Categories
2020 Fiction

K-Ming Chang

SWALLOWER

We brought the woman our hands to swallow. She stood at the intersection where ghosts were known to knit themselves into gloves, sheathing the hands of drivers and misdirecting them into telephone poles and duplexes and each other. The woman called us her daughters and claimed she could swallow anything if we paid her. In her hands, a baseball cap purpled with sweat and jingling half-full of nickels. One time she was featured in the World Journal, the only street performer to ever make the bottom-right-hand corner of the front page, and tourists drove in from all over the city with dollar bills in their fists and backseats full of things they dared her to swallow. She was tall and so thin her fingers had more knuckles than ours and her veins surfaced like snakes when she swallowed, her mouth unhinging wide enough to cleave open the sun and suck out the squirm of its seed. When she walked, her shadow preceded her into any room, a dark that rotted our teeth to seeds and repainted the walls wherever she went. She spoke in an accent none of us could name, each of her vowels spat to the sidewalk and split like scabs.

One time, one of us brought her a sparrow to swallow, a sparrow that had been living in the wall of our duplex for weeks, along with the rotting carcass of a raccoon and an assembly of squirrels. It was only after we hammered holes in the walls, the way we saw men in nature shows tapping trees for sap, that we freed the sparrows fortressed inside. The woman plucked the sparrow by one wing from our palms, tipped her head back, and balled the bird into her mouth as if it were a document she needed to smuggle through her bowels, and there were rumors of that too, that she was a former spy, that her one and only skill was to swallow evidence of what was stolen.

Her throat was translucent as the core of a pear, incandescent, and we saw the sparrow dive into her belly beak-first, its black wings bound by sound. For months, we heard the bird flying around inside her, carving a sky inside her belly, and when she opened her mouth it was to chirp. We thought maybe the sparrow had mated with whatever else she had eaten, and now there was a family perched inside her. We threw handfuls of birdseed onto the sidewalk and watched her kneel to lick them up, her tongue studded with shells. We took turns being in love with her. First we were in love with the butcher at Ranch 99, the one who could slice a lung thin enough to drape over a lamp. There were rumors that his wife was a knife and that is how he learned to be precise. Even in the way he spoke: he could sharpen any sound narrow-tipped enough to enter any part of your body. Our love for him was a like a tendon, elastic, easily snipped, and sometimes we didn’t love him at all and sometimes we were willing to hang from hooks if it meant he would touch us, treat us with the tenderness of a stampede.

The swallower we loved differently, more from a distance, her face like the surface of a planet, one of those planets with an atmosphere so toxic your skin dissolve on contact. That was until the day we brought her our hands to swallow. For tips, we’d seen her swallow a golf club, a lit candle, a flashlight, a drawerful of socks, a cell-phone, a pen knife, a whole fish, but we had never seen her swallow a fist. We believed our hands would finally defeat the gravity of her belly, and when we lifted them to her, the way we saw illustrated flames reach up to a woman tied to a stake, she gathered our hands as if plucking dandelion heads from the sidewalk and tugged the bouquet to her mouth. That was the day we touched the pit of her, our arms sleeved inside her dark, our fingers combing the carpet at the bottom of her belly, the place where all things return to before they’re reborn. She gagged our hands back up again, pulled us out glistening like roots, and we knew we would never know her. There was an art to swallowing, she said: consumption without destruction. It was an inherited skill, learned from her father who mastered swallowing an entire pistol. He smuggled ammunition past Japanese troops, swallowed gold bars and set off airport metal detectors, shoplifted a live hen in his stomach. When he died years later of pneumonia, she said, tears came out of his ears. He’d been in a coma for three weeks, and to smuggle water into his body, she drilled a straw into the base of his throat and sponged water down it. Hearing is the last thing to go, she said. The last thing the dead know is the sound of our voices, the chorus of hornets in our lungs, and the dead keep listening even after they’re buried. The ears take the longest to decompose, and sometimes they reincarnate into butterflies. This is why it is important to announce ourselves to the dead. To enter every room voice-first, asking our ghosts if we can wear them.

The day she swallowed and regurgitated our hands, the woman sat down on the curb and stretched out her legs, their shadows bright as sails. She said her father never taught her how to swallow because daughters do not inherit, but she learned in a dream how to mimic the sea’s plumbing, how to be a body of water wide enough to drown anything. We reached out our hands as she told this story, all of us hoping to remain in her like a thorn, to make of her skin something holy. Each of us planned to reconvene in our dreams that night, to see if we too might learn to swallow in our sleep, the only place where we did not have bodies, where our legs were the length of our lives. But the woman warned us against dreaming, said that it was possible to get lost inside one, to sever the tether back to your body and be set loose like a sparrow in a house of glass, everywhere a false sky to fly into.

There was a girl she knew once, a girl who got locked out of her body because she wandered off in a dream and did not return. For three weeks she was asleep in her mother’s bed, and each of her sisters had to take turns wiping her ass and flipping her over so that sores would not scuttle all over her body like roaches. It was only later, when we repeated this story to our mothers, that we learned the girl was not asleep for weeks because she wandered off in her dream but because her brother knocked her head against the side of a duplex. We often saw our mothers slapping a fish’s head against a flat stone, the best way to stun it bloodlessly before severing the head, and we wondered if the girl was like that, laid out on the bed so that her vacated head could be cut off cleanly and painlessly. There were ways to wake up, but the woman did not tell us, and she did not tell us how it was possible to maintain a mouth inside a dream, when we ourselves were mouthless in ours, always waking inside of cities didn’t know their own names.

We tried swallowing too, we practiced on doorknobs, our razor blades, on kitchen sponges, on spoons, we tried swallowing our own fists, clouds punctured by our tongues, CDs broken in half, we tried colors, swallowing our shadows, we tried wind, parts of cars, aquariums, live fish, a gerbil, roadkill, we tried knives, fish bones, a leash, a puddle, we swallowed our mothers’ necklaces, earrings that dangled in our throats and lit us from the inside like chandeliers, lightbulbs, a clothes-hanger, a struck match, a flame. But everything cancelled out in our mouths, unstitched into steam, and we always swallowed nothing.

We returned to her and asked how to drown things in our bodies. The way you do it, we said, and she said we had to be gifted the way she was, gifted by ghosts: if you feed a starving dog in this life, she said, the dog will reincarnate and come back to you and save you. She said: My dog lives curled in my belly like smoke. My dog is the dog that returned in this life to bite me – I was just six years old then – and my teeth turned to sweetcream and I vomited out my tongue but when the fever lifted like a flag in a fallen country I was cured and my mouth was the entrance to a freeway. After hearing this, we tried to find a dog in the neighborhood to feed, but none of them were starving. None of them were strays, all were tame, and we couldn’t find a single one to save. One of us finally stole a pitbull out of someone’s side-yard, gnawing the leash with her own teeth, and we starved it over many weeks, feeding it only leaves, nips of our sleeves. Then when the dog was so skinny its breath played its ribs like an accordion, when it was so starved it began to levitate, floating away from its feet, we fed it. Raw patty meat, stolen lung slices, bread-crusts: it ate so much we thought its stomach was a snake’s, the kind that can swallow its prey and digest it over a lifetime, the kind of creature with a hunger elongated across history. Then the dog lifted its head from our palms and rolled its eyes back and died and we cried because now the dog would not return to us in its next life and save us or teach us to swallow. The dog would return only for revenge and bite us and fill our mouths with clouds, and we might as well leash ourselves now, we might as well forfeit our mouths.

When we told the woman what we’d done, how we failed, she laughed and said we were haunted now, that the dog would return as our husbands and we would soon give birth to litters of six at a time. She knew a woman who once gave birth to sextuplets, naming each one after a different month, and halfway through the year she tore her voice and never spoke again. We wore scarves now, trying to protect the tender sides of our necks, until the woman said a ghost would snag the ends of our scarves and suffocate us. We were tired of the woman and her stories and her reincarnations, tired now that we knew we would never as full as her, symphonic with discarded objects, so we swallowed her. It was the Sunday before rain was invented. It was night and the woman looked up at the moon as if she might swallow that too, as if every light was located inside her, every light was another of her lives.

We took her the way we took the dog, by striking her between the eyes with a flashlight, and then we each held a limb and began to swallow and swallow until our mouths met in the middle of her and she was gone, divvied up between us, siphoned into us as smog. Inside us, she took root in our bellies, hinged us to our knees. She was submerged like a radish before it surfaces and is skinned bright as a knuckle, and we waddled now instead of walking, sharing the weight of her, building our breaths into rungs for her to climb out of us, heaving our pregnant bellies, hearing her beg every day to be born breech, the way we all should be, legs-first and running from our lives.


K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and the winner of a 2019 Pushcart Prize in poetry. Her debut novel is forthcoming from One World/Random House in September 2020.

