Categories
2018 Poetry

Jennifer Jackson Berry

A CO-WORKER SAYS HE DOESN’T BOTHER HITTING THE CAT WHEN IT’S BAD BECAUSE SHE’S TOO FAT TO FEEL IT

I remember walking high school halls
when I was a freshman
& upper-class boys would push
each other into me.
More than twenty years & I’m still trying
to figure out the theory of the push.
Embarrass him? Embarrass me?

It happened when I was alone.

Those boys didn’t think about me.
About how I had to steel myself
for an impact, about how I could have been
knocked over.

It happened when I was with someone.
I had to pretend to be ok.

I’d usually take a shoulder to my own, tall for my age.

Was the pusher hoping I would like it?
Then want his friend in every way I could want someone?

Then he’d be embarrassed by the love of a fat girl.

Another co-worker responds: Hit the cat anyway.


HOLY TITS, 08/12/1997

                                Lilith Fair, Star Lake Amphitheater, Burgettstown, PA

Blessed & divine accumulations of fat
bouncing in the rain-soaked run

from lawn to parking lot.
We weren’t waiting for lightning

to shut down the outdoor concert
even if Jewel hadn’t played

the main stage yet. I was 19,
my sister only 16. Jewel was the reason

those men were there. It wouldn’t have been
for the Indigo Girls or Lisa Loeb.

Holy tits! they yelled.
I wish I had found a safe place for us

in the gap of two front teeth,
in between two guitars slung low,

in the curve of thick black spectacles.
I was angry at the feminist organizers too,

shooting off an email when I got home—
where are the f-ing plus-size t-shirts?

I don’t know how to respond to catcalls—
maybe because they didn’t

& still don’t happen that often to me.
In 2010 Sarah McLaughlin staged a revival

& Lisa Loeb Eyewear Collection launched.
Each frame was named for one of her song titles.

Several dates were cancelled,
performers backed out.

How do you make five lbs. of fat holy?
Add a nipple.


DURING THE NIGHT, AFTER THE DAY I FINALLY SAW RED FLAGS

I dreamed a fire. Flames from an open
oven stuck to my shirt. Foot stamping,
foot stamping as family swarmed around me.
I dreamed a fire that somehow leapt
from a burnt shirt on the floor into the wall
& bubbled paint. I pointed at the bubble
& said call 911. My husband aimed a glass
of water at the bubble & said that’ll do it.
I dreamed an orange fire-finger pointing
at me. Another glass of water. No one believed
we needed a fire department. These people believe
me in real life. They didn’t believe me
until the wall turned into a nightmare.
Then my mother thought it was so important
that we gather pictures, documents, policies
before we escaped. In fact, no one was going
outside until I found the title to a truck
I don’t own anymore. I ran topless to the fire box,
didn’t grab & run with it under my arm, no,
flipped through folders looking for specific papers.
I dreamed a fire in a house where I still live.
I didn’t wake up until finally we were outside.
I saw a phone at someone’s ear, but heard no sirens yet.
I woke up. I woke up with a hot danger
in my belly. I went to the bathroom.
Same sequence a couple hours later
(heat then shit) when I saw messages scroll
across my screen from a man whose toxic
friendship I just tried to end.
Question: Why am I dreaming fire?
a) There is no explanation for what we dream.
b) There has been a flickering light I was made to believe
was only visible to me. c) Both & neither of the above.
I dreamed a fire. I woke up before I knew
the full scope of the damage.


Jennifer Jackson Berry is the author of The Feeder (YesYes Books, 2016). Her chapbook Bloodfish will be published by Seven Kitchens Press in 2019. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in BOAAT, Grist, Poet Lore, Connotation Press, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry, among others. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her website is www.jenniferjacksonberry.com.

Categories
2018 Poetry

Nora Hickey

AMERICAN CRUSH

The sun is AstroGlide all

over your limbs

a syrup so terrible

sweet the world glistens


like an eye


just tongued and moles


that source from some secret


are trying to tell you


something old. Pleasure equals


rot. Fruit at the height of ripe


will soon turn sour. It’s how

we will die—

a bush of greed. Wanting


to be orange and aromatic


forever. How does one see a poppy’s


static burn and fantasize a minor


death? You imagine being


in the womb


is like saying the letter

                         
                            M
                           
over and over. A hum. A sort of self

suffocation. An opiate? You think

it appropriate to twin a birth

with a death: the

end, the white bright


exhaustion of cells. And all


of it orgasmic. All of life just


wanting a little lube, to lay with—


21ST CENTURY LAWN

The grass is tight and shiny like a scar
after scab—what the skin remembers
is actually not a whole lot. The Earth,
who can say—mine or yours, a

