Beautiful Bembé
Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley

First Place, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Abuela screams my name nightly. BEMBÉ! BEMBÉ! BEMBÉ! She calls me a descarada: a short skirt, stubby legged whore who wears hoops the size of her padre’s wagon wheel. She asks me how fat the ox is, pulling at my culo. Is he a full decade older than me? Does he promise me corazón-shaped chocolates and a pretty dress for my Quinceañera? She tells me I will never be beautiful, never be a bride, never be nada. No, less than nada.

But, my grandmother is long dead—and I’m a fourteen-year-old boy.

Tonight is no different than nights before. I kneel at my bed and pray first to the Saints that they take away the voice of my abuela from our apartment. I pray second for my mother, but I think the Saints know my heart isn’t in it. So, I list specifics like the high price of utilities and even name drop mom’s douche boss, Charles. But now, and not for the first time, I look for the words to pray a blessing on myself and I half whisper, while I kneel on hard carpet with a fold of thin sheet between my lips: Please make me beautiful. Please Saints, make me beautiful.
 

***

 
In the hallway of Christos Reyes High, Carlos is even taller than our freshman lockers. I am close enough to smell the name brand detergent on his shirt. I am close enough to see the dead skin peeling down his slightly stubbled cheeks.

“Accutane’s a real bitch,” he says to me and I tell him at least his family can afford it. “You don’t get it—you don’t even need it,” he adds.

I blush.

“You don’t need it because you haven’t even hit puberty, Fucker,” he says and the breathy wave of his laugh crests across my forehead.

He brushes a cliché of dark hair from his eyes, while I switch my backpack from left to right and feign a grumble.

“Can I borrow your Earth Space book again?” I ask.

“Yeah, just give it back to me at lunch,” he says, slamming the locker shut.

“Sorry I still can’t find mine,” I say.

“Only cucks apologize,” he says.

“Sorry,” I say.

Me and Carlos have been friends as far back as I can remember: ten years, fourth grade when he lent me his pencil-led-eviscerated, yet-still-halfways-functional, slime-green eraser. I really think, he said, I’m pretty, pretty sure, he said, I’m done making mistakes. Confidence in one unmasks insecurity in another, at least I think that’s the saying. Either way, I am still reaching for the sureness of that nine-year-old boy.
 
 
In Earth Space Science, I trace my pencil over Carlos’s perfect cursive handwriting, comments and drawings he’s scratched in the margins, words he’s scribbled out to make a joke:
 

8.1 Human Impact on Land Resources This heat rises from within the Earth. Cracks in the lithosphere widen as the land masses spread apart and the upwelling of heat rises and pushes the plates apart.

 
Where it says “plates” Carlos has written “A$$CHEEKS” above in small letters. I laugh out loud and Mr. Pellow eyes me for a second before moving on.
 

***

 
I find our table at lunch. There is a clatter of trays and laughter and sneakers squeaked throughout the multi-level dining hall, but our table is especially roaring.

“P,” says Eric.

“U,” says Julian.

“S,” says Matt.

“S,” says Kyle.

“T,” I say.

“U,” says Carlos, after thinking for a moment.

“L,” says Eric, rolling his eyes.

“E,” says Julian.

“Ouija says, P-U-S-S-T-U-L-E… puss tool?” asks Matt.

“The Hell is that?” asks Kyle.

“Some sorta of dildo, yeah?” says Julian.

“Why do you always ruin it, Bem?” Eric asks me.

“Ouija says get a dictionary, you tards,” I say, and Carlos laughs.

Eric says something back, but mainly into his mayo and ketchup swirl, and we don’t hear him over Carlos’s drumroll anyway.

All six of our heads turn in sync to the left. Jessie Purcell is walking up the stairs two at a time, tray in one hand, plain milk in another. She swallows each step like they were track and field hurdles. There is a moment at the top step when the long, pale line of her back leg threatens to betray the green drape of her school uniform, and everyone but me bobbles their head and begins exorcising the dramatic demon of a single letter from between clenched teeth.

“P,” says Eric.

“R,” says Julian.

“E,” says Matt.

“T,” says Kyle.

“E-pre-TEND, you can be gentlem—,” I begin to say, but Carlos cuts me off.

“—T-T-Y,” Carlos shouts.

I slide down in my seat just a little.

“What a good girl,” says Julian.

“I’ll be telling the Saints about her tonight,” says Matt.

“Oh, Casper’s comin’!” wails Eric.

“Ew dude, too far,” says Kyle.

They all laugh, and I laugh too, but when Carlos’s eyes can’t stop searching for her afterimage, I hear the boiled voices inside.
 

***

 
My mother pounds on the bathroom door until it threatens to break. I don’t think about what might happen if it does. The fear of it would end me.

“Tssss!” I wrinkle my face in pain, the eyeliner brush’s bristle nearly poking a hole through the white of my left eye.

I look a complete fool in the mirror. Long hair kept at bay by a makeshift buff (a cut off sleeve reattributed). One eye with liner and mascara and the unsubtle pink stain of my mother’s Sephora “Seduce” lipstick painted across just the left half my mouth.

“Ouija says pathetic,” I mumble under my breath.

TAP, TAP, TAP. She knocks again. “Niño, I need to pee—now,” she calls.

I squeeze the eyebrow brush tighter—her eyebrow brush tighter—and press it into the pomade disk. I hiss at the door, “Aye coño, I’m trying to dump.”

“I’m going to get the KEY,” she shouts, and TAP-TAPS the bathroom door for good measure.

The brush in my hand clatters against the sink. In the mirror, a prepubescent clown panics: her one eyebrow dark, another light; her one eye a well-circled “O,” the other plainest of Janes; half her lips pale, the other a dipped gloss of champagne pink.

My eyes zigzag across the sink’s surface for the washcloth. But, it’s gone. I tug off my shirt and blast hot water through the white cotton. Again, and again, I scrub my face until the shirt is the sodden Neapolitan stain of ice cream, and my face is raw with heat.

Before the door bangs open, I toss the shirt beneath the sink. Its fall splits through the trapped air of one thousand plastic grocery bags.

“You always admire yourself in the mirror after you shit?” asks my mother, pushing past me.

I cover my chest with both arms. “Never come in here again,” I say, as she unbuttons her work khakis.

“Out, niño—and shut the door!” she thrusts a finger at the small hallway, her other hand rummaging for the spine of an old US Weekly.

I slip out of the bathroom and sidestep our coffee table. The overhead AC clacks on.

My mother hums behind the door. Some embarrassing bachata with bongos trickles in where she left dinner half cooked in the kitchen.

“DESCARADA!” screeches through the AC vent, and I duck. The word punches just above my head, whistling.
 

***

 
“Que descanses, don’t let the bed’s bug bite,” says my mother.

I grunt.

“Afraid of more bad dreams?” she asks.

“No, I’m fine,” I say, and she frowns, closing the door. She knows not to press further. We’ve been through it a thousand times.

Tonight, I have trouble sleeping. This is nothing new for a boy who hears his grandmother’s ghost. Since the time I was very little, my mother has told me the trick to good dreams is never falling asleep scared, and, just in case, remember no imagined demon can defy the expelling name of Jesus. There is still at least a little bit of Catholic left in her (and she hopes even less was passed onto me). She laughs that her mother, a devout woman, would never forgive her for the state of our godless household. This is usually the part where my mother preforms her one-eyed laugh, smiling at a faraway memory that isn’t meant for me. I think she’s kept a little more Catholic than she’s lets on. Above her bed is a large painting of St. Christopher—patron saint of protection—we laugh that he protects her from all men. But, she’s had it over her bed apparently since she was a very little girl, and when I was young and told her I should have one too, she laughed and insisted her patron’s painting was most definitely big enough to protect the both of us. I still hope that’s true.

Now, beneath the sheets, I whisper a quick prayer to St. Christopher.

How many times I have prayed to the Saints, to the Holy Ghost, to His Son, to any God?

Night—after—night.

Tonight, I will pray to my abuela. At least I know she can speak.

Be brave Bembé, I tell myself.

As the AC clacks off, I slip out from under my sheets to the side of my bed.

I place a bit of the comforter between my lips. “Abuela,” I begin, kneeling, “I did not know you well—or, I guess, really at all—in this life, but I think you are still here.”

The AC clacks on/off on/off, and my eyes open.
 

***

 
HOLY FUCK, I say, only in my head (and I hope that my cursing doesn’t register as part of the prayer). I scrunch my eyes shut and keep it desperately short.

Breathless, I whisper, “Make me beautiful. Por favor, abuela, make me beautiful.”

I am Catholic enough to know we do not pray to the dead. We pray to the Saints, the Godhead, the Holy Mother. So, when I crawl back beneath the sheets, it is a real crawl. My fear keeps me low under the sheets all night. In an effort to comfort myself, I think about Carlos’s advice. The AC clacks off for the dozenth time. Sleep falls into me.
 
 
In the morning, a voice jostles my conscience awake.

“Mom, can’t be seven yet,” I mumble, propped up on a shoulder. I have always been the type who’s waking is a puzzling apart of psychic debris. Before I can even open my eyes, my mind still piecing together the who, what, and where; I sense it is not my mother at the door. Why.

Is it not my mother at the door—
 
 
I have confided in Carlos on more than one occasion that I think I am too old for “bad dreams,” and, of course, he is the only friend who will admit that sometimes he has them too. I have considered admitting, again, only to him, about the voice of my abuela—but I think I know which secrets are better left in the closet. He’s told me his abuelo suggested bravery in the face of an unpleasant dream or monster; Carlos laughed when I described my dream self to him, running away from this ghoul or that goblin, screaming the name of Jesus, Jesus, Jesus as they chase me through house and cellar and field, their Santería beads clattering out the weak plea of my call for a savior.

It’s all in your head, said Carlos. And it’s your head—you can have sex with the hottest chick or chainsaw a monster’s head clean off—A dream is the easiest place to be brave, Bembé.
 
 
My vision is 20/20, better even, but the dark is hazy as if a scrim of water arcs over the height of my doorframe.

Inside my ears I hear my own heartbeat, and I realize I am not propped up on an elbow. Sheets drift and snap across my horizontal torso. A dream is the easiest place to be brave, Bembé, I tell myself.

Then, the voice sweeps inside my room. Then, it sweeps inside of me.

It is my grandmother’s, but softer and much sweeter. Memories of my grandmother are so, so far away.

Pure child, she coos, the well is deep inside you for ascension.

The figure is obsidian but dappled with light like the markings on a doe. White circles shine small over the feminine torso. The edges of her limbs are obscured, but I can feel the face of my abuela behind the words.

Show your beauty, says the voice. Beads clatter across each opened syllable.

A wet pressure cracks open across my forehead, then the smell of rich coconut oil spills into my nostrils, my ears. And then there is nothing but the hollow quake of linked batá drum, the kind my grandmother played for me when I was young. Before remembrance. My body a light rainstick in a room of wind. Here memories unspool—commemorations of spirit dancing through a racing swell of wet drum. Faster. Beat. And faster. Beat.

Until the day I am born.
 
 
Here, on the floor beside my bed, facedown, I am awake—I think. My mouth is frozen open, tongue quivering within a puddle of my spittle sticky to the carpet. The swollen grape of my uvula putters in and out of my throat.

My mother crescendos her knuckles against the door. “Bembé! I’m late! You have to walk today. Sorry, but it’s a nice day out. Wake up!”

I hear her. But, she is farther away than my waking.

When I stand, those things with which I am most intimately familiar feel foreign. I am already dressed. My legs ferry me around my room. My legs ferry me to the bathroom sink. My legs ferry me the two miles to school. Ferry me somewhere between the waking and forgetting.

There are four glass double-doors that stretch rectangles of tall light across the entrance of Christo Reyes High. It is 9:36 A.M. on a Tuesday. The sun beats across the soccer field, beats across employee parking, beats at the black center of Bembé’s wind-fingered hair.

A large crowd of students have gathered. They are smooshed in snaking lines of primary colors, caught between classes, against the plexi doors. Bembé ambles toward them, smiling.

Silence is rare in the halls of a high school. But here, just one or two students have their phones out. Everyone has eyes only for Bembé.

“Someone get a teacher,” one girl whispers.

The gathered offer no response.

“Someone get a teacher,” she says again without raising her voice. “Someone get a teacher, someone get a teacher, someone get a teacher, someone get a teacher, someone get a teacher.” She says it over and over, until a louder student approaches the crowd.

“Yo, what’s going on?” says the boy, hands planted atop the straps of his backpack, headphones around his neck, phone tucked under one arm. He is on tip toes.

The boy sees Bembé, and his hands come up to cover his mouth. The phone drops from beneath his arm and clatters to the linoleum. He doesn’t notice.

He says, Bembé is … beautiful.
 
 
This boy whose phone lies shattered on the ground does not budge when Carlos grabs his shoulder.

“Chris, dude—the hell’s going—” says Carlos, who is now all but face to face with Bembé smiling behind glass, his friend whose hand rises not in greeting but to pull the silver door handle and enter this maw of students.

“R-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-N-G!!” The overhead bell decries the beginning of Second Period. No one moves.

Carlos crouches and thrusts his forearms against the door: where Bembé reaches. The crash bar crunches. A chill of morning air whooshes into the hallway. Carlos grabs Bembé by the bicep and drags him through the crowd. Everyone parts for the stumbling pair.

“C’mon, c’mon,” Carlos breathes. The halls are relatively empty, and he signs the cross quickly with one hand, Bembé in the other.

They stumble into a freshman bathroom.

Another boy is zipping up at the urinal.

“Fuck out of here,” says Carlos, shooing at the exit.
 
 
Arms at his sides, Bembé eyes himself—trembling—in the refraction of mirror, six sink lengths long.

“Bembé, what is going on?” begs Carlos. He signs the cross again, slower, more deliberately, this time.
 
 
Bembé wobbles, planted at the center of the freshman boy’s bathroom. He is naked, save his white underwear and socks. There is a giant, white spiral of paint beginning at his sternum then tailing its way to a soft bulge of throat. The whites of his eyes are pure white, and his pupils the black of burnt bark. They are without recognition. His expression is a relaxed smile, while his hair pulls upward in tight, dark twists, anxious toward the ceiling, as if they were branches born from his scalp—born for the sky.

Something else has left Bembé paralyzed in place. His face. Unmasked. He is wearing a full face, of makeup. The pinked lips. The blacked lashes. Bronzer. Highlighter. The apples of his cheeks blushed mother’s love letter peach. Sweat rings a wet line around the perfect oval of his complexion.

“Bembé,” shouts Carlos, pulling at his shoulders, “Wake up.”

Both boy’s eyes are unflinching. Carlos on Bembé. Bembé on the mirror.

The distinct thwack of a male dress shoe reverberates through the outside hallway: teacher, principal, or pre-game-dressed-up-senior-varsity ball player, Carlos doesn’t know. He puts one hand to Bembé’s cheek. “Bembé … Hermano,” he says.
 

***

 
I am out. Half naked, and awake, in the middle of the freshman boy’s bathroom. There are voices, here—Carlos’s is the clearest.

“Bembé,” he says, “Bembé. I am afraid.”

I do not know if he knows, his hand is on my cheek. I do not know if he knows, he is the warmest thing against the morning, the dew-shook freeze of my skin.

Clear, I move forward, one white sock crossing the single tile of linoleum that separates us. Here, I let my nose seek into the side of his cheek.

My lips. I press into Carlos.
 

***

 
There are a handful of choice phrases you’d never want to hear your best friend say to you.

Fuck you, Forever.

Now, that’s at the top.
 
 
My chin reaches toward the exist, where the heel of Carlos’s sneaker still twirls with the final act of leaving.

I speak low, and only to the empty pit of boy’s bathroom. “What are you doing?” I whisper.

“A dream,” I respond, “is the easiest place to be brave, Bembé.”
 
 
I run. And I cry. It is not a rainy day. The sun burns at my naked back, and ropes of late-spring wind pull at the bareness of each stride. I run until my mind can’t find its way. Then, my legs find a kind of consciousness and send me out, ferry me, toward home.
 

***

 
I arrive. The door opens for me, and I feel I hadn’t thought to lock it before I left. I try and turn on the hallway lights, but they don’t work, and it is not dark. The overhead AC clacks on. I hear nothing, except my own breath’s slow catch. There is a trail of dirty footprints behind me, and, thinking of my mother, I pull off each sock. They stay on. The AC is cold on my back. I shiver as it pushes me. Toward my bedroom. Into home.
 
 
When the AC clacks off, I stand directly in front of my bedroom door.

“M-Mom?” My voice begins to call. Then—there is school—there is my reflection in the mirror—and there is Carlos—I stop. Thoughts coalesce into a cold shard at the center of my head.

Did I kiss him? Did we kiss?

I know in my bones: I do not have to open this door. And there is no voice inside my head now stronger than my own. In a dream is the easiest place, I say, to be brave, and turn the handle.
 

***

 
My bedroom has become the scullery of an ancient ritual—the charred chest cavity of a fairytale beast—or at least, that’s what I hope. I hope that my bedroom is black with unuttered dark. I hope there is no bed. I hope in place of it, the thick, white spiral on my chest is matched by a superior spiral galaxied across the entire carpet, the burned patch of my once-bedroom.

I hope I feel the face of my abuela behind me. I hope when she tilts her head to kiss the back of my neck, a conical crown of beads atop her head clacks and trimbles. I hope I step forward and the large spiral begins in glowing revolution. I hope this voice is not “family” Spanish. I hope it is an older, deeper kind of creole. I hope in my ears, it is sugar and salt, the warm song of belonging.

I hope the voiced progenitor is a small mound of ash. I hope it is the upper torso of a diminutive man-thing, melted as if in escape of the spiraled center he indwells. I hope his eyes and mouth are the toothed belly of cowrie shells. I hope pearly spires shine and lip against the black ash.

I hope the puckered center of his teeth pull back.

The AC clacks on/off on/off.

I hope the ritual beast, rises from the spiral.

The AC clacks on/off on/off.

Welcome home, prophet, my beautiful bride, he says.

The AC clacks on/off on/off.
 
 
I hope any reality comes to pass besides this one: where I am, this boy bodied beneath waves of self-doubt and guilt and the keel of every ancestor. They say it gets better. I pray for hope. I will open every door until there is something new behind it.
 
 
I step inside my room.

Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley belongs to the Onondaga Nation of Indigenous Americans in New York. His first, second, and third books debut 2018, 2019, and 2020: NOT YOUR MAMA’S MELTING POT (U Nebraska Press, selected by Bob Hicok), COLONIZE ME (Saturnalia), and DĒMOS (Milkweed Editions). A Kundiman alum, Ben is recipient of the Provincetown FAWC and Tickner Fellowships. Peep his recent work in Boston Review, FIELD, jubilat, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Oxford American, and Tin House, among others.

The Anglo-Saxon Conspiracy
Willy Lizárraga

Runner Up, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Son of Chuquín

I often wonder who would I be without this stubborn, perennial image—my mother in bed in the dark, lying like a corpse, only her eyes and her mouth moving, talking to me as if reminiscing and at the same time prescribing a course for my life, anticipating perhaps losing me sooner rather than later, suspecting, although not necessarily wishing, that our voices playing in the dark would be all I’d be left with to explain my most secret sense of loss.

“Think big, now, Quique. What would you like to study?”

“I don’t know, Mom. I already told you so many times.”

“Well, something has to come to your mind, right?”

“At school, they gave us a test last week. It said I’m supposed to be an architect or a coach, a tennis coach, I guess.”

“I don’t see the relationship between those two options to tell you the truth, dear.”

“It said that I should look for a profession that combines science and art.”

“Well, I just don’t see where the science or the art is in being a tennis coach.”

“It actually came out as choreographer, but since the teacher and I didn’t know anything about choreography, he said it could be interpreted as some sort of coach. And since he knew I like to play tennis …”

“So the teacher modified the results of the test just because he didn’t know what a choreographer is?”

“I guess so.”

“That’s kind of nuts. The real problem, though, is that he didn’t give you any options.”

“Architect is an option, isn’t it?”

“Maybe in theory. In practice, the architects I know don’t make any money because they’re just drawing stuff for engineers; they’re the ones who have the resources to actually build.”

“Maybe I should be an engineer, then.”

“That’s a wise choice, dear. A very wise choice, don’t you think? ’Cause I don’t think you want to become another Chuquín, do you?”

“I guess not.”

Chuquín was my tennis coach. Actually, he was more than that. As a joke, although more like an insult, my friends called me Son of Chuquín. I was supposed to feel ashamed of him (and my connection with him) because he was dark, short, skinny, and rather peculiar. “A cocky, puny little thing of an Indian,” my mother used to say. Chuquín, by the way, was used to being mocked. And to make sure everybody knew he didn’t care, he walked with the most upright, super-erect posture in town, his chest leading the way like a puffed up pigeon marching in front of an imaginary military parade.

Having been Chuquín’s tennis student since I was six (he liked to call me his disciple), I was more than aware of his peculiar side. Somehow, though, I never gave in to the pressure to ridicule him. He had a way of teaching, not only tennis, but his own defiant version of how to respond to “the cruel laughter of the world” that, as a clandestinely rebellious kid, I found admirable. Even my mother, despite her unwavering prejudice toward dark-skinned people, had to respect him for that.

You could blame my father, I suppose, for bringing Chuquín to our lives. They weren’t exactly friends, but they were born in the same small town in the highlands of central Peru and considered helping each other “in exile” a moral duty, which given Chuquín’s starving tennis-coach lifestyle and my father’s solidly established businessman credentials meant that my father could play his favorite public role with Chuquín: the generous sports benefactor who is always donating trophies, uniforms, and footwear to all sorts of teams, tournaments, and coaches.

Where did my father’s fondness for sports come from? I still wonder. He was the most unathletic person I’d ever known. Walking the three blocks from our house to his import-export store was nothing short of “a cruel and vile form of punishment,” as he liked to say. The only plausible explanation I could come up with was that he’d somehow figured out this was a most cost-effective way of promoting his business in town.

In stark contrast, my mother cared nothing for sports or sponsoring them. What attracted her to tennis was its potential as a vehicle for social advancement. She had a college degree but no money. My father had money but very little in the way of formal education. Tennis was supposed to help with this imperfect union. Sending me to the only American school in town was also part of her upwardly mobile master plan.

“I just want you to grow up to be a successful professional, dear,” she would say to me, trying to justify why I had to learn tennis. “It’s the perfect sport for a promising young man.” And if she felt the need to buttress her argument with an actual reason, a reason that couldn’t be contested, she’d add: “You have to be proud of your English roots, okay? Tennis is part of that.”

To push things even further along this God-save-the-Queen direction, Chuquín happened to be as obsessed as my mother with everything English, although he couldn’t claim a real or imaginary genetic connection. For him, it was enough that England had invented tennis, “the most civilized of all sports.” Ergo, England had to be “the most civilized of all nations.” Which made him, according to his unique logic, a lot more than a tennis coach. He saw himself as a crusader. He was helping to bring civilization to Peru.

Despite my mother’s and Chuquín’s odd Anglo-Saxon convergence, though, there was one critical difference between them. My mother’s belief in England as the bastion of civilization was tempered (Chuquín would’ve probably said corrupted) by her preference for the U.S. As she liked to say to her faithful cadre of girlfriends over Darjeeling tea and homemade butter cookies, “I think we can agree that the English Empire has been successfully replaced by the American, which lacks class, no doubt, but it’s decisively more future-oriented, don’t you agree?”

By training with Chuquín, anyway, I wasn’t only being prepared to be the next Peruvian tennis champ, I was being groomed to be “a perfect English gentleman,” an ontological category I couldn’t have cared less about. What was important to me, and probably the only reason their Anglo-Saxon conspiracy worked so well, was that nothing in the realm of physical activity, aside from masturbation and cumbia dancing, gave me as much pleasure. Call it a precocious, perverted proclivity toward banal hedonism, but getting up at six every morning to run after a ball had to be one of my most consistent sources of joy as a child and teenager. And although I often pretended to be annoyed by having to be up and ready to walk out the door by Chuquín’s second ringing of the bell (daylight not yet the victor over darkness outside my bedroom window), I looked forward to playing tennis every morning with undiminished enthusiasm.

Before the actual tennis lesson, though, the two of us had to parade. Dressed in white and wearing shorts, let’s say we stood out from the other early risers “like a pair of fags in a whorehouse,” as my friends liked to say. Yet we kept on walking as proud as could be. Which was the only way Chuquín knew how to walk anyway—pretending we were strolling down the streets of Wimbledon or Oxford and that playing tennis first thing in the morning was as established a local tradition as flying kites after school in the spring, escaping to the beach in the summer, crashing parties on weekends, flirting during Sunday communion, and going back home feeling totally purified, eager to start sinning from scratch once again.

One more crucial detail, Chuquín walked joined at the hip to this gigantic two-speed bicycle packed like a burro with old rackets and dark, hairless tennis balls coming out of ripped plastic bags. And as he walked, he had to lecture me (and anybody who could hear him), about his favorite subject: the art of winning.

“’Cause to tell you the truth, Henry, I’d rather lose with style than win without it.”

I was always Henry to Chuquín. Never Quique or Enrique. Sometimes Henry V or VIII, depending on his mood.

“I mean anybody can win. But to do it with style, well, that’s the most difficult thing to master in life, Henry. The most, most difficult.”

“Your grandfather Enrique was the best tennis player ever in Tacna and Arica, you know that, right?”

“I know, Mom. You’ve told me that a million times.”

“Well, I just want to make sure you’re a good keeper of the torch, okay? Your brother is so useless, my God.”

“You also told me he was an incredible singer and guitar player. How come you never want me to play the guitar?”

“I’ve told you, honey. Your grandma suffered too much because of it. He’d disappear for days on end. He’d go from one party to the next, non-stop. Everybody wanted him playing and singing waltzes at their parties. He didn’t know how to say no. I just don’t want you imitating his bad side. Do you understand, dear?”

I didn’t.

Actually, I didn’t want to.

Maybe I should say, I simply couldn’t. By the end of high school, I was the lead singer and bass player for Los Conchesumadres (The Motherfuckers), the most foul-mouthed, underground, garage-cumbia band in the history of Tacna. I wasn’t any good at it, but it didn’t matter. We played anti-establishment cumbia. It was meant to provoke and torment. We were ahead of our time, even ahead of the Brits and the Americans who hadn’t yet come up with punk rock. Anyway, I suspected she knew about my fertile underground punk-cumbia life. I also trusted she’d never mention it.

We had an understanding. It was written on the invisible pages of our mother-son contract. There were subjects tacitly deemed unsuitable for our late-night conversations. My grandmother’s blackness, item number one on the list. My aunt Rosamelia’s sexual preference for women, also number one. And another number one, the unspoken prohibition to mention my grandfather’s controversial-heroic-anti-heroic death. In general, though, anything my mother considered distasteful was barred from our nightly chats. As she liked to say to me in a slightly affected confessional tone, “Please, darling, just tell me beautiful, happy stories. There’s already enough ugliness and tragedy in this world.”

Dutifully, responsibly, obligingly, I stuck to the permissible and avoided the taboo. You could say I made an art form of it.

