Three Poems

W. Todd Kaneko

Looking Outside Airplane Windows

 

I expect to see that boy
in the clouds, sad faced,
barbed wire tattoo ablaze
where no one can see it—

not a tattoo but a scar wrapped
around his belly like a belt
cinched tight to hold his body

together. Every cloud dissolves
one day, leaving so many boys
in the sky, hanging, waiting to fall
back to Earth. Girls too, hearts

where their stomachs should be,
guts twisted into brambles
now for the body’s deep sorrow
because we have so many words
for clouds: father, grandfather,

and one day, son. We spend our lives
searching for your shapes.

You already resemble those shapes
we know by heart.

All the Things that Make Heaven and Earth

 

The soil, the livestock, our memories of the war,
everything flourishing before it vanishes—breath

severed clean from our bodies, our shadows
sunset-deepened and woven with dirt,

whole family trees succumbed to the blight.
My grandfather returns to life, back still

bent by history’s quiet yoke, his memories
of camp forever decaying into the tiny garden

behind my house where my father’s death
is the soil, where silence blossoms now

all year round. Or the soil is my grandfather
eating darkness, the spectral memory of camp

that feasts upon my father and his father,
me and my son. There are no such things

as ghosts—I tell my son this every evening
as he gazes up the dark stairwell towards his room.

What will be waiting for us when my boy
is old enough to ask where he comes from?

What will we find when our memories of camp
finally molder back into the ground?

Horses’ Mouths

 

When the army brought us to the stables on our way to internment, they warned us about talking to the animals. We crowded into the stalls at night and listened to the horses explain the difference between sugar and glue, the weight of plow and cart, the jangle of spurs against bare flank. Their manes sizzled blue, electric as they told us about Silver riding the Lone Ranger back from the dead, about Man O’War outracing death. They told us about Comanche, who survived the Battle of Little Big Horn and then survived America and we shuddered. Outside, the horses hurtled across the landscape, from sea to shining shoreline, then back across the badlands. Pegasus stirred the windstorm with ancient wings. Sleipnir struck lightning with all eight hooves against the prairie. Longma broke a cobalt sky with Chinese fire while we hid our faces under thin blankets. The horses sang low songs for us, the blues for animals who are more than animals. The horses used our voices because the words did not fit in their mouths. When the horses were gone, the trucks took us to the internment camp.

 

Question: What did the horses say?

a) Horses belong to the world.
b) There are no horses, just smells of horses.
c) We should not speak about these things

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

W. Todd Kaneko is the author of THE DEAD WRESTLER ELEGIES (Curbside Splendor, 2014) and THIS IS HOW THE BONE SINGS (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), and co-author with Amorak Huey of POETRY: A WRITER’S GUIDE AND ANTHOLOGY (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018). A Kundiman fellow, he is co-editor of the literary magazine Waxwing and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he teaches at Grand Valley State University.

Two Poems

Rosebud Ben-Oni

Efes Wrestling with the Poet Who Won’t Look Away

 

To set fire to warships in the water                                                                                            cast your mirror

as parabola. You still won’t quiet these waters.                                                                Finite are bodies

to drown. Infinite only the quarks & electrons that you won’t see                                           keeping

you as one. As more than. Similar. Don’t reduce me, says the reflection. But it’s already done.

It’s a whisper.   As if nothing still.   Lies outside Saturn & Jupiter.   Vibrating the highest key &

timbre:: timber. Only in time is your God. Safe. In song smeared by a warhero across my zero

believers. They never give up. You, poet, are more than. Similar to this. Terror. In clear water

the nautilus forgets easily.  After a day it swims again straight toward me.  Hungering.  & you

hold a single knife. Without one fundamental sliver. Or steady. Particle. I will always. Terrify

water into flame.  Devour shell & cirrus.  Ornate & plain.  This is giving myself.  As.  Ghosting.

Timelines. & entrapment.  What comes after an entrance.  & harmony.  Drowns you in sleep.

 

Author’s Note: While efes can mean “zero,” it also means “to nullify” in mystical Hebrew text; in Sefer Yetzirah, Efes is a concealment.

Poet Wrestling with Neutrinos She {Allegedly} Cannot Feel

 

We forget the body can become a way out
of life :: & death :: & you

came to a dead river across two islands with all the weight
of a wake unprepared.

Shunned, even, of wrath & rage. Nothing would grow if you didn’t
have an answer

that my life was safe. I wasn’t asking for your hands. Nor were it
chance if you were

to join me in collecting all the little neutrinos we aren’t
supposed to feel.

But the nature of accidents isn’t accidental, my friend,

in that what you think isn’t there

knows exactly what it’s doing

                    to us
                    & how
                    & when.
                    & what cross-

roads bear. The weight of such a question divides us

because conviction itself cannot be measured. I wasn’t

                    asking for your hands—my body
                    is not two swans lost
                    to red tide :: the waves we make
                    elegiac.

It was a matter of invitation, if I should fall for it,

completely, a force greater than any strong, electro-

magnetic or weak. A force much. {Much} greater than

gravity. Efes bears the crown & brings me to my knees.

                    While it is numbers, shaky
                    & uncertain, that bind us
                    together.

                                        & {I have no
                    burdens only} singing little
                    threads that bear no resemblance

to actual strings, much less two figures who can’t seem

to reach each other in the shortest of distance.

They are not elegant.

I mean. My vibrations, my math. In particular.

The math holding me together is particularly faulty.

My math is purely strings & exponentially misbehaving.

                    I am made up of much fucking {& many}
                    weird equations
                              full
                                        of anomalies

where X equals all sorts of subatomic roads

unrelated & quarreling. My {most unnetural} apologies.

Because it seems, no matter what, anyway, all lead

                    :: back to Efes ::

                                        & do you regret watching me

                                        go through this

                                                                                :: {flitting} shape of being ::

                                                            where gravity cannot compete.
                                                            & rivers in which you seek
                                                            assurances will die
                                                            when there is no life

                                                                                                    :: {left} ::

                                                                                at poetic feet.

                                                                                                    When those shallow waters are stripped
                                                                                                    of meter, syllable & accent—only then
                                                                                                    will time reveal itself

                                                                                :: to no one ::

                                                                                                    that it is nothing

                                                            compared to a force living
                                                                                outside of it.

I’d be lying if I say I didn’t fear Efes

                    as much as I murmur & hiss
                    against all these little strings
                    having their way with me.

& I’d be lying if I say I didn’t

                    :: like getting heavy heavy ::

                    with all these bomb solar neutrinos,

                                                            the wild-on ghost particles
                                                            seeping into my body
                                                            when they shouldn’t

                                                            affect me, much less
                                                            matter. To which they hiss
                                                            & murmur & mess when I hold
                                                                       something as simple & delicate

                                                            as asking a friend
                                                            if it were meant

                                                                                                                                                   :: to be ::

That somehow could we still share          :: time ::          all the while with Efes passing
through

                                        me & has been
                                        & relentlessly
                                        reaching & reaching for
                                        & sometimes touching

                                                                                             God—

                                        & still you stand at the same river,

thinking of the answer you gave, one from where the head

                                        cannot meet the heart

                                                                           for reasons unknown

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and Canto-Mundo, Rosebud Ben-Oni’s most recent collection, turn around, BRXGHT XYXS, was selected as Agape Editions’ EDITORS’ CHOICE (2019). She writes for The Kenyon Review blog. Her work appears in Poetry, APR, The Poetry Review (UK), Tin House, Guernica, among other places; her poem, “Poet Wrestling with Angels in the Dark,” was commissioned by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in NYC and published by the Kenyon Review Online. Find her at 7TrainLove.org.

 

Narrowing

Mark Powell

She was still sick from the Lortab they had given her in the emergency room, but at least she was finally sitting up, finally drinking a Met-Rx shake through a silly straw, her jaw wired shut. All of this beneath the camper shell of her boyfriend Kenny’s Tacoma, all of this somewhere in East Texas. Uvalde or maybe Utopia. Some place where the wind was howling at dawn and Kenny was out stalking whitetail.

She drank as much as possible—just a sip, really—and laid back against the inflatable mattress slowly bleeding air so that she could feel the truck’s ribbed bed beneath her. They had put two stitches in her tongue, dissolvable things but she could feel them scratching around the soft of her mouth, doing whatever damage they were doing.

She’d been in the truck since Vegas, their having decided to drive. Eighteen hours and in hindsight what a stupid decision. But no one had thought she would end the night in the ER at Sunrise Medical. Certainly no one had thought she would lose the fight, least of all her. She was a 10 to 1 favorite but caught a left hook not thirty seconds in and her mouth started bleeding and there was something about that blood. Not the coppery taste of it, exactly—she knew the taste of blood—but the simple fact of it being there, pumping into her mouth with an arterial glee. It unsettled her. Her feet never felt set. She kept drifting closer, and closer was the one thing she knew not to do. You keep your distance from a counter-puncher, you go to the mat, do the ground work. She was a grappler, after all.

And then the roundhouse popped in her head, a little flashbulb of surprise, a little afterthought of regret … stupid, stupid … and they were helping her up off the mat. Or not helping her, lifting her, and she could hear the crowd somewhere out there through the grainy darkness of concussion, the crowd totally losing its shit, cheering, booing. Someone asked could she wiggle her fingers. Simona? Can you wiggle your fingers for me, Simona? Her neck felt warm and it occurred to her that was her warm blood, spilling from the cave of her warm mouth.

Can you squeeze my hand?

They walked her after that, to the locker room and to the waiting ambulance and on to the hospital. She didn’t shower until she got back to The Sands but by then the blood had dried and she came out of the shower thinking, Clean, thinking, Sleep, until Kenny saw her and started crying and she was all, What?, and then Kenny taking the washcloth and making to wipe away the dried blood but then not. Kenny just sort of collapsing against her, crying right there in the master suite with its minibar and zebra curtains. Something about it hurt her more than losing, the way he crumpled. As if she wasn’t herself anymore, no longer the person she had been, and Kenny crying like he was mourning her. Kenny crying like he was grieving the future. But then soon enough she was crying too.

They sat up all night, her head pounding, eyes dilated, adrenaline lingering. Then the Lortab settled over her like ground fog and it was, I’m so tired, Kenny. And Kenny was all, Stay awake, babe. Hey, hun, look at me, okay? Her trainer came the next morning with a doctor from the Nevada State Athletic Commission who looked in her eyes with a tiny light. She signed something, some sort of release, and they made their solemn nods and left.

She slept after that, she and Kenny both, slept the day away while outside the hotel the paparazzi had gathered, not that she wanted to know. She’d turned her phone off just before the fight and left it off. No Twitter, no Instagram. No reassurances to her fans or calls for the inevitable rematch. They slept and at dusk crept out to the parking garage. The paparazzi with their Vespas and telephoto lenses were gone. Everyone was gone. Fuck them, Kenny said, screamed, into the concrete cavern with its elevator and pale cancer light. Fuck all them. They left around seven and drove all night and part of the next day. Nevada to Texas. Stupid but who could have seen it coming, the future, the left that opened her mouth, the roundhouse that shut it?

Now, alone in the camper shell, she arched her spine, feeling it open.

Above her was a generalized light she saw as much through her eyelids as the pain medication. November. The truck parked in a field of blue grama on the edge of the pines. Kenny was out there. She could yell for him if she needed to, she could bang one foot against the glass. But she wasn’t going to do that. She was flat on her back, half-covered by the nylon of her sleeping bag, socked feet up on the cold metal of the tire well. One of the windows was propped open and despite the wind she smelled something. Despite the pain medicine she had a sneaking suspicion she might have shit her pants. Also—oh Jesus—she was about to vomit again, which was its own manner of suffering what with the broken jaw.

She pulled herself onto hands and knees, began the long crawl to the back of the truck just as it came through her clenched teeth, stringy heartburn bile. On all fours, head hanging over the tailgate, eyes tearing, while a part of herself—maybe the realest self she had—began to wonder if this hadn’t been what she’d wanted all along.

That realest self asking if just maybe she had let herself get kicked on purpose?

The thought was on the verge of articulating itself when another spasm pushed through her and—Oh shit oh shit oh shit …

As if that had become her name.

And in a way, it had.

 

○ ○ ○

 

Her name before that, her real name, was Simona Kin, and until she lost that night in Vegas she was the girl who could not lose. 27 and 0 here in her 27th year, which felt magical until it didn’t. Not that she hadn’t suffered before. She’d been to the Olympics—a fuck up of colossal proportions, but had rebounded, recovered, spiraled but pulled out of said spiral to reinvent herself as a mixed martial artist. To become relatively famous and moderately rich.

Yet, mostly, she hated herself.

Still, hate or no hate, she had risen.

By twenty-five, she had endorsements with an energy drink and a manufacturer of headgear. By twenty-six, she had her own protein bar, had fought in nine countries, flown in a hot air balloon, and been wooed by a Serbian count obsessed with Systema. Yet it felt like nothing. It felt, in its way, like shit. She had a trainer and a manager and a boyfriend but she still felt alone. She had almost $600K in the bank but she still felt poor. By twenty-seven she knew she always would.

She’d grown up working-class poor in East Tennessee until her daddy stroked out one night sitting in the cab of his F-250 outside the gym he owned and operated in dying heart of Elizabethton, Tennessee, his central nervous system preloaded with enough Dianobol and cocaine to float him through twenty sets of heavy squats. Thereafter, her mother took her to Florida where they exchanged their working-class poverty for poverty of the unadulterated kind. The ketchup sandwiches and I-4 motorcourts. The good-hearted shoplifting at the Orange City K-Mart.

Her daddy was junkyard mean and wide as a table. He would strut his 6’3” 255 pound frame down East Elk from where it crossed the Doe River all the way past the pizza shop to Iron Mayhem, Walkman clipped to the running shorts into which he tucked a pressed wifebeater out of which flowed two giant hairless arms. Attached to the right one was an eight-year-old girl smacking her gum.

She loved him, her daddy.

He might have been a bastard—even at eight she understood this—but he was her bastard and she didn’t care. The world was like that back then. Then being in the days of Blockbuster Video and spray-on tans. Then around the time Bill Clinton was not having sexual relations with that woman.

More often than she wished, she thought of those days.

Her daddy’s side of the family were Scots-Irish, his own father part of the original SAS and said to have murdered Germans in North Africa with his bare hands. In France, he made a practice of defenestration—snipers, prisoners of war, rumored collaborators, it didn’t matter. Though eventually it did, and when charges quietly materialized they were just as quietly dropped when he demonstrated a willingness to immigrate to the United States.

Her mother was a Soviet Jew of spiritualist bent, then, later, a newly saved washed-in-the-blood Baptist turned Jehovah’s Witness refugee with a Seventh-day Adventist fetish currently studying A Course in Miracles and opening her chakras. Her parents, the nameless grandparents Simona would never meet, were refuseniks who had brought their young daughter to New York during Brezhnev’s thaw.

You lived a life to be rid of it—that was the moral of the story.

Still, Simona did the best she could.

She was a good child. Trusting and honest, if always moving. Bold. Sometimes too defiant her mother would think, though it was an authentic defiance, a curiosity. She was ingenuous, and people recognized such, people were drawn to her. Her kindergarten teacher such a kind heart, the woman giving out Kool-Aid and Big Sixty cookies at Vacation Bible School such a pure little thing. Children too. They played detective on the case of her father’s missing ring last seen in a change dish by the exhausted hand soap dispenser. Sang songs from Matilda because sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty. But mostly she went with her father to the gym and her mother to church or temple or circle or gathering. So it was all God and the hundred pound concrete sphere her father hauled over his shoulder before racing the length of mirrors. It was the Universal Intelligence and the pull-up bars she began first hanging and then swinging from until the local gymnastics teacher saw her and offered free tuition.

Her daddy’s world: Everyone in a circle, cheering on the rubberized flooring, while Big Pete attempted to deadlift twelve plates. On the walls a sign that read DON’T BE A LITTLE BITCH beneath a muscular woman in lime green Lycra.

Her mama’s: Everyone in a circle, kneeling on the carpet, jeans shiny at the knees. On the walls the Ten Commandants and a great cartoon rising, people pulled from a stadium into the clouds, Do not lay up your treasures on Earth, a hand-drawn Moses (white beard, bulbous eyes) parting the Red Sea as if the waters were a televangelist’s pompadour.

How she had wound up at the confluence of the Doe and Watauga Rivers was never made plain to Simona. What was clear was how it ended.

Her daddy in his truck, skin the color of pork, body slumped like a side of beef.

That was when they left. In the wake of her husband’s death, in wake of his abandonment (as she came to call it), in the wake of the disaster that was probate (there was no will, but there were back taxes and two outstanding liens against Iron Mayhem), after the yard sale and the drive south, the I-95 traffic barrels and construction mesh and thirty-nine-dollars-a-night no-tell motels, Sim’s mother experienced a sort of vision and who should stand before this once-perfectly American woman now reduced to widowhood and the ash of the once great Soviet state, but Jesus Himself, so blue-eyed and clear skinned he appeared to have emerged from swimming in a Norwegian fjord so recently he had yet to take up the sword or the flame or the serpents that surely laid in wait out back in the swamp of live oaks and retaining ponds behind their new stucco efficiency somewhere in the mire of Central Florida.

That was when her mother began to live on her knees. Every moment save those she wasn’t cleaning toilets or whisking the carpet at the Knight’s Inn on LPGA Boulevard or plating strawberry crepes at the IHOP she was at church, dopesick for some sort, any sort of love.

It was a pull that wasn’t lost on her daughter.

 

○ ○ ○

 

Kenny came back what time—eight, maybe. Nine if she was guessing.

He opened the back glass and instantly, despite the sleeping bag and blankets and Polar fleece, she was freezing. It was November and the sun was an area of light, white and heatless in the overcast sky. The wind gusting. He hadn’t seen fuck all. Plenty of sign but he’d been all morning in a stand on the edge of a field of red clover and there’d been nothing but a big tom turkey easing through the sedge like he owned the goddamn place which, he told her, he reckoned it did.

He mixed her another Met-Rx in the shaker cup even though she hadn’t finished the first.

There was dried vomit on her chin and on the collar of her North Face jacket, clotted blood on one cheek.

The hell, girl. You all right?

He was sipping a RockStar, he was going back. There was a blind about a half mile away and maybe he’d just give it another hour.

That all right, babe?

That was all right, sure, that was fine. Everything was fine because what else could she say? She nodded and for a moment he gently brushed the puff of her lower lip, purple and split, but then he looked like he might start crying again and she turned away, pulled the blankets back over her and he nodded, finished his RockStar, and was gone.

Nine, maybe ten o’clock in the morning now but it all felt so indeterminate.

Herself, she meant. About the others, she knew what they were saying. 10 to 1 odds which meant how much money had changed hands? Which meant how many pay-per-view subscribers in how many bars had stood there, drinks in hand, saying, Oh, shit. Bitch just got knocked the fuck out? A $900K purse which right about now—less the take for her agent and trainer and all the rest—was shifting into her account. They would be talking about that on sports radio (“I guess I’d let them break my jaw for that, Tom.”). On ESPN they would earnestly discuss her refusal to touch gloves (“It’s hard not to see this as her comeuppance.”). Every man everywhere—it would be all men, or mostly men—would be holding forth on whether or not that uppity bitch got what was coming.

She took her phone out, held it, but then put it away.

Her face hurt in a way that made her aware of its shape.

Which was a strange thing to be.

She lay back on the mattress and slept.

 

○ ○ ○

 

On the second day it occurred to her she had four more days to get through and then it occurred to her that probably she could, that probably she deserved it: the cold truck, the stinging face, the diarrhea in the freezing woods.

They had planned it different.

The trip was meant to be celebratory, a sort of carnal asceticism, just the two of them and a Yeti full of good food and good Jack Daniels. They’d done the same a year ago. She was coming off a big year, five fights, a string of endorsements. The first intimations of celebrity. Lunch at the Chateau Marmont. Her own line of t-shirts. They spent six days alone, laughing and drinking, hunting in the morning and then driving into town in the afternoon to loaf around, have an early dinner of ribeyes and Shiner on draft. Back to the truck where the sex was mind-boggling, some sort of ongoing wonderfuck, sometimes vigorous and exhausting. Sometimes slow and delicate, and sometimes—impossible as it seemed—both at once. They had been together over a year by then, properly together, and it felt right, it had begun to feel permanent. He had a Halon 32 compound bow and they both got a buck and rode into town with them tied to the front bumper, laughing and honking the horn. She put a shot on Instagram holding her deer tag like a prize, everybody’s sweetheart, the grinning girl-next-door with her blue ribbon like she’d just won the spelling bee.

At the end of the week, they drove over to San Antonio and spent Thanksgiving with his parents, all piled into the living room with their turkey and stuffing and the Cowboys on the TV the way God intended.

The next morning they had gotten up early, the house still sleeping, and ran together through the warm pre-dawn streets, sprinklers flashing, streetlights flickering out. Three miles that turned into four and then five and then something happened—it was hard not to think of it like some rom-com moment turned into a cheesy gif, but okay, whatever—but something happened and running along past a brake-and-tire place and then a McDonald’s and then the turn lane to the Costco, they made eye contact and tacitly agreed to just keep going, to keep running, but also—she felt later—to keep going in some larger way. They realized—she felt this later too—they were in love.

She had met Kenny at the MMA Masters Gym in Miami. He was a light-heavy and she was new in town, straight off the nineteen dollar GoTo bus from Orlando which was its own form of sad, but again, whatever. She’d been a judoka growing up in Daytona Beach, a dojo kid taking the dojo bus from school to practice where her mother would pick her up, check her homework, check her lunchbox. The vocabulary words and the sevens table. The apple the yogurt the whole wheat bread.

When she was eighteen she started at a gym in Daytona. Two hours of Jiu Jitsu and another hour of sparring after. Mats closed with duct tape and mopped with Clorox and still you got the ring worm, the burst capillaries where the skin pinched, the—what was the word?—the contusions.

The coach was a middle-aged guy named Rolly and Rolly had trouble taking her seriously. Woman, female, what the fuck was she doing in his fight gym? He put her to hitting twenty rounds on the heavy bag, a shits and giggles thing for the boys gassed after open mat. Then she went and did it. That night, next night, every night—twenty rounds. It was limitless, what she could endure. Broken fingers and floating ribs. The nail flipped off each big toe like the cap off a bottle. Burst capillaries appeared as red starbursts.

She was working three jobs. Bartending at Booth’s Bowery. Dressing like a pirate at the shrimp place near Ormond. Something else Rolly couldn’t remember. Putt-putt maybe, only it wasn’t putt-putt. Go-cart attendant at the place you got the coupons for? It didn’t matter. Twenty rounds and he wonders one night, when does she eat? Where does she eat? So he gets takeout from Golden Wok, orders extra everything. Thinks she’ll refuse and he can tell she’s going to, can tell, too, that she’s starving so he preemptively insists. This after twenty rounds after sparring after rolling after how many jobs behind her and how many jobs to go?

A year later she’s at the Olympic Training Center in Boulder.

United States National Judo Team.

There’s a word for that sort of rise if he could just remember it.

 

○ ○ ○

 

On the third day, they drove into town, or Kenny drove and she sat in the passenger seat with her still-swollen face pressed into her balled coat. She wanted just being out of the camper bed to feel like something but it didn’t. She wanted a few other basic things as well. She wanted to shower and they got a room at the Best Western off Highway 90. She wanted to shit on a toilet except, by now, there seemed nothing left to pass. The Lortab made her skin itch. Her jaw ached. She kept swallowing blood. She wanted Kenny to unwire her jaw and he sat on the corner of the bed staring at her, not quite believing.

Are you serious?

She made clear that she was and he had her sit on the lowered toilet seat in the overlit bathroom, head tipped back. There were horizontal arch bars, impressive spidery things, but only a single vertical wire connecting them. He unwound it slowly, meticulously, and then she sat there, rubbing her jaw but not yet sure if she should open it, or even how.

I don’t think you should, he started to say, but then she did, as wide as possible, and the pain, even through the Lortab, was like the greater part of her, like it was this corporeal thing to which her body was just another appendage. Her eyes watered. She thought she would vomit. She sat on the toilet seat with Kenny telling her to breathe through her nose, breathe through your nose, babe. Slow, slow.

She showered a second time and they drove to a bar on Getty where she drank a pitcher of Coors. The beer so cold and her body so empty that for the first time since before the fight she felt nothing, and it was such a welcome thing, this nothingness.

We could drive on to my parents, Kenny said.

Three of her teeth were loose, one of them a molar.

Hey, hun? You hear me?

She did, but she didn’t want to go to his parents. She didn’t want to go anywhere.

She was beginning to wonder again if she had let herself get kicked on purpose.

 

○ ○ ○

 

Kenny had come into her life a year after the Olympics, twelve full months after having flamed out in the Rio semi-finals, an inexplicable and unforgiveable fuck up that was no more and no less than having purely and simply choked. You see Bob Costas over there by the NBC cameras, hear the national anthem, finger the expensive tracksuits they let you keep and you realize it’s bigger than you, the expectations, the consequences.

You get dizzy and lose on points to an Israeli, weep in the locker room.

It’s not a joke.

She’d gone back to Daytona after that, back to her mama’s prayer, back to her own small dreams. Locked herself in the bedroom and gorged on hard candy. Her mama talked her out and whatever shit she carried against her mama she would always owe her for that. The prayers, the nagging, the anointed prayer cloth her mama brought home from church, a handkerchief sopped in olive oil she dropped across Simona’s sleeping face.

What the hell is this?

That’s the hand of the Lord, child. I ain’t gonna let you die on me like your daddy did.

Two weeks of cajoling and pleading and threatening and finally she puked Jolly Rancher and went online. Turns out the best fight gym in the eastern US was in Miami.

Her mama bought the ticket.

She met Kenny on her third day though he told her later he had noticed her on her first. Been watching you, girl. It hadn’t seemed so creepy at the time. Had my eye on you. The gym was full of pros and would-be pros and there was a family-vibe, cookouts and surfing and trips down to Largo where they all snorkeled off somebody’s boat. She thought it would take her a year to be ready to fight, but three months later she stepped into the ring. A warehouse up in Liberty City. Ten-dollar admission and five-dollar Bud Lights. She knocked out a big Seminole woman in something like fourteen seconds and for it took home two hundred bucks which was nothing but also very much something. By the end of her first year she was undefeated, seven fights, seven knockouts.

She started fighting thousand dollar undercards in Vegas. 10 and 0. 11 and 0. For a while she fought every Saturday night because when you can win in less than a minute why not? Training was harder. Rolling, sparring. The whisk-whisk of the jump rope. The battle ropes. The weight circuits. The burpees with head colds. Pull-ups with raw palms.

Kenny was still in Miami, but she was making enough to fly him out every other weekend. He wasn’t really fighting anymore, but neither of them seemed to notice. She went to 18 and 0 and got an endorsement deal with a third-rate energy drink and a spot on the undercard of a UFC event. She won with a sudden overhand right to the temple of a red-haired Oklahoman, a woman who looked built from the scraps of oil derricks, and went down like a felled tree.

By her second UFC card she was a name, she was somebody.

There’s a word for it.

That word is meteoric.

 

○ ○ ○

 

She didn’t want to go to his parents, but the next day that was exactly where they went. Spent the night in the Best Western wondering if her teeth would fall out and maybe she’d just choke to death on a molar and how would that be any worse, any more humiliating than what had already happened?

They’re worried about you. Kenny saying this, Kenny driving. Lots of folks are.

But lots of folks didn’t get it. It scared them. You weren’t well-rounded. You didn’t know when to quit. Enough was never enough—which was maybe why she’d let herself get kicked?

She thought of that on the barren ride to San Antonio.

She put her forehead against the glass.

Hey, Kenny was saying, hey, babe?

She didn’t mean on purpose like intentional, like, Yes, please kick me in the face. More like this subconscious wandering, this desire to know how fragile it really was. You survived the building of this world but could you survive the taking apart?

It was the thing you were holding, but it was also the thing holding you.

Was that ridiculous to think? Was that the Lortab talking?

Maybe it was just another form of pain management.

She watched the trees and the billboards and pasture giving way to tract houses.

Hey, hun? Kenny kept saying.

 

○ ○ ○

 

His parents gave her space. They’d seen the fight. His mother had cried. Two days, three days. I was just scared so bad, you laying there like that, not moving. Sim was cooling out on the Lortab, and there were moments of honest lucidity, or at least the possibility of such. Unwiring her jaw had been the right thing. It was still all Met-Rx and a Dairy Queen Blizzard but it felt like the right thing. On the fifth day after the fight she was supposed to visit a neurologist out near the Air Force Base, but blew it off. She was starting to think about going home. Not even Miami but Daytona. Getting back to training. Maybe getting back to training. Cardio, she guessed. The recumbent bike. In another week she could probably swim at the Y.

She’d been like this after the Olympics, but actually she had never been like this.

 

○ ○ ○

 

Thanksgiving came and it was a small house. A two-bedroom rancher with a garden gnome and busted stoop. Her phone had remained off, but Kenny’s wasn’t. Kenny was in touch, talking to her trainer, her agent, the press. She wondered who the fuck he thought he was, speaking for her. But she was grateful, too. At times she was wildly grateful.

We need to talk to the media, babe.

But she didn’t want to talk to the media.

This dude from Rolling Stone keeps texting. Then there’s this other motherfucker from FOX Sports.

She didn’t want to talk to anyone.

She lay on Kenny’s childhood bed beneath his poster of Troy Aikman, Roku remote balanced on her stomach.

I reckon y’all will be in a hurry to head back, his mother said that evening from her glider, now that the holiday’s passed.

What’s that, mama?

I said—

She thought of the way the roundhouse had seemed to appear, to materialize out of the noise and light. Like she never could have seen it. But also like she had seen it so long she had grown bored with it. When she first started fighting, she would sometimes take a single intentional blow. Something to clear her head, to make plain the stakes. But it wasn’t like that. Or maybe it was.

His mother was smoking Kools and watching Dancing with the Stars.

Y’all are probably getting restless, I reckon, she said. I know I would be.

 

○ ○ ○

It was a solid twenty hours back to Vegas.

Kenny was on the phone with the guy from Rolling Stone. The stitches in her tongue had dissolved. The paparazzi were long gone. Otherwise, they could have gotten a pic of her entering The Sands, the great purple slug of her lower lip, the crescent moon of bruise that mapped the left side of her face. They could have gotten Kenny on the phone with the guy from FOX Sports. She didn’t know what to think of it all, but suspected if she could get kicked just one more time she would. There would be sudden clarity. It would solve something. But she wasn’t going to get kicked again, not now and not ever. She was finished fighting.

There was a scene in the room, inevitable, but not as bad as she’d feared.

I can’t believe this bullshit. Kenny saying this. After all we’ve goddamn been through, to have come this far.

Kenny irate, screaming, but then recalibrating: Kenny all conciliatory.

Look, I get it, babe. Take some time off, collect yourself. You relax, get your shit together, come back when you’re ready.

But there would be no coming back. There would be no ready.

Her mama picked her up at Orlando International and they said mostly nothing. Take-out from the Pollo Tropical off I-4. Her old room, her old dreams, all of it sitting on plastic Judo trophies like dust. She tried to eat the chicken but couldn’t. She did manage to gum the rice, her teeth a little more stable, a little more secure.

She considered this.

She looked for signs.

She thought about going to see her old coach Rolly but then didn’t.

She turned her phone back on, but there was nothing from Kenny or anyone else. It made her a little sad. A little angry too, though she knew it was a matter of giving her space, as Kenny had put it. That was fine. It all felt behind her. It felt over. It felt—

The word was meteoric.

Rapid, dazzling, swift.

 

○ ○ ○

 

Christmas came and somehow she got herself interested in Dilaudid, found herself dabbling in it, though it wasn’t really something to dabble in. It was, in fact, a gratuitous fucker of a drug, almost like it was personal, almost like it was the part of her she’d spent her life going without, the missing piece that would see her dead. The same thing her daddy had been chasing out in his pickup with his roids and his blow. This was intriguing, this theory, and back there in her childhood bedroom she told herself her interest was philosophical, though in truth she had simply run out of Lortab and Dilaudid was easier to come by.

Whatever it was, it got her out of the house.

In February, she went to South Beach. She met a guy named Logan and they wound up buying benzodiazepines at a Lincoln Drive teahouse from a green-haired girl and her shaved-head boyfriend, swallowed two pills each with their verbena, and walked back to the hotel. She didn’t want to touch him but then, when she finally did, realized it was exactly what she wanted. Human warmth, the tensile friction of his hands beneath her clothes. His slim body howling above the fork of her legs. She woke sometime later to the dim awareness of someone else in the room, some flare of confusion that steadied into recognition. Logan was in the corner with the green-haired girl and the man from the teahouse, shooting up.

When she woke again he was crying, both hands wrapped around his lower leg.

“I don’t love you,” he said.

There was no one else in the room.

“What happened to your leg?”

“I don’t love you. I don’t love him.”

He had heated a coat hanger and burned a three-inch curve into the meat of his right calf.

“Let me see.”

“I don’t love anyone, you bitch.”

The flesh was white and puffy and hot to the touch.

He put his face in his hands and wept.

“It’s supposed to be an S,” he said.

“Christ.”

“For Simona, for you.”

She was disgusted with herself. Stupid, stupid, stupid. It was all, for lack of a better word, stupid. The small joys, the pleasures—all unfathomably stupid. She found a tube of expired antibacterial cream and wrapped the whole thing in a Maxi-pad, regular
absorbency.

A week later she bought ten 2 mg Klonopins and something happened to them. She took them, she supposed, over the course of some number of days, though after the fact had no direct memory. Just the smell of her unwashed body, the whatever that had
dried in her hair.

Her phone had died.

Someone had left the refrigerator door open.

Her mama prayed for her daily.

Kenny texted occasionally.

She was becoming narrow.

She was losing herself. This much was clear. But wasn’t losing herself maybe the point?

 

○ ○ ○

 

It was March when she started swimming at an outdoor pool in Oak Hill. The air too cold but that just meant she had the water to herself. A campground on the edge of Mosquito Lagoon, the St. John’s River marking the rear of the property. The pool itself
was shaped like the state of Florida, shaped like a gun. Which meant she followed the curve of the Gulf to get her twenty-five meters, and then a quick flip-kick, and she was headed south again. Pensacola to Tallahassee to Tampa to Miami to the Keys. A mile, two miles. She’d quit taking anything when she realized she couldn’t disappear into it, her nascent habit simply altering her context so that she was a different version of herself, but still very much herself.

Instead, she swam, her muscle elongating, leaning out.

After, she would stand by the giant ice cooler—ten-pound bags for two bucks—towel over her shoulders, and shiver. Around her RVs and their Rust Belt retirees. Brown sawgrass in hummocks. Time was passing, life organizing itself in disappearing increments.

Kenny had started leaving voicemails.

She didn’t know what she was doing.

Only that she’d turn twenty-eight in a few weeks.

Only that her teeth felt stable.

She listened to the voicemails at night, shoulders trembling from her laps.

The messages kept arriving, signals from another planet.

Are you out there?

Hey, hun, he would say. Hun, are you out there?

She liked the way he seemed to be addressing someone she couldn’t quite remember. There were days, standing in front of the mirror she’d tacked to the wall, she hardly recognized herself.

 

○ ○ ○

 

A man arrived, a doctor who had done time in the penitentiary upstate. Seven years for buying 100 Oxys from a narc outside the Hungry Howie’s in DeLand. He sat shirtless in a chaise longue and watched her swim. Drank Mountain Dews. Told her she
needed to eat.

“Look at you,” he’d say. “How skinny you’re getting.”

And it was true, how skinny she was getting. Narrow, lean. Girl, you turn sideways and you disappear. But that, maybe, had become the point. How far could she swim? If she were an eel, she meant. That thin. Thin enough to disappear through the cracks. The night Kenny had unwired her jaw she had realized that her body, this body, was just an appendage, something that hung on her, weighed her with sorrow, and if she could do without it she could … She realized that was what Logan had been doing with his heated coat hanger and heroin rig. She realized it was what she had been doing all along. The way she had waited for that roundhouse. Knowing it was coming and then letting it come all the same.

You live a life to be rid of it.

Stupid, sure, but what was she supposed to do with her stupid?

Eat it?

Ignore it?

Live with it—that was what you could do.

She went with the doctor back to his trailer only a few times, three or four, she counted. But why count? she wondered. One day he said, “Holy shit. You’re the girl that got knocked out. I didn’t realize that.” Only it wasn’t true, or was no longer true, whatever difference that made. Hey, Sim, he called, you hear me? She did and didn’t. She made her flip turn. She had found something in the water, moving along with the current, and when it crawled from the pool she followed it down to the banks of the St. Johns. The next day she began to swim in the river behind the RV park. The largest north-flowing river in the Northern Hemisphere, and she fl owed with it, every day farther north. Day after day after day. And then one day she found herself passing beneath the bridges of Jacksonville out of the mouth of the river and into the Atlantic. It was a glorious thing—her entire life was down here and how had she not known? Along the seafloor she found her old Judo trophies. She swam through her old room at the Sands, past Kenny’s mother on the couch. Her own mother in prayer. Her father smiling at her before dropping into another set of squats.

She swam a thousand miles, let the current carry her. Folks didn’t get it. The kind of focus, the kind of single-mindedness that was necessary to do anything important. You staked everything on it. People like to admire perseverance but not really. Perseverance, the real unadulterated thing, scared people. You weren’t well-rounded. You didn’t know when to quit. Enough was never enough. But it was different out here. Everything was diff erent.

She was so narrow now, out among the fi sh and tortoises, the giant container ships on the horizon. She realized she could keep going and one day began to follow a family of eels. They told her of the darker places, the places without light, introduced her to the beaked whales diving to seven thousand feet. They could take her with them if she wanted. She could go with them forever, and why shouldn’t she? Her teeth were stable. Her body was lean. She could just keep going.

She made her flip turn, put her face beneath the water.

Wasn’t that the reason she had allowed herself to get kicked in the first place, so she could just keep going?

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Mark Powell is the author of five novels, most recently SMALL TREASONS from Gallery/Simon and Schuster. His novel Firebird will be published in 2020. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Breadloaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and in 2014, he was a Fulbright fellow to Slovakia. He lives in the mountains of North Carolina where he directs the Creative Writing program at Appalachian State University.

 

Two Poems

Jake Skeets

Red Running Into Water

 

tsi’naajinii nishłí
pronounce the ł as water whistling through shadow
               on black bark
the í as boy wearing only yucca
               lake colored

tábąąhá báshíshchíín
the í is now mouth of narrow stream
               inside a pink mobile home with white skirting
the ą sounds like pulling hair
               from the throat
shaped like the á

táchii’nii dashícheii
the á now a head busted open
               red running into water
the í is the boy now naked
               red running into water

tódik’ǫzhí dashinálí
boy has the ó for mouth
               washed with memory of salt water
pronounce this á as rain cloud
               belly up
the í still the boy floating on the lake
               except it is a field
his mouth left ǫ

Drift(er)

 

                    after “Benson James, drifter. Route 66, Gallup, NM 1979” by Richard Avedon

 

Drift

to drift is to be carried by current of air or water

                                        but men are not the teeth

of their verbs

they pry nouns open with a belt buckle

to take a sip

Drifter

a drifter carried by a current of air or water

                                                                                         makes his way from one place to another

see vagabond, see transient, see

drunk

see a man with shoulder-length hair

dollar bills fisted standing before a white screen

see his lips how still

how horizon

how sunset

a train

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

passing through

 

I try to hug him

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

through the spine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

left on the white space

                    his face becomes a mirror

if I stare long enough

                                         my face

charcoaled

                    pursed squinting

at the camera

 

train horn

                    punch shatters

the mirror

 

                                         frees him from the page

my uncle leaps from the

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

 

Jake Skeets is Black Streak Wood, born for Water’s Edge. He is Diné from the Navajo Nation and holds an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts. His work has appeared in Boston Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere. He is a winner of the 2018 Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. His first collection, EYES BOTTLE DARK WITH A MOUTHFUL OF FLOWERS, won the 2018 National Poetry Series and was published by Milkweed in 2019.

Repeating Island

Yan Fécu

“I’m not supposed to talk to you anymore,” Maile said. “Not like this.”

She and Tav sat on a sequestered patch of black sand beach. They were far enough away from town that its lights glittered like some forgotten constellation.

You can’t ignore me, he said without speaking. Who else would put up with you?

She made a face at him. “My mother says it’s the law.”

But it doesn’t make sense.

“Laws don’t make sense.” She fingered the hem of her scarlet tunic. “They make people.”

Tav kept his gaze trained on the horizon, where one ever-changing blueness touched another. So, I’m just supposed to pretend you can’t hear me?

She forced a small laugh. “Are you hurt? How sweet.”

He used his right hand to sign a single word: go.

Maile paused, still too clumsy when it came to thinking in sign. He never teased her for her slowness, but in that moment she wished he would. She edged closer to him.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “We’ll still see each other, but it won’t be easy. They don’t want us … acting familiar, my mother called it,” she finished with a roll of her eyes.

