“Shaping Stone” by Mel Jones

Shaping Stone
Photocollage by Matthew Chase-Daniel

The Cliffs of Moher rise seven hundred feet out of the Atlantic Ocean, on Ireland’s west coast in County Clare. I’m never quite sure if the ocean shapes the rocks—or the rocks the ocean.

Either way, the view cuts a deep impression into everyone who sees them. They are, for many, the definition of Irishness.



Daring invaders to try their strength, the Cliffs have survived—intact, better than any ancient wall. I can imagine the Romans coming across the sea and stopping at the Cliffs, and deciding not to push forward, deciding that penetrating those walls wouldn’t be possible. It doesn’t matter that the Romans didn’t come, it doesn’t matter that they would have come to the other coast and likely never seen the Cliffs, I imagine it anyway and Hadrian would have been humbled.

When I saw the Cliffs of Moher for the first time, I thought about my father and the only story he ever told me about his service in World War II. I don’t even know how much truth there is to it, but he did tell it the same way every time. He was headed for the beach at Normandy, for D-day. The boat passed by the coast of Ireland. All of the American soldiers of Irish descent on board came up to the deck to gaze at the shamrock shores of what they had always been told was home. They had grown up in South Boston, Massachusetts—Southie, a little Ireland. Every man saluted. They were close enough to swim to shore, but didn’t. Instead, they watched the coast in silence as the stories told by their mothers flashed before them and then melted back into the mists of the Atlantic.

No looking back. Instead, they saw the rest of Europe filtered through the adjustable-sight of an M1 Garand. They saved the world.

Dad always said that few of them ever saw Ireland again. It faded back into imagination and fairy tales, someplace remembered in a cultural consciousness, encoded in fiddle tunes and feises.

“Ah, it’s no matter,” he’d say, “Ireland’s just another place faraway where too many dreams died.” He’d pour a cure-all from the crystal decanter and slip into a silence that filled everything and everyone around him.

It’s not faraway places that kill dreams, but the silences we create right here.

Unlike my father, my first experience of the Cliffs was on Irish soil. I gazed out at the ocean from atop the Cliffs and imagined his taibhse-long that had so long ago passed by, with a hundred men saluting back at me, each of them filled with a sort of disenchanted longing. As I walked along the pathway to O’Brien’s Tower at the top, I talked to the Travelers, Irish gypsies. They line the busy path hawking their wares to tourists and pilgrims. I listened to their music and bought their handcrafted bowls, flutes, and sarongs. I walked along the Cliffs, not too close to the treacherous drop, and took in the view from several vantage points.

I did walk beyond the Danger and Hazard signs. Because I’m like that, daring the wind, pushing the boundaries.

I approached the rickety fences along the land’s edge, about three feet from the seven-hundred-foot drop. I had come to see the entire island from a thousand angles, to find what made me feel broken inside—what made me need to test the wind. I watched the people on the other side of the fence, lying flat and hanging over the precipice—what could they be looking for? What were they trying to see? I wanted to see—understand—my family, the family that had been silenced by the great span of water below. I wanted to know how that taciturn distance had shaped me.

Who were the ancestors, long dead, about whom I knew nothing, the family my father’s mother, Nana, had left behind and tucked away in her memory—never to be shared? I wanted to know the family that died with her so many years ago. I had come armed with my grandmother’s name, Nora Reidy, and the only town she ever mentioned to me, Miltown Malbay. I had come looking for the magic that my grandmother had always claimed lived over there. I had come knowing I was coming home—whatever that would turn out to be.

My grandmother carried one suitcase and her Irishness onto the boat for the three-week journey into the unknown, alone—a ritual—an initiation. Like her ancestors before her, who had survived Christianization, Vikings, famine, and the British, Nora Reidy would survive—in America. She would not surrender. She crossed the ocean and left poverty, disease, and any sense of family history behind. Silence prevailed, except in bedtime stories that subtly carried the ancient ways forward.

“’Tis not the land that makes ya Irish, sure. ’Tis the Irish that makes the land. ’Tisn’t a nationality dear, ’tis a spirit, and one day the pipes will call ye home.” That’s what my grandmother said. Like Muslims to Mecca, many Irish-Americans return to the tiny island of their ancestry, an obligatory pilgrimage. They return to touch the passion and the poison that has infused their lives. Like salmon swimming upstream, the desire to reach the mystical isle—to go home—can be overpowering. Back to the poetry, back to the pubs.

