“The Hippocratic Oath” by Melissa McKinstry

“A Gentle Lifting” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas.

The DNR rests on my desk.
I’ve signed it in my mind
over and over for 21 years,
but only once with a pen
and a witness, and the father
of my son, a child
tangled in a dysfunctional genome
for no particular reason. Every
day since his birth has felt like
a penance, and more recently,
a rebellion against
the doctors who want
to put another hole in him
but don’t want to talk about
his life or ours.
But, this evening
the garden is a rose window,
and I confess uncertainty
in its glow and the exhale
of the canyon.
To practice singing
a big song from a small body
I listen to the goldfinches,
and my son clicks his tongue
in what may be a response.



Melissa McKinstry grew up on small farms outside of Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, learning how things grow and how people take care of each other in small communities. She is currently a student in the MFA poetry program at Pacific University. Her poetry has appeared in The Seattle Review and Quaint Canoe, EcoPoetry Washington, and is forthcoming in the first issue of Heirlock. She works to follow the advice of poet Joe Millar: “Sanctify yourself as a poet. Sit down and write every day.”

“Diving In” by Jennifer Campbell

“Salt Run” by Sydney McKenna, Oil on canvas, 36″ x 36″

“Emerging research suggests that not one square mile of surface ocean anywhere on earth is free of plastic pollution.”  —Center for Biological Diversity

Diving to see coral and clownfish,
instead Snow White is submerged in trash—
a plastic bag becomes a jellyfish,
translucent floating shape shifter,
the spikes on a puffer fish jut out,
red and white striped straws stabbing its back.

Snow went to explore the sea life
and finds death, evidence
of a trillion crimes against purity.
The longer she lingers, the more
waste floats at her, disguised as fish.

After her first dive, she becomes
obsessed. The sea calls out to her
and she needs to see the unreal colors
of a right pink flipflop, neon applesauce pouch,
orange doll arm, fingers chewed with worry.
She finds it hard to return
to the surface, wonders how the mermaids
could have wasted so much time
with their useless song.


Jennifer Campbell is an English professor in Buffalo, NY, and a co-editor of Earth’s Daughters. She has two full-length poetry collections, Supposed to Love and Driving Straight Through, and was a finalist in both the 2017 Fairy Tale Review Poetry Contest and the 2014 River Styx International Poetry Contest. Several of her poems appear in journals such as Pinyon Review, Little Patuxent Review, The Healing Muse, Sow’s Ear, Comstock Review, Pennsylvania English, Saranac Review, Oyez Review, and Fugue, and her work is forthcoming in the AROHO Waves Anthology.

“The Australian Valiant in Its Natural Habitat” by Welton B. Marsland

“Sunrise Sunset” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas, 36″ x 60″

They were somewhere on the wrong side of Horsham. At least the number beside Melbourne’s name on the road signs was steadily declining.

Jeremy’s right foot had been on the accelerator so long that he wouldn’t be surprised to find it stuck there at journey’s end. Heat and sweat caused the gum trees on the roadside to dance in his peripheral vision for a fleeting, sickly moment.

“You okay?”

The voice from the back seat prickled the back of Jeremy’s neck. He hadn’t realised he’d moaned softly. “Huh?” he glanced into the mirror. The boy was sprawled along the Valliant’s long back seat, grubby hands cradling a sawn-off shotgun, both truncated barrels pointed at Jeremy’s nape.

“I said,” the boy sighed, “Are you okay? You moaned or something. What’s up?”

Jeremy stared at dark blue bitumen. “Nothing.” What else could he reply? He’d only been heading out for coffee, after all. He wondered again—117th time this journey—how long did Dirk and Grania wait in their favourite Fremantle café as Jeremy’s expected arrival time came and went? How many different types of shit did they call him for standing them up?

Jeremy remembered how smooth Dirk had sounded on the phone. He’d accepted the purred invitation without hesitation, tied his hair back, grabbed his leather jacket and gone. Almost out the door, he’d doubled back to his bedroom, searching amongst the detritus on the floor for the silver star on a chain Grania and Dirk had given him last Christmas.

They’d wanted coffee in the café he’d first met them in—a good sign. He’d pulled out of his driveway hastily, the sleek classic car narrowly missing the letterbox. At the end of his street, as he checked for non-existent traffic, he realised two things—one, he’d left his phone on the kitchen table, and two, there were shotgun barrels currently being pressed to the back of his neck. The sensation was cold and sharp; he could actually feel tiny, vicious nodules of rudely hacked metal scraping his skin. The Valiant stalled.

“Get it started again! Move it!” The voice sounded so young. Was this a joke? The barrels jabbed him once, twice. Jeremy fumbled the gear stick and ignition, deciding any joke that went like this was best played along with for the time being.

“Right,” the voice resumed when they were back on their way, “I’m heading for Melbourne. You’re gonna be nice and take me there.”

“Melbourne?!” Jeremy stared stupidly at his petrol gauge. “How?!”

“Drive me there of course, dickwit!”

And so it was.

Jeremy barely even noticed Perth falling away behind them those first few hours. His eyes were glued to the roads, not even daring to glance into his mirror. Several times, his fingers cramped around the wheel; knuckles bloodless, white. This Can’t Be Happening, he thought repeatedly, the shotgun’s lazy presence telling him otherwise, even as he thought it.

“We’re … we’re almost out of petrol.” He’d found his voice at last, somewhere behind his knees, apparently.

“Better stop somewhere then, hey?”

A small servo loomed up before them. “You got enough money on ya? Do ya want me to pay?”

Jeremy thought of the coffee and cake money in his jacket and stammered his negative reply.

“Settled then,” the voice breezed, like a boss announcing he’ll pick up the tab at a business luncheon. “I’ll pay our way ’til we get there.” A rolled up bundle of money plonked into Jeremy’s lap. “Use that. And be nice.”

Be nice? Jeremy almost laughed. Shouldn’t the voice say something like “Don’t try anything stupid”? or “No funny business”? Surely “be nice” was a little out of place here?

He stopped the Valiant at a bowser and because the place had a hand-painted sign boasting of driveway service, he waited for an attendant. A man soon appeared, smearing oil stains over a dirty overall. He waddled up to Jeremy’s window, smiling gap-toothedly.

“Series S,” he leered at the Valiant as though appraising a barmaid’s cleavage. “Bewdiful condition. Must be proud of her?”

Jeremy nodded dumbly. There was silence from the back seat and the shotgun had moved from the back of his neck. Surely, though, the amputated barrels were pressed into the restored leather upholstery of his backrest, waiting to blow both he and his beloved car apart unless he did his best to “be nice”.

“Fill her up, thanks,” he croaked.

The attendant shuffled the bowser nozzle into place, free hand tapping on the shiny black roof. “Restore her yerself, did ya?”

“Yeah,” Jeremy sighed. “Spent all summer on it. Me and some friends.”

He was lost for one sweet moment in memories … the bonnet sparkling in strong Perth sunshine, he and Dirk with heads bent close over mechanical intricacies, so engrossed that only Grania jiggling as she waxed the Valiant from bumper to bumper could distract them.

“Must be proud of her,” the attendant drawled again. Jeremy passed the man some money from the roll in his lap, the man passed back some workshop-grubbied change.

“Y-yes, I am. Thank you.”

Back on the road, the voice rose again. “Does that radio work? Or is it just for looks?”

“It works.” Jeremy twiddled the knobs, trying to find something the voice decided it liked.

“Cool!” the voice exclaimed, “Leave it on this!”

They travelled hours without saying a word. Jeremy tried not to look at the landscape too much; he hated being out of the city and this never-ending expanse, the unflinching openness of it, made him queasy. Jeremy instead filled his mind with candlelit images of bedrooms, rough kisses in dark nightclubs, three person conga lines around his kitchen table to cocktail music rescued from op-shops. His abductor stretched out along the back seat and growled along with every lyric the radio spilt into the car’s interior. Darkness was deep around them by the time the voice realised its driver must be wearying.


Jeremy started at the sound, at the very poke of the voice.

“Tired? Want me to drive a while?”

Jeremy pulled the car into the gravel siding, feeling a little sick. “What’ll you do with me while you’re driving?” Oh god, his mind trembled, don’t let him put me in the boot. Oh god, please…


“So!” the boy slid into the driver’s seat, testing his foot-to-pedal comfort, “Ever been tied up before?”

Jeremy couldn’t help laughing. Could this teenager even guess why an adult might find that question amusing? He couldn’t be more than fourteen, surely? For godsake, he was being held captive by a little kid! He looked down at the complicated knots he was tied with and sighed heavily. A little kid who’d been a Boy Scout, obviously.

“Can you drive?” Jeremy demanded. “A lot of work’s gone into this car. I don’t want it wrecked by some little shit out for a joyride.”

The boy turned the engine over expertly and cast Jeremy a baleful look. “Do I look like I’m out for a joyride? Now be nice and sleep. I’ll need you driving during the day when people might see us.”

A flat tyre near the Victorian border was to be the only further event of the journey. Jeremy resigned himself to getting the kid to Melbourne quickly. He didn’t want to ask questions, didn’t want to try escaping and be a maimed or dead hero. The kid didn’t seem talkative either, so they rode out their trip with only the most essential of speech.

That’s why Jeremy was startled by the sudden questioning outside Horsham.

“You okay? You moaned or something. What’s up?”

