Welcome to the new Prime Number Magazine!

(A Press 53 Publication)

Issue 113 of Prime Number Magazine brings with it a new design and lots of great reading. This is our Contest Issue, our biggest of the year, with winners of the Prime Number Magazine Awards, our new monthly Flash Fiction Contest, and our free monthly 53-Word Story Contest, plus selections from our guest editors for poetry and short fiction.

Spend some time, have a look around, and let us know what you think.

Winners of the 2017 Prime Number Magazine Awards

$1,000 First Prize: Prime Number Magazine Award for Poetry (open for entries Jan-Mar each year)    "Signature" by Jed Myers

$1,000 First Prize: Prime Number Magazine Award for Poetry (open for entries Jan-Mar each year)

"Signature" by Jed Myers

$1,000 First Prize: Prime Number Magazine Award for Short Fiction (open for entries Jan-Mar each year)    2019 Pushcart Prize winner!    “Brace Yourself” by Leslie Jill Patterson

$1,000 First Prize: Prime Number Magazine Award for Short Fiction (open for entries Jan-Mar each year)

2019 Pushcart Prize winner!

“Brace Yourself” by Leslie Jill Patterson


Judges for the 2017 Prime Number Magazine Awards

(open for entries Jan-Mar each year)

Poetry: Rebecca Foust, author of the multi-award-winning Paradise Drive

Short Fiction: David Jauss, author of Nice People: New & Selected Stories II


Runners-up in Poetry and Short Fiction

Runner-up: Prime Number Magazine Award for Poetry    “Back-lit” by Lynn Tudor Deming

Runner-up: Prime Number Magazine Award for Poetry

“Back-lit” by Lynn Tudor Deming

Runner-up: Prime Number Magazine Award for Poetry    “Howlin’ Wolf at the Fillmore East, June 7, 1968” by Aaron Fischer

Runner-up: Prime Number Magazine Award for Poetry

“Howlin’ Wolf at the Fillmore East, June 7, 1968” by Aaron Fischer

Runner-up: Prime Number Magazine Award for Short Fiction    “Huldufólk” by JoeAnn Hart

Runner-up: Prime Number Magazine Award for Short Fiction

“Huldufólk” by JoeAnn Hart

Runner-up: Prime Number Magazine Award for Short Fiction    “Everlast” by Rayne O'Brian

Runner-up: Prime Number Magazine Award for Short Fiction

“Everlast” by Rayne O'Brian

Flash Fiction Contest

$251 First Prize: July 2017 Flash Fiction Contest (open for entries every month)    “Interrogation” by Michael Chin

$251 First Prize: July 2017 Flash Fiction Contest (open for entries every month)

“Interrogation” by Michael Chin

53-Word Story Contest

Winner: August 2017 Prime Number Magazine 53-Word Story Contest    "Dance on my Grave" by Hannah Ambrose

Winner: August 2017 Prime Number Magazine 53-Word Story Contest

"Dance on my Grave" by Hannah Ambrose


Selections from Our Guest Editors

POETRY

Guest Editor  Gabrielle Brant Freeman , author of   When She Was Bad

Guest Editor Gabrielle Brant Freeman, author of When She Was Bad


SHORT FICTION

Guest Editor  Chauna Craig , author of   The Widow's Guide to Edible Mushrooms

Guest Editor Chauna Craig, author of The Widow's Guide to Edible Mushrooms


Meet Our Guest Editors for Issue 131, April-June 2018

(Submissions are open now through December 31 at Submittable)


Let us know what you think of our new design! Drop us an email.


Poetry

Jed Myers.jpg

Jed Myers

Winner 2017 Prime Number Magazine Award for Poetry

Judged by Rebecca Foust

$1,000 First Prize

Followed by bio and Q&A

Note from Rebecca Foust, judge: What stands out for me in this poem are the sounds. Its use of rhyme is both controlled and highly inventive, happening as end-rhyme across and within stanzas and also as internal rhyme within lines. I also admired its interesting diction, and the beauty and power of that amazing last line.

 

Signature

 

At birth, what was I, some

fourteen-billion-year-old dust

clustered as a limbed self-

driven fusser? Repurposed

 

fusion stuff, thrust

from countless novae, my atomic

populace had seen the hottest

hell all time could throw us.

 

Then cooled, composed, a creature—

like a snowdrift risen just

where temperature and wind conspire,

mist gone crystalline

 

and there’s a contour, spine

a little serpentine. It shifts

by grainy increments, appears

to sidewind, to desire,

 

till it’s washed away by just what

forces shape it. I melt

by my own metabolic fire,

if nothing else. This self,

 

what is it? By the next

warm day, it isn’t. I’ve watched

my father thrash and lose his words,

unknow himself and me,

 

a self-erasing signature,

blown wisp of star-spray. He

looked out with pure first wonder.

At death, how new I’ll be.

~ ~ ~

 

Jed Myers lives in Seattle. He is author of Watching the Perseids (Sacramento Poetry Center Book Award) and two chapbooks. Honors include Southern Indiana Review’s Editors’ Award, the Literal Latte Poetry Award, The Adirondack Review’s 46er Prize for Poetry, and the McLellan Poetry Prize (UK). His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in RattlePrairie SchoonerPoetry NorthwestThe Greensboro ReviewThe Southeast ReviewValparaiso Poetry ReviewNimrodCrab Orchard Review, and elsewhere. He is Poetry Editor for the journal Bracken

 

Note

In the few years after my father’s death, I continued to feel his comforting and encouraging presence. Exploring this in a poem, I found his own pure wonder, still in his eyes to the end.

Q&A

What is your favorite dietary pleasure?

It’s a nexus of affectionate company, openhearted conversation, Prosecco in a flute with a shot of a good amaro poured in, and a light simple herb-dressed pasta. You ask why? Well, doesn’t it sound fantastic?

You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?

New Earth. Just that. Because it would be! A new start, a chance for more balance, trust, and humility in how we might live.

Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall?

It’s spring, no question, simply because it knocks me out every time, as if it really were a more magnificent cascade of blooms than any spring before!


Short Fiction

Leslie Jill Patterson.jpg

2018 Pushcart Prize winner!

Leslie Jill Patterson

Winner 2017 Prime Number Magazine Award for Short Fiction

$1,000 First Prize

Followed by Bio and Q&A

Note from David Jauss, judge: In my forty-four years of teaching and editing, I’ve read countless stories about abused women but never one like this. Without a single scene of abuse (and the sensationalism such scenes almost inevitably create), the story parses its soul-shattering effects. At one point, the narrator says, “It’s odd, even savage, how lies are sometimes tender while truth can surprise you, like a backhand across the cheek.” This story surprises us with just such a truth. Reader, brace yourself.

 

Brace Yourself

You like to claim you landed at Eagle Hill by mistake. A misunderstanding of some kind. Truth is, Billy Scales and his ranch hands found you in a bar named True Grit, and they knew, from minute one, who you were.

They knew you stuffed your suitcase in a hurry and surely didn’t come to Colorado for camping in the mountains—because it was fifty degrees outside and dropping, and, even so, you wore a sleeveless dress and city-girl sandals with leather daisies arching over your foot. You avoided eye contact, propping a book around your plate and pretending to read when they took the bar stools next to yours. You ordered off the kid’s menu and packed half of it out in a to-go box, so you were clearly guarding every dime. They probably even knew you tucked your wedding ring inside your purse before you walked through The Grit’s door. And when Billy invited you to his equine program—where women caught in hazardous marriages learned to tug a rein resolutely, steering their lives away from vows they should have never spoken—your story was so obvious, he pitched his invitation in the same pragmatic vein that he mentioned where you could find a low-rent apartment and which local bank offered free checking.

Three days later—though you told Billy, Thanks, but no, you didn’t have any reason to saddle a horse, really, no—you drive out to Eagle Hill. And who knows if you do so because you’re ready to conquer fear or because you’re attracted to it. No question: Billy and his cowboys ought to frighten you. They’re the hardscrabble types who own only the necessities: toilet paper, milk, wire-cutters to mend barbed fences, hatchets to shatter winter ice, and guns loaded and well-sighted and always within reach.

When you arrive at the barn, a pack of wild dogs surrounds your car. They bark and lunge at the rear tires, then the driver’s door. You slam on the brakes. One of them, a blue heeler that looks like a coyote, rises on his hind legs and scrapes his front paws on your window and growls. Your car inches forward, herded into a parking space by the dogs. Snarling, they stand at a distance, their feet planted, refusing to let you out of your automobile.

When the commotion draws Billy from his office, your addiction to apologies surfaces. You’re sorry for rousing the dogs. You’re sorry to interrupt the routine of riding and breaking colts, to soak up daylight when the afternoon is already draining into evening. You’re sorry for the very fact that you know nothing about horses.

Billy whistles at his dogs, and they heel, and then he smiles at you. He looks exactly like Wilford Brimley: a handlebar mustache; full-moon cheeks that eclipse his eyes when he laughs; a bowling-pin belly lapping over the waistband of his Wranglers; and a copper bracelet, neckerchief, and Stetson. The hat is cocked at an upward angle this afternoon, and Billy wraps an arm around your shoulders and leads you into the barn. “I’ve taught handicapped kids before,” he says. “If you can spell horse, you can ride one.”

He halters and ties Juan, a chestnut quarter horse whose shoulders are a good head taller than you, to a post in the barn’s alley. Then he heaves a sixty-pound saddle onto Juan’s back, cinching it so fast it looks like a magic trick. “Tomorrow,” Billy warns, “you’ll do this yourself.”

Let’s be clear here: what’s ticker-taping through your head right at this moment isn’t the fear that you’re too stupid to manage a saddle without a chaperone. No, what you’re calculating is how easily you can sucker Billy into respecting your husband’s third-rate opinion of you, because if there’s one lesson you’ve learned the hard, punishing way, it’s that it’s safer for a man to believe you’re hopeless from the get-go than for you to fail at one of his assigned tasks. If he expects nothing, he won’t argue later that you intentionally botched the job to provoke him.

Holding the bridle and reins, Billy’s right hand rests on Juan’s forehead, ready to slip the tack over the horse’s ears. His other hand grips Juan’s chin, ready to pry open his mouth. Billy tells you a horse can bite hard enough to break bone, and suspiciously, his right thumb is missing a knuckle. His left, you guess, might be next. Too, you hear the smack of slobber, and it doesn’t sound pretty. When Billy pinches Juan’s jaw, it drops, and the metal bit glides into place. Juan jerks his head, rears, then settles. Now that he has the bit in his mouth and suspects you’ll soon be holding the reins, he angles his head to keep an eye on you, his ears spun and flat. Cautious, too, you cut a wide arc around his backend, and Billy notices and laughs.

It’s not funny how women are taught to fear trouble. Your granddad was a rancher who never let you sit a horse unless he himself held the reins. And you’ve heard the family stories—how a colt planted an angry hoof against your granddad’s forehead one summer, furrowing a scar on his brow that never vanished. Always, he warned you that a hoof stomping a little girl’s foot shod in steel-toed boots would slice off her toes. You haven’t worn your city-girl sandals to Eagle Hill—when Billy invited you out, he advised you to buy decent shoes, and you obeyed—but your Payless bargain boots aren’t much better. Juan shifts nervously in the alley; his hooves clomp against the rubber mats. His hips are as solid as old tree trunks. His hind legs alone outweigh you by two hundred pounds. At point-blank range, a kick from Juan can kill.

Of course, it’s possible you’re imagining Juan’s hostility. Back home, when you broached the subject of your husband’s anger, he swore he loved you. The first therapist encouraged you to point out the early signs of rage—his eyes, like gunnery scopes, locked on yours; his lungs, his chest, swollen with air and holding; his chin edged forward; his jaw cinched—so your husband, who adored you, could recognize himself then temper his stance. But when a man of fury swears he’s Mr. Charming, offering evidence to the contrary won’t mollify him. It’s not “communicating better.” What it is, is dangerous. The therapist’s suggestion only taught your husband a new trick: in the middle of an argument, his body language enflamed, his mood on the ledge between sanity and the E.R., but his voice rational and calm, he said, You be sure and tell me when I’m mad. What he meant was, I dare you.

“Horses can’t see directly behind them without turning their heads, and we’ve hitched Juan’s to a post.” Billy swipes his palm across Juan’s rump as he walks around his back end, showing you how to stay in a horse’s radar. “He’ll only kick if he can’t figure where you are.”

“Right.” You shrug. “So you say. But it looks like we’re just showing him where to aim, when to fire.”

Out on the trail, you riding Juan and Billy riding Scout, this cowboy’s smart enough not to remark upon certain subjects—like, Why are you alone in Colorado? and Does anyone back home know you’re missing? Instead, he rattles on about his family’s ranch in Whitewater, his sister’s fight with Lupus. He says he sleeps in the barn so he can hear his horses breathe easy at night, and when he cranks open the doors every morning and sees the view outside, he’s grateful for a life in Colorado though it means eliminating luxuries like indoor plumbing, electricity, maybe a wife. His laughter carries across the valley floor. You can see how his world—the mountains snow-fluffed in winter and sunbaked in summer, aspen with leaves the color of apples, a pack of dogs loyal and quick-witted—could make a poor man, or even a broke woman, feel rich.

Billy studies how you sit in the saddle. After a while, he lifts the brim of his hat, swipes a hand across his brow. “Don’t arch your back, Dolly. Juan knows you’re nervous.”

You ponder Billy’s posture. His denim jacket curves around the slump of his shoulders; his hands, one of them missing that half-thumb, coil loosely around the reins. You try to slouch, too, and ease your grip.

The two of you scoot along in silence now, Billy having run out of things to gab about. Occasionally, he whistles at his dogs to keep them close. And just when you relax, aren’t simply faking the posture of an experienced rider, Billy says, “So my manners were rusty at The Grit, and I didn’t ask what you do for a living.”

Billy’s trying to convince you, or maybe himself, that ferreting for information is polite and not inquiring rude, but he can’t look you in the face when he says this, and because he can’t, and because you’ve seen coworkers and your parents, and that furniture salesman one year the day before Christmas, glance away right before bulldozing in with the real interrogation, you brace yourself for the questions Billy wants to ask most, the pointed ones, which are surely coming next. Should he rev up the chitchat, you’ll lie to him because learning the truth makes some people demand a reckoning of your husband’s crimes, but others, an apology for yours.

It seems harmless to admit that you were, are, a professor; you teach English. But even as the words fall from your mouth, you worry that you’ve given too many particulars. Details are the map that will lead your husband to you.

“I like Cormac McCarthy,” Billy offers.

You stare at him, studying his expression for motive—because he’s yanking your chain shamelessly; he’s conjured that name from some high school memory, probably hasn’t held a book, open or closed, in decades. Then you realize, with a twinge in your gut, that you don’t care if he’s lying. You’re grateful he’s found a subject that puts you at ease. But just as you open your mouth, ready to share what you know about McCarthy—a man who answers questions about his writing but, like you, clamps silent when asked about his life—you think how silly that conversation will sound. “Okay,” you admit, “I’m a nerd. Bullies have always known where to find me. In junior high, the kids shut me in a bass drum, then a tuba case. It wasn’t pretty.” You laugh at your own joke in hopes that the conversation will stay light-hearted.

Billy’s head pitches backward, and he laughs so hard he nearly chokes. “By God, that’s damn ugly.” Then he steals a look at you to make sure you’re still smiling.

When you are, he clucks his tongue, asking Scout to bypass the trail and descend a steep slope. Juan follows, lurching downhill. The angle is so sharp you’d swear you’re standing upright in the stirrups while also reclining in the saddle, your head nearly resting on Juan’s rump. His hooves slip. Gravel skitters underfoot. Your weight pitches forward, and it feels like you and Juan will tumble head over hoof, your hands and feet hogtied by the reins and stirrups. Billy has told you that horses spook easily. On the trail, even a mature horse can buck and flail if it’s surprised by the scent of fresh bear scat or the scuffle of wind in the trees. There isn’t room in the mountains, on paths skinny as needles, for emotional outbursts.  And as you and Juan reel downhill, you wait for him to panic—because fear is a habit that’s hard to break.

But Juan is more experienced than you. When you yank the reins nervously, his head shakes off the tug the same way it tosses to swat away flies. He steps, skids, steps then skids—level ground a goal he knows how to reach.

At the bottom, when the world rights itself again, Billy says, “I had similar troubles growing up. Bullies and such.”

Now he’s outright lying. The way folks at The Grit gathered around and offered to buy his supper and beer the night you met, you can tell Billy has always been popular. He’s faking common ground because he suspects you need some company. It’s odd, even savage, how lies are sometimes tender while truth can surprise you, like a backhand across the cheek.

Scout winds through the brush; Juan trails behind him. The sun begins heading home for the night, and already, the moon hovers above Owl Creek Pass like a blue china dish. Billy points out two bucks hiding in the chaparral. In the fading light, you can barely discern them.

Then Billy asks if you hunt and stares you in the eye. “I can teach you to fire a gun,” he says, “if you need it.”

When the two of you return to the barn, it’s twilight. Having finished their day jobs in town, Jim Merritt and Egan Anderson, Billy’s two volunteer ranch hands, arrive, looking to ride colts or help power down for the night. Unlike Billy, Jim is slender as a rope, and though black strands linger in his hair, his Vandyke is ice-white. Egan is so young, by a decade or more, that he still misses college—hence, the Cornhusker’s T-shirt and ball cap. All three of them head out in Billy’s truck to feed and water the horses stashed in the pasture, and they tell you to water the barn while they’re gone. You stare at the industrial-sized hose, nearly as thick as your arm, and then consider the buckets inside each of the stalls, where the horses, all enormous and snorting and knocking their hooves against the walls, wait for you to enter.

Maybe you should just get in your car and drive away.