god is still an alien thing. An owl
flying from dusk registers
higher on the spiritual Richter
scale. If my relationship to

cells is like a stained glass
saint at night, let me moisturize
myself to oblivion. Fall into sleep
slow, an egg dipped

in glass. The run down heater
sounds more like a blizzard
than the thing itself. Funny how
robots are in every corner

of the Earth. I wish they were
more jubilant and wet. I wish
a flood of robots from a dark
factory—metal hand

on clefted chin, an angular
cupping of flesh. How did this start
with grass? The oldest
automation, faithful and green.


Originally from Milwaukee, WI, Nora Hickey now lives in Albuquerque, NM where she teaches at the University of New Mexico. Her poetry and nonfiction has appeared in Guernica, Narrative, the Massachusetts Review, DIAGRAM, and other journals. You can hear her discuss the weird and wild history of Albuquerque on the podcast City on the Edge.

Categories
2018 Poetry

Katie Berta

A BODY IS A THING YOU HAVE,

an object you own
rather than a thing you are,
                            supposedly.
Confounding, then:
the aches, pains, the persistence
of experiencing them
                            and then
the opposite of that—
the body of the cat
hit by a car and left in the road
speaks for itself.
The mouth yawns and the eyelids cover, flaccidly,
the emptying that’s happened beneath.

It’s hard to put that next to
a body on the beach, a body
in a bathing suit
that bends toward a shell,
abdominal muscles
coming clear
through their sheet of skin.
The woman who owns this body
only feels what it is to be it
until it becomes an image.
In a mirror, she separates
                            herself
                            from herself,
each matching the other’s gaze,
gesture, shrug. That which
is separable
is separated out.
That which isn’t remains—
in the woman’s brain, “soul”?
She places a hand on a hip,
                            just so,
to see how that
rings around the room.
Her image places,
                            just so,
a hand.


Katie Berta lives in Phoenix, Arizona where she works as the Senior Editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review. She has her PhD in poetry from Ohio University and her MFA from Arizona State. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review Online, Washington Square Review, Blackbird, The Laurel Review, BOAAT, and Forklift, Ohio, among other journals.

Categories
2018 Poetry

Ashley Roach-Freiman

REFLECTION ON WHEN I HEARD YOU WERE SOBER

That tiny shower
in the carriage house
behind your parents’ You shed
concert shirt and jeans
gave me a sweaty beer
I didn’t want Get in
you said God’s gift I waited
by the vanity steamed-up
in my clothes Thought I should
You were the kind of poet
to equate a flower to a bruise
Purple writing Glad you’re sober
He got a girl who fucks weird
My friend said You didn’t call back
What did that mean
the first time you crawled into my bed
Pulled your clothes off Put your no-taste
mouth all over me Said love love love I thought
This A kind of power Texted me
on your wedding day Sounded pretty drunk
say things about your life hello? u up?
Fifteen years I haven’t thought much
about you What kind of person bruises so easy
Flowers in panic Fucks uninvited
Texts drunk on his wedding day
how are things I remember
I boot-crushed a can on your front door
You were fucking some not-me girl weird
You know I never liked
your fat mouth your hairlessness your absent smell
You know what you did You wrote a poem
about me that got me alone
You tore the condom off when
I let you fuck me violently They call that assault now
I had a lot of bruises not flowers
I smelled weird that night I left confused
and sore I went to where I worked
to feel safe I was alone
You didn’t call You got married
Stopped drinking I hear
how is your life u r awesome
Why did I continue to let you tug at me
Soft spots on my body
I even seemed
to want it If not you
In October the ginkgo drops berries
repulsive to crush Viscous stink
With the heavy heel of my boot I press
until one lances Inhale until I can’t
Is that power I have


JUDITH BEHEADING HOLOFERNES

Imagine, for a moment, that I rose
from myself, sleep-heavy, liquid

with bourbon, bottom-shelf. Held-down, pinned.
That I had elevated from my bed, and fisted the hair

of the man who, in darkness, had made claim
to what I had teased (my relative ease),

but not offered. How good that feels, to think
of it now. His arrogance, the stink

of his loneliness. His patchy beard. Imagine,
my most private self, staking claim, instead, of his head.


