Welcome to Issue No. 41 of Prime Number:

A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose

Letter from the Editors (or jump to the Table of Contents)

Dear Readers,

We’ve got a great new issue for you—Number 41 is the first issue of our FOURTH YEAR. To see work from previous issues, check out the Archives, or order Editors' Selections Volumes 1 and 2, shipping now from Press 53. And keep an eye out for Volume 3, which is in preparation.

With this issue we bid farewell to Tracy Crow who has worked with us as our Nonfiction Editor for the past two years (thanks for everything Tracy!) and welcome Jon Chopan as our new Nonfiction Editor. Jon has published essays in numerous magazines and journals in addition to his memoir, published by Black Lawrence Press in 2012. He teaches at Eckerd College.

In this issue, we continue to bring you distinctive poetry and prose: short stories about grieving women and treed raccoons; poems about cemeteries and soldiers; essays about foxes and funerals; an interview with Ramona Ausubel, author of A Guide to Being Born; and reviews of two works of fiction and an innovative work of nonfiction. Our speedy cover photo is by Radu Repanovici.

We are currently reading submissions for Issue 41 updates, Issue 43, and beyond. Please visit our Submit page and send us your distinctive poetry and prose. We’re looking for flash fiction and nonfiction up to 750 words, stories and essays up to 5,000 words, poems, book reviews, craft essays, short drama, ideas for interviews, and cover art that reflects the number of a particular issue. If we’ve had to decline your submission, please forgive us and try again!

A number of readers have asked how they might comment on the work they read in the magazine. We’ll look into adding that feature in the future. In the meantime if you are moved to comment I would encourage you to send us an email (editors@primenumbermagazine.com) and we’ll pass your thoughts along to the contributors. Similarly, if you are a publisher and would like to send us ARCs for us to consider for reviews, please contact us at the above email address. We’re especially interested in reviewing new, recent, or overlooked books from small presses.

One more thing: Prime Number Magazine is published by Press 53, a terrific small press helping to keep literature alive. Please support independent presses and bookstores.

The Editors

Table of Contents, Prime Number Magazine

Issue 41, July-September 2013

POETRY

Rick Marlatt

Desired Altitude

Descent

 

Alexa Mergen

Sew

Historic Cemetery

Moment

 

Robert Okaji

The Sky Refutes East and West

Dark Rain Ahead, Hummingbird

At Sunrise, We Celebrate the Night's Passage

 

Barbara Presnell

Slim Joins Up

Southern Railway to Camp Glenn

After Sleeping in a Field Outside Paris

 

FICTION

Catherine Uroff

Grieving Women

 

Monic Ductan

Suffer Little Child

 

Angele Ellis

Milkweed

 

Matthew Neill Null

Changing the Map

 

NONFICTION

Lee Gulyas

Remains

 

Brock Kingsley

On Writing (Or Not)

 

Elaine Neil Orr

Fox View, Montclair Neighborhood

 

BOOK REVIEWS

Curtis Smith  

Review of Jen Michalski's The Tide King

 

Katrina Prow

Review of Pam Houston's Contents May Have Shifted

 

Dalel Serda

Review of Patricia Hughes's Until the Eye Opens

 

INTERVIEW

Lisa Lynne Lewis

Interview with Ramona Ausubel, author of A Guide to Being Born

 

COVER ART

Radu Repanovici

Car 41

 

Prime Number Decimals

Prime Decimals 41.2

Prime Decimals 41.3

Prime Decimals 41.5


Rick Marlatt.jpg

2 Poems by Rick Marlatt

Followed by Q&A

Desired Altitude

The captain says feel free to move,

but I’m not going anywhere, not with this article

on remote viewing that waits in my lap. 

A woman missing half a wing on her shoulder

pours fatigue into a plastic cup.

We lock eyes as it fizzes. 

I want to tell her how my father used to say

if you could keep Coke on the hood of a car

it would eat through the metal in less than a month.

This is only a two-hour flight. I sip it back,

feel it swarming its rust through the machines

of my insides. It has taken a long time,

but I’ve finally learned to hate my body. 

I wonder who sat here before me. 

Few clues present themselves, though the physics

magazine intrigues me fiercely. Perhaps

this person was strongly loved, & also feared

heights & mountain lions. Was there a father

with a sore back & sage advice like

it be a fickle game & there’s always something.  

Too tired to read, I flick the light off.

It’s just me, dusk, & the cerebral cortex of the Rockies. 

I remote view my wife. She’s reading

about vampires on the couch. The Christmas

tree shimmers behind her head. She looks up

as she turns the page. These aren’t old school

vampires, she explains. They look longingly 

at trees & wear designer jeans. She sneezes.

I’d rather not have it this way, so I try again.

This time she’s in the kitchen, fixing a sandwich.

She pieces tomato & bacon onto wheat,

substituting cabbage for lettuce. BCT she says, 

winking. How does she know I’m there?

How does the sun look so terribly cold & what

do we even call this decade?

 

 

Descent

A voice detonates my dream

  into groggy molecules

 

  prepare for landing.

 

Below me Omaha

  can’t sleep

  perfectly still in a bed 

  of bleeding light.

 

Golden micromachines 

  in a slow river.

 

It’s easy to forget

  the destruction we’re

  capable of.

 

It’s Christmas.

 

  Omaha is holding its breath.

Omaha gathers in its jazz funny physics 

  native recipes  

  suspicious bodies.

 

  A hush.

 

My dream was about a kid

  I knew in grade school.

  Lab glasses. Obsessed 

  with robots.

 

I examine the mechanics

  of my palm.

 

Even with all these ancient

  avenues

  I still

  have no idea where

  to begin.

 

 

Rick Marlatt’s third chapbook, November Father, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. His first collection, How We Fall Apart, was named the winner of the 2010 Seven Circle Press Poetry Award, while his second chapbook, Desired Altitude, won the 2012 Standing Rock Cultural Arts prize. Rick is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of California, Riverside, where he served as poetry editor of the Coachella Review. Previously, Rick studied English and Philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, where he also earned a MA in Creative Writing. Rick is currently a PhD student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A teacher, poet, screenwriter, and literary critic, his work has appeared widely in print and online publications including Rattling Wall, New York Quarterly, and Rattle. Marlatt teaches English in Kearney, where he lives with his wife and their two sons. Read more at rickmarlatt.com.

 

Q&A

Q: Technology offers us connection and yet isolates us – your poems speak to this beautifully. What technology enhances your life – or plagues it?

A: Thanks! That’s definitely a binary that is only increasing all the time. We can see it everywhere. I see it in my students who have immediate access to unlimited information, unlike any human civilization that has ever existed. But what can a 12-year-old do with that? They can all quote a video about private detective cats they watched on their phones. But they each did that in their own basements. So it’s kind of a false community when you talk about social media. I remember when my dad had the old bag phone with the big black curly cord in the early ’90s. When he pressed a button it was like a close-up of the villain igniting ill-fated destruction upon the western hemisphere because he had to push it all the way in, and there was this iconic dinging sound. It’s amazing because now he’s downloading videos of his grandkids, using Hey Tell for messaging, and everything else. Crazy. I’d say right now the greatest enhancement is our Keurig machine. My wife can make all of her lattes, and I can do Colombian, Italian, espresso, Dark Magic, or whatever, and there’s no mess. Our kids can even make hot chocolate. And one push of a button. We love it. 

 

Q: Do you have a poet outside the British/American canon who has been an inspiration or influence on your work? In what ways?

A. When I was a Philosophy student at UNK, I took an Eastern Psychology class with a prof who was also a Zen master. He was a well-read scholar and recommended tons of books, more than I could ever get my hands on. We read the Tao Te Ching and lots of ancient Chinese poetry. I found that I loved the work of Thich Nhat Hanh. It was a totally different way of thinking. I was probably a terrible student because I could never really turn my mind off. Trying to do so was like damming up the ocean. The more I tried to silence thoughts, the faster they came rushing in. But that focus, that attention to all the little vibrations, is a tactic I think I use a lot to get into a poem. The trick is working myself out of it. For me, trying to write a poem can be like the experience of trying to meditate. Hopefully, I’m a better at coming up with words than I am at sitting and staring at a wall for a discernible amount of time. 

 

Q: Give us your best in-flight story.

A. I have had a quite a few interesting experiences in and around airports and airplanes and related to flying in general – the best being the time a bottle of grape jelly I brought back with me to Omaha from Palm Springs exploded in a plastic bag. The flight was full and everyone stood around baggage claim gasping and retching at this disgusting heap. It looked like something Dexter Morgan would toss off of his boat. I let it go around a few times so the crowd would dissipate. But no one would leave. They wanted to see what moron actually thought this would be a good idea. My favorite in-flight story has to be the time my friend and I were flying from Las Vegas to Phoenix. It was late at night, and we were about halfway there when the pilot came on and said that we had hit a bird and were turning around to go back to McCarran. People were groaning and grumbling of course. In the back of my mind I was wondering what kind of bird we were dealing with that wouldn’t get out of the way, and what size of bird it would take to cause serious mechanical malfunction. Was it a pterodactyl? When we landed there were lights everywhere. Fire trucks, ambulances, and cops all surrounding the plane. I was freaking out. This was all protocol, but I was new to flying at the time. So it was fairly formative. Definitely not going to forget that one.


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3 Poems by Alexa Mergen

Followed by Q&A

Sew

Those who move toward death pull away— 

as snow liquefies to leave a ring 

of needles beside pine’s warm trunk. 

 

Surprise calls for instinct—

pumas arch, bears rear. This other way: 

stamina for the full course—

slogging—

 

Skin knits our body of water to a whole.

Like learning to sew—

small hands pull yarn, focus on one

stitch, the other, until they run as one.

 

 

Historic Cemetery

Marked with names

(or Unknown) 

rows of tombstones.

 

At the entrance a water fountain 

flows a steady clear stream of

earthy water drawn from 

a well among buried bodies. 

 

Water for the living who 

cannot find shelter under 

oaks’ thick leaves.

 

Dismiss images of flesh flaking 

like halibut from bones, hair strands 

webby on cranium, fingernails.

 

Worms, 

beetles, 

maggots, 

blowflies.

 

Don’t wonder whether 

boxes are pine or walnut, 

velveted or bare or 

the poorest deceased

in winding sheet.

 

Sweep ears of sobs,

the plink of tears on shoe leather. 

 

It’s hot. 

Drink water. 

 

Taste on tongue.

Splash face.

Proximity on

Death’s arrival unites

this congregation, their

splintery mosaic of 

who 

(was).

 

 

Moment

It is like the moment you

don’t speak up and the weird girl’s 

face falls; it’s when she tells you on another 

occasion that her mother 

walks the halls at night and her father 

forbids shears near her hair. When 

the Ouija board points to “yes,” you think “no.”

She is the girl who finds you 

when you stink in audition, shares half 

her sandwich, gives you the waxed 

paper to use as a placemat 

when you’ve no money 

for lunch. 

It’s like the moment 

walking the beach when 

a plover fakes a broken wing 

to lure the killer in you

from its nest. 

It’s a sandstorm 

in Apple Valley when 

you move your household 

to a better place: winds kick like donkeys’ legs 

and you are lost in grains

stop the car, roll windows tight

brace against the rocking chassis

as wind beats the windshield

whipping crystals (millions, eroded from stones) 

and you squint against the sand 

that can’t sting you through the glass—

 

 

Alexa Mergen’s writing appears in numerous journals and anthologies. She’s the author of two poetry chapbooks and a brief history of the National Zoo. In 2013, she participated in Pulitzer Remix, writing found poems from Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter. Scheduled for publication in 2015 by Salmon Poetry is a full-length collection, Dirt Hill. Alexa’s at work on a novel set in 1981 in her hometown of Washington, DC, featuring horses, punk rock, banjoes, bikes and canoes. She’s lived in California’s mountains and deserts, near the coast, and for the last dozen years in the Central Valley. alexamergen.com

 

Q&A

Q: Your work often addresses the intersections between human and the natural world, human and the man-made world. These poems, however, seem to arrive at a different edge – between life and death, the accepted world and the one just across the border. What do you think draws you to these liminal spaces, and how do they inform your work?

A. I’m not sure what draws me to liminal spaces--thresholds between human and non-human species, life and death, here and there, within and without. Maybe because I slept poorly for most of my childhood and was often awake in the middle of the night while my parents and brother were sleeping. I’d sit in the window and watch the sky, or lie in bed and observe the shadows cast by street lamps outside. In my teens, I often stayed up all night. So, I got used to watching light change from darkness to dawn. I sleep solidly these days, but keep a notebook by the bed; it’s not unusual for phrases or images to arrive when I’m feeling muzzy. If you follow a string of words starting with your choice, “liminal” meaning “threshold,” “threshold” comes from the word for “tread” which is movement. Ultimately, I am interested in moments and momentum, in shifts in time and in people and places. I still love to witness the day waking up whether it’s listening to the first bird call or seeing shopkeepers roll back their storefront gratings. 