Categories
2020 Essays

Andrea B.

PETALS

While my body was still pulsing with private pain, you sent me purple flowers. In a translucent fuchsia vase, tinting the water the color of blood, hardly concealing the wounds of the twisted, severed stems. I turned them again and again, there on the edge of my desk, to face the pink daisies instead. But between every daisy and rose, blushing with plump rouged cheeks, hung the lilies, drooping their jowls, bruised with the permanent purple.

*

I have long loathed the murky fusion of red bleeding into blue. But it circulates through me now. Seeps into my stomach, my vessels, my nerves, dyed dark by the violet-blue pill that dissolves down my throat every night in the blackness just before sleep, and stains my fingers—stains the rest of my life—as if with an inky tattoo. A brand seared onto the body, marked as purple, impure.

*

What is the meaning of purple?

*

Someone asked when he saw your flowers. They signify death, he guessed, misinterpreting the purple scarf of royalty hung from the cross at Lent. Which also can symbolize mourning, I later learned. Penitence: an apology.

*

I’m Beyond Sorry, said your card with the bouquet. And I wondered how far it extended, what could be beyond. (I’m sorry a thousand times, you wrote a hundred days later. As if the enormity, the perpetuity of your contrition could not be contained in the thin black lines of the text.) A single letter—an initial in uppercase—opened and closed your note, as if you were too ashamed to sign, or to assign, either of even our first names to this circumstance, this word.

*

Herpes. I say the word now to semi-strangers on second dates, after pale rosés, or lime-green daiquiris, or old fashioneds as golden as the candles on the tables lighting up our smiles. And it suddenly sours the drinks, a drop of purple poison, and spreads to our paralyzed lips, falling as silent and blue as the middle of the night, which this man is now no longer hoping to spend with me.

*

On my last night in the blue sheets of your dark bed, when you tore off my dress and the invisible infection of your skin spread silently to mine, you took the garnishments out of your tumbler of rum in the bar afterward and tossed the tropical purple blossoms, the bendy magenta straw, and the pale paper pinwheel onto the table between us like funeral flowers strewn onto a grave. The way I had tossed away the purple squares of the condoms you always resisted, after you had shown me the tender skin, on the inside of your arm, where the red prick of the tests, you had said, resulted in clean white.

*

Your STD status doesn’t make you “clean” or “dirty,” a post by Planned Parenthood proclaimed, long afterward, bold black text in a blue-and-pink box on my phone. An orgy of opprobrium occurred in the blank white space below. Would rather be on the “clean” side of the spectrum, a woman said. Some other man snarled, as if directly at me, That herpes certainly didn’t come from somewhere clean.

*

I scrub my hands now after I touch the pink petals of my vulva so that I do not transfer the scarlet of its sores to my own lips, eyes, buttocks, thighs. A part of my body has been disconnected from the rest. A flower severed from its stem.

*

Sometimes I fantasize the flower deliveries down at the front desk of my downtown Chicago office building are for me, from you. But you only sent that one delivery. And while the deliveries of the disease will continue repeatedly, unpredictably, like surprise red blooming bouquets, the purple vase remains your final gift—before your final trip, when you left me, despite the diagnosis, to find a new life, a new love, overseas. On your earlier international excursions, you had always brought gifts afterward: a patterned blue coin purse from a market in Israel, the herpes from a bed in Ukraine. And from Croatia, from Portugal and Spain, the gifts were—like our attachment, like your presence here with me—ephemeral: A round of creamy cheese. A pot of lavender-infused honey, the golden liquid tinged with the faintest imagined purple. A block of soap.

*

Now when I wait for the whirr of the automatic soap pump in the office bathroom, I do not meet my colleagues’ eyes in the mirror above the sink. Have I contaminated the faucets, the stalls, even the copy machines? I asked myself the first morning I returned to the cubicles after the initial uprising of the virus on my skin had subsided at home.

*

I don’t want to infect your house, so I won’t see you anymore, I texted my mother, who had throughout my childhood stretched her bladder until her kidneys crystallized rather than risk public restrooms, with their STDs, herpes. The very virus I would now transport into her upstairs powder room, which she would later have to sanitize with sharp blue powered bleach, eradicating the infection she would imagine was still living invisible on the white ceramic slabs.

*

How long can herpes live outside the body, off the skin, I asked the Internet. And in the conflicting statistics on my screen, as I searched for reassurance for my mother, my coworkers, myself, I decided to believe the briefest estimates of only seconds, flashing by like lightning white.

*

How quickly the blue blanket on your thick mattress pad was replaced by the antiseptic paper sheet on the gynecologist’s narrow bed. I see a herpatic lesion, the doctor stated. Clinical. Definitive. Irrevocable. Ending the life I had. Pleasure inevitably punished, per the preachings of puritanical politicians. Sex-positivity subtly negated, despite progressive society’s celebration of free love. It had a price after all: undesirability. I stumbled down from the table and staggered down the hall, behind a tall, muscular couple, likely finishing their first appointment on the way to a new life, its colorful promise outlined in black-and-white in the ultrasound room across from the lab. Where I fell to a bench to await the maroon tube, to test for other punishments—hepatitis, HIV—while they walked out into the city, into the rest of their lives.

*

One in six people, I chanted the mantra to myself, numbering off the pedestrians as I shuffled through the city’s sidewalk crowds. One, two, three, four, five, six: one of these people has genital herpes, I said, quoting the CDC statistics that had darkened my glowing phone on those first black nights afterward. Until I realized I was the one in every six.

*

I make this diagnosis 20 times a week, the gynecologist said gently, gesturing me to the tissues for my purple, swollen nose. But I could not see their faces among friends, acquaintances, fictional characters in film. Who were these secret other sufferers? Don’t tell anyone, my mother instructed, repeatedly, repeating the teachings of society. And so I was alone.

*

People don’t partner anymore anyways, you said, lying in your jeans and jacket in my bed for one final good-bye night after a hundred, a thousand of my begging messages brought you to my side. You had a ten percent chance of finding someone before this, you said. Now it is five. You think in math, in cruel computations. I think in color. And all I could calculate were the dark brown walls of my bedroom, blurry with my tears, and the black walls of my rage.

*

In the most violet, violent night, I reached again toward the white light of my phone, a bright beckoning portal to another world, the underworld, and asked it for the most peaceful of pills to transport me to black nothingness for eternity.

*

Five months afterward, the doctor told me, most patients have come to terms with the diagnosis. The herpes you left me with—a red lesion on my genitals—it will persist. Perhaps I will learn how to endure. And perhaps I will somehow understand how to erase from my psyche the scarlet stigma left on me by society. But your leaving me—it is a purple lesion on my heart. And six months afterward, it has been shown to be without a cure.

*

This is it. This is for life, my mother, when she finally saw me, said, her olive eyes sorrowing, apologizing, the way your flinty green ones never did, your tears like water on a stone. Mine mixed then with the coffee and the rum, as she stood beside me and layered them into a tiramisu as brown as the dying trees in her backyard, as creamy as her kitchen counters and her upstairs bathroom tiles.

*

The bathtub in my first apartment was periwinkle, beneath periwinkle tile. The fixture glued into the ground, unchangeable, necessitating a purple rug, purple curtain, purple towels. I started spurning purple, then, the color of compulsion. I cut it from my wardrobe, from my next home. But now, in my cabinet, lurks that lifetime supply of violet, that pill that gives me no choice but to drink of it, no choice but to think of you. Because it holds back the virus, deep in my nerves, from blooming like deformed flowers on my skin, or shedding like invisible poisoned pollen onto unsuspecting bees that would kiss my bud.

*

Men will still want to have sex with you, you said as you left. Because I was sexy, you said. And one of them did call me beautiful, once, twice, lying naked in the center of his blue-checkered bed. Until he began pulling the covers up, turning over, turning out the light. Too tired, he said. Or too high stress. Or too low testosterone. Leaving untouched each night whatever slinky skirt or lacy lingerie concealed my purple plague.

*

There is a bright blue site of promise, positivity, you texted me, too soon, in those first gray days overcast with pain. A bleak, shadowy corner of the Internet where the colony of companionless contaminated huddle together and keep their curse confined to drink and dinner dates among their own kind. But my commonalities with the men in profile on my screen extended not to interests, education, religion, politics, or even often the city where we lived—but only to our shared disease.

*

Sometimes I forget my disease, my deficiency. I dream of meeting that tall, healthy stranger strolling on the sidewalk, scrolling on the Internet, rolling past me on the train. And then I halt. Remembering he would never want herpes. Would never want me.