Singing was the only thing that Nana and Dad ever did together. And as I was growing up, they did it every night. I can still hear them singing about pipes calling, in harmony, as my younger brother Danny closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. Next, it would be my turn for a song. In my hand-me-down foot-pajamas I would climb into Nana’s lap and sleepily listen to her rich brogue as she recalled for me, again, in songs and stories, her childhood on the west coast of Ireland in County Clare. I remember more stories than songs. There were tales of abbeys, all founded by Padriac—the great saint that he was—and castles where my brother and sisters and I could—would be king and queens, at least in our imaginations.

There were tales of banshees, solitaries, and fairies—the little people who took care of the earth; the ancient people, the world’s first environmentalists, who left the planet in our care. Her stories of the vast green landscape of her youth were filled with longing and lamentation. “That’s who we’re descended from—the peoples of the West—the magic folk. They had red hair, just like you. And they’ve left them to us, the animals and plants, to take care of, don’t you know. Yes, indeed,” she’d pause to stroke the family dog, “yes, we need to tend to them.” Her commentary stirred the imagination with /images of a simple, pure life without the intrusion of alcohol, arguing, and anger.

Then the moment would pass and Nana would carefully readjust her mother’s ivory woolen shawl to protect us both from the harsh New England cold that seeped through the insulated walls and defied radiator and furnace. She wrapped it around us. The shawl was all she had of her mother’s, all she had from home.

I coveted it.

“Have yer Da fetch me some Tay,” Nana would say with a wink. Her piercing blue eyes carefully watched as I scurried off to bring her the tea that Dad prepared for her each night. She brushed her long silver hair back off of her forehead and with elegant slender fingers braided one small piece underneath; with remarkable ease she used it to tie back the rest.

“There are magic places and ancient things—the great rock table, built by fairies, or was it giants?—Oh ’tis no matter now, ’tis it?” She would start her story as I climbed into her lap. “’Tis the most amazing thing I ever did see.” Nana waxed poetically about Irish mythological women, Maeve and Deirdre. She talked about their courage, their independence, and their strength. Their ability to endure and live life on their own terms. “Be like Maeve little one. Never let any one control ya. Or be like Deidre. Die first.”

“Don’t be fillin’ her with your tempestuous tales now. Jesus, Ma, fairies and dyin’!” Dad interrupted. “She has a wild enough imagination. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Fairies! This is Boston, not Miltown!”  My father walked to the crystal decanter that held some curious Irish cure for regret. He filled his glass, drained it in one swift motion and filled it again. He drank it like his thirst had no bottom.

“Can’t even get the name right, it’s Miltown Malbay, son. Say the whole thing, enough of your short-cuttin’” Nana winked to me again, “’Tis off to bed with ya, lass. Don’t pay your Da no mind. Who knows what dreams tomorrow holds.” She glared at my dad, “If you don’t believe in dreamin’ that’s your own problem ’tisn’t it? All your answers are there in that glass I ’spose? Whiskey is a powerful magic, ’tis indeed. The deeds done by its magic would shame all the demons in hell. Shame on you. Remember now,” she turned back to me, “don’t let anyone control ya!” She sang a chorus from Galway Bay, or Rose of Mooncoin as I drifted to sleep.

As the only redhead born into the family I was special. Nana, took possession of me when I was a newborn. She left my siblings to the care of my mother. Nana thought my mother was inept and she made no secret of that. In return, my mother never said a gracious or complementary thing about Nana. Their contempt for one another was palpable and I was between them. I was Nana’s chosen one and therefore, by default, devalued by my mother and envied by my father. It is said that the human personality is formed in the first two years of life. Nana molded me. But she moved into a nursing home when I was four, and died when I was six leaving me the different one, the odd child, standing slightly apart in family photos—with no arm encircling me and inviting me to join in.

I’m told that my mother was not my dad’s first choice for a bride. He was in love an elegant Irish-American woman named Kathleen, Kitty. Nana loved Kitty. Dad went to Europe to help save the world during World War II and Kitty married his best friend. He was heartbroken. Dad came home from Germany, met my mom, and they were married shortly thereafter. There were no stories of anyone swept off their feet, or wild romances. They met. They married.


My parents divorced when I was fourteen years old. That meant my dad didn’t sleep in the guest room anymore and dinners wouldn’t be shrouded in resentment and non-fights. Long silences would no longer be punctuated by wounded egos, slamming doors, and hidden whiskey bottles. Nine o’clock Mass and daily confession. I naively thought it could mean that my parents would find something a-kin to happiness out there. I’ve seen pictures of my parents looking like married people but I personally never saw them behave that way. They conceived eight babies, so at some point they must have had a connection. My mother lost four third trimester babies before delivering her first healthy child. I have two older sisters and a younger brother. Somewhere in those years something happened and the tenuous connection between my parents was broken and my father, drowning in alcohol, moved out.

