“Pose” by Christopher Searles

Cattle
Photocollage by Matthew Chase-Daniel, 2009

I slipped off my robe in front of everyone. My husband stood enraged, ready to jump the platform and wring my neck. But I knew when students began scratching their newsprint paper with conté, he’d have to teach.

There in his shirt and tie. His unassuming look. Complete with glasses. But in his head, flustered, wondering how I did it.

It didn’t take much to replace the scheduled life-drawing model. A hundred dollars to not sit naked for strangers was easy money. She had taken the cash and wished me luck.

I straightened out the folds in the platform’s covering sheet.

“Imperfections create depth,” he said, taking the robe from my trembling hands. I grinned, understanding his attempt to appear civil. He turned the small heater towards my flesh. I watched his every move, but sat still.

When I posed with my back erect, hands planted and eyes gazing upward, he circled the classroom. His words scattered. Distracted, by his wife spread out, breasts, ass, and pubic hairs exposed.

“Remember the darkest dark,” he said to a student who had his eyes fixed on my neck, just above a scar. Only a few weeks ago, that scar was a cut accompanied with a black eye and a busted lip to match.

“Next pose.” He said. His eyebrows raised and lips receded back. When I posed, he grimaced.

“What are you doing?” He mouthed with his teeth shut. “Stop it.” Everyone froze and looked around. But it only took one student to start drawing for the rest to attack my unusual pose.

I recalled every kick to my stomach, every punch to my face, every whack with an object to my body. And my eyes watered. He dashed from his position, knocking over a student’s easel and we caught a glimpse of my figure on paper.

My gaping mouth, the darkest mark on the page, I imagined he saw first. My hair, a mix of light and dark, yanked back with one hand. My back arched and knees spread out, pulled against the sheet causing what he called – depth. And the crosshatch shading on my skin, to me, resembled bruises.

“Professor?” A student shouted. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and tensed my muscles.

And with a bang, the classroom door shut and he was gone. I stood up, slipped on my robe, and looked out at my audience. And for the first time, when my heartbeat returned to a normal pace, I spoke openly about my husband’s artistic work sketching my scars.



Christopher Searles has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and creative writing. He also studied visual art at Seneca at York. For the past three years, he wrote short fiction while teaching English in South Korea. When he wasn’t teaching, or writing, he was learning about new cultures travelling throughout Southeast Asia. He currently returned to Toronto as a freelance writer. This is his first publication.

Read our interview with Chris here.

 

“Bridestealing” by Renée Giovarelli

Bridestealing
Pike’s Peak, Colorado, 2008

Sitting on a wool blanket outside a yurt in May, high in the mountain pastures of Kyrgyzstan, I hugged my body for warmth as women trickled into our circle from all directions.

My interpreter, Zina, and I chatted about the history of this village, Alai, as we waited for the women to come from their homes. We were interviewing women about the new land legislation and whether they received land from the State after the fall of the Soviet Union.

I tried to sear the view of the dark blue and purple mountains covered in cloud mist into my brain as we talked. We were surrounded by mountains and streams and horses and sparse grass—a difficult place to survive, but a magnificent place to live. The cool damp air was welcome after the hot sun of the Fergana Valley, where we had been interviewing women for the last week.

Alai was known for its strong women because one of their own, Kurban-Jan-Datka, a celebrated female warrior, tried to keep the Russian conquerors out by tumbling rocks onto their heads as they marched up the mountain in 1876. The Russians were not deterred by the rocks, but Kyrgyz heroes only have to be brave and clever, not triumphant.

Occasionally Zina would call out a direction to someone in Kyrgyz: “Bring a chair for the agi,” (old woman) or, “Get an extra blanket.” Zina was in her forties like me, short and stocky with a round warm face and eyes that were nearly hidden by her cheeks when she smiled. Used to taking care of foreigners, she was equal parts mother and drill sergeant.

Once or twice someone brought an extra blanket, and the circle expanded and re-shaped so more women could sit. I relaxed as I listened to the women talk to each other and arrange themselves. I am at home among rural Kyrgyz women; their gifts of felt and embroidery hang on my walls in Seattle. Sometimes I take a moment to bury my face in one of them to again smell these pastures—damp wool, and sheep, burning dried manure, and wood smoke from the samovars.

There were two other Kyrgyz researchers with Zina and me. Once we explained who we were and what we were doing, we intended to break into smaller groups. Anara, the lead Kyrgyz social scientist—the best in Kyrgyzstan–would take a group of young women away to another area and interview them. Girls would not talk in front of their elders, especially if they were in the same group as their mothers-in-laws. Anara was in her early forties, pretty, but thin and stern, dressed in jeans and a polo shirt. Even in urban clothes, Zina looked as though she belonged with the shepherd women in their long colorful dresses and pants tucked into worn leather boots. Anara looked like an outsider–a researcher.

Nearly forgotten by Zina and Anara much of the time, the other Kyrgyz member of our team, Chinara, was a young lawyer whom I had been working with on Kyrgyz land legislation for the past year. I insisted that Chinara come along on this fieldwork because, like most young lawyers in the capital, Bishkek, she believed that once a law was passed, it would be followed. Law was, in her mind, the answer to all social ills. I wanted Chinara to be able to ask women about these laws we had worked so hard to pass so she might see the laws’ limitations and not be so willing to stop at the initial–and usually ineffective–first step of passing the law. Chinara was from a northern tribe and had never been to southern Kyrgyzstan. She dressed as though she were still in the office in Bishkek: skirt, pantyhose, and heels. Her youth and her outfit made her virtually invisible to Zina and Anara—they called her an “arrogant little fool.”

When the women from the village had settled, and it seemed that no others were coming, I started with a simple question. “Do any of you own land?”

“Ova,” some older women said, and others nodded. Yes.

“What do you grow on your land?”

“Potatoes,” one woman said. “Hay,” another answered. “Sheep,” said a woman in the back, and everyone laughed.

A young girl brought us tea and “salt,” which means bread and hand-churned butter, a traditional Kyrgyz welcome. The bread was round, about two inches thick and crusty from being baked on the side of a clay oven fueled by the dried manure that was stacked under the eaves of the animal shed. The butter was whipped cream with salt. A few older women took the circles of bread, broke them into hand-sized pieces, and spread them around the blanket. I was served my ripped piece of bread first, a sign of respect. Among the Kyrgyz–traditional nomads–travelers and outsiders receive the highest honors: the sheep’s head and the first piece of bread. Age and gender are the next consideration; an older, male foreigner is usually offered the sheep’s eyes, ranking high above all others. As a foreign female woman of middle-age in a circle made up of women only, I would be first in all ceremonies, followed by Zina, then Anara, and then the older women from Alai. Chinara would be lumped into the category of young women–the servers, not the served.

My questions became more personal as we continued to talk. Were any of them divorced or widowed? Had any of their husbands taken a second wife? How did these family changes affect their rights to the land? They talked easily about their lives, teasing each other and daring one another to answer my personal questions about dowry, alcoholism, and poverty.

“Do you want to go to college or get married?” Anara asked one girl in Kyrgyz, pointing to her with her head.

The girl looked down and said nothing.

“Are you already married?” she continued.

The girl still looked down and shook her head no.

“You have to stand up for yourself. Do you let your husbands beat you?” she asked of the whole group.

There were a few women who shook their heads, but no one spoke.

“If your husband beats you, you have to go to the police,” she continued. I was growing uncomfortable because lecturing women was not part of the research protocol.

“Anara,” I said quietly, “let’s break into groups.”

Anara took a group of young unmarried girls with her, and they left us to move to the other side of the common area so that neither group could hear the other. I told Chinara to stay with me because I wanted her to ask some questions of the group. I encouraged the women who were left with me to take their turn and ask me any questions they wanted. I believe this is an important part of the process because it lessens the researcher-subject dynamic, and because I know I am as much a curiosity to them as they are to me. They were anxious to ask about my age, my husband, my children, and how much money I make. My age (40) surprised them; they insisted I was much younger. As usual with any group of Kyrgyz women, they asked how much money I make—the question is not considered rude. Although I hesitated to say because I know it is an unimaginable sum to them, I opted for understatement instead of refusal to answer. Still, they clicked their tongues at the amount, thinking about what they would do with that kind of wealth.