*

I smiled to hide the virus lurking in my nerves, to present all the kaleidoscopic colors of my expressions before I would have to reveal the darkness of my disease to the man with the purple pocket square and the gemstone cufflinks, as he reached across the white tablecloth, with its glamorous gathering of goblets and green Pellegrino bottles, and brushed my arm, posed, poised against the stiff leather corner booth in the lunchtime hush of a date at the Ralph Lauren Restaurant. But how could I blurt out such an inelegant word there? Or at high tea at The Peninsula? Where a dark-haired man rose to greet me with a kiss on my cheek, then seated me at another white tablecloth, stacked with three-tiered silver trays, delicate teacups, champagne, cocktails, which he gulped, in a frenzied fever, when he heard the word, then rushed me out to the elevator. And as we descended, he asked, Can I catch it from that kiss on your cheek? Then he left me in the cold to walk home on the black slippery streets, soaking my feet in their open-toed heels until they turned as wet as my cheeks. While in my ear, the wind howled, Leper, leper, leper.

*

It’s as simple as shingles, as chicken pox, one uninfected man reassured me. You’re making too much of it, another said, pleading for more than a kiss in my bed. I hesitated. Perhaps I was. But even with the purple condom foil tearing open, the purple pill foiling the replication of the virus DNA, one caress of skin to skin could still swell his lymph nodes, stab the muscles in his buttocks and his legs, puncture the center of his body—and of his future—with pain. The sensation like the sound of a long, piercing scream.

*

I yelled at you for hours on the phone. Shrieking, staccato shouts. Please relent, you begged. My decrescendo then, to blunt black texts, punctuated the months. Until at last you lamented, I think of you and mostly feel like the worst person ever.

*

He wants absolution, I told a friend. Don’t give it to him, he replied. And for the first time, I heard the word give in forgive. A gift I can send you, like a flower delivery, over the dark blue seas.

*

What color is forgiveness?

*

Perhaps it is the teal green framing the text box of the special messaging program I once would open to write only to you. And its purple alert light, flashing on my phone, would notify me of a responding rectangle, enveloping your texts. But now within that frame, I type no more words, no letters with their black stems, like rotted flowers, to accuse you, to remind you of me. The screen a blank—like a single white rose.

*

I buy myself flowers every so often these days. Pass the garish jumble of ready-made bouquets. The tulips. The fuchsia carnations. The dozen blood-red roses of love that I now may never receive as a delivery. And I select the potted succulent. The fragrant eucalyptus. The olive green of branching leaves.


Andrea B. lives in Chicago. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Witness, Eastern Iowa Review, Entropy Magazine, Atticus Review, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

Categories
2020 Essays

Miah Jeffra

A FICTION MORE REAL

(after Pink Narcissus)

A smooth twink with an enthusiastic butt crawls nude through a technicolor garden. The sky is dark but the world gleams with a glitter-light, the camera gliding over him, as if the lens has fingers. The twink ponders animatronic butterflies, his nipple with a blade of grass, his self. He stares, kisses his mirrored reflection in a Pepto Bismol boudoir. He tries on different uniforms, different personas: matador, biker, emperor, imp. They become his lovers, his neighbors, his mannequins, his art. And at once, they are all him. A world of delirious fantasy, desire, beauty seen through a kaleidoscope.

James Bidgood filmed almost all of Pink Narcissus in his small Chelsea studio over seven years in the sixties. He built the lavish sets himself—crinoline clouds, rivers of lame, paper flowers. He collected flotsam from costume shops, theatre sets and fabric stores, brought them to his flat like a bird to a nest, and fashioned a whole world for this lonely young hustler, played by Bobby Kendall—the soul of Bidgood.

The first network documentary on homosexuality in the United States, aptly titled “The Homosexuals” aired in March, 1967, on CBS Reports, during the middle year of Bidgood’s production. Mike Wallace anchored with his guillotine inflection. The episode featured testimony from psychiatrists, cultural critics, lawyers, woven with footage of a dark gay bar and a sex sting operation. Wallace reports to America, “The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested or capable of a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage. His sex life, his love life, consists of a series of one-chance encounters at the clubs and bars he inhabits. And even on the streets of the city—the pick-up, the one-night stand, these are characteristics of the homosexual relationship.”

Because Bidgood’s public life consisted of spaces in the dark—bathhouses, porn theatres, silent encounters—perhaps he needed something to be celebrated in bold light. And so, he packed his room with fresnels and gels, mirrors and bulbs, to beam the brightness of his mind, a 300 square foot studio in New York City.

In an old college journal of mine, running up the margins, I scribbled art is the conduit between humanity and the sublime. I don’t remember why I wrote that, and wonder if I was stoned when I did. But it stays with me, and I think of that phrase a lot.

Stanley Siegel, in his book Uncharted Lives, claims, “Isolation presents a creative world. Sometimes in fantasy we deal with separation by becoming productive—drawing, writing, creating.” We express with fantasy in spite of an incomprehensible or hostile reality.

I was seven years-old when my mother left home to explore her stolen youth before it entirely disappeared. She was 15 years-old when she married my father, who was merely fresh out of high school, himself. They had to travel to South Carolina for the nuptials, the only state that allowed children to marry. Not long after she birthed my older brother, Chris, and my father enlisted in the Marine Corps, did my mother realize her unhappiness. How could she know my father, when he wasn’t even yet a man? And how could she know herself? Yet, my mother tried for years to make it work, like a child of a broken home would do. In all, she lasted 17. Imagine a woman of 32 who’s already lived a lifetime. She knew there was something more, and needed to find out what it was on her own. The Hawaiian sea breeze whispered this wisdom to her when we’d walk to the shore and stare out at the splice of two-tone blue. I overheard the mutterings myself, and somehow understood what the wind had said, without knowing the exact words.

However, my understanding did not come without pain. Not a sudden wall kind of pain, no. My mother was the center of the world, so when she left the whole middle of my body followed. And this is how you break a child, you know. Step one, take the mother away. I retreated, to more than merely my room, escaping however I could the anger, the fighting between Chris and my father, my hand on my stomach, watching it pass right through. I played records, read my Highlights, stared at the gaps in my bedroom door, and then created, within those eggshell walls, to fill the hole in my belly, a sister: Shenandoah, just like the mountains, the river valley, as sloping and bosomed as the land itself. She had auburn hair that shocked in all directions, a wild bright beauty who traced the cracks of the ceiling with a finger and squinted eye, built forts with bedlinens and books, who kept my secrets. Before sleep, she lying next to me, our foreheads almost touching, I would whisper my biggest secret, “I miss her,” and she would whisper back, “she misses you, too.”

Shenandoah never left my room, somehow content with the cloistered arrangement. And my loneliness, a self of its own, never questioned her presence. And then, when my father announced he was re-stationed to Quantico, Virginia, a night before we flew across the ocean, Shenandoah slipped through my window, turned back slightly, hair still shrouding her face, and ran out into the dark, never to return.

Art is the conduit between humanity and the sublime.

Wallace further reports, “The dilemma of the homosexual: told by the medical profession he is sick; by the law that he’s a criminal; shunned by employers; rejected by heterosexual society. Incapable of a fulfilling relationship with a woman, or for that matter a man. At the center of his life he remains anonymous. A displaced person. An outsider.”

In high school I told my classmates that I grew up in Tokyo. No, I didn’t just tell them I grew up in Tokyo, I lavished upon them an epic tale that could cross an ocean. Even though our Marine Corps family had moved all over the country, and I had traveled more than most my age, I fabricated an even more exuberant history. My classmates were perceptive enough to know I was different—which inspired in me a new isolation—and were too consumed with their own belonging to complicate matters by including me. I was not legible to them, so I made myself the most extraordinary thing to read, a flashy billboard. I could describe for them Tokyo’s skyline, the neon lights, onigiri vendors perched in front of my residential high-rise, a kaleidoscope of place, though I’d never stepped foot on Honshu. I decorated this history with layered backdrops, vivid stories, images and characters as tactile as fabric, a complete world of my own, and presented to them this cinema, of sorts. I saw it, then, as a gift, somehow, not a deception, and certainly not what it truly was.

I would perform often these fabrications—these deceptions—throughout my youth. Stories of exotic travel, of chance encounters with love, stories of my body, perhaps all desires made manifest, tinged with a rolling language that drew people near. Which desire held me most? Their proximity, or mine?

Art is the conduit between humanity and the sublime.

Towards the end of Pink Narcissus, after a street sequence outside of the twink hustler’s flat, where throngs of vendors hawk butt-plugs and blowjobs, there is a fourth wall crack in the camera lens, and a deep Russian swell in the score, that sobers the delirium. Bidgood suggests the twink’s fabricated world turns tawdry once it leaves the asylum of his room. This room, his mind. We realize how necessary that lens had been, now that it is broken. Man is born beautiful, but everywhere outside his mind is degraded. That is our hostile reality.

