Invasive Species & Their Habitats

Alexander Weinstein

Teczotchicin Vine

The vine’s voraciousness dwarfs even the kudzu of the Southern United States, whose growth of one foot per day is a snail’s pace compared to the Teczotchicin’s rate of up to twenty-five meters. It’s one of the rare plants one can watch growing beneath one’s feet, birthing folktales of murderous qualities. Indeed, the vines have been known to devour whatever they encounter, entangling wild boars in their constriction, swallowing homes of nesting birds, and suffocating local banyan trees which reach thirty meters into the air.

In 1894, explorer Santos Beniz saw the wild vine from his ship and believed the tips of the undulating plants were people waving. Upon sailing to shore, however, Beniz watched as creepers slithered into his crew’s dinghies, seizing oars and wrapping around the legs of crewmembers. Beniz planted a pole through the abdomen of one of the vines and claimed the land in his name, watching as the speared sucker reached its tendrils skyward to consume the flag. Here, he promised—removing his machete and hacking his way inland—a paradise on earth would be built, and he sent back for crew after crew of men who would build a city named after him.

Incredibly, the city of Santos Beniz still exists with beach access, scuba lessons, and a sandy downtown plaza inhabited by chocolatiers, rum distilleries, and tiendas selling conch shells and shark’s teeth. But while the water surrounding its shores is turquoise and the sea is filled with parrotfish, nudibranchs, and glowing pink anemones, it’s hard to relax when gazing through the snorkel’s goggles. At all hours, one hears the swinging of machete blades and the grunts of workers battling the jungle foliage. The city must employ a maintenance crew of over three hundred to keep the vine at bay; they pull roots from the ground and set brush fires, while the vine’s tendrils snake between their legs, reaching for the city’s visitors and children.

Every hotel owner in Santos Beniz has the same nightmare: the doors of their main entrance widening, vines tumbling toward the front desk. Every restauranteur has the same fear: liana breaking through kitchen tiles to seize butcher knives in their leafy grip. Tourists who visit the beaches of Santos Beniz close their eyes, attempt to enjoy the sunshine, but can never truly rest. Though it’s only the breeze tickling their legs, they leap from beach chairs, expecting at any moment to see the tips of vines slithering between the plastic straps, the maintenance crews dangling from the cliffs.

 

The Monster Snake of Typhon

In adulthood, the Monster Snake of Typhon reaches over five meters in diameter and one hundred and fifty meters in length, its magnitude surpassing that of a London underground train. Its native habitat is the rainforests, where its prey consists of water buffalo and rhinoceri. However, since the encroachment of local cities, the Monster Snake has been found in Typhon’s financial district as well as populated tourist centers, overturning trucks, smashing store windows, and swallowing entire tour buses, digesting them slowly as it escapes down subway tunnels. To see video clips of its attacks is like watching Japanese kaiju films, where scaly-backed giants terrify cities. One watches the shimmering blue, diamond-backed pattern as the snake overturns a hot dog cart and opens its mouth to swallow an SUV.

Two decades of research by Typhon’s Academy for Reptile Studies has helped quell the city’s panic over the creature. Dr. Lefraig’s paper, “The Monster Snake and Characteristics of its Prey: Zero Evidence for Across-Population Targeting,” revealed that the reptile does not choose prey randomly:

“To assess foraging habits, we utilized pheromones of men, women, and children, analyzing variations in composition, breadth, and niche overlap regarding prey’s age, social status, and profession. Six male Monster Snakes were sequentially presented with the scents of over two thousand subjects to determine which scents stimulated gland secretions and predatory prehensile movements. Chemosensory tests indicated that the Monster Snake chose prey consistently, targeting specific members of the test group. Variables for its preferred diet included the prey’s 1) distance and association with offices of international banking firms or world trade organizations; 2) political involvement with energy lobbyists and/or a history of climate-change denial; 3) identification as a corporate lawyer.”

Subsequent research examined death records and revealed confirmation of the study: every one of the victims served as pharmaceutical CEOs, insurance-claim deniers, and/or bank directors. The tour bus of victims? All lawyers.

Most of Typhon’s populace has since come to admire the Monster Snake. Like the common garden snake, who may look frightful but can rid basements of rats, the Monster Snake has purged the city of the least savory part of its population. In recent years, there’s been an exodus of bureaucrats and investment bankers to countries far from Typhon’s jungles. As for the rest of the world, there is great interest in the creature, particularly among American zoologists who have petitioned to bring the snake to the United States for study. To date, the US has vetoed any such actions.

 

The Seahorses of Cajor

While few have seen the giant seahorses of Cajor, legends of their heyday are plentiful along the coastlines of Argentina. The poet and naturalist Phillipe Chante wrote one of Argentina’s most read eco-essays, “Flames of the Sea,” which is both an ode to the majestic creature and a testament to his infatuation with the animal. While many scholars admit Chante’s writing veers uncomfortably close to the erotic, we include one of his less impassioned descriptions here:

“Large as their terrestrial brothers and sisters, the seahorses sport aqueous manes which flow like seaweed from their crown, and like their diminutive counterparts, their tails curl beneath them in a question mark. Fitting, given all the questions we have. Where have they come from, their trumpet-like snouts emerging from white waves during their watery stampedes? To what God do they pay tribute, circling our shoreline like dancers in the dusk? Look how the sea is filled with the creatures, so plentiful that while I sip chardonnay, I watch herds passing along the coast. How I wish to call to them, to watch them emerge from the sea, to come riding to this table where I drink, but they have no hoofs, so must race seaward, their backs glistening in the setting light.”

Though some consider Chante’s essay a fairytale, there are photographs aplenty. One need merely look at the faded black and whites of the sea gauchos who tamed and rode the creatures. Umberto Cézanne, one of Argentina’s last living sea gauchos, passed away in 1964, but he traveled widely giving lectures about the old days of ocean-wrangling, when men in town would head out with harpoons and fishing nets to haul in the day’s catch. Cézanne often appeared intoxicated during his talks at oceanographic institutes, starting fist fights with marine biologists. Such behavior was consistent with the machismo of the gaucho life. Heavy drinkers, fighters, and letches, they spent their days wrangling fish from the backs of seahorses, which they treated brutally, and gave rise to the proliferation of whisky bars along the coastlines. A growing number of single mothers were left to raise their children.

Perhaps it was the gauchos’ behavior which led to the seahorses’ sudden and mysterious departure. One evening, as sunset spread along the coastline, the sea gauchos lay on the backs of seahorses, drinking and cursing. Suddenly, as though responding to a call, the horses lifted their snouts toward the horizon and took off, dragging the men with them. From the shoreline, witnesses could see the men hanging on as hundreds of seahorses thrashed the water white, their gallop a polyrhythmic splashing of sea foam, leaving no trace of their existence except for the small waves which lapped against the pebbled beach.

If Phillipe Chante questioned their appearance, today scholars question their disappearance. Where did the great seahorses go? And why did they kidnap the men who, like the horses, were never to be seen again? Despite these mysteries, the coastal towns grew more peaceful after the men were gone, and children and women flourished as keepers of their villages. As for the seahorses, their images adorn the tile mosaics and paintings in restaurants along the coast. Sitting at a cantina today, one can almost hear the wet spray of the vanished herds, their neighs echoing across the water.

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Alexander Weinstein is the director of The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and the author of the short story collection CHILDREN OF THE NEW WORLD (Picador 2016). His fiction and interviews have appeared in Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, World Literature Today, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2017, and Best American Experimental Writing 2017.

Necks

Aimee Nezhukumatathil

 

When my six-year-old son                    was painting birds
during art class                    his principal ordered a full
lockdown because                    an armed man was
spotted
skulking nearby. When I got the news
I could feel my heart throb                    in my neck.
If you pushed                    even a single finger to my
arm,
I’d surely burst.                              I think of baby toucans
who fall out of their nests.
Sometimes
a person scoops                    them in the bucket
of her shirt                      and brings                    these fallen birds—
their necks not even fully feathered—to a vet.
When toucans are babies,                  thier beaks glow
only the palest yellow—                    the famous rainbow
has yet to bite                    and show.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is professor of English in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program.

Her newest collection of poems is OCEANIC (Copper Canyon Press, 2018). She is also the author of the forthcoming book of illustrated nature essays, WORLD OF WONDER (2019, Milkweed), and three previous poetry collections: LUCKY FISH (2011), AT THE DRIVE-IN VOLCANO (2007), and MIRACLE FRUIT (2003)–all from Tupelo Press.  Her most recent chapbook is LACE & PYRITE, a collaboration of nature poems with the poet Ross Gay.

She is the poetry editor of Orion magazine and her poems have appeared in the Best American Poetry 2015 & 2018 series, American Poetry Review, New England Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, and Tin House. Honors include a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pushcart Prize.

Morphine

Carl Phillips

The long fever of summer looks like broken at last, there’s
a coolness that the hours, more and more, leave behind them
as they tumbleweed their way to wherever it is
finished hours go to.
Here, finished isn’t the same as lost, at all,
is this true
where you are?
When I lie down in the field, now—field that,
for months, by day the red-winged blackbirds
superintended, the one fox by dusk, missing half
its tail—I’m the dropped sword in a glittering detachment
of raised ones, which is (never mind how it feels)
maybe as it should be, though sure I’ve thought
to worry, having long been both things: the cigarette
casually let go of at the field’s center; the field on fire.

To remember at this point the carefulness
with which the survivors had arranged the fallen along
the public square’s four edges where there used to be
walls, parts medieval, the same
square across which I once ran after you, like someone
desperate, has made it seem like nothing,
but it was not nothing, the seeming
desperate, the running after you,
that I called your name.

Faintly. Calmly. Less faintly.
Sound of oars finding water, coming up for air again,
though not a skiff in sight.
They say frenzy will get you nowhere.
But they used to say that about fear, too.
Rustle of wood-doves in the catalpa. The catalpa’s
reflection in the river it shadows. In the shadowed
river. They say here’s where he first landed—god of healing,
on horseback, on his raft of ivory, bringing sleep for cure.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Carl Phillips is the author of fourteen books of poetry, most recently WILD IS THE WIND (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The True Story of La Negra, A Bio-Myth

Elizabeth Acevedo

La  Negra  is  a  beastgirl.   From  forehead  to  heel
callused. Risen on an island made of shit bricks: an
empire.  The  doctor   pulled   La   Negra   from  her
mother’s throat:  a swallowed sword:  rosary beads.
La Negra’s  father  is a  dulled  sugarcane  machete.
Crowned in her sun-dried  umbilical cord,  La Negra
claws and wails, craves only mamajuana.

This is where she will end:
enveloped   in   candlewax.   Scratched   &   caught
beneath your nails.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Elizabeth Acevedo is a New York Times best selling author. She is the winner of the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, The Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Fiction, the Boston Globe-Hornbook Award Prize for Best Children’s Fiction, and the Pura Belpré Award for a work that best affirms the Latinx cultural experience.

Her books include, BEASTGIRL & OTHER ORIGIN MYTHS (YesYes 2016), THE POET X (HarperCollins, 2018), & WITH THE FIRE ON HIGH (HarperCollins, 2019).

She holds a BA in Performing Arts from The George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. Acevedo has been a fellow of Cave Canem, Cantomundo, and a participant in the Callaloo Writer’s Workshops. She is a National Poetry Slam Champion, and resides in Washington, DC with her love.

Of Unapologetic Black Women and Melania Trump

Destiny O. Birdsong

 

“And the difference was all the difference there was.” ~ Toni Morrison

 

I’m hard pressed to say
America without sounding
like a terrorist.

I’m a guest here.

I arrived
with a few syllables
lashed to my back.

One of them is bitch.

I wear it
like a white dress
made for your funeral.

Here lies. Here lies.

Build a wall.
My man will lay
the first brick.

I’m already over it.

You say I don’t
know how to be
a wife.

I never show up
for anything
for free.

I’ve always been in fashion.

I spent many
a night chained up
in the cabin.

I earned my right to stay.

Did I tell you
about my son?
He speaks languages—

a citizen of
so many plots
of ground.

We’re bleeding this country.

I feed him with
the hard-earned money
of tax-payers.

It’s champagne
every morning;
caviar at night.

Each black bead a fetus
more precious
than his skull.

Can I live?

My grievances
have always been small
and breathtaking,

like my country.

It’s just that,
all of a sudden,
now, they’re useful.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Destiny O. Birdsong is a Louisiana-born poet, essayist, and editor who lives and writes in Nashville, Tennessee. Her poems have either appeared or are forthcoming in African American ReviewThe Adroit Journal, Muzzle, Indiana ReviewBettering American Poetry Volume IIThe BreakBeat Poets Presents: Black Girl MagicSplit This Rock’s Poem of the Week, and elsewhere. Her critical work recently appeared in African American Reviewand The Cambridge Companion to Transnational American Literature. Destiny has won the Academy of American Poets Prize, Naugatuck River Review’s 2016 Poetry Contest, Meridian’s 2017 “Borders” Contest in Poetry, and the Richard G. Peterson Poetry Prize from Crab Orchard Review (2019). She has received support from Cave Canem, Callaloo, Jack Jones Literary Arts, Pink Door, The MacDowell Colony, The Ragdale Foundation, and Tin House, where she was a 2018 Summer Workshop Scholar. She earned both her MFA and PhD from Vanderbilt University, where she currently works as a research coordinator.

Weird Trans Kid

Tyler Friend

Weird Trans Kid’s bladder is the size of a squirrel—
not a squirrel’s bladder, but an actual squirrel, a chubby gray one.
Weird Trans Kid doesn’t know which restroom to use. Is tired
of all mainstream trans politics revolving around restrooms. Thinks
restrooms are improperly named. Wants to rename them anxietyrooms. Wants
to rename them imnotsurehowtheseplacesareapatriarchalconstructionbutimsuretheyare.
Doesn’t know whether to wrap the towel around his waist or his tits too. Gets turned on
by cold showers and full moons and long car rides. Probably
has a small dick. Or a really large clitoris. Or no genitals at all. Who knows?
Probably looks like a Barbie doll down there.
In any case, they probably don’t get laid very often. Fetishized plenty,
though. Weird Trans Kid has plenty of kinks herself, likes to call
her girlfriend Ma’am and Mama. Probably because Weird Trans Kid never got to be
a little girl for real. For real, though, Weird Trans Kid really is pretty weird, even
without the Trans part. I guess we should talk
about the Kid part too—Kid’s not really a kid anymore.
Kid’s twenty-five. Kid just doesn’t know
how to colloquially describe an adult in gender-neutral terms. Kid grew up
calling all their friends’ parents Mr. [First Name], Ms. [First Name]. Would it surprise you
to learn that Kid played baseball for fifteen seasons, made it
to the all-stars, danced the cha cha slide? Had two parents, two siblings, two dogs? The dogs
are the selling point here. That’s what you’re supposed to relate to.
People LOVE dogs. Unless they’re cat people. Nobody seems to love both cats and dogs,
at least not equally. I’m stuck in traffic in Kentucky, or maybe Ohio.
There’s a car in front of me with a bumper sticker
that reads PROMOTE DIVERSITY and it has little illustrations of different
dog breeds. If I were a dog, everyone would love me. Or perhaps a goat.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Tyler Friend is a non-binary poet & designer from Tennessee. Their chapbook AMPERSONATE is available from Choose the Sword Press, and they received an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Tyler is the editor of Francis House and the designer for Eulalia Books.

The Jacket

Sasha LaPointe

an excerpt from her memoir, Little Boats

Six years after my name was gifted to me, my parents moved us to the Swinomish Reservation. There was tribal land in the family and my parents saw an opportunity for an easier life. I saw a dark forest and a lack of ocean. I thought I’d be close to mermaids if I could be close to the water. As a young girl, I wanted the world of mermaids to be real. I learned to hold my breath underwater at the community pool, unafraid. This was especially difficult because I am an asthmatic; breath has always been a powerful and terrifying thing to me. The idea of drowning without water, of choking on nothing, of suffocating simply because your body forgets a basic function, has haunted my nightmares since childhood. I have always wanted gills.

Mermaids, according to Hans Christian Andersen and Walt Disney, have always wanted something. They want it so desperately they will sacrifice anything to get it. Most often the thing is escape. They want legs. They want the ability to leave. They want a prince. They want anything other than what they’ve got.

My first day of school after moving to the reservation, I stepped out into the dim, blue light of morning. It felt like something was wrong with my legs. I was nine years old and this was my first time boarding the bus that would take me to La Conner Elementary School. The move from city to woodland was frightening for various reasons. Mermaids—those half-women, half-fish—represent the ultimate half-breed, an obvious kind of duality. A neighbor would never swim up, poke Ariel in the chest while eyeing the scales of her fin, and say, “Hmm, you don’t look part fish.”

There was no tribal school to attend on the Swinomish reservation; instead all the kids were shuttled across the channel to La Conner to attend the mostly white school. Here was a pool of strictly fish and strictly non-fish, corralled together, and here I was, a pale person in a hand-me-down pink windbreaker. In my shabby floral print leggings, oversized denim button-down, and K-Mart brand sneakers, I inched out. I looked back at our trailer, at my new home as it stood against the trees. My parents’ bedroom light glowed orange in the dark. I wanted to turn back. I studied my outfit as I crunched the gravel of our driveway beneath my sneakers. The only new things were the cheap magenta knockoff Keds and the plastic barrette in the tangled mess of my brown curls. I inhaled shakily, my chest sputtering, and then exhaled. The doctors at the tribal clinic would later inform my parents of my asthma, but this morning the stifled breathing was still a mystery.

The yellow school bus streaked through the cedar trees. I swallowed air and quickened my pace. Climbing up the big steps, I moved past the bus driver with her sunken face and stared out at the columns of strangers. Fingers of panic closed around my throat and I reminded myself to breathe.

I saw Starters jackets with shiny zippers cutting through the brightly colored sports logos. I saw jerseys on the kids from the rez, Polo shirts and name brands on the kids from La Conner. I looked down again at my collage of hand-me-downs. I shuffled to a seat and stared out at the wall of trees zooming by. Groups of kids huddled together, laughing at jokes I didn’t understand. Whispering and sniggering came from faces, brown and white and all unfamiliar. The only other native kids I had ever been around were relatives. The only white kids I had been around were my peers at the inner city elementary school I attended before my parents decided to move us here.

“They’re just curious about you,” my mom would say each afternoon when I’d return home, complaining that no one had talked to me again. “They’ll come around.” I told myself she was right. I was new and from the city, and I let this strange confidence root itself in me.

One afternoon, a girl in the third grade finally approached me. Her name was Anna and she lived three stops ahead of mine on Indian Road. She usually sat in front of me on the afternoon bus rides home. I watched her golden head rest against the vinyl seat. It bobbed and bounced when she laughed with the gaggle of girls that surrounded her, and when she’d flip her blonde locks over her shoulder I smelled strawberries and sugar, a cloying aroma that seemed to belong in shampoo commercials on television. She beamed around to face me unexpectedly one afternoon.

“Hi!” she said brightly. “You’re in Mrs. Middleton’s class with me, right?”

I nodded, a feral instinct tugging me further back into my seat. Unabashed, Anna launched into a barrage of questions. She wanted to know what Seattle was like. She was confused when I shrugged at her question, “But you’re a white girl, right?”

“No. I mean, yes. But I’m also Indian,” I began, but she laughed and cut me off.

“So,” she smiled, “you’re only part Indian?”

Part Indian. Like only half of me was bad. I shivered a little. Anna glowed with a kind of cleanliness I would never know, not even on the mornings after my family’s weekly trips to Thousand Trails Campground. In those days, we didn’t have running water on the property. The nights my brothers and sister and I enjoyed the luxury of hot water, shampoo, and soap always felt decadent. I’d go to bed those nights huffing my perfumed hair, feeling clean and proud, but there wasn’t enough berry scented Herbal Essences shampoo in the universe to make me as squeaky clean as Anna.

Before her stop came up, Anna smiled, showing teeth. “You know, that first day you got on the bus, I kind of just thought you were some ugly girl. But you’re nice.” She flipped her hair, perfume strawberries splashed me in the face, and I watched her glide off the bus.

I decided to invest some time and energy into my appearance. Climbing up on the toilet to reach into my mom’s makeup bag on the shelf was the first step. I wanted to transform, but I thought I’d better practice first. One Saturday morning, I spent the better part of an hour tugging my hair back into a scrunchy and applying my mom’s makeup to my face. I wanted to look more like her. People always talked about how beautiful she was. I surfaced from the bathroom to the roaring laughter of my siblings. Even my parents chuckled. My mom’s foundation was about three shades darker than my own skin, and I looked like I had rubbed my face in dirt. I scrubbed my face back to its natural state and swore off makeup forever. I went back to my normal routine of life on Indian Road, afternoons spent in the woods with my brothers and sister, hunting salamanders and poking around in the depths of decomposing logs.

Tara was my first real friend at school. I met her walking across the blacktop at recess one morning. I saw her first. Her brown hair fell to her shoulders; her eyes disappeared when she smiled a big smile. But what really caught me was her light blue denim jacket. It was a perfect fit, definitely not a hand-me-down. Its sleeves weren’t rolled up into ridiculous little cuffs around her wrists. There were no stains, no burn marks or holes, and the jacket fell right to the waist of her blue jeans. I had never seen a jacket so new. Most importantly, the back was adorned with a giant, sparkling decal of The Little Mermaid. Painted in glittering colors, Ariel posed, her ruby hair floating in the sea of that jacket. I was bewitched and stood back observing Tara. She jumped off the monkey bars and chatted with the girls around her. Then she walked right up to me.

“Hi!” Even her freckles sparkled. “What’s your name? Do you wanna come to lunch with us?”

I must have looked like a wounded animal answering her questions. I was worried at each new inquiry that Tara’s face would drop, but it never did, not even when I told her where I lived. Tara wasn’t fazed by me living across the channel, on the rez. She kept chattering on, smiling and telling me about her mom’s house out in the farm flats and her dad’s house in town by the channel.

The jacket became an obsession. I coveted it so intensely that I dreamed of strutting around school with it, only to wake and find the same pink, thrift-shop windbreaker in its place. I begged my mother to take me to the mall, to the Disney Store where I knew the jacket lived.

My mom came home late every night after the long commute back from the native group home where she worked. Exhausted, she’d ask us kids if we’d eaten, throw together a box of macaroni and cheese, and check on chores and homework. One night, she leaned against the sink, still in her work clothes—a burgundy pencil skirt and white blouse—doing dishes. I paced around her excitedly. I described the jacket in all its detailed glory. I explained to her that Tara and I would have matching jackets. My mom put the last plastic bowl on the wooden dish rack.

“Who is Tara?”

“Tara is my new friend,” I beamed. “She lives in town!” My emphasis on in town caused my mother to look up from the dish towel she was patting her hands with. Her lips pursed the way they always did when she was irritated.

“In town, huh?”

“Yeah.” I circled back to the jacket.

My mom frowned. “We’ve already done the back-to-school shopping,” she snapped. “And regardless, we certainly can’t afford to just buy all you kids fifty dollar jackets. It’s absurd! The one you have is fine. Enough about the stupid jacket!” She asked about my homework, looked at the clock, kissed me, and said goodnight.

