Welcome to Issue No. 101 of Prime Number:
October is special for everyone at Press 53. We celebrate another anniversary, our 11th, and get to share with readers of Prime Number Magazine the winners of the Prime Number Magazine Awards for Poetry and Short Fiction.
In Issue 101 you will find “Liminal States,” by Faith Shearin, winner of the 2016 Prime Number Magazine Award for Poetry, as selected by Kelly Cherry, and “The King of Xandria” by Jocelyn Johnson, winner of the 2016 Prime Number Magazine Award for Short Fiction; we also have poems from the runner-up and two honorable mentions for you to enjoy.
Our guest editor for poetry, Hedy Habra, selected poems from Muriel Nelson, Donna Baier Stein, and Devon Miller-Duggan, and Gerry Wilson, guest editor for short fiction, chose stories from Mary Ann McGuigan, Lisa Lewis, and Denton Loving.
We are also introducing our guest editors for Issue 107, which will be available on April 1, 2017: for poetry, Robert Lee Brewer, author of Solving the World’s Problems (a Tom Lombardo Poetry Selection for Press 53), and editor of Writer’s Market, and Poet’s Market for Writer’s Digest Books, and editor of the Poetic Asides blog for Writer’s Digest, among many other projects; and guest editor for short fiction is Elizabeth Gonzalez, winner of the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction for her collection of stories, The Universal Physics of Escape (As a side note, the 2017 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction is now open for entries). Read a poem from Robert and a story from Elizabeth, and if you are a writer, please consider sending them a poem and/or story. They are accepting submissions through Submittable from now until December 31.
We hope you enjoy Issue 101 of Prime Number Magazine and that you will share it with your friends. We also hope you will visit Press 53 and consider sampling some of our new Fall titles.
As editor in chief of Press 53 and Prime Number Magazine, I know how difficult it is to select only a few pieces or collections to share with readers. Not because great writing is hard to find; because there is a lot of great writing from which to choose. Come decision time, an editor has to trust his or her own connection to each piece. You, as readers, must do the same, and we know you will only keep coming back if you enjoy your visit and leave feeling richer from the experience. And we all hope that you will.
Best regards and happy reading!
Kevin Morgan Watson, Publisher, Editor in Chief
Prime Number Magazine
Issue 101 October – Decemeber 2016
2016 Prime Number Magazine Award for Poetry
Selections from Hedy Habra
Guest Editor for Poetry
Selections from Gerry Wilson
Guest Editor for Short Fiction
Guest Editors for Issue 107, April – June 2017
Winner of the 2016 Prime Number Magazine Award for Poetry for "Liminal States"
Judged by Kelly Cherry, former Poet Laureate of Virginia and author of The Life and Death of Poetry: Poems (LSU Press)
Faith will receive a $1,000 prize and an announcement in Poets & Writers magazine.
Followed by judge's comment and author bio
We stand, then, on a threshold, in a doorway.
It is dawn or dusk and we have just awakened
from a deep sleep. I speak of the edges
between water and land, the place where
the forest gives way to a meadow, of the day
before my great grandfather died
when he stood in his fields, remembering.
This is just before the baby is born,
when it is time to push. The news
is coming but it has not arrived; I am
no longer young but I am not yet old.
My great grandmother believes her third son
is coming home from the war; my mother
is in the waiting room but no one has told
her she has cancer; my father's car
is spinning, but he is still conscious.
The cat in the nursing home who sleeps
with the one who is going to die is walking
silently down the white hallway
and he has not turned his head.
Just before we were married, we slept
with our rings on our fingers, imagining
how it would feel.
Kelly Cherry's comment on "Liminal States"
This poem is both light and dark, clear and mysterious, familiar and startling. A liminal state is a state of being in-between. What has gone is what is gone. What is before us is the uncertain new. There is something of the quality of seasickness in a liminal state. As in the poem, "it is dawn or dusk" and the poet speaks "of the edges / between water and land, the place where / the forest gives way to a meadow. . . ." To be between is to be haunted and anxious, unknowing but about to know, fearful and waiting. The poet has succeeded in conveying this condition without analyzing it; rather, he or she has saturated the poem with the feeling of the feeling, so that the reader actually experiences the sensation. The reader does not merely think about the feeling.
The poem's diction is adequate but appropriately quiet, the better to enter the poem and stay within it for the duration. The pacing is not slow—we go from one liminal state to another—but it, too, is quiet. The reader holds his/her breath. The poem's final line underscores its function: "how it would feel."
This is altogether a superior poem. It was a complex pleasure to read, and the conjunction of clarity and complexity is precisely what we look for in memorable poetry.
Faith Shearin is the author of five books of poetry: The Owl Question (May Swenson Award), The Empty House (Word Press), Moving the Piano, Telling the Bees (SFA University Press), and Orpheus, Turning (Broadkill River Press). Her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Poetry East, The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poets, and Good Poems, American Places, and has been read aloud by Garrison Keillor on The Writer's Almanac. She is the recipient of awards from The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, The Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives with her husband, her daughter, and a small, opinionated dachshund in a cabin on top of a mountain in West Virginia.
Kelly Cherry was Poet Laureate of Virginia from 2010 to 2012. Her latest book of poems, Physics for Poets: Poems, was published by Unicorn Press in 2015. Her twelfth book of Fiction, Temporium, will be published by Press 53 in the Fall of 2017. She was the first recipient of the Hanes Poetry Prize given by the Fellowship of Southern Writers for a body of work. Other awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bradley Major Achievement (Lifetime) Award, a USIS Speaker Award (The Philippines), a Distinguished Alumnus Award, three Wisconsin Arts Board fellowships, two WAB New Work awards, the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook Award for Distinguished Book of Stories in 1999 (2000), and selection as a Wisconsin Notable Author. In 2010, she was a Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In 2012, she received both the Taramuto Prize for a story and the Carole Weinstein Prize for Poetry, and in 2013 the L.E. Phillabaum Award for Poetry. She is Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She and her husband live in Virginia. Further details appear on her Wikipedia page.
Runner Up in the 2016 Prime Number Magazine Award for Poetry
Judged by Kelly Cherry, former Poet Laureate of Virginia and author of The Life and Death of Poetry: Poems (LSU Press)
Among the Things You Deserve
— after Dan Albergotti
Perfectly pruned rhododendrons,
real cream in your coffee, clean sheets,
neighbors who know when to leave.
All your photos arranged in albums
by date and occasion, pockets for that kimono
you never got around to finishing last year.
Butter on sweet corn, a break from this heat,
nights of deep sleep with dreams
of your sisters who are gone.
People Magazine in your mailbox,
more movies with Paul Newman young,
more foot rubs from your husband, more adoration
from the dog. Cold gin. Rhubarb pie.
Hair thick as ever. Campouts with the children,
the rest of this summer, then another
and another, no wig stand on the dresser.
An apology from god.
Kelly Cherry's comment on "Among the Things You Deserve"
Here we have a poem that is cheerful, generous, funny, sweet, loving. In short, it is irresistible. I am reminded of "This Is Just to Say," the William Carlos Williams poem in which he admits that he has "eaten / the plums / that were in / the icebox. . ." The list of things the "you" deserves is both short and commodious. It amuses and reminds, while it also delineates the woman who is "you" and the good and noticing friend who wants her to have everything she deserves. The precision of the list ensures our attention and respect for the friend. The final line tells us that the woman deserves "[a]n apology from god," and upon reading that, we grasp the depth of the poem, the friend's ferocity, and the seriousness of the situation.
Emily Ransdell holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Montana. Her work has appeared in The Cortland Review, Tar River Poetry, Hamilton Stone Review, and will be featured on Ted Kooser’s nationally syndicated "American Life in Poetry." She was a semi-finalist for the 2016 Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize from Ruminate Magazine. Emily divides her time between Camas, Washington, and the North Oregon Coast.
Emily Rose Cole
Honorable Mention in the 2016 Prime Number Magazine Award for Poetry
Judged by Kelly Cherry, former Poet Laureate of Virginia and author of The Life and Death of Poetry: Poems (LSU Press)
Followed by author bio and Q&A
10 Years Later, the Cowardly Lion Surveys His Territory
We burned the poppy fields, choked the sky with poison
plumes, a whirl of purple ash, thrum of monkey wings.
The woodsman and I filled the naked grove with apricot trees,
just for the hell of it. Afterwards, he melted down the head
of his axe to make a locket for his lover, a pewter-
nosed kettledrum of a woman. I haven’t seen them in years.
Out west, my best friend wastes like a week-old deer corpse.
The crows grow plump, bawl laughter from the cornstalks.
I keep telling him he’s too smart to pine over some jewel-toed
bombshell, but his eyes are pinned up, waiting for wind to whip
her house into a chariot again. Meanwhile, I’ve grown lean,
gained muscle. Birds hush when I slink below the mossed
branches. Voles flee, rabbits quiver. Even the bears
keep to their caves. Harmony reigns. But I know
somewhere, a witch spirals a clawed hand over an orb.
A con man flashes his canines. A family loses their home.
Emily Rose Cole is a poet and lyricist from central Pennsylvania. She has received awards from Jabberwock Review, Ruminate Magazine, Philadelphia Stories, and the Academy of American Poets, and her work appears most recently in Sycamore Review, Yemassee, and BOAAT Journal, among others. She is a PhD student at the University of Cincinnati, and can be found at emilyrosecolepoetry.com.
This piece was the first I wrote in the persona-based Wizard of Oz series I’m working on. It was a delight to reimagine the landscape of Oz years and years after Dorothy’s departure, so I continued the series in the voices of other characters who interested me (especially the witches), to see what their takes would be. So far, it’s my only poem in the voice of the Cowardly Lion, but I hope it won’t be my last, since the confidence and authority in his voice is one that my own natural poetic voice generally lacks.
Questions from the Editor:
What was your favorite childhood toy?
I had a green dragon puppet that I loved and had keep watch over my bed every night, like some sort of fairy-tale version of a dreamcatcher. However, that goal may have been slightly undermined by the fact that I named him Friendly, so as not to scare my other toys.
What is the farthest you have traveled from home?
I’ve probably traveled farther than Toulouse, France, but that’s my answer, since I lived there for nine months during my study abroad semester in college. It’s a lovely city, and I highly recommend visiting (the weather is way better than in Paris!)
A walk in the rain or snow, and why?
Snow. Especially the first real snow of winter, the kind that both weights and softens the air, the kind you can smell coming.
Honorable Mention in the 2016 Prime Number Magazine Award for Poetry
Followed by author bio and Q&A
On the North Saskatchewan River
Tonight, a cold wind disassembles
Take what you want.
I am in a canoe, floating down the North Saskatchewan River.
Fish slip in and out of view,
scales blinking like emergency lights
and all the while, I think of how the stars wind together,
how they constellate into the giant net
Two blacknesses, now, split by a third. The horizon.
Lost to this darkness
my fingertips touch the water and water
petals over the skin. Again, take what you want.
Collect the memory
of peeling oranges in July, rinds thumbprinted and softened
by an hour long drive to the mountains.
And the elk. Sunrise looping like a thread of mango blossoms
on their backs as they spill into view.
With each swell of the river, the canoe lifts like a small bird.
I have disconnected.
I am obsessed with losing myself
to the long, drawn out current of memory. Peel away
my skin—dark meniscus over the water.
Unravel me until only the light is left.
Alycia Pirmohamed received a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Oregon in 2014. She is the recipient of a Calgary Artist Opportunity Grant, an honorable mention in Vallum Contemporary Magazine and a second place prize in Grain Magazine. She currently resides in Calgary, Alberta.
