Current Shorts on Survival

“Relative Sanity” by Ellen Lord

“Old Door” by Sydney McKenna, watercolor, 22″ x 30″

In my dream mother was waiting for me in a room with old-world charm, classic books and high ceilings. Rare pieces of art lined the shelves, multicolored masks and Merino glass sculptures shimmered in the afternoon light.

She sat curled in a leather chair gazing out the window at a mottled sky.  She was barefoot in a cotton dress, young with long auburn hair and bottomless eyes. In her distracted loveliness, she didn’t look like the woman I remembered. She smiled as I approached and then softly faded away.

Later, I had visions of her escape from Newberry State Hospital. She was 33 years old with five children. Daddy and Grandpa put her there after she attempted to tame a nervous breakdown with doses of Mogen David wine. It was sometime in autumn of 1957 and the weather was turning cold.  

She never told me how she got out of those  locked doors and caged windows but she hitchhiked 200 miles clad in hospital garb and  worn slippers. She would later recall, “the nicest folks gave me a ride and it was the best time I had in a long while….I felt reckless and wild.” 

My memory flashes to the night she got home. I was awakened by lights flashing in the driveway. The police had come; she had locked herself in the bathroom and we could hear the shower running. She spoke calmly through the door, “I’ll come out when I’m damn well ready.”

I remember everyone waiting and waiting….

They took her back to the asylum and she didn’t return that year. We would drive to see her on weekends; Lake Michigan iced and roiling along U.S. 2 as the winter settled in. She gave us braided lanyards and moccasins from art therapy. I don’t remember saying goodbye to my mother but I recall the quiet ride home.


asylum seeker
dancing barefoot and childless
in another life

     

Ellen Lord is a Michigan native. Her poetry has appeared in Open Palm Print Magazine, Peninsula Poets Chapbooks and Traverse Area District Library Poets Night Out chapbooks. She was the recipient of the Mike McGuire Poetry Prize in 2019 and won the Landmark Books Haiku Contest in 2017. She is a member of the Fresh Water Poets Group in Traverse City and the Charlevoices Writers’ Group in Charlevoix. She is a behavioral health therapist and loves working with folks who navigate the murky perimeters of mainstream society.

Continue reading →

“The Museum of Salt-Encrusted Objects” by Faye Brinsmead

Clouds in sunlight, a painting.
“After Effects” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas, 30″ x 36″

I didn’t realize I was an artist until yesterday. Breakfasting in the empty dining room, I picked up a book from the coffee table to browse while I ate my muesli. I holiday here, at the Marine Guest House, every winter. In the hope that sea and sky will reach in, grab the gray-blue churn of my moods, and never give them back.

The book was about an Israeli artist who immerses emotionally-charged objects in the Dead Sea. Entranced, I turned page after page. A suspended tutu grew a mantle of Russian snow. Quartz-glitter court shoes waltzed the ghosts of scarlet toe-nails. A muffled violin dreamed of being a baby white whale.

She had been creating salt sculptures for more than 20 years, I read.  Maybe I’ve been doing it for twice as long, I thought. All those things I pushed into the dead sea …  I pictured the objects that tell the story of that day as museum exhibits, encased in glass. Each transformed by a shimmer of salt. Beneath the sparkly crusts, their colors were unfaded. I was protected, yet not protected, from shocks of recognition. I was 45. I was five. I am five.   

The Pink Dress

I’m wearing my cioccolato dress. I don’t know cioccolato is Italian for chocolate. To me, the looping letters on the label mean the family of pinks picnicking on the puffed sleeves, the satin sash, the three-tiered ruffle. It came in a big padded envelope for my birthday. Grandma’s blue scrawl on the front. Today, when the church ladies admired it, I hid behind the elm. Now I’m hiding under the bed, because Pastor and Mrs Winter have come to lunch.