 

 

Q: Do you have a poet outside the British/American canon who has been an inspiration or influence on your work? In what ways?

A. I started studying Spanish in grade school, and traveled in Spain, Mexico, and Central America as a child and an adult, so poets writing in Spanish have influenced me. For my MA thesis at University of California-Irvine, I translated a Pablo Neruda poem and compared that translation to two other versions; more recently, I experimented with translations of poems by Blas de Otero. Translation is the surest way to improve as a poet because as words move among languages the gains and losses highlighted are reminders of how we’re always, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, telling it slant. If I had to pick one poet as an influence it would be Federico Garcia Lorca. My high school Spanish teacher had us read Yerma and Blood Wedding, and “Romance de la luna, luna.” I am grateful to her for teaching us so much. Thanks, Jan!

 

Q: Poets once spent a good bit of time in cemeteries, pondering mortality – as do you. Do we miss this particular movement in contemporary poetry – does it still have significance in our time of mass death and genocide?

A. Humans have long perpetuated slaughters against each other and other species. We know from sociology and psychology that a person more easily empathizes with an individual than a group–that’s why organizations’ direct mail campaigns often feature one ill child or one rescued dog, who are named. By urging readers and listeners to pay attention and look for connections, poems can encourage wonder for the preciousness, joy, and sorrow of life. As homes of the particular–individualized headstones with inscriptions, names and dates that, combined, are a record of a unique individual who walked the earth–cemeteries epitomize the push-pull between one and many. How we honor the dead will always matter, I hope. Poets tend to have time to think about mortality; it’s our job.


Robert Okaji.JPG

3 Poems by Robert Okaji

Followed by Q&A

The Sky Refutes East and West

Here, the horizon lingers. 

The open eye, the mouth’s shape.

 

A hoop, the circle without iris. 

 

Does the screech owl acknowledge latitude and hemisphere?

 

The Semitic alphabet contained no vowels, thus O 

emerged as a consonant with a pupil, morphing into a dotted ring, 

 

and later, with the Greeks, an unembellished circle (which they

 

subsequently cracked open and placed at the end). The female lays eggs

 

on the remnants of earlier meals lining the bottom of her den.

If you listen at night you might hear the purring of a feathered

 

cat (the Texas screech owl’s call varies from that of its eastern cousins).

 

The difference between sphere and ball.

 

To pronounce the Phoenician word for eye, sing the lowest note possible,

then drop two octaves. They usually carry prey back to their nests.

 

Screech owls are limited to the Americas.

 

Coincidence and error, the circumference of other.

 

 

Dark Rain Ahead, Hummingbird

The black-chinned hummer buzzes my flowered shirt,

bringing to mind the letter H, its history of an inferior life among 

 

letters, and a Phoenician origin signifying fence.

 

An aspirate dependent upon others, or a line strung between posts,

 

even whispered, H does not contain itself.

Disconsolate or annoyed, the bird moves on.

 

Do names depend upon the power of symbols, or do they power the symbols?

 

In the 6th century A.D., Priscian disparaged H, saying it existed only to accompany.

 

Clouds shade the way.

The black-chin extends its grooved tongue at a rate of 15 licks per second.

 

Alone, the H’s voice is barely audible. 

 

Through the trees, across the crushed rock driveway and beyond the barbed wire

 

and chain link, I hear deadfall snapping under hooves.

At rest, its heart beats an average of 480 beats per minute.

 

Modern Greek denies its existence.

 

Say khet, say honor and where. Say hinge, sigh and horse. Say depth.

 

 

At Sunrise We Celebrate the Night’s Passage

And discuss not the darkness of crows, but the structure of phonemes

embedded in our names, the gratitude of old fences, of broken 

 

circles and extinguished flame.

 

Two weeks ago he poured wine and declared himself Dog.

 

There are roosters, too, who cannot crow,

other speechless men, and lonely burros guarding brush piles.

 

What letters form silence? From what shapes do we draw this day?

 

Light filters through the cedars and minutes retract,

 

as the bull’s horns point first this way, then that, descending

through the millennia, becoming, finally, A as we know it. 

 

With my tongue, I probe the space emptied of tooth.

 

Barbed wire was designed to repel, but when cut sometimes curls

 

and grabs, relinquishing its hold only by force or careful negotiation.

Symbols represent these distinct units of sound.

 

My name is two houses surrounding an eye.

 

Yours consists of teeth, the bull, an arm, the ox goad. 

 

 

Robert Okaji works in Austin, Texas, and retreats as often as possible to rural Medina County, where he once counted 34 vultures circling a neighbor’s hill. His wife considers him harmless.

 

Q&A

Q. A recent book discusses the incredible, forgotten labors of Alice Kober that led to the eventual deciphering of Lineral B by Michael Ventris. Are you familiar with that story, and do you have a comment on it?

A. Yes. It’s amazing how disparate parts aligned perfectly in order for the deciphering to occur – from fires preserving (now that’s a change!) the clay tablets – the Mycenean custom was not to harden them – to the personalities and driven natures of Kober and Ventris and Evans. Combine that with the Herculean task of assigning sounds to symbols without knowing which source languages and grammatical intricacies to weigh, with considerations of culture and class, the difficulties of transportation and communication, and even a critical shortage of paper. The Riddle of the Labyrinth is a remarkable story, one that anyone interested in language would find fascinating. And it is gratifying to see Alice Kober recognized for the thousands of hours spent meticulously laboring at her table and providing the tools used to solve the mystery of Linear B.

 

Q. Do you have a poet outside the British/American canon who has been an inspiration or influence on your work? In what ways?

A. I’m drawn to what’s not said, to the unfilled, the indeterminate, to connections between distinct entities and concepts, to those dim lights revealing bits of the awesomeness of the ordinary. An early introduction to Francis Ponge allowed me entrance (or at least a peek through the shuttered window) into this place. 

 

Q. Why are birds so closely connected with letters and language in your poems?

A. To be honest I wasn’t aware of this. Perhaps I value the bird as icon, as personal totem? For most of us they exist on the fringes; we’re aware of their existence, we acknowledge them as part of the background, as white noise. But consider the incredible variables inherent to flight – gravity, lift force, thrust, wing shape, angle of attack. Think about their different song patterns, plumage, their placement in various ecosystems. And what better metaphor than a bird in flight (or grounded)? Of course in my neck of the woods that soaring bird is likely looking for carrion…

There’s not, for me, a bridgeless chasm between the peripheries of wildlife/personal icon and those of letters, language and numbers in our ordinary lives. Though we use numbers and letters constantly, we seldom look beyond their utility. Take a moment to ponder the complexity of thought required in creating memorable and useful graphic representations to depict syllables, words, numbers, sounds or abstract concepts, the sheer beauty of the results


Barbara Presnell.jpg

3 Poems by Barbara Presnell

Followed by Q&A

Slim Joins Up

April 1916

 

He’ll tell Papa first,

how he climbed the steps above the grocery

to Armory Hall where this time

there was no dancing, no rummy, no liquor

 

brought in by county boys or the Reeves brothers

and nobody’s sisters or cousins from Greensboro

in tight dresses with bobbed hair—

though their scent remained where groups 

 

of boys like him gathered,

filling out papers, standing against height lines,

raising palms for oaths, making boasts 

they swore they’d keep even if bullets

 

scraped their heads and their skin bloodied 

but not with the blackberry juice of summer.

He’ll tell Papa what Papa knows—

the Jerries in their brown uniforms,

 

children dying, evil rising up fast

as new corn. Anyway, Papa, 

you know I’m not cut out for farming. 

Papa won’t cry like Mama will,

 

or grip his arm and turn her face away

He’ll laugh and tell her chances are

they won’t get called up anyway. 

All we’ll do is lay around and whine

 

for biscuits and your red eye gravy.

Anyway, what’s done is done,

he’ll tell them both. 

He won’t sleep that night,

 

will lie awake on the front porch cot,

watching clouds across a restless sky

as crickets murmur from the grass,

a lullaby of sorts, Mama would say.

 

 

Southern Railway to Camp Glenn

August 1917

 

He watches what passes by—a cow farm, 

blackberries ripe in the briars, trees losing leaves, 

 

trumpet vines clinging to summer, houses

with people who wave from porches, streets 

 

where mothers are walking their babies 

or hauling sacks of groceries. High Point. 

 

Greensboro. Burlington. Durham. Headed east 

where they say the earth is all sand, water is salty, 

 

and the ocean stretches green and white

to the edge of the sky. Most these boys 

 

he grew up with—Jack, Ernest, Walter, Hal. 

Sat beside in school, hunted with, stole 

 

their daddies’ whiskey, got whipped 

by their mamas’ switches. Now row after row 

 

in matching uniforms, nothing but a rucksack 

with their name inked on, nothing but bragging

 

about things that don’t matter now, if they 

ever did. At home, his brothers and sisters 

 

are probably eating corn bread and chicken pie.

He’ll write to them about fields of peanuts

 

that run for miles, the ice-cold sea, and I’m fine, 

I’m good, all the boys excited, can’t wait to get

 

over there and end this thing. Slowing down

to cross a road, almost in Raleigh, somebody says. 

 

The field out there is brown with harvested wheat, 

and he watches a white mutt 

 

skirt around the stubs, digging for something,

snake or rabbit, that burrows underground. 

 

 

After Sleeping in a Field Outside Paris

October 1917

 

He yawns at the small annoyance

on his arm—leggy mosquito that settles, 

flits, settles. Above him, linen-green

 

leaves of an oak and buttons of acorns 

unthreading from its limbs. White fence. 

A trumpet vine. Butterflies

 

the color of pumpkins, plum and yellow-red.

If he had a jar he’d scoop crawdads

from creek water tracing the meadow.

 

Crisp autumn air says a perfect day 

for hunting—turkey, duck, deer, squirrel. 

He’d been dreaming himself back home

 

at the fair with a girl and his old dog Buck 

that died last summer. For a split second

or more that’s where he thinks he is, 

 

behind the pageant stand—whatever her name 

was—her lips and his. He jerks, slaps his arm,

the mosquito falls. Then he remembers the metal 

 

helmet around his head, boots heavy 

as stones, and, looking up, is blinded by a fiery 

burst that is not sun.

 

 

Barbara Presnell’s poetry collection, Piece Work (CSU Poetry Center), won the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s First Book Prize. In 2009-10, an adaptation by the Touring Theatre of North Carolina was performed in community colleges throughout North Carolina. Her work also appears in three award-winning chapbooks, and in The Southern Review, Cimarron Review, Laurel Review, Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia, and other journals and anthologies. She has received grant support from the North Carolina Arts Council, the Kentucky Arts Council, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women.

 

Q&A

Q: Discuss the sources and inspirations for this new body of work, which you mentioned was centered on Southerners at war.

A. My paternal grandfather was born into a Quaker family in Randolph County in 1861. “Slim” in these poems is his oldest son, who fought with the famed Company K in World War I. In my current writing, based on family documents, census records, and stories passed from children to grandchildren, I am attempting to recreate the time and place of this family who sent five sons to two world wars. It’s fascinating work that I realize tells not only my family’s story but also the story of many rural North Carolinians, Southerners, and Americans who have rooted to a particular place only to find themselves suddenly far, far from anything familiar. My exploration of their lives teaches me not only who I am and where I’m from but also grounds me in this time long before I was born.  

 

Q: Do you have a poet outside the British/American canon who has been an inspiration or influence on your work? In what ways?

A. My writing and my interest is so inherently Southern American that my immediate answer is no. But when I ponder this question more deeply, I realize that there are novelists—not poets—who have greatly enriched my reading life and encouraged my narrative bent. Among those are, of course, the Russian writers—Dostoyevski and Tolstoy, master storytellers—but also South African writer Nadine Gordimer, whose apartheid writings are engrossing epics of human frailty and desire. Most recently I’ve been captivated by French writer Irène Némirovsky‘s Suite Française, set in Paris during the months following the German invasion in 1940, a must-read for anyone interested in authentic work from that period in our world history. 

 

Q: Trumpet vine and blackberries – we’re deep into summer with these natural elements! What place do these hold in your life and memory? 