On the surface, there wasn’t much of a difference between them. Her skin was a bit darker; his hair was a bit curlier. But her people were masters, and his were slaves.

 

Not far from where they huddled on a gray linen blanket, two sea turtles ambled towards the tide. Foam washed up closer and closer to the four of them, leaving thin, silvery threads as it drew back towards its source. Maile thought about that morning.

The house had been quiet. Her father wouldn’t be returning until evening. Officially, he was away on business. Unofficially, he was visiting his other family. The children were all illegitimate, all slaves through their mother’s bloodline. They couldn’t inherit or lay claim to anything he owned. Maile thought it was right that he provided for them. Tav’s own father was some rich planter he had never met. He rarely spoke of it, but the man’s absence tore at the edges of him.

That morning Maile had found her mother sitting at a large silkwood desk, sifting through financial accounts.

“There’s no need for conversation,” she had said. “Just orders. And if it’s important, go to Kamda.”

Kamda had raised Maile alongside three of her own children. She looked indistinguishable from her mother, with brown skin and coppery hair braided around her head like a crown. A couple had sold her to the Suranse household soon after she reached puberty.

Maile hadn’t replied, only sighed.

“I know you and Tav have always been close.” Long pauses like this one were rare. They meant that her mother was making an effort. “But you’re older now. There can’t be any confusion. The law will never punish you, my sweet girl. But it will punish him. Believe me.”

And Maile did.

 

Fifteen.

Maile looked at Tav expectantly.

That’s the magic number, he continued. And now we pretend we weren’t raised under the same roof.

“We pretend with them. Not with each other.”

He let out a slow exhale. Maybe it’s time. Maybe we need to find a way to stop this. If every master could hear what we thought, they’d skin us alive.

“No.” The word came out strangled. She swallowed and tried again. “Please. This is different. I like hearing you and …” She stopped. “It’s like how the waves are always there, too. Anywhere you go on the island. If you stopped the sound it would feel wrong. You’re like that. Do you understand?”

Tav didn’t react immediately. Maile felt more words scrambling up her throat, but she waited. After a moment he reached into one of his tunic’s large pockets and pulled out a small, cardboard box. It had been neatly taped shut, though the tape itself was smudged with dirt.

Happy birthday.

She smiled. She held the box up to her ear and gave it a shake. The sound was hard to pinpoint but reminded her of clinking coins. Her smile grew bigger. She scratched off the layers of tape and removed the lid. Sunlight caught on the miniature scrap heap assembled before her. It was a collection of metal parts—iron, copper, pewter—that Maile could put to good use. Much to her father’s chagrin, she spent much of her free time dismantling machines in a makeshift workshop set up in one of their guest rooms.

“How did you get a hold of all this?” she asked.

A little bit at a time. Started last year, I guess. Saw a bit of clockwork I knew you’d love.

She looped her arm around his and briefly let her head rest on his shoulder. “Thanks, Tav.”

I almost got you something pretty. Flowers. A necklace. One of those art books.

“I’ve never seen anything prettier,” she said.

Sitting back, she reached for her rucksack and rummaged through a pile of papers until she reached the bottom. There, tucked beneath her school supplies, was a thin, rectangular package. She offered it to him with a satisfied grin.

He gently tore open the delicate, green wrapping paper. The tin container contained fifteen colored pencils. Their hues—crimson, cobalt, jade, violet—were so rich he imagined he could transform every grain of black sand overnight. He threw his arms around her.

When they had put away their presents, Maile drew her legs up to her chest and hooked an arm around her knees. “Do you ever think it’ll erupt again someday?” she asked.

Tav’s eyes flicked up and away, toward the smoke-colored mountain. It’s been two hundred years.

Even when his voice was lodged in her head, she couldn’t always read the tone. “I hope it does,” she said.

He peered at her with furrowed brows.

She repeated herself by signing, her thin fingers touching each other and touching air.

Everything would be destroyed.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s what it takes to start a new world.”

He peered at her, as if she were a third moon that had suddenly appeared in the night sky. Then, without breaking eye contact, he unhooked the leather and gold embossed collar he wore. Placed on the ground like that, it seemed smaller, duller. He dug out two fistfuls of coal-black sand and buried the only piece of gold he would ever possess.

She had never seen him without the collar before. His neck was long and paler brown where his skin had been shielded from the sun.

That’s what it takeshe mouthed back.

 

Maile rinsed Tav’s collar in the sea, and he wiped off the residual salt with the linen sheet folded under his arm. As they walked back toward the town, they passed the small, iridescent pools that only bloomed at low tide. All kinds of brightnesses filled them: brittle starfish radiating and regenerating outward; sea anemones fluttering their many limbs; and barnacles clinging to every surface.

Maile felt her chest tighten with every step.

This was what the world was like. Tiny tide pools, teeming with every type of life, appearing and disappearing overnight.

How did you get a thing to stay?

Tav stopped beside one of the pools and crouched. I’ll stop here for a while. You should get back first.

She nodded. Every so often she would glance over her shoulder and see him by the pool, growing smaller. She kept looking back until his body melted into the sand and sea.

 

○ ○ ○

 

Maile knew what it was like to realize she was dreaming in the middle of a dream. On occasion, she had been able to use her newfound awareness to shape the dream. Her mind was a blunt instrument in these situations. She could never do anything with precision, but she could conjure simple desires: massive banquet tables piled high with her favorite foods; a large bed with silk sheets that rubbed against every bit of exposed skin; and safe, quiet corners where no one could find her. Best of all was the ability to fly so high that the whole island became little more than a splinter of wood.

This dream wasn’t like the others. It was as if she had become suddenly conscious of the fact that she was part of someone else’s dream. Her own life, her needs and wants, didn’t exist outside of a stranger’s imagination. If that stranger awoke, she would vanish with the first flicker of an eyelid. That morning, her body felt thinned out, like watered-down paint. She had woken up on the floor. Her wrists and ankles, the hollow at the base of her throat and the small of her back, they all seemed to pulse with a second heartbeat. A second life. But she had no time to think about what might have happened or why. It was already light out, which meant she had somehow overslept. She washed her face at a dusty basin and dressed quickly, all the while expecting someone to rush in and punish her. No one came. She slipped on her collar and hurried to the main house. As she cleared the breakfast dishes and set about sweeping, no one remarked on her lateness.

The sun showed no mercy out in the fields. The canecutters felt its rays on their exposed backs like long fingernails, scraping and scorching. The laborers were mostly men, but a few women worked alongside them. Maile was grateful she didn’t have to. Still, whenever she had a free moment, she carried well water out to them. The overseer, who the slaves called just in comparison to other bosses, didn’t stop her.

The grand farmhouse where Maile worked had been in the Calypse family for at least a century. It was two stories high, with a wide veranda, and six stately columns. There was a cellar that remained cool despite the heat, and there they stored alcohol, smoked meats, and root vegetables. There were one-room log cabins adjacent to the main house, where she and several others lived, as well as more slave quarters scattered around the edge of the plantation. Most of the 800 acres were dedicated to harvesting sugar.

On her way through a covered walkway, Maile saw men in tattered, wide-brimmed straw hat hauling bags of feed for the animals. When she entered the cookhouse, Nerjuli was elbow deep in freshly caught fish. Fresh lemon juice razored through their briny scent. A large vat of boiling plantains set the whole place steaming. The woman nodded her head towards the pantry, her private domain, where Maile could fetch extra sugar for the mistress’s tea.

She poured a small amount into a shallow dish and returned the canister to its proper place. The shelves were stacked full with dried beans, rice, cornmeal, flour, salt, nuts, vinegars, jams, and all manner of hot peppers. Higher up she glimpsed more luxurious items stowed away: rare spices and roasted seeds and cured bird eggs. She swallowed and felt the gold and leather collar heavy against her neck. After a moment, she backed out of the pantry. She shut the door and, when Nerjuli caught her eye, signed her thanks. The cook nodded and returned her full attention to the slippery, scaly creatures that, sensing any weakness in their executioner, would have flung themselves back into the sea.

Maile rushed to the main house, conscious of time. The kitchen was a separate building; humidity would have made cooking in the mansion itself unbearable. She gripped the dish of sugar and ran up to the second floor.

“You.”

Only Salmir refused to call her by her name. He was their wealthiest neighbor, and the Calypses invited him and his family over regularly. The couple often asked him to check on the house when they traveled. Salmir waved for Maile to move closer. She took two steps forward. He looked down to see what she carried in the dish. Smiling, he licked the same finger, pressed it against the sheening whiteness, and licked it again.

Maile kept her sight focused on a spot over his right shoulder.

“I imagine running back and forth like this, you must be tempted to do the same every now and again,” he said.

She hesitated. Nodding yes meant admitting to theft. Shaking her head to say no meant implying she was more honest than he was. Never mind that the truth was she had no sweet tooth.

She chose instead to lower her gaze and give a shy smile. As she imagined, he read her ambiguous reaction in the way that pleased him most. Lifting her chin with a finger, he asked, “How do you like working here? I’ve been thinking of taking you off their hands.”

Maile blinked several times, keeping her face passive.

He sighed. “I forget that yes and no questions are best for your kind. Perhaps you’ll teach me some of that crude sign language.”

She gave a non-commital nod.

A flutter of impatience. “Well, then,” he said. “Carry on.”

She gave a deep bow before darting away. As she turned a corner, she caught sight of a scarlet streak and turned just quickly enough to avoid a head-on collision. Tav’s startled expression faded, and Maile kept her head lowered, making all the signs of apology that she could with her one free hand. He dismissed her gestures with a strident one of his own. When she realized the corridor was empty except for the two of them, she sized him up. Then she pushed him aside.

Always in my way! She couldn’t keep from smiling. Don’t you know who I work for?

“Of course,” he said, glancing at the ornate double doors down the hall. “Tell her I take full responsibility for the delay.”

Maile scrunched her nose. Tell her yourself.

Neither one of them moved.

“How are you?” he whispered.

Des-ni, ni-lim. Burning but alive. A common saying among masters and slaves alike.

He opened his mouth to ask another question then closed it. They turned their heads to listen. When the sound of footsteps had faded, he signed as a precaution: see you tonight?

She nodded and, without the bow expected of her, hurried away. Maile was very careful around the Calypses, but she wasn’t afraid. Her master was rarely home. Her mistress—Tav’s aunt—was just as unlikely to rise from her chaise lounge as one of its cushions. She was a slim, dark trinket of a woman, constantly plagued by fatigue. She would have been beautiful were her facial expression not so vacant.

Maile was thinking of the tea and whether it would be too cold for the sugar to dissolve. But then she remembered: everyone knew the mistress’s tea was really straight liquor. Deathface gin sprinkled with dried tea leaves for show.

As she spooned and stirred sugar into a dainty blue cup, she thought of Tav and his signing. His gestures were stiff but elegant. She knew he practiced often with Nerjuli’s youngest son; he wanted to talk to her in all the ways he could, he said.

Maile wanted the same. But she hadn’t built up the courage to ask him for what she now dreamt of daily: learning how to write. They would meet just before dusk as they did on every shared birthday. This time she would ask him. If she didn’t start learning now, at sixteen, she never would.

Instead of meeting on the beach in the open as they tended to do, Maile and Tav met in a grotto. The sun was beginning its slow descent. Around them the walls seemed to iridesce. Near the entrance ferns and flowers trickled out of every crevice. Deeper inside the cave, only moss flourished in the dim light. Pale stone walls sheltered them on three sides but couldn’t mute the sea. Sitting across from each other, they felt the waves resound all around them, like a bell or a mouth.

Tav held out a thin, circular package tied with a plum-colored ribbon. “Happy birthday,” he said.

Maile tugged one end of the bow to unmake it and removed the lid. Against the box’s deep purple interior lay rows of chocolate shards. They glittered with decorations—shredded coconut, swirls of pink salt, delicate gold leaf filigree.

When she didn’t reach for one right away, he said, “They’re not sweet. I promise.”

She gave him a wide smile. She lifted a single specimen dusted with fresh lime zest and took a bite. It snapped perfectly between her teeth. The cacao had a bitter, charred taste; an unexpected burst of moonpepper prickled her tongue as the chocolate dissolved. Tav laughed at her, and she knew her face must’ve looked absurd. She didn’t care.

She nudged the box towards him. Have some.

When she had eaten four more pieces, she made herself pause.

It was hard. She rubbed her fingers against a patch of moss. Figuring out what I could give you that you didn’t already have.

He cleared his throat. “You didn’t have to get me anything.”

I know. The pleasure of my company is its own gift.

He conceded this with a grin.

Still. She had a rucksack with her, and from it she pulled out a stack of paper bound tightly along the righthand side with twine. The cover was gray cotton stretched over a thin slice of wood. I made you a book.

Tav’s eyes widened. He took it from her and opened it.

It doesn’t have words or anything. She felt her face starting to burn. But it has pictures. From other books and postcards and old photographs. All kinds of things people have lost. There are diagrams, too. I did those. Of different machines. Some real, some imaginary.

She swallowed. He flipped through the patchwork pages with a focus she had only seen when he was drawing. When he reached the last page, he left the book open and gently placed it to the side.

I know a book’s meant to have words. Even though all this was being said in her head, she felt her throat constrict. So, I was thinking that maybe, if you have time, you might be able to teach me some things. Things to spell. And after, I could fix the book.

“It doesn’t need fixing,” he said. “And I’ll teach you everything I know.”

She drew in a deep breath. Thank you.

He took her hand and squeezed. Then he slid the book back into his lap. “The images don’t seem random. There’s a story here, isn’t there?”

Surprised, she nodded.

“Will you tell it to me?”

She moved to sit beside him and placed half of the book onto her own lap. It begins with a woman who can hear stones singing and another woman made of pearl.

Partway through, Tav had leaned back against a wall to listen without looking. He balled up his own rucksack to use as a pillow.

When Maile reached the end of the story, she tilted her head. Are you having a happy birthday?

“The happiest,” he murmured.

She reached for the plum-colored box and, after careful consideration, chose a ginger-laced slice that made her lips pucker. I had the strangest dream on my last birthday. She licked a smear of chocolate off her finger. Did I ever tell you?

Tav didn’t answer.

She watched his sleeping form. It was similar to his waking self except for a curious lack—of worry or fear or anger, she wasn’t sure. She rested her arms on her knees and her head on her arms. She would wake him in a little while. Their families would be expecting them. Soon, but not yet.

 

○ ○ ○

 

We’ll be switching soon.

It was late. Two moons swam in the sky and gave off just enough light to make out Tav’s face. Maile barely recognized the voice in her head. It was tight and gutteral, as though he were in pain. Damp, black sand stippled their tunics. She had forgotten to bring a blanket.

“It’s getting worse,” she said.

You mean harder to remember. 

Her eyes scanned the sky as though answers might be found there. “But why?”

The morning after her seventeeth birthday, Maile knew she hadn’t been dreaming. She, along with four other house slaves, had gone to sleep on thick mats of woven rush grass on a dirt floor. Seven hours later she had woken up, alone, in a large, canopy bed with a lace-edged sheet pulled up to her waist. Before she could puzzle anything out, someone had knocked on the door and asked, “Miss Suranse, may I bring in breakfast?”

In her mind two worlds lay on top of each other like layers of silk. There were two sets of street names, two sets of religious rituals, two sets of monuments to one great revolutionary leader.

There’s only one of me. And only one of you. Tav’s lips didn’t move.

“That doesn’t matter,” she said.

It does. One of me. One of you. 

She leaned against him and closed her eyes. She heard his heart pulsing through bone and velvety skin. She heard streams of air spill in and out as he breathed. Beneath all that, she heard the waves gnashing like teeth. She opened her eyes. “The sea,” she said.

What about it?

“It doesn’t change.”

He raised an eyebrow. The sea is always changing. That’s what makes it the sea.

“But its name doesn’t change, I mean. Kassouine. That’s not a word in my language or in yours.” Maile paused, thinking. “In both versions of our world, we revolted against the colonizers and chased them out. But then what happened? We fought each other, enslaved each other, same as they did to us.”

He nodded slowly. It’s like they never left.

She sat up. “What if you’re right?”

What do you mean?

“What if they’re still here? What if they still control us?”

Tav’s jaw clenched. He shook his head in disbelief. If they could do that—make a whole civilization forget themselves—they’d be gods.

“I don’t know about that,” she said. “Sounds too human to me.”

Well, whatever’s happening, we’re the only ones who see it.

“I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” she whispered. “Everyone around us … They know who I am, but they don’t.”

He didn’t know what to think.

“Tell me again,” she said.

Tell you what?

She took his hand.

One of me. One of you.

 

○ ○ ○

 

It will end. They don’t know it, but I do. Today’s master is tomorrow’s slave.

Salmir couldn’t hear Maile, but he could see her. Something about her sealed-tight expression unnerved him.

“You weren’t cheap,” he said, unable to hide his self-satisfaction. “But nothing worth having is. You’re here, and you’re mine.”

She didn’t flinch. For now.

He blinked. It was as though he had heard her. The slap took them both by surprise.

She stumbled backward. She felt heat rising in her face.

For a moment he considered her.

Maile realized he was waiting—checking for signs of resistance, inaudible or otherwise. She stood dumbly and turned herself into a thing.

His limbs loosened with relief. He moved to the bed that took up much of the floorspace in the small room. He yanked at the tight tucks until the gauzy white blanket trailed on the floor. “More inviting,” he said, turning to face her again. “Did you think I bought you for myself?”

She stared.

His face twitched; he seemed amused. A timid knock broke the silence. “Come,” he said.

A boy, no more than a year or two younger than Maile, shuffled in. He was a replica of his father in build only. Like a rabbit, he had only two instincts: to freeze or to bound away. When he spoke, she could barely make out a word. After a moment, Salmir returned his attention to his merchandise.

“My son doesn’t like girls,” he said calmly. “That wouldn’t be a problem, except he doesn’t like boys either.”

Maile’s face crumpled with confusion.

“He’ll inherit all that I have some day,” Salmir continued. “But no one will work with a man they can’t trust. And no one will trust a man who refuses to choose a side. So, I’ve chosen it for him.”

He turned to his son and gripped his shoulders. “Try to enjoy yourself. I’ll be back soon.” Salmir smiled as he said this, but the boy could not meet his gaze.

When the door closed behind him, Maile backed away. She held up her hands in a silent plea.

“He’ll know if I don’t,” the boy said. He tightened his fingers into fists to stop them from shaking. “I don’t have a choice.”

She realized that her father, who visited his other family and sent the other woman money every month, had been the same kind of man as Salmir. The same kind of terror.

No slave could choose a master. You couldn’t say yes to anything if saying no meant nothing at all.

 

Maile walked to the black sand beach in a daze.

“What happened?” Tav had arrived before her.

When she looked at him, she couldn’t make sense of his face. It seemed familiar but out of place. She also couldn’t keep still. She paced and pulled at her hair and scratched at her forearms. Her breathing grew erratic. There was too much air one second and too little the next. She felt tears beginning to gather, and she crushed her palms against her eyes.

He moved to touch her then stopped. His arms hung by his side. “Maile, please. What’s wrong? What happened?”

She stared at him, her eyes wet and unblinking. Then she opened her mouth and let out a low, rasping moan. It rose from deep inside her and sent him scattering.

He listened to her voice echoing in his head, but language was no longer part of it.

She wasn’t speaking to him, but she also wasn’t shutting him out. She was feeling too many species of pain at once. He put a tentative hand on her shoulder before embracing her. He held her until her throat swelled shut. Finally, exhausted, she let her body collapse against his. Supporting her weight, he gently sat her down. He left an arm around her waist to keep her upright. She swayed with the inhale and exhale of the tide.

She couldn’t tell him what happened—not straight out. He slowly plucked fragments of thought from the memories that flooded in and out of her.

“I’ll kill them both.” Tav’s voice was fl at.

You won’t.

“You want to show Salmir mercy?”

No. She was the quietest she had ever been in his head. I want to keep you safe.

For the first time, he found himself closing his mind to her voice. He hadn’t known it was possible, but it happened with little effort. He could still hear her, but there were a series of doors between them now, dampening the sound.

Sensing the distance, she turned to study him. Her face remained impassive.

“I know how you feel,” he said.

She stopped swaying. How could you possibly know?

“I wish I didn’t.”

The anger drained out of her. Who—she stopped.

“My aunt.”

The woman who drank herself adrift every other day. The woman who did not notice, did not have to notice the dozens of slaves under her watch who moved and kept her life moving like gears made of flesh. The woman who Maile fetched sugar for.

She felt Tav brace himself, but for what? Her disgust? Her rage? The sand beneath them, creased into the lines of her hands and feet, suddenly felt like sugary beads. She drew closer to him. If we can’t stop what’s happening to us, maybe we can escape it.

“And go where?”

Anywhere we want. The sea doesn’t change. If we get off the island, things will be different. I know it.

Tav considered this. “Would you really leave everything behind?”

Every year for the last three years I’ve had to leave everything behind. Everything except you.

He sat back on his heels and touched the sand with his index fi nger. He began to draw. “We can go before we switch back.”

Gives us just under a week.

“I can gather supplies. Food, water, clothing. No one will say anything.”

What can I do?

“I’ll give you gold. You can go down to the docks and buy passage for two on a ship leaving for the northern coast. Confirm with the seller that it’s under my name.”

She bit her lip. That’ll be an easy trail to follow.

“That’s the idea. We’ll buy the tickets, but we won’t be getting on the boat.”

Okay. She gave a sigh of relief. And we won’t need two tickets. Just one.

“But what about you?”

I’d be traveling as your personal property. They just pile us up in the cargo hold.

He rubbed his neck as though it were sore. “Right,” he said. “I forgot. I’m sorry.”

Don’t be. You’ve seen the other side for yourself.

“There’s one more thing.” He hesitated. “If we leave now, you won’t have your voice. Do you want to wait?”

Next year they would be turning eighteen. Maile glanced down at what he had sketched in the sand. It was a simple outline of their island, with a river running through its middle and a long tongue of land extending eastward. She looked towards the sea and back to the drawing. Around it the black sand beach extended in every direction. She had to believe this is what the world was like: not tiny, evanescent tide pools but an endless unfolding.

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Yan Fécu is a Haitian-American scholar and writer. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University and held a pre-doctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. She was a fellow at the VONA/Voices of Our Nations Arts writing residency in 2017. She is currently an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

 

Excerpt from Postpartum Confinement/
産褥の記 の書き抜き

Akiko Yosano, 
translated from Japanese by Marissa Skeels

Excerpt from Postpartum Confinement

Akiko Yosano, translated from Japanese by Marissa Skeels

 

A nurse waits in the prep-room next door. There is a small cooking stove in there, tea ware and hand towels, and a supply closet. It seems the sort of place where tableware gets boxed up. Clattering of its iron kettle boiling, squeaks of faucets being twisted now and then by doctors and nurses scrubbing up in the long basin in the corridor, murmuring of distant nurses, and alarm clocks summoning them—these are all the sounds there are. I always wanted to live in a quiet house. Now I cannot stand this monotony.

 

○ ○ ○

 

Every time I give birth, I tend to write starting five days afterward, but this time my condition was such that I must stay in hospital, severely fatigued. My heart is bad, too, and I’m mildly feverish, so I haven’t thought to take up a pen, but many thoughts arise as I lie here in this silence. Even meditating to achieve some tranquillity is contrarily painful, and the thoughts that well up must run their course. Among them, only two stories have come. One has come to me twenty times, and isn’t yet finished. I recite them, trying to not forget them, and when the nurse is away I give only the poems I’ve written in pencil to my husband to send to journals and papers with which I have deadlines. I’d like at the very least to be able to read the journals beside me, but the nurse strictly enforces the doctor’s prohibitions, so all I avail myself of are women’s magazines and the Mitsukoshi Times photobook. It’s to a patient’s advantage to keep a strong-willed nurse onside.

 

From before giving birth to afterward, I didn’t sleep a moment for seven or eight days. Two nights before it, I felt an object shaped like an airplane that stretched from my stomach to my chest whenever I lay down, and breathing was so painful it felt like I was suffocating, so I sat perfectly straight, waiting for a crack in my groaning, for a sliver of light. Since its third month, this pregnancy, with this set of twins, involved pain on a different scale to my other pregnancies. Dr. Morimune would say the child in the higher position was in a bad spot. To me, they felt like an airplane-shaped object. My kidneys became inflamed, and edema spread throughout my body. Day by day the pressure increased, affecting my breathing until I couldn’t sleep. I readied myself to be killed this time by the airplane, and was sent to Dr. Sasaki’s hospital.

 

○ ○ ○

 

In a car I won’t live to return in, I come through the hospital gates as if entering my place of execution.

That was the feeling I had.

 

○ ○ ○

 

When I realized I was close to going into labor at the beginning of February, midwives and nurses assisted Dr. Morimune throughout the night as if tending to a house guest, but it came to nothing. My earlier pregnancies also had late deliveries, delayed by up to a month. Saying it was routine for me, they imagined it might be March before I gave birth, an extension which my body wouldn’t permit. Dr. Morimune and the surgeon said it would be necessary to induce labor.

 

My husband and our relatives said that a mother should carry her baby to term no matter what. I thought so too. I didn’t fear death, of course. As for the pain wrought my body at the moment of death, I feared that a little, but having been laid waste to before in the course of births, I felt no terror such as a young man may feel approaching his first battle. And I hadn’t the slightest illusions about the honor society attributes living on to insignificantly serve my country. The reason for wanting to live longer which I kept returning to was my husband and children. All that made up “me,” in my position at this coalface, was my husband and children. If you consider this a normal mindset, saying that I’m nothing but for them, it’s only natural I’d need to keep living. Those being the circumstances, I felt that at the moment I passed away, they and I would return to nothingness. People have always been egocentric. The lauded words of Zen priests on their deathbeds are that nothing is greater than having descendants, which is a foundation of life, is it not?

This matter troubled me for the ten days leading up to the birth, tormented by the pain in my body, nerves strung unusually tense.

 

○ ○ ○

 

They say the relative ease of your second or third birth fades with each additional one, until it becomes as traumatic as the first. While it may depend on the constitution of the mother, in my experience, this is true. The delivery I’d gone through before this one had been risky too, but this one was even more serious. My pain was excruciating not just during delivery, but before and after it. Fortunately, I was not induced, and at three a.m. on February 2nd, gave birth naturally, once more being watched over by Dr. Sasaki. I’d never before had issues bad enough to make coming to hospital for the delivery necessary, but I understand that it’s the safest course of action, economics permitting. Having the doctor-in-charge personally take your pulse, and having doctors and nurses all at hand, is more reassuring than anything else for an expectant mother.

However, the suffering of childbirth was not lessened. On the contrary, it was worse than ever before.

 

○ ○ ○

 

Unless the pain becomes a dragon, the injury a boar, a birth is not difficult. 

Freezing “time” locks eyes with a serpent mother, her womb ripped open by a baby snake.

 

○ ○ ○

 

I thought that, with nothing beyond continual screaming. The first twin was born easier than I’d expected, but the airplane sent pain through me in every direction. When the composed doctor said, “Let’s operate,” I felt I was standing, poised, at the edge of a cliff leading to blank death.

The breeched airplane was born dead. I heard later that the doctor had immediately administered artificial respiration to no avail.

 

○ ○ ○

 

Amid torture shattering all of a mother’s bones, a healthy baby wails.

An unborn child gnaws on its mother.

In the quietude a silent demon’s hand waves, stirs.

A weakened child, lacking strength, dies in the womb.

Fighting its mother, fighting its sister.

A grieving, half-dead mother lies beside the un-breathing child. The floor is dim.

 

○ ○ ○

 

The pain of this birth, wrought by violence I’d never before encountered, lasted a whole day and night. Its ferocity was said to be a good sign, of my womb shrinking after the birth, and I couldn’t wholeheartedly detest the child who inflicted such pain even after it was out, nor the feeling of a child demon clawing rift after rift into my stomach. They say that in cases like mine, a mother’s affection for her child will not sprout. I find that strange.

 

○ ○ ○

From the next room comes the sound of my husband’s younger brother and Mr. Wakai from Subaru Press banging nails into the dead child’s coffin.

“You don’t want just one glimpse?” my husband asks. “There’s never been such a beautiful baby.”

But I don’t want to see. Postpartum pain this intense, plus fatigue, leaves no space to think about a dead child.

 

○ ○ ○

A child is put into a wooden box like a bowl, in its mother’s stead. 

The birth of nothingness, the birth of death, these are the grave matters heard at the border of dreams and reality.

 

○ ○ ○

The truth is, as I am now, I can only think of the stillborn child as being akin to bowls and teacups that have been dropped and smashed. The first time I welled up was when my brother, who took them to Kirigaya Funeral Home, said, with tears in his eyes and the sentiment of a doting adult, “Such an awful thing to happen when they were such a dear little baby.” I wasn’t crying for the dead child, but reflexively at the beauty of his tender affection for them.

 

○ ○ ○

The postpartum pain has finally faded, so I try to doze, but horrible hallucinations assail me when I close my eyes. Things like the coffin of Ooishi Sainosuke, whom I’ve never met and who was condemned to death at the New Year for the crime of high treason, being lined up next to my bed. They vanish completely when I open my eyes. My body is so worn out I can’t stand the fatigue, but whenever my eyes relax shut, the fine fingers of something which seems like a dead baby always peels back my eyelids. Inevitably, I kept them open for a whole day and night. This is the first time I’ve had such hallucinations. This fatigue will not break.

 

○ ○ ○

As days pass, so too does the postpartum risk period and my medical complications, and my body and mind in turn seem to recover, flattening out. Since yesterday, I’ve been allowed to walk a little indoors, and may write so long as the pieces are brief.

The impression of the dead baby which sadly vanished without once really touching my eyes has gone today, now that the afterbirth pain no longer remains. It’s as if it happened to someone else. There is emptiness, there is nothing. Only when I see the now unnecessary red pillow and clothes in a cupboard in the prep-room, which were brought here for them, does fleeting, crushing grief grip me.  Ah, yes. The loneliness is unlike that which comes of being separated from other people. It’s that of an abandoned mother.

 

○ ○ ○

The nurse picked a withered heliotrope from the glass vase and threw it away. I want to go home soon to my noisy house in Rokubancho.

Among all the men who debate women’s issues, those who view women’s constitutions as inherently weak are odd. I want to ask people who say that: Could a man’s body withstand pain up to the level felt giving birth? This was my sixth pregnancy, I’ve produced eight children, I’ve brought seven new human beings into the world. Could a man go through pain of that magnitude again and again? If nothing else, I didn’t sleep for a week. Could the average man manage that?

It can be said that women’s rounded bodies are beautiful and soft, but isn’t it rash to argue on seeing them that they are fragile and weak? And aren’t the judgments of men who say we should be subordinate, who base their arguments on that fallacy, a disgrace of theirs?

 

○ ○ ○

I curse at men. 

How leisurely the life of he who can’t bear children, never gambling. 

 

○ ○ ○

Though I abhor the barbaric traditions of Chivalry, the luminous, ruinous duty of increasing the number of new humans by risking one’s life—Maternity—holds eternal grace. In contrast to the savagery of the past seven or eight hundred years, the violence and suffering from which the Imperial Household and our country grew, I believe humanity’s happiness is truly borne of this women’s duty. These are not the falsehoods of a barren woman. I write with the consecrated blood spilled from a womb torn by eight children. 

It is too hasty for Japanese women to follow the Western fashion of cautioning against getting married. We Japanese women wish for a happy marriage. We are preparing to give life to strong girls.

 

○ ○ ○

 

 

産褥の記 の書き抜き

 

看護婦さんは次の副室に控へて居る。其処には火鉢や茶器や手拭掛や、調度を入れる押入や、食器を入れる箱などが備へてあるらしい。副室で沸る鉄瓶の音と、廊下の前の横長い手洗場で折折 医員や看護婦さんが水道栓を捩ぢて手を浄める音と、何処かで看護婦達の私語する声と、看護婦の 溜で鳴る時計の音と、其れ位のものである。宅に居て何時も静かな家に住みたいと願つて居たわたし も此単調には堪へられない。

 

いつも産をして五日目位から筆を執るのがわたしの習慣になつて居たが、今度は病院へ這入ら ねばならぬ程の容体であつたから後の疲労も甚しい。其れに心臓も悪い。熱も少しは出て居る。其 れで筆を執らうなどとは考へないけれど、じつと斯うして寝て居ると種種の感想が浮ぶ。坐禅でもし て居る気で其を鎮めようとしても却て苦痛であるから、唯妄念の湧くに任せて置く。その中で小説が 二種ばかり出来た。一つは二十回ばかり出来てまだ未完である。其等は諳誦して忘れない様にして 居るが、歌の形をして浮んだ物丈は看護婦さんの居ない間を見計つて良人に鉛筆で書き取つて貰 ひ、約束のある新聞雑誌へ送つて居る。せめて側にある雑誌でも読みたいのであるが、院長さんの 誡めを厳格に執り行ふ看護婦さんに遠慮して、婦人雑誌や三越タイムスの写真版の所ばかりを観る のを楽みにして居る。斯う云ふ意志の強い看護婦さんが側に居られる事は真に患者の めになるの であると思ふ。

産前から産後へかけて七八日間は全く一睡もしなかつた。産前の二夜は横になると飛行機の様 な形をした物がお腹から胸へ上る気がして、窒息する程呼吸が切ないので、真直に坐つた儘呻き呻き 戸の隙間の白むのを待つて居た。此前の双児の時とは姙娠して三月目から大分に苦しさが違ふ。上 の方になつて居る児は位置が悪いと森棟医学士が言はれる。其児がわたしには飛行機の様な形に 感ぜられるのである。わたしは腎臓炎を起して水腫が全身に行き亘つた。呼吸が日増に切迫して立 つ事も寝る事も出来ない身になつた。わたしは此飛行機の為に今度は取殺されるのだと覚悟して榊 博士の病院へ送られた。

 

生きて復かへらじと乗るわが車、刑場に似る病院の門。

と云ふのがわたしの実感であつた。

 

二月の初に一度産の気が附いて、産婆や看護婦が駈け付け、森棟先生に泊つて頂く様な騒ぎを 夜通しながら其儘鎮まつて仕舞つた。此前の産も同じ様な事があつて一月程経つてから生れた。癖 になると云ふから今度も三月に入つて生むのかと想ふと、其様に延びてはわたしの体が持ち相に無 い。森棟さんも榊博士も人工的に分娩を計らねばなるまいと言はれる。良人も親戚の者も子供は何 うなつても可いから母親の体を助けて欲しいと言ふ。わたし自身にも然う考へて居た。死を怖れるの では勿論無い。死ぬる際の肉の苦痛を怖れるのかと云ふと、多少は其れもあるが、度度の産で荒瀬 に揉まれて居る自分には、男子が初陣の戦で感じる武者ぶるひ程の恐怖は無い。又もつと生き永らへ て御国の為に微力を尽したいの、社会上の名誉が何うのと云ふ様な気楽な欲望からでは更更無い。 つづまる所良人と既に生れて居る子供との為に今姑く生きて居たいと言ふ理由に帰着する。此の切 端詰つた場合の「自分」と言ふ物の内容は良人と子供とで総てである。平生の心で考へたなら、何も 自分が居なくなつたからと云つて良人や子供が生きて行かれぬ訳も無いであらう。其れが此場合で は、自分が亡くなると同時に良人と子供とが全く一無に帰して仕舞ふ気がしてならぬ。人は何処まで も利己的である。禅家の大徳の臨終が立派であると云ふのは何よりも繋累の無いと云ふ事が根柢に なつては居ないでせうか。

わたしは斯んな事で産前十日程から不安に襲はれ、体の苦痛に苛まれて、神経が例に無くひど く昂つて居た。

 

お産は二三度目が比較的楽で、度び重る程初産の時の様な苦痛をすると云ふ。産む人の体質に も由る事でせうが、わたしの経験した所ではよく其れが当て適る。此前の産も重かつたが、今度のは 更に重かつた。産む時ばかりで無く、産前産後に亘つて苦痛が多かつた。幸ひ人工的の施術も受け ず、二月廿二日の午前三時再び自然の産気が附いて、榊博士の御立会下さつた中で生みました。わた しは病院の御厄介になると云ふ事を従来経験しませなんだが、お産を病院ですると云ふ事は経済さ へ許せば万事に都合がよい。院長さんに親しく脈を取つて頂き、産婆さんや看護婦さんの手が揃つ て居るので、産婦には何よりも 強い。

けれども産む時の苦痛は減じない。却て従来よりも劇しかつた。

 

悪龍となりて苦しみ、猪となりて啼かずば人の生み難きかな。

蛇の子に胎を裂かるる蛇の母そを冷くも「時」の見詰むる。

 

と思つて悲鳴を続けて居るより外は無かつた。先に生れた児は思つたよりも容易でしたが、例 の飛行機が縦横にわたしを苦める。博士が「手術をしよう」と沈着いた小声で言はれた時、わたしは 真白な死の崖に棒立になつた感がした。

逆児の飛行機が死んで生れた。後で聞くと院長さんが直ぐに人工呼吸を施して下さつた相であ るけれど甲斐が無かつた。

 

その母の骨ことごとく砕かるる呵責の中に健き児の啼く。

胎の子は母を噛むなり。静かにも黙せる鬼の手をば振るたび。

よわき児は力およばず胎に死ぬ。母と戦ひ姉と戦ひ。

あはれなる半死の母と呼吸せざる児と横たはる。薄暗き床。

 

産後の痛みが又例に無い劇しさで一昼夜つづいた。此痛みの劇しいのは後腹の収縮の為に好 い兆候だと云ふのですけれど、鬼の子の爪が幾つもお腹に引掛つて居る気がして、出た後でまでわた しを苦めることかと生れた児が一途に憎くてなりませなんだ。親子の愛情と云ふものも斯う云ふ場 合には未だ芽を萌かない。考へて見ると変なものである。

隣の室で良人の弟と昴発行所の和貝さんとが、死んだ児の柩に成るべく音を立てまいとして釘 を打つて居る。良人が「一目見て置いて遣らないか。これまでに無い美くしい児だ」と云つたけれど、 わたしは見る気がしなかつた。産後の痛みの劇しいのと疲労とで、死んだ子供の上などを考へて居 る余裕は無かつた。

 

その母の命に代はる児なれども器の如く木の箱に入る。

虚無を生む、死を生む、斯かる大事をも夢と現の境にて聞く。

 

実際其場合のわたしは、わが児の死んで生れたと云ふ事を鉢や茶椀が落ちて欠けた程の事にし か思つて居なかつた。桐ヶ谷の火葬場まで送つて来て呉れた弟が、その子煩悩な心から「可愛い児 でしたのに惜しい事をしました」と云つて目を潤ませた時、初めてわたしも目が潤んだ。其れは死ん だ児の為に泣いたのではない、弟の其子煩悩な美くしい涙に思はず貰泣をしたのであつた。

 

漸く産後の痛みが治つたので、うとうとと眠らうとして見たが、目を瞑ると種種の厭な幻覚に襲 はれて、此正月に大逆罪で死刑になつた、自分の逢つた事もない、大石誠之助さんの柩などが枕許 に並ぶ。目を開けると直ぐ消えて仕舞ふ。疲れ切つて居る体は眠くて堪らないけれど、強ひて目を瞑 ると、死んだ赤ん坊らしいものが繊い指で頻に目蓋を剥かうとする。止むを得ず我慢をして目を開け て居ることが又一昼夜ほど続いた。斯んな幻覚を見たのは初めてである。わたしの今度の疲労は一 通で無かつた。

 

日が経つに従つて産後の危険期も過ぎ、余病も癒り、体も心持も次第に平日に復して行くらし い。昨日から少しづつ室内を歩く事を許され、文字なども短いものならば書いてよい事になつた。

わたしの目に触れないで消えて仕舞つた死んだ赤ん坊の印象は、産の苦痛の無くなつた今日何 もわたしに残らない、まるで人事の様である。空である、虚無である。唯其児の為にと思つて拵へた 赤い枕や衣類が、副室の押入に余計な物になつて居るのを見ると、物足らない淡い哀しみが湧いて 来る。やはり他人に別れたのでは無い、棄てられた母と云つた様な淋しい気持である。

看護婦さんは硝子の花瓶から萎れたヘリオトロオプを一本抜いて捨てに行つた。

わたしは早く騒しい中六番町の宅へ帰りたい。

 

婦人問題を論ずる男の方の中に、女の体質を初から弱いものだと見て居る人のあるのは可笑し い。さう云ふ人に問ひたいのは、男の体質はお産ほどの苦痛に堪へられるか。わたしは今度で六度産 をして八人の児を挙げ、七人の新しい人間を世界に殖した。男は是丈の苦痛が屡 せられるか。少くと もわたしが一週間以上一睡もしなかつた程度の辛抱が一般の男に出来るでせうか。

婦人の体質がふくよかに美しく柔かであると云ふ事は出来る。其れを見て弱く脆いと概論する のは軽卒で無いでせうか。更に其概論を土台にして男子に従属すべき者だと断ずるのは、論ずる人 の不名誉ではありませんか。

 

男をば罵る。彼等子を生まず命を賭けず暇あるかな。

 

わたしは野蛮の遺風である武士道は嫌ですけれど、命がけで新しい人間の増殖に尽す婦道は 永久に光輝があつて、かの七八百年の間武門の暴力の根柢となつて皇室と国民とを苦めた野蛮道な どとは反対に、真に人類の幸福は此婦道から生じると思ふのです。是は石婦の空言では無い、わた しの胎を裂いて八人の児を浄めた血で書いて置く。

日本の女に欧米の例を引いて結婚を避ける風を戒める人のあるのは大早計である。日本の女 は皆幸福なる結婚を望んで居る。剛健なる子女を生まうと準備して居る。

 

○ ○ ○

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

 

 

Akiko Yosano (1878-1942) was a pioneer of modern literature in Japan. A famous but impoverished poet and essayist, she had thirteen children and funded the first co-ed school in Japan with the aim of promoting gender equality. Her poetry, celebrated for its anti-war sentiment and sexually liberated feminism, is available in English translation.