Once my yarns of Tokyo were discovered as lies, they lost all their intrinsic beauty, this lustrous imagery cracked. My schoolmates flipped from arms-length awe to anger with a torrent I never escaped. Why they seethed, of course, I shamefully understand. I never called what I was doing art. And without a lens that could be cracked, it is presumed by others to be truth, and truth of a different kind than it is—and was—for me.

Soon I was to fathom my imprudence, and upon so withdrew into art. I opened the room of my imagination wide—the doors, the windows, the closet—with a pen instead of my tongue, and endowed fantasies that could not be confused with lies. And yet, these fictions told only a kind of truth, certainly not what it truly was. You move a vase from one side of the room to the other, and there is a change, a sense, a new reality to the thing.

Shenandoah appears in my dreams often. Her hair spills over my shoulder as we read a book together, or we run along the walls of my room that are probably smaller than I remember. She is not a memory, more a truth than true, imagination made material. A fiction more real than most of my lived reality.

A couple of years ago I was visiting a friend in Chelsea. I discovered that she lived directly below James Bidgood, in the same building where it all happened. I imagined the flotsam floating in every crevice, in every corner of his imagination made material, that small studio above my head. The layered history in my mind’s eye made my elbows tingle. She asked me, “You want to meet him, see the apartment?” I did. I really did. I wanted to meet the man who remained anonymous until only 15 years ago, with this soufflé of a film. I wanted to hold one of the animatronic butterflies, run the lame along my forefinger, and breathe on the very mirror that Bobby Kendall pressed his lips to 50 years before. But even as my heart leapt, I shook my head, slowly, and said to her, “That’s OK.”

I wanted to tell her that some things need to remain one’s fantasy. I wanted to tell her that if I went into that room, the nameless twink and his imaginings might slip out the window and never return.


Miah Jeffra is author of The First Church of What’s Happening (Nomadic 2017), The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic! (Sibling Rivalry 2020), The Violence Almanac (Black Lawrence 2021), and co-editor, with Arisa White and Monique Mero, of the anthology Home is Where You Queer Your Heart (Foglifter 2020). Awards include the New Millennium Prize, the Sidney Lanier Fiction Prize, The Atticus Review Creative Nonfiction Prize, the Alice Judson Hayes Fellowship, Lambda Literary Fellowship, and 2019 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Outstanding Anthology. Most recent work can be seen in The North American Review, Fourteen Hills Review, The Los Angeles Press, Wasafiri, The Forge and Interim. Miah is founding editor of queer literary collaborative, Foglifter Press.

Categories
2020 Poetry

Sara Elkamel

SEARCH & RESCUE

When I was 14, I bled a clot of blood so big it looked like a liver. Mother banished, I took it to my father, wrapped like a gift in toilet paper. All color but white left his face as he asked if I had unbuttoned my jeans in recent history. I still walk around half-naked, looking for my orphan liver.

//

In The Nightingale’s Prayer, two girls live in the belly of a mountain. They carry water on their heads in clay pots. The wind carries Hanady to a man who spoke the tongue of goats. No string of wind passes between them in the night. We see the girl in sunlight, belly bulged like the ribs of a pot. Dishonor turns to dust the promise of gold—her uncle blocks the desert like a door. Here the camel kneels like a mountain crumbles.

The nightingale’s prayer.
Tongue of knife in the neck.

All the movies of my childhood obscured the true color of blood.
It was something staining the white sand black.

The nightingale’s prayer.
Tongue of knife in the liver.

//

I try, but I can’t sit down and write everything I fear all at once because I don’t fear it all at once.

//

I keep track of how soon I bring up my intact hymen in conversation.

//

I feed my liver sugar to purge old blood.

//

I crave dirt. I carve a house out of salt. I cover the holes with names.

//

The name I gave my body I thought meant dream but it doesn’t it means this small thing.

//

Sometimes I want to call us Rare Birds.
Then I pluck small knives from our eyes.
Pick a new color for my liver.
I recall my orphan,
and I scurry in search of a mother.


WHITE DESERT

If I want to want you, isn’t that enough? I ask
as I realize: love is like digging

a hole that’s already been dug. Love is like a hole
I start, but say nothing about the digging.

Giant white rocks rise like dead trees
from the hard earth. Because our bodies are alloys

of pain and pleasure, we play with them.
In a way, what else is there to do?

We try everything: we scream, we pray,
we curse, we climb the giant lily rock,

the flying saucer, the mushroom, the winged lion
and the frog, but we are so alone inside this desert.

The desert is alone inside itself, one of us
cries. Last night I doubted myself without mercy:

When you said love is black and white,
did you mean….at the same time?

Everyday I bend and harvest black
stones like berries from the hard chalk

floor and fix them over my eyes. When you ask,
I say: You are the light of my eyes.


Sara Elkamel is an Egyptian poet and journalist living between her hometown, Cairo, and New York City. She holds an MA in arts journalism from Columbia University and is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at New York University. Named a 2020 Gregory Djanikian Scholar by The Adroit Journal, Elkamel has had poems appear in The Common, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, American Chordata, Winter Tangerine, and as part of the anthologies Halal If You Hear Me and 20.35 Africa, among other publications

Categories
2020 Fiction

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

OF THE NATURAL WORLD

Three hours after Charlie left for college, her parents stood in her blank bedroom, running their hands along the dust on her empty bookshelf.

“What do we do now?” Janie’s voice echoed against the walls.

Rob examined the tiny holes where Charlie’s posters had hung. “I think we’re supposed to take up fly fishing.”

“I don’t know how to fish.”

“We’ll learn.” Rob went to the window, which Charlie had always kept closed, and parted the curtains. Half the house was underground, built into a hill. Charlie’s window had been installed at the mark where underground became above, so the ground lay at the ledge’s level. At first the sun reaching through the window blinded Rob, but then he adjusted. A wolf’s yellow eyes stared back at him.

He called to Janie. She came to the wolf’s eyes. They were used to wildlife. Out on their stretch of twelve wild acres, bought before the area had been developed, they saw all kinds: roadrunners, deer, turkey, coyotes.

The wolf, gray as the carpet, his eyes yellow as though the sun behind him shone right through, pressed his nose against the glass, leaving a smudge mark like the ones their dogs left on the car windows when they brought them on vacations.

“Where are the dogs?” Janie said. She backed away from the window. “Rob, I’m going to find the dogs.”

Rob didn’t budge. Janie called through the house: “Orion, here boy, here Prancer.” Their collars jingled as they bounded from their hiding places. The wolf’s lips curled back, revealing his razor teeth.

“Janie, keep the dogs out of here,” Rob yelled.

“I locked them up.”

Rob hadn’t heard Janie enter the room again. He had read not to make eye contact with certain animals, and not to look away first if you did.

Behind him Janie spoke into a phone: “Yes, we have a wild animal problem here, possibly rabid. Yes, I’ll hold.”

Rob held the gaze for the full half-hour it took for Animal Control to arrive. Not even when the animal controller aimed his tranquilizer at the wolf did Rob look away. The wolf howled and thrashed and fell unconscious in the grass.

The animal controller thanked them for calling. “Many people,” he said, “would’ve taken the wolf out on their own.”

“The only gun we keep’s a BB,” Rob said.

“Must be trusting,” the controller said.

At dinner Rob and Janie recalled the controller’s comment and rolled their eyes. They were used to being thought strange in their Texas town: no guns, no dead things on the walls. There had always been a child in the house, and no material thing they owned was valuable enough to be stolen. Besides, they lived in the middle of nowhere. They didn’t lock their doors at night. They weren’t afraid of people.

But there was one thing they were afraid of. In the empty house they didn’t talk about it, but they feared that Charlie wouldn’t come home again. The first night, as they played Spades on the couch, putting off their troubled sleep, they tried not to stare at their phones.

#

The next morning Rob cooked breakfast as Janie slept, eggs and toast with butter, pecan waffles with cheap maple syrup. Charlie’s favorites. Janie woke to the sugar smell. They ate in silence. Neither of them remembered their dreams anymore, but they had dreamt of their daughter. She was their only child.

They avoided her room. It would be easier once the weekend was over and they busied themselves with work. Rob would return to the grocery, Janie to the local community college where she taught art. The monotony would help. Without it they finished their dinner in front of the TV and then walked as if in a trance to the empty room.

The growl crept in again. “He’s back,” Rob said, though it was impossible; Animal Control wouldn’t have released him from captivity. But when Rob opened the curtains, the wolf’s eyes shone through the solid dark.

“What is going on?” Janie said.

“I don’t know.” He let go of the curtains. “Call Animal Control again.”

Janie retrieved the phone.

“I think there’s more of them,” he said when she returned. “I heard more.”

This time Janie parted the curtains. A dozen wolves stared in, pressed close to each other like an army formation. Against the window, five squeezed close together, five nose prints on the glass.