A. Trumpet vines, honeysuckle, blackberries, scuppernongs, muscadines, lightning bugs, June bugs, yellow jackets—yes, they all define summer in the South! They are also elements of nature with which we have an intimate relationship: we eat them, we smell them, we catch them in our hands and are bitten or stung by them. We intrude on their spaces and they likewise intrude on ours. We share the same space and are equal—I would say—inhabitants of that space. For me, these things individually and collectively represent my childhood summers, spent largely outdoors. In writing about place, which I usually do, reclaiming the small, ordinary and sensual detail is the surest way to bring my readers right to the spot where I want my story to begin. Plus, I still love each one of these critters and vines and invite them all into my raggedy yard.


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Grieving Women by Catherine Uroff

Followed by Q&A

“Faith, I may be in a bit of a situation here.”

It’s a Sunday morning. Vincent and I are still in bed. Vincent draws his index finger across his throat when he realizes that it’s my Dad on the phone.

“What’s going on? I can’t hear you. Can you speak up?”

“I said I’ve got myself into a bit of a situation.” 

The noise in the background sounds like ten people are shouting into the phone all at once.

“What is it then?”

Vincent is pretending to shoot himself in the temple—his fingers shaped like a gun. I can’t understand why it’s so noisy on the line. Usually, my father’s home on Sundays, settled in his wide leather chair in the living room, surrounded by a mess of newspapers—the New York Times, the Washington Post, the local Springfield Republican. 

In a rush, my father tells me his story. I can’t make out most of it except for the words “jail” and “harassment.”

“Wait a minute. Where are you?”

Vincent gets out of bed. I watch him cross the bedroom floor, yank open the closet door, and pull his robe out. 

“You are my one phone call so I’m calling to request a bailout. I’ll pay you back promptly. It’s just a terrible misunderstanding. I’m sure all charges will be dropped right away.”

I’m trying to put this all together as quickly as I can. 

“Oh God, Dad, what did you do?”

“If I could just get out of here, I could put it all to rights.”

“Just tell me what you did.” 

As I listen to my father’s explanation, I’m not surprised to hear that it involves Kate Rose, the widow who moved into his neighborhood a few months ago. She’s living in the Wrights’ old house, a family I used to babysit for. The Wrights had two kids and a tabby cat that would swish its tail around my legs whenever it was hungry.

The day that Kate moved in, my father asked me to bake some banana bread. I thought I was making it for him, but he took it right out of my hands and marched it over to her house. He told me, afterward, how fascinating she was, that her late husband was in the Foreign Service so she knew a lot about world politics. 

“Well, I’d been seeing a lot of Kate but, lately, every time I stop by her house, she doesn’t answer the door even though her car’s in the garage,” he’s telling me now. “And when I call her, the phone just rings and rings. Then, last night, I was visited by the rudest of all policemen. Stood on my doorstep like he owned the place, saying that Kate’s filed a complaint against me.”

“She called the cops on you?”

This gets Vincent’s attention. 

“I asked for his badge number, which is my right as a private citizen, by the way, and then I told him that I didn’t like his tone, and the conversation went downhill from there.”

“So he arrested you?”

Vincent’s back by the bed, scribbling on a pad of paper. He thrusts a note at me. What was he charged with? He’s an Assistant District Attorney for the city of Springfield so he knows all about this kind of thing.

“What were you charged with?” I ask. 

“Nothing that I know of.”

I shake my head at Vincent; he rolls his eyes and writes something else.

“There must’ve been something. They can’t just keep you overnight for no reason,” I say, reading from Vincent’s notes.

“Possibly disorderly conduct.”

My father must’ve cupped his hand over the phone because suddenly I can hear his voice, for the first time, very clearly. It’s like he’s whispering directly into my ear.

“Faith, they tell me I must go now. But if you could come and get me as soon as possible, I’d owe you one.”

As I’m getting dressed, Vincent gives me a list of things to do. He wants me to find out who the arresting officer was. I also need to find out the exact charges, when the court date is, if there are any additional conditions attached to his release. 

I’m relieved when he doesn’t offer to go to the jail with me. My father has never hidden the fact that he hates Vincent. In fact, he’s despised the entire legal profession ever since his divorce from my mother. My mother’s lawyer, Raymond Lloyd—a man who, according to my father, wore a pinky ring, polyester leisure suits, and a tangle of gold chains around his thick neck—fell in love with her during the divorce proceedings. As soon as the papers were signed, my mother and Raymond moved to California together. I was eight years old at the time. 

But it isn’t only what Vincent does for a living that my father dislikes. He’s positive that he’s wasting the best years of my life, that I should be—at this point—in a steady relationship with a man who is completely devoted to me. Vincent and I have been off-and-on for years. The deepest commitment he’s shown so far was when he moved in with me six months ago.

I sit in the jail’s waiting room for forty-five minutes while they process his papers. When Dad comes out, I think he’ll start complaining about how he’s been wronged by the legal system, how he’s going to write a letter to the Editor of the Springfield Republican about the general lack of civility found in law enforcement. Instead, he concentrates on putting his belt back on. Then he’s mostly silent during the car ride back to his house, only grunting a little when I’m speeding up too fast, sighing when I’m not braking soon enough at the lights. He didn’t let me get my license until I was nineteen, and even then I had to practice with him in the empty bank parking lot every Sunday afternoon for months. 

I park in front of his house. My father puts his hand on the door latch but doesn’t move.

“Well, I obviously need to talk to Kate as soon as possible.”

“Dad, you can’t do that.”

“But all of this is just a big mistake.”

This has been my father’s problem ever since I can remember. He gets fixated on helping certain women and then he doesn’t know when to stop. When I was ten, a neighbor down the street, Greta McCall, was abandoned by her husband after he met some showgirl in Vegas. My father started mowing her lawn every weekend. Then he put up her storm windows. Then he repainted her mailbox. He even walked her dog for her, a sway-backed Basset Hound with a large, fleshy growth on top of its head. Greta McCall finally put her house on the market and moved into a condominium in Hartford, and the general buzz around the neighborhood was that my father was the one who drove her away.  

There were others after Greta McCall: Ellen Lovejoy, a single mother who was dealt a devastating diagnosis of breast cancer—my father drove Ellen to her chemo appointments and sent flowers after every radiation treatment; Sherri Williams, who was fired from our local branch of People’s Bank when her cash drawer came up short three days in a row—he wrote a glowing letter of recommendation for Sherri and bought her a blue pinstriped suit for her future interviews. None of these women ever returned his affections.

“You can’t contact Kate,” I say to him now.

“Why would I expect you to understand? You don’t know the first thing about love. Your sum total of experience with love has been with what’s-his-name.”

“Please call Vincent by his correct name.”

“I prefer to objectify him, if you don’t mind.”

“Actually, I do mind, Dad.”

“And I wanted so much more for you.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t be concentrating on me and my failings at this particular point. I just bailed you out of jail, remember? Why don’t you tell me what really happened?”

“Kate isn’t thinking straight. It happens sometimes when you’re grieving. It doesn’t matter. I forgive her.”

“I don’t think she wants to be forgiven, Dad. She probably wants to be left alone.”

My father looks over at me and smiles. “Do you know that there are two ways to tell if someone loves you? One is if they can’t keep their eyes off you. Two is if they can’t bear to look at you. Do you see where I’m going with this?”

“If you’re suggesting that Kate Rose loves you—”

My father reaches over to pat my hand. “Faith, you just have to trust me on this one.”

Back in my apartment, Vincent and I get into a fight. He wants me to really confront my father about his behavior. I shouldn’t back off or let him get the last word. 

“If he thinks he hates lawyers now, wait until he has to spend thousands of dollars on them to defend himself. You’ve got to do something to stop this,” Vincent says.

“But what can I do?”

“I don’t know but you can at least try.”

“Hey, aren’t you the one who thinks I should have nothing to do with him?”

I made the mistake once of telling Vincent stories about my childhood, details about some of the women that my father chased after. Now, whenever Vincent talks about my father, he says, “After all he’s put you through.” 

But it’s never been that easy for me. This is the man who—when I was in third grade and braids were all the style—taped three, long pieces of string on the back of a kitchen chair so he could practice plaiting on something else besides my hair. He was the only parent to sit on a folding chair in the corner of the Y’s windowless basement every Saturday afternoon for a year to watch me—a head taller than all the other girls and awkwardly uncoordinated—struggle through tap dancing lessons. On the night before my Junior Girl Scout troop’s bridging ceremony, he stayed up all night sewing my badges onto my sash, ripping out stitches again and again until all the triangular badges fit together.

“Maybe he was just trying to be friendly,” I say to Vincent.

“So now you’re defending him? Unbelievable. That’s the problem, don’t you see?” 

“No, it’s not. I’m not the problem here. How can you say that?”

I’m close to tears. Vincent looks disgusted. He hates it when I cry. In all the time I’ve known him, I’ve never even seen him teary. That’s another thing my father can’t stand about him. He claims that Vincent’s cold, emotionless, that there is no light in his eyes.

I have to do something so I decide to go over to Kate Rose’s house. She opens the door right away. 

“Hello, I’m Faith—”

“The daughter. I had a feeling you’d show up.”

Kate has deep set brown eyes. Wobbly strokes of pink lipstick color her thin lips.  

“Well, there seems to be a problem, and I’m here to see if I can help in any way.”

“Your father has already left me two messages this morning, all about his arrest.”

“I just want to find out exactly what happened. I’m not getting much information from him.”

“This is so embarrassing for me. I’ve just moved into town. I don’t know anyone.”

“I’m sorry. I want to come right out and say that.”

“When your father started coming around, I was happy at first. Maybe I gave him the wrong impression. I don’t know. But he started stopping by every day. And then it was twice a day. Twice a day and a phone call. Twice a day and two phone calls. It just kept increasing. I told him that all this attention he was giving me, well, it just wasn’t right. But it was like he didn’t hear me. He went on and on about some home improvements he wanted to help me with. Relandscaping my front yard. That was his big idea. Pull up all the yews. Replace them with something flowering.”

I look down at the yew bushes that border the front of her house, and I can’t help but think that my father’s right. They are overgrown, ragged, tangled up in one another. One bush is dying on the street side only, thinned out so I can see withered, brown branches deep inside its frame.

“Anyway, a few days ago, I really had it out with him. I told him that I no longer appreciated his visits, that I needed some space. So what does he do? He comes back the next day with red roses. He said that he assumed that roses were my favorite flower because of my last name. It’s gotten so I’m a prisoner in my own home, hiding whenever he stops by. So I called the police. I made it clear to the officer that I wanted a warning issued, that was all. I have no idea why they arrested him.”

“I think he mouthed off to the cop.” 

Kate raises her eyebrows. I understand that I should assure her that I will see to it that my father never contacts her again. But I open my mouth to speak and I can’t. I’m just opening and closing my mouth for a few seconds. At first, she looks irritated and then she steps forward and puts her hand on my arm.

“Faith? Are you OK?”

“I’m sorry,” I manage to get out, “but no, I’m not.”

She invites me into her house then, leading me straight into the living room where two flowered sofas with plump pillows are separated by a white rug. The last time I was in this house, I had to wade through plastic dump trucks, naked Barbies, wooden puzzle pieces—the kind with knobs. 

Hanging on the wall above the mantel is an oversized photograph of a man and a woman. The man is behind the woman with his hands on her shoulders. The woman is Kate, but a much younger version of the person I am with now. She has darker hair, an unlined face, a firm jawline, but the same sunken-in eyes.

Kate clears her throat behind me. “So, Faith—”

“I know how horrible this is for you. What my father does—well, it’s been going on for a long time. He gets attached to one particular person and just goes overboard.”

“So he’s done this kind of thing before?”

“Oh yes.”

Kate just stares at me. 

“In fact,” I continue, “it’s kind of defined my entire life.”

She is giving me no indication that she wants to hear more—about me or my father—but I can’t stop myself. 

“Like the summer I turned thirteen? I remember it as the summer when he taught Ms. Leary down the street—I’m sure you’ll meet her soon and she’ll tell you all about it—how to drive a stick shift. Every evening after dinner, there they’d be, starting and stopping, stalling out over and over again. Or the Christmas of 2002? Yeah, that was when he strung icicle lights on Mrs. Santaniello’s roof.”

I could tell her more, how when I was growing up, I was known as the girl with the bizarre father, that my father’s behavior marked me more than the good grades that I worked so hard for, or the fact that I was the President of the Model UN club throughout high school, or the truth that I was oddly tall, almost six feet, and strangely skinny. 

“Well, it shouldn’t have been like that for you,” Kate says. “And you shouldn’t have to get involved like this now.”

“I’ve only got my father and he’s only got me so I really don’t have a choice.”