The jacket was more than just status though. Ariel and I had a history. When I was six, my mom had taken me to the Cineplex, bought me a cherry Coke and a bucket of popcorn. This was a magical luxury—the neon lights, the smell of butter, the rainbow assortment of treats displayed behind glass. There was something extravagant about that first march down the dark theater aisle, holding an armload of candy boxes and sucking on the plastic straw of my soda cup. I felt rich. This is how kids on television went to the movies. The animated fairy tale exploded from the big screen in a world of color: singing fish, talking crabs, an evil sea witch, a handsome prince, and of course, that iconic redheaded merprincess, longing for a better lot in life. The Little Mermaid had a bunk deal and I identified with that.

The ocean became my biggest fantasy. Ariel was hellbent on trading in her fins for a pair of legs to walk on land, and I was her opposite. I longed to wake up one morning to find webbing between my toes, to slowly morph into half-fish and disappear beneath the surface. I knew I was just like that fiery and mischievous mermaid, only instead of a sea cavern full of treasures, I escaped into the forest behind our trailer. I built forts and talked to trees and daydreamed about leaving. That was always the Little Mermaid’s deepest desire—leaving.

My mom catered to my mermaid fantasy when she could. We couldn’t afford the jacket, so she tried to make up for that by throwing me a mermaid-themed birthday party. There on the table was a giant cake in the shape of Ariel. Her green tail, peachy torso, purple seashell bra, and crimson hair were all accurately portrayed in frosting and sprinkles. In the kitchen was a mess of pots and pans, different shapes she had used to sculpt and cut out my mermaid-shaped cake. I was horrified as we began section-ing her off into chunks, carefully serving up squares of green fins, the belly button, a serving of purple seashell, her pink mouth. But as I watched my girlfriends around the table in their triangle party hats smile, as streamers fell in purple and green ribbons beyond their heads and they enjoyed their personal portion of mermaid, I swelled with pride.

On ferry rides out to my grandparents’ property on the peninsula, I squinted hard through the waves. I was determined to catch a glimpse of the shining scales of mermaid fins. During family camping trips out at the beach property, my great grandmother and grandfather would get up at sunrise to take the ladder down the cliff to the ocean where they would spend the morning digging for clams. I’d explore the beach’s early morning tide pools while they watched for the squirt of geoducks in sand. I played out entire mermaid scenarios in my head as they filled their buckets with the clams we would eat for dinner. I’d carefully climb out over the rocks, squint to the horizon and wish hard that the merpeople who lived beyond the breakers would come back for me.

My great grandmother was a storyteller. I would sit perched on the edge of my stump during the nighttime campfires as the fire cracked and lit her face in the dark. The lines in her brown skin were faint and, though she was past sixty, her cropped hair was a dense black to match her eyes that glittered dark against the firelight, the cracks around them moving as she spoke. My great grandmother told the stories in our tradi-tional Coast Salish language, Lushootseed. I hung on each Lushootseed syllable, eager to hear it repeated in English to make sense of the story. When she told stories, the whole family quieted to hear her words amid the crackle of cedar burning. Desperate to impress her one afternoon after a long morning of clamming and fishing, I sat down next to her as she cleaned and gutted a fish. I decided to test out my own skills as a storyteller. I sucked in a deep breath and launched into a play by play of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I left nothing out. I even sang the songs. My mother had taken me to the Seattle Public Library, and I had educated myself on all things mermaid. I knew it was based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” and I had seen the picture books and watched the animated film, discovering to my horror that the mermaid princess doesn’t marry the prince in the original but tragically turns to sea foam at the end. I proudly gave this epilogue after I’d finished my performance. My grandmother graciously listened. She smiled and nodded. She praised me when I was finally finished.

“You know,” she said that afternoon at the beach. “Your ancestors have their own sea princess.” I nearly fell off my stump. I listened intently as my great grandmother told me for the first time, the story of “The Maiden of Deception Pass.”

The story tells of a maiden who lived with her people down by the water’s edge. How one morning while gathering clams with her sisters the maiden stepped into the ocean and felt it grip her. She heard a voice as the ocean spoke to her, reassuring her he only wanted to look on her beauty. Each day she’d return to the beach to collect oysters and clams, and each day the ocean spoke to her. He beckoned her to come live with him; he pled for her to be his bride. One morning, the voice did not come, but a man emerged from the water, tall and handsome. He walked the girl through the village and asked her father for her hand in marriage. Her father refused, unwilling to part with his daughter and certain she would die in the ocean. The ocean left but warned the village that if the girl could not be his bride he’d bring on a drought. True to his word, the rivers dried up and there were no clams or fish for the maiden’s people to eat. The maiden’s father finally refused to see his people go hungry and agreed to the marriage on the condition that his daughter be allowed to return to her village once a year, able to walk on land and be with her people. The ocean complied, and the two were married. Below the sea the maiden was happy. She was in love and enjoyed her new home, but she knew her people missed her and soon enough it was time to return home. Each year that the girl returned home it became more difficult for her to walk on land. She returned each year covered in more bits of the sea. On the last year she returned, her father saw the barnacles on her face, the sea kelp that was her hair, and heard the difficulty in her breath. He told his daughter he couldn’t bear to see her in such discomfort and released the ocean from his promise to return the maiden to her people each year. The people of the village lived happily with their abundance from the ocean and knew that each time they saw the long streaming pieces of sea kelp floating in the narrow waterway of Deception Pass, that they were seeing their maiden’s hair and that she was still with them.

The Maiden of Deception Pass didn’t just disappear into the ocean; she became the ocean. She sank into the sea to save her tribe from starvation. She returned each year like Persephone. But unlike Persephone, she went willingly into the depths, that underworld. This empowered her beyond the other sea maidens with whom I had become so obsessed. Mermaids were always bargaining with the sea witch in order to trade their fins for legs. Their motives were usually selfish and usually resulted in their demise.

Selkies were a different kind of tragedy. Like mermaids, the half seal women of these Scottish folktales always sacrificed their life beneath the sea to be with human men, to be on land. The men often tricked the selkies, hiding their seal coats from them so they couldn’t return to the sea. The selkies became depressed. They missed the ocean and their seal lives. They were captives. Unlike mermaids and selkies, this sea-maiden of Deception Pass wasn’t a victim but a warrior, willingly braving the deep sea to save her people and find happiness.

I begged my great grandmother to tell and retell the story as often as she would. I ran along the beaches with new enthusiasm and pride. The ocean and I were practically related. I hopped along the stony shores, ecstatic each time I’d see the rubbery shine of sea kelp on the surface. I’d scoop large bits of the maiden’s hair up in my arms, cradling its slick weight.

Hearing the story of the Maiden of Deception Pass only intensified my mermaid obsession. Like Ariel, I felt her in me. The only problem was there were no Maiden of Deception Pass Barbie Dolls or backpacks. I was stuck with hoarding all the Little Mermaid objects I could get my hands on.

I had a Little Mermaid lunch pail, thermos, sleeping bag, night-shirt, and all the dolls available. Each birthday or Christmas brought a new Ariel artifact into my life, some new talisman that I could tote around. But the jacket was the next level. It wasn’t some silly doll or nightie. This was fashion. This was grown up and somehow was sure to elevate my status from new girl who lived in a trailer, who wasn’t white but also wasn’t Indian, to Tara’s new and popular best friend. Still, my mother refused. “We can’t afford it.” She said it so often that it began to sound as regular as breathing. Inhale: We can’t. Exhale: Afford it.

One Sunday morning, my mom brought home a surprise. She had gone out for errands and returned with a giant bag from the craft store. She worked well into the evening, tracing and painting. By the time the sun set, she called me into the kitchen to show me what she had made. She held up a Levi’s jacket. It fit perfectly. If it was second-hand, you couldn’t tell. And on the back was a near flawless replication of Tara’s Ariel decal. I burst into simultaneous tears and laughter. I jumped up and down. I quickly put the jacket on and tore it off again to admire the shimmering painting of Ariel. It looked like the real deal.

My mom pointed to the display of fabric paints strewn across the kitchen table.

“Do you want to add something?”

I nodded. She left the room as I scooted up to the table and picked out a pearly, sea foam green paint. I concentrated hard. I bit down and chewed on my lip. I wanted my lines to be precise. When my mom came back into the kitchen I was sitting cross-legged in my chair, waiting for it to dry. “Oh,” she smiled sympathetically, “It’s l-i-t-t-l-e, dear.”

I looked down at my drying paint: The Littel Mermaid stared back at me, already drying in its pearly finish.

We scrubbed with wet towels and dish soap, but the damage was done. Littel was still visibly clear through a cloud of pale green paint, hovering above my mother’s pristine replica. My mom reassured me it was fine.

“No one will notice honey. Your hair will cover it.”

The jacket did look pretty good. I put it on the next morning and shook my hair over the collar. Maybe it did cover the horrible, puff-paint typo. I held my head high as I boarded the bus. I sat in my usual seat, kicked my legs back and forth, and hummed. I wore my jacket through first and second period. I wore it into the cafeteria at lunch time. Sitting next to Tara I ate my lunch and she smiled. “It looks so good,” she said. “Your mom did such a good job.”

Anna and a group of girls sat one table over and as I bit into my PB&J on wheat, I began to feel their eyes burning into my denim back.

“Oh my god,” Anna squealed across the cafeteria. “Is that a hand painted Little Mermaid jacket?” She had gotten up and was standing behind me now. I nodded, still holding onto the pride of my mother’s fabric paint masterpiece. I sat in the silent wake of what came next. I thought of The Little Mermaid, The Maiden of Deception Pass. I thought of sea kelp moving on water. The wave crashed. Anna’s laughter was a shrill and stinging thing. “Well, whoever did it is STUPID,” she announced. “They spelled little wrong! You should take it back.” She walked away, just like that day on the bus. Only this time there was no question. I was just some ugly girl. Worse. I was now just some stupid girl, too. I trembled a little and stared at my plastic tray.

Tara smiled her sympathetic smile. “It’s really not that noticeable, I think it looks nice.” I recognized her kindness, but it was too late. I was already broken apart, like sea foam.

I walked slowly down the gravel driveway towards our home that afternoon. The coat, a bundle of shame tucked under my arm. I pulled the metal door to our trailer open and bolted down the narrow hallway. I glanced at my mom, who sat chatting on the telephone before I slammed the door to my small room shut. I hurled the jacket into the closet and sobbed. I wouldn’t ever wear it again. I heard my mother outside the thin walls of my room and sucked in a ragged breath.

The trailer started to shrink around me. Things felt smaller and I spent more time in the woods. I started pocketing my lunch money, skipping meals or shamefully sneaking the bland peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that were free in a large plastic crate next to the food line. I didn’t dare remove the jacket from its crumpled pile. I shoved my saved-up lunch money between my box spring and my mattress, waiting until I had enough to go to the mall, to buy something new to wear. I just wanted to look like everyone else. I’d come home and take off my pink windbreaker, open my closet, and try not to look at the denim coat in a pile in the corner of the small cupboard. If I looked too long, I’d see the glittered lines, so careful and precise. Ariel’s face would appear, distorted in some fold of fabric, and I would see my mother, carefully bent over our folding table, patient and steady handed.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Sasha LaPointe is a member of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe. Her work focuses on trauma and resilience, sexual violence, and indigenous feminism. She’s inspired by the work her grandmother did for the Coast Salish language revitalization, loud basement punk shows, and what it means to grow up mixed heritage. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Indian Country Today, Luna Luna Magazine, The Yellow Medicine Review, The Portland Review, AS/Us Journal, and THE Magazine. She received her MFA from The Institute of American Indian Arts with a focus on creative nonfiction and poetry.

Marginalia

Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti

There is a crush of Storm Troopers, Men of Steel, and Optimus Primes milling around the cavernous confines of the Javits Center. Surrounded by freaks and geeks, Astrid Atangana wonders how she and her friends—the self-styled Nyanga Girlz—come across to the Comic Con crowd. Mbola, rocking grills and street gear, calling herself “Fly Girl: Superman’s dope-ass cousin from the hood;” Mimi, in the Psylocke cosplay costume, pre-ordered from China a full month in advance; and her, a too tall black girl in a too short red kimono. Wearing bifocals, no less. She takes off her glasses. She cringes, thinking about the Princeton admissions letter, secreted away in a notebook, in the far reaches of her knapsack, then secures the bag’s straps, along with the side slung holster of her katana, for what feels like the kajillionth time.

“Batman has a nice booty,” Mimi opines, twirling an eely, purple hair strand that slithers and coils around her index finger. Her flinty eyes are fixated. Medusan, Astrid thinks, filled with equal parts fascination and disgust, watching her friend watching yet another guy.

“Which Batman?” Mbola asks. “There are like a billion Dark Knight wannabes up in this piece.”

Mimi is jerking her head to their left, whispering rapid-fire, “It’s the retro, Adam West-y one, over there, over by the Halo booth,” then loudly, “Oh my God, Astrid! Don’t look right at him.”

Astrid is already looking right at him. Staring, in fact. Mbola rolls her eyes in exasperation, yet all too soon she is staring too. Batman catches their gaze and gives them all an even-toothed, Tic Tac grin. Mimi denies him a smile. Instead she turns away, flips her synthetic tresses, then tosses him a knowing, coquettish look over her shoulder. Classic Mimi. Astrid hopes he’s worth it; hopes she gets a bang for her buck. The girl spent two weeks’ worth of pay to buy her wig—its shock of violet locks had to be the exact shade of purple as her costume; the cheapo wigs at the beauty supply in the West Orange mall where they all worked were deemed insufficiently “Con-worthy.”

A schlubby, East Asian Boy Wonder sidles over and palms Batman’s left butt cheek, his lingering hand partially obscured by a waterfall of midnight blue polyester. Manhandling, Astrid thinks, her brain continuing a week-long streak of randomly churning out “M” words, morphing her into some Tourette tic-ish freak. It was weird but strangely familiar, like the month after their class trip to see Hamilton on Broadway when quotidian conversations tempted her to segue into song. That month, talk of Batman’s heinie might have triggered wordless humming of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s ’90s throwback hit “Baby Got Back” under her breath. Or at least some bars from the Nicki Minaj remix.

Mimi is glaring at the Dynamic Duo now. “Look Astrid. It’s one of your fairy tale up-the-rear endings.”

Mbola sniggers her approval of the diss.

Maleficents, Astrid thinks. She mentally kicks herself, again, for ever, EVER sharing her slash fan-fiction with these so-called friends. For months, they had cracked on her about Luke Skywalker letting Han Solo stroke his light saber during long and lonely desert nights on “Brokeback Tatooine.” She had almost given up on writing before she met Young Yoon at the comic book store. He was the one—the only one—who hadn’t laughed. Instead, he had pulled out a sketchpad and shown her his storyboards, shared panel upon panel of darkly rendered swordplay. The only text was his name in Hangul: 영윤. They’re pretty much just mimes right now. I need someone to give them a voice. Can you help with that, Astrid? And Astrid, knowing what it was like to be kept mute, had said yes. He was upstairs right now, manning their spot in artists’ alley. The one they had spent months scrap-ing together funds for in hopes that they could really make a go of all this.

Silently, Astrid packs up her ever-growing collection of Jetstream uni-ball pens, her glasses, and finally her notebook, its pages full of secret letters, story scribblings, and haiku descriptions of pass-ersby: Rotund Robin comes/Caped Crusader smiles, grateful/ Their night play begins.

“Where you goin’?” Mimi demands.

“The booth,” says Astrid. A misnomer really, it was just a table they were sharing with some other dude hawking a cheesy, bootleg comic about homicidal bees called Stinger.

“Yeah, tell the booth I said hi,” Mbola says, then turns to Mimi. “’cause that booth is fine as shit.”

Mbola has a crush on Young Yoon. An insistent one. She thinks he looks like Night—the humanoid robot cum heartthrob from her fave Japanese soap opera, Zettai Kareshi. She also thinks Astrid is secretly dating him. She is a dim bulb: her belief in Astrid’s fre-quent assertions that they are “just friends” flickers off, and on, and off again, fickly.

“You hear me, Astrid?” asks Mbola. “I said tell Young Money I said ‘make that paper.’ Get that shmoney. Get it. Get it.” She’s dancing and dipping low as she chants the last of it. Laughter wild, feral.

“Shut up, Mbola.” Mimi commands. “Come on Astrid . . . don’t get mad, girl. You promised. The panel, remember? The open buffet of K-town hotties.”

The panel that afternoon featured stars from Boys Over Flowers, Mimi’s fave Korean soap. Astrid was supposed to be Mimi’s Rosetta Stone wing-woman, pulling guys with the few Korean phrases Young had taught her. Simple stuff, really, like ‘hello,’ annyeong and ‘goodbye,’ annyeong.

Annyeong,” Astrid says, fidgeting with her katana strap, looking at the growing frown on Mimi’s face. “I’ll be back. Just going to check in, see if we sold anything.”

She doesn’t want to come back, doesn’t want to return to the cutting laughter and faux camaraderie of these frenemies, but she knows she will. She is “Elasti-Girl,” (cue sad trombones) bending and contorting to the will of others in a single fold. She hates this about herself, knowing that she will give up all this comic book mishegoss and cave under seismic maternal pressures to head off to an Ivy far, far away, leaving Young in the way more experienced hands of Mbola. It doesn’t take x-ray vision to see this. But for now, in this fantasy land, nothing is decided. She is surrounded by mild-mannered accountants, data entry specialists, computer analysts—all shedding their daytime skins. They thrill to their secret identities in a dreamscape free from the mundanities of rumored downsizings, late mortgage payments, and vacant relationships. For a brief time, they all are heroes. Her too.

#

That morning, Astrid had marveled at the surprising ease of her escape from home. As strongholds go, the Atangana household is rather well fortified, its days regimented by a rigorously upheld agenda of activities sanctioned by her mother. The totemic family calendar marks them all: “Saturday, October 27, 10am-2pm: Mrs. Atangana—church dinner planning meeting // Mr. Atangana—golf with colleagues at Fairlawn // Astrid—college prep with M.F.” M.F. is Mimi, with whom she is supposedly prepping for next week’s college campus tour. As alibis go, Mimi is pretty ideal. She is a play-cousin, from a suitable Cameroonian family that attends the same church as her own and who, above all, possesses the same immigrant values: education and hard work. The Forjindams own a similar beige-painted-by-numbers, prefab mansion a few blocks away from the Atanganas. Both families stoically take their steep suburban tax lumps so that their kids can grow up in nice homes, with really nice neighbors and even nicer school districts.

Mimi never makes straight As like Astrid in said schools, but she does sing in their church’s youth choir, the ultimate imprimatur of a “good girl.” With a thrill, Astrid sometimes likes to imagine the look on her mother’s face if she ever found out that Mimi had had her purity ring resized so she could slip it off effortlessly when she went out on dates. She knows what her mother’s face looks like around Mbola already: the upturned nose, the repeated sniffing. Mbola is a distant relative of the Forjindams. She lives in East Orange, the bizarro West Orange, where her asylum-seeker parents braid hair, tend other people’s lawns, and receive ill-con-sidered hand-me-downs and hand-outs from their West Orange kin. Even further removed from making straight A’s than Mimi, Mbola teases Astrid for “talking white” and attends a crowded high school with metal detectors and girls named after luxury cars and liqueurs like Alizé or Lexus. Astrid’s mother thinks Mbola is an unsavory influence. “Unsavory” like corrupt food left too long on a countertop.

“…And make sure you remind Mrs. Forjindam to bring her okra stew to the church dinner this Sunday, Astrid,” said her mother that morning, cleaving through the family room and its stuffy coterie of plastic-covered couches on her way to the garage. Astrid, her proximity alert blinking rapidly, had hurried in from the kitchen, only three steps behind the hull of her mother’s retreating form.

“Astrid! See me trouble, oh. Where is that girl?” Her mother had stopped, mid-stride, suddenly sensing that perhaps she hadn’t been automatically attended to.

“I’m here, Mummy,” Astrid said.

“Yes, you are. Don’t forget what I told you about the dinner,” said her mother, charging forward once more. Into the garage, then hiking up into her towering Benz M-Class; her mother ticked through her checklist: put dishes in washer, Astrid (garage remote in hand, slow mechanized garage door lifting with the creak of an outdated android), call your grandmother, Astrid (keys turn in the ignition, the craft readies for departure).

“Yes, Mummy,” said Astrid, then again, “yes, Mummy.” The last said to empty air. Her mother had finally taken off.

#

On the PATH train platform into the city, Young, Mimi, and Mbola had assessed Astrid’s costume.

“What are you supposed to be?” Mbola had finally asked, her voice filled with no small amount of suspicion.

“What she is is highly ‘sketch,’” Young answered, giving her his highest praise in a worldview filled with two types of people: those noteworthy enough to be “sketch,” and all the rest who were just plain old “unsketchable.”

“She’s that ninja superhero chick from their comic book,” said Mimi.

“She’s a samurai. And it’s a graphic novel,” said Young.

“Whatevs, superheroes don’t wear glasses,” said Mimi, with finality.

“What about Clark Kent or Beast?” Mbola said, eager to support her wished-for future baby daddy.

“And Cyclops wears that visor thingy so he don’t burn folk up with his eyes. Ooh, ooh, and what ‘bout your girl Wonder Woman, Mimi, what about her?”

“Alter egos don’t count,” Mimi said. “When she’s Wonder Woman, she’s perfect.”

The two girls bickered as Young and Astrid swapped home evasion stories involving synchronized watches and draconian parental curfews.

At the mention of his father, Young sighed repeatedly, running charcoal-stained fingers through his crazed, anime hair, its spiky tufts defiant, jabbing the air excitedly like inky exclamation points. His Dad, senior pastor at the biggest Korean Presbyterian church in Central Jersey, bowed a head full of gelled, upstanding Kim Jong-Il hair in prayer every Sunday morning at 8 am, 10 am and 12 o’clock services. The right Reverend Yoon had serious hair and serious plans for his son to be leader of his flock someday.

Plans that did not involve Young’s blind older brother Park or having his youngest son succumb to a life of frivolous etching.

“You’re going to have to tell him about the letter sooner or later,” Astrid said. “You have to speak up for yourself someday, senpai.”

“Right back at you, kōhai.”

There were two letters actually: Young’s acceptance to a fine arts program at Pratt and Astrid’s to Princeton. Hers was in the note-book she carried everywhere, kept close to her chest like a breath or a promise. Young’s was tucked away, alongside his art supplies, in a hidey hole at school. Both were safeguarded from mothers who “accidentally” read your diary or fathers who sprinkled your “heathenish” art work with holy water.

Young had sighed once again. “Look, tell her you don’t want to go to Princeton. What’s your mother gonna do? Whip out The Photo again?”