This poem was inspired so distinctly by place: the North Saskatchewan River that runs through the city I grew up in, and the Rocky Mountains so clearly visible from my balcony every morning. In this piece, the landscape works in tandem with the speaker’s emotions—the nostalgia and the loss of self is mirrored in the onset of evening, when the physical body seems to almost disappear in the darkness.
Questions from the Editor:
Who is your favorite superhero?
Buffy Summers/Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
You can live in only one place from this day forward: where is it?
As someone who has been quite happily transient these last couple of years, the prospect of living in only one place for the rest of my life is a little terrifying. If I had to choose, I’d stay here. Canada has been a good home—it is a beautiful country with beautiful people.
Dog or cat?
Winner of the 2016 Prime Number Magazine Award for Short Fiction
and Fallen Land (St. Martin's Press)
Jocelyn will receive a $1,000 prize and an announcement in Poets & Writers magazine
Judge's comment and author bio following story
The King of Xandria
Mr. Attah thinks of this exiled place as Xandria because Alex is the name of his only son, his last best hope. The boy is thirteen, still in junior middle, but Mr. Attah has a daughter as well. Jasmeen works double shifts at the paper store, leaving their flat in drab trousers and polished loafers as if she were a man. Whenever Mr. Attah sees her, a hummingbird quivers in his throat. His baby girl mired in that lowly job, and yet her job has grown superior to his, because Mr. Attah has lost his—although he must not let his children know.
Back on the Gulf of Guinea, before his wife was torn from the earth, when Jasmeen still covered her hair in bright fabric and Alex donned his school uniform, Mr. Attah was patriarch. He would arrive at work barrel-chested and angle in behind his polished mahogany desk. He remembers the potted geranium near the window, the one Mrs. Lyons would water before bringing his tea. He mourns all of it, the squeak of the window-fan even, his oscillating view of ocean. Now he and his children are stranded here in Xandria, here in this new and baffling place. Jasmeen has grown as petulant and fat as steer; whenever she surveys him, Mr. Attah feels weak beneath her gaze.
But there is still Alex, his son.
Alex shot up in the summer and Mr. Attah cannot help but admire this fine, new lankness. A line of pimples dot the boy’s perfect brown skull where his ball cap perches like a crown. “Switchback, Papi,” Alex corrects. “Not ball cap—switchback.” The boy’s lilting accent is fast fading, his new stories peppered with adages Mr. Attah cannot decipher. Still, if Alex can manage to shine here, then perhaps Mr. Attah can reclaim some glimmer of dignity, and become the man he’d once imagined himself to be.
Now Alex attends W. E. B. Du Bois Middle, a school situated in a flock of trees, not far from the highway. Today Mr. Attah stands in the office still waiting to be seen. The secretary eyes him, perhaps because he’s twice refused the low, sinking chair urged into a corner. Instead he paces, pausing to study the framed faces of former principals—men captured in stark photographs with placards underneath declaring the sequential dates of their tenures. Mr. Attah brings his hand to his chin and peers at the current principal’s closed door.
The office is a harried place, and soon yet another American mother strolls into it, one of those haughty working types, who wears her authority like a badge. The pink-faced secretary chirps welcome, hands over a ledger without delay. The woman kisses her boy’s sand-colored hair and Mr. Attah realizes he has halted in order to stare at this mother and child, this solemn union, the frantic dry fluttering alive in his throat again.
The current principal must have opened the office door, silently, while his guard was down, because now she stands framed within it. All those old bordered men but the current principal is a woman, Ms. Vasquez, whose surname breaks high in his throat, like a birdcall.
Too skinny, that’s what he always notices first: someone ought to cook and feed her thick and hearty stews. She wears a suit—a skirted one—along with narrow-heeled shoes. Her face glows a bright tan color and her hair is suitably long; today she wears it in a spiraled bun like a conch shell.
“Come in. Please. Sit.”
He knows she will not close her door because of what occurred the last time he was here. Last time they’d met along with some pale ponytailed teacher, a young woman who’d claimed a grand concern for his son. But when they’d finally gotten to the substance of the matter, the raw pink meat of it, there may have been raised voices. Ms. Vasquez might have accused him of behaving “irrationally”—or was it “rashly”? At one point she’d threatened to call the authorities, eyeing him that day as if he was not a man but rather a wild monkey in the bush. If he’d shouted before, if by chance his fists had pummeled themselves onto a stray bit of shelving—it was only because no one understood what he’d been trying to say…
At any rate, today he will control himself, he’s promised to. Even if they’ve had him wait and wait, languishing under the row of frames, the whole office reeking of some cheap industrial cleaning agent that makes his eyes water.
Ms. Vasquez composes herself at her desk, crosses her naked ankles. “So,” she says, “have you given any thought to Alex? About what we discussed last time?”
Mr. Attah cannot help it—his mind rushes off at this invocation of his son’s given name. He sees Alex, back in Lagos, four or five years old, the edge of the boy’s sailor shorts darkened from ocean spray. Then Alex again, on the precipice of eleven, cowering in the courtyard after being informed that his mother had been killed. She’d been up in the country, visiting her people, and only by chance in the crowded market when a child detonated a crude explosive strapped to his chest.
In the months that followed his wife’s death, Mr. Attah found himself hot every morning, unable to take his tea at noon, still boiling in the evenings when the world had cooled and plunged into careless slumber. To rest his own eyes invited mangled visions: he’d catapult upright, breathless and blinking into the dark. Even the ordinary objects of his room betrayed him—the bedside table, the matching bureau, his wife’s dressing mirror. She’d been a stately woman, but some evenings, at that mirror, she would hum to herself, a tune as thick and sweet as nectar. She was gone, Mr. Attah knew, but he found he could not bear it. He had to do something, get away, but where to? He had a cousin studying in the States, a place called Alexandria, which might as well have been named for his own boy.
It took all of his connections, his savings, family property leveraged, and eighteen months before the three of them were boarding a jumbo airliner aimed toward Europe, en route to America. In his attaché case, he carried their papers, all in order. Almost all of those coveted papers. As soon as they arrived, just as soon as he found work to tide them, Mr. Attah would wrestle with those longer applications and their quicksand boxes. Ms. Lyons had printed the necessary forms, her last official act. It was only after the plane had lifted that Mr. Attah realized it was Alex’s first time in the air. “We fly away over the water like bitterns, Papi,” his son had said, sounding too young when he said it, pressing his forehead against the plane’s circular window.
Now Mr. Attah realizes that Ms. Vasquez is still speaking; she speaks and has been speaking and his visions of Alex fall sadly away. He only catches the slithering tail end of what she is saying. “… allowing Alex the educational services he would so clearly benefit from…”
“Yes, yes,” he cuts in, voice lifted. “My son, Alex, is special. And brave, is he not? And strong—”
“I’m sure, but if you’d just look here, at this assessment…” She extends a folder, which he promptly waves away.
“You people suggest that my son is not learning, but if he is not—IF!—then perhaps you are not competent to teach. What you don’t seem to recognize is that, in conjunction with everything, this boy, this young man, might, quite possibly be brill—”
Mr. Attah looks up to discover that Ms. Vasquez is wearing that look again, fear along with something else. Her delicate ankles have come uncrossed and her hands waver upward like those tragic traffic-men back at home who try and fail at intersections to slow motorbikes and overcrowded shuttles.
Also, he is standing. It is a problem, this inability toward stillness. He was briefly sitting but now he’s on his feet, his hands wrung together, the hummingbird ululating inside his Adam’s apple.
“You people—” Mr. Attah begins again, but then cannot find a fitting next phrase. “I will go, I must go…” he murmurs.
Then he is through the office.
Then he is outside again.
Only October here in Xandria and already the temperature has plummeted. Mr. Attah hurries away from the school, the cold burning the exposed skin of his face. The sky, slate gray, presses in around him. When he tries to catch his breath, the icy air sets him into a fit of needless coughing. At his Hyundai he fishes for keys only to realize, with a bitter laugh, that it is raining! A god-awful drizzle, even though it’s so cold the rain ought to be translated into snow.
He slots the key in, and demands that engine turn over. It whines, catches, but when he jabs the button clearly marked “heat,” frigid air streams from the vent. He jabs again, instructively—“Heat, damn-it, heat!”—toggling the lever for the windshield wiper for good measure. The frail arms of the wipers screech across his view. A meager quarter tank of petrol left on the meter. Leaning into the passenger side, he unlatches the glove box.
Two weeks ago Mr. Attah brought a collection of his most important papers out to the Hyundai, relocating them from a hidden drawer in the apartment. This transfer happened one evening-time. His daughter had burst into the front door trilling a pop song he recognized from back home. At once, his head began to ache with the birth of some large and terrible notion. He rushed from the room and out the front door, only realizing afterward that he was clasping a profusion of papers to his chest—travel documents and unfinished petitions. His cousin had sworn to help with their completion, but all that imbecile had managed was to lure Mr. Attah to a gathering of Nigerians only to keep recalling his dead wife’s name, along with the gruesome circumstances of her passing. That and suggesting he apply for work at his former place of employment. Outside of the apartment, cradling his papers, the original idea buried itself in Mr. Attah’s mind, and he could not recover it, although he sat in the Hyundai a long while trying.
Ever since that night Mr. Attah has kept certain papers, along with a thinning book of traveler’s checks, locked in the glove box as if this automobile were his office. He shuffles through them now, locating a printout of his daughter’s work schedule, which he collects from her each Sunday morning.
Right now he would like nothing more than to return to the apartment and try to rest his eyes, but after consulting the papers, he knows he cannot. Jasmeen’s shift starts in the late afternoon, so likely she is still there, occupying the sofa, quarreling with the television, her feet propped up like a sovereign.
Before it became so bitterly cold, Mr. Attah might have gone to the pond at Royal Suites, where his old job was. He used to travel to the water each morning after a brisk but fruitless regimen of scouring the area for work, driving from hotel to hotel (or some days it was the computers at the public library, twenty-minute slots at the terminals between homeless men with sick, hopeless eyes). The pond sits across from a parking installation, and a guest pass is required for entry. But the guard in the booth was born on the continent of home, and this man, although otherwise a stranger, always waved Mr. Attah and his Hyundai in, even after his dis-employment. Almost daily Mr. Attah would follow the black, paved path down to the water, where no one ever seemed to venture but him. None of the hotel’s tourists or businessmen ever went there; none of the receptionists, and certainly not any of the pathetic individuals he’d been forced to work beside in “hospitality.” What was remotely hospitable, he’d once questioned the shift manager, about scrubbing a thick smear of excrement from gleaming white porcelain? Mr. Attah would sit on a bench at the pond for hours and watch the fountain gush water futilely like a drowning man flailing. The last time he went, he’d spotted, near the far edge, a brood of tundra swans. In their great migration, they must have gotten lost and mistakenly roosted themselves there. Aloof, they floated, their bright snowy plumage breaking the pond’s scummy skin.
But now it has grown too cold, and the fountain has been turned off for the season. Last time he drove by he could no longer even see the birds. He imagines they’ve flown onward in their own tight wedge toward warmer locales, or else been collected, disposed of.
The absence of the swans makes Mr. Attah imagine doing something rash, or irrational.
The place of his daughter’s employment is large like a warehouse, lined up between a Chinese take-out place and a beauty parlor. Mr. Attah parks at the far end of the lot, not having the petrol to waste. This is technically a store that sells paper, but here in Xandria every retailer brims with indecision. Paper, yes, in all shades and stacked in high reams, but here too are balls of rubber bands tangled into grapefruit-sized masses. And clear vats of hard pretzels for no occasion Mr. Attah can fathom.
He saunters up and down each aisle; in this way he can and has killed hours.