“Were you stolen?” one young, married girl asked.

“No.” I shook my head, slightly amused. “That’s not our custom.” Bridestealing, also called bride kidnapping, is practiced by the traditional nomads of Central Asia. While the custom was hidden during the time of Soviet rule, it has resurged in the last twenty years and is now common again in rural areas of Kyrgyzstan, although against the law. A young man and his friends kidnap a young girl from her home or workplace and take her to his mother’s house. There, the mother of the young man tries to put a scarf on the head of the kidnapped girl. The girl can resist but is pressured not to by her future mother-in-law, who tells her she will break all social norms by “crossing” an older woman. Other women in the boy’s family usually join in the pressuring as well. Once the scarf is on the girl’s head, she is considered married, and her wedding night ensues, ending with the bloodied sheet hung outdoors for the village to see.

“How did you meet your husband then?” the young woman asked.

“We met at law school.”

The girls nodded their heads in approval. My life was easy, and this delighted them.

“Do you want to see pictures of my children?” I asked, pulling out the photos I carry. They all moved in closer.

I showed them my young daughter, my older son, my husband, and my white standard poodle.

“Even your dog is beautiful,” one woman said wistfully.

As we walked to the van to leave, Anara complained that the girls she interviewed acted like sheep, not giving their opinion on anything.

“It’s not right for them to talk,” Chinara said quietly. “Besides what would they have an opinion about?”

Anara looked at her with scorn.

Toward the end of our two weeks of research, we interviewed teenage girls in a very remote part of the country where the Aga Khan, the hereditary spiritual leader of Ismali Muslims, had built a college. The hall outside the classroom smelled so strongly of urine that I had to cover my mouth and nose as I made my way to the interview. The old battered hand-written sign on the front door of the building said, quite unnecessarily, “Broken Toilet.” We slipped into a room where twenty girls sat in a circle on small folding chairs. The wooden floor was filthy; the walls were painted light blue but covered in a layer of dust. Still the girls wore mini skirts and blouses and tight jeans and strappy shoes. We talked of being girls and women and what they wanted to be when they grew up. They all had plans—scientists, doctors, lawyers, teachers. I wondered, but didn’t ask, how they could be so clean and beautiful and have only an outhouse and ditch water for their toiletry. Did they wear those shoes to the outhouse?

Toward the end of the interview, I asked, “How many of you want to be stolen?”

Giggles and head shaking. No one raised her hand.

“How many of you would stay with the man who stole you?”

They all raised their hands. All of them.

“It would be a shame not to,” several of the girls said at once.

In this case, “a shame” means shameful. But it doesn’t describe a feeling; it describes an ever-present force. Shame must be avoided at all cost and is the energy behind so many traditions: shame on the individual, shame on her family, shame on her ancestors. It would be a shame not to slaughter a sheep for a funeral, even if it were your last sheep. It would be a shame not to make a sherdak rug for your daughter’s dowry. It would be a shame never to marry. It would be a shame not to provide your guests with tea and bread and salt.

“We don’t want to be stolen,” one girl said, “but time will show us our way.” Everyone nodded.

The university was the last stop before returning to Bishkek. On the way back to the city, I asked the Kyrgyz women how they met their husbands.

Anara immediately responded, “At the university.”

Zina was not married.

“I was stolen,” Chinara said. She smiled, then shrugged.

An overwhelming sadness welled up inside me as Chinara told us her story. She had been a gymnast and had to stop her training immediately. She did not like her husband when he stole her; she knew him and did not want to marry him. But they were still married, eight years later, and had three children. The idea of bridestealing had always bothered me—yet, at the same time I found it appealing–something I had not admitted to myself until that moment. I was so interested in its otherness, its origins, the romanticism of being whisked away by someone who had chosen you from afar.

What would it feel like to be Chinara and participate in these interviews, with rural women, and then discuss the answers with us? But she hadn’t really discussed anything with us, I realized. She had remained silent except for one or two comments, immediately shot down by Anara.

Zina said something to her tenderly, in Russian. But Anara, exasperated and impatient, lectured Chinara that she didn’t have to stay married to him, as if Chinara could or would leave her husband after eight years and three children.

Anara znait vso,” Chinara whispered to me angrily when we finally got out of the van for a break. Anara knows all.

***

A year later, on a return trip to Kyrgyzstan, I got a call from Anara. She wanted to see me. Being with Anara was work, but refusing the invitation would have been an insult, so I agreed, and soon we sat at the conference table in her small office and talked about her family, and mine, and drank tea.

“Did you go to Lake Issyk-kul this year?” Lake Issyk-kul is a beautiful lake in Kyrgyzstan where much of the country goes during the summer.

“Yes. But it wasn’t a good vacation.”

I waited for her to say something else.

She and her husband and son were on the beach. Her husband and son decided to return to their room, and Anara said she would follow when she finished her book. On her way back, she passed a group of boys standing in a circle, laughing and cheering. She walked closer. In the middle of the circle, a girl was being raped. When the boys saw Anara, they ran.

“You know, I have been to the US and Europe,” Anara said. “I know how things are there. I knew to go to the police with the girl, to get help for her.”

“But they were disgusting. They made us sit there while they smoked and laughed. The girl knew the boy. I demanded they arrest him and threatened them by saying I knew the Minister of Interior and I’d get them fired if they didn’t.”

It was getting dark now, the office completely quiet. Our tea was cold. Anara had stopped pouring.

“The police agreed to talk to the boy and his parents. The girl and I went to tell her parents what happened. Her father said he would kill the boy.”

“I took the girl’s parents to the police station and we met the boy’s parents there. The boy had admitted to the police that he had raped the girl. His parents started begging me not to press for charges. He was only 21; he was their only son. He was a good boy. He was drunk. He wouldn’t get out of jail alive, and if he did, he would be ruined, and they would be ruined.”

“What did the girl’s parents say?”

Anara looked down, and paused. She ran her thumb up and down her index finger.

“The girl’s father said they would press charges unless the boy married their daughter.”

“What?” I stood up.

She nodded, still running her thumb up and down her finger.

The girl was no longer a virgin. If the boy went to jail, everyone would know what had happened to her. She would be an unmarried woman, and not a virgin. They were both from a small village. She would never get married. The village would take sides, and many people would shun her for sending him to jail. Both their lives would be wrecked. She would bring shame to her family.

“I agreed to that in the end,” she said quietly. “We all agreed that would be the best thing.”

“The marriage?” I looked down at Anara’s hands.

“Yes.”

Anara wanted me to understand what had happened to her–how she had changed in that moment. She wanted me to understand that there was no other way, not now, not in that village, not with those families. She wanted absolution.

The thought of the girl was almost unbearable to me. Was this worse than bridestealing? For some terrible reason, ranking the horror seemed important. I wanted to compare it to something that now seemed more normal. I wanted the girl to go to law school and become a lawyer like Chinara.

The paper we had written together was on the table, bound and published by the World Bank: “Women’s Rights to Land in the Kyrgyz Republic.” On the cover, an older peasant woman stands in a doorway, looking out at her barren, hand-plowed field. I couldn’t remember her particular story. I only knew that she worked all day, and in the winter ate mostly bread and cabbage. But she had laughed when she saw me take her photograph. She insisted on fixing her hair and posing for me—not in front of the door, but by the big birch tree. The second picture was a better one of her, and I sent it to her later. But I used the first picture on the cover, because she’s caught in a moment of her real life, when she wasn’t smiling or posing. She might have been thinking about how much work it would take to plant her potatoes before it was too late in the year. Or she may have been considering whether the manure was dry enough to burn. One can see, though, that she is not imagining another life.