Ashley Roach-Freiman is a librarian and poet with work appearing or forthcoming in Bone BouquetTHRUSH Poetry Journal, The Literary ReviewGhost Proposal, and Nightjar Review. The chapbook Bright Along the Body is available from dancing girl press. Find out more at ashleyroachfreiman.com.  

Categories
2018 Poetry

Kyle Lopez

TUXEDOS AND CADILLACS


                                                                             Abuela’s father would tell her

                                                                             he only liked two things
                                                                             black: tuxedos
                                                                             and Cadillacs

My father said boys once whipped him
and his sisters as they walked
home from school,
spat ‘niggers’ at them
between belt lashes so hard
his sister left soaked in piss and tear

                                                                             Schoolkids deemed me black,
                                                                             or brown but not black,
                                                                             or Spanish, light bright, black enough
                                                                             or nowhere near

My brother told me ‘we black,’
sagged his pants and balled at the park
16 months olderdecades ahead
in decoding his face

                                                                             The mirror once whispered to me brown,
                                                                             not black. Stared me down looking nothing
                                                                             like a tuxedo
                                                                             or a Cadillac

 


Kyle Lopez is a poet from Montclair, New Jersey. He is a TuCuba fellow with the CubaOne Foundation and an MFA candidate in poetry at New York University, where he is also a Goldwater Fellow. Kyle serves as Poetry Editor of EFNIKS, a media space for queer and trans people of color. His poems are published or forthcoming in The Florida Review, Argot Magazine, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Cosmonauts Avenue, Capital Pride DC, and elsewhere.
Categories
2018 Poetry

Jess Smith

VOW

The sermon of the ocean: nothing lasts
that I wish dead. A light that looks like dawn
all day, that feels like the first hour
of winter, your hands demanding

their way into my sweater, the gust
of your blown mouth, how the breaking
waves strip the shore of its first skin, drag
their cage of larceny across whatever

has worked hard to crawl, on all
fours, away. Like the first time
I ever saw the Pacific, and you said
I told you it was bigger, the choking

foamy groan of high tide, God’s jaw
unhinged and hungry. Your laughter slapped
against my skin, a signal that I, too,
should be happy. Of course the sea

has teeth. Of course we lie beside it
like a dare, starfish in our blood, limbs
that won’t regrow, your hands at my
throat, isn’t this romantic, isn’t this

what I wanted? Isn’t this how you always
end up – cold enough to know your blood
is hot, unsure enough to turn back
before you’ve even begun to run?


Jess Smith’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Waxwing, The Rumpus, 32 Poems, and other journals. She is currently pursuing at PhD in English at Texas Tech University, where she co-founded and curates the LHUCA Literary Series.

Categories
2018 Poetry

Jessica Abughattas

ANTHEM WITH EMERALD AND GOLD

Sing me an Arabi song you know—the one
         where wind and love

mean the same—song of the sugary night
         and tray upon golden tray

of minty tea—the song of my baba
         poised over a boiling breek

song of the ’87 benz with his scent
         of coffee black and marlboro

old spice—cardamom song
         of mamas and babas
    still together—

the stolen kitchen kiss—that song where we lay

still together
         amid the olive groves
and the air is thick with possibility

         while off somewhere the babas smoke
and the mamas read fortunes        

in blue ceramic cups—in the shapes
         their kahweh leaves—

where the hometown girl lights up
         like an emerald
when the lovers are hoisted up

in two white chairs

         and the lovers are us—
the one where the diva sings

I don’t want to fall in love
and she really means I do—


DARK ROOMS

I was five years old
suspended between fire and water
when you showed to me in the magazine the bodies
and sat in the secret dark while the party went on
loud outside without us

I remember when I would touch
my own body
I didn’t know
I had a body

I could only see it from above
suspended in the speckled ceiling
a blackbird watching
the sinister tangling of shadow
that you consumed

a magazine, a memory

is this why
I inspect the women
the how shapes of their collarbone
and the way they breathe in the night

and is this why
I suspect the parties
why I can never seem to relax when there’s
dancing and darkness

is this why

I can’t believe sometimes I have a body
like the propelling ribs of a magazine
like the black and white twist of navel
how it stands slender and woman
in these elastic rooms of prayer
where the strangers cast wishes upon me
a reeling explosion
in the infinite dark you made


Jessica Abughattas is an American poet of Palestinian heritage. Her latest work has been published or is forthcoming in BOAAT, Muzzle Magazine, Thrush Poetry Journal, The Journal, Tinderbox, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Antioch University and lives in Los Angeles.