The Unthinkable Future, the Indiscernible Present, the Past’s Insufferable Weight

“So what do you think about going to study abroad, darling?”

I always admired the way my mother could talk lying in bed perfectly still, like a mummy, a mummy who’d wait for me no matter how late I came back home, which shouldn’t be understood as a some sort of selfless, motherly act. She simply could never sleep. At least that’s what she claimed, and not without pride, believing herself morally superior to the rest of us because of it.

My father, on the other hand, slept “like a narcoleptic,” according to my mother. And she acted as if there was something terribly wrong with him for being able to set aside his daily worries and tribulations and fall asleep until the next morning at seven-thirty. Always at seven thirty, when he’d tiptoe to the bathroom, farting and whistling tangos for our morning entertainment. He slept in a tiny bed, too. Impossible not to notice since my mother’s bed was three times as big. Maybe that was his punishment for his inconsiderate narcolepsy. Or maybe for being “a goddamned man,” as my aunt Rosamelia, who lived with us, would say so we never forget that in our household women were in charge.

“Abroad like?”

“Like the U.S., darling.”

“Really?”

“Your father and I have been talking about it because, as you know, it’s becoming more and more dangerous to be a young man in Peru. These war games with Chile aren’t going to end well. And I’d probably not care if we lived in Lima, but we live right at the border, dear. The whole town’s already become a giant military base. Now you and your classmates are going to have to spend Saturdays in military training. And that’s just the beginning.”

“All I can say is I’m sick and tired of all these young officers taking over the town, and how they just have to show off their latest sport cars, their expensive sunglasses, imported blue jeans and holier-than-thou attitude. I mean all the good-looking girls only have eyes for them now.”

“Well, once the war starts, I don’t think they’ll have time to run after good-looking girls, if that’s any consolation. They’ll always be better off than us civilians, though. My God, where does this thirst for revenge come from? Don’t they realize that the Chileans are going to beat us to shame just like they did a hundred years ago? We’re so useless, my God. All posing and bravado.”

“Maybe we’ll beat them this time, Mom.”

“Look at you, talking about war as if there were winners and losers, as if you could trust anything this communist government says. What does it matter if we win anyway? We’re doomed to become another Cuba, which is no fun, let me tell you. That’s why your father and I have been talking about you going to California, dear. We’re too old to start all over. But you’re at the perfect age. Remember my dear friend Martha? Remember she has a brother who went to Australia? Well, he lives in San Francisco now. He can help you get settled. Eventually you could even bring your brother with you.”

I can’t say that my mother’s proposition wasn’t provocatively tempting. Its temptation, however, had very little to do with escaping a war with Chile or the fear of becoming a subject of a more totalitarian regime. What seemed irresistible to my seventeen-year-old self was the romantic (and clichéd, of course) promise of unlimited adventures in a foreign land with no adult supervision. And if in order to accomplish that I had to make an effort to empathize with and validate my mother’s worst fears I was more than willing to do it. I didn’t need her or anybody explaining to me how hard it had been for her to earn her upper-middle-class status, or to tell me how traumatic it must have been for her to live as child through a military occupation, although her memories of it were shockingly positive. I understood my mother, or better yet, I understood what made her think and feel the way she did, which included playing the mummy in bed every night as if to outwit her omnivorous anxiety, pretending to be numb and immune to history’s contingencies, which, in turn, might also explain why she failed to foresee the military coup (yes, yet another coup) that would steer Peru away from war and communism. The best resolution she could’ve hoped for. Too bad it came too late for comfort.

I mean, by then, I wasn’t only gone to a foreign land but was eagerly adopting San Francisco as my new home. Or to put it in even more irrevocable terms, I had already discovered the strange and almost perverse pleasure of reinventing myself as an American. And she had only herself to blame for it.

To make things even more distant between us, although I’m not sure it was a conscious decision, I decided I was the wrong person to provide her with any kind of solace. As a refugee from a communist regime that didn’t take hold and a war that never happened, I was in too much of a rush to let go of a past that felt awkwardly alien to me, a past that had less to do with me than with my mother’s designs for me.

The War Against all Wars

Then there was the war, a real one. Actually, there were two wars. And the passion with which I embraced the war against the war could only be understood, I suppose, if one considers that a part of me felt in desperate need of genuine immigrant pathos. I wanted to make up for what history had deprived me of. A war (or an anti-war in this case) was just the perfect setting to finally launch my own epic and be, by my own design, the hero of my own movie.

None of this was lived at a rational level, of course. I was simply responding to what surrounded me, including the curated Vietnam War images that a few newspapers and TV stations broadcasted for our sentimental and political education. What was I suppose to do, anyway, with the horrific self-immolations executed with unfathomable self-possession by Buddhist monks in protest against America? Or the scalding orange rivers running wild across the jungle, like lava, turning everything in its path into fluorescent ash? Or the tormented, frightened-beyond-fear faces of “our enemies” looking at the camera just before their heads exploded and their brains splattered on the ground?

Besides, most of my new friends (none of them from the Engineering Department) were actively involved in all sorts of anti-war marches and protests. I really didn’t have to do much to become one of them—a true pain-in-the-ass provocateur, witness and occasional victim to an organized, thuggish form of violence that came dressed in blue and never let go of us. It would’ve helped, of course, to have a better command of English to truly bear witness to my times, but what I lacked in eloquence I made up for in fervor, verve, and dedication to babbling on about charging horses, barking German shepherds, tear gas, malicious blows landing on young, idealistic, defenseless bodies, refusing to retreat or to stop expressing their righteous discontent.

Meanwhile, the more I delved into the muddy, early-seventies American cauldron, the more my provincial, Peruvian memories (how could I not notice?) faded in the distance, acquiring a quasi-pre-historical quality. To my surprise, though, no matter how foreign and distinctly irrelevant to my American life my past seemed, it continued to play an active, commanding role in my new life if only because Mother and Aunt Rosamelia, resolutely and unabashed, found a way to impress their opinions and desires on me just as they always had. In fact, now they had even more influence. Now that they had managed to trick time and space, they could live within me and come and go at will, and bring my pre-American persona and pre-historical universe back to life even when I didn’t want to deal with it, or maybe I should say, especially when I wanted to forget all about it.

The Pre-historical Heart of the Matter

So, yes, or maybe I should say no. This isn’t an immigrant saga. My life in the U.S., although essential, isn’t this tale’s central concern. This is all about, I’m afraid, the actors and forces that came before my American reinvention. In other words, maybe all I’m trying to do here is answer (with a modicum of wickedness) one single question, actually two. But let’s start with the question posed to me most promiscuously since the moment I arrived in San Francisco: What brought you here, man?

That is, I came here to go to college was (is) more of a shield than a portal through which I could reveal how Mother, Chuquín, Father, and Aunt Rosamelia, the essential components of my pre-history, worked together to create the first version of myself.

The second question, the one nobody asks and that I find most fascinating, would be how is it that the same old voices from your past keep on defining not only who you are but how you write your own narrative? Or to be more to the point, how is it that my mother keeps on prescribing my future (even if I eventually went and still go against her wishes), while my aunt informs how I talk about my past, which might be why in my memory (and imagination) the two of them have to be endlessly dueling.

Before delving into their eternal war, though, I’d like to go back to my mother. For she is the one and only adult in my pre-American world who not only drilled me and guided me but, like Moses, once she felt I was prepared to step onto the Promise Land, let go of me, something for which I never thanked her, but then nobody thanked Moses for anything either, he just did what he had to do and that was it.

“So are you ready, Quique? I know you’re tired. But one more rehearsal isn’t going to kill you, right? I’m not supposed to be nice to you, remember? I’m mean and rude. Like a grumpy cop. Let’s see, young man, I see you have a tourist visa. What’s your reason for traveling to the United States of America? May I know?”

“I’m going to visit Disneyland, sir. It’s been my dream ever since I was a little boy. I want to visit San Francisco and Los Angeles. I want to see the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, Universal Studios.”

“And why are you carrying those rackets with you? It doesn’t seem like you’d have much time to play tennis.”

“Well …”

“Come on, dear, you know you can’t pause like that. He’s going to think you’re lying. You’re supposed to say you’re a tennis champ. Americans love champs. They’re totally into winners. They can’t stand losers. As a matter of fact, they send them back to their countries or they put them in jail. So for Christ’s sake, try to sound more convincing, okay? Let’s start all over again.”

War hysteria and rigid drilling methodology aside, my mother’s dedication to making sure I was optimally prepared to clear U.S. Customs & Immigration and be on my own (no matter where I went) was genuinely honest. Her meticulous dedication, however, wasn’t unique to her or my family. Being constantly pressured to be prepared to leave town as soon as you were done with high school, especially if you had the means, was an essential part of growing up in Tacna in those days. If you stayed, you could study to be a nurse or a teacher. Those were your college degree options. That’s why, now I understand, almost every adult man in Tacna in those days was a merchant, a contrabandist, or both. Well, not only because of that.

According to our unique border-town mentality, smuggling merchandise to and from Chile was considered a patriotic duty, a unique way of keeping Tacna and Arica united despite the fact that they no longer belonged to the same country, a humble tribute to our ancestors who’d heroically fought against the Chileans and later endured their occupation. We’re talking about contraband as a sublime form of heroism. Which might sound funny, but the subject matter isn’t necessarily a shallow one. In fact, it runs deep and often undetected inside all of us Tacnenians. One could argue we have been successfully preconditioned to think of sneaking something (anything) across a real or imaginary border as a legitimate business, which in my case meant that the plan, conceived and orchestrated by my mother in consultation with my father and aunt, was based on the premise that sneaking myself into the U.S. as a tourist wasn’t just the most practical but the most honorable solution.

My point, though, isn’t to take credit away from my family’s border-sneaking talent, but simply to point out that as active masters of the art of patriotic contraband, their solution was rather predictable. That’s one side of the story, of course. The other side (related to the second question) is more intimate and obscure, and as complex as what lies behind two sisters’ infinite tug-of-war.

My Grandfather the Unforgiving Role Model

Fully aware of history as a transaction (and most often an immoral one), Aunt Rosamelia believed (or pretended to believe) there was nothing heroic about having resisted “those tight-assed, faux Nazis,” as she called the Chileans. “Wrapping yourself in the Peruvian flag and jumping off a cliff onto the ocean, that’s what I call a hero,” she’d say as if to make sure we (her nieces and nephews) understood what her minimum epic requirements were. Then, relapsing into a more conversational tone, she would add, “I mean what were we supposed to do? This was our town. There’s no heroism in staying put. There were, of course, a few so-called freedom fighters, Grandpa Enrique chief among them, but I don’t think what he did was heroic anyway. It was plain crazy and stupid if you want to know the truth.”

Aunt Rosamelia was the oldest of the three sisters and considered herself the official family historian, Aunt Chepa, three years younger, was “too dumb to care,” and my mother, by virtue of being the baby, “too young to remember.” My mother nonetheless claimed she remembered “everything.” And since her oldest sister persisted in dismissing her recollections, she preferred to leave the room whenever Aunt Rosamelia broached the subject of “life during the occupation.”

Their sisterly rivalry, though, as I’ve mentioned, went beyond a mere conflict of interpretation of their past. It was a prima donna contest. “There can be no more than one sun up in the sky,” was the way my aunt liked to put it. The past, nonetheless, and more specifically, the figure and legacy of their father, the family’s Anglo-Saxon bastion, was the fulcrum of their insoluble dilemma, which provided me with my first practical lessons on how to understand my own history. For as crucial as my nightly visits to my mother’s bedroom are in the creation of my pre-historical identity, my aunt’s flamboyant disregard of any romanticized version of the past, her penchant for coarse language (something my mother totally disapproved of), and especially her readiness to laugh at her ancestors were equally influential—all the more because she swore (to my mother’s chagrin) that I was the living image of my grandfather. Hearing her tell stories about Grandpa, then, was more like hearing stories about me; better yet, stories about a version of myself most appealing to my punk side, which as a teenager was all I cared about.

Hearing my aunt’s stories was also the exact opposite experience of hearing my mother’s. Instead of the intimate, secretive, bedroom-in-the-dark setting my mother and I shared, my aunt’s domain was the early-afternoon-big-family lunch—the warm sunshine percolating through the vines, all of us bathed in a gentle, golden light while the dishes were constantly brought and cleared from the table, everybody talking loudly, preferably while laughing. And if there happened to be a few half-asleep adults in their chairs, arms crossed over their snoring chests, distended bellies proudly revealing an overtaxed digestive system, heads bouncing back and forth, in and out of siesta oblivion, we knew that the moment Aunt Rosamelia took charge they would instantly wake up and become a devoted audience. Nobody could really resist her.

“I mean, let’s not forget that for almost twenty years I had to put up with being a goddamned second-class citizen, oh yeah. Let’s not forget either that my dear sister Ameriquita was barely seven when we went back to being part of Peru. So what can she really remember? And when Father died, she was only six months old. So I don’t think you have much of a choice here. To talk about Father you have to have known him. You have to have witnessed what a stubborn son of a bitch he was. I mean everything had to be done his way. Nobody could tell him what to do. Not the Chileans or the Peruvians. For him, authority was the enemy. They can kiss my ass and lick my balls was his favorite political slogan, as you all know.”

“That’s right. Kiss my ass and lick my balls. The family mantra, isn’t it?”

That was cousin Omar, who liked to play Aunt Rosamelia’s choir’s principal tenor. Cousins Laly, Priscila, Darío, Martha, and Hugo were part of the choir too, but Omar was the first to speak, the loudest and fastest. Aunt Rosamelia loved the call-and-response dialectics. The bigger the choir, he more supported she felt. She could then relax the tempo and drink her favorite wine (Chilean, by the way) and theatrically get back to her story.

“My poor mom suffered terribly because of him. I mean how could she avoid it? How could anybody who loved my father avoid it, really? At times, she’d even wonder if he’d married her just as an act of rebellion and not because he truly loved her, you know. Being a blond man in a brown country, and knowing how uncontrollably contrarian he was, she could never really get rid of the suspicions that he’d married her, a black woman, just to be rebellious.

“She was beautiful, of course, but she didn’t have the white kind of beauty that’s socially acceptable. Anyway, in those days, blacks and Indians intermarried and it was no big deal. But blond and black? Privileged upper-middle class boy marrying second generation, freed-slave girl? No wonder when we walked the streets as a family people would point at us as though we were a freak show or something.

“My father, needless to say, was totally thrilled by it. He liked to say he’d come into this world to defy all rules and labels. And he’d punch you in the face if you called him an anarchist. ‘I’m not an anarchist, a communist, an atheist, or whatever you want to call me. I am who I am and I don’t need you or anybody to tell me who I am.’ Can you imagine what it must have been like to live with a man like him? No wonder the Chilean authorities kept a close eye on him and on his two cousins who were as contentiously crazy as he was.”

“And what were the names of the two cousins, Auntie? Just for the record, you know.”

“Manuel and Alvaro, the only two male sons of Uncle Ambrosio, the best center forward in those days, a small man but mighty strong, and fast as a lizard.”

“That’s right. They called him ‘White Magic,’ didn’t they, Auntie? He could score from everywhere in the soccer field. Isn’t that right, Aunt Rosamelia?”

“That’s damned right, Omar. I’m so glad you remember his name and his amazing soccer feats, although we can’t forget he was also a terrible husband. A total Casanova. Poor Aunt Fortunata. Well, at least he was good in soccer, although it didn’t do him any good. ’Cause whenever they organized soccer matches between Chileans and Peruvians, the Peruvians always won. He was unbeatable. So the Chileans hated his guts and were always putting him in jail for one reason or another. Well, also because he was blond, like your grandpa, both whiter than the Chileans who, racists pigs that they were, saw themselves as the superior race. At least superior to us because we were darker.

“Anyway, you can imagine how they tried to brainwash us in school, to make us believe in our inferiority. They had the broomstick handy too if we didn’t accept their version of history. The worst part, though, was that I couldn’t tell any of it to my father. He would’ve set the school on fire or done something even crazier. The only person in my family I could tell these things to was my mother. Bless her heart!

“She was my moral rock during those years. And it wasn’t as if she had it easy. She was one of the few black women in town, and the Chileans weren’t subtle about showing her where she belonged. But just like me, she couldn’t tell my father how bad it was for her. Not that he didn’t know, but still. You didn’t want to provoke him. Oh my God, the silence we carried inside us. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to put into words the unbearable burden it was to keep it all to ourselves.

“On top of everything, Grandpa Enrique was just not the consoling type, you know. Any type of sentimentality was revolting to him, which is funny because he was an amazing guitar player and singer. I guess he reserved his soft side for his playing and singing. Away from his guitar, he was all macho bravado. And his two cousins were just like him.”

The Battle for History

Endowed with Herculean shoulders, enormous breasts, and arms to match, Aunt Rosamelia was fond of wearing at least three layers of white plaster on her face “to not look too black,” which had the curious effect of making her look “like Frankenstein’s sister,” according to my mother.

Aunt Rosamelia, however, didn’t mind the horror-movie effect. Quite the contrary, you could tell she derived an enormous amount pleasure from it. She’d figured out a way of keeping men at bay. Although I’m not sure it helped her find girlfriends. In any case, it was her invulnerable rhetorical armor that I admired, her blunt, iconoclastic dominance of the family’s narrative, which also made her the only person in my family I could talk to about my cumbia-punk projects. Having said that, I never had the nerve to share with her any of our band’s songs, usually composed by me. I mean You wanna fuck me, I wanna fuck you, you wanna fuck me, I wanna fuck you was probably our most family-friendly chorus. So I had the strong suspicion that even she wouldn’t approve of our poetic vein.

As for my mother, despite her hyper-sensitive, uptight propriety, she was as effective and inspiring a storyteller as my aunt. She just operated in a different emotional register. She wasn’t there to provoke you or make you laugh or cry. What she was good at was leaving you not knowing what to feel. And when it was just the two of us, she always had to make sure I understood that Aunt Rosamelia couldn’t be trusted.

“The thing is I just don’t think the occupation was as bad as Rosamelia claims.” My mother’s voice sounded soft, tender, as if she’d just woken up from a sleeping-beauty siesta, which was physically impossible for her because of her insomnia. “We were kind of prisoners of war, sure, but it wasn’t like we were living in a concentration camp. In many ways, I’d say we were better off than now. ’Cause they wanted us to become Chileans, you know. So they had the city well taken care of. The markets and stores were beautifully stocked. They’d remodeled all the schools and built new ones. And if you weren’t adamantly anti-Chilean, you were treated well.

“I mean, nowadays, even though we’re no longer occupied, if you go out and protest against the government, you get beat up and thrown in jail. It just wasn’t that different back then, with the advantage that things were more orderly. There was no crime. The streets were super clean. If they caught you littering, you paid a fine or went to jail. And what was even better, they didn’t allow the Indians to settle wherever they pleased. In fact, they allowed them in only for the day, so they could sell their products, but they would disinfect them and make them shower first. There were no shantytowns. There was opera twice a year and the best ballet company in Santiago visited all the time. I had wonderful Chilean friends and teachers. The best.”

I wonder (have been wondering ever since) if my mother’s rather pleasant memories of her childhood have to do with her being the blonde in the family. I also wonder if the Chilean authority’s unabashed racism toward Indian-looking and dark-skinned people in general might have something to do with how precociously she opted for identifying as white, something her mother and sisters absolutely couldn’t do by virtue of their looks.

Racial issues aside, I don’t think my mother or my aunt expected to have similar childhood memories. They just didn’t know how to live with their differences in public. So when my mother left the room to let Aunt Rosamelia talk freely about her “occupation memories,” it was with the implicit understanding that she was doing her sister and her audience (us) a favor. She wasn’t conceding. She was simply choosing to be civil.

The jarring part for me was feeling like a traitor to my mother for not only listening to my aunt but actually enjoying her tales so much. The fact that I was, as far as I knew, the only one in the family who had those whispering, late-night chats with Mother in bed was, I suspected, the crucial, isolating ingredient, which only made my traitor role feel more damning. In any case, my incapacity to reconcile my mother and aunt within me has a lot do with how avidly I began to fantasize about having a life as far away as possible from home so I could free myself from having to choose between them.

Now, I don’t mean to imply, though, that my mother’s and my aunt’s kingdom have equal weight in my psyche or history. Formidable as they both were, the level of intimacy my mother and I shared wasn’t possible with Aunt Rosamelia (or with any other member of my family for that matter). Aunt Rosamelia, to begin with, wasn’t the touchy-feely type. She actually pushed you away if you got too close to her. She needed her own secrets and the necessary space to protect them. Her theatrical, public persona was, in a way, how she protected her inner self. She only had, as far as we knew, a public persona. Talking to her alone or surrounded by the entire extended family made no difference. There was nothing she would reveal in the intimacy of a one-on-one conversation that she wouldn’t say in public and vice versa.

“She’s always performing, anyway,” I remember my mother sort of warning me.

I, of course, didn’t know what she meant. Or I did, but at the same time I had the suspicion that in life we all rely on performing for survival in one way or another. So it’s not like my mother was more honest than my aunt because she could talk to me in a more intimate tone. It was a mere difference of style. My mother’s central concern, anyway, was never the past, but the future. And when we were alone, my future. Her performance was all about it.

“Oh, to be your age again, Quique, to be seventeen and carefree. Although I don’t think I was ever as carefree as I should’ve been. There was always something or someone in the back of my mind telling me I had a million chores to do. Maybe because from a very young age I knew I wanted to be doctor. And since my mother couldn’t afford to send me to college, I had to plan things very carefully. Yes, I had to work after school from junior high on to save money. I also had on my shoulders this enormous pressure to get good grades. And since I also knew my mother wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of me leaving home to go to school, I did it all very quietly and somehow found a way not to be discouraged by what everybody told me, including my mother: Why would you bother studying something you’ll never be able to practice? Wouldn’t it be better to stay here and become a teacher like your sisters? ’Cause you know that no matter what you study, you’ll end up as a housewife, don’t you? And for that you don’t need any degree. Nobody does. Or don’t you want to have a family?

“Yes, I wanted to have a family. Of course. But how could I have explained to my mother that I also wanted to be a doctor and I didn’t see a conflict between the two? And I was full of doubts and I couldn’t tell her anything about it. Doubts about how I was going to survive all by myself in the big city. Doubts about what I was going to do once I ran out of the money I’d saved working after school. Doubts about not being smart or dedicated enough to study medicine, a career that in those days took a minimum of twelve years. To her, I could only show determination.

“Then, in my last year of high school, during winter break, my friend Martha, yes, Auntie Martha as you call her, well, she and her family moved to Lima. And her mom, who’d always treated me like a daughter, knowing that I was dying to go to college, offered me room and board in exchange for light housekeeping. That was all I needed to believe I was going to be who I wanted to be. And I know it’s not in good taste to compare yourself with others, but I can’t help but be a little envious at how fortunate you are, dear. You have our total support and nobody laughs at you because you’re going to San Francisco to be an engineer. And traveling, oh my God, is so much easier and safer nowadays.

“Imagine. Depending on the weather conditions and the type of ship you boarded, the trip to Lima could take up to two weeks. There were no airplanes. The roads were impassable. On top of everything, there was a war. No, not against the Chileans. Europe was at war. The German submarines were roaming the coast of Peru. They had already sunk a few passenger ships. My mom and my sister Chepa kept repeating to me, Death at sea means no grave. How are we going to leave you flowers?

“And I have to say that, for all my unshakeable determination, when the day to leave for Lima finally came, and we took a taxi to the port of Arica, as I stepped off it, my legs wouldn’t hold me up. Thank God your Rosamelia was there to practically carry me out of the car. And then, when we got to the pier, and I saw the actual ship I was supposed to board, not only my legs but my entire body went limp. It was such a ridiculously puny little thing. It was full of badly patched holes too. The paint was peeling from it like when you get sunburnt and your skin starts to come off. Anyway, the only painted part, sort of, was the captain’s cabin, where you could read its name: El Rey.

“‘That’s the saddest king I’ve seen in my life. What kind of a king is that?’ I remember telling Rosamelia, and then I burst into tears.

“I was in shock. Totally. Instead of the giant, floating city made of polished wood and shiny steel I had dreamt of, it was this pathetic fishing boat that had been, I don’t know how, turned into a sort of passenger-carrying device. To my astonishment, though, there were tons of people boarding. Nobody seemed to mind the boat’s funkiness. Thankfully, too, Rosamelia wouldn’t leave my side. So I eventually calmed down, although when it was my turn to walk up the ramp, my body just wouldn’t move.

“I had also cried so much, I couldn’t see anything. So Rosamelia, once again, helped me gather myself. She cleaned my face and retouched my makeup while she kept whispering, ‘This is no time to wobble, Ameriquita. You hear me? You’re going to be fine. You don’t need a giant boat to make it to Lima. Actually, it’s a lot safer than going in one of those fancy ships. Or do you think the Germans are going to waste a torpedo on that shitty cardboard raft?’

“You could always count on your aunt, I suppose, to make you laugh at the worst moments … Anyway, I did settle down, and eventually walked up the ramp. And only when I found a place on the deck where I had a clear view of the pier did I notice the joyous party around me. I’d been too overwhelmed to pay attention to it. A military band was playing cuecas, marineras, waltzes. Peruvians and Chileans were singing and dancing and embracing each other by the pier. It was, I remember telling myself, the perfect atmosphere to say goodbye to my childhood and teenage years.

“I could see my two sisters and my mother from the deck, standing there, so elegant in their long, flowery dresses, so glamorous under their wide-brimmed hats. Well, my two sisters. My mother had made herself up, but she wore only black. ‘I’m a professional widow,’ she liked to say. And I kept staring at them as they stood together, holding hands, waving their tear-soaked handkerchiefs. And I remember realizing, just before the boat began to glide off the pier, that I didn’t feel sad. Actually, I felt euphorically happy. I was crying happy tears.”

It Doesn’t Really End

I don’t remember ever asking my mother why she didn’t become a doctor. I don’t remember her volunteering an explanation about what kept her from realizing her dream either. It may seem odd now, but never did back then. One more layer of selective silence between us was far from discomfiting. One more tale in which she kept the central point unmentioned was part of her signature style. Like Homer leaving the Trojan War out of the Odyssey.

It was a mutual restraint anyway. I never told her anything about my sentimental or sexual adventures, even when she knew the actors involved. Like my long, languid, and predictable romance with Carla, her closest friend’s daughter, who would ride with me in my father’s car with the absolute conviction that we were destined to be married and live merrily ever after once I returned from San Francisco as a civil engineer. With the same unassuming confidence, too, she would never let me touch her body when we kissed. That was only supposed to happen when we marry.

In the same vein, it never crossed my mind either to tell my mother about my numerous escapades with my fellow Conchesumadres to the biggest whorehouse in town as a sort of never-ending farewell ritual during our last year of high school. Silence was, as I’ve said, an essential part of our deal, a deal that often made me think I had been raised (I had been cursed, really) to be a duplicitous, untrustworthy man, which, in turn, was also part of my secret reasons for wanting to leave home. Maybe away from her, without the fear of trampling on my own lies, I could speak openly about my life, I could enjoy a sort of freedom only imaginable once I could be on my own and that, not coincidentally, I began to savor the very same winter night I boarded a Boeing 747 bound to San Francisco.