“Yes, I heard about your mother.”

Kate looks down, toes the soft rug with her patent-leather capped shoe.

“Which part? I mean, there’s a lot you can say about my mother.”

My mother used to drink too much. She’d pass out anywhere—on the kitchen floor, in the backyard, in the front seat of her car wherever it was parked. My father was adept at cleaning up after her, making sure she was safe. Then she decided, on my seventh birthday, to sober up, and she began attending AA meetings as religiously as she’d once gone for the bottle. The minute she got sober, she wanted a divorce. When she took up with Raymond Lloyd, full custody of me fell on my father because it was understood—although never overtly stated—that Raymond didn’t care for children.

“It’s none of my business,” Kate says, still looking down.

“No, it’s OK.”

“I want you to know that I never pried. It’s just that your father talked a lot. He’d go on and on about you and your mother and her drinking and how he had to cope with that and what a shame it was for you to be brought up like that.”

“Oh, it wasn’t that bad. Or maybe it was. I don’t know.”

Kate smiles a little but she doesn’t look particularly happy.

“He woke me up in the middle of the night once,” I say because I want her to understand something, I want her to see what kind of man my father is. “He picked me up out of bed and carried me outside to the car, helped me get my seatbelt on in the back seat. I thought we were going on a magical trip. I mean the sky was so black but it was filled with all these stars. I could actually feel my heart pounding, that’s how excited I was. He always could do that for me when I was a kid—make me think that something wonderful was about to happen.” 

I don’t tell her the rest of the story about that night, how, next, he brought my mother out to the car and once I saw her, I understood that we weren’t going anywhere special. He had to take her to the ER to stitch up her hand. She’d cut herself on a broken bottle, and I was too young to be left in the house by myself. 

There’s a moment when Kate and I are just staring at each other. Then I whirl around and point to the photograph above the mantel. 

“This must be your husband, your late husband,” I say.

She rocks back on her heels to see the photograph better.

“Yes. George. That’s him.”

With his fat cheeks and puffed out chest—I can almost see his shirt buttons straining at the extra weight around his waist—he looks rich and inordinately well fed.

“He had a bad heart,” Kate says. “It was genetic. His father had heart problems. His grandfather also. Faith, look, I appreciate your stopping by. But I don’t think there’s much you can do for me. This really isn’t something that you’re responsible for. You do understand that, don’t you?”

“But I have to try something. My boyfriend, Vincent, he got mad at me about all of this. He thinks there should be something I can do about it.”

“Ah, Vincent.”

“Oh, so I guess you’ve heard all about him too. You probably know how much my father hates him. Vincent’s not big on commitment. He doesn’t ever want to get married. He says that it isn’t important. He doesn’t ever want to get tied down like that. Sometimes I’m OK with it. Other times I’m not. But it drives my father crazy. A couple of months ago, we tried to meet for dinner. The three of us—Vincent, my father, and me. It was a complete disaster. Dad only talked to me. Anytime Vincent tried to say a word, Dad pretended he couldn’t hear him.”

“That’s too bad. I have a son, Allan. He probably doesn’t visit as often as he should but I don’t complain. He’s got his own life. That’s our role as parents, you know. To let go.”

I should be agreeing with her at this point. I should tell her that she’s right, that she’s probably been an exemplary parent, that because of her good parenting skills, Allan is a well-adjusted young man. And then I should leave.

Instead, I gesture toward the sofa, asking for permission to sit down. I actually pretend that I feel a little faint as a stalling technique. When I sit, Kate asks me if I want some water, if that would make me feel better, and I say yes because, honestly, my mouth does feel a little dry but also, I know it’ll buy me some time. She leaves the room—from what I remember, she’ll take a right out of the living room, circle past the basement door and the half bath to make her way to the eat-in kitchen toward the back of the house. I wait to hear the rumble from the fridge’s ice maker before I jump up. I need to figure out what I’m going to say to her next, how I’m going to get out of this situation, still having made a difference. I can’t go back to Vincent without some kind of resolution. 

I’m pacing the living room floor, passing the front bay window, and that’s when I see my father outside. He’s standing on the sidewalk, facing my car. When he turns around, he looks baffled for a second. Then he starts up the path to Kate’s house. As he gets closer, he lifts his chin and his smile widens. I get to the door before he can ring the bell. 

“You are not here,” I say.

“What are you doing here?”

“You can’t be here,” I repeat.

“Well, you shouldn’t be here either.”

“I’m here to get you out of the mess you made.”

“What mess?”

I hear footsteps behind me.

“Oh no.”

Kate is holding a tall glass of ice water but she doesn’t offer it to me. 

“Hello, Kate. Wonderful to see you, as always. If you could spare a few minutes, I’d really appreciate it,” my father says. 

I’m blocking the doorway; otherwise, he’d wiggle past me. He’s wearing a navy blue blazer, light colored chinos, a yellow and blue striped tie. His loafers are shiny, and there’s a penny tucked into the lips-shaped slots of each shoe.

“Actually, I’ve already been talking to Faith this morning,” Kate says.

“Well, isn’t it great that you two have met? Isn’t my daughter delightful?”

“Yes, she is.”

Kate doesn’t sound convinced. For a second, the skin on her face looks like it’s been unnaturally tightened, as if she’s in a wind tunnel or something.

“We’ve been having a good conversation, Dad, and you’re interrupting it. If you could go home, I’ll catch up with you in a minute.”

“Uh, no, I’m not going home. Maybe you should be the one to go home.”

My father tries to appeal to Kate directly, tilting his head to catch a good glimpse of her. “Kate, if I could take up just a few minutes of your time.”

“But there’s nothing to talk about.”

She’s taken a step back from both of us. 

“Of course there is. I want to start by saying that if I’ve done anything—any one thing—to offend or upset you, well, I’m here to make good on it.”

My father puts his hand on his chest. 

“No, I don’t want that. I don’t want anything more to do with you.” Kate looks at me. “Or you either, Faith. I’m sorry if that sounds cruel.”

“Hey, I was trying to help,” I say.

Kate frowns. “Really? How exactly were you helping? By telling me all about your mother and your boyfriend? How is that helping me?”

“What? What was she saying to you?” my father asks.

“Never mind,” I say to him. “Kate was asking about our family. And then she wanted to know about Vincent.”

“No,” Kate says, raising her voice, “that’s the thing. I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to know. I’m sorry you have a troubled mother. I’m sorry that your father disapproves of your boyfriend. But none of that has anything to do with me.”

“Don’t even get me started on the boyfriend,” my father says. “Can you even really call him a boyfriend? They break up as often as I change my underwear. What does that man really know about Faith?”

“I don’t want to be involved in this. I just want to be left alone right now. If George was alive, this wouldn’t be happening. Neither one of you would be here. But he’s not. George is gone and I’m alone and nothing either one of you can do or say is going to make it any better.”

The second the tears slip out of the corners of Kate’s eyes, my father springs into action like a dog that’s just been thrown a ball. He nudges past me and is fastened to her side before I can react. 

“It’s OK,” he says to her. “Let it all out. It’s good to cry. The world is full of loss and pain, but the one consolation we have is each other. It’s a bad thing, what’s happened to you. No one should have to go through it. But you’re not alone. I want to assure you of that.”

I have to admit. He’s actually quite good at this. He’s rubbing Kate’s back as she shudders and sobs, and suddenly I can see that he’ll be ready to do the same thing for me some day, if Vincent and I finally break up for good. 

“Faith, go get some Kleenex,” my father instructs, and that gets me back in the house also. I find a box of tissues on top of the toilet in the half bath, exactly where the Wrights used to keep theirs. Kate and my father are now in the living room, sitting on the couch together. She’s crying into her hands. I hand her the box. 

“I don’t know what came over me,” she says. She plucks a tissue out of the opening and another one pops up.

“It happens. Don’t worry about it,” my father says. 

“It was so unexpected. George left for work one day and it was just like any other day. I said, ‘I love you. Have a good one.’ And that was the last time I ever saw him.” 

Crumpled up, tear-sogged tissues fill her lap.

“It was sudden, which is a blessing. You don’t want your loved ones to suffer.”

She looks up at the photograph above the mantel. “But I never saw him again.”

“And I’m so, so sorry for your loss.”

Then my father makes a tactical error. He’s gotten too confident. Or maybe he’s just trying to show off in front of me.

“But always remember that life,” he says, throwing his head back to look up at the ceiling for a second, “is for the living.”

“What?”

“With time, of course, you’ll want to open yourself up to other possibilities. There could be a whole new world out there for you. There are many types of love in the world but never the same love twice. Have you ever heard that quote? It’s a favorite of mine.”

Kate holds herself very still. Then she stands up. The tissues fall to the carpet and surround her feet.

“Get out.”

“What?”

Her words come out in spurts, as if she’s short of breath.

“Out. I don’t want you in my house. I don’t want to see you again, ever. I will contact the police if you even come near me. You cannot call me or stop by or anything. Do you understand?”

“I’m sure you really don’t mean that.”

“I mean every word of it.”

My father looks at me. “Sometimes, Faith, when people are going through emotional turmoil, they lash out at others.”

“That’s not what’s happening here. I’m not lashing out at you. I’m just telling you the truth. Please, listen to me. I love George. I will always love George. Not you. Ever. It will never, ever be you.”

My father and I leave together. He seems a little subdued until he asks me if I’ve come to my senses yet about Vincent. I don’t answer him because there’s nothing to say. 

He’s the first to drive away. I know that Kate is peering out from one of her windows, waiting for me to leave also. But I can’t stop thinking about the moment when I caught my father outside, right before he came up to the house. For a second, he looked exhausted, spent, horribly old. Slumped shoulders. His arms dangling by his side. His chin drooping towards his chest. His head jutting forward just enough to emphasize a hump at the base of his neck. The sun hitting the top of his head in such a way that his hair looked thin and deathly white. Then, when he started toward Kate’s house, he shook it all off. The fatigue just flew off him as he straightened his posture, lifted his knees to high-step each stride, and stretched his mouth out into a wide smile. And I wish that Vincent had seen it also: my father’s extraordinary effort—no matter how misguided—to love someone, his attempt to compensate for sorrow.

I stand outside the house for so long that Kate comes out to check on me. She asks me why—why in the world—I haven’t left yet.

 

 

Catherine Uroff’s short fiction has appeared in Floodwall, Red Wheelbarrow, Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Bellevue Literary Review, and other journals. Her blog on the latest books she’s read and other literary musings can be found at catherineuroff.tumblr.com.

 

Q&A

Q: What was your inspiration for this story?

A: The father in this story has been on my mind for several years. I wanted to write a story about him—his love of falling in love, his belief in the romance of love—for a long time. 

 

Q: Besides Prime Number, what are some of your favorite literary magazines?

A: I have a subscription to The Kenyon Review that I can’t live without!

 

Q: What would your ideal writing day be? 

A: I write every day, in the early morning, before I go to work. I have grown to love 5 AM, the growing light, the silence in the house. My ideal writing day would be 5 AM all day long.

 

Q: What’s happening outside your window right now?

A: Nothing. I’m looking directly at the house across the street, the short driveway that is packed tightly with cars, the gold-colored minivan that has been parked—face forward—in the same spot for three years now.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished a short story called “Returns,” about a woman who tries to scam people on Craig’s List.


Monic Ductan.JPG

Suffer Little Child by Monic Ductan

Followed by Q&A

You have hated the little girl ever since that first day you saw her in your yard. She wore a pink, tulle skirt and threw rocks at stray cats.  

Her name is Lily. She is ten years old, lines her eyes heavily with makeup, and wears red lip gloss that makes her lips stick together when she smiles. Sometimes you find yourself thinking about that smile, even though you don’t want to. You wish she’d wear longer skirts. Her exposed legs make you feel anxious, like the time your cock got semi-hard when she rolled in yellow leaves with her skirt riding up. 

You hate when Lily clomps through your side gate and asks to play with Emma, your eight-year-old. Some days you pretend Emma isn’t home or that she is sleeping or doing homework when she is really just watching TV in another room or writing in her tablet. On those days when you send Lily away, she frowns and drags her ragamuffin feet out the side door, tramples your Easter lilies as she goes. Emma sometimes hears you at the door and comes running in, and on those days she is angry. 

I wanna play with her, Emma says.

But you’re afraid Emma will take a shine to short, tulle skirts and curse words. 

Lily sometimes plays with Max, the boy from next door. One day you see them kissing under your chinaberry tree. You are watching the two of them from your kitchen window. Emma is watching their lip lock, too, standing with her head cocked to the side and her mouth slightly open. 

