Current Shorts on Survival

“The Worm Hunters” by Mark Putzi

“Entangled Essence” a Diptych by Lisa Boardwine.

Towards evening we ran about in our hooded sweatshirts and held our hands over our heads complaining. We had crushed a dozen or so just-opened buds with the bees still in them. Then it came time to celebrate because the sun was low and our spirits were struggling to burst out of our bodies. As the mist of evening descended upon us, we watched the last glorious red rays color the edges of the clouds. We made fog trails with our hands. We listened as the older kids walked up and down the street when all we could see of them were the lit ends of their cigarettes. 

At night, we threw nuts at the nest the squirrels had made in the old tree. Hardly looking at one another, we fidgeted in front of the T.V., while the sprinkler produced an artificial thunderstorm in our back yard. I often wondered why they didn’t simply move to another yard where they’d be safe. For I knew they were aware of me. They felt my voice, even in whispers.  The methodical pound of my footsteps echoed in their hearts like a drum. Sightless, I was sure they could yet envision me: processional, head bowed like a hooded monk, directing my beam of flashlight along the ground. Some darted for cover instantly when detected, but others — the martyrs — stretched themselves out, basking, fully glistening in the light.

I would inspect the cans of dirt for moisture. We would divide into two teams. My brother Chuck and I, on our hands and knees, would comb every inch of grass in the back yard. We could hear our younger sister and Tommy in the front yard, laughing, conversing.

There were hot and cold regions, lush greenlands where the nightcrawlers congregated with a disproportionate thickness, and arid deserts which contained only the odd sociopathic worm.  We worked silently: many times we pushed down the impulse to cry out when our efforts were rewarded with a capture. Afterwards, we compared lengths and thicknesses. We tried to sex them, always settling on females being the fattest because of the likelihood they were pregnant. We discussed fat or wiggly or both to determine which of these attributes would produce the best lure.  We did not ask God to deliver a big fish: He punished selfishness with foul weather and knotted lines inside our reels. So we asked God for lucky worms, for worms the fish could not resist eating.  Then it was up to us to land with our skill from among the many fish, the biggest. 

            We took a knife and cut holes into the plastic lid of our coffee can—we remembered always the time we had not done so by mistake—and set the can in the basement beside the pumpkin, which had ripened to a spectacular yellow-orange, awaiting Halloween dissection. From inside their metal confines, they emitted prayers to my father, imploring him to stay away, until at three in the morning he overcame their will, crashed up the stairs and into the bedroom, awakening me from a nightmare, and fending off my mother en route to the bed. I was on fire again, the Lightning Bolt Man from General Electric summarily cornering me in the attic where the yellowed Polish newspaper in my hands lit with a flash as I awoke. The next day they rejoiced and dug back under between rows of green beans and radishes while my father slept it off, his socks half dangling from his feet. “No you didn’t!” shouted Chuck, “Eat this dirt you lousy worm!” as he tripped and pummeled me when he saw the empty can with its lid beside, full of triangular breathing holes. They were the culprits, these holes allowed the worms to beseech my father’s tardiness. I laughed because I knew we’d fish another time. It never hurt when someone hit you, only afterwards. That afternoon, I went between the houses where the snapdragons grew, took it out on the bees. I watched them curiously, buzzing erratically back and forth, finally lighting on their deathbeds.

   

Mark Putzi received an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee in 1990. He has published stories in Jazz Street, The Cream City Review and Wilderness House Literary Review and poetry in many small press magazines. Since 2012, he has worked as a retail pharmacist in Milwaukee. In 2015 he married for the first time. His wife, Sharon Nagel has published two mysteries in collaboration with her co-writer Jocelyn Koehler under the pen name Juneau Black. The family pet, Willow, is an internet star and a highly accomplished tortoise shell cat.

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“Common Blackberry” by Kirsty MacKay

“Gilded” by Lisa Boardwine, Oil/Cold Wax on Panel, 12 x 12.