At the farthest row, he pauses to examine the tiny sets of pillows, for under one’s wrists, For Extreme Comfort While Typing! Or so the packaging suggests.
“Ah, Mr. Attah! I thought that was you!”
He recognizes the voice at once and turns toward the hearty handshake that will surely accompany it.
“Mr. Kosta!” he answers, his hands already within the warmth of the manager’s grasp. The men shake vigorously, almost—Mr. Attah feels certain—in anticipation of a brotherly embrace.
Mr. Kosta is not tall in stature, but broad with a king’s belly. His face is the translucent yellow of onionskin. On one occasion, Mr. Kosta invited Mr. Attah to lunch—just next door in the Chinese take-out, but still! The two talked easily of politics and business, Mr. Kosta harping on the woes of Athens where he was born. All the while they sipped tea so scalding Mr. Attah could sense it warping the Styrofoam it waited within.
Mr. Kosta brings his hand to his face, nodding. “Let’s see: ergonomics? We have more workplace solutions on aisle seven-A. Depending on what you’re looking for…”
Mr. Attah feels his top lip perch happily on his gums. His chin dips into a nod. “Yes, yes!” he hears himself saying, even though the term “ergonomics” escapes him. “I am finding everything!” he says, hoping that Mr. Kosta will not ask more about what he seeks. Mr. Attah leans in closer. “Is the girl, Jasmeen, working out?” he says. “Does she continue to perform… passably?”
For six months Jasmeen has worked regular hours at the paper store. Still Mr. Attah asks this question as if his daughter’s tenure is probationary—as if he and Mr. Kosta together will complete her evaluation. Even so he feels a flush of fatherly pride when Mr. Kosta confirms that Jasmeen is responsible beyond rebuke. “Hard-working young woman you’ve raised!” Mr. Kosta claps him on the shoulder.
“Good man,” Mr. Attah answers, his voice going highish like a youth’s. “I think I may be able to procure the rest of the morning off, through lunch I mean. Would you like—how do they say it here—to grab a bite?” As soon as Mr. Attah says this, cold pearls of sweat erupt around his hairline. What was he thinking? He can barely afford lunch for himself. Or maybe it would be worth it, to sit and talk and eat like a man…
But Mr. Kosta waves him off, smiling but firm. This refusal makes Mr. Attah doubt all of the man’s earlier magnanimity: all this time, has Mr. Kosta, in fact, been humoring him? Then Mr. Kosta clasps his hands again, a warm shake like kinship.
“Another time, Mr. Attah,” his daughter’s boss says.
Some days there is the in-between time when Jasmeen is most likely on her way to work and Alex is perhaps not home yet from school when Mr. Attah isn’t sure if he can go back to the apartment or not. This is because he told the boy—and only the boy—that his shift at work changed. This mis-clarification was only to explain why he might be home in the early evenings. But after he said this he realized that, for almost every hour on the clock, at least one of his children expected his absence. Now he cannot stay at the store nor go back to the apartment. He commandeers the store phone to call Alex’s school again.
By the time he’s traveled back, dismissal is looming. A wall of yellow buses domineers the front loop. This time the secretary greets him promptly— “Oh, they’re waiting for,” she says. She rounds her desk, parading away from the principal’s office, and Mr. Attah tracks her through a maze of hallways. He keeps an eye out for, but never once sees, his own son. He does catch a glimpse of the sandy-haired boy, the one whose mother marked him so lavishly with her kiss.
The secretary finally stops at a door, pushing it open slowly so that the room beyond it hushes.
“Ah, Mr. Attah,” a woman’s voice trumpets.
Now he can see Principal Vasquez, standing at the center of a conference room, flanked by the same young ponytailed teacher. But in fact this room is crowded with people. They edge around a long oval table. Here is counselor Lydan and nurse Calhoun. Here is his son’s homeroom teacher, whose name flits past his ear like shrapnel flying. Here is Alexandria City’s Parent-Peer Mediator, along with a school-sited police officer, whom Ms. Vasquez admits she has invited.
An impressive number of people have gathered. For me, Mr. Attah thinks, his chest puffed up with the memory of pride.
But no, he soon realizes, these Xandrians—with their badges and titles—have more likely come to intimidate, to diminish. Mr. Attah squints fiercely at each person present, as if, through this exercise, he will be able to discern their true hearts.
Ms. Vasquez clears her throat. “Take a seat.”
He answers in his most decorous voice. “I prefer to stand.”
Then in quick succession, the staff delivers its impatient presentation. They allege that Alex is “immature,” “unfocused,” “withdrawn.” The boy needs support and further evaluation, at the end of which he may receive a special designation on his permanent record of “Learning Disabled.” They take turns at the screeching white board, their sidelong glances mocking his devotion to the boy.
“Of course this all means,” Ms. Vasquez concludes, “that Alex is at least of normal intelligence.”
“Of course! Of course!” they all chime.
But Mr. Attah is coughing now, struggling to breath. The room has grown unbearably hot, so hot he squeezes his eyes closed against it. In the darkness that follows, a long mournful note invades his body. Not a tune so much, more like the absence of music: the eerie ringing silence that chases after an obscene and brutal clamor.
“THIS is what you have to say to me?!” he hears his own voice rise and shimmer. “You dimwits! You mutton-headed fools! Don’t you even know who I am?”
He blinks his eyes open and the uniformed officer has stepped closer, but he will not be silenced.
“You mean to demean me…” Mr. Attah bellows, “just because a few backstabbing malingerers find me difficult? Who does a thing like this…a child blowing up a mother! No… do not touch me… No, you listen: My son is perfect just as he stands!”
Shaking, Mr. Attah realizes he has drawn in all the air in the room. As he expels it, slowly, his heart a bit less weary, a knock trembles the door.
He opens his eyes and suddenly, here is Alex—his Alex—thrust into the room.
The boy wears his backpack hanging limply from one shoulder. His new school jacket puffs around him, cardinal red although he’d wanted black. Also he must have heard the yelling; he peers down at his Nike Air Pegasus-ed feet.
Before Mr. Attah can say more, Ms. Vasquez swoops in. She hovers near the boy’s ear, speaking gingerly as if to a frightened animal. Now Mr. Attah understands that earlier look she’d given him, the one that came alongside her fear—it was pity. “You know why your father is here—what we’ve been speaking to Miss Mann about…”
Alex looks up at the ponytailed teacher and nods.
“Tell your father,” Ms. Vasquez instructs, and Mr. Attah feels the tender stab of Alex’s dark eyes.
“Let me do it, Papi,” Alex says. “I’m a failure at reading. Math is worse. My head’s all messed up. Jasmeen’s always been the smart one, but for now, she says, it’s up to me.”
Now everyone is watching, but all Mr. Attah can do is stare at his son. Alex with his backpack half unzipped and papers erupting willy-nilly from its gape. Alex whose shoes are untied, both of them, who has his mother’s heart-shaped face. Mr. Attah clasps his own hands at his chest to keep himself from reaching out to touch the boy’s uncapped head.
“Then I can have seventh period with Miss Mann. But first you have to say okay.”
Now Mr. Attah does sit, backing into a cushioned rolling chair, which squeaks and wobbles beneath him. Out in the hall a bell dings. A chain of students’ shadows blows past the frosted windows. For once, Mr. Attah does not feel able to speak, although he manages one low word: “Okay.”
Mr. Attah follows his son through a throng of students funneling toward the buses. Out front, he tries to hug his boy but it comes out all wrong, like a dance for which they no longer have the rhythm. Alex backs away, red-faced, and Mr. Attah announces he will drive them home.
“How come you aren’t at work?” Alex says, a tuft of cold escaping from his mouth. “Ever, Papi,” he adds under silver breath.
“Ride with me,” Mr. Attah says again, but his voice falters, and he cannot meet his son’s gaze.
“It’s true then,” Alex whispers, shaking his head. “What’s going to happen to us?” For a moment the boy’s eyes flash with panic, but then they fix into a shaky resoluteness Mr. Attah all but misses. “You brought us here,” the boy declares. “I’ll get home on my own.”
Hearing this, Mr. Attah’s limbs grow heavy. The place behind his sternum throbs with shame.
By the time he looks up, his son is shuffling toward the buses, his narrow shoulders stiffened, his jaw clinched. Mr. Attah watches fervently as Alex falls in with a group of young men whose profiles he cannot recognize.
Back at the Hyundai, Mr. Attah needles the key in. His heart vibrates in his chest like a jet turbine. He backs out of the space, tires shrieking, and veers blindly onto the highway. No matter the lane, red taillights pierce the grayness, and twice he has to swerve to avoid collision. Accelerating, he remembers his papers, there in the glove box where only he can reach them. If they no longer need him, what must he do—drive and keep on until the road ends in black? He leans hard into the gas. But then, by chance, he passes the turn to Royal Suites—a flicker of brightness catching his eye. Braking, he cranes to peer down the embankment. He’d thought they were gone, he’d been quite certain, but now he sees them cleaved together, still waiting on top of the water, their fat white bodies and sloped hungry grace, as if they will persist at least through spring.
Selected by guest poetry editor Hedy Habra
Followed by author bio and Q&A
Muriel Nelson’s publications include Part Song, Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize winner (Bear Star Press), and Most Wanted, ByLine Chapbook Award winner (ByLine Press). Nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize, her poems have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, The Cortland Review, Four Way Review, Front Porch Journal, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Hunger Mountain, Massachusetts Review, National Poetry Review, The New Republic, Northwest Review, Ploughshares, Prick of the Spindle, Seneca Review, Superstition Review, and others, and on Verse Daily and Poetry Daily. She holds master's degrees from the University of Illinois School of Music and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.
I originally thought of "Driveline" as an introductory poem to my manuscript Daylights. The poem hints of images and influences to come, and of my fascination with gender in languages in which gender is more important than in English. It also draws visual inspiration from a photo my son Ryan took in early spring in Salem, Oregon's Minto-Brown Island Park. It shows a very old wrecked car which is mostly hidden by trees except when they are bare, and which has become inhabited by mosses, ferns, and other plants, and subtly colored by them and other natural forces.
Questions from the Editor:
What was your favorite childhood toy?
My favorite was our ping-pong table with our kittens playing against each other.
What is the farthest you have traveled from home?
A walk in the rain or snow?
Do you mean which would I prefer? For me, it depends on who else is walking. I enjoy huddling under a large umbrella with someone special or walking in dry snow (rare here!) with either people or an excited dog.
Donna Baier Stein
Selected by guest poetry editor Hedy Habra
Followed by author bio and Q&A
Fishing with My Father
In Colorado, at Call of the Canyon,
we fished for rainbow trout
which my Grandma would
skin and debone, bread and fry
in a cast iron skillet.
When my father dies,
I want to take him back
to those sweet-rushing streams,
so his ashes can mix with the
clear, pure waters pouring over
smooth rocks in the channel.
And just as a stream
overflows its banks,
my father, in his future form,
will leave the edges of
his skin and swim elsewhere.
I want to return to the log cabin,
light a kerosene lamp
in the dark of night,
read an old Alfred Hitchock Mystery Magazine,
pray hard enough to bring him back to me,
just like he was, forever.
I want the waters to wash over me, too,
to hear their rock-written/borne music endlessly
so that the stuff we are made of tumbles
in the water’s flow, each cell a
flash of silvery blue green
with a broad red stripe,
slipping through the current,
teasing the hook and line of my heart.