“Nothing.” He sighed again. “Actually, yeah, something’s up.” He glanced into the mirror, finding the childish, wide brown eyes of his captor peering back. “I was heading out for coffee. Just a bloody coffee. There’s these people … you’re too young to understand, but this … couple … are very dear to me. I haven’t seen them for a while. We’d had this stupid argument over showing the car at a collectors’ show. Yeah, this car. Did it up together, see. Anyway. We had this stupid argument and haven’t seen each other since. I’ve been miserable, okay? Then suddenly they call me and want to meet in the place we first met. That’s where I was going when you popped up. Now here I am,” he made a sweeping gesture at the green and gold land rushing by. “Here I am thousands of miles out of my way, I’ve stood up the two people I love most, and I’ve got a shotgun pointed at the back of my frigging neck! To top all this off—have you seen the state of this car?! She’s a grand old lady and we’re putting her through a bloody cross-country rally!” Jeremy swiped angrily at tears as he finished, wondering what young thugs thought of blokes who cried these days.

The boy was quiet while Jeremy composed himself then, for the first time, he swung his legs over the red leather backrest and fell into the front passenger seat. “I wouldn’t worry about the car if I were you,” he said. “Vals are tough. You could drive her through a war zone and she’d pull up alright on the other side. Plus, y’know, you and yer mates did a great job on her. You could keep going up to Brisbane before she’d even need a service, I bet.”

Jeremy snorted a teary laugh. “And what would you know about cars?”

“My dad was a mechanic. Used to work on oldies like this. Old Valiants. Old Holdens. He would’ve loved this car. Always wanted a Series S…”

Jeremy glanced sideways and caught the wistful look on the boy’s face. It took him a moment longer to realise the shotgun had been left, forgotten, in the back.

“Is that why you chose my car? Because your Dad would’ve liked it?”

“Yeah. Plus it’s not hard to get into a locked Val. Sorry mate, but it isn’t.”

The boy and Jeremy both smiled cautiously. Jeremy shrugged, giving his attention back to the road. He still didn’t want to ask of the boy’s whys and hows, even though it was probably possible to do so now.


The lights of Melbourne’s skyscrapers winked at the Valiant as it approached journey’s end. The boy dozed lightly. Jeremy nudged him awake, telling him to put his seatbelt on.

“Sure,” the boy said, first leaning over into the back to shove the shotgun into a battered sports bag. “North Melbourne station’s probably the best place to leave me. D’ya know where that is?”

Jeremy shook his head. “Never been out of WA before.” He laughed grimly. “You know Melbourne?”

“Yeah. My mum’s here somewhere. Haven’t seen her since I was six, when Dad took me to Perth. She’ll probably pretend she’s glad he’s dead when I tell her. But she’ll be upset really, I reckon. She always said he was a loser, doing all those robberies and stuff. Now he’s gone and proved her right. He should’ve stuck to fixing cars, instead of driving ’em away from banks really fast…” He smirked and hauled the sports bag into his lap, hugging it close while Jeremy eased the car into the dark parking area at North Melbourne train station.

They sat silently, looking embarrassed for a short while. “My mum always told me to be nice to people who help me,” the boy fumbled with his seatbelt and sports bag. “I’m sorry if I scared yer too much or anything. I know I’ve really put you out, but there was nuthin’ else I could do. I had to get away real quick … and it’s such a cool car…” He held his hand out. Jeremy looked it at a moment as if wondering what the boy wanted, then he clasped it and shook it solidly.

The boy got out of the car, threw two rolled-up bundles onto the seat and ran off, shouting a childish “Thanks heaps!”.


Although he’d given up smoking years ago, Jeremy ripped open a pack of smokes from the nearby pub’s machine as he listened thankfully to the coins dropping into the pay phone. He raised his voice over the traffic-mumble around him and blurted “I love you” into the receiver, barely registering if it was Grania or Dirk who answered at the other end.


Welton B. Marsland is a queer-punk writer from Melbourne, Australia whose stories, poetry & more have appeared in many local & international markets. Debut novel “By the Currawong’s Call,” set in 1890s Australia, is available through harpercollins.com.au and recently won the Romance category at the 2018 Bisexual Book Awards in New York. Twitter: @wbmarsland Website: weltonbmarsland.com

“Relative Sanity” by Ellen Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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

I remember everyone waiting and waiting….

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

asylum seeker
dancing barefoot and childless
in another life


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

“The Unfastening of Winter” by Cris Mulvey

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

Alice stretched her tired body and dropped heavily onto the straight-backed chair at the side of the open casket. She ran calloused hands through dull-blond hair and pressed her palms, just for a moment, against her eyes, steeling her mind against the silence. You’re free now. So…will you?

It was as if someone else had spoken, this unexpected voice inside her head. She looked sharply around the room. It was empty. There was only her husband’s body laid out before her, his face gray, but pain-free; the picture of the Sacred Heart above it; and herself, poised stiffly on the edge of this hard, little chair.

The Sacred Heart seemed to stare at her, a bit like the Mona Lisa, she thought. No matter which way she shifted to try to change the light, his eyes followed her. The voice in her head said it again. “Free, at last. So….will you?” It became like a mantra. It kept time with the tick-tock-tick of the old clock on the mantelpiece. “Free now. Free now. Free. Will you go now? Go now? Go?”

She focused on Matt’s face. This face that had lain beside her all the nights of thirty years, even those of the last ten, when he’d been bed-ridden, unable to move, paralyzed from the neck down, from a fall on the train tracks at work. It wasn’t that she hated him, she thought, swallowing. It was that she felt absolutely nothing. Nothing at all.

“It’s a kind face,” she mused, searching for a feeling, “a warm one, one that lit up often with smiling.”

“He’s a man who’s done his best, all the days of his life” her father had said once, reprimanding her. ” A man who loves you.”

“Enough for both of us,” Matt had said, the day he’d asked her to marry him.

“And you loved your sons” she said aloud now, to try to make herself feel it,

so hard they brought tears to your eyes, in good times and bad.” She sighed. She still felt nothing, Nothing at all.

Her eyes moved down his body. His hands were large as spades, from his work as an electrician for the railroad. Pale and purplish, knob-knuckled and rough-skinned, they lay limply now, folded across his chest. She remembered the feel of them on her skin, their first night, the way they’d grasped at her breasts, pulled at them, how they had closed tight on her shoulders at the end; her feeling of being taken. She had lain there afterwards, thinking about another man, a man who had taught her what it had felt like to open, to surrender; to pour herself, body and soul, like a river into an ocean, like milk into an urn.


She’d seen Doug first at a rodeo, three hundred miles away in the eastern part of the state. Black-haired and strong, his eyes, the color of wild phlox, narrowing each time he looked at her, flashing like the sun does on the rough edges of broken ice. Each time something inside her had shimmered. She watched him later, moving with the horses he was loading, his body loose with the out of doors, built to work under wide Montana skies, not in its dried out little towns.

Their first evenings together, at the end of her father’s corral, he had whispered to her of the ways of the wind high up there in the mountains, had dared her to cross the fence, cajoling her to leave her world of pianos and china and little lace doilies, just for an evening. When she declined, he told her he’d wait for her behind the chapel on Sunday, and that he’d show her the places God really lived. So she feigned illness at the start of her papa’s sermon and left for air. He helped her up behind him and immediately they were galloping, out across the mountain-side of the town’s white fences, out to the prairie’s tides washed up against sudden reefs, where there were no fences, only the smell of sage and pine, the ice-cold splash of rock-strewn creeks, the secret dens of animals who lived without fetters.

They’d had six months, six secret months of wild riding across open grassland, six months of him reading to her philosophy and poetry, six months of wet kissing, pressed first up against the rough, flaked bark of spruce trees, later, sprawled on the prickling forest floor. Six months where he’d awakened her as rain does soil and planted in her a new sense of what was possible.

It was a deathly cold winter’s night when the stone he threw woke her – and her papa. It had ended then and there. She remembered the long, slow wail of the train, as it pulled out of town, taking him eastwards. She could see it still, snaking its way out across the prairie, the prairie that stretched in waves like the ocean, waves which that evening were tinted hues of pink and purple, stained by the light of the dying sun. She crept into the frozen fields to do her weeping.


A year later, these hands that lay limp now beside her, had taken hold of her and made her a wife.

She had thought about bolting the first day he’d brought her to this town, to the very house where he’d grown up, a house full of the photos and mementos of a family she must now call her own. It was a bigger town than her hometown, but its streets were narrower and its houses smaller. There were no trees to break the dreariness, no views, only the rounded looming shapes of mountains, pressing around her from all sides, crowding out the great expanse of sky. All her life, it had been sky that had soothed her, helped her lungs expand, helped her to breathe. Here, there was almost no sky.

It would have been easy. The train passed behind the fence of their tiny backyard. She could have hopped on it any day, as it slowed its pace to move through town, slipped into one of its carriages, and ridden it ‘til it left this mountain valley far behind. She could have stayed aboard until, turning east across the open prairies; it left even the endless plains behind eventually and began to move between buildings, taller than the wheat silos of her home town, high above streets that danced, not just with the hard green of cottonwoods, but with the soft spread of maple leaves, and the creamy, rose-colored froth of cherry blossom.

But she didn’t.

The boys had come. First Tom. Born whimpering. She remembered the grasp of his hands too, their gripping at her hair, their reluctance ever to let her go. Robert, born a year later had, from the start, sucked at life, not her. He was distant, contained, utterly independent. She adored him.

What she remembers most about those long winters was the unceasing whine of the wind sweeping down from the mountain tops, whipping itself around the outside of the house. Hearing to it, she could think only of the barren, snow-locked flanks of Mt Heron, that beast of a mountain that rose six thousand feet above her window, where even the wolves had to shelter from the cold, from the unbroken, bone-shattering lonesomeness. She would picture the snowfields up there, their top layers shimmering with crystals, burning with starlight, the rocks far below, cracking and splitting beneath their weight of ice, the vast black bowl of the glistening night upended above it all. Sometimes the mountains held her in the immensity of their embrace. Sometimes, it was as though she held them, as though far inside her, in the place of her heart perhaps, or her womb, was a world of pure and dark and ice-cold beauty, lit only by the purple fire of the stars, quite untouched by human feeling.