Actually, I first noticed the change in myself a bit before boarding, while I waited with the other passengers at the gate and couldn’t stop looking at (as if I were looking at the encrypted version of my life to come) the giant tattoo covering the entire aircraft, the work (I later found out) of Alexander Calder, my favorite American artist because of it. And it was at that moment, the free-floating shapes painted by Calder providing a playful lightness to the moment, when I thought of Aunt Rosamelia (not my mother) as the only person in the world capable of telling the tale I was about to begin. And all of a sudden there she was. Or maybe I should say, there we were—out in the patio, the unbearable, summer sun sneaking in through the vines, the dirty dishes gone so as not to attract yet another invincible army of flies.

“Think about it. Just think about it for a minute. Grandpa Enrique with his two cousins, Manuel and Alvaro, had come up with this crazy tradition. Every weekend, they would go out late at night and terrorize lonely Chileans, preferably cops and soldiers. They’d cover their faces and attack them like vandals. Like a swarm of wasps, was how he used to describe what he did, which we had to keep secret, of course.

“I suppose Manuel and Alvaro did it out of patriotism. My father’s motivations, though, as I’ve said before, were less political. He was just a born contrarian son of a gun whose worst fear, by the way, was to be turned into a hero. Oh yeah, a hero is a political fabrication for suckers, I remember him saying. Hero or not, anyway, he knew he was playing with fire. You can’t go around beating people up with total impunity. You eventually gotta pay.”

“That’s right, Auntie. Everybody’s gotta pay. If not on the way in, on the way out.”

“I’m gland we’re in agreement here, Omar. Well, one Saturday night, a few days before Peruvian Independence Day, a night that apparently began just like any other violent night for your grandpa and his cousins, he finally had to face his fate.

“Now, you have to remember that, by then, word had spread around. So very few Chileans now dared to walk late at night by themselves. After going around and around fruitlessly looking for a victim, then, they decided to call it a night. Before disbanding, though, they went for drinks at La Bodega de Nicolás, which was about two blocks away from the Chilean Prefect’s Palace. And it was there, over fried pork skin and homemade wine, that Grandpa came up with the idea of bringing down the Chilean flag flying at the entrance to the Palace.

“According to my cousin Marilina, uncle’s Alvaro daughter, the main purpose of bringing down the flag was to pee on it. Knowing my father, though, I’d say he probably also wanted to shit on it. Anyway, that was the brilliant plan. My dear father only had brilliant plans. My God, why do men have to think with their dicks? When will they grow up? That’s why I will keep on saying till the day I die, if you want to make of him a hero, feel free to do so. But I don’t think peeing or shitting on a flag counts as heroism. He certainly didn’t either.

“Anyway, in order to shit on the flag, first they had to deal with the four soldiers guarding the palace day and night. So they decided that Manuel and Alvaro would walk up to them, pretend they were drunker than they were, and begin to insult them, which, needless to say, was something that came very naturally to them. Anyhow, the guards, as expected, bit the bait and ran after them, at which point my father, who’d been hiding somewhere, ran to the pole and brought the flag down.

“He was apparently peeing happily on the flag (he’d drunk enough wine to pee a river, for sure) when a whole platoon of Chilean soldiers came out of the Palace and shot him dead. Right there. He didn’t even have time to pull his dick back. Now, tell me if that’s not a ridiculous way to go. And what for? To send the Chileans a message? I’m telling you, sometimes I wonder if all the problems in the world would be solved if men were goddamned castrated at birth …”

And with her big, confident voice echoing inside me and Grandpa Enrique as the only possible role model for me to follow, I walked out of the gate onto the tarmac, the humid, sticky air of Lima making me feel already in a foreign land, although not too foreign. Not yet. For standing at the most prominent corner of the Lima Airport terrace, my fellow Conchesumadres were waving their arms, jumping and yelling at me: “Give them hell, Henry … Show them what we’re made of in this godforsaken country … lucky bastard … going to the land of James Brown, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, and Janis Joplin … write us about all those drugs you’ll be taking … LSD, motherfucker … mescaline, son of bitch … acid tripping, asshole … get yourself a beautiful all-American girl as sweet as apple pie and as wild as Tina Turner …”

As I comfortably sat back in seat 27A, I could see from my window they were still at it, even though they knew I could no longer hear them. Actually, all I could hear at that moment was my mother’s last late-night admonition, “Whatever you choose to do, darling, just don’t do anything that would bring you shame or remorse, okay? That’s all I ask.”

It was, I realized then, as it had always been and will always be—the two sisters of perpetual discord arguing and, by doing so, making sure I had path to follow or elude, a model to emulate or reject, an impossible-possible future and an intractable yet somehow always entertaining past.

The plane was up in the air now. It was that time of the night when Mother and I met with unintentional punctuality. Time for the late-night flavors, sounds, and shadows that surrounded us too: the casual, drunk footsteps of someone crossing the street, the occasional squealing of tires around the corner, followed by the irrepressible laughter of teenagers at the wheel, the discordant, foreign-accented voices of Mexican-dubbed American sitcoms coming from our neighbor’s window, the distant smell of an ocean we couldn’t see yet always dreamt about, especially in winter.

As the flight attendant made the customary announcements after takeoff, I felt the dry, quick caress of my mother’s warm lips on my right cheek, the unequivocal sign that it was time for me to get up from her bed and walk to my room in the dark, absolutely clueless about the life I would create for myself away from her, a life that would include (to my endless sense of secret pride and my mother’s unbearable shame) falling in love with the perfect girl with the wrong skin color, and quitting engineering and then school altogether to become, of all things, a tennis coach.

Willy Lizárraga was born in Peru and moved to San Francisco as a teenager. He has published short stories in the New South Journal, ZYZZYVA, Arroyo Literary Review, and Reed Magazine. He has one published novel in Spanish, winner of the 1996 Letras de Oro Literary Prize.

Sunrise on Pluto
Arielle Schussler

First Place, Creative Nonfiction Prize

Sometimes you picture what it must be like on Pluto.

You picture the stillness.

You picture that special kind of silence that pounds beyond the ears, into the airways, past the base of the throat—a choking kind of silence. You consider how cold it must be. A cold that is not a tidal wave, but a shock, the kind of cold someone becomes “exposed to” rather than “experiences,” the way a person can be exposed to a virus or flesh-eating disease. You picture how miniscule the earth looks from it. Not even a speck on the black corkboard of the night’s sky. How insignificant you are from Pluto. You can’t even be seen, out of sight, out of mind; you might as well not even exist. No one would know that somewhere, light years away, you exist as you are. Your problems and experiences are erased by miles of stardust and dark matter, faded by the pulsating, burning light of the cosmos, where problems are deaths of stars, and physical laws order the universe, and mysteries are about how time and space are interwoven in a way that we can travel backwards or forwards in both.

The thought of Pluto comforts you. But it also terrifies you.

It terrifies you to think of a place that dark, that cold, that still, that quiet. Can you even see the sun from Pluto? No. You don’t suppose you can. Your heart aches for Plutonians. You believe there were no sunrises on Pluto. That it was always dark.

***

One more time. Just one more. Take out the batteries. Put them back in. Wait until the screen turns blue. It always says 4.5, even before pressure activated. Wait until it changes to “CAL” then step. What is wrong with this thing? How is that number possible? You don’t understand. You ate nothing yesterday. One more time. Maybe the machine is broken. Maybe you need to buy a new machine. What are you doing wrong? You don’t understand. Take out the batteries. Put them back in. Wait until the screen turns blue. It always says 4.5, even before pressure activated. Wait until it changes to “CAL” then step. What do you do? Nothing is working. Nothing is working. You take off your clothes and look in the mirror. Sometimes the numbers don’t mean anything. Make sure you can still see each of the ribs. Turn to the side. Can you count the ribs? You should be able to see the ribs. The ribs should stick out more. You shouldn’t have to stretch to see the ribs. Where are your ribs? This is because of last night. This is all Last-Night You’s fault. You hate Last-Night You. The extra bite you ate last night clings to you like a fanny pack. The extra bites from months past stack on each other, totem of fanny packs. The more fanny packs, the larger the sweater you have to pull over them. Not that anything helps—you always first show weight gain in the face.

***

You asked your partner how the Theory of Special Relativity worked last year. You have always wanted to understand it. You wanted to understand everything. You wanted things to make sense. How does the speed affect time? Why should how fast one travels affect the way time is not only felt, but the way it moves? You couldn’t wrap your mind around it. You understood that the way a mind experiences time can change based on how fast one moves, but you couldn’t understand how time literally moves differently depending on the speed of any object in motion. How is it that the mind and the body can be so easily deceived?

“You don’t need to understand the Theory of Special Relativity. Most people don’t,” he said after your pestering.

“Yes, I do,” you said. “I do in fact need to understand the Theory of Special Relativity.”

“Watch a video on Youtube,” he suggested. You watched one together. There were cartoons of spaceships and stick figures and mirrors and balls.

He looked at you expectantly.

“Well, there you go.”

You searched for another video. Then another. And another. More spaceships and stick figures. A ball for the sun and a ball for the earth and dots for stars.

“I don’t get it,” you said. “If you have a person on earth travelling the speed of the planet circling the sun, and then you have another person on a ship travelling the speed of light, the person on the ship may be gone for like five years in their experience, but then comes back home to find that a hundred years has passed. I don’t get why something as arbitrary as speed could have that effect.”

He shrugged. “That’s the way it is.”

“But how much time as really passed?”

“Depends on your inertial frame of reference.”

“But objectively.”

“Depends on your inertial frame of reference.”

“But according to a Berkeleian of God that is omnipresent and omniscient at all times and spaces and witnesses all things?”

“There is no Berkeleian of God,” he said. “But if there was, it would depend on the inertial frame of reference.”

“But objectively.”

“Depends on your inertial frame of reference.”

You wanted numbers. You wanted facts. You felt stupid for trying to demand something called “The Theory of Relativity” to be objective. But that was how your mind worked. You didn’t want to have to deal with an inertial frame of reference. You wanted things to just be.

***

You can’t even look in the mirror anymore because your face is a moon. Your face is not supposed to be a moon. Moon face. Moon face. Moon face. Your face is not supposed to be a moon. No pictures, no mirrors, all because of the moon face and fanny packs and the large sweater. You’re supposed to be small and pretty. You don’t want to leave the house or get out of bed. Don’t you want to take pictures again? Don’t you want to be able to walk past a mirror without avoiding eye contact with the thing with the moon face and the fanny packs and the sweater? Don’t you want to be small and pretty again? Don’t you want to go outside into the sun again? You know what to do. Don’t eat today. You won’t eat today. But you didn’t eat yesterday? But you didn’t eat wrong. You had an extra bite. And you didn’t get that feeling—you know the feeling. The one right before bed. Your head is supposed to spin, you’re supposed to be dizzy. That’s when you know you did it right. You’re supposed to feel like you’re about to pass out. You didn’t feel that way last night. What did you do wrong? The extra bite. It is your fault that this isn’t working. You’re supposed to cut out the sugar, carbs, eat the green thing, the leafy thing. More of the leafy thing. All leafy things. Throw out the candy bar you’ve been saving for a good day—give your partner the candy bar. It isn’t worth it. Even though it is your favorite. Even though you have been saving it. You know you will hate yourself the next day when you are stepping on the scale. Don’t eat. Then you’ll be small and pretty. Get sick. Find a way to get sick. Two to three days of being sick. That’s all it takes. Sleep for two to three days. Eat a slice of toast per day. You’ll see the ribs again. And you’ll get the dizziness. Everything will be ok again when you’re small and pretty. You can go out in the sun again then.

***

You picture Pluto. You are no longer on earth. Your inertial frame of reference shifts.

No calories on Pluto.

No fat on Pluto.

No body on Pluto.

No you on Pluto.

Pluto is dark.

Pluto is still.

Pluto is silent.

Pluto is indifferent.

On Pluto, there is no you and you don’t have to change anything, and it is okay if you don’t understand the Theory of Special Relativity because if there’s no you, there’s no need to understand—not why you can’t lose weight, why time literally moves differently depending on the speed of any object in motion, why your face is a moon, why your scale is broken. There’s no You. You are not an object in motion. You don’t have an inertial frame of reference. Nothing has to make sense. You don’t have to understand anything. There is no you. Everything is still. Everything is peaceful. Everything is dark. There is no sun to see.

 

***

 

Take the pills. Small and pretty little orange pills. They’ll make you sick, and they’ll keep you by the toilet all night—but it will be worth it. Get rid of everything until you’re hollow. You’ll get nice and dizzy and hollow, and then you will be small and pretty. You’ve done two pills in twenty-four hours. Maybe keep at it for two days? Is that enough? Three days? Four? That’s like you aren’t eating. Good. No food, just pills. Do that. Then you will be small and pretty. And go to the gym. Remember to go to the gym. Push yourself hard. But don’t push yourself too hard. You always push too hard. You force your heart rate over 190 for hours on end. Your partner tells you that you aren’t going to lose any weight that way because you have passed the fat-burning zone and gone into cardio. You will just end up shaking and collapsing. Fainting. Then eating. Then all of the good work you’ve done will be lost. Don’t give up. You can do this. Don’t eat. Get sick. Sleep. Take the pills. Work out. Get nice and dizzy and hollow. That’s all it takes.

 

***

 

You were talking to one of your friends about something else when you blurted out about Pluto. This was the first time you talked about Pluto out loud.

“I picture Pluto sometimes. Like, what this moment looks like on Pluto. There’s no air or sound or light. You can’t even see the sun. Can you believe that? I terrify myself imagining that kind of darkness.”

“You can see the Sun from Pluto,” he responded, not even missing a beat. “It isn’t that dark.”

“Are you sure? I don’t think so.”

He googled it, and clicked on a picture. It was an artistic rendition drawn to projected scale. Sure enough, there it was. No longer a Sun, just another star. Bright. An arrow on the picture labeled it for you.

“See? Apparently, it would be even brighter than the moon appears to us.”

“Hmm.”

“Doesn’t that help with the fear? On Pluto, you can still see the Sun.”

But you were not comforted by the extended arms of a sun that refuses to disappear into the night’s sky. You realized it isn’t the darkness that scares you.

 

***

 

You’ll wake up perfect. You can say good-bye to the moon face and fanny packs and the sweaters and the dark, and you can take pictures again and look in mirrors again and go out in the sun again, and you will be happy and perfect, and you can take pictures again and look in mirrors again and be in the sun again, and you will be happy, and you can take pictures again and look in mirrors again and be in the sun again, and you will be happy and perfect, and you will be small and pretty and small and pretty and small and pretty and small and pretty.

 

***

 

You were at the beach at night last week. The water was dark, the sky was dark, the sand was dark. Everything was black and terrifying, and the only lights you could see were thousands upon thousands upon thousands of light years away. You shocked the dark by illuminating your phone screen, using an app to find Pluto. It was underneath your horizon, below the ocean waves, deep into the tangled kelp depths of the ocean floor, past where the schools of fish sleep, past where the crustaceans crawl, past where the plankton sway. You later look up the type of creatures that would live in a darkness that deep, and find photos of giant isopods, viper fish, fangtooths, and saccopharyngiformes. What is more terrifying, the dark or the creatures that live in it? You can’t decide. Maybe it is better for them that they can’t see themselves. You think of Pluto. Are these Plutonians? You wonder if they can see the sun rise. You decide that they can’t. Your heart no longer aches for them.

Arielle Schussler is a writer and editor living in the San Francisco Bay Area. After dropping out of art school, Arielle went on to get her BA in Philosophy at UC Berkeley and then a dual MFA in Fiction and Non-Fiction at Saint Mary’s College of California. She is currently working on a collection of essays.

The Alligator
Katie Trang Quach

Runner-Up, Creative Nonfiction Prize

The four of us kids crowd into the green Chevy Impala that looks and moves like an alligator. At three years old, I am small enough to fit on Ma’s lap in the front. My sister Xuan gets a window seat in the back because she’s the eldest. My brother Trung gets the other window seat because he’s the boy. Phuong is the diplomatic middle child and sits between the two, where all the seatbelts have collected into a tangled heap that rattle and bump against her backside.

I rest my chin on Ma’s shoulder to get a better view of the three of them: Xuan, Trung, and Phuong, bundled close together in age, at ten, nine, and seven, with names that rhyme and sing like a Chop suey musical. When they are in high school, Phuong’s classmate will learn there is a fourth youngest sibling, dissonantly named “Katie.” She’ll recite all three of their Vietnamese names in shrill succession, then say the final American name in an anticlimactic barren monotone. Xuan! Trung! Phuong! Katie.

This will become the family joke we share with friends and acquaintances. Also a quick and efficient family history lesson too: three Vietnamese names for three kids born in Vietnam. Then an American name for the accidental last one, born eleven months after the family arrived to the U.S.

When I get too big to sit on Ma’s lap without fearing the cops will pull us over, my parents send me to the backseat with the rest of my siblings. I don’t mind squeezing in the middle—with half my body balanced on top of Phuong’s bony thigh while gripping  Ma’s head rest with curled fingertips—because I’m closer to their trio. They talk and I only understand snippets, about friends Sonia and Fat Abe, or a class they attend with three alphabet letters, E, S, and L. Phuong says she loves so and so teacher of E, S, and L. Xuan wrinkles her nose and says the teacher’s breath smells like coffee. Trung nods in silent agreement to Phuong, Xuan, or both. I can’t be sure.

In order to make more room in the backseat, Phuong and I stuff the seatbelt buckles into the crack between the synthetic leather cushions. Our parents don’t mind; they view seatbelts as yet another American frill, much like dishwashers or deodorant. Ba likes to remind us the family vehicle back in Vietnam was a Honda moped, with all three of my siblings sandwiched between him in the front and Ma in back, weaving through the crowded streets of Saigon.

“Goddamn!” He laughs whenever he tells this story and we can see the gold fillings in the deep recesses of his mouth. “Phuong was just a baby then, held by your mother. No seatbelt, no helmet, nothing. That’s what it’s like over there. Tin không? Can you believe that?”

We can believe that because Ba drives like he’s never driven a car before. He grips the steering wheel at ten and two o’clock, on the dot. His posture frozen upright. He refuses to relax because getting too comfortable will surely lead to collision. Instead of driving the speed limit, he takes that number and subtracts ten to fifteen miles. We skulk along the high way. Everyone hates us on the I-19. Truck drivers honk. Hunchbacked grannies flip us off. We beg him to please drive like a normal person but he ignores us.

Ba’s greatest fear is the police. Years later, I’ll learn how he lived through the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Communist takeover of South Vietnam. He witnessed what people in overnight positions of power were capable of: random late-night searches of neighbors’ homes, and the arrest and “re-education” of people he knew, like my great uncle who was sent to a labor camp and separated from his wife and two young children for thirteen years. Instead of threatening me with the “Boogeyman,” my parents warn, “Càhn Sát, the police, will get you if you’re naughty.” Each time I see a cop car, my insides turn to gelatin.

 

Seated on Ma’s lap, I watch Ba slow the Alligator for a distant stop sign. With another half block to go, he taps his foot on the gas pedal to get us closer to the stop sign, only to stop altogether seconds later.

Ba’s driving is an exaggerated show of respecting the law, but he is a road hazard. One a weekend morning when I’m big enough to be seated in back, we get pulled over. We’re on our way to the Asian grocery stores on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis. The sirens blare behind us just like they do on the TV shows.

Dụ mẹ. Motherfucker. Kill me now,” he says as he pulls the car to the side of the road. Then he swivels around to face us. “No one speaks English! Got it? The less we understand the better.” He directs this at the four of us because we always communicate to each other in English, only resorting to Vietnamese when the conversation involves our parents, relatives, or their friends. He knows we are well versed in switching languages on the fly, or in this case, holding our tongues.

“You kids buckle up or else Càhn Sát are going to throw you in jail,” Ma adds.

Xuan and Trung are frantic digging the seatbelts out from under the cushion, all while accusing Phuong and me of burying them too deep. Trung finds three and because I’m the youngest, I’m left to fend for myself—most likely alone in a barren prison cell.

The cop saunters over and peers into the window at the four of us, silent in the backseat. He’s Viking blonde and enormous. He could be the size of all of us kids combined. I fold my hands in my lap in prayer, in a last-minute declaration of my innocence. It also hides my nonexistent seatbelt buckle. Ba does his lost-in-translation routine that involves a lot of hearty smiles and deferential nods. The police officer lets us off the hook “this time,” but warns, “Driving too slow isn’t safe either, you know.” Ba laughs and his gold filling twinkles in the afternoon sun. He says “Thank you” again before accelerating until Càhn Sát is out of sight, then returns to creeping below the speed limit as cars whiz past us on the road.

 

***

 

Seeing my siblings in the backseat now, I realize I’m the only one in the family wearing something new. It’s starchy. A pale pink confection with fluffy marshmallow sleeves and an exaggerated pilgrim collar that curls up and scratches my chin.

I wore this dress once before, at a birthday party. There were balloons that shined like enormous lollipops, a frosted cake with flowers made of thick sugared petals, and huge bottles of Pepsi that I swallowed in greedy gulps with both hands. In my sugared ecstasy, I spilled and stained the front of the dress. Ma managed to get most of it out, but I can still see a faint brown outline floating on my chest.

My hair is done up too. In the living room earlier that morning, Ma beckoned me holding the artillery in her hands: a broad hairbrush, which, from a distance, resembled a spanking paddle, and two rubber hair tie nunchucks with red, plastic balls attached to both ends.

“Sit still,” she commanded, yanking huge fistfuls of my hair.

The brush had wire bristles that seared my scalp with each aggressive stroke. I closed my eyes to stifle the pain and felt my hair crackling tight at my temples. The plastic balls made quick snaps as she wound a tidy bundle on both sides of my head. Two sacrificial pigtails. “There. Cute,” she said. Neither of us smiled.

Ma made sure my sisters and brother were dressed in the best secondhand clothes she could find today, but still they look itchy and poor. Phuong’s wearing a turquoise polyester dress with a skinny lace collar and matching lace sleeves. Two white, decorative buttons dangle down the center. Both sides of her hair are pulled back in matching white barrettes, giving her the appearance of a cocker spaniel statuette.

At ten years old, Xuan has mastered a business casual appearance. No accessories decorate her shoulder-length wispy hair or hand cut bangs. She wears khaki-colored jeans and a red, white, and blue striped collared shirt. Ma probably convinced her to wear this because she believes in dressing in patriotic colors, likely in an effort to placate our foreign-ness in our small Minnesotan town.

At her U.S citizenship ceremony, Ma dazzled in a white knee-length dress with thin, navy, windowpane stripes. Her outfit accented with red heels, a skinny red belt, and matching red lipstick. She convinced the elderly judge who presided over the ceremony to take a photo with her, with Xuan wearing a blue dress and Phuong wearing a dark pink dress (the closest thing to red she owned) standing on each side. It was my mother’s proud American debut. Photo evidence, too, of how she passed the test on her first try, while my father had to re-take the test a second time, begrudgingly, a few years after her, before he finally passed.

Compared to the bright colors adorning us girls, Trung appears camouflaged. His large brown eyes and tanned summer skin blend seamlessly into the mahogany crisscrosses of his short sleeved, button-down shirt and tawny corduroy pants.

When we ask our parents why they aren’t dressed up today, they shudder and make their usual huffs when they don’t want to elaborate. “No. No. We don’t need that,” Ma says.

We kids develop a rash against the synthetic fibers we’re forced to wear, while our parents flaunt their comfortable weekend attire: loose, elastic band pants for Ma and saggy faded Levi’s on Dad. American jeans are too long for his legs, so he has them rolled up several times at the cuff, like denim donuts floating around his ankles.

The Alligator plods through the quiet residential streets until we reach down-town Northfield. Ba parks in front of Harmon’s Photography Studio and orders us out. Ma has me in her arms but I wiggle free. I want to stand on the street like the rest of them.

A bell rings when we open the door, signaling our arrival. The man behind the counter looks as old as Ba. He has the same bushy moustache that looks as itchy as my collar. He glances at our family of six without saying a word. This kind of sullen reaction is familiar to us by now. Ba and Ma both smile. Ma pushes Xuan to the front and tells her, “Hoi Ong di. Go ahead. Ask him.”

Xuan places her hands on the chest–high counter to show she means business. Or perhaps to steady herself. Her voice is poised, well-practiced. “We’d like to get some photos taken today, please.”

“Ask him how much,” Ba says.

“Tell him we want photos of you kids, none of us,” Ma chimes.

“Normally we do photos by appointment only,” Bushy Moustache says. He looks over Xuan’s head at Ma and Ba, as if to chastise them.

Oh. We didn’t know,” Xuan makes the same forlorn face I’ve seen her do many times. It’s a look of exaggerated hurt and confusion that would be distasteful on most, but elicits sympathy from strangers because she is a ten-year-old translator working full-time for our parents.

“What are you saying? Did he tell you how much?” Ba repeats in Vietnamese.

Bushy Moustache sighs. He points to a sheet of prices and photo packages, which Xuan and my parents bend over and scrutinize. Once they decide on the cheapest, two photo set, he leads our family to the back of the store, cordoned off by a dark and heavy curtain. A raised platform stands in the center of the room, with a lone and regal wicker chair on it. He switches on a bright light that’s attached to a skinny umbrella, rolls down a projector-like screen behind the platform, and repeatedly returns to his camera to see if the view has changed since the last time he checked.

In the meantime, Ma pats down my hair and smooths the layers of my skirt. She adjusts the gold necklace dangling through the petaled labyrinth of my collar, making sure the pendant is perfectly centered below my chin.

It’s the first I’ve seen of this necklace. Ma must have stowed it somewhere safe to preserve it from grubby kid fingers, then clasped it on me when I wasn’t paying attention. I’m reminded of my parents’ friends Cô Dao and Cô Cup, chirping Vietnamese women in our neighborhood who wear a cloying amount of perfume and thin gold bangles with glittery etchings that sparkle up and down their wrists. I’m flattered, feeling exquisitely grown up in my gold adornment. I look down to admire the necklace and see it dangling right above the brown Pepsi stain.

Bushy Moustache turns to Ma and says, “Yup, we’re a go.”

Everyone’s eyes are on me, watching as Ma lifts me up and plants me into the wicker chair that feels dangerously high. She returns to the rest of the family, who stand next to the camera, several feet from me. I feel like a zoo exhibit. Their voices topple over each other’s.

“Smile, ok?”

“Look at the Moustache man.”

“Look happy!”

“Don’t close your eyes! They’re small enough as it is,” Ba says.

“Sit still, Con My, my American child,” Ma coos.

Con My, American Child, is a nickname that’s meant to be funny. It’s what Ma calls me when I get too loud or whiny for her Vietnamese standards, look chubby, hairy, or exhibit unusual behavior that defies her cultural understanding and must be attributed to my American birth. Ma calls me Con My as a joke, but in this moment, I feel jolted.

I’ve been shunned to a solitary chair in the center of the room, opposite a united pack, observing me from a comfortable distance. Why is no one else joining me for a photo? Why am I alone?