 

Marissa Skeels is a Melbourne-based editor and translator who has lived in Fukushima, Kyoto, and Tokyo for several years. Her translations of Japanese literature are appearing in Overland, Inkwell, and Ezra.

 

The Border Simulator
(Is This Language A Desert Also?)

Gabriel Dozal

Has customs kept us from saying our favorite words
as we cross? (madrugada, residiente, dentures,) or
has customs left these worlds, sorry words,
here in the desert to get picked at by the cultures, (ah!
I keep tripping over these crossers) the vultures,
till there’s nothing but word’s cartilage left to excavate?

I only know one forensic team
and they’re a cast of characters in a procedural TV series
(customs knows the crossing procedure, eyes closed) armed with technology
that doesn’t exist yet and this is also what crossers feel
like: a technology that doesn’t exist.

But if no one can hold the desert culpable, if you can’t charge a desert with desertslaughter,
who will step forward and answer the crosser’s last note?:

Dear crosser, your digital footprint is more of a digital stain on the border simulator. Customs will always try and wipe you clean. Are you sure you’re sure which customs I’m talking about? Sometimes I’m not even, because custom’s words wear camouflage to ensnare us and in trap, there’s life. Don’t they say that? With restraint you’re freed? Then I’m the freest crosser in the border simulator. Customs found me sweating in a cave; they chased me there! And now riding in their jeep, where are we even going? I can’t tell and I cover my eyes with my hands because it’s as useful as looking out onto this map. Well, good thing I drew the map on my palms and my pants. I can peek at my hand but I’m so tired of looking at my hands, my map, my lap, but I need to because if not I’d be lost in simulation, and if I’m lost I’m detained, but it’s not so bad! Eventually customs gets tired of asking questions. I’m getting better at knowing this genre of detainment. I know you love our little interrogations in customs’ hut but lately, when I’m there with you, I’m not sure who questions who. But I’m an unreliable translator of customs and, I guess we all are. You’ve spent years practicing my border, these questions. And when you’re not putting the screws to me, you’re making other crossers screw together a new border fence. If you’re not screwing yourself into the border simulator then customs has you making adobe slabs and papier mâché walls for the bbq, crosser appreciation day. But you won’t last long if these kinds of days continue to appreciate. Customs appreciates you, alien crosser. Without you, customs would have no jobs and jobs equal worth in the border simulator. I’ll do what I can for you fellow crosser, like, when it’s my turn I might be able to knock out that borderwallpiñata, (jerking back and forth, hoping to make you miss, customs always holds the rope) but after a good whack, what falls out are crossers and their families (they built themselves into the borderwallpiñata? How sneaky) and then the families try to find a cave where they can hide and while they’re out for the day they let their sleeping bags (burrito blankets left here by other groundbeefcrossers) pool in the corner, the only pool for miles.

We searched through grounds of beef for you, Primitivo.
We know you’ve been hiding (and working; oh look,
now work is in a cave too) at the meat-grinding factory.
The boss loved hiring migrants because you’re cheap and such grinders too.

But now we can’t find you (I thought I could see your face
peeking through the burgermeat, but no, the meat just looked like your face
for a sec)
so we sicced the border on you and the border sniffed
you out. The border simulator knows your smell so well;

a mix of creosote and desperate, and now you’ll never leave, the border has you
in its vice-fenced grip. You’re posing for the cameras but stop it, there’s no camera
until we say so. Ok, now, quickly pose for this photo,
but make an expression like they did in those old timey photos,
you know, pretend that you’ve never had your picture taken.
Look like you don’t know what a camera is. Snap, snap.
You’re so good at looking morbid
it’s like you’ve had practice at this. I took a caravan’s worth of photos of you,
and your face always came out glossy, like someone rubbed vaseline on the lens.

I collected these passport photos of you, Primitivo, and now your face is all over
our little room, in 2×2 portraits, each one a hue of you, come see.
Did you know Primitivo that there’s only two types of people at the border,
those who have crossed and those who one day will? Ok, we’re done
taking photos now come, enter this room that I’ve made for you,
where pants are actually maps and these maps show you where to find your missing bedazzledjeans.

Yet, you’re a place on the map that doesn’t exist. The wrong data
points were entered and there is a pocket on the map, did you sew this pocket?
Did you sew it so you could later, hide inside it, on the map?
If there’s one thing customs knows it’s maps and pockets so be careful crosser
not to hide yourself from yourself (your true desire) and desire is a belt of possible,

just take off your belt loop by loop. Oh look, there’s a fray in your jeans.
Don’t think I don’t know your secret talent, Primitivo. I know everything about you,
or at least everything it says here in your file. Since you’re so good at sewing these secret pockets,
we’ll throw you in with the newly arrived craft crossers, crossing arts and crafts from
hobby lobby, into simulation. People are bored there, they need something to crochet,
and once they’re detained we get them to crochet a life size model of us and a new fence.

But if you refuse to do arts and crafts for customs, then we make you sell you.
These crossers, they’re selling their teeth, they’re selling their kidney,
they’re selling their plasma, they’re selling their hair,
and all this gets to cross into simulation.
Crossers are also selling their time but that never grows back or crosses.

But what else would we do? we have no time anyways, so little time
that we actually have all of it, and it weighs heavy on our backs.
This back stands with the moment, if it can stand at all. What,
with timesweight hunching us closer and closer to to the earth? till we’re also part of the earth
and only then do future crossers step on us to get here.

And when they get here, there are two options for work: the meatmincer
or the fabrica. Both jobs are in the same building, in the shadow
of the mountain, and if you can grind the meat
and use the industrial sewing machines (mostly Juki’s),
your job will never die.

You’re at the fabrica, you’re at the mincery,
you’re at the combination fabricameatmincery.

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Gabriel Dozal is from El Paso, TX. He is an MFA candidate in poetry at The University of Arizona. He writes about the borderlands and has work in The Literary Review, Guernica, and forthcoming in The Iowa Review.


Two Poems

Eloisa Amezcua

I Haven’t Masturbated in Five Days
for Fear of Crying

 

her eyes closed the way my eyes sometimes close when I reach a hand 

between my thighs              pretend they’re someone else’s fingers that slide 

the unsexiest pair of panties I own to the side of a lip                              her neck 

outstretched          the curve of her trachea like the bend of a hipbone 

that peeks above the waistband of low-rise jeans     her mouth open 

—no         agape—         the same as the women on my computer screen 

when they scream in what I’m supposed to believe is wonder 

her face pale & older than mine     maybe a few years            possibly decades 

—she’s ageless—   her body still the way                     unmoving in my bed 

unable to sleep again      I picture her still     when I close my eyes     remember 

how I sat stiff as frozen meat in the driver’s seat of a borrowed truck 

the passenger side unrecognizable after she sped through the red light 

& caused what the police called a t-bone collision   & again I call my father 

Yes           he says                she died                she was dead

 

I Haven’t Masturbated in Five Days
for Fear of Crying

 

twenty-seven shots sent straight

to the deleted photos album

because my ass looks too wide from above

my belly too pale with the lights on

my left boob droops like thick paint

on a canvas when I try to pose sideways

when I lie on my back they fall so far apart

he could eat off the level surface of my sternum

still I’m the one who’s hungry & I want

to send him something sexy

but my cellulite won’t cooperate

so I contort my body into angles

any yoga teacher would be proud of

phone in one hand the other near my mouth

or covering my pussy because mother told me

that men prefer subtlety & I’ve played

poker before—I know better than to show

my hand so I snapfilter&crop

until I’m an unrecognizable sack of

bones & tits nipples taut

a shade the most unnatural of pinks

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by Sam Flora, curated by Dana Lyons.

 

Eloisa Amezcua is from Arizona. Her debut collection, FROM THE INSIDE QUIETLY, is the inaugural winner of the Shelterbelt Poetry Prize selected by Ada Limón. A MacDowell fellow, she is the author of three chapbooks and founder/editor-in-chief of The Shallow Ends: A Journal of Poetry. Her poems and translations are published in New York Times Magazine, POETRY, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, and others. Eloisa lives in Columbus, OH, and is the founder of Costura Creative.

Transformations

Theophilus Kwek

on Meng Haoran’s “Spring Dawn”

for Hong Kong

 

春曉

春眠不覺曉,

處處聞啼鳥。

夜來風雨聲,

花落知多少。

     —孟浩然

 

0.

The seasons have changed with a sudden force

and the birds, who know, cannot keep the peace.

 

1.

The peace, we know, is a bitter thing.

It has been washed in the eye of the harbor.

 

Those who live here have tasted of it.

Their tongues betray the loss of a harbor.

 

A use of force can be read as betrayal.

It is full of the heat of the harbor.

 

We must hold our own, others say.

They are held in the stone of the harbor.

 

The windows are carved high in the walls.

What comes through is the smell of the harbor.

 

Our children look up, and see a light.

They have not tired of dawn in the harbor.

 

All they know is what’s fallen in the streets.

These were the flowers of fragrant harbor.

 

2.

But no, nothing here like a whiff of flowers.

Only the port’s salt odor, a pungent faith

scorching wet canvas as the wind turns south

and something else arrives across the water—

 

a troubling heat, bearing the sweetest haze,

with all we know of worship and of pain

lifted up to heaven in that manmade scent.

A boy, soundless, shoulders the excess

 

of agar and sandalwood, nearly a month’s

shipment, hauls the sacks to the jetty’s edge,

while out at sea our husbands become gods

whose lives are also in the storm’s own hands.

 

3.

No one hears the birds

beating the air into song.

This is the first sleep.

 

No one keeps a count

as Spring is cut from the trees.

This is the second.

 

4.

Night carries on, though here also are those

for whom each morning is a stolen thing.

Without the city’s stale heat they wake,

lift themselves with wan arms and come to us,

who are still sleeping, in our crescent light.

All is in their hands. It is they who make

new in our absence what is seen, unseen.

Their shining faces put the birds to flight.

 

(Only they know what happens in the dark:

a harbor buried whole, leaving nothing

but the tallest lights—red—above the storm

while the island hunkers deep within its ark.

Seeing this, they carry us from dawn to dawn.

Rising, we banish them from room to room.)

 

5.

a storm     is a song     a ship sings

     when wide     above     the high waters

sleep falls     like a cloud     no sound

 
     the wives     do not weep     at the shore

the watchmen     do not cry     for land

     even birds     are felled     in flight
 

their wings     filling up     with gale

     their feet   crossed     for a dive

but nothing comes     the air     is still

 
     the face     of the deep     does not move

all we see     are the feet     lost in iron

   all we hear   are the hollows   of the sea
 
 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by Jason Fowler, curated by Dana Lyons.


Theophilus Kwek has published five volumes of poetry, including The First Five Storms, which won the New Poets Prize. He has also won the Interpreters’ House Poetry Prize and Berfrois Poetry Prize, and has been shortlisted twice for the Singapore Literature Prize. His poems, translations and essays have appeared in The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, The Irish Examiner, The Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Mekong Review, and elsewhere. He serves as co-editor of Oxford Poetry, and writes widely about issues of history, policy and migration.


Rio Grande Valley Triptych

Lauren Espinoza


I
Believers stream out the strip mall church:
women with flowers in their hands,
praising, as they walk toward the paletero.
Timing his arrival to maximize sales
to girls wearing white fold over socks,
boys in ostrich boots and ties.
His shirt, one too many pearl snaps undone,
white hair tufted beneath a gold águila necklace,
skin more leathered than the men
who give him money for their daughter’s paletas.

II
In the oncology waiting room,
a woman walks around selling
Ziploc bags of sliced fruit
covered in Trechas—
slices of sandia, mango, & jícama
packed like cigarettes
in a newly opened box.
For only $3 you can eat while
Buelita waits for her appointment.

III
At nine a.m. on the first Saturday of the month,
a line of Ford trucks drives into the cemetery.
It takes two men to cut the grass,
three to drink the beer.
They indifferently run the lawnmower
over each plot. One man offers to lift
the cement burial liner
on top of my aunt’s grave:
naturalmente no le hago gratis
te tengo que cobrar.
 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by Ian Lynam, curated by Dana Lyons.

Lauren Espinoza’s poetry has appeared in New Border Voices: An Anthology, The Acentos Review, As/Us, Pilgrimage, Sinister Wisdom, and elsewhere. Her manuscript, Before the Body, earned Honorable Mention in the 2018 Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize and the 2017 Pellicer-Frost Binational Poetry Prize. A CantoMundo Fellow raised in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, she is currently a Writers’ Studio Instructor and PhD student in Justice Studies at Arizona State University.


Extermination

Tiphanie Yanique


The worst thing that ever happened to me happened to someone else. You know that story. About how I was there. How it was so loud, that field where we stood. How I saw the shuttle go up and up. How there was a blast and we all cheered. Dumb as we were. Because that was the astronauts dying. I was fourteen. I was there for Dr. Ronald McNair. Sure, he was the second African American in space, but the first had been a Challenger man, too. Pop liked the name of the shuttle. Liked that the work of it all was there in the name. Pop, he believed in things being hard. Jenelle, that wild streak of a sister, was gone by the time I got back from Florida. Like she and the space shuttle disappeared the same.

The worst thing that ever actually happened to me proper was when I was an adult. And that worst thing was your father. See, my name is Ellenora, but you and everyone from Memphis to Atlanta knows that I lived with my husband’s first Ellie from the beginning. The same year he parted from that other Ellie—1990. Same year I met Gary, married him, got in the family way, started quilting the marriage quilt, then had you. No one knows really about that other Ellie. Some schizo white girl your father once drove across the country with. But for most of our marriage, Gary kept a picture of that one on the mantel. The skinny girlfriend standing in front of their beat-up car. Family folks might think a mother-in-law is bad, but there is no way to compete with the only woman who ever loved your husband before he married you. Wife isn’t power, you see. Wife is work. A marriage is a wife’s challenge. Which is to say that I was a wife who felt very married.

It wasn’t like that for my parents, I don’t believe. The hard thing for Pop and Mama was us girls. Which is why I thank God I never had one, a girl. Instead I had only you. Though it wasn’t me who was so difficult. It was my sister, mostly, to be honest. I am loyal to Jenelle something fierce, I am. But I’m her sister and so that’s my place. Doesn’t mean she deserves it.

We all used to watch Star Trek, especially the reruns. Lieutenant Uhura, young and sharp faced. Mama would be quilting and the rest of us would be sitting with our dinner plates warm in our laps. “Jennie. Ellie. Take a look at that Nichelle Nichols,” Pop would say. “Now ain’t she fine.” Mama would stay quiet, stay on her quilting. But when she put us to bed she would say, “Uhura isn’t just fine.” Though she would never say what else.

During my marriage to Gary, we watched a world’s worth of TV. I watched much of it by my lonesome. The set was better for company than having visitors, if I am being honest. Which I always am. Visitors might see the picture of that other Ellie and have pity on me. I wanted to cut that cracker woman out. Cut her. But she’d already cut herself out. Your father taught her how to drive, then she drove away without him in a car he built with his own hands. Never giving him a good reason. He used to say he needed the picture of her to remind himself to hold on tight to me. To remind himself that I might leave him, too. I never said what I felt, which was, Why aren’t I enough to remind you?

It’s true I put a square of a spaceship in the marriage quilt. The spaceship was just a symbol. I didn’t need you to be an astronaut. You could be whatever you wanted to be. But a vehicle marks a boy’s manhood in America, it does. Any vehicle might do. And also, your father had loved to build things that would vroom around. Bikes when he was a boy, cars later. When I decided to marry him, I envisioned guiding him to being an airplane mechanic, a space shuttle engineer. Not exactly leaving me for space. No. But having a role in the great thing. I had something like that in mind. I made the quilt, made it more than once, I was putting everything I had into it. That is how art is, so they say.

It’s your grandmother who was the quilter. Though she didn’t do it serious as I have done. She did it often and easy. At first my plan was to make many, as she did. But a woman plans and God laughs. I have completed just the one quilt. I made it for you and your wife-to-be. I haven’t told you the whole of that story, and I can’t say I ever will. This is not me speaking, really. This whole story is from a part of me I can’t even hear. Don’t need to. Don’t want to.

Truth be told, I won’t speak this to you or to anyone—not even God. That would be a giving up of power, and I’m not going back to being the kind of woman who gives up any power, no matter how small. This is a story and this is my truth. You see, the character of the mother always has power. A mother is power. Any TV show makes that plain.

A wife, I suppose, is something different. When I started that quilt, my plan was to pass along your manhood from my hand to your wife’s. Proper. Different from what your father had. Like my mother did for wealthier people, for their daughters’ weddings. But when I married, Mama told me she’d taught me the skill. So it would be on me to quilt for my own family. “Done enough for you girls what with all the doing I’m doing for your sister,” she said.

The first patch of the quilt I did up for you, the center, was the square with you inside. That patch is still there even now. I used brown felt to make you, and I cut carefully, I did. Made you like a boiled peanut. Sweet and soft as you were from the beginning. Though it wasn’t soft nor sweet, my marriage. Not for me. But my story of my learning to be a mother begins, I believe, years before you and Gary even showed up in my life.

That day in ’86. I was sixteen and I was there. See, when Jenelle and I were wee things Pop had written to NASA to make sure the first shuttle was named after the Star Trek one. And it was. Space Shuttle Enterprise. That name was a great success of his. But there was no Uhura on the real Enterprise. Then came the Challenger with Dr. Bluford, and then after him, Dr. McNair. Not fine as Uhura, but brown as her. We knew about those men in our home. And so I knew all about the Challenger. Sure enough, I had written an essay. Pop had made me. He was into space, he was. I wrote how the very first Challenger, the one from the olden days, was a sea shuttle. Sailed around South Africa. I made that connection, yes, I did. With how the first Challenger and our Challenger were both important for uplifting the Black race. Got a good grade, an A, as I’ve told you. Got sent to Florida for the launch. How I got to my first tragedy. By being a good daughter. Obedient daughter.

I was the good child. Patient and kind. Of course, I wound up a patient wife to your father. And I was kind. At night in bed beside me, Gary would whisper to the voices in his head and I would kindly and patiently hold back my tears, hold in my screaming. His speak-back voice didn’t sound like his normal voice. It had a foreignness to it. It was frightening, to be true. In the mornings, I would play Al Green on the stereo, so Gary might know I was trying. I wasn’t boastful and I wasn’t proud. I was mostly ashamed. I was all that stuff the Bible required, even when it was clear Gary didn’t give the Bible any primacy. I would even play wild Ike and Tina, once I knew Gary liked a little wildness. I meant them as love songs for Gary. But he would always make me turn them down, off, when he wanted to play the Moslem music or the Jew tunes.

At the launch that day it was cold. Real cold. Too cold for the South. And it was windy. The wind was rightly gusting. We kids were right there. Waving little American flags that had been handed to us. I remember that. That year there had been a launch every few months, it seemed. Failed. Aborted. But so many successes before. So no one can blame any of us for believing back then. There was that teacher making news as the first teacher in space, and our Dr. McNair.

On TV that year there were some other black wonders. Mr. Mandela had been released from prison. They showed him waving. He was an old man then. Had been in jail his whole life. There was that South African connection, like the Challenger, again. Mama and Pop didn’t say anything to us about him, Mandela. Not then and there when we watched the news, not later at tuck in. Mr. Mandela was supposed to be dead but he had lived. Then not too long after, I was watching all those astronauts die. Could barely tell they were dead, from my vantage point. For weeks it seemed like they were still on their way to the moon. I can’t see what the point of death is. Death doesn’t seem to make anything really go away. That is the truth.

Take my life, for example. What is a dead first love up against a living wife? Turns out, it’s everything. Better I was a co-wife, like it’s said they have in South Africa. Better me and that Ellie could stand and compete. Better we were both there in the marriage kitchen—me outcooking her, outsexing her. In the picture Gary held onto, the girlfriend has yellow hair that I could tell, even from the picture, hasn’t been washed in weeks. I wash regularly. More classy, I am. And yet, in the few pictures he has from his youth my husband looks as unkempt as that white woman does. He’d never worn sloppy clothes like that with me. We never went for cross-country drives. He never suggested anything freaky in the bedroom, though I learned, I sure did, that he wanted a little freak. As though it was not really him with that woman. Or not really him with me. Which is to say I did fail on one of those Biblical commandments, because I sure was envious of that other Ellie.

Just a picture of her, I tried to convince myself. But gone people have power. Even people who have never lived at all have power. Because it started with that TV character Lieutenant Uhura. We can all see that now. Now that we are looking back.

Though, truth be told, space didn’t work on me like it did my sister. For Halloween when Jenelle was fourteen and I was twelve, she dressed up as Uhura. Wore a wig for the hair, but Jennie had Uhura’s skin and bones. I was pretty, to be sure, but not in that way. “I don’t approve,” my father said that night when Jenelle came out of the room. I wasn’t going out anywhere. Too young for the parties, but too old for trick or treating. My mother had come in from outside with a watering can in hand to see my sister off, but now Mama turned and went back to the garden.

“Thanks, Pop,” Jenelle said, and flounced out, as though he’d said the opposite of what I know he’d said. I’d thought, My, so that is how it works.

I wouldn’t say that Jenelle came back late that night. I was still awake, after all. I heard her in the kitchen fixing something to eat. Which meant she’d been dancing. We lived in Memphis, after all, and most everything was a dance party. Live music to start. And when the band tired, then Milli Vanilli blasting from someone’s boombox. I didn’t sneak out to the kitchen. Sneaking wasn’t allowed in our house. “Sneaking is lying,” Mama would say, “commandment number nine.” Pop would whip us for sneaking. So I just walked out to my sister. Tried to be loud, so she knew I was coming.

But Jenelle was standing there with a pan in her hands like how that Arthur Ashe used to hold his tennis racket. And Pop was standing there too. “Nichelle is pretty but she ain’t a lady—kissing on that cracker,” he said. Pop’s right hand leaning on his cane, his left up like he was making a big statement. “No girl child of mine will be doing that.” Honest, Jenelle and I had never watched that specific episode, the one where the captain kisses Uhura. I still have never watched it, to be honest. “Don’t take one step closer to me,” Jenelle said to our father, “or I’ll burn your face off.”

It hadn’t dawned on me then that the pan Jenelle had at ready was filled with hot oil. And I wondered then if Jennie would do it. Burn up our father. I wanted her to, to be honest. I can’t say why. “Go on and do it then,” our father said.

You have to try and see it. Jenelle was Uhura, Lieutenant of the Starship Enterprise. Our father was just a Pop in pajamas. They stood that way for a long long time. The pan must have gotten heavy because Jenelle finally put it down, turning her back to him like there was a force field around her. But Pop was already raising the cane. I left the kitchen and went back to Jenelle’s and my bedroom. I can’t say they ever saw me there, because they never looked my way. But back in my bed I heard them. Her screaming. Him yelling. How Mama slept through that racket I can’t say. Next day Jenelle’s pretty face was fine, but she stayed in bed, the blanket wrapped around her like some healing cocoon. She didn’t go back to school until the bruising on her back went to normal. Took time, it did.

Some things just take time. You’ll remember, that it wasn’t until after the break in that I made Gary move that Ellie’s picture from our mantel. Because that is when I knew that it wasn’t just a picture. No sir. Gary had never given that Ellie up, her dirty body and her dirty ways. Which is to say that perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to outsex her, after all. She treated him like an animal, they treated each other that way maybe. I supposed he liked that bit, but I say she was using him. A little dark fantasy for her. I made him move the picture from my mantel after I knew what I knew.

Right then. That’s when I did a square of Gary and his other Ellie. I did. I drew them in my own hand, which was crude. You were sixteen already and I was hoping you’d marry early, as I had. I pictured you and a nice young Christian African American girl laying up under that quilt working on grandkids for me. I’d quilted in a square of a cross from the day you were baptized. A square with some islands felted onto it, representing the place your father felt he was from. A square with the letters MEMPHIS on it, so that you might know that was where I was from. A square of Jenelle’s boy, your cousin Brent, in his peewee uniform. Your family.

I quilted that other Ellie and your father as the final square to fit. Put them in decent clothes, not like what they ever owned when they knew each other. A red mini dress for her, though in the picture he had she is wearing a long skirt to her ankles. A proper blue dress shirt for him, I did. Like Uhura and Spock, I know. Why I did that, I can’t rightly say. Maybe a penance for having that Ellie removed from my mantel. Maybe a way to overcome my own un-Godly envy. I colored in her dress with a cloth marker. Her yellow hair. I wasn’t good at it, the drawing. Still, I did it careful as I could. I worked on it for days that week after the break-in. Didn’t want Gary to see. Though maybe I did.

I left my quilting room open often that week. Then, low and behold, Gary did the same. Left his office open. That’s when I saw that he hadn’t discarded his image of the other Ellie at all. There she was on his worktable. Same picture, just now in his private room. Alongside his bug sprays and rows of rat traps. Gary never could let his past go. If we’re speaking plain, I suppose I couldn’t let the past go either. Not his. Not mine.

So I ripped the quilt to pieces. That’s the truth. What I couldn’t get with my fingers, I took with the scissors. Did I cry? Can’t say I really remember. Most of the squares were in shreds. All but the one of you there, my boiled peanut, at the center. I started over on that quilt after that, though. Started over determined to do better. What I’m telling you is that I worked hard, so hard, on my marriage. I worked it for you.

I can’t really blame the man, my husband, for not letting that Ellie go in his heart—I say my husband because he’s been my only one and I can’t see myself doing that again. It’s true I’m not much of a Christian woman these days, but I still abide by what Paul said about marriage. That it’s forever. So you know why I can’t fully blame Gary Lovett. See, he and that Ellie were young together. And I suppose they were crazy together, too. The girlfriend was eighteen when they ran away to get married, though they never did. I married Gary in my eighteenth year, as well—not even a year after that other Ellie. But I lasted longer. I’ll give myself that. I was a real something. Not like a TV show. Marriage is a real something, even if it’s no good. Remember that.

My Pop and Mama. I can’t say they had a good marriage. Can’t say good was what they were after. They worked hard. They watched TV after they worked. In fact, even after that incident with Jenelle we kept watching Star Trek and Papa kept saying how pretty Nichelle was. But Mama didn’t tuck us in to tell us that Uhura was more than fine. We kept watching Star Trek until Dr. Bluford and then Dr. McNair gave us the real thing.

One thing we knew, what Pop was always going on about, was that Dr. McNair had picked cotton when he was a boy. Pop had done that, too. Still did, when we were having a hard go of it. “Gonna get you girls down there,” he would say when we watched some new advancement about the Challenger on the news. My sister thought he meant get her down to NASA, and in our room she would ask me what I thought it would be like. “But Jenelle, you sure he didn’t mean down to pick cotton on the farms?” I know for a fact that is what Pop meant.

But Jenelle didn’t want any part of that. Me neither, to be honest. Which is why it was all too easy when Gary Lovett came along. No, my pop wasn’t the kind of man I wanted for myself. Gary was my get out. Though when you were finally born a year later, 1990, I didn’t drop you off with your Gram and Pop, like Jennie did Brent. A summer here or there with your grandparents was the most I ever allowed. I went far away from him. Though, Pop never did worry my mother as Gary worried me. I’ll give Pop that. The space stuff was the only thing that made Pop different to other men in Memphis. See, most people in America weren’t paying attention to the Challenger as early as 1983. But we were. Had been giving that ship our undivided attention ever since Dr. Bluford. On our TV, our family watched the star ship wheeled down a runway getting ready for its early missions. We watched Dr. McNair. His big smile. His big voice. And he was a musician. Not singing, but a sax. Still, you see how it went for me.

Gary. He had that big smile. And that big voice. And he knew all about all kinds of music. The girlfriend had driven across the country with him in his car. The music he sang for her saved her, so he said. I’d believed him in the beginning. But it became hard to know what was his crazy and what was his truth. Either way. When that girl left him, he stopped working on cars. Fixing vehicles was what he’d loved as a boy and what he felt he’d failed at. It wasn’t his fault. That other Ellie, she took his gift for working on cars. By the time it was Gary and me, he’d send our car to the mechanic for every doggone little thing.

And do I remember that time at the gas station …? You were still a tiny thing. My breasts hard as two bags of rocks, because you never could get the feeding right. It was a too hot day and I just didn’t want to pump the doggone gas, I tell you. Not with my husband in the car like that. Shaming me. So I went inside and I asked the cashier. He said, “Sorry, ma’am, but I am not to leave my register.” I told him that my husband was sick and could he pretty please. Where I got the gall, I can’t say. It was a young white boy, face prickled with pimples. Still, he came out, nodded at Gary, and pumped. On cue, Gary covered his ears, started in on the voices. There he was, asking them to left him, in that bush accent that would come over him. I watched the gas make the air look swimmy. You were in the back seat—in a fancy child chair you were always squirreling out of. But you hadn’t budged since we parked. Instead you started to cry. Gary kept chanting to the voices. I kept staring at the thick sweet air swirling. Made believe I was a girl again, and there I was at the launch, watching Dr. McNair and his saxophone from the sky to the earth.

And that white boy kept pumping. Didn’t even charge us for the gas. When Gary finally started the car and drove us away, he seemed calm. You calmed, too. It dawned on me then that maybe Gary wasn’t all crazy. Maybe the voices weren’t a demon. Maybe he was talking to her—that Ellie. Maybe it calmed him to make her leave him again and again. But I tried to let that go, I did. Instead, I had it in mind that maybe you might grow up and become a car mechanic—doing the thing your father had never been able to do. That night, I tucked you in and told you life was good. Despite your crazy father. I told you about Dr. McNair and all that he’d overcame. You won’t remember that, Earl. I didn’t tell you then about all the astronauts dying. It was a bedtime story. I told you about how Dr. McNair played that saxophone on the space shuttle, a lullaby. After you went down, I started on quilting a square with a wrench.

It was so many years later that I found out about that nastiness and saw Gary wouldn’t even let that other Ellie’s picture go. I decided to do the quilt different. There would be no wrench, nothing of your father’s past. By this time you had an afterschool job, a responsible young man you were. I had the TV on, as I was trying to find inspiration. I can’t say I was still a woman of much faith, but some things are a force of habit. So, yes, I was watching the Christian channel. Not that I was really listening.

Sometimes, my eyes would be on the TV but my mind would be there in Florida. Watching the Challenger go up and up and then explode. But there was a TV pastor asking, “Where is your marriage physically located?” I stared at the TV and focused. And I knew. My marriage wasn’t in space or back in Memphis or on the mantel. My marriage was in the quilt. I held your brown boiled peanut body, the felt cutout I’d made of you that is, in my hand and I just knew. I turned the TV off and went to Gary’s office. I looked at the picture of the other Ellie but couldn’t think of what to say to her. I searched around and found one of Gary’s work shirts and cut out the pocket where his badge was. I found one of his rags that had an advertisement for bee repellent on it. Before I left the office, I turned back to that picture. “Leave us!” I said to that white girl. “Leave us alone!” Which felt like the most right thing I’d ever said, though I was saying it to an inanimate picture. Then I went into our bedroom and found a clean short sleeve that I myself had bought Gary. Something he might grill in or cut the lawn in—though it’s true he cut the lawn but never grilled. The grilling was just a wish of mine, something other husbands did. I stitched all those things of the Gary who was now your father and now my husband into your quilt. I stitched in a square with the A’s and B’s of your third-grade report card. One red square because that was your favorite color for a while. Ripped it out for a blue one, when you changed to that instead.

I didn’t play Nut Bush or any nonsense. Played saxophone music all through the house, like what Dr. McNair played. To give me a new inspiration for the quilt. And Gary didn’t deny me that. I didn’t do a dignified patchwork like my mother always did. See, I’d been to the museums by then. Seen how the fancy quilts could look, how creative the quilters could be. I planned to make a great quilt of the present and the future. One that was most definitely better than my mother’s. In the new one you are still there, a little boiled peanut, at the center. Your father’s shirt pocket, and all that new stuff, encircling you. You see, I stitched a crazy quilt the second time around. A jazz design, like the sax I listened to. Like the thing was a maze to make your way through. Like manhood.

I’d decided that in that quilt I would let everything dead go. It’s true I used to imagine Gary was Dr. McNair. Before that I used to imagine Dr. McNair was Pop. No more of that, I told myself. Besides, it was like I said—wasn’t me, so much as my sister who was moved by all that space. She’d gotten into her head that she was gonna be the first black woman astronaut. She wanted to get away from Pop. I supposed space seemed far enough. I didn’t think at all about what I wanted to be or where I wanted to go. I figured it would find me and I would marry it. Hadn’t worked out exactly. Not like my sister planning her life up seemed to work so well, either.

And it does seem Pop mellowed after Jennie left. Never raised his voice or that cane again. Not as far as I know. If he ever put a hand on you? Well. I made a patch of a cane in the new quilt, then drew an X over it. Then I cut out the X. Let the cane go all together. The kind of woman’s magic Mama taught me.

Your father had his problems but he wasn’t a man of impulsive passions, like Pop. He was a calm man—except for the voices. He spoke hard to the voices sometimes. Other times, though, he would sing to them. He’s a singing man, my husband. Exhusband. Sang all around our house, is true. Hymns, chants, gospels, azans—the whole cat and cradle. He was always singing to God, Gary was. Always a different god, as he could never settle. I gather that he sang love songs for that other Ellie. He never sang love for me. But you managed to love music, despite. I quilted in a guitar when you took lessons for a few months. Quilted in three African drums in all. Tried to make them look close to the three fancy drums you had me buy you for high school graduation. Beautiful, strange things. Cost me a pretty penny. By then I didn’t want you to be a mechanic or an astronaut. A musician, that is what I knew you were made for. Gary and me, we made you for that.

In the revision crazy quilt, there was no Bible, no cross. No pills. Nothing crutch like that. There was a musical note. There was the name of that shop where you got your first afterschool job. There was your name, the one I gave you: Earl. There was you, boiled peanut, at the center. It’s true I quilted in the letters of the shuttle, but I did leave out the last one. I wanted you to have a challenge, but not one that would rise up from the past and kill you. I never put myself in the quilt. Though of course, my hand was in the whole thing.

But you had to leave, like sons do. Not the moon. College. I even quilted that ugly mascot. You were close enough to drive back to me sometimes. I wouldn’t have encouraged it any other way. A long road and a white woman had ruined your father. A road and a woman can do that. Ruin the full life of a man. Gary had to go and become an exterminator, getting rid of pesky things that got in the way. Rats, mice, roaches. Then me, eventually. Two years after I made him move the picture, he was packing up everything, that picture included. You were well into your first year of college by then. He left me. Imagine that. And he was the crazy one. Certifiable. Took the pills to prove it. The Good Pills, I called them. Like the Good Book that we both ignored eventually. The pills made it so we couldn’t have another child. The pills took that from me. But we lived by those pills, we did. I did, anyway.

Here’s something that I would say, out loud, because I want it to be known now. When I stitched that quilt to a close Gary had just left the house, but it was okay. Because I knew that the quilt could be done now. My marriage was done after all. And you were on your way to a wife.

Well, even the smartest people make mistakes. Look at NASA. All those smart people and look how they messed up the Challenger. And not one mistake: a whole planet full of mistakes before the big one. Pop made us watch them all. One where the shuttle didn’t even move off the launch pad. One where it lifted off but came back down minutes later. The last you know, we all know, where it blew up. And everyone died. Now if they can make that kind of mistake, you can see how maybe you can make a mistake. With this Maristela. Take just her voice. Sounds like your father’s voice when he wasn’t taking his Good Pills.

And I’ve tried with that one. I have. Tried to discuss smart things with her. But she’d never even heard of the Challenger from the times of ocean exploration. Which tells you all you need to know about the kind of marine biology teacher she must be. Not that I’m judging. I don’t have that Christian discernment in me anymore. It’s only that it feels rightly like a mistake, this Maristela and you. Just like those other women, before and after me, have been my husband’s mistake. I am a mother. I want the best for you children. The both of you, really. But I know that Maristela Jones is a loose woman and unnatural in her looseness. Just like your father’s first Ellie and her unnatural animalistic desires. Feels like you gonna go off and marry this woman and blow your life up.

You are stubborn. Now, that is a strength in a man, I believe, but Maristela needs a husband who will know how to manage her. Earl, you are not a managing type of man. Take heed. You had to get on the road, all the way to heathen New York City, to stumble upon that woman.

And you don’t even know the worst of her. Things went missing that weekend you brought her to meet me. Not fancy things. Not things a different homemaker might notice. But I am meticulous. Had to be, married to a pest controller. See here, Maristela took a mug I bought myself that said “World’s Best Mother.” And a commemorative magnet from the one time my husband took me to hear the opera in Atlanta. Been on my fridge door a decade. She took the extra soaps I kept in the bathroom cabinet, shaped like starfish. Low down. Like she thought my house was a hotel. Might have stolen the very quilt I’d been stitching, if I hadn’t hid the thing.

But don’t you worry, son. I’ll play supportive at the wedding, if you make it there. I’ll even put on a nice dress and heels and a nice face, too. I’ll get the license and marry the two of you my own self. Even if I don’t approve. Can’t say I ever will.

But I will say the truth here. Because what does it matter? You’ll never know. You know the story I’ve told you about the shuttle. Yes. That was the morning Pop asked Jenelle to stand up at breakfast. She hadn’t eaten her food that day or the day before. “Stand up,” he said. “Oh, let her be,” Mom had said, standing up herself. “Let them go. Today is launch day.” But, “Take off your dress,” Pop said to Jenelle. Jenelle stood. And mom started to cry and pray, “Please God,” she cried. Jenelle lifted her dress.

And there was Jenelle’s belly, which I’d paid no mind to at all before. Too innocent, I was. It was tight and round, and then, right then, a little fist punching out, like there was a space creature inside her. Pop stood up, raised his cane and knocked her to the ground. Broke her collarbone. And other things, too, I guess. Which is to say, I wasn’t at the Challenger launch. Not really. Couldn’t have been. I was in Memphis. I was on the way to the hospital with my sister. Mama driving us, though up until that day, I can’t say I even knew Mama could drive. You see, a mother always has her secrets. We waited in the waiting room for Jenelle.

And that’s when we saw it. Everyone crowded around the TV. The star shuttle Challenger gone. Rerun, rerun, rerun. Which is to say, being at the launch wasn’t really the worst thing to ever happen to me, because I wasn’t there at the launch at all. I didn’t even watch it live on cable TV, like I know some kids did at school. The lines of smoke curling to the earth. Like arms stretching out to hold a person. That is what I saw. Dr. McNair dead. Him and his saxophone and his Challenger, all in the sea. My sister didn’t come out either. She was alive. But she stayed in there. Two nights. Something about the baby. And then she didn’t come back home. We didn’t see her for months. I don’t think Pop has ever seen her again. “Raising your sister was a challenge,” Mom would say. Pop never said a thing. I always think of Jenelle, pretty in that little red Uhura dress.

And what of Gary’s white heifer? I have to guess her story is that she married religious, had babies and babies for God. Did her nastiness with Gary and then left me with that. I didn’t get the chance to marry a good Christian man, thanks to her. I didn’t get a chance to have babies and babies for God. Just you. And I can’t say rightly that we raised you for God. Honest to goodness? I raised you for me.

And that pastor on the TV? That white man, with slicked-back silver hair and a strong Georgia voice. “Where is your marriage physically located?” he’d asked. I never forgot that question. My answer hadn’t been right, I suppose. I worked so hard on that quilt. Though, I always hated quilting. That is God’s honest truth.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by Christian Colton, curated by Dana Lyons.

Tiphanie Yanique is a Fulbright Scholar, a National Book Award 5 Under 35 awardee, winner of the Bocas Prize for Caribbean Poetry, the United Kingdom’s 2016 Forward/Felix Dennis Prize for a First Collection, the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Award from the Center for Fiction, the Phillis Wheatley Award for Pan-African Literature, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Family Foundation Award and Pushcart Prize. Her books include LAND OF LOVE AND DROWNING, HOW TO ESCAPE FROM A LEPER COLONY, and WIFE. Tiphanie is from the Virgin Islands and is a professor at Wesleyan University.

Where Did You Go?