This is how you arrived in Colorado in the first place. Your husband called home from work one afternoon and asked you to cook your rosemary chicken for a group of his friends, and you knew: you’d bake it too long, or not long enough; you’d serve it on a platter that wasn’t presentable; you’d unwittingly give another man a chicken breast plumper than the one you spatulaed onto your husband’s plate. After dinner, there’d be the stack of dishes leaning precariously in the sink, the steam rising from hot water, and your husband locking the door behind the last of the guests—the kind of setting details that foreshadow what’s to come. That final afternoon, you stood in the kitchen, the phone in your hand, him waiting on the line, the both of you pretending he wasn’t telling you but was instead asking a genuine question—Were you inclined to cook or no? Did you have the time and ingredients?—and you weren’t pondering what dessert paired well with chicken. No, you were remembering how the women at the last shelter gave you what they called a safety plan: Never again, they warned, let an argument start in the kitchen. That’s where the knives areAnd imagining the disquiet in the house after the guests would be gone, you said, Yes, I can do that, but then hung up the phone, grabbed a duffle, stuffed it, and ran.

But running means you can’t come back.

You stare at the hose, heavy and tangled on the ground. One of the horses whinnies and bangs his water bucket against the wall. You take a step forward, then another, and another; then suddenly, you’re cranking on the water and filling all the pails in Billy’s barn. Sure, you can’t control the industrial hose while wrestling open the stall doors. It bucks in your hand, jetting water so icy your breath catches when it splashes in your face. You douse the horses, their shavings, the alley. And you worry there’ll be trouble when the men return and find everything soaked and you covered in mud.

Not that the three of them look any better. Dust cakes Billy’s eyes; his shirt is wrinkled and untucked; and dirt, or maybe manure, is wedged under his fingernails. His Justin ropers have rusted spurs. Jim’s jeans may be starched and pressed, the crease down each pant leg sharp as a blade, but hay clings to his jacket, and his hair, damp with sweat and flattened by his hat, is filthy. Egan’s hand is bleeding.

To your surprise, they don’t gripe one word about the mess you’ve made but instead invite you to join them near the round pen for a makeshift happy hour. Outside, the stars glisten like coins tossed into the sky’s well, and Billy and his ranch hands pull vests and woolly jackets over their sweaty shirts to keep warm. They offer you one to wear, too. Then they’re drinking beer and teasing you about your Payless boots.

Jim points his bottle of Sierra Nevada at them. “I hope you didn’t pay good money for that bullshit Western wear.”

Egan nods. “Salesmen around here can smell a Texan coming.”

So your boots aren’t Tony Lamas or Justin ropers, but they are two tall, fleece-lined bargains, warm for winter when she arrives and with the appropriate heels for stirrups. “The pair of them cost only $12,” you say, holding your feet out in front of you so everyone can admire your purchase. Really, they look like big black galoshes.

Billy’s laughter spills free. “Where the hell did you get those motorcycle boots, Dolly? Do we have to take you shopping?”

“Are you buying?” you ask. The question, a bona fide joke some men might mistake for impertinence, flies from your mouth before you think about consequences.

Billy only laughs harder, his face turning red. Jim warns him that if you get the right shoes on your feet, you just might kick his ass. And this, Jim’s punch line with a little zest, makes you want to laugh out loud for the first time in years. You almost don’t recognize the feeling.

For certain, you don’t recognize where you are.

By now, eleven beer bottles line up on the ground, and Egan and Billy are using two other empties as spittoons. Billy hasn’t even asked your name yet but is simply calling you Dolly. These men are nothing like your husband, an English professor like you, who carries a briefcase and wears Perry Ellis slacks, button-down tailored shirts, and matching silk ties. They’re nothing like anyone you’ve ever been attracted to, all the old boyfriends whose manners were clean and sober. So they shouldn’t cause any trouble. At least, not the way your husband defines trouble.

Here’s the truth though: what you’re doing is reckless. You’re sitting around a campfire with three strangers, all of them drinking, and they might not know your name, but, rest assured, they know who you are and what you’ve given your husband permission to do. And for some men, that’s an invitation.

When the three men quit laughing, the silence catches you off-guard. In the backcountry, far from city traffic, you can hear every noise: wind, a clock ticking, even the sound of your own breathing. Jim shuffles his feet and fidgets with the buttons on his jean jacket. Egan takes another swig of beer and wipes his sleeve across his mouth. Billy stares off into the distance, scanning the horizon, maybe watching for coyotes or mountain lions.

Back home, quietude usually meant a man seething, a man jonesing to take a swing. But today, for now, you hope it’s not the ratchet of danger you hear in the emptiness. You pray it’s the sound of life when it’s finally safe. Far away, a truck mumbles down the road, and the Uncompahgre River purls downstream, flush with snowmelt. Biscuit and Dweeb, Billy’s two heelers, patter around the campfire, panting and happy. And one of the three cowboys starts humming, soft as a fiddle.

~ ~ ~

 

Leslie Jill Patterson's prose has appeared in Texas MonthlyThe RumpusGristColorado Review, Literature: A Pocket Anthology (7th edition), and other journals and anthologies. Her awards include the 2013 Everett Southwest Literary Award, judged by Lee K. Abbott; the 2014 Time and Place Prize in Brittany, France; and a 2014 Soros Justice Fellowship, funded by the Open Society Foundations in New York. She also serves as editor for Iron Horse Literary Review. Today, she works as the case storyteller for attorneys representing indigent men and women charged with capital murder and facing the death penalty in Texas.

 

Note

I lived in Ouray, Colorado, every summer for over a decade. There, I met a clutch of horse trainers who ran so counter to my traditional notions of “cowboy” that I knew they belonged in a story. I tried to write about my experiences with them as nonfiction, because they saved my life, but I soon realized that I couldn’t voice a narrative anywhere near as honest as I could if I gave myself permission to write it about another woman—you, not me. So I turned it into fiction, gave her a hideout cabin and the grave necessity to run. The resulting stories about Eagle Hill Ranch comprise the fictional thread inside my just completed hybrid memoir, Splitting, and some I didn’t use there appear in Trouble Is a Friend of Mine, my in-progress collection of short stories that spin around real events, mostly environmental/natural disasters, that have occurred in the San Juan Mountains.

Q&A

What is your favorite dietary pleasure?

Mexican food. It’s a part of daily life in Texas, a must in my family. I could eat it every meal: migas or huevos rancheros for breakfast, tacos and elotes for lunch, enchiladas and sopas for dinner. Tomorrow, the same all over again. I miss it horribly any time I travel away from the American West.

You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?

Charlie. My father, at the age of 80, has turned suddenly, shockingly ill. Always he’s been the healthiest person in my family, with a history of ancestors who lived into their 90s. Now, he’s so delicate that my arms around his shoulders—it’s like hugging the back of a Shaker chair. I must believe he will survive this turn, and survive it mightily, but it has set me to thinking about this world without him in it. It’s so desperately sentimental to say it, but I’d name it after him. I’d do it to pretend, to reassure myself, that I can keep him in this world.

Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall?

Spring. The wind blows in West Texas all the time, but it’s a bitter thrashing in the winter, so when spring comes along, it feels like salvation. I can shuck the thermals and tights and sweatshirts and parkas that have weighed me down for months when I walk the dog every morning. And with spring comes the promise of those glorious summer months every writer teaching in academia races toward. There’s so much potential when March and April arrive. I plan on accomplishing great things, and, at that time, I genuinely have faith that I will.


Poetry

Lynn Tudor Deming.jpg

Lynn Tudor Deming

Runner-up 2017 Prime Number Magazine Award for Poetry

Judged by Rebecca Foust

Followed by Bio and Q&A

Back-lit

              —in memory of Jennifer B. Riggs

 

Bare-headed he stood in the sun-struck field to tell  

a story about his sister that had more of her light in it

than any others he remembered: the day of the kite.

 

It was enormous, five by nine foot, a bamboo pole

lashed to the cross piece with electrician’s tape,

the sail painted with tapezoids, flowers, the zodiac.

 

Their colors soaked clear through the sheet so it shone

like a church window, back-lit by north light.

They decided to fly it on Rabinovich’s hill over

 

the headwaters of Beaver Brook Creek, where

the wind was blowing south south-west and strong.

They tied it to an apple tree, straining against

 

its unexpected pull, the bucking and heaving of

some wild totemic bird.  When they unleashed it

he nearly left the ground, and she shouted: Cut

 

the line, let’s watch it fly, see how far it goes!  

They watched it sail off over Lord’s Highway until

it was only a speck, then nothing, and he cried:

 

I can’t see it anymore, it’s gone!  She was gazing

at the sky.  Oh no, she told him, these are the ones

you never forget—stuff like this, that’s forever.

 

 

Lynn Tudor Deming’s chapbook, “Heady Rubbish,” was selected by Robert Pinsky for the Philbrick Poetry Prize in 2005. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals, including Atlanta Review, Bellingham Review, New South, and in the anthology WAVES: A Confluence of Womens’ Voices. In 2015 she was a finalist in the 49th Parallel Award for Poetry, and she received her second International Publication Prize from Atlanta Review. She was also national runner-up in the 2011 Cape Cod National Poetry Competition (judge Gerald Stern). She holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and lives in Connecticut.

 

Note

The poem was written for my cousin, who died at age 61 of lung cancer. I am grateful to her brother, Jared Green, for his unforgettable evocation at her memorial service.

Q&A

What is your favorite dietary pleasure?

Fresh purple plums, for their sweet and sour succulence, almost impossible to find now, but one of the most pungent memories of my childhood.

You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?

Elysion. Why not project on to an unknown planet our ancient longings for the fields of paradise?

Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall?

Spring, for all the usual reasons. Re-birth of everything.


Short Fiction

Aaron Fischer.jpg

Aaron Fischer

Runner-up 2017 Prime Number Magazine Award for Poetry 

Judged by Rebecca Foust

Followed by Bio and Q&A

Howlin’ Wolf at the Fillmore East, June 7, 1968

          (for Robert Palmer, 1945 – 1997)

 

Three songs into the set and the Wolf—

sober-suited as an undertaker—is still sitting

on a hard-backed chair center stage,

one huge hand cupping the harp to his mouth

as if he’s going to snack on it, one benchmade

size-16 rising and falling like a drop hammer,

his belly-deep growl pleading and threatening,

the corded tendons and veins bulging in his neck

as if each word were a stump that has to be winched

out of the earth; the grunts and falsetto moans

that cap the verses, part field holler,

part freight train: wooo, wooo, wooo.

By now the mostly white audience is mostly

on its feet, almost clapping on the beat,

while the Wolf stalks across the stage, shrugging

and rolling his shoulders like a heavyweight,

dropping to all fours and throwing his head back

on the last chorus of “Howling for My Darling,”

while Willie Dixon leans into his standup bass

and Hubert Sumlin slashes out a solo on guitar

that’s all bite and sting. The Wolf’s back

in his chair, trying to ease his kidneys

without letting the audience see: 300 shows

a year, a decade or so on the chitlin’ circuit

grinding out 10,000 miles per, bucking

and bouncing between Indianapolis and Cairo,

Shreveport and St. Pete in a pre-war Pontiac bus

whose shocks were gone by V-E Day,

and it’s no wonder his kidneys throb and ache.

They’ll kill him in a few years, despite

his ferocious will, his cutting back to six songs a set,

the dialysis machine rolled into the studio

for his last sessions. The band snakes into a slow-drag

version of “Smokestack Lightnin’,” the Wolf pointing

deep into the auditorium, the horn section rocking

side to side, and now—50 years after the club date—

I start to hear what’s been there all along:

not the flatted thirds and fifths the jazzers borrowed

to build a language, but the steady, bone-jolting work

that goes into art.

~ ~ ~

 

Aaron Fischer is an online editor for a politics and public policy website. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Blue Lyra, The Chaffin Journal, Hudson Review, Redactions, Stonecoast, and Sow’s Ear. His chapbook, “Black Stars of Blood: The Weegee Poems,” will be published by Main Street Rag in the spring. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

 

Note

Writing about music gives me a way to not write about myself.

Q&A

What is your favorite dietary pleasure?

I think food is my favorite food, with all the attendant issues. Easier to mention what I don’t like: Cream of Wheat, which my father ate every morning. Draw your own conclusions.

You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?

Debbie. We need to a cosmos with a human face.

Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall?

All. I’m glad to be above the ground.


Short Fiction

JoeAnn Hart.jpg

JoeAnn Hart

Runner-up 2017 Prime Number Magazine Award for Short Fiction

Judged by David Jauss

Followed by Bio and Q&A

Huldufólk

 

Astrid, their Icelandic tour guide, was so white her head seemed disembodied from her black Gore-Texed torso. Nary a suggestion of yellow in her hair, no pink to her skin, but it could have been the lighting, or more accurately, its lack. The entire busload of tourists knew one another only by flashlight. It had been dark when they boarded in Reykjavik, it was darker still an hour away from the artificial glow of the city, the better to view the aurora borealis streaking white and green in the sky. Released from the bus, they had arranged themselves on rocks in the field, silhouettes bundled against the cold, and when the first Day-Glo glimmer appeared on the celestial canvas, they gasped with awe. Except for Cuddy, for whom there was something disturbing about the ghostly colors and erratic waves. Intellectually she understood it was an atmospheric phenomena of electrical discharge, but the lights seemed to pulse like a medical device monitoring a body in the throes of crisis, and all she could think of was death.

Another device exhibiting distress was her new camera. She had read the manual on how to take pictures of the night sky but it failed her. Or she failed it. Either way, the screen was coming up blank. As others adjusted their tripods and held iPhones to the sky, she sat alone on her unforgiving rock, her down jacket pulled tight around her, and thought. Here she was travelling alone on a three-day Groupon tour to Iceland in hopes that the trip might pull her out of her post-divorce funk, but so much for the power of natural wonders. She had a cold butt and a numb nose and no epiphany to speak of. As with her spouse, she had chosen her trip poorly, and as with her marriage, she knew it from the start. On the red-eye over she’d watched her flight progress across the entertainment screen in growing apprehension with every shipwreck marked along the route. The Titanic, the Lusitania, others she’d never even heard of before but now, at 36,000 feet over the icy Atlantic, she was being forced to consider. Granted, there were no landmarks because there was no land, but, really, shipwrecks? Did Icelandair think the passengers were so totally without imagination that they couldn’t transpose ship to plane? But once she hit ground, it suddenly seemed in character. This was clearly a pragmatic people who faced their problems with no sugar-coating, not even in their public art. Bronze statues of slump-shouldered humans trod through Reykjavik’s city square, walking aimlessly through life, cut off at the knees. When she got to the hotel, the first thing she saw when she turned on the TV was a public service ad that showed a woman too depressed to go shopping for furniture. This woman, too, was slumped, but she had a husband who knew what to do and got her to the clinic in time. No waiting. Even at the famous Blue Lagoon spa that day, people trudged through the steamy water like zombies, in slow motion, their faces muddied white with silica masks.

But Cuddy had no husband, no one to pull her up off of the sofa and back into life. Quite the opposite. It had been her husband who had pushed her down into the sofa and nearly smothered her with the cushions. Metaphorically speaking. She put her mittened hands to her face and exhaled warmth into the wool. In the darkness around her she heard oohs and aahs grow in intensity with every new splash of colored light as if it were a choreographed fireworks show. But the universe was not so tidy as all that. There was no plan. She tucked her hands under her armpits. “Enough already,” she said, but her words fell on the stony ground. At one a.m. she was the first one back on the bus, fighting a fatigue that had nothing to do with the hour. Weltschmerz. That was the word for it. She was definitely suffering from weltschmerz, roughly translated as having a weary heart, trapped in the space between the real world and the one in her head, one of those insanely specific conditions of the soul that the Germans loved to name and catalogue. She should have gone to Berlin instead. She could have seen the Wall.

As they all settled in their bus seats, Astrid made multiple trips up and down the aisle with her clipboard, and when the doors closed she welcomed them back. Her face was so softly illuminated by a pinlight on her clipboard she seemed to be addressing them from inside a crystal ball.

“I know to you we must seem fussy doing these head counts over and over,” she said, “but I will tell you why. Two years ago there was a night when, for some reason, the bus driver was also the guide, and he was unsure of his count. When it was time to go back to Reykjavik it looked to him like everyone was in the bus and he started to leave, but someone said, wait, there was a woman in a black jacket who hadn’t gotten on the bus yet, so they waited. Then the driver got the searchlight and started looking in the fields and the bathrooms. He could not find her and everyone on the bus got very nervous, and one by one, they got out to look for this woman. The driver calls the police and they start searching too. Two hours later, a woman in the tour who had been searching went back in the bus to get her warmer, black jacket and put it on, and that is when someone ‘found’ her. She hadn’t recognized the description of herself. It was 4 a.m. by the time they were on the road back to Reykjavik. So that is why I must keep counting your heads.”

“That’s me,” Cuddy thought as the bus finally headed into the darkness. “I’m that woman out looking for herself. The woman who can’t see herself for who she was.”  

Earlier, in the half-light of the Icelandic winter day, Cuddy had walked in the depression between two tectonic plates at the Thingvellir National Park. It seems she had walked in that place her entire life, and now the universe had to step in with its lights and colors and natural phenomena to grab her by the shoulders and shake her awake. Pay attention! Pay attention or pay the price. Then they’d motored to a geyser field, where under a low sky, they watched a series of hydrothermal explosions, from bubbling mudpots to big cauldrons that spewed energy into the air with weightless abandon. Yet they did not exhaust themselves, for after a short rest they would go at it again. She saw the original Geyser, from which all others took their name. It was Iceland’s only exported word, and meant “to gush.” In a frozen world, steam rose in tides from an earth born of volcanoes, an entire country boiling right beneath the surface with potential and energy. The world spoke volumes, but she had watched the geysers, the lights, and the space where continents collide without thinking they had anything to do with her.