The clock on the mantelpiece above Matt’s casket chimed loudly. Five o’clock. Another 30 minutes and the evening train, carrying her oldest son, would be pulling in. The clock drew her back to a day she’d spent the last ten years trying to forget. It had sounded just like this the very moment the last living thing inside her died.

Tom had arrived unexpectedly from Bozeman, where he and Robert had been studying. Walking straight into the living room, he waited for his parents to follow. He did not speak until they were seated. Something about his eyes had stopped her heart. The clock began to chime.

“Robert’s dead,” Tom said. “…a car crash. Early this morning. He was drunk.”

After that, all she remembered was the chiming. The sound of it just went on and on in her head. She sat there listening to it. Tom and Matt were talking, she thought. Crying maybe. She just listened to the clock’s voice, to the echoes it made through the silence of the house.

That evening she found herself alone. Matt was at work. Tom was out, making funeral arrangements, taking care of business, acting responsibly. She made her way upstairs. She pulled out the suitcase she had brought from home all those years ago. She put it on the bed and began to pack. “When they come back,” she thought, “I’ll be gone. I’ll figure out where when I’m on the train. It really doesn’t matter. East somewhere, somewhere there’s a college, a library, and a whole lot of pretty trees.”

The wind was cold. A waning moon sailed in and out of bits of angry cloud, never spilling light for long. She had been waiting in the unlit lane by the station trying not to be seen. When the train pulled in she would walk briskly through the turnstile and climb aboard. She would buy the ticket down the line.

She heard the familiar whistle, signaling the train’s passage through town. She bent to lift her suitcase, rising suddenly to a swirl of light from a car pulling in to the station yard. A car door slammed. Footsteps, hasty, on the gravel. She gripped her suitcase, turned away, walking through the turnstile and onto the platform, earlier than she had wanted. She looked southwards anxiously, towards the approaching train.

 A man came up behind her. He was out of breath. She didn’t look around.

 “Mom?” she froze. “MOM!”

 “It’s Dad. He’s had a fall. It’s bad.”

The train’s brakes screeched to a halt. A door opened right in front of her, pouring light across the platform. She moved towards it. She placed her foot on the step. The light was yellow on her shoe.

“He’s in the hospital. They can’t wake him … They think he’s paralyzed … from the neck down.”

She pulled herself into the corridor of the train and turned into a carriage. It was empty. She sat in the seat by the door. She took off her hat. She placed her suitcase by the wall beneath the window. She took off her scarf, her gloves, laid them on top. Then she gazed for one long moment east.

With the first shudder of the carriage she stood up, smoothed her coat and left the train, its gathering speed causing her to almost turn her ankle as she leapt. Her eldest son’s hand steadied her.

“Take me to him.”

From the car she saw the moonlight catch the roof of the train as it made its way out of town. On the other side of the tracks, the snow at the top of Mt Heron glinted and flared. Then a bank of cloud totally swallowed the moon.


That was ten years ago. Ten years! She’d counted again this afternoon when, emptying the urinal down the toilet, she had heard him call. Once, twice, a third time:

 “Alice. A-lice. Ple—e—-e—ase…”

Despite the mounting panic in his voice she’d pretended not to hear, listening instead to the tin-like notes the urine made sprinkling against the water of the toilet bowl. She listened to it echo, almost musically, through the silence of the house. She noted the color. Too dark. She’d have to bring him more liquids. Later. She’d been all day in and out of that room. She knew he wasn’t doing well, but, well, she couldn’t breathe. Rubbing the condensation from the inside of the bathroom window, the outline of Mt Heron appeared blurred against the evening sky. She let herself gaze at its highest slopes. She sucked them in. A sudden flurry of hail hit the tiny pane like a fistful of gravel and she started. She’d go later. Just a little later. It was time for dinner.

Alone in the steamed up warmth of her kitchen, the crackling of the wood-stove, the drone of the late afternoon radio, the sweet knowledge that not even the telephone could get to her here, she let a long, slow breath expand her ribs, then let it out. She couldn’t afford to let herself think. She hummed to the tunes that came and went on the radio. Frowning in the half-light at a recipe book, she washed, sliced, cut, diced, flung the vegetables into a casserole, flung the casserole into the stove and turned immediately to baking.

The hard slipperiness of the butter yielded beneath her fingertips. The cool softness of the flour ran across her palms. She rubbed, squeezed, kneaded, rolled, her eyes following the trickle of melting snow, as it slid pencil-thin runways down the opaque windows. Outside, she knew, Mt Heron stood, stood as it always did, stood as she stood in the midst of her life, immobile, expressionless, letting the seasons and the weathers come and go, untouched by any of it.

An hour later, she entered the bedroom to bring Matt his dinner. She found him lifeless, a dribble from his lower lip dried white against the stubble he had wanted her earlier to shave. She moved immediately to do what needed to be done.

The key in the door brought her back to the present. It was Tom. She lifted herself out of the chair to greet him. They hugged, briefly. She pulled away first and left him alone with Matt. In the kitchen she stood, hands on the cold edge of the sink, staring at the hump of Mt Heron through the net curtain. She thought of the high fields, their snow glinting in the starlight. Still, she felt nothing.


It was the day after the funeral. Tom and she were returning from an after dinner walk. He’d been trying, all day, to talk her into leaving, into going back East with him back, back to where his wife and he had a place. They’d just turned off Main St. towards the house. The streets were deserted. The shadow of the mountain stood black against the evening sky.

Suddenly, Tom stopped and waved his arm at the streets and their buildings.

“Look at this place! It’s dark! Miserable! Empty! You can’t stay here alone. There’s nothing here for you. Not now.”

She couldn’t help a wry smile. She walked on. He caught up.

“Look, I know I’ve said it before, but it all makes sense. Mo and I have tons of room. You’ll have company, and you’ll have space. When you sell the old house, you’ll have money. Then you can figure out what you want.” His voice whined with frustration. “Just give it a try, will you?”

Alice said nothing. She was trying to picture those tree-lined city streets, the ones she’d dreamed of all those years, trying to see herself walking across a tree-filled campus, reading in an oak-shelved library, sipping coffee with friends, talking poetry. But none of it would come into focus. There was only the mountain, its snow-capped peak shining far above her. Her mind would go nowhere but there. She saw herself standing atop that north facing ridge, way up there at the top of the world, gazing down at this valley that had held her life. She had never been up the mountain. Suddenly she wanted to go. Tom stepped in front of her to peer into her eyes. “I’ll think about it, Tom,” she said. “I will. Now, I, for one, am going to bed.”

Alone in the attic at the top of the house, a place she sometimes slept alone, she stood gazing through the dormer window at Mt Heron. With a flourish she threw the windows open to the night and leaned out. Far below leaves were skittering down First Street, gusting in circles, gathering in the corners of fences, and settling. It was a wind she knew, a wind she watched for, year after year, the one, she believed, came to shiver the tops of things, and whisper to them to grow.

High above it all, Mt Heron glimmered, its peak and ragged edges white with moonlight, its crevices and the meadows where the tree cover grew, pooled in darkness. Watching the curve of its massive flank and the delicate arc of silvered snow across it, Alice felt a sudden opening. The friendless world that had leaned forever against her windowpanes seemed to lift, just a little. The mountain seemed to lean towards her.

“Perhaps,” she thought, sniffing the wind “perhaps, at last, winter is over. Perhaps now, Spring can finally come.”

She had no idea what that might mean. She knew only that she would not recognize it anywhere but here.


Cris Mulvey was born and raised in Ireland and spent the first half of her life as an educator, activist, and community organizer. Drawn by the beauty of wild nature and its power to feed, heal, and inspire, she moved to Montana where she began to write poetry, short stories, and memoir. Mulvey currently lives in Northern California with her husband Jack, a dog, and two cats. Her work has appeared in a number of journals, including the Naugatuk River Review, the Whitefish Review, Mobius, Last Night and Women’s Voices for Change.

“Cardiff by the Sea” by Patsy Creedy

“Tunnel Vision” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas, 24″ x 48″

I should have taken the hint the first time I tried to get into the surf, paddling furiously over the breaking waves that keep coming. Each wave I made it over a victory. At one point I even thought I was getting somewhere, only to turn around and see the shore still so close, the other surfers watching the waves. To feel the sand with my foot, telling me I had covered no ground. The ocean had effectively spit me back out. I walked north along the beach a few yards and stood watching the waves, trying to see a way in that didn’t look like I would get pummeled or totally exhausted just trying to get beyond the break.

I hadn’t gone into the water the day before. I couldn’t make up my mind and kept waiting for the tide to change something, something in me, something in the water to call me in. Sometimes the greed of wanting a surfing fix, the bodily high of being in the water, gliding down wave after wave makes for poor judgment or massive indecision. Even though I had stopped to surf on the drive down, my decision not to get in the next day felt like a cop out, driven by fear and uncertainty.

I wanted to get back into my surfing groove so badly. In the last year and a half, since my son died, I could not get into the water. I could not access the solace I knew it would bring me. I was inert with grief. I could not find the energy to load my car with my surf box, filled with a wetsuit, booties, wax and sunscreen, much less strap my board onto the top of my car, something I use to do almost without thinking, rushing like a dog ready for a walk. Now I was mostly numb, every cell in my body shocked, igniting with sorrow every morning as I woke up and re-realized he was dead.