Beth Little

Remember that time we were running in the marsh behind my house, and I got stuck? Right in that spot between the tide river and the tall grass? Remember? I stepped right where my dad always told us to go around. “Careful over there,” he said. “Like a sinkhole. It’ll suck you up.” He should have known we weren’t listening. We were ten.

We were running and laughing. We were always laughing. Always running. This time, you were doing your silly high-knees walk through the grass like a weird ostrich, cheering me up because that jerk Duncan made fun of me at school again. I was still sad about it, and I didn’t have to tell you. You knew.

We’d had that thing in class where we were sharing our family stories. Remember? Classic fourth grade. You told everyone how your parents met at Disney World. Love at first sight and then you were born. You made it up. Better than the truth, you’d said. People clapped. Then it was my turn.

“I came into my family on a plane.” I explained how my parents had to travel to Korea to get me, how it cost lots of money, and how I felt special because they picked me. I needed a family, and I got one.

I went back to my seat while people clapped. You patted me on the shoulder.

During free time, Duncan and his crowd circled around me.

“Why would anyone pay money to have you? No way.” He laughed and pointed to the door. “Send it back. It’s too ugly.”

The circle laughed, their mouths full of Goldfish and graham crackers.

“Her real mom had it right.” He motioned like he was kicking something into the nearby trash bin.

“Leave her alone,” you said.

I remember standing behind you, watching his face turn red.

“What’re you going to do about it, Faggy Finn?”

When you put your arm around me and turned us the other way, he laughed and took off with his buddies. I could feel the tears welling up.

Then you did what I’ll never forget. You put your arms up like wings and strained your neck and did the ostrich walk right across the playground and then back at me. You pecked at my head and shoulders, and I smiled and laughed out loud, forgetting everything else. You were doing it again later in the marsh, and it was working. I forgot about my bad day.

I giggled and imitated you and before I realized, I was right where Dad said not to go. I heard the sloop of the muck as it filled my boots.

“Finn!” I screamed.

You turned and ran back.

“Give me your hand,” you said.

I reached up, and you grabbed my hands with both of yours, and you pulled as hard as you could.

“Ow!” I yelled.

You let go and I started to cry. Of course, it wasn’t dangerous. I wasn’t going to die, but at that age everything is magnified. Every emotion. Every incident. It was life or death to us. When you’re ten, life is big. Bigger than us. The marsh was vast. The ocean beyond it even more so. Sure, we saw ourselves as big kids. But we were not immune to getting scared. Not immune to sinkholes.

We could see my house, just barely, across the marsh, and through the trees.

“I’m going to find your dad.”

“Don’t go.”

“Someone has to save you, and I can’t get you out.”

I remember how defeated you looked. I took a deep breath and stopped crying. I was going to be brave for you.

“Here,” you said and reached into your pocket. You took out one of the two silver dollars you always had on you. The one with the handsome, dead president on it. The one you let me hold when we watched Finding Nemo during the part when the shark smells the blood and chases them. I’m still scared of sharks, you know. Your gran gave them to you for luck, so of course, they were sacred. Magical.

I held the coin in my hand; it was warm from living in your jeans.

“Hold on to this and don’t let go until I come back.”

You squeezed my hand and ran. It felt like you were gone forever, but you and Dad came back and you helped him pull me out. I lost those boots, but I still have the coin. It’s here. On my desk. I’m not sure what I’ll do with it.

Now, I’m staring at it, thinking about you, about what happened. It’s all I can think about since Friday. Since we saw it on the news. Since we found out.

I keep catching my dad standing still at the kitchen window, looking out over the tall grass to the tide river like he’s trying to find something. I think he’s wondering what happened to that boy, that best friend of his little girl.

I’m looking, too.

Where did you go?

 

The Washington Post—21 Dead In a Mass School Shooting

It began with a few shots and escalated to one of the most horrific school shootings this country has seen. After only nine minutes, 21 people were dead.

 

Twenty-one people.

That’s a lot of people. It’s not hundreds or thousands like in explosions or wars or even other shootings, but it’s a lot for one person, one gun.

I didn’t sleep at all that night, after I heard about the shooting, after I heard about you. Then, this morning, I was greeted by the paper and its headline on the kitchen table. I stared at the yellow tape, the bodies, the police cars, the crying friends, the teachers, the families, the bodies. Then, I turned the paper over, and there it was, your face. A picture of you from your high school’s yearbook under the fold. You’re so much older than I remember. Of course. It’s been five years. Six? Almost. Your hair is darker. It’s not the light brown with tints of blonde I remember from when we were little. Your jaw is tightly set, lips straight and serious. I barely recognized you.

I threw the paper across the kitchen and ran to the bathroom. Mom tried to follow, but I slammed the door in her face. I got in the tub and pulled the curtain closed. It reminded me of my grandpa’s funeral. Remember? I spent that morning in the tub. Black dress, black tights, black hair in a braid, black Mary Janes. When you got to the house, Mom let you come in to get me.

“Why are you crying?” you asked.

“He’s going to be on display. Like at a museum. Like a stuffed lion.”

“He’s not stuffed,” you said.

“The guy in the coffin isn’t him. He’s gone from here. He’s up there.”

I followed your eyes to the ceiling.

“You believe in heaven?” I asked you.

You thought for a minute, then answered, “I think so. Something’s better than nothing.”

“Much better than nothing,” I agreed.

“Then let’s believe it.”

I nodded and looked up, picturing Grandpa in a fluffy world where old people, any people, can’t fall and hurt themselves. I saw him sitting in his favorite chair, smoking as many of those cigarettes from the yellow box as he wanted, drinking his favorite whiskey, and watching me, smiling.

You held out your hand, and I took it. You pulled something out of your coat pocket.

“From Gran,” you said. “She’s sorry she can’t come, but she has to work.”

It was a travel checkerboard with magnetic pieces, so you can play it in the car without them sliding all over. We played checkers in the lobby of the funeral home during the whole service. You made it an epic match, so I’d forget Grandpa’s cold, not-alive body was in the other room. I’d just won my third or fourth game when Mom and Dad came out to get me.

“It’s time to say goodbye,” Dad said, pulling me up from my place on the carpet.

“Let’s go,” Mom said, taking my hand.

I pulled you along with us.

We entered the room, and I could see Grandpa lying there in his suit. I stopped. Mom let go of my hand, and she and Dad kept walking.

You leaned over and whispered, “Just look down. Follow my feet.”

People moved out of the way for us. You stepped in front of me, eyes up, focused ahead. I followed, watching your neon ReeZigs lead the way. I wished I had those on instead of my tight, clicky Mary Janes. You stopped. I looked up. Your head was straight forward, looking at Grandpa, blocking my view of his face. All I could see was his bottom half. Gray pants, brown shoes. A glimpse of his socks, the ones with the anchors. We stood for a few seconds and then Mom ushered me out from behind you.

“Say goodbye, Haley.”

I wished I was back in the bathtub, hiding. I looked up at the ceiling and then closed my eyes. I saw him, surrounded by soft fluffiness, cigarette and whiskey in hand. A smile on his face.

“Bye, Grandpa,” I whispered.

You took my hand, and we walked back out to the lobby.

I’m back in the tub, staring up at the ceiling, now. I close my eyes. I can’t see you.

 

The New York Times—The Troubled Path of the Country’s Most Recent School Shooter

In the years leading up to the mass shooting at Coleman High School, the shooter came into his own with no real family to guide him. He had an unstable home life, raised mostly by a grandmother who died when he was 12. After her death, he shifted between family members until a second cousin took him into her home before 9th grade. The last three years have been riddled with police interventions, depressive online statements, and social isolation.

 

Remember in the fourth grade when we were obsessed with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe? One time, you pulled everything out of that gigantic wardrobe in your gran’s bedroom, and we pretended to walk through it, into Narnia. You had created the best Narnia in your backyard. You must have been building and molding snow with your hands at dawn. You said it wasn’t a big deal, but there were shoveled-out paths, leading from snow hut to snow hut, winding around the yard right up to the snow castle in the back corner. It had a spire and inside, a snow bench big enough for both of us. I wish your dad hadn’t gotten so mad and kicked them all down.

I remember the look on his face when the back door slammed, and he stomped out into the yard. We hid in the castle, peering out from one of the little windows you’d made. His boots crunched in the snow as he weaved along the paths towards us, kicking holes in the huts, and calling your name.

We crouched down lower. His voice made me shake.

“Finn.”

You didn’t answer. You’d figured out a long time before that talking never got you anywhere. Silence was better.

“What the hell did you do to your grandmother’s bedroom?”

Again, no answer.

I got up on my knees and peeked out. I saw him shrug and shiver. He didn’t have a coat on. Just a t-shirt.

“Finn,” he said again.

Nothing.

He turned and kicked down the rest of the snow buildings on his way back to the house.

Gran came a little while later with hot chocolate and brownies. They were warm and wrapped in foil. The next day, she came out in her snow pants and warmest coat. She helped us rebuild and then she played the White Witch. She had the best cackle.

You know in the news they’re saying you had no one. No one in your family wanted you, you felt abandoned and rejected. That’s not true, not completely. Gran wanted you. Gran loved you, but she died, and you had to move, and no one could do anything about that.

If only I hadn’t stopped emailing you, hadn’t been distracted by new friends, if only I’d tried harder to find you on social media, if only I’d put in the work to keep you in my life, if only I’d made you hear me when I said, “You’re special to me.” If only I’d given back your lucky coin, if only we’d played more with other kids, if only I’d picked up my cell phone last year when that number called, area code of Your New State, if only ….

Maybe none of this would have happened.

Then again, maybe it would have.

 

USA TODAY—After a School Shooting, Who’s to Blame?

Last week, 17-year-old Finn Albert walked into his high school with an AR-556 assault weapon and killed 21 people before taking his own life. This week, the nation is embroiled in a debate about who’s to blame.

 

I’m going to college for acting, you know? Maybe I’ll become famous like you always said I would. I used to have this dream where I’m an actress on a big time TV show and you’re a cool computer game developer. In it, we’re older and way beyond our awkward phases. We’re good looking. Hot even. We’re happy and in our twenties, and we meet up, and you realize you love me. “I’ve always loved you,” you say, and we kiss. It’s one of those amazing kisses where lips know what to do, and the two people fall into each other like they’d been meant to do that their whole lives.

It’s stupid. I know. I used to think about it a lot, but now, I wish I’d never had that dream. Thinking about it hurts. There’s a pain inside my chest, past the heart, inside the walls of my body, and I don’t think it will ever go away.

We never could have loved each other. We never could have been best friends again. Because how could I love someone like you?

 

The Wall Street Journal—Coleman Shooting Victims Remembered at Church Service

Members of the First Baptist Church, located two blocks from Coleman High School, gathered Sunday to pray for the victims, including the deceased shooter. Pastor Darrell Clifton says the focus of the service is healing. A vigil will be held on Tuesday night on the front steps of the school. The healing will continue there as over 500 are expected to gather.

 

I can’t sleep. You know me; if something’s on my mind, sleep will never come. Not to mention I’m on a bus, and you know how I feel about buses. I’ve been on this bus for five hours, and I’m only halfway there. I know what you’re thinking. What could be so important for me to ride a bus for so long?

The bus drops me at the gas station on Main Street. I walk the half mile to the school. Did you skateboard along this sidewalk with its cracks and uneven concrete? Did you loiter in front of that convenience store? Buy sneakers at that sports shop? Did you get ice cream at that diner? A milkshake maybe? Did you ever kiss a girl on one of these side streets or go to a dance in this town? I hear Mom’s voice, “No more questions, Haley. No more.”

I don’t want to push through the crowds outside the school. It’s not my place. I stand to the side. I’m here to pay my respects, quietly. I’m here to see it for myself, get a sense of this place. It’s a normal, little town, but I can see the sadness oozing from every sidewalk crack, every street lamp, every person I pass.

 

The Boston Globe—Hundreds Hold Vigil for Victims of Coleman Shooting

Nearly 700 people came to the steps of Coleman High School to attend a candlelight vigil for the 21 people killed in the mass school shooting one week ago. The names were read aloud as a large candle was lit for each victim. Friends, family, and community members cried together, remembering their loved ones.

 

I stood at the back of the crowd.

Twenty-one names were read. Candles were lit for each loved one lost. People who were loved by family and friends, loved by someone at some time. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 … 21 names. It was beautiful and sad.

I said your name. I whispered it to myself. I lit the candle I held. Not for the killer, not for you, the boy who did all of this damage, the boy who took twenty-two lives. I lit the candle for the boy I lost, the Finn I knew, the boy in the snow castle. The ostrich in the marsh.

I watched the flame flicker and wave back and forth in the light breeze.

I said your name one more time. “Finn.”

I brought the candle closer, let out one breath, and it went dark.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by Ian Lynam, curated by Dana Lyons.

Beth Little spent twelve years working as an English teacher in New Hampshire. She has two degrees in writing—a MLitt (fiction) from the University of St Andrews in Scotland and a MFA (Writing for Young People) from the Solstice MFA Program of Pine Manor College where she now works as Assistant Director of the program. Beth’s work has been published in the anthology SOMEBODY’S CHILD: STORIES ABOUT ADOPTION, Eastown Fiction, and the YA Review Network. She was awarded a SCBWI Magazine Merit Honor in 2016.

Three Poems

Lizzy Fox

How to Make Art

 

Even when I’m sick, when I feel
the thorn of a sore throat
prick my right tonsil, and I purr
through a stuffed nose
while I dream of spilling my coffee
because I’m stumbling
through the house without opening
my eyes because I can’t open
my eyes because I’m still dreaming
and I’m late for work, I hear
the robin’s circular whistle
at the window. Winter is always long.
But the robin is back. Even
when the weather won’t stand still,
when it throws my body
into viral confusion with snowstorms,
hailstorms, and sixty-degree winds
all in one week, the robin is building her nest.
The robin has work to do. She is singing.

On Power

 

“As a man’s knowledge grows, and his power increases, the road he takes grows ever
narrower, until at last he does only and wholly what he must.” —Ursula K. Le Guin

 

Bicep, bone, bloodstream, esophagus,
coughing fits, apologies, laughter
in the vocal cords and a current of air—
a lamp sits on the table.

Plug it into the wall. Flip it on. Unplug it.
Reconnect. Be careful. You don’t see
the current moving, but you know
it’s there—a circuit.

You see a wire. A glimmer of light.
A backlit lampshade. A shadow.

A friend once gave a shadow-puppet show
in his living room, the paper cutouts
scissor-snip-precise and delicate, intricacies
intended to channel the light exactly
where he wanted it to shine:

eye socket, patterned shirt, in-between
strands of hair. Highlights in the dark.
Sometimes we are backlit.

Take a heart as example, or shock-pads
and monitors, or just the sound of a voice.

You don’t see the current moving,
but you know it’s there—a connection
to tend, to harness, to extend outward.

You see the body you were given, its intricacies
intended to channel the light exactly. You must.
Though you’ll cast a shadow.

 

Fashion, 1860

 

Ballerinas were particularly vulnerable, the tarlatan
and gauze. But all girls could light like chimney fires—

the bells of their hollow hoop skirts funneling air
up the legs. In the days of fireplaces and gas

stage lamps, don’t dance so close. Three thousand
women burned that year catching a hem, tipping a candle.

The fabrics were spiderwebs and angels’ gowns.
The women—dried-out Christmas trees, needles

dropping. Before household electricity,
but mass-produced fabric meant every girl

could leap like Emma Livry. See them
at their mirrors, pretending, making

pouty expressions with eyelashes spread—
the slightest mis-gesture led to death.

Ballerina skirts were longer then, and light—
made to look like seraphs. Everything was white

or lavender or buttercup and paid for by old male patrons
championing his girl to the top of a playbill. Once,

a whole row lit in formation. The one on the end—too close
to the lamp. The others—too close to the girl beside her.

A new dance began.

The same dance when one sister rushed to the fireplace
to put the other out. The trouble with hoop skirts
was that women could move their legs.
They burned down brownstones,

apartment buildings, theaters, lost
icons, lead dancers, soft faces, those long-carved limbs.

She was waiting for a casting call, stressed, sneaking
a cigarette—had just gotten the tobacco lit when he approached.

                    She’d insisted on warming the house with her husband
                    gone to work and the children away.

                                        She needed the candle to find her bedchambers,
                                        brought it right into the room. It cast light
                                        on her smile, her bodice, her undone button.

She was facing the wall, about to breathe in—turned
and tucked the flame quickly behind her back
so he wouldn’t see. You could almost hear the suck of air
pulling inside and up.

                                        She brought the candle to her own bedside,

                                        after all

                    insisted on doing things alone

had the audacity to dance

                                                            was trying to help her sister.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

 

Lizzy Fox is a poet and educator with an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she now works as Associate Director for the MFA in Writing & Publishing program. Her poetry appears in The Greensboro Review and has received the Laura J. Spooner Prize and the Corrine Eastman Davis Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of Vermont. In addition to her own writing, she teaches poetry and recitation in partnership with schools and arts nonprofits across the northeast, as well as online.

Muertos

Gabriela Denise Frank

On the Day of the Dead, souls of the departed return to earth to commune with loved ones. But I wasn’t at my mother’s grave in Phoenix, I was at a bar in Tucson, waiting for the parade. The silver blare of trumpets, the thud of drums, would rouse Catrina the way I wished my mother would quit her dirt bed. I pictured Catrina’s onyx eyes blazing in the dark, their spirit light catching flame. Did she enjoy the warm press of human hands as her attendants, plump and alive, thrust the shriveled stubs of her hobbled feet into shoes, and lay her body on the silk pillow to clothe her skeletal form of old driftwood and corn husks? Did she sense how gently they placed her arms, her hand bones, chipped and scattered, held together by steel wire, through the rough cloth of her dress, before stringing her up on the parade float? Did she mind the scratch of yellowed lace? La Catrina, Zombie Bride, had been revived thousands of times—could she remember what happened when they removed her from the casket, year to year? Had rats and insects gnawed her nose away? Were her mandibles reduced to desiccated straps of sinew? I imagined Catrina’s withered green tongue licking at the stringy pain of rebirth into her brittle skin, her blackened lips stretched back into a horrible smile. Could Catrina sense the burgeoning decay on the marigold wreath they placed atop her head?

Is this how you look, Mom?

I imagined death as blissful oblivion from the tedious pain and heat that was living in Arizona. Falling into cactus. Burning myself on the seat belt. The lick of my father’s belt lashing my legs. To be alive was to smell the stink of melted wax and rotting flowers at funerals.

Did my mother’s limbs ache, her lungs burn, in passing from life to death? Could my mother see me from the other side?

The day we buried her, it snowed in Phoenix. I was sixteen. Powder falling in the desert, a sonorous silence of white. A dream, yet I lived it. Six years later, the memory still troubled me: tiny snow drifts gathered in the gravel, in the shrugging shoulders of saguaro cactus, inside the tiny cups of sage-green mesquite leaves reaching skyward. Silent, and unnatural. The crystals melted with the warmth of my hand.

Six years after her passing, I missed my mother enough to hug her dead body, embrace her even if she were nothing but gristle, hair and bone. A ghastly thing. Love turns us desperate. And faithful.

 

To my boyfriend, Alan, Día de los Muertos in Tucson was merely another party, another reason to meet our best friends, Kurt and Luke, at a bar on Sixth Avenue.

“I’ll get the first round. You guys in?” Kurt asked when we arrived at Che’s Lounge.

Yeah-yeah, we nodded.

At 230 pounds, Kurt had the best chance of pushing his way to the packed bar. Alan went along to pay and carry while Luke and I held the table. Kurt and Luke were roommates, an odd couple—the hefty, tattooed ex-Marine and the over-educated ex-English teacher-slash-visual-artist—but they were both monastic in their housekeeping and got on well. The four of us had formed a close-knit party squad in college.

“You seem jumpy, Grasshopper,” Luke shouted in my ear against the din. He called me that despite being a mere two weeks older.

“I just wanna get to the parade.” I fidgeted with a snag in my secondhand jeans from Buffalo Exchange.

“You sure that’s it?” Luke said, pressing his thigh against mine beneath the table. Luke’s brazen flirtations reassured me that I was wanted. I couldn’t tell whether he actually loved me, or how serious I was about him. For years, we tiptoed at the edge of making moves on each other, laughing off our coquetry.

“Maybe,” I shrugged, sweeping the frizzy ends of my bob behind my ears.

Like me, Luke had known tragedy growing up. His dad ran off with another woman, leaving his mom with six kids to raise. His siblings, even his mother, turned to Luke, the responsible middle child, age ten, to hold them together. The side of him drawn to suffering embraced the never-ending demands of his family—the sort of obligation we Catholics revere.

“Anything I can do to take your mind off things?” he said, stroking my knee.

I fought the fuzzy, excited flutter between my legs and tried to see whether Kurt and Alan made it to the bar. There were too many people and too much clutter. Even without the crowd, Che’s was a messy labyrinth, a tumbling of cheap wicker chairs,wobbly glass-top tables and olive-drab canvas couches. The red walls made me dizzy.

“I don’t know,” I teased, running my nails up the inside skin of his thigh. “You tell me.”

“Hey now,” he said, pushing himself straight in the chair. “Watch it, Grasshopper.”

My gaze flicked to Alan, who was laughing with the bartender at something Kurt said. How long did it take to get a round of drinks?

That day, everything irked me: the high-pitched chatter of freshmen with fake IDs, the Beavis-and-Butthead heh-heh-heh of muscle-head jocks, the jostling of elbows and knees as people passed our table, the speakers squelching the opening notes of “Bittersweet Symphony,” and the squawk of waitresses shouting, “Whaddaya want?”

“Here we go,” Kurt said. He set down two pitchers. Alan followed with shots of whiskey on a tray, two for each of us.

“Día de los Muertos!” Kurt said, thrusting his into the air. His white teeth gleamed against his skin, tanned the shade of burnt sienna from the past four years at the University of Arizona. We hoisted our shots, clinked glasses and tipped the Jack Daniels into the thirsty hollows of our throats, slamming pints of beer behind it.

Alan pounded on the table, hooted and brought my chin forward to plant a sudsy kiss on my lips. I ignored Luke’s sideways glance and fell into Alan’s embrace.

 

Alan and I began as drinking buddies, always last at the bar, spouting the sort of cockeyed philosophy that only makes sense to blitzed liberal arts majors. First, we drank because we made it through finals, then we drank because we had graduated, then because we were young and bored and living in Tucson. We would have gone on trading inebriated doctrines and light flirtations, had I not broken up with my controlling boyfriend and unwittingly moved into Alan’s apartment complex the summer of ’96.

“Hey you,” he called from the second floor.

I looked up, sweaty from schlepping boxes in the blistering heat. “What are you doing here?” I said, skinning a lock of mouse-brown hair behind my ear.

Alan leaned over the stuccoed balcony, sweaty pint glass in hand, and laughed. “I live here. Wanna come up for a beer?”

He pushed his wire-frame glasses up his nose, beaming down a lopsided, friendly grin. He was funny, cute, smart. I was newly single, seeking attention—and a drink. This was damned convenient. My mild crush on him tripled right there.

We never acknowledged our dependency on good times with Kurt and Luke, the unwitting co-conspirators in our well-lubricated relationship. We didn’t speak much about anything serious. Alan was sweet and lighthearted. We partied, blacked out, never thought twice. Nothing could be worse in our small college town than sobering up to admit that, by getting serious with Alan, I was making the wrong choices.

 

Kurt insisted the view of the parade was best from Sixth and Alameda where the tunnel came up from beneath the railroad tracks. We’d have a clear vantage of LaCatrina and her tuxedoed groom waking from the dead to dance the herky-jerk with their skeleton posse.

The once-familiar street was strange with drum beats. Blue-black dusk fell hard, crushing the last sliver of orange sunset beneath billowing bullet-gray clouds. The parade route was lined with torches and policemen, the air expectant with frenzy. Hoots from drunk college kids went off like firecrackers amidst rapid conversations in Spanish, children’s shrieks, and grumbled impatience from Tucson’s elderly residents sprinkled throughout the crowd. Little girls, their heads wreathed in orange marigolds, danced to mariachi music, their dresses fluttering in the chilly air as they spun. Vendors sold frybread, popcorn, hotdogs, tacos, nachos, and cotton candy. The sweet-sick aroma of street food was set off by black plastic trash bags burping hot garbage from the alleys. Beneath the cacophony lay a harried silence; the pause before a jagged crack of lightening.

The kettle drums, skins stretched to the verge of breaking, throbbed in my chest, blunt bellows of force meeting resistance. My innards vibrated inside my wet gut, soft tissue tremors rolling with the tympani. At five-foot-four, I could barely see above the throng lining the roadway. Given the press of the crowd, which extended miles in both directions, a couple hundred thousand people had gathered.

I always felt twitchy this time of year. Halloween of eighth grade was my last night of childhood normalcy, sneaking out with my two best friends. Mom’s diagnosis came November 3.  Three years later, she went into the hospital for the last time on November 13. By Thanksgiving, she lost the ability to speak. On December 18, she died.

Years didn’t matter; it was the entire season.

The air felt splintered and dry, like it would never rain again.

“Here they come!” Kurt bellowed. The parade crew, a squadron of undead attendants in skeleton body suits, bore Catrina’s litter, leading the way with flips, cartwheels, and walk-overs that made us Oooo and Aaaah. We chanted to welcome her,“La Calavera Catrina!”

Emboldened by a sip from his flask, I grabbed Alan’s hand and pushed past a gigantic man wearing a black “IRON MIKE / IRON BITE” T-shirt with a growling photo of Tyson on the back. Tattooed on his biceps were two writhing anacondas. He seemed oblivious to the cold.

“Hey, wait!” Alan called.

I squirmed to the front of the barricade, losing his grip. My head spun from drink; I tried to focus my eyes. We called her to join us in the world of the living, to dance: ¡Despierta, Catrina! ¡Levántate, Catrina! ¡Baila, Catrina!

Catrina turned, arms raised, to survey the crowd. She howled like a wolf, long and piercing, up into the black sky. Her laughter reverberated against the concrete walls of the one-story warehouses surrounding us. Eyes searching, she was now alert, awake,baring her skeletal teeth. Her undead husband swooned her into a dip to our cheers. In life, they were Bride and Groom; in death they remained verged on their wedding night.

La Catrina shook off the stiffness of her death sleep and threw sprays of pastel candy into the crowd. I prayed for her to throw a handful at me—evidence of life beyond the grave, the sort of skulls I could catch and keep. My hands outstretched, the swell of the undulating crowd pushed my body forward, my spine threatening to snap against the wooden barricades, the force of hundreds of bodies pressed on mine as we fought for the same cheap prizes.

The crowd chanted, “Awake! Awake!” ¡Viva! ¡Viva! ¡Viva! Live, live, live! I chanted, too—privately, to my mother: Live!—through hot, fat inebriated tears. I searched the crowd, wondering if she heard me, if she had woken from her grave. She had promised, long before she was sick, that she would never leave me.

“Do you know how much I love you?” Mom said to me, slung in her lap. We curled up to read books together in bed at night.

“How much?” I asked. I loved it when we repeated these lines.

“I love you more than anyone in the world. Did you know that you’re my favorite person?” I looked up into her eyes and saw she meant it. Her words, a protective charm; her love, more home than home. “I will always take care of you,” she promised, hugging me to her chest.

There was no reason to doubt her, even in death. If I was patient, she’d find me.

On passing, Catrina’s glittering eyes met mine. “Viva Catrina!” I shouted, sparking the grace of her undead smile. The pink skulls she tossed landed softly in my hand.

 

I let Alan rescue me from the crowd after Catrina’s float went by. “Are you okay?” he kept asking, putting his arm around me. “Yeah,” I said, pulling away to wipe my swollen eyes. I wanted to hit him when he treated me like glass.

“Wanna go to The Buffet?” he asked. Our favorite dive. My cure-all.

“Nah. Let’s hit it on the way home,” Kurt said. “I’m in the mood for someplace new.”

“A place on Congress just opened—Divine or Velvet,” Luke said. “Something with a V.” He always had a line on the new clubs; per usual, we followed him.

The flat desert air made me wish I had worn something warmer than a T-shirt and denim jacket. I pulled the edges closed with the hand Alan kept trying to hold and quickened my pace. Though my head felt thick, I wanted another drink, fast.

Crossing Sixth, I glimpsed a woman who resembled Mom—tall, dark brown curly hair, olive skin. I stopped cold. Had my prayers worked?

It wasn’t her, of course. This woman laughed and put her arm around some guy. My mother lay buried, surrounded by dead senior citizens in Sun City, a 50+ master planned community, three feet away from my grandfather in the soldiers’ section. We didn’t know where else to put her; burying her by herself seemed lonely.

How the hell could I ever explain depressing, random thoughts like this to Alan, whose life revolved around music, movies, and drunken foreign exchange adventures in Europe?

There was a line outside Velvet or Divine, whatever name hung in hot purple neon script in the club’s window. Alan was entertaining Kurt and Luke with a story about getting drunk and throwing up on his sergeant during the first day of basic training in Georgia. Normally, his tales amused me, but I moved away to stand against the storefront glass of the dark stationery shop next door. I could feel the chill of my mother’s hospital room like I was still there. The cold glass at my back was reminiscent of the hard, wooden visitor chairs, impossible to get comfortable in, and the icy air conditioning of Mom’s room where I spent every night after school.

“You okay, Grasshopper?” Luke asked, putting his arm around my shoulders. His body warmed me where his torso met mine.

“Mm-hmm,” I said, trying to smile.

“Don’t believe you.”

“Not trying to fake it,” I sneered.

“Jesus. Why are you always such a bitch?” he laughed, shaking his head.

“Comes naturally,” I said, though I didn’t really want him to go.

He shrugged and returned to where Kurt and Alan stood in line. I lit a Marlboro and marveled at the lightheaded detachment that carbon monoxide conjured, watching Alan’s eyes twinkle as he launched into his next story, about partying in Koblenz: at the sight of the full moon, he peeled off his clothes and ran up a grassy hill, howling like a werewolf until his squad, unable to dissuade him, joined in. To be free like that.

Eventually, the line moved and we made it inside. I was glad the pulsing music was too loud for conversation. I tapped my feet to “Semi-Charmed Kind of Life” without the slightest desire to dance. Fuck this. Fuck the trendy blonde girls spilling drinks on me, slinking by in slutty black dresses, with their doting parents who drove down on weekends with care packages and clean laundry. I needed a cocktail. It must have been apparent. Alan brought me a Long Island Iced Tea, which I drank in one steady guzzle before polishing off his.

“Bloody hell,” he said. “Want another?”

“Sure.”

“Seriously,” Alan said, pulling his chair close, his hands on my knees. “What’s wrong with you?”

I hated his sympathy. When I was in a bad mood, his addle-brained kindness always made me feel worse. “What’s wrong with poor old me?!” I slurred. “Are you kidding? You’d never understand.”

“You always say that. Why don’t you try me?”

“You wouldn’t know what to do! You’re a—” I stuttered. How cruel did I want to get? “You’re a spoiled Mama’s boy,” I said finally. “You’ve never had it hard.”

“Well, fuck you!” he said, sitting back. “Whatever’s eating you, get over it!”

I was thrilled to see him in distress. I half-hoped he would hit me. He generally handled me better than anyone, except Mom, and for him, like her, I mostly behaved. As much as I thought I wanted a good guy, particularly after my last boyfriend, a year of Alan’s nothing-but-fair-skies love made me feel trapped. Sometimes I liked dwelling in the tidy cage of his affection, but I’d be lying if I said it always fit. It’s like he didn’t know bad things happened to good people, and that good people sometimes did shitty things. He wouldn’t like the real me. I hated him for not knowing who he was dealing with, and really, whose fault was that?

“What’s wrong with me?” I spat, my heart racing. “It’s you, with your perfect family! You grew up with everything, and you don’t even know it!”

Whenever Alan’s parents visited, they took us out to fancy dinners with expensive wine. Alan got his storytelling capabilities from his dad, an airline captain, who loved to talk about the big, drafty old Craftsman they renovated in the suburb of Chicago where Alan grew up.

His dad regaled us with tales of TITS—Tennis Invitational Tournament Spectacular—for which he made custom baseball hats with plush pink boobs on them for their otherwise buttoned-down friends. Alan’s mother told the cute stories, like about Alan’s paper route: he had rigged up a sled to their Husky dog who pulled it through the snow. Alan spent summers at camp and had more gadgets and clothes than a kid could want—plus three colleges that his parents paid for, which he partied his way out of prior to joining the military. He didn’t return to school until he turned thirty, which is where I met him. Life did not demand much from him, it seemed.

I didn’t realize until that moment how jealous I was.

“What are we even fighting about?” Alan sputtered.

“Nothing! Everything!” my voice cracked. “You have no idea how hard it is for me,” I choked. “You don’t get what it means to have no one—to have nothing.”

“You have—”

“I’ve got no mother, no father, no one to take care of me. I don’t have the luxury of screwing up. You’ve had chance after chance, and your parents always save you. Even now, at thirty-three!”

I shattered my glass on the concrete floor and stormed off, shoving the bodies of strangers from my path. They swayed back and forth, a gauntlet of human sandbags. I elbowed through with a savagery that shocked the nugget of my normally quiet self, now cowering deep in my gut.

I made my way to the front of the club, the ejaculations of, “Ow!” and, “Hey!” splashing in my wake. My eyes narrowed on the glowing green EXIT sign hovering above the front door. I wanted to punish Alan for being stupid enough to love me and I wanted to punish my mother for dying, but I mostly wanted to punish myself because pain seemed to be the one thing I could feel. Everything else—even love and sex—was dull.

I broke the portal and stepped into the night.

 

I turned off Congress, not wanting Alan to find me too easily; I was sure he was right behind me. I walked left and then right down dimly lit streets, through stagnant puddles of dumpster sluice and pools of sulphur lamplight. A volcanic rage propelled my legs into the south of downtown Tucson. I crossed lots I didn’t recognize, my mind focused on one mantra—Alan doesn’t understand, he can’t understand—pounding bruises into the meat of my thighs.

I could never really talk to my friends in junior high and high school about my mother’s death, either. They didn’t probe; maybe they thought they’d hurt my feelings by asking. I wasn’t about to offer stories about her sobbing in a ball on the bathroom floor, mourning over the loss of her breast, the ugliness of her baldness, the burnt skin of her chest from radiation treatments. When I hugged her, the gadgetry of the IV port stemming from her aorta poked me. Did she know that I backed off so I wouldn’t tug or displace it? Did she think I was repulsed by her, too?

Her last night alive—should I talk about her blue-gray pallor? Her cold, sallow flesh, spiny with dark brown hairs that pushed through the skin of her legs? That last hasp of breath, the sound of her fogging an invisible mirror? Did Alan want to know that? Did he want to hear about my father’s rage after my mother was gone? His calloused mechanic’s hands on my face, my body? Asking me to take him to the emergency room the night he thought he broke his hand swinging at me, only to punch a hole in the drywall instead? On the drive to the hospital, he told me to lie if the nurses asked me how it happened. “They’ll take you away from me,” he warned. As if that would be a bad thing.

Alan’s parents loved and cared for him above all.

I was afraid he’d see how much more I wanted them than him.

 

After Mom died, I fantasized about killing myself. Not slitting my wrists or taking pills like the Jennifers and Jessicas in high school. I wanted something awful to happen to me, outside of my control. I wanted the permission to give up, to lose, to be put out of my misery.

I started smoking when she went into the hospital, fishing used butts from the ashtray at Thunderbird Samaritan. I drank at parties until I passed out; I don’t know how I got home some nights. I dated controlling guys, went off with strangers I met at parties, had unprotected sex and a pregnancy scare my senior year of high school. An abortion my freshman year of college.

Storming out of the bar, alone, at night, drunk, on the Day of the Dead, in order to punish my goody-two-shoes boyfriend and put myself in danger—in context, what I did was understandable.

 

The spring before I turned eighteen, I stood in my bedroom, thigh-high in a herd of cardboard moving boxes, making difficult choices. Most of my beloved books lay at the bottom of the larger ones. I had reserved five favorites—The Pie and the Patty-Pan, The Pushcart War, A Light in the Attic, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and The Stand—in a smaller box.

“You’re behind,” my father growled during his stop at home that morning. He had come from his girlfriend’s apartment to shower and change clothes; he lingered at the door of my mostly unpacked room. “We move in three weeks. You’d better get your butt in gear.”

He remained at the doorway.

“And do the laundry after school,” he spat. “It’s piling up.”

I flipped him off after he walked down the hallway.

He slammed the front door, rattling it in the frame.

My father didn’t notice that I had spirited away a few pieces of my mother’s jewelry in the sealed boxes, as well as travel photo albums from her single days, a tie-neck purple blouse that still smelled of Chanel No. 5, and a hand-sized prayer book inlaid with mother-of-pearl—a present for her first Communion. After Mom died, Dad had packed away these belongings. Proof of her existence disappeared; to walk through our house, you’d never guess that she had lived with us—or lived at all. He started dating Sandy that spring. Shortly thereafter, he donated or tossed most of Mom’s things, except for three boxes at the back of his closet from which I pilfered.

Two weeks later, a van pulled into our driveway while Dad was at work. My grandmother—his mother, who we called Nanny—hired movers to transport my clothes and a few boxes containing my entire life into her house. She urged the men to move quickly. Nanny didn’t have much extra space at home; my piano, which she had bought for my tenth birthday, went to Uncle Don’s for safekeeping. My beagle, Sheba, I had to leave behind.

That day, my lineage was effectively erased. The remaining proof of my childhood, my mother, and our family of three resided in the scant memorabilia I took.

It wasn’t until that afternoon at Nanny’s house, unpacking my boxes in her guest room, that the sense of fucked-upedness descended. Neither of us said it aloud: she helped me run away from home for fear my father would beat me—or worse. The move felt sudden, though we had plotted my extraction for months.

Despite my fear of and hatred for him, I left Dad a note. I didn’t want him to think something horrible had happened to me when he returned to an empty house. Why I felt obliged to alleviate his worry says something about my sense of childhood debt, I suppose.

That evening, upon discovering my letter—when he realized that I had pretended to pack those boxes, that I had left him—he phoned Nanny in a rage. His rambling howl, recorded on her answering machine, was more animal than human. The words we could make out were, “You think you can get away with this? You’ll fucking regret it, both of you!”

That night, at Nanny’s ranch-style house in Sun City, I could only worry about the two of us: Dad was armed. A Colt .45 in the glove box of his red Trans Am, a .38 Special and a Winchester rifle in his closet. My body stiffened when a car rumbled past, its headlights sweeping yellow-white beams across the walls of what was now my bedroom. For many nights that summer, I anticipated the thud of his fists beating down the front door. Mom, buried in Sunland Memorial Park nearby, could no longer protect me like she promised.

 

I had been walking for hours. I was somewhere in South Tucson; it was past one or two o’clock in the morning. There were few areas in our college town where a woman alone would be in trouble, and I was in it. I kept going.

Nothing looked familiar. I didn’t have a clue where my anger had taken me. I was exhausted and drunk. I had to pee. I paused at the lip of an alley, looking around. Not a soul. Metal music played a few streets over, a late-night bar that I probably didn’t want to find.

I looked up at the black sky. No moon. I stepped into the alley a couple of feet, unzipped my jeans and squatted next to a stack of cardboard boxes. A warm flood of relief splashed between my feet.

Without warning, the silhouette of a man stepped into a pool of downcast lamplight at the far end of the alley.

I sucked in my breath and crouched deeper, squat-walking back against the grimy wall. Did he see me? I stretched out my legs and pushed back into the bricks so that I could stay low while zipping up my jeans. Dashes of urine wet the inside of my underwear.

I had nothing on me—no weapons, not even car keys—except my driver’s license, a pack of cigarettes, and the candy skulls inside my pocket. Cell phones, a new thing even for business people, were out of reach for broke receptionists like me.

“Hey!” the man shouted, his voice bouncing off the walls of the narrow passage. His silhouette was massive, his face cast in shadow.

I stood slowly, my legs trembling.

We stared each other down across the distance of the alley, perhaps a hundred and fifty feet. His wet eyes shone within the dark void of his face, two flashing mirrors. His hands wavered at his sides. Was he lost? Homeless?

My blood iced in my limbs as he began to walk towards me. In that moment, I felt just how far from home I had come.

Walk, whispered my mother’s voice. Go. Now. Turn and step the other way.

I pivoted, slowly, to the left and stepped one foot, then the other in the direction I had come. No sudden moves. I stepped through broken concrete and gravel where the sidewalk used to be. From behind, a heavy rhythm of sneakers slapping on asphalt—the man was chasing me.

I took off.

His grunts echoed off the shuttered storefronts. I ran, my breath jagged, my legs on fire, turning one corner and the next. I just needed to get to Kurt’s house and I’d be okay. Alan would be there. I’d fix everything.

“Hey! You! Girl!” the man boomed. He was closer than I thought. Faster! my mother urged. I ran harder, my legs surging with adrenaline. The sulphur street lamps blurred past.

Slap-slap-slap-slap!