 

 

Renée Giovarelli works for a non-profit organization as a lawyer on issues related to women’s land rights in rural areas of developing countries. She recently graduated from the Vermont College of Fine Arts with an M.F.A. in Creative Non-Fiction and has been published in New Letters and Numéro Cinq. She was short-listed for a prize with Wasafiri Literary Magazine.

Read an interview with Renée here.

 

“My Mother’s Optimism” by John Guzlowski

Nea Kameni, Santorini, Greece, 2010
Nea Kameni, Santorini, Greese, 2010

When she was seventy-eight years old
and the angel of death called to her
and told her the vaginal bleeding
that had been starting and stopping
like a crazy menopausal  period
was ovarian cancer, she said to him,
“Listen Doctor, I don’t have to tell you
your job.  If it’s cancer it’s cancer.
If you got to cut it out, you got to.”

After surgery, in the convalescent home
among the old men crying for their mothers,
and the silent roommates waiting for death,
she called me over to see her wound,
stapled and stitched, fourteen raw inches
from below her breasts to below her navel.
And when I said, “Mom, I don’t want to see it,”

She said, “Johnny, don’t be such a baby.”
Eight months later, at the end of her chemo,
my mother knows why the old men cry.
A few wiry strands of hair on her head,
her hands so weak she can’t hold a cup,
her legs swollen and blotched with blue lesions,
she says, “I’ll get better.  After his chemo,
Pauline’s second husband had ten more years.
He was golfing and breaking down doors
when he died of a heart attack at ninety.”

Then my mom’s eyes lock on mine, and she says,
“You know, optimism is a crazy man’s mother.”
And she laughs.

 

 

John Guzlowski’s fiction and poetry has been published in The Ontario Review, Atlanta Review, Exquisite Corpse and other print and online journals. His poems about his parents’ experiences in Nazi concentration camps appear in his book Lightning and Ashes. Regarding the Polish edition of these poems, Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz says the poems are “astonishing.” Guzlowski blogs about his parents and their experiences here.

Read an interview with John here.

“Stella Blue” by Brian Pietrus

Stella Blue
Headwaters of the Colorado by Matthew Chase-Daniel, 2009

When I picked my mother up at the small airport just outside of Yellowstone I felt like something of a veteran already. Of course I was excited to see her and glad she’d be experiencing the remainder of the trip with me, but I couldn’t help considering her a newbie.

Oh my God, look at the bison!

Yeah, I know—there’s a whole herd of them near the area where we’ll be camping.

They’re so cool! Can we get a picture?

If you want, I said. I have a bunch I took already.

She was excited, so I obliged. We stopped and took pictures on the side of the road with all the parked campers and SUVs from Nebraska and North Dakota. It was a little embarrassing, pulled over like a tourist. I felt like a teenager at the mall with my mom, and I hoped no one saw me, though I wasn’t sure whom I was afraid of being spotted by.

When we got to the campsite my mother wanted to call my grandparents to check in on them.

They’re fine, I assured her. Uncle George is stopping by after work.

I’d feel better, she said.

It was a tough spot for my mom. My uncle worked a lot, so he couldn’t be there as much to help out. My grandpa took good care of Grandma most of the time, but she was sick and needed extra care. It didn’t seem fair that my mom did most of the work. In retrospect it feels pretty awful that I considered it work. I love my grandparents, it was just frustrating. For both of us.

George doesn’t do things like you do, they’d confide to my mom. How long did you say you’d be gone?

All of this built up to a tremendous load of stress on my mother. I was just as needy as my grandparents, and I suppose we were pulling her apart. That was part of the reason she decided to take the time off from work to come out here and meet me. With me in college and her firmly tied down at home we were beginning to drift apart.

I set up camp in a flash. By the time she got off the phone everything was ready.

You’re pretty quick, she said.

Lots of practice.

I could set the tent up solo in 2-3 minutes. My mom brought a sleeping pad. I had been sleeping on the floor of the tent. I loved the firmness of the ground. We built a small fire and stayed up late catching up and scouting for meteors.

I love the smell of campfire, I confessed. Sometimes after camping I’ll re-wear my clothes for a few days before I wash them to hold on to that earthy smell.

It’s a nice smell, she agreed.

The night was quiet except for the occasional car driving down the road and idling when it came to an intersection. Crickets would stop their chirping and lay still in the dry grass when a car passed, and when everything was still again they sang.

The next morning we decided to rent a canoe from the outfitters up the road. My mother had never been in a canoe before. I knew a little about paddling from the times I’d gone with friends in the Adirondacks. We clumsily carried the canoe to my car with lifejackets slung over our shoulders.

Careful, I said. No, LIFT it! The lip of the canoe fell hard on my roof. I can’t lift it by myself.

I’m sorry. I’ve never done this before.

I knew she was right and I felt sore for it.

We strapped the boat to the roof. The bow and stern stuck out over the front and rear windshields. I knew it would make visibility worse when we removed it from the lake in a few hours, and the wet bow would rain down on the window, but for now it was only a looming shadow. We cranked the red straps through the doorframes so tightly I wondered if the rubber gasket would permanently scar and keep the door from closing right.

It was ten minutes to the lake. Even at low speed the wind was making the red straps vibrate like piano wire. I tried to steady one with my free hand while I steered with the other, but the tremendous reverberation felt like it would gash through my palm. It sounded awful. We turned up the radio to drown it out, but the straps overpowered all other sounds. I could have crashed into the fattest bison in the park and not heard more than a ripple in the road.

The meadows were packed with sagebrush and the wind was sweet with the smell of it, but sunscreen tainted the air everywhere we went. From the lakeshore we got the canoe into the water with ease. Moving it proved to be the hard part.

No, you paddle on that side when I’m paddling here.

Sorry.

No, we’re going in circles!

I’m sorry! You seem like you’re having a miserable time. Maybe I shouldn’t have come out here to meet you.

Don’t say that.

I didn’t know how to tell her. How to make her understand that I’d been on the road for almost a month, living out of my car and tent and more than one dirty motel off the highway with minimal human contact and how I’d gotten so used to being alone that I forgot how to interact with other people. We were floating in the shadow of one of the craggiest mountains in Wyoming. This was the kind of experience that was meant to be shared.

I’m sorry, I offered. I’m glad you’re here. Really, I am.

We cut through the inverted reflection of the peaks and I steadied the rims of the canoe and lifted my legs over the sides. The water was cold. I let it flush between my sweaty toes and up over my ankles.

Dip your feet in, I suggested. It feels great.

When Mom called my grandparents that night she told them about our canoe trip, her first, and about the mountains and the clear sky and clean air.

It sounds beautiful, my grandma told her. I’m glad you two got to go on this trip.

Mom felt guilty for leaving her parents for two weeks, but hearing those words—I’m glad—seemed to make everything better. She enjoyed the sights more and we both let down our guard.

That night we watched for meteors again. I didn’t see another shooting star until a few months later, back in the Adirondacks, the same night I got the call from Mom that Grandma had died. It was dark outside and I took a walk in the woods along a well-worn trail through white pines and maples. When I came to a clearing, I turned off my flashlight and lay on my back on the sandy soil. The grass was cold with wet dew and the sand stuck in clumps on my back and legs. It was a moonless night and the sky was dark and thick as ink. Far above me a steady stream of shooting stars blanketed the atmosphere, burning bright like broken angels, and if I blinked I might miss their icy blue streak as they faded away into the night.

 

 

Brian Pietrus recently graduated with undergraduate degrees in Biology and Writing. He is currently enrolled in the Creative Nonfiction MFA program at Eastern Washington University. He has since made an enthusiastic outdoor explorer of his mother and they often go on hiking trips together. Brian also enjoys photography, playing music, traveling and exploring.

Read an interview with Brian here.

 

“Catching My Breath” by Susan Barr-Toman

Beach
Beach at Scopello, Sicily by Matthew Chase-Daniel, 2000

I signed up for a yoga class for writers because I needed to focus.

