it seemed to simply drift away, en route to another ear, another room of supine yuppies that needed their toxins nudged from their blood. This gave her momentary comfort until another chill ran through her. “Peace,” whispered Shoshanna and the rolling notes of the singing bowls meshed with the sweet pitch of her voice and resonated right through Tina, her jaw and calf muscles relaxing, reminding her to try to relax the rest of her body. Tina stretched her legs and brought her shoulder blades together towards the center of the mat so that her neck tilted slightly upward. “Love.” Too obvious, thought Tina, tension releasing from the skin of her forehead. “Hope,” said Shoshanna and Tina dismissed this as a rather audacious suggestion. The room was getting warmer and the woman next to Tina audibly exhaled.   Finally Tina relaxed her fingers and let them take their natural furl. “Clarity,” said Shoshanna and Tina didn’t know why but the word sounded so incredibly beautiful in that moment. Clarity, Tina thought, Clarity. It sounded so much bigger than her, but maybe not impossible to get. And like that, she switched her intention.

“One more thing,” said Shoshanna. “The flash near the end. It’s going to be loud.”

The surge of the singing bowls swelled and then a drumbeat began behind it. A bead of sweat formed at Tina’s temple. “Now imagine a light in your heart,” said Shoshanna. “A little light in your heart.” And there it was. It surprised Tina that she found it so quickly—a tiny circle of yellow floating in that dark pump in her chest. Oh there you are, Tina thought, delighted. The light didn’t radiate—it looked more like a hole leading outwards, a pin-prick pathway to a field of light, and it undulated in the waves of her now drumbeat paced heart. Then Tina became concerned. So easily had she found this light that she was afraid it had always been there and she had been overlooking it. She felt bad about how that tended to happen to things, small things. Like her husband not caring enough about their baby just because it had been only the size of a kiwi fruit.

Tina named the light Dierdre, Deedee for short.

The gong started as a slow rolling. Each of the sounds—the singing bowls, the drum beat, and the gong—seemed to orbit one another, each one asserting itself individually and then being pulled into the others’ gravity. Tina thought about the sun even though it was dark now. She imagined the space between the earth and the sun, the space the cosmic octave was resonating through at this very moment and it looked like such a short distance from her perspective, especially as the vibrations of it pulsed through her own blood. She imagined herself floating in that black space, just as Deedee floated in her own heart. Tina felt the freeze of the darkness and the warm warm warmth of the sun, and the sound surrounded her like twinkling stardust and her breathing began to quicken. Did she feel nauseous? A bit. Dizzy was more like it. She might be sick. She might definitely be sick. But she didn’t want to make a scene. She didn’t want attention, any attention. Instead she focused on Deedee in the toxin-tainted blackness of her heart. Deedee flickered happily, like the dance of a bright star, and Tina’s fatigue overtook her. As Tina fell asleep, she felt at peace drifting through the dark dark universe.

Tina’s attention returned to the room when the paralysis started. Her right pinky and forth finger twitched towards her palm and her smallest toes curled. The gong sound was swirling, like an agitated sea, and it felt like Tina’s lungs were shrinking. She couldn’t hear her breath in the gong’s great roar. Tina found Deedee again, having lost her in her short sleep and in the panic of her paralysis. Her fingers and toes still cramped and immobile, Tina willed them to move, jerking her arm accidentally onto her neighbor’s. She recoiled quickly and apologized wordlessly in her head. The muscles unknotted and she placed her arm carefully back on the ground, opening her eyes to make sure she didn’t again graze the woman next to her. Though it was odd, wasn’t it? That they were all pulsing at the octave of the universe, contributors to one giant cosmic current, and no one was even touching.

She felt a twinge of guilt. “We’re wasting body,” her husband had said to her the night before. She had curled away from his erection that had been poking insistently against the small of her back as they spooned. “We have to do it sometime,” he had said, rolling away from her and leaving his arm heavy on the comforter between them. “It’s too soon,” Tina had said. “Doctor Feinburg said it’s not too soon.” “Too soon,” she had said again, thinking that her husband could not possibly understand that it was always too soon to learn that she might be a graveyard. After a few minutes, he rolled towards her once more. “We could use a condom,” he said, tracing the arc of her earlobe. Tina pretended to have fallen asleep; she was busy listening to a ghost.

The gong’s cries intensified even more. This must be the flash, Tina thought. It was loud. It was really fucking loud and it would have been of no use to cover her ears. It was like a plane flying right overhead but made of no metal, just light. Tina looked inward to Deedee who was starting to expand, now the size of a quarter and quivering. Tina closed her eyes again to watch her grow. Deedee was bright. She was bright. She was getting too bright, too big, and had now swallowed Tina’s heart whole and Tina had to turn away. She pictured herself again in orbit, another moon between earth and sun, and she considered the sun, considered its distance and its too-loud song, the gong now blaring.

Tina felt Deedee tug at her, but Tina wouldn’t look. She gasped for breath and looked out into the galaxy, at the tiny lights twinkling far away. She loved the stars, the company of their light. She thought about what she knew of them: that they were all dead. She wanted to watch their calm, sad glimmer a little longer, but the sun bore down and Deedee’s yellow light pleaded and Tina felt the gong prodding at her bloods’ toxins’ firm grip. Tina’s cells were rattling at the frequency of the universe and she unhinged. Everything unhinged, the earth unhinging and hurtling towards the sun. Tina wanted to scream, jump up from her mat and knock over the gong that was shrieking. But she didn’t. She took one long breath, recalled her intention, and then let in all that light.

 

 

Kristin Walters is a yoga and writing instructor in Champaign-Urbana. She will finish her MFA from the University of Illinois in May 2016. Her guilty pleasures are watching movie trailers, eating all the strawberries and wearing flip-flops in the rain. She is learning and teaching how to live a mindful, memorable and expressive life.