Donna Baier Stein is the author of The Silver Baron's Wife, Sympathetic People (Iowa Fiction Award Finalist), and Sometimes You Sense the Difference. She founded and publishes Tiferet Journal. She has received a scholarship from Bread Loaf, a fellowship from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, three Pushcart nominations, and prizes from the Allen Ginsberg Awards and elsewhere. Her writing has appeared in Ascent, Beloit Poetry Journal, Poet Lore, Prairie Schooner, Virginia Quarterly Review, Puerto del Sol, Writer’s Digest, and elsewhere. She is currently completing a new collection of stories based on Thomas Hart Benton lithographs. www.donnabaierstein.com
I wrote this poem to a prompt offered by Laura Boss at a recent writing retreat in Mendham, NJ. At the time, my 93-year-old father was in his third stay in hospice. My father passed away a month later, on June 30, and I read the poem at his service. I am very grateful to see it published now in Prime Number Magazine.
Questions from the editor:
What was your favorite childhood toy?
My Tiny Tears doll.
What is the farthest you have traveled from home?
A walk in the rain or snow?
Selected by guest poetry editor Hedy Habra
Followed by author biography
I Made Things
It pleased that I was clever with my fingers—
drawings, elaborated eggshells, dolls, an evening gown for my mother—
so when I asked to have the feathers from a pheasant he’d hunted
he said he’d have them plucked for me to sort and use.
I don’t know how to write about God except to count and sort the ways
I both believe and fail belief. As if I claimed to swim and couldn’t,
but knew the salts would buoy me up
long enough to learn
Our car had hit a pheasant once. My father got out calmly, twisted its head
and body in different directions and explained the nature of kindness to me.
His hands were beautiful and skilled.
I’d thought I was the only thing he’d hurt.
I’d thought I’d get the feathers in a bag—an airy mass of flight and color.
Instead, the man who dressed his birds sent the whole skin
for me to pluck. I sorted every kind of feather into small bags.
The skin was supple in my hands.
My father knew I loathed his hunting. I liked that he knew.
I had things to make that wanted feathers.
He said he’d told the man to pluck the bird.
I don’t recall it stank. He thought I’d chicken out.
One pheasant, if you take care, gives up feathers enough
for fifty years of making small things to give away.
I don’t know how to speak of flight, except to count and sort the ways
I both loved and tore the bird.
Devon Miller-Duggan teaches for the Department of English at the University of Delaware. Her first book, Pinning the Bird to the Wall, appeared from Tres Chicas Books in 2008.
Mary Ann McGuigan
"Beloved," selected by guest editor Gerry Wilson
Followed by author bio and Q&A
The windows in the rear of the Laundromat were open, but the June breeze that lifted the white wedding bunting tacked to the frames cooled no one, not even the ceiling flies. The place smelled like cheap cologne, the kind Walmart sells by the quart, and Maria figured at least a pint of it had been let free in the room. But it couldn’t camouflage the odors that ruled here, fabric softener, detergent, bleach. About a dozen other customers, most clustered near the entrance in case some cool air found its way in, stood wiping brows and folding clothes into baskets. Coarse laughter drifted in from the street, where the groom’s ushers, in their dark gray tuxedos with silky lapels, stood having a last-minute smoke.
Maria reached into the dryer, wanting to leave before this circus got underway, but her slacks—the only good pair that fit now—were still quite damp, and she had nothing else decent enough to wear to her meeting with the agency. She’d been given little notice, and with less than an hour to get there, she had no time to buy something new. The first time she’d met with the family-placement agent, everyone in the room was wearing a suit, and Maria felt like a vagabond. Even her huge belly didn’t seem like reason enough for jeans.
A week ago, the happy mother in the next bed—one of those bright bubbly types who made her wish they’d ban strollers from parks—had assured her that nursing would flatten her tummy. No help there. She sat down on one of the orange plastic chairs near the dryers and tried not to think about what she’d wear every day when she returned to work or how she’d dodge questions about life as a new parent, because she’d made up her mind not to be one, not by herself.
Mrs. Ortez, the mother of the bride, a small woman in a dress with a plunging neckline and too many lavender sequins, stepped daintily over the spots of soapy water that dotted the concrete floor. Her long taffeta skirt stirred up stray balls of the multicolored lint that materialized out of nowhere. From the shelf that ran the length of the wall someone had hung a sign: “Congradulations Rosa and Ricky.” Mrs. Ortez pointed to it proudly. Her two youngest had made it, she explained, as if someone had asked. One or two of the customers seated beneath the words nodded politely as they waited for socks and shirts to stop spinning.
According to Rosa, it had taken almost three months to get her mother to agree to have the wedding in the Laundromat, but this was where she had met Ricky and where he had proposed. Maria saw Rosa here often, admired her flawless skin and her long dark lashes, and wondered at her capacity to go on talking without a breath. They’d become, if not friends, at least laundry buddies. They were both born in the neighborhood, although Maria had gotten her own place two years ago. As the wedding date came closer, Rosa insisted that Mayor Bloomberg would conduct the ceremony. Maria still didn’t believe he’d show up. He’d married very few couples, but his term was ending and Ricky worked for the company the mayor owned, started in the mailroom right out of high school. The mayor had sworn Ricky to secrecy, but Maria doubted there was anyone left in the five boroughs who didn’t know about it by now.
Rosa was no good at secrets. Waiting on a bench with Maria for towels to dry, she’d chatter away. Life for her was one long Christmas Eve, and she loved talking about the gifts she knew would arrive—her honeymoon in Puerto Rico, her four-poster bed, her wedded bliss, the brown-eyed children. Rosa could make rinse cycles last an eternity. But Maria would listen politely, without a trace of envy, because domestic prizes were never what she coveted. She and Raoul were moving toward something different, something better. Their orbit intersected with people able to have finer things, expect them even. They were breaking away from their parents’ prescriptive world.
Maria spotted Mrs. Ortez heading her way, so she busied herself with her phone to avoid eye contact. She’d never had occasion to speak to the woman, but she felt as if she knew her, because Rosa loved to talk about her family—even her father’s fragile finances, how much she and Ricky wanted to help out. Earlier, when Mrs. Ortez had seen Maria come into the Laundromat—her first visit since the baby was born—the woman gestured from across the room, putting her hand against her own girdled tummy, beaming, eager to convey congratulations and approval. Maria only nodded, as if the assumptions were correct.
Mrs. Ortez kept up a nervous chatter, telling one of the bridesmaids to turn up the volume on her daughter’s iPod to combat the noise of the rasping machines. Socks and panties jumped in the little round windows and heavy buttons on jeans and fatigues snapped intermittently against the glass, but nothing could be done about that. The place was, after all, open for business.
From habit, Maria kept an eye on the entrance, though she knew it wasn’t likely Raoul would be around. She’d seen him only once since she left the hospital, coming up from the subway. He asked if everything had gone well, as if she’d been away visiting an ailing relative whose fate was certain. She had no intention of telling him that she still had almost a month to change her mind.
When Raul stopped calling every day, stopped sending daisies to her office on Fridays, she convinced herself he’d come around, didn’t see the shift for what it was. A special project at work was going to require lots of hours. She believed him. He stopped coming over on Tuesday nights—their night for binging on old movies. The third time it happened, she called him. It was late, and she’d made the mistake of watching a romantic comedy. The happy ending came, of course, despite the odds. Swept up in it, like an evangelist, she called and told him how much she loved him. “I know,” he whispered, his tongue thick with sleep. “I know.” She didn’t realize then what he meant, that love was a loose end he’d have to find a way to tie up.
Baskets of white carnations and chrysanthemums sat atop each of the washers in the center of the Laundromat, set back to back in two rows. The petals trembled as the machines chugged like steam engines, dribbling suds onto the speckled tiles. Only two were empty and quiet. Mrs. Ortez closed their lids and tossed away the makeshift signs that read “Broke.”
The guests would be arriving soon, and, of course, the mayor.
Maria glanced at the small bulletin board, the spot where Rosa and Ricky had met. The board was normally a patchwork of yellowing business cards and torn slips of paper: scrawled requests for rides, rewards offered for lost dogs. Today it bore a nine-by-twelve poster of the happy couple, taken at Coney Island, just after their engagement.
Maria had met Raoul here as well. Summer. An excuse, for him at least, to wear very little. The way he folded sheets was like a caress. He did not flirt, not in any way she had encountered before. He talked about classes he was taking.
“I thought about film school,” he said. “NYU. But not for long.”
“Directing?” She imagined him standing bare-chested, barking orders through a megaphone, sexier than the leading man.
He nodded. “That’s where the real action is.” He laughed, but she heard no conceit in it, only the practical way he had of knowing what would work and what wouldn’t. “I wised up once I saw how tough it is to make any inroads.” She suspected there was more to it, and he saw that, adding, “The markets suit me fine. They have their own beauty.” He tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear, and the tingling went straight to her groin. Later, it would make her nervous when he told her she was beautiful. She’d never seen herself that way, but before long she believed he meant it, because his looks made women stare, and she doubted he’d have bothered with her if she wasn’t a match.
She saw from the start that his ambitions were as big as her own, and she liked it that way. He was trading for Citigroup, the youngest guy on the floor. She’d been with Goldman Sachs for four years, moving to the trading floor only the year before. Their jobs were about risk, about the unknown, and she relished the mystery as much as he.
The machines hummed and wheezed, gurgled and gushed. As Mrs. Ortez passed each one, she centered the flowers once again. The vibrations had moved some perilously close to the edge. Maria thought of her mother, of the comfort it would have been over the past several weeks to have a caring hand to steady her. Once the woman understood that she planned to give up the baby, their connection shriveled. Her mother’s attempts to dissuade her didn’t last; she lost her bearings, had no frame of reference for such a choice.
Guests were entering now, wearing well-pressed suits and light gauzy dresses, Mrs. Ortez hurrying over to greet them, and Maria felt suddenly foolish, as if her reason for being here was the one that made no sense. She opened the dryer door again, saw Mrs. Ortez peeking at its contents. Something wasn’t right. It held nothing pink or blue. Maria felt the urge to defend herself, as she had with Raoul, when she’d waited so long to tell him.
Her secrecy at first was part denial. Her breasts were tender, her period hadn’t come, but no, it couldn’t be. They’d been so careful. Then denial gave way to defiance. So what if she was pregnant? It would be wonderful. They were so close by then, her books kicked under his bed, his clothes left hanging in her closet. They let themselves get lost in museums and the narrow streets downtown. She wanted a little more time, to be sure that the way he held her, the way he sought her out when things went well meant that he would understand that nothing they had would be spoiled. Their lives would change, yes, but that didn’t have to be a bad thing.
When she finally told him, Raoul made a convincing case that it was. He was unfazed, believing she’d want their old routines to go unchanged—pricey red wine that made them sleep late on Saturdays, rainy Sundays with the Times, late-night talks about their work, their hopes of moving up. He assumed she’d want to be rid of it as well. Once he sensed the change in her, the desire, he began his retreat, like a man relieved he hadn’t paid his deposit.
“It’s a girl,” she told him, well into her sixth month. She hadn’t seen him in more than two weeks and didn’t expect to find him in the Laundromat. She’d had the sonogram that day, and he hadn’t answered her calls when she got home. She’d gone for the test by herself, the waiting room stocked with parenting magazines and women sure of what awaited them at home.
He leaned into the barrel of the washing machine and came up with one last sock, then straightened up to face her. “You’re really going to do this?” he said. He sounded baffled, as if she’d made up her mind to try some daredevil stunt that had been done already, too many times before, something no one would pay to see.
“It’s growing so fast,” she said, convinced he didn’t mean that the way it sounded. “It’s been kicking harder lately.” She smiled, put her hand on her belly. She longed for him to touch her.
He didn’t. He folded his towels—dark, outsized masculine things that managed to express what he left unspoken. He already had everything he needed.
She caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror behind him. The only frosted highlights left in her hair were at the tips, uneven and thin. She wished she had at least put on some mascara. Her face seemed swollen, unpleasantly ripe, like the rest of her. “I get four months of maternity leave. Paid,” she said, desperate to make him see that it wouldn’t be so disruptive. He nodded but she could see that getting his luxurious towels into his laundry bag was the bigger concern. She told herself he would come around in the end. She had to, because it was too late to believe anything else.
The ordeal of it, the discomfort of the last months—the swollen legs, the pressure on her bladder—accelerated finally into pain that exploded from her lower back and gripped her torso. The spasms would recede, as if toying with her, and there were intervals when she dozed. The pain required all of her strength, but no resolve, because the goal would be accomplished with or without her consent. It was a climb up Mount Everest with no view, because by then she saw that the best thing, the prudent thing, was adoption. Without Raoul, she didn’t want the baby.
When the child was born, Maria’s first, absurd reaction was anger. She felt used by this new life. They cleaned the baby and brought her close, wearing a little pink cap. Maria touched the soft wool, but not the skin. The agency had gently discouraged Maria beforehand from nursing or naming the baby, and she didn’t contest these things. Still, she had feared, expected really, that once it was in her arms she would be drawn to the child, immediately attached. She felt nothing of the kind. It was a squirming, independent thing, fragile but sturdy, so present. It seemed unaware of her, ready to eat and cry and grow with or without her. It was helpless, but it didn’t need her, not her especially, and though she wanted to feel essential, she understood that she wasn’t. She felt no tenderness toward the child, no love, no wish to keep it. She could move on without this creature. Nothing stirred in her. Her arms were so weak she feared the child would slip from her grasp. The persistent pain and burning in her groin demanded her attention, and the relentless loneliness had not abated. No magic moment would take it away. It sat there, heavy on her chest, outweighing the lively bundle in her arms. This huge moment, like the others meant to mark a woman’s life, was a distraction, a milestone on a path that led nowhere. It was a lie.
She rang for the nurse, told her she could take the child away. Maria attempted a smile, but she saw it didn’t fool the woman. As she handed her off, squirming and wiggling, she told the nurse she wanted them to change the baby’s cap. She wanted a white cap for the girl. No uniform, no script.
Maria shifted in her orange chair, the plastic sticking to the backs of her thighs. The ushers had come in and were helping to find a chair or two for the older guests. People waiting for towels to dry happily gave up their seats. Maria relinquished hers to a middle-aged woman with a bottom so wide it spread regally beyond the chair’s edges and made her silky dress ride up her thighs. Everyone seemed swept up now, attentive. Mayor Bloomberg was outside. The bride’s limo was at the curb. Maria wasn’t sure how she’d ever get out of the place. The entrance was blocked with important men in dark suits and dark glasses, the mayor’s people. She considered taking her pants, damp or not, and squeezing her way through, but Mrs. Ortez came running past, calling out, “The runner. We forgot the runner.” Maria couldn’t get by.
Lifting her swishing skirt, the woman hurried to the back wall where a bright white roll of plastic waited. She managed to tilt it onto the floor, but it was too heavy for her to unroll by herself. One of the ushers ran to help. Together they pulled the plastic between the line of washers and dryers as guests and customers parted and stood aside, like true believers, as if the runner offered a direction, not a dead end.
A breathless commotion by the doorway made people stand on their toes for a better view, and Maria found herself getting caught up in the promise. It filled the room like a herald’s off-key trumpet. Maria had attended many weddings, and each one in its own way had been a study in self-absorption. People like Rosa saw nothing ahead but joyful possibilities, togetherness without guile.
The mayor, a short man wearing a precisely tailored suit from a pedigreed designer, stood at the entrance with his associates. One of them bent slightly to whisper something, pointing toward Mrs. Ortez. “Mayor Bloomberg,” she cried. “This is so kind of you.”
The mayor extended his hand. “Mrs. Ortez,” he said. “Delighted.”
“We’re all ready for you,” she said, never doubting he would come or that her daughter was anything but deserving of this break in his schedule.
Bloomberg took in the room, deadpan. “I like what you’ve done with the place.”
The laughter spread like a welcome breeze, then dutifully subsided as all heads turned to the bride standing with her father in the doorway, filmy silhouettes in the city sunlight. He was a stout, balding, tired-looking man, much like Maria’s own father, with too many children and not enough resources. On his arm was a woman Maria knew to be quite ordinary, about to marry an ordinary man. Yet everyone watching seemed transfixed, as if this event was remarkable enough to set aside their chores, to bear witness. Maria couldn’t fight it off. She stretched to get a better look, saw the groom take Rosa’s hand, the cuffs of his ill-fitting trousers already marked from the Laundromat floor. In their lilting Spanish accents, they repeated the words the mayor spoke in his nasal inflection. Customers dabbed tears away, and Maria’s eyes burned as she thought of Raul, of his strong grasp when he held her hand.
She turned her back to the drama, desperate to get out of there, and made her way to the dryer to check the pants, dry at last. By the time she folded them over her arm and found her jacket, the mayor was finishing up, moving toward the door with his people, too busy to stop for the hands extended or return the smiles. Rosa and Ricky followed a few steps behind, repeating their thank yous.
Maria was almost outside when she heard Mrs. Ortez calling to her. “Señora,” she trilled, holding something out, as if it belonged to Maria, something she’d forgotten. She took it before she saw what it was—a newborn’s tiny undershirt—then considered handing it back, explaining it wasn’t hers, but the look of kinship on the woman’s face would not permit it.
Outside, the mayor’s attendants hustled him into a big black car and the people gathering to watch blocked Maria’s way to the trash container on the corner. So she tucked the shirt into the pocket of her jacket and walked away. It was impossibly soft, still warm, and she kept returning to it, secretly. It took no more than a stroke or two to imagine her nameless daughter bathed in harsh light, perhaps disturbed by the random little complaints of the other infants, waiting together, alone, the pale antiseptic place absorbing their novice sounds as if they were no more important than the hums and ticks of the room’s intricate machinery.
The infant, unclaimed, would be too easy to disregard, and Maria feared for the child, felt connected to her. Panicky, she reached up and unfastened the tight clip from her hair, jerking her head from side to side, determined to shake off a feeling even more foolish than the baseless joy she’d witnessed in the Laundromat. She took longer, harder strides, enjoying how light she felt since the delivery, free again. But an absence registered now, a loss. She’d have to resist staking any foolish claims, fight the urge to be the one who decides for the girl.
No, not the girl. Elsa. She would think of her as Elsa, after her grandmother. What harm?
Lisa L. Lewis
"Holiday Parade," selected by guest editor Gerry Wilson
Followed by author bio and Q&A
Connor inched his way through the clusters of families lining the sidewalk, Meg and the kids in his wake. For most of the day the sky had been overcast and misting, and Meg, already worn out from other pre-holiday obligations, had hoped the parade would be canceled. But both kids were eager to see Lacey. She was being honored tonight as the official dog marshal—a special one-time designation, Meg assumed, after the week’s events. “Closure” seemed a facile idea, but maybe it would help.
Grace had stopped, mesmerized by the twirler with her red-and-white striped baton. It looked like an electric candy cane, tracing frenetic circles of light each time she tossed it in the air. Leo, four years older, had stopped too but was oblivious, head bent as he played his electronic game. “Let’s keep walking, guys,” Meg said, tapping him on the shoulder.
All around them people were bundled up with blankets and mugs of hot chocolate. A couple of kids dressed as elves were tossing candy canes into the crowd. Both Leo and Grace waved to get their attention and scrambled to pick up the candy.
“Look at how many I got! Can I eat one?” Grace held out her hands to Meg, showing off a bounty of candy canes.
“Sure, honey,” Meg said.
“Leo!” Grace hollered in her brother’s direction. “Mom said we can eat one!” She splayed her fingers, letting candy canes spill into Meg’s open purse for safekeeping before taking a moment to choose one.
At last they found a spot to set up their gear. Settling into her camp chair, Meg realized she was glad to be here after all. She longed to be swept up by the small-town pageantry. It was a testament to the reassurance of tradition. Perhaps that was the point of rituals, to provide a reliable framework no matter what.
They had been running late on Monday, both kids struggling to get back into the weekday routine. From now until Christmas every weekend was taken up with activities and the kids’ final projects for school. Leo had his model volcano balanced on his lap. He’d spent most of the day Sunday reshaping the cone. At his feet was a bag with pre-measured vinegar, baking soda and food coloring for his science class demonstration.
First Grace, then Leo: that was the order for morning drop-off. In the afternoons Meg reversed it, picking up Grace last. “OK, out!” she said as she turned off the ignition. She exited the car and held the door for Grace, who was picking her purple backpack off the floor of the backseat. Grace shrugged it onto her shoulders and reached for Meg’s outstretched hand, hurrying to keep up with her pace.
Grace’s second-grade class always lined up on the blacktop outside their classroom before filing in. Today, though, there were no kids outside. As Meg escorted Grace, she noticed that the row of hooks outside the door, normally crowded with backpacks, was empty. Another mom waiting outside the classroom waved them over.
“They’re locking the doors as soon as they get all the kids inside,” she said, holding the door for Grace.
“Why? What’s going on?”
The other mom held up her index finger, indicating that she’d tell her more in a minute. After closing the door, she rejoined Meg. “There was a robbery a few blocks away and the guy might have a gun. The police just called the principal and said it would probably be best to keep everyone inside.”
“And they think he might come here?”
She shrugged. “Always better to be safe than sorry. By the time they got the call most of the kids were already here, so they decided this was safest. Parents need to leave quickly or stay in the classrooms until they get the all-clear.”
Meg felt a hard knot of panic. It sounded like the burglar could be anywhere. She thought of rushing in to reclaim Grace from her classroom, trying to right a situation that had suddenly veered into dangerous territory. Then she thought of Leo, waiting in the car with his clay volcano balanced on his lap, unaware and alone. She needed to get back to him. She could drive away with both of them to the outskirts of town, far away from this neighborhood and its state of alert. And then . . . what? Drive around, waiting to get the all-clear? No, Leo and Grace would be safest at their respective schools. In all likelihood, the police and the principal were simply reacting with an abundance of caution.
Back at the car, Meg took a deep breath to calm herself.
“Mom? Aren’t you going to drive?”
“Sorry, hon,” she said.
“Is everything OK?” Leo sounded more curious than worried.
“Everything’s fine,” she said. As she drove away, she turned to look out at the empty playground and nearly ran the four-way stop. She took another deep breath and forced herself to focus on driving. She paid attention to the landscape as she drove. It was generally a quiet neighborhood, houses set back from the street and partially obscured by old eucalyptus and oak trees, now thick and permanent. With their cut-stone curbs and old-style lampposts, the streets looked graceful, deceptively safe.
It had been two years since they’d moved here, Connor having unexpectedly found a high-tech job in a town still dotted with orange groves, aging Victorians and palm trees. It was a better place to raise children, they’d decided. Before they’d had kids, the clatter of city living had been more of a background hum; eventually, though, its relentlessness had begun to grate on her. The blaring of early-morning garbage trucks, the rumble of buses: she’d taken to wearing earplugs every night to block them out. She longed for a more spacious sense of quiet.
There had been a brazenness too, an ongoing soundtrack of danger. Meg had started sleeping more lightly, attuned perhaps to the kids’ middle-of-the-night needs, no longer able to block out the city’s sounds. The wailing of car alarms and the periodic thrumming of police helicopters over their duplex had been ongoing reminders that danger wasn’t just an abstract concept. That knowledge had slowly permeated her waking hours, along with an edginess brought on by fragmented sleep. After they moved here, she’d felt a much greater sense of calm, of having left behind not just the noise but the aggressiveness of the city as well.