Squatting beside the elm, Pastor Winter said, Would you like to ride home with us? I shook my head, pink as my dress. Say no thank you, Pastor Winter, said Mom. I said it to his shoes. Shining so darkly the looping elm-leaf letters wrote on the toes.  

The Black Patent Shoes

They squeak like mechanical mice. In the toyshop window before Christmas.  Does he wind them up before putting them on? The pointed toes are twitching noses. The laces, whiskers. The nose-tips stop at the edge of the rug. That high whooshing must be some dog hunting the mice. I wait for it to spring.

I’m sad you’re hiding when I’ve come especially to see you.  There’s nothing to be afraid of. If you come out, I’ll read you a story.

More whooshing. The mice scare me, but the thought of the dog attacking them is worse.

When they hear me crawling out, the dog and the mice go carefully backwards together.  

The Storybook

Most stories aren’t for Sundays. Not Bambi, or Amelia Bedelia. Uncle Joseph’s Bible Stories are, though. Their blue spines march across the bookcase in the living room.

Pastor Winter’s hand has lines and knots like floorboards. It slides out Volume Fifteen. Beneath a dazzling sky, Jesus, in a fluffy white bathrobe, embraces yellow, pink and brown children.  Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. We sang that today.   

I follow him to the couch. When he sits, his arms and legs creak. His pants swish.  He gives his trouser-knee a dry slap.

Sit here.  

The Eyes

This huge close face makes me want to hide again. Its wooden slats slide up and down when he smiles and talks. The smell through his white shirt and black tie is too sweet, like the maple-sugar candy I found under the back seat of the car. His hair is yellow-white feathers. His eyes are shut in two wire cages. They dart around, as if they want to get out. I don’t want them to get out. 

There is something else. Wanting to get out. It fidgets behind the ruffles of my dress. I don’t want to know what it is. Not-wanting fills me. The room. The house.    

The Black Lamb (which Smells of Raspberry Jam)

In the dark I hug black lamb. He’s from Grandma, too. He has black button-eyes. I press my face into him, breathing the raspberry jam smell of his real wool. Not thinking. Not remembering. Raspberry jam. Raspberry jam.     

The Salt Grinder

Nothing is as clean as salt. If you sprinkle its scrubbed-fingernail flakes over something, the real look and taste get covered up. Like snow. Only it won’t ever melt.

I’m fine, I say. Grinding. Everything’s fine.

After grinding, I’d always pretend I hadn’t. The grinder joined the other things pushed into the still, green, dead sea. The lamb, the eyes, the storybook, the shoes, the dress.   

Yesterday, I re-encountered them all. Gazing at their hard brilliance as the ocean churned up its own intestines, grinding fresh salt by the ton. When the first stars came out, I unlocked the display cabinets and set them free.

Right here, on the beach, I created an open-air museum. It’s only temporary. Day by day, wind and waves will scour my sculptures until they’re not art anymore. Just small, naked scraps of life, able to breathe at last.

     

Faye Brinsmead  lives in Canberra, Australia. A lawyer by day, she writes flash fiction in all the snippets of time she can find. Recent work appears in MoonPark Review, The Cabinet of Heed, Twist in Time Literary Magazine, Reflex Fiction and The Ekphrastic Review. She tweets @ContesdeFaye.     

Continue reading →

“After” by Rhema Sayers

“Salt Prune” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas

The entire house sparkled, immaculate. Or at least it sparkled as much as it could for as old as it was. It had taken weeks, especially with all these people tramping in and out. They’d been coming in, bringing her food, expecting her to be grateful. She had enough casseroles stockpiled for the next decade.

Sometimes she just kept on cleaning while they were trying to talk to her. The visits were becoming fewer and shorter, she’d noticed. When she pounded them over the heads with a two-by-four, they actually figured it out. Her lips twitched. “I vant to be alone,” She said aloud.