I had stopped on the way down south at San Onofre State beach, an old long board break. The park ranger station was closed, which I took as a good sign. I drove down the rutted road and turned the corner to waves breaking everywhere around the point.  It was late in the day, the wind was up but coming from the SE so it was perfect the young guy parked next to me said, smiling when I told him I had driven down from San Francisco. “You smoke pot then, I hear the pot there is woooh, everyone smokes.”

I laughed and told him I was clean and sober. His face fell a tiny bit, but then he told me, ‘That’s good, keep it up.’

I got in and caught a couple waves as the sun began to drop, the water was warm compared to up north. My pop up was sloppy, relying on that intermediate pause on my knees before standing that I used to judge as inferior in other surfers. Here I was crawling up to standing, smiling without even knowing it. The sunset sky was beautiful and the afternoon session cleared away the long drive and gave me a little confidence that I could still surf, even if my form sucked.

As I stood watching the waves at Cardiff a man came up to me and said, “If you’re looking for a way in you might want to paddle over by the lifeguard tower and then head out that way. It’s a little less brutal that way.” He had appeared out of nowhere and started talking into my ear like he knew a secret, like he was the one who knew what I wanted to know to get me safely into the water.

For some reason I took his sudden appearance as a good omen rather than a foolish one, again the greed welling up in my body looking for a way to get what I wanted from the ocean, never a good idea. Why wasn’t he getting in? He said something about a bad ankle and walked away. I watched a little longer and once I saw an opening I quickly started paddling, trying to get somewhere between the sets. I paddled out towards the lifeguard tower like the mystery guy suggested. I was getting out past the break and feeling a little confident. I paused to figure which direction to go when a wave came rolling towards me. I tried to go over the top of it with my board but its force surprised me as it knocked my board straight up in the air. I dove down into the water, letting my board to go, my ankle pulling hard where the leash was attached. I popped back up to the surface and quickly got back on my board trying to get some traction paddling out before the next wave came. I decided to paddle north and the waves kept coming with little or no break between.

I looked at the shore to see if I could ride in on the whitewater of one of the waves without getting too close to the cliff but the current was pulling me over and towards the shore, even closer to the cliffs. More waves broke over my head. I barely had time to get back on my board before another one was on top of me. The next wave that came pushed me down and held me there. I couldn’t figure out where the surface was as my body spun around. I opened my eyes to try and see the sky and watched myself as I took in a mouth full of water. I had reflexively opened my mouth for air, suddenly understanding how you drown, trying to breathe from muscle memory, take something in and hoping it is air. I managed to pop up to the surface and frantically looked round. I saw the cliffs now even closer and I saw a line of rocks that if I could get over to them I would probably be safe. I knew the tide was dropping and more shore would appear. I let the waves push me, mildly hoping my board would not be too damaged by the rocks, but not caring much by then, I just wanted to be out of the water.

I don’t remember exactly how I got onto the rocky lip of the cliff, only that I made it to standing position and my board was still in one piece, although I didn’t look for damage closely, my hands shaking too much to examine it, I felt too traumatized to care. I could look later, when I was safe in the parking lot, having successful avoided a coast guard rescue.

I was shaken and embarrassed at how I badly misread the surf and my own ability. I had only surfed maybe a handful of times since my son died. I was out of shape and I wanted something that I wasn’t going to find in the ocean. He was gone and yet so present in an unreachable and painful way, which I was coming to realize is how grief is. When you lose a child, it is never, ever, over or better. It is just different, the volume of grief oscillates but it does not leave, nor should it. It is the new normal of your being. Once I realized that its pain was part of my new reality, accepting its presence was even a little helpful, sort of like getting diagnosed with cancer, but being told it was the good kind of cancer. There was nothing to be done to alleviate the bodily pain of the loss of my son and to try to be better or over it was just asking for the grief and denial to come out sideways. This realization gave me something to hold onto. I was irrevocably changed and I was still here, in this world with a fearsome and beautiful ocean and clouds, and death.

 I stood there holding my board underneath my arm, panting and coughing as I looked out at the waves, the water that I tried to breath in making its way back up in rough, barking coughs. I knew I had to get calm and stay positive, fear was not going to be helpful in paddling back to the shore.

I watched the surf, remembering how high the water was on the beach even at a low tide this time of year. I knew I eventually would have to get back in to the water and paddle around the cliff I was perched on and please God, make it back onto the beach. I tried to quiet myself, saying a few prayers, calling out to my son, calling him forth as some kind of comfort, remembering his sweet young face, cheeks red with the summer heat as he proudly ran towards me with a frog he’d caught at his grandmother’s house. I saw his tall lanky man body, the scolding he would have given me, laughing at my predicament and calling me mama, something he rarely did near the end. Then I saw him dead, collapsed in the bathroom with a needle in his arm. When I reach this point I usually stop trying to see him, the fantasies taking a bad turn. I started talked to him that morning from where ever he might be now, watching me and shaking his head. The images fall away and it is just he and I, intangibly connected and stubbornly drifting at the same time.

My body stopped shaking and I keep watching the waves, looking for a lull between the punishing sets. I was waiting for my nerves to collect as much as I was waiting for the tide to drop enough for me to get back in the water, something I did not want to do. Finally I thought I saw my chance and I jumped down onto the rocks, which were smooth and round, the size of oranges and grapefruits, clattering loudly with each in and out of the waves. I hadn’t factored the rocks in as a problem if there was no breaking wave pushing them but as I stepped onto the rocks I was knocked down immediately by the undertow, my foot sinking ankle deep into the clattering rocks, my board flipping in the air and then down onto the rocks. I quickly looked out at the surf and grabbed my board as it landed near me. I hopped up on it and start to paddle hard, first straight out and then over, south towards the beach and the parking lot.

Turns out the beach was just around the cliff not nearly as far as I imaged as I waited there on the cliff stranded and sure I would die alone, trembling, feeling the wet rock wall crumble as I touched it for balance. I kept left and soon was able to touch the bottom with my foot, the sensation a ripple of relief pulsing through my entire body. I let the tide push me further in, lying sideways on my board, my feet keeping track of the ground. I was so relieved to step out of the surf, apologetic and humbled once again by the ocean, the boss, the queen, who might have been trying to warn me when she spit me out the first time earlier that morning.

As I walked along the sand and reached the parking lot I felt a small numb twinge in my left foot. I looked down at my toes and saw that the toe next to my baby toe was limp and splayed wide like a V, dragging along not connecting with the rest of my toes as I walked. It was hard to tell if it hurt or if I could bend it as I was wet and dazed.

It must have happened when I fell into the rocks trying to get back onto my board, getting thrown around with the clattering stones. I definitely did not feel it happen. You usually didn’t need a doctor for a broken toe, you just had to wait for it to heal, maybe a using a little tape to keep the damaged toe stable. My stark relief already minimizing the dangerous position I had put myself in.

A limp toe was but a small price for the morning and what could have happened to me out there. I felt like a lucky woman and a foolish woman. Lost but still living, without my son, the thought of him truly gone still such a shock to me, only I realized that I was getting used to living in shock, with this particular state of shock. The shatteredness of my being becoming a part of me, the reformation happening in my body that does not deny the day he fell or the ocean who is still the queen.


Patsy Creedy lives in San Francisco, waiting with dread for the next wave of millionaires to arrive. She has an MA and an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State. She worked for many years as a labor and delivery nurse helping women have babies at UCSF. She has published poems in Transfer Magazine, Dragon’s Leap and Inlandia. She has published some nonfiction work and recently completed a memoir about her brother who died of alcoholism. She co-leads an occasional writer’s workshop, “Writing the Way,” at the San Francisco Zen Center. She was a board member and speaker for several years at the SF Zen center for the Meditation and Recovery group that meets most Monday nights.

“A Healing Unto Death” by Laura English

“Transition” by Sydney McKenna, watercolor, 15″ x 45″

Enveloped by spring’s benevolence, the house has lost its chill. I’m sitting at the computer in the once frigid basement looking up how to load a gun and the best way to shoot so that I actually kill myself rather than paralyze my body for life. Silence surrounds me. The kids have just left for school. April has passed, but still—we must be in a cruel month because the light hasn’t penetrated. It’s as though a never-ending winter lurks beneath a superficial glow.

In the midst of these daily investigations, I drive myself to a free, community training on how to reach out to suicidal people. Maybe I want to heal from this illness of death, as I’ve come to call it. Maybe an insight will hit me when I listen to the social workers giving their spiel.

A man and a woman hand out booklets and fire up a Power Point. We role-play, and I get to be the one talking a fictitious, bankrupt farmer out of killing himself. I ask the polished and gentle counselor posing as farmer, “Do you have a plan?” And maybe I’m talking to myself.

When I get home, I leaf through the booklet and google Kevin Hines, the man mentioned at the training who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived to tell his story. “Suicide is never nor should ever be the answer.” Maybe I’m on the path to healing.

Healing, never cured. Recovery as unfinished work, like laundry or weeding.

Show me the shades of suicide. I don’t mean actual suicide but the thoughts of going through with it. One is bright but fades quickly, the fleeting idea, crimson turning pink then blanching. The dire attempt stains slowly like the indigo of dungarees.

How old was I when I tried to tie my first noose, and my brother found me out.“You’re not really going to do that”? Rolling his eyes, deflating my momentum.

My aunt also has a brain that betrays her and sends her into darkness, but she has never thought of suicide. “You have to be that type of person deep down.”

Pre-wired? Like an alcoholic? Suicide always sounded like a good idea to me. “Just do it, Hamlet!” I goad from the sideline. I knew, before I ever heard of Nietzsche, that the “thought of suicide is a solace.”

You have to want it to heal, and, I never wanted it. The world seemed heavy, and suicide light when I tried it for real the first time.