The Photo was legendary among her friends, holding sway in their collective imaginations like lore of the One Ring or the Sorcerer’s Stone. Astrid had first seen The Photo when she was ten years old, slipping peas to their dog, Ahidjo under the dining room table. Her mother put her fork down and left the room. She returned with a photo—it was not The Photo yet—but her mother held it up to her face with all the import that it would soon come to hold. You see, Astrid had grown up listening to her classmates’ stories of how tricky parents guilted them into eating liver, Brussels sprouts, and the like with tales of all the little children starving in Africa. Except for Astrid, there was no mystery mal-nourished African child behind door number two.

That child was real.

That child was a relative.

This is your cousin Adama,” her mother had said, pushing the photo even closer to her face, “Look at her! Do you think she can refuse food? Do you?” And Astrid had looked at the little girl standing barefoot in a blush of red dust, yet improbably clean; clad only in a trophy-shiny Super Bowl T-shirt, donation bin-wear from a team that had lost the championship. Adama stood there smiling, a mud brick hut behind her, an uncertain future ahead of her, and the photo became The Photo: her mother’s insurance for her good grades—Adama’s parents could barely afford her school fees—and good behavior—if Adama misbehaved, she was disciplined with a caning. It had worked for a longer time than Astrid was willing to own up to, even to herself.

“I can’t tell my mother anything,” Astrid said. “She’ll kill me.”

“Sure, she will.”

“No, I mean it.” Suddenly, Astrid had a vision, so vivid—Mittyesque her mind supplies. God, she wished her life was that Technicolor, or un-life, as it were. There she lay, her lifeless body prone with arms akimbo in a ghoulish foxtrot, in a photo labeled “Exhibit A.” There was Gwendolyn, her somber older sis the attorney—African parent-approved career #1—defending her mother in court as her brother Elias, the doctor—African parent-approved career #2—testified about “mental duress” and “temporary insanity.”

“If only she had gone to Princeton and become an engineer!” Her mother wailed as a jury of sympathetic peers nodded in understanding. Lawyer, doctor, engineer—the high holy trinity of professions blessed by African parents. Writing graphic novels? No. Friggin’. Way.

#

Astrid and Young “Money” Yoon’s table is at the tail end of a striv-ers’ row of indie comic labels, one-off prints, and handmade fabulist’s figurines. For a moment, Astrid is hopeful when she sees Young talking to a guy who is leafing through their dwindling maybe? stack of merchandise, but then she puts her glasses back on and realizes it’s no customer, just Abel—the skeevy owner of the comic book store at their mall.

“How big was your print run?” Astrid hears Abel ask, as she steps up to the pair, lychee bubble tea in hand.

“’Bout 1000,” Young says.

Astrid nearly spit-takes her boba at Young’s inventive salesmanship. They had really only printed 300 copies of The Seer: The Tales of Augur Brown, a blind swordswoman—Zatoichi meets Cleopatra Jones. Augur had an eerie ability to see inside evildoer’s souls and dispensed a blade-based justice, according to a personal ethos loosely derived from bushido code and the laws of the street.

“Wow, you mean business, dude. I thought this was some sorta vanity project.”

“We told you we were serious about this,” Young says.

Astrid smirks at his emphasis, she can’t help herself.

“Tell you what. I’ll display a coupla copies on my shelves and go in 50/50 on the sales price. Deal?” says Abel, head bobbing in emphasis. His graying ponytail practically wagged with excitement at the thought of profits.

“I’ve got to discuss it with my business partner.” Young looks at Astrid.

“Sure, sure. You do that,” Abel says, then turning to Astrid, says, “Nice get-up.”

Astrid looks at his retreating Hawaiian-shirted bulk, then at Young. She raises an eyebrow.

“I know, I know. He’s a chauvinist ass, who only likes his girls chesty and splayed across comic book covers. Blah, blah, you said it already. Now get over it.” He smiles.

They both knew about Abel’s collection of hentai back in his store room; his top shelf titles held for special clientele with a taste for saucer-eyed dakimakura girls, kitted out in abbreviated plaid minis with Hello Kitty backpacks, and being ravaged by slimy tentacles in every orifice.

“Whatevs,” says Astrid, turning to go. She smiles sweetly. “BTDubz, your girl Mbola says ’Hi’.”

“She’s sooo not sketch,” Young replies.

The first time Young had called Astrid “sketch,” she had kept quiet. She’d just shown him the first draft of her script for Augur Brown’s next installment. They were sitting together on a tweedy brown sofa in a tucked-by corner of the library, their legs inches apart but no actual contact ever made. Astrid found herself wiping suddenly-clammy hands and then her glasses on the hem of her flowery summer dress. Daffodil petals swept clean one lens then the other. Young was silent, poring through her work. When he looked up his eyes seemed to pinball all over her. What was he thinking?What was she thinking? She wrote stories in the margins of textbooks: tales of a father killing his infant son to end a family curse unfolded alongside tangents and quadrants in Bittinger’s Algebra and Trigonometry: Seventh Edition with enhanced study guide: a tale of two sisters on a Jack Sprat spectrum of eating disorders: one anorexic, the other obese, was in the paginated sidelines of Essential Physics by E. W. Rockswold. A niggling shame began coursing its way through her body, burrowing in deep like a chigger, down, down, down. Young finally looked her in the eye, then cast his gaze on the page, then on her again.

“Thank you,” he said simply, pulling out a vast, world-building expanse of drawing paper. He drew her. It had taken all of five minutes but when he finished it felt like the first time, in a long while, that anyone had ever seen her, the real her. Not the “you’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl” or the “damn you tall, shorty” regard that made her feel like some gawky girl Groot.

Young found her lovely. He found her, like he had set sail that day and miraculously discovered her, landing, wide-eyed and intrepid on uncharted shores.

That night she went home. Said the proper “yes, Mummys” at the dinner table and dutifully passed the egusi stew when prompted, all the while this new awareness surging inside like a secret superpower, tingling through her. She looked up sharply. Had her mother just given her a look from across the gari? She gulped the rest of her food as quietly as possible.

Later, in the dark of her room, she was glowing. A thousand Christmas lights flashing and manic, just under her skin. The sensation only just bearable. She knew how to be quiet about relieving the tension, no telltale rustling of bed sheets, no sighs—just a long pillow held tight between the soft V of her thighs, then a squeeze, a squeeze, a squeeze.

#

After way too many texts—where u at? /getting sumthin 2 eat/by auditorium/naw, by Spidey statue/huh?—Astrid finds Mimi in a clutch of adoring fans posing for photos. Mbola is ringside, holding Mimi’s Gucci purse. Astrid supposes all the attention is partly the novelty of Mimi as a “black girl Psylocke,” but most probably because her costume is basically a leotard and some strategically placed purple scarves which barely conceal her massive boobs. Mammaries, Astrid thinks. Mammaries.

Back home in Cameroon, some tribes iron girls’ breasts when they develop too fast. Wooden pestles pounded foufou and flesh alike, anything that was sharp or unyielding would do really: a grinding stone, a coconut shell, a hammer held steady-handed over hot coals. Mothers beat down their daughters’ breasts to keep them safe from come-too-quick womanhood, from the lingering gazes of that older Uncle, that school master, that strapping boy in the classroom’s corner desk at their secondary school. Her mother was born of this tradition. Astrid sometimes caught her mother eyeing her long, wayward limbs in exasperation, as if her growth spurt was somehow a calculated rebellion. Astrid tries to be good, she does, but the harder she tries the harder her mother becomes, still. Her sister Gwendolyn had tried to explain it once, stuff about Astrid being the “last cocoa,” the late-life child their flagging mother tried doubly hard to keep in line yada, yada, yada. It was all so exhausting—her mother’s worries, her nameless fears—but Astrid supposed this was why her mother had lied about The Photo.

A week ago, Astrid had learned the truth, surrounded by dark Twilight poster boys vamping at her from the walls of Mimi’s bedroom. She was checking her Facebook page: scrolling past four pokes, two event invites, and then onto three friend requests. Two were easily dismissed but the third was from some girl she vaguely felt she should know. Someone from summer camp, a Sugar Pine alum maybe? No, the girl listed her hometown as Bamenda, Cameroon. She almost asked her girls if they knew her, but they were busy: Mimi, supposedly studying but in actual truth, instant messaging with a Parisian bodybuilder on Snapchat and a Filipino Tinderoni in BK; Mbola, checking out YouTube tutorials, how-to vids by Ms. D. Vine on the best way to install your own lace front weave. She looked at the girl’s warm, glossy-lipped smile again and stopped cold. It was Adama. As in her cousin, Adama. Adama with 579 friends. Astrid had 32. Adama in dozens of duck-faced selfies and ussies. Astrid had a grainy, class photo as her profile pic. Wearing bifocals, no less. There was Adama with a braided faux-hawk, with kinky twists, in an Escalade, on a merry-go-round, with a cleft-chinned guy tagged as Okono Tambe and a barrel-chested footballer, a Mark Konwifo. What the–?

Astrid jumped up, stumbled to the bathroom, and promptly threw up.

How lame is my life? She thought, then dry heaved once more. Twice more. What life?

Two days later she got her acceptance letter to Princeton, its words standing dark and ominous against the creamy paper. It was official. The reality of that almost made her throw up again. She felt ridiculous for dreaming beyond the picture-perfect life her family wanted for her: nice cars, nice houses, nice husbands, nice jobs. All so tidy. So prefab. Sometimes she went to the mall to get messy, to fuck things up. To pocket pens behind the cashier’s back and fill that well inside herself. Why? Why did she have to make such a mess of things and want more?

“Ouch. What the–?”

Someone just stepped on Astrid’s big toe. Post-photo-op, there is some slight jostling and jockeying for position among the tight band of young men—some spandexed, some not, some with eager lenses jutting, some with limp camera straps dangling and tangling as they pressed in close to her friend. Astrid moves back a bit and her sheathed katana pokes a guy in the belly.

“Sorry,” she mumbles.

“No worries,” he says, looking her over as he rubs his deflated paunch. “Who are you supposed to be?”

“I’m still trying to figure that one out,” Astrid replies.

#

Astrid stares down at the NYC subway bench with its ritual scar-ifications, its palimpsest of celebrity memorials: Tupac 4 Life, R.I.P. Biggie, Forever Whitney. On their trek back to Jersey, Mbola and Astrid sit together silently for a number of reasons.

First, their mouths are full. Astrid is chewing wasabi nuts; Mbola is sucking on sunflower seeds, spitting their recently desalinated husks in a long trail that makes Astrid think of children lost in fairytale woodlands.

Second, they are exhausted. The rest of the afternoon had surged forward in a blur: an advance screening of a new Whedonverse TV show; Mimi’s “honorable mention” in a cosplay contest; a pretty informative panel on how to survive the impending zombie apocalypse. While the “panelists”—three guys in fatigues toting Day-Glo orange rifles—handed out copies of an actual Center for Disease Control zombie-preparedness guide, Mimi and Mbola argued survival scenarios, should an outbreak happen in Africa. Mimi figured high body counts: They can’t even cure Ebola, let alone some zombie virus. Mbola was a tad more optimistic: Stop playing. They would ether them zombie mofos. Them motherland Africans stay packing machetes. Astrid tuned them out and took detailed notes, research for her lemony Richonne one shots, on the instruction drills for how to kill or successfully elude the walking dead. Differentiating, of course, between Romero’s slow, lurching Dawn of the Dead revenants and the fast-moving undead “zoombies” of 28 Days and its ilk. Kill shots to the head were deemed universally appropriate.

Third, and most importantly, Astrid and Mbola are silent because they are alone. Mimi, their buffer, had decamped to a cousin’s house in the Bronx, leaving them in one of those awkward moments when their simmering dislike—usually confined to the occasional whitehead flare-up—now took on a life its own, gained sentience, planned world domination.

Mbola spit out another sunflower seed, breaking the silence, saying, “I read your stuff today. It’s mad dark.”

“Yeah, that’s Young’s style,” says Astrid. Young was crazy for chiaroscuro—all inky blacks, bone-whites with the occasional splash of red in a flagrant homage to his idol, Frank Miller. Her story lines fit the tone.

“You know just what his style is, don’t chu?” Mbola says. “The way you be all up on him, all the time.”

Astrid knows that Mbola is decidedly not Young’s style. He had dismissed the idea of dating her in less than a minute.

Mbola? I’d rather date a Japanese body pillow—better personality.

She’s not all that bad.

She’s crazy, and loud, and –

Whatevs, date the pillow chick. I’m sure you and Keiko-tan will have a nice life together.

Damn straight. Once you go moe you never go back.

Mmmhmm. Better not honeymoon in Paris though.

Astrid had dropped an imaginary mic as she said this, then threw her hands in the air for that burn to end all burns. Shinnichis that they were, that Sunday night’s viewing pleasure had been a docu-mentary on the frequent mental breakdowns of Japanese tourists in the land of croissants and vin rouge.

Alright, alright. I gotta give it up for a PBS snap. Young said, laughing.

“Astrid! Is you listening? You don’t got nothing to say? You too good to talk to me?” Rat-a-tat questions from Mbola, who was working herself into a state, firing up.

“No, I just–”

“Yes, you. You always looking at people and writin’. What you got in that pad about me? You know you ain’t better than nobody. You ain’t no hero.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Tahlmbout you, bitch. You s’posed to be that blind ninja chick, Blue Ivy, Augur Blue–”

“Brown.”

“Blue-black, doodoo brown, whateva . . . You ain’t her, you weak,” says Mbola, poking a long acrylic talon at Astrid’s face. “She can’t see but at least she can open her damn mouth to talk. More than your ass can do.”

“Get your finger out my face,” Astrid claps back, refusing to step away, to cower, but then she falls silent. She always falls. The platform is hollow with her silence till the homeless man slumped over three benches away lets out a random fart. Till Astrid hears the muffled rumble of a train approaching on the opposite track. No more, no more, no more, no more, she thinks, feeling a pounding in her blood as the train, and Mbola draw nearer. No more, no more, no more, no more!

Astrid flashes to a vivid scene, another vision. Her katana slashes at air and sinew and bone. Blood blossoms from jagged platform cracks like vengeful roses. All that is left of Mbola, and her scorn, lies ruined at her feet.

Art Credit: Rossowinch Art

“Hey! I’m talking to you!” Mbola’s strident voice zaps Augur/Astrid back to reality.

“Yeah, get all quiet again, smart-girl,” Mbola continues. “You so smart, why come you got to sneak out your house? Why you stay lying to your Momz all the time?”

Mbola pushes her then. And for the first time in her life, Astrid pushes back.

She slaps, she jabs, she dodges Mbola’s left hook. In their tussle, Mbola grabs her knapsack. Pulls away, panting and triumphant, holding it over the tracks.

“I’ll drop it, bee-yatch,” Mbola snarls through a bloodied, already swelling lip.

“Just try it,” Astrid says, slowly unsheathing her katana. It’s a dull replica really, but she knows if she puts enough force behind a blow, it will hurt like a motherfucker. Her mind fills with chiaroscuro, a darkness of slashing things: Mbola, Abel, her mother, and finally The Photo—nearly bowling her over, nauseous with a need to hurt something. But then suddenly there is a lightness. She feels freed, and is filled with an awareness of her life beyond this moment, a future that is hers to choose, so she hopes. And there’s that tingling again, the itching, sticky glow of it under her skin. She knows the truth of it now.

Mojo, Astrid thinks. Mojo.

She lifts her chin high, lowering her sword to her side as she walks towards Mbola.

“Just try me,” she says.

 

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Nana Nkweti is a Cameroonian-American writer and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was the Fall 2017 Phillip Roth Writer-in-Residence at the Stadler Center for Poetry and has been awarded fellowships from MacDowell, Vermont Studio Center, Ucross, Byrdcliffe, Kimbilio, Hub City Writers, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Clarion West Writers Workshop. Nana’s writing has been published and is forthcoming in journals and magazines such as Brittle Paper, New Orleans Review, Masters Review, and The Baffler, amongst others.

Come On, Come Here, Talk to Me

Lydia Conklin

Sabrina took a shortcut to the party through the field between the Manor House and the Gehry building. The field was supposed to have ticks but no one at Bard cared. People were scoring crack on trips to Brooklyn, sporting fluorescent sores at parties. If you whined about ticks, people would call you a pussy forever. Still, whenever the grass tickled her thigh, she feared it was the tickle of eight legs and a thumbtack body.

When she saw the skunk, she knelt in the grass. She didn’t consider her white dress and white tights, or the possibility that Bill, who’d just dumped her, would see her dirty later. She just fell into the heady vegetable scent of the shaved blades.

Sabrina had never seen a skunk, wasn’t sure they lived in her hometown in Southern Florida. This skunk’s tail was as substantial as his body, and he dragged it like laundry lint as he turned circles. His shiny eyes were so inviting that Sabrina almost spoke to him. She almost asked if he was disoriented, if a lawnmower felled a landmark toadstool or fern. If he didn’t know what the hell he was doing. If he didn’t want to go to Ray Mather’s party either, if later he wouldn’t feel like saying no to coke even though maybe was yes and yes was staying up all night talking to some boy with rosacea.

Sabrina was saved from conversation with the skunk by someone pushing through maples a dozen feet away.

“Hey,” called the someone, who sounded like a prepubescent boy.

“Be careful,” Sabrina said, but the person rested their shoe beside the skunk’s fragile skull anyway. The person was Jojo Myers. Jojo lived in Steinway and had a curled flip of bangs and a moustache she could’ve clipped it was so long. She was so bouncy and small and big-eyed that she looked like the first boys Sabrina had blown, years ago, in parking lots and house party bathrooms.

“You scared me,” Jojo said.

“Well, yeah.” Sabrina pointed to the colorless fur in the grass.

Jojo leapt back. “Oh my god. Are you serious?”

“He’s not doing anything. Yet.”

Jojo held out a cigarette but Sabrina shook her head. Jojo tucked it behind her ear. Sabrina had seen Jojo at parties and Maximum Queef Attack shows, but they’d never talked, because they were in separate departments. Sabrina studied zoology, though there wasn’t much of a program, the classes dependent on visiting researchers. Jojo was in art, with a specialty in “decorative archery,” which consisted of tying bright fl oss around sharpened dowels in ROYGBIV stripes. She stole tropical feathers from the Bronx zoo and sliced them into rhombuses. Her arrows were beautiful, but they weren’t even straight. Even if you had a bow, you couldn’t shoot them. Jojo lined them against the wall at student shows, waited for girls to touch them.

Sabrina had been to the shows with Bill, her sceney boyfriend who wore multicolored t-shirts rescued from the eighties and pants so tight they could’ve been stockings. Sabrina had gone to every event with Bill for all of Bard. This was the fi rst time she was showing up somewhere alone, and she wondered if people would recognize her without his freckled arm around her neck. She still didn’t know why Bill had dumped her. He must’ve fi nally realized she wasn’t cool. She certainly hadn’t been any kind of big deal in high school back in Florida. For Bard she’d tried something diff erent, dyed her ashy hair until the ends broke into Y’s and then Y’s on Y’s, dressed in stiff , formal kids’ clothes. Even though her skin was rough and run through with rivulets where she’d scratched out bug bites in the swamps back home, her eyes were as dark as the last sky of each day, and she knew how to touch a guy.

“Is he lost?” Jojo asked. “Or maybe he’s, like, retarded?”

“He’s circling. So I guess his inner ear could be shot.” Sabrina had never before used information from a course in a social situation.

“I guess that’s cool. Hey. Are you going to the party?”

Sabrina parted the grass with her shoe. “I guess.” Ray Mather’s house was one of the least appealing places she’d ever visited.

“Pretty epic parties,” Jojo said. “They could be memorialized in some kind of, like, party museum.”

Sabrina didn’t want to think about those boozy, feverish hours lined up one after another. The occasions—Keg Khristmas, Drag Week, FU Finals, Lizbeth Lung’s birthday, Crackuation—blurred together in a sea of rabid house music and sloppy public hookups. Halloween was most vivid, with its furries and sexy rotten zombies, and Bill in his rubber salmon suit, scaly flanks jiggling under the cop’s flashing signal lights.

“I was just thinking,” Jojo said. “If we have to go, why not go together?”

The skunk was turning circles so tight that his arrow nose was lost in his tail. Sabrina didn’t want to leave him. “Maybe.”

“Hey, aren’t you dating Bill Miles? Or is it that other girl, Agatha May or something?”

“Agatha Pray. Everyone thinks we’re the same person, even though she’s got that skin tag.” All over campus people called Sabrina Agatha Pray, tried to hug her, accused her of fucking their boyfriends, told her they’d had a fun night while pointing finger guns at her and smirking. She hated to think of what these guys put poor Agatha Pray through. Bill had never made Sabrina do athletic sex. Half the time, they just cuddled. He stroked her hair and sang her homemade lullabies.

“So Bill’s with Agatha Pray?” Jojo asked.

Sabrina shook her head. “I’m Bill’s. Or was. Until last night.”

“That’s raw,” said Jojo. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s probably for the best. I probably couldn’t eat any more ironically horrible fried chicken. I probably couldn’t stare at him staring at a synthesizer for one more hour.”

“Right,” said Jojo. “Maximum Queef Attack.”

“I have permanent ear damage. I live in a faulty smoke alarm.”

The skunk stopped circling and looked out between them, to the middle distance.

“I can’t believe he hasn’t started warning us yet,” Sabrina said.

“How would we know?”

Sabrina stuck her butt in the air, kicked her feet, and hissed. This wasn’t a fully accurate demonstration of aggression mode, since she didn’t have a tail to swat, but Jojo laughed anyway. Sabrina blushed. And then, because she’d wanted to since the moment she’d seen him, Sabrina reached under the skunk, cupping his belly, which felt full of water. She expected him to squirrel away, but he let her lift him.

“Are you serious?” Jojo was still talking in her affected teenage boy voice. Sabrina wondered when she’d relax.

The skunk’s eyes were bright and healthy, his pelt unbelievably soft. Softer than cotton balls, softer than fleece. She wanted to rub him against her cheek, but that would be too much. “Did you know skunks are more trainable than dogs?”

“We can get him to fetch the paper. That would be sweet.”

Sabrina pictured sitting in a breakfast nook with Jojo, eating oatmeal, waiting for the skunk. Her face heated.

They left the glade, crossing out of the overgrowth to where they could see the stars, at least the major constellations. The North Star was obvious, and they walked to the east of it. Sabrina held the skunk ahead of her like a figurehead, so his milk chocolate eyes could see first what was coming. The campus was lush, nature softening the drugs and body fluid art projects.

“You ever hear that thing about plays with guns?” Jojo asked, more tentative now.

“No.”

“I took a class in dramaturgy or whatever. If you have a gun in the first act, it has to, like, shoot someone’s face off in the third. Or second, I forget.”

“You mean it’s only a matter of time?” Sabrina bounced the skunk in her hands.

“I guess the good news is, if it happens at Ray’s, no one will notice.”

Sabrina laughed, throwing her head back, disproportionately amused. She let go of one flank of the skunk, batted Jojo’s arm. She performed the gesture automatically, like she’d done to get Bill in the first place. Jojo smiled, so tight and nervous that you could almost believe she didn’t do this with everyone.

The party was crowded. There was a crust of vomit on a couch cushion beside a girl with her skirt above her bellybutton. The skunk relaxed against Sabrina’s hands. She felt the warmth of his blood, the pulse of his breath.