“Smile!” they hoot. I scan their faces across the room—Ma, Ba, sisters, and brother—each one feverish with excitement. I hear clapping, whistles, clucks, clicks, snaps, and cheers. Phuong is doubled over in laughter. Dad’s hands are waving in the air as though he were the Master of Ceremonies of his own parade. I might be imagining it, but I think Xuan has a tambourine in her hand, shaking and jostling it to and fro to her own dance party. Even Trung is smiling. Amid the ruckus, Ma calls out Con My again to get my attention.

It’s my greatest fear realized: my family is complete without me. I arrived after Vietnam, the escape by boat, and the refugee camp in Thailand. All my life, I will feel the family I know is a watered down, partial truth. A cleaned-up version that doesn’t quite capture the full picture that is my family.

Up high on the wicker throne, it doesn’t occur to me that my family’s putting on a show for my benefit, in the hopes of getting a good photo. My only desire is to join their festivities. My hands clench both sides of the wicker chair and I cry. In response, their cheers get louder. The skinny umbrella beams hot light on my face. Tears stream down my cheeks and form small puddles in the crevices of my skirt. Despite their cries for me to smile, my lips quiver in dissent, refusing to turn upwards.

Finally, Bushy Moustache says, “Yup, that’ll do it. I tried the best I could, but geesh. She doesn’t like getting her picture taken, huh?”

“What’s the matter with her?” Ma says. The celebration suddenly ends. Everyone looks exhausted, exasperated.

“Cry baby,” Ba declares.

 

It should have been a happy photo. I should have been smiling—exploding with unbridled joy—for the camera. I didn’t have the worries or troubled memories of escaping Vietnam like my siblings. I was the American everyone could call their own—I have an American daughter. An American sister. It was supposed to be a photo my parents could show off to relatives and friends, a record of their new beginning in this new country. I should have been smiling to prove it.

Instead, it’s only afterwards, when Xuan, Trung, and Phuong come onto the stage to join me, that I am able to smile. Bushy Moustache brings extra chairs and arranges the three of them into a halo around me: Trung seated to my right, Xuan to my left, and Phuong standing behind me. My tears halt. In my relief, I feel lightheaded and giddy. This time, when Ma and Ba tell us to smile from across the room, my legs are bouncing up and down in anticipation. My hands are rolled up in delighted fists in my lap. I squint with laughter.

When we get the photos a week later, the disparity between the first and second shot becomes a family joke. In the first photo, tears well in my eyes, my hands are squeezing the chair tight, and my lips are clenched in a look of constipated despair. In the second photo—the one of all four kids— I look like I’m squealing on a rollercoaster ride, while everyone else has a composed and sensible smile. Together, I am still mismatched from the rest.

My mother will buy matching silver frames and keep the photos on her bedroom dresser for years, until they sell the house and pack everything up. In the mayhem of their cross-country move to California, temporary relocations and reconfigurations of where and how our parents would live as her dementia worsened, as her memory went from blurry to blank, I’d somehow inherit the first photo of me alone and crying.

Katie Quach is a teacher and writer currently living in Hoi An, Vietnam. She was born in Northfield, MN. She’s lived in Flatbush, Lopburi, Hanoi, Mexico City, Alameda, and San Francisco, but considers California her home. She is an alumna of the Tin House Writers Workshop and Vermont College of Fine Art’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Her story “The Alligator,” is her first publication. She is slowly, slowly working on her first book. More of her writing can be found at katiequach.com.

Three Poems
Daniel Arias Gómez

First Place, Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

Cathedrals

Tío, the desert is a skin too.          It peels off
just like anything else.          I’d like to think you loved
 
nopales—that you went to market, picked up a few
in a plastic bag, sliced them, ate them like that, in between
your fingers. When I was young my family used to drive
 
to Rocazul for family gatherings at an old house—
red tile cracked, white walls water stained, bricks
worn down, scorpions everywhere, and black worms
bloated and disgusting with things that looked like thorns
coming out their bodies that made your skin burn
if you touched them, gusanos quemadores, and a small garden
where the light had trouble getting in through the heads
of the trees. At the center there was a statue
 
of San Juan Bosco, some saint who was poor and performed
tricks on the street for money.             Every year, the skin
 
of the statue grew worse, green with moss, water
marks, the edges of the stone robes defaced, and
the face smoother, lighter, the nose, the hair, the smile,
his two hands reaching out to you,
                                                                     to nowhere. You said
 
you liked it at the detention facility, that they fed
you at least.            When your brother tried
 
to help you, take you off the streets, you threw a rock
                                                                         at his window and broke
the glass. The police came for you. And now they won’t tell us when you’ll be
 
deported, or where, they’ll just leave
a note of your absence online, but my father doesn’t have the heart
 
to look. And even now I know so little
of you—vague mentions of drugs, mental
disorders, your parents abandoning you, the crossing
when you were young, a hand hitting you
on the face, a mouth screaming at you.
                                                                           You worked
 
rolling carpets in Arizona, lugging them into people’s cars. You
gave me my first cerveza one day we were watching
football and my father stepped out and you handed it to me
and said córrele chingatela rápido, and you liked birds,
especially a cockatoo you named Chupe, and staring
at the desert at daybreak, and one time we saw
a road runner and you lectured me about my tattoos,
said the skin is a desert and the things we bury
 
in it become a road of cobbled stones
                                                                    we have to walk. Michelle is leaving
for work soon, overnight shift at Denny’s. Once, Michelle’s mother
 
hit her on the face with a big wooden spoon, called her
a fat useless piece of shit, said she was going back
 
to Mexico and leaving her all alone. And when Michelle found out her father
wasn’t her real father, and she asked him if that’s why he treated her
 
differently than her siblings, why he treated her like a maid, yelled at her, made
sure she couldn’t go to college, he said, yes, and asked
 
for forgiveness.
                              Sometimes I don’t know how
 
to love someone.             But what
if I said I think you’re wrong? What if I said the things
 
we bury in our skin make cathedrals out of us?
 
                                                                                   Tío, if they drop you off
on a cobbled road, put down your hand and feel the warmth of the
                                                                                                                        sun on the stones.
 
The desert is a skin too, tío
                                                                     I’d like to think you loved

 
 
 

Ode to Sprinklers

If the factory is a kind
of cathedral, this is how you pray—
 
your calloused hands at the assembling
line counting plastic nails, counting little
plastic spheres, red, purple, dark green,
counting filters, irrigation hoses, stakes,
bullets, counting long metal pieces, narrow,
 
hollow, your calloused hands
at the gluing table making
 
filters, gluing pvc pipes to couplings,
getting dizzy because of the fumes, shivering
 
because it’s freezing inside
the factory and your fingers are numb
but you still need to take off your gloves to handle the small
pieces, standing by the turkey deep
 
fryers the workers call las ollas used
to soften the pipes to attach the sprinkler
 
heads, heads wearing goggles and
ear plugs, then back
 
at the gluing table where Maria goes
on about a flu epidemic and about how she’s scared
her grandson caught it, and the smell
 
of burning plastic reminds you
of a doll your father bought
 
you at the Cherry Avenue Auction after
you nagged him for half an hour and he said
 
he’d only get you one thing so you
better be sure, and you said you wanted
 
that doll, and you remember
it came in a cardboard box and had plastic
limbs so hard you could barely
 
move them, and you smile and
tell Maria about this one time
 
you were nine or ten and you asked your father
for money and he said no, he said he had
to work for his money, so you got the idea
of washing the neighborhood’s cars for money, and then Joe
your brother wanted in, and then Timothy and Arthur
from two doors down wanted in too, so you’re all
going around asking people if they want
their cars washed, but nobody’s saying
yes, so you say, what if we tell them
we’re from the church and we’re washing
cars to collect donations? and after that
people start saying yes and let you wash
their cars for ten dollars a pop until
 
this one fucking bitter guy frowns and asks you
what church you’re all from, and everybody panics
and you cannot remember for the life
 
of you what’s the name of the church you go
to every Sunday, it has narrow arched windows and a red
 
steeple with a bird’s nest on one corner and a tacky wooden Christ
with blood that looks more like ketchup on his face and pews
that feel cold in the morning even with a sweater on and Timothy says, what church
 
do we go to? and then everybody runs, and later
you divide the money four ways and go
 
home, but the fucking bitter guy couldn’t let go
and knocks on your door and tells your dad what you were
 
doing, and your dad looks really serious, his usually slumped shoulders
suddenly straight, but once he closes the door after the guy leaves he bursts
out laughing and tells you not to do it again but asks
 
how much you made and then he laughs harder.
                                                                                                  If the factory is
 
a kind of cathedral, this is how you pray—your hands, full
of blisters, holding on to pvc pipes as you imagine
 
the water that will run through them and back
into the dirt of someone else’s home.

 
 
 

Say Your Hands Scar

say your hands scar and
blister and know the cut
of a cold morning                    as you take
a broom to swipe the mulberries
on the patio or wash the dishes
still clinging to bits of
fried fish or cradle the neck
of a guitar trying to remember how
to tumble down a mixolydian
scale or clutch the last pieces of a california
roll from the fridge
                    it begins easy enough in the bark
of a tree peeling off in the brick
wall clinging to the afternoon’s
warmth in the damp clothes swinging
on the line there are no rivers
here but sometimes when it rains the water breaks
on the trees’ branches and leaves
a lingering smell of wet dirt say
your hands remember
the liquid touch of hair and
say bones break and skin peels
off like strings from a guitar it begins small
enough
                    michelle wakes up at twelve
in the morning to go to work at a chicken factory
she puts on a brown rubber boot then
she sits there for a moment staring
at the other boot in her hands say your
hands know the cut of the cold air
inside the factory as you cradle
the corpses of chickens and drive a knife
down their middle tear the muscles and break
their skin apart say your hands
know rain and light and the bark of
lips peeling off like breath                    in the window
on the factory’s wall growing bright
as michelle works through saturday’s
mandatory overtime and say that skin
is a wall holding on to the afternoon’s
warmth and stained purple from
the mulberries falling from the branches a man
                    sleeps next to a pollo loco’s drive-thru a boy
hauls the corpse of his mother across the desert and
sergio the handy man comes over to replace our
broken fan and he tells me a story about his wife’s
cancer about how he tried to kill himself but
found god as he puts our old fan inside
the cardboard box                    it begins small enough you
wake up to go make iced vanilla lattes
at starbucks sell internet to people at comcast
say your hands know the weight of the muscles
stretching in the cut of a cold morning                    so tired
you need to take a moment before you put on
the other rubber boot still
waiting in your hands
 
 
 

Daniel Arias-Gómez was born and raised in Guadalajara. He holds an MFA in Poetry from CSU Fresno. His poems have appeared in the American Poetry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, New Ohio Review, Poet Lore, and others.

Dizzy // House
Hannah Erickson

Runner-Up, Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

There are days I live named not good
for anybody
. A single misstep
shakes awake the whole
sleeping house. I stand in front of a mirror
that’s upside-down, do my hair around the crack
in the well of my worst nightmare. I, myself,
only dream
when I am awake. Shaving
in the shower I dream
about cutting my own breasts
from my chest,
carving great
globs of flesh from my own
desirability, breaking
the mirror and razoring
across my face, my lips and legs this
is what you’ve done to me
.

Outside the house, roving eyes
follow me everywhere,
I am whistled at, cat-called, bat-mouthed,
barked at: I long for a greeting in Swahili that means
don’t fucking look at me like that.

I can’t pass the shadow spot on the road, where the light
does not reach, can’t pass between
the houses because my feet are filled
with terror, my entrails
with hunger for a calm
I can’t eat. If there was a bottle of tequila
or a knife fight,
or a bar brawl, I’d crawl
right in there and take it over.

I hate the word survivor,
because it means tethered to the thing
you survived. If you tie a pencil
to a piece of string, pin-prick
a center, and pull it out tight,
push it round to the left, right, left
you get a perfect circle, an invisible
point of origin.

Do you know why I
am always in motion,
on the road? For the same reason
the pencil faces outward: when we reach
the edge of our rope the line
gets taut, we swing or are swung
in triumphant arches
round its outer
boundary, feel only the wind
on our face, a slight tug
under our belly button.

In other words:
we are no longer aware
we exist.

This fate, for me and the pencil:
born dizzy,
die dizzy,
call it freedom.

Hannah is a philosopher, humanitarian, and super-nerd extraordinaire. She is based in East Africa, but is frequently on the move in pursuit of things to think and write about.


Autumnal Tithe
Hannah Parker

Overall First Place, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing

Chapter 1

Larken brought up the mound of dough and slammed it down with a thwap, flour billowing before her. She smacked her hand down again and again, air bubbles exploding beneath her palms. Each time she brought her hand down a single word echoed through her head: Today. Today. Today. Today.

She still couldn’t bring herself to believe it was real—the Choosing Ceremony was finally here. She licked her lips, tasting the flour that had settled there. It seemed like only yesterday that Brigid had been Chosen. It seemed like only yesterday Larken had lost her dearest friend, not four long years ago.

She tried to ignore the shaking of her fingers as she rolled out the dough, her stomach fluttering from nerves and exhaustion. She had spent those years trying to put the Choosing Ceremony behind her, trying to forget that her one friend in the world was gone. But it seemed like she could ignore it no longer.

“Hurry up, Larken!” Papa’s voice boomed, startling her. “Get that bread in the oven and come help me with these cookies.”

Larken groaned, but the edges of her mouth turned up. She stuck her tongue out at her hulking, bear-like father. He winked back, the gesture almost lost under his bushy brows. Had her father been anything but a baker, he would have been absolutely terrifying. Yet despite his broad shoulders and muscled arms, his huge hands frosted the cookies before him with astonishing delicacy. Larken wondered why he even needed her help, as good as he was. Everyone knew she was absolutely hopeless with a piping bag.

Larken wiped her hands on her stomach, glad she had put on an apron to protect her Ceremony dress. She had settled on a fine, heavy-linen gown of light blue with pink stitching, and she preferred that it not be covered in flour when she stood before her entire village. And the fey.

She drew three slits along the top of the dough, shoving it in the oven so hastily that she almost burned her hands on the tiles. She cursed, jerking her hands back.

“Careful, love.” Mama took Larken hands in her own, rubbing them gently. Larken calmed, savoring the feel of her mother’s soft hands surrounding her own. “Forget the cookies, your Papa can finish them. Help me take these down to the festival.” She gestured to one of the wicker baskets brimming with baked goods. “Wait! Get your cloak—you’ll need it.”

Larken nodded, hiding her smile. Mama was always so flustered on Ceremony day. With villagers from the furthest reaches of Ballamor pouring into town, there were more mouths to feed. They had been preparing for days to keep the bakery well-stocked, which meant many nights with little sleep. Hiding a yawn, Larken raced back up the stairs that connected the bakery to her family’s apartment on the upper level. Upon reaching the top she hurled herself up the ladder to her sleeping loft, grabbing her cloak where it laid sprawled out across her bed.

Larken was so eager to return to the bakery that she almost tripped. A smearing of half-completed maps of Ballamor stared up at her, the product of her insomnia the night before. It was a rare thing when charting out her little village couldn’t ease her agitated mind enough to sleep.

Her eyes involuntarily darted to the map nailed above her bed. Two tiny cottages sat next to each other, one labeled “Brigid” in tiny, precise letters and the other “Larken” in her own scrawl. She and Brigid had made it together—their plan for the future. Once they had found husbands, the most handsome men in the village, undoubtedly, they would build cottages next to each other. That way, their children could be as good of friends as they were.

It was Brigid who had found her all those years ago, alone in the woods. As one of the few only children in Ballamor, Larken was used to spending her days alone. Brigid had ventured into the woods that day to escape her family’s sweltering forge and had come across Larken mapping out the nearby pastures.

“What’re you doing?” Brigid had asked. Even then, Brigid had been beautiful. Her dark hair had made her huge blue eyes look even brighter. And even then, they had been opposites. Brigid willow-thin to Larken’s plump, black hair to Larken’s blonde.

“Making maps,” Larken had replied, eyes wary. The other children liked to tease her about it. While most of the children her age were playing Faery and Maiden, she was plotting how far away her family’s bakery was from the mill where they got their flour. Larken didn’t like pretending to be a faery or a princess. No, she preferred facts and knowing where things were in her world instead of daydreaming.

Brigid had peered over her shoulder, observing the grid where Larken had plotted their entire town. Larken had been toying with it for hours, unable to figure out what was wrong with it. She had counted her steps, seeing how many paces were between buildings and how wide the fields were. But something still didn’t fit.

“That tree there—” Brigid pointed to a tiny tree towards the left of the map. “It should be here.” She moved her hand an inch to the right. “It’s in front of Da’s forge—not to the side.” She frowned, noticing Larken’s scribbled label. “And ‘forge’ is spelled with a ‘g’ not a ‘j’.”

“It is a ‘g.’”

Brigid’s eyebrows knitted. “Doesn’t look like one.”

Larken had giggled. Brigid was more straightforward than any of the other village children she had met—but she wasn’t unkind about it.

“How come you can read and do your letters?” Brigid had asked.

“I help my Mama and Papa in the bakery, so I need to be able to follow recipes and record inventory,” Larken had replied. She was surprised that Brigid knew how to read and write. Very few of the village children could, as so much of Ballamor was farmland.

“I help my Da too!” Brigid had exclaimed, her eyes lighting up. “I keep numbers for him because I’m too small to do any of the lifting.” She had flexed her scrawny arms, her face scrunching up, making Larken laugh.

They had become fast friends after that. Larken made the maps, Brigid providing her with helpful insight and unwavering friendship.

Now Larken made maps by herself.

It was four years ago, why can’t you just forget? Larken asked herself bitterly. She stepped over the sketches, not allowing herself to look back at the drawing pinned above her bed.

She pushed open the door to the bakery, the smell of sugar and sweet cream enveloping her. Papa had already finished frosting the cookies and they lay cooling on the racks lining the walls. It seemed they had made even more this year. With Ballamor so near to the Bridge, it was a prime spot for the fey to perform the Choosing. Larken marveled at the sheer amount of baked goods she and her parents had churned out. If Mama and Papa chose to sell them they could have made more coin than they made in a half a year’s time. But they were unwavering on their decision: on Choosing Ceremony day, the goods were free. Other shops pitched in as well, and Papa said it was a time to give back, not to make profit.

Papa turned to a bowl of dough, mixing it with a practiced hand. As children, Larken and Brigid’s favorite pastime was mixing cupfuls of water and flour together, mashing the paste with their fingers. They would then hurl great globs each other, squealing like piglets. Larken’s heart twisted painfully.

“Ava, love, I’ve got another batch coming. Those will need to go down as soon as they cool,” Papa called to Mama, pointing to the racks of cookies. It always took them several trips to cart all the baked goods into town.

Outside, their cart-pony, Snowfoot, waited for them. He snorted excitedly when he saw them. He liked the festival as much as the rest of them—if only because he got extra sugar cubes.

Colorful flags waved at them from window sills as they made their way down the main road. The door to the village inn was swung wide, people spilling out into the streets. Wreaths of flowers decorated the doors of the local shops, a nod to the girls participating in the Choosing Ceremony and to welcome the fey.

The fey always brought gifts for the villagers, something that Larken, as well as the rest of the villagers, always looked forward to. Wine that would cause one to fall asleep to only good dreams. Candies for the children that once eaten caused them to feel invisible fingers tickling them. Better still were the special presents given to the families of the Chosen girls; necklaces that never went dull, tools that never had to be sharpened. Little pieces of the faery world that showed how dazzling it would be for their daughter.

Larken and Brigid had always enjoyed the gifts, but had no interest in being Chosen unless they could be Chosen together. Which they hadn’t been. They used to do everything together, and Brigid had left her behind.

She didn’t have a choice, Larken reminded herself. But it didn’t help rid the bitter taste in her mouth.

Larken helped Mama unload and arrange the pastries on one of the long, food-laden banquet tables. The Ceremony happened only once every four years—which meant the villagers had plenty of time for preparations. Already she could smell meat roasting on spits, glistening with honey and grease. The scent of horses and the clamor of a great many people swept in on the breeze, and children ran by with ribbon sticks, shrieking with delight.

The two wooden X’s standing in the center of the field were the crowning glory of the festival. Soon they would be set alight, symbolizing the Pope’s compliance with the Choosing Ceremony. Before the Order of the Twins had been established as the one true religion of Ellevere, the burning X had stood in every town converted by crusaders. There were no converters now. People were either part of the Holy Order, or they were killed. Though the Holy Order was a fairly young religion, only a century old, its claws had already sunk deep into the Empire.

A high-pitched scream made Larken freeze, her hand clutched on a cherry scone. Across from her, Brigid’s three older brothers led children around on ponies. Their large hands, roughed from long hours in the forge, were gentle as they steadied the ponies’ clumsy riders. Brigid’s parents were there as well—smiling and laughing with the rest. Still, their shoulders hung low, some invisible mantle draped across them.

Brigid’s parents told her they were happy for their daughter’s Choosing, inviting Larken over from time to time. Larken didn’t see it as anything more than a courtesy. When Brigid was Chosen, Larken didn’t just lose her friend; she lost her second family as well. She released her hand, realizing she had reduced the scone to crumbs.

The crowd increased as the day progressed, people from the outer towns arriving to join in the festivities. Wealthy townsfolk came in from their estates outside of town, bringing their splendid clothes and horses with them. Girls dressed in their finest breezed past, and Larken clenched the fabric of her gown self-consciously.

During the last Choosing Ceremony, a group of the village boys had teased her about her dress, saying she looked like a dressed-up pig. They claimed that the fey would never want a fat girl like her unless they wanted to eat her. Brigid had promptly put an end to their teasing by punching their leader right in the nose.

You just have to get through today, Larken reminded herself, trying to ignore the weight of missing her friend. She just had to get through today, and then she could go back to trying to move on. She needed to move on. She and Brigid were both women grown now—not the fourteen-year-olds they had been, giddy after their first blood and eager to attend the Choosing Ceremony as eligible girls for the first time.

Papa came up behind her, jostling her out of her thoughts. He squeezed her shoulders with his massive hands. Larken was convinced she had inherited her large frame from him, though she was all soft fat where he had hard muscle buried beneath. Still, they both shared round faces and cheeks, while her upturned nose, short stature and brown eyes had all come from her mother.

“Dance with me, little Lark.”

Larken took his hand and let him spin her around the grassy field, both of them trying their best to keep time with the stringed instruments and drums. Larken’s feet dragged at first, betraying her reluctance, but soon the music swept her into its rhythm and her mood lightened. The beat quickened and Larken laughed as she and Papa tried to keep pace. Her breath became labored, her lungs burning—but Larken was enjoying it far too much to stop. The smell of meat, ale, and sweets were dizzying, and Larken’s nerves slowly melted away into happiness.

A jarring weight hit her shoulder almost causing her to stumble. A tall, slender girl with black hair and a pale blue dress shuffled past. Larken whirled, straining to get a better look at her face.

Brigid. Except it was not Brigid. This girl had brown eyes, not blue, and she was a few inches too tall. The girl mumbled an apology, her eyes downcast. She quickly disappeared into the crowd.

Anger simmered up inside her. Could she have not one moment of happiness without being reminded of her friend? Larken frowned, but soon distracted by her and Papa’s dancing, Brigid and the girl disappeared from her mind. Evening slowly creeped in, darkness spreading across the field. Two men set the wooden X’s alight and cheers exploded. Larken closed her eyes, letting Papa twirl her around and around. The streaks of the bonfires flashed against her closed lids. Torches blazed, tiny stars against the night.

Once Larken thoroughly exhausted herself she collapsed next to Mama on one of the wooden benches.

“I have something for you.” Mama handed her a woven flower crown. Larken gasped.

It was stunning—white, yellow, and pink blossoms surrounded a base of rich brown twigs, looking as if they had grown into a crown instead of been woven into one.

All girls eligible for Choosing wore flower crowns, but Larken had never had one this beautiful. She and Brigid had made their crowns together, but this year, without Brigid, Larken had been unable to stomach making one alone.

“I love it, Mama,” Larken whispered. Wordlessly, her mother placed the crown atop her head.

Larken rested her head on Mama’s shoulder, sighing when her fingers began rubbing circles on her back. Her eyes fell to half-lidded slits, but she roused herself when she saw children beginning to cluster around a black hooded man. The story was about to begin.

She was glad to see that they had selected one of the younger members of the Guard to preform the storytelling this year—Pod, she thought his name was. At the previous Choosing Ceremony, one of the gruffer members had been chosen … and had frightened all the children. Parents had complained, of course, saying that the Choosing Ceremony was supposed to be a joyous event.

The Choosing Ceremony marked when the Bridge opened; when both fey and human alike could cross the Bridge into each other’s world. During the four days when the moon was full, the barrier remained open. On the fourth day, it sealed once more, only to be opened again on the next Choosing Ceremony. The Black Guard spent years training for that moment when the barriers between worlds opened. They patrolled the fields around the Bridge, making sure that none dared to cross—and they made sure that no fey entered the human realm except for the faery lord and his companions. It was mainly the humans they had to watch for. Too many girls over the years, jealous of the Chosen one, had attempted to enter the faery realm on their own. The Black Guard ensured that none succeeded. Hand picked and trained in one of the four Popes’ palaces, members of the Black Guard were some of the only humans alive educated in faery lore. It was tradition that a member of the Guard talk about the origin of the Choosing Ceremony.

“The fey need mortal girls to help them complete a special task. They cross the Bridge separating our two realms and choose one girl to go back with them to complete a task: one only she can complete.” Pod raised her hands theatrically, making the children’s eyes widen.

“What task?” a small girl piped up.

“That is only for the girl, the fey, and the Twins to know. We only know that after the task is complete, the girls want for nothing. They are showered with every luxury and waited on hand and foot by the fey.”

“But the girls don’t come back,” another child murmured.

“No, they don’t.” Pod nodded. “We miss them terribly. But we know our Twin Gods, blessed be their names, would never give them a fate they could not handle. The Chosen girls are doing their duty to the Twins. The Popes tell us so.”

Ballamor wasn’t the only village visited by the fey. A deep chasm separated the human and faery realms, with only a few Bridges connecting them. The three other towns close to the Bridges had Choosing Ceremonies similar to the one occurring today. Not everyone was able to attend the ceremonies, and the people outside of these three villages were expected to serve the Popes in different ways. The Popes, servants to the Twin Gods, claimed they would never allow the fey to cross the Bridge and take girls if they were being harmed. And whatever the Popes decided was law.

“But we have even more proof than that,” Pod continued. “After one of the very first Choosings, a sister of the Chosen girl, Laila, followed her sibling across the Bridge. Laila returned, her eyes glazed with happiness from all the wonders she had witnessed in the faery realm. She spoke of how kind the fey were and how they doted upon her sister. Laila arrived too late to see what special task her sister had completed, but she saw that afterwards, her sister was well taken care of. Laila begged her sister to return, but the girl refused. So Laila returned home, eager to tell us the joyous news.

“But it did not end well for Laila. By following her sister into the faery realm, she showed that she did not have faith without seeing things with her own eyes. The Popes were greatly saddened when they heard of her disobedience, for they knew she had to be punished. If not, how many others would venture into the faery realm, disrupting the task and angering the fey, perhaps preventing other girls from being Chosen? The Black Guard was formed to protect people from themselves.”