The silence his absence left echoed in the void of my soul. I wondered what his mother, my Nana, would think of all that had transpired. I wondered what it took to shame demons. Their divorce took me one step further from the magic places and ancient things of my childhood. It buried deep in the recesses of my mind, castle ruins and places where every one could be a king or queen. But, what we learn at bedtime comes back to haunt us—or hold us—and as the sound of my dad’s car faded into the distance, in my mind I heard my Nana’s voice say, “Be like Maeve little one. Never let any one control ya. Or be like Deidre. Die first.”

And I believed a little piece of me died.


But my grandmother had also told me the story of CùChulainn. He is a mythical war hero. In typical mythical hero fashion, his dad was a god. CùChulainn was the embodiment of what we typically associate with the Irish: impetuous, courageous, and proud. He was a bit of a drunkard. He faced all of his enemies, come what may. Nothing could hold him back. In his final battle, his enemy, Lugaid, who just happens to have magic arrows, attacks him. CùChulainn’s charioteer is killed, then his horse. The hero is mortally wounded. He refuses to succumb to his wounds; instead he straps himself to a stone. He will die on his feet. The sight instills terror in his enemies and the only creature brave enough to approach him is a raven. Even in death, CùChulainn surrendered nothing.

I clung to CùChulainn’s story. And it has served me well. I can be all of those stereotypical Irish things. I can even add a few more adjectives about redheaded women.   I often wonder how my dad didn’t seem to know this story. Or if he did, why he didn’t use it as a model in his own life. When my parents divorced, he moved into a one bedroom apartment where he drank away his twilight years. He never walked the streets of Milltown Malbay, or stood looking out over the Cliffs of Moher. He closed the door behind him and yielded to his demons.

At twenty-six, I moved from Boston to Virginia because I didn’t want to become that. Like Nana, I was chasing a dream into the unknown, come what may. I moved to a farm. I taught my children tales of banshees, solitaries, and fairies—the little people who took care of the earth; the ancient people, who left the planet in our care. I taught them, as my grandmother had taught me, to protect animals. I sought a simple, pure life and eventually the pipes did call me home. And each trip to Ireland has taught me something about magic, survival, and the ability to face all enemies, internal and external. About myself.

During my last trip, I spent time in a pub with several local musicians. If I closed my eyes, I could hear Nana and Dad singing Danny Boy with them. I could feel the memory of the brush of an Irish wool shawl against my cheek. But, no one was drinking tea. The air was smoky, too warm, and heavy with the smell of Guinness and Jameson. I brushed my long hair back off of my forehead and braided one small piece underneath; I used it to tie back the rest.

At last call, a young woman began to sing, Sonny don’t go away, I’m here all alone. People shushed each other. The pub became silent as the patrons respectfully listened to the commanding, poignant voice sing a story it seemed they all knew too well. Many years have rolled on, though he’s barely a man.

I had never heard the song before but a chill of recognition ran through me. It was Dad’s story. I thought about my dad playing soccer by the L Street Pier in Southie with the grandfather I never met. He was killed, hit by a car, stumbling home from the pub, drunk. There’s not much to do, but he does what he can. I thought about the New York Mets and the contract my dad passed on to stay and home and take care of my widowed grandmother, Nana.

I ordered a double. Sits by his window, in his room by the stair.

I spent the next two days thinking about my father and his unrealized dreams—his alcoholism and of all that it robbed him. Many years have rolled on, Sonny’s old and alone. As I walked paths by Dysert O’Deas, I thought about Dad, in his one bedroom apartment everyday, hiding empty bottles from himself, looking up a new word in his ragged dictionary in the evening and watching Jeopardy—calling me six-hundred miles away to tell me he’d gotten every answer right.


Every day wondering what his life might have been.

As I lay in my bed in my rented room at Ashgrove House, after a third night of singing at Fitzpatrick’s, I thought about the Irish mythology I knew so well: fierce, determined women with messages to share about passionate living. Deidre, and Maeve. Every night ended with Sonny’s Dream, a pub full of little surrenders.

I thought about CùChulainn tied to a stone and facing his death without flinching. I thought about my grandmother crossing the ocean alone to chase her dream—and not surrendering. As I lay there I was sure of one thing, I didn’t want to spend my sunset years wondering what my life might have been. I had come to Ireland to find the past, so that I would not be condemned to repeating it. But I realized that the past is open to interpretation. I could have Nana’s story, or Dad’s.