“I must change my life,” she said to herself.

On the dark drive back to the hotel through the frosted lava desert, Cuddy rested her head against the cold window and felt herself glow with fire from deep inside. She had so much to do when she returned to the States. So many doors to open. Classes, dating services, books, plays, volunteer work. She was not a defeated leftover from a sour marriage, she was only gathering her strength to begin again. First off, she would stop sitting in front of the TV every night scrolling through reality shows and dramas of calculated lives, endings with no loose ends, fueling her discontent. Such a waste. She would get out and make a difference and help others, not just to find her place in the world, if there was such a thing, but to discover the world in her heart. No more whining, no slumping about.

When the bus arrived at the hotel, people gathered their coats and bags and dragged themselves up to their rooms for some sleep, but not Cuddy. She was exhilarated and could not close her eyes. She felt alive, no longer blinded by familiar surroundings and established habit, and wished she could stay in Iceland forever. She regretted, now, that she had not joined a couple of the other women on the tour for a quick excursion to visit the Phallological Museum downtown, where taxidermied penises, from house mouse to humpback, filled the rooms, including mythic penises from a merman and a troll. It sounded silly, but they’d had fun. Another growth experience missed, but she wouldn’t let something like that slip through her hands again. At the airport the next morning, she stopped at the duty-free shop and bought a sky-blue Icelandic wool sweater for her niece, and a bottle of brennivín, the indigenous alcohol, for herself. She would have a party. A big party. On the flight home, she did not spend the hours staring at a screen, but at the clouds.

When she got back to the office, a dead-end administrative job that would have to be reconsidered along with the rest, she told Irma the story about the woman who was looking for herself. As she prattled on about Iceland and its profound effect upon her, Irma took out her phone and tapped around a bit. “I’ve heard that before,” she said and showed Cuddy. “That missing tourist of yours pops up on the internet every couple of years. No name, no date, just ‘somewhere’ in Iceland. I think it’s, what’s that word? Epical?”

“Apocryphal,” said Cuddy, staring at the screen.

“It probably never happened,” said Irma and she clicked off her phone. “But it’s a good story.”

Cuddy continued to stare at the empty space where the phone used to be.

“Drink after work?” said Irma. “I can catch you up.”

Cuddy shook her head. “I’ve got plans.”

When she got home to her apartment that night she switched on the light and stood there, disoriented. How had it come to be that she had wandered into this life? No chair was inviting and even her books on the shelf looked on loan. There were no photographs on the walls, no sign of humanity in the art. Even the Icelanders with their bronze depressives wandering the city square at least acknowledged the common struggle. She went to the bedroom where her carry-on duffel lay open on the bed, still unpacked, as untouched as the boxes from her divorce two years before. She unzipped the bag and there on the top was the child’s sweater, the long fibers of the blue wool like a pelt. She pressed it against her face and breathed in the scent of the Icelandic sheep, living against all odds in a harsh climate, surviving on moss, then folded it back up in its tissue. She would give the sweater to her niece now and not wait for a holiday. Underneath, wrapped in layers of bags, was the bottle of brennivín. In Iceland she had started the day with the traditional iced shot of cod liver oil, and ended it with a frigid shot of brennivín. Like the country itself it was strong brew, but it had grown on her. She unscrewed the top to sniff the potent distillation of caraway seed and the trip gushed out, filling the room.

Something else had happened on that bus ride back to Reykjavik, and in her giddiness over the lost woman she had almost forgot. They were driving along and she was jostled back to her surroundings by an abrupt swerve in the road around a boulder, and then the road continued straight again. It was odd enough that Astrid felt it was due some explanation. It was some explanation. “In the construction of the road,” she said, “the builders move the boulder out of the way, and calamities begin to fall. A flying iron cog here, a missing finger there, scalding hot tar, a broken leg, then another. This goes on for days. When the crew’s children came down with mysterious illnesses, the government realized elves were living in the rock and did not want their home disturbed. The rock was moved back to where it was, the road was built around it, and the children got well.”

The tour group hardly knew how to respond, whether in amusement or sympathy. Astrid seemed to be all seriousness in the telling, as in, the elves, but of course. Huldufólk, the Icelanders called them. The hidden people. It was a tough and brutal world, Iceland. The black earth boiled with uncertainty and the skies were filled with menacing lights. Who, living in such a harsh land, could not believe in a force greater than themselves?

If these pragmatic people could believe in elves, Cuddy could believe in an apocryphal woman. She could believe in herself. She put the bottle in the freezer, because it can never be served too cold and she planned to invite friends over very soon. She would surround herself with life. As she prepared her dinner, she reached for the TV remote by habit, and put it back down. “No,” she said. “No more.” She would be the boulder that forced the road to change its path, alive inside and full of elves.

~ ~ ~

 

JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novels Float and Addled. Her short fiction, essays, and articles have appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Orion magazine and the anthology Winds of Change: Short Stories for a Changing Climate. Her work always returns to the relationship between humans, animals, and their environment, natural or otherwise. www.joeannhart.com.

 

Note

On a Groupon visit to Iceland to see the aurora borealis (do it), the tour director told the story about a woman who did not recognize her own description. I began to think about that woman, and the power of stories to effect change whether they are true or not. 

Q&A

What is your favorite dietary pleasure?

I am a potato chips kind of gal. I’ll take salty over sweet any day.

You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?

The name is Wonder, because the universe is a mystery.        

Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall?

Love the Fall. Here in New England it’s not too hot, not too cold, but just right for my October birthday.


Short Fiction

Rayne O'Brien.jpg

Rayne O'Brian

Runner-up 2017 Prime Number Magazine Award for Short Fiction

Judged by David Jauss

Followed by Bio and Q&A

Everlast

 

The day is dry and hot and the wind lays lines of sand the size of a pencil along the slats of the blue wooden shutters. Inside the house, Pablo Gonzales kneels on the kitchen floor, slapping grout on the sides of a tile with a red-handled trowel and swearing at Angelina.

Angelina is not here and she’s never coming back here. She left before the sun rose, all her belongings stuffed in her blue Toyota and she drove to her mother’s house in Ensenada. His buddy, Longjon, from Gold’s gym, stops by to check out new games on Pablo’s X-Box. In his sweats he looks like a greyhound with a boy’s face.

The red laces on his high-tops hang untied, his legs wrap the stool, a Grand Theft Auto game on his lap.

Pablo wants to talk about Angelina.

“She took everything, the little red box of Maybelline eye stuff in the medicine cabinet—Jeesus. She’s crazy, whoo-hoo crazy.”

His boxing gloves hang over the lampshade, Everlast—gold letters gleam on the curve of the black bulge. Fifty pound weights stacked in the corner. He wipes the trowel with a rag and drops the rag in the sink.

Pablo thrusts out a cushion with both hands—a round, purple cushion, heavy, the kind they have for Yoga.

“I want to stab it. A hundred times. Yank all the stuffing out…”

“So why don’t you?” Pablo gives him a look like he’s driving with his lights off.

Pablo says out loud what he’s been saying to himself all morning since she left: “She’d rather sit on this cushion, this za-za thing, than go out with me. Look, if she left me for another guy—no problem—I punch him out.” He burns an uppercut in the air. “A man I can fight.”

“You bet.” Longjon says.

“Can’t fight a fucking pillow.”

“Pillows are tough.”

“She said the pillow was her class.

Longjon slams the X-box, thumbs up. “Winner.” He looks up. “Like school? That kind?”

“And you know what else?” Pablo covers the X-box console with his hand. “You gotta hear this: she said she’s waking up! Get that? Thirty-five years old and she’s waking up?” Pablo pulls off his gray jersey, sniffs it and throws it towards the chair by the table.

“She’s in very, very, very bad shape.” He says the verys like he’s wringing water from a towel. “Red lights.” He flaps his fingers. “Danger zone.”

“Really.”

Pablo pulls a cigarette from the pack as if the pack would deny him.

When kids on Mira Monte played cowboys and Indians—Pablo was always the Indian because that’s how he looked. Plus being tall. Women stare at him in the line at Safeway.

“Angelina thinks she gonna get holy sitting on that thing. I ask her, ‘What the hell you doing?’ She gives me this Mona Lisa look, like she’s sorry for me. She’s fuckin’ crazy and she’s sorry for me!”

Pablo walks to the sink and turns on both faucets full and hard and stands with his eyes closed, the cool spray bouncing off the steel sink and sprinkling his wide bare chest.

Longjon ups the skill level on the box. He’s ahead. “Take it with a grain, Pablito, women fall for shit like that.”

Pablo cradles the pillow in his arms, like a baby, gazing into its face.

“We’d drive to this bar in Bakersfield: the Calliope, we’d all get shit-faced— Angelina drank more than anybody but it never showed. She was class.” His voice is not different than the mourning dove on the fence in the yard.

“She sat so straight on that barstool, her hair swinging, in her red heels, twirling her bracelets, talking about Obama like she’s on CNN.”

Pablo walks to the stove for matches. “She could hold it. People would buy her drinks all day, friendly, you know, ’cause she was so phenomenal. So cool. I bragged on her, said she could drink the town of Wilton under the table.”

He tamps the tile with his foot and slumps hard on the chair by the empty table. Along the wall, pale vacant squares, each framed by a thin film of dust. Angelina took her pictures and the wall is blind.

Longjon checks out the silence. “What’s you thinking about?”

“Fish.”

“Did you say fish?”

“Yeah, I read about this fish. Can die any time it wants. Just snaps its gills closed. Game over.

~ ~ ~

 

Rayne O’Brian

I own many passports, some fake.

I collect caps, sails, swords, emeralds,

hazel wands, sidewalk songs, lion scat.

I baptize and I bury.

Two freight trains coupled on the tracks

the train of joy, the train of sorrow.

I am a writer.

 

Note

The story flowed from the word Everlast on the glove. What ever lasts? The flash of a fist, a life.

Q&A

What is your favorite dietary pleasure?

A double-scoop of vanilla ice cream snugged in a sugar cone. "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream" —Wallace Stevens

You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?

Ars Poetica.

Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall?

Fall: both ode and elegy.


Flash Fiction

Michael Chin.jpg

Michael Chin

Winner of the July 2017 Prime Number Magazine Flash Fiction Contest

Judged by Kevin Morgan Watson, Publisher & Editor-in-Chief, Press 53, Prime Number Magazine

$251 prize

Followed by a Q&A

Interrogation

 

Do you remember when we played Interrogation?

When we started, you were five, I was seven. Back when two years spelled a difference and I could still tell you what we’d play, and in the absence of Mom or Dad, I’d might as well have been Mom or Dad, might as well have been God, because who were you to question my instruction?

I tied you to a kitchen chair with an extension cord, with the cord of a clock radio, with the cord from a box fan, and you whined that you were going to get electrocuted, and I told you to shut up. A break in play, because in play these were not cords but ropes, chains, handcuffs. Because in play you were not an idiot child, but a captured enemy spy. I told you to stop whining because everything was unplugged so you couldn’t get electrocuted, and you puzzled over it for a second, then seemed to accept it, accept your role in a raspy, half-spoken, half-spat, I’ll never tell you anything.

Do you remember when I stood over you? When I dangled the melting popsicle above your forehead, a sticky Chinese water torture?

I always broke you. You had a gift for inventing secrets, each plot more diabolical than the one before it. That your countrymen were plotting an invasion. That there was a bomb in the basement. That you were coordinating an effort to abduct every kitten from the United States so that this generation of older cats would be our last.

We played this game for years. Until we were too old. Until the day I cinched the wires tighter, gagged you with a headband, and slapped you hard enough across the cheek to leave a handprint on your soft flesh—the impression bright white against your red cheek, then the colors inverted—red fingerprints that blotted your pale skin. It would never be pure white again.

You cried.

I thought I’d gone too far and started to untie your hands. You broke character. No, don’t ruin it.

That was the last time we played.

Now you’re getting married. Julie’s beautiful. Skin even fairer than yours, long brown hair that spills from every side of her head. Freckles it looks like she ought to have outgrown. A body that is limber and flexible, you told me with a wink, a body stretched daily in Downward-Facing Dog and Warrior poses.

I was reticent to join her bachelorette party, a stranger among women who knew each other so well, so long. We played games in someone’s living room, someone who’d gotten a babysitter, but who’s every corner of the house was still consumed with children—a plush elephant here, Barbies there, blocks with different letters of the alphabet—three that spelled ZOO. There was a pop-up book left under the coffee table, closed wrong so it wouldn’t shut all the way, the castle that had protruded all bunched up and crushed.

We wore cocktails dresses and heels and ate penis-shaped lollipops. And we played truth or dare. A tepid, adult version for the most part, with dares like stirring chocolate milk into the remainder of a glass of champagne, truths that harkened back to high school crushes and whether Katie Irons had let Ted Felton get to third base with her in the limo during prom.

But then someone asked Julie what turned you on. I obligatorily put my hands over my ears and fussed as if I didn’t want to hear.

Julie ran her tongue over her upper lip, a mischievous grin on her face. He likes me to tie him up. She giggled at herself. Especially to a chair.

Of course you remember.

I don’t know if I’m sorry. Or if I want you to thank me now.

I suppose, more than anything, I just want for you to know that I remember.

That those were the best days of my life.

~ ~ ~

 

Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York. His hybrid chapbook, The Leo Burke Finish, is available now from Gimmick Press. He won Bayou Magazine's Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for Fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, and Hobart. He works as a contributing editor for Moss.Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin

 

Note

This was the first piece I wrote in a series of flash fiction pieces featuring the same enigmatic protagonist and narrator, Dorothy. The voice came to me out of an exercise I was working on at the very end of my MFA program, and after many rounds of revision and refinement, I’m glad to have found a good home for this one.

Q&A

What is your favorite dietary pleasure?

I really like a good chicken wing—they’re not only tasty but have a lot of nostalgic attachment for me based on an old weekly ritual of getting wings with my closest friends back in my hometown.

You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?

I’ll go with Palimpsest. I like the idea that most things were something before and are in a constant state of becoming something else, but you can’t entirely erase what was there previously. A planet may be new to me, but even if I’m the first sentient being to set foot there, I can’t claim to have created it anew!

Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall? Why?

Summer. As alluded to earlier, I grew up in Upstate New York, and still associate summer with being the only season entirely safe from snow and wintry chills. It doesn’t hurt that my birthday falls in August, either!


53-Word Story Contest

Hannah Ambrose.jpg

Hannah Ambrose

Winner: August 2017 Prime Number Magazine 53-Word Story Contest

Judged by Howard Faerstein, author of Dreaming of the Rain in Brooklyn

Our Prompt for August 2017

To dance is to move one’s body rhythmically, usually to music, but sometimes a dance can be seen during a bird’s mating ritual, or when trying to get out of a difficult situation, or when a gentle breeze moves across a field of wheat. You may claim you never dance, but you have.

Write a 53-word story about a dance

Blue+Footed+Booby+Dance.jpg

WINNER

"Dance on My Grave" by Hannah Ambrose

The silence was cut by the squeaks of a few old office chairs and the uncomfortable shifting of uncomfortable clothes. Aunt Millie, shocked straight out of tears, took it upon herself to ask: “WHAT?”

“The will reads, ' 'Cause I’ll be dancin’ up there in heaven, and hell if I’m gonna do it alone.’”

 

Author's 53-word Bio

Hannah spends most of her day studying astronomy and French as a Junior at the University of Arizona. She was last published at age ten, when her Charlotte’s Web-themed crossword puzzle appeared in Creative Kids’ Magazine. A proponent of concision in writing, she was excited to discover Prime Number Magazine’s 53-Word Story Contest.


Poetry

Angela Williamson Emmert.jpg

Angela Williamson Emmert

Selected by Guest Editor Gabrielle Brant Freeman

Followed by Bio and Q&A

A Drunk Woman Waters Her Asparagus at Dusk

 

You think that you have earned it, this patch.

At seven months pregnant you dug the trench

and buried the long-fingered roots of the plants.

 

Now look at it: eight feet tall and wild-haired.

You think of a chorus of women. You think of

their dirth-songs like clouds surrounding them.

 

It takes years to get asparagus like this, six

to be exact, but ten is better. For ten springs you

refrained from over-taking the child-sized shoots

 

except for the few you ate raw, wild-tasting

like nuts and forests and green so sharp you

must immediately surrender to it, or die, or spit.

 

You drink because of asparagus. You hold up

your jeweled jelly jar glass and salute the light

of evening. The umbilical hose pulled behind

 

you stirs mosquitoes from waist-deep grass.

They feed on your ankles, and your children

cast laughter like nets into the darkness

 

that wicks through the tissue of day. You are

plowed and demand restitution from the dirt,

pour cheap-wine libations to what is turned

 

under, as if this power were yours and the earth

were yours. As if you might determine the substance

of death. Or drunk, climb into the fronds, and rest.

Angela Williamson Emmert lives in rural Wisconsin with her husband and four sons.

Note

Hugh MacDiarmid’s work “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle” leaves me wondering, “How would one have that much time to just sit and stare at a thistle?” Even drunk, I feel like I need to find something useful to do.

Q&A

What is your favorite dietary pleasure?

When I was a little girl, my mother made butter from fresh, raw milk. She used her electric blender as a churn. Then she strained the butter through a cheesecloth, added salt, and formed it into a lumpy block. That was when my father was farming with his brother. Later, he bought his own farm, and sometimes the switch on the automated agitator in the milk tank failed, and the agitator would run the whole night, stirring the milk until the cream formed butterballs, two or three of them, fifty-cent-piece size, floating on waves of milk. This was not good financially—richer milk was worth more and the butter used up all the cream—but butter can’t be unmade, so we ate it like thieves, melted into toast. Recently, I discovered the joy of buttered radishes, fresh from my garden, tender crunch and sharp taste, swaddled in a soft-butter sea. Good on cucumbers, too.