The children nodded. They knew it was taboo to follow the Chosen girls or to cross the Bridge. And that the Black Guard would stop them.

“The Guard burned out Laila’s eyes, forcing her forever more to have blind faith in the Twins. But Laila gave up her sight happily, for she had seen her sister and knew she was safe.”

And she serves as a reminder of what happens when you disobey the rules. Rumors had spread even as far north as Ballamor about the atrocities the Popes committed to non-believers in the Twins’ name. The Popes were conquerers, and they knew that in order to survive as such a young religion, and to rule, they had to control their people through fear. Larken and her family kept up all appearances of being believers, as did all others who wanted to keep their flesh from being burnt from their bodies on the Popes’ pyres.

Still, the story of Laila gave her hope. Though it had been passed down and had probably become muddled here or there, it proved the Chosen girls were safe.

Pod’s story ended, signaling that the Ceremony was about to begin. Despite her adamance that she not enjoy herself, tingles exploded across Larken’s skin, making her shiver. A nervous titter rose up as girls chatted to one another, shifting from one foot to another excitedly as they formed a line. Their mood was contagious.

A flash of dark hair next to her caught Larken’s eye. It was the girl who had bumped into her earlier—the one she had mistaken for Brigid. Larken finally remembered where she had seen her before: she was the butcher’s girl.

Something brushed against Larken’s skirts. The girl’s hand, shaking madly, had touched her. Larken blinked. Girls weren’t afraid of being Chosen. They wanted to be Chosen.

No, the girl couldn’t be afraid of the fey. The fey were kind and helped provide for Ballamor. It must have been something else that bothered her. Something that would make her reluctant to leave if Chosen.

Larken shifted uncomfortably. She didn’t have those ties to Ballamor. Though she enjoyed working at the bakery, she had no talent for it and desperately wanted to pursue her mapmaking. She loved Mama and Papa, but she had no other friends. She had always thought herself content here, but maybe that contentment had ended when Brigid left.

A thread tugged at her heart. She had avoided thinking about this day for so long, but now that it was here, Larken was unable to resit its draw. She and Brigid had spent almost every moment of their childhood together, and her friend had been ripped from her. They had made plans, they had thought about the future they would have together, and all of it was gone.

But what if … what if Larken could see her friend again? If she was Chosen, she and Brigid could be reunited. Four years ago, Larken had considered trying to cross the Bridge, thought about trying to go after her friend. But it seemed impossible. The Guard would stop her, and would punish her and her family. But if she was Chosen, everything would fall into place. Larken hadn’t dared let herself hope, but now that the opportunity was in front of her she wanted it so badly she could almost taste it. She had spent four years trying to forget her friend. Spent four years trying to move on.

But she didn’t want to. A life without Brigid was not one she wanted. She had her parents, yes, but they didn’t understand her as Brigid did. They didn’t understand the future she envisioned for herself—Brigid had.

She tried to still her racing heart, tried to tell herself that the fey wouldn’t pick someone like her. She couldn’t get her hopes up only to have them dashed. But hope and excitement coursed through her, nearly blinding her. She could see Brigid again.

A hush blanketed over the crowd, the air turning still. Larken bit her lip, glancing toward the tree line. An evening fog rolled down from the hills, twisting and turning through the woods.

The fey emerged from the trees like ghosts. Though their journey must have been arduous, not a speck of dirt touched them. One walked a little in front of the others, and Larken recognized him instantly. The faery lord. He was dressed casually enough; a white linen shirt tucked into dark pants and boots, but he walked like someone in power, smooth and confident. His auburn hair shone even in the darkness. He was beautiful; human enough despite his pointed ears, and yet not human at all.

Larken clenched her shaking hands into fists, reminding herself not to be afraid. Yes, the fey were stronger than humans and possessed magic, but they were here to help. They were here to work with the humans, not against them.

Larken’s eyes followed the fey, tracking the movements of their lithe, muscled bodies. If Twins were two sides of the same coin, then the lord and his companions were the points of a star. Each one completed and complimented the other.

They halted where the line of girls began. Larken squinted hard. She could make out general details and facial features in the dark, but she longed to study the fey in the light. She thought the lord’s companions looked familiar and had attended the last Choosing Ceremony, but she couldn’t be sure.

Grass rustled quietly in the wind and Larken tried not to shiver. A horse whinnied. Her blood pounded so loudly in her ears that she was sure the fey would hear it. The lord turned to his companions, his hair glinting in the moonlight. He murmured something quietly and two of them, one with russet hair and one with locks of black, stepped back. However, a tall, brown-skinned male argued with him. He looked like the warrior in all the old stories: plates of metal armor covered his shoulders, ending above his pectorals, and the rest of his torso was covered by a thick jerkin. He was tall, the tallest of his companions, with a mass of dark curls that drank the light. A command from his lord had him stepping back, but he clenched his teeth, the movement masked by the makings of a beard spreading from his jaw to chin.

Slowly, the faery lord made his way down the line. Her fingers twitched. All Larken heard was the faint rustle of his boots and the loud, frantic pounding of her own heart.

Choose me. Choose me. Choose me. Please. I’ll do anything.

She had spent four years trying to forget her friend and the fey who had took her. Now she was ready to fall before the faery lord and beg. She could no longer reason with herself. The only way she would be able to see her friend again was if he Chose her. He was only a few paces away from them now, and Larken’s lungs compressed. He examined each girl carefully, eyes drifting over her from head to toe, holding her gaze, studying her face—but he hadn’t stopped yet. He could still pick her. She still had a chance.

The butcher’s girl grabbed Larken’s hand and she started, having forgotten for a moment that the other girl was there. She was struck with the similarity of the moment when Brigid was Chosen. They had held hands then, four long years ago.

After what seemed like an eternity, yet also a split second, he stood before her. She was barely level with his chest. The lord was so close Larken could smell him. The scent of apples, fallen leaves, and a hint of spice that Larken couldn’t quite place washed over her. She was shocked she could have forgotten that smell, even over the span of four years.

Her mind grasped desperately for something to distract her. She couldn’t look at him. If she looked at him, she would fall to her knees and beg to be Chosen, beg to be reunited with her friend.

His eyes locked with hers, and Larken found she could not look away. They were as green as a summer forest, with flecks of brown and gold surrounding the iris. The light of the torches set the gold in his eyes on fire.

Larken forgot everything else as he slowly lifted a finger to point.

“Her.”

Chapter 2

A roar erupted from the crowd, muffled and far away. Larken had been Chosen. It was her, she had been Chosen. Oh Twins, she could barely breathe. Dizzying excitement swept over her, her arms trembling.

Brigid. I’m going to see her again.

“Me?” Larken breathed. Her knees were going to give out.

The faery dipped his head to look at her again, auburn curls falling across his forehead. “No, love,” he said. “Her.”

Larken looked slowly to her right. He hadn’t been pointing at her, but at the butcher’s girl. Larken’s world collapsed around her. She shook her head. No, no he had pointed at her—this couldn’t be happening. Everything she wanted had been clutched in her hands, and then it slipped away like smoke. The world turned quiet and dark, as if she were looking at everything from underwater. Black spots swam at the edges of her vision, the air hitching in her throat.

“N—no, please—” The butcher’s girl reached out one shaking hand towards the lord. “Not me. Take someone else.”

A gasp ran through the crowd, quiet at first, then louder. Larken stiffened, a flair of disgust sweeping over her before she could stop it. The girl didn’t deserve the honor. More murmurs from the other girls. Disbelief. Anger. How many others would want to go in her place? She was ungrateful. The fey were here to offer her a life of luxury. The Twins themselves had blessed her and this girl had the audacity to push her saviors away.

Envy twisted in Larken’s belly like a snake. She glanced down at their joined hands still locked together, anchoring them. Her gaze narrowed on the girl, red tingeing behind her eyelids. What Larken would give to be in her place.

The faery lord studied the butcher’s girl, his green eyes torn. For a second it looked as if he were an animal in a cage, trapped and unable to move, but when Larken blinked it was gone, replaced with calm.

“I’m sorry, truly. But it must be you.” He bowed to the girl, offering her his hand. She flinched like he was about to strike her and the faery quickly pulled away. No cries, no tears; the girl simply stood there, shaking, still clutching Larken’s hand.

Slowly, she let go and stepped away. Cold enveloped Larken’s fingers, their bond breaking as their hands released.

One of the girl’s sisters threw herself into the butcher’s girl’s arms. Another little sister came running up. The butcher’s girl hugged each of them in turn, then untangled herself from their skinny arms. She didn’t say anything, but tears poured down her cheeks.

They tried clinging to her again, begging her not to go, but she pushed them roughly off, sending them stumbling back to their parents. Larken looked away, her resentment for the girl melting away into guilt.

The butcher’s girl wiped her cheeks, turning with her head held high towards the faery lord.

“It is time.” He held an arm out again and this time, she grasped it tightly.

“Murderer.”

The hiss rose from someone in the crowd. Larken twisted, eyes wide. The fey weren’t murderers, they came to take the girls to a better life, one where they could experience magic and things beyond belief. Many would die for that honor. A man pushed himself through the throng. His grey hair fell in greasy tangles, an unkempt beard framing the scowl on his lips. An empty tankard hung loosely in his grip. He stumbled to a halt, using the man next to him to steady himself. “Murderers. The lot of you.” The man sneered at the fey, brandishing his flask at the onlookers. “And you … handing over your girls like lambs for the slaughter.”

A chill ran through Larken.

She knew this man—Castor, a disgraced member of the Black Guard. The Guard had stripped him of his position eight years ago but they hadn’t given a reason as to why. Castor himself hadn’t been present at the announcement, he had disappeared into the woods near the Bridge and hadn’t been seen since. Until today.

“Why do you think your girls never come back? It’s because they’re dead,” he spat. Shocked murmurs rose from the crowd. “And the Popes, our beloved rulers, do nothing to stop it. In fact, they encourage it.”

An uneasy murmur rose from the crowd. One of the faery lord’s guards, the one with the russet hair, put a hand on his sword, but the lord raised his hand, motioning for him to stop.

“I know the Choosing Ceremony can be a difficult time,” the lord began, “but we cherish your girls, and your sacrifice, deeply. We cannot reveal to you our reasons, but know that your girls help save us. Do not allow this man to put fear into your hearts.” He turned and gestured to the crowd. “Is he not a disgraced member of the Guard? Do you think he truly means a warning, or does he simply seek revenge by striking fear into those who have wronged him?”

Nods and cries of assent swept through the crowd. Two men grabbed Castor’s shoulders, trying to pull him back, but he shrugged them off.

“I’ll be in a room above the Horse’s Mane Tavern. If anyone wants the truth, the real truth, come find me.” He turned and pushed his way into the crowd.

Larken frowned, unnerved by the encounter. It wasn’t as though opposers of the Choosing Ceremony didn’t exist, but they met in secret, and had never dared to speak out openly against the fey.

A memory pulled at her: Papa telling Mama about a group of dissenters he’d seen meeting on the outskirts of town.

“What good does it to terrify one’s children with a false ideas about evil fey?” Mama had replied angrily. “It’s not as if the girls can choose not to participate.”

It was true; the Black Guard warned that the fey could smell a girl after her first blood, and demanded that all eligible girls be presented, else they risk offending the fey. There would be no more gifts, no more coin, nothing to help Ballamor survive the winter. No one wanted to upset the fey, but no one dared risk the wrath of the Popes, either.

The butcher’s girl said nothing. A signal from the lord had the black-haired faery stepping forward. He wore a dark green jerkin and dark pants, and slung across his back was a large pack. He pulled a small wooden chest from within and approached the butcher, silently handing the box to him. The faery quickly averted his gaze. The man thanked him, shaking fingers moving to unhook the latch. Dozens of jewels of every color filled the interior; rubies, sapphires, pearls, and stones Larken could not name. They would never want for anything ever again.

The faery removed another chest from his pack, giving it to the High-Reeve of Ballamor. Larken hadn’t noticed Reeve Hammond before, as his family and personal guard were clustered around him, but he was still a hard man to miss. He was a huge man with flapping jowls and a bulging stomach, and a ring with a different colored gemstone sparkled on every one of his fingers. He thanked the fey and quickly gave the chest to his guards, who swept it away. If the need arose, then Reeve Hammond would use it to buy food from further south. And if the need didn’t arise … well, then his holdfast would gain another spectacular pice of furniture. The town had suffered through many harsh winters in the past, and only once had Hammond ever bothered to buy grain to feed them. Larken suspected things weren’t about to change.

The black-haired faery pulled the remaining chest from his pack, offering it to a woman standing near him. Other villagers drifted closer, eager to see what the fey had brought them. Children swarmed, their chubby hands reaching for the box.

The butcher’s girl and the faery walked side by side until they met the rest of the lord’s companions. The black-haired faery lingered behind, watching as a little girl struggled against the crowd to get to the gifts. She couldn’t have been older than three years old. The faery snagged a music box from the chest and handed it to her. A shy smile spread across her lips and she wrapped her arms around the faery’s legs. Larken watched, transfixed, as his eyes turned distant. The look was gone a moment later as he gently untangled himself, turning to join his companions. They met at the edge of the field, then continued on into the darkness. Larken watched until they faded into the trees.

Mama appeared in a rush, squeezing her into a rib-crushing hug.

“I thought it was you,” Mama breathed. “I thought he was going to choose you. Oh, Larken … I’m so glad we didn’t have to lose you.”

Larken was in a dream, a terrible dream that she would wake up from at any second. But she didn’t wake.

She stared down blankly at her hands. She hadn’t been Chosen. She would never see Brigid again. Girls were only allowed to participate in the Choosing until they were twenty-one, and by the next Ceremony, Larken would be too old.

“Come.” Mama squeezed Larken’s shoulders. “Let’s go home.”

Flaming torches lined the shops and houses, lighting the way. Larken’s nose dripped and she wiped it away with numb fingers. Her heart thudded dully in her chest. Her limbs felt too heavy, too cumbersome. She could focus on nothing but the cold and placing one foot in front of the other.

But nothing could stop the ringing of the word clanging through her head.

Murderer.

Murderer.

Murderer.

#

The word plagued her.

Larken tossed and turned, trying in vain to get comfortable. The butcher’s girl … She still didn’t know her name. Her dark hair, her tall frame. It could have been Brigid. It was as if they had been together today, standing there side by side.

It was like she had lost her friend all over again. Larken swallowed hard, her throat achingly dry. The butcher’s girl had been so scared. Had Brigid been that terrified on her Choosing day? Had Larken simply been too blind to see it? No, Brigid had been overjoyed to be Chosen. Her eyes had glistened with tears when she realized she would have to leave Larken behind, but she had still been delighted by the faery’s choice. Larken pulled the sleeping furs up to her throat, then threw them off of her as sweat began to coat her lower back and legs.

The logs in the dying fire below hissed as the moisture on them turned into steam.

It sounded like they were screaming.

What if—what if everything about the Choosing Ceremony was wrong? What if the girls never returned, not just because they were chosen for some special purpose, but because they were dead?

No, no it couldn’t be true. The Black Guard couldn’t be trained in all things involving the fey and not know the girls had been harmed. They were proof. Proof that the fey were good. Safe.

But Castor had been a member of the Guard too. And he said the girls were dead.

Larken rubbed at her lips, worrying at her cheek. It wasn’t as though the villagers hadn’t thought about it, but it just didn’t seem possible. The sister of one of the first Chosen girls—Laila—had come back. Yes, the story had taken place ages ago, but it was still proof. How could the fey have gotten away with murder for years? Someone would have figured it out by now.

But what if they were all wrong? Larken turned and buried her face in her pillow, trying not to cry.

Murderer.

The word echoed through Larken’s mind, a whisper that built up to a scream. “No,” she moaned. “Brigid …”

And what of Brigid? All this time she had imagined her friend in a better place. A better world. A world that Larken could not even begin to comprehend.

Flickering images of Castor’s outburst danced through her mind. He claimed to know the truth about fey, and he would know more than most due to his time in the Guard. But what if it was as the faery lord said, that Castor was just trying to get revenge on the position he had been banished from?

Murderer. If the fey were murderers, it meant Brigid was already dead. An idea that Larken would not, and could not wrap her mind around. But the girl that was Chosen … She was still alive. The butcher’s girl’s face lingered behind her eyelids, the image blurring into Brigid’s. Larken shook her head. The girl wasn’t Brigid. And yet, the resemblance was too striking.

Perhaps all of it was just a nasty rumor. Maybe some of the girls got injured during their task for the fey, but weren’t truly dead. Brigid was smart, she could handle herself. Larken tried to steady her breathing. This was all probably just a mistake, a misunderstanding.

Do not go asking questions you do not want to find the answers to, a voice in the back of her mind warned. But Larken couldn’t shake the feeling that if she did nothing, if she tried to forget about the Chosen girls, then she would be doing what the rest of the villagers had been doing time and time again.

She could talk to Castor. Simply see what he had to say. If he sounded like the village lunatic, well, she could go back to sleep knowing that Brigid was in a better world, and Larken could begin moving on without her in full. After all, how likely was it that one man was right when hundreds of others were against him? Could the fey and the Popes really have fooled the entire Empire of Ellevere?

But Larken knew that whatever the odds stacked against Castor, she would not rest easy until she’d spoken with him. Her mind resolute, she threw back the furs and touched her bare feet to the icy floor.

#

Two men guarded the tavern. They stood nonchalantly enough below the sign for the Horse’s Mane Tavern, but even in the darkness Larken could make out the sigil stitched above their hearts: a red “X” wreathed in flames.

The sigil of the Black Guard.

Their presence was warning enough: stay away from Castor. It seemed to be working, for two villagers that approached, upon noticing the guards, quickly hurried in the opposite direction. It was clear that Larken wasn’t the only one seeking the truth.

Hitching Snowfoot to a post, Larken made her way around to the back of the tavern, knocking twice on the door. Even from outside Larken could smell kegs of sweet cider and frothy ale, along with roast chicken and rosemary potatoes. The smell was almost as comforting as that of the bakery. The door swung open and in the doorway stood Helen, the tavern’s owner. She towered over Larken, her muscled arms crossed and glistening with sweat. Helen was a kind woman, but knew how to sort out a room of bawling drunks in a matter of heartbeats. She and Larken’s father had grown up together, and Larken had known Helen her entire life.

“Larken! Didn’t expect to see you here so late. Does your father need something?”

Larken kept her voice low, even though din from the crowd inside was enough to hide it. “I’m here to see Castor.”

Helen scanned the ally before pulling Larken inside. “Don’t go around saying that, ya hear?” She shut the door quickly behind them. “The Guard told me they’d be standin’ watch outside, and if anyone was to try an’ get upstairs who wasn’t a guest that I was to tell ’em straight away.”

“It’s important, Helen,” Larken pleaded. “He might know something about Brigid.”

The crease between Helen’s brows softened. “Ah. I know you’ve been missing your friend, but Castor’s not right in the head.”

“I need to hear it for myself.” She took one of Helen’s hands in her own. “I’m not a little girl anymore, Helen. I won’t be frightened by him. But he might know something that can put my mind at ease.”

Helen stroked her cheek. “Aye, you’re no little girl. Oh, alright. But be quick about it. First door on the left.”

Larken nodded and hurried up the stairs, making sure not to draw the attention of the Guard.

Her hand hovered above Castor’s door, her heart thundering in her chest. Whatever she was about to hear, she wouldn’t be able to unhear it. But this was her chance, if she let him get away she might not be able to speak with him again. He might disappear into the woods, or, by the looks of it, other members of the Guard would try to stop him. But if the Guard was so desperate to keep people away from Castor, then they must have something they were trying to hide.

She rapped lightly on the door, and immediately it swung open.

Castor’s scowling face greeted her. “Took you long enough.”

#

Larken stepped inside. “You knew I was coming?”

“I knew someone had to after my fit during the Ceremony. And anyone who did had to be smarter than that lot—” Castor gestured to the window where the Black Guard stood a story below, “or they didn’t deserve to know the truth.”

“You know about Brigid.”

Castor didn’t answer. He lit a candle, casting the room in flickering hues. “Be warned, child. I do not tell you this lightly. It might be easier if you go back to bed, and forget any of this ever happened. I want everyone to know the truth—I don’t think my mind can take it much longer if they don’t.” He tapped the side of his skull. “But it will be hard. And it will change your view of the world forever.”

Larken swallowed. Castor had named almost all of her fears in a single statement. But she knew she would never forgive herself if she turned away from the truth, no matter how difficult. “Tell me,” she murmured.

Castor scrubbed a hand across his face. “It was the Choosing Ceremony before Brigid was taken. My companion and I were nearest to the Bridge that night, and a fey woman came to us. We were wary at first, as she seemed … agitated,” Castor continued. “She told us that an evil had spread through the land, both human and fey. She said that we both needed to be wary of our rulers, and that their power flowed from the Choosing Ceremony. She told us the girls weren’t safe in her realm.” Castor sighed. “It was as though she was telling parts of the truth, but not all of it. When we pushed her to tell us more, but she said she couldn’t break her promise.

“None of the other members of the Guard heard or saw the fey woman. My companion wanted to report the incident to the Popes straight away, but I told him he couldn’t.” Castor’s face paled. “I told him that the girls could be in danger. That everything we worked for as the Guard could be a lie. I told him we had to warn the other villagers. He attacked me, accusing me of treason.”

Larken’s hand flew to her mouth.

“I killed him. I pushed him into the chasm next to the Bridge and told the others he had jumped. They believed me, of course. Many members of the Guard have committed suicide. The training we endured by the Popes was … unpleasant.”

“Why didn’t you just go see for yourself?” Larken asked.

“You think the Guard hasn’t thought of that?” Castor said bitterly. “Because the Popes trained us to be loyal to them. You cannot believe the torture we endured. Out of all who enter their palaces trying to become members, only a few survive. The rest are killed. The secrets the Popes and the fey deal in is no small thing.” Castor’s eyes darkened. “We fear them more than we fear the fey. And we fear them more than the idea of a perfect life. We fear the Popes’ punishment should they discover that we doubted them, or that we were disloyal.

“But it’s more than that. Why do you think the Black Guard even exists, Larken? It’s not to keep people from crossing and upsetting the fey. It’s to keep people from finding out the truth.”

Cold seeped into her bones. Castor’s words made sense. If the faery realm was as good as the Popes and the fey claimed, then why were the humans forbidden from seeing it?

Unless they were hiding something. Larken rubbed her eyes, feeling as though a hazy veil of wool had been placed over her mind—put there by the fey and the Popes and even the Guard.

“But I do know of a few Guards who have snuck through and somehow kept their treason from reaching the ears of the Popes,” Castor continued. “They were never gone for long, only staying a few hours at most. And when they returned, they only spoke of the beauty they saw. None of them saw the girls, but couldn’t imagine them being in danger. But something wasn’t right … when they returned they were different.” Castor leaned forward. “Believe me or don’t believe me girl. I don’t know exactly what happened to your friend or the other girls, but I do know that they are in danger. And I know that they don’t come back.

“I was banished from the Guard because I went sniffing around for answers. That’s where I’ve been all these years—but the only ones who know the truth are the Popes and the fey. I fed pieces of the story to the dissenters who believe the fey are evil, but I’ve never told anyone what the fey woman told me, not until today. But I just couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t watch another girl get taken knowing—knowing,” he paused, shuddering. “But I know if I tell the villagers the whole truth of what the fey women told me, then the Guard will kill me. And I don’t even know if they’ll believe me.”

“I have to go after her.”

Castor shook his head. “There’s nothing you can do for her now. You can only live with the truth and try to spread it, as I have. There’s nothing you or I can do to stop the fey and the Popes, girl.”

Castor was right. If the fey were murdering the girls, then Larken would stand no chance. If they weren’t and she returned, she would lose her sight and she would never create another map. Or worse. And that was if she got across the Bridge at all.

But she had to try. She could follow the butcher’s girl into the faery realm. And if the girl was in danger, she could help her. Find out if Brigid was all right as well.

“I have to try,” Larken said. Her mind tore down a darkened path, imagining Brigid hurt during whatever trial the fey asked of her. “And you have to help me.”

Castor scoffed. “No. I already told you they’ll kill me.”

“I can’t do it without you,” Larken pleaded. “If they see me they’ll come after me and could hurt my family … please. I just need you to provide some kind of distraction while I cross.”

Castor narrowed his eyes.

“This is your chance to redeem yourself,” Larken murmured. “That’s the reason you told me all of this, isn’t it? Because you feel guilty. Because you’ve known all this time that the girls are in danger, maybe even dying, and you’ve done nothing.”

“Watch yourself,” Castor growled.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to do anything. I might even die.” Larken sucked in a breath, trying not to dwell on the fact. “But I’m going to try. And I can’t do it without you. So please, Castor. Help me. And know that you’re helping those girls, too.”

Castor stared at her for several uncomfortable moments. “Fine. I’m not saying it isn’t a fools’ errand, but I’m not gonna be responsible for you and your family’s punishment at the hands of the Guard. So I’ll help you.” He stood. “You only have four days until the Bridge seals and then you’ll be trapped there for another four years, if you even live that long. So best hurry, now.”

“Let me go pack a few things—”

“No,” Castor hissed. “Take nothing. We leave at once or not at all. I’m being watched. We won’t have another chance.”

Larken’s heart picked up a frantic rhythm. Was she truly doing this? With no supplies and not even a note for Mama and Papa? Guilt stabbed at her. She had no other family, no friends—her parents were all she had. She desperately hoped that when she returned they would forgive her. She would be back, she had to come back. Hopefully with the two other girls in tow.

Larken pictured Brigid’s face, her tiny splattering of freckles. Her blue eyes, always filled with such kindness. She had been there for Larken through every hardship, every triumph.

Larken had waited for her friend long enough.

“Let’s go.”

#

She and Castor stood hidden in the tree line. Before them stretched a grassy plain, and beyond, the chasm. Larken had only heard about it from village stories, the deep divide that separated the human and faery lands. Fog billowed from the chasm like smoke from the mouth of a drake. The moonlight shimmed through the mist, turning it silver.

They had left the safety of her village—the pastures, trees and the familiar were all behind her. She had never been this far from home. Had Brigid felt this way, four long years ago? Had she been afraid to leave behind all she had ever known, as Larken was now? A cool wind pressed against her face, soothing her. The smell of the grass and wet earth reached her, stilling her pounding heart.

She would come back. For this, she would come back.

Ahead, swirling in mist, stood the Bridge. Larken’s breath left her body in a whoosh. Of all the stories she had heard, of all the legends—nothing could have prepared her for seeing the Bridge for the first time.

Jutting from the human realm’s side of the chasm and spanning all the way to the faery lands was a narrow stone bridge. It rose in a graceful arc, like a half moon, the stones strong and sturdy despite their centuries-long existence. Two stone archways loomed on either side, marking the entrance to each world. The villagers all knew it, either from stories or from seeing it themselves. She and Brigid had received countless dares from other children to go see the Bridge for themselves. They never had, though now Larken wished she had seen it before. Perhaps it would have made this moment less terrifying.

Scattered across the grassy plain and near the Bridge itself stood the Guard. Their black capes fluttered gently in the wind, their bodies obscured by the fog.