I have one foot on the gas pedal and one on the clutch. The garage door is closed, nobody’s awake in the house. I’ve eaten a full-sized Snickers bar without worrying that it will make me fat. I’ve also eaten a Pop-Tart. I won’t have to go running to burn off the calories. The maddening game with food and weight will be over.

As I wait for unconsciousness to overtake me, I remember the moment after the collision last week. My father is getting out of the car. The other driver is apologizing. “I saw you, but couldn’t stop in time.” I have just tried to make a left because I heard my father say from the passenger’s seat, “OK.” He meant, “Wait.”

My fault. No one is hurt. It’s just some dents. My father doesn’t even raise his voice at me. Accidents happen, especially when you just have your learner’s permit.

But, really, I deserve to be punished. In science we learned how the body takes in carbon monoxide easily, readily.

What saves me is a stab of sentimentality. I think of my mother. Tenderness and sadness command Enough! Also my leg is tired of holding in the clutch for an hour. Inexperienced driver that I am, I hadn’t thought of putting the Toyota in neutral. Behind my field of vision float purple splotches. I take the key out of the ignition, walk inside the house and collapse onto the couch. Fumes have slipped through the side door and filled this space my mother calls “the family room.” Later she tells me, “Cuddles was staggering.” Our mutt must have breathed the gas, and having a small body, became more intoxicated than I was.

In the arms of a counselor, who says people need more hugs, I smell the wool of his sweater, and am relieved when he pulls away. He’s supposed to be helping me, but soon he will analyze my parents’ marriage, and they will go to the sessions alone, baffled but obedient, trying to do their part to cure me. Every visit, he asks, “What is a happy family?” believing all troubles of youth can be traced to an unhappy home life. He calls anyone who would try suicide “selfish.” I think, “Isn’t it a good thing to do away with a daughter who only makes mistakes?”

Remission—a sending back or away. There were quiet times when I didn’t think once of killing myself, as if I decisively sent the illness away. Moments when my parents could sigh and say, “It was just a phase.”

I didn’t really send it away, but found substitutes for the illness. A sober alcoholic takes up street drugs. An eating anorexic takes up drinking. The obsession with suicide relented when I learned to cut myself.

I’m pressing the blade of a Swiss Army knife against my wrist, toying with the idea of bleeding to death. It’s the day before Valentine’s Day, and I fear no one besides my mom and dad will ever love me. By love, I mean pay attention to, send a flower to, prove I’m special because I think that’s how a person becomes real, some lesson I have perverted from the Velveteen Rabbit. I can’t seem to wield the knife with enough force. I only make a scratch. But the neat line of blood that appears on my wrist holds my attention.

I see a myriad of meanings in this red slit, but I can’t decipher them all. Understanding might lead to healing. I just want destruction. I make a second scratch and a third.

Knives give way to razors, then scissors, and one day fire. I still haven’t tried to understand it. I slash and burn because it feels good. There is pain, but it feels like relief. The irrational, the rational—none of this concerns me. To me it’s all bright red redemption.

What comes to replace self-mutilation? A darkness I can’t staunch in my twenty-first winter. I drop out of college and move in with my parents. I eat their food all day when they are at work. When I’m not bingeing, I lie on the couch. I want to stop putting everything in my mouth. My body gets heavier each day. The darkness is a broken levy. It gushes into my daylight. I open the Bible to Job and kneel on the living room floor. My face falls into the book. I sleep. I wake in a puddle of drool on the tissue-thin pages.

The “thought of suicide is a solace,” and in the mind of desperate person, it is the only way to stop the rising darkness. Now they have taken away my comfort in this hospital room with this tube shoved in my nose and this IV plugged into my wrist. I am forced to drink literal darkness in the form of liquid charcoal. The nurse explains, “It will bind with the poison in your system and take it out.” That is, it will let me live. I might be dead by now from the overdose I’d planned, but my mother called the house, and, stupidly, I answered the phone, sounding terribly drunk.

Even as I write about recovering from the illness of death, I still have the fantasy: End it all. Have I never been able to heal because I believe I can’t live without do-it-yourself respite? The escape pod has to be there when the Imperial troops are blasting the hell out of the rebel ship. R2D2 is the one with common sense, isn’t he? The droid who knows how to get out of a bad situation, not caring that the pod may land on some desolate planet, is the robot we love.

One day, still not knowing what cutting and burning meant, I fought the urge. It was the first time I wanted to heal. Maybe it was a way to grow up.

Because of a misunderstanding I hadn’t shown up to meet my father when he took my mother for a consultation with her oncologist. “Where were you? We waited!” Rare for him, this anger animating his words. Could I apologize and would that be enough? No, I had really screwed up.

The cutting would have taken the guilt and turned it into something clean. That much I knew. But for the first time in more than a decade, I didn’t reach for a blade. I let the ugly feelings come and cover me like a huge wave. I felt myself drowning. I was outside of my head, outside of the house in my father’s yard with my baby boy. I stared at the ocean green of the lawn, at the railing of the steps. Anything to keep from falling. It was unbelievable to me that the wave would recede, but die it did, and I hadn’t even touched the razor.

Now I was forever healing from the cutting and burning. I wanted it, and health could return.

Trickier to fight was the constant and sick urge to be thin. Finally I said yes to it at the expense of my health. As a mother of four in the middle of life, I refused to eat all but non-fattening food and learned to distract myself when I was hungry, making lists of forbidden foods or doing housework. The shorts that were too tight in the spring fell off my hips and slid to my ankles by the end of the summer. There should have a been a voice. You can stop now. But there wasn’t, or I didn’t want to hear it.

The doctor tells me I have to gain weight. “Drink two Ensures each day. That will give you 500 extra calories.” Simple as that. When I ignore her advice, she begins to scold and nag. She no longer lets me come to see her every four months for medication. Now it’s every four weeks. Finally at one visit she insists, “You must get help.” She has been known to drop patients for not complying.

The therapist, whose office is a converted bedroom of a quaint old house, wants me to heal, and she is a nice person. She keeps a glass bowl filled with dark chocolate in the waiting room. The foil wrappers are printed with inspirational messages. I seldom take one, fearing it will make me fat. I do workbook exercises for her, not wanting to write in the lines provided in the book, as if I can’t quite make the commitment to understanding my feelings and getting well. But I fill sheets of loose paper in the time between sessions, and I begin to eat more at meals.

My jeans are getting tighter. I can feel the flesh on my thighs squeezed by the denim whenever I sit. It’s a discomfort that voices itself in a whisper, then a shout: “You’ve failed. You’re out of control. Your body is about to explode.” I’m still thin, but all I can think is how a size 0 no longer fits me, and how I miss the anorexia. I miss it like a child who has died.

The plan is real this time. I’m not going to swallow pills. I intend to sneak my husband’s pistol out of the safe. I’ll never have to worry about getting fat again. When the kids are at school, I’m going to walk to the woods behind the railroad tracks.

It’s strange. A suicidal person is part bloodthirsty killer and part pacifist who couldn’t hurt a fly. I draft a suicide note, and it causes me to think of my family. My husband has a trip to Greece planned in August, which I don’t want him to miss. If I shoot myself in the head in May, I’ll spoil it. OK. Then, when he gets home from Europe. But school will be starting, and I’ll want the kids to have a good year. Maybe in October.

The counselor was right to say suicidal people are selfish, but he expressed it all wrong. “Selfish” makes them sound like inconsiderate people. They’re not. They’re swallowed by self. They have an inability to connect to the rest of humanity, a blindness to themselves as worthy the way they would see a loved one or even a stranger. To want to heal is to want to be part of the main, no longer “entire of itself.” I wanted the mother and wife to survive for her family.

To recover is to ask for help from others, but for some reason, it’s easier to enter the delicious solitude of escape. Once a psychiatrist told me, “Wanting suicide is as simple as wanting a vacation.” Just a human need to take a break, something that can be arranged. My therapist and I discussed the possibility of no longer keeping suicidal thoughts a secret.

After every serious attempt or plan, I promised myself that I wouldn’t do it again. As if I had found the cure.

Recovering is unfinished work, like growing.

Show me the shades of understanding a complex illness. First comes a vague sketch in pastel where I’m hardly a ghost. But as I go along, let my life be fleshed out and manifest in bold color, part of the web of common human need and remedy through fellowship.

Today I make no promises. The urge to take my own life will surface again and again. I know this. The best thing to do is translate the illness into healing. Wanting it. Visualizing less dramatic escapes. When disappointments are too much or darkness seems too thick, let it be a sign that I’m a person with needs, and as such I have a place in a vital network.


Laura English posts a daily blog called Eat More Life, a healing space for women living with anorexia. On Sunday afternoons, she teaches writing to people from all walks of life. Work has appeared in dozens of magazines including minnesota review, Sow’s Ear, Cider Press Review, Adanna, and Straylight. A chapbook, Graves Too Small to Be Red (Finishing Line Press) was published last year.

“Repossessed” by Ellen Leary

“Time is on Your Side” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas

I ran into him, by accident, in a department store in New York. Saks. He was buying a printed silk scarf—probably for one of his many paramours, I think, wryly. The familiar ache rises up and makes me turn away. I am going to pretend that I have not seen him and walk on, but just as I do, he turns.

“Reina! Is that you?”

His eyes flash with the sparkles that first made me fall in love with him, and he takes my arm.

“What a lovely surprise to run into you! How have you been? You look amazing!”

I manage a smile, privately relieved that I had taken some time with my appearance that morning. I know I look good. He gives me a once-over that would be highly inappropriate save from someone who had known your body intimately, and for a long time.

I think: Of all the department stores, in all the towns, in all the world, he walks into mine …”

but I say,

“Jack. How nice to see you.”