On my last day in Ireland, I drove out to the Cliffs of Moher for one final look. I’m still not quite sure if the ocean shapes the rocks—or the rocks the ocean. But the view cut a deep impression. They remind me of CùChulainn. Nana.




Mel Jones had her own poetry column in a local newspaper at 15 and was determined that she would be the next Shakespeare or Tolkien. But then life intervened. She grew up and raised a family. Mel did her undergraduate work at The College of William and Mary, and graduate work at Virginia Commonwealth University and Antioch University, Los Angeles. She holds degrees in History, English, Rhetoric, Literature, and Creative Writing (Nonfiction). Yes, she’s overeducated. She’s done extensive genealogical research, edited a now defunct literary journal, and has taught children ranging from kindergarten through college. Mel writes on a small leisure farm west of Richmond, Virginia where she lives with her partner, parrots, and progeny. She recently had an epiphany: if she sent her work out more, she would be published more. She’s working on that.

Read an interview with Mel here.


“The Keeper of the Truth” by Anne Leigh Parrish

Tree in winter
Pinon, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2004

The crystals in the window would have thrown a rainbow in the sun. The sun wasn’t out, though. It was winter, and the world was gray.

The woman was gray, too, not just her hair, but her suit, whose only decoration was a small pin in the shape of a seahorse angled on her right lapel. She didn’t go by Madame Zolara or any sort of exotic name that conjured an intimacy with the spirits, but by Gwen. Psychic Gwen. Painted in gold loopy letters across the dusty glass door.

Emily was there for research. She was writing a book on soothsayers, visionaries, and fortunetellers, women with gifts, women beyond the mainstream, and how they had been perceived – and treated – over time. She’d done enough reading, and needed a primary source, so had driven up South Hill in the snow, struggling to find the right address among the storefronts whose numbers had faded or disappeared.

Psychic Gwen gestured to a folding metal chair by a small, round table. Emily sat down, and Psychic Gwen took the chair opposite her. She didn’t know what to do next. The last time she had interviewed anyone was back in high school, when she’d worked for her local newspaper as an intern. The person they matched her up with was a local politician, a Second Ward alderman, a crusty old Irish Catholic who talked about “bad elements” moving to Dunston, and then offered her a cigarette.

Psychic Gwen held Emily’s gaze in a way that made her uneasy.

She said, “There are some things I’d like to ask you.” It was a short list: When did you first suspect that you were psychic? Did you tell anyone? If so, what was the reaction?

Psychic Gwen reached across the red velvet tablecloth and took Emily’s hand. She gazed into the palm, which had suddenly dampened with sweat, then turned it a little towards the only source of light in the room, a small lamp on top of a large and very dusty roll-top desk.

“You will live a long life,” Psychic Gwen said. “Much of it alone, but not all.” She peered more closely. “You will not have children, yet there was a child once.”

At twenty-two Emily had had an abortion. Her boyfriend was in love with someone else, needing Emily for comfort until his true love opened her heart. She never told him about the baby. She never told anyone.

She reclaimed her hand. “Please. There are things I must ask.”

Psychic Gwen took out a deck of Tarot cards from a drawer on her side of the table. She spread them out, face down, with the skill of Las Vegas dealer.

“The cards hold all your answers. Point to one.”

Emily sighed. This was a bad idea. She pointed to a card.

“The Chariot,” Psychic Gwen said. “This means you desire to exert control and find it difficult to do so. Choose again.”

She pointed to a second card.

“The Hanged Man. You want to let something go, change direction, reverse your fortune. These cards are in opposition, as are you, torn between two objectives, unsure of the outcome. The third card will decide your fate.”

Emily’s third choice was the Ten of Swords. “You feel like a victim, on the receiving end of another’s folly. You have put this person’s welfare above your own.”

Psychic Gwen put the cards back in the drawer, and told Emily she had a stain on her soul. “You have carried it there a long time. Yet one day, you may wash it clean.”

She gave up on the questions she’d prepared, handed Gwen the twenty-dollar bill she’d agreed to pay when she made the appointment on the phone, refused a receipt, and rose to go.

“I will see you again,” Psychic Gwen said. At those rates, Emily didn’t think that likely.

The snow fell harder. What had taken over thirty minutes on the way to Psychic Gwen’s became over an hour on the return home – to the house she had taken possession of from her mother and father when they moved to Arizona. They hoped to put it on the market within the year, and counted on Emily to supervise the sale. She lived there rent-free, because at the time the arrangement was made she was in school, plugging away on her doctoral thesis. Her parents assumed she still was. Emily had withdrawn from the university the previous autumn after the man she was having an affair with went back to his wife. At that point, school became too much.