I’d successfully written a novel; it was even published. But for the past year or so, I’d been unable to concentrate. During the first class in the series, which was about sound, Lisa, the instructor, rang a bell and we listened until the walls soaked up the ringing. We ohm-ed three times as a group, and the room vibrated with sound. We could feel it against our skin. We stretched and repeated the sun salutation; our bodies morphed into snakes, cats, dogs, and children.

For our first writing exercise, we sat in pretzel legs as my kids say. Our backs were straight; our hands palms up on our knees, thumbs and index fingers touching. Lisa instructed us on how to breathe. Inhale and fill the belly, exhale and bring the bellybutton toward the spine. I focused, in and out. How difficult could it be? But of course my breath was choppy. My belly expanded as I exhaled. I tried again. Perhaps Lisa saw the frustration on my face. She said, “Breathe without judgment, but with compassion.” I’d been breathing all my life, so I must have had some idea how to do it. I just lacked any grace in the matter. I persisted and tried to look upon myself with compassion.

We stayed seated, breathing and listening as Lisa put on John Coltrane’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” I’ve always loved Coltrane, but hadn’t listened to him in a while. I sat breathing, breathing, and then, crying. I bit my tongue and tried to keep my jaw from quivering. A tear escaped and I wiped it away, then another. I was no longer focusing on breathing, but on not crying. While I loved the music; I didn’t have an emotional connection to it. I wasn’t listening to it at the birth of either of my children, it wasn’t playing at my wedding, and I didn’t immerse myself in Coltrane following a rough breakup long ago. So why was I crying?

After a few minutes, Lisa asked us to write about the music, or about the other sounds we’d experienced in class. My first sentence was, “What the hell was that about?” I kept writing. Writing was why I had come. I needed to get back to it. For the past year and a half or so, I’d been unable to concentrate. I’d become a caregiver, not only for my children, but for my husband who at forty was diagnosed with cancer, and then later his mother, whose lymphoma had returned. Caregiver is too strong a word; it makes it sound like I did more than I did. But after all that had happened, I was emotionally bankrupt. I was empty.

Why Coltrane? I wrote. Why tears? Perhaps Coltrane was speaking to me; he understood about the past and about what was lost. I realized that it wasn’t the music alone that made me cry. It was the breathing. It was me breathing. Me, after all that had happened, catching my breath.

The class ran late, so when I arrived home our company was already there. The couple sat at the kitchen table with my husband. The children were playing upstairs.

“We’re swapping cancer stories,” my husband said.

I sat in my yoga pants with a glass of wine. Our company was a couple we’d met through friends and had seen a few times. The reason I like them is that they are unapologetic about really loving each other. The wife had thyroid cancer a few years back. Her torture was hormonal more than surgical, months of treatment, then finding the right balance of medicine so she could return to stability, to her family and life.

My husband had chemo and radiation, and four surgeries in the past year and a half. Sitting at the kitchen table, Peter was only up to recounting his second surgery, the one that was supposed to be a “procedure” followed by a few days in the hospital. Then we were to join our children down the shore. Two days after the surgery it was apparent something was wrong. My husband was a grayish green, panting and sweating, barely able to walk 100 feet. The day before he’d lapped the hospital floor fifty times. As he talked, I pulled myself into a ball on my chair and felt acid rise to my throat. I wanted my husband to tell his story. And I really didn’t.

It is all too raw for me and I find myself back in the hospital recliner, wedged between his bed and the windows, the overcast day showing on his face. Peter is asking me to stay overnight. He’s afraid and I act like I’m not. I watch him barely sleeping. He’s been the perfect patient. Everything up to this point has gone as planned. This procedure was to be the end of a yearlong ordeal. But it isn’t. He’s dying, I think, and I can’t do anything. I walk the hall and ask the resident to check him again and again. They take him into emergency surgery the next day; he’s in septic shock, then he’s in the ICU. Twelve days all told and we don’t meet our children down the shore.

In graduate school, I frequently got into discussions with my fellow fiction-writing friends about whether to write autobiographical stories. I was adamantly against it, for me. My argument was that I needed more time to process what had happened in my life, possibly for a decade or two, before I could incorporate it into fiction. Meanwhile they seemed to be able to write the story as the door closed behind their lovers or the ambulance pulled away.

Joan Didion says she writes to know what she’s thinking. After listening to Lisa, and my breathing, and to Coltrane, sitting at my kitchen table, I thought maybe I don’t need to process before I write, maybe I need to write in order to process. It won’t be fiction, at least not at first. I may never share it. But I need to write to know what I’m feeling, and maybe to let go of all that was lost.

Listening to great jazz is like listening to conversations. Sometimes it’s an argument, sometimes wooing, sometimes goodbye. That afternoon, Coltrane was whispering to me: tell me. Tell me everything. And in the quiet of my own messed up breathing, I heard him.

 

 

Susan Barr-Toman is the author of the novel When Love Was Clean Underwear, winner of the 2007 Many Voices Project. She was born and raised in Philadelphia where she still lives with her husband and two children and where she teaches creative writing at Temple University and Rosemont College. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Visit Susan at www.susanbarrtoman.com.

Read an interview with Susan here.

 

“Garnet” by Anne Colwell

Garnet

Square-cut as a weight lifter’s jaw
And the hard red of congealed blood,
My grandmother’s garnet has nothing of glint,
Of sparkle.  It’s a stone of will.

Her hands in batter, bathwater,
Scrubbed down the spattered apron,
Hauling boxes of ketchup
To restaurants on her route, lifting
Children into beds, lifted in prayer
Behind two husbands’ coffins.
She willed the red ring
To my sister, whose birthstone is garnet,
Whose birthright’s this red.

The night I came to sleep on my sister’s couch,
Anemic, thin, after days of mornings
When I couldn’t lift even my small self
Out of bed, my sister slipped
The garnet on my hand.  Wear this, she said.

 

 

Anne Colwell has published a full-length collection of poetry, Believing Their Shadows (Word Press). Her chapbook, Father’s Occupation, Mother’s Maiden Name, won the National Women’s Press Association Prize for best book of verse published in 2007. She has published short stories in Octavo Magazine and The Delmarva Review. The University of Alabama Press published her book on the poems of Elizabeth Bishop, entitled “Inscrutable Houses: Metaphors of the Body in the Poems of Elizabeth Bishop.” An online chapbook of her poems appears in “The Poets” section of The Alsop Review. She has published individual poems and articles in a number of journals and quarterlies, including: Midwest Quarterly Review, Octavo, Southern Poetry Review, Eclectic Literary Forum, The California Quarterly and Dominion Review.

Read an interview with Anne Colwell here.

“In the Café” by Bev Magennis

In the Cafe
Beach at Selinunte, Sicily, 2000

In the café, you complain about your husband. A year ago, I nearly died. Dr. Moller sliced a tumor the size of a cantaloupe from my abdomen.

You talk about spying on the cheat and order a latte and ask if I’d like one. My system can’t process the acid. I order decaf green tea.

You suggest we split the tab. Sure.

On the street you say you’ll confront the creep directly, no fooling around, no games.

My eyes follow sunlight on gold leaves shifting among branches.

What if Gary were having an affair? After eight months of not leaving my side, of delivering me to the emergency room, camping by my bed, accompanying me to doctors’ appointments, labs, scanning and imaging centers, he deserves a tall brunette with tits that look implanted but aren’t, creamy legs that sprout from black stilettos and disappear under a short, satin skirt. Someone whose voice purrs, whose gestures slice the air in clean, graceful arcs, whose eyes, under heavy lashes, hint at mischief. Optimistic, with few demands. Reasonable, but generous. Kind.

I’d set him free in an instant.

Alas, he’s stuck with me. Sixty-seven. Breasts sad as teardrops, face weathered and lined from working outdoors. The clichéd arms, thighs and neck of a skinny older woman. Old woman.