Castor shifted next to her on his brown mare. He told her he had a plan, but he hadn’t elaborated on what it was.

Only a small stretch of grass and trees separated them from the ancient stones. Whatever this plan was, if it was to succeed, they had to time it just right. Make sure that she and Snowfoot had a clear shot to the Bridge.

“Get ready,” Castor muttered. He jammed his heels into his mare’s sides and took off across the field.

“I’ve waited long enough!” Castor screamed. The Guard’s figures in the mist stirred. “The fey are killing our girls.” Castor jabbed a finger across the Bridge. “And you’re letting them. The Popes aren’t our just rulers, they’re tyrants.” Castor wheeled his horse around as shouts from the Guard rose. “They let the fey give them, and us, gifts infused with magic in exchange for girls from our village. Money in exchange for human lives,” he snarled.

What is he doing? Larken tightened her grip on the reigns.

The Guard swung onto their horses.

“I will stay silent no longer. And you’ll no longer be able to pass me off as the village drunk—the village madman. I won’t stop until all of Ballamor, no, all of Ellevere knows. I’ve spent the last eight years searching for answers, and now I’m going to tell the Empire.” Castor whooped, circling once more before the Guard, then he took off towards the woods. The Guard tore after him.

Now. She had to act now.

She kicked Snowfoot into a gallop. Dirt flew beneath his hooves as he flew across the open plain. Shouts rang out. Horses whinnied. Faster, Snowfoot had to go faster. Before the Guard realized that they couldn’t all abandon their posts.

The chasm loomed before them, the rocks dropping away into sheer nothingness. Wind whipped around her, tugging Snowfoot’s mane towards the drop, trying to suck him in. The thought of the drop alone was enough to make Larken’s mouth sour with fear. If something spooked her mount they would plunge over the side together. Larken clung to the reigns, his mane, and pressed low into the saddle.

Time slowed. The pounding of Snowfoot’s hooves matched the wild pounding of her heart. Her breath gasped loud in her ears. Larken clung desperately to the saddle, her muscles nearly paralyzed with fear. This was wrong. Only Chosen girls crossed the Bridge. She was nothing, no one—

You wanted to be with Brigid, and this is the only way. There’s no going back, the Guard is coming.

“Go, Snowfoot,” she cried, and the pony’s hooves clattered upon the stones. More shouts from behind her, but they sounded far away. Castor had done his job well. Fear enveloped her as she thought about what they would do to him but no, she couldn’t think about that now.

She made Snowfoot slow as they crossed the Bridge, worried that anything faster than a walk would get them killed. Nothing but air kept them from tumbling into the abyss. Unable to help herself, looked down past Snowfoot’s shoulder and into the chasm below. Vertigo hit her and she jerked her gaze up, making sure to keep it focused on the archway at the end of the Bridge beyond.

Black nothingness. That was what was beneath the stones of the Bridge. Barely a foot on either side separated Snowfoot from the drop, and had Larken been on a larger mount, it would have been much less than that. Larken heard no sounds of rushing water beneath them. Somehow the thought of nothing below was even more terrifying. The idea that there was no beginning or ending to the abyss. That it cut straight to the center of the world, or straight to the Twin’s Hell.

She glanced behind her, but nothing but mist greeted her. The Guard’s shouts faded away into nothingness, sucked into the chasm below.

They made it to the second archway, the one marking the entrance to the faery realm, and Larken pulled Snowfoot to a stop. One more step and she would enter the land of the fey. Her fear churned inside her, a living, breathing beast that clawed at her. Home had never felt so far away. But she had made it. Made it all the way here, and she would make it a little farther. She would find Brigid.

Breathing in, she urged Snowfoot on one last time.

Hannah Parker is a senior English major at Oklahoma State University. When not writing YA fantasy novels, she can be found riding her horse, drinking unhealthy amounts of Starbucks coffee or learning new signs in ASL. Hannah currently lives in Edmond, OK, with her cat and two dogs.

The Cave Sighs
Ellen Goff

Young Adult Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing

The cave remembers. More than remembers, the cave sees far past the surface under which she sleeps. Her tributaries of tunnels, like hollow fingers, spread underground for hundreds of miles. They touch acre after acre, town after town, and county after county. As if she is a single, enormous mass of substance, top indistinguishable from bottom, her fingers are also her eyes. Each vein of tunnel that yawns open to the world above is an eye, and her thousands of eyes keep watch on the families who grow and the dynasties that die off above her.

The cave remembers the moments we have experienced before and sees the moments we will inevitably return to again in a hundred or maybe five hundred years. People change on the surface but always come back around. As the surface changes, the cave does not. She remains solid, her caverns hollow but permanent, ancient. She keeps watch for the people who need her and remembers for the people who don’t. They will always need her, she believes. She spreads her arms, her tunnels, to those who seek refuge in the dark.

She is there even when they leave her for those dirtier, manmade caves whose essence clogs the lungs of the people she has worked so hard to protect.

Fear clenches her. How could they leave? She holds her breath, her veins winding and unwinding beneath the earth as she waits, determined to be here when they realize their mistake. Her caverns will be open for them, always welcoming. When her people inevitably return, her ever-expanding tunnels will reach out and encircle them as they once again find their roots in the darkness. These arms will envelop them whole, the world will resume spinning, and the cave will finally let loose that breath and sigh.

***

Dixie propped her hip against the rotting wood bannister of their porch’s railing and watched Boone disappear through the front door only to emerge again with yet another bag.

“Good Lord, you’re not going to war,” she said when he bounded across the porch again, the screen door clattering shut behind him. The late August air was still hanging on to summer’s mugginess, and Dixie could feel a bead of sweat collecting in her cupid’s bow.

Boone shot her a smile as he dropped a large brown paper sack—full of cornbread for the road, courtesy of Nan—into the growing pile of stuff on the gravel drive. His waves of black hair stuck to his forehead in the heat. “I won’t see you until Thanksgiving, girl,” he called up to her. “And who knows what kind of food they’ve got around those camps. Probably tastes like piss—”

“Watch your mouth,” Nan spat, appearing in the doorway, an apron over her overalls.

Dixie eyed her mother, who was always referred to as “Nan,” even though her name was not any variation of the kind. Boone had cursed profusely in front of Dixie since they were newly teenagers, and Dixie didn’t pay it any mind. What Dixie didn’t like was the way Boone called those towns “camps.” Camps sounded … involuntary. They were more mining towns. There would be general stores, and Boone would be living with his friend Rhett, who had graduated with him this past spring. He would be a few hours’ drive away, but he would be living just fine.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Boone said, taking the porch steps two at a time. At eighteen, Boone was only a little more than a year older than Dixie. He leaned over and gave their mother a kiss on the cheek. Well, Dixie’s mother. His own mother had been gone since childbirth, and when his father died in Vietnam in sixty-five, Boone had only been thirteen. Glasgow, Kentucky was a tiny town where people shared food, gossip, and prayers. In a town that small, they also shared children. There was no question that the poor, orphaned boy would be taken in by a neighboring family. The only question was who. Her own husband taken by the war, Nan had the dinner table set for three before she had even asked Boone if he wanted to stay.

And stay he did. From twelve years old, Dixie had grown up with Boone, the boy constantly hovering between a kind of brother to her or simply an extended guest. They looked nothing alike, which was, of course, the first thing new and nosey neighbors liked to point out before they heard the full story of how Boone came to live with her and Nan. Dixie had Nan’s fair hair and floury skin, while Boone’s dark hair and eyes swam against warm skin.

Regardless of how Boone fit into Dixie’s family, he fit all the same. This made it hard to let him leave now.

Dixie crossed her arms as Boone and Nan watched the single-lane road at the bottom of the hill where their farm’s property ended. Rhett would be here any minute. Boone’s own ride sat in the grass on the side of the drive, newly washed but only an afterthought. He had purchased the used ’66 Chevrolet Chevelle the summer he was sixteen, after having saved up cash from working at the auto shop in downtown Glasgow. The boys had decided to take Rhett’s beat-up pickup; coal-infused air couldn’t hurt the junky thing, and since they’d be living in a town that was in the stack shadow of the mines, it would do them no good to bring something with them that was any kind of nice.

“You got enough food?” Nan asked, her words clipped. If she was at all affected by Boone’s leaving, she would throw her emotions into work around the farm or cooking. The kitchen became a warzone when Nan was determined to put her mind off something. She had not supported Boone’s decision to work in the mines from the beginning.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Boon repeated.

Nan nodded, patted his cheek, and went back into the house. Dixie could hear the rich clanging of a cast iron skillet through the mesh of the screen door.

Boone edged up closer to Dixie, his movements tentative, as if trying to feel her out. “You still mad?” he asked.

Dixie pursed her lips. “You could’ve stayed here. Worked in Glasgow.”

“The mines pay better.”

“’Cause people die in those caves.”

“Nan can’t hold onto the farm much longer, you know this. Now c’mon, you’re too intelligent to sulk.”

Her lips quirked at this. He was always a flatterer. It had to be because his dark hair made him look like Elvis. That gave him all the confidence in the world. “You’re going to miss my birthday next week,” she said, a last effort to sway him.

Boone saw right through her. “When I get back, I want to read your college essays. You hear? I want to see progress.”

“As if you can spell for shit.” They both cracked up at this, just as Rhett’s pickup pulled into the drive. Dixie could hear the King playing on the radio all the way from the porch. As Rhett pulled up, Boone dug in his jeans pocket and pulled out the keys to his Chevy.

“Here,” he said, tucking them into Dixie’s own front pocket while her arms remained crossed. “Take care of my car, yeah? No joy rides.” Before she could protest, he leaned in, his eyes glancing toward the kitchen window. “Sell it if you need to.”

Overcome with the sudden responsibility, Dixie could only nod, her tongue numb.

“Now don’t miss me too much,” he said, grinning.

“I’m not going to miss you,” she finally managed. “Don’t let the caves swallow you up.”

This only made his smile grow. “I swear you sprout a freckle every time you lie, Dixie Cup.” His smile disappeared then and he leaned forward. His lips found her cheek and stayed there a long second that made her stomach flip. When he pulled back, something had changed in his expression but she didn’t get the chance to hunt it out before he bounded down the front steps, leaving her alone on the porch.

***

The cave’s oldest children were the indigenous peoples. They found her thousands of years ago, and even back then, she was already ancient. But this was the first time she saw light.

They carried their cane plant torches and filled her meandering tunnels with heat and life. Their bare feet padded against the rough stone of her insides, gripping the jagged paths with calloused soles. They only touched the first layer of her skin, only explored dozens of miles even though she had hundreds more to show them. Nevertheless, this was the moment she ceased to be alone under the earth. Finally, other heartbeats thrummed against the backdrop of her own.

They came for her minerals. Perhaps for medicine, the cave didn’t really care. She was just happy to provide something after millennia of silence. They took her gypsum, her mirabilite, and her epsomite. She had plenty, and wanted to share with these people her history and all she had seen and all she had remembered. Finally, here were ears her winds and underground rivers could whisper to.

She was their protector, and kept them neither cold nor hot with her temperate air. The copper flames of their torchlights illuminated her walls better than the harsh, white lights that would come later in those other, manmade caves of soot and death. It was as if these Native peoples understood her and had struck a deal: in turn for her protection against the harsh weather above, they would be kind to her and listen to her stories. She kept the artifacts they left behind, preserved these objects just as these peoples had taken care to preserve her.

She felt herself grow proud with purpose when they used her cool temperatures for burial preparation. These ceremonies of mortality left her feeling determined to preserve these bodies as she had preserved their objects. So she opened her long tunnels of arms, the veins of her being, and enveloped these peoples. When they hopped between the surface and the underground, still she kept her arms open. And when these people returned to her for the last time, their bodies stiff and cold and ready for the earth, she welcomed them as she always had, and took them into her embrace and sighed.

***

Boone returned the night before Thanksgiving. He snuck in like a ghost. Dixie was already in bed, but she awoke from her drowsiness the moment she heard his voice as he greeted Nan, who apparently knew he was coming and had waited up for him.

Any bitterness she felt at having not been told he was coming back so soon disappeared under a healthy flow of excitement. Boone was back! Things would be normal, if only for the few days he had off for the holiday. She hoped he would have Christmas off, too. When they were younger and she was still holding onto the idea of Santa Claus, Boone would sneak out onto the front porch at midnight on Christmas Eve. Softly, just enough for Dixie to hear if her bedroom door was cracked, he would whistle Jingle Bells. It only took her one more Christmas to realize what he was doing, but she didn’t tell him when she figured it out. Even when he knew that she knew, he didn’t stop. It had become one of their rituals.

The moment she heard his voice, she realized how much she had missed the ritual of him, the presence his movements took up in the house. They each had their own small bedroom, attached to each other by a two-sink bathroom. When she finally heard Boone’s tall body drop onto his mattress, she crept into their shared bathroom and knocked softly on his bedroom door.

This was another one of their rituals. When he was still home, she would knock on his door shortly after they had both gone to bed. He would leave the door unlocked and she would slip into his room to find him waiting for her. She would hop onto his single bed and curl against his ribs. Then he would tell her a ghost story before she crawled back into her own bed. Boone’s stories were filled with the spooks he claimed wandered the forests and farms around them, or those that haunted the passages of Mammoth Cave only a few miles to the West.

But this time, the door was locked. Heat crept into her cheeks. She had never felt awkward slipping into his room before, but it was as if a sheet had been pulled from her body in a cold room. Something was different. She went to bed without knocking again.

The next morning, Dixie dropped her stack of college essays on the small round kitchen table before Boone. As he read, she read him.

He was thinner. Nan would have none of that, and already had a big bird in the oven. His deep eyes and black hair were darker, like he had absorbed the coal he worked to mine. It looked as if shadows had attached themselves to his skin, but Dixie could see it was just coal dust that had stuck to the angles and swells of his face. She’d heard him washing in the bathroom that morning, but he’d barely managed to scrape a single layer of soot from his surface.

His appearance didn’t bother her as much, though. Something else had shifted. In the two months since she had seem him, something in him seemed to have given way, and he stared at her college essays as if he wasn’t seeing anything at all.

“Don’t just stare at him like that, Augusta May,” Nan called across the room. “Come help me make this bread.”

Dixie flinched at her Christian name. In the way that Nan was called Nan, Dixie was called Dixie. There was no particular sense to it, it was simply the way things were and the way things would always be. She joined her mother at the counter where a fresh bowl of sticky cornbread batter sat waiting. Nan opened the cabinet by her feet and hauled out the cast iron skillet, a beast of a thing and black as coal, passed down to her from her mother and her mother before that.

Nan motioned for Dixie to come closer. “First, we’ll coat the skillet with oil and get it hot in the oven,” she explained as she tilted the pan this way and that so the oil ran up onto the raised sides. With her accent, oil came out as all. “After it’s set in there a minute, we’ll take it back out and pour the batter in. That way the hot oil makes the surface of the bread good and crispy.”

At Nan’s instruction, Dixie hoisted the skillet off the counter as Nan opened the oven door. The joints in Dixie’s wrists shrieked at the weight. How in the world did Nan haul the thing in and out of the cabinets all day long? Then she noticed the rough texture of the inside of the skillet and she stopped, bracing the weight against her chest.

“Nan, this is dirty. There’s bits of stuff still stuck to it.”

“Of course, girl,” Nan said, surprise on her face. “You don’t really clean it. Not with soap. Just run some water on it when you’re through.”

“You mean you don’t scrape all this shi—all this stuff off?”

“Good Lord, no. The leftover flavors go into the next meal, and the next. It’s the texture of the grit that gives the bread a good crust.”

Dixie looked to Boone for support, but he was engrossed in her essays—or still far off, she couldn’t tell—so she lugged the oiled skillet into the oven. Sometimes Nan made no sense to her. That skillet would just get dirtier and dirtier until it couldn’t hold any residue any longer and it crumbled under its own weight.

That night, Dixie lay awake in her bed. Nan had gone to bed hours ago, and Boone had eventually settled in as well. She didn’t dare try the door to his room tonight. She didn’t know why, exactly, but she had a feeling that if she found the door locked to her a second time, she might crumble right onto the nipple pink tile floor of the bathroom.

Not long after midnight, she heard the bathroom sink running. Boone would be leaving tomorrow and then she would not see him again until Christmas. She made up her mind quick and hopped out of bed. She found him hunched over one of the sinks, scrubbing his veiny hands raw. They looked fine to her, but he was so focused on his task, he didn’t notice she was there until she came up to him and took the bar of soap from his hands.

“I didn’t mean to wake you, girl,” he said softly. She could see now he had missed some crud in the cracks around his thumbnails. “I just … sometimes I think I see the dirt when it’s not there. It’s like it doesn’t come off in my head. I can smell them. The tunnels. It’s like I can’t stop breathing it, like it follows me. I taste it in everything, too.”

“Then don’t go back, idiot,” Dixie whispered.

Boone shook his head and that was that. “I’m sorry I locked the door last night,” he added. “I just wanted to be alone for a stretch. I didn’t have a good story for you, anyhow.” He tried to grin as he said the last part, but it didn’t fill his face the way his smiles usually did.

Dixie didn’t need any type of explanation, and replaced the bar of soap in her hand with a nail file she pulled from a drawer. She grabbed his hand and began carving the dirt out from underneath his nails. He watched her work, inching closer to her every time she gave a tug on one of his fingers.

“Well, tell me a different story,” she eventually said. Her accent came out just like Nan’s when she was nervous or felt small. Well sounded like wool. “Tell me what it’s like down there.”

Boone inhaled a steadying breath and began to tell her about the Eastern Kentucky Coalfields, about his mine, which they called the Hurricane Creek Mine. As he talked, Dixie cleaned his nails and listened, thinking all the while she much preferred the older ghost stories.

***

In the middle of the 19th century, the cave became sick. She was not prepared for these people and the contagion they promised. But who was she to cast someone out? So she welcomed them, her caverns tall and her tunnels numerous, and shared in their disease.

She remembered when the doctor brought his patients beneath the earth. They thought her air would save them all. Not just save them—cure them. She watched as the doctors and builders scrambled to construct a makeshift stone hospital within her to house their sick. As they built, and as the patients trickled in on unsteady legs or stretchers, the cave could feel the desperation cling to her air the way humidity never had.

The patients could never walk and explore the tunnels she offered them or had the energy to appreciate the rock formations she herself had been building for thousands of years. The patients’ sweat and coughed-up blood and phlegm coated her floors, and for the first time, the cave felt truly helpless. There was nothing she could do except remain consistent. Her constancy was why the patients were here in the first place.

But she failed them. Her air did not work. She could feel each moment a patient slipped away and would not come back. Within months, most were dead and those who were not fled to die on the surface in the sunlight. Perhaps she was not the safe haven she had promised to be, but surely she was better than those other caves that injected their peoples with disease the moment they stepped into the darkness. At least she offered her patients quiet while those others only grabbed onto their humans’ lungs and refused to let go.

Alone again, the cave realized she could not save everyone. But she hoped the people would come back to her, that they had not been scared away by the empty promises of her massive caverns. She would wait, and in the meantime, she stifled a lonely sob with a powerful, wind-filled sigh.

***

The crumbs on the cast iron peeled off layer by sticky layer under the running faucet as Dixie dragged the flat edge of a spatula across the skillet. She huffed, careful to not scrape off the deeper layers Nan had instructed her to leave. It didn’t quite fit in the kitchen sink on account of its size, so Dixie had to rotate the entire thing every few seconds.

The Christmas dinner she and Nan had prepared waited on the table for them, but the mines had made Boone work today, so Dixie did not see why she had to wrestle the cast iron when the person who enjoyed cornbread the most wouldn’t even be here.

She gave up and shut off the noisy faucet. That’s when she heard it: a soft song hovering on the dense December air. The whistling was coming from the front porch, and it almost sounded like … Jingle Bells. She raced out onto the front porch only to find it empty. Is this what Boone meant in his stories when he claimed Mammoth Cave used its winds to whisper to people and lure them in?

Then hands grabbed her from behind, and she squealed like a newborn piglet as Boone’s fingers mercilessly tickled the soft flesh under her ribs. He only let up when she was out of breath and sprawled across the wood beams of the porch. He grinned down at her, his smile still not as powerful as it used to be before he left for the mines.

“Miss me, Dixie Cup?” he crooned.

“Ass,” she breathed, holding her ribs.

“Language, Augusta May,” Nan said from the doorway. She had come running at the noise. Giving Boone a one-armed hug, her other arm cradling jars of apple butter, Nan ushered them inside. “We were just about to sit down to dinner, so go clean up. And leave your boots on the porch. Don’t be tracking anything into my house.” She said all of this with a chuckle, unable to hide her excitement that Boone had made it home in time. She turned to Dixie. “Get off the ground. It’s Christmas. Act Decent.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Dixie and Boone chorused, exchanging a wry look as Nan disappeared into the house. Just as Boone reached down to pull Dixie to her feet, a rough cough tore through him. He doubled over and stepped away to cough into the soot-covered sleeve of his jacket. Dixie just watched him, unsure what to do. This was not a cough a glass of water or a shot of Jim Beam would fix.

When Boone turned back to her, the hollowness she had seen on his face over Thanksgiving had returned. “Don’t tell Nan,” was all he said.

Hours later, after the cornbread and ham and jam cake were gone, Dixie and Boone sat on the carpet around their small Christmas tree. Wrapping paper debris lay scattered around their legs. They watched the tiny fireplace as they sat, sipping on bourbon. Boone had poured her a miniscule inch from Nan’s liquor cabinet after Nan had retired for a nap. Every so often, Dixie knocked her outstretched foot against Boone’s, and he would knock back.

“When do you have to go back?” she asked quietly.

“Day after tomorrow. Rhett’ll pick me up.”

Two days, Dixie thought. Two nights. Two ghost stories if she was lucky. That was barely any time at all. She didn’t respond, hiding her disappointment in the pressure of her fingers against her glass.

Boone sat up with a sudden jerk. “I’ve got one last present for you,” he said, digging under the torn wrapping paper. He handed her a small paper package, but as she reached for it he pulled it back. “Wait,” he said. “You been good? Did you get all your applications in?”

She rolled her eyes. “Of course I did.”

He gave her the gift. She tore through the paper, trying to ignore the black fingerprints that smudged its surface. Popping the lid off the small box inside, she huffed. It was a literal, sooty, jagged piece of coal.

Boone laughed, an honest to God light in his eyes. Maybe the coal was worth it, Dixie thought, if it made him laugh like that. “For your naughty heart,” he chuckled.

Again, she rolled her eyes.

“Look under it,” he said then. The humor in his look vanished. Dixie set the coal to the side and dug through its tissue paper nest. She pulled out a simple silver chain, and dangling from that chain was a round, bright green stone the size of a peppercorn.

“Peridot,” she whispered. Her birthstone.

“I wanted to get it for you for your birthday, but I was gonna miss it anyway and I didn’t have the cash saved up yet. So Merry Christmas,” Boone said, his breath short, almost like he was nervous but maybe it was just his cough.

Dixie felt her cheeks warm as she twisted on her butt so Boone could drape the necklace around her throat. This gift was not the same as the kind of gifts they had given each other before. The hot blush at her temples only confirmed her body could feel the difference, too. When she turned back around, she found he looked equally caught off guard.

“Where did you get the money for this, Boone?” she asked.

He shook his head and put a finger to his lips.

Dixie scrambled for anything to say. “I made the cornbread this year,” she blurted out. “All by myself.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? I would’ve bragged on you all through dinner.”

She shrugged. “I guess in case it tasted like shit.”

The laughter that erupted from Boone had him gasping for air seconds later, his coughs echoing around the silent house.

Later that night, as midnight crept closer, Dixie found herself in the bathroom at Boone’s door. She had listened to him cough for twenty minutes through the walls. She knocked before she tried the knob. The door was unlocked and swung open. Boone sat against the headboard of his bed outside his blankets, clad only in old pajama pants that were now too short on his growing frame. When he noticed her, he scooted over to make space. She padded across the dark room and joined him.

This time, she didn’t curl up against him like she had before. When he was home for Thanksgiving, they had talked in the bathroom before retreating to separate rooms. She had not been next to him on his bed since he left for the mines and now she felt distinctly out of place. But before she knew it, Boone had moved closer to her so his left side was pressed against the entire length of her right.

He began to tell her another ghost story. She fingered her new necklace as she tried to listen, but she could only focus on the heat of his body, the way his hand eventually found hers in the dark and held on. Finally he stopped in the middle of the story and looked right at her.

“I’ve been making more money than I let on,” he said in a low murmur like he was confessing something. “I haven’t been sending everything back to you and Nan. I’ve been saving some of it.”

“For what?”

She could hear his breathing strain in the silence. “For us. I’ll work in the mines while you finish your senior year, and then as soon as you graduate, we’ll take my car and go wherever you end up for school. Then I’ll sell it in the nearest city and we’ll have plenty to live on for a while. I’ll find a job and you can study and … and we’ll just get out of this place before we suffocate down here.”

This was not what she had expected at all. She didn’t even know this rash boy was capable of planning like this. “Where could we go?” she asked.

“Anywhere,” he said, urged on by the eagerness in her eyes. “Louisville, maybe. I’ll take you to that hotel that was in The Great Gatsby.”

“What about Nan?”

“You know Nan wouldn’t leave here.”

Dixie did know. But despite that, her chest tightened with excitement at the thought of starting new someplace. With Boone. “Why?” she asked after a hum of silence.

His confidence faded and his fingers worried her own where their hands were clasped. “Because I want to know where I’m headed,” he said, his voice hoarse. “The lights they give us down there, they don’t show us more than three feet in front of us. I never know what’s around the next corner.”

Even in the haze of the dim room, she knew he was staring right at her, knew what he was about to do, what with the way he was looking at her like he had finally found a diamond after crawling through endless tunnel after tunnel. She beat him to it, and pressed her lips to his.

Four days later, Boone was gone. He had been away at the mines for a couple days already. Tomorrow was the last day of the year. Dixie remembered the date, only because it was on the radio. She was in the kitchen, bent at the waist to haul the cast iron from its slumber. Nan still cooked furiously like she always did in the days after Boone left, but she had relegated the cast iron to Dixie lately. Dixie reckoned that’s why it eventually got passed down; only the young women of the family had the strength to carry its weight after a while.

The war was on the television, the sound turned way low. She had stopped listening anyway when they started up about the draft. President Nixon flashed onto the screen occasionally. Dixie preferred the radio, which was the only way she found out about local happenings.

She did not register the information at first when the alarmed voice came over the radio. She only started to pay attention when she heard the words Hurricane Creek Mine. An incessant humming filled her ears as she stood up and strained to catch the news report.

Hyden, Kentucky. Connected mines Fifteen and Sixteen, together known as Hurricane Creek Mine. Thirty-nine men caught in a coal dust explosion underground. Thirty-eight dead, one man taken to the hospital. The lone survivor was near the portal in the belt entry …

The cast iron slipped from her sweaty palms and hit the floor, shattering the fragile wooden floorboard at her feet.

***

The wars came next. It was like nothing the cave had ever seen.