She kept on with the project though, the book. Several weeks after seeing Gwen, she changed tack. Psychics were interesting (and unnerving, she had learned) but she wanted a wider subject, to emphasize current thinking about aberrant behavior, and then say how society had changed its mind over time about why people did what they did. Witches were just people who didn’t fit in, didn’t do what the world expected of them, had trouble following the rules. Today those witches would be labeled with low self-esteem, attention deficit or obsessive-compulsive disorder, addictive personality, or repressed memories only the most skilled therapist could uncover. People weren’t evil anymore, they were afflicted; given the right tools, the right environment, a guiding hand, they could be cured.

Emily explained this to her friend Lisa over a shared six-pack of beer, imprudently consumed on an empty stomach.

“You know why you’re so into this, right?” Lisa asked.

“Because I want to know about the human psyche. The soul.”

“No one knows anything about the soul. Except when it hurts.”

“Or has a stain.”

Lisa stared at Emily, then burped with the gusto of a seasoned drinker.

“The psychic told me my soul has a stain,” Emily said.

“Yeah, and its name is Melissa.”

Her sister wasn’t exactly a stain, she thought, though she’d definitely left her mark on the members of her family.


Two days after that conversation, Melissa showed up in the middle of the night from Boston, carrying all her possessions in one large backpack. Things had dried up on her there. Her contacts had moved on, and with an arrest for possession four years before, she didn’t want to chance some zealous undercover cop, maybe out to climb the departmental ladder. So she came home. She hadn’t been back two days when the calls started. Old friends, deadbeats wanting to hook up and get high, people she hadn’t seen in years showed up at all hours, woozy and smiling, or sullen, strung out, wanting to sleep on the couch.

Emily stayed out of their way. She was raised on tiptoeing around. Also on the theory of redemption. One morning, when Melissa got up before noon, Emily asked “What about What’s-his-name? Tom? Why don’t you give him a call?”

“No fucking way.”

Tom was someone Melissa had slept with on and off for years. He’d already offered her a bed at his place, but Melissa knew better. He had a bad habit of trying to rehabilitate her. He didn’t give her money, because he’d done that before, money for food and some classes at the community college that she put up her nose. Staying with him meant a lecture on free will and right choices, all the bullshit she’d heard forever.

As if sensing Melissa’s return, their parents called one night. She was out again, and Emily was free to fill them in. They made nice noises. That must be hard for you, and you’re so good to help out. The baton had been passed. Melissa couldn’t be abandoned. They just couldn’t turn their backs. A hand had always been extended, and would be again. They sent money. Emily took her share above living expenses. She was building a little bank account. As for the rest, Melissa would need new clothes – nothing expensive, just basic, practical. Jeans, shoes, underwear. Their mother was keen on new underwear. Emily would do the buying. Melissa was not to be trusted with cash. Or valuables, either, for that matter.

Two years before, Melissa had pawned their grandmother’s diamond brooch. The five thousand dollars kept her and her most recent boyfriend in pot and booze for two weeks in a Vegas hotel suite. Their mother’s face stayed hard for a month. Their father retreated behind the closed door of his study. The time for threats and rebukes had ended years earlier, after Melissa’s second arrest for drunken driving. The judge assigned her to substance abuse counseling. The sessions often involved a group. Melissa made friends easily with anyone who bought her a drink afterwards.  Her parents put her in therapy, first with an older woman who lived on a farm and raised goats and felt Melissa was responding to an unspecified childhood trauma. Then they sent her to a younger man who wore sweaters and pressed pants. Melissa tried to pull his heartstring. She wept through several sessions. He prescribed anti-depressants. She said she’d prefer Vicodin. He refused. She offered him oral sex. Again, he refused. She threatened to say he was the one who’d propositioned her. He gave her the prescription, and told her never to come back. After that, the help of outsiders was no longer sought.


On a gray, freezing Tuesday, Emily awoke with a taste of doom. The silence of the world was final and fatal. Her mind’s eye gave a scene of total destruction. She’d had these dreams before. The lone survivor. The keeper of the truth.

And there he was on the couch, snoring. A man she didn’t know. Her gentle nudge didn’t rouse him. Her hard slap did.

“What the fuck?” he said. He’d brought his dog, a leggy mutt with a bald patch who’d shit everywhere, then dug up her rubber tree plant.

“Out,” Emily said.

“She said she lived alone. Who the fuck are you?”

“Her mother.”

He sat up. His eyes came into focus. “Yeah, right.”

She raised her hand once more.

“Jesus. You got any coffee?”