They called the cops. The operator assured them someone would be out as soon as possible. “Don’t provoke them,” she said. “Don’t go outside.”

Rob and Janie crouched against the far wall. It was hot outside, but their bodies shook. They whispered, afraid the wolves would hear them. The two cop cars pulled into the driveway with the Animal Control van.

Then the blast of a gun sounded, another, another, another, until twelve—Rob counted them—rang out. Rob went to the window. The controller and several policemen dragged the bodies into the back of the van, and when they finally piled the wolves in they called Rob and Janie out.

“Have you been feeding these wolves?”

“Of course not,” Rob said.

“Did you try to keep them, as pets? Have you provoked them? Could you have fed them by mistake?”

“No, officer. I don’t think so.”

“Wolves don’t attack unprovoked,” said the officer. “These wolves don’t look rabid. Rabid wolves are lone wolves. And they don’t look particularly hungry either. I don’t know what you’ve done to make these wolves act like this, but you better cut it out. Cause we aren’t gonna be able to come round every time they’re at your window.”

Rob shrugged. “Thanks for coming out.”

“Controller here says you don’t own a gun?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, you might think of getting one.”

“Thanks. We’ll consider it.”

That night, Rob and Janie barely touched their reheated Chinese food. They were fossils holding onto a lost life. Why had they never gotten a gun? Why weren’t they rushing out to get one now? They wished they wanted to cook, but they had no one to impress.

#

The night sweats came over Rob and Janie as they slept, the dogs stretched at their feet. They rose together and paced the room.

“Let’s open these windows,” Janie said. “I’ve got to get some air.”

She pulled the curtains back and opened the window. The air that rushed into the bedroom burned her hand. Falling back onto the bed, she pulled the clothes from her body and discarded them on the floor.

“So hot,” she said.

“I know.” Rob undressed, fell beside her, touched the skin of her belly, despite the heat.

“We’ll make more,” Janie said. “Not to worry. We’ll make more.”

They pressed together as if all they needed was more sweat to cool the body. They fell into rhythms. The heat blew in. They stared into one another’s eyes, but the closeness reminded them who they had been before Charlie, and Janie turned her face to the window. She screamed.

It wasn’t a wolf but a baby buffalo wedged in the window, mouth open, a creature straight out of Charlie’s history texts—Life on the Plains. Janie pushed Rob off, put her feet on the floor, then her knees. His teeth were blunt, the hair above his eyes raised like two thick brows. He moaned, and Janie recognized the groan as the groan her husband made in his sleep, on his back, when gravity was too heavy for him.

Janie crawled on her knees to the window. The buffalo was frightening, so unexpected, but she wanted to be near it. She placed her hand atop its tongue. Its jaw unhinged with her weight, but the buffalo didn’t move. It groaned again. The bones that once held the jaw in place showed now. The jaw hung unmoving. The buffalo did not blink.

“You’re hurting him.” Rob pulled her hand from the buffalo’s mouth.

“What are you doing?”

The buffalo turned and ran, and Rob darted from window to window, opening the blinds as the buffalo passed. Its jaw flapped against its chest. Wolves followed at its haunches, low to the ground. Janie shut and locked the bedroom window, backed into the bed, and sat as the strange monsters disappeared down the drive. In the distance, the animal emitted one small whimper of death.

“Don’t worry.” Rob stroked her hair, the skin of her naked neck. “It’ll end. Whatever this is will end.”

He had to say something. To say nothing would leave them as helpless as children. If he didn’t know how to fix this, he didn’t know his place in this house anymore. If he couldn’t fix this, there would be no house.

“I know,” Janie said. “I just want to know what’s going on.” Janie’s arm fit right around Rob’s shoulders. She let his head fall on her chest. “We’ll figure this out.”

#

The natural world monsters were familiar. Not only from their appearances on nature world documentaries—Janie housed a hazy recollection of their appearance in her daughter’s morning stories. The nightmares are worse. Charlie unable to sleep for weeks. Every time I close my eyes. An overactive imagination, Rob and Janie told her. Go back to sleep.

The dogs weren’t barking like they usually did when animals appeared in their yard. Rob had nodded off after the creatures had gone. They imagined the carnage, their grass torn from its roots from the weight of chase and catch. When Rob’s breath steadied, Janie crept from the room on her toes. She went outside into the muggy air, dew in the process of forming. The door creaked like in a black-and-white horror flick. Twigs snapped in the distance.

Charlie used to crawl into their bed. They’d wake to her weight pressed between them, her warmth overheating the room, her arms folded at her chest as if she thought they wouldn’t see her if she guarded her body. They’d shake her awake.

“Nightmares,” she’d say in her groggy frog voice. “Can’t I sleep with you?”

When she was younger they’d let her. When she was older they hesitated. “Don’t you think you’re getting a little old?” But they didn’t mean it, and when she would begrudgingly return to her own bed, they would feel a cavity in their chests.

They’d forgotten who they were. When she was born, she became their whole world. The nightmares scared them more than they scared Charlie. They hugged her too tight, They shielded her. They didn’t want to scare her away from the world, but they didn’t want to push her into it either. They wished their daughter could stay with them until she was gray, but they had to let her go. She was smart. She needed a new home. She needed a city in which to fold out of herself. But now, without their daughter, they weren’t parents, not during the long days, not without her there.

In the woods wolves waited. But Charlie had dreamt of other monsters, of skeletons in dark rooms with no doors. In the yard Prancer stood guard, growling. From the woods these skeletons emerged from the trees, half-skin, half-bone, a menagerie of creatures from Charlie’s ABC books. A for alligator, its scaly skin peeling back more and more with each slide forward over the rough dirt. B for the bear struggling on bare bone feet to hold up what was left of its innards, guts hanging in its arms. C for the wildcats with bone-claws protruding from their paws, loping across the yard yet more menacing for their uneven grasp of the soil.

Janie ran toward Prancer, shooed him from the forest. “Go on, get out of here. Inside.” Prancer turned, reluctant, and ran up to the deck. She did not see Orion. What she saw was the monsters. Up close. They were so real, no wonder Charlie could never sleep on her own. What was left of their fur hung rotting from their skeletons, their colored patches silk-shiny.

“Why are you here?” she asked. They were close enough to hear their breath.

They moved in her direction. What else could she say? She didn’t know an incantation to banish nightmares. She couldn’t just wake up. The dream had gone on too long. She grabbed a rock. She hurled it. The bear wobbled closer, raised up so tall it cast a human shadow. The shadow creaked as it came near.

“Run,” Rob called down to her from the patio. “Get away!”

She looked up at her husband and back at the monsters. She wouldn’t run. She threw another rock; it hit the alligator’s skull. Janie turned her back on the monsters. Her husband held the BB gun in both of his hands. He aimed it and shot. The BBs smacked against skin and fur and bone. One bounced off her arm. The sting sent heat through her veins. She sunk to the ground. She couldn’t fight a nightmare.

Worse, she felt she understood them. They looked at her with the same want in their eyes that had been in hers, in her husband’s. They missed Charlie. They tried to go with her, but she didn’t need them anymore. They too didn’t know who they were without their Charlie there.

#

Charlie brought her friend home for the weekend. It had been two weeks since she’d seen her family, though she’d already learned enough about the world to have been gone a year.

“My parents are pretty nice,” she said. What particulars did she want to tell her friend? That they always thought she was something she wasn’t? Naïve? That, though they’d had eighteen years to prepare, she still wasn’t sure they had been ready for life without her?

Charlie pulled into the drive. Charlie walked across the trampled grass to the broken stone pathway to the front door. She paused to examine her mother’s uprooted flowers. The stairs’ wood had cracked on the sides, where the handrails were. Mud tracks led to the door.

“What happened?” Charlie’s friend asked.

“No clue,” Charlie said. She rang the doorbell. The sound echoed through the house like a howl.


Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam‘s fiction and poetry has appeared in over 70 publications such as Fairy Tale Review, Masters Review, and Uncanny as well as in six languages. She was the featured author at LeVar Burton’s Dallas LeVar Reads event. She’s been a finalist for the Nebula Award, placed second for Selected Shorts’ Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize, and won the Grand Prize in the SyFy Channel’s Battle the Beast contest; Syfy turned her story set in the world of the Magicians into an animated short. She also curates the annual Art & Words Show in Fort Worth.

Categories
2020 Poetry

Roseanna Alice Boswell

SUPER MOON

Husband, we are on the backroads
of rural Oklahoma because Google told me
tonight will be a super moon.

