“Eve & The Apple” by Elizabeth Leader, pastel on Fabriano paper.
(See also “In Flight Safety Card” by Lauren Eyler.)
She runs toward the water and the sun holds tight on the horizon. It wants to watch. It wants to illuminate her as she makes her way into the water: ankles, knees, waist, and then she dives into the water. Her body swallowed, the feet flip up and flirt toward shore before they, too, disappear.
He’d like to submerge his body along with hers and feel the weightlessness of swimming and the excitement of sliding his legs by hers without being able to see beneath them. But he can’t swim, so he watches from the shore until she returns breathless.
She replaces her shirt and shorts. Darkened splotches appear throughout her clothes as the water seeps into the fabric. “Is that your first memory? You were three?”
He’s told her about his father. His memory of him throwing him into the water, teaching him to swim.
“Yea—yea, it is. I can recall a circle of the scene—not all of the background, not the entire setting, just like looking through a telescope, you know? Just a circle and there I am in my shark swimming shorts and there he is in a faded yellow polo shirt.” The childhood emotion returns. The pit of his stomach raw with it.
“Have you tried to swim since then?”
He shakes his head no. He has a tan complexion. Time in the sun. Hardened lines around his face. Once the season shifts to fall, she thinks his hue will lighten, but the structure will remain the same. There’s a certain vulnerability to those lines. His past present on his face.
“Fathers have a way of penetrating our futures, don’t they? Without even knowing it. Subtle choices causing distant effects.” She decides in that moment to take him home. Back to her small apartment, a place nestled at the city edge. She boasts its view of the lake, although at night, she confesses, it’s a blackened version of its former self.
He surveys the area: one main living space with a kitchenette, a bathroom and a bedroom. She has squeezed and fitted trinkets and treasures throughout the landscape. Oddities, she calls them. Collections from her former lives. The oddest of them all catches his eye—an entire presentation of false teeth sitting in an open box on her window sill. He bumps his fingers along one of its rows.
“My father was a dentist,” she says to his back. “He saved antique gear like that.”
“Was. Saved. It’s all in the past now.”
“What did you want to show me?”
She pulls a purple-and-blue dyed fabric to one side and motions for him to enter her bedroom. Along one wall someone has painted a seascape mural. An octopus drifts through coral and seaweed. He spies jellyfish, swordfish, and other urchins.
“You paint?” he asks.
“I dabble,” she replies.
A small lamp on a corner table is fitted with a blue bulb. She lights candles and a stick of incense. The smoke flows through the space. She hits play on a small radio on the dresser and it’s too soft for him to discern what band it is—if any—or what instruments are played.
She indicates for him to lie on the bed. When she straddles him, he tightens his eyes on hers. He thinks of her as a character. One with marbles for eyes that turn others to stone. A hybrid of mythology and reality. She dives in to kiss him and he thinks she tastes like seaweed. They wrestle about the bed in the blue light. He comes up for air periodically and spies the mural. He feels at ease with her. He feels the weightlessness he had wished for earlier.
They fall asleep, her hair kinked and splayed against the pillow.
He wakes at an uneven hour. A strand of moonlight bounces onto her collection and he stands and scrutinizes each piece. He asks questions about her through their weight, how each one feels or looks. One of the smaller items fits nicely in his palm. He carries it back to the bedroom and rubs at its glass mold.
In the morning, light crashes against the windows. The lake is now visible: placid, at peace with a mild mist at its lips.
“You’re like the undertow, you know?” He tugs at her and pulls her under the covers with him and they kiss, morning mouths and last night’s naked bodies.
Her back rocks against him and flutters with the sheets. She feels the glass object at her feet and nudges her big toe toward it. She recalls the motion as if searching the ocean floor for a sand dollar.
Pulling it out of the sheets, she eyes it. Wraps her fingers around its curves. Its shape cavernous to other worlds.
“Was it a gift,” he asks, “from your dad?”
She brushes back her wild hair, imagines each soft, existing memory of her father—a collage the expanse of a skyscraper—and sighs. She holds up the object which catches the sun’s ray and illuminates a yellow glow. When she finally responds, her voice hovers above a whisper and he hears seagulls in her throat. Distant and sad. She tells him, yes, it was a gift and a promise and a lie and a lesson and it was everything.
He wonders if he’s meant to respond, but has nothing to say. He pictures her dad. In this awkward silence he’s surprised to find himself imagining his face. Imagining what lines or curves of hers were other gifts of his.
When he leaves, an amalgam forms in his mind of her and the undertow. A raging beauty that seethes with some type of untouchable vengeance. A distance spreads between where she remains in the bed and where he descends. The space dark and exact but empty all the same.
Katie Strine tolerates life through literature and dark beer. She lives in the east suburbs of Cleveland with her family—husband, son, and dog—who accompany her on oddball adventures. Her work has been or will be published in The Writing Disorder, The Wayne Literary Review, Visitant, The Furious Gazelle, and BONED. Stay in touch via Facebook, @ktstrine.
“Wooden House” Image courtesy of Dariusz Klimczak,
(See also “The 8th of May” by Daniel Nathan Terry from the Fall 2012 issue.)
Ruby’s grandparents, Nana and Papa, say, “Go upstairs and read,” before sliding into slumber on the couch. They nap several times each day.
Upstairs, she opens the window and shouts, “Mama, where did you go?” The wind carries her question away.
She digs her fists into her pockets. Mama would’ve cuddled with her on the couch. She would’ve made grilled cheese sandwiches shaped into little rectangles.
Nana and Papa show her the kindness offered to strangers; distant, polite. She’s never known her father; she doesn’t know his parents now. They shuffle and repeat sentences, they wheeze and count pills. They don’t know she’s allergic, extend sandwiches oozing with peanut butter and jelly.