Emily gave him five dollars from her purse, took his backpack, and tossed it out the front door. The dog ran after it, and peed liberally on the first bush it came to.

Afterwards she banged on Melissa’s door until she answered.  Her face was puffy, and her breath stank. She looked at the mess and nodded. Emily dressed and escaped.

She thought of walking by the lake, but the wind was bitter. She went to a coffee shop and sat for a long time. Melissa wasn’t bad. She was just weak. As a child, she could never resist temptation. She opened Christmas gifts early. She ate treats saved for guests. Emily, two years older, tried to correct her. They often fought. One time was particularly harsh. Their grandmother died suddenly when Melissa was six and Emily eight. Melissa said she knew it had happened when the phone call came. The grandmother was healthy and strong. They’d seen her only a week before. Her death shocked them. But not Melissa, who swore she sensed it as her grandmother kissed her good-bye and went down the walk to her car. Emily said Melissa didn’t know anything, that she invented the whole thing.

She went home. The house was clean. There was a vase of white carnations on the kitchen table, her favorite winter flower, and a card with a picture of a kitten and Melissa’s words, To new beginnings.


Melissa came home late, drunk, eyes dilated, stinking of cigarette smoke and sex. Her attempt to move silently through the house was foiled by breaking a glass in the kitchen. Since she had removed her shoes, the shards cut the bottom of one foot, right through the thin socks she wore. Emily found her sitting on the floor, looking at her bloody sole, sobbing.

She helped her to bed. The scope of her research had to include normal people affected by the spiritually lost. We are the light they fly to, she wrote in her notebook, then crossed it out.

Two days later, Melissa forgot her key and banged on the door well after midnight. Emily was still up, trying to organize her thoughts. She’d resurrected the light idea. We are the beacon that guides them home. When Emily didn’t answer, Melissa stood in the yard and shouted. Then she threw small pebbles at Emily’s bedroom window. Emily peered through the crack in the curtains. Melissa had no coat.

She sat another minute. She’d have to confirm if her theory were historically accurate. Had the visionaries had stable companions around them, people who helped them along? The idea of more research was thrilling and tiresome. She was a good researcher, though. Of that she was sure.

When she opened the front door, Melissa said, “You hate me.”

“Only the things you do.”

Melissa went to bed. Emily realized that her book still lacked the proper focus, and would never grab anyone’s attention. The next day, she put it in a drawer and left it there.

Spring came. The trees filled the blank spaces of winter sky with tiny soft buds and the air, still cool, was lovely and fresh. Melissa went to Florida with a college student she’d met in a bar and Emily had the place to herself.

Her parents called again. They said there was no point in doing anything with the house while Melissa was still there. Emily was relieved. They asked how her work was going. She said it was coming along nicely.

Melissa returned. She was tanned and sober. She had new clothes. The college student seemed to have a little money. She didn’t mention him, or say much about her time away. She wanted to make dinner for Emily. Emily didn’t like the idea, but she consented. Melissa was a decent cook, when she put her mind to it. She’d once talked of attending cooking school, even having her own restaurant one day. She asked Emily for thirty dollars to buy groceries. Emily said she should make a list, and she’d shop, herself. Melissa said she didn’t know what she was going to make, yet. She’d take her inspiration from what looked good at the store. Emily hesitated. Melissa got upset.

“You don’t trust me,” she said.

“No, it’s not that, it’s just . . . ”

“I know, I know. Can’t you see I’ve changed, though?”

She did look different. She was clean and neat. Even her nails were free of dirt.

At seven-thirty that evening, Emily sat alone with a glass of wine. Melissa had been gone for hours. She hadn’t called. Emily hated herself for believing that she would.

The next morning Melissa returned. She wasn’t clean or neat. Her jacket was stained with mud, and her hair, tidy and clipped the day before, hung in her face. She’d been crying.

Emily sat her down and gave her a cup of coffee.

“He threw me out.”

“The college kid?”

Melissa nodded. “He said his parents were coming up from the city, and I couldn’t be there. He didn’t want them to meet me.”

“Did you want to?”

She shrugged.

“It’s just the principal of the thing, right?”

Again, Melissa shrugged, but Emily knew she’d hit a nerve. Even Melissa, with all the harm she did to others, didn’t want to feel like a lowlife who wasn’t good enough to meet the family.

“You can’t expect people to treat you better than you act,” said Emily.

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“You make bad choices. People get tired of it, and they move on.”

“Yeah? Well, fuck them.”

“Easy to say.”

Melissa hung her head. She was still drunk, Emily could tell.