“I hear there’s decent heroin in the back bathroom,” Jojo said, winking.

The people who bothered to notice the skunk laughed at him, pointing out the soft flag of his tail and claiming it was a boner, which made no sense. No one was disturbed or surprised by his presence. Every girl at the party knew Jojo. They said, “Joey, Jo, come on, come here, talk to me.” They requested kisses, which Jojo delivered to their cheeks, even when they lurched at her lips. Sabrina wanted Jojo alone again. They couldn’t maintain a conversation here.

“You’re too popular,” she said. “Maybe ’cause I’m not hugging a skunk.”

But when Jojo took the skunk, girls shrieked, “Cute panda,” and stretched to stroke his fur.

In the eye of the storm, they found Agatha Pray. So many people had called Sabrina Agatha Pray so far that evening that Sabrina almost expected Agatha Pray to start applying makeup, assuming Sabrina was a mirror.

Instead, Agatha Pray lunged at Sabrina, carrying the heady smell of vanilla. “I’m so glad we don’t have to share anymore!”

“What do you mean?” Sabrina asked, wriggling free. Agatha Pray skipped into the encroaching wall of bodies. Sabrina turned to Jojo. “What was that?”

Jojo looked down, stroking the skunk. “Do you think he’s hungry?”

“Maybe.” Sabrina pressed a cheese curl to his lips.

They found a corner where they could talk. Jojo leaned on the wall over Sabrina and Sabrina examined her mustache, which was so perfectly lined that it could have been drawn with pencil. If it were on a boy, she’d hate it, but on Jojo, she liked that top flap of lip leaning closer in. Then closer. The skunk was still between them, so Jojo couldn’t get too close.

After discussing Jojo’s arrows and her theories of “non-practicing archery,” their past lives in Detroit and Belle Glade, Sabrina was interrupted by a shout of “Beans!” She cringed. Ever since the first week of classes, Bill had called Sabrina Beans.

Sabrina only had to look at Jojo to realize there was some kind of mess behind her. She steeled herself and whispered, “Get me through this.” Jojo nodded.

There were Bill and Agatha Pray. Agatha Pray’s eyes were shut in bliss, her skin tag straight and soft like a baby penis glued to her eyelid.

“How’s it hanging?” Bill asked. “Coming to the show later?”

His tone was so casual that Sabrina questioned what she thought she suddenly knew. Bill was leaning on Agatha, very lightly, but the pressure was certainly from his end. Sabrina didn’t like Bill’s freck-les in her eye line, spread out like splashes of chocolate milk. They were the one thing Bill hated about himself, and the one thing Sabrina could still love about him.

“What show?” Sabrina asked.

“MQA, duh. Come on. You’re always at our shows.”

Agatha Pray reached up and tapped one of Bill’s freckles, spotlighting it in red.

Sabrina filled her lungs. She always went along with whatever Bill wanted. She lifted her shoulders. “That’s just because we were in a relationship.”

Bill frowned, his shoulders falling. “I thought you liked our music.”

Sabrina grimaced. “It’s okay.”

That was the worst thing she could’ve said. Bill stared at her with giant, animal eyes, then stalked away, Agatha Pray following. They hadn’t even mentioned the skunk.

Sabrina turned to Jojo. “That was a nightmare.”

“Beans,” Jojo chirped.

“Shut up.” Jojo was trying to dissolve the scene and Sabrina appreciated that. But Bill was her only friend. She had to know. “They’re fucking, right?”

Jojo gauged Sabrina before she answered. “Looked like it.”

“You know what I mean.” The words came out like syrup. “Since before we broke up. Since forever. Everyone knows. Right?” In her head the revelation hadn’t sounded as bad as it sounded now, heavy in the air between them.

Jojo pulled her lip into her mouth so two chipmunk teeth sat forward. She nodded.

Sabrina looked at the puffy faces floating by. These strangers had known more about her relationship than she had, and no one had bothered to tell her. Jojo could drop the skunk and everyone would put their feet on his roadway stripe and not even care. The creature would be paper-flat, and they’d keep dancing.

“He’s a douche bag, right?” Jojo said. “You know that now.”

“Easy for you to say.” There was a pair of boys on the couch cinching their arms with a prep school tie and yelling that the needle tickled. Sabrina didn’t know how to do this without Bill. Yeah, he was a jerk, but she’d loved him. He’d made her laugh, had navigated her through Ray’s parties without her wanting to kill herself, like she did right now.

Behind all the red skin, there was a window. Outside, it was raining the kind of summer rain you can barely see, that you have to feel to know for sure it’s there.

“I need to get out,” Sabrina said.

“I’ll go with you.” Jojo held up the skunk. “We both will.”

Sabrina pushed through the sweaty forest of bodies, batted limbs, spilled drinks.

“Agatha Pray,” people called. “Watch out!”

But Sabrina kept going. The window was farther than she thought.

“Agatha Pray’s gone crazy,” people said. “Look at her go!”

Sabrina knocked over a boy barfing into a nut bowl. Almond soup splattered the floor. She jumped onto the windowsill. The party was on the first floor, but the fall looked high. Outside, the rain made the backyard murky. Sabrina didn’t see Jojo. Of course, Jojo had left the second she got the chance. She thought Sabrina was pathetic, too.

The whole party watched her now, more people than had ever looked at her before at once. When she jumped, they cheered.

Sabrina hadn’t thought about what would happen when she landed. Because one minute she was on the windowsill, with the yelling and the clapping and “Agatha Pray! Agatha Pray!” behind her, and the next minute she was on a carpet of grass, planted with sepia cigarette butts and bottle caps. She was nowhere magical. She was just in Ray Mather’s greasy backyard.

Then the ground vibrated and Jojo was beside her, carrying with her a smell that was chemical and sharp, and Sabrina realized she had smelled skunk before, somewhere in the Florida swamps, even if she’d never seen one. She remembered catching the scent on an open highway, and it felt comfortable, like she could lean into it. Actually rest on the meat of the odor. The smell made her think of places that weren’t here, and for the first time all night, she breathed.

Jojo approached with the bundle in her arms, half a grin under her moustache. Her face grew larger as the smell got stronger. Sabrina was impressed that Jojo hadn’t dropped the skunk when he sprayed, that she was still holding on.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Lydia Conklin has received two Pushcart Prizes, scholarships from Bread Loaf, and fellowships from Princeton, Emory, MacDowell, Yaddo, Djerassi, Hedgebrook, Jentel, Lighthouse Works, Millay, VCCA, Sitka, and Harvard University, among others. Her fiction is in a forthcoming compilation of the best of the last twenty-five years of the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Tin House, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Narrative Magazine, and elsewhere. She has drawn graphic fiction for Lenny Letter, Drunken Boat, The Florida Review, and the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago.

How to Have a Two-Night Stand

Andrea Rogers

You will remember how he moved
toward you, hazard-handed, uttering
your language—that pidgin
of the partially recovered self.
And you still won’t have learned,
although you know the story well,
won’t ever catch the flown bird
of your breath, remembering how,

still keen, still cold as a machine,
Lust polished off your beer,
relit your cigarette, said,
I can tell you’re dead inside. Said,
What’s a heart if not something
to cut out a fruit and eat whole?

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Andrea Rogers is a musician and postdoctoral fellow at Georgia Tech, where she teaches writing. She is the recipient of the 2015 Agnes Scott Writers’ Festival Poetry Prize, judged by Tracy K.Smith, and two Academy of American Poets awards. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in The Adirondack Review, District Lit, and anthologies by Black Lawrence Press, Negative Capability, and Red Paint Hill. She and her band, Night Driving in Small Towns, have been featured by Rolling Stone and NPR.

From “Negus in Paris”

L. Lamar Wilson

I smile at a cop for the first time in years—her skin
Of caramel & whey, kissed the way French kiss to say
Bonjour, not Je te veux, by a pale woman who, like her,
Dons wolves’ flesh, the darkest blue, which should quicken
My gait, exacerbate the arrhythmia that’s my birthright.
I want you, my eyes intone. Embrasse moi. I’m so furtive
In this city that keeps me alert when I’d otherwise sleep,
Whose dawn & dusk hover like an osprey perched,
Just above the surface, before talons & neck break
The Seine’s cyan mirror, perch in its beak. How prey
Surrender here. Such quiet everywhere I step. Such
Hunger in every mouth. In the baths, I kiss a Gabonese
Beau who says his grandma’s a mermaid queen. Here,
Anatole’s birthright manifests unfettered. Here, where

Men feast on flesh inside a maze so intricate & full of
Delights, it’s safe to get lost in the heat. Anatole dives
Into a pool’s deep end. Finds my oaken roots, his
Surest way out. Writhes from trunk to limb to stem
To crown, as if without his tongue wrapt in mine,
He’ll drown. Nestlé ici dans ma canopée, I lull. Tu vas
Me manquer. Je vais t’appeler demain, he waves, leaping
Into the warren’s pulse. So much meat left to devour.
I know he won’t call, & he does not surprise. When
The sun alights the darkest corridor’s corners, I climb
The winding stairs of another underground railroad
To another ancient wonder. Peer into the Seine’s green
Eyes. See my distorted lips part & turn suddenly
Upward, wisp of wind at their back. Mouth Wake up!

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

L. Lamar Wilson is the author of Sacrilegion (Carolina Wren Press, 2013) and Prime (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014), with Phillip B.Williams, Rickey Laurentiis, Saeed Jones, and Darrel Alejandro Holnes, edited by Jericho Brown. Wilson, an Affrilachian Poet and Cave Canem and Callaloo graduate fellow, earned an MFA from Virginia Tech and is completing a doctorate in African American and multi-ethnic American poetics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He teaches on the creative writing faculty at The University of Alabama.

Golden Shovel for Trayvon Martin (February 5, 1995 – February 26, 2012)

Angie Vorhies

 

after Carol Ann Duffy’s “Prayer”

 

Dear Audubon Society:

I would like to participate in The Great Backyard Bird Count,
your annual citizen-science project that tracks the migra-
tion and population of native species. I have a few questions:
Why only in February? Do dead birds count? What about
caged birds? Should I look beyond my own backyard?

Sincerely,

A Watcher

 

*

 

How do we identify the birds we see? Some

confuse fledglings, juveniles, adults. Some days.

Most nights. Rain swallows the notes, although

the call always ends with a cry. Flap, flap, glide. How do we

number our sorrows? If we count sparrows, crows, we cannot

forget black-hooded martins. Pray

for the Baltimore oriole, say a

finch will carry the weight of our prayer

on its wings. Say a mockingbird matters, utters

its echo to the leaves, gifts its throat to heaven itself.

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Angie Vorhies is a poet, documentarian, and co-founder of San Diego Roots, a non-profit dedicated to educating, empowering, and cultivating sustainable local food communities. Her work has appeared in Poetry International, Orion Magazine, About Place Journal, and The Conversations Across Borders Project. She is currently a student at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

Of Names to Disguise the Dead

Miriam Bird Greenberg

For almost forty years I have been alive,
and the magnitude of my unknown grows
before me, its shape the shadow

of an occult creature occluded, eclipsed,
unmade by its elder. Certainty shows

itself little by little. It is something
I cannot recognize until it has dressed
in a faraway forest and passed close by

in its now-familiar costume. Even then,
twice as often it is another thing, horse

in a human’s fine charmeuse gown or golem
sewn of glassine envelopes still printed
with the names of herbs

they once contained. Of the strangers
who made poultices of powdered root

and masticated leaves, what can they know
of certainty, shambling shape stitched
with its own bone-thorn needle? Of available

materials it makes itself
into new animals, intruders to dreams

which speak as a symphony, wolfishly,
or like a dog

does after its years are nearly gone, rib-
cage showing its cradle’s shape. Still it claims
the dreamer’s voice for its own.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Miriam Bird Greenberg is the author of In the Volcano’s Mouth, which won the 2015 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and All night in the new country. Recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the Poetry Foundation, she’s written about the nomads, hitchhikers, and hobos living on America’s margins, and is currently at work on a fieldwork-derived manuscript about economic migrants and asylum seekers of Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, she’s the 2017 writer-in-residence at the National University of Singapore’s University Scholars Programme.

Of Inheritance

Miriam Bird Greenberg

 

Its beneficiaries ordinary
in their disgrace, made to break
at lathe or lumber
mill, they like to say. Fruit
bruised before the fall, broken open
beneath the tree, they are liquor
for wasps and ruined
gods, rust-riven and rat-
gnawed. They croon
funereal rights, conceal
what they carry. Of them,
the garment rent by a master’s
machine, the treatise
only a woman, they say,
can name — of softness
no one has invented better confessors
for. Theirs the brass
knuckle, the why won’t you learn,
bitch? Call them salt
not of the earth; they are of cul-
de-sacs named for nothing
still living, of flood-
plain and desert molded
to will, they came of age
where petals shone in moonlight
on the lawn. They will come
wrapped in the flag
of their dead
things, its rot exhumed
from rich loam. They are thorns
in the hoof and thieves
enchanted by childish things, they salt
their children’s field.
The house they have helped build,
they resent. It is larger than them.
They will set it aflame.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Miriam Bird Greenberg is the author of In the Volcano’s Mouth, which won the 2015 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and All night in the new country. Recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the Poetry Foundation, she’s written about the nomads, hitchhikers, and hobos living on America’s margins, and is currently at work on a fieldwork-derived manuscript about economic migrants and asylum seekers of Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, she’s the 2017 writer-in-residence at the National University of Singapore’s University Scholars Programme.

A Running List of Things Learned Today:

Syreeta McFadden

The songs of birds are call and response.

Woodpecker rhythmically answers a hummingbird’s song.

Kindness is dropping a leaf onto an earthworm’s back to shield it from sunlight.

Quiet is as loud as a bird’s call.

Adrienne Rich was haunted by a line in an Elizabeth Bishop poem: “Love should be put into action!”

Tonight is the 50th anniversary of the film, To Kill a Mockingbird.

A friend tweets of murders in Tulsa from a funeral. This will likely send me down a rabbit hole. The blindspot? I think Tulsa has a history around race riots. I know I read this somewhere, years ago. I’ve been re-reading Adrienne Rich’s essays because of a conversation I had with Jon two weeks ago. We think things are getting really real now. Rich asks: “Love might be put into action by firing a gun, yes—but at whom? In what extremity?”

The path in the woods is desolate. I am walking it alone, in daylight. In Brooklyn. My love of nature pushes me forward. I live on the south end of Prospect Park, where there is a lake. A sizable lake. I walk deeper along the trail, away from the birdwatching couple (their banter is vapid and uncute). I try to find the woodpecker in the trees. I can hear him. The two birds are talking. I don’t know what they want me to know. I hold my phone so that I can upload a photo so that someone will know where to find me should I become lost.

*

“There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I can keep it all away from you,” Atticus says to Jem.

Later, I watch a baby black girl’s lesson about love come from the hands of an angry father. He pops her potbelly three times. He doesn’t use words to tell her that her jerking from his grip as they crossed Ocean Avenue scared him to death.

The essay I reread today is entitled “The Hermit’s Scream.” It’s a line from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem. True to form, I emerge from the rabbit hole to uncover a fact: 90 years ago this season, the worst race riot in American history was in Tulsa.

Beyond the nightmare, there is still dream.

*

‘I write to make my own sound,’ the author told me when I asked, why write this story now? The story is hers; her voice is a birdsong. We had this conversation two years ago.

But this dude making figure 8s around his chest right now on the C train, though … Does anyone else see this?

He’s wearing nylon, so the compulsion is loud. Like corduroyed legs in motion in an empty hallway. I can hear him through the subway breaks, mumble mouthing some prayer to his god. He beats his chest. Squeezes his eyes. What penance do you seek, Sir? That cannot wait for you to do this work from the comfort of your own home? His twisted face of agony. What menace do you pray abated? Your most fervent prayer rumbles and rattles like this train.

*

You’re not hearing me. Perhaps I’m coming at this all wrong. The child’s name is Finch. A type of bird. Catherine once gave us an exercise, pay attention to the conference of birds. Where I lived before, sparrows would roost outside my window. When I encountered dead sparrows in the Spring of 2002, I’d bury them. Could that be love in action? I see everything out the corner of my right eye. I’m mindful of small things. An example: Bees seeking pollen on my walk to the train on my old block crushed by thoughtless pedestrians. They didn’t see them. They just wanted to get the pollen from the tree blossoms. You didn’t know I see all these things, did you? I can’t help myself.

*

There’s more: I don’t think I understood fully Rich’s haunting from the Bishop poem. The dreaming mind got it though. The poem begins: “Alone on the railroad track / I walked with pounding heart.” I walk through the park today, along the shoulder of the lake, to a deso-late part. Men are fishing and as I come upon them, they look startled. I clench my phone, they don’t speak English. I am alone in the questionable parts of Prospect Park. I am a black woman. I am alone. No one really comes looking for me.

*

Later in “Chemin de Fer”:

The hermit shot off his shot-gun
and the tree by his cabin shook.
Over the pond went a ripple
The pet hen went chook-chook.

“Love should be put into action!”

Those are the words of the poem’s hermit. “Across the pond an echo / tried and tried to confirm it,” sticks at the tip of my nose. My body knows what this poem means, but my head has a harder time wrapping her arms around it. The dreaming mind? She knows, she goes for a walk in the woods, follows a path, listens for the echo.

*

Rich’s essay goes further though. She talks about June Jordan’s and Audre Lorde’s visceral responses to unjustifiable deaths of black boys. These poems predate our current conversation about Trayvon. I don’t have the words to write about any of that yet. I have a nephew who also wears hoodies.

*

“The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
yourself
instead of your children.”

That’s a line from Audre Lorde’s “Power.”

*

I’d probably categorize myself as a loner. The hermit enters the woods, seeks enlightenment, draws within, listens to the conference of birds. Love is action. What action shall we manifest? The echo, the call, the response.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Syreeta McFadden is a writer and professor of English at the Borough Manhattan Community College, City College of New York. Her work has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, The Nation, BuzzFeed News, NPR, Brooklyn Magazine, Storyscape Journal, and The Guardian. She is currently working on a collection of essays.

Slum Night: An Essay

Hallie Goodman

The Crazy Lady groaned up against the bad side of I-35. It wasn’t much from the outside—a squatty, stucco lump of a strip club, perched perilously close to the interstate edge, its façade ground smooth by relentless traffic grit. This was where Austin girls went when they’d been fired from the clubs with valet parking and three-drink minimums, or when they weren’t pretty enough to get hired there in the first place. The Crazy Lady marked the official end of the line in the titty-bar world, full of dancers who flinched at things that weren’t there and muttered manifestos into their handbags.

Her home club was Sugars: the crown jewel of the local smut scene. But every so often, she liked to work at the Lady instead. That afternoon, over chips and queso at Magnolia, she’d talked her two best stripper friends, Christie and Natasha, into meeting her there and making a night of it.

We can look like day-old shit at The Crazy Lady, and still suck up every dollar in the room, she said. We can get completely fucked up and no one will yell at us.

Both were true. Officially, working at The Crazy Lady was about letting herself coast. It was about taking a break from the brutal competition of the top-tier girls, and the tedious rules of the top-tier clubs—gentlemen’s clubs they called them, though only ex-cons used words like gentlemen. At The Crazy Lady, no one cared if she showed up for a shift on time. No one insisted she wear a sparkly cocktail dress, or coat her tattoos with the thick, smelly foundation made for burn victims. She loathed the body makeup. It darkened over the course of the night, giving her tattoos the look of bruises, which she guessed Texas gentlemen preferred.

Unofficially, The Crazy Lady called to her for reasons harder to name. There was something raw and menacing about the Lady that made every one of her nerve endings hum. The place felt cinematic and unreal, as if every tawdry detail were part of an elaborate show staged just for her. As if it were a curated stop on some kind of depraved safari.

Stepping in, she felt a familiar rush, her pulse a hot growl in her ear. The heavy hydraulic door pressed closed behind her, squeezing out all that bleached Texas sky. She waited in the icy blackness, willing her eyes to adapt. The sticky, sweet powder of fake smoke snaked into every hollow. Then, as her vision simmered on, the whole room seemed to breathe with her. Movement everywhere, a synchronized shimmy. Look where she wound up, she thought, narrating her own docudrama.

She knew there were guns, knew there were drugs. Every drug. She did not know, could not explain, why this brought her such comfort.

The club was darker than the others. Darker than anywhere. She felt certain that pitiful, furtive sex was being transacted in the blackened corners. So what? She was good at minding her own business. She’d steer clear of the perimeter. She’d be vigilant about keeping her bare ass from the upholstered furniture.

Vaguely, somewhere in the back of her brain, she knew she preferred to be surrounded by people more fucked up than she—people her junior high therapist would have termed “lower companions.” But trying to arrange that was like chasing the dragon.

Not so long ago, Sugars had done the trick. As a newbie stripper, she’d seen the posh club as a trapdoor into an underworld. And for a while, it had fed the fable: that she was some kind of waylaid heroine, just rolling through. That while her coworkers might be lifers, she was touching down from somewhere else. Somewhere higher. That she was not really of this.

She knew better now. Some of the dancers at Sugars were earning master’s degrees or wrapping up law school. She’d watched as one planned a trip to Mexico and then took a trip to Mexico. She’d noticed one coworker squealing out of the parking lot in a jacked-up F-150, with tinted windows and chrome rims; heard another say that of course she had health insurance.

She didn’t give two shits about healthcare, or tricked-out redneck rides, or even higher ed. That they knew how to do these things. The thought made her seasick.

She did not know what to call any of this. Only that it must be outrun.

Natasha and Christie tumbled in, sinuous and glowy from a long, liquid dinner. They were top earners wherever they worked. Both had glorious boob jobs and pouty, girl-next-door faces. Both knew how to keep banter breezy and light, how to tune down to make the men shine smarter, wittier. She did not know why they let her boss them around.

The three settled into the dressing room, the compartments of their yawning makeup kits accordioning out and out and out. Christie fluttered pale pink glitter nails at a hunched over cocktail waitress, who was somberly reloading her breasts into a push-up. Hon, Christie trilled, we’ll take six Cuba Libres to start.

Later, when her lashes could not structurally bear the weight of another mascara swipe, she knew it was time to hit the floor. She tried to gauge her own level of drunkenness by squinting into the mirror. Standing up would be the moment of truth and she hoped the scale hadn’t tipped too far. She hated barfing or being too smashed to dance. But just shy of that? Heaven. If only she could keep her motor skills and lose everything else. There was something about her face that looked different. But what? A hardness around the eyes. Rum probably.

As a final stall, she tried on a pair of Natasha’s colored contacts. They were lavender or they were turquoise. They were not human-looking (that part she remembers). They had little clear spaces where her pupils were supposed to go, but she couldn’t seem to make them line up. Maybe her pupils were bigger than average. Even under the glare of the vanity bulbs, she could barely make out the sparkly blob that was Natasha.

She stood, shakily, and stumbled around laughing.