You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?

I like the idea of planets named for gods, but I think we need to branch out from the Roman and Greek. So maybe something non-European. If I were asked to actually find a name, I think I’d search out some half-reliable internet site and find something that looked not too hard to pronounce but so obscure that it was likely made up. Then I’d let people wonder, or spin a new lie every time someone asked me about it. We need some new stories. It’s time.

Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall?

Fall–for the light.


Poetry

David Salner.jpeg

David Salner

Selected by Guest Editor Gabrielle Brant Freeman

Followed by Bio and Q&A

Steam

 

At any given moment,

our minds fill with visitors

seen through a film of blurred

years, flimsy and restless shapes

arriving when we should have been

doing who knows what—and does it

matter to anyone but you how she

stepped from a steamy shower,

ratted her hair with a towel,

and disappeared?

~ ~ ~

 

David Salner has worked as iron ore miner, steelworker, machinist, bus driver, cab driver, longshoreman, teacher, baseball usher, and librarian. He was a telephone solicitor for 24 hours. His writing appears in recent issues of Threepenny Review, Salmagundi, River Styx, Beloit Poetry Journal, North American Review, Nashville Review, as well as Prime Numberand many other magazines. His third book is Blue Morning Light (2016, Pond Road Press), which features poems on the paintings of American artist George Bellows.  He lives in Frederick, Maryland, with his wife Barbara Greenway. www.DSalner.wix.com/salner

 

Note

This little poem is about how images are stored in memory and are both fleeting and enduring. It’s entirely transparent.

Q&A

What is your favorite dietary pleasure?

Gin, not only because it was one of the chief sins of the 19th century English working class.

You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?

Maybe to name one after an unjustly incarcerated man, Leonard Peltier; and the other planet could be named for a victim of police killing, Freddie Gray. Unfortunately, we’d never run out of namesif we saluted a victim of police killing each time a new planet was discovered.

Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall?

For the most part summer because it’s warm and I can go swimming and fishing; however if I lived in Arizona or Florida I’m sure it would be winter.


Poetry

Devi S Laskar.jpg

Devi S. Laskar

Selected by Guest Editor Gabrielle Brant Freeman

Followed by Bio and Q&A

On Sadness

 

I want to tell you

a story, about something

that’s important to you:

the fruit falling

far or close to its tree—

the shape the bruises

assume, how the dents

turn purple after a day

or two. Most people

ignore things with bruises

on them, aubergine

the color of imperfection.

It looks good on me.

I wear my sorrow well.

 

             **

 

I wear my sorrow well.

It looks good on me,

the color of imperfection.

On them, aubergine.

Ignore things with bruises

or two. Most people

turn purple after a day,

assume how, the dents,

the shape, the bruises.

Far or close to its tree

the fruit falling.

That’s important to you:

A story, about something

I want to tell you.

~ ~ ~

 

Devi S. Laskar is a native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She holds an MFA from Columbia University in New York. A former journalist, she is now a photographer and poet. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals including The Raleigh Review, which nominated her for Best New Poets 2016. She is an alumna of both TheOpEdProject and VONA/Voices, and Finishing Line Press will publish her second chapbook, “Anastasia Maps” in December. She now lives in California.

 

Note

I just love playing with forms. I wanted to write a poem that could read top down or bottoms up— after Natasha Trethewey’s “Myth.”

Q&A

What is your favorite dietary pleasure?

Gelato. Chocolate gelato. There’s nothing better in the world.

You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?

Hannah. Because the name is a palindrome.

Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall?

Fall. I love to see what happens to the flowers post-bloom.


Poetry

Ted Jean.jpg

Ted Jean

Selected by Guest Editor Gabrielle Brant Freeman

Followed by Bio and Q&A

metaphail

 

Ben arrived alive

from Afghanistan

immediately metastatic

 

cradling crash victim

Susan got crushed

under a drunk Cadillac

 

Patricia’s trail

of caring drew the

pancreatic hellhound

 

funny,

for the life of me,

I can’t load all that shit

 

into a broken boat

on a moonlit lake

 

A retired carpenter/AIG executive, Ted Jean writes, paints, and plays tennis with Amy Lee. They live in the Willamette Valley outside Portland, Oregon. Nominated twice for Best of the Net, and twice for the Pushcart Prize, his work appears in Beloit Poetry JournalPANKDIAGRAMJuked, dozens of other publications. His first chapbook, Desultory Sonnets, won the 2016 Turtle Island Poetry Award.

Note

I wanted to unload some feelings about the deaths of several people I have loved. Tried a metaphor or two—you know, the way poets will. It just wouldn't work. This transmogrified sonnet is a record of that failed attempt.

 

Q&A

What is your favorite dietary pleasure?

Not real nutritious, but in all honesty, Scotch is close to the top of my list.

 

You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?

Under the influence of my dietary selection, I might be tempted to go with Heranus (because yours is already accounted for.)

 

Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall?

Spring, no hesitation. As I mentioned, we live in Oregon's Willamette Valley.


Short Fiction

Cheryl Collins Isaac.jpg

Cheryl Collins Isaac

Selected by Guest Editor Chauna Craig

Followed by Bio and Q&A

Espresso

 

Gambia wants Ousman Sonko back, I read online today.  The name reaches me from someplace faraway, yet distinctly close.

From my backyard, where I’m knee-deep in dirt and surrounded by red hibiscus, I smell the aroma of coffee as it drips through the espresso machine in the house: bold, roasted Ethiopian beans.

“You don’t need this fancy machinery,” Amadou said five times as he carried it from the store to the car that day. He balanced the box on his shoulder and I envisioned the fishermen from back home as they returned from the city with boxes of oscillating fans balanced on their shoulders and heads, goods they had traded with small grocers in exchange for fresh fish from the river, goods they would later sell to local hotels.

“Who knows, I might open a coffee hut someday,” I said.

“How? You don’t even leave the house.”

I watched him struggle, saw the sweat form a line down the middle of his t-shirt and I wished I’d parked on the farthest end of the condo’s parking lot. He carried the machine into the house and I packed the teacups, the toaster, and the microwave into a box, so I could have counter space for the machine.

Amadou looked disgusted. “Waste of money,” he said.

I did not respond and he walked off like he normally does on the weekends: his overnight bag in hand, his shoulders stooped, his lower lip pulled out and upwards, as if everything around him had turned to garbage. He’d be gone until Monday. Working at Delta in Customs, he says. But I know he spends the weekend with her.

The scent of fresh soil lingers in my fingernails and I take a careful whiff as I wipe the sweat from the top of my lips. I’ve planted a row of hibiscus, their colors bright red like fresh blood. I walk into the kitchen to steam some sweet vanilla milk. The steamed milk dances with the coffee in my mug and I watch the whiteness swirl with the dark espresso and blossom into a flower. The flower in my cup resembles the hibiscus that grew around our house in Liberia, round buds that started inward and ballooned into exquisite shades of white.

Every wedding in our Liberian neighborhood had been decorated with flowers from my Ma’s white hibiscus garden: a sprawl of flowers that wrapped around the one-acre lot of our ranch home. Her dream was to have a white hibiscus farm; it would nurture blooms of white in homes all over Monrovia and this would ensure peace in the city, she hoped. Despite her despondency, she’d managed to remain optimistic. She had experienced the Liberian Coup of the 1980s, when the former President was assassinated and his entire Administration strapped to poles and executed on the beach. The coup had a toll on Ma. She slept beneath her bed for a week and refused to see anyone. When she finally emerged, she was wearing white. She’d lit a fire in the backyard, burned her wardrobe, and saved the white pieces. Later, during the Liberian War, years after the coup, when we turned our house over to armed rebels and fled for Gambia (the homeland of my deceased father), Ma could not stomach the sight of hibiscus gardens.

Gambia wants him back to be questioned for war crimes, the news reads. But Sonko is in detention in Switzerland, where he sought asylum.

I hand the iPad to Uncle Siafa when he comes home from work. He reads and shakes his head. “Eh these African countries. Finally they get bold. When people responsible for your women and children dem dying in cold blood, you need to do something, hehn?” Uncle Siafa uses questions to complete his thoughts.

“Uncle,” I say, “Look at the name.”

He looks at me strangely and then reads again. Suddenly it sinks in. His face turns an ash gray and his full eyes seem even bigger, brighter.

“Aryana,” he starts to say something.

I interrupt him. “Uncle, you hungry? Want me warm up some check rice and gravy?”

He shrugs and watches me in silence. I reach into the ice cooler we’ve been using for weeks to store cooked food, since Amadou came home one day and took the refrigerator. Something was wrong with it, he said, and he was taking it to get fixed.

“But I just used it this morning, Amad. It was working!”

“You call me liar?” he asked.

What could I say to that? I felt the tears sting the back of my throat, felt my eyes itch from the pain. I watched helplessly as his friend helped him load it onto the truck. They drove off. I knew where they were taking it.

I empty the gravy from the rubber container into a saucepan, the rice into a pot. As I stir, I feel Uncle Siafa’s watchful eyes burn through my back.

“Uncle, go wash up. Food will be ready soon.”

“But I want to help. You want me to lay the plates?”

“No Uncle. I don’t want you in my kitchen.”

He exhales heavily and walks over to the coat closet. I hear him hang his coat and take off his work boots. I know that once he enters his room, he’ll discard his work clothes by folding the t-shirt, trousers, and socks and placing them neatly into the dirty clothesbasket. His white boxer briefs he’ll hand wash himself, as if he doesn’t want me getting to the root of his dirt. He knows I’ll pick up his hamper when I do the weekly laundry.

Uncle Siafa is a landscaper, sometimes a hardscaper, he tells people because his job includes laying bricks for patios and garden escapes. Before the war, he worked as a secret agent for a West African peacekeeping unit, but he does not discuss this. He owns a small landscaping company that works on projects along Middle Georgia’s countryside, during those warm months when the wind blows through pine trees and leaves light brown pine needles and dark brown pine cones in its wake. Uncle’s team uses the cones and needles to decorate flowerbeds and cutouts in that good old Georgia-brown way, he likes to joke.

The iPad in one hand, the cookspoon in the other, I stir and read: “Ousman Sonko is believed to be responsible for torturing members of the opposition under the rule of former president Yahya Jammeh.”

Jammeh, Ma always said the name in a whisper. Jammeh find out, we all in trouble for helping the resistance, she repeated during those dark days. She started saying it when the whispers began over friendly conversation, when her workmates discussed the latest gossip from the Gambian countryside: they whispered the names of people who had disappeared suddenly, the ones whose names never appeared on the news, those who didn’t receive proper burials. Before this, Ma’s friends from the pharmaceutical company where she worked as a lab technician, dropped by for card games on the weekends. There were usually four to six people, mostly Gambians. Ma loved to cook them a Liberian dinner—usually fufuand pepper soup or cassava leaf and rice. After dinner, they would sit on the deck for the card game, beers in hand. But Ma only drank coffee, double servings of espresso from a tiny, cheap machine she’d found at Wal-Mart. Her friends teased her about her coffee drinking, said someday she would turn as dark as the espresso she liked to drink.

If only they had known that their prediction would come true. Inwardly, she grew darker and darker. Soon, her friends stopped visiting. Slowly, the rest of her world eliminated her and she stopped existing to them. Most nights she didn’t sleep but sat in the rocking chair facing the window, anxiously rocking, as if waiting, as if she lived only to wait.

“You scared his people will show up here one day?” Uncle Siafa asks between mouthfuls of rice and gravy. We’ve each been deep in thoughts at the dining table. I glance out the window, where cars fill the once-deserted parking lot—tired employees returning from long days of work.

“I don’t know what I think.” Coldness fills the space around my lungs and suddenly it is hard to breathe. I clutch my chest and Uncle Siafa runs for the brown bag. He pats my back as I exhale big breaths into it.

“Don’t worry. This time, I’ll be waiting,” he says after a few minutes.

Uncle Siafa came after it was too late. The day I made the call to the Uncles, it had been one of the coldest days in Georgia. Little drops of snowflakes had fallen to the ground and turned into sheets of ice and Georgians were perplexed because they don’t see snow often. I left the message on the Google Voice number my Uncles shared: She says it’s time. My mother always said her ex-military brothers were the only ones she trusted. I dusted the flakes off the windshield and began my drive to Washington D.C., just as Ma had instructed. I was to stay overnight at a cheap hotel along the way, and once I got to D.C., I was to spend every single day at the Liberian Embassy until they closed at night. Come up with some reason you’re there, she said. Just stay put all week if you have to, right where you’re visible. At night, I was to avoid staying with family in the neighboring suburbs and stay at shelters instead. Get on the line promptly in the evening, find a bed, sleep with your bag as your pillow, and then get out of there first thing in the morning, head back to the embassy, she said. She made me repeat the instructions: where to find cheap food, how to find shelters that served food, how to sneak into continental breakfast spreads at hotels, and more. So when I woke that morning and found the envelope of money and the letter from her placed next to my pillow, I grabbed the already-packed overnight bag from beneath the bed and headed out without even washing my face. On the way to Washington D.C., I sobbed incessantly, felt tiny needles butcher my heart because I did not get to hug her goodbye.

I never really found out what happened to her. No one will tell me. Some whisper he sent someone to our house at night. Some say he used someone who worked with her, and the person got to her in the crowded company parking lot. Some say she went to the Uncles’ house and waited, but they didn’t check their voicemail and when they returned from work late that night, they found her lifeless body on the back patio—she had been strangled to death, the police report noted. I think the last scenario is true. I think this is why Uncle Siafa is here, why he calls me three times a day from work; why he gets so upset whenever he misses a voice message; why he refuses to discuss the details of my mother’s death with me.

At the private funeral, she looked beautiful and rested; her lips were pulled into a smile, her wood-stained complexion a glow, the contours of her face fixed into peaceful sleep. After the funeral, Uncle Siafa took me home. He’s never left since.

The phone rings. It’s Amadou. “Hello?”

“Got a package coming to the house. You need to open the door for delivery,” Amadou says.

“Uncle Siafa’s here. He’ll get it.” As a precaution, I don’t open the door to strangers or delivery.

“Uncle—” There is a pause. “I marry Uncle Siafa or I marry you? You get the package! Don’t want that man knowing my business.” Even beneath the anger, I hear his fear.

Uncle Siafa concentrates on his food. I know he hears the conversation because I have the volume on the phone turned to the loudest.

“What’s the package for, Amadou?” I ask.

“Computer I need for work, if you have to know. Had to order it that way.” For a few seconds, there is awkward silence. I do not ask the question I should be asking. I feel my insides flutter.

“Uncle Siafa is here. He says he’ll get it,” I hear myself say. I hang up before Amadou gets the chance to protest.

Uncle Siafa watches me, his face a steely glare. “Whetin this time?” he asks.

“A computer.”

“You know what he’s doing right? Using your money so he can buy things for that thief woman’s house!”

I nod. Amadou has control of the life insurance money my mother left me, and the payments from her work annuity. The bills are few because the condo and car are paid off, but he sponsors his mistress with the rest of my money and he drives my mother’s car to work every day.  A month after my mother’s death, I quit medical school and my part-time job. Now he tells everyone, the banker, the insurance company, the grocer, the pastor, that I’m mentally unstable and he has to take care of me.

Uncle mumbles. “Tell the no-good rascal I’ll be right here waiting for his pickup.”

I don’t know what Uncle plans to do with the package and I don’t ask.

When I married Amadou, I didn’t know then that his brother was a member of Jammeh’s assassination squad. When we fell in love, he had been a kind-hearted medical student who followed me around campus. We found kinship in the fact that we were the only West Africans in the program. He drove me to campus each day in his beat-up Ford Escort and on Interstate 75 we recited formulas loudly, trying to drown the vibrations of the old engine. On our wedding day, our families gifted us with the same medical books, pairs of ten expensive books we needed for the year. My mother called him her son because she believed he was an orphan who had been raised by his extended family—a lie he and his family told everyone. His brother did not show up for our wedding, in fact, I had no idea he had a brother. We were happy and ambitious then.

Until the day I came home from evening classes and found Amadou sitting quietly in our dark living room. It was the day before my mother’s funeral. Amadou had been pulled from school that day, for failure to pay tuition. When I flipped the light switch, his face was a dark growl. “I know what your wicked old ma did!” He shouted. The letter from my mother to me was in his hand. Behind him, the bedroom door was open. All my drawers had been emptied, the safe my mother left me broken, the mattress slit, the mirrors shattered. He read her letter mockingly:

I was a secretary for the resistance. My job was to send fundraising letters secretly to Gambians in America and Europe. We begged for money to support the resistance in Gambia and to offer underground shelters to families. Innocent people were dying at the hands of their own government: women and children, even journalists who dared cover the truth. We needed to organize.

Aryana, I know I told you before that your father was Gambian, but what you didn’t know was that he was not dead. He had been alive and imprisoned for twenty years. They killed him recently, before the resistance could free him. He was executed simply for being a fiction writer whose stories showed the struggle. After his execution, they found the letters I wrote to him in jail. Now I’m certain they’ll be coming for me. I joined the resistance for him, Aryana, and for you. So you could be proud of who you are. People will be free soon, because of the resistance. But you must cut off all ties from me now. You must live, my love. I did this for you, so you can live without breathing through the sand.

My love with you always,

Mama

“Did it for youuu?” Amadou screeched. “I was rich. My family was rich! Now I have to quit school and work menial labor. I could have been a doctor! Who said those simple people needed rights?” He spat the words like bile. “Is it my fault some people too stupid to get to the top? Did I put a gun to anybody’s head? You ruined my life! Now my brother is losing all his money and he can’t help me…”

“Your brother is that Sonko?” I asked in a whisper. Amadou’s last name, our last name, was Soley. What else was false, I wondered.