The dirt here is red & caked
& even the cows seem to suspect
we don’t belong––lean against

their fences as we rattle by
spitting clumps & rocks & clay
in our tires’ wake. Dust can say little

about direction or intent but everything
about speed. We are moving too slowly.
You told me yesterday you worry

about growing old––which means
you are worrying about time
& how we will fit everything

in that we want. I am not
sure how to make enough time for you
so I give you a blow job instead

pull you inside & swallow. The moon
is rising now against the sky’s throat
––round & fat & almost audible

& this is what we came to see.
I can imagine the pain of this birth
––opening across the sky for anyone

to watch. Hoping for a kind of witness.


Roseanna Alice Boswell is a queer poet from Upstate New York. Her work has appeared or will soon appear in: Driftwood Press, Jarfly Magazine, Capulet Magazine, and elsewhere. Roseanna holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University, and is the creator of Bunny Zine Press. She is currently a PhD candidate in English at Oklahoma State University. Her first collection, Hiding in a Thimble, is forthcoming with Haverthorn Press. Find her on Twitter @swellbunny posting about feminism and her love of exclamation marks.

Categories
2020 Poetry

Rebecca Macijeski

HOW WE GOT HERE

One day the world was born
and on another day—after eons of fish and lizards,
and trees being the earth’s tallest buildings,

a boy woke up from the darkness of his mother.
Or at least that’s how Virgil imagines
he got here—tired from the first
nine months of travel, a born rambler.

He thinks of her sometimes come evening,
staring into the campfire’s oracle, wondering
if the pilot light in her heart stays on for him
or if it glimmered out long ago,

a firefly lost in the trees.
And when Virgil sleeps, he remembers being wild,
remembers his slim body covered with scales,
then feathers, then fur, his nose

searching moist earth for clues
that tether him again to that early story.
The pines called out for him, the spring, the orchards.
And when he wakes today, stirring
from his animal distance,

his yawn’s more like a growl
under the sky’s preposterous ocean,
while the fire hums, sending final sparks
into morning.


VIRGIL SEES THE END OF THE WORLD

And the rivers, spellbound, stood listening—

Virgil’s hunger
brings him to this vision.

There’ll be a great burbling
from the middle of the river
where fish will start singing,
each with their own gleam
the sun paints over them,
gills trumpeting open
while bears stumble down
grabbing them from the air.

Only, the fish are townspeople
filling the bears’ hands
like loaves at the endtimes,
and those lumbering beasts
more like what waits to claim us
when we wash ourselves
in the calm Lethe of forgetting.

But Virgil will stay, neither living nor dead,
sitting at the dock between worlds, his feet
in that water turning cool with souls. He’ll find
a sparkle in his fiddle one more time to play us all out.
He’ll keep remembering, keep the bow rocking,
rosin clouds rising from what’s left,
strings humming down to darkness until
the bears are in the sky again, dipping for fish
in a river long gone dry.


Rebecca Macijeski holds a PhD from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has attended artist residencies with The Ragdale Foundation, The Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and Art Farm Nebraska. She has also worked for Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry newspaper column, as an Assistant Editor in Poetry for the literary journals Prairie Schooner and Hunger Mountain, and is the recipient of a 2012 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize. Her poems have appeared in The Missouri Review, Poet Lore, Barrow Street, Nimrod, The Journal, Sycamore Review, Potomac Review, Storyscape, Fairy Tale Review, Puerto del Sol, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Gargoyle, and many others. Rebecca is Creative Writing Program Coordinator and Assistant Professor at Northwestern State University.


*Italicized portions of these poems come from David Ferry’s translation of The Ecologues of Virgil.

Categories
2020 Fiction

L.M. Davenport

BALLAD II

Your own true love, that I’ll have, and more—

But thou shalt never come ashore.”

trad. English folk song

My one true love says the lights on the windmills look like eyeshine, flickering in and out of visible in the half-dark. He says this as we are driving through a forest of them, the only kind of forest we have seen since California. They edge up to the road, cyclopean heads turning slow as poured honey, and over away to the passenger side I can see the power lines they feed in their turning. The lines seem low-slung by comparison. If I could stand under them, I know, I would hear their hum, evaporating static.

“I’d rather think of them like trees,” I tell my one true love. “Then maybe we could find one with a door cut in the bottom for the road, like that redwood on the postcard.” I do not tell my one true love that I prefer this way because trees cannot pull up roots and follow you home, as beasts can.

My one true love takes one hand off the wheel and blindly pats at my shoulder. He ends up around my bicep. I will cut him slack for this, because he has been awake a long time now.

“It got sick, little magpie,” he says. “The Park Service cut it down. The rangers were afraid it would fall on someone, because the wood had gone soft.”

The car shivers between the painted lines, and a semi roars past on the left. My one true love snatches his hand back to the wheel, blinks several times in quick succession. I know those fluttering eyes, that clawed grip. This is the way he looked just before we slid out onto the salt flats, where nothing grew up from the cracked ground to stop the wind. This is the face that comes before the silent tears, and even though it’s close to three-quarters dark, I don’t want to see that.

*

We’re at a rest stop, in the middle of a stretch of interstate where the towns are too small to be viable places of repose. (“No Services,” the exit signs scream as we pass them.) It’s late, or it’s early. The lobby is floored in institutional linoleum, fake-paneled in fake wood. The overheads hum, that sound my mother says dries out your skin.

My one true love is in the bathroom. He is taking a long time, so long I wonder if he’s passed out, shoulders arched back against the toilet tank, hands dangling limp as a puppet’s. Or maybe he is having trouble swallowing the medicine which is keeping him awake.

My one true love does not sleep, because I ask him not to. In sleeping, he might dream of my sister. He might remember that once he courted her, and led her upstairs with her pale hair trailing, in the afternoons when our mother was gone. I stood forgotten at the foot of the stair in those days, crushing whatever small thing he’d brought me as consolation in my fist. His gifts matched our mother’s house, all things from another era—gloves in velvet and satin and kid, cameo rings, hanks of embroidery silk in hues that burned like coals in the darkened hall—but as I held to the newel post with one hand and watched their ascending backs, I wanted only what my sister had. To be held the way a branch holds a bird. To clasp and to be clasped, in a room where the windowpanes turned sun to honey.

I could have stopped it, could have told our mother what they did together. But then I would have lost him, too, because they would have laughed behind their hands and found another place. Somewhere I couldn’t lie on the floorboards of my own bower and watch the thorn-boughs nailed to the ceiling quiver in time with half-heard gasps, as my hand worked between my legs.

Almost always he’d come down to the kitchen, afterwards, while she washed. He made sandwiches, with whatever came first to his hand—apricot cake, pickled onions, calamari—and eat them standing up against the counter. (I was always first to the kitchen in those days, in order to pretend I’d been there all along.) I would have a sandwich already, turning to chalk in my mouth because when he leaned across me for the chili sauce, I’d smell my sister on his skin.

Most days we would talk in low voices, about the ocean that was rising or the forests that were falling. Or he’d fan the prints of his latest photographs like playing cards, saying I could choose one: a carousel horse half-splintered in an alley, a row of dolls with empty eye sockets, an aproned woman proffering a cake while behind her, a blackened field smoked. The light would thin around us, and the sounds that came muffled through the window would change to herald day’s end: a dog calling without expectation of relief, a neighbor watering her garden beds, distant sirens.

“Little magpie,” he would say, smiling and pushing his glasses up with a tapered forefinger, “do you take these to line your nest?”

Towards the end, those last weeks when every moment felt stretched taut as piano wire, I would open my mouth to tell him that name fit too truly, and all the things I had from him lay speared within the briars that coiled above my head by night. But then my sister’s tread would echo down the staircase, and at the sound his face would brighten past bearing. And then they would walk out together, a pair of high-stepping waterbirds off to promenade among their equals.

I would remain, until the kitchen grew dark and I heard the front door open for my mother. Then I would slip upstairs before she could come in and see me silent there. Before she could lay a hand on my own hair falling dark and too fine, to tell me sympathetically that my days of walking handclasped on the pier were surely not far off.

*

It is my turn to drive, again. My one true love slumps glassy-eyed in the passenger seat. He is awake; I have made sure of it. (My hands cupped so tenderly, one that brought the bottle to his open mouth and one that stroked his throat until he swallowed.) We have left the rest stop behind, the uniformed woman at the desk still watching her forensics show, in which figures combed beneath salt-rotted struts to seek a body. We have left another couple in the parking lot smiling and vulpine, a glitter of strange medicine in their stares.

I am about to ask my one true love if he is all right, if he has water—the longer he keeps awake, the less he speaks his needs, decaying slowly into the passive wordlessness of a houseplant—when he says, without inflection: “They are following.”

The hair on my forearms stands up. Nobody knows, I remind myself. Nobody saw. I don’t reply.

He goes on, barely audible: “They are walking, they are coming. They have the harp.”

Still I do not speak, and my one true love lapses back into silence. I press the accelerator closer to the floor, trying to take us further, faster. My one true love is in no condition to drive now, and sooner or later I will have to stop and rest. He is not fully mine, I think despairingly. All the waking in the world will not root her out of him.