She looked around the dining room where they were sitting. The wallpaper had a pattern of daisies and bluebells. It was old, outdated, and ugly.

Melissa sneezed. “I think I’m getting sick.”

Emily put her hand on her forehead. “You feel warm. Go take a shower and get into bed.”

“Is there any wine in the house?”

“It’s ten-thirty in the morning.”

“Tell my head that.”

Emily got her a glass of wine. Melissa’s mood got better. She became expansive. She made fun of the college boy, said he was pudgy, and too fast in bed. Emily laughed. Melissa’s charm had always been like a crystal, throwing light here and there. Sometimes it fell on you, and made you a little brighter, too.

Melissa showered, got into her pajamas, and let Emily tuck her in. She was soon asleep. Emily took the manuscript she’d hidden in her desk drawer, tossed it into the fireplace and lit it. A lot of her life turned to ash as she sat and watched. Maybe that’s what she was best at – sitting and watching. It didn’t really matter. There were no visionaries, or special spirits, or gifted hearts. Only people who broke the rules. And others who covered their nakedness, kept them safe, and loved them so blindly that they never grew up or improved in any way.



Anne Leigh Parrish is the author of the story collection All The Roads That Lead From Home (Press 53, September 2011). Her work can be found in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Clackamas Literary Review, Carve Magazine, Storyglossia, The Pinch, Prime Number Magazine, Eclectica Magazine, Amarillo Bay, Knee-Jerk Magazine, Chamber Four, PANK, Bluestem, and American Short Fiction, among other publications. To learn more, visit her website.

Read an interview with Anne Leigh Parrish here.


“Veal” by Christina Salme Ruiz Grantham

Cattle, Novato, California, 2004

¿Adonde voy? Where am I
And where am I meant to be? Nowhere,
at home, all day, trapped in my
mother-built mind-house,
closet-sized box, still.

¿Adonde estoy?
Some days she walked me to my room, slid
the closet door, helped me climb
into the ever-empty shelf.
She told me “stay” in the closet of
her discontent, like a dog worth beating.
“A storm,” she said, “stay quiet,” she’d say,
“not one peep,” checking and
rechecking through the slit—
open, close, open, peek.
Her palpable nerves ensuring I’d stay
still, quiet, more scared she’d find me
gone, of what might happen if
I touched the door, if I fingered
the unpainted inner wood
found a grasp, a toe hold
reopened my closet from the inside, clambered
to bed. Less frightened she’d forget me
than a splinter in my hand would betray me.
I stayed quiet for hours like days, day after
infinite day, listening to her moaning fright through
the plasterboard separating their thin room from mine.
How lonely she spent the storm, how
she must be aching. Yes I’d be still
but for the shaking of those walls,
Yes but
for the metallic rumble of my shelf.
except for the storm, my ally.

¿Adonde fuí? At five, the moving box in
an unfurnished room—room in a different country—
where we’d play hide and seek, mother,
daughters, but mostly hide
at her insistence, hide from an elder
sister, try to win any game
by being more than silent—cardboard—win
against a greater force,
a sister, a mother like a child herself,
who never came looking for me until
I’d fallen asleep
in a box too tall to crawl out of,
too narrow in which to lie down.



Christina Salme Ruiz Grantham obtained her MFA from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1998. In 1999, she received an Individual Artist Grant from the Maryland State Arts Council, and Governor’s Citation for Artistic Merit. More recently, she attended the 2004 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and was a scholarship winner in 2005. Also in 2005, she won an Individual Artist’s Grant from Prince George’s County, Maryland where she lives with her husband and twin sons. Mrs. Grantham has been previously published in Earthwise Review, Mobius, The Allegheny Review, and Borderlands.


“Walking” by Allan Johnston

Sarcobatus Falt, Nevada
Sarcobus Flat, Nevada, 2007 photocollage by Matthew Chase-Daniel

One starts by leaving the present,
because, as always with shoes,
it’s tied to hold the pieces in.
Funny to think of a foot

as a whole, yet when it’s rendered
in marble or schist
it only plants us further in.
There is every reason

to walk carefully
but whatever you might step in
is not one of them.
Some unavoidable things need blessings.

One possibility is to talk
about days, for every one of them
bears a mandate of light.

Walk in air, walk on water.
Some things are tougher.  Walk in and out.
Crawl into life. Fall out of life.
Pick it up.  Keep on walking.