Not just old, high strung and bothersome – to a quiet man. My mind swims in an ocean of gray matter, poking among reefs for endless possibilities, various approaches, seeking the best solution to minute problems, until time runs out and I opt for one of a thousand final decisions. The process aggravates a black-and-white thinker who seldom asks a question, the consequences of curiosity not worth the emotional or intellectual engagement called upon to engage in the string of thoughts my response might unravel.

Yes, I’d set him free. But he doesn’t ask for that. And I don’t offer.

 

 

Bev Magennis was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1942 and immigrated to the US in 1964. She received her MA in Art from the Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California. After a 30-year career as a visual artist, she started writing. In 2009 she was accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Summer Graduate Class. She was awarded a 2010 Pen USA Emerging Voices Fellowship, Los Angeles. In 2011, she received the Norman Mailer Fellowship in Fiction, Provincetown, MA. She has lived in New Mexico for 35 years where she has written two novels and is currently working on a third.

 

“Sometimes It’s That Simple” by April Ford

Pfeiffer Beach, California
North of Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California, 2001 by Matthew Chase-Daniel

“Has your husband licked your anus recently?”

“Excuse me?” Olivia withdraws her feet from the stirrups and sits up. The paper sheet covering her from the abdomen down flutters to the floor and exposes any mystery about her Dr. Rattray might have speculated from his previously limited view.

“There’s a fungal growth irritating your hemorrhoids, a type of yeast commonly seen in oral thrush—that’s in the mouth.”

She can’t decide which is most devastating: the frankness with which this unfamiliar male doctor just asked an amazingly personal question, the way he blithely informed her she has hemorrhoids without telling her directly, or that his hand is still touching her backside, which is coated with lubricant and burning something awful. Deducing that matters can’t get worse, she presses her forearms against the examining table, politely lifts her rear off the doctor’s hand, and slides to the floor in immediate pursuit of her underwear and jeans.

Dr. Rattray goes to the sink to wash his hands and says he’ll return in a few minutes to review some details. Seeing she is safely away from public view, he opens the door to leave but then closes it and goes to the cabinet above the sink, where he retrieves a sanitary wipe and drying cloth.

“You might want to use these before you put everything back on,” he says, winking.

Olivia smiles from behind the protective covering of a chair; she can’t access her clothes without crossing to the other side of the room, and she’s exposed herself enough for one day. At work this morning when she confessed to her boss she had exaggerated on her CV about experience with social networking platforms, at lunch when her friend Molly asked why she hadn’t RSVP’d to the baby shower invitation yet, and now, the annual. If only she had waited until her regular doctor returned from vacation. No rush—although the burning and itching have become unbearable, to the point she can hardly sit through a movie at the cinema. Trenton, whose job if not life revolves around the cinema, has found this most worrying, explaining to Olivia how bad it looks when his own wife can’t sit through a screening of his film.

Yeah, well you see how it feels to have inflamed veins in your ass.

Nobody gets hemorrhoids at 34. That’s a disease for the middle-aged, and she has at least six more years to go. She’s entitled to those years and will not have some substitute doctor use words like “anus” on her. Olivia silently prepares a lecture while she dresses, but Doctor Rattray knocks on the door before she can come up with a civilized term for her anatomy.

“I apologize for the wait. Network’s all clogged up.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I phoned your prescription to the pharmacy. It will be ready tomorrow.”

“Prescription?”

Dr. Rattray holds his clipboard in the air and waves for her to sit with him at his desk. He plucks a pen from behind his ear and points it at her. “You, Mrs. Goodman, are to follow my orders for the next two weeks and then check in with your regular doctor.”

Who is this man Dr. Wein has allowed as a replacement? Olivia isn’t especially fond of Dr. Wein, but at least he never shocked her with information about her health or talked about it in such an offhand and vulgar way.

“What, exactly, is the problem, Dr. Rattray?”

As though he has been waiting all day for such a question, an opportunity not only to show off his knowledge of the medical world’s underbelly but also to showcase a hidden talent for exciting conversation, he claps his hands once and plunges into a monologue that passes right over Olivia.

“So it’s not your fault, Mrs. Goodman, and you will be able to resume all normal activities once it’s treated. In theory it has nothing to do with whether or not your husband licks your anus. But in practice, moisture makes yeast a very productive little fungus.” The doctor wags his index finger.

“Have you checked your husband for oral thrush? It’s quite easy to identify, usually a white patch on the top of the tongue that looks like hair—”

“Please, just tell me how to get rid of it. I’ll be happy to follow your instructions.”

“Get rid of it?”

“Yes, this…problem I seem to have developed.”

“Oh there’s no getting rid of hemorrhoids, Mrs. Goodman. They’re constricted veins that require treatment, sometimes even surgery, but I assure you they’re manageable. Did you know fifty-percent of people over the age of forty develop hemorrhoids?”

Olivia stares harder at the ground each time the doctor says the offensive word. It sounds like something German lovers might yell at each other during quarrels.

An hour after leaving the doctor’s office, she is stuck in traffic. According to the radio announcer, a five-car pile-up has narrowed the highway from three lanes to one. The occasional car zooms along the soft-shoulder only to encounter a roadblock of pylons up ahead, where a police officer gleefully tickets the deviant motorists and holds his hand up to assist them back into the nonexistent flow.

Summer traffic jams in Boston are unbearable; the normal level of driver aggression is amplified by the wasted time and dense humidity, and anybody who has been in this situation before knows to be on guard for cars to rev and force into the first available opening.

“Is it ever hot on this late July afternoon! If you haven’t gone to the new Toscanini’s in Cambridge yet, this is your chance. My personal favorite new flavor is Cherry Chocolate Chunk.  Think about that while you’re stuck in the throbbing heat for the next twenty minutes, and then meet me at Toscanini’s at seven pm and sign up to win a prize. That’s right, I said prize!”

Olivia leans forward in her seat and scoots her lower body back. Her legs are stiff and her rump is on fire. It’s really happening: Her body is beginning to malfunction. How utterly embarrassing. She doesn’t know if she can tell Trenton. But she has to. Apparently he might have oral thrush, although how she contracted that in her … it doesn’t make sense.

A car horn blares behind Olivia’s tree frog green hatchback and a gravelly Irish voice accuses her of holding everyone up. Sure enough, she has fallen four lengths behind the car in front.

A news helicopter circles overhead and Olivia wonders what the traffic jam looks like from an aerial perspective. Maybe it looks like a big swollen vein.

Trenton has set the dinner table and placed a single bird of paradise in a translucent red vase at the center. Small bowls of tapas fan out around the vase.

“You’re a darling for making diner,” she says, scooping a handful of tortilla chips before leaning toward Trenton for a kiss. She stops mid-lean, stuffs her mouth with chips, looks at the table again. “And my favorite wine, too!”

Trenton appears oblivious to the fact that his wife just dodged a kiss, and proceeds to explain the various tapas he spent the afternoon preparing.

“These little guys,” he says, pointing to thick finger-sized sausages marinated in a burgundy sauce, “are called ojales—or, buttonholes.”

“These,” he says, lifting a bowl of black olives in a cilantro paste, “are perdigones, or buckshots. Don’t they smell divine?”

He explains the other five dishes, but the whole time Olivia can focus on one thing only: his mouth. She’s never noticed until now that it barely moves when he speaks. In fact Trenton mumbles a lot of his words, streams them together and occasionally lisps. She remembers, vaguely, noticing the lisp when they met nine years go, but she was too polite to say anything so probably she’s just gotten used to it by now.

When his tongue finally does expose itself, Trenton covers it with the back of his hand to staunch a yawn. “Everything okay, Liv? Is the food grossing you out?”

Olivia sucks back her glass of wine. She needs courage to ask him about his oral thrush. “Do you—have you ever—did you know that….”

“What’s wrong? Tell me what’s wrong.” Trenton pushes the tapas aside and reaches across the table. “Sweetheart?”