He was behind me, gaining.

I ran up one street and down the next, 20th to Scott to 19th, turning sharp corners, hoping to lose him by zig-zagging towards the lights of the university district.

Slap-slap-slap!

How much longer could I keep this up? A searing pain bloomed in my asthmatic lungs; I regretted every cigarette I had ever smoked.

“Get back here!” he shouted again.

I ran and I ran and I ran.

 

Death was the door to a world that held my mother. It wasn’t until I ran for my life that I realized my death wishes were actually about an ease from suffering rather than a call for it.

I ran harder than I thought possible, no breath for stopping or screaming. Who would hear me, anyway? The storefronts were papered up, the office towers dark. I had a sick laugh at the four years I nearly failed P.E. for not being able to run the mile in less than fifteen minutes. If only Coach Youngberg could see me now.

My chest ached as I imagined La Catrina’s lungs burned, too, from breathing more air than a dead body can rightly exchange. Is that how my mother felt in her final breaths going down, the wretched, jagged exhales of the comatose? Don’t worry, her nurse, Michael, said in between sucking rasps, she can’t feel anything.

I cut a vacant corner and nearly ran right into a few kids my age. They had spilled out of the side door of Club Congress, their skin glistening from dancing in the small, crowded room.

“Hey!” one of the girls said when I brushed her arm.

“Sorry, this guy—” I turned around and he was gone.

I hung my head between my legs, a gurgle of sick rising in the back of my throat. The girls blew smoke and laughed at me.

“What the fuck is her problem?”

“What-ever. Freak.”

I panted, unashamed, until my heart slowed.

My hands trembling, I walked past the mumbling junkies slumped inside the Fourth Avenue Tunnel on my way to Kurt’s. Compared to what I had just been through, their gauntlet didn’t frighten me like it normally would. I kicked a path through their jetsam and turned right on Ninth.

Most of the duplexes and motor court apartments were dark. Their weedy yards, eerie in the moonlight, held graveyard scenes leftover from Halloween. The one bright spot was The Buffet Bar and Crock Pot where three men flopped face-down out front where the doorman had bounced them. The Buffet stayed open past two a.m., although God knew what time it was. The place reminded me of Cannery Row; if Mack and the boys had transformed the Palace Flophouse into a bar, it would have been The Buffet. It was one of few places in town I felt happy.

This is where Alan and I had kindled our friendship, where he taught me to hold down my first shot, where we played thousands of games of air hockey, where—on a dare—I tossed my bra over the moldering buffalo head mascot on the shiplap wall above the bar. A person could get properly drunk at The Buffet at nearly any hour of day for a reasonable price. They served hot dogs, cooked in a crock pot, plated on coffee filters with sides of chopped onion, pickle relish, and champagne mustard. On slow nights I lingered in the ladies’ room, deciphering sage advice from decades-old graffiti carved into the wall.

Ninth Street grew darker as I carried on, or maybe it was my eyes; the adrenaline ebbed from my body. Shadowed row houses paraded by slowly on the walk east, like a rotating canvas backdrop in a school play. With every footfall, I felt my moment of choice arrive.

I could dump Alan for Luke, who had no assured future beyond his art, whose affections were thrilling but uncertain as my own—or I could be smart and marry Alan, like he had been hinting at for the past few months. With my mother gone, I needed someone to save me, and he was the only person who kept volunteering for the task.

 

With Alan I knew I had the upper hand. The night of the homecoming game, that year we actually won, on the walk back to Kurt’s, I pulled off the weedy sidewalk to light a cigarette. Poof. I cupped my hand to shelter the shivering shard of bright, dipping my Marlboro into the fire. Alan and Kurt ambled on, shouting lyrics to “Bear Down Arizona.”

Luke put his arm through mine. We pushed at each other, pretending to squabble, knocking hips. He tickled my armpits. Child’s play.

Luke put his arm around my waist. I watched for Alan’s glance. I sort of wanted him to be jealous. To fight for me. I leaned into Luke’s humid body. It was too early to be as tired as I felt. The temperature hovered at 85 degrees after sundown, after we had been jumping up and down for three hours shouting bawdy cheers.

Hot air rushed out of Kurt and Luke’s side of the duplex when we opened the door.

“Wanna see something?” Luke asked. I shrugged.

“Want another beer?” Alan called at me from the kitchen.

“Yeah,” I said, “I’ll be right there.”

I followed Luke into his room. He closed the door. It was a little cooler in his cell, albeit crowded with boxes and luggage stacked waist-high. It reminded me of my childhood bedroom, only Luke was coming rather than going. Luke had returned that week from a two-month backpack tour of Africa with old school chums during which he had lost thirty pounds. He looked cuter and blonder than I remembered.

He cleared a place for me at the edge of his bed. I imagined what it might be like if he threw me down and made love to me right there. My heart beat faster. Is that what he wanted to show me? I hoped he would crush me with desire.

He dug inside a box, tossing crumpled newspaper out of the way, and extracted a soft flat package tied with string. He unrolled the parcel slowly, turning it over and over until the brown paper fell away. A small handwoven tapestry lay in his hands. He held it out to me.

Giraffes, lions, antelopes, and cheetahs, sewn in black and gold thread, lounged at a watering hole beneath a large round circle of sun. Mouth thrown open mid-roar, the lion’s red tongue held the sole dash of color. “It’s beautiful,” I breathed. He looked me in the eyes, the way guys do when they’re going to plant one on you—a queasy expression. The idea of actually kissing Luke was like going over a waterfall. I clung to the tapestry; I needed to grab hold of something. After years of build-up, he gave me the quickest of pecks, a testing kiss.

That was it?

I searched for something witty or sexy to say.

“You kissed me,” I stuttered.

“You noticed,” he said.

He broke the spell by drawing the underside of my chin to his. He leaned in, his breath passing inside my mouth, his warm, wet lips mashing mine.

Without warning, my stomach churned.

Shots of rum and tequila were fighting with the lukewarm beer I drank during the game. My hand flew to my face; I fled to the bathroom, slamming the door. Vomit sputtered out of me in slushy chunks, partially missing the porcelain.

“You okay in there?” Alan knocked. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah,” I burped, sinking to the tile while my guts churned.

Alan stroked my hair, wiped my mouth with flimsy toilet tissue, rubbed his hand on my back in circles like Mom used to do.

“She okay?” Luke asked from the hallway.

“Yeah,” Alan said. “I got her.”

 

Relief flooded through my body when I saw the front yard of Luke and Kurt’s place, painted in golden porch light. Alan’s car was out front. I had made up my mind. He would give me the family I desperately needed; besides, didn’t everyone say that you should marry your best friend?

I ignored my intuition, which said that our I-do’s would likely come undone—that I would be the one to break them. Like Catrina, I buried myself that morning, along with my desires. It never occurred to me that I had another choice that involved neither Alan nor Luke.

The shadowy man had run down a part of me, even though my body escaped. He made me feel how unsafe I was on my own. I sloughed off my independence right there in the yard, a moth-eaten fur coat left atop the trash with the rest of the dead things.

My mother was never coming back—not through magic or prayers. Her voice, conjured in the dark spells of the night, was gone. It was November 2, the red fingers of dawn beginning to scrape across the sky. I was tired of fighting and too scared to face the world alone.

Without knocking, I stepped inside to find Alan on the phone with the police. He was furious and happy to see me, hugging me and yelling at me for running off . I had to affirm for the cops that I really was okay; they were sending a squad car by to be sure.

After we hung up, I had a hard time meeting anyone’s gaze. Kurt’s scolding, followed by a bear hug, was the easiest to take; Luke mumbled that he was glad I was okay, then slunk off to his room. Alan took me into his arms with a roughness that gave me hope.

Alan kissed me, and I felt the long-ago spark from when we first dated. That exciting newness when it was just the two of us, before we revealed our romance to our friends.

Maybe it will work, a part of me thought. His protective embrace felt more home than home, or I told myself it did. That’s what I wanted more than anything. It was the first time I understood that something wrong and something right could be the same thing.

The pink candy skulls, now crushed, remained in my pocket.

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of CIVITAVERITAS: AN ITALIAN FELLOWSHIP JOURNEY. A writer of fiction and essays, her work has appeared in True Story, Crab Creek Review, Gold Man Review, Lunch Ticket, The Rumpus, and Front Porch Journal. Her writing is supported by fellowships, residencies and grants from 4Culture, Jack Straw Cultural Center, Mineral School, The Civita Institute and Vermont Studio Center, where this story was composed. Special thanks to Sigrid Nunez who contributed critical feedback on MUERTOS.

The Gift

Margo Lemieux

Chapter One

The Boy

 

The boy shouldered the ax and carried the bucket down to the stream. These days the ice was harder to break up. Winter was coming.

But today the air was mild and the stream still running briskly. His thick black hair, grown to collar length, kept his neck warm. The sky was so blue it hurt. A pair of eagles circled in the valley, so gracefully they looked like the air was holding them up.

Some people would have said the boy was too young to be on his own, but as far as he knew, he had always been on his own. Even at the Home, he had been on his own because nobody watched after him. Oh, he had been fed and had a bed, but nobody talked to him, tucked him in, read to him, even when he was little. Now, at twelve, he was too old for bedtime stories. Not that anyone cared.

He figured it was probably days before anyone even noticed he was gone.

Except—maybe for the money. He felt bad about that, but he hadn’t been able to think of any other way.

He gazed at the ice blue sky. In front of him, the mountain stream plunged into the valley below. Beyond, the hills rolled away, waves of rust and brown, punctuated by patches of moss green spruces pointing to the sky. Not a house as far as the eye could see.

Not another person. The eagles waltzed effortlessly in wide circles, rising higher and higher.

The air that had stung the inside of his nose in the pre-dawn cold was warming as the shadows of the distant hills slid down the mountains to the west. A glorious sun was cresting the mountains. Today would be a good day to hike into town. Soon there would be big snows and after that, who knows when he would be able to go again.

The dog raced around him in sheer delight. The frosty leaves crunched under her feet.

“Here, girl.” He took time to throw a branch for her.

She grinned, scooped up the branch, and ran back to the cabin.

“Good dog,” he called. “We need more firewood.” Finding the dog had been pure luck, just like finding the cabin. She had just joined up with him one day as he skirted the railroad yard in the capital. A thin and grungy brown mutt she was, and she had stayed with him. More than he could say for anyone else, including his mother. He barely remembered her, but he still remembered the day she had left him. He had waited, alone, a long time for her to come back. Then there were different people fussing over him. Always different people, he thought as he trudged along.

The walk into town was long, and he took the gun with him. Maybe he could get a deer. “I only hunt what I need to live,” he told the trees. “The elk, the deer, the squirrels are my brothers.”

He knew they  wanted to find him in the woods. He knew they would be searching for him, especially to get back the money. But he was meant to be alone. No one had ever cared about him. Why should he care about them?

Anyway, if they found him, they would send him back to the Home, back to the nightmares.

 

Chapter Two

Into the Town

 

The noonday sun was quite warm. Long before he reached the cluster of haphazard buildings—general store and post office, the town—he shed his hat, letting his hair absorb the sun.

The land was level here, a sort of plateau shaped by the face of the mountain on one side and by the river valley on the other. Some of the houses in the center of town were old, Victorian style, with ornate gables and wraparound porches. The rest were an assortment of ranch style, log cabins, and odd, indescribable buildings that had no character at all.

The church and the few ramshackle hotels sat quietly in the midday sun.

The general store looked ready to fall down. Perched close to the steep riverbank, it was more a collage than a solid structure, where previous owners had added and subtracted according to needs and whims.

“Hey, boy.” Surrounded by an assortment of tires and shovels on the porch, the man they called Old Rat had tilted his chair against the wall, squinting at the sun. His pointy nose, the tip dark from the years of exposure to scorching summer sun and the frigid winter winds, wiggled cheerfully. The pipe stem disappeared into the crevice between his nose and chin, where his mouth ought to be.

“Hi,” the boy said. He couldn’t bring himself to call the man Old Rat. It sounded derogatory somehow. Old Rat took the gun. He broke it open, inspected the barrel, sniffed it.

“Been keepin’ ’er good, I see. Jest like I showed ya.” He grinned, deep wrinkles crinkling his face.

“Just like you showed me,” said the boy.

He left the gun and the dog with Old Rat and entered. The heat of the big wood stove hit him like an open oven.

He paused to let his eyes stop down and adjust to the dark. The smells of freshly baked bread and tractor tires mingled with the powdery odor of animal feed.

The inside was the same confusion. The shelves and counters were crammed with food, clothing, seeds and fertilizer, cedar souvenir boxes. Nearly every imaginable item hung, sat, waited somewhere in neat disorder to be needed.

“Hi,” said Mr. Flynn, the mayor and proprietor. “Got some new magazines in, boy.” His voice was big, like his chest. His snow white mustache matched his broad butcher apron rather than his thick cardboard-brown hair.

While Mr. Flynn was busy with customers, the boy wandered to the book rack. Books were his friends. Those long evenings at the Home, he had filled the time reading. Books on hunting and fishing and surviving in the wilderness. What berries to eat, how to skin a squirrel.

Maybe he could write a book. Someday.

He picked up a couple of magazines and a book on preserving game meat. He would have liked to buy more to read, but it was a long hike back. Every ounce would be heavy.

Matches. Ammo. He had wasted a lot of ammo picking off pine cones. Crackers and cocoa. Granola. Should he get vitamins? The Nurse Lady at the Home was always telling the kids to take their vitamins.

The Nurse Lady. From top to bottom, she was the color of skim milk. White dress. White legs. White hair. The skim-milk blue under her eyes. Even her voice was thin and watery.

In her pale voice, she had said, “Take your vitamins, dear. Then you won’t bruise so easily.”

He never took his, and he never got sick. He never took his and nobody ever noticed.

 

Chapter Three

Wolves Been Sighted

 

“How’s everything with your family, the uh … ?” Mr. Flynn asked, stacking the compact bullet boxes on the counter.

“My cousins, the Smiths,” the boy said. “They’re fine.”

He turned quickly to the display stand of batteries by the door. Too many questions always. He should have remembered that about Mr. Flynn. All those questions forced him to make up the story in the first place. What was he supposed to say? That he was all by himself in a cabin up on the mountain? That he had run away from the Home? Then they would want to send him back.

Mr. Flynn peered sideways at him. “Been wolves sighted there up on the north face,” he said, weighing up the granola. “You ain’t seen um, have ya?”

The boy shook his head.

“Well, you take care. Them wolf packs been known to tear a man to pieces just fer fun. In me dad’s day, we could shoot ’em on sight.” He shook his head. “No more. Not allowed to. You just wait. Somebody’s agonna git killed. How come your cousins don’t drive you down? Where was it now they live?”

“I like to walk,” he said trying to change the subject. “I’ll have some of those dog biscuits too.”

It was time to go. Too much talking could mess everything up.

The pack was heavy, but he refused to let Mr. Flynn see he had trouble getting it to his shoulders.

“Well, boy, nice seein’ ya.” The big man paused on his way to help another customer. “You …” He stopped. “You watch out fer them wolves,” he said finally.

Old Rat was asleep in the sun, the dark tip of his nose protruding from the shade of his oily hunting cap. The dog rested her chin on Old Rat’s lap. His mottled brown hand rested on her head.

“Have to go,” said the boy.

Old Rat barely moved. The pipe bounced up and down as he smiled and he lifted his hand.

“Take care, boy,” was all he said.

 

Chapter Four

The Night

 

The shadows were already long and purple when he came to the trail. The going was much tougher than on the road. And steeper.

By the time he reached the cabin, the moon was rising and the temperature way below freezing. His breath made steamy clouds; his legs felt permanently bent. The dog ran in circles, barking happily to be home.

“The least you could do is open the door,” he shouted at her, his voice echoing in the mountain stillness as his burden thudded to the ground. He dragged it the rest of the way inside and flopped on the bunk. His arms and legs were rubber, and he was thirsty, wishing he had splurged on a can of Coke. Well, you couldn’t complain about fresh mountain water. If you were going to live in the woods, you had to forget about things like cola.

The inside was just as cold. He started the old stove and lugged up another bucket of water. Heated some soup.

The dog licked his chin.

He was just curling under his blanket when he heard the wolves, far, very far away, from one of the distant valleys. The long empty call tickled the hairs on the back of his neck. The dog was alert, her ears and hackles up, as she stood at the window. For the first time since he found the cabin, he thought about how far it was to the town.

“Come here, girl.” He patted the hard bunk, and with one last inspection out the window, she came and curled up with him. He reminded himself that it might be a good idea to fasten the wooden shutters at night from now on.

But he was a light sleeper. They wouldn’t be able to come near without his hearing them. Just like at the home. He always heard them when they came at night.

He lay there remembering the nightmares.

He remembered being in bed, listening to the sounds of the Home. The TV murmured in the lounge. The pipes gurgled as someone flushed the toilet or took a shower. He would lie there, waiting, waiting. Gradually, the night sounds would be fewer and fewer. The closing of a distant door. Cars starting as the attendants changed shifts.

He would wait.

The real nightmare when his doorknob would faintly creak and turn.

He tried to shut it out of his mind, but the voice whispered hoarsely, “If you tell, I’ll kill you.”

The boy tightened his arm around the dog.

That was all over now.

He was safe. Away from the people who said they would help him but didn’t.

If the wolves howled again, he didn’t hear it. He was too exhausted after his long day and had gone into a deep sleep.

 

Chapter Five

The Deer

 

The winter deepened, and snow came.

He learned how to use the snowshoes that were hung in the eaves. When he pulled them down, he was pelted by a shower of nuts and twigs from an abandoned animal nest.

“Blah,” he said, shaking his head to get rid of the pieces that had gotten into his eyes and mouth.

He got himself a deer.

One day there it was, a startled shadow down by the pond. The minute he squeezed the trigger, he was sorry. The needle-sharp crack of the shot echoed and echoed in the pristine stillness long after the little body had dropped, legs crumbling, never changing its wide-eyed expression.

He stood there, stunned. In his mind, he could still see it standing, delicate and motionless, a creature of the wild.

The dog stood at his side.

“Why did I go and do that?” he said.

She looked at him and whined.

In slow motion, he walked to the brown heap. It really was dead and a good shot at that. Nothing else to do but to finish the job, but his hands were shaking.

 

Chapter Six

Snow Days

 

Cutting it up was tough work.

He managed to do it, though, and carried the meat parts to the cabin. The remains he left by the stream.

“For the eagles,” he told the dog.

They had fresh meat for supper. It was disgusting. The taste was strong and filled his nose. “I think I’d prefer Burger Whoopee,” he told the dog who was gnawing a big bone contentedly.

He ate it anyway because he was hungry, and he knew he’d have to like it sooner or later if he was going to live in the woods. Maybe next time in town he’d buy a bottle of Tabasco.

In the morning snow, huge, dog-like prints surrounded the bones, what was left of them. The footprints were three times the size of the dog’s; they were as big as the boy’s hand.

He hunkered down, the rifle across his knees, and surveyed the valley. Snow as far as he could see. Snow and blue sky and snow-white clouds and gray spruces making snow points. The air smelled of snow.

The pair of eagles circled easily, and there was a faraway plane trailing a white vapor cloud.

The footprints disturbed him. He was not afraid but uneasy.

Maybe he should stay inside. Mr. Flynn had said the wolves would tear a man apart, just for fun. And here he was, not a man but a boy and all alone at that. That he hadn’t heard them, even though they had been so close by, disturbed him. He had so much to learn.

How many were they?

He couldn’t tell. The snow was all trampled, prints running into each other. Did it matter anyway? They were so much bigger and cunning than he, and they belonged here.

He was tempted to track them.

Better to leave them alone.

They were a part of the wild he didn’t understand.

The snow-white clouds were building from the west and darkening the far mountains.

He stood up and stretched. “Well, girl,” he said. “I guess we’d better lay in some extra firewood.”

Good thing. A blizzard swallowed the mountain. For three days, there was nothing outside but white white white. And wind, the howling wind.

Snow crept under the door and into a corner under the eaves where a joist had loosened. He plugged the leaks with some old rags.

He read.

He inspected the cabin. There was no clue to the previous occupant even though the cabin had been simply but well equipped, and well cared for. It had obviously been empty for quite some time when he had arrived.

There had been nearly everything he needed. A couple of rusty cooking pans that came clean when he rubbed them with sand in the stream. An ax and a shovel. Most of the blankets had been shredded by mice but the wooden bunk was sound, and he soon got used to sleeping on it.

It was heaven compared to sleeping at the Home. He still had bad dreams at night, but at least when he woke up, they went away. He was here now, and safe. This hard bunk was more home to him than anything had ever been.

He had found the gun behind the bunk. It hadn’t looked like much, but all the books said you needed a gun in the woods. Not like the Home in the city where you got in big trouble for having a gun. Even jail.

The first time he had hiked into town he had brought the gun so he could buy bullets.

“Kill yersef with that there gun,” Old Rat had said from under the hunting cap, his nose twitching.

He had thought they were going to take it away. But instead, Mr. Flynn had sold him the right bullets and Old Rat had cleaned and oiled it and showed him how to shoot.

He lay on the bunk, hands behind his head, staring at the roof. Tied to a beam on the side were bunches of dried leafy things. He hadn’t much bothered with them. They smelled earthy and crumbled when he touched them, making a black powder on his fingers. Whoever lived here before must have had a use for them, but the boy didn’t even know what they were. He must remember to get a book on herbs and plants next trip.

He read some more. He talked to the dog.

He wrote some stories about his wolf family. Write about what you know, his teacher had said. Write about what you know.

But the things he knew, he couldn’t write about.

Once he tried.

He carefully wrote, “If you tell, I’ll kill you.” He closed his eyes, and he was in a hot, close, dark place. He could see the whites of the fierce eyes close to his. He could smell the foul breath, the sweat, the odor of onions and rancid grape juice. He felt the strong hands twisting his tee shirt tight around his neck.

“If you tell, I’ll kill you.” And then silent laughter shaking in the dark. And the door to his room closing.

 

Chapter Seven

Food

 

When the wind stopped, he was unable to open the door. The cabin was buried.

No big deal. He climbed out the window and dug his way out. The dog helped and ran around like a maniac, tossing snow in the air with her nose, arching her back, waving all of her feet in the air.

During the three days, the boy had calculated how much store-bought food he had left and realized it was getting low. He decided he’d better get out hunting and lay in a supply. There seemed to be plenty of rabbits.

He couldn’t believe his good luck when he saw a small herd of deer by the river, scraping the snow and ice with their hooves.

He watched for a bit, admiring their rich brown silhouettes, before he dropped one of them, a skinny doe. The others skittered away. The doe crumbled to the ground.

Tears were on his cheeks. Something, a living creature, had just been alive, and now it was dead, by his own hand. He waited a while before walking down to the river.

“Sorry,” he said, running his hand down the soft furry neck. The fur was still warm.

He turned to the dog. “I wonder if it ever gets easier.”

The dog wagged, but she was engrossed in a sniffing expedition.

He tied the legs and hoisted it over a tree branch to let the blood drain. It was a lot heavier than it looked with its little skinny legs but the book had shown how to raise it up by making a pulley system from branches. He just wished it would close its eyes.

He went to work with his knife. His hands were stiff and cold. He hated the way it felt. Soon he gave up. He had only a small amount of bloody looking meat, but the smell made him gag.

He cooked some for supper, and it tasted as bad as it smelled.

 

Chapter Eight

The Wolf Family

 

This time he saw the wolves.

“Leftovers for the birds,” he had told the dog when he had quit cutting the carcass. He looked at the distant mountains, brilliant pink in the sunlight. “Or maybe the wolves. They gotta eat too.”

He had heard them occasionally these last few nights, and the wild calling still frightened him. But he was also intrigued.

Wolves, he had read, had strong family units. They take care of one another. The whole pack cared for the pups, giving them attention and loving affection.

Sometimes he tried to imagine what it would be like to be part of a pack, or a family, where the members cared for each other. There would be brothers and sisters to play with. Others to trust. A mother and father who brought home food. And played. And cared.

He would dream of running silently through the trees on padded feet, the wind brushing his ears, the cold tickling his nose.

This time, their chill howling startled him at twilight as he was scraping down the antlers near the stove. More than a few feet away from the stove, the cabin was as cold as outdoors. He had already battened down for the night, but he went and opened the door.

There was a slash of brilliant red sun across the mountaintop, and huge stars hung on a luminescent purple sky. Although the trees were lost in black shadow, the snow still reflected the crimson and blue of the sky.

Ooooooooooooo.

The long note hung silvery in the air like another star.

And an answering call.

“They’re singing,” the boy whispered to the dog, who, after a half-hearted low growl, had retreated under the bunk.

He stepped out in front of the cabin cautiously, prepared to dash back in if necessary. The wolves were dark silhouettes cavorting around the remains of the deer, like dancing. He was awed by their size. Even from up here they looked as big as the buck, and as graceful, though thick and dog-like. Growling and snarling ripped the night air.

They made short work of the carcass, carrying off on silent padded paws what they didn’t eat. He had read that wolves bring back food to others in the pack who are injured or too young to hunt for themselves.

As the black shadows slipped away, the wolf at the rear of the pack paused and looked back at the boy. For an instant, a glimmer of light reflected on its eyes, two brilliant diamonds in the dark. Their eyes held and then the wolf was gone, leaving a lone long cry hovering over the blue snow.

In the bright of the day, he knew there was no danger, but the memory stayed with him, haunting him at night. They were magnificent animals, these wolves, and at night he heard growls and snarls in his dreams and woke up.

Startled, he listened.

The only sound was the wind whispering in the evergreens.

He closed his eyes. He felt good.

Nobody was going to come for him in his sleep. No one was going to silently open the door. No one was going to sneak over to his bed.

He tried to put the nightmares out of his head.

“If you tell, I’ll kill you.”

It was all past now.

Here in the wilderness where most people would be afraid, he was safe.

 

Chapter Nine

The Long Winter

 

The winter stretched endlessly. It was going on longer than he thought it would, longer than he had expected. The falling snow covered the sun for days at a time.

Although he was satisfied with the solitude, he was getting worried about food. Hunting was hard. The small animals had gone underground, and deer had disappeared. He couldn’t even find tracks, rabbit or squirrel, but sometimes he would find evidence of the wolf pack having passed by. Were they, too, finding game scarce? Even brilliant sunny days were too cold to be outside very long.

He carved wolf shapes and deer shapes from the firewood. He reread all his books and magazines and started a journal and tried writing more stories, stories about his pretend wolf family. He would have been completely happy if he hadn’t been worried about the food supply. Come spring, he would have to get himself a radio too, if only for the weather reports.

Then when the situation seemed to be getting urgent, and he was considering trying to get into town, a thaw hit. The snow cover shrank, and the river rose under the relentless sun. Pointed spruce punctured their white blanket, and the south slope turned a gray-green.

 

Chapter Ten

The Plunge

 

Dog and boy were delighted.

“Tomorrow,” said the boy. “Tomorrow we’ll hike into town. Once we reach the road, we should be all right, and we can stay there overnight if we have to. Just think. Doggie treats and a Snickers bar and some new magazines.” He hauled inside a supply of firewood and an extra bucket of water. “So we can sleep late when we get back,” he grinned.

But winter wasn’t ready to leave yet. By morning the temperature dove again, and ice coated the snow. Everywhere the ice was like glass, gleaming in the sunlight.

The boy thought he might be okay if he bundled up and kept moving but he didn’t know about the dog. Her scruffy brown fur had thickened but it was mighty cold out, and it could be dangerous to make her take the long journey to town.

However, if he left her behind, she might think he had deserted her, especially if he had to stay over. She was all excited, dancing in circles around the cabin, sensing the journey.

He ruffled her ears. “I guess we’re in this together, old girl,” he said.

The going was tough. He hadn’t hiked ten feet when the snowshoes went out from under him, landing him on his backside.

The dog laughed and licked his face, scrabbling around him, her paws slipping and sliding.

Undaunted, he edged along for half a mile. It was going to take much longer than he thought if he wanted to make the journey on his feet. The glare of the sun was making his head ache.

A rabbit bounded across an open field. The boy pulled out his rifle and shot, the sharp crack echoing in the stillness.

“Nuts, I missed,” he snarled at the dog, stamping his feet. A mistake.

He lost his balance, and the rifle flew into the air. Half on his back, he slid down the slope and dropped into a stream bed. The snowshoes skittered away like wild mice, and his foot broke through the ice, the jagged edges slicing like glass into his knee.

 

Chapter Eleven

The Struggle

 

He looked calmly at the brilliant red fanning out on the white ice. What a color, he thought. Brighter even than Christmas paper, than a Coke can, than even a cardinal against the green grass in summer.

It didn’t hurt, but his heart began to thud, so violently his ears throbbed. The ice held the leg.

He had to let himself sink into the water to unloose the leg.

Hauling himself up the embankment was slow work, and a slash of blood painted the snow. When he reached level ground, he finally dared to look.

The dog was anxiously sniffing him.

“I think I can see bone, girl,” he said, fighting the urge to shake.

Lying down, he took off his coat, his shirt, and wrapped the shirt around the leg, tying it tightly with the sleeves. The shirt was stained red before he could get the coat back on. He couldn’t seem to feel the cold air.

“This is not good,” he said. His voice startled him, as if somebody else, somebody outside him, was talking. “Let’s go back.”

Before he went very far, the blood was seeping over the knot. He had read you should elevate wounds.

“Maybe if I sit,” he said. He slid himself along for a bit, sitting and using his good leg to push, and the flow seemed to slow.

But he was getting giddy. With a morbid fascination, he kept turning to measure the red trail he was leaving on the side of the mountain.

At first he wasn’t cold, the shock had numbed him. By the time he thought about it, he couldn’t feel his fingers or the foot on his injured leg. And he was overcome by an urge to sleep.

He tried crawling, but that aggravated the bleeding and sent waves of pain up his leg.

He closed his eyes, and the ice felt like a soft feather bed. Only for just a minute …

The dog was nuzzling his face.

“Okay, girl. We won’t stop again till we get to the cabin.”

On he went. And on.

She crawled on her belly next to him, licking his cheek or nudging his ear if he put his head down too long.

“We can do it,” he told her when she whimpered. He tried to smile, but his lips were stiff. “We can do it … do it …?”

Just a few feet at a time.

“We can do it.” He kept that in his head. If he didn’t get back to the cabin, who would take care of the dog?

The sun didn’t even pause. It crossed westward, treetop to treetop, completely ignoring the boy, pulling the long shadows of twilight behind.

“It’s not that much farther,” he said to the dog.

 

Chapter Twelve

Dreaming

 

When he woke up, he was lying on the cabin floor, in a pool of dried blood, the dog curled next to him. The fire had gone out, and the cold was so intense he thought lead weights were pressing his body to the floor.

And when he moved, the pain in his leg seemed to spread into his stomach, and he threw up. The wracking of his body started the wound bleeding again.

He tied a piece of towel around the shirt to slow the bleeding. The twilight had faded fast, and the cabin was a black hole.

He started a fire, every motion excruciating, thankful he had brought wood in earlier. The warmth of the flames did little to relieve the ice inside him, so he lay down on the bunk, making himself a nest of the blankets and his extra shirts.

“Don’t you ever talk?”

The harsh voice startled him awake.

When he opened his eyes, there was nothing but blackness and the fire was dead. He struggled around, this time making a bigger fire and lay down again.

The voice came back. He was at the Home.

“Don’t you ever talk?” Crockett Haskell poked the boy. His yellow teeth appeared in a grin. Crock’s eyes were quick and greedy like a ferret, darting around, looking for what he could play with next.

“You speak English, Kid?”

The others around him snickered.

Crock leaned closer. “You don’t talk. You look funny. You even smell funny.” He wiggled his nose.

Somebody behind him said, “Ugh!” and there were more snickers.

The stale bread and gravy smell of supper drifted in as Randolph opened the door. Crock gave the boy a last vicious poke and hissed, “Dummy.”

What was the big deal about talking? He should talk like Crock? Mean and dirty. Talk about television. About each other. About how much they hated their parents.

Instead, the boy was quiet. Listening. Watching. He learned a lot from listening and watching.

Like who to avoid.

Crock was one of them.

Crock and his friends sometimes waited for him after school. That first time, they threw him behind the bushes and began to kick him. Then something scared them away. They disappeared. The boy painfully got himself back to the home and never said a word.

He learned to watch out after that. Often he stayed in the library. There he had discovered the mountains, the outdoors, the wilderness, where there was challenge but also order. Harsh but understandable. He would be lost for hours reading about hiking, mountaineering, survival.

As he sat in the library, at a table where he was out of sight of the door, but where he could watch who came in, he could smell the crisp, cold air. He could feel the wind in his face, pinching at his cheeks, whipping the dark tangled hair away from his eyes.

He could imagine the solitude.

“Time to leave,” Mr. Mello the librarian would say, and the mountain and the forest would evaporate.

Mr. Mello usually walked him out.

None of the kids was interested in waiting too long, so by the time he left the library, it was safe. And none of them would enter the library.

Safe?

Back to the Home.

He walked slowly. Around the side to the back porch, avoiding the office.

He opened the back door. Cabbage and bacon greeted him, and Barbara.

A stringy, tough witch, Barbara put in her time and got paid. Randolph was nicer, but he had his hands full with the druggies. Nobody paid much attention to the boy because he was so quiet.

Nobody except Mr. Brody.

Mr. Brody with his hardboiled egg eyes, his greasy hotdog fingers, smelling of rancid grape juice and onions.

 

Chapter Thirteen

The Visit

 

The next time the boy saw daylight, the sun was reflecting light on the cabin ceiling.

He was too sick to eat, but he gave the dog some crackers and the last dog biscuit, and added to the fire.

When he woke up again, his leg was as big around as a telephone pole, about as clumsy, and throbbing with the intensity of a bass drum. The wound began to bleed when he tried to move.

He burrowed back into the nest and watched the window change color.

Sometimes there was sunshine, then a star or two, then pale gray. Was that dawn or dusk?

Finally, the rattle of rain on the roof brought him back. The leg still felt big, but he realized he must be better because his stomach was growling.

The dog eagerly shared crackers with him.

He put one of the buckets outside to catch the rainwater and repeatedly blessed himself for having brought in extra firewood.

“We have a problem here,” he told the dog. “There’s not much food.” He checked the granola tin, which was nearly empty, and tossed the cracker box into the pile of kindling. The dog stuck her nose in the box and licked the final crumbs.

He had to move real slow. A couple of times the bleeding started again.

“We have to decide,” he said, scratching the dog’s ears. “Do we stay here and starve to death, or do we try to get back down the mountain and bleed to death? If I wait longer, the wound will be more healed, but I’ll … we’ll be too weak from hunger.”

She licked his face and smiled. Whatever he decided was okay with her.

Later on, he was ripped awake in the dark by the long ring of a wolf howl, so close it could be right in the cabin. He felt the dog tremble beside him.

He was afraid to move.

Another howl, just as close, split the dark.

They’re coming after me, he thought. They know I’m sick.

Wolves were supposed to move silently, but he could hear rustling, scratching, a snarl. Shadows crossed the patch of reflected moonlight on the ceiling, smooth, sharklike shapes that flowed into one another.

A loud scratching and sniffling at the door made his hair rise. A low growl.

The dog trembled, and her hair stood up. She burrowed deep into the blanket nest. The scratching claws raked the door, and a curdling howl seared the air in the cabin. As he watched, the door trembled and the wrought iron latch rattled.

Then they were on the roof. A basket tucked under the eaves dropped with a thud as the vibration loosed it. A raining of pebbles hit the stove.

The boy was afraid to move. He had never known such icy fear. Not as he climbed the mountain leaving a trail of blood. Not when he snuck into Mr. Brody’s office, where he knew the money was hidden. Not even the night he had been chased out of the railroad yard by a man with a nightstick. He couldn’t even feel his arms and legs.

The shuffling and sniffing on the roof was louder than thunder, endless.

A gust of wind rattled the window. Then the wolves set up a circle of howling, long haunting notes overlapping and harmonizing with one another, rising and falling in an untamed song.

The dog nuzzled the boy’s hand.

Maybe if we don’t breathe, they’ll think we’re dead and go away, he thought, holding his breath. But that made his heart pound wildly, and he was afraid they would hear it. Just as suddenly as they had come, it was silent. He lay there, his eyes wide, afraid to stir.

Before he knew it, the sun was in his eyes.

 

Chapter Fourteen

A Gift

 

“I think they’re gone,” he whispered, hardly daring to believe it.

The dog crawled up and jumped out of bed. She shook herself starting with her nose and working down to her tail. Then she helped herself to a long sloppy drink from the water bucket.

Thirst satisfied, she set up a thorough sniffing investigation of the air around the door, tail wagging slightly. She was intrigued and began to scratch the wood. When the boy didn’t respond, she barked cheerfully.

Remembering how terrified she had been during the night, the boy figured it must be safe now, or she wouldn’t be so carefree.

The trip to the door was cold and slow. The fire had died down and his leg, his whole body, was stiff and sore. He felt like his head was floating.

As soon as he unlatched the door, the dog pried it open with her nose and dashed into the bright snow.

He wasn’t prepared for what he found outside.

She went straight as an arrow to a hunk of meat, the haunch of something, a deer or elk, lying directly in front of the door.

The boy didn’t know what it was at first. It looked like the thick branch of a tree except for some pale blood stains on the snow. Then he saw the hoof on one end and the bone sticking out, crudely hacked on the other. He stared, seeing yet not seeing it.

The dog looked at him, whimpered, barked, and, since the boy didn’t move, decided to have some for breakfast.

Her hungry gnawing brought him back.

Someone had left them some fresh meat, some food.

“Hey!”

The dog stopped reluctantly, licking her chops. He reached for his knife at his belt, only to find air. The knife was somewhere inside.

He just couldn’t believe it. Real meat. Who could have left it? He poked the fire, added wood, found his knife. Skinning the haunch was slow work because his hands were so shaky and the dizziness made him afraid he would cut himself.

“I’ve lost enough blood,” he said, trying to joke. The dog wagged.

He set the meat to cooking and flopped on the bunk, exhausted, puzzling over the unexpected gift.

“Who could it be, girl? There’s no tracks out there ’cept the wolf prints.” He scratched her ears, thinking.

“No,” he said. The dog flattened her ears, thinking she had done something bad.

Then a few minutes later: “It couldn’t, could it?”

He thought back to the day he had brought down the deer, to the night he had watched the wolves go at the remains of the carcass he had left. He had seen them take food back for others in the pack.

Did they, knowing he was hurt, bring food to him? He dragged himself back to the door and even in the bright sunlight he could find no traces of any other footprints, only the padded patterns of the wolf paws.

He smiled into the sunlight, feeling a part of the sunlight, a part of the mountain, a sense of belonging he had never experienced before.

He was meant to be here on this mountain in this very cabin. He should never have been in that close, stifling Home, which had been more like a prison than a shelter.

 

Chapter Fifteen

A Journey

 

A sharp pain in his leg reminded him he was still in crisis and he hobbled back inside.

He couldn’t believe he had disliked the taste of venison. It was most delicious, and he licked his fingers, feeling better than he had since the accident. The dog gobbled her share and settled in front of the stove to gnaw the big bone.

There was enough left for a couple of days, and some broth. The weather seemed to be warming. Maybe in a few days, he would be strong enough, and if the snow melted enough, for him to try to walk down. The leg didn’t seem to be healing right, and he knew it hadn’t been properly cleaned, but he was afraid to take off the shirt bandage. It bled easily, and the bandage seemed to be stuck to his leg.

He piled up the fire—the wood was getting low—and slept round the clock. He woke up still dizzy. The sky was dark and heavy with the smell of snow.

He and the dog had breakfast, washed down with the broth, but he was worried. He let the dog out to romp around, trying to decide if he should risk trying to get down to the stream for water. He would need it soon, but he didn’t want to start the leg bleeding again.

If he wrapped a shirt around the handle of the shovel, maybe he could use it for a crutch.

It was uncomfortable, but he managed to get a ways without breaking open the wound. He finally got down to the stream and filled the bucket.

Carrying it back was a different story. He couldn’t seem to make a step without spilling it, and a few flakes were beginning to float in the air.

He wasn’t a third of the way back to the cabin when he heard a buzz. He shook his head, afraid he was imagining things.

It wasn’t a buzz, it was a roar, like the sound of a chainsaw, echoing first from the low clouds, then from the invisible distant mountain.

Suddenly it was on top of him, two black snowmobiles cresting the rise and coming to a stop between him and the cabin.

The man in the lead slid his goggles atop his head and called out, “Hey, boy.” It was Mr. Flynn, his white mustache icy, his cheeks carnation red.

He swung his leg over and settled the helmet on the seat.

“Hey,” he called, grinning. “Thought we’d pay you a visit. Got any coffee?”

The boy dropped the bucket. Then he sagged against his makeshift crutch, nearly falling on his bad leg. The dizziness all came back.

Mr. Flynn scooped him up like a bag of chips and carried him into the cabin. “Hey, nasty leg there,” he said heartily. “How ’bout comin’ into town. Big blizzard comin’.”