Allan Johnston earned his M.A. in Creative Writing and his Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Davis. His poems have appeared in over sixty journals, including Poetry, Poetry East, Rattle, and Rhino. He is the author of one full-length poetry collection (Tasks of Survival, 1996) and a chapbook (Northport, 2010), and has received an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize nomination (2009), and First Prize in Poetry in the Outrider Press Literary Anthology competition (2010). Originally from California, he now teaches writing and literature at Columbia College and DePaul University in Chicago. He serves as a reader for Word River and for the Illinois Emerging Poets competition, and is the editor of the Journal for the Philosophical Study of Education. His scholarly articles have appeared in Twentieth Century Literature, College Literature, and several other journals.

Read an interview with Allan here.


“Status Check” by Tiff Holland

Polihale, Hawaii
Polihale, Kauai, Hawaii, 2007

I call Mom every morning, or she calls me. We check on each other. She asks if the room is spinning. I ask about her breathing. Most days it’s a quick hello, status, goodbye. I ask how she is and she says, as well as can be expected. When she asks me how I am, I tell her I’m fine.

I’ve been mostly fine for almost a year now, but some days she doesn’t believe me. She’ll ask again, maybe even a third time. “Are you sure?” she’ll say. “A no-shitter?” And I’ll tell her it’s a no-shitter. Maybe she’ll say my voice sounds tired, ask, am I tired, but I sleep more than anyone I know. I have to.

Usually, if I sound funny it’s because I’m still in bed. What she hears is my sound machine, the near white noise of the sea crashing on waves. I tell her this and she tells me to go back to bed, but if she calls while I’m still in bed, I’ve slept too long or lingered too long with the dogs. So, I get up. Staying horizontal too long is a sure way to get dizzy.

I can tell a lot about Mom by her voice, too. When I talk to her she’s always been up for hours. Her husband, Three, gets up at five, wakes her getting ready for work. He doesn’t know how to be quiet. When he comes to the house his voice echoes off corners that don’t seem to exist the rest of the time, amplifies him. He walks loud and always manages to jingle the dogs’ collars when he leans down to pet them. His chair scrapes the tiled floor and when he opens a paper bag, the whole house opens, the whole world.

Sometimes the world still falls down underneath me, but it almost always rights itself quickly. My vision rarely bobs. The blurriness is minor. I’ve only seen double once in the last six months. We’ve finally straightened out my meds, even found one to stop the ringing in my left ear. There are days I can actually hear her voice, garbled but her, without my hearing aid. Mom has always had a great telephone voice, so feminine. I never understood how a voice could be so feminine. When she’d answer the phone at the beauty shop it made you want to come in, sit in her chair, tell her your secrets. And when a man would call, it would turn ever so slightly, smoother, like pillow talk standing up. In person, with a man it sounded tangerine. I don’t know how else to explain it. Her voice made her sound even prettier than she was, made the man feel like he was more desirable than he could ever be. But now her voice is weak from the steroids, the oxygen, the inhalers. Usually, when I ask how she is she tells me she’s fine, it’s just the meds, but lately, she’s started to tell me how hard it is to get her breath. She’s started talking about maybe not being around. She lost a tooth and didn’t want to get it repaired, and this worries me, this not caring. Last week she admitted that she absolutely couldn’t catch her breath—twice. She didn’t tell me when it happened but told me a few days later: no air came in or went out, no matter how hard she tried.

Yesterday, she couldn’t speak a complete sentence. I drove straight over, hooked up her portable oxygen, held her arm as we walked the ten steps to the car. She had to stop twice. I wanted to be strong enough to pick her up, carry her. Instead, I took her to the hospital, had her admitted. That’s when I learned she was still smoking.

She had this gorgeous doctor, and she admitted to him she’d been smoking, probably because he was so good looking, because of her own weakness for that sort of thing, because he held her hand when he talked to her and promised he’d make her feel better. She pointed at me when she made her admission, as my jaw fell, told me not to judge. She told the doctor it was only four cigarettes a day. He had perfect features and hair, which she complimented him on adding she knew what she was talking about.

Later, after the morphine, she told him that while he was good looking, she would have given him a run when she was younger, that’s how good looking she was, and he told her she was still very pretty. She waved him away, turned her head, but her skin gained a luster I hadn’t seen in a while. He asked her more questions. Apologized he couldn’t fix her up there and would have to admit her, and she said that might not be that bad, maybe she’d see him again. She actually tried to conjure up that magic voice, when she said it, but she couldn’t. It was gone.



Tiff Holland’s work has recently appeared in Blip, elimae and Frigg and has been thrice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her chapbook “Betty Superman” won the 2011 Rose Metal Prize for short-short fiction. Her poetry chapbook “Bone In a Tin Funnel” is available through Pudding House Press.

Read an interview with Tiff here.