The suds from the dishwater plop onto your bare feet as you step away from the sink and toward the screen door. Walk calmly. Don’t run. 

By the time you reach the chinaberry tree, Max has run through the gate and joined his mother in their yard. She yells at him to stay in sight, grabs his arm, takes him inside. 

Lily is still standing there looking up at you.

I need to meet your parents

Lily says she will take you to her house, and because you assume it must be right around the corner, you don’t bother to go inside to get your shoes. As you walk, Lily tells the most elaborate stories about her Daddy—the tyrant that makes everyone cry, meanest man in Mississippi. She says he’s nearly seven feet tall and carries a pistol. She says he is missing an eye—that it was snagged on a piece of glass during a fight. 

You and Emma follow Lily to the main road. Lily begins to dart across the busy five-lane highway, but you shout at her, grab both girls’ hands and lead them across the road. 

Lily takes you to a shotgun house planted in a weedy yard. A woman opens the door. Where you been, girl? she asks Lily. Git in this house. 

Lily obeys her momma.

A man appears in the doorway. He is not seven foot tall, but’s he’s damn close. One of the man’s eyes is sewn half-shut, and there are scars forming a half-moon shape around the eye. Attached to his belt is a silver pistol. 

You start to speak to the man, but he grumbles his thanks and closes the door in your face. 

The man yells, and Emma jumps at the sound of his voice. 

What’d I tell you ’bout runnin’ off? the man demands to know.

Got to worry ’bout you all the time! the man says. 

Emma whimpers and hugs your waist. You still hear his shouts as the two of you walk back to the highway. 

You think Lily won’t come around anymore. But a few days later she knocks on your door. She invites herself inside for dinner. 

Your momma and daddy may want you home. 

No they don’t. They gone.

At the dinner table, Lily tells you she doesn’t like to drink milk as you think about what gone means. Gone to town? Gone for good?

You give Lily a juice box and she wrinkles her nose at the carton. Apple juice, she says. That’s nasty. I like fruit punch and Mountain Dew. At my house we got a whole stack of fruit punch this tall. She raises her hand above her head. 

Why don’t you go home and drink it then?

She looks up at you, wide-eyed, tears brimming.

You set three places at the table. Lily eats and eats. 

You watch her carefully, just as you always do whenever she comes inside the house, and you do this because she once pocketed $2.75 that you left on your kitchen counter. She looked you dead in the eye when she slid the quarters into her palm. Your heart beat faster, and because she is forever wearing run-over sneakers and her hair never looks brushed or cared for, you didn’t even demand that she put the money back. 

After dinner you go to start the wash, and when you get back to the kitchen, only Emma is there.

Where’d Lily go?

Emma shrugs. Home, I guess.

That night you put Emma to bed and then sit on the screen porch. It’s one of those Delta nights when sweat puddles on the hollow place at your lower back and you have to bathe twice during the day or else you smell yourself. You are dozing off when you hear leaves crackling near the gate. A flash of pink. Lily. The one you hate. You feel like telling her to go away, go home, go anywhere, but instead you watch to see what she will do. 

Lily goes to the apple tree. She is carrying a white bag; you hear it rustle as she drops apples into it. Green under-ripe apples. The pink skirt billows in the darkness as Lily bends and scuttles around on the ground, probably collecting the pecans that have fallen in the dirt. 

She runs back through the gate. 

Later that night while you are in bed, you dream of Lily. And when you wake you wonder why you didn’t go after her and drive her home. You sit up and you can’t stop picturing her running in the dark across that highway. You hear wheels screeching and a horn blaring. 

Some day when you are telling this story to someone else, you will alter the details. You will say you went after the girl, escorted her safely home. You might say that you adopted her, saved her. 

 

 

Monic Ductan has an undergrad degree in English from Georgia State University and currently studies poetry writing in the MFA program at Georgia College. Monic was recently named a finalist for the Spring 2013 Diana Woods Memorial Award in creative non-fiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Creek Review, FRiGG, Bartleby Snopes, DOGZPLOT, and several other journals. Monic is currently at work on a novel as well as compiling a collection of short stories. She blogs here: http://monicductan.wordpress.com/

 

Q&A

Q: What can you tell us about this story?

A: I usually write short stories in first person, past tense. I began this story in first person as well, but decided on a whim to try my hand at the second person.  

 

Q: Besides Prime Number, what are some of your favorite literary magazines?

A: Carolina Quarterly, Florida Review, storySouth, Dead Mule School of Southern Lit, The Rumpus, Muzzle Magazine, PANK, and several others I’m forgetting right now.

 

Q: What would your ideal writing day be? 

A: Hmmm. I’d sit at my desk, sip peppermint tea and wear my favorite hoodie and sock feet. My writing sessions would be interspersed with short walks in the autumn air. The ideas would flow smoothly and I’d finish a first draft of this damn novel I’m writing. 

 

Q: What’s happening outside your window right now?

A: Dusk. A rain-slicked road. Trees swaying. Gunmetal gray clouds. Squirrels clambering over a garbage bin. Sound of firecrackers. 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A collection of short stories and a novel. The story collection is tentatively called Shotgun Houses. Most of the stories are about female characters who struggle with self-identity. And of course there are outcasts in it. I love outcasts. 

The working title of my novel is Gullah Babies. It’s about two girl cousins of mixed Gullah and Jewish ancestry. The cousins grow up on an island off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. Both cousins eventually leave the island to pursue education and career goals, but they are repeatedly drawn back to


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Milkweed by Angele Ellis

Followed by Q&A

I was alone, looking at the beautiful tangle of milkweed, when I heard something behind me, humming like a bee. I was six. My parents and Daniel and Teresa had gone out for ice cream with my grandfather, in his candy-apple car with shark fins. He knew the best place to get ice cream. I’d stayed behind, daydreaming in front of the milkweed growing all over the side of his garage, which was separate from the house—like a playhouse—and covered in black-grained shingles like giant thumbprints. The milkweed had dozens of leaves and hard green pods like crescent moons. We pricked the pods with toothpicks to make milkweed dogs or milkweed horses, beads of milk running down each skinny wooden leg, like the tears on the white stone face of the statue of the Blessed Mother in Nana’s garden after it rained. 

I didn’t understand why some plants were called weeds when they were as pretty as flowers. We would hold buttercups under each other’s chins, saying: Do you love butter? and smears of yellow light would appear. Dandelions looked to me like tiny suns, and I liked the sweet smell of shaggy clover, white and pink and purple. Cows loved clover, Nana said, although we never got close enough to see what they ate. My father drove fast, whizzing past the fields of dairy farms, although not so fast that Daniel, who was eleven that year, didn’t have time to yell Inhale! as the stink of manure blew through the open windows, and Exhale! as it faded. Nana promised that we’d go to the County Fair to see the cows that won blue ribbons, but we never did.

When Nana was a little girl in Italy, there was an earthquake in her village, and she saw the earth open to bury a cow. When I imagined this, I thought of the shaky ground like a big rubber change purse: the slit snapped open, swallowing the cow like a quarter. Then the slit snapped shut, as if there never was any cow, never any hole splitting the ground.

I was afraid of bees, although I knew they ate clover to make honey. Their sting was worse than a spanking, although I almost never got spanked, unlike Daniel and Teresa. Earlier that summer, Daniel had taken my father’s old office chair and tied a rope tight to the greasy tube above the wheeled feet that made the chair so easy to push across our garage, which had a cement floor and room for two cars—nothing like my grandfather’s garage, whose dirt floor was filled with rusty, cobwebby old tools and paint cans. 

Teresa, who at nine wasn’t afraid of anything, sat in the office chair and put her arms straight down, clamping her fingers to the underside of the leather cushion, while Daniel jerked the rope back and forth, making the chair spin faster and faster, and yelling: Behold, The Amazing Whizzer Chair! Teresa wanted one more ride—unlike me, she never got dizzy or sick—but then my mother came into the garage from the kitchen with a bag of garbage, and she was so upset that she dropped the bag and it split open. She smacked Daniel and Teresa, and told them they’d get worse when my father got home, and then she made them pick up all the garbage, even the coffee grounds that looked like steaming anthills. 

Fearless Teresa told Daniel that they should stuff their underpants with the rabbit skins that my grandfather had given them. My father never noticed, and after he spanked them with the big slotted spoon my mother used to boil spaghetti, Teresa boasted that it didn’t really hurt.

I was alone, looking at the beautiful tangle of milkweed, when I heard something behind me, humming like a bee. I was six. I’d read in “Ask Dr. Alcott,” the medical column in the newspaper, that bees could paralyze you with their sting—like being dead, but worse. In addition to the newspaper, I was reading my second cousin Toni’s Louisa May Alcott books. Toni was twelve, a few months older than Daniel. Her real name was Antinetta, but she made everyone call her Toni. She had dark brown hair as thick and curly as the girl in the photo on the Toni home permanent box. My hair was thin and straight, and I wore plastic barrettes with teeth and metal hinges; anything else slid out onto the floor. 

Toni’s favorite Louisa May Alcott book was Eight Cousins, about a pretty girl with seven boy cousins, but I liked Little Men, the book in which Jo and the Professor turn mean Aunt March’s house into a school for boys. I hated the part in Little Women when Jo married the Professor, who said luff instead of love—just like someone from the Old Country who couldn’t speak English properly—while stupid pretty Amy got to marry Laurie, even after she burned up the story that Jo wrote. But in Little Men, Jo and Laurie are still friends, and Jo still calls him by her pet name, Teddy.

After Easter break that year, Toni brought me to her sixth grade class for show and tell, saying: This is my cousin Allegra, and she can read my books. The teacher didn’t believe this, of course—I was small for six, although Nana always gave me extra helpings, putting her hands on hips covered with an apron and saying: Now eat! I loved Nana and her bib aprons, with their faded blue flowers and smell of soap and baking bread.

Of course, Toni’s teacher made me come to the front of the classroom with the copy of Little Men. She took the book out of my hands, and snapped through the pages like playing cards. I’m going to choose a passage at random, Allegra, she said. Start here—and she tapped her finger with its bitten nail at the beginning of a paragraph. I remember feeling like a tightrope walker in a circus, because I knew the teacher wanted me to fall. She stood so that she could read over my shoulder, her ugly fingers crossed against her no-chest, her no-lips pressed together, her faded hair in silly curls that she probably twisted up with bobby pins every night. But I wasn’t afraid; I held on to the book like a balance pole. I stumbled once, over confounded—the teacher smiled then—but after I’d read two pages, the teacher said: Enough. Allegra. You. Did. Very. Well. Words like scissors, snipping a dotted line. 

When I sat back down next to Toni, Sandy Siedlecki—who could barely read, although Toni had a crush on him because he was blond and tall—whispered: You little freak. It sounded as if the whisper was coming out of the teacher’s mouth, as if the teacher was a ventriloquist and Sandy was her dummy.

I was alone, looking at the beautiful tangle of milkweed, when I heard something behind me, humming like a bee. I was six. Toni lived next door to my grandparents. She was an only child, and had her own room and toys that I didn’t—Barbie’s Dream House and Barbie’s convertible, and every outfit made for Barbie, including the strapless gold nightclub gown and the wedding dress. Although Toni said that she was getting too old to play Barbies, she and I staged many weddings for Barbie and Ken. I knew they were faked, because Barbie had all the things she wanted for herself—the house and the car and the clothes, and high-heeled shoes in every color, along with gloves and purses and hats. Toni usually was nice enough to let me dress Barbie instead of Barbie’s plain friend Midge, who had freckles on her nose like pimples, and red hair as thin but not as soft as mine. When Midge wore anything of Barbie’s—she came with an ugly brown suit, like Toni’s teacher—I had to stuff a Kleenex in her front to fill her out.

I was alone, looking at the beautiful tangle of milkweed, when I heard something behind me, humming like a bee. I was six. There was a room behind Toni’s house—stuck on to Toni’s house, although it had its own door—where Nonno Jo-Jo lived. He was Nana and Aunt Polly’s father. Nonno Jo-Jo was old, older than anyone else I knew—although I didn’t really know him, because he hardly came out of his room-house. Nana cooked extra food for him every day, and then left it in a pot on the steps to his door. Nonno Jo-Jo wouldn’t eat any other food, and you couldn’t fool him by putting Aunt Polly’s spaghetti in Nana’s pot. I understood that. Aunt Polly’s spaghetti was watery, and tasted like plain tomatoes; it wouldn’t have fooled me either. Every once in a while I saw Nonno Jo-Jo’s door open, and a pot being taken in or put out, but I didn’t see him. 