The boy nodded. “I can’t go without my dog,” he said.

He heard the two men talking.

“We’re afraid to take you on the skidoo but the storm’s starting and who knows when we can get back. Supposed to be the storm of the century. Might be okay if I splint it up, but might hurt.”

“It’s okay,” said the boy, “just as long as I can bring the dog.”

Mr. Flynn laughed, his deep hearty laugh. “Of course.”

Mr. Flynn and the other man lashed the boy’s leg to the ax handle and secured it to the seat of the second snowmobile. They wrapped the dog in a blanket and let the boy hold her.

He didn’t remember much of the trip except that the snow got real thick real fast.

Mr. Flynn had to take the dog and, because the boy couldn’t seem to stay upright, they tied his hands around the other man’s waist. It seemed that the roar of the engines, the white, the cold would never end.

The leg began to throb, to bleed.

And then they reached the road.

Mr. Flynn had radioed ahead. A Jeep and a truck were waiting, and they unlashed the boy, carried him through the driving snow, and set him on a soft bed in the back of the Jeep. He closed his eyes.

“Where’s the dog?” he murmured.

He fell asleep with someone gently cutting away the old bandages and the dog’s nose nuzzled up to his cheek.

 

Chapter Sixteen

Recovery

 

They wouldn’t let the dog in the hospital.

They wouldn’t let Old Rat in either, Mr. Flynn said, unless he left his grungy, dirty hat and his pipe outside.

The boy’s leg, propped up on the bed, was wrapped in a white and blue plastic splint fastened with Velcro. He was glad the leg had been cared for, and that he was warm and the food was plentiful, but still, he supposed this would mean the end. They would be bound to send him back, to the Home or wherever runaway boys were sent. He would have done just fine if he hadn’t hurt his leg.

Mr. Flynn dwarfed the metal folding chair he pulled up to the side of the bed. He handed the boy a Snickers bar and unrolled a half dozen shiny new magazines. The boy grinned.

“You’ll be out in a couple of days,” Mr. Flynn boomed. “Quite a gash you had there. We hadn’t seen you in a while and were a mite worried.”

“How did you find me?”

“Old Rat. He knew where you were.”

“How did he know? I never told anyone.”

Mr. Flynn leaned back, smiling. “That’s his cabin. Near sixty years he lived up there.”

“But how did he know? How did he know I was there?”

“The gun. It was his gun you brought in that first day. Guess he thought it was pretty funny, him teaching you to clean and handle his own gun.”

The boy puzzled over this. So Old Rat had known all along where he was.

“Where’s my dog?” asked the boy.

“She’s just fine. Told me to say hi.” Mr. Flynn chuckled at his own joke. He patted the Velcro splint. “She’s stayin’ with me and the missus. Where you’ll be staying till we can send you back. We’re still digging out from that whopper of a blizzard. See ya later, boy.”

 

Chapter Seventeen

Going Back

 

Till we can send you back. So he was going back.

Of course. Nowadays you have to be somewhere. The law says you have to go to school, to belong somewhere. Grownups couldn’t ignore that.

Well, he could. Wherever they sent him, he’d run away again.

Old Rat came to visit. He’d snuck in the pipe in his pocket and sat there with a devilish grin, whisking it out of sight whenever a nurse came by. He didn’t say too much but listened while the boy talked about the buck, the cold winter … the wolves.

“There’s them ascared a wolves,” he said, munching the pipe and nodding. “But they ain’t never hurt me.” His nose twitched, and he scratched it with his sleeve.

Then the boy went to stay at the Flynns’ house.

Mrs. Flynn was like her husband, big and hearty and matter-of-fact. The boy would have enjoyed being there if he hadn’t been so despondent about going back. He was angry with the dog. She was so obviously happy, well fed, and companionable with the other household dogs.

Almost angry. She had been so glad to see him she had wagged at both ends. And she wouldn’t sleep any place but by his bed—on it, once Mrs. Flynn had gone to sleep.

One morning, Mr. Flynn said, “The roads are all clear so we’ll be sending you back today.”

So fast? His heart pitched.

“You come on up the store this mornin’ and we’ll set you up with what you need.”

The melting snow made rivers on the edge of the road as he trudged along, unaware of the brilliant blue sky, the towering clouds, even the warmth of the new sun on his bare head. The dog circled, danced, chased a flock of doves whistling into the air.

None of it mattered. They were sending him back to the Home.

 

Chapter Eighteen

The Gift

 

Old Rat was on the porch, resting his feet on a carton of assorted objects, a tin cup, some folded clothing, a can of tobacco.

His face was crinkled by a grin so wide, his cheeks swelled up like golf balls. “Mornin’, boy.”

“Good morning,” said the boy. He felt like he should say something. He had never properly thanked Old Rat for sending help when he needed it. He paused. “I wanted to thank you, Mr. R … Rat.”

Old Rat laughed. “You can call me Old Rat. Everyone does. After all, it’s my name, my real name.”

“Old Rat?”

“Ole Ratmines. Son of Lucy and Roland Ratmines.”

“Thank you, Old Rat,” said the boy. But his heart felt like wet mud. He probably wouldn’t get to see Old Rat anymore when they brought him back to the Home. “’Tweren’t nothin’,” said Old Rat.

Inside Mr. Flynn had already set aside a couple of boxes of cereal and crackers and a tin of dog biscuits. “Go pick out some shirts, boy,” he called as he counted out shotgun shells to a man in a flannel jacket.

It didn’t matter what he picked out. They’d probably just steal everything at the Home anyway. When he returned empty handed to the counter, Mr. Flynn came out and put his arm around the boy’s shoulder.

“Come on, you need warm clothes. You can pay me later if that’s what you’re worried about.” He scooped up a couple of packages of cotton-lined wool undershirts.

“Well, I’m not sure what I’ll need.” He looked at the plaid flannel on the racks and thought about the printed tee shirts most of the boys at the Home wore.

“You’ll need warm things,” said Mr. Flynn decisively. “Spring is slow comin’ in these here parts.”

In these parts?

“Here?” said the boy.

Mr. Flynn nodded. “Well, up on the mountain. That cabin doesn’t exactly have central heating. Why? Where did you think you were going?”

“I thought … I just thought you … well, never mind.”

Mr. Flynn was still looking at him. “Did you think we were going to send you back where you came from?”

The boy nodded, his eyes stinging with tears.

Mr. Flynn sat down heavily on the stack of roofing shingles. “While you were in the hospital, I did some investigating. I had some friends in the city ask around about any boy your age who might be missing.”

The boy wiped his eyes and looked at Mr. Flynn.

“You see, I wondered if somewhere there was a family that was missing you. I know if I had a boy like you, I’d go crazy if he ran away.” He shifted on the shingles. “Well, I found out about the place where you come from … the Home. It seems that there was a lot of trouble there after you left. The man running the place, a Mr. Brody, done got himself arrested. He was, uh, he was hurting some of the boys that lived there, the boys in his care.”

Mr. Flynn looked at the boy steadily. “He hurt you, boy?” Mr. Flynn’s eyes were narrowed, but kindness and concern shone in the depths.

The boy was silent, but his eyes answered. Finally, he whispered, “He said he’d kill me.”

Mr. Flynn put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “He won’t kill you. He won’t hurt you no more. I been thinking and I made a decision. I’m not going to send you back. Of course not. Any fool can see you belong in the woods and what’s even better is Old Rat can go back up, now you’re here to watch out for him. That is, if you want to.”

The boy nodded, hardly daring to believe what he was hearing. “What about … school?” he asked. “And stuff like that?”

Mr. Flynn sat back. “The woods will be your school,” he said. “You read and write just fine, and you’ll learn the kinds of things ain’t never gonna be in books. Old Rat will teach you. The old ways, the ways of the land, will live on. Nobody knows about those kinds of things anymore. Later, when anyone wants to know, you’ll be the one to teach ’em, boy.”

The boy smiled slightly. “I’ll write a book,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to write a book.”

Mr. Flynn grinned and suddenly crunched the boy to his chest, pounding his back and knocking his breath away. Then he held the boy at arm’s length and studied his face. The boy was laughing and crying at the same time.

“Old Rat don’t need too much watchin’ out for but can’t chop wood like he used to, and he forgets to take his medicine. He’s not happy here in town. He needs the woods. With you, he can fi nish his days in the place where he wants to be, where he spent his whole life.” Mr. Flynn tactfully got up and went to the rack of shirts. He pulled a few off the rack while the boy wiped his tears on his sleeve. “What do you say? Do you want to go back to the cabin with Old Rat?”

“Sure. Sure I do.” The boy hugged the shirts.

“You can learn more about the woods from that old coot than you can ever learn from any school.” Mr. Flynn headed toward a new customer. “Go try on some of those wool pants,” he ordered, “and then run back to the house and tell the missus to pack sandwiches and whatever stuff you have at the house.”

“Yessir.”

Old Rat was still rocking in the sunshine, scratching the dog behind the ears, when the boy came out. “We’ll be home soon, boy,” Old Rat said, his nose twitching.

“Home,” said the boy. “We’ll be home.”

He breathed in the sharp air and let the sun warm his face. The sky was a brilliant blue and puff y white clouds piled over the peak of a distant mountain. The rivers of melted snow sparkled along the edge of the road.

“See ya in a bit, Old Rat,” said the boy, playfully punching the old man’s arm.

Old Rat laughed as the boy bounded down the steps even though his one leg was still stiff . He awkwardly raced the dog to the nearest puddle.

“Hey, boy,” Old Rat yelled after him as he headed toward the Flynn house.

“Hey what?” the boy shouted turning around. He skipped backward for a few steps.

“Hey, boy, you got a name?

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Margo Lemieux has been involved in creative endeavors since the first grade when she got into trouble for “decorating” her workbook. After graduating from Boston University, she worked as a graphic designer, newspaper correspondent, children’s book author and illustrator, and other interesting things. Her book FULL WORM MOON was described in the  New York Times as “well-written.” Currently a professor at Lasell College, she has taught workshops in the Attleboro Arts Museum, Lake Mead National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Fuller Craft Museum, Hang Do Studio, Hanoi, Vietnam, and Rhode Island School of Design.

Four Monologues from Winesburg, Indiana, a small town between Fort Wayne and South Bend and not that far from Warsaw

Michael Martone

Mario Talarico’s Peonies

My favorite variety is the Eleanor Roosevelt. I am very conscientious in the spring. I stake and cage the plants. I am careful to deadhead the side branching buds to lessen the weight. I know, you are thinking about the ants, but I don’t mind the ants. The ants are as drunk as I am on waiting for those buds to bloom. In the winter I review all the catalogs but I always go back to the Eleanor Roosevelt. Most people think the peonies wilt in the heat, but that is not the case. Peonies are heat tolerant. No, what they need is cold. The crowns need to be frozen, frozen solid. I take no chance. I mulch my peonies through the winter with snow and more snow. All the snow that falls I shovel onto the dormant beds. When it doesn’t snow, I’ll head down to Ed Harz’s Standard Station and retrieve bags of ice to pile on the crowns. It’s the tradition in Indiana to plant peonies in rows along the drive way or next to the white siding of the garages and they do look good that way, that peony green of the leaves, that exploding splatters of red. But I have planted my peonies in drifts, the icy pale pink blossoms piling up together, a dream of winter.

Sue Johnson, Parking Enforcement Officer

I have one of those new digital wearable fitness devices that counts the number of steps I take each day. If you aren’t moving enough there is a tiny picture on the tiny screen, a frowning face. If you are moving the face changes to a smile that gets bigger and bigger as you take more and more steps. That’s all I do is walk. I chalk parked car tires, circling the downtown parking spaces of Winesburg every two hours. That’s all you get of free parking, two hours. I time my walks. I have been doing this long enough I can mark the time by the number of steps I take. The marks I make with the chalk look like smiles too, smack dab on the treads of the driver’s side rear tire. Tire after tire. Two hours later, my pedometer smiling its biggest smile, I come back around. I mark the more recent parked cars, the tires a blank slate. But then there are the ones with the telltale mark from two hours before. I have to write them up. I can do that while I am walking, writing up the summons as I circle the infracting vehicle. I leave the ticket under the windshield wiper blade as I march in place. You can say I am motivated to move even as I enforce the sustained periods of standing still.

Maurice Milkin, Eraser Carver

I go to the Pink Pearl factory store at the factory and buy the ones, discounted, beyond their expiration date. Stale erasers. I have been sculpting for years. Sculpting is about seeing what is not there, the negative space, the foil, the relief. It isn’t lost upon me that in my way I am erasing the eraser, whittling it away one rubber sliver at a time. In the end I have a rubber stamp embossed with a word. I use the stamp to stamp. It stamps STAMP. I have turned these erasers of flat language, turned them into these words with enough depth, a lip. It’s a slug of spongy type. I tool these one-word stories, use blue impermeable ink. MOM for instance. DAD. GRAM. YOU. DEAR. LOST. GONE. ?.

The Weeping Willow Windbreak of Winesburg

FDR himself came to Winesburg and planted the first few saplings. Well, he didnt actually plant them himself but sat up in the Sunshine Special and directed things. He wanted to build a grand shelterbelt from Canada to Mexico. We wanted to do our bit. The President motored away in that big old Lincoln, and he left a contingent of the CCC behind to finish the landscaping. That was years ago, and the shelterbelt was never really realized in the aggregate. But here in Indiana there is this little baffle of depression-era willows. Roosevelt was haunted by the roiling clouds of dust, dreamed of something to knock the dirt out of the thin air. Well, the wind is with us here. We always say there is nothing to slow it down, the wind, as it slides off the mountains out west. There was an oracle in ancient Greece where the priests got their instructions in the rustle of the breeze in the leaves. Oak leaves, I believe. The lachrymose leaves of the willow are all muffled, mumbling mostly. They are pretty to look at, I suppose, this memorial copse, this limping crippled orchard smudging the horizon.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Michael Martone’s new books are BROODING and THE MOON OVER WAPAKONETA: FICTIONS AND SCIENCE FICTIONS FROM INDIANA AND BEYOND. He lives in Tuscaloosa and teaches at the university there.

The Arkema Plant—Crosby, TX

Lupe Méndez

“The company had pulled its employees

from the facility earlier this week

out of concern for their safety, and warns

that it expects more of the chemical storage

containers to rupture as the materials degrade

and burn. Residents within a 1.5-mile radius

of Arkema were also ordered to flee.”

—NPR report, August 31st, 2017

 

Harvey lights the clouds on fire. Then what?

I place my valuables in a shoebox, which is to say,

your toe tag is buried there.

A chemical plant firecrackers in the middle

of a neighborhood, pours itself black

into your throat, sneaks in the smell of bar-b-que.

You cough, say your throat feels scratchy.

We send you to the ER. Neither of you,

that metal body broken, your broken body

makes the evening news. No one smiles

at a murder of crows. Their caws are hollow

sirens always watching the winds, the fumes

on which they glide on, on which they melt away.
 
 
From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by Ian Lynam, curated by Dana Lyons.

Lupe Méndez is a Poet/Educator/Activist, CantoMundo, Macondo, & Emerging Poet Incubator Fellow and co-founder of the Librotraficante Caravan. He is the founder of Tintero Projects and works with emerging Latinx writers and other writers of color within the Texas Gulf Coast Region, with Houston as its hub. His publishing credits include prose work, flash fiction and poetry. His first collection of poetry, WHY I AM LIKE TEQUILA was published by Willow Books in  March of 2019.

 

Long Dash

John A. Nieves

The first five days read yellow against the window shade. The water

                    pressure barely knew its way

                                        through the pipes. We accordioned

 
                    the hours on a damp queen with pale green sheets. It was

always morning. The dew always just leaving again

                                        for the sky. No one
 

                                        named us. No one spent a measure of breath trying

                    to reach inside. Thirty minutes from here, our lives

went on without us. Most of our clothes holding
 

                    only hangers, only drawer space. The lock firmly

                                        keeping the door. The air switching itself

on and off.

 
Here, though, the starlings,

                                        the wordless way

                    our bodies say.
 
 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by Sondra Graff, curated by Dana Lyons.

John A. Nieves has poems recently published in journals such as: Beloit Poetry Journal, 32 Poems, Southern Review, Cincinnati Review, and Copper Nickel. He won the Indiana Review Poetry Contest and his first book, Curio, won the Elixir Press Annual Poetry Award Judge’s Prize. He is assistant professor of English at Salisbury University. He received his M.A. from University of South Florida and his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri.

 

The Otchka

Noah Weisz

On a windy autumn morning in the city of Gholàr, Par and his mother set off for the Otchka. They left their small apartment pushing and pulling a massive old cart that shuddered and groaned at every cobblestone bump. Objects bounced, straining against the ropes that tied them down—a frayed velvet armchair, a wide wooden bench, a bicycle, two mattresses, a pair of brass candlesticks, several empty picture frames. So much more. They’d been packing the cart all night. As dawn broke, Par had started tossing in pretty much everything he could find, everything he had known for all fifteen years of his life; they didn’t have time to sift any longer. The Otchka opened early. By seven o’clock all the best spots would be taken.

Neither of them said a word. Par had nothing to say, only questions no one could answer. Why do people hate us so much? Couldn’t we just wait to see if things get better? What if I assassinate Muntaro? What will it be like in Velingen?

His mom had finally found a man who would forge passports for them, for a price. Their appointment was that evening. They would have to sell everything. This should not have felt so awful; Par had known they would have to leave everything behind anyway, once they got their train tickets. But the idea of selling that armchair, where he used to sit and read books in the early morning before school and wait for the clink of the milkman delivering his jug at their door, the idea of trading it in for anything, of knowing that someone else would get to sit in it from now on—somehow, that was too much.

“Who’s going to want this old junk anyway?” Par muttered as they turned a corner.

“Consider it junk, and no one will,” said his mother. “Now hurry, it’s after seven.”

They rolled the cart faster, winding down the narrower roads leading to the outskirts. His mother’s polished heels clicked on the stones; she always dressed well, always stood proud, no matter how little money they had. No matter that they were only going to the flea market.

The Otchka came into view.

It was an enormous grassy expanse at the very edge of Gholàr, the last human thing before the red-gold forests at the base of the mountains. It was already crammed with people. Twisting row upon twisting row of people buying and selling wares, some in rickety wooden stalls, others in wagons, others on sprawling blankets on the ground. The noise was frightening—the smell, much worse. Horse manure and chickens were the least of it—the sweat of thousands of desperate people hung in the air, mingling with the thick sweetness wafting from the baskets of the grinning cherry vendor at the entrance.

Par’s stomach turned. They guided their cart through the throngs of people, scouting for an available spot.

“Dirty roach,” a voice shot at them.

Someone spat at Par. It landed on his cheek. Another man whistled at his mother.

Par spat back, as usual. Several people backed away.

Roaches. That was a term invented by President Muntaro. It meant the Tovari. The people with yellow eyes. The people who had come down from the mountains five hundred years ago, speaking a strange lilting language and worshipping unpronounceable gods, and who, Muntaro insisted, were fouling up the beautiful culture of Gholaria.

“There,” said Par’s mother.

She was pointing to a narrow patch of grass and dry leaves between two blankets. On one, an old woman was selling tarnished silverware. On the other, a young Tovari man was sitting on a stool, tuning a violin. Across from them a large man at a large stall was selling lottery tickets to a long line of hopefuls.

Par set down the wheelbarrow in the free spot. Together, he and his mom began unpacking their lives onto the grass. The old woman sat stonily on her blanket, crosslegged, ignoring them. The violinist was bending his ear so close to the strings, Par imagined there was a beetle there whispering some secret.

“Outstanding antique picture frame,” Par’s mom called out, somehow putting on a wide, bright smile, “solid mahogany, one hundred and seven years old!”

Par knew perfectly well that the frame was made of stained oak, and though it certainly looked ancient, it was probably younger than his mother.

“Satin pillow, authentic Eastern design, just fifty kriblers!”

The deep blue pillow was actually satin, and it was the fanciest thing they owned. It had been a wedding gift from Par’s father’s parents. Par had never met them. He’d never met his father either, for that matter. He’d died from a blow to the head during a vicious street brawl with a man who’d insulted the Tovari.

Par sighed. The violinist had lifted his head now and was doing something to his bow, rubbing the hairs with something that looked like chalk. Par had never been up close to a violin before. It gleamed golden-brown in the early sunlight. Probably the violinist polished it as often as Mom polished her shoes.

“Fifty kriblers for that thing?” said a middle-aged woman, approaching them. “Now that’s a roach deal if I ever saw one!”

“Good morning to you, miss,” said Par’s mother, still smiling. “It’s quite a bargain, actually. Here, feel it.”

She tried to hand the woman the pillow, but the woman recoiled.

“Don’t come near me. I wouldn’t buy that thing for a penny more than twenty-five kriblers.”

“That’s all right. I can assure you, someone else will buy it for fifty. Have a good day, miss.”

The woman paled slightly. “Thirty.”

“Forty-five and not a penny less.”

Finally, the woman reached out and stroked the pillow with a single delicate finger. “One would think,” she said, “that a desperate roach family trying to escape the country illegally would be a bit more flexible.”

Par saw his mom waver then, and he knew she was in the woman’s power. He felt like he was going to throw up. He hated everything and everyone in this city. Ever since Muntaro had been elected and started consolidating power, piling up laws against the Tovari, encouraging employers to fire them and neighbors to attack them, all Par had wanted was to find some way to fight back. He’d heard rumors of a resistance forming—underground newspapers, secret meetings, small acts of sabotage and violence. But instead, here they were, selling away his childhood piece by piece and trying to abandon the only place he’d ever known.

His mom gave the woman the pillow for thirty-five kriblers and Par closed his eyes, trying not to scream. That was when the violinist started playing.

Music bloomed in the air. It was a dark, brooding melody that seemed to contain three or four voices at once. They rose up together, soaring around each other and clashing like eagles, their talons ripping into each other, then drawing apart. Faster and faster the music beat, the eagle wings beat, and Par felt his anger meld with the music, then lift off until it was no longer part of him. The music had absorbed it. The music throbbed with it now.

Then, just as the song reached its climax, the melody slowed again. Par saw the violinist’s fingers lighten on the strings, just grazing them instead of pressing them down. The music changed instantly, as though he were suddenly playing a different instrument. Each note came out with the sound of glass—not the sound of rubbing a glass, or blowing into a glass, but glass itself, the substance transformed into sound. High-pitched, pristine, unbearably fragile, the eeriest and most beautiful sound Par had ever heard.

Then it was over.

Par blinked, coming back to himself. He was sure he had just experienced something supernatural, some real-life version of magic. Yet the Otchka still buzzed with business. People pushed and shoved. No one even seemed to have noticed the violinist.

As Par watched, the violinist took out a dirty handkerchief and wiped his forehead. Then he looked up and caught Par’s eye. Feeling stupid, Par made a clapping gesture without any sound.

The violinist grinned and raised an eyebrow, nodding toward the empty violin case lying open at his feet. Par glanced at his mom—she was talking to a young man, probably a university student, who was examining a handful of old books. Par reached into his pocket, found a handful of coins, and tossed them into the violin case. It wasn’t even half a kribler.

The violinist took an elaborate bow, still grinning. Par quickly turned away. The university student left without buying anything.

“YES!” someone cried.

Across the grassy aisle from them, at the lottery stall, a balding man was jumping in the air, practically dancing with joy, and waving an envelope. “YES YES YES!”

The old woman next to them finally opened her mouth and drawled, “Lucky bastard.”

People were stopping to stare. The group that had been present for the drawing of the winning ticket was doubling, tripling in size. The man seemed to notice the violinist and plowed toward him through the crowd.

“You! Roach!” The man’s face was bright red and glistening. He wrenched his wallet out of a pocket and presented a crisp bill to the violinist. “Play!”

The violinist paused for a moment, the bill outstretched in front of him. Par could see the purple wolf’s head marking it as a fifty-kribler note.

The crowd had gone quiet. Finally the violinist took it. He smiled widely. He rolled up the bill into a tight little cylinder and stuck it in the upper tip of his bow, so that it poked out sideways between the wood and the horsehair.

Then he bowed, his hand sweeping below him dramatically. And he started playing again.

This time, it was a gleeful song, a bouncing rhythmic explosion of notes—and the violinist milked it. He bent and leaned into the music, closed his eyes, tapped his feet, even started cantering around, nosing up to the man and several of the women, that roguish grin playing on his face. And all the while, the fifty-kribler note zipped through the air, faster and faster and faster as the musical notes climbed in dizzying whirls until they ended with three resounding chords and a flourish.

The crowd lost it. Whoops and whistles and cries of “Encore!” almost buried all the applause. “That roach can play!” someone shouted.

Par was crying.

If anyone had told him that a piece of music would make him cry one day, he’d have shoved that person to the ground. But it wasn’t just the music. It was something else. The anger had come back ten times stronger than before, flooding in like an unstoppable river.

He slipped into the crowd. The red-faced man was grinning and shouting, sweat pouring off his forehead. The envelope with his winning lottery ticket was clutched in his right fist, his name, address, and ticket number neatly handwritten in ink.

Par cut around and approached him from behind. A foot between his legs was all it took. The man went down with a cry. In the split-second before the man realized what was happening, Par yanked the envelope free.

“Thief!” the man was screaming, struggling to get to his feet. “Dirty little roach thief!”

Par turned and caught his mother’s eyes. They were wide with pure shock.

And then Par was weaving between people. He had no idea what he was doing or where he was going. The envelope felt like it would singe his fingers any second. All he knew was that he had to escape and draw the furious crowd away from his mother.

When he broke through the edge of the mob, he started running down aisles, darting between wagons and barrels and old furniture, deeper and deeper into the heart of the Otchka, then out again toward the far side.

Finally he found himself at a quieter edge of the market. No one seemed to be chasing him anymore. He spotted a tree stump hidden behind a run-down yellow stall and collapsed there, out of breath. The fiery-colored woods loomed over his shoulder.

He knew he couldn’t use the ticket himself. Tovari were forbidden from entering the lottery, just like they were forbidden from entering most shops and most theaters and the nicest parks and all the libraries. He could try to sell it, but since he wasn’t even allowed to have the ticket in the first place, everyone would know he’d stolen it. Someone would turn him in.

The more he thought about it, the more Par realized the stolen ticket was useless. He wouldn’t have stolen it if the man had earned it. But it was just luck. Why did luck come to people like that? Why didn’t it come to people who were forced to sell all their belongings just to escape from a place where they were hated?

“Hello, thief,” said a voice.

Par looked up, heart pounding.

The violinist was standing over him. He was grinning.

“Quick fingers you got there,” said the man. He set his violin case down, then lay down on the grass, stretching his long legs out and propping himself on his elbows. “I’ll wager you’ve done this before.”

Par felt his face heating up. He’d never stolen anything in his life.

“I’m looking for someone like you,” the violinist went on, lowering his voice. “We need a talented thief for all sorts of missions.”

Par’s heart somehow sped up even more. “Who’s we?”

“Don’t be stupid, kid. What’s your name?”

“Why do you care?”

The violinist sat up suddenly, his face only inches away from Par’s. “Tell me, do you like being spat on?”

“No.”

“Do you like being looked down on by pathetic brainless sheep on the street?’

Par shook his head, startled.

“Do you like being treated like a cockroach?”

Par inhaled sharply. He finally understood.

“You’re the resistance.”

“And you can be one of us,” said the violinist.

A gust of wind blew through the Otchka. A curled-up dry brown leaf scuttled like a crab across a blanket. To join the resistance was all Par had wanted, but suddenly he felt terribly alone.

“I can’t,” he said. “I’m leaving with my mother as soon as we get enough money. We’re trying to sell everything today.”

“Oh,” said the violinist, smiling again. “My apologies. I mistook you for a man.”

He shifted backwards as if to leave.

“What?”

That was when the violinist laughed. It was a bright, glimmering, ruthless sound, like a sharpened icicle in the sun. “Only cowards run, kid. Real men stay and fight.”

That stung much more than Par would let on. “You consider that fighting?” he said. “Playing a song for anyone who gives you fifty kriblers? You let them treat you like a circus animal.”

The violinist’s eyes flashed, but he didn’t seem angry. He seemed—excited.

“You’re wrong,” he said softly. “That was Tovari music. The most expressive and energetic musical tradition in this country, and probably the world. Playing that song for that blubbering lackey—and him enjoying it—that’s like spitting in his ears. Every note, every bow-stroke is a weapon as sharp as a knife.”

Par said nothing, but a great bell was chiming inside of him. He hadn’t even realized Tovari music was different from any other. Was that why he’d been so affected by the music? Because it was part of his own culture? To do battle with music—it was a radical idea, and a thrilling one.

“Please,” the violinist said. “The resistance needs you.”

“I’m sorry,” Par said at last, rising from the tree stump with a great effort. “I can’t abandon my mother.”

“Wrong again,” said the violinist, standing as well. “You can’t abandon your people.”

Par’s breath caught in his throat. Unexpectedly, anger sparked to life again inside him, anger at this man who had cornered him, forcing him into this impossible dilemma. What on Earth was he supposed to do?

He must have hesitated too long, because the violinist shrugged. “You give me no choice,” he said. Then he tilted his head back and bellowed to the sky, “HERE! The thief is here!”

A jolt like an electric shock sliced through Par.

The violinist grinned again. “Your only hope is to run to the woods. My resistance cell is camped there. We’re one of countless cells in a network spread out across the country. Find the juniper tree with two trunks and climb up the deer trail. They’ll protect you.”

And with that, the violinist lifted his case and sauntered off toward the trees.

Par stood for just another moment, too stunned by the betrayal to move. Then he bolted.

Not toward the woods, but back into the Otchka. He was faster than just about anyone he knew; he would have to rely on that. Footsteps and screams were already chasing him, gleeful laughter and hideous curse words, but the Otchka was a labyrinth.

He made turn after turn after turn, nearly knocking over plum towers and flimsy carts of chestnuts, until the buildings of Gholàr came back into view. He barreled toward them without looking back, heading for home.

 

“You almost got us killed, do you understand me?”

They were having dinner on the floor. They had no table or chairs anymore.

After Par stole the ticket, while everyone was chasing him, his mom had packed up as much as she could and found a different spot in the market, slipping away before the crowd realized she was connected to the thief. She’d spent many more hours selling their wares on her own, once she was convinced that Par had escaped, and now she was livid.

Her trembling hand clutched her knife like a dagger. She could barely spread her cheese.

Par knew she was right, but he still couldn’t feel remorse for stealing the lottery ticket. He felt terrible for putting his mother in danger, though, and then for making her pull the cart all the way back on her own.

“And as if stealing that ticket wasn’t enough, you then attract the attention of the resistance?” She hissed the last word. “And let that smiling double-crossing weasel almost talk you into joining their ranks?”

Almost. At first, he’d trusted that man. He’d even admired him. But the truth was, part of him still did. And right beside that feeling of betrayal, roiling in his stomach like a restless snake, was the question, What if the man was right?

“This is what I’ve been telling you,” Par’s mother went on, her voice softening slightly; she finally managed to spread some sour cheese on a slice of stale bread. “There is no resistance. There’s only a band of hooligans with a new justification for violence.”

“I don’t think so,” Par ventured. He cracked his teeth through the bread, feeling a dull pain in his jaws and ears. “The violinist was fighting with music. He was proving something to them. Our music is the best in the world.”

“Par!” She was looking at him fiercely now over the rim of her chipped teacup, which they hadn’t managed to sell. “Par,” she repeated, setting it down, “that was a sentence that could have come straight from Muntaro’s mouth.”

He could feel his face heating up: shame and indignation.

“Yes, we have a culture,” his mother went on. “Just as old and complex and valuable as anyone’s. But be careful of placing too much pride in it. That was the downfall of your father. You be proud of your achievements, Par, your qualities, your choices. Your determination. Your good marks in school. Your capacity for emotion. Your sense of justice. That’s where your pride belongs.”

She stood up and carried her dish to the small washbasin, where she set it down with an uncharacteristic clatter. Then she turned and sat back down cross-legged, facing him. For a long time, it was quiet. At some point, she shook her head and smiled. Then she reached out with her calloused fingers and touched his cheek. He let her stroke it.

“You’re just a boy,” she said gently. “You’ll fight when you’re older, if you choose to, once you’ve finished your education, when you’ve figured out who you are and how to put your skills to use. In the meantime …” She checked that the sheet they were using as a window-curtain was closed, then reached into the pocket of her skirt and pulled out two small, dark green documents. “We leave tomorrow at dawn.”

The passports glistened in the candlelight. Par took his reluctantly, reverently, and touched the fine leather. Inside was his school photograph from the year before. He was obviously in mid-laugh. Anyone would think he was a very happy fourteen-year-old.

Only he knew the truth. The photographer hadn’t noticed the large furry spider descending from the ceiling directly above his bald head.

 

Night passed slowly. Par’s body was exhausted but his mind wouldn’t rest.

He was wrapped in a blanket on the hard wooden floor, the shapes and shadows of his gutted, empty home unrecognizable. He was trying to take stock of all he was leaving behind, ingrain it into his mind forever. The puppet shows in Greywolf Square on St. Hovart’s Day, when the heady smells of grilling lamb and stuffed pepper wafted from the bonfires and food carts. The laughing creak of the wooden stairs as he and his friends ran down from their musty classroom to play streetball during recess. The invigorating, crystal-clear air of fall in the mountains, when the trees seemed reckless with passion, bursting with all their pent-up fire—blushing, yet proud.

Of course, these memories had been tainted by Muntaro. This year, for the first time, Tovari weren’t allowed at the puppet shows. This year, for the first time, Par had no friends. People he had once thought he’d be close to forever picked him last for their streetball team. They stopped asking him to join them for sweet rolls and yogurt after school. They looked away when he met them on the street.

At least Muntaro couldn’t take away the mountains.

He rolled over, his back aching almost as much as his heart. Damn this floor, damn these people who could take away his own bed, damn this country that could reduce him to tears in the middle of the night.

What had Mom said about his sense of justice?

Only cowards run. Real men stay and fight.

Those words, not his mother’s, resurfaced in his mind, clear and sharp as though chiseled from stone. They grew in his head like a reverse echo, gaining volume and power with every repetition.

Real men stay and fight.

Stay and fight.

Fight.

Par threw back the blanket. His rucksack was already packed. He wrote a note to his mother and set it on the floor beside her. Outside, haloes of mist glowed around the gas lamps. The air smelled of horses and rain. As he flew like a ghost over the cobblestones, hardly believing what he was doing, the sound of the violinist’s music came back to him unbidden, like a steady breeze in his head, urging him onward: toward the outskirts, toward the Otchka, toward the forest.

He found the apartment easily. It was only blocks from the Otchka in a rundown part of the city where cats slunk through piles of trash.

He slipped through the door into the musty stairwell. Gaslight angled through a single high window clouded with grime; it wasn’t even enough for Par to see the stairs beneath his feet. He spiraled slowly up to the third floor. There: a rusty door-plaque with the number 33 barely visible. He knelt down on the threadbare mat and slipped the envelope with the winning lottery ticket under the door where it belonged.

It didn’t feel like a defeat. It just felt like a relief.

He crept back outside. Through the dead lanes and alleys of the Otchka, past the place where he and his mother had set up their stall, on and on across the grass until the shadows deepened and the trees took over.

The moon was only a sliver and it took him a long time to find the two-trunked juniper tree where the deer trail began. But then, at last, he was climbing, leaves crunching softly beneath him, the chuckle of a creek keeping him company. On distant slopes, in an ever-rising chorus of longing, wolves.

Par smelled the fire before he saw it. And then, he was there: a ring of people—maybe twenty—around the remains of a campfire, some sleeping, some whispering, guns in their laps.

“I knew it!” said the violinist, jumping to his feet. “The thief.”

“I’m not a thief,” said Par.

“I knew I could trust you,” the violinist went on, taking Par by the arm and seating him on a rock close to the fire. A few men and women were stirring. “Here, have some tea.”

The sky in the east was just starting to lighten. Par pictured his mother sitting up, rubbing her eyes. Putting on her slippers because the floor would be so cold, crossing to the basin to wash her face, and telling Par to wake up. She would call at least twice before checking his pile of blankets, rustling them gently, then firmly, and perhaps only then finding the note on the floor.

I’m joining the resistance. I’m so sorry, Mom. Maybe you’re right about everything, but I have to do this. Please, please, please take the train to Velingen. I’ll find you there when this is over, I promise.

The sky was turning pale grey and pink now; a few people polished their guns.

Par sipped linden tea without tasting it and stared into the embers. He was going to resist Muntaro. So why did it feel, at the same time, as though he’d given in to some even more powerful, even more terrible force?

“You’re a fighter,” said the violinist, putting an arm around Par’s shoulders.

This time, Par recoiled. He didn’t want that person to touch him. His head whirled; if he hurried, he could probably still catch his mother at the train station. There was still time to change his mind.

“A true Tovari,” the violinist continued. “One of us.”

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by Jason Fowler, curated by Dana Lyons.

Noah Weisz received his M.F.A. in Fiction from the New Writers Project at UT Austin. He has been shortlisted for the international Bath Children’s Novel Award and a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature. His fiction for readers young and old can be found in Highlights, Lunch Ticket, F(r)iction, Cosmonauts Avenue, and other publications. Currently, he teaches creative writing at St. Edward’s University and elementary-school language arts in Austin, Texas. You can learn more at https://noahweisz.wordpress.com.

 

Crystal Vision, with Chrysalis

Jade Hurter

I wake in the middle of the night to whimpers. An angel shivers beside me, translucent as shadow. It vomits a chrysalis into my hand, sticky and green. Its red eyes ripple like pools. Where are the others? But the room contains only this small shadow, infinite in its softness. The mirror gluts with moon. If an angel dies, the silence becomes absolute. I tuck the angel inside my body. Its sickness is fi rst a claw in my gut, then a dull purr. Inside the chrysalis, a tiny bell grows wings.

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by Sondra Graff, curated by Dana Lyons.

Jade Hurter is the author of the chapbook SLUT SONGS (Hyacinth Girl Press 2017), and her work has appeared in THRUSH, The Columbia Poetry Review, Glass, Passages North, New South, and elsewhere. She teaches English at the University of New Orleans.

Morning Walk: September 11, 2018

Amelia Martens

Because you are five, I say airplanes crashed
and you say where is our flag and I say look

at those roses, breaking open—little mouths
on our walk to school. You scuff and work

out the equation: if airplanes crashed
on a surface like this—you drag the concrete,

then there would be fire. Yes, and now
I walk through a curtain of printer paper

a flock of fallen paper people, arms spread.
Yes, I say—there was fire and I mean is.

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by Jason Fowler, curated by Dana Lyons.

Amelia Martens is the author of THE SPOONS IN THE GRASS ARE THERE TO DIG A MOAT (Sarabande Books, 2016), and four poetry chapbooks, including URSA MINOR (elsewhere magazine, 2018). She is the recipient of a 2019 Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council; her work has also been supported by the Kentucky Foundation for Women and a SAF fellowship to Rivendell Writer’s Colony. She is mom to two awesome daughters.

No Tomorrow

Brad Rose

It’s a circular night and my blood is itchy. As soon as the now is over, I’m going to
disentangle the amnesic kilowatts nestled inside these invisible particles. The house is
still as a sleeping animal, and I’ve had it up to here with working the swing shift. Before
we moved in, I used to frequent this neighborhood every now and then, but nobody
told me about the trans-galactic data replication. It’s worse than the ground water. I
told Janine, You’d need a handwriting expert to detect that secret scenario, but she said,
Eugene, you’re no fool. Nobody pulls the wool over your eyes. I said, I’m still going to
monitor my immune system, whether they’re watching or not. I might even download the
ambient collateral vacuity organizer. You can’t trust anything you hear, and only about
a third of what you know. Just then Janine passed me the gravy boat. It was like nothing
had happened. I told her, Next week, when I get a few minutes to myself, I’m going to put
the dog to sleep. She flashed me a smile like there’s no tomorrow.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Brad Rose was born and raised in Los Angeles and lives in Boston. He is the author of a collection of poetry and flash fiction, PINK X-RAY (Big Table Publishing, 2015). His two new books of poems, MOMENTARY TURBULENCE and WORDINEDGEWISE, are forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press. Brad has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize, and once nominated for Best of the Net Anthology.  Selected readings can be heard here.

 

In the Embassy of Silence

Tina Carlson

My mother fills paper

boats with pastel mints,

juice glasses with bourbon.

The room shimmers with lit

cigarettes. We watch

the perfumed players sneak

peeks at other hands, bet

and bluff . Out back my father

beats hedges with rusted shears,

says god damn shit ass.

Glasses empty. My brother

puts frozen peas on his bruises.

My mother hums in her new

blue party dress. Ladies praise

her close-to-perfect white cake.

 

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Tina Carlson is a poet and a psychiatric healthcare provider. Her poems have appeared in many journals and blogs. She was featured in the 2017 Nov/Dec Poets & Writers ‘5 over 50.’ Her book GROUND, WIND, THIS BODY (UNM Press) was published in March 2017. She recently completed a collaborative manuscript called WE ARE MEANT TO CARRY WATER with Katherine DiBella Seluja and Stella Reed which will be published by 3: A Taos Press.