*

The last photograph I took from my one true love, he did not mean to offer.

“I’ve had a windfall, little magpie,” he said, laughing as we stood together, backs against the counter. “And more sold means a fine dinner for my darling. Take one, before we go—take five—take them all, soon I’ll have so many we could paper this house in them!”

I wanted to break his smile in half. I couldn’t have him then, couldn’t have his face to hold between my own two hands, but there in front of me were things that could be mine. So I took up the pile of glossed, heavy squares of paper, and began to sift through what he had made.

A man, his face painted into plumage. Cut glass, irises, a silver-dollar moon. A child on stilts whose tips branched into chicken feet, like the witch’s house in the story. Teacups that floated blossoms, from whose centers winked human teeth. A paper dragon, a mirror printed with lipstick rosettes like a squid’s suckers. My sister bare-backed.

My sister bare-backed, bare-everything, face turned away and hair coiled over her shoulder. I knew that bed, I knew the hangings on the wall behind her, I knew the mole just at her waist. (I used to try and prod it when we were small and ran together through the oscillating spray of the lawn sprinkler.) Why could I not be thus gazed upon, thus loved?

He had not yet noticed what I lingered on. He was gazing into the middle distance, grinning foolishly, heedless of the sweat beading on his upper lip despite the air conditioning. I slid the picture of my sister into my other hand and ran upstairs, calling over my shoulder that, for now, I had enough.

*

Fog has descended, clouds lowering until they brush the fields. No stars, no lights or signs, and the lane lines appear as only the barest traces. Ours is the only car on the road, I think, but I have no way of knowing if it is otherwise. Even if we are alone, I am driving too fast. The idea of impending death does not concern me. It feels as if the hands that grip the steering wheel and the foot that presses the accelerator belong to someone else, as if the car were floating, not even above the interstate but through a netherworld in which there is only dark and cloud, and the disembodied shine of the headlights.

My one true love is singing under his breath, something about the green-growing rushes. His voice was sweet before I ground it down with wakefulness, and now it wears on my ears. I do not ask him to stop, because his eyes are shut and so the song is the only thing that tells me he remains awake. The verses drone on, and every so often he interrupts himself, mumbling about the walkers and their harp. This is worse than the singing, and each time he does it I push the pedal down a little more.

It occurs to me that this is all we will ever have, the cloud and the song and the running away. As quickly as the thought appears, I try to banish it, but the old tricks are not working in this quiet, at this speed. What kind of a future did I think we would have, when I took the steps that seemed necessary to allow us one? Wooden floors in the sun, the sound of the ocean on another coast, sweetness untempered by memory? A new photograph, one in which it was my naked back and not my sister’s that shone like witch-light in a dim chamber?

An exit appears as if birthed from the fog, and I let up on the gas to ease along its ramp. The walled curve terminates in one of the ruler-straight highways that carve this part of the country into blocks; I turn left, choosing at random, and speed away into the only darkness heavier than the one that lay over the interstate. If I am thinking anything, it is that I will not permit us to be found.

No future, I muse as the car skims over pavement that cuts a broad aisle through fields of corn that would grow far over my and my one true love’s heads, were we to tread among the stalks. No present, either. In our present are only vacant eyes and the promise of a devouring, of creatures bodied tall and implacable as windmills. They have dextrous hands, and they carry the delicate rotted thing that flickered across the rest-stop lobby television, a harp with which to sing my guilt. To sing my one true love away.

I turn off down a smaller road, and then another. My one true love does not appear to register this change. He only mutters that same garbled tune, his head lolling at an angle that hurts me more than it does him. I pull over close to the towering corn, and shut off the engine. The fog is practically nudging against the windows, and I am filled with an irrational fear that it will creep inside the car, to wrap us in obscurity while we await our judgment. I unbuckle my one true love and pull him unresisting across the console. His head rests under my chin, and still his song runs on, at the very edge of hearing. I cradle him from ribs to crown, and shut my eyes.

Only the past is left. I sink into it like a longed-for bed.

*

The image of my sister held pride of place, in the thorned canopy that draped my bower. How could it not? She, and not my one true love, was the crux of the problem, my supreme obstacle. She was the last thing that I beheld at night, the first thing my gaze struck in the morning. Daily I examined the undulations of my own spine by twisting before a mirror, striving to compare them to hers.

Then came the day when I opened the door and discovered her there in the flesh, head craned back and eyes popping in disgust.

“You’re sick,” she whispered, when she registered the sound of creaking wood and her head snapped down from staring at the ceiling. “This is sick. It’s like some kind of shrine.”

I stood still, mute as a photograph. My blood hummed.

“He felt sorry for you,” my sister spat, her voice growing louder now, “because you’re always there when we are here, always mooning after him as if you were a childling of thirteen, and not almost a woman grown. As if I were the elder, and not you.”

And I remembered all the days, when we had been so small that strangers spoke to us only under our mother’s eye, that she found herself petted and cosseted and presumed the elder, all the doting gazes and unlikely gifts. My sister had always been more beautiful than I, no one would dispute that—but it was not her beauty which made me long to wrap her in briars until she stood more wound than skin. From the day I watched our mother push her, squalling, into the open air, no one could look on my sister and not love her. Even I, even in this moment—I loved her, and it tore at me as I wanted the thorns to tear her flesh.

I let my love show in my face, put my hand out, and spoke soothingly. “Sister,” I said, “let me explain. This isn’t what you think. Walk with me, and I will tell you all about it—”

I did not finish speaking. I did not have to, because my sister was coming towards me, with mistrust and wary sympathy in her face, and stretching out her hand to set in mine. She squeezed my fingers once, saying only: “Let’s go, then. This had better be good.”

She looked back once, at the captured self that hung over the bed. But then she shook her head, as if to put the image and my ownership of it from her mind, and I closed the door behind us.

We took the bus through town to the coast, and did not speak along the way. I could tell from her face that she thought I was preparing lies to feed her, that she was steeling herself against whatever I might have to say when we arrived. But she made no protest.

Nor did she object when we reached the high trail, the one that cut a perilous margin across the cliffs that loomed above the beach. I did not know what I would do until I saw the jutting curve the path made just ahead of us, and understood at last why I had brought her to this place. My heart beat the way it did when I uncovered her photograph from his fistful of prints, the way it did when I saw him for the first time, walking on her arm. I drew breath as if to speak, and when she turned expectantly I whirled and pushed against her shoulders with all my strength.

It was like throwing a rag doll to the floor; she was unprepared and already off-balance when I struck her. She tried to seize my wrists, to pull me over the edge after her, but her fingers found no purchase. Their touch was like the faintest brush of a flame.

I took my time walking to the bottom. There was a slight humming in my ears, but otherwise I felt nothing. I watched my feet scuff over the dry grass and dull pebbles.

My sister was still breathing when I reached her, though she was crushed and snapped. There was blood in her hair, and blood soaking into the wet grit around her, like a halo. She rasped something through collapsed lungs; I crouched by her head to hear better.

“Call someone,” she was saying, “and I’ll give you anything you want. For the rest of our lives, it’ll be how you want it.” She trailed off then, into agonized panting, and did not speak again.

“I’ll have him,” I replied after a moment. “Him and everything else, because you’ll never see the shore.” I lifted her up by the shoulders; her body gave like wet clay under my touch, and I shivered with revulsion. I dragged her into the water, taking her out until my feet could barely touch down on the ragged seafloor, and kissed the top of her head—still miraculously intact—before I let go.

I hauled my own body, which did not feel like mine, back to dry land, and huddled there in my soaked clothes. From far off, she looked like a crumpled swan in the last moments, or a banner torn down and trampled. Then she slid beneath the surface, and I bowed my head to stare again at my shoes, instead of at the sea, that endless yawning throat which had swallowed her down.

Was it any wonder that, when my sister did not come home, I was the first one there to comfort my one true love? That, as the weeks passed and he came to accept—even in his despair—that she had gone, there came a day when he lifted his salt-streaked face from my chest and kissed me on the mouth? That there followed a night, and a morning in which I woke up serene, believing he was my own, and not simply my one?

No, it was no wonder. It was what I had longed for, what I had been forging within myself for all the time he had been my sister’s love. True, he wept often, and spoke of my sister more than I would have liked. And when he woke up in my embrace, he would turn over sleepily and call me by her name.

It was this last thing that pushed me to think of leaving, taking him someplace where memories of her would not linger in the very woodwork. And it brought the idea of keeping him awake to mind, so he would not see her even in his dreams. I told him we would start over, stay awake together and drive until we reached a new home. When we got there, I said, she would be gone. We would be clean.