Her voice startled her. It was so quiet in the big house. She liked it that way. No more constant drone of the TV or the blaring voices of talk radio. Just silence and the occasional creaks and groans of an old house. So peaceful. So empty.

She filled her time with cleaning. There was so much still left to do. The stains in the rugs and the upholstery had been particularly stubborn. But she’d marshaled her forces, her Windex, her Mr. Clean, her carpet cleaner and her Bissell machine, and she had led them into battle, attacking with a ferocity the enemy could not withstand and the stains were vanquished.

Now she was advancing on the attic, which should produce some epic battles. She pulled down the retractable stairs and was showered with dust, causing her to sneeze repeatedly. Her eyes watered and for a moment she was crying, great tearing sobs that ripped from deep within her chest. But she focused  on the dust and ablution and carefully placed the sobs on a back shelf for later. She had had several long talks with herself (or maybe it was God she was talking to), discussing what her life should be like now. After. And she had struck a bargain with herself (or God). She would think about her life and her loss—after the house was cleaned—thoroughly.

She had gotten through the first few weeks with her dust cloth and mop held high. After the attic, there was the garage and then the closets still to do. There was time yet before she had to keep her bargain. She hadn’t been out of the house except for the funeral. She certainly didn’t need food. But she was going to need toilet paper soon. And laundry detergent. And Windex. And Pledge. And paper towels.

Walking out the front door would be like setting foot into a war zone. The eyes of her neighbors, friends would be watching. They would stop her on the street, in the stores, demanding to know how she was, what she was going to do now. She would see the sympathy, the pity in their eyes. She thought about asking her daughter to go for her, but she would see accusation as well as pity in those eyes, those sharp eyes that always reminded Melissa of her mother-in-law, who had been a world class bitch. Even their nasal voices were the same.

Maybe she could run out to the car, moving too quickly for anyone to reach her and then go to a store on the other side of town where she didn’t know anyone. Better yet! She could go to a different town! Encouraged by the brilliance of the solution, she started up the dusty steps to the attic. Her eyes went up to the black hole of the entrance in the ceiling and she stopped, riveted by the darkness. There it was—the whole of it. Black. Empty. A Stygian hollowness. And she felt its twin in the cold vacuum of her existence with all its light extinguished. And the sobs returned and would not be denied.

 
 
 Rhema Sayers is a retired doctor, now working as a freelance writer with some success. She has had over 40 short stories and historical articles published. She lives with her husband and three dogs in the desert near Tucson.

Continue reading →

“New Hierarchy” by Soramimi Hanarejima

“Flow” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas, 48″ x 36″

Though you suspect she would much rather spend her weekends and evenings convalescing at home, you ask her to meet you in city plazas and parks, insisting that fresh air will do her some good. To your surprise, she accepts your invitations—the springtime atmosphere of warmth and wildflowers perhaps too pleasant to pass up even in her despondency.

During your outings with her, she makes for dreary company, mopey and taciturn—gloomy, like you’re walking down sunlit streets or through verdant landscapes with a gray cloud floating alongside you, always on the cusp drizzling. But companionship isn’t the point of these excursions.

When meeting her in the open, busy spaces you’ve selected, you always arrive early, so you can see her approaching from afar and furtively point the telephoto lens of the psychoscope at her. It’s supposed to be used only at work—and even then, just for approved projects—but you are driven by concern (and admittedly, curiosity) to discreetly keep an eye on her broken heart; to track the reassembly of the sundered pieces—to make sure they are in fact reassembling. And over successive rendezvouses with her, you confirm that, to your relief, the cardiac fragments are indeed drawing closer together, albeit very gradually.

Your surreptitious surveillance of her metaphysical anatomy continues to be reassuring, until you see that its slow rate of reconstitution is allowing her heart to reorganize out of order, with self-concern and cynicism heading for the center of the new arrangement.

You monitor the situation closely as these two shards of her character vie neck and neck, locked in a sluggish jockeying for the position of greatest influence over her life. Rooting for self-concern, you grow ever anxious about which contender will triumph, what her new psychological regime will be built around.