The twenties had her on top of the world; there was nowhere to hide anymore. Explorers and entrepreneurs competed to explore her, to catalogue her, to guide dozens of people through her tunnels as they put her on full display during these so-called cave wars. Suddenly, they wanted to know everything, all of her secrets. How far did she go, what was her largest cavern, how old was she? Competing explorers tried to find others like her, but the men who owned her only laughed. There would never be another network like her hiding beneath the earth, just as there never had been in the history of time. She did not know why the people began to crave the darkness and the unknown during this time.

The forties toppled her from her place in the sky. She made her official debut as a landmark only a few months before the Japanese let loose their bombs and her country was pulled into war. No one needed her anymore, even though they had only mapped forty miles of her so far. There were other, more important caves to focus on, manmade ones to the East and West of her. Those caves were suddenly on top of the world, their coal thrusting them into the forefront. Oh, how she wanted to scream. Those weren’t caves, those were tombs! They could offer decades, maybe a century of support before they became unsustainable. She could offer millennia. She had been watching and protecting since the world began. This wartime boom didn’t promise a future, but no one seemed to want to listen to her, even as boys continued to succumb to the thick, black air that slowly built up on their lungs like a silent wound.

There was nothing the cave could do this time except wait. Wait, and sigh at the naïve and hungry world around her.

***

The fire boss for Hurricane Creek Mine had examined and green-lit mines Fifteen and Sixteen just that morning. Later, investigators discovered that the preshift examination for mine Fifteen was instead for mine Sixteen and had been recorded incorrectly. The man who actually examined mine Fifteen claimed to have recorded the details, but the record could not be located.

These facts would come later. Dixie knew none of this now as she and Nan waited on the front porch on New Year’s Day. A man from the mines was supposed to pay them a visit. For what, she didn’t know. To hand them Boone’s body? To bring them his belongings? Nobody had told them anything more than what had been on the radio the last couple days. She tried to keep her mind blank of all these questions. If she thought too hard about anything right now, she would crumble. If she crumbled, Nan would too. And if Nan went down, Dixie would just disintegrate all over again.

A black Ford pulled into their long drive. Its slick exterior instantly fell prey to a healthy coat of gravel dust. The car stopped at the porch steps. Dixie felt Nan shivering next to her, despite their thick barn coats. The passenger door opened and a man stepped out. Nan sunk to the bottom step, her head in her hands, and began to shake.

Boone shut the door behind him. His right arm was in a sling, a thick wad of gauze had been taped over his right ear, and cuts and scrapes littered his face. Relief struck Dixie, damn if it made her selfish. Her knees went weak but Boone was there, his good arm around her in a fierce hug, keeping her from totally sinking into the earth.

Over the next couple days, as more information about what had caused the explosion trickled in, they only left the house once. Boone had insisted he pay his respects at Rhett’s funeral. He had to step out of the service twice when coughing hit him. Dixie did not cry once despite the tears on Boone’s face; she clung to her selfishness like a small light in the darkness.

Boone was resting, asleep on the couch when the first letter was delivered to their house. Nan saw the front of the letter and immediately dissolve into sobs so strong, Boone startled awake. She abandoned the greens on the stove and fled to her bedroom.

“Open it for me, girl?” Boone asked Dixie, on account of his bad arm. She read it aloud to him. He was to report to the Louisville recruiting office in the next forty-eight hours.

He left for Louisville the next day, catching a ride with another boy who had also been called for immediate physicals. Nan would not come out of her room, so Dixie made eggs and saw him off. She helped him put on his best suit—she didn’t understand why he dressed up—and he even took off his sling for the trip. Standing on the porch, he promised her he would be back that night or in the morning. She draped her peridot necklace around his stiff collar.

“For style. Don’t lose it.”

As he pulled away with the other boy, still Dixie did not break under the weight of it all.

Hours later, maybe around midnight, she heard a car door slam. She was in bed but was miles from the depth of sleep. Her ears followed his movements through the house. Boone closed his bedroom door, struggled out of his suit, then took a quick shower. The Velcro of his sling was loud in the silence and then all was quiet. Dixie thought he had gone to bed.

A minute later, she heard a knock at her door and Boone stole into her room. He slipped under the blankets next to her, leaving his bandaged arm outside of the covers, and rested his head next to hers on the same pillow. With his body so close to hers, she could feel the beating of his heart slow as he calmed down. His cold bare feet wound around hers under the blankets.

Eventually, he whispered into the stillness. “I didn’t pass the physical.”

Again, that selfish relief warmed her veins. Although she was confused. Boone would turn nineteen at the beginning of summer; he was still a young man.

“Why?” she asked.

He took a deep, rough breath. “Asthma.” Soon, he drifted off next to her.

It was two in the morning—or three, she wasn’t sure—when Dixie snuck out of bed, Boone oblivious to her absence. All she knew was that it was still pitch black outside. She crept to the kitchen and hauled that cast iron skillet from its cabinet and slunk outside into the night, carrying the heavy thing with her. She didn’t bother to put on shoes, even with the grass crisp from frost.

She stumbled in the darkness for an hour, maybe longer, all the while dragging the weight of the skillet. How in the world did someone think it a good idea to make a daily item so damn heavy? Did they not think that perhaps it was only durable and would live through generations because it was too difficult to use? Even as splinters worked their way into the soft flesh of her arches, Dixie kept at it. She knew the woods around their farm, and the woods around those woods, like she knew the curls of Boone’s hair. This blackness did not scare her.

With only moonlight to guide her, she finally found what she was looking for: the mouth of an unremarkable cave that lay a mile or so off the main road through Glasgow. It was the forgotten entrance to a branch of Mammoth Cave’s extensive underground network, and it was exactly where Boone’s stories said it would be.

Dixie entered without hesitation. The grass under her feet quickly melted into rough, slippery rock. She didn’t make any turns, heeding the warnings in Boone’s stories, yet pushed onward into the cave until she was surrounded by impenetrable nothingness. The temperature rose and settled around sixty degrees, and when she could at last make out the whistling of a large, gaping cavity, she paused. Her nearly numb toes felt the path before her and touched on the edge of a precipice. She thought of Boone and his meager few feet of light in those dust-choked mines, which were nothing like this cave with its cool, moist walls around her now.

Asthma. If only she could pretend it was that benign.

With the fading strength in her muscles, Dixie heaved the cast iron over the edge. It screamed as it dropped, clanging against rock after rock as it fell into the abyss of a cavern below. Each resounding toll echoed ten-fold around the cave, and those echoes reverberated deep into the earth, loud enough to wake generations of the dead.

***

Just as the cave liked to give without asking, she accepted this gift without question.

Visitors so rarely graced her outer fingertips and there was still so much she had to show these people, so much left unexplored. Sure, there were those who were working to catalogue her veins, but what would be the point if those other, greedy caves and their explosive tunnels worked their way through the land toward her until they nipped at her heels?

She would not think too hard about that yet, though. Now, she would help the girl find her way safely out of the darkness. The cave could tell this was a girl who belonged on the surface of things, not because she couldn’t handle the depths, but rather because the depths might not be able to handle her. This was a girl of the cave’s own kin, one who could see and, more importantly, one who could remember the lessons that would allow her to see better as she neared the end of the tunnel. The cave would never steal this girl earlier than was necessary. That’s what she hoped set her apart from the others. She did not posses the unique greediness that belonged to those people and their caves who solely thought of the here and now.

When it came time for the girl to come home, to take her place next to the cave beneath the ground, the cave would be waiting with open arms to help the girl pass through into the next life—not with a tragic scream of grief or wail of loss, but with a final, peaceful sigh.

Ellen Goff graduated from The University of Chicago with a B.A. in English and Film and a concentration in Creative Writing. She has worked everywhere from The Metropolitan Museum of Art to The White House in the Office of Presidential Correspondence under the Obama Administration. Her writing can also be found in the Indiana Review. Currently, she works in publishing and lives in New York, where she runs a Young Adult writing critique group. She was born and raised in Kentucky, and is currently at work on a speculative southern gothic Young Adult novel.

When Everything Was Whiskey Creek
Anna Craig

Middle Grade Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing

One

Santa Ynez Beach, California
1976

Mandalay Bates skipped across the sidewalk, so white hot, it scorched her sandals. Sun blistered the eucalyptus trees, setting their leaves a-shiver. The Santa Anas gushed through Mandalay’s hair. They weren’t playing, these winds. The Santa Anas carried electric shocks in them. The Santa Anas sparked wildfires.

“Better go home to Mama, baby!” a boy at the playground shouted. Heat rose in wiggly waves that danced between her and them. Wind held the crying, low-hovering seagulls, and dust devils scratched at the ground.

I’m not a baby!” Mandalay hollered back. She yelled this with all the fierceness she could muster. So ferociously did she shout, she pitched her whole self forward, clenching her knuckles tight. She screamed at those kids like seafoam churned from the depths of a stormy sea. Then her throat burned, and she gave a little cough. That part, they didn’t know.

Just because she liked to skip didn’t make her a baby.

Laughter rang from the park. Like it was just the funniest thing in the world that a ten-year-old girl would say the word she had said to those big boys. Ha, ha, ha.

Mandalay lifted hot fingers to hot cheeks, brushing away tears. Kids were so mean. She wished she’d gone to the pirate ship park this morning instead. The park on the beach with the zip-line that sailed you from way up on the gang plank all the way down to the ground, till your toes dug into the sand.

Or she could have gone to the Strand. If only she’d had a pair of tennis shoe skates, she could have rocketed along that endless strip of palm-lined sidewalk, breathing the salt air. Really, Mandalay wished she hadn’t gone out at all. Mama would have made her stay inside on such a day, a day when the winds whispered wildfire.

And then, she heard it.

Uh oh.

Mandalay would know that sound anywhere—that rattling and grinding of Aunt Tiny’s very big, very old, and very rusty car.

Oh no, thought Mandalay. Did the neighbors overhear? Did they call Aunt Tiny from their kitchen wall telephones? Did her aunt already know the terrible word Mandalay had screamed? In public? To a bunch of seventh graders?

Wheels screeched to a stop, but it wasn’t Aunt Tiny who rolled down the window. “Get in.”

Two

Gwendie

It wasn’t Auntie at all. Instead, Mandalay’s sister, Gwendie, sat behind the wheel. Their dog, Honey, sat next to her drooling.

“Hey, Gwendie. How come you’re driving?”

“Get in. Hurry up.”

“But where are we going?”

“Just, get, in.”

Mandalay glanced back at the park where big kids still jeered and shouted terrible things. She opened the door and climbed up onto the bench seat, so hot it burned her bare legs. Honey, who somehow made the whole entire car smell like dog, lumbered into the back. “I thought you had to be sixteen to drive,” Mandalay said, pulling the door closed—twice, to make it stick—and sitting on her hands.

“We’re going to see Nana and Granddad,” Gwendie announced as she peeled out, hair lifted by the wind. She snapped on the radio in the Buick that had once belonged to their grandparents. Rock music thumped so loud, Gwendie had to yell over it. “Never mind how old I am.”

Mandalay considered the dirt on her calloused palms. Nana and Granddad. The sisters didn’t visit them very often. Christmas, Easter. Valentine’s Day, when the adult care home put out fake candles. Not real ones the old folks might light the table on fire with—but they looked real. Each table was decorated with red paper cutout hearts, and the residents got to eat just a little bit of candy. Anyway, the ones with teeth did.

The last time Mandalay and Gwendie visited when it wasn’t a holiday, they were with their parents. That was two years ago, before the crash. “I remember going with Mama and Daddy. You know, before.”

“Yeah, well, we’re going to go a whole lot more now that I’m in charge.” Gwendie straightened the collar of her blouse. Usually Gwendie wore a tube top and shorts. “Stupid old hag. Couldn’t be bothered. Couldn’t lift her sorry self off the couch to take us to see our own grandparents. We have one pathetic aunt, Mandalay.”

Mandalay lifted her left eyebrow and her right shoulder. She didn’t exactly love Aunt Tiny. Auntie had moved into their house after Mama and Daddy died, and she was supposed to do all the things Mama had done—vacuum, cook, sew up their clothes. Instead, she took a liking to their color TV, and their liquor cabinet, and their most-of-the-time working car. Mandalay didn’t like her overflowing ashtrays or her messy hair. Auntie never wanted to play, either, the way Mama sometimes would, and she didn’t call her niece Moon Bay Mandalay, the way Daddy always did.

Mandalay lifted her shoulder an inch more. “She’s not really my aunt, you know. Not exactly.”

Gwendie slanted her white eyelashes at Mandalay. “Oh, now don’t start with that.” She gripped the wheel. She didn’t quite look tall enough to be driving, and her matching white hair was so long, she sat on it. And she definitely didn’t turn sixteen until wintertime. “We’re in this together, Mandalay, you may as well get used to that right now,” Gwendie said, her voice a mixture of gravel and steel. “You don’t need to remind me that Aunt Tiny wasn’t your aunt.”

Gwendie gulped back a sob. Mandalay’s alarm grew as a tear streaked down her sister’s tanned cheek. Gwendie never cried. Ever. But now Gwendie, who was crying, blinked tears out of her blue, blue eyes. Honey licked his nose, nudging her. Mandalay had never felt so alarmed. Her big sister was crying.

“We’re family, Mandalay,” Gwendie said. “Sisters. You got that? Just you and me. Just you. And. Me.” Gwendie’s eyebrows met in the middle, and she wept. Honey, from the back seat, lifted his head and gave a mournful, nose-to-the-sky howl.

“Gwendie?” Mandalay scooted over to grip her sister’s arm. They were all crying now—the little sister, the big sister, the dog. “Gwendie, are you okay? What happened? Where’s Aunt Tiny?”

Gwendie heaved two sobs then held her breath, focusing on the road ahead through her tears. Honey whimpered. He licked the girls’ cheeks, back and forth. “Aunt Tiny is nothing but a drunk,” Gwendie said. “I’m not going to let her use our food money to pour tequila down her throat, ever again.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I kicked her out.”

For a second, Mandalay’s whole world tilted. She didn’t know what that meant, kicked her out. She pictured her sister pushing their aunt out the screen door. Kicking her with a shiny red cowboy boot, the one with silver snakeskin.

Mandalay looked out at the palm trees bravely enduring the sun. A guy biked over the sun-bleached, sand-strewn sidewalk, carrying a surfboard under his arm. His bare back was brown and muscled and shiny with sweat, and he pedaled wearing flip-flops. Waves thundered gently on the shore.

And that’s when it hit her—if Aunt Tiny didn’t live with them, who would take her to the beach? For that matter, who would cook her dinner?

“But …” Mandalay said, “who’s going to take care of us? Who’s going to take care of me?”

Gwendie sniffed and hardened her gaze. “I am.”

Mandalay glanced up at the vinyl roof, torn and gaping, and for a long minute her eyes traveled from one side of the car top to the other. She wished she could skip. Instead, she tapped the toes of her sandals together. “Are you sure you’re allowed to, Gwendie?”

“No! I’m not allowed to,” Gwendie wailed. “And you can’t tell Nana and Granddad. Not one word, Mandalay. I mean it. No one can know we’re alone.”

Three

The Gatekeeper

The Whiskey Creek Adult Care Home was a one-story row house with tiny lawns sporting Santa-hatted gnomes. Nana and Granddad lived in Room #34, but you had to check in with the receptionist before you could see them, and you had to have an appointment. At least, you had to pretend you did.

“Gwendolyn Townsend? No, I don’t have you on the list,” the receptionist said, running a sharp pink fingernail down the clipboard. “No, you’re most definitely not on my list.”

“There must be some mistake,” Gwendie said, crossing her arms. “Check again, please.”

“We are here to see Nana and Granddad since we no longer have parents of our own,” Mandalay said, to be helpful, but Gwendie ribbed her with a sharp elbow. “I’m just telling them,” Mandalay whispered, wiggling her tooth. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

She skipped in a circle. It wasn’t like she had just said the word she’d said at the playground in front of those big kids. And she did so want to be helpful. Here they were, all by themselves, and poor Gwendie having to act like a grownup. Mandalay hopped quietly on one foot, ghosting a hopscotch outline.

“Ahem,” Mandalay said after a minute, pulling herself to her full height, just tall enough to see over the counter. She was bored waiting for the lady to decide. She was ready for something to happen.

“For your information, we have a very important thingy with our grandparents. They’ll want to see us—we’re their only grandchildren, you know, except that we have different dads. And just so you know, my sister Gwendolyn drove us here, all by herself. And she is wearing her pretty pink blouse, even though I came straight from the playground. See?” Mandalay said, gesturing grandly toward her sister.

This time Gwendie didn’t elbow her.

The lady tapped the sign with her pencil. “Appointment required, honey,” she said. But she didn’t say it nicely.

“I’m not Honey, I’m Mandalay,” Mandalay told her. “Honey is our dog who’s a part-lhasa-apso-part-poodle-part-German-Shepherd mix, and he’s tied to a tree, just outside the car. Can’t we pleasepleaseplease just visit with Nana and Granddad?” Mandalay clasped her hands together, like she was praying. “Pretty please?”

The lady looked at her, then at Gwendie, who tapped her teenaged foot and looked scary-mad, but at the lady, not at Mandalay.

Four

The Great Escape, Take One

“Well, will wonders never cease,” Nana said, setting down her knitting. “Visitors!”

Mandalay clapped her sandals over the shiny floor and leapt square into Nana’s lap. She snuggled into her grandmother who smelled just like she always did, like vanilla and peppermint. What a relief to inhale Nana’s familiar scent, instead of the cold, awful smell of the nursing home. “Nana! Aren’t you glad to see us? We haven’t been here since Easter.”

Nana kissed the top of Mandalay’s head. “I am glad to see you, honey. How are you? How’s school?”

“What’re you two doing here?” Granddad accused, folding down a corner of his newspaper.

Gwendie stooped to kiss his cheek. “We’ve come to take you out for lunch. Your charming receptionist says they can’t get you to eat anything, Granddad. Says you’re wasting away to nothing.”

Granddad gave an angry scrunch of his chin and shook his newspaper. He was very short, and thin and crusty as burnt toast, but his knuckles were giant-size marbles. “They can’t make me do nothing I don’t want to. They can’t!” he barked.

“Can we go to Now-That’s-A-Burger?” Mandalay asked, picking at the callouses on her hands. She played on the monkey bars so much, thick callouses lined her palms. She was always proud to show them off, and now she showed them to Nana.

“How has everything been going?” Gwendie asked their grandparents, ignoring both Granddad and Mandalay.

“Right as rain, right as rain,” Nana said, pressing a finger into her granddaughter’s palm. Small like Granddad, Nana wore a thick white sweater that matched her thick white hair, the color reflecting the ghostly glow of her face. “Can’t complain.”

Granddad kicked his foot out. “I can.”

“He just wants to be home,” Nana said, dismissing him with a wave of her hand. “But it’s all right here. I don’t mind it so much. They cook for us, and twice a week someone comes in to clean. I always envied the ladies who had someone come in to clean. Those ladies are all dead now.”

“Well that’s … good,” Gwendie said. “That you like it here, I mean.”

“They’re ripping us off, that’s what,” Granddad grumped. He hid behind his paper. Mandalay read the headline: President Ford and Ronald Reagan go toe-to-toe in Republican Primary.

“Don’t you listen to him,” Nana said, reaching out to pat Gwendie’s arm. “He’s just mad he has to depend on someone this way. He wants to be home, mowing the lawn and tinkering with his car. We’re fine.” She stretched out her fingers. “The Queen of England is coming soon to pay a visit.”

The girls exchanged a glance. Nana was forgetful at times. Sometimes she got things mixed up. Mandalay hoped the day wouldn’t come when she would forget her.

“No, Nana,” Gwendie said, “you know the Queen isn’t coming here. She’s coming to America for the Bicentennial celebration, but not here to the Home. You’re getting confused again.”

“I’m hungry,” Mandalay said again, not really interested in queens and garden parties. Princesses, yes, but definitely not queens. Best of all, a princess in tennis shoe skates.

Just in time, her stomach gave a dramatic growl. “I am a growing girl, you know,” she said, climbing from Nana’s lap. “All I had for breakfast was half a Pop Tart. Auntie snuck the other half while I was watching cartoons.” Mandalay scowled at the memory. What an injustice, to have half your breakfast stolen by the one person who was supposed to be caring for you.

“Yeah, well you can kiss Pop Tarts goodbye,” Gwendie said. “From now on, you’re eating whole wheat toast with mashed avocado for breakfast. And milk. And fresh squeezed orange juice from the Citrus Man.” Mandalay grinned. She didn’t love the idea of mashed avocado on any breakfast, but she did love the Citrus Man. She loved it when he drove his truck down Las Palmas Avenue, where their big blue house took up an entire street corner. Almost as much as she loved going to the strawberry stand at the edge of the huge strawberry field that stretched out like a red and green ocean, and carrying a flat of farm-fresh berries to the car.

Every time the Citrus Man drove down their street, a cry would go up in the neighborhood, same as when the ice cream man jingled by. All the kids on the block would bike, skate, or run home to get fifty cents for a bag of oranges. The whole process electrified Mandalay.

Still.

“Whole wheat toast and avocado?” Mandalay complained, plunking herself on the edge of the bed. She remembered the Citrus Man telling all the neighborhood kids that the greenish oranges were the most flavorful ones. The ones that made the best orange juice. “Can’t I have cereal? Can’t I have Cap’n Crunch?”

No,” Gwendie said. She looked first at Nana, then at Granddad. “Aunt Tiny may have been all about junk food, but not me. Don’t you remember the healthy meals Mama used to make us? That’s what we’re going back to. Junk food is only for once in a while, like lunch with Nana and Granddad.”

Why was Gwendie talking about Aunt Tiny like that? Mandalay wondered. It was almost like she was waiting for their grandparents to catch on, and ask why Aunt Tiny wasn’t with them. But they didn’t. Granddad just shook his paper as if trying to drown them out.

“Anyway, what do you say, Granddad, lunch?” Gwendie counted the money in her coin purse. “I have enough for four cheeseburgers, and maybe some fries—okay?”

Nana looked at Granddad, who ducked behind his paper.

“Oh, brother,” Gwendie said, throwing up her hands. “Well, you talk it over. I need to pick a daisy.”

She sighed mightily, disappearing behind the bathroom door and clicking the lock shut. Mandalay shuddered. The old-folks’ bathroom—lined with silver guard rails, smelling like Mr. Clean. It wasn’t pretty like her bathroom at home, or green-tiled like the bathrooms at school.

To tell the truth, the old folks’ bathroom frightened Mandalay. She felt a sad ache thinking of her grandparents being stuck in this cold, lonely room with the air conditioner that cranked on like a jet engine—with this bathroom. Nana and Granddad never even got to go to the beach.

“She’s not really picking daisies,” Mandalay whispered to Nana, to be helpful. “That just means she has to go.”

“Quick!” Granddad said, leaping from his seat and crouching low. Without warning, he crab-walked across the room. “Mandalay, grab Nana’s purse. You’re going to help us.”

Mandalay startled.

“Help you?”

“Yes, that’s right. Help us. Get us out of here.” Stretching his neck, Granddad peered into the hallway, left to right. His freckled bald spot gleamed under the fluorescent lights.

Mandalay stole a peek at Nana, who stared straight ahead, wild-eyed.

“But … how am I going to get you out of here?” Mandalay hissed. She had never done anything of the sort, and she pictured the stern receptionist chasing them with her clipboard as they bolted out the big double doors.

Shhhhh!!!!” Granddad hissed back. He closed the door and opened another, yanking something from the closet. He plunked an old brown suitcase on the bed and snapped open the locks. “You’re going to help us escape.”

The sink started to run. Any second, Gwendie was going to return. She was going to catch their grandparents running away, and Mandalay helping them!

With a horrified fascination, Mandalay watched as Granddad shoved his striped shirt and a spotted bowtie along with Nana’s sweaters into the suitcase. He slammed the top down and pressed the locks closed. Click.

“We’re going back home where we belong,” Granddad barked. Mandalay remembered when the family had all lived together. Daddy always said the four of them would move into their own house once they could afford to, but Mandalay had loved living with her parents and grandparents and sister, all together in the big blue house.

Just then, Gwendie re-emerged and Mandalay watched, riveted, as her grandparents arranged their faces into perfectly mild expressions. Granddad sat on the suitcase, staring straight up at the ceiling, tapping his chin.

“What.” Gwendie closed the bathroom door behind her, aiming those blue eyes on her sister. “What’s going on?”

Mandalay caught a fierce look from Granddad, so she, too, stared up at the ceiling, tapping her chin. “Oh, nothing.”

Gwendie grabbed her purse. “Well, come on, then,” she said. “Let’s go get lunch.”

Five

Not Whiskey Creek

“Why does that say the Santa Ynez Beach Motel?” Granddad asked as they pulled into Now-That’s-a-Burger. He peered out from the car window. “Should say Whiskey Creek.”

“Because that’s what it’s called,” Gwendie explained, gingerly steering through the drive-through. “What does everyone want?”

Mandalay waited while everyone in the car studied the menu she had long since memorized. She wondered if they would be able to get Granddad to eat. She worried that he really might waste away to nothing.

Gwendie pulled up to the giant clown head and ordered. She waited as the take-out girl punched their order into the cash register. “You know that, Granddad. They changed the name of the hotel when they changed the name of the town. It’s 1976. Nothing’s Whiskey Creek anymore. It’s all Santa Ynez Beach now. What do you want to drink?”

Granddad shook his head sorrowfully. “Used to be called the Whiskey Creek Motel.”

Granddad wasn’t the only one who worried. Sometimes it kept Mandalay awake at night, snug beneath her blankets, staring at the moonlight as it moved across her bedroom walls. Mama and Daddy only knew their town as Whiskey Creek, California. If they ever looked down from heaven, how would they find Gwendie and Mandalay in a town called Santa Ynez Beach? For that matter, how would Santa Claus?

“How about a milkshake, Granddad?” Mandalay, who had no desire to see her grandfather waste away to nothing, asked. She wanted to hang on to the little family she had left.

Seagulls hovered near the windows crying, eager to snatch any scrap. “Mmmmm mm. I sure do love chocolate milkshakes.” Mandalay rubbed her tummy and licked her lips, for good measure.

“I. Don’t. Want. Nothing. To eat!” Granddad shouted. He’d worn a jacket for the outing, even though it was so hot there was a pink blush of sunlight on everyone’s cheeks. He continued looking out the window, shaking his head, gazing at all the new Santa Ynez Beach buildings and shops. “I remember when everything was Whiskey Creek.”

Mandalay reached forward to pat his shoulder, and he didn’t brush her aside. “That’ll be a dollar twenty-seven more than you gave me,” the Now-That’s-a-Burger girl said, withholding the fat, grease-bottomed bag. Gwendie stuck her nose in her coin purse, scrounging up more nickels, dimes, and pennies. She counted them out into the girl’s hand.

“All right, then. Four cheeseburgers, four fries, and four milkshakes—two chocolate, two strawberry,” the girl said. “Any ketchup?”

“You want ketchup, Granddad?”

“Look at those boys with their long hair and sandals,” Granddad scoffed, wagging his finger at some teenagers skateboarding by. “They look like girls!”

“Lance has long hair,” Mandalay offered. “That’s Gwendie’s boyfriend, and he doesn’t look like a girl. Boys don’t cut their hair short anymore, Granddad. Boys and girls can look the same now. Right, Gwendie? I am woman hear me ROAR!”