They’d landed in a well-preserved corner of Southern California. By staying within its borders and avoiding the Interstate that ran nearby, it was easy to imagine that it really was separate from the surrounding area, an anachronism in the midst of inland sprawl. Here, neighbors had fruit stands in their front yards: oranges, avocadoes and grapefruit set out on a card table or in a home-constructed wood kiosk, next to a coffee can where buyers could deposit their money. It was persimmon season now; Meg had been planning to stop at one of the fruit stands near her house after dropping off Leo.
Instead she called Janet immediately, leaving a message when she didn’t answer. Their daughters were close friends. As Meg hung up, she saw a policeman standing up ahead on the left side of the street. She pulled in front of him and lowered her car window.
“Hi . . . my daughter is at the school and they’re keeping everyone inside . . . I was hoping you could tell me what’s going on,” she said in a rush.
“There was a robbery earlier this morning and the guy stole a handgun.” The officer seemed unruffled. “We think he’s hiding out over there”—he gestured across the way—“so we’ve got officers looking for him.” Across from him was a large wooded area with trails where Meg and Janet sometimes walked their dogs.
The officer’s tone was as calm as if he’d been updating her on the weather. “The school’s locked down as a precaution. If you see a guy in his twenties wearing a red plaid shirt, give us a call.”
Driving home, Meg scanned both sides of the street. The only person she saw was a man in a navy coat and a white muffler walking his Sheltie.
She heard her phone ring as she unlocked her front door. It was Janet. “Hi,” Meg said. “Did you know they locked down the school?”
“Oh my God. No. I dropped off Nick and Ava a little early and then came home. What’s going on?”
Meg quickly filled her in.
Janet paused. “There’s a red shirt in our driveway—I don’t know, maybe it’s plaid. I figured it was Nick’s so I didn’t look very closely. Wait—hang on; Lacey’s barking to be let in.”
Meg waited. Holding the phone to her ear, she walked to the front window. She wasn’t sure what, exactly, she was looking for; another red shirt? She watched as her retired neighbor across the street shuffled down his front walkway, slowly bent to pick up his newspaper and walked back inside. Grace was still sequestered in her classroom, innocent and unaware. Meg knew it was irrational to panic. But having gone along with the school’s rules, she wondered if she’d been naïve. She was irritated at how long Janet was taking. She pictured Lacey, Janet’s Chihuahua, with her bulgy brown eyes and small white ruff of fur fluffed out like a mini lion’s mane. If Janet didn’t let her in they’d have to listen to her shrill barking in the background. She walked back to the kitchen and scanned the backyard. The shirt Janet had mentioned had to be a coincidence. The officer had definitely said plaid.
“OK, I’m back,” Janet said, sounding a little breathless. “Sorry about that—you know how Lacey is.”
“Did you look at the shirt again?”
“I didn’t—I guess I should, though. Do you think it could be that guy’s?
“You should call it in,” Meg said.
“Oh, I don’t know . . . isn’t that being paranoid? I’d hate to bother them if it’s nothing.” Janet had been raised here and was more trusting. She’d been genuinely surprised when she saw the burglar-alarm sign Meg had placed in the flower bed by the front door.
“I think it’s relevant, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Janet said, still hesitant. Meg recognized the slowness of her reaction, the murky sense that this was all somewhat unreal.
Grace had turned toward Meg and was tapping her knee to get her attention. She’d unwrapped the candy cane and was now sucking on it. “Do you know which car Lacey will be in?”
“I’m not sure, honey—we’ll just have to watch for her.”
Grace said something in response, but it was drowned out by the horn of an approaching semi with a flatbed filled with carolers. Further back, Meg could hear the boisterous drumming from one of the middle-school bands. The local antique-car club was coming, led by a black Model-T driven by Santa Claus.
Over the past two years, they’d been slowly drawn into the communal aspect of so many holidays here: neighborhood potlucks for Memorial Day and Labor Day, parades for Christmas and the Fourth of July. How quickly they’d become family traditions.
“Can you check with Ava’s mom to find out where Lacey is?” Grace was standing in front of Meg, doing a little hop from one foot to the other. Each time she landed, the soles of her boots lit up like tiny pink-and-white strobe lights.
“Sure,” Meg said. She texted Janet. When she finished, she noticed Connor looking over at her. He was smiling, charmed, she knew, by Grace’s excitement. Meg was grateful for their shorthand. He reached across the small gap between their camp chairs to take her hand.
The day of the lockdown, he’d called immediately after he’d gotten her text. “No need to come home,” she said after she filled him in. “I turned on the alarm. I just feel like I should have brought Grace back home.”
“It sounds like her school is on top of things. You said the police were there, right?”
Meg sighed. “It’s just knowing that someone could be out there. I guess there are crazy people everywhere.”
Connor had steadied her, bringing her back to the specifics of this particular situation. “That’s true. But it sounds like this was a just a home robbery. I’m sure the school is a safe place for her right now.”
“You’re probably right,” she conceded.
After Grace’s birth, he’d been similarly clear-headed. How quickly the situation had veered into a danger zone after an uneventful pregnancy: early labor, ending with a C-section and several hours in the NICU. Meg hadn’t actually seen Grace when they’d first lifted her tiny body, quickly removing the umbilical cord from around her neck. A tiny bundle cradled by blue-gloved hands, rushed off to the warmth of the incubator. She’d been purplish, Connor later told her, not pink like Leo.
Meg remembered her vigilance during the first few months, her sense that despite doctors’ assurances, Grace might have been damaged somehow. It had been the cord, the part of her body that was supposed to nourish Grace, that had choked her instead. Grace had nearly strangled inside her and Meg had been entirely unaware.
“You need to let it go,” Connor said when Grace was a couple of months old. Meg kept Grace in a bassinet beside their bed, waking even between her feedings to make sure she was OK. “There wasn’t anything you could have done differently. And more important, she’s fine. Really. Look at her.” Grace had been reclining in the crook of his arm, her eyes widening with pleasure as he gently rocked her. Her eyes had already taken on a tinge of green, like his. Watching Connor use his hand to cradle Grace as he swung her back and forth, Meg had known he was right.
“Mom! Look!” Grace was standing up, pointing at an approaching group of roller-skating Santas. She turned back to Meg. “I hope we didn’t miss Lacey.”
“Me too, honey,” Meg said. She thought back to the article that had run in the paper on Thursday. Janet had provided a photo of Lacey sprawled out, asleep, and the paper had run it in full color. Grace used her safety scissors to cut out the picture and trim the ragged edges, then affixed it the refrigerator with a magnet. There was something surreal, comical even, about an eight-pound Chihuahua riding in the parade as the official dog marshal, Meg thought. She wondered if Lacey would be frightened by all of the noise.
As if on cue, another semi blasted its horn. Grace held her pink-mittened hands over her ears. “Why do they have to do that? It’s so loud!”
Meg looked at her daughter, light-brown hair spilling from the fake-fur hood of her silver parka. She’d seemed pretty unconcerned about the lockdown when Meg picked her up after school on Monday, but had shared various bits and pieces in the days since then. She’d stayed in the classroom through lunch but had been released shortly afterwards.
“It was gross when they made the boys pee in the trashcan,” she confided. “Mitchell and Ben really had to go, but the teacher wouldn’t let them go to the bathroom.”
“That is kind of gross,” Meg agreed.
“But it was in the corner and she put the flip chart in front of it so we couldn’t see,” Grace added. “So it was OK.”
Leo, sitting in the chair next to Meg, seemed to have lost interest in the parade; he’d pulled out his electronic game again. Just last year, Connor had walked the entire parade route with Leo’s Cub Scout pack, the boys all wearing flashing red antlers. But Leo was already leaving that behind; Meg doubted that next year he’d want to come at all. Watching the kids from Tumble Tots pass by, every so often attempting a cartwheel, Meg felt a sense of melancholy. The middle-school marching bands, the old-car enthusiasts, the toddler gymnasts: they would grow up, grow old, move on, to be replaced by others. They were all just passing through, the parade simply a marker in time.
Meg felt her phone buzz and figured it was Janet texting back. After Janet had called the police about the shirt, they’d come to retrieve it. Two officers walked the perimeter of the property looking for other signs of the burglar but hadn’t found any. About an hour afterwards, Janet let Lacey out in the yard again, where she started barking. “You should have seen her—her fur was standing on end,” Janet told Meg later. She called the police again, apologizing for seeming overly cautious. When they came back they found the burglar, with a swollen and sprained ankle, crouched in the ivy behind Janet’s house. He was still a kid—just 19, Janet said. He was crying when they found him. “Can you imagine? Apparently it was his first offense.” She sighed. “I sure hope he straightens up.” Meg had pictured someone older, more dangerous and experienced. Even though he’d stolen a gun, she was strangely relieved to find he was still a teenager, and a bumbling one at that.
She pulled her phone from her jacket to read the text. “Grace?” Another school band was marching by, and Grace had turned to watch. Meg reached out and tapped her. “I just got a text from Ava’s mom. She said Lacey got too scared by all the noise, so they ended up taking her home. I’m sorry, sweetie. It would have been fun to see her in the parade.”
“That’s OK,” Grace said. “I figured that might happen.” She’d hunched herself inside her parka; the hood’s fake fur framed her face as she nodded slightly, processing this latest bit of information. “She still got to be famous, though.”
“That’s right, she did,” Meg agreed. Following Ava’s lead, Grace had started referring to Lacey as “the hero dog.” Even now, Grace was making choices that would shape how she remembered the events of the week. For Grace, the lockdown probably had all of the gravity of the school’s annual “drop, cover and hold” earthquake drill, when she was required to huddle under her desk until the all-clear bell rang.
Meg admired the surety with which Grace addressed the narrative of her life. When they’d had to euthanize their cat, Tillie, about a year before their move, Grace insisted on holding a ceremony in their backyard, near the ledge where Tillie used to nap in the sun. “That’s where her memories are,” she told Meg. At dinner that night, she’d talked about wanting another cat, but made it clear that it wouldn’t be a replacement. “If we get another cat, it will be different than Tillie, so I’ll get to add more memories,” she explained. This had been her only experience with death thus far, and she still referred to Tillie occasionally. The week after Halloween, when her class had learned about Día de los Muertos, Grace had asked Meg to buy some cat treats at the grocery store so she could make Tillie an altar. Even now, Grace loved hearing Meg re-tell the story of how they adopted her as a kitten after the neighbor found a litter under his porch. This was the beginning of the story Grace remembered about Tillie’s life, a narrative into which she’d woven the highlights of their life together and her experience of Tillie’s ultimate departure.
What had started as mist was now a light rain. Meg pulled up her hood. “I think we should head home,” she said to Connor, who nodded and began packing up the chairs. At least the kids had gotten to enjoy the spectacle of the parade, Meg thought. As they walked to their car, she could make out the silhouettes of palm trees and the outline of city hall against the darkening sky. The Chamber of Commerce had refurbished some of the old storefronts, restoring faded murals of citrus-crate labels from the town’s heyday. It was part of a decade-long civic effort to reclaim the town’s citrus-growing history and make it central to the town’s identity. Already, the Chamber had replaced most of the street signs downtown with vintage-looking ones decorated with a logo of an orange. She’d heard they were also planning to reinstate the annual citrus bake-off.
Meg was behind Grace now. With each step, Grace’s boots sparkled like tiny jewels in the dark. She was keeping time with the drums from the marching band they’d just left behind, Meg noted, smiling at her daughter’s spiritedness. She admired Grace’s ability to incorporate the lockdown into her experiences. It was in the remembering and the re-telling that the events would become part of their family’s shared history. The whole episode would become—needed to become—part of the stories they told themselves.