She drops her head and stares at the tops of her thighs. “Just give me a minute.”

He stands and walks around to his wife. He hugs her against his stomach and rubs her shoulder blades. “Are you anxious about the screening tonight? You don’t have to come. I know it’s hard for you to stay awake after working all day.”

She whimpers into his stomach, his pleasantly soft yet flat stomach, and wonders if this will be the next thing on her to go. Maybe she’ll wake up tomorrow morning with a pouch that can’t be tucked behind the waist of her jeans no matter what she does. Or worse, a muffin top. She pats her stomach to check if this isn’t already the case.

Trenton pounces on the gesture. “You’re pregnant? Are you really? That’s wonderful news, Liv! Oh my God, I’m so happy I could—”

“I have hemorrhoids!”

When he releases her and steps back, she wonders if he’ll ever look at her the same again. Of all the vile things she’s ever said to her husband, this wins the blue ribbon.

She pours herself another glass of wine. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to yell. The doctor gave me a pamphlet, if you care to know more.”

A smile spreads across his face like a contagion—into his eyes, along the lines of his forehead, even the tips of his ears. He hugs Olivia to him once again and says, “Welcome to the club, darling.”

~

The next day Olivia leaves work early. After extensive research on the items Dr. Rattray prescribed for her, she has decided they are non-hazardous and easy to hide from Trenton. He must hide his products, after all, since she’s never seen any around the bathroom. Maybe he’s embarrassed, too. Her research has also taught her a coded vocabulary she can use with the pharmacist. Surely she isn’t the first person to fill a prescription of this nature, but she can’t risk exposing her horrifying secret.

After skillfully maneuvering her hatchback between two king cab pickup trucks with muddy off-road tires, she reaches into her purse for the CD she made during lunch break: A Free Guided Meditation for the Overburdened. She inserts the CD, presses “play,” and listens as a waterfall and gentle wind fill the car. This is kind of nice, she thinks.

A soothing male voice eventually fades in and encourages her to close her eyes and relax. “You are preparing for your spiritual enema,” the voice says.

She ejects the CD and snaps it in two.

The pharmacist tells her it will take ten minutes to prepare her order, so she walks up and down the store aisles in search of the non-prescription items she learned about online: witch hazel, fiber supplement, and stool softener. According to her research, these aides can help keep both her exterior and interior happy. She also visits the cosmetics section—her first time since adolescence, when wearing makeup had everything to do with fitting in and nothing to do with aesthetics. Other than a light sweep of clear lip-gloss, she presents herself to the world the way nature made her. And why shouldn’t she? Her skin is clear, her features are symmetrical, and she’s in her prime. Or was. She picks up a tester tube of Cover Girl lipstick and rubs the nub of dark pink onto her index finger. Next, she rubs her index finger across her lips and puckers them in front of the wall mirror. She moves down the aisle to the eye shadows and liners, then concealers, then blushes, and by the time she’s called to the prescription counter she looks like a mom whose little girl has played beauty shop on her.

The pharmacist smiles too generously as he rings up her purchases. “Tucks is on sale this week, if you’d prefer.”

“Tucks?”

“Generic witch hazel’s fine, but you’ll get more medicated pads for your money if you buy Tucks.”

She ignores the suggestion and promptly exchanges 20 dollars for her products.

Outside the store, she takes a moment to ensure she hasn’t left anything behind like her wallet or car keys. Two teenage boys lean against the brick exterior, smoking sloppily rolled cigarettes.  They are overdressed for such a blistering summer day, sweating yellow through their long soccer jerseys. With Olivia as their audience, they become animated and talk loudly at each other.  One of the boys produces a matchbook from his back pocket. He tears a match free and strikes it against the flint strip across the small square of cardboard, then holds up the lit match like he’s just performed a magic trick. The other boy sticks his thumb and index finger into his mouth and then presses his fingers around the flame. He grins at Olivia, but she is already halfway to her car.

Tonight she will ask Trenton to show her his tongue. As soon as he gets home, before he has removed his loafers, Olivia will know the secrets of his mouth. This is ridiculous! Why is she afraid to ask? They’ve shared so many things over the years, and he knows she now has hemorrhoids and a yeast infection. She just needs to take it one step further and alert him to the possibility he might have contributed to the second part of her ailment. Oral thrush can be caused by a variety of culprits—food-born bacteria, a tooth infection, aging—so this is a mystery to solve together.

Since Trenton isn’t due home for another hour, Olivia decides to familiarize herself with her cornucopia of treatments. As she lays the products out on the bathroom counter, however, she realizes she doesn’t know which to use first—the witch hazel pads or the anti-fungal cream. And how, exactly, does one “apply” anti-fungal cream? Had she not been in a rush to leave the pharmacy, she could have received a free consultation. The third product, psyllium caplets, is straightforward, so she starts here: Take one caplet with a glass of water. Next, she reads the directions on the stool softener bottle: Take one to two softgels at the first sign of hard stool. Ew. Finally, there is no getting around it; she’s left with the witch hazel pads and the anti-fungal cream. The products sit side by side on the counter like a pair of schoolyard bullies. She decides to apply the cream first, since witch hazel is merely a soothing agent. The anti-fungal leaflet instructs her to:

“Make sure infected area and hands are clean. Insert plastic applicator into tube and fill with cream until dotted line. From a standing position, bend forward at waist. Use one hand to stretch skin around anus. Use other hand to guide applicator to anus and gently insert tip. Do not force. With index finger, push down on top of applicator until all cream has been dispensed. Gently remove and rinse in warm water for reuse. Store in cool, dry place. See numbered illustration on back.”

 Olivia tosses the cream into the wastebasket beside the sink, sits on the edge of the bathtub, and cries. She weeps until Trenton comes home, blaming him for everything—the hemorrhoids, the yeast infection, the muffin top she will one day have, her indecision about what to do with her life, her stupid, aging body. By the time he comes to her, she has concluded their marriage is failing.

“What do you mean, Liv?” He appears to be suppressing a laugh—an actual laugh!

She wipes her face dry with a hand towel and confronts her husband. “You lied to me. That’s why. And you gave me a yeast infection in my ass! How is that even possible? Do you have any idea how degraded I feel?”

Trenton swishes his mouth from side to side for a moment and then says, “I have never lied to you. You’re acting a little mad right now.”

“Why didn’t you tell me about your hemorrhoids?”

“I didn’t think it was something you’d favor knowing.”

“What about your oral thrush?”

“My what?”

She squeezes her hand around Trenton’s chin. “Open.”

“Wawt?” He tries to wriggle free but she has him locked in place.

“Open your mouth and show me your tongue.” She feels an unexpected rush of bravery—a psychic liberation at having issued a command with such certainty.

Trenton’s nostrils flare with confusion, but he does as he is told. She peers into his mouth, maneuvers his head from one side to the other, shines a mini flashlight inside, releases her grip.

“You don’t have a hairy tongue,” she says.

“A hairy what?”

“A hairy tongue. Oral thrush. The reason I have an infection.”

He looks around the bathroom with intent, and then lifts his hand above his head as though to touch the light bulb that has just flashed in his mind. He turns this way and that, gathering her scented bath beads, shower gels, and beauty bars in his arms. She almost shrieks when he drops everything into the wastebasket.

“What did you do that for?”

“All those fake chemicals,” he says, hugging her to him and kissing the top of her head, “are hemorrhoid irritants. Sometimes it’s that simple. Besides, only teenage girls walk around smelling like flowers all the time.”

She slips a hand between herself and Trenton and touches her belly, which, thank God, is still neatly behind the waist of her jeans.

 

 

April L. Ford is a Montréal, Québec native. She is in her third semester at Queens University of Charlotte, and she is happily employed as a French lecturer at State University of New York, Oneonta. Her short story “Layla” appeared in the spring 2010 issue of Short Story magazine, and “Isabelle’s Haunting” will appear in the upcoming issue of The Battered Suitcase.