Hippies,” Granddad jeered.

Gwendie handed him the food bag. The whole car lit up with the smell of French fries. “Here you go, Granddad.”

“Don’t want nothing,” he grumped, taking the food from her.

The Santa Anas whipped through the windows. He craned his neck at the eucalyptus trees, shaking his finger at them. “One of these days, those winds are going to start a wildfire no one will soon forget.”

“Pass those bags back here to us,” Nana said. “We’re hungry, aren’t we, Mandalay?”

Granddad passed back their lunches. Mandalay tucked into the fries as he placed a straw in each of the shakes, and passed two back.

“They can’t make me eat,” he said. “Nobody can make me do nothing!”

“Well, give one of those fries to me, then,” Gwendie said, exasperated. She rolled her eyes. “Never mind the food, Granddad. Mandalay will tell you something interesting, right, Mandalay?” She pulled carefully out of the drive-through.

“Me?” Mandalay chewed as she considered this. She searched her memory for a good story. “Oh, okay. Sure.” She thought some more. All that came to mind, though, was what had happened at the park this morning. It wasn’t exactly the story Mandalay wanted to share, but they were all waiting.

“Well … this morning at the playground,” she began. They listened, Nana in her sweater, Gwendie in her visiting clothes, Granddad in his jacket. Honey nibbled on Mandalay’s salty fingers as if hoping they would magically turn into fries, and Gwendie made a careful turn into the parking lot of the soccer field.

“Well …” Mandalay tried again, pulling her hands away to wring them together, “there were some big kids there and, well, I sort of called them a … a sort of a bad name. But they were being mean!”

“Really? What did they do?” Granddad asked. He tilted his ear up, like he might actually be interested. Mandalay saw him, up in the front seat, reach for a fry. The car coasted to a stop.

“They were smoking on the monkey bars, and they were teasing us little kids,” Mandalay said. “They made fun of Felipe Dominguez when he fell off the swing.”

“Oh, that’s not nice,” Nana said with a frown. “Not nice at all.”

“No,” Mandalay said sadly, remembering how bereft she had felt when all the other little kids fled the playground. It had been scary to have big kids teasing and yelling when she was there all alone. Mandalay didn’t know what had made her stand her ground, even after all the other kids scattered. Everyone may say she was a baby, but something in her had refused to stand down, at least easily. “And then—” Mandalay said, swallowing twice at the memory of her humiliation—“and then those kids chased us!” That last part wasn’t true, but she was holding their attention, and Mandalay noticed Granddad shoveling French fries into his mouth, ripping open a ketchup packet to pour over the rest. She couldn’t stop now.

“Chased you, little kids!” Granddad said. “Then what happened?”

“I-I had to stop them,” Mandalay said. “So I said . . . ”

“What?”

“I said a bad word.”

“Really?” Nana said. “What bad word did you say?”

“Well …” Mandalay took a deep breath, knowing that what she was about to say could land her in the biggest trouble of her entire life. It hadn’t been her proudest moment, and she really did wish she was making it up, but, sadly, this part was true. “I called them a damn butt crack!”

Granddad laughed, right out loud. Threw his head back and hooted. Then he fairly shouted with laughter, louder still. He laughed so hard he started slapping his knee, then coughing.

Nana giggled, hiding her teeth behind one hand. A warm, tingly feeling blanketed Mandalay as Granddad let loose with a guffaw that rolled out the open window, so loud that people at the park turned to see what was so funny in their big, rusty old car.

Then she watched as Granddad unwrapped the cheeseburger and, wiping away tears, snuck a bite.

“That’s showing some spunk,” he said. “You showed those kids.”

Suddenly, just as if an evil spell had been lifted, it didn’t seem like such a big deal to Mandalay, what had happened at the playground. Not only was she not in trouble, but telling the story seemed to make everything all better. All that mattered in the great wide world was that her family was with her, and they were laughing.

The silver wrappers glinted in the sunlight. From the distance came cheers from the field. The French fry containers lay empty. Granddad ran his finger inside the bottom of the bag and licked the salt.

“We’re going to be visiting you a lot more from now on, Nana and Granddad,” Gwendie said, putting her hand on Granddad’s arm. “You can count on that.”

“Yeah, because Gwendie kicked Aunt Tiny in the butt!” Mandalay said, but this time, nobody laughed. Nana and Granddad just stared out at the park.

“Not in the butt,” Gwendie assured them.

“Well … out,” Mandalay said. “You kicked her out.”

They sat in silence.

“That’s a good thing,” Granddad finally said, picking at his teeth with a toothpick. “That auntie of yours was nothing but trouble. You raising little Mandalay all alone, then, Gwendie?”

Mandalay reached over the backseat and gripped her sister’s shoulders. An electric bolt passed between them.

“I am, Granddad,” Gwendie answered a little shakily. “I kept the car. It was the only thing Tiny cared about, but I kept it. I’m going to take good care of Mandalay.”

“You say you’re going to come see us now and then?” Granddad said.

Gwendie turned to him. “Will you eat some dinner if we do?”

“I will not,” he said, crumpling the bag and hiding it under his seat. He looked out the window and rubbed his chin. “But I sure would love to hear what Mandalay says next to those hooligans. That’s all.”

“Well, good, because we’re going to be back on Saturday,” Gwendie said, starting up the car.

Mandalay watched the park fade as they drove back to the Whiskey Creek—not Santa Ynez Beach—Elderly Adult Care Home, the one thing left with the town’s old name. She watched Nana brush crumbs from her lap and Granddad peer out the window. She watched Gwendie grip the steering wheel with both hands as if she was sixteen, and old enough to drive.

Mandalay couldn’t wait to skip, just as soon as they got out of the car. Just as soon as she and Gwendie and Honey were home.

Anna Craig lives in Bonney Lake, Washington, where she spends her time playing tennis, baking, and trying to forgive her children for growing up so fast. Her work has twice placed in the Katherine Paterson Prize, once as Special Mention,  and has once placed in the top twenty of the Southwest International Writing Contest. She holds an MFA from VCFA where Café Anna is named after a ghost, not after her, which is good because Anna-the-ghost probably has everything all figured out, while Anna the not-ghost still has much to learn.

El Ratoncito (The Mexican mouse that became a fairy for a night)
Adriana Martinez

Picture Book Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing

Dedicated to the curiosity and wonder of my daughters.

This story was born out of a question from my seven-year-old, Zara. She asked, “Why does the Ratoncito come to our house and not the Tooth Fairy?”

It begins with magic and love, with hope and wonder …

Hundreds of years ago, when girls and boys would lose their first tooth a magical mouse would appear. He would leave a present in place of the tooth.

Unknown good spirits gave El Ratoncito the power to be like no other mouse.

No one knows how old El Ratoncito is or where he came from, what we do know is that he has been around for at least two hundred years and his first language was Español.

Some say his name is Don Jorge.

He is celebrated for his sense of humor, kindness, and sometimes his quirkiness. This is a story about the night that El Ratoncito visited a little girl named Vida.

On a night just like almost every night, with the sway of the wind bringing in the scent of dreams and the stars glittering like buds of fluorescent light, a sense of calm and normalcy was palpable. Yet it was not quite like other nights when nothing seemed to happen but for a cricket mistaking his house for under the bed. This night had indeed a different feel to it, one that Vida could not yet put her finger on, but it felt playful like fairy dust and squirming puppies.

She placed her tongue in the gap in between her front teeth and felt the space fresh and awkward. An adult tooth would soon come out to fill in the space but for now what occupied her mind was that a fantastical thing would finally occur tonight.

She ran around the house desperately with her baby tooth in one hand, tripping over toys and other stuff she had forgotten to pick up from the floor. Vida was being clumsy as she felt that time was pressing and soon the little mouse would be expecting a nice snack along with her tooth.

Abuelita, I can’t find any cheese for the Ratoncito and my tooth just fell out! Do you think he’ll like some cheddar or asadero cheese?” asked Vida.

“I think he will like either cheese mija,” answered her Grandma.

“The kids at school talk about the tooth fairy, but I do not know why the Ratoncito comes to our house,” Vida said with a confused face.

“Well, we come from a long line of people from Mexico who are friends with animals and believe in magia. We have been fine tuned to the natural and to the ‘unseen’ world since we can remember,” explained her Abuelita.

“Well, I’ll be ready for tonight!” said Vida.

As she got ready for bed, she left a piece of brie cheese on her night stand, hoping for a a coin or two. But, what she wanted most was for El Ratoncito to like her choice of cheese. “After all we are not in Mexico and maybe he had acquired a taste for different kind of cheese,” she thought.

As the pink and orange hues in the sky turned into purple and then into a deep sea blue and the stars came out to dance like a Neruda poem. And so did la luna, as she stood like a queen overlooking her desert.

Her Abuelita whispered into her ear, “Dulces sueños mi cielo.” And then gave her a kiss on her forehead.

As Don Jorge scrambled out of his hole in the wall he knew his chance to dress as a fairy for a night had finally come. He rubbed his belly while he said to himself, “I hope that I get manchego cheese or pastel de tres leches even—why not? My pancita is growling (grrrr…),” he mumbled.

He had always had a special fondness for Vida. Her thoughtfulness, her kindness, and her humor had motivated him to dress as a fairy that night.

Although the rule was not to be seen, because he loved Vida so much he thought he might bend the rules a bit and say hi to her.

Vida drifted into the mystical realm of the dream world, as if she was hearing a lullaby … “Duermase mi niña, duermaseme ya …

Don Jorge was just on time, maybe too timely. He peeked out once, he sniffed twice and got a good glance of Vida’s peaceful expression as he squinted his eyes in the dark.

Don Jorge had been visiting the family for generations without being seen, until tonight …

This idea of being seen was a little more adventurous than he was used to so he was a little nervous. He took a step and a twirl in his never-ever worn tutu, and flapped his wings. “¡Ay nanita! Being a fairy is so much fun!” he thought.

Vida heard little footsteps like a crackling fire in the distance. She opened up an eye ever so slightly. The mouse dashed across the rug to eat the brie in one single bite. Then she opened the other eye as she jumped up in bed.

¿Eres tu Ratoncito?” Vida asked, excited.

As the light of the moon shined through the window he realized he had run out of fairy dust which had made him invisible for a while. The decision of being seen was made for him.

Gracias por el queso,” he said to Vida timidly.

Vida felt so lucky! He slowly approached her with five pesos and five quarters. She extended her arm and opened her hand to receive them. And so they stayed up for a while exchanging cuentos of their families. Stories about adventures where they had both felt a little afraid but they had managed to be valientes.

“Ratoncito, tell me about how you go from house to house,” asked Vida.

“I travel from casita to casita not by taking a train or sailing a boat or riding my bicycle nor flying on my favorite bird. My secret is that I hop into a tunnel where space and time don’t really follow rules. As I enter it, I think of the person I am visiting and let my heart be filled with love. Once the emotion takes over my body like a beating Tarahumara drum I close my eyes and in what feels like a second I am at the hole in the wall of the child’s bedroom,” the little mouse carefully explained.

“Hmm … so, you travel powered by love or magic,” said Vida.

 

“Tell me one more story before you go,” Vida asked. She was not going to let him go so quickly. A luciernaga flew by lighting up the room and a current of fresh air came into the room filling it with a scent of magnolias.

Don Jorge took a deep breath and smiled as he begun. “Long ago, children had little time to remind them of how loved they were. Their parents and grandparents would work so much and playtime was shorter than it is today because kids would help with family work. And so, some children would go to sleep and not hear ‘Te Amo’ before bedtime or lose a tooth and not remember to celebrate this special rite of passage.”

“Out of this need came a solution,” said the Ratoncito as he winked. “A very ordinary field mouse, myself, grew tired of the sad faces of these wonderful kids. My desire became so strong that I decided to bring more joy into these big-hearted little ones. That’s when, for the first time, I left coins to a boy named Cipriano when he lost a tooth.”

Vida was so intrigued and could not get enough of this fantastical creature. “And when did you come to our house for the first time?” she asked with wide eyes of expectation and not a hint of sleepiness in her voice.

He reluctantly accepted as he knew there a few more homes to visit. “Esta bien, I will tell you one last cuento. When your abuelita was just around your age I accidentally stepped out before all the lights were turned off. As I turned the corner into la cocina your great grandmother, Esmeralda, happened to be picking up the kitchen. Pegó el grito when she saw me she almost smashed me with the chancla.”

“And then what happened next?” she asked.

“Your abuelita Concha stepped in to protect me without knowing who I was and hid me in her rebozo. We ran to the patio and she let me go safely amongst the cempasúchil flowers. Casi me machucan but thanks to your grandma’s kind heart and bravery I am still the Ratoncito on duty today.”

He was quietly smiling as he remembered other adventures from long ago. “It’s late and it is now time for you to go back inside and for me to go. Remember to place your tooth under the almohada the next time you loose one. And please leave a piece of cheese or an enchilada for me.” He giggled.

¡Buenas noches linda niña!” said Don Jorge as he scurried out the window and into the night. The stars had a twinkle that shined stronger than before, maybe because of the full moon or maybe because they had been chiming into the magic all along.

All was well that night for the beautiful Vida and for the hard working Ratoncito. She slept peacefully and felt grateful for the unexpected meeting and drifted into sleep with a smile on her face.

The Mexican mouse would have more tales to tell and more adventures to share but that would have to wait, for the nights are as important for the body as magic is for the soul. Buenas noches.

El Fin.

Vocabulary

Español—Spanish

El Ratoncito—The little mouse

Don—Mr.

Vida—life

Abuelita—grandma

Asadero, ranchero, and manchego are mexican cheese

Mija—affectionate expression to refer to a little girl or daughter

Neruda—Pablo Neruda is a chilean poet

Magia—magic

Dulces sueños mi cielo—sweet dreams my love or my sky

Pastel de tres leches—a type of Mexican cake

Pancita—tummy

La luna—moon

Duermase mi niña, duermaseme ya …—Sleep my little girl, sleep now

¡Ay nanita!—oh my!

¿Eres tu Ratoncito?—is that you little mouse?

Gracias por el queso—thank you for the cheese

valientes—valiant or brave

Pesos—Mexican coins

Casita—little house

Tarahumara—an indigenous group located in northern Mexico, who reside predominantly in the area of the Copper Canyon

Luciernaga—firefly

Magnolias—magnolia flowers

Esta bien—That’s fine

Cuento—story

Te Amo—I love you

Pegó el grito—screamed

Chancla—sandals or flip flops

Rebozo—shawl

Cempasúchil flowers—marigolds

Casi me machucan—I was almost smashed

Enchilada—tortilla with a filling of cheese, vegetables, or meat

¡Buenas noches linda niña!—Good night sweet girl

Almohada—pillow

El Fin—The End

Adriana Martinez grew up between the two worlds of urban Texas and coastal Mexico. Her love of art and native wonders is a heartfelt pursuit which has led her all around the world from Texas to San Miguel de Allende to Florence, Italy; from Italy to Spain and Morocco; from Europe back to Mexico, dramatically steeped in its own complex web of histories and rich, resplendent cultures. She is a visual artist, a dream illustrator, a painter of souls and often works closely with private collectors and ethnic groups. Adriana currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

Hyphe(nation)
by Kaylee Y. Jeong

International Young Writers Prize for High School-Aged Writers

“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”

—Toni Morrison

 

On the first-grade attendance sheet, Jessica’s legal name is the same as her Korean one, and Mrs. Powell stumbles. Min see oh? Min ee soh? Laughter from all of us little ones sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the blue carpet. Jessica smiles and raises her hand. It’s Minseo.

The next year, Mr. Scott inflates his cheeks with air, blows out in one theatrical huff. I’m not even going to try to pronounce this one. Laughter. Ms. Coleman the next year: There’s always the one weird name in the class. Laughter. Mrs. Andersen squints and brings the paper so close to her face I’m afraid she’ll papercut her eyeballs, and by this year Jessica knows the routine and smiles slyly, speaking up before Mrs. Andersen can try. Minseo. But I go by Jessica. Laughter. 

The perpetual joke and the perennially hilarious punchline, and always the same curious questions: Where does your name come from? Where do you come from? Jake Griffin raises his hand and asks her if she’s from North or South Korea. Laughter again, and Jessica throws her long black hair over her shoulder and laughs with them. I wish I were Jessica. I wish my Korean name were on the attendance sheet, too. I want to be conspicuously Korean, to have the class’s attention. I want to be the joke everyone always finds so funny. 

In fifth grade, I sidle up to Jessica one day and whisper, “I’m Korean too. My Korean name is Young-Eun.” She lets out a little gasp and pokes me frantically on the shoulder. “We should talk Korean to each other when we don’t want people to know what we’re saying.” From then on, we are the best of friends, pointing at other people, jabbering away in Korean, giggling when they ask us, Are you talking about me? Everyone asks us if we can say something to them in Korean and we gladly oblige, beaming when they look at us in awe and say, Whoa, say something else! Korea is enchanting, exotic. Korea is a secret world. 

 

I fly to my secret world the summer of fifth grade, like every other summer, and spend muggy days running to the corner store for bubble wands and chocolate-scented erasers, stuffing myself with food in air-conditioned shopping malls. My grandmother and I walk hand in hand to the outdoor market every day, chattering nonstop as we play a game, trying not to step on the cracks in the brick sidewalk. Years of shoe factory work still weigh heavy on her permanently curved spine, and she has to stop on the way home and take a few deep breaths on a playground bench. She watches as I laugh uncontrollably from the swings and she beams at me, her smile full and round and beautiful.

But my little brother doesn’t like Korea. He doesn’t like kimchi and he can’t use chopsticks. He has to ask for a fork to eat his jajangmyeon and can’t get past fork … fork … before the waitress nods briskly and rushes off. My father thumps him on the back and laughs, “What kind of Korean are you?” My brother looks up blankly: “I thought I’m American.” My father explains how we’re a different kind of American. Korean-American. He makes a point of the hyphen. My brother, still confused, says, Okay anyway and goes back to wrapping black bean noodles around his fork. 

It’s so humid you can feel the water thick in the air when you step outside. I wear my favorite pink checkered shorts, but when I sit down my thighs stick to the chair and expand to twice their size. I ask my mother, “Umma, why are my legs so fat?” and she tells me it’s because I’m Korean, sturdy and strong. “But I don’t want to be strong. I want to be pretty.” She tells me that’s just the way Koreans are made. As she walks around the cosmetics store, I examine my face in the little mirror and ask her why my eyes are so small, why my nose is so flat. That’s the way Koreans are made.

“Is there anything good about being Korean?” I ask. But she’s swatching lipsticks on her hand and doesn’t answer.

 

I come back from Korea and enter middle school with sparkly stationery and soft, salon-straightened hair that swings from side to side when I walk. Everyone asks me where I got my hair done, where I got my mechanical pencils. They moan, You’re so lucky when I say, Korea. I guess these are the good things about being Korean: pencils topped with small plastic bears and a straight perm that lasts until the end of eighth grade.

But I get my hair cut again, the perm fades away, and just in time for high school, I’m all the way back to coarse, wavy hair that curls in all the wrong places. When Jessica and I count the Koreans in our new private Catholic school, we come up with three. Two of them are us. Suddenly when teachers gag over Jessica’s name during attendance, I feel my eyes turning into hyphens, my skin yellowing like old plastic. Next to me, Jessica recites her old punchline, but it sounds more like a confession now, her voice small and guarded. No one laughs.

They do laugh, eventually, when our Spanish teacher talks at length about her trip to Beijing. “I had to leave my poor little dog at home … ’cause you know what they do to dogs over there.” She raises an eyebrow and the class roars. Jessica and I eye each other, our foreheads wrinkling. The teacher spies us. “Have you two ever tried dog?” Uproar again, and everyone’s shrieking gleefully. We shake our heads haltingly and lower our eyes. I don’t want to be the joke anymore.

When chemistry tests are handed back, I get a B, and the girl next to me stares in disbelief. “Are you gonna be okay? Don’t your parents beat you if you don’t get straight A’s?” I’m confused: “No, are you okay?” 

“No, I just thought, because like, all my Asian friends … never mind.”

Embarrassed, I freeze, searching my brains for the right words to parry the blow. “Oh … well … I’m not that kind of Asian, I guess.”

She nods knowingly. “To be honest, I don’t even see you as Asian. You know what I mean?” She pats me on the back and walks away. I glow suddenly in the warmth of her praise. At dinner, I tell my parents about the B, and they hardly look up. “Good job!” my father says through a mouthful of bibimbap. My mother asks me to pass the gochujang sauce. Again, I think, We’re not that kind of Asian. I’m satisfied.

 

More often than not, though, they disappoint, slip back into fresh-off-the-boat, immigrant mode, and I’m exasperated. When my father drops me off at school, he rolls down the window of his gray minivan and shouts, “Good day! Good day, Young-Eun!” before driving away. My ears turn red as I run without looking back. I remind him nightly: “Appa, can you not use my Korean name? And you can’t just say, ‘Good day.’ You have to say, ‘Have a,’ or it won’t make sense.” He repeats, “Ahh, have a. Have …  a … good … day, Kay-lee. Right?” The next morning, he rolls down the window and forgets again. 

He tries to break out of Korean, practices his English on us at home and I mock his accent, rolling my eyes at how he falters uhh, uhh before producing a second-rate rendering of the American sound he wants. I make fun of my mother too, how her tongue fails, makes the th dead and heavy, how her i’s all sound like e’s, stretched like kalguksu dough. “Umma, you’re not supposed to say it like that.” I open my mouth to show her how my tongue pushes against my teeth and she tries to copy me, her eyes wide, brow furrowed. More often than not, they are that kind of Asian. The wrong kind.

Wrong Asian or right Asian, we love ice cream as much as the next family. My father and I drive downtown to find the only place with snickerdoodle—his favorite flavor—and he hops out of the car to see if he can pay for parking, his nearsightedness forcing his face close to the sign so he can read it. 

“You need help reading that sign, buddy?” Two white men approach. Their arms flail around as they try to communicate with my father in some strange sign language my father never agreed to speak, mouths moving slowly, syllables long and exaggerated. “No … park. You … no … park … here.” My father’s face crumples soundlessly, shocked.

“I am not stupid. I live here. I have Ph.D. I have citizenship.” The accent voids it all. Their mouths keep stretching, pulling every which way as they say, Ohhhh, ohhh-kay, their heads nodding with dramatized understanding. My father stamps his feet and flattens his hands against his temples as they walk away, laughing. “I am a citizen. I am a citizen.” We don’t get snickerdoodle ice cream, and on the way home, I look into the rearview mirror. I think I see him crying.

 

I learn the word chink from my friend Zoe, standing next to me in the bathroom, our mouths hanging open as we carefully swipe mascara onto our lashes. Zoe, half-Korean, half-white, has pale pink skin, not a trace of yellow, but Korean eyes. She blinks and looks at herself. “I wish my eyes didn’t look so goddamn chinky.” I inspect my own eyes, say nothing. We walk to Brandy Melville together and marvel softly to each other about the disconcerting number of tall, skinny, blonde girls in the store, clothes hangers dangling from their manicured fingers, soft shirts draped over their arms. On the walk home, she tells me how she wishes she were tall, skinny, blonde, and most importantly, full white, and that she’d never in her life met an Asian who was pretty. My chest tightens and won’t let go for the entire half hour she spends complaining about her half-Asian ugliness to my full-Korean face.

 

So the Korean on my face is ugly, but the Korean everywhere else is beautiful. K-pop idols. YouTube tutorials. How To Look Like A Korean Girl. How To Get Korean Skin. I want to tell all the girls dusting orange blush and porcelain powder over their faces: You don’t know how good you have it right now. I want to tell them: If you want Korean skin, break my flesh with a fingernail and peel it away like a tangerine rind. I want to tell them: You’ll keep my skin while it’s still fragrant and wear it on top of yours. And then you’ll give it back when it’s shriveled yellow-brown, when it’s not cute and you don’t want it anymore. I want to tell them: Korea is not yours. Korea is mine. 

But when I step into Incheon International Airport the August after my sophomore year, my grandmother and cousins, aunts and uncles run towards me and start cheering, chattering in sounds I recognize but can’t understand fast enough to speak back. What grade are you in? How is your new school? How are your studies? My tongue calcifies, feels over-large in my mouth. Uhh. Uhh. My parents quickly apologize for me. She can understand some, but she can’t speak it anymore. Sympathetic sounds from the crowd. We cram everyone into two taxis and drive to my grandmother’s apartment. I let the noise wash over me and pretend to sleep.

“She’s not Korean anymore?” my eight-year-old cousin asks. I hear her mother shush her and say, Of course she is. My cousin worries, “Can she still play Barbies with me?” I worry the same thing, wonder if I’ll be able to say more to her than yes and no. I walk along brick sidewalks, into corner stores and shopping malls, wondering if Korea is mine anymore when I can hardly call forth the words to order buckwheat naengmyeon or do more than stare into the salon mirror as I try to remember how to thank the hairdresser for straightening my hair.

In the darkness of my grandmother’s spare bedroom, I hug one of her magnolia-patterned pillows and wish I knew how to ask her to take me to the market again, that I were still small enough to fit on one of the little red swings in the playground next to her apartment. All the words I don’t know how to say hang heavy from my chest, and my thoughts travel toward America. How I wish I were still there, knowing all the right words and the right way to say them—until I remember how I lost all those words at, “Have you two ever tried dog?” At, “Don’t your parents beat you?” At Zoe’s wishing all her Koreanness away. I remember how I kept silent. Embarrassed, I had hurried away from the old man who screamed, Go back to your country, gook at me in a rasping voice from across the street. At home, from Wiktionary, I learn that by gook he meant 1. slang, vulgar, derogatory, offensive, ethnic slur: A person of Far Eastern or Oceanian descent. I learn that it comes from the Korean word mi-gook, for America. Does gook, then, mean Korea or America? But Wiktionary tells me the word 국 (guk), itself simply means “country.” Which country, when neither one belongs to me enough to let me speak?

I wake to my grandmother sitting at her kitchen table, scratching out English letters on a worn piece of cardboard—the alphabet, the numbers spelled out, words like store, bank, cat, music, and over and over, my American name. Kaylee. Kaylee. Kaylee. Kaylee. She looks at me when I sit down and grins at me. “I … lah-bh … you!” I love you. In three English words my grandmother shows me I still belong to her. I still belong to the market, red swings, and summer tangerines. I still belong to my gook, chink, Korean face—and perhaps it is even beautiful. My eyes, my nose, my skin, my blood stop being a secret world, start being more like a declaration. An oath. To my father: I promise I’ll be there every time your English isn’t. To Jessica: I promise your given name doesn’t need to be twisted to fit in someone else’s mouth. To Zoe, to the teachers, to the strangers, to anyone who has ever loved me less for my chink self: I promise there is so much you have failed to notice.

To myself, the Korean and the American: There is strength in being the hyphen. Strength in holding two countries together. This I won’t let you forget. I promise.

Kaylee Jeong is a Korean-American high school student from Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in The Rising Phoenix Review, BOAAT, and Hyphen, and her poetry and short fiction have been recognized nationally by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, Hollins University, and Columbia College Chicago.