Even now the parade was receding into memory, the experiences of the past week being burnished and contained. The alternative was to let the events stand alone, terrifying in their randomness. But that would be too unbearable. Their safety here was a construct, a narrative Meg had created. She stopped, straining to hear the horn section above the receding drums, and waited for the melody to emerge as something recognizable.
Lisa L. Lewis has written for Slate, The Washington Post's "On Parenting" section, the Los Angeles Times, Natural Bridge, and Cleaver Magazine, where she's an assistant fiction editor. A previous contributor to Prime Number Magazine, she's also a contributing writer for Literary Mama, and has an MFA from Mills College. She lives in Southern California.
Note: This story is part of a linked collection focused on the intersecting lives within a small town in Southern California.
Questions from the Editor
Favorite childhood toy?
My dollhouse. Some of its original inhabitants now live in a miniature room (a sort of reading garret) on top of the Little Free Library in front of my house.
What is the farthest you’ve traveled?
A walk in the rain or snow?
I'd take either. Rain would be far more practical, given the ongoing drought where I live, but a walk in the snow would mean I'd gone on a trip somewhere!
"How the Mammoth's Blood Flows," selected by guest editor Gerry Wilson
Followed by author bio and Q&A
How the Mammoth’s Blood Flows
These islands are merely telescopic images of the future. In the long dusk of the northern skies, I sometimes see Arctic foxes scrounging for food, and the most human part of me, the part devoid of scientific and biological knowledge, wonders at the long winter the fox has survived. How has he endured the months of darkness, of hunger?
My father has lain dead longer than I’ve been a citizen of the north country, but his voice still echoes in my head: “Don’t get on that boat,” I hear him say. “Don’t go away to that forsaken island. There’s nothing there but bones and snow.” As it turns out, that is exactly why I did go there.
Is there anywhere on earth more difficult for a person to reach than the New Siberian Islands? My body has grown accustomed to the travel—whether by boat, by snowmobile or by air—but I have never learned to love the islands. In the past twenty years, I have made twice that many journeys here from Yakutsk, my adopted home. I will gladly make a hundred more, but I will never love the islands themselves, the unending sheets of white ice, the blowing northern winds, the frigid waters of the Laptev Sea. There are few comforts on the islands, no human neighbors at all. On the islands, the cold seeps into your bones, and the tea is never hot enough to thaw your marrow.
But, I’m a mammoth hunter. My life is dedicated to these extinct beasts, and every hunter knows that you must follow wherever the hunt takes you.
* * *
The Arctic Ocean is nearly always frozen. From June to October, the ice opens briefly and passage to the islands can be made by ship. From horizon to horizon there is only snow and ice. Helicopter flight now allows us to excavate sites earlier and earlier in the season, before the snow melts in the weak summer sun.
For some inexplicable reason, I am closest to my father when I’m here, in this place where he never would have ventured. It’s as though the veil between our worlds is thinned by the mysteries of the Arctic cold. Perhaps it’s the constant presence of danger that makes me think of him.
What would he say if he saw me testing the electric fence we use to keep bears from entering our camp? What would he say about the nights when the generator stops working and our shanty grows cold and silent in the unending, open fields of snow? What would he say about the times I walk alone into the depths of the island without even a gun and turn myself in circles, growing disoriented, until his voice expands in my head?
* * *
My father was hardly cold in the ground when I first traveled to Yakutsk, the major city of the Lena River and capital of the Sakha Republic. It’s a strange and distant city but the best place in the world if you devote your life to mammoth hunting. Today, Yakutsk is a city of slightly more than 250,000 people, bustling in its own way. The city sits on the western bank of the wide, cold river. The waters of the Lena cut us off from the rest of the world. There are no bridges to cross from bank to bank. In summer, the highway on the river’s eastern shore ends abruptly, and drivers must ferry across. In winter, the Lena freezes solid, creating a temporary route that only brave ice truckers travel to deliver supplies. Now in 2015, the first railroad is under construction that will link the city to the rest of the Russian rail network and the world.
I often wonder if my father would have thrived here, surrounded as we are by our protective borders of water and ice. Like my father in his darkened bedroom, I find comfort within my confines in the loneliest of times. Small pleasures—a cup of hot tea in the middle of the night or the echoes of music wafting from a neighbor’s home—can sustain a man through long winter after long winter.
The city is home to the Northeast Federal University, the Underground Laboratory of the Institute of Cryogenics, and most importantly, the famous Mammoth Museum. When not digging in the ice of New Siberia, my true home since I left my father’s house—and the first place where I didn’t feel I was an outsider—has been the museum.
I came to Yakutsk as a student, and over time, my loyalty and commitment, not to mention a religious-like devotion to my studies, were rewarded. Now I’m the first assistant to the museum’s director, Grigoriy Semyonev. Last year, Semyonev and I led the New Siberian Island team that discovered the best-preserved mammoth in the history of paleontology.
I was standing knee-deep in snow and mud when the miracle occurred. God is peculiar in that way, providing his most spectacular gifts at a time when you least expect it. As a mammoth hunter, there are only two great miracles that I have prayed for. The first, to find a specimen with enough viable DNA, would bring us ever closer to the second: the return of the living mammoth to Siberia.
* * *
My father spent his whole life waiting to die. According to him, every movement loomed with potential for accident. Death lurked in every shadow. His life was a series of warnings to the rest of us of our fragility and inevitable doom. Crossing the street was dangerous. Crossing the continent was foolhardy. Crossing any large body of water was blatantly suicidal. If he knew the risks I’ve willingly taken in my quest for mammoths, he would weep. He would have locked me these last twenty years in the safety of a cage before he allowed me to expose myself to frostbite, icebergs and bears.
My mother says when they met, he was like every young man, intent on proving something great to the world. She says the agoraphobia and whatever you call the fear of living came later. My brothers and sisters and I don’t believe her. We can’t imagine him out in the world long enough to meet and marry our mother. But it was later, she says, that the unanswerable questions came. It was later that he became afraid and waited for death like it was an old school friend he didn’t want to meet but for whom he could never stop searching.
* * *
When a layman thinks of fossils, he pictures the heavy stone bones in museum displays. Those are cast fossils, formed when an animal body deteriorates and the flesh is replaced with minerals that eventually harden into rock. In the New Siberian Islands, we search for ice fossils: actual flesh trapped in ice and frozen for thousands of years.
In the instance of the best-preserved mammoth in the history of paleontology, an adult female—a rare find in itself—fell into water. Or, perhaps, she became bogged down in a swampy ravine. The mammoth could not free herself, and she died. Along with the water, her body froze. Even though the specimen’s upper half had been thawed, rotted and been partially eaten by predators, the lower half was encapsulated in pure ice, preserving it perfectly for the last 10,000 or more years.
Ten thousand years seems a long time, but it’s not the length of time that matters. It’s the consistency of the preservation that matters, how deep and how thorough the freeze. The Siberian permafrost has been perfect for preservation. Now, the permafrost is melting, and it’s our task to find the best remains before the specimens are compromised.
To dig in such conditions, we use short poll picks to chip away the ice surrounding the body. I was digging that day along with my new assistant, a student named Benedick, on his first excursion to the islands. It was early June, which is near the end but very much still winter in the Arctic. I was dressed well to repel the cold ocean winds, but we had been carving away the ice for a long time, and we were all tired.
In one slight miscalculation of metal pick to ice, we pierced the mammoth’s flesh. And it bled. The blood was very dark, and it came from muscle tissue that we later discovered was also the color of fresh meat. Large drops fell heavy into the packed snow of the pit where we dug. The blood oozed over the poll pick, and then it oozed onto the fingers of our gloves. It reminded me of the olive oil the priests use when they baptize a new life and pray, with Christ's help, that he will elude the grip of sin.
It took a few moments for my mind to catch up with what my eyes saw. But then I knew that this blood was a blessing better than gold.
“How is it possible for the blood to remain in liquid form?” Benedick asked.
“The blood of mammoths likely had some cryo-protective properties,” said Semyonev. “We think their hemoglobin let go of its oxygen at cold temperatures. It would have allowed them to live in extremely cold environments and survive. Think of it as a natural anti-freeze.”
When Semyonev later spoke to reporters, he said, “This is the first time we have managed to obtain mammoth blood. No-one has ever seen before how the mammoth's blood flows.”
* * *
The islands of this archipelago were first sighted in 1773 by a Russian merchant. Over the next hundred years, various ships brought back mysterious and unreliable reports of these islands. Rumors spread that they were made entirely of mammoth bones and tusks. Before this land became tundra, it had been the home of the mammoths and other great beasts from the Pliocene epoch. Besides their bones, they left some of the purest ivory found anywhere in the world. The islands, however, were not built of ivory as the first explorers said; the New Siberian Islands were constructed the same as any other islands: of rock and dirt, sand and ice.
I believe everyone who ventures into the wasteland of the Arctic does so with the intent of pushing open the borders of the world. In 1885, a young Estonian Baron named von Toll joined the first party set to explore Great Lyakhovsky Island, Bunge Land, Faddeyevsky Island, Kotelny Island and the western shores of New Siberia Island. In 1893, Toll led his own expedition into previously unmapped areas of the New Siberian chain. He headed again to the arctic in 1900, this time as the leader of the Russian Polar Expedition. His chief mission was to find Sannikov Island.
Sannikov, meaning “phantom,” was more sand and ice than any other material. Men had seen it and swore it existed, but there was no proof. Could an island completely disappear? Yes, of course. The ice and cold devour everything. If the perpetual winter of the Artic could destroy all the mammoths, then a small island could be easily consumed.
* * *
People who live in the Arctic know that, while perpetual winter will make you cold, wet and exhausted, you must never allow yourself to exist in more than two of these conditions at once. Survival depends on such simple rules. This is the first axiom taught to those of us visiting the tundra. What they don’t say is that the most important survival tool in the Arctic is never to lose hope.
Twenty years ago, like my father with death, I feared but longed to see a polar bear. Always, we’ve taken the bear threat very seriously, but now I worry when the polar bears are absent. The first one I saw was terrifying but majestic. The last one I saw was dead from starvation. He had no remaining fat. Reduced to nothing but mere bones and hide, he died where he dropped.
Climate change is affecting the whole world, or it will. Ice levels are already reduced to record lows. The warming planet thaws the permafrost and allows us to find perfectly preserved specimens of woolly mammoths. The warming earth also reduces the arctic sea ice where polar bears live and hunt. Less sea ice causes polar bears to range extraordinary distances in search of food, more and more unsuccessfully.
My father was afraid of so many things: of rats in the attic, of trees too close to the house, of bad drivers on the roadways. If he had known all that I know to be afraid of, he would not have brought children into this world.
* * *
Like elephants today, mammoths lived in matriarchal herds. This mammoth would have been grazing with her sisters when she decided to step farther into the watery ravine. From a cursory look at her teeth, she was nearly fifty years old. That’s a good age, but had she avoided this watering hole on this day, she might have lived another decade or longer. Maybe she was sickly already. Maybe that’s why she ignored any warning signs of the swampy conditions and proceeded into the lake. I imagine she drank long and greedily at the frigid water. It was too late when she realized the mud and debris at the bottom of the ravine had claimed hold of her. She would have struggled, of course, but thick mud can out-wrestle even a mammoth. The other females of her herd might have come to her aid, but in the end, the mud was too strong. She would finally have given up in exhaustion, collapsed into the water. Surely, the weight of an adult mammoth would have rippled the mud. No longer able to breathe, her trunk and mouth fell under the surface. That is why the lower jaw and the tissue from the tongue are so well preserved. Later, after the herd had mourned and left the body like an island in the sea, some predator—perhaps a saber tooth cat—came along and made a good meal on the upper torso left above water. Soon after, the temperature dropped. The water began to freeze. Snow fell. Ice formed. This happened again and again for thousands of years, preserving this ancestor of all future mammoths.