Read our interview with April here.

 

“Touching Margaret Atwood” by Valerie Fioravanti

beach /images

If there is one benefit to a Brooklyn upbringing, it’s a loud, booming voice.

You learn to be heard in the schoolyard–if not the cradle. In a world where sidewalk territory was conceded square-by-square, where insults were merely the foreplay of torment, I developed a knack for exposing secret shames.

Bully bed wetter? You can’t hide that smell up close.

Vet older brother caressing lampposts in the twilight? I’m not worth the risk.

My verbal abilities became protection and rescue from the neighborhood, and they served me loyally through college. Then I trailed a lover to Switzerland, home to four languages not my own. In that strange land of starched traditions and tight-lipped disapproval, words failed me habitually, publicly, until they sputtered to a complete stop, even on the page, in English.

The overarching Swiss aesthetic is one of attainable perfection. I couldn’t order bread without being marched through pronunciation and grammar lessons, my baguette dangled outside my reach as I repeated phrases a dozen times or more.

Je voudrais du pain, s’il vous plaît.

Non! Je voudrais du PAIN, s’il vous plaît.

Non! PA-in.

Alors, JE voudrais du pain.

My enthusiastic attempts to communicate blighted their ears, and even my partner, his native traits emerging on home soil, suggested I focus on pronunciation over vocabulary, as if a thing that wasn’t said elegantly wasn’t worth saying. This implication cut as deeply as any comeuppance I’d ever inflicted.

I didn’t fight this notion like the rebel I’d always believed myself to be. Instead, I channeled Bartleby, refusing to engage in daily corrections with my neighbors. I pointed at items I wanted in shops, and relied upon my honed urban glare when challenged. I grew more and more mute until I spoke rarely, at home, among friends, or otherwise. When I finally fled the Swiss, I found my silence a difficult habit to break. I had lost sight of words as my gift.

I was home a week when I learned about a “master” class given by Margaret Atwood. I believed my favorite writer, a Canadian concerned with the silence of being from that other country, could guide me back to my former place of surety. I had missed the submission deadline by one day, but I went to the program office to plead for consideration. In my mind, Switzerland was a nation of torment, yet invoking my time living abroad didn’t elicit sympathy or an extension from the program staff. I persisted, hoping to shake off the rust, to appear worthy of Margaret Atwood’s time.

“I can read you the first paragraph, and if you don’t think it’s good enough, that’s fine. I’ll accept that. The name Ainsley is an homage to my favorite character from The Edible Woman.”

They called security.

I trailed Margaret Atwood through her NYC appearances to promote Alias Grace. If my own words had failed me, hers remained a delight. She made time to read at an independent bookstore, a haven that would not survive the release of her next book. The crowd she drew was larger than the space, so she had fans circled around her on the floor.

The microphone wasn’t working properly. Whenever she spoke, the treble squeaked and bleated, but the noise of the bookstore and the Broadway street bustle meant she couldn’t be heard without it. Twenty minutes into the equipment troubles, Ms. Atwood rested her hand on the head of a young man with wild, shoulder-length curls, and the noises disappeared. The audience whooped. When she moved her hand, the bleating returned, but the big-haired boy scuttled away.

“Was it me?” she joked. The feedback heckled her laugh.

The space around her had widened, and my friend elbowed me. “They’re never going to fix that thing.”

I tripped over my own backpack, practically tumble-salting to her side, but the audience applauded my bravery. Ms. Atwood put her hand on my head, and the mike quieted. She swatted the tech crew away.

For a delicately featured woman, she had a firm, sure touch. I was in the grip of someone in command of more than her words, and I wanted that assurance to seep into me. As she read, her description of 1850s society women— jellyfish ladies—as lovely illusions moved me so literally that the feedback returned. She adjusted my head without interrupting the rhythm of her sentences.

I thought of the women who teetered through my neighborhood, heels high and hair higher. They appeared tough as they sashayed for attention, but that attitude was its own lovely illusion. They were modern jellyfish ladies desperate for rescue, and I longed to write them beyond such outdated notions. As my left hand itched for a pen, I wanted to sweep Margaret Atwood up and dance the mad-jig of inspiration. Part of me thought she could do this without missing a word from the chapter she was reading. She had powers, that one. I believed.

After the reading, she took my hand in hers and mouthed, “Thank you.”

I beamed my reply. Words didn’t fail me. They were unnecessary.

 

 

Valerie Fioravanti writes fiction, essays, and prose poems. Her linked story collection, Garbage Night at the Opera, won the 2011 G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction and is forthcoming from BkMk Press in 2012. Her nonfiction has appeared in Eclectica, Silk Road, and Jelly Bucket, and she is working on an episodic memoir of sorts. Margaret Atwood remains her literary idol.

Read an interview with Valerie here.

 

“Vibrant Waters” by Patrick VendenBussche

waves
Image by Matthew Chase-Daniel

Friday, April 26th 1996

It is here, in this populated lagoon nicknamed ‘Vibrant Waters’ by the public, where I have decided to stay and conduct my observations.

 Though a continual flow of boat traffic skims the surface and crowds of pedestrians surround the shores, the abundance and diversity of life under the calm, clear water makes this an ideal place to settle and conduct research.

 Right off, I note two mysteries about this area: The diversity of life in such a shallow lagoon, and the night divers.

 The night divers are men I have yet to physically approach. I see them appear on the far end of the lagoon as the sky grows dark. When the visitors have left, the divers slip into the lagoon and disappear into darkness.

 Watching them triggers a deep pull in my heart, for due to an irregular imperfection that has formed in my lungs in these later years, I am land-bound and unable to go diving.

 These divers seem to have no effect on the life down within Vibrant Waters. And what life there is! Fish of all types: Tangs, Angels, Damselfish, Anthias… and the corals… Acropora, Brain, and Polyps…  The numbers are too much to list. And there are sharks, squid, anemones… If only I could observe them closer. I look to these glimpses of life through the plate glass at the bottom of a boat as if I am watching a television. Why is there so much life in such a small closed off lagoon? The evolutionary diversity of this single lagoon is confounding. And what do these men of the night do when they slip into those waters and leave in the morning? Like any man of science, curiosity grips me harder than any love could.

 ~Dr. Henry Handler

*

Monday, April 29th 1998

Today there is a new arrival in the lagoon. A pair of dolphins: a mother and her calf. I never had much interest in dolphins, but it is good to see new life in the lagoon. Though the amounts of species are vast, I have also found them stale and unchanging. Each species I have noted has an incredibly low density. The dolphins don’t seem frightened by the boats (nor does much of the life out here) as they leap from the waves to say hello. They are more rigid in their swimming pattern then the dolphins I remember in my past. The ones I would see sailing on the Gulf, with the wind ripping through my hair and my fate bent on the sail. Nevertheless, it is good to see them.

~Dr. Henry Handler

 *

Tuesday, June 17th 1998

I was passively observing a school of Tangs from the boat when I made the most remarkable discovery. Keep in mind, I write this next passage as a man with a solid scientific mind. I write it as a man who has spent most of his life on or below the water… in all my years… I can barely write this! It was only a flash in the corner of my eye. What I glimpsed was… how can a man of science write this… or make claim to this? It was from what I could see… a mermaid. The myth of sailors and legends! I had seen her zoom from my sight, her hair trailing behind, pulsing in the surge. It was only a second, but I swear it was a mermaid!

 There is nothing to do now but keep watch. Keep watch and hope I am not going crazy.

~Dr. Henry Handler

*

Saturday, June 29th 1998

I yearn to go back into the water with SCUBA gear. The depressurization would be hard on my old body. The nitrogen narcosis would come on fast even in shallow waters. The gear would be too heavy and with my irregular lung passage it is too risky. But I am happy to be out near where the sea life is mostly familiar, even if its reasoning is so different. There are species of crab and lobster I never thought would be living in the same reefs and fish I believed only lived in other areas of the world.