Out on the club floor, she dragged each platformed foot along the industrial carpet an inch at a time, feeling her way along. Silhouettes appeared and receded in time with the bargain basement light show. Purple, then dark. Green, then dark. Then, a throb of dingy white. She smelled rivers of spilled Long Island Iced Teas. She smelled vomit and Tiparillos and Ivory soap and Old Spice.

Her fingers raked the worn-down arm of a club chair, and she blinked hard against the viscous dark. By the time she could pick out his fuzzy outline, she was inches from the man. He leaned back in the chair, legs splayed, a bouquet of bills choked in his fist, his face an anonymous smudge. It felt as though a thick veil hung between her and everyone else.

It should always be like this, she thought.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Hallie Goodman’s writing has appeared in many publications including Glamour Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Redbook Magazine. She has received fellowships from MacDowell, NYFA MARK and Instar Lodge, and holds a GED and MFA. Hallie lives in Hudson, New York, where she co-founded Volume Reading and Music Series. She is at work on a memoir.

Fire-Eating Woman

Ama Codjoe

I know tongues of fire as tall as men,
autumn sap, red panties,
a stack of sparklers lit, riotous laughter,
a field of poppies, circus acts.
I know mistakes: how fire tastes.

I keep a scarlet dress for when day skirts
the hill with its hem and ladybugs
cover the bedroom ceiling.

Tomatoes split like my bottom lip
and a crab apple tree flowers.

It’s only what hasn’t burned: a struck
match too short to consume more
than itself, a strong wind quieted
like a tantrum, the ends
of my untamed hair.

I arrive doused in night. A paper
crown atop my head. I gesture
to a fuchsia star, to a volcano
whose lava swarms like locusts,
to a castle with candles in every window.

I am pretending to be tended to—
I know breath and am not snuffed out.

Someone bring me a glass of water,
somebody please hold my cloak. In the end
there’s a flame so near I’m afraid to open

my eyes. I’m afraid to close them.
There are ashes licking my tongue
and a scar on my right thigh where I burned
myself as a girl. Feet forward, I tilt back
my head, bowing to what’s behind.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Ama Codjoe was raised in Youngstown, Ohio with roots in Memphis and Accra. She has been awarded support from Saltonstall Foundation, Cave Canem Foundation, Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, and MacDowell Colony. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Narrative, Four Way Review, Georgia Review, Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. She is a two-time Pushcart nominee and 2017 Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award recipient.

I Thought There Would Be More Wolves

Sara Ryan

here. at the dumb stroke of midnight. in the glass dome of roses.

the woods at the end of the lake. I was taught where to wait

patiently. to fold my hands on my lap like two sorry doves. to tie

my shoes in knots too tight to unravel. it’s incredible how the oceans

meet and trade salinity. how carbonation stings our throats, but we keep

drinking. I was never a wolf, but a girl with a red-brick house. a girl with

a bicycle made of puzzle pieces. I wasn’t a deer. I wasn’t a lamb. all my wars

with the concrete were over. I’m driving alone to everywhere I am going.

I can’t strip my skin away. my fur. my wolf teeth. yellow and dull.

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Sara Ryan is a third-year poetry MFA candidate at Northern Michigan University and an associate poetry editor for Passages North. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from Tinderbox, Slice Magazine, New South, Third Coast, Fairy Tale Review, The Blueshift Journal, Yemassee, Third Point Press, Prairie Schooner, and others. She lives in the icy Upper Peninsula with her two cats.

Aubade with Ball Gag

R. Cassandra Bruner

“Masturbation” is the ideal form of sex activity of this trans-gendered subject.” —Slavoj Žižek

 

Love          in this omnivorous air
this weave of straps & copper          we must look like
a long woman who          can’t stop
touching herself

A tangled braid
of bone          A prairie of orchids
speckled in amber          in pudendum
in hooks          Lean

closer           & hear the cries crackling
along my jaw like hooves          The spit
circling my throat          like a supplicant

Before re-entering the world that makes
a husband of me          you clench
the absence of my breasts

At the unclasping          our twinned watermark
our afterimage          fading

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

R. Cassandra Bruner was born and raised in Indiana. Currently, she is an MFA poetry candidate at Eastern Washington University, where she works as the managing editor of Willow Springs Books and the web editor for the literary magazine, Willow Springs. Winner of the 2017 Montana Book Festival Emerging Writers’ Contest, her work has previously appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Pleiades and Vinyl.

capture

Beth Bachmann

I laid down at your door a white bowl of milkweed houndstongue lupins
cape tulips & juniper a garland big enough to kill a thirsty horse I like
my peace like flower or fire wild you can bring a horse to water you can
force it to swim but you can’t trust what comes after a broken animal
breathes too fast your eyes are wide there’s not enough blood in the
brain all my love’s in vain

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Beth Bachmann is a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry and the author of two books from the Pitt Poetry Series: TEMPER (Winner of the AWP Donald Hall Prize and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award) and DO NOT RISE (Winner of the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award). Each fall, she serves as Writer-in-Residence in the MFA program at Vanderbilt University.

god

Beth Bachmann

don’t call me goddess peace is armed like any man if
the ocean is burning oil close your eyes when you
come up to breathe lungs float the heart does not
the ship is under quarantine often in life there are
two choices die or come clean the people do not
want an ocean they want a wall your arms are
strong from all that swimming a wall could keep
the heat in stone by stone if you knew how to cut &
shape & face each stone

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Beth Bachmann is a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry and the author of two books from the Pitt Poetry Series: TEMPER (Winner of the AWP Donald Hall Prize and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award) and DO NOT RISE (Winner of the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award). Each fall, she serves as Writer-in-Residence in the MFA program at Vanderbilt University.

The Waist That You Are From

Caroll Sun Yang

There’s a Korean word, Han. I looked it up. There is no literal English translation; it’s a state of mind; of soul, really. A sadness. A sadness so deep no tears will come. And yet still, there’s hope. — Josiah Bartlet, “The West Wing”

 

 

Profile: DOB 1974/USA/Female/Korean

Developed Disorders: Generalized Anxiety, Bipolar, Panic, Borderline Personality, Emetophobia, Excoriation, Body Dysmorphic, Depersonalization, Derealization, Agoraphobia, Obsessive Compulsive, Social Anxiety, Premenstrual Dysphoric, Irritable Bowel, Hypochondriasis, Art.

Inherited Disorder: Han¹

Childhood Onset (Citations):

· I withered, becoming teary and knot-throated when merely asked my name.

· I obsessed for long hours each day over a set of art books (Book of Art I, II, III) that a door-to-door salesman charmed my usually pragmatic mother into buying. My life and those pictorial lives fused. I explored grotesqueries, narratives, sickness, freedom, oddness, composition, heaven/hell, woods, torrents, sins, saints, crosses, fruits, bugs, geometries, colors, passion, moods, tones, and all of the mesmerizing power of the object/image and inevitable language. In that house with so few books, no instruments, and welcomed neglect — did the ambitious peddler know he would change my life, that in a sense he helped make me?

· I spent many nights scanning the sky, imagining that distant aircrafts and the night’s first stars were UFOs. This activity usually occurred while my skeleton was cradled in a yellowing beanbag, while I urgently probed my private parts with Barbie’s head.

· I experienced crippling nausea at the sight of other Korean daughters excelling at ice-skating, piano, tennis, and swimming — all manners of tricks that this little pony did not have access to. Other children’s confidence further eroded mine. I could hold jealous vomit all day. Clapping and cheering, but not for me.

· I watched movies about Cinderella and Snow White while gnawing my fingers bloody and wondered how to be like them, without knowing why it seemed better. I later imagined a Disneyland of misfits, a place where we peculiar ones fit. The red, brown, yellow, black and — did Jesus really love us, too? How precious were we in his sight? What color is a private Jesus standing in the corner of a room?

· I experienced my inaugural panic attack while bearing witness to father striking mother again, and suddenly becoming cognizant of the danger in it, when before the beatings only amused me. The physical abuse that once seemed filmic and separate from me, the way a brutal episode of Popeye feels, were finally too real. So adult. I think that moment of recognized violence answered the question that starts with what do you want to be when…?

· I believed aliens abducted me. They circled my bed and inspected me, bone slate hands lifted me from my rosebud littered canopy bed (a rare luxury purchase my parents splurged on to get me to sleep in my own room) and took me somewhere, then delivered me back feverish, paralyzed, with a bloodied nose and no memory of anything.

· Most nights, I crawled like a carpet soldier into my parents room and slept under their creaking bed for fear of death via stabbing by a male intruder wearing a black ski mask. The most I ever saw was something like a guardian angel that unfurled from head to toe, glowing like an ectoplasmic scroll of the Statue of Liberty, hovering by the bed and beaming.

· I sunk in the deep end of a lap pool at a wedding reception, met my own smiling ghost wearing my favorite pale pink dress. She and I breathed water in sync for what seemed like eons packed into blank-faced dice, and when the tuxedoed man pulled us up from under, witnesses say I only smiled as hot urine streamed down my legs. I never coughed up that water.

· One night at my father’s best friend’s home, I stole a wooden rosary, binged on canned lemon frosting when no one was watching, and coveted my friend’s Lite-Brite. Later, I hid behind a dresser, trembling and fearing notice, while my dad’s drunken pal angrily vomited into a trashcan, his wife scolding him. The next day I stuffed the rosary between my mattresses and left home to ride my bike as fast as I could, trying to outspeed my guilt, repulsion, jealousy and strange new fears that blossomed in the alien-filled night.

· I never shook any of it.

Treatment: Paxil. Writing. Waiting (tables and time).

Base Notes:

I am Korean. Poor Korean. There is a difference. Childhood places my mother planted us always gave heed to affluent whites. She would have no less, believing that you are whom you run with. Because of this, I was a double anomaly in all my habitats—poor and brown. They called me karate girl, math girl, china girl, mute, alien, blind, chingchongdingdong (it’s okay, you can laugh), brown girl, dime-slot eyes, chink, Jap, twinkie… They cited my eyes by squinting theirs. They bowed aggressively. They karate-chopped the spaces in front of my face and body. They preyed on my timidity. Little boys chased me, forcing their hard kisses until I cried in shame. All of it felt like my fault. So I swallowed hard, dammed up tears and learned to sputter a chronic lie—Well, I have a big blue pool in my backyard. What did Small Me believe that proved to anyone?

If my mother wanted to assimilate me into what she believed was a superior condition—the condition of being wealthy, white (ish) and Christian—she failed. Or she might say I failed. Because I think I learned the most important things in my life from poor, many-colored (even a lot of white) agnostics/ atheists, and it is their influence that has shaped me the most. From a young age I was attracted to people from the “unsavory” classes. Those who were orphaned, promiscuous, addicted, riddled, cunning, irreligious, drunk, defiant, emotive, shunned, nuts—all whom possessed superior bullshit meters. My radical angels saved me. They didn’t give a damn. I didn’t want to.

On Aesthetics:

A) I was born in perfect health:
·Brown – first defect.
·Monolids – second defect.
·Rickets – third defect.
·Wide nose – fourth defect.
·Flat head – fifth defect.

B) I was born again:
·Skin paled – first correction.
·Eyelids creased – second correction.
·Legs straightened – third correction.
·Nose shaped – fourth correction.
·Skull rounded – fifth correction.

Today, from head to toe, I feel defective. Even my insides scream “Wrong!” I have this “flaw” (common in Asian body types) that I share with another girl; it is that my waist is too long. Like the waist of the terrified Vietnamese girl in that famed Pulitzer Prize winning photo, you know exactly which one. I feel we are disposable. Does she feel it, too? Are we both frozen in a colorless freeze frame, our arms reaching out for something, a mouth shaped like an O that traps a kind of soundless howl? Life, at its best, is a state of constant hoping with sporadic encounters with beauty but in my blood, and probably hers, streams also a kind of persistent dread. In the mirror, we flinch from the belly button to the pubis.

“The Waist That You Are From”, Digital Image 2012

Mother mated with a Korean man bearing western features. She says her family did not approve of this fortuneless and hard-partying man, that it was a faulty arrangement. But she begged to have him. She wanted to live in America, with this suave human, where things seemed wide open, full of every opportunity. She wanted a home with choices, not strictures. So she came to him, because she was a white-hot fire, and her family submitted. My father took her with his enormous eyes, model cheekbones, strong-bridged nose, lean build, and mafia-style alpha swagger. She owned her features, too. Ideal pearl skin, silky black-brown waves, bedroom eyes and shapely legs—all that served well in California. Father used his looks and his gender to be spoiled by women, lord over non-alphas and be hired at swank white establishments. Mother worked hers to weasel out of traffic tickets, clinch jobs that “less attractive” immigrants were denied, flirt down prices with her coquettish smile, swindle social service departments… my bearers must have believed that America plus attractiveness could equal power. When there is no wealth or natural born privilege to be utilized, there are equally fleeting devices. Can you see, it’s about beauty + race in this family.

Who could blame us?

My late teen years saw me bloom into my face bones and my body turned solid, less like a dark fragile stem with an erasable head, and people began to ask half-white? My mind expanded in conjunction with strange new powers, a kind of “passing.” My breasts bloomed into firm mounds, my hair was a wild chestnut beacon. Coal rimmed eyes and flaming lips became my signature. Boys began to tease me in new ways. Young men and middle-aged men and geriatric men and divorced men and widowed men and men in traffic and men in gyms and men in bars and men in school and men in markets, women too… asked for my name and more. I didn’t cry or lie to them about pools. I could swim now. I could speak. I could curse. I could throw a hit back. I returned kisses hard. I had control. I had a thin skin of Han protecting me, and now I could make you cry.

But I still cried a lot too. Do.

Self-Care/ Antidote:

I lured many men to bed, nearly all white as beautiful lambs. Did I sacrifice them or did I sacrifice me? Who was exotic then? And if we both were, did it negate the negative aspects of that condition? Sometimes prostitution, stripping and escorting seemed viable career paths, a rejection of the proper mode (remember the wealthy, white, Christian standard?), an embrace of the romantic stereotype of war-ravaged love between lonely soldiers and Asiatic angels. All of these ways to feel good and not sleep alone, they beckoned me. I heard I was good at it. That reputation spread. I did it for free every single time. There was cheering and clapping, for me.

But what war?

Whenever radiant whites courted me for more than one night, I was pleased. They took me under their wings and their rides were wild. With them, I felt as though I was in an important movie, as the reliable sidekick—rarely the star, but better than the extras. I desired them, their easy legitimacy. Words unspooled from their mouths, full of humor, secret dialects, deep meaning, information and flagrant stupidity, too. Their confidence was noted. Paths widened for them. They drove with one hand on the wheel. Smokes tucked behind ears. When they laughed, they did not cover their mouths. They bared their teeth, and puffed up like heroes, cowboys, and rebels. I touched their beards. I ate their ears. I rode on their backs. I sat on strong laps. I shared their clothes. I learned their music. I flipped their covers. I ate their food. I read their books. I watched their movies. I changed their stations. I took their heat. I watched their play. I greased their backs. I comforted the drunk. I nursed the sick. I danced their dances. I sorted their mail. I drank their brews. I smoked their plants. Every little thing they did was magic. Every bone they threw, I crawled for. And when I learned how, I started throwing bones, too.

The pool is full of our bones.

Instead of aborting, I produced two Hapa children. One male and one female, from two different white men. One man left, and one stays true. My parents prize both children, as if they themselves bore them, viewing them as superior specimens with their large clear eyes, their snowy white, fluttering lashes, their soft olive complexions turning opaline in winter and that cool, confident American air. They got good ass! Pure Asians crane their necks to see them, smiling and cooing, searching our faces to understand something. These children are intriguing and exotic, the way hybrids can be. Just the way a kaleidoscope shifts its arrangement, so do the children remain in a mesmerizing flux—a white and Korean flux. In some way, I hope I have negated a lingering curse handed to me by my Korean legacy and by their father’s white history. Stopped it in its tracks, through the children. Will he not beat her? Will she not cower? Will he not feel faulty? Will she not feel inferior? Will they not retreat? Will they not invade? Will they take no slaves? Will they flee from guilt? Where is their Han? Where has it gone? Did I absorb it for them? Will I? Just let me.

Every day I ask myself, who am I?

And the answer depends on who you are. So here I am. Trying to write myself brave. I spin myself into a notable character. I appear benign but I feel dangerous. I am transparent as a thousand jellyfish, fitfully electric because under this crass bohemian authorial exterior is a person who dared raise her hand and was not noticed. She opined, but was not heard. She was viewed suspiciously, even by her own race. She was a mere curiosity, a heartless thing under glass. Her ethnicity boggles her mind. Happily doomed to a life of waiting tables, in a state of forever smiling servitude, an ultramodern geisha, a mealtime concubine, and a cultural anomaly. Are there many poverty-line-straddling, mid-life, neurosis-riddled, agnostic Korean waitresses who practice authoring? Isn’t it abhorrent to her kind? But then, what is her kind? Does she need a kind? Does anyone?

Let me cling to Han. Han is wildness. Han is action. Han is poetic. Han is disorder. Han is temper. Han is intuition. Han is ingrained. Han is heritage. Han is energy. Han is fits. Han is woman. Han is myth. Han is riding bikes in the sky, with nothing chasing us down. Han is a forever packed into blank faced crystal dice. Han is equalizing. Han is an orgy. Han is monochrome, yet a fluorescent rainbow, too. Han is the thing we ALL possess and the thing that dies when we die. Han is a glimmering sky-blue pool in a celestial future of equally visible/invisible beings. Han is the beginning, middle, and end of each of our own onsets, the memories of the scary, divine remembrances that make us who we really are and show us where we are going.

So I ask, will all of your pretty aliens, ghosts, and words swim with mine?

Desired Outcomes:

¹ Han is a concept in Korean culture attributed as a unique Korean cultural trait, which has resulted from Korea’s frequent exposure to invasions, by overwhelming foreign powers. Han denotes a collective feeling of oppression and isolation in the face of insurmountable odds (the overcoming of which is beyond the nation’s capabilities on its own). It connotes aspects of lament and unavenged injustice.

The minjung theologian Suh Nam-dong describes han as a “feeling of unre-solved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Han_(cultural)

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Caroll Sun Yang earned her BFA at Art Center College of Design, an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, and holds certification as a Psychosocial Rehabilitation Specialist. Her work appears in The Nervous Breakdown, New World Writing, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, Columbia Journal, Diagram, and Juked. She is the associate editor for The Unseasonal. She survives in Highland Park, CA with her family of four and is always down for lo-fi anything/sarcasm/dogs/Latrinalia/frosting/Cheetos. She spews forth gobs on Facebook/Instagram. — www.carollsunyang.com

Valentine’s Day: A 14-Point Meditation on Love & Other Fiery Monsters

Sayantani Dasgupta

1. My husband and I don’t really celebrate Valentine’s Day. If we remember the date, we might splurge on chocolates or a nice meal at a restaurant (usually, breakfast or lunch because dinner reservations for that night must be made five months in advance, which neither of us remembers to do, plus it costs as much as the blood of a baby unicorn). If, however, Valentine’s Day falls on a weekend, we make the 75-minute drive to our nearest big city of Spokane, WA, from our current hometown of Moscow, ID. We check ourselves into a nice hotel downtown, the Spokane Club, which began its life in 1890 as a historic “gentlemen’s club.” The first such clubs were set up in 18th century Britain by upper class men and they were not accommodating in the least when it came to the gender, race, or social status of their members. Meaning, back when it opened its doors, neither my husband nor I would have been admitted inside Spokane Club on account of our race, and in my case, also because of my gender. Which is why, when we stroll through its august corridors, I imagine the ghosts of all those long-dead white men staring down at us from sepia photographs and oil paintings. “Look at those monsters,” I imagine them hissing, as they fume at our insolence, at our metaphorical middle fingers pointed toward them, at the loss of everything that was once good and pure and right.

2. The year I turned twenty, I wrote an article about Valentine’s Day. From my pulpit of recently gained adulthood and heightened righteousness, I called it silly and pointless. To my absolute delight, one of the biggest dailies in the country, The Pioneer, published it in their New Delhi edition. The morning it came out, I dutifully scanned it and emailed it to my then boyfriend, a PhD student at Ohio State University. He loved it and emailed me a dozen sappy e-cards. I bristled a tiny bit at the irony and my own hypocrisy, but I loved them all because at age twenty, that romance felt real and everlasting.

3. In India, Valentine’s Day wasn’t a thing when I was a kid. Sure, it was still the country of the Taj Mahal and the Kama Sutra, but in cinema as in real life, romance often assumed prudish forms. For example, in the Hindi films of the 1950s and ’60s, two flowers playfully smacking into one another meant, well, you know what. In later decades, seduction played out on the screen against the backdrop of heavy rains and a smoldering fire-pit in the room, forest, or barn, wherever the boy and girl happened to be. This fire-pit was everything. Either the boy and girl chased each other around it, or they danced facing it or the camera zoomed into the orange-red flames indicating that all manners of love were about to be consummated.

4. But the mid 1990’s changed it all. I was a teenager when India opened its doors to economic liberalization. Now we all wanted to be cooler and hipper, meaning… American. And that’s how Valentine’s Day entered our lives, and each year it grew a little bit bigger. The first casualties were the roses. They popped up, juicy, fat, and red, ready for sale at street corners and traffic lights, inside shiny new malls, outside multiplex theaters, and at the grocer’s next to the egg cartons. It was as if we’d let red roses take over our city and shame the other flowers to admit defeat and close in on themselves.

5. Or did it begin with the cards? In New Delhi, if your boyfriend didn’t buy you a card from Archie’s, the stationery and gift store with multiple locations all over the city, he didn’t love you enough. If the card was just regular-sized, he loved you just so. But, if it was five times the size of your head, he was going to love you forever.

6. There were also the balloons—lots and lots of them, red, upbeat, and always, heart-shaped.

7. In addition to the cards, the roses, and the balloons, what if your boyfriend also bought you a teddy bear? There was only one answer to this question. This man was a keeper.

8. Because Valentine’s Day was such a small thing to begin with, the first protests against it were also on a proportionate scale. They claimed such open displays of affection were evil Western imports that were destroying Indian values, specifically Hindu values, as if values are tangible like dry leaves on a fall day, rakeable and tossable into a fire. Today, however, in a country of more than one billion, these protests are neither small nor a laughing matter.

9. Most often, the protestors are saffron-robed men. Saffron, because it’s the color deemed sacred by Hindus. It pays homage to the sun and to Agni, the God of Fire. To a good Hindu, Fire is everything. It represents virtues such as honor and sacrifice. It marries us to our partners. It cremates us at the end. Its flames carry our prayers to the heavens. For the protestors, however, it aligns them to extremist, right-wing political parties.

9a. On the morning of February 14th, if they are mildly annoyed with life, they burn cards and tear down celebratory banners.

9b. If they are more peeved than that, they attack flower shops and trample meticulously arranged bouquets beneath their feet.

9c. If they haven’t slept well for a few nights in a row, they fan out in search of couples in public places. They accuse them of shaming the country, of dishonoring their respective families, parents, culture, community, and everything else in between.