He turns back to the saleslady who is wrapping the scarf while she processes his credit card.

“Hold on a second,” he says to me, not relinquishing my arm.

He signs the receipt with his right hand, still resting his left hand on my arm. His left hand has a wedding ring.

Of course I knew that he had remarried. The information had been batted around at a cocktail party and brought to my attention by my husband. “Did you know …?” he asked. “Of course!” I said, shrugging it off, although I experienced a sudden lightheadedness and was having trouble breathing.

He turns back to me:

“Can we … I mean … are you in a big rush? Or can we have a drink somewhere?”

“I … have a meeting I’m supposed to …” I find myself stammering and he sees me flush and smiles broadly.

“Ah, come on! How long has it been? Five years? More? I want to know what you’ve been up to. Can’t the meeting wait?”

It has been seven years. I look at my watch, apprehensively.

“I suppose so,” I say, regretting it immediately. But my heart has risen like a helium balloon. “I’ll … have to make a phone call.”

 “Go ahead,” he says.

He turns to take the shopping bag that the saleslady holds out to him and I see her face respond to the eye-sparkling smile he gives her. Like they all respond.

But I take my cellphone from my purse and walk a distance away, knowing that I will be talking to my answering machine.

“Hello?” I say, into the phone, “It’s Reina. I will be late for the meeting. Please go on without me. Thanks.” I turn the phone off and stare into the distance, amazed at what a cool liar I am. I walk back to him.

“Come on,” he says. “Let’s get out of here. I know a nice restaurant not far from here. It’s after lunch hour and I’m sure they’ll let us sit with a drink for a while.”

And just like that, as though we were still married, as though I was still his wife, his possession, as though the seven years of therapy had never happened, I let myself be led out of the store.

“Look” he says, pointing up to a wrought iron fire-escape on an apartment building across the street from us, “Look how New Yorker’s strive for a tiny touch of nature.” I look. There is a potted geranium sitting in the one shaft of sunlight that has made it through the concrete labyrinth. “In California,” he says, “there are beautiful flowers all around.”

We turn into a dimly lit restaurant — a French place — that is empty except for a bartender who looks up at us, scowling, as though he has just seen his cigarette break flying out the window. Behind the bar there are racks of wine bottles in a geometric pattern.

We sit down at one of the tables with a blue and white checkered tablecloth on it and the bartender approaches us, resigned.

“Something to drink?” he asks, pleasantly, in an accent that I take as French. Maybe scowling is just his natural demeanor.

“Yes,” says Jack. “Two extra-dry vodka martinis, straight up with a twist.” He remembers.

Then he looks at me,

“You still drink martinis, don’t you?”

I smile and nod, knowing that I don’t drink them in the middle of the day.

“Reina, Reina, Reina!” he says, looking at me and shaking his head. “Look at you! Red is your color!”

“So you always said.”

“I guess the divorce did you good!”

“Oh, Jack. Don’t be ridiculous. The divorce didn’t ‘do me good’; I just pulled myself together afterward and managed to go on with my life. (Good for you, I think! Assert yourself a little.)

“What about you?” I ask. “ You are looking very well also.”

He sits back and sighs, looks down at the table.

 “Yeah. Things have been … good. I’m … I’m just in town for a short time. Actually, leaving tomorrow morning.” He looks up. “I am living in California now. Doing the tennis thing. “

“Ah. That accounts for the tan,” I say, smiling.

A piebald cat emerges from behind the bar and sits on its haunches licking its front paws.

“Yeah. It’s a nice life out there. I don’t know … you get a little older and the winters here start to wear you down. You might consider it yourself.” He looks up hopefully.

The waiter puts the two martini glasses down on the table and leaves.

“You know, I think of you often, Reina,” he says, fingering the stem of his glass. “Do you ever think of me?” He looks up waiting for my answer.

“Sure.” I say. “I think of you every time I wear a piece of the jewelry you gave me.” (Good retort. Keep hitting them back, I say to myself. All you have to do is get them over the net.)

It is beautiful jewelry. He has good taste. Some for my birthday; some for our anniversaries, and some for when he’d come home much too late. When all the wars are over and civilizations crushed, jewelry is what will remain. If you don’t believe me, go to the Met.

What I don’t say is that I once stood stock still on a busy New York street thinking I saw him, only to realize, as he came closer, that it was a stranger. Or how, late at night, when my mind wanders, I recall his hands. Or how my life went unspooling when he left and how I ran like a frantic child to pick up the thread.

He raises his glass.

“To old times,” he says.

I raise mine.

“To old times.”

We clink glasses.

The martini is good. Cold and sharp and the vodka infuses my mouth with its familiar bite. May it give me strength, I pray.

He studies my face. He tilts his head and slides his bottom teeth forward, slightly, absently scraping his top teeth. He eyes are searching mine, looking from one to the other. I feel the hackles or the shackles or whatever you call them rise on the back of my neck.

“I hear you’re with someone nice.” he says.

“Really?” I am taken aback. “Who told you?”

“Oh, people are always giving me updates on you,” he says.

I am surprised, but pleasantly so.

There is a pause. The ball is in my court. I have to say something. I meet his eyes.

“Yes,” I say. (Noncommittal. But still an answer. The score is thirty-love. Only, don’t mention “love.”)

He sighs and sits back.

My husband is nice, I think. He is kind and loving and takes good care of me. I have a happy life. A calm and centered life. But how can I say — it is like a missing limb that has been replaced by a brace: an up-to-the-minute, state-of-the-art artificial leg. That you strap on and you can walk as though nothing had happened. It is perfectly functional. But it doesn’t stop you from dreaming that you still had the real thing.

Somewhere in the back of my closet in a shoe box there is a letter in his familiar handwriting. A letter that says, “You need someone who will take a little care of you. I was never good at taking care of you. I let you get fat and unhappy.”

“He takes good care of me,” I say. (Game, set, match!)

“No children?” he asks. He knows the answer. If there had been children his sources would have told him, surely.

“No,” I say.

“We should have had some” he says. “Maybe that would have kept the marriage together.”

“Ha! It rarely does that, so I am told,” I say. “Anyway, I’m passed all that, I’m afraid.”

“Why? You’re still young, Reina. You are two years younger than I am. And I am … what? 41?”

“You are 45, Jack.”

“Oh. Really? Ah. Yeah, I guess so.”

“And you?” I ask, trying to make my voice airy. “No children?” (I don’t want to hear the answer.)

“No,” he says. “She has two from her first marriage, but they live with their father. She didn’t want any more.”

I nod. My heart resumes beating.

“Still. We should’ve had some, Reina. They would have been something else!” He smiles at me.

I manage a smile back, thinking, Yeah. They would have been something else!

We stay silent for a while, drinking our martinis and thinking of the children we never had.

“I’m glad that things worked out well for you, Reina. That you seem happy.”

Maybe I should tell him about my recurring dream: the one where I am standing at the luggage carousel of some airport. My suitcase has sprung its locks and is going around and around with the top open. All my belongings are spilling out. My intimates, my bras and panties are strewn across the metal belt, for all to see. I try to pull the suitcase off the conveyer while at the same time stretch out one hand for the items that are moving out of my reach. I am trying to hold everything together and keep the lid of the suitcase from springing open again. (I don’t need a therapist to explain the dream to me.)

A group of rowdy young people enter the restaurant. They appear to have been drinking. They sprawl at a nearby table, laughing and speaking French. The waiter eyes them and brings over some menus. One girl gets up and sits down on her boyfriend’s lap. She is caressing his neck.

We watch them. There goes our quiet drink. He reaches out and puts his hand over mine.

 “My hotel is right down the block,” he says. “The New York Palace. Madison and 50th. You know it, it used to be the Helmsley Palace. Why don’t we go there where it is quiet? I have a dinner I have to attend this evening, but we’ll still have time …”

My blood feels as though it has been carbonated.

‘Yes!” I say, “Yes!” But the words that come out of my mouth are: “I can’t, Jack, I have to get back to my husband.”

He nods, releases my hand, and finishes his drink. I finish mine, excuse myself and find the ladies’ room.

Inside I collapse on a striped divan. Oh God! To be able to pretend for one hour that all the hurt had never happened. That we are still young and so in love. To shut our eyes and cling to each other as we used to; to feel his arms around me, his mouth on mine …to fill the well of longing for just a tiny moment. To feel whole again!

Why did I have to arrive at Saks at exactly that time? What if I had stopped in at the shoemaker’s as I had planned to do, and not suddenly change my mind when I saw the bus approaching? I never would have been at the scarf counter at the same time he was. Why didn’t I turn away a split second sooner, before he saw me? Can all of life hinge on such a tenuous element of chance?

I pull myself together and run a comb through my hair. I add some lipstick and determine to go back out there and face up to the challenge. The martini has made its way into my bloodstream and is giving me strength.

He stands as I approach the table.

“I’ve paid the bill,” he says.

“Thank you,” I manage to say. We leave the restaurant and stand outside for a moment. He is headed in one direction; I in the other.

“Maybe we could meet every five years or so,” he says. “It’s been nice catching up with you.”

“Sure” I say.

I smile at him. A lock of his perfectly coiffed hair has blown lose and I reach to pat it back into place, but stop myself. I think of Barbra Streisand standing in front of the Plaza with Robert Redford at the end of THE WAY WE WERE. That gesture she did spoke volumes. It was so inmate. It told of the affection they still had for each other; of past lives living together, laughing in the sunshine and making love, but there was also the poignancy of the differences that rose up to crush the love — not all of it. Just enough so as not to be able to live together.

I kiss his cheek. “See you in five years,” I say.