Amadou looked through me and continued talking. “Lies, lies, all lies! How they prove anything? There will always be government. Always somebody at the top. So we not allowed to take advantage of that? How dare they call us corrupt! Who gave these resistance people the right to tell me what I can or cannot do?”

“Amad, they killed people just for disagreeing. Just for being different. No trials. Innocent men, women, children, they just killed them…” The words formed softly, slowly, outside of my body. I could hear myself speak, but I could not believe that I had to even utter the words.

He came closer and his bloodshot gaze pierced my sockets. His words were measured.

“Just like this,” he said as he snapped his fingers, “I can have them wring your neck too.”

My heart sank to my feet. At that moment, it was clear to me why I studied science. I respect life more than I do anything else. Ma always said I couldn’t kill a bug when I was younger. You were born a survivor, she told me a few days before she left.

I thought about this as Amadou screamed obscenities and jeers into the night. I sank to the ground, my face buried into the carpet, and I wept. I wept for my dead mother. I wept because of the cruelty of fate. I wept because I knew I would do whatever it took to stay alive. I stayed on the carpet that night and in some ways, I think I’ve been there since. 

Uncle Siafa is saying something serious but the motions of the espresso machine I’ve started drowns his words. It is my fifth cup of the day, yet my muscles crave the warm flow of caffeine.

“Aryana, you hear? We got a plan…” Uncle is saying. When Uncle Siafa found out about Amadou at my mother’s funeral, his knees buckled and he fell to the ground in a bow, only a few feet from her casket. The brothers tried to console him, even as they planned a meeting. How to handle the situation, they pondered? “I know these people. I know how they operate. We have to be smart,” Uncle Siafa repeated. His voice was a wail that haunts my dreams at night.

Uncle Siafa blames himself, I can tell. But deceit can be so swift in its destruction that the one deceived is left to decipher the broken pieces. Why Amadou chose me, I’ll never know, and yet the irony of it is not lost on us. I, the daughter of a resistance leader. The niece of a former peacekeeping soldier.

I watch the steam settle around the canister, watch the white and black swirls as I pour the milk, and suddenly everything around me exists clearly. The black and white bulb forms a pretty brown flower. When I bring the mug to my lips, boldness flows down my throat and through my veins. “Get him, Uncle,” I hear myself say.

“What?” Uncle looks uncertain.

“You heard me. Do what you have to do. I want to live.”

Uncle Siafa nods firmly. “Leave before he returns then.”

He gets up and digs beneath the floorboards and hands me a money container and a container with the letters of introduction my mother wrote to several officials of the resistance. Then he heads off to make calls and schedule transport. Later that night, he waits with me as Amadou makes the nightly call to the landline phone in the house. Everything ok? he asks. I am well, I answer—the formalities, so he makes sure I am home. After the phone call, Uncle Siafa drives me to the bus station. I will take several buses before I get to my destination, but at each station, one of my Uncles, my mother’s many brothers, will be there to escort me to the next stop. Uncle Siafa has it all planned. Once I get to the ship, I will be alone, but ready to set sail on a new voyage, a new life, Uncle Siafa tells me with tears in his eyes. He shows me the pictures of a small, simple house and the blue ocean in the distance. By the time I get there, he tells me, enrollment into a major in Marine Life Biology will have been set into motion at the local university, my classes scheduled and paid for with the emergency fund my mother initiated for me before her death, a fund I knew nothing about until now.

When we arrive at the bus station, the smell of recent rain fills the air. We avoid the pavement and walk across the wet grass to head to the bus line. As we walk, Uncle Siafa tells me the story of his grandpa, a wise farmer in Liberia’s Grand Cape Mount County, who always cautioned to walk across the grass if one wants good luck in the next season. The soil beneath our feet is moist and moveable. The grass is a bright green. The scent of soil and freshly laid flowers lingers. I search for hibiscus but I see none. Instead, around the buildings and shrubs, I see an array of buds: orange and red buds of azaleas and aegonias.

At the bus, Uncle Siafa hugs me tightly. He smells of Old Spice and coconut oil.

When the bus pulls away, he waves profusely. His form remains in the distance for a while, and then it grows smaller and smaller, until he is merely a tiny speck in my conscious.

~ ~ ~

 

Cheryl Collins Isaac is a Liberian-American and a survivor of the First Liberian Civil War. A former business columnist for Forbes, her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Ocean State ReviewSouth Writ Large and Cosmosnauts Avenue. She has a M.F.A. from the University of Tampa and is a Disquiet International and Tin House Workshop alumnus.

 

Note

This non-autobiographical story was inspired by a news headline. I come from a family of political refugees and am aware that even at a certain remove, physical and emotional landscapes of the past crystallize with current events. I wanted to capture those often-unexplored spaces of refugee torment.

Q&A

What is your favorite dietary pleasure?

Good French Roast Coffee because the aroma and taste brightens the morning. I can exist without breakfast in the morning, but never without a cup of coffee.

You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?

I’ll name my Planet Peace, for this is my impossible dream, to live in a world free of chaos and strife.

Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall?

Spring feels like possibilities and the colors remind me of the rainbow.


Short Fiction

Jolene McIlwain.jpg

Jolene McIlwain

Selected by Guest Editor Chauna Craig

Followed by Bio and Q&A

Steer

 

Roy’s truck almost stalled out as he slowed nearly to a stop passing the Whitney farm, searching the field for the three calves he’d seen the day before. There they were, again, skipping and kicking, happy as could be. Roy smiled, but at the same time, his throat tightened up. That had been happening lately. Why? Hell, he didn’t know. He grabbed a few gears and shifted his eyes back to the narrow road, careful not to sink a tire in the berm, and he thought about when they might tar and chip it, if they’d properly clear the ditch line first, put down a better base, crown the road. By the time he let himself look into the rearview to find the calves again, he was too far gone.

He was coming up on fifty; his only son would be sixteen in three months. Legs lengthened, voice deepened, chest broadened. Roy wanted nothing more than to teach him how to be a man who could handle what life threw. But he wanted him, also, to be free and light and open. He feared his son would inherit from him the maintenance and heft of this border around his heart he was constantly buttressing and closing off to guarantee hurt would not breach it.

“What am I even feeling?” he’d ask himself each day when anxiety nettled him, or worse, when it clamped off his air and made him dizzy. If he could only see where it started, its foundation, or find a crack, take a sledge to it, and bar it free.

He headed down Hogback Hill and something in the way the wipers trembled against the glass, the shimmying rattle of the truck and the growl of the retarder, the way the trees looked like they were whizzing past, tightened his throat in the worst way.

Through the dip the truck took off, and halfway up the other side of the hill it creeped. Roy flicked on his four-ways.

He was relieved that his son hadn’t seen all he had seen because he feared it would take him out. How to both ready him for and protect him from those things? Roy’s father had only taught him to push through, avoid, ignore. Put out fires, work hard, dig deep, build fences and walls to man what you have.

As strong as he tried to be, creeping up hills in the truck, the roar of the motor when it geared down, especially the dashboard lit up with the intermittent flashing of the four-ways, never ceased to make him half sick in the stomach, half ready to bawl his eyes out. Most days he just breathed through it. Today was different. Today he let himself go the whole way back to when he was sixteen. Back to the steer.   

***

When Roy was his son’s age, their steer found a gap in their fence. Got out. Somehow made it to the highway, crossed over. Likely chased down by traffic, it got itself turned around. The neighbor down the way called and said he’d roped it, no worry, had it there at his farm tied up good.

When Roy and his dad made it to the neighbor’s place, they saw the steer fastened to an oak, just past a row of crabapples in full bloom. Roy took in a quick breath and grinned.

Roy’s family lived just off of the main route north to the mountains and their back yard had become a small hobby farm to his father. They had laying chickens, a few goats, and this steer that Roy hadn’t let loose. He had nothing in it. It just wanted to eat, got free of the fence, and then lost. But somehow Roy’s father had made him feel guilty, responsible for what had happened.

Of course, they couldn’t load it in the pickup, but they could “walk it back.” His dad tied the rope to the bumper of the truck, and at first it did pretty good keeping up. Roy sat in the bed of the truck, watching it come along, watching it tugging at the rope every few seconds.

It was a Friday evening and mountain traffic lined up behind their pickup as they made it almost to the top of the hill where they’d have to turn left off of the highway and make the last leg home. Roy hoped the drivers wouldn’t start their honking and scare the steer more. The pickup’s four-ways blinked red in the steer’s eyes.

Since Roy didn’t have his driver’s license yet he had to be the one in the back, the one to watch the steer come along. It was so tired now from all its running, and as he watched it he felt something like anger—toward what? The steer? His father? Himself? And he felt something else, too. Deep fear and panic. His eyes filled up with it and he could see it in the steer’s eyes as well. Desperation, too, as he realized what was coming. In fact, he’d seen a glimpse of it as soon as his father snugged that rope to the bumper, saying, “Well, serves the damn thing right. It’ll learn its lesson. Won’t run off next time. It ran itself this far; it can run itself back.” He’d seen it coming as soon as he realized the steer might not have the gumption in it to make it the whole way home.

When his father turned left off of the highway, the steer wasn’t ready for the turn and stumbled. The rope tugged at its neck and it swung its head left, right, up and down, to get free of it. Its front hooves folded under and it went down, onto its side, and his father dragged it the rest of the way. Roy wanted to turn away, put his head down, but he couldn’t. He watched its body bounce, its head sliding against the road. He’d learned how to calm the steer by rubbing its cheek and neck. He’d watched its ears come down in comfort. His grandfather taught him that. Its ears were not beagle dog-soft but coarse, filled with prickly hair. Still he knew nothing could hold up to the asphalt’s scrape. He was right. One ear had been ripped loose. 

Roy heard his father’s warning again in his head. But Roy knew the steer couldn’t figure any of it out. It couldn’t know cause and effect. Roy knew, as its body slid over the asphalt, all it felt was burning pain. All it wanted was to free itself from that rope. All it wanted was not to hurt.

Roy watched it lie there in the driveway on its side, panting, froth pushing out of its mouth and nostrils. Dark red blood rose up through the road dust on its coat. His father left him there and walked to the house to call Byler’s meats from up over the hill.

He couldn’t remember now the type of gun they used, or the men’s faces, but he could still hear the shot, and he could still see the wheels of the rendering truck, how the paint was chipping, how they were pitted with rust. He could still smell the diesel exhaust—his dad said, “They’ve a leak in their manifold.” He could still see the light pink crabapple petals stuck to his tattered boots.

But Roy put that steer’s heaving limp body, its eyes, the sound of its breath, deep into the muddy mortar around his heart and felt it stiffen and hold.

***

Now Roy couldn’t seem to catch his breath. He pulled off onto the berm and sat still in the idling truck. He stared at the small map of gears on the stick and that line that was nothing but neutral.

He picked up the phone and dialed his wife. Said her name.

“You okay, Roy?” Her voice soothed him. That she could tell he might not be okay just by the way he said a few words comforted him.

“Yeah, sure. Hey, I meant to tell you, there’s new little calves at the Whitney farm. Cute little things.”

“That right?”

“Yep. Cutest little things,” he said again.

~ ~ ~

 

Jolene McIlwain's writing appears or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner online, River Teethonline, Atticus ReviewFiction SoutheastThe Fourth River, and elsewhere, and has been twice selected finalist in Glimmer Train's contests. She's the recipient of a Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council artist grant and her work was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize and selected semi-finalist in both American Short Fiction's Short(er) fiction contest and Nimrod's Katherine Anne Porter Prize. She’s an associate flash fiction editor at jmww and is currently working on a linked collection of stories and novel, both set in the Appalachian plateau of western Pennsylvania.

 

Note

Writing “Steer” helped me deconstruct and clarify the sometimes violent and confusing acts and images of the community in which I was raised. It’s a complicated world of farmers, hunters, trappers, and anglers where gorgeously colorful ring-necked pheasant and rainbow trout are stocked for harvest in our woods and streams, where whitetail deer hang from barn rafters or tree limbs before they’re slaughtered and smoked, before their antlers and whole busts are preserved, fixed to our walls, and passed down through generations, and where steers are called, simply, feeders.

Q&A

You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?

I’d name a planet Anyte, for the Greek poet from Tegea who’s best known for her laments and pet epitaphs. One of her pieces (an inspiration for the descriptions in “Steer”) was written about Damis’s war-horse, killed in battle by “gory Ares.” It’s “black blood bubbled through his stubborn hide, and he drenched the earth in his sore death-pangs.”

What is your dietary pleasure?

Raspberries! They’re fun to find, delicious, and genetically complex, as fruits go. Also, I love that they’re in the same family as roses and they’re cancer-busters.

Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall?

I used to answer summer-without-a-doubt to that question. Now I’d say spring. I love gardening, and spring offers such a sense of hopefulness after the long winter. I understand more of what e.e. cummings says to us in “in Just-” about spring being “puddle wonderful.”


Short Fiction

Kristie Betts Letter.jpg

Kristie Betts Letter

Selected by Guest Editor Chauna Craig

Followed by Bio and Q&A

Sundowning

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

—T.S. Eliot

 

Elmer Squibb, Room 341

None of us wanted to give Mr. Squibb his after-dinner medicine. Now, he wasn’t sweet the rest of the day, but once the sun started to set he was incorrigible. He didn’t talk much but his eyes shot bullets.

In the evenings, I did some hair for the women, brushing back the wisps over the pink scalps. In the room next door, Lally screamed.

“What is it?” I held the brush in the air.

Lally ran past Mr. Squibb’s roommate into the hall. “Nothing. He just grabbed me.”

“Like, grabbed you, grabbed you?”

“No, no. Put that hairbrush down,” she said. I hadn’t realized I was waving it. “Not like that. He just grabbed my scarf, like he was trying to tell what it was made of or something. It freaked me out. Usually he just sits there.”

“Lally, I thought something was wrong. Did he say anything?”

“No.”

I went back to brush old-lady gossamer.  

Alzheimer’s takes the whole of a person and chips away at one piece. The patients here in the Memory Ward lose capacities one at a time, forgetting just certain kinds of words or just certain kinds of faces. Some of them go catatonic, and others are downright chatty about wars none of us remember. I do hair, and Lally paints nails; we all listen. In the twilight, things go down. Everyone’s confusion gets thicker in the late afternoon. We keep our brights on because when twilight sinks too low, that’s the witching hour.

Even Mr. Squibb got weird.

Pleasant folks start caterwauling for long-lost spouses or become determined to walk home to where they used to live in Indiana. As for Mr. Squibb, when he narrowed his eyes we worried he might bite.

“Why did he care about my scarf?” Lally asked us. We had no answers.  

 

Mary Lou O’Reilly, Room 352

“Did you know seven soldiers proposed to me before going to war?” Ms. O’Reilly asked us.

Johnny Martin shook his head, so she started to tell him about it. We of course knew all about these proposals. Most days, Ms. O’Reilly just wanted to say the words out loud that took her back to a previous version of herself dancing before a war. Somewhere inside of the drooping old woman with watery eyes was a breathtaking heartbreaker struggling to take the reins.

But today the words weren’t enough. She kept stroking Johnny Martin’s hand when he changed the linens. Usually we sent only females in to do all the tasks, since Ms. O’Reilly could get handsy.

“I knew you wanted to dance with me, Murray,” she said to the confused young man who had just driven over from the local high school. Johnny froze with pillowcase in hand.

 On the Memory Ward, we have moderate to severe Alzheimer’s patients, with a few advanced Parkinson’s thrown in. We converse about worlds that no longer exist. I had a daylight life with Denny and the boys, full of grocery stores and softball leagues, and then a twilight world full of detailed stories from a bunch of people who couldn’t feed themselves. Both seemed equally real.

The patients too were steeped in each other’s stories. They started to enter into each other’s memories, nodding and adding in details about growing up in a place they’d never been. The card games in the common room had Byzantine rules.

Ms. O’Reilly smiled with or without her dentures, winked at the end of every other sentence and brushed her hand against several bottoms. With Johnny Martin that day, her hands wandered more than usual. Johnny’s a high school student who wants to be a doctor someday and figures volunteering in the Memory Ward will get him into Johns Hopkins. He didn’t count on this kind of physical proximity.

“Let us take over, Johnny. Go to Room 341.” I switched out with the confused boy scratching the acne on the back of his neck.

I grabbed a dark bottle from the dresser and waved it in front of Ms. Reilly. “Oh, that’s right!” Ms. O’Reilly said. “I forgot my spray.”

“Here it is, ma’am.” I handed her the old-fashioned perfume bottle. That thing was a lifesaver. She loved nothing so much as her “spray.” We’d switched out the stuff for mostly water, since she sprayed it so many times a day, but it was a sure distraction. Ms. O’Reilly wet the front of her hospital gown with the memory of roses.

We lived among the gorgeous, odiferous fragments.

Women have a higher risk. We have twice as many women as men here, sometimes three to a room. The men are just two to a room. Those with more money or better insurance get a single, much to Ms. O’Reilly’s dismay.

 

Barry Tunnhill, Room 341

We knew Johnny would be fine with Mr. Tunnhill. He was a talker, but in a harmless way. When the other patients start to turn as the sun goes down, Barry Tunnhill sings. His favorite is “Danny Boy.” He forgot the words in his stories for commonplace items and pointed to his teeth for the word “chew” but he never missed a note of his favorite songs. So while Johnny went to work, the kid enjoyed a concert of sorts from Mr. Tunnhill. Just as Johnny had all the linens switched, Mr. Tunnhill’s daughter arrived.

“Hi, Dad!” The woman kissed her father on his forehead.

“Well, hello!” he said, with the same gusto he greeted us with each time we entered the room with fresh sheets or medicine. The guy didn’t recognize her any more than he recognized us, but he knew a smile and a good intention. “See you later!” Mr. Tunnhill called after Johnny.