Except for one time, when Nonno Jo-Jo came out of his door and shuffled across the lawn and driveway to Nana’s weeping willow tree, where I was playing a game called “The Smiths” with Toni and Daniel and Teresa. The Smiths were a rich Protestant family; Daniel and Teresa were Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Toni was their housekeeper and nanny. I used to get mad because they wanted me to be the little girl. I’d say, No, Toni’s nasty old baby doll can be the little girl—I’m Mrs. Jones, a millionaire visiting from New York City.  

All of a sudden, Nonno Jo-Jo was standing right in front of us, his face twitching like a mouse without whiskers, his eyes blank behind thick glasses, his gray hair combed straight back. He was wearing a yellowed shirt with suspenders and heavy wool trousers and thick leather shoes, like Old Country men did. He said: You kids. You-a my kids, right? You-a want Nonno Jo-Jo a-give-a you a quarter? 

A quarter was a lot of money, but I looked at Toni first—because she was the oldest cousin, and because the old man lived in her house, sort of. Toni nodded her head, so I said—we all said—Yes, please, Nonno Jo-Jo, and Thank you, grazie, Nonno Jo-Jo. He fumbled with a rubber change purse—like the one I imagined swallowed the Italian cow in Nana’s earthquake—and then he placed one quarter in each of our outstretched palms. When he got close, I noticed his bad smell—dirty clothes and cigarettes, and something that stung my nose like the rubbing alcohol my mother put on a cotton ball before brushing it over our knees when they got scraped. Inhale…Exhale

Nana came out into the yard just then, banging the screen door, and looked at Nonno Jo-Jo—she just looked at him, not saying anything. Nonno Jo-Jo shrugged his shoulders at her—as if he was apologizing for something, or as if he wasn’t apologizing for anything—and then he shuffled back to his room-house. Nana said: You kids get ready for supper, and her voice was sharp, as if her words were coming out of my mother’s mouth, as if my mother was a ventriloquist and Nana was her dummy.

I was alone, looking at the beautiful tangle of milkweed, when I heard something behind me, humming like a bee. I was six. For a moment, I thought it was Toni, teasing me by putting her hands over my eyes—but the hands were like bandages, and the person was taller than Toni. Then I smelled Nonno Jo-Jo, dirty clothes and cigarettes and rubbing alcohol, and he was pressing himself against me. All I could see was milkweed, the hard pods that leaked sap when you pierced them, because Nonno Jo-Jo was putting his smelly hands down the front of my shirt, into my pants, and then into my panties as if he was a doctor, but he wasn’t a doctor, and he was rubbing and saying something like You-a, you-a, and I was paralyzed as if by a bee sting, but somehow I managed to scream and fall in front of the milkweed as if I was praying to it, and then Nonno Jo-Jo was gone, and I raised myself in crumpled pieces, and on shaking toothpick legs I ran into Nana’s house, into Nana’s apron, which like a miracle still smelled like soap and baking bread. 

Nana stroked my thin hair and said, Allegra, my poor bella, and then she carried me into the bathroom and ran a bath in the deep green tub. I remember her washing me in the tub with a pink washcloth—as if I were a baby—and drying me off and helping me to dress in clean panties and a clean shirt and shorts and fresh socks. Nana tied the laces of my sneakers, combed my hair, and snapped a barrette into it. Then she pulled me into her lap and rocked me as she hummed a tune from the radio, “Red Roses for a Blue Lady.” 

I don’t know how long we sat like that. I remember hearing my grandfather’s car, and scrambling out of Nana’s lap and going to sit in a chair at the kitchen table, as if all I wanted for myself was the ice cream my father carried in a round white container that said in handwritten black marker, ROCKY ROAD. 

Everyone was laughing, and I forced myself to eat, each spoonful sliding down my throat like a frozen stone. No one else noticed that I had changed my clothes, or even that my hair was wet.

 

 

Angele Ellis is the author of Arab on Radar (Six Gallery), poems from which earned her an Individual Artist Grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and Spared (A Main Street Rag Editors’ Choice Chapbook). Her fiction has appeared in yawp, Grey Sparrow, Eunoia Review, Go Read Your Lunch, Voices from the Attic, and Dionne’s Story 2, and is forthcoming in The Rapid Eye. She was a prizewinner in the 2007 RAWI Competition for Creative Prose for “Desert Storms,” an early version of a chapter of her novel in progress. She lives in Pittsburgh.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: The genesis of “Milkweed” was a long-suppressed memory, which then marinated in my consciousness for years before I was able to transform it into fiction.

 

Q: Besides Prime Number, what are some of your favorite literary magazines?

A: Mizna, Al-Jadid, Rattle, Gulf Coast, American Book Review.

 

Q: What would your ideal writing day be?

A: The closest I came to an ideal writing day was during a month spent at a writers’ retreat in Costa Rica. Up at dawn to draft my poem of the day, breakfast on the main verandah, back to my cottage to redraft the poem, break for a light lunch on my porch, afternoon spent writing a connected series of stories (one of which became “Milkweed”), up to the verandah again for supper and some conversation, and then back to my cottage for reading and rest. But one can’t live in Paradise forever. (After a while, it gets lonely and a bit boring.)

 

Q: What’s happening outside your window right now?

A: I live half a block from a busy urban street, but on my tree-lined alley, nothing is stirring right now except the finches. 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My goal this year is to finish a draft of a novel, whose manuscript title is “Desert Storms.” Three excerpts have been published as short stories—but that isn’t prodding me as much as it should!


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Changing the Map by Matthew Neill Null

Followed by Q&A

When the three hunters walk, the moon follows as if it’s been wired to their lantern, and when they hurry, it comes dancing behind at a frightening clip. They pause to listen to the hounds, and it hangs in the crook of swaybacked mountains. Like them, the moon wants to rest a spell from the chase. Their breath rises to it in ragged spirals. Early on, a plain full moon—the color of clean bone—drifted over Fenwick Mountain, only to be snuffed by the clouds. They miss that wholesome body, now that this red hysteria has been revealed. 

Oren likes his heavens nailed fast. “Nothing less than strange,” he says. The blue bulb of a match-head flares, struck off his thumbnail. He lights a cigarette, and the cherry gleams like a flake chipped from the red moon above. The galloping thing fills him with dread. He isn’t sure why. It’s too far away to hurt him. It’s just, well, foreign. Through black branches, just above the earth’s curve, the moon throbs the color of a banked fire. At first they thought it a hilltop barn or a church burning in the distance, until they crested the ridge and saw it for what it was. 

The chase nears its second hour. Dogs color the night with sound. Wilder animals—bobcats, screech owls—watch from the trees with interest, claws tensed on the scalloped bark of cherries: the sight of men wandering the mountain so late at night, far beyond the province where God granted them dominion. Lounging gray foxes smell the rank, yellow sweat of the human body. Any deacon could tell you that when He sheared light from darkness, He gave the black husk to the disfavored. Or maybe night things prefer the night. Oren supposes so. Maybe they feel sorry for us, and the bright busy world where there are no secrets. Oren doesn’t know. Secrets worry him. 

Lantern light cants up as Oren fiddles with the window, silvering trees about them. Two old men and a boy, there they stand by a shelving rock. Chamois-soft ferns. Greenbriers sharp as cat’s-claws. Oren starts a horrible coughing jag, like change being rattled in a tin-cup. His lungs try to clear out thirty-five years in the mines. Levi—Oren’s grandson—winces at the sound.

Oren wipes at his lips. “My God,” he says.

“It ain’t a harvest moon,” his cousin McClatchy is saying. “Much too dark. Casts a lot of light, though.”

“Yes. You could fish by it.”

McClatchy’s silver hair shines like a Roosevelt dime. He tries to whistle back the dogs, but the Blueticks and Treeing Walkers run on in a frenzy. The hunters shout themselves dry-throated and give up, finally, committing themselves. They are chasing a matched pair of coons that craze the dogs for five miles, six and seven. They are clever things, old mean boars—fifty pounds of flesh between them, they don’t get that big by being stupid—with hoarfrost hides and eyes garish enough to rival the working girls of Commerce Street. They drag hunters crotch-deep through Tory Run and into throat-grabbing barbed wire. The hunters don’t know who owns the land underfoot, but fences are climbed, fields crossed, property trampled—night is governed by a shadow set of laws. Nothing can be owned there. By day, Westvaco and the Haymaker Mine claim the timber rights above and the mineral rights below. 

“Mostly a bright night’s bad for coons, cause they don’t move so much, usual,” McClatchy tells Levi, and the young boy nods in an exaggerated way. 

Levi carries an iron-sighted .22 slung with a length of baling twine. His hands sweat and make the snub-nosed rifle hard to hold, it tries to leap from his grasp. He shifts it shoulder-to-shoulder. The dead leaves underfoot are broad as hands. 

Oren kills his cigarette and places the butt in his shirt-pocket with care: no fires here. A flung funnel of light collects all manner of broadwing moths: Io and Luna, Hawkmoth and Blinded Sphinx. They bat false eyes and parchment wings. The hunters drag themselves uphill with handfuls of brier, rousing animals in the pines. Nocturnal eyes swing after like rifle-sights. 

“Favoring east,” McClatchy says, tuning his ear. “Heading to Foxtree.”

“Are you sure?”

McClatchy says, “I’m not following. That place is messed up.”

“Oh, it’s not a bad place to hunt. Just hell to walk through. All that dead timber. Your dogs will kiss you and love on their daddy.”

“I don’t want to see that place.”

Oren gives Levi a grand horse-wink. “You won’t see it. It’s dark down there.”

McClatchy didn’t want to come. Hunting reminds him of his grandsons overseas, where they learn tigers, napalm, red mud. He just sits at home, waiting by the telephone. Every time it jumped and rang on the stand this week, it was only Oren. Just the thought of hunting made McClatchy go sour in the stomach, but he owed Oren some stupid favor from back in the Kennedy days, from the Primary Election, when they maybe passed on some Kennedy money to the sheriff, when McClatchy was high up in the union, when they maybe bought the votes of ten-thousand dead people in Mingo County. The trouble is, Oren’s always demanding payback. He put himself “at awful risk.” Again and again, Oren’s been repaid, but he always forgets. No other, he said, should have the pleasure of taking out his finest grandchild. Levi deserved it! Oren called three times a day until McClatchy muttered, “Quit deviling me, I’ll prime the dogs.” McClatchy’s an old-school hunter—many’s the night he spit in a carbide lamp to get himself home—and that’s why Oren pestered him so.

But now that he’s back on Fenwick Mountain, McClatchy can’t deny he loves being among hounds. Rooty smell of fur, the rosebud pucker of their backsides. Hasn’t run them in better than a year. It would be the best night, a homecoming, if not for the sky’s poor aspect.

Hounds. Trails dogleg and double; slate floors vanish underfoot; rusty spirals of hog-wire jump at their collars. Leaves clutch scent, mapping the world. Noses to the ground, floppy ears billow the boar-stench like sets of sails. Cross Tory Run, paws slash creek-water silver. Past the wreckage of abandoned lumber camps and wildcat mines: piles of rusted Peavey heads, glinting puddles of coal. Skid-roads, bottle-glass.

The three hunters top the ridge, consider, descend.

The moon follows. Moonlight is nice, Foxtree a dark hollow, but the darkness doesn’t bother Oren or McClatchy. They spent their lives in the Haymaker Mine chipping coal from this mountain. Roamed its innards with the spitting flames of carbide lamps fixed to their helmets, flames as slight and forked as copperheads’ tongues. 

Trouble is, Foxtree is cursed ground, and like all curses, it fascinates. Since before anyone can remember, the bitty creek called Foxtree Run divided the hollow with a murmur, changed gently with the seasons, and gave the place a name. Oren and McClatchy fished it with rods of Tonkin cane, wire hooks, and tails torn so freshly from the hind-ends of crawdads that the plain things still quivered with life. But the Haymaker Mine loosened the ground underfoot, and Westvaco clear-cut the head of the hollow. The earth couldn’t hold its water. Foxtree flooded when seven inches of rain fell in an hour’s time. Heaving and groaning, beaver-dams plugged the glut until they buckled and burst. Water surged down-hollow with the sound of a highballing train. Boulders crushed, scattered like gravel. In less than an hour, the creek was scoured off the earth. Two families living up there were not seen again. A crew scavenging timber found a muddy low-cut dress. It was wrapped about the post of an uprooted mailbox. 

Now a lifeless trickle. They tell it again, but Levi’s heard it a hundred times. Levi senses the ghosts of trout swimming Foxtree. The moon draws them up and they chase ghost-nymphs, ghost-hellgrammites, drifting like silt in the current of air. Water run no more than ankle-deep and dies into a broad fan of rubble, Queen Anne’s lace rising through a latticework of broken sycamores and chewed greenstone. A hell for hikers; a paradise for grouse and rattlesnakes. 