 I contemplate my findings as I wander around this island paradise. The locals have plenty of food stands and markets. There is a hospital and a quaint downtown which reminds me much of the small old-fashioned streets where I grew up. I find that this place is one of the happiest places on earth, though during the summer months it can get quite crowded. It is during these months when I spend most of my time indoors or on the river, cruising to nowhere on a boat.

~Dr. Henry Handler

*

Wednesday, July 3rd 1998

There’s a mansion on the hill. They say it’s been haunted for years. I dare not venture there, for ghosts frighten me, though it seems to be a great attraction to many people and as of late (a lot more of an attraction then the lagoon). Boat traffic has slowed immensely. This makes me happy. For me, I would rather explore what is alive then what was. But we all have our interests I suppose.

 This is why I have decided that leaving isn’t on my agenda.

 I find that I miss my daughter, but there is too much work to be done in this lagoon. With this ‘mermaid’ I feel nearly chosen. As if her waving hair was beckoning me to her with a seductive motion. Of course, I am too old and too studied to believe she is real. I am certain it must have been a tuft of Maiden’s Hair algae adrift in the waters. Regardless, the small feeling of mystery I once felt in those days of discovery, before men had dropped down to the reefs in anything but a lead suit and began the use of the Aqua Lung… those unknown days which filled me with shocking warmth even in the cold Pacific… I feel it again. Even if it is a false emotion, I will hold onto it.

~Dr. Henry Handler

*

Friday, July 26th 1998

I glimpsed it again. I am certain it was a mermaid. Certain. There is no going back now. The spirit of adventure and exploration is alive. A myth is real. If men can believe in ghosts, why not a mermaid?

~Dr. Henry Handler

 *

Wednesday, August 7th 1998

The night divers came back last night. They continue to mystify me, but I will watch, always, over this lagoon that I have grown too fond of.

~Dr. Henry Handler

*

Tuesday, October 22nd 1998

I have spent more time looking for the mermaid than writing in my journal. She has not appeared again, yet the divers come every night. The dolphins have stopped surfacing. Fish are disappearing.

 I want to approach these mysterious divers, dressed in black wetsuits and carrying bags of tools and other bulky equipment. I want to stop them, but I am a feeble, old man, and I know men like these are dangerous. They slip in after sunset and leave before morning. They are doing something. Poaching, or killing, or building, but I haven’t been able to discern what even after my months of staying here.

 I will keep watch, always.

~Dr. Henry Handler

*

Wednesday, November 13th 1998

I apologize for my terrible handwriting. I am writing with a broken wrist, which is now bound in gauze and a splint. It was two nights ago. I was standing watch, as always, over the lagoon. I’d had a cup of coffee to stave off my early afternoon drowsiness, but the pot was more potent then I believed and it had kept me up all night.

 I watched the divers enter the waters after sunset as they always do. I attempted sleep, but it didn’t come. I went outside and spent my time between reading an old copy of The Great Gatsby (a personal favorite) and keeping an eye on the lagoon. When the sun broke in the morning, I found the divers coming forth from the water. This time dragging something…

 Pulling her from the water, roughly, yanking her by her hair… It was the mermaid.

 Of course, like the old fool I am, it was then I realized what they were after all this time.

 I am an old man, but I still felt the bite. The bite that a conservationist feels whenever they look at a rich forest of emerald green and know it is doomed for demolition. So I went after them.

 There was no plan. Looking back I should have grabbed something, anything, even a pan or a rolling pin. But I was in a rage. I ran at them, bellowing a roar I never knew I had inside of me. They saw my approach, barely moved. When I reached them (the mermaid, now on the ground, lying lifelessly on the grainy shore, without a twitch) it was only a matter of seconds before they strong-armed me into submission.

 I swung, I fought, I kicked, I bit. And then I was thrown to the ground where I landed on my hand. I heard the crunch of bone, and felt the fire of breaking ligaments.

 They loaded the mermaid onto the truck and drove away. One stayed to observe me until the island doctors arrived. We exchanged no eye contact and no conversation.

 I spent the last two days asleep. I will sleep for one more full day.

~Dr. Henry Handler

*

Monday, December 23rd 1998

Christmas doesn’t deter the tourists here. In fact, when the islanders decorate, the place is vivid, like a snow kingdom in the middle of a warm paradise.

 No mermaids have come back, and though I study the waters less and less, I find peace looking out across the lagoon. The cheers and squeals of children echoing as they see passing schools of Chromis, the parents in awe of the stranger creatures like cephalopods and nudibranches.

 But I am fine on my porch. Relaxed. Happy to see the sun rise and fall. Though I still think of the mermaid. In the darkest dreams I see her body lifeless on the cement, her face turned down. Only in the brightest moments do I see her in the water, a living myth only a few men could possibly have ever seen.

~Dr. Henry Handler

*

January 18th, 1999

The Office of the President – Imagic-Nation
Paradise Ave, Orange Valley, CA

Dear Dr. Judith Handler,

I am writing to offer my condolences regarding the recent passing of your father, Dr. Henry Handler. Like most boys growing up, your father’s books and the films of astounding underwater worlds that he studied during his lifetime enamored me. Without your father, a true pioneer, the underwater world would still be mostly a mystery. I credit your father for giving me the inspiration for building my park. Even many of the films I produced were tributes to Dr. Handler.

 In recent years, as you know, your father’s senility became quite severe. His delusions were extreme, and even that would be an understatement. To watch a mind and soul of such great intelligence and adventure wither to foolishness, I beseeched my heart not to break! To think of Dr. Handler spending his days in a home, in such a confined space compared to that vastness of dynamic life within the ocean… just the prospect made me sad. Which is why when your father visited the “Vibrant Underwater Kingdom Ride” in his elder days (you know this ride, we took you on it when you visited as a small girl – it is a horrid, little attraction where a series of glass bottom boats travel on a track around a lagoon full of plastic fish, killer squids, and a mermaid, even though she was removed in the later years due to constant breakdowns and a shoddy design) he would often forget he was looking at plastic marine life. Or perhaps he just had been starved so long of seeing it in the wild that he only wished it to be real.

When the lawsuits from the university and the mismanagement of your father’s properties came about, both his bank account and mind were deteriorating at a rapid rate. Too senile to handle a book deal or a TV show that could save his pocketbook, he was destined to be led to a small retirement apartment, a shoebox on the 32nd floor of a crumbling building downtown. That was when I built a small cabin on the lagoon of Vibrant Underwater Kingdom. He took up residency there with complacency. He would often watch the ‘animals’ and though I never quite knew what he was up to, he seemed like his normal self: as if he were back in the sparkling waters of Fiji and Bali or offshore of the Tonga in his boat the Yemaja exploring the unknown. When we removed his belongings from the cabin (we always told the guests it was a pump house, your father the pump house operator…you see, most people knew your father’s name, but his face was always hidden by one of those archaic two-hosed re-breathers) we found a journal he had been writing since he took up residency.

 Though I am sad to see him go, I know my diving repair engineers (who often butted head with your father for reasons I am sure you will see) are happy to be free of the old ‘pump house operator’, though I know deep in their hearts they feel the ache, as their night shift has become a lot less interesting.

 I think you will find this journal an interesting slice of your father’s life and mine.  I know you yourself are somewhere out in the Pacific, continuing where he left off, going even deeper then he could imagine. But I want you to know, even in his final days—his existence a small, pathetic, faux slice of his former reality—he was a happy man.

Yours Truly,

Rodney Mabel
President of Imagic-nation and Imagic-nation Theme Park

 

 

Patrick VendenBussche spends most of his time out on the Pacific and under the waves. An avid SCUBA diver, he volunteers most his time for coastal restoration efforts and aquarium diving for education. Between the water and his other volunteer work with therapeutic horseback riding, he is currently working on feature length scripts and more short fiction. Far from his homeland of northern Michigan, he now resides in West Hollywood, California.

Read an interview with Patrick here.