His daughter pulled out chocolate. The guy had worked at the Hershey factory for thirty years, so he loved the stuff, but we don’t love when he eats too much of it. Luckily, she only brought one bar, not the bag of miniatures she sometimes brings. 

“Hi, Helka.”

“Oh, hello Dora. How’s Dad today?”

“Best baritone ever. Was he ever a performer?” I asked. “He sings really well.”

“Only in the bars,” Helka answered. “Only in the bars.”

Usually, the spouses sit for hours and the children pop in for short visits. With the Tunnhills, just the opposite happened. The daughter must not have many other obligations because she came like clockwork, but the wife never showed.

 “Quite the jokester,” we answered. We often repeated to her stories he told us that day. We never knew if the story was an exaggeration, a memory blip or an Irish version of the truth. One daughter showed up every other day. The other one blew in with a big whirl of balloons, plants, holiday decorations from the Dollar store. No one who worked in a Memory Ward wanted holiday decorations from the dollar store. Limp little shamrocks wilting long past March. Did they think the patients were going to remember to take them down? Or water those cute little plants?

 

Elmer Squibb, Room 341

Mr. Squibb shared a room with Mr. Tunnhill because neither had quite the insurance coverage for a single. The two of them never spoke much. Mr. Squibb didn’t sing and never had a guest.

Exit-seeking behaviors are common. We’ve been specially trained and the Memory Ward is on virtual lockdown. No one wanders toward the highway in a nightgown, not on our watch.

Mr. Squibb can’t really move much. But every once in a while he forgets all the bones he’s broken and the arthritis that cripples him. His body forgets to receive the signals even as he crashes toward the nearest exit.

Usually he doesn’t get out of the room.

Mr. Tunnhill belted out “Dixie” whenever Mr. Squibb was on the move, so that helped us. This time, Johnny Martin ran in to tell us that an old man from 341 was clinging to the walls trying to head for the door. Mr. Squibb didn’t make it out of the room before we got him back to bed.

 

Mary Lou O’Reilly, Room 352

In our ward, most patients had trouble getting around. We wheel them for the most part, because the wall-surfing like Mr. Squibb’s leads to falls. Advanced Alzheimer’s affects motor skills, plus makes everyone more delicate. We had to watch Ms. O’Reilly. She was a social animal. She hated nothing more than being alone. Her children, who lived on the West Coast, had paid for her to have a private room to alleviate their guilt in visiting so infrequently.

That private room was a mistake. If she had been in with Ms. Lionelli, who could barely hear even with her hearing aids in, that would have been a match made in heaven. Ms. O’Reilly would have felt she had an audience.

“I was very popular at dances.”

“Did you know I’m great at golf?”

“Seven soldiers proposed before going to the war.”

“Wow. That’s a lot of proposals.”

“Seven!”

“Which one did you marry?”

“I told them I needed to see who came back.”

We weren’t actually sure which one or ones Ms. O’Reilly married. She talked of “weddings” and once a year children visited.  

 

Barry Tunnhill, Room 341

The next day, Mr. Tunnhill’s daughter Helka walked in after dinner. She visited more than any other relative, except for Ms. Caymen’s husband who might have some kind of mental issue himself because he held her hand to stare at the shopping channel together for hours upon hours. Probably, we should have charged for two, since he shared all of her meals and spent ten hours a day in our facility before taking the bus home, but no one had the heart.

We were glad to see the Tunnhill daughter wasn’t carrying a bag of chocolate. Helka greeted us all by name.

“I have a question,” she said. “My dad was quite the drinker. Does that contribute to this?”

“Oh no. Alzheimer’s isn’t really triggered by anything like that. Heart disease or high cholesterol might increase risk.” We knew to help the family with the recriminations. Not much could be done to stop the progression of this particular illness.

The woman Helka, fading from her own youth, rubbed her hand across her forehead. “He got cranky tonight, but not about anything in particular. It reminded me of his drinking.”

“That happens,” we replied. “They call it sundowning. Everyone struggles more in the evening.”

Forgetting made people angry. We became great at language, watching the patients’ faces when they want to name something and trying to offer them the word (“Wheel of Fortune? More cabbage?”) before frustration won.

Our skill approached being psychic. We could have put on a show at a carnival. Memory Ward care relied upon being able to supply words in the ever-worsening drought.

 

Greta Mueller, Room 330

Ms. Mueller had been in the war and had numbers on her wrist. I always took extra care with her thin curls and brought in colorful barrettes that she liked. Before she stopped walking on her own, she would cling to the walls when moved. She could not have the lights out at night, but she was fine during the day.

Sometimes she cried, in total silence. We’ve tried to find what comforts her, but the tears continued to slide out, even once she dropped asleep.

Her eyelids were so thin we could see through them.

 

Elmer Squibb, Room 341

For the first time in the almost four years that Mr. Squibb had been with us, he had a visitor. A slight man who walked with a cane came in to be with him. The man came with his wife, who we realized must have driven him because the man was blind.

“We’ll need you to sign in, sir,” we said. We have a lot of protections here in the Memory Ward. His wife led his finger to the correct line. His writing was bad, but his driver’s license (!) said Dimitri Georgios.

“How is that a blind man still has a valid license?” Lally asked.

“I have no idea, but remind me to walk home,” I said.

Their progress on the third floor was slow. The man kept bumping into the carts in the hallway, even when holding his wife’s hand. At the door to Room 341, his wife said, “I’ll leave you two to talk about the war. Call me when you’re done. I’ll be reading my magazines in that big room at the end of the hall.”

I was the one who led that woman back when her husband was done, but I didn’t tell her what he did.

Dimitri Georgios walked past Mr. Tunnhill, and said, “Elmer?”

A sound came from Mr. Squibb, one we hadn’t heard before. The visitor used his cane to navigate his way past Mr. Tunnhill’s bed and through the curtain to the far side of the room.

The blind Mr. Georgios was in 341 for three hours. His wife sent a message that she had to get home in time for their dinner and could we please tell her husband it was time to go? We heard voices from the room, and wondered if one of these belonged to Mr. Squibb.

I walked in to deliver the wife’s message. The blind visitor held Elmer Squibb’s skeletal hand and told him over and over again that he loved him. Mr. Squibb pulled the paired hands towards his lips and kissed the other man’s hands. His eyes leaked like Ms. Mueller’s.

I gave the message to Mr. Georgios about his wife, but the two old men kept their hands twined.

When his wife finally walked in to get him, Dimitri Georgios wiped his bad eyes, made a comment about the war, and stood to leave.

Mr. Squibb made a small sound.

 

Greta Mueller, Room 330

We speak gently to the families about the symptoms, the catatonia and the anger. We’ve all seen the images of a dark crumpled patient brain versus the pink pulsing brain of someone without Alzheimer’s. The difference looks like those blackened lungs they bring into high school to get the kids not to smoke.

Ms. Mueller spoke at times in German. She covered her mouth and gasped when it happened. I reassured her. “That’s okay, honey! We even got a few who can talk it. Paula was raised Mennonite and her family spoke German.” We wanted them to feel as comfortable as they possibly could in their darkening days.

The Memory Ward offered only comfort, never a cure.  Doctors came by, but not that often. They pronounced when a body needed pronouncing.

 

Terrence Winter, Room 335

A sign appeared in our kitchen, informing us that everyone should limit their coffee to two cups. Why sweat the price of a few cups of coffee beans when we have ten hours to put these pieces of people together?

Mr. Winter died with eleven family members in his room. We’re supposed to limit how many can go in at one time. But when the guy has six kids, several of whom bring their spouses and then a wife in a wheelchair, we can hardly keep them out. We can hardly get through them to give Mr. Winter’s roommate his sundown meds.

Ms. O’Reilly tried to wheel her way into the crowded room, to tell them about her seven proposals but we steered her away.

 

Barry Tunnhill, Room 341

As we led Ms. O’Reilly back to the day room with promises of a Bette Davis movie, she saw Mr. Tunnhill sitting in his elevated bed holding the pop-up valentine his daughter had brought.

“Hello! Hello!” Ms. O’Reilly waved so hard she almost fell from the chair. We either had to let her stop and socialize or physically restrain her. We stopped.

Usually Ms. O’Reilly just made eyes at Mr. Tunnhill and touched his hand more than necessary in the card games. We felt bad we couldn’t put our two most social patients together, but we can’t have a male/female room. Mr. Squibb never says a word, and we’ve heard Mr. Tunnhill try to start a conversation, since they lay dying in the same room and all.

This time, Ms. O’Reilly insisted on socializing. We let them have their conversation, hard to follow but mutually fulfilling.

When she finally let us wheel her away, Ms. O’Reilly held the valentine.

“Did you know seven soldiers proposed before going to war?” she asked.

 

Terrence Winter, Room 335

We declared it when he died, but we had to wait for the doctor to make her rounds for the official papers. Most of the Winter kids stayed in the room, stroking the man’s arm as he cooled.

Mr. Winter was no trouble at all, but we were not sad when his family cleared out to go plan the funeral.

 

Donna Li, Room 336

Ms. Li kept ringing for us. She coughed and sputtered. She didn’t talk well, but we’re pretty sure she was trying to tell us she was dying.

We said what we are trained to say, that everything’s gonna be alright, just like in the Bob Marley song. Don’t worry about a thing.

But of course nothing will be all right. They have begun down the slope and they will pick up speed. The best possible hope is that they forget that things were once any other way.

“I’m dying,” she said. Ms. Li didn’t have the same health issues as many other patients. She could walk unassisted and was fairly strong. Her husband however wanted her to have 24-hour care provided by someone else. If she could forget faster, that would help.

“That’s sad when they get jealous of the dead guy.”

 

Elmer Squibb, Room 341

“I love you.”

Mr. Squibb didn’t realize the blind guy was gone, or that we were back in the room trying to help with personal hygiene. But the guy finally broke his silence.

He didn’t growl or give us the stink eye that evening. But he kept talking, saying the most romantic things. We wondered about sedation.  

 

Barry Tunnhill, Room 341

The next day, Mr. Tunnhill’s wife came to visit for the very first time. The daughter Helka brought her in. She was tiny and spoke with an accent.

“I can sit here,” the white-haired woman said. She put herself in the chair in the hallway, the one that religious counselors use when we needed to change sheets and they need to leave the room.

“Mom, we’re here to visit Dad.” Helka shook her head.

The white-haired lady nodded. She wandered over to the desk. “Are those your babies?” she asked Diana.

“My grandbabies,” Diana said.

“So beautiful.”

“Do you have any grandkids?”

“No. I want the babies!”

“You better tell your daughters to get on it.”

“Get on it,” she repeated. Her smile lit up the room.

Helka wasn’t smiling.

“He’s in room 341.” Diana pointed at Mr. Tunnhill’s room. The small woman picked up a greeting card displayed on the counter. She studied the sparkly butterfly on the front of the card.

Mr. Tunnhill’s daughter gestured towards room 341. “Mom, we can’t leave until you go in. He’ll be glad to see you.”

The small woman turned towards the door but didn’t take a step.

 

Elmer Squibb, Room 341

Mr. Squibb’s blood pressure spiked so much after his visitor, I had to call in the doctor. The noises he made were puppy sounds, soft and formless.

As we walked back through the curtain towards the door of room 341, the Tunnhill daughter stood up beside her father.

“Have you seen my mom?” the woman asked.

“She was just here,” we said. How fast could a little old lady go? We had doors that were hard to open, with three checkpoints. “She can’t have gone far.”

Twilight was approaching and we needed to find her before the patients began their evening meltdowns.

 

Greta Mueller, Room 330

The sounds from Ms. Mueller’s room were unrecognizable. First, Ms. Mueller was laughing, which wasn’t something that came out of Room 330 often. Second, voices spoke in a language none of us knew. Growing up in Pennsylvania Dutch country, I could at least recognized the motory rumble of German.

“What’s going on in there?” Paula asked.

“I’ll check,” I said.

Barry Tunnhill’s wife sat beside the bed and held Ms. Mueller’s arm. She had one hand beneath the woman’s wrist and with the other moved across the fading numbers burned into the old woman’s arm. The five numbers lined up between her wrist and elbow, and Barry Tunnhill’s wife touched them softly. They spoke back in forth with what sounded like a fully fleshed conversation.

I’d never seen Ms. Mueller smile like that, not even when I brought the butterfly barrettes.  

 

Elmer Squibb, Room 341

In the process of finding Mr. Tunnhill’s wife, we lost his roommate. When I carried Mr. Squibb’s nightly medication in, I noticed he wasn’t in his bed. His walker was still pushed up against the far wall, so somewhere on the third floor Mr. Squibb was wall surfing.

“Shit,” I said.

Behind me Mr. Tunnhill began to sing about bringing back his Bonnie.

I sounded the alarm. The door to the common area with the elevators must be buzzed to open. Diana had been dealing with the coffeemaker’s leaky carafe, so she wasn’t at her desk. How long had the old man had stood, his face left a blur on the glass of the door when we peeled him away to take him back to his bed?

“I love you,” he said. “I love you.”

 

Barry Tunnhill, Room 341

When Barry Tunnhill’s daughter collected her mother from Ms. Mueller’s room, Helka Tunnhill couldn’t get the woman to go say goodbye to her husband. The white-haired woman smiled, but refused. On the way out, she waved at each of us. “Thank you. Beautiful babies.”

She was a sweet old lady, but I’d never seen one refuse to see the patient.

Although Ms. Mueller died just a few weeks after that visit, Mr. Tunnhill lived for another sixteen months, cheerfully allowing us to care for his needs and talking less and less although he still sang and had quite the talent for solving puzzles on Wheel of Fortune, well past the point when we thought speech had left him.

I took Helka aside to tell her when Mr. Tunnhill had only a few days left to live, since we see those end-of-life signals more clearly than the doctors. “If anyone wants to come say goodbye, now is the time,” I said to her.

His roommate Elmer Squibb never said another word and his wife never returned.

~ ~ ~

 

Kristie Betts Letter's poetry collection Under-Worldly (Editorial L’Aleph 2017) examines what lies beneath with what Cowboy Jamboree describes as “fantastic images of the subterranean grit.” The Massachusetts Review, The North Dakota Quarterly, Washington Square, Passages North, Pangolin Papers, and The Southern Humanities Review featured her writing and Best American Short Fictions and Terrain Environmental Writing have lauded it. She's also earned several teaching awards in Colorado for forcing Hamlet on high school seniors. For more please visit kristiebettsletter.com

 

Note

My inspiration for the story "Sundowning" was my great aunt. She escaped from Poland during World War II, but didn't talk about her life or decide that she didn't want to spend time with her husband until her last few years. During that time, her husband was in a memory care unit. This story sprang from watching her cheerfully interact with everyone except her husband, and is a part of my collection articulating voices from the second World War that were not a part of official histories. 

 

Q&A

You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?

I'd name a new planet Tralfamadore, since that was the planet Kurt Vonnegut detailed for me. My travels there made a writer. I've named every goldfish I've ever had Kilgore Trout. 

 

What is your dietary pleasure?

My favorite food is red wine.  

 

Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall?

Fall has just a touch of decay, enough to heighten the senses and make everything so beautiful you almost can't bear it.


Short Fiction

Claudia Smith.jpg

Claudia Smith

Invited by Guest Editor Chauna Craig

Followed by Bio and Q&A

Stars in Hattiesburg

 

I’m splitting a blade of grass in my front yard. This moment I know is real: the itch of the St. Augustine against my bare thighs, the sure knowledge that my mother is inside, cooking pork chops and sunshine squash. We are now in the time my mother will call upwardly mobile, but I don’t know those words yet, and I can’t explain our descent when we leave. We live near University Place; this is years before our eviction, before I keep my eyes on the scuffed parts of my sneakers, counting to one before I blink, to one before I blink, to one before I blink. My mother is inside, and my father will be home, he will scoop me up into his arms, and then he might tickle me hard, until I beg him to stop, and he won’t, and I’ll beg some more, until my mother will say softly, his name, in just the right way so that he does stop before I wet myself. He’ll lift me up high to the ceiling and I’ll press my fingertips against the glitter in the plaster. I look into the blade of grass. I’m six. “I will always and forever remember this moment,” I hear the words in my head, clear as any sound. My father comes out, lifts me up towards the smudged clouds, and my hands are wide. I’m so proud to be loved this way. His hands are tight against my ribcage, but I don’t say it, I gasp, learning how to make joy out of joy when it is necessary.

* * *

Thirty-six years later I am watching my son in the front of the house my professor rents me on the cheap; it is the tiniest, prettiest little cottage imaginable—that’s how I will describe it, that’s how I remember it, with love. In the spring, it teems with life, with fire ants, caterpillars, so many caterpillars we have to be careful not to squash. Later, rats, but I’ll call them rodents when I talk about them to him. I’ll move him into my room until the rats are dealt with; I’ll move him into my room when the stalker follows us. That’s how I think of him, the stalker, like some shadowy figure from a late-night movie, I can’t think of his name, which I’ve seen again and again, the first and last, on my screen. He took a Greyhound bus down to find me. I’ve stopped reading the messages. I don’t tell my son, he is too young to tell, but I won’t let him play outside anymore. I’d practically pushed him out the door to play before then, imagining we were in this town, this little college town. I could live in this town with almost nothing, nothing at all. Even the U-HAUL was twenty-five dollars, the Winn-Dixie banana boxes free, the fellow graduate students, all of them younger, stronger, who helped us unload, about as free as can be; I made a big pot of Ragu Spaghetti and poured paper cups full of cheap red. I had been so happy that day, watching him play outside, making a fort out of the boxes. I’d lie down with him, looking up at the tall tall Mississippi pines, squinting into the sun, imagining how he’d remember this, like some beautiful independent film filled with honey-light. We’d dig up a garden in back and plant the cucumbers and squash too close together; I would name them cusquash. Some were delicious, some awful, and all the combinations varied. Oh! What joy. I would give my son joy, I decided. We made mummy pizzas out of Bisquick, Ragu, and string cheese. “I like living in a town,” I’d tell friends on Facebook, “where the pediatrician’s office is only ten minutes away.” Even the hard stuff was a story, a story for him to grow up and talk about when he told stories about his magic childhood. Like the one about the license plates. A kindly man at the service station told me he’d change my plates for free. His voice, I remember, was deep and lovely, my idea of all the best rich notes in Mississippi. “Well Ma’am,” he’d tell me, looking at the Texas license plates, “I don’t know what possessed you to move from there to here, but whatever it was, I sure do hope it gets better for you.”