Categories
2018 Poetry

Amanda Galvan Huynh

THE SMALL-TOWN MAN

             Floydada, Texas

The first memory of my abuelo
rests on the lip of a Budweiser.
With a Mexican gameshow

on the T.V. he gave me a sip
and my throat kicked it back up.
His mustache laughed. The sting

like metal left out in a Texas
sun. These summers I spent
with my father’s parents. Days

I’d flint through flea markets,
lose money at the local festivals,
road trip to the nearest town

for groceries, play in unfenced
dirt yards, and find myself
turning their tornado shelter

into a dungeon. Rocks became
goblins. Wood beams set
to cement a new driveway

transformed into an Olympic
Arena for a balance beam
performance—I fell

into terror. Two hands
tore me away. These hands
belonged to my Abuelo

left me on the cracked curb
aware that this little house
on E. Tennessee Street

was his—built by the same
two hands. The were
the same ones that reached

for the tortilla stack at breakfast,
unlocked the gate to his junkyard,
dragged chains across the yard,

changed the channel or turned
the music up on la radio. His hands
drove eighteen-wheelers full

of a season’s harvest, waited
by the curb of the house
for Abuela to bring his lunch

out, the night of his shift. One night
he took us along with those hands
steady under a cotton plump

moon. Him, A small-town man,
he’d say; who didn’t want more
than the work he could bear.


DFW to LAX

As I feel the wheels let go,
             the lady behind me speaks
to her daughter—her voice

like the grind of a molcajete—
             like my abuela’s. Both
fluent in Spanglish with a dash

of long ‘Ah’ sounds in understanding.
             Texas stretches beneath us
the way I rolled dough into Texas-

shaped tortillas with my child-
             sized hands. Papas y huevos
in the air and a pile of toasted

tortillas. One spoonful of breakfast
             could fit in my state-shaped
tortillas but she always let me make them,

pack them for Abuelo’s lunch. Abuelo
             always working at the junkyard.
Migrant to his bones he’d travel across

Texas while she stayed in one place.
             She never climbed into the belly
of a plane. No desire to—the woman

quiets and the ground has become
             stitches of color, farmland
and roads harder to outline. It blurs

together, and I wonder if I can see
             Floydada from up here or if we
even fly near the town—where I know

Abuelo sits at the table alone—where
             Abuela will never see how close
I lean to the window—trying to find her.


Amanda Galvan Huynh has received scholarships/fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and Sundress Academy for the Arts. She was a winner of a 2016 AWP Intro Journal Project Award and a finalist for the 2015 Gloria Anzaldúa Poetry Prize. Her work can be found in the following journals: RHINO Poetry, Muzzle Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, Silk Road Review, The Boiler Journal, and others.

Categories
2018 Poetry

Erika Goodrich

CONTEMPLATING EVENT HORIZON ON THE WINTER SOLSTICE IN FLORIDA TWENTY YEARS AFTER MY MOTHER WAS DIAGNOSED WITH SCHIZOPHRENIA


[1]

In a room north of here my mother rocks on the edge of a bed. Every hour collapsing
into the next.

[2]

Around my mother: ash falls like stardust.

Beside her: an ashtray of cigarette butts
become dashes
                             that mark passing hours.

[3]

Against my window, a winter sun presses its palm.

Against a window, my mother presses her palm.


[4]

Her diagnosis, like snow that falls
in summer. A crocus

frozen beneath the bloom.

[5]

            As darkness rises & the moon muscles its way into existence,

Stars flower
& flame:

            little
                        elegies.

But brief moments of being.

IF NOT THE BODY, THEN


what does a woman own? If not her name.

If not the prayer nailed to her tongue. If not

the hours of submission. If not
the bones grown inside her like a city

of glass. If not the sky. Or the shadow
-s cast by the sun. If not, then—

Under night’s cathedral, I kneel.
Next to the roses & rhododendrons

wisteria wilts in the garden. Water
moves through me, empty as wind.

Lord, I never asked for this.
I never asked for my body to be a petal

bent at the mercy of unforgiving
winds. For rain to rise

in my throat. Lord, why
did you make me to ache, a naked

stem? A woman. Why did you make me
your pilgrim with iron-wings?


Erika Goodrich is a graduate student at the University of South Florida. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Nashville Review, CALYX Journal, Juxtaprose Literary Journal, The Pinch Journal, Spoon River Poetry Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, among others. 