I turn and head down the block. I can feel he is watching me, but I don’t turn back. I walk into Saks and go up to the same counter where ladies’ scarves are sold. It only takes me a minute to find a beautiful silk scarf that is way out of my price range. I take it up to the saleslady. It is the same saleslady who was there before. She doesn’t recognize me. That often happens when you stand beside Jack, I think. Standing in his aura. No one can see you because the light that he gives off is so blinding.

I pay for the scarf, head out of the store wearing it and hail a taxi. I give the driver my address and sit back in the seat. There will be no one at home, I know. My husband is away on a business trip. One end of the scarf flutters in the open window.


Ellen Tovatt Leary spent twenty years acting on the professional stage. She performed in theaters from the Ahmanson in Los Angeles to the State Theatre in Lincoln Center, including four Broadway, many off-Broadway and regional theaters. She worked with Hal Prince, Maureen Stapleton and James Hammerstein among others. She graduated from Antioch College and was a Fulbright scholar at LAMDA. Her first book, a memoir, Mother Once Removed, details her childhood growing up on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in the 1940s with an eccentric, divorced mother. She was on the writing staff of the Carnegie Hill News in New York for fourteen years. She has published short stories as well as poems, is a native New Yorker who currently resides, with her husband, in LA.

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

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

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

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

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

The Pink Dress

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

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

The Black Patent Shoes

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

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

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

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

The Storybook

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

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

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

Sit here.  

The Eyes

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

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

The Black Lamb (which Smells of Raspberry Jam)

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

The Salt Grinder

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

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

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

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

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


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

“My Father’s Ashes” by Don Minson

“The Last Stand” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas, 36″ x 48″

We know (for certain) little more than what we’ve held onto and then had to let go of.

Letting go of life does not happen easily. Neither for the living nor the dying. In his last moments, my father struggled to hang on with all the effort and energy he could summon after life support was removed. Until he could no more. And without mythology, or stories, but not without precedent, his heart stopped, as did his breathing, and the light in his eyes receded like a wave returning to the Chesapeake Bay, where he’d spent time growing up and where he’d met my mother, the girl next door.

The moment of death—apparent, immediate, and experienced by everyone in the room—shocked and emptied the hearts gathered around his bed—and time stopped, briefly. Immortality was interrupted for every one of us—living and dead—in that cold, fluorescent, and antiseptic little room in the ICU.

 To honor the passing of Albert Finney, I elected to watch Big Fish again. It was both an easy choice from among the films of his that I’ve admired, and a difficult one—because I knew I’d have to revisit the experience that made it so emotionally affecting and meaningful to me in the first place. I first watched it not long after my father’s death.

We revisit our grief guardedly, reverently, and cautiously. And it’s only easier when we feel we’re strong enough to bear it again in that safest of mythological places: storytelling.

Grief and trauma and healing are a magic circle, a mandala. At the heart of which is an ancestral story that unfolds the experience of all ages. The retelling of that ancient story to our grievous naivete slows time, concentrically expands into our being like the echoes of generations who finally have a voice to interrupt our childlike, defiant sense of immortality. To give us new ground upon which to stand, that we first experience in much the same way that beings of flight experience a hard landing from lofty enterprise.

Some films have a ritual character for us. We may only watch them when it’s appropriate to engage with their incantations, to bear their uncanny spiritual propensity to draw out from those ancient hiding places, those ancestral and traditional psychic containers of grief-cum-transformation built in to our being from before time. When death was a preface to life.

The stories these films tell us resonate with where we are  in our lives as we watch them anew, because of, or in spite of, our numinous experience of the loss of everything we’d known for sure, connecting with our lives or our grief. Repeated viewings of a film give us the opportunity to leap through time, engage with history and the future, and we’re offered the opportunity to remain beset by nostalgia and sentiment, or to alter the outcome of the future, risking that our old selves may not survive in the altered timeline, and that in our own story we may have to reinvent ourselves partially or wholly.

Among other places in time, Big Fish takes me back to confronting my father about his lies, his stories. Seeking resolution for all of the questions I’ve accumulated over the years, hearing the different iterations told to family and others. It was around the time of his first cancer diagnosis, over the telephone on our weekly call, and I’d had a few drinks and was feeling brave. I remember his voice conveyed an unexpected and genuine humility. He wasn’t defensive, but sounded hurt and contrite. He told me truths I believed. He also afforded me respect for having called him out. Something had settled between us, and definitely in me. Hubris would always be suspect after that and neither one of us could express it before the other. Icarus could now avoid the fall, and no longer had need of his father’s admonitions.

The loss of our first parent has the most impact, regardless of their hierarchical status in our life. When my father died, it was a choice the family had to make, in light of his wishes as discussed with our mother. He was in the hospital, on life support, and that was all that was, or could, keep him alive—and it was unsustainable. He was conscious and aware, and my mother had discussed with him his lack of options and his decision regarding his living will. There was no choice but to pull the plug, with his consent, as a willing and conscious participant. I cannot fathom, nor will I ever know his thoughts and feelings at such a prospect. But what I witnessed was a man both mortally acquiescent and fearfully relieved of all pretense of who he may have become through all the years of his life, by way of all the stories he may have told himself, or shared with others to have defined, in whatever way, the character he was able to create of himself. This also told me truths I believed.

As our family gathered around his hospital bed when the machines were turned off, I held his hand, I sobbed and told him how much I loved him, and our family did the same. But his eyes were turned to something beyond us all, unfocused, turned inward to something only he could know, and outward to some point beyond whatever horizon was available to him in that little room full of everyone close that he’d ever loved.

I looked at him one last time, and with my fingers I closed the lids over his empty eyes. Because immortality can only be suspended for so long before it’s unbearable.

Religious dogma would suggest that eternity is time everlasting. I think that’s a function of grief, of how memory works when death happens. Because that’s how we remember the moment of death not our own. It becomes fixated in our timeline. But I like the eastern metaphysical definition that eternity is timelessness. Time stops when you die. Time stops when someone dies in front of you. The notions of past and future die when life is accepted as an extended series of present moments. The look of a man facing the unknown, not focused on any discernible interior or exterior horizon, is suspended in awe of the mystery of being and is freer than anyone surrounding him locked into the moment of their grief. For all parties involved, there is little more than that present moment. And it exists outside of time. What goes on for what feels like forever is only memory.

The memory of my father’s death would go well beyond that week of dying and memorializing immediate grief.

I arrived home following the conventionally ritualized emotional chaos of grieving, and was wholly alone for the first time since the day my mother rang me from the hospital, the morning after I’d gone to the family home to get some rest, to inform me it was time to pull the plug. And after my childish recriminations, I cried uncontrollably in the safety of the shower. Wholly alone with my grief for a death that had yet to happen, but was unavoidably approaching. The child, the boy, the teenager, the young man, the adult, all wanted to wash it away, to rinse it off.  But I could not come clean. There was no ablution. I had to man up like the paratrooper my father once was and dive into this experience headfirst and hope I could pull the ripcord in time.

But back home, after all that—the week of the hospital, the death, the obituary, the eulogy, the family leave from work—I had to return to an empty house and begin a life ahead without my father. I was not lonely, but I had yet to feel alone as a man. Whole, for once. My own man with no living paternity. Like an orphan with some spiritual imperative that I had yet to understand.

It would be years before I would. Spirit is the dynamism of the human personality. The agent of transformation. It’s a generative force that moves through our mind and body. Instinctual and archetypal patterns of behavior that compel or inspire. It could belong to you, accumulated from your past experiences:trauma, memories, dreams, reflections. It could belong to the human race, or your family history, an accumulation of the experiences of ancestors bequeathed to you genetically or behaviorally, unconsciously. It could feel religious or divine:gods, devils, daemons, angels, demons, ghosts. Or psychological, as pathology, anxiety, neurosis, talent, or grace. But in any case, whatever its source, by its behavior, it becomes a resource to tap into, and by which we are compelled to act. When we are ripe or ready, spirit constellates as an imperative to act. To move us so that we may move ourselves along the path, to blossom or wither, for the next season of our being. It is by the creativity of nature, that by our own nature, we become creative.

Creative inspiration, so easy to recognize but difficult to harness,  bears before it the mask of repressed conflicts, trauma, and neurosis. That stands between us and the face of spirit and is the subject of much art. The process of creating is the same process by which our conflicts, trauma, and neuroses are removed as subjects so that we may experience the generative aspect of spirit and move beyond our present place into something new. And it may present itself in images or forms wholly unexpected or unprecedented in our lives.

That first night, as I was about to undress, I sat in the chair beside my bed, and it all came out. All the grief and the tears hidden behind the facade of the formalism, the ritual, the convention. Behind the telling of my father’s story to an audience of family, friends, and strangers.

And I did not grasp it then, but I would no longer be able to tell my father’s story—if ever I could have done it faithfully to begin with—except to an audience who needed to hear his myth through the eyes of his son. I could only tell my story from that point on. And that was frightening. For I had no experience to begin such an imposing enterprise.

Alone, with the last light left on in the house. In the chair beside my bed. My elbow on my knee. My forehead in my hand. I cried like I’d not cried since I was a child. And I closed my eyes. And I had a vision. An archetypal image rose  from the grief that had coiled around my heart. I saw from a point of view outside myself, a great serpent. It appeared from behind me, its great head above my head, and it planted a  fang, deep into my skull, reaching down into the reptilian part of my brain—where sensation and memory and emotion and instinct lay—and I could see the venom inside the fang injecting into me, the poison of grief. 