I love this age. Five. I can teach him all about magic and it almost makes me believe, too. It does. When the child support stops coming, I’m scared at first. But then, it isn’t really so bad. He’s a smart kid; Sacred Heart puts him on free lunch, agrees to a scholarship. Eagle dining, I’ve learned, will usually let him in for free. Every Sunday is omelet day; we line up for the omelet man, the same old man who makes it just right every time, in a cast iron skillet. There will be so many hard things about Mississippi, but my son will remind me, years later, how good the breakfasts always were.

And then the stalker. The doctor at the clinic urges medication. You need to sleep, she tells me, or you can’t take care of your son. You have to take care of yourself to take care of him. I talk about the stalker in spurts, and sometimes the grad students walk away. I can see it’s better not to say much. The pages and pages he writes me, how could he fill the space with all these words? I don’t read them, I delete. Please leave me alone, I say firmly, politely, as the police said to do. I’m told not to read them, get them out of my head. I’m told to save them; the threats are evidence.

My ex says if I don’t pay the taxes he tells me to pay, he will not send any support. H&R Block says if I pay the taxes, they will turn me in to the IRS.

I’m sitting outside, in my old Ford, staring up at the pine trees cutting into the sky. Tall tall trees over little little cottage. You know, I could take him. I could take him any time I want, my ex is saying. My son is asleep in the back, sucking fingers. When we are done, I feel the air tight around me, and a ragged breath escapes. I need my son near, at all times. “Have you had intimate conversation with this man?” the Hattiesburg police had asked me a week ago, and when I sighed, everyone left the room but the female officer. I felt the same shame, the feeling I’ve had since I can remember, as if the warm release of urine will soon leak down my legs. And now this; my son’s father. I could take him any time I want. The knowledge, the force of that knowledge, leaves me gasping without noise. He has money. And here I am, a woman who had intimate conversation with a homeless man who more than likely is living in a classroom less than a mile away, taking dumps in the garbage can, coming for me, ready to claim me and my son, because of the tangled late-night emails I sent over two nights of spiked hot Lipton tea.

I carry my son inside. I tuck him in. I don’t take a pill. The fear is a tightening in my chest, warm snotty breath against my neck, imagining his eyes on the backs of my knees. There is a high window from the bathroom that opens out over the garden. Is he out there, sleeping with the cusquash, eating the squash? The next morning, I’ll count the squash and some will be missing. I will know it to be ridiculous, my belief that he was there to take the vegetables away when it could have been any number of animals. More than likely, it was animals.

I sleep with my fingers wrapped around my flip phone, my son pressed against the wall beside me. For years, my son will ask me if I’ve locked the door as soon as we come inside.

My fault, this. I think of the week we first moved in, the room I chose for him, with its light peach walls, my kind professor and her partner planting a peach tree, and how I presented the golden key to him with a flourish. That night I turned on all the lights and walked into the front with him, standing under the peach tree, looking at our pretty place, all lit like a house from out of a Little Golden Book. “See that?” I told him. “That’s home.”

* * *

Here’s a moon big and bright and no higher than a streetlamp. My father carries me in and I open my eyes, just a sliver, enough to see but to seem to be sleeping. Is this when I loved him? It was easy to love him, this one, not the one my mother told me was someone else. That one, she would say, “That wasn’t your father.”

But there he is, I see him now, he is ready to come out when my father is on some bright edge, driving us into a sunrise, windows down, singing, stopping, starting.

If he’s too happy, it can be dangerous.

My mother will remember this. Your father always had such a sense of adventure. He took us places. Why can’t you remember the good? You always remember the bad.

When is it that I see he is not, literally, two men? That this is the same man, and his eyes glitter with glee whether he is ready to strike or ready to embrace. He’ll bury his head in her lap, and she’ll stroke his sweaty hair. She loves his hair, how it forms a widow’s peak, and she’ll hold his head against her breast in such a way I’ve never seen her do with me, or my brother. He’ll say her name, like a prayer, again and again.

I’ll remember that, and how, hours after he’s shaken me, threatened, ripped open my Baby Tenderlove, I’ll taste my own tears and they will be salty, delicious. I’ll pick at the scab now, and he will be sorry. You know I love you don’t you? You are my baby girl. He’ll wait for me to say, yes, I love you too. They will both tell me, again, in many ways, how he loves me. And she will wake early, make me Malt-O-Meal, stir in powdered milk and what’s left of the honey. I will love her fiercely as she does this, I’ll lick the bowl, and I will say, yummm. Thank you. This is delicious. So there is that. That’s some of the good.

* * *

“I know why you and my Daddy got a divorce,” my son says. Actually he says, “a divorced.” He is that cute. I’m not sure what to say. I think I know what I should say, something reassuring, something I must have read before about why mommies and daddies get divorced. “You had a fight.”

The fight was because of a scream inside the car. I remember that fight, I’m sure I know the one, and there were so many. But that was the night my son smiled, his eyes glazed over like marbles. I asked his father to please, drive home. Something was wrong, very wrong. And he did, finally. I carried him inside, and he was still there, dazed. I checked to see if his eyes were dilated.

“Honey,” I said to him, “are you okay?”

“I’m happy, Mommy. I’m okay. I’m happy.”

“You did this to him, bitch,” his father said from somewhere outside us. His voice was flat, and outside the darkness leaned in like a light. And then I remember: it was me. I screamed. It rose up out of me until it wasn’t me, a scream, and I can’t remember ever screaming this way, although my mother would tell me, years later, it was why my father broke at times. He couldn’t take the screaming.

Should I tell him? I didn’t. I tell him, I’m sorry. We shouldn’t have fought like that.

“It wasn’t you, Mom. It was the sound.”

* * *

As he grew, my son had questions, and I answered them. I tried to tell him what I could, without burdening him. I tell him the story about the Omelet Man, and I wonder, does he remember or is it the story I am telling? And then he will tell me something else, something I’ve forgotten, but then it is there, shiny and found. “Remember the time you told me you could only go to Chuck E. Cheese if you were invited to a birthday party, Mom? Remember that?”

“Really? Did I say that? Now I didn’t say that.”

“You did! You said it was just for birthday parties.” He laughs, as if this is something to admire in me, as if it is evidence of a clever ruse.

“You had birthdays at Ghatti Town.”

“Mom, I didn’t mean it like that.”

Pray, pray, kiss in the morning, early morning drives with frost on the window, imagining the places we’d go when I graduated. I have never been all that good at making money, though. Will he forgive me? Will he say, we didn’t have heat. Or will he say, “I remember the time my mother brought home a space heater that looked like a fake fireplace, and we sipped hot cocoa, and she took me outside to count the stars. You could see a lot of stars in Hattiesburg. City lights didn’t blot them out.”

~ ~ ~

 

Claudia Smith's stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The RumpusLitHubNorton's The New Sudden Fiction: Short-Short Stories from America and BeyondLone Star Noir (Akashic/Cinco Puntos), and forthcoming in Norton's The New Microfictions. She is the author of two flash fiction collections, The Sky Is A Well and Other Shorts (Rose Metal Press) and Put Your Head in My Lap (Future Tense Books), as well as a short story collection, Quarry Light (Magic Helicopter Press). She attended the Center for Writers at The University of Southern Mississippi, and now works as a lecturer at the University of Houston-Downtown. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her children William and Meihua, and her husband, Xuesong Chen.

 

Note

This is a very personal piece. I wrote it after a long and busy day. My son is thirteen now, and it seems all of a sudden his comprehension of the past and present has changed. It’s both wonderful and terrible, and I can’t believe he’s as tall as I am now.

Anyway, I was driving to work and The Pretenders’ I’ll Stand By You came on the radio. This is a bit corny but that song always makes me think of my son. Late that night, after everyone was in bed, I sat down to write and the song was still with me. I’d been thinking on and off about my own childhood, and how much I wanted his to be magical when he was small. It struck me that my own childhood memories are in constant revision, and it’s impossible to separate them from who I am now, yet those memories formed me. I started with the memory of the blade of grass, which is a true memory I told my son about when he was small. It’s such an ordinary and solitary moment, and the first time I heard him telling a friend about it I was surprised. For a couple of years, when he was little, he’d sometimes say, let’s say we will always remember this so we won’t forget it ever. Of course I’m sure we’ve both forgotten some of those moments. I started with the blade of glass, then a memory of my father carrying me on his shoulders. My grandparents had a plastered ceiling coated with glitter, and I used to reach up and press my fingertips against the ceiling when he put me on his shoulders. We called it "catching the stars."

When I was small, the world was what my parents told me it was, and then I grew and my perspective shifted. I thought about my son, how he might remember his own early childhood, and it all sort of unfolded from there. I probably returned to the stars in Hattiesburg because of the glittery ceiling. I love my grandparents’ house; my father never lost his temper or became violent when we were there. It was a safe place. I can remember it better than the numerous places I've lived since. I would hesitate to call this piece creative nonfiction even though I was using the landscape of my childhood for it, and his, because all of it is not "true" or factual.

Q&A

What is your favorite dietary pleasure? 

I'm the sort who goes through cravings; I listen to the same song over and over again, or decide to wear the same cowgirl boots all season until I can't look at them anymore. I do this with food also. One winter break I sipped mulled wine at night and binged-watched every Vampire television series I could find on Netflix. Frito pie. Scrambled eggs with mayonnaise, the way my grandmother used to make them, with jalapeño preserves on dry toast. I'll go through a whole season craving something, eating it daily, and then the weather will change and that craving is gone. But coffee is the one constant craving. Coffee with cinnamon and Kerry Gold butter, Coffee with a little vanilla, coconut milk and coffee, any kind of frothy fancy coffee drink, black coffee with brown sugar. I just will never stop needing and wanting coffee. 

You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?

Truthfully, I'd probably enlist my children in this, and there would be a big debate, and would try to talk my daughter down from a name like Pink Princess Marshmallow Toes. We have a water snail named Elsa Blue. That's rather pretty.

Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall?

Fall. And this is odd, because I think just about every terrible thing that ever happened to me happened in the fall, or the end of summer. Maybe that's part of it. But I love it. I love cardigans, getting new light-up shoes for the kids, and all the mustering up I do before the beginning of the new semester. I love the end of a long, lethargic summer. Fall is cozy boots and flannel, but not too cold, not death yet. Also, it's the best time to read Wuthering Heights, watch horror films, wear the color mustard, or be in love.


Guest Editor for Poetry, Issue 131

Yahya Frederickson.jpg

Yahya Frederickson

Guest Editor for Poetry, Issue 131, April-June 2018

Yahya Frederickson is the author of In a Homeland Not Far: New & Selected Poems (Press 53 Silver Concho Poetry Series). He is the author of The Gold Shop of Ba-‘Ali, which won Lost Horse Press’s 2013 Idaho Prize. He’s also the author of four chapbooks. The latest chapbook, The Birds of Al-Merjeh Square: Poems from Syria, won the 2013 Open Chapbook Competition at Finishing Line Press. His other chapbooks are Month of Honey, Month of Missiles (Tigertail, 2009), Returning to Water (Dacotah Territory, 2006) and Trilogy (Dacotah Territory, 1985, with Julie Taylor and Richard Schetnan). His poems have appeared in numerous journals includingArts & Letters, Black Warrior ReviewClackamas Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, Cream City ReviewCutBankCutthroat: A Journal of the ArtsFlywayGreat River Review, Green Mountains Review, Hanging Loose, The Laurel Review, Midwestern Gothic, Mizna, Ninth Letter, Prairie Schooner, River StyxQuarter After Eight, Quarterly WestThe Southern Review, WLA, Water~Stone Review, and Witness. He teaches writing and literature at Minnesota State University Moorhead and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana and a PhD in English from the University of North Dakota. Between graduate degrees he taught for six years in Yemen, initially as a Peace Corps Volunteer. He has served as a Fulbright Scholar in Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Kyrgyzstan.

 

 

AL-MUTANABBI’S DOOR

by Yahya Frederickson

            with versions of Arberry’s translations

 

Because of his prodigious poetic skill and ego, Abu al-Tayyib Ahmad ibn al-Husayn al-Kindi became known as al-Mutanabbi, “the one claiming to be a prophet.” His greatest poetic output occurred during his nine years as court poet for Sayf al-Daula, the Emir of Aleppo, in the mid-10th century.

Easter 2005: whenever my family and I enter an Aleppine hotel, the receptionist raises his eyebrows once, Syrian body language for no. Though I’m a Muslim, I’m thinking of the Bible story about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem—in Arabic, Bayt Lahm—“House of Meat.”

                        The worst land is a place where there’s no friend.

                        The worst thing a person can earn is dishonor.

Aleppo—in Arabic, Halab—means “milk,” the place, it is said, where the Prophet Abraham stopped to milk his cow on the way from Mesopotamia to a land that would become holy after he arrived.

                        Where have you decided to go, gallant hero? 

                        We are the plants on the hills, and you are the clouds.

At Funduq al-Gawaher—“Hotel of Jewels”—we take the only room left. The sink slobbers onto the floor. The bedspreads bear their blotches. I lean against the tapestry, smashing hidden mosquitoes between the Armenian letters and the pink wall.

                        I’ve reached the point that when arrows strike me,

                    the tips break against each other.

In the Great Mosque, where people hang combination locks onto the grating around Prophet Zakariah’s tomb, I ask the old custodian, Ayna bayt al-Mutanabbi, “Where is al-Mutanabbi’s house?” His hand angles and jabs the air.

                        When I behold you, my eyes are too dazzled.

                        When I praise you, my tongue too bewildered.

Corridors of shops selling inlaid wooden boxes and red tapestries. Corridors of olives, almonds, and fustuq halabi—pistachios. A soap-seller unfolds his jackknife, pulls the blade through a brown bar of olive-oil soap, revealing a jade core, till the blade presses against his thumb.

                        Bless you for the rain that you are, as if our skin

                        sprouts brocade, embroidered silk, and fine robes.

From a cart, a vendor sells tumblers of soos—bitter black tonic made from licorice root. It’s said a Halabi merchant can sell anything, even the stiff hide of a donkey.

                        He is the sea—dive into it for pearls when it’s still,

                        but beware when it’s foaming.

For nearly a decade, al-Mutanabbi praised Emir Sayf al-Daula. Or was he praising himself?

                        He knows the secrets of all religions and languages.

                        His thoughts put people and books to shame.

Ayna bayt al-Mutanabbi? I ask a young man walking alone. He pauses to explain, then beckons I follow him. More alleys. He stops before a door.

                        The horse, the night, and the desert know me,

                        and the sword and the spear, and the paper and the pen.

Heavy. Wooden. Plain. Painted orange and brown. A small plaque beside it says Mu’assasat al-Nisaa’—”Women’s Foundation.”

                        Everything Allah has created and hasn’t created

                        means as little to me as a single hair on my head.

I knock. No one opens. A passerby says it’s closed, and shrugs away. “For the day? The weekend? Forever? Until when?”

                        What is time but a reciter of my lines—

                        when I compose a poem, time recites it.

In the emir’s court, al-Mutanabbi’s chief poetic rival was Abu Firas al-Hamdani, the emir’s own cousin. When the blood ties tightened around him, al-Mutanabbi fled to Egypt.

                        When you see the lion bare its fangs,

                        do not suppose it’s smiling.

Six years after leaving Halab, I’m watching the Arab Spring blossom on Al Jazeera TV.  Hesitant demonstrators gather in alleys. A soldier’s rifle cracks, scattering them like mice.

                        Can a hunk of meat on a butcher’s block reign

                        when swords are thirsty and birds are hungry?        

Two years after the Arab Spring, opposition and government forces battle for each street.  Breaking news: the minaret of the Great Mosque in Halab has been toppled by government artillery.

In the twilight, helicopters dangle barrels of explosives over neighborhoods.

                        Despite its bold edge, you’ll find that the sword

                        in the hand of a coward becomes a coward itself.

Ten years have passed since I spent one day of my life in Halab.

                        I’m nothing but an arrow in the air, returning

                        because I didn’t find anything there to grasp.

That day I knocked on al-Mutanabbi’s door. Or maybe it was just a door.


Guest Editor for Short Fiction, Issue 131

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Ray Morrison

Guest Editor for Short Fiction Issue 131, April – June 2018

Ray Morrison is the author of In a World of Small Truths (Press 53 2012) and is currently working on a new collection of short fiction. His fiction has appeared in Fiction Southeast, Ecotone, Aethlon, Carve Magazine, Word Riot, Night Train, and others. His stories also appear in a number of anthologies, including The Mix Tape: A Flash Fiction Anthology (Fast Forward Press). He won first prize in the Short Story category of the 2011 Press 53 Open Awards, judged by Chris Offutt, and he has twice won Honorable Mention in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition.

 

LAID TO REST

by Ray Morrison

 

Carson stood outside the barn and stared down at the dead dog. The coonhound’s head tilted back in a wide pool of thick, clotted blood, and her red-slickened tongue drooped from a slack jaw. Carson’s eyes locked on the gaping slit that ran across the dog’s throat, following it from where it started underneath the exposed ear to the point it disappeared into the spongy mess below. He threw the bowl of kibble he held through the dark mouth of the barn, barely registering the clatter of the metal pan as it hit the dirt floor.