9d. If they lead truly shitty lives themselves, they vandalize restaurants that seek to profit from this Day of National Shame (Special Valentine’s Day Dinner! Couples Get One Free Appetizer or Dessert of Their Choice!). They break windows and furniture, throw out celebrating couples, and sometimes carry out their threats of bodily harm.

10. Each year, I read about these protests. Each year, I wonder, how have these protestors lived until now without knowing about the Sun Temple of Konark? Built in the 13th century in the eastern corner of India, the Sun Temple is counted today as a World Heritage Site. But its antiquity alone does not make it unique. It’s what’s on its walls: detailed, lavish carvings of couples in passionate kisses, embraces, and more, inspired by the Kama Sutra, itself written in 2nd century India.

11. I wonder how these protestors claim to be “expert” Hindus without knowing about Kamadeva, Hinduism’s own God of Love? Like Cupid, Kamadeva too wields a bow. His is made of sugarcane and the string is composed of honeybees. His arrows are ornamented with five different kinds of flowers—Ashoka, blue lotus, white lotus, jasmine, and mango. He prefers the colors yellow and green, symbolic as they are of spring. When he strikes men and women with his special arrows, they have no option but to fall in love.

12. Back in Spokane, or Moscow, or anywhere else in America I happen to be on February 14, I hear about gifts and cards schoolchildren exchange inside classrooms. I see magazine covers promising life-changing wisdom, such as “33 Ways to Capture Your Man’s Heart and More.” I walk past store windows gloriously done up in pink and red, all trussed up for the occasion before they too must accept defeat, and fold in on themselves to make room for the green of St. Patrick’s Day.

13. But not once do I pause my celebrations (or the lack thereof) to worry about hapless threatened couples in India.

14. It is only the next morning, while reading The Times of India that I remember them, when I come across headlines such as “Fourteen Cities in India to Celebrate Valentine’s Day: Arranged from Least Safe to Most Safe.” I look at pictures of destroyed property, of massive bonfires devouring red-hearted cards, of angry mobs shouting slogans and holding up puny flags to save a three-thousand-year-old faith, as if it needs their saving. I see girls hiding their faces behind scarves to avoid being captured on camera, and the hunched shoulders of their boyfriends accepting what I assume is a mix of shame and resignation. I wonder why these girls and boys set out to celebrate Valentine’s Day in the first place? Why do they leave the security of their homes, knowing full well they are courting harassment and far worse? Do they do so to be modern Romeos and Juliets and celebrate love for love’s sake? Because they foolishly believe they will be allowed to be themselves in their own city and country? Or do they thrill in being monstrously insolent, in sticking metaphorical middle fingers to all those saffron-robed men lamenting the loss of everything that was once good and pure and right?

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Sayantani Dasgupta is the author of FIRE GIRL: ESSAYS ON INDIA, AMERICA, & THE IN-BETWEEN (Two Sylvias Press, WA), and the chapbook THE HOUSE OF NAILS: MEMORIES OF A NEW DELHI CHILDHOOD (Red Bird Books, MN). She edits nonfiction for Crab Creek Review and teaches at the University of Idaho. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Rumpus, Phoebe, and Gulf Stream, among other magazines and literary journals. Honors include a Pushcart Prize Special Mention and a Centrum Fellowship. To learn more, visit www.sdasgupta.com.

Clover

Stephanie Rogers

Heather—his youngest daughter, my sister, his baby, the one
who always gave in
when he needed money for rent
or drugs—left me with her three girls outside McDonald’s,
while she drove Dad
for a carton of cigs and a Playboy. The girls forced me
to play freeze tag. I picked
at my fingernails, ripping off a half-moon
on each hand. I remember the sky
sprayed the grass with sunlight
while Sophia and Chloe squashed the picnic
ants with their tiny fists. I helped
Penny look for clover, and when we found a four-leafed one,
somehow, no one cared. If I could go back, I’d press it
into my palm and say, Get ready. Soon
they’re going to find him dead in his apartment
across the street. The water will be running in the sink.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Stephanie Rogers grew up in Middletown, Ohio and now lives in New York City. She was educated at The Ohio State University, the University of Cincinnati, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Ploughshares, Cincinnati Review, Southern Review, Pleiades, Ninth Letter, Copper Nickel, and New Ohio Review, as well as the Best New Poets anthology. Saturnalia Books published her first collection of poems, PLUCKING THE STINGER, in 2016.

Swan Soup

Sarah Elizabeth Schantz

My spine is strung together by a string
of shattered stars. Neck wrung, I’m a dead swan
floating in a moat—an amusement park ride,

the fairgrounds abandoned. A stork stands in her nest
atop the Ferris wheel, the emerald cascade of kudzu like
a shawl for the steel skeleton, I stood at the stove

in my kitchen wearing thick wool slippers
because it was winter again—gray and white yarn,
chevrons—I stirred the soup before I spit into the pot

just to watch the feathers rise up to the surface.

When I was a girl my mother read me the same fairytale again
and again about another girl, only she had six brothers while I had none;
when a witch turned all the brothers into birds I didn’t need to worry.

But when the witch turned the brothers back from swan—
or maybe it was goose—something went wrong, and the youngest—
or maybe it was the oldest, came to have both an arm and a wing.

“We’re all a little bit broken,” my mother said.

Lonely is one letter away from lovely,
and I was always an only child who liked to read
books in her closet because I knew how to be alone.

The shelves were a ladder the way vertebrae climb our bodies,
and I could crawl through the ceiling into the attic where I built a shrine: rose quartz,
bird’s nest, porcelain unicorn. To make a crescendo, you need both the climax and the crash.

Later I’d splash around in my own blood—
I’d fallen for the leather jacket, the blue mohawk, and the lyrics:
I’ll be back in the summertime with a handful of flowers and a bottle of cheap wine.

But something went wrong with the magic

and his wings turned into fists. One night, I crawled
into the backyard on all fours like a dog.
Under the spotlight moon, I dug the hole with my hands,

I cut the cord with my teeth,
and I buried the blue baby in the black dirt
beneath the white snow.

When she came back she never cried, which helped.
Instead, she pulled her wagon around the yard—circles inside circles,
the red Radio Flyer carried all my thrift store swans:

the porcelain ones designed to hold a storm of cotton ball clouds, and

the brass planters where old ladies once tended to African violets,
the patina green the way I’m now more rust than bone. Every day, I curve
more and more forward, my body becoming a question mark.

Mama, we are more than just a little bit broken. In another kitchen, I mixed
you with mica from the mountains and baked you in the oven until you sparkled,
but the soup was ready so I had to call my daughter in again. When I said,

“Close the door,” I didn’t think enough about how each time
she was closing out another day—sand through glass,
glass through sand, she’d sit at the table, holding her spoon

while I cracked an egg into the broth, the yolk a sun from the other side.

—For Nicolas Wesely
Italicized words come from Crimpshine’s “Summertime”

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Sarah Elizabeth Schantz lives on the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado in an old farmhouse where she is surrounded by open sky and century-old cottonwoods. Her first novel, FIG, debuted from Simon & Schuster in 2015. While she is currently working on her second novel, Roadside Altars, at the encouragement of a beloved student, she is trying to write more poetry these days, including “Swan Soup.” Schantz teaches the craft at Front Range Community College and via her own private workshop series, (W)rites of Passage. She is also editor-in-chief at the new literary app, Zathom.com.

Conditioning (Run Study)

José Angel Araguz

I must run: walking won’t get me there.
Miles must take the place of arms; distance,
embrace. I must run, until I become air.

*

Conditioning is a whisper on the eyelash
of an eye that doesn’t blink,
afraid of missing seconds pass.

*

Conditioning is the day spent hinting:
a bee working his wings to slivers,
a life never done with communicating.

*

I had to run with my Mexico and Ginsberg
tucked under my whiskers, run, and sow asterisks
and metaphors where buttons had fallen off of shirts.

*

I must run, because all I thirst for
are syllables, and when someone says to me
no vales mierda or Latino? What’s that? I gulp, keep score.

*

I must run because footprints don’t last long in the sand,
and the desert is larger than people can hurt.
There are days when the sun is a moon I can’t understand.

*

Conditioning is words spoken, unaware
they, like cars, live broken, in need
of constant repair.

*

Conditioning is being told to drink only white milk
so that your skin might change; this from someone
whose skin matches yours, down to the guilt.

*

I must run, or else I’ll always be taking off
my hat in nice neighborhoods, smoothing down my hair,
always trying to look acceptable, but feeling off.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and the author of seven chapbooks as well as the collections EVERYTHING WE THINK WE HEAR (Floricanto Press) and SMALL FIRES (Future Cycle Press). His poems, prose, and reviews have appeared in Crab Creek Review, Prairie Schooner, The Windward Review, and The Bind. He runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence and teaches English and creative writing at Linfield College.

Objects of Unexpected Beauty

Lara Ehrlich

My father sits at the kitchen table with his shoulders hunched, staring at a feather cupped in his rough carpenter’s hands. Its barbs are clean and white. The table is bare except for the wooden box still encrusted with dirt. It has no latch, no key. My mother had to bash it open.

The kitchen is cold, and there is no dinner. Seventh grade ended today, so there is no homework. We sit across from each other in silence. I’m often restless, though I try not to be. “Young ladies should not fidget,” my father always says. I will never be a lady.

I try not to fidget tonight, and even sit up straight. There is dirt under my fingernails. I hide my hands in my lap so my father won’t see, but he has forgotten I’m here. He just stares at the feather and doesn’t say goodnight when I go upstairs, my stomach growling.

In my room, there is a feather on my pillow. It glows white in the dark; the special kind of dark that makes you worry you’ve gone blind. When I was little and still afraid, my mother would lie with me, telling me story after story. Little girls who fell in love turned into sea foam or wind. They walked as if on knives, kept silent for seven years, wove thistle shirts until their fingers bled. They never learned to leave locked doors alone. Hunters and thieves and kings pursued them, carved out their hearts, scooped out their eyes, and snipped off their tongues. She told her own story like a fairy tale.

I do not brush my teeth tonight, since she is not here to make me. I cannot hear my father. Maybe he has fallen asleep at the kitchen table. The only sound is the house groaning as it settles.

My father built this house with his own hands. He learned to build from his father, who learned from his father, who made whaling ships. People came from miles around to watch my great-grandfather erect giant ribcages on the shore. He sliced the trees into wide planks and laid them side-by-side. He ran rope between the boards so when they swelled with water, they wouldn’t crack.

My father makes houses like boats, with wood and rope. He built our house for my mother over the pond where they met. He filled the pond with stones, a foundation for their love.

#

There are scraping noises below my window. It is still dark, but I can just make out my father at the edge of the yard by the woods. He digs up the grass from the back door to the edge of the forest. He digs until our yard is a pit of stones surrounded by mountains of dirt.

My father thrusts his shovel under each stone and leans on the handle, so hard it creaks. Finally, the stone sighs a puff of dirt and my father picks it up, bending his knees and keeping his back straight the way we learned how to lift weights in gym class. It was the only useful thing I learned in gym class. He heaves the stones to the side along the tree line until they make a wall around the hole.

My father does not eat the sandwich I make for him. When I ask what he’s doing, he just shakes his head, so I do not ask again. He doesn’t seem to remember that he signed me up for ballet this summer, and I am not going to remind him. I pack my compass and canteen, and slip into the woods.

My mother used to send me searching for what she called “objects of unexpected beauty,” as though she didn’t expect me to find beauty in Stone. But it is here, in the wide fields with crisscrossing stone walls—and the stones themselves. They seem so plain at first, but upon closer inspection, there are threads of quartz glimmering through the granite. It’s true that there’s only so much to Stone, but I have walked the perimeter exactly two hundred and ninety-nine times and I’ve discovered something new on every journey.

I used to bring my treasures to my mother—a stuffed bear with one eye, an hourglass with no sand. In the beginning, she pretended to admire my treasures, but as time passed, she stopped looking, until I no longer brought her anything. The box was different. When I offered it to my mother, her hands shook.

My mother said girls have to take care of themselves. That’s how we avoid turning into sea foam and falling down wells. That’s how we escape hunters and kings who chop and carve and snip and steal. That’s why I practice punching every afternoon.

I got my boxing pad from Old Bob Brick, who works at the deli counter. The veins on the backs of his hands bulge like roots. He was a boxer, and his knuckles are calloused from breaking noses. I like to stare at them while he carefully slices the deli meat. One day, I will have hands like his.

There is a nail on the side of the house where I can hang my pad at punching level. The ground is eroded at the base of the wall here, like gums worn away at a tooth’s root. The box was wedged between two exposed foundation stones.

I do one hundred punches on one side, then a hundred more on the other. The first few weeks of training, my arms ached after twenty punches. Then fifty. Then seventy-five. Now I have calluses on the first two knuckles of each hand.

My father does not like the calluses. He says my bones are still growing. He does not understand that I have to take care of myself. “That’s my job,” he says, while he combs the tangles from my hair.

He has not combed my hair since the night before last, and the tangles may never come out. He has been digging without rest. His palms are blistered and bleeding. He’s tired, but he is not weak. When David Redd pushed me into the deep end and I couldn’t make it to the edge, my father dragged me out. He threatened to kill David if he ever touched me again. David tripped me in gym the next day, but I didn’t tell my father. I just punched him in the stomach, and he hasn’t bothered me since.

When my knuckles are sore, I make my three-hundredth journey around Stone. It feels like time should have stopped when my mother left, but the town continues without us. People go about their lives, shopping for groceries and discussing car repairs in loud voices. The sidewalks and shop windows are too bright, as if it’s just rained.

I return to the dirt and the stone walls and my father’s silence. I help dig.

Digging is useful. I can feel my muscles tearing and reknitting stronger than before. I pretend I’m searching for treasure. I find a trove of shells that gleam in the sun. I find a skeleton with wing bones folded tight around a hollow heart space. The swan’s long notched neck is graceful even in death.

My father won’t let me keep it. He lifts it with his shovel and deposits it gently in the woods.

#

When the wall of stones has reached my waist, my father pries up a rock, and the earth below it becomes wet, the way blood wells up after a tooth is pulled. He shouts, and I drop my shovel. He spins me in circles, slipping in the mud. He has never had trouble lifting me before. His eyes are wide and his mouth is open as if he might laugh.

He digs with renewed purpose, though he will not say why. Blood runs down the shovel handle. I help him dig into the damp space, and by evening, a pocket of what used to be our backyard is filled with water.

My father is still digging when I go up to bed without brushing my teeth. I haven’t brushed them in three days, since my mother left. I lie on top of the sheets, guarding my treasures. It is too hot to sleep, and the shovel scrapes below my window.

Sometimes, when my mother did not feel like telling stories, she would ask what I wanted to be when I grow up. An archaeologist. Geologist. Anthropologist. “What else?” she asked. Architect. Historian. “What else?”

She would lament that she had never accomplished anything, except having me. She wanted to be an artist, but had nothing to paint. My father suggested art classes at the community college, but the house would fall apart without her, she said.

She’d lie in bed beside me in the dark, and as she drew one finger between my eyes, she’d say, “You’re the best thing in my life.”

#

My father is asleep on the steps with his head resting against the house. His legs are outstretched, his feet submerged in the pond that has conquered our backyard. His face is tipped to the sun. His nose is peeling, and his cheeks are shadowed with stubble. When I sit beside him, he drags his eyes open, as if they are made of iron.

“Now she’ll come home.” His voice is rusty.

My father knows better than that. He knows my mother’s stories as well as I do. One task is not enough to win her back. He must move a mountain with a silver spoon. Or plant an orchard in a single day. And when he finally finds my mother, he must keep his arms around her, even when she turns into a viper or fire or cloud of wasps. He must prove he deserves her.

The totems that help a hero along a magical quest are as elusive as breadcrumbs. Knotholes disguise entries to other worlds. Wooden shoes take the hero bounding across the ocean. I keep my powers of observation sharp so I won’t miss something and end up spitting toads.

Armed with my compass and canteen, and my mother’s feather in the pouch around my neck, I scour the woods for enchantments. While my father is resting, I will discover the next task. It’s my fault she left, after all.

I’m concentrating so hard I trip over the swan skeleton tangled in a nest of vines. Its neck bones have tumbled into a heap. They are smooth, as if worn by waves. I arrange them like a puzzle, except for the one I slip into the pouch with the feather.

A pebble glances off the top of my head, and a boy laughs in the branches. Though he is very high, I can see that when he laughs, the corners of his eyes crinkle.

“Who are you?” he calls down to me.

“Alex.”

“That’s a boy’s name.”

“No, it isn’t. It’s short for Alexandra.”

He looks at me thoughtfully, without blinking.

“I’m Amir,” he says. “You can come up, if you want.”

I don’t need his permission, but I’m good at climbing trees. I know just where to put my feet. And a tree is almost as good as a roof for searching out secrets. The light sifts through the branches as though I’m underwater, climbing toward the sun.

Amir slides back on his branch to let me sit beside him.

“Most girls can’t climb that well,” he says.

His voice rises and falls. I know all about how boys’ voices fly out of their control, which must be embarrassing.

“They could if they trained.”

He raises one eyebrow, as if he’s practiced in front of the mirror.

I can see everything from here: my father’s pond, my father on the steps, the road running out to the highway. I can see all the secrets in a town that says it has no secrets.

“Did you hear about the bear bullet?” Amir asks. “Last week on I-90, two cars were driving from opposite directions, both going about eighty miles an hour—”

“Is this a math problem?” It’s rude to interrupt, but I don’t like math. I don’t like questions about two trains coming from opposite directions and what time they would reach the station. In the real world, you’d just check the train schedule.

“Two cars were coming from opposite directions,” he says, as if he hadn’t heard me, “and a bear came loping out of the woods. One car hit it—whack!—and sent it flying like a bullet right through the windshield of the other car.” He slams his palms together. “A bear bullet.”

“Was the bear okay?”

“Of course not.”

His smugness is annoying, but my father says it’s not polite for a young lady to point out other people’s faults, especially when she has so many of her own.

“Have I disturbed you?” He looks a little nervous, as if I might cry. So I tell him one of my mother’s stories, about the Marsh King who dragged a maiden down into the deep, black mud to be his bride.

A smile cracks across his face. He unwinds a rope from the trunk, and a basket descends from the branches. He is well fortified. There are other ropes leading to a box of cookies, a flashlight, a bucket of rocks he calls missiles. He even has a net to trap intruders. He says I am lucky he didn’t use his net on me because he made it himself and it’s strong enough to capture a full-grown man. He could live up here, if he had to.

Across the pond, my father stands and steadies himself against the house. His ribs poke through his shirt. He rubs his eyes with the heels of his palms like a little boy, but no one would dare to pity him.

“What’s wrong with him?” Amir asks, his eyes gentle with concern, as if he pities me.

“Nothing’s wrong with him.” I have my father’s temper. My eyes bug out and a vein in my forehead twitches like a worm on a hook. Sometimes, I make myself mad on purpose, just to watch my face change.

“We’re on a quest, and you’re wasting my time.” I shove back on the branch so fast I upset one of his baskets, and missiles rain to the ground. Amir grabs my wrist.

“I’m sorry,” he says, his voice soaring out of reach. “If you tell me about it, I can help. I can teach you to make nets and launch missiles.”

His fingers are hot. His eyes are blue. My mother warned me not to trust boys; they will take what they want without asking. But Amir can’t take anything from me. I have calluses on my knuckles and scabs on my knees. I’ve made it to one hundred and ten punches without getting tired.

“I don’t need help.” I leap from the tree in a single bound.

#

How My Parents Met, my father’s story:

He was putting a roof on Old Bob Brick’s house. You can see everything from a roof, like how the forest around Stone goes on forever. You can see all the secrets in a town that says it has no secrets.

From the roofs of Stone, my father saw Mrs. Milne the librarian kissing Mrs. Fuste the pharmacist behind the grocery store. He saw Millie Rosewood sneak a cigar out of Old Bob Brick’s pocket while he napped in his backyard. He saw Marcus White’s fiancée break his heart, and he saw Marcus walk into the woods without a compass or a canteen. My father watched and watched, but Marcus never returned.

My father saw many other fascinating things—but by far, the most fascinating was my mother. He was sitting on the roof, eating his supper and looking for secrets, when he saw her, bathing in the pond.

My father stole through the trees to the water’s edge. My mother had left her dress on the ground, and he picked it up so it wouldn’t get wet. He stood there, holding my mother’s dress.

He says she wasn’t embarrassed. She waded from the pond and held out her hand. And that is how my parents met.

How My Parents Met, my mother’s story:

She would say nothing, only sigh.

#

My stomach groans in my sleep. The house groans too, shuddering away from the water that laps at its sides. A film is closing over my father’s pond, and mosquitoes hum above it like a storm cloud. My father waits on the back steps. He waits for the king of the birds, or the wise fish, or the wind. He waits for someone to tell him what’s next.

He doesn’t answer when I ask why he’s not eating his sandwich. He just stands in the shadow of the house, staring at the pond. Maybe he has sold his voice to the sea witch, or taken a vow of silence.

He has deep wells below his eyes. I wrap my arms around his waist like I did when I was little. The mosquitoes whine above the pond. My father’s heart beats against my cheek. I used to find his hug reassuring.

He breaks free of my arms and staggers inside as if he has never walked before. The hallway light gleams off his scalp where his dark hair is wearing away. At the end of the hall behind the staircase, he shifts aside the chair that guards my mother’s studio. It was a storage room until one day he covered my mother’s eyes and led her inside. He’d exchanged the boxes and cleaning supplies for a couch and an easel with a fresh canvas. He’d hung her favorite picture on the wall. In it, a woman stands at a window with her hips cocked, one foot tipped behind her. Her hair is tousled like she just woke up. All you can see out the window is water, as if the house is floating on the ocean.

My mother flung her arms around my father’s neck, her dark hair falling loose. My father dipped his hands into it, as she looked up at him, smiling. I remember that smile because I saw it so rarely—when I asked for another bedtime story, when I brought her my first treasure.

My father closes the door behind him. The flies circle his uneaten sandwich. I should have kept my arms around him.

I won’t let the house fall apart. I wash my father’s dish and sweep the dirt from the doorway. There is nothing left to do, and yet my mother was always harried. She washed the dishes and the laundry, and when the dishes and the laundry were finished, she mopped the floor. By the time the floor was dry, there was more laundry, and then dinner and more dishes. Endless chores kept her from leaving the house, until her skin was so pale her veins shone through it like rivers.

A plank jumps beneath my feet. A moan shakes the foundation. The floorboards ripple from wall to wall, but the straining ropes hold them in place as they crack like knuckles. I press my eye to a knothole. Water glimmers below the floorboards. The spark of golden fish. The Marsh King’s milky eyes glowing in the gloom. A knock so loud I thump my forehead on the floor.

It’s just Amir on the front steps. He holds out a bag of powdered donuts and asks if I’ll teach him how to punch. The Marsh King moans deep under the house.

#

Amir’s fingers are long and narrow, and his nails are bitten down. My hands are not as quick—but they are stronger. He admires my calluses, and I teach him to keep his thumb folded over his knuckles as he punches. He leaves streaks of blood on my punching pad. When sweat runs into his eyes, he asks me to tie a bandana around his forehead. My fingers fumble in his hair as I pull the knot tight.