* * *
I spend too much time worrying I’ll become like my father even though I have worked my whole life to be exactly the opposite. I want to move forward instead of sitting still. I want to go out and see the world instead of lament its dangers. I want to stare down my fear instead of cower from it. Isn’t my life as a mammoth hunter proof?
My father had little faith in God and less in science, but he taught me to pray. Specifically, he taught me to pray to accept the things I can’t change. He never understood what wonderful changes we can bring to fruition. My own hands have collected mammoth wool and bone marrow, soft tissue and fat tissue. Now, I have seen the mammoth’s blood flow. Ten thousand years old, and still it flowed as if pumped through a living, beating heart. Never before have we been closer to our goal to bring back the mammoth.
I have worked to change the unacceptable. My father never spoke that part of the prayer with conviction. If he were alive today, he would forbid me to mention the New Siberian Islands, let alone travel to such a place. “There’s nothing there but bones and snow,” he would say. But he would be wrong. There is life buried beneath the snow, deep within the permafrost. There is life everywhere if you’re brave enough to see it.
* * *
The best-preserved mammoth in the history of paleontology died about 10,000 years ago. We estimate that other mammoths survived in small pockets across the Yukon and Siberia up until 3,000 years ago. Our planet was changing as much then as it is now. The same time the last of the woolly mammoths, Mammuthus primigenius, walked and ate and breathed, the human population was busy doubling from seven million to fourteen million souls. The Mesopotamians built the first cities and invented proto-cuneiform writing. The Mayans counted the days and devised their calendar. Upper and Lower Egypt were unified. Women in what is now Columbia formed the first clay pots of the new world. Otzi the Iceman was murdered viciously in an Alpine mountain pass. Men in Newgrange built an underground observatory and searched the skies, perhaps, for the same answers we look for.
These are only a small number of events that we remember or rediscovered over time. In another 3,000 years, what will our descendants remember about us? That we traveled to the moon for the first time? That we endured atrocities of war and genocide? That we harnessed atomic power, for better or worse? Should the human species survive another 3,000 years, this will be the century that humans are recorded either as yielding to the depravities of global warming or turning back the damage we caused. Our descendants will speak of this time either as when foolish humans brought about the extinction of the polar bears or as the time when de-extinction returned mammoths to planet earth.
* * *
I wish I could say that it was my own hand that slipped and brought forth the flowing blood from the mammoth, but it was young Benedick’s. His usually steady hand succumbed to cold and missed the intended layers of permafrost. Once we tempered our shock, we collected several vials of the blood, some for our own lab and others to be shipped immediately to our scientific partners in South Korea. Then, with renewed energy, we freed the carcass from its 10,000-year-long tomb. We wrapped the beast in plastic and made preparations to transport it to our laboratory in Yakutsk. We made every precaution to keep the animal safe until we could extract the genetic material we needed. A find such as this one was exactly what the Korean lab had been hoping for, and our excitement gave way to estimations of how long each next step would take. How much longer before the entire mammoth genome could be sequenced? How soon could DNA material from our mammoth be placed on the backbone of an Asian elephant, resulting in stem cells? How much longer until stem cells derived from this work would inseminate an elephant egg? The results will not be exact, but eventually, a new mammoth will be born, and sometime later, there may be an entire herd. If the samples from our find are as pure as we hope, our mammoth will be, perhaps not the mother, but the grandmother of all future mammoths.
Despite his earlier enthusiasm, Benedick looked troubled.
“I don’t know that it was ever real to me,” he said after I pulled him aside. “Not until I saw the blood for myself. Then, all the possibilities became eventualities. And because it seemed improbable, I never worried myself about the ethics.”
“It’s complicated,” I agreed. I had worried about the ethics of it already and for a long time.
“I’m not sorry I was there,” Benedick said, “but I feel more uncertain about what we’re doing than I felt before.”
“It’s because you’ve now come so close to the reality of it,” I said.
“Doesn’t any of it scare you?”
“Of course,” I said. “But we should face what we don’t understand. Have a bold heart, Benedick!” He was such a serious boy, so earnest. It was easy in such moments to see my younger self in him, and because of this, I began to understand the fatherly feelings that had grown in me for the boy.
“Think about the tundra as it exists today,” I said, and I, too, pictured the shrubs and gangly larch trees that grow there. “In your lifetime, you will see mammoths roaming the land, as well as millions of grass-eating animals like wild horses and musk oxen. If we bring back the mammoth—if we re-wild the tundra—we will transform the frozen north into grassland. We could even reduce the temperature of the entire earth.”
The science behind this was sound and relatively simple: The permafrost is thawing at an alarming rate. Grazers keep wild grasses short. The grasses send up new growth shoots throughout the summer and autumn. The animals’ manure nourishes the plant life. The complex root systems of the grasses stabilize the frozen soil. Without animals, snow in winter insulates the ground, but with animals trampling down the snow, the cold air is better able to reach the earth. The cold air keeps the permafrost from thawing and releasing greenhouse gases.
“If we can bring back the mammoth and transform the tundra,” Benedick said, “the odds increase that we will save the polar bear.”
“Not to mention the countless people who will die every time the earth’s temperature rises another degree.”
“It really is like a miracle, isn’t it,” Benedick said.
I knew this wouldn’t be enough to satisfy Benedick. He would need time and much more reflection to find his own peace with our role in creating a new world, but he went to bed somewhat comforted.
I was exhausted too, but I left our hovel to wander outside. Why I felt careless on such an important day, I couldn’t explain, but I did. I was cold to the bone and a little afraid, but I passed through the electric fence and walked away from the sound of the sea waters, deeper into the island where there was plenty of snow still on the ground. The sun never slept at that time of year, but it was lazy and dull, and I would have given my last pair of clean, dry socks for a sun with some heat in it.
I very much believed all that I had said to Benedick.
Chekhov once wrote how man should recognize himself as superior to the beasts around him, superior to all of nature, or else he isn’t man but a mouse. The same argument has been used for decades by industrialists and capitalists, polluters and gas-guzzlers. Reading Chekhov is like reading the Bible. You can twist a verse to get whatever meaning you like, but it doesn’t make it true. You have to find the truth within the core of your being. Your works will show whether you’re pure or tainted, and until there are works to show, there is only your conscience.
* * *
Further into the island, it was easy to forget the time of day, as well as the year and even the millennium. The land probably hadn’t changed very much from 3,000 years ago or even 10,000 years ago when the best-preserved mammoth in the history of paleontology lived and breathed. The cliffs were exposed, whipped rough by the wind. There were no trees. Only earth and sky. I imagined the scene as it must have been then, without people but not without life.
I felt in my pocket, and I found one of the vials of the mammoth’s blood. We had collected so many, I had held this one back. Had any human ever carried such magic in his possession? At that moment, samples of it were flying across the globe to South Korea. Vials just like this one had been numbered and were waiting myriad tests back in Yakutsk. And there was still the remainder of the carcass that certainly held more of the mammoth’s blood.
I removed the glove of my right hand and then the lid of the vial. With fingers shaking from the cold, I painted my face with the rich red blood.
My father’s voice asked, “How will you explain that when you return to camp?” but something without words spoke to me even stronger.
I loosened the wraps around my neck and my heavy parka.
“You’ll catch your death on this God-forsaken island,” said my father’s voice. “What if a bear smells the blood?” his voice asked. “What if the blood is full of toxins? What if you’re poisoning yourself? Aren’t you afraid? You should be very afraid,” he said again and again.
Wetting my finger again, I reached under the neck of my shirt and drew a line from the base of my throat as far down my chest as I could reach. Before it dried in the cold air, the blood felt slick on my skin, the memory of my finger against my chest lasting a few seconds longer.
My cheeks stung from the wind, and I wondered how long it would take until my skin stopped feeling anything at all? Part of me wished I could sit down in what snow remained and plant myself there for eternity. In that short time, my core temperature dropped. I quickly secured the vial and replaced my warm clothes.
I thought of my father and how afraid he would have been of my life. He never could have sunk into the cold dirt and felt at peace with this island of death and genetic new beginnings. His eyes would have scoured the horizon for the hungry polar bear that was going to eat him. I shouldn’t make fun. It’s not a lie that the bears are dangerous. Just this year, one broke through an electric barrier in Canada and mauled a hunter before being killed. Like all polar bears in these sad days, he must have been mad with hunger.
I was also mad with hunger after so many years of trying to understand my father and his fears.
For two decades, his voice in my head was strong and enduring, but it was a false echo ringing in my brain. The voice never answered my questions. He never explained why he gave up the fresh air of the outdoors, the green grasses of summer, the public places where he might have met his friends and shared a drink. And finally, he wouldn’t tell me what it was like to have embraced his death after so many years of hiding from it.
I realized I had taken all these unarmed, solitary walks into the island to keep my father’s voice from falling extinct in my head. What would he say if he knew that I’d taken such risks just to be nearer to him?
For the first time, I couldn’t think what my father would say. I went deep inside of myself, searching for his words, but there was only the sound of the wind as it blew off the sea and across the island. My father’s voice had disappeared. There was a terrible silence.
I remembered mornings before school when I would enter the cave of my father’s bedroom, where he sat in a stuffed armchair like a defeated king, the curtains drawn against the rising day. I would bend down to tell him goodbye, and he would place his hand on the crown of my head and warn me of all the dangers I might face. If going for a walk in the woods, he would caution me to look up and watch for limbs that might crash down on me from above and kill me before I could return to the safety of our four walls. Such was the best blessing he knew to give, though more often, it felt heavy as a curse. I grew older and he grew weaker. At the end of his life, he reached his hand across my skull but said nothing.
I carried the weight of his hand in my memory for many years, but that day with the mammoth’s blood painted across my chest, I had a new thought. Perhaps my father had been like the mammoth whose blood I now wore. He had been bogged down in panic and fear for so long that there was no way out but death.
In his last great adventure, the explorer Baron von Toll and a few men became stranded on these islands during a terrible winter. When no ship could reach him because of the thick ice, he attempted to cross the frozen Laptev Sea on foot hoping to reach the continent. I pictured those men walking across the water. No one knew what happened to them, but history accepts that they did not reach safety.
I like to imagine von Toll and his men might still be out there somewhere, still walking. Maybe they walked far enough back in time so they had seen the herds of woolly mammoths and the saber tooth cats. Maybe they walked so far forward that the mammoths of the future surround them.
Denton Loving lives on a farm near the historic Cumberland Gap, where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia come together. He is the author of the poetry collection Crimes Against Birds (Main Street Rag, 2015) and editor of Seeking Its Own Level, an anthology of writings about water (MotesBooks, 2014). His fiction, poetry, essays and reviews have recently appeared in River Styx, Coda Quarterly, Southeast Review and The Chattahoochee Review. Follow him on twitter @DentonLoving.
Note: This story came at a time when I was trying to get outside of my own head--as well as outside of my own geography. I read an article about a group of Russian scientists finding blood in a mammoth carcass and how it could lead to a mammoth clone. There are actually people working on this, which is both exhilarating and terrifying.
Questions from the Editor:
What was your favorite childhood toy?
The toys my parents tell me were my favorite are all toys that I don't really remember very well. What I do remember is always having paper and pens and pencils. I was always drawing and writing, even before I could honestly write.
What is the farthest you have traveled from home?
A walk in the rain or snow?
The rain. Always the rain.