The Good Shepherd

Michael Nye

Every eight weeks, a Fayetteville Farms truck delivered dogs to the Sullivan farm. A six-man crew unloaded crates of canines, each worker filing into the four industrial size barns and herding the dogs into neat rows and stacks of steel cages. Pruitt Sullivan’s job was to fatten the tens of thousands of dogs, keeping them warm and fed and hydrated, fattening them up until Fayetteville Farms returned to collect them for slaughter. It was a routine Pruitt knew well, one that defined the rhythm of his grandfather’s, and then his father’s, chicken farm here in rural Arkansas for as long as Pruitt could remember.

They came in a series of semitrucks with long trailers, and from his porch, Pruitt could hear the frenetic barking. He knew he was not to interfere while the Fayetteville Farms men unloaded the dogs, but it always struck him as something he should interfere with. The men got out and didn’t mill around; they went straight to the back of the trailer, entered an electronic keycode to unlock the doors, opened it up, and led dogs out, the large ones on leashes and the smaller ones in crates. The dogs trotted with merry curiosity as if they were stars of a small town parade. These were dogs of all sizes and breeds but the majority were mutts with obvious pit bull in them.

But what really unnerved Pruitt was that the Fayetteville Farms men wore baggy green suits with thick, rotund helmets, their skin protected from the air. Like they were delivering something toxic.

The dogs were led to what had been his grandfather’s chicken houses, now converted into appropriate storage for the dogs, a series of low buildings with studded round silver ventilation fans every fifty yards in order to properly ventilate the barn during the hot Arkansas summers. On both sides of each barn was a massive bay door that could slide open like a loading dock, and this was where the men entered with the dogs.

Today, the green men were followed by a Kia sedan and from this car stepped a man of medium height, medium build, and nondescript clothes. He stood erect, hands held directly to his side. He spun and scanned the entire farm before walking briskly toward Pruitt, taking the steps to the front porch two a time. He offered his hand to shake; he wore neither a watch nor a wedding ring.

Mr. Sullivan? I’m Dr. Thomas Cook with the Fayetteville Farms Company. I’m a vice president of research and development. I was wondering if you had a moment to talk.

Of course. They shook hands and moved down the porch away from the front door. What can I do for you, Mr. Cook?

Please. Call me Thomas. How’s your operation going?

Fine. Nothing to add. I send in my weekly reports via the server. Everything I observe and record is there.

I know. I’ve read your reports, Pruitt. Very detailed. Very thorough. Is there anything you want to add? Something that you felt uncomfortable about putting in a written report?

No. Why?

Cook shrugged. Sometimes with our farmers, I find it helpful to speak in person. More of a connection, an understanding.

Pruitt frowned. His reports, using a proprietary software provided by the company, detailed the weight, body fat percentage, and heart rate of each dog, along with twenty-six additional metrics of their health. His report also included information about the water filtration system, air temperature and quality, stool consistency, and other details that were measured daily and broken down in his weekly reports with an executive summary, spreadsheets, pie charts, and bar graphs. Pruitt didn’t miss a thing. Including the fact that since Cook had stepped on his porch, the dogs, who normally barked off and on all day long, had gone silent.

You should get more exercise, Cook said, studying Pruitt’s face. You should run. Every morning. It’s just like basic. Get up, head outside, and run.

Pruitt wondered how this man knew he had served. I don’t remember enjoying that.

Running is glorious. Cook turned. He smiled out at the yard like a preacher beaming at his congregation. With our work, it’s easy to forget the simple things that make our lives so beautiful. Like the dawn. Feeling our bodies warm as we move through the world. I love to run, Pruitt. I love it so much. The way your legs burn with the effort and the steady sound of your breathing in your throat and ears. You used to run, I can tell. You should get back to it.

I’ll think about it. Pruitt cleared his throat. He sensed that Cook knew something about him, something about who he had once been and who he was now, and that this pale man was peeling something back that Pruitt wanted to remain hidden and unearthed.

You do that, Pruitt. Cook reached into the left pocket of his pressed, clean chinos and withdrew a business card. If you have any problems or concerns, you give me a call. I’m happy to help. But the most important thing, Pruitt, is that you buy a pair of running shoes and get outside every morning. I promise this will be a big help.

Pruitt said sure, took the card, and looked over Cook’s shoulders. The Fayetteville Farms green men were coming back from the dog houses, free of leashes, carrying the empty cages, their delivery work finished. They climbed into their trucks and when they turned the ignition and shifted into gear, Thomas Cook said goodbye and walked toward his Kia. Pruitt watched them leave, then stood on the porch staring into the distant Ozark hills for several minutes. Then he went inside, opened a beer, drank it greedily, sat down at his computer, and spent fifteen minutes comparing running shoes before ordering a pair that would arrive on his doorstep in just two business days.

 

The morning after Cook’s visit, the dogs started to die.

Pruitt found one of the dogs nearest the door dead, keeled over on its right side, unmoving, the fact that he was no longer alive so obvious and factual that Pruitt wondered if it was real. He moved down the rows and found that eight other dogs were dead, collapsed on their sides, their mouths and eyes rigidly open. Pruitt pulled his shirt collar up above his mouth and nose and then beelined for his dilapidated garden shed.

He returned to the dog house wearing a white surgical mask and yellow latex gloves that stretched up his forearms. The dogs bayed and barked and howled as he searched for the dead bodies, detaching their catheters, dumping their shit and piss on the stainless steel pan into the mixture of blood and pus that had come from their mouths and paws, and sliding the body out from the cage, careful not to spill their waste on the dogs below. Their rotten bodies were like deflated balloons, their tails sloughing off the body when he tried to scoop them out of the cage.

The dogs were housed in cramped wired cages stacked six high in six rows running the entire length of the house. Vulcanized bags for urine and fecal matter, coated with a chemical designed to prevent sores, were attached to each dog, and directed into a trough behind each cage where the waste poured down to a massive treatment vat at the end of the building. The dogs barked wildly at the sight of Pruitt, not, he believed, with joy or fear but with the simple awareness that his presence meant food and they were always hungry.

The food that Fayetteville Farms provided Pruitt to feed to the dogs was a formula, created in research labs using the best of modern science to synthesize the appropriate combination of proteins, carbohydrates, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals to maximize muscle growth and density in the dogs. It was also laced with a material that coated the dog’s stomachs to encourage them to eat more. All around him, stacked above his head, these dogs were overweight; if they weren’t in cages, organized by genetically tested breed and size, Pruitt doubted these dogs could run, or maybe even walk. Their bodies were both muscular and blob-like, whales with snouts and tales. Far worse than their barks was the rhythmic clatter of their stupid tails banging against the cages, a trilling drumbeat of bone on metal that amplified their state of confinement.

Pruitt dumped the bodies in a wheelbarrow. He looked up at the fans, pictured the pathway of the air pushed through the ventilation system, and wondered if the room was somehow too hot or cold. Per the company’s instructions, he kept the room at sixty- one degrees. He didn’t know how they reached this calculation. He didn’t know what was in their food, what clear chemical treatment he added to their water, why the regulations for the cages’ width, length, and height were so specific, why he wasn’t allowed to have five or seven stacks of cage. It had to be six. Which was roughly the same number of dogs he could drop in a wheelbarrow before it was full and he had to cart the dead out into the yard.

He picked a spot downwind from his house, dug a large and deep grave, spread a tarp along the bottom, and then dumped the bodies.

Despite his daily, insistent phone calls, Fayetteville Farms didn’t come any earlier. They continued to arrive every Tuesday morning. They continued to unload dogs and lead them into the cages.

Don’t y’all wanna take a look at this? Pruitt asked the man with the clipboard.

Pruitt led the foreman to the pit. Flies hovered above the rotting, chemical stench of the bodies. When he looked down, all Pruitt could make out were the teeth, twisted and grinning, like happy snarls.

Did you put this tarp down? the foreman asked.

Seemed like the smart thing to do.

Sure was. Okay. We’ll collect the bodies, and bring you a fresh tarp.

What’s the problem?

Don’t know until we get them to the lab.

Want me to change anything?

The foreman looked down at his clipboard, squinting at as if the words were written in a foreign language. He then spoke slowly, as if he was uncertain of the pronunciation of his words.

No, don’t make any changes. Average dog weight and mass are in-range. Chemical elements in the food and water are all clear. Could be the temperature, I suppose.

Pruitt pointed down into the grave. Temperature explains that? Them dogs are bloated and purple. Look like goddamn grape jelly.

The foreman looked directly at Pruitt. We don’t yet know what’s going on. I want you to keep everything the same. Same foods, same cleaning process, same temperatures.

So I get paid the same amount?

The foreman clucked his tongue. You’re paid based on the weight of the dogs we pick up for slaughter. Not for the dogs that are dead.

This ain’t my fault!

Frankly, Mr. Sullivan, we don’t know that yet, now do we?

Pruitt looked down at the grave, and made a quick calculation of how much money this was going to cost him.

My margins are already slim, he muttered.

The foreman laid a hand on Pruitt’s shoulder. It’s gonna be fine, Pruitt. You’ll see. Gonna be fine.

Not to Pruitt it wasn’t. He was up all night, sitting on his porch, the beers under his feet, shotgun leaning against the house, drinking and watching the dog houses. There was no howling, just the occasional scratch of claws against the cage, a dog shifting in place in their presumed sleep. He half expected those dogs to come barreling out of the house, a pack of Cujos, to tear his skin and muscle from his bones with their sharp, devilish teeth. Sometimes, he wished they would.

 

Three years ago a chicken flu swept across America, and even today no one could identify what caused this specific strain of H5N1, why it only attacked chickens rather than starlings or chickadees or cardinals, why it only attacked the birds that the average American ate 94 lbs. of every single year. What was clear was that chickens were unsafe and Congress was not about to export a product that could be unsafe, despite no one getting sick from American chickens in Europe or Asia.

Instead, the chicken companies just decided to change products. That three thousand dogs were executed daily struck someone as a market inefficiency that could be made profitable. The political machinations of this shift never much interested Pruitt. That’s not what he remembered about those turbulent six months when legislation was whipped and rammed through, when rebranding of food from the same people that rechristened chicken as poultry occurred, when Americans dissociated their beloved pets from the food on their plate.

What Pruitt remembered about this time was his father’s suicide. His father, the fourth generation of Sullivan men, a family that had moved from Providence to Arkansas for a large swath of land and the opportunity to live somewhere other than city slums, had at first treated the paperwork from Fayetteville Farms with earnest focus. After all, Sullivan men had a standing relationship with the company, going back decades, long before their financial contracts effectively made the Sullivan’s tenant farmers. The living room table was soon covered with paper, first slim white envelopes, then large manila envelopes, then stacks of paper filled with legal jargon and threatening letters from law firms. The pure amount of paper that corporations, banks, and law firms could generate to someone as insignificant as Pruitt’s father was spectacularly cruel.

It always struck him as peculiar that he could not remember the sound. What woke him was this sound he couldn’t recall, a single shot from his father’s .38, a shot fired by his father into his temple, standing out in the backyard in a spot that, to Pruitt’s knowledge, held no significance. It was a Saturday morning, the light creeping around the blinds of his window, and though he couldn’t locate the sound, he continued to look around his bedroom in search of a source, as if his body knew something his brain did not. It was as if his father walked outside that morning, started to walk toward the chicken coops, and then thought, why bother? His father did not leave a note. Pruitt figured that his father, who never liked to trouble anyone for the simplest of things, hadn’t wanted to burden him with one more piece of indecipherable paper.

 

Cook returned exactly one week after the first dogs died, right after Pruitt had finished a run. He had waited until the day’s heat was at its peak, the humidity pressing into his body like a hot iron, flattening him out. He found that he couldn’t run as far as he wished but that each day he ran a little bit farther, a little bit faster, and that skipping a
day of running made him feel squirrely and on edge.

You’ve been running, Cook said, staring at Pruitt’s shoes.

Every day.

It’s quite addicting, isn’t it? And invigorating. Nothing makes you feel more alive. Pruitt, I could talk about running all day long, but I received a message that you have some concerns about the dogs.

Pruitt scanned the yard, checking his 25, 50, and 100 yard markers as if he was still in Iraq. There was no one. There was a Kia sedan in the driveway and no other cars. The world was still and the dogs had ceased barking.

If I’ve interrupted your dinner, Thomas said, I can come back another time.

Pruitt thought about the pretzels he had been munching on last night while he drank beer and listened to the Cardinals game on the radio.

Now’s good. Would you like to come in?

It’s nice out. Let’s sit on the porch.

Beer?

Yes, thank you.

Pruitt pulled what remained of the case from his fridge and came out to the porch. He took a seat and handed Thomas a beer, which he opened but did not drink. Pruitt opened his beer and took a deep gulp.

So, Pruitt. What’s wrong with the dogs?

Isn’t that what your green men are for? I don’t know. I’m following protocol.

Temperature is set correctly, A/C is working. Their food is the formula y’all give me and they’re getting the right amounts. Water is filtered, unpolluted and clean, just like y’all demanded.

Cook turned and looked at the chicken houses. Pruitt still thought of them this way—chicken houses—though they hadn’t had chickens inside them in almost two years. The only noise was the steady hum of the fans that cooled the buildings.

That’s spooky, Pruitt said. Usually them dogs are barking and howling.

Dogs are different from us. They understand things instinctively that we do not.

Cook turned back to Pruitt and stared at him. Were you in the service?

Three tours.

And now you’re home.

I did my part. Now I got a chicken farm without chickens.

The food industry has changed.

My granddaddy started our family farm. Couple of chickens in a pen, and next thing you know, boom, he’s got this great big business. My daddy is who sold to y’all.

Do you ever talk about the war with anyone?

Not much to say. Thomas crushed his beer can and opened another. People always ask shit like, Did you kill anybody? Or really general stuff. What’s it like over there? They don’t really wanna know the answer. They just like being near soldiers, pretending they’re heroes, too.

Tell me.

Pruitt stilled. You know, there’s actually a lot of downtime when you’re just sitting there waiting for the next assignment, when nothing happens, and all you do is play Call of Duty and shit. And you’re not really thinking about going out there, but you’re also not not thinking about going out there. Just keep playing that game, moving your hands over them buttons, and if it goes bad, you just start a new mission. We played for hours.

Tell me more, Thomas whispered.

He could feel it, then, the way the world zeroed in on the monitor, the way he could ignore the heat and the tent flaps and sand that seemed to embed in his skin. Just keep playing those games until the sergeant said it was time to move out. Not peaceful, exactly, but cocooned off from a world that required his full attention.

Pruitt wasn’t sure how long he talked but when Thomas said, Well, Pruitt, thanks for talking to me, I’ll be seeing you, it was like a trance had been broken. On the floorboards were eight empty cans of beer; Thomas’s remained untouched on the railing. Pruitt staggered upright and watched the Kia pull out of the driveway, and once the car was around the bend, the dogs began to bark and howl.

 

Soon, Dr. Thomas Cook appeared on Pruitt’s porch every Wednesday night. He would knock on the door and politely decline to come in, preferring to remain outdoors. He asked Pruitt to turn on the Cardinals game, though he otherwise never showed any interest in baseball. Pruitt would open a beer and hand it to Cook, and he would always graciously say thank you, then never fail to not take a sip. He always stood, his ramrod posture like a sentry. And Pruitt would talk.

He talked about his deployment. He talked about the desert, the inexplicable heat, the weight of all that gear he had to carry on his back. He talked about the first time his squad was attacked, and how chaotic it was to have bullets zipping around his body, to not know who was firing at him, or from where, or when there was an explosion, there wasn’t fire and bright oranges and reds but just dust, so much dust, clouds of it rolling over him, coating the back of his throat. Pruitt had never been wounded in combat, a fact that always seemed to surprise people back in the States. His friends had died, some immediately from an explosion, one moment there and the next gone in that cloud of dust, others slowly in triage from shrapnel or bullets that couldn’t be dislodged from their pale, skinny bodies. I don’t feel lucky, he said to Dr. Cook, or blessed or anything. The whole thing made no sense.

Not that it made any sense when he received his honorable discharge and returned to Waldron, Arkansas, to discover that his family no longer owned a chicken farm, but a dog farm. His grandfather, oxygen tube in his nose, dying from the lung cancer brought upon him by a lifetime of Marlboro Reds, explained that Fayetteville Farms offered more money, a lot more, if they signed a contract to provide their chickens exclusively to the company.

So we’re tenant farmers? Pruitt asked, running his hand across his still military short hair.

We’re partners, his grandfather wheezed. Not the same thing.

Contract don’t read that way.

Your father and I agree. This is the best thing to do. We can’t afford the land we’re on and we can’t afford to compete in the market as individuals. This is a guaranteed income.

You sure?

Goddammit, you weren’t here, were you?

Pruitt shrugged and spit tobacco juice off the porch. His grandfather shook his head, the tubing around his nose remaining firmly in place. He had a blanket over his legs despite the fact that it was early summer.

We will be fine, his grandfather said. Your father knows what he’s doing.

Three months later, his grandfather was dead, and Pruitt and his father were the sole proprietors of a chicken farm, where every eight weeks, a Fayetteville Farms truck would come to pick up chickens for slaughter, the terms and conditions of the chicken houses built to their specifications based on the best science. Fayetteville Farms, of course, did not pay for the necessary upgrades: that was on Pruitt and his father. They took out bank loans and for a few years, the money was good, the work was straightforward. Everything about their financial arrangement was just fine. Until one day, like high winds and storms that suddenly form into a tornado, it wasn’t.

 

What happens to those dogs? Pruitt asked.

Thomas smiled thinly. They’re slaughtered.

I know that, I mean, you know, how.

I see, Thomas focused on a point over Pruitt’s shoulder. It’s quite elegant. We control all facets of meat production now. We collect dogs from shelters all throughout the region, check their health, then bring them to you. We genetically test their breed, or breeds, as it usually is with mutts, and scientifically determine the best food for their size in order to optimize growth. That’s why your houses are so different, why particular breeds are taken to particular houses. We want to make sure they are eating the proper mixture of carbohydrates, proteins, and amino acids. We transport these dogs to you, you feed and care for them for eight weeks, and then we bring them back to the plant, where they are funneled into chutes.

Chutes? Like a slide?

It’s beautiful to see, the efficiency. Thomas’s eyes were glassy. The dogs are hung upside down on hooks and decapitated, then skinned. They travel down a line for disassembly. People in hairnets and white aprons and white masks and white hats cuts them apart by hand. Then we take the meat and batter it, cook it, and freeze it, sealing the product in airtight bags. Then we ship them to the appropriate markets.

Don’t seem right. Thomas stood very close, towering over him, and a tremor of fear bubbled through his chest. I just want to live in peace.

And you will, Thomas said. You always will.

He was lightheaded, feeling weightless and unsteady. He set his beer can down on the arm of the chair.

Something ain’t right, Pruitt said.

That is so true, Pruitt. That is very, very true.

The dogs were quiet. No scratches, no sounds. Pruitt rolled his head back. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, it was dawn. Thomas’s car was gone. Around his feet was a larger collection of beer cans than Pruitt remembered drinking; there was even an empty bottle of Old Crow floating in the cooler water. Did they drink whiskey? Pruitt’s vision fogged, and he stumbled into the kitchen and made toast and drank orange juice and tried to shake the visions from his head, the visions of dogs attacking him, his legs churning, feeling teeth grip his flesh and pull the muscles from his bones.

On the morning of his father’s suicide, Pruitt had slid out of bed and tugged on the jeans and t-shirt he found on the floor directly next to his bed, the discarded pile of a drinker. He thumped barefoot into the hall and down the stairs, his mouth dry and cottony. He drank two glasses of water from the kitchen sink and then went to the coffee machine, freshly made but only half filled, and assumed his father had been up for a while. His father had always been an earlyriser. Pruitt poured himself a cup and set it down on the counter. He stared at it for a moment, chewing over the idea of pouring a splash of bourbon into it, aware that his was the behavior of a drunk, and yet the idea gripped him like a fist, and he didn’t quite know what to make of this desire, this need.

He picked up his coffee. No bourbon. He stepped out on the back porch and took a long gulp of the hot coffee, savoring the way it almost burned his throat. He held the chipped Razorbacks mug with two hands and leaned against the railing. It’s pretty here, he thought, a thought as clear and sonorous in his mind as the desire of bourbon had been just a moment ago. Funny how the brain works. He shook his head and lifted the mug to his lips. When his eyes were over the mug’s lip, he saw something in the yard that didn’t look right. His thoughts slowed. This was a shape. This was the shape of a man. This was the shape of a man that resembled my father. This is my father. What’s he doing in the grass? Why isn’t he moving?

Pruitt always came back to, this moment of indecision. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had known his father shot himself; the bullet that went into the right side of his father’s skull had killed him instantly. And the grief he felt, the type of terrifying bone wrenching he would feel for months, even now, sometimes, as he walked away from the dogs and back to his father’s home, would always remain, would always be unavoidable. There was nothing to do. Yet, Pruitt could not shake the belief that his hesitation, his inability to see his father in that moment, was a character flaw so deep and intractable into who he was that he could not help but puzzle over it, turn it in his hands, feel the hardness of this enigma, and study this flaw with inexhaustible patience.

 

As the summer dragged into autumn, Pruitt watched his bank account dwindle. Fayetteville Farms set the price for its dogs based on weight, and when there were fewer dogs, there was less money. The men in the green toxic waste suits continued to collect the dead dogs, continued to deliver new ones, continued to get their data reports from the computers that helped control the dog houses. All of it was programmed by Pruitt: the automated feeders, the ventilation systems, the water lines, the thermostats, and he had been following the guidelines with precision. And still dogs were dying.

Pruitt hadn’t been sleeping. He might as well be in the desert again. Now when he brought the dead dogs out, he knew the living are barking and growling not at the corpses, but at Pruitt. It was his fault. All of this was his fault.

It was late October and Pruitt sat at the dining room table, the entire surface covered in paper—bank statements, legal threats, credit card statements, torn envelopes, foreclosure warnings—and in front of him was a plate with a half-eaten Pop Tart. He didn’t know what to do: his mailbox was filled daily and his phone rang all day, always unanswered, from numbers he didn’t recognize. His voicemail was filled; he didn’t even bother with his email. All across the area, chicken farmers had gone bankrupt. His father had seen that coming for years. But the dog farm was supposed to be the way out of his problems. How did he not see this coming?

 

When the dogs stopped howling, Pruitt knew that Cook was here. He sat upright and listened carefully for the sounds of the Kia crackling along the gravel, of footsteps, of a doorbell. There was no noise. He had a sudden, powerful wish to have his gun. When Cook knocked, Pruitt took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and then said as loud and calm as he could, Come in.

Cook entered, the screen door batting once against the frame, and he looked down the hallway into the darkness before turning and facing Pruitt. He smiled at Pruitt, then smiled at the papers covering the table. He stepped closer and stood tall and true at the opposite end of the long table, and wrapped his fingers on the nearest chair. It’s not over yet, Pruitt.

I’m broke, Thomas. Can’t make the payments.

There is always a solution, Pruitt. Always. You just have to think through your problems, consider the possibilities. Look at Fayetteville Farms? Chicken, beef, pork. What to do, where to go. Why not dogs? Why not a different type of meat? Who would have thought of that? Only a company unwilling to break, unwilling to say ‘It’s over.’ Do
you see my point, Pruitt?

The dogs are dying, Thomas. It ain’t my fault.

Cook released the chair and walked along the side closed to the windows. He ran a finger along the table as if checking for dust and when he was close, he stopped and made a fist.

Did you really do everything you could, Pruitt?

Sweat ran down his face; he was hot and cold at once, his skin sticky. Yet, he could not move, as if his limbs were no longer a part of his own body. Fear gnawed at him. He thought about the papers he would have to sign to declare bankruptcy. All of it would be gone: his grandfather’s land, his father’s business, his entire life. It had been just six months, barely a half year, since the first group of sick dogs had arrived.

I’m lost, Pruitt said.

Thomas smiled cruelly at Pruitt. He raised his fist, uncurled his fingers, and placed his hand on Pruitt’s shoulder. His touch was shockingly cold and a tremor of shame ran through Pruitt’s chest. I’m sorry, Pruitt blubbered, I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.

I know you are, Pruitt. But what I want to hear is what you’re going to do about it. Break down to build up. Do you see? Do you understand?

Pruitt raised his head and looked the length of the dining room table, across the hallway, beyond the dark family room, and out the window into the woods. With a calm whose source he could not find, he said, Yes, I understand.

Good. Pruitt released his shoulder and without another word turned away, crossed the room, walked out the front door, and drove away. Pruitt sat with his hands in his lap, listening for a long time to the silent night, before rising and walking through his house to turn off every light. He showered, shaved, and then slipped naked between his sheets and stared unmoving at the ceiling until he fell asleep.

In his nightmare, there were shadowy figures outside his blinds. The silhouettes moved toward his air conditioner, lifted and opened a sack, and tilted its mouth down into the vent. The air conditioner kicked on and the machine blew a thin white powder into the room. Poison. Pruitt knew it was poison. Yet his legs were paralyzed. He kicked and kicked and they refused to move. The cloud drifted toward him, swimming like it had arms, like it was gently paddling over to his face. When he opened his mouth to scream, no noise came out. He tried again. Nothing. He stretched his jaw as far as he could and screamed from the pit of his stomach, a burn rippling through his throat, and an ear-piercing silence filled his ears.

Pruitt sat up. He was awake. Sunlight laddered through the blinds. He was soaked in his own sweat. He bolted to the window, fingered open the blinds, and saw the driveway was empty. He pressed his forehead against the pane, the cool October air making the glass soothingly cold. Pruitt tapped his skull against the pane. Then he did it again, harder. He heard the glass crack.

Pruitt pulled on his jeans and work boots and went into the living room. He took his shotgun from the closet, loaded the weapon, and pocketed extra shells. He ripped open the front door and aimed the barrel out into the yard. He checked his 25, his 50, his 100, and the treeline. No one. The stench of his own sour breath filled his nostrils. He stepped outside, and when he was certain there was no one waiting for him, he raced to the nearest dog house.

He entered and immediately the barking began. He logged into the computer and tapped in his code. The lights turned on. Pruitt keyed in his command. The monitor stated, Are you sure? Pruitt confirmed it, and all the low level cages sprang open. Pruitt scrambled between the rows, and reaching behind each dog, unlatched the catheters from their hinds. The stench was horrible. The dogs staggered out of their cages and snarled. Pruitt went from cage to cage, unlatching each dog. He climbed up the ladder and detached each and every dog. His hands were covered in shit, piss, and blood, and he wiped it off on his jeans and jacket until it no longer did any good.

Still carrying the shotgun, he strode to the CAT and turned the key. He turned the forklift toward the cages and brought them down as many at a time as he could. The dogs stumbled out of the cages; some fell out, some limped, some collapsed on the concrete floor, their tongues panting out. Some of the dogs in the cages were already dead. A few dazed dogs stumbled out through the open barn door and stood sniffing the Arkansas air.

Run! Pruitt screamed. He fi red two shots into the ceiling. The dogs howled and scattered into a semicircle, staring at Pruitt. It didn’t matter. They would know. They had to know. Pruitt raced to the second house, looking back over his shoulder at the pack of dogs standing uncertain on the field.

He kept thinking he heard sirens—police cars, fire trucks, he didn’t know what— but no one came. Nothing stopped him from dislodging all the dogs, from emptying all the cages, and then there were thousands of dogs, thick and muscular like small bulls, not running for their freedom but standing in confused groups surrounding their cages. Pruitt, covered in the waste of dying and deceased dogs, stood and watched as their muzzles turned up toward the sunless sky, their nostrils tremoring with the distant smells of the Ozarks. Not a single one barked. The silence of the dogs was unnerving and Pruitt knew he stood with his mouth open, that he wore an incredulous expression of amazement and fury and horror. Why did they stand there? Why didn’t they run?

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Michael Nye is the author of two books, the story collection STRATEGIES AGAINST EXTINCTION and the novel ALL THE CASTLES BURNED. His writing has appeared in American Literary Review, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Epoch, Kenyon Review, and The Normal School, among many others. He is the editor-in-chief of Story.

The Real Housewife of Orange County

Paul Tran

He forked a cube of tofu and stuck it in
his pretty mouth. The sound of him
chewing. Clink of metal against the ceramic
I later cleaned, have always cleaned, can
already see me cleaning, like the good wife
I am. I listened to the ceiling fan—loud, then
soft, then loud again—above us, its blades
cleaving hot June air. Air so dry and mad
that it ignited everything it touched.
He’ll remember this. His hand slamming down
like a gavel when I said his friend can’t stay
with us. When he said divorce. When I said no.
When he shoved himself away from the table,
lifted his body, full of kindling and want
for smoke, into the heat threatening the hills,
casting its glare on little houses like ours,
and went to bed because he needed to lie down.
And I, still sitting where I was, where I’ve been
all my life as a woman, thought
how only part of everything he says is true.
Lie down? No. My husband needed a lie.

So I emptied his plate. I ran the hot water.
I poured dish soap onto the sponge and began
my immaculate work. Holy Mother.
Blessed Virgin. I waited for the Ambien to kick in,
for his ragged, roaring snores
to disrupt my silent devotion, and then, only then,
did I wash my hands. The judge said I was callous,
calculated, cold. Like my husband, he only got some of
it correct. I’m not callous. It was too hot to be cold.
Calculated? Indeed. I counted. Each yard of rope,
each knot I tied, and then I tied the knot once more.
I’m careful. Men don’t appreciate that shit.
Men like words like bitch. Cunt. They say
Honey, I’m home. Immediately a dog runs stupid—
breathless to their feet, licking the muck
off their shoes. Did the prosecutor think about that
when he demanded for me a life sentence?
Revenge. Aggravated mayhem.

My husband woke. I removed his pants. I took
a ten-inch knife and hacked off his dick.
I carried it into the kitchen. I almost kissed it
goodbye. I remembered each time he forced it
in me. Men who learn to be men from men
never learn. You want be man? You want hole?
Here hole for you.
I shoved every inch
of him—which wasn’t much—into the garbage
disposal. I turned it on. There was blood and skin
and what sounded like a throat opening, choking,
but, of course, no cum. There’s hardly ever any.
Pity. I should’ve known, all those years ago,
when I mistook union for love and love for
someone willing to push my hair
away from my face in the dark when we turn
back into animals, that marriage would be just
that: two animals in a cage, starved
for the other’s meat. I’m not afraid of death.
I have been born twice. First as Que Anh.
Second as Catherine. Saint of Alexandria.
Saint of the Wheel. Saint imprisoned and scoured
until the streets ran red as my hands. I wiped
my hands and reentered our bedroom. There
he was. Crying. He cried the whole night.
Whole? He’ll never be whole again.

                                                            For Catherine Kieu

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Paul Tran received a Ruth Lilly & Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship and the Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. A Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow in The Writing Program at Washington University in St. Louis and Poetry Editor at The Offing Magazine, their work appears in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, and elsewhere.

Benediction as Disdained Cuisine

Jihyun Yun

Give me now

what scalds and reeks.

Give me chilis and garlic raw.

Give me dropwort

and chrysanthemum greens.

Buckwheat and tea. The bite

of a well ripened kimchi.

Let me wrap my meat

in what others mistake

for spoil. Let me unearth months

-old jars of ponytail radish,

turned just so, and bless

rice with its sunny juices.

Give me that funk and meju pungency.

Give me fried corvina that stares

vacuous as I eat, its mouth lolling

and toothen. The egg-sac nestled inside,

give me that too. Pouch of possibility,

multitude and sweet. So crisp the

oil-puff ed dorsal fi ns, the tail fi ns.

How good the fl esh off the cheeks.

The grease off blistered scales.

Give me now what disgusts.

Grilled tongue and entrails fat

with what you call digestive gunk

and I call gold. Fiery chicken

feet with the nails neatly trimmed.

Minutia of bone. Spit and keep eating.

Give me stink. Give me pig skin

dipped in powdered grain. Give me krill

and pickled octopus: blood-hued,

suckers up and gaping. Food

that makes you honor what was killed

in your name. Vein of the cod roe.

Blistered hair of the intact hock.

Evidence of bodies carved from.

What makes you clasp your palms

to your nose is the bell that calls in

my hunger. I don’t care anymore

what you think. Give me sesame oil

and fat. Give me bloodied and raw.

The white broth of famine food.

Food made to last. To transform

with the seasons. To survive

other nations. Give me all

I avoided so long for your sake.

Give me my heritage back.

Give me refuse and I’ll make it

worthy. Let me suck meat off the shell

of every animal you won’t eat.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by Sondra Groff, curated by Dana Lyons.

Jihyun Yun is a Korean-American poet from California. A Fulbright Research Fellow, she received her MFA from New York University in 2016. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bat City Review, Adroit Journal, Poetry Northwest, and elsewhere. A winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, her full-length collection SOME ARE ALWAYS HUNGRY will be published by The University of Nebraska Press in September 2020.

Birth of Cool

Rita Banerjee

Lauren played her Gibson on the phone for me. Voodoo Child. Learning Hendrix one blistered finger at a time. Stairway to Heaven. A poster of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant hung on her bedroom wall. Plant made love to the microphone in his too-tight jeans and denim jacket. His threads hadn’t been washed in decades. Neither had he. His hair was a total mess: wastrel, lion, drunken boat. His stance suggested everything hot and sticky and full of sweat. Plant sang as if his life depended on it. As if Page were a living siren: all dark curls and velvet. Soft everywhere. And cool where it mattered. Who was the devil and who the angel here? Their hair, their dishabille, their guitar riffs, their primal screams. What were Plant and Page selling to us, neo-nostalgic teens of the ’90s? Was it sex or something else? A taste of barely contained passion or total apathy? Whatever it was, it became the object of our attraction, our envy. Could a woman ever be so decadent? So illustrious? So free?

Lauren bent over her guitar and strummed, as if she were searching for an answer, as if the metallic edge of her Gibson could vibrate to the right pitch of cool. Her mom had immigrated from Hong Kong and her dad came from nowhere Zen, New Jersey. They spoke Cantonese on the phone together when they wanted to keep their secrets secret. But Lauren, always listening when she shouldn’t have, found out that her mother was pregnant anyway. Her father played in garage bands. He was born with an electric guitar. And so was she. When our history teacher went around the class and asked what kind of music do you listen to? I said, “Garbage,” and Lauren, “Hendrix.”

At her sweet sixteen, we sang “Landslide,” in an improvised, acoustic harmony. Her living room, surrounded by turn-of-the-century Qing chests and miniature lacquered paintings, felt like a recording studio that afternoon. Red cushions, low lights, and dark walnut furniture. A makeshift cabaret for a bunch of girls, barely legal. Gillian with her dark hair and half-smile, belting out the lyrics louder than anyone else. As if she were Stevie Nicks, herself, and knew the truth about pain. Her parents had divorced. Ours just seemed to fight all the time. So Gillian held the honor of being part mystic, part witch in our tribe.

At another sweet sixteen, Maddy sang, “I Will Survive,” and we girls danced primitive, like women, as if our lives depended on it. What heartaches had we experienced? What did we know about life at sixteen? Most of us hadn’t seriously been in love yet. With a man or a woman. We were just beginning to learn what it meant to come of age. To gaze into the future. To gaze back, an old crone, towards all the mistakes and milestones of our life. And what we saw, at sixteen, frightened us. We were experienced. We sang Fleetwood Mac, Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin together in Lauren’s living room, as if classic rock could keep the future at bay. As if these staged rebels in their infinite costumes, postures, and expressions of cool could save us. Save us from becoming adults. Save us from becoming women. Save us from a million taboos and stigmas and haunting forms of socialization.

“Darling go make it happen,” Lauren’s voice picked up tempo on the phone, “take the world in a love embrace.” Her guitar kept up the song’s dirty rhythm and twanged just when it mattered. I tried to impress her by playing back Joplin, Brubeck, Bach, Beethoven, Yann Tiersen, different time signatures, and chord progressions on the piano. In the ’90s, we spent so many afternoons like that. On the second line just for us: chatterboxes, klutzes, not yet agents of our lives. Girls. Our songs fused and interrogated one another. They hardly made sense. But that’s how we were. She and me. Latchkey kids. Part-time musicians. Like a true nature’s child. Our jams short-circuited every style in history.

I’ve been obsessed with cool as long as I can remember. Of all the things I’ve desired and chased in my life—an education, a lover, art, independence, a room—no, a voice of my own—the thing I’ve chased the most has been cool.

Casually during office hours, Harriet Davidson once told me, as she looked up from a sheaf of Langston Hughes poems she was studying, that she’d made a realization. “These poems, you can’t study them according to the metrics of Anglo-Saxon verse or literary theory.”

I faltered as I made my way across to her desk. “No?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “they belong to another category. Another language. Another body. Something much more—”

“Cool?” I offered.

“Yes, cool.” She looked back at the poems, and then up at me in my fitted red and black striped shirt over boot-cut blue jeans. I wore my favorite embroidered bottle green velvet jacket to complete the ensemble. There was a pin on the lapel. The flat circular button had a large earth in its center—all blue ocean, green-gold land, and wisps of clouds. Around the globe in big black letters was the chant: War on the World—Not in Our Name. It was, after all, early Spring 2003. The wars on Afghanistan and Iraq had just begun.

“What does that word mean to you?” she asked me quietly.

“Cool?” I looked at her, surprised. My fingers brushed against the edge of her desk. There were stacks of paper everywhere. She was neat and tidy and organized and quiet. What did she know that I didn’t? What did cool mean to me?

Everything,” I wanted to say. But after a beat, I threw back the challenge. “What’s cool anyway?”

Professor Davidson looked back at the Langston Hughes poems under her hand. For a moment she looked as if she were scanning them for the feet that were just not there.

And then, as if she stumbled across an answer to a problem she didn’t know she was solving, she said that declaring someone or something as cool was another way of saying, “I like your artifice.” That cool, whatever it was or is, depended on what was artificial. That cool was something totally constructed, totally manicured. But cool’s very existence suggested effortlessness. To be cool meant to perform for the world. The performance could be outrageous or the epitome of restraint. Cool meant being aloof. Cool was striking. Cool meant being more animal than human. Cool suggested carelessness and a loss of control. But cool never lost control. Cool was much more clever. Cool had energy, attraction, and passion to spare. Cool was always just an arm’s length away. Everyone wanted Cool. Everyone wanted to be Cool. Cool was used to it. Cool knew what it meant to be an object of desire, to be desired every time, but to never be owned.

My grandfather was the epitome of cool. He would cruise around the courtyards of St. Xavier’s College in his glossy black Ambassador. Driving in-slow motion like a gangster in a rap video—only this was 1953—he left his windows open, his fedora askew, his dark-rimmed glasses covered by the tilt of the brim. He kept his cigar, half-burnt in his left hand. As he turned the wheel, his watch slid out from his checkered cuff. Elbow cocked out of the window. Dark suede shoes. A three-piece linen suit. Always pressed. Perfect. Whatever cool was, he had it. The Ambassador rolled through the gardens of St. Xavier’s College like a panther on the prowl, waiting for the kill. He showed up each morning exactly five minutes before the eight a.m. bell. His students loved him. He knew how to do it well.

During my first semester studying Comparative Literature in Cambridge, we found ourselves knee-deep in theory. Everyone we studied had something to say or deconstruct about empire. One day the debate in class centered on the influence of literary theory and criticism on culture studies, media, and the American political sphere.

“When we study these theorists, we see how broad their shadow of influence can be,” Christopher Johnson nodded, astute and angular, in front of the class. “In comparison to these critics, who have introduced the language of conceptual thinking into our contemporary art and media, artists rarely change our daily vocabulary, themselves. Few, if any, artists have given us the critical language necessary to study and understand culture. Romanticism. Modernism. Postmodernism. Structuralism. Postcolonialism. These movements have been named by critics. From Plato to Aristotle to Spinoza and Freud, theorists have given us the language and tools with which we understand the world: epistemology, catharsis, ethics, eros, thanatos. Artists, though they may be visionary creators of content, rarely, if ever, name the world.”

As Christopher finished his speech, a slow, sinking silence filled the room. None of us, nearly all in our early 20s, dared to speak after his pronouncements. And as if we were in a scene from an old Hollywood movie, the wind came in from the open seminar windows and taunted us by shifting through our notebooks and papers. It was as if the death-knell for art was being rung, without reserve or irony, in one of the most powerful universities in the country.

As a recent MFA grad and closet writer, I raised my hand in that wordless pause. My arm moved up in a jerky and hesitant motion like it was more android than human.

“What about Miles Davis?” I said.

“Excuse me,” Christopher looked up from his notes, and his dark-rimmed glasses focused on me across the room.

“Miles Davis is an artist who changed the world,” I said, filled with all the quiet determination and naïveté of youth.

“Meaning?” Christopher tapped his dark-blue pencil on his lecture notes, signaling it was time to move on.

“His album, The Birth of the Cool, it changed our lexicon forever.”