*

I feel my one true love’s voice die away even as I hold him in the front seat, and know that he is at last descending into sleep, and I have lost. I keep my own eyes closed; he has gone where I will not follow, for I will stay awake until the walkers arrive on stilted legs, to gaze at me with their slow-turning heads. I will refuse to look when they arrive, but I will know them by the sounding of their harp: hair fretted across breastbone, a bright, sodden thing which sings of its own accord. There is a wet rustle outside the window. I hold my breath, the better to hear their footsteps.


L.M. Davenport is a fourth-year MFA student at the University of Alabama. Her work has previously appeared in Quarterly West, Booth, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere.

Categories
2020 Essays

Erin Slaughter

EVIDENCE OF BURNING

In a movie, this would be the place: The pockmarked road from truck tires tilling thorough bramble. Lavender sprung up like stray hairs among browned-out winter weeds. The moon-carved shutters, half-stolen by vandals, filtering damp, gray-golden light. My sister climbing the gnarled tree in the front yard, paper flowers in her hair, a nose unlike mine, and deep, crescent-moon dimples; half-sister. Best sister.

This house is log-built and monstrous, and like all things I am attracted to, abandoned. My mother tells me it’s the Jane Wyatt estate, built in the 1930’s by an actress who returned from her life in smoky New York to Crossville, Tennessee, to reclaim the land she was born on. Down yonder are the ruins of her grandfather’s home, the home of her youth. My mother brings us here, my sister and me.

Two stories and fourteen rooms, emptied out glorious. Glass windows blown to shards, and wires sprouting from the weathered mortar between cherrywood planks. A gorgeous grand staircase, the banister ripped from rusted nails. The built-in cabinets are still intact, and my sister makes a game of stuffing her spry bones into them, emerging unexpected, with a laugh. The air here does not feel haunted.

***

Earlier in the year, the Crossville Chronicle ran a story with the headline: “Crossville’s Lady of Fame.” In the accompanying picture, an old woman stands by a framed painting of the log mansion. She holds a black-and-white picture of a woman with dark hair pinned under a wool hat: Jane Wyatt, young and alive. The old woman: Ruby Wyatt Davis, her half-sister.

It doesn’t take much to become a “Lady of Fame” in a town as small as Crossville, the place my parents and eleven-year-old sister have newly settled after moving from a town in Texas not much bigger. Texas, the homeland I left quickly, my footprints marking the front yard with ashes on the way out. In places like these, all it takes to be Somebody is to be gone.

The gone-er, the better. Jane went to Nashville, then Kentucky, then New York. I went to Seattle, then Kentucky, then—well, I’ll go somewhere else, probably. Who can say? There’s still time. You get better at being gone the more you do it, and women like Jane and I have a lot of practice.

Jane’s sister remembers Jane’s absent years through fond gifts: letters, one printed with a stamp from Grand Central Station. Silver pieces from her travels to China. Anyway, these things are all lost to time now.

I think of my own sister and a drawing she made in second grade that hangs on the wall in my office. In crayon, three crude sketches of landscapes with the captions “Texas,” “New York City,” and “England,” and underneath, her explanation: My dream is to travel the world because my sister travels and she inspires me to do this. It’s a reminder that there is a reason to keep exploring, keep living wild. That the wandering part of me, though sometimes contentious in my family, is something good.

Being gone was never a choice for me. It was an impulse, a deadly lust for disappearing, a flame tangled into my DNA. Some people feel an obligation to their roots. Jane rerouted the same well-water from her grandfather’s house to flow through the pipes of the log mansion. When my mother assumes their house will be passed on to me when they’re gone, I tell her I would never choose to live in Crossville. The truth—an obvious one based on everything she knows about me—but it upsets her. Maybe I’m not old enough yet. I’ve never lived in New York. I’ve not yet tired of being a ghost, a voice on the telephone, a letter with a stamp from Grand Central Station.

***

Take three crooked staircases to an attic room with a crouched sliver of roof, the windows pouring open. I trace my hands over a charred plank, evidence of a forgotten arson, some teenager’s sour-apple-Smirnoff-Molotov-cocktail. Evidence here, in the shattered glass and weathered floorboards, of a burning.

***

When Jane was in Kentucky she married a man. He was an alcoholic, and she divorced him. She must have loved him, but he must have loved drinking, drowning, more; a love unattainable. When I moved to Kentucky, I drove in as the sun was setting orange and pink over rolling hills bordered by rustic wooden fences. I felt my chest swoon bittersweet and mystical as I thought, This would be a beautiful place to fall in love. And I was right. But how to explain that falling in love is about falling in love with everything, the whole of being alive?

Once we name something, we can never see it the same way again. I named him love and he became it. He named me something I wished to be, and I tamed the fire I always was, smoldered only on the inside. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but I’m trying to say something different now. I’m trying to say that I have always wanted what is unattainable. I was a little girl watching through my bedroom window at night as the pinprick shine of cars disappeared down the highway; I was a teenager wanting blazing bleeding craving so thoroughly it made my core shake and my soul run and hide inside of me for years; here I am now, dousing myself in gasoline and calling it need.

I’m trying to say, I think, that maybe the women I know write with fire under their skin because there is a fire under their skin. Maybe their words were ignited by some man—father or lover—who made them feel the lightness of grief, or tried to drown them in remembering. Or maybe women are born of fire and spend their lives clawing their way back from burning, creating new things to make up for their shame of singeing everything they touch.

How telling it is that women often describe creation, even childbirth, as a kind of obliteration. Love, for me, was a pouring out and reconstructing of self; another obliteration.

Here, I am writing myself out of the record, and perhaps I have always been. This is just another kind of leaving.

***

Jane Wyatt died at age 93, in the decade before I was born. When I search her name, I find only pictures of an actress more famous than her, twenty years her junior. Now, in a small-town newspaper article, her half-sister remembers her. Ruby Wyatt Davis never left Tennessee. She drives reporters down the pockmarked road to the gutted house. She shows them the way.

I can’t say what is better in the end, what is freedom: to leave and be lost to the wind, or to stay and remember. My hope is that my sister gets the choice. Maybe freedom is in the choosing, in believing, even for a second, that nothing is truly unattainable.

***

I could tell you that six months after I touched that swath of land and wrote down these words, I left Kentucky, pried my life from the wilding hills and moved to Nashville, the city that hosted Jane’s first escape. In the first weeks of living there, each time I drove the interstate I nearly wept at the skyline, those downtown buildings feeling like evidence of some achievement, a particular aspirational gone-ness. As I tried not to crash my car, eyes glued to that monument of light, a ghost of the child self who once watched car headlights streak across the horizon like stars fleeing the night dipped its corners momentarily back into my body.

Six months after I explored Crossville’s hidden mansion, before that ghost-self faded into commuter’s monotony, the Wyatt estate burned to the ground in the night.

And what does it mean if there were no charred wooden boards to trace with my fingers as I climbed through the ribcage of a grand place wilting in the woods in Tennessee? If I tell you that house had never before hosted a fire. That it was just forgotten.


Erin Slaughter is editor and co-founder of The Hunger, and the author of I Will Tell This Story to the Sun Until You Remember That You Are the Sun (New Rivers Press, 2019). Her writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review, The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Split Lip Magazine, New South, Passages North, and elsewhere. Originally from north Texas, she is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at Florida State University.

Categories
2020 Poetry

Cassidy McFadzean

WORRYWORT

I pull a card and make a wish
Sipping horseshoe decanter—
I must have licked a toad

The scalpel snips the flesh
Silver nitrate for the growth
Matchstick for the tissue

The flesh cauterized Singing
defiant speech from the tip
of my blackened tongue

Three stitches holds me in
Waiting for a cryptic message:
It’s exactly as we expected

The inside of a garlic clove
A remedy imprinted with
the signature of its scourge

The root of it remained
Virus feeding on mutant genes
Stuttering Philomela

I spill my gut feeling
A voice on a screen insisting
The light in you is all I see


WHICHING OUR

Fortune distributes boons and woes

banishes those who demand too many boons

So marks a third of my life which seems a sliver

the further I slither from it

and all the silver baubles are shaken down

It was neither ham-fisted nor pussy-footed

Yet I felt its heaviness And and and

Even as I moved through its corridors

There were riches and sorrows and sorrows and riches

The song’s the same; the chorus repeats

In the early hours of the recent decade

a defunct email account alerted me

with registration for a class I did not take

toward an attachment I did not open

to memorize and perform, as an audition

A night fretful with worries

from Old English wyrgan to strangle

Seize by the throat and tear

So it goes The hangman in my throat

What music embedded In its skipping track


Cassidy McFadzean graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently lives in Toronto. She is the author of Drolleries (Penguin Random House Canada 2019) and Hacker Packer (PRHC 2015). Her poems have appeared in American Poetry JournalBOAATDiode, and Prelude.