A woman floats on her back in the Sandy River under a rare Oregon sunshine. The layers of gray have given way to blue skies. The sun says to all the people below, “I’m still here!” She stays afloat with an occasional fluttering of her fingertips and, perhaps, some kind of buoyant dreaming. Growing along the opposite bank are thick and wild stream-fed blackberry bushes. The fruit dangles over the river. The underbrush rustles from waxwings and robins and meadowlarks that feed on the berries. The woman rises slowly from the water in her green bathing suit, noticing. As she carries no basket, she just takes a plump fruit and pops it into her mouth. She tastes fully, raising her shoulders with pleasure, and then reaches for another. With the sun warming her face and the water cooling her ankles, there is no craving for whipped cream for the berries, just the sweet taste of instant gratification. She is like a large water bird surrounded by the things that she needs. As she turns back to the water, you can see blackberry stains on her fingers, her lips, and her chin. The water reopens to her and washes her hands and face gently. She resonates joy like a laughing Buddha and goes to lie down on the sand; anyone watching has learned something without even having had a talk with the bather about her philosophy of life. The past is a phantom and the future never comes, or, perhaps—the fruit is ready; are you ready for the fruit?

   

Kirsty MacKay is a live storyteller who shares ancient stories from the Ohlone people of the South Bay. She has been writing poetry for roughly three decades while dealing with chronic issues of depression and anxiety. She considers herself to be a fairly recovered woman who remains, nonetheless, vulnerable. She also enjoys leading poetry strolls through parks, discussing the works of Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, and Alice Walker.

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“The Panamint Range” by Kirsty MacKay

“Rome rhythm” by Lisa Boardwine, Oil/Cold Wax on Panel, 12 x 12.

I awoke at about 4 a.m. with salt-water-swollen eyelids. My comforter was ruffled up around my neck; its ridges looked like low-lying mountains. I imagined Death Valley’s ranges as black with blue streaks in their fissures.  Maybe I was in a windswept valley, surrounded by clay hills. I was frozen in my bed, only breathing. To stir meant relenting to a new day without Marie. Frozen was safer. I was not yet able to say infidelity or dissolution. For now, there was only kick-in-the-gut mornings and crying on people’s wicker furniture until they edged me out. 

I had really wanted to go to Death Valley in the spring of  ’05 for “the Bloom of the Century.” The New York Times had promised a “Technicolor Season,” due to massive rains in Southern California. However, sometime after planning the trip but before departing for the desert, Marie told me she was falling for someone else. I screamed at her over the phone to cancel because if we went on this trip, “We would be like divorced people on holiday!” 

She said, “I stand to lose around $600.” 

“Cancel! I don’t care anymore!” 

So the morning I woke up in my illusion of darkened hills embracing me, I was still debating on going it alone. I even researched whether a bus goes from Las Vegas into the national park. I had done things alone before. Five years prior, I moved up from California to Oregon to be with Marie in Portland. I had a sick moment of picturing myself heart-broken in Las Vegas trying to find a bus out of there.

I stared wide-eyed at some realities of my life as the contours and colors of my bedcovers defined themselves in the morning light. I needed my family, my friends, my acquaintances and familiar street corners. I needed my mother to make me a cup of tea and my father to put the tearing grief into exact words and help me to detach. 

Marie arranged for her ticket miles to be claimed later. She re-routed my own ticket to my parents’ house, at a penalty. I spared my heart the telescopic mirage of having while not having—traversing a valley of poppies and primrose with a woman steadily disappearing in plain sight. I missed the Hundred Year Bloom and surfed the net instead for wildflowers of the Mojave Desert. I yearn to go to Death Valley National Monument in person and see a Mojavea breviflora in the flesh. 

   

Kirsty MacKay is a live storyteller who shares ancient stories from the Ohlone people of the South Bay. She has been writing poetry for roughly three decades while dealing with chronic issues of depression and anxiety. She considers herself to be a fairly recovered woman who remains, nonetheless, vulnerable.

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