Categories
2018 Poetry

Brandon Thurman

AUGURY

Half-asleep & listening to the dark, the woman couldn’t shake the image of the ceiling fan rattling itself loose & chewing her to bits. The heater was grumbling. The refrigerator droned. Underneath all that white noise, she could hear what was keeping her awake: a sound like a caged thing battering itself against its bars. She looked over her shoulder & saw her husband’s shirt fluttering over his chest. Out of the dark, then, he yelped. She jumped & jerked her head back around.

“The light bulb.” It came out as a moan. “The key!”

“Sweetie?” She peeked over at him.

His eyes were stretched into a wide glare. “The key!”

What key?”

He groaned. “The light bulb! In the garden!”

Just as she realized what was happening, consciousness drained from his eyes, & his head clunked back onto the pillow.

She rolled over & stared at the wall, wide awake, counting the clicks of the fan.

                                                                             ~

The next morning, she tried to joke about it as they cooked breakfast. “You were talking in your sleep last night.”

“Mmm? What did I say?”

“I don’t know. Something about a garden.”

“Huh.”

“I asked what you were talking about. You yelled at me.”

“Oh.” He cracked an egg. “Sorry.”

She tapped her foot unconsciously, debating whether to bring it up. “Your heart was making an awful lot of noise.” There was a long pause. She decided to try. “Can I take a look?”

He began to over-scramble the eggs.

From behind, she eased her arms around his waist & tucked her hand under his shirt. “I love you, you know. You have the most beautiful heart.”

He turned to reach for the bread, wrenching his torso out from her arms. “I love you, too,” he grunted, slamming down the toaster lever.

                                                                             ~

As he brushed his teeth, he scowled at himself in the bathroom mirror, dumpy in his boxer briefs, his shirt still on. The shower curtain snapped open, & in the reflection, he saw his wife step out of the shower. He averted his eyes, then peeked quickly back. Feathers were drifting through the bars in her chest, falling to the bathmat beneath her feet.

“He’s molting,” the man pointed out.

She grimaced at him, the sparrow in her chest slumped on its bar. “I guess breeding season is over,” she quipped, wrapping the towel pointedly around her chest.

He frowned over his toothbrush & looked away, brushing his teeth harder.

“You’re going to brush your enamel off,” she snipped as she left the room.

After he had closed & locked the door behind her, he stripped off his underwear & then, after a moment’s hesitation, pulled his shirt over his head. He didn’t look in the mirror but stepped quickly under the scalding water, into a blur of steam.

                                                                             ~

That sun-bright day in the basement, he ran manic, his heart squawking, a child. What had he been playing? Trapped in the Bermuda triangle? Chased by mutants? Olympic ice-skating? He dashed & twirled & leapt gracelessly, his sweat spattering the air. Peeling his damp shirt off, he sat at his mother’s old electric organ. At first, he played as a mad scientist, rampaging along the keys, but he ended quietly, his fingers pirouetting out a soft melody.

From behind him, a curt clearing of the throat.

He whirled around. He hadn’t heard his mother come down the stairs. She was staring at his chest with the strangest look, as if being shown an x-ray of a useless bone broken beyond repair.

He looked down & saw the bustle of color: ruby, turquoise, gold. His cheeks went hot, his mother’s odd stare flooding him with a familiar pang of awareness. Every other boy’s heart he had seen had been female, their feathers subtle shades of brown & gray, but the doctors had confirmed it: his heart was male.

His heart stilled. Its ludicrous tail-feathers drooped out from the cage. His mother stared it down, & it let out a low mew.

“Put your shirt on, young man,” she snapped, stomping back up the stairs.

                                                                             ~

Sexual dimorphism. It was dark outside, past midnight—too late for the boy to be up—but he couldn’t sleep. He rubbed his finger over the word in the dictionary, then down through the definition: the phenotypic difference between males & females of the same species. There. His heart’s brilliant plumage, spelled out in black-&-white. He closed the book softly, like a sacred text, & slid it back into its empty spot.

                                                                             ~

“I do,” he was saying. He pulled out the Kleenex his friend had stuffed into his pocket (“You’re going to need this”) & dabbed at his eyes.

Across from him, his bride was crying too. His father, officiating the wedding, indicated that it was time to exchange the keys. The man took his key & clunked it into the keyhole in his ribcage. With a turn, the lock clanked into place, & he handed the key to his bride. Her eager heart opened its mouth & slurped the key right down its throat.