“How?” My opponent leaned back now, ready to watch me make a fool of myself.

“Davis introduced to us a taste for cool, and made us crave it. He may not have been the first to use the term. There was Lester Young with his hipster chic and Theolonius Monk with his dissonant, even sorrowful jazz. But Davis and his album made cool a household name in America. A swag, a style. His music shimmered with playfulness, passion, and restraint. As a trumpeter, who improvised but knew the tricks of his craft well, his music walked the line between danger and daring. Listening to his music speak, he made us want to walk that line, too.”

Christopher crossed his arms.

“Everything we value, from Marx and Coca-Cola to MTV and ‘Image is Nothing’ is posited on cool. Postmodernism. The Cult of the Author. The Death of the Author. Chomsky. Foucault. Theory, itself. Aren’t all these forms of modern knowledge propelled by our desire to be and capture what’s stylized, artificial, beyond reach, and thus, cool?”

Christopher did not nod in encouragement.

“Jazz, grunge, hip-hop, reality TV, 24-hour news, commercials for the Super Bowl, war and superhero movies—aren’t these forms of modern media standing in the house that Miles Davis built? Davis gave us a means to define 20th-century style and its 21st-century remix. He gave us a name for our yearning, for everything seductive, familiar but not enough, of the moment, changeable, and thus, essentially cool.”

Except for my odd outburst, the classroom remained eerily quiet.

“Aren’t we all living in the shadow of artists like Miles Davis? Aren’t we all living with the vocabulary and taste for cool they gave us?”

“Yes,” he said, ever so quietly, after a beat, as if he were conceding, reluctantly, to the idea that a single artist, an experimentalist, an individual who had played consciously with aesthetics and form, could indeed affect world culture. As if theories of art and culture were made, not by the Académie française or at Harvard University, but by ordinary players, whether they were from the streets or from the suburbs. Who could be equally articulate with their art. Who could spend an evening jamming in a studio, a nightclub, or a garage, and create a sound that could alter the behavior of a crowd. Whose aesthetic could question a value system. Who could turn art into a language, in and of, itself.

A few years earlier, when September was still kissed by summer, we found ourselves equally free and bored.

That morning the sky gleamed topaz. Not a cloud in sight, true, but all I could think of was a film. I was headed to my journalism class. That autumn, I was moonlighting as a journalist after quitting my engineering program, and I’d spent my entire summer trying to convince my parents that a life dedicated to writing was a good idea. My father was convinced I’d end up a pauper.

“You’re as far away from Bohemia as you can get in this country,” he said over a particularly fraught dinner one night. “This isn’t Paris in the ’20s, this isn’t Kolkata in the ’60s. Nobody wants to starve here. Just look at the people around you.”

My eyes flickered to the evening news humming on the TV. The clip featured a series of interviews with New Jersey and New York locals who were all complaining about the unexpected surge in gasoline prices over the summer.

“Did the surge have something to do with Bush and his cronies in the oil industry?” a particularly portly man in dad jeans and a moustache wondered.

“See,” my father continued, not paying attention to the politics playing out on the screen, but to the people, and what he saw on their round faces. “They’re not thinking of starving. They are not even thinking about creating art.”

My dad, ever practical, was worried that I’d fall off of the bourgeoisie bandwagon and land, instead, in dead space as a writer. When I told my journalist professor about my parents’ concerns during office hours, the same one who was lecturing us on cool that morning, he asked without hesitation, what I wanted to do after I graduated.

“My dream job is to be a writer,” I said.

His eyes brightened. “Great, a journalist?”

I shook my head. “I’d really like to be a literary writer. A novelist or an essayist. Maybe even a poet.”

“I was a dreamer in college, too,” he chuckled, “good luck with that, kid.”

And just like that our heart-to-heart was over.

So while I fought over my future with my parents and advisors, and compromised by telling everyone that I’d get a “real job” in journalism, Lauren, my Voodoo Child best friend, spent her summer much more chicly. She’d had her first internship in New York City. On Wall Street. And spent her whole summer in pencil skirts and fitted blouses. Tailored jackets and pussy bows. Her father’s best friend, who worked in finance in Lower Manhattan, took her out to lunch often. They’d have sushi on Tuesdays, fresh éclairs on Wednesdays, and dined at the best Italian restaurant last week. All this while watching the hustle and bustle of New York from their large window seats in Lower Manhattan. Life had never been so delicious or thrilling.

If envy had a name, I would’ve called her Lauren, especially that summer after our freshman year. My ears turned red when she told me her stories about the elevator ride up to her company office on the twenty-first floor. Lauren interned at a hedge fund there. Wall Street was full of stockbrokers and businessmen, sure, but there were also lawyers in her building. She told me how several of the young men in their sharp suits would strike up a conversation with her. The gilded lobby and art deco elevator of her building were places to mingle and to meet-and-seek.

And by the time college started back up again, Lauren was breathless.

When I told her about my crush on Tom, a tall but scrawny senior and English major, who was a writer and also in my Japanese class, she simply waved her hand in dismissal.

“You should have seen this guy in New York, Rita,” she whispered, her feet stretched out against the wall as she lay on my dormitory bed the night before, “he had these ripped arms. Like an orangutan.”

“And were they equally furry?”

“Rita!” Lauren laughed. “I didn’t get that close a look!”

“But you wanted to.”

“Hmm,” she paused, rolling to face me. “Kinda, because you could see his biceps through the buttoned-up shirts he wore. Sometimes even through his jackets.”

I chewed on my pen and looked at my chicken-stick arms, and then turned back to the notebook open on the floor. “Intriguing.”

“He asked me out!”

“He did?” I dropped my homework. She had my attention now.

“Yeah, he got off the elevator and came to my floor one day.”

“In search of a court case?”

“No, silly! In search of me.”

“Same thing.”

“Rita,” she growled.

“Do go on.” I feigned sincerity, like my best impression of Jon Stewart, badly.

Lauren had been the object of scrutiny at her office the whole summer. When her boss wasn’t looking, one of her co-workers, a portly, over-the-hill IT specialist, who was losing his hair faster than he was losing the pounds, had taken to walking by Lauren’s desk during coffee breaks and lunch hours. A slightly younger man with brown hair, who might have been single, had been caught doing the same. Lauren never got tired of talking of these two fawning co-workers. And to a girl stuck in New Brunswick the whole summer, duking out her future with her parents, these stories from the glittering City were meant to be kept and pondered over like vaulted gems.

“Well, when I came back to the office from my lunch break, he was there at the elevator as if on schedule.” Lauren’s voice interrupted my train of thought.

“Was he stalking you?”

“No,” Lauren’s eyes seemed more cross than her voice, “it was romantic.”

“Uh-huh,” I yawned and stretched out on my back.

“He was really cute, Rita, I wish you could’ve seen him.”

“You have no idea,” I said under my breath.

Another pillow flew past my head.

“Okay, okay, tell me more.”

“Well, he was being really flirty in the elevator, asking when I’d be getting off of work and stuff. He knew that I worked for a firm in the building.”

“And?”

“That day he got off on the twenty-first floor with me. He just had so much to say.”

“I get it, he was hot.”

“Yes,” she smiled, cat-like, to herself. “He thought I was a regular employee there.”

“Did you let him know you were just a lowly intern?”

“Rita,” Lauren sounded stern. “Yes, I let him know I was just interning at the firm that summer. And do you know what he said next?”

“No, tell me, I’m literally dying over here.”

“He said that it didn’t matter to him if I was just an intern.”

“Prince Charming.” I turned back to my work.

“Because we were the same age.”

“What?” I paused over the poem I was scribbling next to my kanji charts. “How old did he think you were?”

Lauren paused, watched me as I watched her smile that smile that only knowing women had. That siren smile. That vixen.

“He thought I was in my mid-twenties like him, I think.”

“How old was he?”

“Twenty-eight.”

“Twenty-eight! Do you even know the definition of mid-twenties?!”

“Of course!”

She sat up cross-legged on the bed. “When he told me his age, I had to tell him mine. He’d practically followed me to my office already.”

“And did you?”

“Yes, Rita. I told him that I was nineteen.”

“Did this happen before or after your birthday?”

“Just two weeks ago when my internship was about to end.” After her birthday then. So she was technically nineteen. Just like me.

“Good, at least you weren’t a decade younger than him,” I muttered and looked back at my kanji. 大好きです。I love you.  好きです。I like you. ちょと。。。I’m busy.

“Actually, when I told him my age, he kinda stopped asking me out.”

“What?”

“Yeah, and he just left me at the door of the firm and walked back to the elevator.”

“Ouch.” Japanese and poetry could wait.

“And I never saw him again.”

“I’m sorry, Lauren.”

“Never passed him in the elevator during my last week there either.”

“Harsh.”

“Yeah. C’est la vie.” Lauren was minoring in French.

“Well, there’s more fish in the sea. Plus, he might have been a tad old for you.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“Maybe?” I picked up a pillow and threw it back at her.

Recovering from our late night pillow-fight, I was heading to my journalism class the next morning. We were about to watch a documentary film about advertising, marketing, and manipulating teens. Teenagers, the documentary, promised, were important specimens of study because they were early adopters. They spotted and sold marketing trends like the Insane Clown Posse and trousers that hung below the knee and new ways of being coquettish while touting virginity. The documentary seemed to say that we, the Great American Teens of the early 21st Century, were in the same category as Jane Goodall’s Great Apes. We looked familiar to the generations much older and wiser than us, but somehow we were still barely human, barely belonging to the earth on which we roamed. The documentary suggested that the best use of teenagers was to deconstruct their desires. We were meant to be prodded and poked at, like a science experiment, by the adults surrounding us. And if the experiment was successful, the ones poking us could figure out how to turn our desires into cold, hard cash.

The film was, thus, aptly called The Merchants of Cool. When I finally watched it several years later on one sunny autumn day in Berkeley, I would realize that the film captured something of the late ’90s Y2K Zeitgeist. But despite its provocative title, the film felt rushed, its argument hastily formed, and its commentary on cool seemed clownish, bricolage, and barely held together. It was as if the PBS Frontline documentary dared not ask the most threatening questions:

“What did it mean to be young and moneyed in America today? Who were these fools in their baggy jeans and halter tops, listening to Nine Inch Nails, the Wu-Tang Clan, or Britney Spears? Suggesting sex through every gesture and sway of hips even though they had barely tasted it? Would these teens, ‘the children of our future,’ the Class of 2000, those who drank in music videos on MTV like they were laced with morphine, become the inevitable arbiters of this country, its fate, its lifestyle, its politics, its cool?

“And if these kids were the architects of our collective American future, would they uphold the American Dream, or would their laptop-obsessed-fingers just dance over the country’s self-destruct button?”

The film flirted with these questions but never directly asked or answered them. The Merchants of Cool. This would be a phrase and film that would haunt me for years as I sped through all those foundational years of adulthood. A documentary film, a classroom exercise, a name that came to signify so much more than it should. An omen.

Later that evening, on the day that we were supposed to watch the documentary in class, I would get a call from my grandfather. It would come, like so many important things seemed to, out of the blue, after several weeks of silence: long-distance from Ranchi, India, to my home in New Jersey. No phone cards would be used. The call would not even be made collect. It would start off with a hysterical question and last for hours. It would be one of the last times I would ever talk to my grandfather, merchant, cool, for any length of time before his death. At that time, I would not realize how closely beauty and artifice could intertwine with death.

দিদিভাই Didibhai,” he would say when I answered the phone, “কি হলো? What happened?

In film class, we learned about silence.

Silence 1: In this form of cinematic technique, all dialogue, monologue, and speech on screen stops. But sound in the film does not. That is, all other diegetic sound remains constant. In the scene, you can still hear the rustling of paper, a professor coughing at the podium, a projector screen scrolling down, a large jet roaring towards mach one. The pop in the air it makes sounds like breaking glass. Its thundering motion echoed by the straight and sudden white streak of jet fuel in the sky. All diegetic sound continues. Even nondiegetic sound like a song overlaid on the scene: Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” for example, can be played over the hush of the character’s speech, the quietude of their words, their mutual full-stop.

Silence 2: This is a different kind of beast. In Silence 2, all dialogue stops, all monologue doesn’t matter, and voice-over finds itself suddenly dead. But so too does all the in-scene and overlaid sound and sound effects. The car pulling up to the curb does not rumble, its screeching halt is never heard. The young man who jumps out—all copper hair and sweat—runs across the open field, panting but not making a single noise. His sneakers do not slap on the asphalt pavement, his breath does not hitch. When he pulls the heavy doors, of first the academic building and then the lecture hall, the ancient pre-fab wood does not shutter and groan. His sweaty fingers do not slip noisily off the scratched brass knobs. When he finally enters the lecture hall, the whispering of students does not suddenly stop. Their voices are already dead even as their heads turn, one by one, then dozens by dozens, in his direction.

Scene: Here is a young man crying. He has wild red hair and wears a sloppy flannel shirt and baggy khakis. He might be your prototypical early adopter. He even has something like a beard on his face. He’s growing it out. Hipster chic before we even have a name for it. He should be in his early twenties but looks so much younger. Especially as he runs through the auditorium like a little boy. He is crying. A grown man crying like a phantom, flitting through our journalism class. All chatter stops. Thoughts suspend. Words drop into silence from our lips. This is the closest I’ll ever get to witnessing a total stranger unraveling.

On Diamond Harbour Road, in the three-story house my grandmother grew up in as a teenager, my great aunt keeps our ancient family photo albums. In the thick books with marbled covers, the pictures are tucked away within sheaves of black paper and thin, opaque contact sheets.

In these dusty tomes, one summer in grad school, I would spy my grandmother as a very young girl. Surrounded by her four younger siblings, all sisters except for one brother. All would grow up to be legends in my regard, except for the youngest one in the photo. The baby girl with the charcoal eyes and jewel in her hair. She was the only one in the frame looking away from the photographer, as if she didn’t want her image to be caught on film for too long. Of all my great aunts and uncles, I would never get to know her, or know her name. Nani never talked about her youngest sister. The one she’d missed throughout her life. The one who had died one day, playing unattended by herself in the kitchen with an open fire.

The other faces, though, are familiar. I would scan over the pictures of my great-grandmother and marvel at how dainty and feminine she looked as a young woman, standing next to my grandmother, her teenage, no-nonsense, robust, hyperintelligent, writer of a girl.

Later in the album, I would find a picture of Nani as a newlywed bride. She is standing next to her new husband, whom I recognized as Dadabhai, my grandfather. Dadabhai is decked out in a three-piece suit but still manages to look skinny and uncertain and very young indeed.

The picture, in sepia tones, does not indicate the color of Nani’s sari. But it appears to be a rich maroon color in the print with sparkling diamond-like designs, catching light from the tiny mirrors sewn into the fabric. The anchal is bordered with shimmering threads. While my grandfather smiles and lets his hands rest on my grandmother’s shoulders in a warm gesture, my grandmother, though she appears youthful and full of peace, has a cool and tempered look in her eyes.

Both my grandparents wear dark-rimmed glasses. But my grandmother’s, like those worn by Faye Dunaway, are rounder and broader. Hipster chic before Kerouac and Brooklyn thought they had invented it.

In another photo I’d find in the album, my grandmother wears a dark velvet gown over her sari, which peaks out over her shoes and by her collar. Her golden earrings brushing over her cloak like tassels. In this image, her hair is pulled back, but braided at the side. Her expression is much more playful than in her post-wedding photo. My grandfather stands beside her. Beaming with now a more debonair, tousled look.

In this image, they are just a few years into their marriage, and my grandmother in her monk’s robe and cool glasses is proudly holding a framed degree in her hand. She who graduated with Honors in Sanskrit from Dav University in Jalandhar, Punjab. She who knew more Indo-European languages fluently than I’ll ever be able to speak. She who wrote creatively in many.

My grandfather poses as if he is her proud tutor behind her.

But really, he is beaming because of something else. Two reasons, perhaps. First, because he had recently landed a prestigious job as Professor of Mathematics at St. Xavier’s College in his hometown of Ranchi, and left his former life in law behind. And second, Nani, who looks regal and worldly in her graduation gown, is hiding a secret. She may have been memorizing ślokas and impressing her professors with her knowledge of the Upaniṣads in college, but what she hadn’t told them was that she had been engaged in another sport during the past few months as well. Nearly nine months pregnant, she travels back from Ranchi to Punjab, and takes all of her final exams reclined. And here she is on graduation day, passing her bachelor’s exams with honors, and pregnant with her first child, whom she will name, of course, after that famous female sage and provocateur from the Upaniṣads: Gargi.

Rita: Should I digress? She looks up at the computer screen.

Michael: Totally. He leans back in his chair.

Rita: Okay. I was on my way to my journalism class, the first and last one I ever took in college, and we were supposed to watch this film, The Merchants of Cool, it’s this documentary about advertising and early adopters and—

Michael: I think I know it. Spins his pen.

Rita: It’s not the best documentary but I was so excited to see it.

Michael: Right.

Rita: And as we’re going to the media center on Livingston Campus, one of my friends from high school, who attended college with me, was watching the TV in a small common room. There were just a hand full of kids there, and I remember my high school friend Joanne, standing at the center of the crowd, staring up at the television screen in amazement.

Joanne, who is Filipino-Chinese, stands with a large book bag and a makeshift breakfast bun in hand in the middle of a crowd. Four other students surround her. The student center is quiet and sleepy otherwise. Her breakfast is forgotten. 

Rita: Hey, Jo, what’s up? Looks up at the small overhead TV in the corner of the room.

Joanne: Oh, they’re saying that a random accident happened in New York. A small passenger plane, a private jet like the one JFK Jr. used or something like that, flew straight through one of the towers of the World Trade Center.

Rita: That’s weird.

Joanne: Yeah, a freak accident. First time a plane hit a building in New York since World War II. Look at all that smoke.

In the screen, a silver-white building with glittering windows is standing next to its pristine twin against a backdrop of solid blue. And in the middle of all that glass is a small puncture wound. The wound is expelling large puffs of dust and gray smoke into an otherwise clear sky.

Michael: Wow. Stops playing with his pen.

Rita: Yeah, so I watched the screen for a little bit. The anchorwoman on-screen assured the audience that it was just a bizarre accident. She joked with the weatherman next to her. Their voices dropped to a whisper when they discussed how eerily similar it was to JFK Jr.’s plane accident.

Michael: Mm-hm.

Rita: And I looked down at my watch. It was almost 9 o’clock, and I was almost late for my journalism class. So I hurried across campus, and found a seat next to my friends, who were twins.

Rita sits down next to Lika and Yuka, friends from her Japanese lit class. Lika, who’s the closest to Rita, turns to her.

Lika: Guess what?

Rita: What? Looks at the professor who is about to introduce the film.

Professor: Remember this story is about you. It’s about cool. It’s about why aesthetics and style and individuals matter. It’s about what made you, you.

Lika: I got an internship at MTV! Claps her hands.

Rita: Really? Shut up! Turns to fully face her.

Yuka: That’s what I always say. Yuka is the evil twin. Yuka turns to the audience and takes out a cigarette, lighting it discreetly. She takes a puff, blows it in the direction of Lika and Rita, and then after a beat. That’s true, I am.

Lika: Shh. She fans the smoke from her face. It starts in January, at the beginning of next semester. I’m going to work on film production.

Rita: Wow, that’s awesome. Someone in the row in front of them says “ahem.”

The professor continues his drone.

Professor: Advertisers, media heads, spin doctors, broadcasters, journalists, they’re all interested in you. You’re in the 18-to-64 year-old group. You’re their target demographic. Laughs. And surprisingly me, too.

He hits a button on the podium and the projector screen descends creakily.

Rita: Will you get to work on music videos?

Lika: No, probably not. They’re phasing those programs out. I’ll probably work on shows like Total Request Live or something like that.

Rita: Wow, teenybopper music for a live pre-teen audience. Stellar.

Yuka snorts next to them and coughs after taking a whiff of her cigarette.

Lika: Hey, it’s MTV!

Rita: The American Dream.

The door at the back of the auditorium pulls open, them slams close. The girls don’t look up.

Lika: Yeah, I know—

Michael coughs on screen. Behind dark frames, his eyes glitter.

Rita: Looks back at her monitor. Sorry, got carried away. Anyway, the professor is just about to start the tape for The Merchants of Cool and we’re settling down to watch it And then, this young boy—he’s probably eighteen or something, he just comes in crying. He’s balling, and he runs from the exit at the backend of the auditorium all the way through the entire classroom. He’s running through the lecture hall like it’s a marathon course and there are 200-300 people all watching him.

Michael: Wow.

Rita: He says something to the instructor and everyone is wondering what’s going on. We have cell phones but not smartphones. And so we were just wondering what had happened. And the professor says, “If anyone has family in New York, you are dismissed, you can leave.” And a third of the students jump out of their seats, grabbing pens, bags, and cellphones.

Michael: Wow.

Rita: And he says to the rest of us, “Please allow them to go first. And everyone else, please stay in your seats.” It was like the weirdest thing because you’re thinking, What’s going on, what just happened?

Michael: It was such a dumb thing to say.

Rita: Yeah, and then this whisper goes around the auditorium. Someone says it first, and it spreads like wildfire: “America is under siege.”

Michael: Wow.

Rita: So we’re stuck in the auditorium without cell phone reception, sitting in the dark for what feels like hours, but what probably was only twenty minutes. We’re not allowed to leave. The whole auditorium is rumbling with rumors, noise, and nerves. And then someone’s voice is heard above the fray. It’s another young boy, and he stands up to announce, as if he’s practicing to be a politician, that “two planes hit the Twin Towers,” and that “they both went clear through both of the buildings.”

Michael nods.

Rita: And the first thing that runs through my mind, is that my father used to work in the World Trade Center.

Michael: I forgot that.

Rita: Yeah, for the Port Authority. I think he stopped working there just a few years before when he transferred back to New Jersey.

Michael: Mm-hm.

Rita: But his entire office—secretaries, very close friends were there and some of them didn’t escape. He knew this Indian coworker who made it out of the towers before they actually fell. But at the last moment, this guy decided to go take the PATH train from the World Trade Center home, and he got into the subway, but couldn’t get out in time. In the days and weeks after 9/11, my dad couldn’t stop talking about this guy whom he barely knew, and his favorite secretary, and all these bosses he used to work with at the Port Authority. All of whom had disappeared, as if into thin air.

Michael: Wow.

Rita: And one of my good friend’s Lauren—her father’s best friend who worked in the Twin Towers and who used to take her out to lunch during her internship in New York that summer—he died that day.

Michael: Whoa.

Rita: Yeah. So when we were all finally dismissed from class, and found out what had actually happened, everyone was trying to frantically call friends and relatives in New York. My cousin, who had just moved to America from Bombay, was supposed to arrive at the World Trade Center at nine a.m. for a job interview. He was literally a few blocks away when he saw the first plane hit the North Tower. But I couldn’t get through to him. All the phone lines were dead. If you can imagine. The calls just wouldn’t connect. Either you called and got a busy message or the recorded voice of an operator saying that the number you dialed was not in service, or you got nothing at all. Just white noise.

Michael: Wow.

Rita: And the only way we could get news, because so many of the TV and cell phone antennas had fallen with the towers, was to turn on the radio and listen to the New Jersey AM stations about their reports on what was happening in New York in real-time.

Michael: Right.

Rita: And that morning, between the news reports and the rumors, we found out that the towers were probably going to fall. The experts in engineering and architecture were predicting two possible outcomes. Either the steel bars would fume and hold or they wouldn’t.

Michael nods on screen.

Rita: Around 9:30 a.m., I finally got a hold of my dad on the phone. He’s a mechanical and nuclear engineer and he’d worked on building and systems design before.

Michael: Uh-huh.

Rita: And he knew shortly after the second plane hit, that the towers would not hold.

Michael nods.

Rita: So we decided, some of my friends and I to go to downtown New Brunswick. My friend, Tom, who was in the same Japanese class as Lika, Yuka, Jeff, and me, and who was an early love interest of mine, had an apartment downtown.

Michael: Sure.

Rita: He basically lived in the tallest building on campus in downtown New Brunswick. So we decided to climb to the rooftop of his building. And on that clear September morning, we had this crazy clear, bird’s eye view of New York City. We could see the skyline and the smoke, and we watched what happened to the towers in real-time.

My grandfather had a certain kind of charisma. He had style, of course, a certain mid-century finesse. But there was also something to the way he approached devastation and tragedy in life. Even though he could be playful and sometimes even melodramatic, especially around the little humans he called his grandkids, he still maintained the cool assurance of a detached observer.

The viewing deck of the World Trade Center is on the 107th floor. South Tower. The glass-encased area is called the Top of the World. Yellow, corporate overhead lights wash over the lobby and the walls, making the slivers of wall between large glass windows look vaguely like macramé. The carpet in the lobby and the 107th floor is a deep rust color with crisscross diamond designs in gold on it. It seems almost red carpet worthy.

On a bright summer day in the early 1990s, my mother, named after the Vedantic philosopher Gargi, and nicknamed Gulshan, which means “garden of flowers” in Persian, by Dadabhai, will bring us to see the sights of Manhattan. Our first, and what will be our final stop, revolves around the World Trade Center.

On the elevator ride up to the “Top of the World,” it will be either my grandmother, Nani, or my grandfather, Dadabhai, who will spot the words first. They will be, even in their old age, trying to outwit each other.

सुस्वागतम। Suswāgatam. স্বাগত। Svāgata.

The words are etched in gold in the interior of the elevator of the South Tower, going up, up, up.

“Both are words for welcome,” my mother speaks brightly in Bengali on the phone, “out of all the languages scrawled in the elevator, we could only read the words for ‘welcome’ in two.”

“Other than in English, of course,” she laughs. “Ma and Bapi were so happy to see those words in Hindi and Bengali. It’s like New York was saying hello to them.”

Her mood is contagious.

“You know your grandfather had height issues. He nearly fainted while climbing up the Qutub Minar when we visited it during a family road trip to Delhi and Agra in the ’60s.”

“Oh?” I say.

“So he hadn’t ever enjoyed seeing the world from such a height before,” she continues. “He sat on the concrete bench with you near the rooftop edge. He could see all of downtown New York that way. In every direction, there were bridges, buildings, and even the Statue of Liberty there in the middle of the water. He enjoyed it so much that we had to drag him off the rooftop!”

This time I laugh.

“We had arrived in the early afternoon and it was evening by the time we finally were able to get Dadabhai to leave. He loved watching New York light up in the setting sun.”

“That’s beautiful,” I say.

“Yes, that’s probably why Dadabhai called us on September 11,” she says, “because of his dear attachment to the World Trade Center. Because of the great time he had had there. And once Dadabhai formed a strong attachment, it would be nearly impossible for him to get rid of it.”

We both laugh, and I think how strange memory can be. I was so impatient when I was nine and we visited the Twin Towers with my grandparents. What I remember best about the visit were the snaking lines in the lobby, the heavy red velvet rope guards, and the black security officer in a khaki suit who kept telling us kids to “stand back.” My mother tells me that she had had to give me a whole bag of M&Ms to keep me quiet while my grandparents and she munched on sandwiches at the restaurant next to the observation deck. But I do remember my grandfather’s awe. For someone who seemed so self-possessed, observant, critical, and yet still kind, it was fascinating to see him watch an American city with such childlike eyes. There was no artifice in his surprise or admiration. After pointing out whichever monuments and buildings we could identify in the cityscape below and debating why one tower was considered taller than the other, Dadabhai and I spent the afternoon naming clouds. There were walruses, queens, and whole merchant ships passing by us on the roof of the South Tower. The high winds that day made them move faster. And the clouds and their shapes danced and mesmerized us. From that great height, they looked close enough to touch.

Funny how even such fond memories can be linked to the World Trade Center, when it’s most remembered in the collective imagination for its spectacle of violence, its destruction, and its complicity in America’s unraveling project of late capitalism.

On a recent program recorded for Al Jazeera, Slavoj Žižek sits at a café at Ground Zero and asks his intellectual sparing partners: “Where does the urge to look for an external enemy come from? This is also the important lesson of antisemitism in Europe. Why did capitalism need the figure of the Jew? It needed it to cover up our own antagonisms, and it’s the same here. The point is not: Is the other, the enemy, really as bad as we think? The point is why do we need that figure of the enemy we should ask ourselves.”

Žižek continues, “Empires practically never fall apart because of the external enemy.”

That afternoon, on Top of the World in the South Tower, I have no doubt that my grandfather was dazzled by what he saw below him. But as he watched the city glitter under the afternoon sun and sparkle with light in the early evening, what did he really see? A picture of heaven? The American Empire in all of its principal glory, fashionable and seductive all at once? Or did he think of home—Ranchi—and the red-dust roads of India? And all the poverty there. And the young men and women speeding to work on their motorcycles and mopeds ignoring the beggars lighting fires and cooking their meals on the side of the roads. Did the office workers notice those other men and women who had nothing to call a home? Not even a place to eat.

Did Dadabhai see those two disparate images in his mind, and consider if they were linked? For so long he sat on that concrete bench and looked and did not speak. My mother and Nani gossiped in Bengali behind him, and I tried to engage his attention when he seemed too cool or too distracted. But how could any one of us know what the other thought? We were family, yes, but there were distances between us. So many experiences, memories, and wisdom left unspoken and unknown. On that day, everything seemed to have a double meaning. The gilded elevator cheerfully beckoned, but in Hindi, suswāgatam suggested “auspicious welcome,” and in Bengali, svāgata: “well-being.”

Just twenty minutes after that crying young boy, the sky, outside, gleams a devil’s blue. There is not a plane in sight. No jet-streams. No overhead noise. Everything is too bright, too quiet for comfort.

In the quad, students and staff wander and crisscross each other. Many in the mall are crying. Others, embracing friends. And most, trying to get their cell phones to connect to New York.

In all of those forms of unwanted silence and stasis, we find out that New York and New Jersey are dangerously entangled together. Joint at the hip really, in all manners of communication, longing, and cool.

On the bus ride over to College Ave, Lika, Yuka, and I talk over each other and speculate wildly like everyone around us. The pundits on the cable TVs in the student centers and bus radios give their expert opinions. At least half say “not to worry,” and the other half “unbelievable.” When my phone finally reaches one of my parents at their office, my father says in a soft and tired voice, “The way those towers were built with their frame tube structure, the frame holding everything together will not be able to withstand the heat. The towers will fall.”

And by the time Lika, Yuka, and I reached Tom’s apartment on Easton Ave and Jeff joins us in the lobby, the South Tower, the one that had been hit second with a passenger jet, the one whose attack was caught crystal-clear on tape, is already crumbling and disintegrating to the ground.

In the lobby, Tom buzzes us in. We can’t swipe our cards and pile into the elevator fast enough. On the fourth floor, we make a pit stop to drop off our bags in Tom’s living room. His coffee table is littered with novels about the Vietnam War and well-thumbed issues of Penthouse and Playboy.

His roommates, naturally, seem to match his reading tastes. The nice one, Indian like me, is quiet, and is crushing on a Spanish girl down the hall that I had introduced him to. A few years later, they will get married. His other roommate, whose name for the life of me I can’t remember, snickers when I enter. Half of our entire Japanese class has gathered in the apartment. There is Lika, Yuka, Jeff, me, and Tom. But this roommate likes to single me out, muttering “Daria” under his breath. Boxing me in as one of those smart aleck, sarcastic, MTV-weaned girls, who happens to have an unrequited crush on his roommate, Tom. Tom, in turn, only has eyes for girls already in relationships and fellow Catholics like him.

This morning, I roll my eyes as Tom’s roommate fails to say my name correctly, and I fail to remember his. Tom is already urging all of us out the door, so we leave our books and bags and quarrels in his living room behind, and instead focus on racing up to the 12th floor. Jeff decides to keep his yellow, brick-sized Nokia in hand. In case of emergency, of course.

On the 12th floor, at the end of the long, white, hospital-like hallway, there is an emergency exit sign. We aren’t supposed to use it but when we hit the metal bar on the door, no alarm sounds. No siren, no emergency lights. And so we break free.

Outside, the sun catches on everything. The air ducts, the laundry vents, the silver aluminum piping. Everything gleams in clay and white and startlingly iridescent hues.

In the direction of New York City, against the clear blue sky, there is smoke. The bricolage brick and beige architecture of New Brunswick seems to disappear as we stare at the skyline of New York.

The green flatness of New Jersey, its infinite trees, the slinking Raritan River, the rolling Atlantic disappear from our focus. All of those forms of beauty mean nothing in that moment. As we face beauty much more terrifying.

For teenagers raised on video games, this is the closest we’ll ever get to roleplaying one.

Soon after my grandfather’s call, Jon Stewart in a charcoal suit, bright dress shirt, and silk tie, looks equally elegant and tired.

He tries to introduce the events of the day but ends up pounding his fist on the desk instead. He composes his face.

“One of my earliest memories was that of Martin Luther King, Jr. being shot. I was five. And if you wonder if this feeling will pass—”

His voice wavers. He places a finger on his lips, waits.

“When I was five and he was shot, here’s what I remember about it. I was in school in Trenton and they shut the lights off, and we got to sit under our desks. And we thought it was really cool. And they gave us cottage cheese.”

The audience, off-camera, laughs.

“Which was a cold lunch because there was rioting on the streets. But we didn’t know that. We thought, ‘My God, we get to sit under our desks and eat cottage cheese.’”

The audience rumbles. Jon tries to collect himself again, as if trying to jibe his sense of childhood cool and comfort with the realities of the day.

“The reason I don’t despair is because—” he gestures like a politician would, “This attack happened, it’s not a dream but the aftermath of it, the recovery, is a dream realized.”

He pauses and takes a quick breath.

“And that’s Martin Luther King’s dream.” He sniffs. Watching him watch the camera in that moment, again after so many years have passed, I wonder if he really believes what he says.

“Whatever barriers we’ve put up are gone, even if it’s just momentary. And we’re judging people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

He leans forward on the desk.

“Any fool can blow something up. Any fool can destroy. But to see these firefighters, police men, people from all over the country rebuilding—that—that’s extraordinary. That’s why we’ve already won. It’s light. It’s democracy. We’ve already won. They can’t shut that down.”

His voice cracks.

To me, on that evening of 9/11, and then over seventeen years later when we’re living in a world of open police brutality and militarization, racial violence, gun violence, gender violence, rising nationalism, surveillance, classism and class warfare, our democracy seems anything but light.

“They live in chaos and chaos can’t sustain itself,” Jon continues on the screen. “It’s never good. It’s too easy.” He looks aside, as if to hide a growing sense of righteousness, a growing sense of anger. “It’s too unsatisfying.”

In Ranchi, when Dadabhai and Nani’s house has been demolished in favor of the new skyscrapers sprouting up all over town, I find, in a dusty blue velvet photo album, a more recent image of Dadabhai.

Most of the pictures in this photo album look like they are from the ’60s to the late ’70s. Both Nani and Dadabhai have gray hair now and look more recognizably like my grandparents.

This image, taken when Dadabhai was in his mid-to-late fifties, features him and his good friends seated at a round table. As a child, I knew that table in my grandparents’ living room well. It’s where Dadabhai and his cronies would play rummy and bridge. Often with lit cigars and hot tea nearby. My grandmother, also retired by the mid-’80s, was often exiled to the kitchen on those card-playing afternoons. In the dark of the kitchen, she would have to make the spiced tea, the fried treats, and the samosas. Needless to say when she passed the food and tea onto the tray for me to carry into the living room where Dadabhai sat languorously playing cards “with the good old chaps” as he liked to call them, Nani would be sure to utter an explicative or two about her husband in Bengali before passing the food onto me.

In any case, this image of Dadabhai and his friends looks to be a dress-rehearsal for their later card-games; perhaps taken just as Dadabhai was about to retire from St. Xavier’s, and shortly after my mother had gotten married and moved to the States.

The table is littered with cards and gin and tonics with lime (my grandfather’s favorite drink). And while the other men in the picture stare at the camera with semblances of smiles on their faces Dadabhai’s looks strangely fierce. For a man who was always so cool and collected about everything, this expression sticks out.

When I pick up the old black and white photo and study it further, I notice Dadabhai’s calligraphy on its back. The message, written in black ink which has turned a dull rust red with time like the tones of the photograph, itself, is written surprisingly in English and not in Hindi or Bangla. As if the words are a missive for another time, meant solely for someone like me to read. The epigraph on the back, in looping clean letters, reads: “Lord, please take me away.”

The message is quiet and desperate and devastating.

The inscription is dated 1978. My fingers trace Dadabhai’s words and the date. I would only be born just a handful of years later. No way to meet him then when he had written these words.

After that strange phone call we shared on September 11, 2001, in which my grandfather and I talked about the World Trade Center and his favorite view of all of New York from its observation deck, I resolved to return to India. After a seven-year absence, I bought my tickets to arrive in Ranchi for the winter holidays in late 2002. Dadabhai knew about my plans, but before his birthday during the following September, shortly after the first anniversary of 9/11, he would pass away unexpectedly before I ever got a chance to say good-bye. That phone call on September 11 would be one of the last times I would ever get a chance to talk to my grandfather so candidly for any length of time before he was gone. And in that conversation, as we analyzed what was happening to America, what democracy and capital meant, and where we could go from there, we shared emotions, intimacy, and philosophy openly together. In those whispered conversations, there would be no room for artifice, for posturing, for cool.

Sitting in an empty bedroom in Ranchi, many years later, when I would find this uncanny image of my grandfather surrounded by his friends and cards and drinks, I would think how very alone he looked. Flanked by all of these markers of comfort and cool.

My fingers would trace his face and slide over the inscription on the back. And alone, I would say out loud, to no one in particular, “But you haven’t met me yet.”

None of us have a camera to freeze frame the moment. On the cable TVs downstairs, the Spanish television networks are showing people leaping from fifty, sixty stories up to their death. CNN blocks the coverage.

And we, college kids and card-carrying members of Gen-MTV, stand as close as we can get to the edge of that rooftop and watch what remains burn to the ground. We stand and wait and watch. Voyeurs to our very core.

In high school, we read A Tale of Two Cities, and Maribeth Edmunds makes us recite that scene where Charles Darnay is finally declared free. Just at that moment, outside of the courthouse, a passerby is struck down by a carriage as the trial ends. Rather than help the poor victim of the accident, the spectators from the courtroom stream out and gather around the fallen body, waiting until that living, breathing thing of beauty becomes a corpse. Blue flies gather in search of carrion.

Someone makes a joke to cut the tension. And we laugh as we wait. From our vantage point, the second tower will take nearly thirty minutes to burn to the ground. Destruction takes so much longer than expected when you’re waiting for it.

The anticipation feels almost erotic.

I glance away from the beautiful tableau destroying itself, right in front of us, and turn to Tom. Only his profile is visible in the brilliant light. His eyes are trained on New York. I look over at my other friends, some shivering under the bright sun and holding their jackets close to them against the rapid wind, others engaging in strained conversations and nervous laughter.

I think how beautiful they all look. How very young we all seem to be all of a sudden. Tom’s hair curls in the wind. At my side, he is nearly a foot taller than me. I look at him, and think I should be in love. Because that’s how crushes work. But me, obsessed with cool, I do even my crushes badly. I can’t seem to feel or express any emotion authentically enough.

Today from our great distance in New Brunswick, everyone on that rooftop, standing or sitting on perches like we’re posing for a band photo, will do all of our emotions badly.

There will be no moral compass left in us that day. Stupefied, when the second tower will finally fall in slow motion, we will be unable to look away. But we will not be able to process the hurt, the trauma, the disbelief, the anger, or the love we will feel that day for each other, for those we know and knew, and for what we thought our country could be.

Later in our dorm rooms, when we’d switch on the radio, the shows will be filled with rants from witnesses and listeners calling in. “How could they do this?” “Attacks like this simply don’t happen in America.” “We’ll get revenge on those towel-headed bastards.” “This is war. This is an act of war.” “We need to go out and bomb them.” “God, I love this country so much.”

The interviews, the phone calls, the words of support, anger, revenge, patriotism, shock will pour in that day and for the weeks that follow. And we, the children of the children of Marx and Coca-Cola, will soak it all in. Our emotional barometer will flicker from anxiety and disbelief to righteousness and anger to unbelievable grief. We will let the words of others wash over us. We are, after all, young. And although we are supposed to be early adopters of fashion, of function, of political beliefs and personas, we are also easily influenced. We are part of the target demographic.

Are you experienced? Jimi Hendrix taunts with his stride and regal threads and careless sensuality on stage. Just over three decades and two generations later, the answer, as we watch the World Trade Center fall, will be no. No, we are anything but experienced.

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Rita Banerjee is the director of the MFA in Writing & Publishing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, editor of CREDO: AN ANTHOLOGY OF MANIFESTOS AND SOURCEBOOK FOR CREATIVE WRITING, and author of ECHO IN FOUR BEATS, which was nominated for the 2019 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Her writing appears in Poets & Writers, Nat Brut., LARB, and VIDA. She is the co-writer, with David Shields, of Burning Down the Louvre (2020), a film about race, intimacy, and tribalism in the US and France.