This stuffy house unsettles Ruby. At night, strange whooshing, clinking sounds keep her awake.
Again, she cries, “Mama, where are you?”
This time, an oak tree waves, beckoning from the forest’s edge. The branches spread like fingers.
Grabbing her coat—it’s small for her seven-year-old frame—she pulls the front door shut behind her.
One morning, Mama hugged her goodbye and didn’t return. After, women wearing suits put her on a plane and said, “You’re going home.”
This is not home. How can it be, without Mama?
Home is sitting in the middle of unfolded laundry and watching The Wizard of Oz; home is tomato soup and chocolate chip cookies for dinner; home is the crimson of Mama’s nails. Ruby feels a pain in her belly, rubs it like Mama used to.
The women in suits hugged her, said, “Just know that your Mama’s in a better place.”
Her ears catch the musical murmur of leaves overhead. In moments, the neighboring trees pick up the chorus, awakening the forest to familiar music—Mama danced to this song. Ruby stretches her arms, closes her eyes. moves to a rhythm Mama has taught her: one-two-three, one-two-three.
An orchestra rises: wind whistling through hollow trees, the strum of bare branches beating out the right notes.
“Come,” the forest calls.
She obeys, walking deeper into the wood where the music continues to allure.
Then, the orchestra falters, the fumbling conductor has lost his baton. She hears irregular rhythms, twigs crackling, the thud of falling logs. A distant coyote howls; her heart freezes.
Thunder claps overhead, lights wink in the sky, and a deluge releases.
She must go back to Nana and Papa. When she swivels to look behind her, the trail’s vanished. Puddles of water snake away from her in every direction. Panicked, she lifts her gaze up to the canopy overhead.
“Mama!” she cries.
Which way should I turn?
“Walk forward,” Mama urges in her ear.
“Where?” Ruby whispers.
“Forward,” Mama says. “Careful! Walk, don’t run.”
She doesn’t heed Mama. Heart drumming, she sprints, soggy coat clinging, shoes squelching in the mud.
She slides and hits her head on a tree trunk. The bang pounds, throbs, brings tears.
Then, Mama’s instruction. “Take the rope ladder.”
With the back of her arm, Ruby wipes the drops from her eyes. They widen.
A ladder dangles before her, inviting her into the tree house above. She gasps, clambering with numb hands and feet.
Do coyotes climb?
She rolls up the ladder and breathes: sweating, listening. The micro burst’s gone. There’s nothing now—only leaf music. She runs a hand over the bump on her head. That’s real enough.
From her perch, she can see the edge of the forest, the chimney of her grandparents’ house. They’ll expect her.
On the paint-chipped floor, an ancient patchwork quilt and a book: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. She pulls the quilt over herself.
Mama’s led her home.
Sudha Balagopal‘s recent fiction appears in Ellipsis Zine, Spelk Fiction, Jellyfish Review, Lost Balloon, and Whiskey Paper among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn, and two short story collections, There are Seven Notes and Missing and Other Stories. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com
Illustration by FINAL GIRL, anonymous street artist,
see also “God of Thunder” by Brian Kamsoke
Sundown at 5. Chill in the house. I open the hall closet for a sweater.
And I see it. Hanging between my red raincoat and his father’s blue windbreaker.
Our son’s fur-lined fleece hoodie. Grey, except for the Penn State panther in an oval on the right, just below the collar.
It’s been there for six months. Since the morning I washed the contents of the white plastic bag, marked “Patient Belongings.” There wasn’t much inside. Pajamas, slippers, boxers. And the fur-lined fleece hoodie. The one he wore that August afternoon in his 5th floor walkup. New York City. No air conditioning, yet he’s shivering with his hands in his pockets and the hood pulled over his wispy brown bangs.
“How can you be cold?” his father asked. “I’m burning up.”
Just like he was, except from a fever, not the weather.
There is no thermometer in the apartment. I race down five flights to the corner drugstore and back. Panting, I plead until he puts it under his arm.
“Nothing to worry about,” he scoffs at the number. “101.2. A virus.”
But it wasn’t. A year later, he’s living at home again. Like a teenager, not a thirty-year- old man. Chemo twice a month with a doctor neither one of us likes.
“Too blunt. No bedside manner,” he says, slipping a bone-thin arm into his fur-lined sleeve.
We leave that hospital in search of a second opinion.
And feel hopeful for a while. Until the morning he rises from bed too dizzy to walk. Faints on the way to the bathroom.
Waiting in emergency, he asks for his hoodie.
We bring it to the 7th floor, Oncology Unit. It comes home, weeks later, in a white plastic bag.
And now it hangs in the hall closet, between my raincoat and his father’s windbreaker. Should it stay there? As if waiting to be worn again?
I put my fingers against the fleece. Remember all the hours he sat huddled inside it. Mostly on the couch watching Seinfeld or How I Met Your Mother. Dozing off at commercials.
For a brief moment, I regret burying him without his hoodie—no less loved than the tattered teddy he had at age three.
What’s done cannot be undone.
Slipping the soft fabric off the hanger, I raise one arm, then the other. The sleeves are a little long but it’s wearable.
I snuggle into his spot on the couch. Turn on the TV. A Seinfeld rerun.
Jacqueline Jules is the author of three chapbooks, Field Trip to the Museum (Finishing Line Press), Stronger Than Cleopatra (ELJ Publications), and Itzhak Perlman’s Broken String, winner of the 2016 Helen Kay Chapbook Prize from Evening Street Press. Her poetry has appeared in over 100 publications including The Broome Review, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Hospital Drive, and Imitation Fruit. She is also the author of 40 books for young readers. Visit www.jacquelinejules.com.