Sniffling through a broad smile, the woman locked her own chest & offered him the key. His stubborn heart clamped its beak shut. Gritting his teeth, the man worked his finger into the sharp yellow stub, wrenching it open & forcing the key in. The audience applauded.

That night, still panting from their clumsy love, he collapsed onto the pillow as his wife went into the bathroom. His heart’s beak fell open, & out toppled the key. The toilet flushed. He yanked his bedside drawer open & fumbled the key in.

His wife came back to bed, slipping under the covers beside him. He clenched her tightly, his belly pressed against her back.

“You’re hurting me,” she giggled.

He went slack. “I just love you,” he whispered. “I do.”

                                                                             ~

Stress twisted every muscle in his shoulders & neck into one unsolvable knot. He pulled into the garage, slammed the car door shut—a little too hard—& tramped inside. His wife was standing in the kitchen, beaming, her smile a kitschy halo radiating out from her head.

What?

She looked hurt for a moment, then said, “I found it.”

“Found what?”

“Look!” On the table lay an old reference book opened to the Qs. He saw queasy, queer, quarrel, quarry, quirk, quiver, question. Then he saw the picture. His heart. He read the caption:

Resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus moccino), a bird in the trogon family.
Found from Guatemala to western Panama. Well-known for its colorful
plumage
.

He stared at her.

“That’s it, isn’t it?” She was almost hopping, her heels twitching against the floor. “Let me see!” She grabbed for his shirt & began to tug it up. He leapt back, & she slipped, crashing to the ground.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He scrambled to help her up. “I’m sorry.”

She held her lips so tight they quivered. “Why won’t you let me? I’m your wife.”

He tried to look anywhere but her eyes, but she stared him down without a blink. Giving in, he reached down & grabbed his shirt at the hem, pulling it over his head.

He had been dreading the dumb look of pity she gave him then. “What happened?” she asked.

He didn’t say anything, but she knew. She remembered the nights she had heard it hammering itself (even now, she couldn’t bring herself to say himself) against the bars. The one & only night she had heard its cry, crackling into something like static. The bloodied feathers she had found in their bed sheets. She looked at it now: its feathers sparse, skin mottled & scabby. She remembered something she had read earlier in the evening: …indeed it was noted for usually killing itself soon after being captured or caged.

He tugged his shirt back on, & they stood staring at each other from across the room. She handed him an envelope. “I bought these for you.” She left the room.

Working the envelope open, he paper-cut his finger & cursed. Inside were two tickets for a cruise to Central America.

                                                                             ~

“When the conquistadors came,” the Mayan tour guide was saying, “they asked the Mayans what this land was called. The Mayans answered in their native tongue, ‘Ma’anaatik ka t’ann.’ ‘Ah,’ the Spaniards said. ‘Yucatán.’ But what the Mayans had really said is, ‘I do not understand you.’”

The man did not understand how the conquistadors could have heard Yucatán. He wondered if the tour guide’s story was true. The bus was bumbling along the road inland from Merida, bumping over rocks & potholes. The man’s head banged against the window. His wife’s head banged against his shoulder. “Ouch,” they said.

“You’ll see in the ruins of Chichen Itza a very old carving,” the guide continued, “in the form of a bearded man.” He paused for effect. Someone yawned; a baby screamed. Disappointed, he added, “The Mayans have no facial hair!” He let a woman in the front row rub his face: smooth, it couldn’t have been him. The woman nodded with wide eyes. “Our stories tell us that the Mayans heralded this bearded man’s arrival as the coming of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent King, Giver of Time, the Morning Star…” He paused. No one bit. “…the virgin-birthed symbol of death & resurrection!”

“Ahhh!” The North Americans nodded in appreciation. Now they saw where he was going.

Leaning conspiratorially over to his wife, the man whispered his suspicion that the Mayans had gotten their myths mixed up when Cortez showed up with his Bibles & his beard. She smirked. The tour guide continued emphatically, as if sensing dissent, “Carvings of the bearded man are scattered all over the earth—everywhere there are hairless people!”

His wife whispered, “Sounds like ol’ Quetzalcoatl was showing off.”

The man snickered. His heart rose & pecked at his shirt.

The tour guide was finishing in a hushed, over-dramatic tone. “…but no one remembers what the Morning Star said.”

Remembering dark, starless Sunday nights, the man wanted to say, “It’s the same where I come from,” but he kept quiet, staring out at the foreign landscape. From the fields, stones cried out in every language, but were still misunderstood.