While my father sews robes from thistles or spins flax into gold, Amir and I collect missiles. He shows me how to weave a net that can capture a full-grown man. He doesn’t tease me like the boys at school, or tell me I don’t act like a girl. He doesn’t care that I haven’t brushed my teeth in days. And he is a good audience for my mother’s stories. He likes their darkness, full of wind and stolen voices.

Amir has heard the same stories—except the versions he knows have been milked of their poison. They have cartoon villains and happy endings. He likes mine better, he says, while his fi ngers knot the twine. In my mother’s stories, the monsters are real.

The trunk warms my back. The branch grazes my thighs. My legs hang in the hot air as Amir pulls a picnic basket up through the branches. Sandwiches and lemonade and chocolate chip cookies. He smells like chalk on hot pavement.

“Do you believe in monsters?” he asks. His hands tighten on the rope. Our picnic swings in the sun.

“Of course.”

“The Marsh King and the troll at the bridge, Rumpelstiltskin and the Undertoad—they’re all the same,” he says.

“I guess they could be.”

When I close my eyes, the sun glows through my eyelids. I practice heightening my other senses. The hairs on my arms lift as the wind swings to the east. I feel the warmth of Amir’s legs, so close to mine but not quite touching. If I listen hard enough, I might hear what the wind is saying.

“I’ve seen him,” Amir says, hugging the branch with his knees as if afraid he’ll fall.

“Who?”

“The Marsh King. He’s as big as a bull and covered in warts. He eats children and pets, and his mouth is so wide he could swallow you whole. He waits below your bed, and under the stairs, and in the pool to drag you down by the ankles. And he’s not always hiding. Sometimes, he’ll sit at the kitchen table with a newspaper. Or wait in the truck, listening to the radio. He could be anywhere.”

He weighs a missile in his palm.

The missiles are chunks of granite mottled with quartz. I slip one into my pouch with the feather and the bone. It knocks heavy against my chest.

I let him hold the feather, burning white against his sun-dark hands. He strokes the barbs with his fingertip so they separate and reseal in a neat row. He listens as I tell him the one story I’ve held back, the one that bound my mother to Stone, to my father and me.

Amir spins the feather between his fingertips. He is silent so long I wish I hadn’t said anything. Then he tucks the feather behind my ear.

#

Cracks spider up the walls. The Marsh King’s milky eyes glow beneath the floorboards. He will not answer my questions.

Amir and I search for entrances to other worlds and the wooden shoes that take the hero bounding across the ocean. We trace the same old paths through the woods and collect missiles and weave nets, but nothing happens.

We wait on the back steps for the king of the birds, or the wise fish, or the wind. I don’t know what’s next. The day is empty and heavy. Amir stirs the water with his toes, sending sluggish ripples against the house. My knee sweats where it presses against his, and our feet are ghostlike beneath the water. A mosquito alights on my wrist. Amir brushes it away, and the pressure of his fingers remains long after his touch.

The studio door is locked. I press my ear to the wood, and though I can’t hear my father, I know he is still hard at work. But he needs to act faster. Soon, she will forget us.

#

The darkness is so thick my eyes ache. My bed skates across the floorboards. My pictures tip off the walls as the house keels like a ship on a rough sea.

The water ripples from my steps in oily rings. Here, at the spot where I found my mother’s box, the house rises off its foundation. The pond has reclaimed the land beneath it. Between the house and the pond there is a sliver of space like a cavern at low tide. All this time, I’ve been peering into knotholes, while this must be the entrance to my mother’s world. The cavern is just high enough for me to crawl inside.

“What are you doing?” Amir kneels beside me. He peers under the house, the planes of his shoulder blades lifting beneath his shirt. The mosquitoes swarm around us. The water soaks up my legs as I crawl into the cavern.

Amir grabs me around the waist. My shirt rides up, and his hands skid across the bare skin of my hips.

“Please.” His fingers hook onto my hipbones. Everything rocks above me, open and ravaged. My mother warned me.

“Let’s do something else,” Amir says. “Something normal. We could go to a movie.”

“No.” Like knuckles on a punching pad. That’s how it starts: movie, then house and child, laundry and dishes and more laundry. Amir releases my waist.

The pond is black and still as pavement. I almost apologize, but I’m not sure I should be sorry.

“I saw her,” he says. His voice is thick, as if he’s struggling against a spell compelling him to spit words like toads. “I was in the tree and I saw her, days ago. She came out of the house with a suitcase and got into a car on the corner, and she drove away. Your mother left, and you know it. Grow up, Alex.”

A cloud of mosquitoes lifts around him as he splashes away, and I kneel in the greasy pond until he is gone.

A moan ripples through the water, more a vibration than a sound. The Marsh King crouches below the house. His milky eyes glow in the gloom. His hide quivers with anticipation. He could swallow me whole.

#

My father does not answer my knock. The key to my mother’s room still hangs on the kitchen hook. When I open the door, dust sifts through the air and settles over him. He is lying on my mother’s couch with his face to the wall. The curtains are drawn. He does not move an inch. He does not make a sound. I hold my breath, afraid he might be dead, but I can just barely hear him breathing. The easel stands empty in the corner. My mother never bought paint.

There are no thistle shirts, no skeins of gold, no boots that take the hero bounding across the sea. There is nothing except a sad man in a quiet room. All this time, my mother has been waiting, while my father has been lying here. And instead of helping, I was playing with a boy.

The blood rushes in my ears. The vein in my forehead throbs. I press my hands against his back. He does not turn away from the wall.

“What about the quest?”

My voice hangs empty in the air.

#

In my mother’s stories, the maiden sinks through the swamp, through the ceiling of a crystal palace where toad servants clothe her in silken gowns. She tumbles down a well into a golden forest. She walks for seven days that feel like seven minutes. Oceans peel back like orange rinds. Her dress always stays clean.

The ground slopes and the water deepens. I am not afraid. I have calluses on my knuckles and scabs on my knees. I’ve made it to one hundred and twenty punches without getting tired. I have trained for this.

The ground drops away beneath my feet. It’s so dark I can’t tell whether my eyes are open or closed. The water slides against my lips. My legs tingle with the brush of darting fish. Moss seeps from the house’s belly, and the water trapped here is sluggish. Wood rasps the top of my head. The water is rising—or the house is sinking.

One last gasp of air, and then nothing but the weight of water on all sides. I hold my breath, pushing through the quiet and the cold. Oily bubbles erupt against my cheeks. Though I kick, I’m no longer sure I’m moving, and there’s no space to turn around. My lungs ache. No one knows I’m here.

The treasure pouch knocks against my chest. I fumble at the swollen knot. The feather, the missile—the bone. I put the bone between my lips, and air trickles into my throat.

Moans swell around me like whale calls. The Marsh King crouches below, milky eyes glowing in the gloom, greasy hide quivering with anticipation. His talons dig into my ankle, and he yanks me down, tearing at my legs. He spins me like an alligator rolls its prey. My head slams the underside of the house. Colors burst behind my eyes. I grip the bone between my teeth and wrestle Amir’s missile from the pouch.

I draw my knees to my chest, making myself small, and smash the missile hard between my feet. A groan thrums through my bones. The shock of it jumps in my eyes like tears, and the grip on my ankle loosens. I strike again and again, turning the water coppery, kicking until his grip releases. His groans thunder through my stomach. Water pours up my nose, burning my throat. My heart drums in my ears. My knees scrape stone.

The ground slants upward. The water lowers, and I breathe deeply again, emerging onto the bank of a lake surrounded by pines as tall as masts. Stars peer through branches. The night smells like pine, rainwater, the musk of bears. When I wade from the lake, my clothes are dry. The sun hangs in the treetops, turning the forest gold.

A blizzard of feathers darkens the sky. Twelve swans swarm the bank of the lake, their eyes sharp with suspicion. They circle me, swiping at my ankles with their beaks.

I should recognize her by the way she holds her head or by the slant of her eyes. They fix me with an unblinking gaze, their necks weaving like snakes. But I do not know her. I don’t know what she wanted before she met my father, or why she stayed with us so long. I don’t know who she would have been, or what she would have painted.

They crowd me, striking my sides, my arms, my thighs, leaving angry stripes on my skin. One rears back, revealing a bare patch just inside her left wing.

The feather is still in my pouch. Its barbs are clean and white. I place it before her, pointed at her breast.

The swans fall still. My skin throbs where the marks are turning blue. The swans enfold me and press their bodies close. The one with the bare patch lays her head in my lap. I curl my fingers around her neck and close my eyes.

“I came to bring you home,” I say.

She turns cold, contracting into coils sliding around my waist. Then she expands, her scales shifting to thick, hot fur. She grows until my arms cannot reach around her. She thrashes and bites, slicing my skin, but I cling to her and do not cry out. She breaks into a swarm of hornets, and I gather them in my arms, even as they drive their needles into my chest and neck and cheeks.

The hornets collapse in on themselves. The sting dissolves. My arms are empty.

Fingers trace my forehead, my eyelids, my tears. I was the best thing in her life, she said. I keep my eyes closed tight, memorizing her touch even as it fades.

The beat of wings forces me to kneel among the leaves churning across the forest floor. The trees thrash in anger. The wind rebels on my behalf, but the swans are stronger. They rise, sweeping toward the pines. Her long neck arches as if in pain. Her mournful call shivers, as it is whipped away by the wind.

The sun casts her shadow on the pond. Her feathers stand out in relief, like the prints I used to make in school by resting an object—a coin, a key—on paper. The sun burns the world away around each feather, leaving it imprinted in negative space.

 

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Lara Ehrlich’s writing appears or is forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, The Columbia Review, The Normal School, The Minnesota Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, and River Styx, among others, and she is working on a short story collection. To learn more, visit www.LaraEhrlichWrites.com.

The Antlered Doe

R. Cassandra Bruner

A man doused in roebuck piss says
I saw it as I skinned its thighs
& laughs.

Your death always a joke, the shock
of womb, a punchline.

Darting through the underbrush,
even your hooves resounded like cackling children.
This velvet crown was not always a betrayal—

In rutting season, the tongues
of stags & doe alike climbed
your hind leg, crying
I opened for my beloved but she was gone.

But now is the hour of moths.
Now the body remade as
a sack of buckshot.

A child wraps you in a bundle of sweat-stale
flannel, lifts you onto the truckbed
like a distant sister.

Nestled against your snout, he mouths
a wish for recognition, for his budding breasts
to hide themselves away like fawns.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

R. Cassandra Bruner was born and raised in Indiana. Currently, she is an MFA poetry candidate at Eastern Washington University, where she works as the managing editor of Willow Springs Books and the web editor for the literary magazine, Willow Springs. Winner of the 2017 Montana Book Festival Emerging Writers’ Contest, her work has previously appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Pleiades and Vinyl.

Redirect: In Response to Tanya Gill’s “Shared Horizons”

Shelly Oria

One thing about fear is that it’s stronger than the average human body. Another thing about fear is that it spreads quickly in large crowds. The Director wants his viewers to keep these facts in mind when watching his film. He realizes, of course, that this isn’t about what he wants; he was commissioned to make a documentary about a humanitarian crisis. Still, it’s his work. His art. That matters, too.

The Director is considering using subtitles to offer context: Since the rise of the regime in the neighboring state, X number of people have attempted to cross the border; of them, Y have succeeded, Z have failed, and approximately two dozen have been executed. XYZ is just how the Director is thinking about it for now—hopefully by the time the project is in post-production, things will no longer be weird with Andrea and he will once again feel comfortable saying, for instance, I need those numbers by tomorrow, whatever you have to do please, in that tone of his that means or else. For now, he is still tiptoeing, trying to gauge her mood before asking for a fucking glass of water, which is just such total bullshit considering he didn’t even ejaculate.

His aesthetic taste is kind of classy, clean, so he’s thinking: a simple white font on a black screen. But he’s also wondering if the subtitles are even necessary? Wouldn’t the average viewer likely know all about that regime? Maybe there’s no need to offer stats about those poor people trying to escape their country. It’s not that he minds more research; it’s that he minds needless work.

Bird’s eye view, camera way up top looking down down down, getting closer slowly, gently, only close enough for the pink red stain to pixelate into dots to become a sea of people, become many people, become specific people in a big crowd. Let’s pause here: freeze frame. We are about to get closer, and if the goal is to leave no dry eye in the audience, then there are many easy, obvious choices. But no. The Director wants his job to be hard. There’s a particular kind of male who’s the beneficiary of so many privileges that he develops a need to challenge himself, because he believes these self-created challenges legitimize him in a way he can’t quite articulate but knows is otherwise missing. The Director is that particular kind of male. So he chooses his artistic constraints: no elderly bodies, no people with pre-existing sickness. That would be too easy. No, to be the center of this zoom-in, one has to be of age and sound mind, and to have arrived at the checkpoint healthy. The goal is to still reveal, somehow, pain and despair—and not just any pain and despair but the kind that soundlessly screams: My country has disavowed me, I am a body trying to survive, etc. This screaming is done through physical language, facial expressions: clean camera work. Radical honesty is how the Director is conceptualizing it. For the sake of these poor souls, he has to reveal the angst in a manner that employs no trickery. People are dying, he tells himself, and he repeats the last word for effect: dying. Then he makes the face of a man who feels the gravity of death.

In the editing room months later, the Director is looking at so many different shots, an infinite number of shots, the kind of footage you end up with when your DP is undiscerning. The Director is annoyed, frustrated. Nothing feels right. The faces on the screen show no feeling at all, or appear to be faking, trying too hard. He is numb and he’s been doing this long enough to know what numbness in the editing room means. It means it’s all shit. Sometimes you have to power through this kind of despair until the sweet moment when—magically, mysteriously—you find yourself on the other side of the thing. You’ve crossed over. But this doesn’t feel like one of those times.

For a while now, the Director has been working with his therapist on being present. The therapist is practicing something called Nontherapy Approach. It’s kind of hard to explain Nontherapy, and to be honest it bothers the Director that the therapist has no diplomas hanging on his wall. It feels way too late—they’ve been working together for a year—to inquire about the man’s qualifications, although once or twice the Director made a joke about a Nondiploma Approach, hoping that the therapist would understand the joke to be a question (and offer an answer) but also understand the joke to be a joke (and therefore not resent the Director). The therapist seemed not to get the joke.

But most of the time he tries not to worry about the therapist’s training, because Nontherapy has been helping him accept himself. When he makes a mistake now—any kind of mistake, professional, personal, whatever—he knows it’s because of his past, so he tries to Locate the Authentic Area of Blame (usually his parents) and Redirect. Sure, his parents always meant well and did their best, but they also made a lot of mistakes, and never apologized. He walked in on them mid-orgy when he was six years old—this is really only one small example—and his mother shrieked and kicked him out, explained nothing. When he asked the next day—he had no idea what he saw—she pretended to be confused. She said he must have had a bad dream. In his darkest hours, the Director fears that this memory has rendered him incapable of love.

Redirecting helps. Free from feelings of false self-blame, the Director is able to inhabit his body, connect to the right now. Right now, in the editing room, he stretches. After long hours in a swivel chair, his muscles appreciate this momentary kindness, and he moans. It is a quiet, tame moan, a whisper of a moan; and yet it’s enough to invite memories of other moans. The Director’s mind is now moving away from the refugees who are seeking safety, away from the question of whether they’ll be granted asylum. Will they be shot dead? Or survive?It’s not that he doesn’t give a shit; it’s that he’s inhabiting his body. And his body is sending a clear message. There’s a buzzer in his work area, right next to the monitor, and he presses it. Andrea, he says, can you come in, please? I need you.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Shelly Oria is the author of NEW YORK 1, TELAVIV 0 (FSG & RandomHouse Canada, 2014), which earned nominations for a Lambda Literary Award and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, among other honors. Recently, she co-authored a digital novella, CLEAN, commissioned by WeTransfer and McSweeney’s; the novella received two LOVIE awards. Oria’s fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and elsewhere, has been translated to other languages, and has won a number of awards. She lives in Brooklyn, where she co-directs the Writer’s Forum at the Pratt Institute.

The Eight Graveyards

Anna Dunn

In this garden a draft of summer plays across the prayer flags.

A handful of slugs marched into the Worcestershire sauce and drowned themselves last night.

The red dog is tired and smells like dirt and air.

In this graveyard you ask her again to tell you how the moon moves.

In another you are taking the door knob apart.

In this graveyard there is no fruit that ruins all other fruit.

And in one garden you will come to find your name etched across a tomb.

In one graveyard your blood fixes all other blood.In another graveyard it’s not about you.

In this one you never hesitate because time is the garden of loss.

In another you listen to two sisters talking. The younger one says, If I come back to this earth, I’m coming back as an animal. The older one says, I’m not coming back here, I’m not even from here. When the stop light changes from red to green the younger one says, I have the soul of a cat.

In a garden south of here women and men dance at the top of a mountain to release suffering, fireworks echo off of cliff and cave. In another garden the stampede of their feet crumbles the buildings they will build and no one will be able to stop the water from taking what it will.

In this garden you’ve never been confused by beauty, it has only ever reached deep inside of you, scoping out a watershed of dreams.

In one graveyard you wake up at 5 a.m. to the same ache every day. In another you’ve learned the only chaos you can limit is your own.

In one graveyard your life is coming back together. You find the boy you lost. He’s dewy as a lily in the rain. The other ghosts are with him. The police detective. The man with musical hands and a head full of sorrow. The dog with the pink heart across her nose. The woman with the dentures and the one who wore a wig—they still speak to you some nights. And the forever girl on the couch with the red hair and the crumpled pack of Pall Malls.

In another the dog that changed your life zooms around you until she is tired and stuffs her nose into your armpit, then you both go out and lie down in a baseball field and stare up at the dragonflies and the stars. And even though you know she is dead, you both remember that time the old lady tried to steal her, and you remember how she healed you.

In one graveyard no language is ever lost and no love is ever lost, only the two-way ladder of its limitations.

In one graveyard you are outside the helix of worry, a force field made of broken wings.

In another you know you shouldn’t, but you wish you never were.

In this garden there is as much cruelty in the earth as there is in the heart.

In this graveyard you worry about her lonely bones.

In this garden the owls are technicolor. Their song is picked up by the soft wind.

In this garden you never become attached to the poison.

In this graveyard you could watch the red dog breathe for days.

In this one the club is never carved, the fire never lit, the sharp stone never fastened to the edge of anything, and nothing ever hurtles through the air. In this graveyard no one ever died at the hands of a stranger holding a machine.

In this garden no one was ever forced onto any boat.

In this garden your brother listens when you tell him to be easy on himself. He sits under the tree, petals sprouting from his hands.

In this graveyard you take the glass of gin from the driver’s side cup holder and pour it into the ice capped snow before reaching for the phone.

In this graveyard your mother never spends her life trying to save a stranger and your father never walks the earth like a wounded bird.

In this graveyard you wonder at the symmetry of damage.

In this garden you trap and release the spiders, their spindle legs the saddest sticks you have ever seen.

In this garden the rose bush becomes a web and the red dog noses at the purple flowers.

In this garden the smell of garlic wakes you and the air is the same temperature as the ground.

In this garden the peacock is not the only magical animal, but there is the nimbus, and caldera, stalagmite, and the boy who cannot hide his dust.

In this garden the half moon is washed up on a cloud, a lover broken on a crescent shore.

In this garden parts of you go missing—your pinky that grows crooked after being broken, but more specifically the part of you afraid to show affection, and more generally the part that of you that laughs when you feel pain.

In this graveyard you remember the only way through is to locate joy inside the cave.

In this graveyard the sun loses contact with the earth.

And in this garden you discover darkness is just nothing, without the certainty of light.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Anna Dunn is a food and crime fiction writer. She harbors a deep love for Bruce Springsteen, rescue dogs, and Murder She Wrote. Early on, her mother threw the television out when Anna let it slip that she aspired to be Magnum P.I. when she grew up. She served for a decade as editor of Diner Journal, an independent food and literature magazine, and co-authored DINNER AT THE LONG TABLE and SALTIE: A COOKBOOK. For at least twenty minutes every day, she is hard at work on her first crime fiction novel and/or concentrating on her breathing.

Codetta (or Collision)

Eve Alexandra

You were not as I had imagined the ones that came before—the poems in which I conjured you, dreaming darling girl, stunned sister. You flew at me like a kiss, a hard slap upon the hood of my car. Behind the wheel, I could see the soft curl of white on your belly, the slit of your sex, the coal of hooves, so close, for a second, as if you were nursing at my breast. Then you were off, leaping defiantly. I’m now the one on the highway shaking, the cars speeding by. My skirt flying up in the wind and you, wild thing, are not my metaphor. But this doesn’t stop me from following you into the switchgrass and sweet clover, the thousand little tongues of lupine tasting. Who needs taxonomy? We are all invasive and beautiful. We are too may. Look for the tender birches, for blackberries. The cornstalks crushed, soft as linen. They are gathering. The does and their fawns. I see now you are younger than my own daughter. And you are bleeding. If I take off my shoes and shed my dress, may I lay down beside you? What do I have to offer, but my skin and hair to poultice you? I mean to do penance. It’s your world now, but I have loved you it’s true and apprenticed from afar. I understand the wound, how it calls to you. It asks to breathe, and it is a kind of song that can’t help singing. You’ve read the poems. You’ve known all along. I too have bolted when I shouldn’t have, thrown myself in front of a car.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Eve Alexandra’s book, THE DROWNED GIRL, was selected for the Wick Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, The HarvardReview, Green Mountains Review, Narrative, and Barrow Street. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Vermont, where she directs the Integrated Fine Arts Program.

Remembrance: Dream, Palace of Drought

Angie Macri

What you see on the corn is what you’ll get,
and the cattle come to the fence

in hopes of hay. During seven years of corn,
like the sand of the sea, like amber

floating, we wore the king’s ring on our fingers.
We swore the sun and moon and stars

bowed down to us. When a king dreams
(and we all thought we were king),

the cows rise from the river, and ears
have their own hunger, but in such amber,

even prophets were silent. Coal
and oil couldn’t last forever. When I could

breathe, I slept and dreamed, then woke to imitate
the sheaves in all their bending.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Angie Macri is the author of UNDERWATER PANTHER (Southeast Missouri State University), winner of the Cowles Poetry Book Prize, and FEAR NOTHING OF THE FUTURE OR THE PAST (Finishing Line). Her recent work appears in Poetry, Superstition Review, and Tar River Poetry. An Arkansas Arts Council fellow, she lives in Hot Springs.

The Wizard

Elizabeth Barnett

Dad, you are not
all right.

This business
of being

a cake,
the cake

left in the rain.
These claims

and drawings—
family trees

with great men
and without mom.

These phantom limbs.
You’re sewing

the velvet curtain
shut.

Come out.
Say you are just a man.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Elizabeth Barnett lives in Kansas City. Her recent work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, and Poetry Northwest.

Honey and Cold Stars

Amy Rose Capetta

One day Megi asked me how the third faerie war started, and I worried that if I gave the wrong answer, she would devour me.