Behind Carson, the late summer sun was just cresting the ridge and the tall, dewy tobacco plants glimmered in the front field. He crossed the yard to the house. As he stepped up on the porch he smelled ham frying, which told him that Jessie was awake and in the kitchen.

He stood in the kitchen doorway watching his wife turn the thin slices of meat in the pan.

“You’re up early,” he said. “Is your back acting up again?”

“No, just had a bad dream,” Jessie replied. “Didn’t feel like staying in bed, is all.”

Carson rubbed away a sheen of sweat from the back of his neck. “Dixie is dead.”

Jessie turned and looked at him. He could tell she was gauging the truth of his statement.

“What’re you talking about?” She stepped back from the stove and turned fully toward her husband. “How? Can you tell what from?”

Carson nodded and looked down at his boots. A smear of Dixie’s blood stained the tip of one.

“Someone sliced open her throat.”

“Oh, my God. Who on earth would do something like that?”

He lifted his gaze and held her eyes. Neither spoke. The ham started to smoke and Jessie flipped the knob to shut off the gas, sliding the pan off the burner.

“I think we both have a pretty good idea who did it,” he said. “And I intend to do something about it.”

“You don’t know for sure. Don’t go off half-cocked and end up doing something stupid before you’ve got all the facts.”

“Who else would want my dog dead? You know yourself Sulley’s a crazy ol’ coot.”

Jessie’s lips tightened. “Well, I didn’t until last month.”

Carson nodded. He had never thought Sulley would have actually used the sledgehammer on them, that he only brought it to their house to intimidate them. Which he did well enough, especially Jessie. But now, after Dixie, Carson wondered if he’d been naïve.

“You should call the sheriff. Let him handle it,” Jessie said.

“You really think Jack Mabry is going to give a shit about a dead dog? I ain’t wasting my time.” Carson glanced again at his boot, at the trace of blood. “I’m going out to bury Dixie now.”

Carson turned and walked through to the front of the house. As he pushed open the screen door he heard the frying pan clatter in the kitchen sink.

When he reached the curing barn, the sky had brightened considerably, and the scene of his murdered dog was harsher in the clearer light. A sudden tightness seized inside Carson’s chest. He stepped around the dog’s body, giving a wide berth, and headed to the tool shed that sat behind the barn at the edge of the woods on the south side of his property. When he came out of the shed carrying a pickax and shovel, a jay squawked above him from a branch of a poplar tree. He paused to peer at the bird.

He picked out a spot beneath the large oak under which Dixie had spent most of her days sleeping. The ground was compact, but yielded easily enough when Carson swung the pickax hard into it. He roughed out the rectangular shape of the grave, pitching the blade into the soil over and over until the entire top layer was loosened. He paused to catch his breath and to mop his sweaty forehead with the hem of his t-shirt. He traded the pickax for the shovel and scooped the broken dirt into a pile at the base of the oak.

When he was up to his hips, Carson figured he’d gone deep enough. His shirt was soaked with perspiration and caked, along with his jeans, with red clay. Breathing hard, he gripped one side of the grave and hoisted himself out. As he brushed loose chunks of dirt off his clothing he noticed Jessie across the yard standing on the edge of the front porch watching him, her arms folded tightly across her chest. After a minute, she walked back into the house. Carson waited until his breathing slowed, rubbing at a burn that had settled into his right shoulder from the effort. When he’d got his wind back, he walked back to where Dixie’s flaccid body lay. A small cloud of flies buzzed around her head and neck while others lighted atop her smudged coat. He had to straddle the puddle of dark, maroon blood in order to lift Dixie’s head out of it. The hound’s head flopped awkwardly and Carson reached instinctively to catch it. When he did, his fingers slid into the gaping wound on her neck.

By the time Carson carried Dixie over and laid her in the grave, it was approaching noon. He yanked off his shirt and wiped a slime of blood from his wrists and forearms before picking up the shovel to fill the hole. He lifted a shovelful of dirt from the pile and hesitated only briefly before dropping the soil on top of the dog’s body. Just as Carson was patting down the last of the topsoil on the grave, Jessie came and stood at its near end and waited for him to finish. Neither of them said anything. Carson nodded once and walked over to collect the pickax from where it leaned against the oak’s trunk. Without glancing back, he carried the tools to the shed. The sun burned hot on his bare back. After stowing the implements, Carson latched the door to the shed and then stepped around it to let his eyes fall on a narrow path that cut through the woods, the path that led to the wire fence marking the south border of his farm and which separated his property from Clint Sulley’s.

***

When Carson stood on the front porch of his house the next morning he was surprised to see the thick mantle of fog that lay across the front field, so dense he couldn’t make out the silhouette of his Ford pickup in the drive just off to his left. The mist brushed his bare arms, cool and moist, raising goose bumps under the thick hair of his forearms. Carson hadn’t thought about the possibility it might be chilly that morning, distracted as he was by his plans. He considered going back inside to grab his jacket, but knew the sun would be rising soon and that it would almost certainly start burning off the fog before he’d even reached Sulley’s place.

Carson cracked open the barrel of his shotgun to verify both chambers had shells loaded even though he’d just checked it before coming outside. When he snapped it closed, the sound echoed dully in the humid, hazy air. He patted the back pocket of his jeans to make sure the flashlight was still there.

He lingered on the top step and looked toward the expanse of the front field, invisible in the gloomy fog. He’d planned that morning to begin the summer’s first cutting, and still harbored hope he could settle this thing with Sulley in time to make decent progress. At last, he stepped off the porch and toward the path, well-worn and familiar.

Carson clicked on the flashlight in order to navigate the path. He trained the beam of light along the ground so he wouldn’t trip over a root or an unexpected pit in the ground. Carson could hear small animals skittering in the leaf litter around him and the chatter of startled squirrels in the branches above. His nostrils filled with the heavy, damp smell of the dense vegetation.

Carson tried to focus on how he’d plan to approach Sulley, but a jumble of other thoughts distracted him. Try as he might, he couldn’t ignore the uneasy feeling he got remembering the argument he’d had with Jessie as he dressed that morning. In all of their twenty-two years together, Carson could count on one hand the number of times he’d seen his wife cry, and most of those had been shortly after the doctor had informed them she’d never be able to have children. So it was difficult for Carson to rid his mind of the image of her sitting on the edge of the bed, amid the rumpled sheets, yelling that he was about to make a huge mistake, that she feared Sulley, a tear sliding down her freckled cheek. It was the closest he’d come to abandoning his plan, but he told Jessie this wasn’t about a grudge by a sentimental man who’d lost his favorite dog, but about the bigger principle of protecting their property and not being intimidated by the likes of Clint Sulley.

Close by, a rooster crowed and its jagged yawp startled Carson. The sky was lightening and the path ahead began to appear like a developing photograph. Carson shut off the flashlight and shoved it back into his pocket. He switched the shotgun to his other hand, the metal warm and damp where he’d been gripping it.

Whether from the nebulous light or the distraction of his thoughts, Carson nearly ran into the welded wire fence separating his land from Sulley’s. Standing at the fence he felt his pulse hammering in his ears. Across a wide mown field he saw the dark silhouette of Sulley’s house, a light glowing dully from one upstairs window. Carson canvassed his neighbor’s property, his head arcing slowly from right to left. Back behind the house he could just make out the clapboard lean-to that housed the hutches which Sulley used for raising rabbits. Not long after that stretch where a dozen or so rabbits were found torn up, some with their heads missing, Clint Sulley had seen Dixie running in his field, so he’d fixed in his mind the idea that the coonhound was guilty of attacking the animals. One evening after suppertime, Sulley had come by Carson’s place to voice his accusation, armed with the sledgehammer.

A shadow moved across the shade of the lighted window. The profile was slight, reaching barely halfway up the window, so Carson assumed it was Marie, Clint’s wife. Although they’d lived side-by-side for more than twenty years, the two families never became friends. In the early years, Jessie would stop by with a banana loaf or pecan pie she’d made, but the Sulleys made no effort to reciprocate, not inviting the Carsons into the house even once, and after a while Jessie quit trying. Clint and Marie Sulley had, in fact, been rarely seen off their place in the past five or six years, ever since their only child, a daughter, had run off at seventeen to marry a boy over in Stoneville.

Carson reached across the chest-high fence and propped the shotgun against the opposite side while he hoisted himself up. The fence wire swayed wildly when he lifted his weight onto it, and Carson thought he was going to flip over but he managed to hang on until he could get both legs across and hop to the ground. His right knee throbbed from the jump, a painful reminder to Carson that he was no longer a young man. He retrieved the shotgun, and marched across the dewy grass toward the house.

The rickety front porch boards moaned under Carson’s weight. He pulled open the flimsy screen door and knocked. Soon he could hear the sound of heavy footsteps thumping down a staircase not far beyond the foyer. When the door opened, Clint Sulley stood nearly filling its frame. Sulley had been an all-county linebacker in high school, and although in twenty years he had softened around the middle, he was still imposing. He stood a full head taller than Carson, with massive shoulders that had undoubtedly intimidated many a quarterback back in the day. Sulley’s face was covered with an ample beard, thick like fur, which extended down his neck and disappeared beyond the collar of his undershirt. The only things that were small about Clint Sulley were his eyes. They were dark, like a rodent’s, and they looked down at Carson with obvious surprise.

“What is it?” Sulley asked.

Carson noticed the big man’s eyes had locked on the shotgun dangling from his hand. Carson lifted the weapon, grasping the barrel with his left hand, angling it across his body.

“I reckon you know why I’m here, Clint,” Carson said.

“Well, you’d be reckonin’ wrong then. Why don’t you tell me.”

“It’s about Dixie, my dog, and what you done to her yesterday.”

“Your dog?” Sulley scratched at the whiskers on his cheek. “And what exactly is it I supposedly done to her?”

“You know damned well you snuck onto my property and sliced her throat. All because you got it in your head she killed those rabbits of yours.”

The two men eyed each other and Carson tried to read Sulley’s face, but the heavy beard made it impossible.

“I’d rather not get the law involved,” Carson added. “I just want to know what compensation you are willing to make. We had that dog a long time and she was pretty special to both me and Jessie.” Carson flexed his fingers to stop from gripping the shotgun so tight. “Like I told you, Dixie had nothing to do with killing your rabbits.”

Before Sulley could respond, Marie’s voice hollered from inside the house asking who was at the door.

“It’s Mr. Carson, from across the way,” Sulley called back, his eyes shifting to meet Carson’s.

“What’s he want?” Marie answered.

“Says someone killed his dog. He thinks I done it.”

There was a long pause then and Carson thought the woman had not heard her husband.

“Oh, no,” Marie said finally, her voice so quiet now that Carson almost didn’t hear it.

“Please leave now,” Sulley said. “You’re trespassing. And from the looks at that gun, you’re threatening me, too. Way I figure it, I’m within my rights to defend myself.” The big man crossed his arms across his wide chest.

“I ain’t leaving until we settle this thing fair and square. I’m not looking for trouble, Sulley. But what you did was crossing the line in my book.”

Just then, sounds of a commotion came from inside the house and when Sulley turned to check what was going on, Carson could see Marie halfway down the stairs struggling to hold back a young boy who was clearly attempting to get down to the main floor. Even at a distance, with a limited view, Carson could tell something was not right with the child.

“Get back to bed, Robby, please,” Marie pleaded. “Mommy will make you French toast if you do.”

The boy was too strong for Marie to constrain. He broke past her to run down the stairs, over to where Sulley and Carson stood. Sulley bent and grabbed the boy’s arm to catch and restrain him. Up close, Carson could see that the boy, whom he guessed was no more than nine or ten years old, had several physical deformities. The back of the boy’s skull bulged, as big as a melon, and one eye, twice as large as the other, stared up at him dully. The boy’s lower jaw hung open, his tongue protruding lazily from his mouth.

Sulley spoke softly to the boy in a voice that belied his massiveness. “Robby, be good and listen to your mother now and go on upstairs.”

Robby rocked against his father’s grip and seemed not to hear the command. After almost a full minute where no one spoke, the boy stopped rocking and stood still, his chin dropping against his small chest.

“I didn’t realize you had a son, Sulley,” Carson said, breaking the silence.

“Ain’t no one’s business that we do,” Sulley said. “And we’d like to keep it that way.” He loosened his hold of the boy’s arm and then wrapped his arm around Robby’s shoulders, pressing the child against him.

Suddenly, Robby jerked away from his father and began to swing his arms rapidly, his closed fists pinwheeling punches into Sulley’s chest and gut. When Sulley stepped back to move away from the attack, Robby ran to him and began to bite his father’s arm with sharp, crooked teeth. Sulley winced, but made no sound. He reached down, struggling to pull the boy off him. From the stairs, Marie cried out.

Outside, Carson leaned the shotgun against the house beside the door and hurried in to help. He grabbed Robby’s waist and tugged him away, surprised at the strength in the boy’s wiry frame.

Blood trickled from an arc of puncture wounds on Sulley’s arm, but the big man didn’t seem to notice his injury as he came over to where Carson struggled with the flailing child. Robby had begun screaming, a high-pitched, bestial howl that unnerved Carson. Sulley grasped both of Robby’s arms and pulled him fully against his body, encircling his enormous arms around the boy and pressing him tight there until, several long minutes later, the boy had calmed down and quit struggling.

During the time that her husband soothed their son, Marie made her way downstairs and stood next to Carson. Her skin was pale and pasty, and she appeared to have lost a good deal of weight since Carson had seen her last. Up close, Carson could see the white edge of a large bandage on her neck, poking from the collar of her housedress. There were rows of red scratches on one forearm. She clasped her bony hands, rubbing each in turn restlessly, and looked up at Carson.

“He’s getting worse,” she said. “More violent, I mean. And awhile back he took to wandering, so now we try to keep him confined. Sometimes he escapes, though. The doctors don’t know what to do. Lord knows he’s takin’ enough medicines to choke a mule.”

Sulley gave her a sharp look, but then looked away.

“I’m so sorry,” Carson said. “I’m sure they’re doing all they can for him.”

“I suppose,” Marie replied, nodding. “They keep wanting us to put him in a special hospital. An assisted-care facility is what they call it.”

Carson saw Sulley glare at his wife and shake his head. All the while he stroked Robby’s hair until the boy’s eyes closed, his arms going limp at his sides.

“Now, Clint, you know yourself Robby’s getting to where we can’t care for him proper anymore,” Marie said. “We have to lock him in his room at night so he don’t hurt himself.”

“That’s enough, Marie,” Sulley said.

 Marie ignored her husband and looked up at Carson, who could see that her lip had begun to quaver.

“Or hurt anyone else, either. It took us awhile, Mr. Carson, but we figured out it was Robby here who’d killed Clint’s rabbits. Even chopped off some of their heads and hid them in his room. I only found out when I smelled ’em one day about a week later.”

There was a long silence as Carson looked in turn from Marie to Clint and, last, to Robby, whose breaths had become so slow and deep that Carson figured the boy had fallen asleep standing against his father.

“We know what we got to do,” Marie said, breaking the silence. “Don’t we, honey?” She looked then at her husband, who continued to stare at the top of his son’s head. “It’s doing it that’s the hard part.”

Clint Sulley scooped his son into his arms and Robby dangled limp, like a rag doll, reminding Carson uneasily of Dixie when he’d carried her to her grave.

“I’m putting him back in bed now,” Sulley said. “I didn’t kill your dog, Carson. If you want, though, we can talk later. About compensation, I mean.”

Carson met Sulley’s eyes and he struggled to find words, but none came. Marie began to cry softly, covering her face with her hands. Finally, Carson shook his head.

Carson walked out of the house, collected his shotgun and headed across the yard toward the fence and the path through his woods. The fog had mostly cleared and the sun peeked above Clint Sulley’s barn to his right. Already he could feel its warmth on his bare arms, promising a hot day ahead.

When he emerged from the woods back at his own farm, Carson headed straight to the house, glancing once at the slight mound of loose dirt near the oak tree. The leaves of the tobacco plants in the front field, still damp from the morning’s heavy mist, gleamed like a thousand emerald arms, each waiting for an embrace. Carson found Jessie sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette, the first one he’d seen her smoke in years.

“It’s settled,” he said.

Jessie paused, the cigarette halfway to her lips. He saw her eyes scan him up and down, checking for damage. She was in her nightgown, her hair still uncombed and tangled from bed. When she looked at him, with fear and worry plain on her face, he was able to glimpse for the first time the old woman she would one day become.

“And?” she asked. Her lips tightened.

“Sulley didn’t kill Dixie. I’m sure of it. You were right.”

“So, now what?”

Carson pursed his lips and studied his boots for several long seconds before meeting his wife’s eyes.

“We’ll probably never find out who killed her, I suppose.”

“Dixie was as fine a dog as ever lived,” Jessie said. “It’s not fair, honey.”

“I know. But who said life’s fair?”

Jessie stubbed out the cigarette on a saucer and stood.

“You want me to cook you some eggs?” she asked. “You haven’t had breakfast.”

“Sure. That’d be good. Then I need to get to cutting the front field.”

Jessie walked over and put her arms around Carson and kissed him lightly on the lips. She went to the refrigerator to get the eggs and butter. As she started cooking his breakfast, Carson walked back outside and sat on the top step of the front porch. He thought about the unexpected events of the morning and of the chores waiting for him. He noticed the shotgun still leaning against the railing where he’d left it on the way in the house. He stood and took up the gun, staring at it for a long time. At last, he cracked it open and removed the shells. He lay the shotgun back against the rail and walked down off the porch. Without hesitating, Carson cocked his arm and threw the shells as far as he could, watching them arc across the cloudless, crystal blue sky until they fell lost among the waiting tobacco plants.