My father feared snakes pathologically. My mother, seemingly fearless of snakes, may have otherwise religiously assigned to them the evil of the Bible. I loved them as a child and had fantasized about raising them in an underground vault in the yard of the farmhouse we lived in when I was in the fifth grade—when my parents’ marriage was uncertain, where sexual trauma had happened, where we were poor for a while, and lived off of grace and ingenuity, where my father experienced his first midlife crisis, where I was sensitive to the anxiety and neuroses of mysterious parental secrets, and full of prepubescent fears and uncertainty, feeling like an outsider in so many ways. I would fantasize about milking the snakes to create antidotes. A meaning that became clear to me as an adult when I would come to know snakes to be creatures of healing and gnosis. Animations of the spirit rising from the dark places of the earth. Coiled around the staff of Asklēpiós painted on the side of every ambulance my parents ever rode in during their 10-year tenure as rural rescue squad volunteers.

The venom of grief was a transformative medicine preparing me for a life yet lived. I had a childish skin I would need to shed, and I could only do that by the inoculation of the spirit of the serpent. No apples, no devils, no temptation, no fear. No immunity. But I would gain some measure of resistance, to build up strength against grief to come. Most especially, against the coming of age of my own mortality.

Over the course of that week, something strange happened. I would go to bed, lights off, wide awake, mild anxiety, spiritual tension, mind full, house quiet, with a sense of all the negative space in the rooms of the house, like empty receptacles to be filled with whatever my mind might pour out into them. It was a new kind of feeling alone. A sensory response to all that was empty around me.

I would sense an intruder, an unwelcome presence in the house. In the next room. It would elicit fear and occupy my full focus. I would muster the kind of courage only a younger man full of fear could muster. The hyperbole of untested bravery. The adrenaline of fight over flight. And I would leap out of bed, armed with whatever blunt object was available, and enter boldly, yelling aggressively as I strode into the next dark room to fend off whatever adversary lay in wait. Then I’d switch on the light to find nothing but emptiness. This happened once or twice that first time, and maybe another night or two before it subsided.

I know some family and friends would speculate that it was the ghost of my father, perhaps come back one last time. A visitation of spirit to allay my grief. Or with some message from the afterlife. But I knew that would not have mustered my fear, it would have summoned my awe. And anyhow, I don’t believe in any of that. I have enough ghosts in my life. It was something very real, but It was something else.

Marie-Louise von Franz was hired at eighteen years of age by Carl Jung to translate medieval Latin alchemical texts. She would later become one of the first-generation Jungian analysts. Her intimacy with Jung’s ideas would make her an expert exponent of them. In one of her books, she intimated her inability to initially grasp one of Jung’s key concepts, that of Active Imagination. She expressed her frustration with the fact that others around her, some sharing my own temperament, showed more facility in their attempts.

Active Imagination is a therapeutic technique, an exercise in creativity, whereby one allows the contents of the unconscious to flow unrestricted, through the imagination, and express themselves in some artistic and imaginative creative form, more especially in a form that the subject is not well versed in, to enable the ego to engage in a kind of Platonic dialectical relationship with the objective Other within. The idea being that there is more of an opportunity for mistakes to be made, to find chinks in the armor, to allow that inner voice which was otherwise assiduously overlooked or repressed, to make a statement in whatever unfamiliar creative language alleviated the restrictions of habit and form. The key is that it must be emotionally provocative to consciousness, to the ego—the imaginative construct must elicit the same emotional reality as we would experience if we encountered it in real life. You may imagine meeting up with a lion, but if your experience of that encounter does not elicit the same tension and trepidation and trigger the same instinctual fear, then you have not achieved Active Imagination, just pedestrian fantasy. 

Sometime later, von Franz found herself alone in her cabin in the mountains of Switzerland at night and heard a sound outside. There had been reports of local intruders with violent intent. She found herself fearful for her life and entirely convinced that someone was trying to get in. She, a potential victim of violence, responded by grabbing a staff or a gun to meet the threat—full of adrenaline and fear, fully engaged in defending herself, only to discover that she had engaged finally in an act of Active Imagination. To encounter a projection of her own unconsciousness so engaging that her rational, thinking mind would submit to the irrational, emotional image. This was profound.

For a while, I thought what I experienced was an encounter with death personified. What else could it be?  I mean, my father had just died, right? But after reflection I understood it was the spectre of my own mortality. Imposing upon me a long-forgotten secret from a time when death was a preface to life. Once the threshold of my unconscious idea of immortality was breached in that hospital room, through my grief, through communal convention, there was no passing back through that door. I would have to live, understanding that I would die, not just knowing that it would happen to me. To live against this new backdrop, this scene change, this sea change, I would have to live differently. I would experience living differently. The experience of time would be altered, against a backdrop of timelessness, eternity, and mortality.

I would spend the next few weeks processing my grief by engaging in the ritual of cleaning house, literally scrubbing and reorganizing all those “empty” spaces in my home. Reaching the kind of catharsis I couldn’t in the shower that day of my father’s death. My imagination was full, and my dream life so active, it became necessary to start a dream journal to process it all.

Our imaginations are always active and adaptive. Whether we’re remembering events in our lives, reexperiencing a film or book or story, reimagining our future, lying in bed unable to sleep, processing our grief by whatever means, or attempting to confront our past in the hopes of a better outcome. Accepting the present moment as the death of time, allowing the past and the future to die to a succession of present moments, allows us the opportunity to alter the timeline. Just because trauma has the potential to fix our emotional development in a particular place and time, does not mean we are stuck there without hope of rescue. Anamnesis, is the active opposite of passive amnesia—the remembering. Indeed, sometimes that’s enough, but if we allow ourselves to actively engage emotionally, outside of the conventions of nostalgia or repression or sentimentality, we are free to pick up where we left off, and start growing again.

Big Fish isn’t the only film I associate with my father’s death. Indeed, there is another, more synchronistic, more immediate, and possibly more potent film experience.

The evening of my father’s memorial at the church, my mother and I sat outside, had a long talk, and she allowed me (this one time) to drink alcohol in her house. It was a strange kind of release and contentment, our talk. For we had rarely ever gotten along. But life would be different now. A future less circumscribed by past relationships. The hard part felt finished. She was tired, I was wide awake. And she went off to bed.

Quite decidedly I would stay up with a movie. And as I perused my father’s DVD collection, I found a few he’d burned to disk. One, a film I’d wanted to see but hadn’t. There it was, labeled in his own handwriting, transferred by his own hand, and handed to me by circumstance or coincidence on the evening of the end of that difficult week: Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. A movie about awe in the face of death, the universal and instinctual reach for immortality, the search for meaning,  acceptance of mortality, and that “death is what makes us special” vis-a-vis our eternal maker..

The film’s themes were resonant, potent, and impressive: time shifts; the earthy v. airy archetypal themes of an ancient past and fantastical future flanking a central and transformative present, heavy with portent and difficult emotional subject matter; themes of regeneration, acceptance, resignation, grief, hanging onto and letting go of. In the final scene, the protagonist finds and plants the (empty) seedpod of the sweet gum tree on his dead lover’s grave. By happenstance, I’d later find one or two of these seedpods.

My mother created a memorial to my father, gravestone included, in the side yard of their house, even though he’d been cremated. We added tokens of our memory and our love, scattered and buried some of his ashes there, gathered a year later and sang songs with guitar.

Later it was less well tended, like our memories and our love. I would tend to it, in honor of my father on one of my later visits. Because nature had taken over and absorbed all the immediacy and hard lines of our experiences and given them curves and growing things that would subsume the potency of our grief. But I got a chance early on to plant one of those sweetgum seedpods in a nod to the unexpected gift my father had left me for that quiet night alone in his living room with The Fountain, sitting in his chair, after his memorial service. That weird, rare opportunity to grow into something, to have my experiences converge upon these themes like nature converges on the opportunity of death to fertilize new life. Like in the film:  when the flowers sprout out of the heart of the protagonist in a violent and fecund blossom of life after his tasting of the sap of the tree of life. But also, like at the end of the film, my seedpod, planted, was empty of seeds. And nothing could grow from it that wasn’t already in my heart. It would never show up on the landscape next to the house, but it might grow into a story. Perhaps my own.

The Fountain felt more transcendent in dealing with the acceptance of grief and mortality. But Big Fish is the film that touched so strongly on that sense of being happily led on and ultimately deceived and betrayed by those “dad” tales, whose exaggerations and flourishes keep you both entranced and suspicious of the truth of who your father was, for many years to come, and the possibility of what your past may become to your future self. Somewhere in there was the potential that the conflict between the two may end up leaving you in awe of what  your own life could be, given the latitude to write your personal story. 

I’m midway between the age I was then and the age my father was when he died. Up to now, those experiences have felt like an empty seedpod. Reflecting on them has offered me a medium to tell my story. Milking the serpents. Writing it felt sometimes like trying to wrangle the rushing volume of splashes, spritzes, and spray from a spring fountain gushing up out of the earth, and then directing them to perform a play for an audience of one, without getting wet. But getting wet isn’t such a bad idea. If all you have is your bare hands, you have to risk the serpents’ bite, climb into the fountain if you want to catch the fish. And then you have to let them go. But sometimes, if you embrace something in the right way, it feels just like letting go of it.

The feeling I’m left with after having embraced the process of telling this story, is reminiscent of the feeling I felt after receiving one of my father’s hugs. Transformed, unmasked, regenerated. And after letting go, perhaps happily unresolved.


Don Minson is a UVa alumnus, works in Business Administration, and lives in Charlottesville, Va. He’s an accomplished music festival photographer who shoots under the pseudonym Wiley Quixote, and has previously contributed photographic illustrations to the r.kv.r.y. quarterly literary journal. In his spare time, he enjoys listening to music, watching films, drawing, painting, writing poetry, playing guitar, Jungian psychology, and learning how to write prose.