A lot of our friendship was like that.

We were sitting on a picnic table near the park, our butts on the tabletop, our feet on the bench. Everywhere my body touched the table I felt like a cold plank, and everywhere I pressed against Megi was warm and melting. Our arms had been linked for at least an hour, our legs lined up ankle to thigh. I thought if anyone spotted us from far away, we would have looked like one creature, a tangle of human and faerie.

“Ummm,” I said. “The third faerie war, like all wars, had a tangled set of causes…” This sounded like the start of a bad essay for World History. “Why do you think I can tell you anything new? I’m not an expert on human-faerie relations.”

“You seem pretty advanced to me,” Megi said in a whisper that would have made the word sultry pack up and go home.

I kept my eyes in front of me. The woods were broken up by the remains of a mall. Trees sprouted off the top of a Macy’s at one end as if the store were a giant planter. The sunset raged red and purple, and Megi and I might have been the only human and faerie in the whole world watching it together. I tried not to let my worries about that spike into panic.

“Come on,” Megi said. I caught the corner of her smile without turning to face her. “Play with me.”

“What can I win?” I asked, my voice crackling over the words.

I wondered, for the billionth time, what would happen if I kissed her. Would my solemn lips cancel out Megi’s smile? Or would her smile drip into me, one slow drop at a time, until I was grinning wide?

I packed up my anger at faeries and humans and the whole broken world, packed it up tight enough that I could keep carrying it.

“I don’t remember that much about the war starting,” I lied. I remembered the exact day; I could crawl back into it, sitting in eighth grade homeroom, listening to other people stumble over the first reports, try to wrap them up in words that made sense, even if it was the worst possible kind. Attack. Invasion. Terrorism. But it wasn’t really any of those things.

I remembered the school closing, but that was later, right after the Great Planting.

“We didn’t have homework that first day.” I’d always been one of those kids who liked school, who craved books. Mostly fantasy. Megi told me that anything with faeries in it gets read at Court while everybody laughs at how wrong we got it and drinks honey spiked with whiskey and moonbeams.

Megi took an axe out of her leather shoulder bag. It had six identi-cal blades. A snowflake axe. She went to work sharpening it against her fingernails.

“It started with global warming,” I said. It felt good to be talking, even about this, because it meant I wasn’t just staring at Megi as she took me by the shoulders and turned me to face her. She had a broad face and a broad curving body. The sunset lit her edges on fire. Her garment of leaves and leather constantly shifted, as if some wind was rustling it, exposing new patches of skin. “Humans screwed up the planet so hard that it was never going to recover. And the faeries, ummm, they’d been hiding out since the Industrial Revolution. Before that, humans could talk to them, and sometimes they made out with each other.” This was starting to feel like a tangent. I circled back to the main point. “The faeries came out of hiding because the world was about to be unlivable, and taking over from the humans was pretty much the only way to save it. Well, first you tried to leave Earth, and then you came back. That’s when the battles started. Humans outnumbered faeries a thousand to one, and we still thought guns and tanks and bombs were a big deal back then.”

“And yet, here we are.” The blade sparked against Megi’s nails. “Babysitting the human species is not really fun for us, Ayla. In a few generations, if the balance is right again, I’ll get to be a seam of crystal in a rock.” Megi’s smile was so full and bright that it felt dangerous—like the kind of moon my gran always said made people do strange things. Deeds that glistened at the edges with wildness.

I looked away, toward the woods.

When I was a kid, I lived in a suburb where I had to walk half a mile to the lot behind the CVS to reach the only thing that looked like real woods. I spent hours back there finding things. Moon-colored rocks and tightly curled ferns. Scoops of dark earth or mirror-water that sat perfectly in my hands.

I wanted to ask Megi if those had been faeries, too. But she got to the asking first. “Who started the war?”

“Why do you care about this all of a sudden?” We had known each other for years and we’d never talked about what happened before we were friends. Maybe that was how we stayed friends.

“Who. Started. The. War.”

“Humans did,” I said, because that’s how I felt most days. “We started it without meaning to.”

Megi didn’t tell me if I was right or wrong. But she didn’t devour me either.

She slid down one strap of my tank top, baring my shoulder to the cool air. She trailed a finger down it. That quick, sliding motion reminded me of a single tear running down someone’s face.

And then she went to work on me. She took out a small tin of bright blue powder and spat in it. Dipping the snowflake axe into the dye, she laced the edge with color. Then she set the blade to my shoulder. Lightly.

“Humans didn’t make out with faeries,” she corrected, her whisper hitting my bare shoulder. “They made love. Long and slow and languorous.”

If talking about sex was a path in the woods, Megi was always veering onto it. Not that I didn’t think about sex. I just didn’t tellher I was thinking about it. “Sadly, we don’t do that anymore.” Her whisper was closer to my ear this time. Her breath stayed on my skin, but the words went right to my brain.

I wondered what color my face was. It probably matched the red-purple sunset. That was probably what she wanted. “Yeah,” I said. “Tragic.”

She swirled the blade against my skin.

“Why don’t do they do that anymore?” I asked. It was the first question I’d managed. Any little skitter of triumph I felt disappeared as she frowned at my shoulder and answered me with a deep, deep silence.

“Do you want to go to Court with me tonight?” she finally asked, her voice as edgy as the axe on my skin. Megi asking me to go to Court was like being invited to prom by the prettiest girl in school, and also to meet ten generations of her family at the same time.

“Is that…allowed?” I asked.

Megi clapped a hard look over her face. “It is if I want it to be.”

I looked down at my arms and found them slick with spirals—shells, or maybe galaxies. She had been painting me so I could go to Court. That had been her plan the whole time. I was probably the first human who’d been asked in at least a hundred years. “Of course I’ll go with you, Megi.”

She smiled, her face spiky with pain. “Of course.”

“What?” I hated how clumsy I was with her. It felt impossible to say the right thing. When I managed, there was this beautiful humming balance, and then somehow I would crumble it.

Megi leapt off the picnic table, and the light took hold of her hair, which was multi-colored like an autumn morning—red, brown, and the smoky blue that rose from chimneys. Her hair was also a mess, and it writhed around her shoulders as she paced. “You don’t think you can say no to me. You know I would never turn you into a tree, right?”

“It’s hard not to think about sometimes,” I muttered.

The war had started out in favor of the humans, rumbling along victory after victory, as our weapons did exactly what they were designed to do. But we forgot about magic, and desperation, and then in a single week, faeries turned ninety-five percent of the human population into oaks and birches and maples. Of course, the types of trees were different depending on which ones were native to that part of the world. Faeries would never magic someone into an invasive species. But the main point was that so many trees were now people we used to know. There was no way of being sure who had started out as a conifer and who was your old history teacher. It was smart. It kept us from cutting anybody down.

I looked out at the woods and tried to see them the way I was supposed to—as the end of some glorious era of humanity. All I could remember was the oily stomachache I got after eating McDonald’s, the hours spent filling in test bubbles, the way Mom couldn’t stop worrying about getting the best price on car insurance. “I don’t think it would be terrible to be a tree,” I whispered.

Megi ran her fingers through my hair, all the way from the roots to the messy tips, tugging gently when she reached the ends beneath my chin. “That’s why I like you, Ayla. You think about these things.”

#

My family lived inside a hill, which was better than a cave, because frankly, bats are disgusting. It wasn’t as good as a cliffside or a treetop village, but by the time we resettled, those were all taken.

Mom had gone out, probably tracking a deer or something, but Dad was in the kitchen stabbing at his dead calculator. The batteries had been out of juice for over a year, but he still tried it every day. He was adding up columns of numbers he’d carved into the table with a tiny knife. Before the third faerie war, Dad was an accountant. He thought that staying an accountant made him a rebel. I thought it made him sad and a little bit squinty.

I passed through the earth-walled room, picking up a candle on the way. It would be dark soon, and I wanted to see as well as I could while I got dressed in the little nook we called my room. “Going out,” I said.

Dad didn’t look up from his dead slab of plastic. “With Rob? Gustavo?”

I made a noise that wasn’t a yes or a no. Sort of a hmhmpfh.

Let Dad think I was going on a date and repopulating the earth.

He had told me once that it was my rebel destiny to have babies. Lots and lots of human babies. Mom didn’t care about rising up—she just wanted to live a quiet life as far away from the faeries as she could get. They had turned her parents and brother and nieces and nephew into Douglas firs. She didn’t like Christmas anymore. She said that the overlap of good memories and bad ones made her brain swirl.

“I’ll be back before dawn,” I said.

“Good,” Dad said. “Sounds good.” Then he threw the calculator at the dirt wall and a clod of dirt exploded.

With no school to take attendance and no phones to check up on us, it was shockingly easy to sneak around with Megi. Most of the teenagers I knew were taking full advantage of this in their own ways—they just weren’t spending time with faeries.

I wanted to explain to Dad that I’d tried to hang out with humans. And then Megi showed up at my elbow one day, bright and chattering. She looked more nervous than I felt, worries writhing on her face like freshly caught fish. I liked that I could see exactly what she was feeling, even when it was bad. I liked that my own feelings doubled, then tripled, as I walked next to her through the quiet woods.

Within an hour, she’d told me that she was an outcast among the faeries. “I’m pretty much reviled.”

“Why?” I asked, way too fascinated.

“Oh, you know, I think we should be making some kind of patch-work future with the humans.”

“I would sleep under that quilt,” I said. “But it might give me weird dreams.”

Her wide lips split into a grin, and then she laughed, and the earth under our feet cracked slightly. I stepped back, almost ran into a tree, and then whirled around to apologize to the person who was probably trapped inside. “Sorry, sorry,” I said, backing away from the trunk.

When I looked back at Megi, she was staring at the ground. Right where her laugh had fallen, a starry white patch of Queen Anne’s lace had burst into flower.

I was down on my knees as quickly as Megi. She studied the flowers intently. I’d never seen a faerie actually use magic before, and it made breathing feel new and complicated. She pinched her fingers and ran them up the stem of a flower, and I wondered if any human would have felt their blood sliding around in response, or if that was just me. Then she plucked the flower and was leaning forward to slide it behind my ear before I could even think about how close that put us.

Her body, my space.

Her frown, my smile.

“No one has ever made me laugh before,” she said, her lips offset with mine, but only slightly. If I pressed forward an inch, and then another, I would catch the edge of her mouth with mine.

“You mean… today?” I asked.

“I mean ever,” she said.

“I wasn’t alive for most of ever,” I said. “But if I’m the funniest thing so far, it must have been grim.”

She laughed again, and the ground beneath us grew snowy with white flowers.

“Aren’t faeries clever?” I asked. “They must laugh all the time.”

“Clever and funny aren’t the same thing,” Megi said. “One is all about amusing yourself, it’s a sort of trinket for your brain to play with. Faeries are very fond of trinkets. They’re less interested in jokes.”

“I’m not a stand-up comedian or anything,” I said, which felt strange as soon as it came out of my mouth. That profession had gone extinct.

Megi ran one hand down her throat. “I can’t laugh unless I’m in this body, and it feels so strange.”

It didn’t look strange to me. It looked glorious. Maybe that wasn’t how it felt from the inside, though. She twirled a piece of her hair around her fi nger, tighter and tighter, until a curl of smoke spiraled into the air. I snatched her hand away.

“Sorry,” she said.

“It’s okay,” I said, even though my fingers were throbbing. A blister rose where I’d touched her. “Only you can prevent forest fires,” I muttered.She didn’t laugh at that one. Too human, I guess.

Megi looked at my bright red hand. “You’ll never speak to me again,” she intoned, each word like dire prophecy. I must have given her what my mother calls A Look, because she added, “None of the other humans will speak to me more than once.”

“Maybe I can help with that,” I said, even though most humans barely talked to me.

“Maaaaybe,” Megi said, the word flaring with possibility. “Or it could just be you and me for a while.”

I nodded a little too eagerly.

After that, Megi showed up a few times a month, only when I was alone. She never had to tell me we were a secret. Until today, I thought we would stay a secret forever.

#

When I left the hill currently known as home, electric blue dusk had already fallen. It saturated me fast. I wondered if it made me look slightly more magical in my best shorts and a shirt made of scraps from the shirts I’d outgrown, sewed back together. Going to Faerie Court probably required something better, finer, more enchanted, but this was all I had.

I stood in the nearest moon-brushed field and waited. Megi loved entrances. I loved watching them. This time she floated in on a sort of armchair made of clouds, wearing a cobweb dress that didn’t cover much.

Megi was young for a faerie, which meant she had been around for only a hundred years. But she hadn’t been alive in the human sense. Most of that time had been spent as a rock at the bottom of a river, a grain of sand off the coast of Maine, a white dwarf star. So many nights, she’d laid on the ground, our heads touching, our bodies pointed in opposite directions. She told me about the few times she’d been in a human body, to dance in honeysuckle rain or to test what a storm felt like against her skin. I loved all of her stories, except for the star ones. They were too lonely for me. When she told them, I ached cold for hours.

“Oh,” she said, running her hand down the veinwork of my shirt. “All of your seams are on the outside.”

“Is that a bad thing?” I asked, shivering.

“It’s an Ayla thing,” she said. Which didn’t really answer my question.

She stepped down from the cloud chair, patted it like an obedient dog, and it dissolved. She offered me her arm, and I noticed that her arms and legs were painted with the swirls she had put on me, except hers were shimmering green to go with my blue.

Megi led me into the woods. We walked through the woodsy silence, which is actually full of sounds—cracking branches and tree whispers and insects trying to hook up.

“Watch this,” Megi said. I turned to face her. She held up her thumb and forefinger and rubbed them together. A blue-green wisp rose from her fingertips. I heard the small but satisfying crack of a nutshell coming apart.

“What was that?” I asked.

“A second,” Megi said. “It was closed up tight, so I opened it. I wanted to feel like we had more time together, just the two of us, before we got to Court.”

I nodded, secretly thrilled. I tightened my arm around hers. She smelled like the world’s best apple cider, sharp and sweet with twelve distracting spices. I wanted as much time with her as I could get. And then I thought—maybe she was just afraid of what would happen when we made it to Court. Maybe I should be more afraid.

I followed Megi further into the forest. In a little while, we came to a clearing with a shiny hill in the center, pushing up toward the canopy. I walked over to it and slid my fingers along the metal. It was as warm as skin, etched with the sort of markings Megi had put on our arms. She opened a door that I never would have noticed, and fog rolled out. I stepped back to get a better look at the whole thing.

“Faerie spaceship?” I asked, to be one hundred percent sure.

“Faerie spaceship,” Megi confirmed. She shrugged like it was no big deal. “They make great ballrooms.”

I had always wanted to see one of these up close. The year when I was thirteen, the planet was ringed with faerie spaceships. We wasted a lot of time thinking it was an alien invasion. The humans had never considered that there may have been creatures on our own planet that were highly intelligent and also highly interested in escaping our mess. In the end they came back, though. Megi told me they couldn’t stand being away from everything they had loved for so long.

#

Inside the spaceship, the faeries were brilliant and gorgeous and perfect and everywhere. It was like staring into a kaleidoscope that had come to life. I had to blink a lot and rub my eyes. The whole body of the ship was curved and open, filled with hanging plants that had long spiky tendrils and didn’t need soil to grow. The floor was covered with earthy-colored tiles in organic shapes that fitted together snugly.

“Do you want something to eat?” Megi asked, turning us toward a room that seemed to be a dedicated feasting area. There were tables heaped with roasted meat, shining fruit, oozing honeycomb. I thought I saw someone biting into a live peacock. Megi shook her head, the exact same way I would if I took her home and Dad did something embarrassing, like showing her his calculator. “Let me get you a drink,” she said. “I would stay away from the moonbrew. But everything else should be safe.”

“I don’t think any of this is safe,” I whispered.

Megi stared at me. Sometimes it felt like her stare could slice through me without any help from an axe. “Do you want to dance?”

“Ummmm,” I said. “Okay.”

Yes, I meant. Yes.

I had gotten so good at hiding the truth, or maybe just the magnitude of it. Megi would press herself close to me some days, but the next time I saw her, she would be as distant as a long-dead star. I thought if she knew, if she felt what I wanted, I would blink twice and she’d be gone.

Megi pulled me out to the center of the floor, which was also the center of the ship. I took a single nervous breath before the music started. The band stood above us on a little platform, clutching instruments I knew—fiddles, flutes, guitars. I wondered if we had stolen those from the faeries, or if they had stolen a few things from us.

Megi nodded to me as the dance started, and I nodded back. The fiddle slurred high and lonely. When the drums leapt in, we stomped and spun and clapped so fast that the room sounded like rain.

I knew the steps. I could feel them without thinking.

“Hey!” I yelled as I spun with Megi. “Did you implant these dances in my head?”

“I can’t do that,” she said. “You’re not mine to touch.”

I heard someone laugh, high-pitched and shattering. It didn’t sound anything like Megi’s laugh. She and I twisted and swam and touched each other’s waists with little darts of our hands.

“How do I know how to do this?” I asked.

Megi yelled, “You’ve always known.”

My feet worked faster, heels tapping strange rhythms. The dance formation broke, and other faeries passed me in and out of their arms, as strong as metal bars and supple as spring branches. I fought my way back to Megi.

“You’re not telling me I’m a faerie, right?” I whispered.

“Some things have always been inside of you,” she said, “waiting in your cells, caught in the spirals of a helix.” She traced the lines she’d painted on my shoulder. “It’s one of the reasons humans and faeries keep separate. Even in the old stories they were never together for more than a minute, an hour, a carefully bounded set of days.” Her voice threaded itself into the song—I didn’t hear them as two separate things. “You and I are more alike than we are different. They don’t want us to remember that.”

“Why not?” I asked. “Faeries don’t want humans on their genetic turf?”

“No.” Megi’s hands found my waist. “We know that we can cross a line, too. Become more human.”

The room split into a formation I didn’t know, everyone stream-ing as Megi and I stayed put. There were wicked smiles, stony faces, moving fast. And then the faeries whirled into place, as if this had always been part of the dance. A circle formed around us, weapons pointed inward like a mouth full of sharp, mismatched teeth.

Some of the things they were brandishing looked like thorns grown long enough to be daggers. Others were staffs made of moonglow, hooks carved from silvery ice. No snowflake axes, though. That must have been Megi’s special thing.

“Thank you for having me,” I said. “Now I’ll just…go.” I resisted the urge to back away, because there were pointy objects behind me. I spun around, but the door that had allowed me into the Faerie Court had vanished back into the seamless metal walls.

One of the faeries stepped forward and took Megi’s chin in her hand. She forced Megi’s face toward me. “What will you do? Turn her into a sapling and plant her in your courtyard? You can make love in her shade. The human will have to watch it until she withers.”

The faeries laughed and laughed, and the sound was so cold that ice crystals splayed across Megi’s cheeks.

“Is that why you brought me?” I asked in a crumbling voice.

The faeries laughed harder.

Was that the point of all this—was I Megi’s human weakness? Did she bring me to the Faerie Court to come clean?

“That’s not what I want,” Megi said, and I knew from the look on her face that she wasn’t lying. But that didn’t mean we were out of the woods. The faeries pressed in tighter. The points of their weapons paled in comparison to the stab of anger in their eyes. My heart froze and then melted, and the feelings I had for Megi, the feelings I’d been holding back for over a year, finally spilled out.

I cried. The spaceship cracked at the seams as the sky above us poured stars. The faeries gasped and screeched, their voices tearing at the night. My blurry vision swam all the way to Megi. She was crying, too—a single tear dropping off the cliff of her high-boned cheek. But it didn’t do anything. It didn’t change anything.

She was just a girl leaking saltwater.

Megi looked into my eyes and for the first time I didn’t worry if they were pretty enough. I wasn’t afraid of saying something stupid. But I was afraid.

So was she. I had never noticed it.

“Tell me about the third faerie war,” she said, thickly, urgently.

I could see what she was doing now—what she was desperate for. Megi wanted me to remind her that we were enemies. But I didn’t want to, and the not-wanting was so deep and heavy that I became immovable. The moment flowed around us. I was a rock at the bottom of a river.

And then we took a breath at the same time, to the exact same depth, a sort of music that we both knew, and when we exhaled the entire court was gone. Megi and I were sitting on the cold dirt of a bare hill, our legs splayed out in front of us. The only proof that the Faerie Court had been there a moment before was the char of roasted meat and a final strain of music.

“They’re not coming back, are they?” I asked.

Megi shook her head.

“I can’t…I can’t bring you home.”

Megi nodded. She already knew that.

“What do we do now?” I asked.

Megi pulled me closer, until we were as close as two people could possibly get, until our skin ran together like rivers. I closed my eyes—the darkness behind them was warm and ripe. She kissed me, and it tasted like salt and skin. I kissed her back, and it tasted like honey and cold stars.

We left the dark mound where the court used to be, the galaxies on our arms pressed together, our faces close enough for whispering. We didn’t care about being quiet, though. We laughed our defiance until I felt sure that humans could hear it, miles away in their hills, living inside of their new tree-bodies. Megi rubbed her fingers together and with a wisp of blue-green, another second split apart.

We found a perfect spot in the woods. And then we devoured each other.

 

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Amy Rose Capetta is an alum of the Writing for Children and Young Adults program at VCFA. She is the author of three YA novels, most recently ECHO AFTER ECHO, a queer love story wrapped in a murder mystery set on Broadway. Her five forthcoming novels all feature queerness and magic, from an Italian-inspired fantasy (THE BRILLIANT DEATH) to a gender bent Arthurian space fantasy (ONCE AND FUTURE) co-authored with the scoundrel of her heart, Cori McCarthy. Amy Rose lives in Vermont.

I Am a White Horse

Zachary Schomburg

I am a white horse wandering
an empty planet. Everything on
this planet is beautiful, untouched
and clean. And I am so beautiful
too, and strong. Sometimes,
I spend a whole week being
a white horse. But in real life,
everything is going to hell.
I haven’t taken the trash out
for weeks. The stench is getting
harder to ignore. My neighbor,
Betty, was so concerned that
she came over the other day.
She found me in the kitchen
with my shirt off. I whinnied
at her. “Bonnie,” she said,
“you’re not a horse.” “Right,”
I said, “I’m not just any horse.
I am the only horse.” “No,
you’re no horse at all,” she said.
“Just look at you.” I looked down
at my body, but all I could see
was the white white horse of
my body. “Your life is falling apart,”
she said, holding her nose.
“And your house is disgusting.”
I finally conceded. It had quickly
become too much to bear. Then
Betty took a big breath and said,
“Bonnie, you’re disgusting too.”
I asked her to leave. I only
wanted to be a white horse,
alone, wandering in the beautiful
world. “It’s true,” she said
from outside the house
through the open kitchen window,
the open field behind her, her head
tilted to the side to show off
her empathy. “Even your nipples,”
she cried. “They’re like little socks
of hamburger.”

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Zachary Schomburg is the author of a novel, MAMMOTHER (Featherproof Books, 2017), and four books of poems published by Black Ocean. He is also an illustrator, a teacher, and a co-editor of a small press called Octopus Books. He lives in Portland, OR.