                                                                             ~

The man stood at the bottom of the pyramidal temple, his neck craned back to see the features as the tour guide pointed them out.

“The Mayans were brilliant architects,” the guide raved. “They built temples upon temples upon temples like a Russian nesting doll. They designed this one so intricately that, on the equinox, the shadow of a serpent will slither down its staircase—” He wriggled his hand through the air for effect. “—& listen to this!” He clapped his hands, & the man’s heart cried out.

Ooo,” the tourists purred. They all began to clap their hands, & the sky burst into birdcalls. The man’s heart perked up to join in, & he realized it hadn’t been his own heart calling in the first place.

“The Mayans designed the acoustics of this temple to transform their handclaps…” He clapped again, twice, briskly. “…into the song of their sacred bird. The quetzal was thought to be the god of the air, symbolizing goodness & light.” The man’s wife shot him a self-satisfied half-smile. He stared back blankly, unable to make sense of the words. “Mayan kings wore extravagant headdresses sewn from their colorful feathers.”

Everyone had stopped clapping by then, but from somewhere among them, a sacred bird sang.

                                                                             ~

“Be back at the bus by 1:30, or we will leave you,” the tour guide said. He pointed to the sky, to a cell tower blinking red. “Follow that tower back to the lot.”

The man wandered off into the ruins of an ancient ball court, remembering how the guide had told them that the winners of the ballgame had, as their prize, their heads cut off. In the middle of the court was a carving: a headless man, a tree blooming from his wound.

His wife came up beside him, wrinkling her nose. “Come on.” She pulled him into a web of trails lined with Mayan vendors peddling souvenirs. The vendors bantered as they walked past, “Almost free! Almost free!” The man’s stride turned into a slight skip, & a stupid smile creased his face. Everywhere he looked, there were quetzals: sculptures & headdresses & bright stray feathers.

“One dollar, one dollar, one dollar,” a vendor babbled, a feathered headdress in his hand. The man made eyes at his wife & walked over, grinning, holding out his dollar bill. The vendor took it &, with a flourish, pulled a piddly charm out from behind the headdress, presenting it to the man with a sneer.

As they walked on, the man began to see how everything duplicated: the same masks, same carvings, same calendars. The men sitting alongside their booths chiseling were a slight-of-hand, he realized. Everything was mass-produced here.

He checked his watch—1:20—& grabbed his wife’s hand, leading her back towards the bus. “I think it’s this way,” he nodded, but he could hear the uncertainty in his own voice. He scanned the horizon for the blinking tower, but trees blotted out the edges of the sky.

“There!” his wife pointed. A sign: Salida. They followed the path deeper until they came to an unfamiliar resort with tourists sprawled all around. Behind the resort was a parking lot full of tour buses. None of them were theirs. The realization slapped them in the face, too late: they were lost.

The man looked at his watch. 1:30. He saw dread wriggle into his wife’s eyes & started to walk faster, resolved to stay calm for her, to fix his mistake. A dignified-looking old man stopped them, whipping a cane into their path. He leaned forward on the cane & asked in slow, molasses-thick English, “What are you looking for?”

“The buses!” they wheezed.

He gestured with one hand—calm down—& pointed behind them with a patronizing smile. “The buses are right there.”

Exasperated, the man & his wife ran, gripping hands. From the corner of his eye, he could see her heart fluttering in panic behind her tank top. He remembered two things at once: the tour guides words—We will leave you—& that he had left his ID on the ship. He imagined being nameless, stripped of identity, stranded & stared down by the masked Mayan gods.

His watch read 1:40.

He ran, holding back the tears stinging at his eyes, ran past dozens of vendors looking concerned, pointing this way or that. Panic scrambled the elementary Spanish from his brain. (¿Dónde está el autobús?) The words ran in front of him, squirming just beyond his grasp.

—& then there he was, hairless face stained blood-red with fury: the tour guide. He was muttering, “They’re going to kill me. They’re really going to kill me. I’ll lose my job for this.”

Hunched over, hand on his heaving stomach, the man grabbed a twenty-dollar bill from his pocket & slipped it into the tour guide’s hand.

The guide’s fury slid into a sly smile, & he led them proudly back to the bus, a merciful priest, sheathing his knife.

                                                                             ~

Back at the bus, the man & his wife were met with bored faces. They slumped into their seats & listened to the tour guide lecture all the way back to Merida about human sacrifices, describing in gleeful detail the way the priests sliced open their victim’s hearts & kicked their bodies down the temple steps. The whole bus quaked & shivered. Nauseated, the man closed his eyes, feeling his heart peck mindlessly at itself.