To your dismay, cynicism wins this slothy race and seizes the crucial spot, dashing your hopes that there would be at last an era of her life when she treats herself with utmost importance. You brace for an epoch of distrust and acrimony.

But even with this mental preparation, being around her is an incredible drag. She is always moody and brooding, unmoved by beauty, barely responsive to kindness. When she does say thanks, it sounds like her gratitude is being relinquished oh so begrudgingly. Little things set her off: cars parked too close to lines marking lot spaces, posters advertising beauty products in subway cars, people who walk in the very middle of the sidewalk making it difficult for her to pass them.

Still, you try to accept her for who she now is and channel your pessimism into conversations with her, which is surprisingly easy. There’s always something you can glibly complain about, and the effect of voicing your dissatisfactions is immediate. As though you’ve flipped a switch in her mind with your judgmental words, the camaraderie of negativity turns her more talkative—sometimes garrulous—in your company. The two of you are soon disparaging all manner of things: insipid mainstream movies, the shoddy state of public spaces downtown, the inflation rate, the overabundance of refined flour and sugar in the local foodshed, the excessive fixation upon—if not outright glorification of—romantic love in pop culture. Riffing off each other’s rants ultimately leads the two of you to rail against the human experience itself: riddled with cognitive biases, feral propensities and other historical cruft, the common enemy you can pin everything on.

All this vehement denigration cements a vigorous rapport with her but one that weighs heavy on your psyche, making it ache with despair and longing.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t do this any more,” you finally say to her.

To pace out the words you’ve prepared, you take a moment to look at the wind filtering through the bright, fresh leaves of the maple trees across the meadow. You’re glad that the bench you’ve chosen faces such a calming view and allows you to say these words as though to the landscape.

“I thought the darkness would be manageable—tolerable if it kept us close. But it’s exacted more of a toll than I thought it would.”

Unsurprisingly, she responds by unleashing a torrent of spite, declaring that everyone proves to be unreliable, untrustworthy and self-serving given enough time. You find it encouraging—almost touching—that her bitter words are leveled entirely at humanity, only falling upon you as they rain down on all humankind. But ultimately, her vociferous sentiments affirm your decision. You just cannot partake in (nor of) this misanthropy indefinitely. So once she’s said everything she must, you tell her to take care of herself and that you hope to see her again under different circumstances. With unexpected ease, you rise from the bench and take the wooded trail that will bring you to the river.

A few days later, you drive to her neighborhood and park down the street from her place, in a spot that will afford a clear view of her leaving for work. When she steps out the front door, you train the psychoscope on her just as you have so many times before. You recoil at what it shows you, then readjust the focus several times as she walks down the sidewalk, until there can be no mistake. Her heart has splintered apart.

You set the psychoscope down on the passenger seat, trying to make sense of this. Are you the culprit this time? It never crossed your mind that you could have this kind of effect upon her—any such thought at least miles away as she wielded scorn so mightily. Behavior you now know you should not have taken at face value. The psychoscope would no doubt have shown you her heart’s persisting, underlying fragility, and you would not have mistaken voluble rancor for true vigor.

You start the car while your mind extrapolates the future: the next rearrangement (no doubt already underway) will run its course, a new order ultimately establishing itself. You won’t watch that hierarchy form and will instead study it covertly when her heart is once again whole. Or simply adhere to the company policy that prohibits the use of equipment for personal reasons, affording her and yourself space. Either way, you will miss her—more than you already have.

 

 
 
 

Soramimi Hanarejima is a writer of innovative fiction and the author of Visits to the Confabulatorium, a fanciful story collection that Jack Cheng said, “captures moonlight in Ziploc bags.” Soramimi’s recent work can be found in The Best Asian Speculative Fiction 2018KYSO Flash and Book XI.

Continue reading →