The lantern clanks and swings in brisk arcs, lighting the remains of the creek-bed. The rocks are stained a violent orange with mine acid. Raw yellowboy stands in stagnant puddles. Levi stumbles and Oren jerks him up by the suspenders. Keep from that. 

“The paper says a flood like that happens every thousand years,” McClatchy says, “but I don’t see nobody rushing back to settle.”

They grin. They know better than to trust a newspaper. They know fire and flood firsthand. Cocking heads, they listen to hounds scurry through troughs of leaves. 

“If them sons of bitches are running deer, I’ll choke the both of them. This is getting to feel like work.”

“I won’t abide a dog running deer. Just won’t abide it. Can you hear them, bud?”

Levi, who secretly hates the way men hit their dogs, who feels sweat stinging the cuts on his hands, answers vaguely, “They down over back?” He has no idea.

“No, no, buddy, they’re breaking at the point.” Oren laughs wickedly at him. “You’re not exactly a living compass, are you?”

A horned owl lifts from a stump on horrible angel’s wings. Guard feathers brush Levi’s cheeks, stiff as a bottle-brush. He throws out an arm and the gun-barrel pitches wildly. 

The pale awesome thing breaks toward the sky. The owl glances across the moon—red, white, and black—an emblem. 

“Stop.” Oren’s chest heaves. “Thing about give me a stroke. You all right, bud?”

“I’m okay.” Levi can feel the imprint of feathers on his cheek. It feels like a favor. It keeps his mind off his embarrassment. He won’t have to blush and cry, because someone he loved laughed at how dumb he was. Levi was always giving the wrong answer. His grandpa could be cruel, like a schoolteacher, and be kind, like a schoolteacher. You just never knew.

They take a breather.  

Panting, McClatchy gets on his haunches to roll a cigarette. Black lung, black lung, and cigarette smoke. When the clinic doctor fanned out the charts, they covered an entire table. 

Suddenly McClatchy seems crazed. He dances a little jig, even puts away the tobacco, cups his mouth and hollers, “Pin them up, Ring! He got them treed. We’re good, son. Pin them up, Ring!”

The tenor of the yelping peaks, finally, and shifts in pitch, as if their voices are being pulled through a pipe. Foxtree, a bowl of howling. 

Kerosene sloshes and sizzles. The rancid smell of burnt metal, it’s enough to twist the nose off your face.

Oren’s feet give out from under him. A stump cracks his elbow on the way down. It is, precisely, the sound of two bricks clapping. 

High yelps gave way to a steady bay, so the others don’t even notice his distress. Oren sulks behind, nursing his elbow and the singing bone. A slick pile of leaves was his undoing. He runs fingers through his hair, which has gone all cattywampus from the fall.

The moon harries them on, and they billygoat one-by-one, watched and dismissed coolly by animals in the brush. Eyes of bobcats dish the light, but the hunters don’t see them. 

The moon floats into view.

McClatchy stops short. “Mark where the stars are. Them bright four.” 

The hunters take thirty eastern paces, turn. McClatchy points to the sky. “Don’t you see?’

They understand. 

The moon doesn’t chase them; they follow the moon! Just a trick of the earth’s curving, really, but they don’t see it that way. It led them from pastures and cemeteries; past the abandoned tipple and County Road 5; over the inky backbone ridge where larches shed needles of a fall and turkeys roost. They give in to a conceit, that the turns they make might not be their own. They have no choice, they are dragged along.

Damn the sky, they want shut of this, want to warm themselves by the truck-heater, sleep in houses, slip hides from the coons’ bodies like dirty shirts. 

The lantern throws a tattered halo of light. Hounds bawl and dervish about the tree, stiff tails whipping. They stand with forepaws on the trunk, muscled haunches straining, nails hooking. They yap and bay, worry and bawl, leaping sets of eyes. If the coons fall, they will be torn to hissing rags. 

But that night, the coons want to hold onto their shirts. They cram themselves up in the den-tree, a lone shagbark rising from the waste. A covey of flying squirrels flush into the darkness. They glide over the cone of light. 

“Get ready.”

Levi checks the safety. 

“Jubal! Honey!” Thumping heads, McClatchy unknots the hounds and reaches into his satchel. The hatchet’s gleaming edge, it comes out and shines. 

He strikes the dead trunk with muffled, worthless thumps. Too dry and leathery, cured by the weather. It refuses to give as living flesh will. McClatchy works himself into a dangerous lather. Might as well try and chop down a courthouse. His lungs tingle: feathers and needles.

Levi can hardly control himself. All the fear, all the worry ebbs away. He wants to curl his finger, pull that silver trigger. 

McClatchy lets the hatchet go limp at his side. He coughs and hacks. “This tree will not be cut. Them old boars are sewed up tight. Tonight ain’t your night, son.”

But Oren can’t bear disappointing the boy. “You don’t got a pair of climbers on you?”

“I left them at the house,” McClatchy says. “My knees can’t take it.”

“With all the bark wore off, I don’t think you’d climb it anyhow.”

“You could burn them out,” Levi says, remembering a dozen stories. “That’s how you used to.”

Oren looks at McClatchy. 

“I don’t know,” McClatchy says. “That’s an awful lot of effort.”

“Why not?” Oren asks mildly, but his eyes say: You owe me. You won’t make this boy die of disappointment, cry in the truck, embarrass me.

A favor is a favor.  

McClatchy answers slowly, as you uncoil a rusty chain: “I haven’t done it going on twenty years. But let’s try her. ‘Get out your lucifers,’ like dad used to say.”

They craft a tent of kindling in the tree’s hollowed base. Oren pulls paper from his wallet. Ads for auctions, outdated fishing licenses. He wads them into small lanterns. Hounds surge about them, in fresh jags of yelping and pagan colors. 

McClatchy lights paper with a flick of his lighter. Wind steals the meager blue flame, so he builds it a chapel with his hand, trying her again. It catches with a whoosh. The fire treats the tree like a flue, climbing slowly and steadily up to the dead heartwood. 

Levi shoulders his gun. Light blooms from cracks in the tree.

The coons come boiling and screeching from the busted crown, their fur crackling blue. The .22 barks twice. Levi misses cleanly, and though the coons fall twisting, they hit the earth running and cloaked in orange. Two maverick stars, they dive into the night and carve twin trails in the crackling leaves. Hounds race after, trying for mouthfuls of fire. 

The hunters back away, but flames romp through the brush. They cuss the sky, they can’t run fast enough, they scramble on with the lantern clanging. It has been a dry, dry year. The hollow wants to burn. Fire comes leaping into the world. 

A night smeared with heat-blur. Their skin tightens like drumheads, fire licks their calves. Throats full of cinders, and stars of black leaves sucked up to heaven. 

Their world is bounded on all sides by fallen timber, busted rock, and not only that. A noose of fire cinches itself around them. The only place the fire can’t seem to reach is the high red moon, still as can be, that twins the blazing earth, the way a mother gazes down into the face of a favored child that is so, so pretty.

 

 

Matthew Neill Null is a writer from West Virginia, a winner of the O. Henry Award, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Oxford American, Ploughshares, PEN / O. Henry Prize Stories, Baltimore Review, and West Branch, among other journals. He has received writing fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Michener-Copernicus Society of America, and the University of Iowa.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: Maybe I read too many of those Calvino stories with their galloping moons.  

 

Q: Besides Prime Number, what are some of your favorite literary magazines?

A: Well, I seek out NOON because I’m fascinated by Lish and his disciples, and it seems to be carrying the torch. It’s all about the sentence. I can’t say I write in that style, but I like to see where those writers—Dawn Raffel, Christine Schutt, Gary Lutz, etc.—are traveling from their early work, which is so Lish-infused, and how they try to escape (or not escape) that influence. I also have a thing for Oulipo and books like Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa.  I’ll never write a book like that, but it gives a nice jolt to read work that is language for the sake of being language. Realism is taken too seriously. You can’t treat it like some precious delicate thing, like the last panda bear. Toss it around the room a bit.

Was also cheered to see NOON publish the forgotten Peter Altenberg, who is remembered more for that awesome, nervy Kokoschka painting than for his own writing.

 

Q: What would your ideal writing day be? 

A: Quiet morning. Get up in the dark, 4 am or 5 am, and finish by 10 or 11, before anguish floods the room. Get it all over before I have to think too much about it. Then the mysterious stranger calls with an offer to pay off my student loans.

 

Q: What’s happening outside your window right now?

A: There are a couple deer in the field and birds in a dead tree. It’s early, so the animals are on the move before the heat sets in. I live in a cabin on a piece of ground that my family’s had for a hundred years now. It used to be a working farm, but rocky WV isn’t precisely America’s breadbasket, so we’ve let it go back to forest.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A fleet-footed novel of West Virginia in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It looked bad for a while, but I think the patient is going to live.


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Remains by Lee Gulyas

Followed by Q&A

The only reason for time is so everything doesn’t happen at once. Albert Einstein

To get anywhere from Sanaa, you must climb the rugged peaks that ring the city and journey down the other side. You must leave behind the dusty streets, drive by the roadside hub hub sellers and their pyramids of striped watermelons, pass the white-bearded man walking his donkey to market, his wife and children straggling behind. Maneuver through the traffic jam at the taxi stand on the outskirts of town, the last place to hire a ride. Only then can you approach the desert, a place where time waits for you, not as a moment or a measure, but as a destination.

Before 1995, foreigners in Yemen were not allowed to travel outside the capital without permission from the Ministry of the Interior. Fortunately the government suspended the permit policy after the civil war; in theory, we are free and safe to travel anywhere in Yemen. But government roadblocks and inspection checkpoints remain. At the top of the peaks that mark the fringes of Sanaa, a uniformed man waves us over to the side of the road. We wait while he walks to a small metal hut, presumably to inform his superior that foreigners want to pass. He returns, waving us on with a casual flick of the wrist, as if he is done with us. The old van plugs along, steadily descending the mountains.

We’re off to see the fabled ruins of Marib and Baraqish in a faded canary-yellow 1970s Volkswagen bus with Marcus and Jamie, a couple we met at the school where we are employed. Jamie’s brother Michael is visiting from Boston, and we only have the weekend, Thursday and Friday, to get to Marib and back before work on Saturday. An early morning departure is best not only for our quick trip, but also to avoid driving in the overwhelming midday heat. My husband Ed and our two-year-old Sofia were ready before we heard the distinct rumble of the old VW outside our gate at sunrise.

Despite riding in an automobile, I feel that we’ve traveled back in time. Yemen does that. Even though you may be watching television in a roadside restaurant, somehow you’re not quite in the current century. It’s not just the lack of a reliable power supply, or the presence of lepers and beggars. It’s not the farmer plowing his field with oxen, or the women harvesting sorghum with hand-scythes. It’s not camel-driven sesame mills or even donkey carts going to market. It’s the Yemeni people, their lack of rushing, their complete engagement with the present. Time seems manifest here. I turn around and watch the city disappear as we head into the desert.

Three months earlier, in January, tribesmen seeking jobs and payment from the government kidnapped an American oil worker and three colleagues. They were released well-fed and unharmed after four days, with no public revelation about the negotiations. A few weeks later, a group from France was diverted to the nearby village of Shabwa after visiting the ancient city of Baraqish. All seventeen of the mostly elderly tourists relaxed in village homes, enjoyed traditional feasts, watched folk dances, took walking tours of the village. The tribe released the French hostages after five days, and news stories of the tourists’ adventure appeared in Yemeni and French papers along with a photograph of the group, their arms filled with parting gifts of traditional jewelry, daggers, woven baskets, and antique firearms. Ed and I joked that we could get rich contracting with tribes to stage kidnappings of European tour groups, promising them adventures of “authentic village life” and “traditional Yemeni hospitality.”

Most incidents in the Marib region involve foreigners losing their brand new Toyota Land Cruisers. Reports of expats forced from their vehicles and left to walk to the nearest checkpoint appear frequently in Yemeni papers, but we shrug. These things happen all the time.

The road meanders into a valley. We reach another checkpoint where a lone soldier standing by the side of the road motions for us to stop. Soldiers emerge from a tiny guardhouse, stare incredulously. “They’re probably wondering how we got this far,” whispers Jamie.

Amriki,” Marcus explains. “Ina mudaris, fi Sanaa.” We are Americans. Teachers in Sanaa. And my wife’s brother from Amrika. We are going to Marib, the temples, the dam, and Baraqish. The soldiers nod. This makes sense, what else would we be doing? They turn away, and after a few minutes of hushed discussion, the man in charge motions to a soldier, and tells us that we can go on if we have Mohammed with us for protection.