At the port, men with military guns slung over their shoulders demanded to see the man’s ID. He tried to explain that he had forgotten it on the ship, but they just shook their heads & adjusted their guns, irritated by the dumb tourist who left his identity behind. They patted him down & shook him up, but eventually let him through.

Once he had boarded the ship, he made his way to the slot machines for no particular reason. He had given the last of his money to the guide, so he just sat & watched a disheveled man pull the lever over & over. He fixated on the slots spinning like an ancient Mayan calendar towards the end of time, closing his eyes. He imagined himself headless, a tiny sprout slithering from the gore, imagined himself a Mayan ruler with a pompous feathered headdress, ordering new temples to be built over the ruins of the old.

He grinned, stroking his stubbled face. Below his feet, he felt the ship rumble to a start, disembarking from the Yucatán, the land of misunderstanding.

                                                                             ~

She had been watching. His beard grew out into a burning bush, a bright orange flame contrasting with the bruised purple deepening around his eyes. One night she woke up to find him sitting by the bed, his knees pulled tight against his chest. He was rubbing something metal between his fingers. She didn’t want to see what it was. She watched him drop it back into his bedside drawer, curl up on the floor, & fall asleep. His body looked fetal, she thought. She imagined it spiraling, a dying galaxy.

Sleep did not come for her. She drifted in & out of the dim visions that bled through from her dreams, taunting her insomnia. In them, she was trudging through the night, wandering through the garden from a book she had read as a child. The plants were withered, crumbling beneath her feet. A labyrinth of stone walls stretched out around her. There were no stars above her, no moon. Through the thick ink, she could feel a black hole tugging on her from behind the stone, crushing the light in its gravity fist. It dragged her into the maze, her fingers scraping against brick & stone, searching for a handhold to grasp onto, for some loose brick’s forgotten secret. Then everything toppled, & she fell into a blank black sky. Her ribcage hinged open, & a sparrow flew out, holding an orb in its beak. At its core, the bulb began to spark & glow. Gravity changed its mind, & she plunged back into the stone maze. By the light of an electric moon, she saw a misplaced brick & wriggled it from the wall.

She blinked awake & found herself standing over her husband, his bedside drawer open, her chest’s key in her hand.

                                                                             ~

He woke up on the floor, his whole body sore. Had he heard someone yell? What time was it? His bedside clock was blinking—12:00, 12:00, 12:00. Outside the window, the sun punctured the horizon like an open wound. Was it rising or setting? He remembered his mother’s aphorism: Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. She had shown him in her Bible: Jesus had said it. The words themselves bled red.

He wandered out of the bedroom & called his wife’s name, but there was no answer. Opening the back door, he saw her in the distance, at the tree line across the yard. The mountains’ shadows loomed over her. The rising red light seeped closer. As he started to walk out to her, he had the surreal thought—but couldn’t place why—that she looked like an ancient priestess, half-shadowed, half-lit in red. Then, seeing what she held in her hand, he broke into a run. When he reached her, he was gasping for air. “What are you doing?” The cold dew numbed his feet. A knife was dripping in one of her hands; in her other, she held something still. She dropped the knife unceremoniously & held that hand out to him.

He shook his head and muttered—nope, nope, nope—but reached out anyway to take it: his key, tacky with blood. He saw her sparrow wrapped loosely in her other hand, how its chest bloomed red, & dug his nails into his palm.

She dropped the dead bird & took his hand. For a moment, he thought she was going to hold it, but she just peeled back his fingers one-by-one, prying the key out from his fist. She lifted his shirt, eased the key into his chest, & opened the cage.

Nothing happened for a while then. They stood there, eyes locked, the cold prickling their skin into goose-bumps.

Then his heart left his chest. It wobbled off on weak wings towards the mountains. They watched as it made a drab bow across the sky & disappeared behind the trees.

The man opened his mouth to say something, but the woman turned & walked away from him, warming her shivering arms in her hands.

Above her head, he saw an alphabet of black birds, flying to the south, blurring in & out of words from a language not meant for him.


Brandon Thurman is the author of the chapbook Strange Flesh (Quarterly West, 2018). His poetry can be found or is forthcoming in Nashville Review, Ninth Letter, The Journal, RHINO, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and others. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas with his husband and son. You can find him online at brandonthurman.com or on Twitter @bthurman87.