We all know Mohammed will not offer much protection. One small man, with one gun, even if it is a Kalashnikov. What match would he be? But Mohammed is our ticket past the checkpoint and without him we will be sent back. Ed moves back with me and Sofia. Mohammed climbs into the van and sits beside Michael on the middle seat. “Salaam Alekoum,” he greets us. “W’alakoum a’salaam,” we reply. Marcus asks him how long he has been posted at the checkpoint; he says he’s only been there a few months. What village are you from? Jamie asks. “Thula,” he says, and we tell him we know his village, it is beautiful. Marcus tells Mohammed that we all live in Sanaa and work at the madrassa al’dowalia, the international school, except for Michael, who is visiting from Amrika and doesn’t understand Arabic. Michael, a grad student in astrophysics at MIT, sports tattoos, forbidden in Islam. Mohammed is staring, especially at the tattoo of the scantily clothed waitress hoisting a platter of a pig with a huge apple in its mouth. Mohammed is eighteen years old, and this desert outpost is probably the farthest he has ever been from home.

Conversation wanes. “He has a gun, Mama,” Sofia says. I stare at the barrel of the rifle, tilted slightly in our direction and roofward. I glance out the window, then turn to look at the back of Mohammed’s head. His black hair and the gun barrel glint in the sunlight. Mohammed relaxes and leans the Kalashnikov against the seat. The barrel points at Ed’s head. With the back of his hand, Ed gently edges the barrel of the gun towards the window. The Volkswagen ambles along.

A white Land Cruiser approaches us from the opposite lane, the first vehicle we have seen all morning. As it passes us it slows down and swerves off the side of the road, creating a swirling trail of dust. It turns 180 degrees. There are six, maybe seven men inside the Land Cruiser that is now traveling in our same direction, easily overtaking our van. They are driving just an arm’s length away, directly alongside. I stiffen. No one says a word, not even Sofia. The men stare at us, and start talking excitedly. They begin laughing so hard that the whites of their eyes and teeth appear oversize, almost cartoonish. Their Land Cruiser passes us, then veers left, spins around resuming its original course, leaving us plodding along the road in their dust.

We arrive at the Marib dam, one of the wonders of the ancient world, whose water once transformed the desert into a flourishing green garden so massive and so famous that references to the dam appear in several ancient texts, including the Koran. Now only a portion of the dam still stands, and the fabled green gardens, the miles and miles of fields and flowers and fruit trees are gone. But even after thousands of years of lying in ruin, the dam’s gigantic stone walls tower over fifteen meters into the air. I can see the original sluices and spillways carved long ago, and water channeled by a new dam still flows on the other side. The water seems so green compared to the parched dun-colored rocks along the shoreline, to the hills and mountain peaks that repeat the same striated colors endlessly into the horizon.

We pile back into the van and head out over the uneven sand to the old city of Marib, the same city the ancient Greek historian Strabo described in his chronicle Geography.

Mariaba, the capital of the Sabaeans, is situated upon a mountain, well wooded. . . The people cultivate the ground, or follow the trade of dealing in aromatics, both the indigenous sort and those brought from Ethiopia; in order to procure them, they sail through the straits in vessels covered with skins. There is such an abundance of these aromatics, that cinnamon, cassia, and other spices are used by them instead of sticks and firewood.

Historians regard Strabo as one of the more accurate ancient chroniclers, not like that spinner of great fables, Herodotus. But well wooded? Cinnamon sticks for firewood? It’s hard to imagine. The ancient city of Marib is deserted, dilapidated, disintegrating. It sits upon a mountain, that much is true. The city is eerily beautiful. Buildings seem to rise organically from the rock, like sandcastles clustered on a beach. Our soldier Mohammed seems unimpressed; his home village of Thula is an ancient stone fortress high atop a mountain surrounded by vegetation, streams flowing into a large cistern in the heart of town, a thriving, bustling place. full of farmers and merchants. There is no life here, no stray dogs. No hawks or golden kites overhead, no snakes underfoot. Not even a scorpion.

I scan the brown horizon, look for the row of towering stone columns about a mile or two in the distance. We stand by the van, gazing at the monolithic pillars. “Mahram Bilquis,” Jamie says, softly. We drive downhill to the site, and several boys and young men scurry out from behind a ridge and greet us as we park close to the pillars.

Salaam Alekoum, Salaam Alekoum.” Greetings rise around us and when the boys hear our chorus of replies in Arabic, offers of tours and recommendations of where to stay and eat erupt, along with a question: do we want to see them climb the pillars? The men of Marib are known for this feat and their photographs appear in every travel guide. The pillars are solid limestone, stand at least ten meters from the ground and are roughly two meters wide and one and a half meters apart. Some lean precariously, some have diagonal cracks and missing chunks. All are weathered, roughened by hundreds of years of blowing sand that withers everything in this dry land. Sure, go ahead.

They each stand between two pillars and extend both arms flat on the pillars above. Now spread-eagled, they span the insides of the pillars with all four limbs and shimmy their way up. The three of them have spidered to the tops within minutes, even the one who is missing an arm. “How did you lose your arm?” asks Marcus, when they are back on the ground.

Karaba,” is all he says. Electricity.

Sofia wants to try too, but she can’t touch both pillars at the same time. They are so massive and she is just two and a half. Ed hoists her onto his shoulders, and she slaps the stone a few times, then wants down to run around in the sand again. Everything is the same color—sand, rocks, stone—yet there is so much to see. A wall has just appeared, one meter thick, jutting out from the ground in front of my feet. I squat to touch the carved inscriptions, running my hands over the large letters of Sabaean script, lines and curves carved thousands of years ago. The labor of carving these words into stone warrants a message of importance. An honor, a proclamation, or a devotion. We have all fanned out, each of us pursuing a different route through the sand, and it appears that everyone is having the same good fortune. Walls and columns sprout out of nowhere, but reveal only a little of what lies below.

“Time,” Horace wrote in his Epistles, “will bring to light whatever is hidden; it will cover up and conceal what is now shining in splendor.”

It’s hot in Marib. This may seem obvious. We’re in the desert on the Arabian Peninsula, but the weather in high-altitude Sanaa is normally so comfortable—cool mornings and evenings, hot only in the midday sun. By comparison, Marib is sweltering in April. The sun is directly overhead, and the local boys have disappeared. Sun is a constant here so close to the equator, and day and night cycle with minimal seasonal fluctuation. The twelve-hour days seem long and harsh. No one works midday, not even the camels. In contrast, moonlight illuminates the night, turns the sand into a silver sea, exposes the snakes and scorpions and gargantuan poisonous spiders that roam this land. Night would seem treacherous without the heat-free shine of the moon.

Tired and hungry, we head for the hotel. We have to get an early start in the morning if we want to see Baraqish before we head back to Sanaa. The Bilquis Hotel advertises a four star rating with “beautifully decorated rooms, fully air conditioned, hot water, peace, quiet, and comfort.” It is a modern, circular hotel with hallway windows that face the desert and rooms that overlook the interior courtyard pool. Quiet it is and we are too tired to notice the décor. I ask Marcus where Mohammed will sleep and he says that the hotel will take care of him.

Sofia falls asleep easily. Ed succumbs soon after. I struggle with the air conditioner, turn the knob to control the temperature and fan. The unit hisses out a faint stream of air. I open the sliding glass door to the inner courtyard, gaze at the moon’s garbled reflection in the swimming pool. I think about the book I’ve been reading on Wendell Phillips, an American who led an archaeological expedition here in 1950. His team uncovered the ruins of the city of Qataban, destroyed around the beginning of the Christian era. The site, with its inscriptions of South Arabian script, bronze lions, gold necklaces, ossuaries, tombs, and one of the finest alabaster heads in all of antiquity, secured his team a place in history. Yet Phillips’ aspirations lay in Marib, only forty miles away. Eventually Phillips made it to Marib and was able to excavate a large portion of what Yemenis call Mahram Bilquis, temple of the Queen of Sheba, revealing a temple nearly three hundred meters in circumference, a temple so magnificent that many considered it the archaeological triumph of the day. If it weren’t for the efforts of archeologists, Marib wouldn’t even appear in the tourist guidebooks. If it weren’t for this swimming pool, the moon would shine only on sand.

I’m still hot. I think a shower will help, and it does. The cold water provides the relief I need to fall asleep, wet and unclothed.

At least for a while. I wake, soaked in my own sweat. I open the door, crane my head outside, peek to see if someone is walking down the hall. There is no sign of anyone, and the hall is dimly lit, so I step out into the hallway and open the window to the outside, hoping that a cross breeze will bring in fresh air. Back in the room, I stand behind the door, fan it back and forth.

“What are you doing?” Ed moans.

“Making a breeze,” I say. He laughs, then concedes the breeze feels good. I close the door, step into a cold shower and stumble to bed again. I fall in and out of sleep, think about the temple and pillars, how Philips’ team and Yemeni workers uncovered halls and temples, found the paths that fountains of cascading water had carved into stone, excavated mausoleums and tombs littered with bones, pottery, alabaster bulls, and sacrificial altars with gutters for channeling blood.

I must have drifted off, because I wake again and open the door. Someone closed the hall window. I feel a fine layer of sand under my toes as I slide the window open and fan the door until air is circulating. “You know, Lee, some hotel employee is probably hiding just around the corner to watch the naked woman come out and open the window,” Ed jokes.

Maybe. I am so hot I don’t care, awake in this room with an air conditioner that doesn’t even work as a fan. Stripped and sweating, I shower again so I can sleep for a few hours before the sun blazes again.

In the morning, we meet for an early breakfast of eggs and flatbread at a table overlooking the pool and decide that a swim is a good idea, despite the thick green scum concealing the water. Once we all plunge in, the floating scum doesn’t matter. In the middle of the desert, immersion in cool water, no matter how fetid, cannot be underestimated. I delight in my body’s shiver, savor my goosebumps, close my eyes and swim.

For ages, we humans had no clock but the sun, moon, and stars. We observed heavenly bodies, marked and measured their movements, anticipated their return. Our bodies were (and are still) fine-tuned to these cycles of our orbiting planet. The rhythms of night and day are buried deep within us, in a portion of our brains that regulate these circadian rhythms and our autonomic nervous system. Cats and dogs share these rhythms, as do all mammals. So do cockroaches, beetles, flies, and even some forms of yeast. That we living beings are tied to our planet’s journey through space—ellipsing around the sun, our moon tethered along for the ride—becomes obvious when we experience jet lag, the disorienting result of flaunting these rhythms. Who of our ancestors could have imagined that time could be divided so infinitesimally, delineated into zones with borders that we would one day cross? Time travel is possible. Just fly across twelve time zones, then tell me what you feel.

Perhaps the conflict between the archeologist and the locals was about the perception of time. In the Western world, time is linear. Our past and our history are behind us, and the future is before us, a future of progress. Schools use timelines to give us perspective, to situate history from then to now, the future a blank line, the arrow on the end following the same level horizon it always has, never rising or plunging, never turning around or changing direction. Just following the only course possible, straight into tomorrow.

The Yemeni view of history situates past events on a continuum with the present and the future. Viewing the ruins of Mahram Bilquis as a great treasure of antiquity is not important to the Yemenis. It’s not that they are ignorant of their culture and history. Instead they view their heritage not as part of a distant past but as fluid. Things come, things go, things remain. The American team lived and worked on a Western schedule while surrounded by an Eastern one, just like we do. Not only did the clock control their labor, but they perceived time as unchanging, immutable, stuck forever on a fixed point in space. Maybe the whole thing was a cultural misunderstanding.

Or maybe the Yemenis didn’t want outsiders rewriting their history. If what they wanted was to remain in command of their own history, their future, the first step was to control the present.

Now, nothing of the temple Mahram Bilquis is visible except for the monoliths and the edges of inscribed stones that rise from the ground. The sand that seals this site, the sand that Yemeni workers painstakingly excavated by hand and carted away on the backs of oxen just fifty years ago again conceals the temple, obscures a vast oval complex of rooms and halls, tombs and altars, that rests underneath. Sand and time have preserved Mahram Bilquis, until the day comes when someone decides to unearth it again.

After breakfast, we check out of the hotel and head for the new town of Marib, to stock up on bottles of water and petrol for the drive home, and to find food because there is nothing between Marib and Sanaa. We find a typical Yemeni roadside place, its large metal doors open all along the front and side, leaving the customers to dine al fresco, even as they sit in the shade. It is crowded and a large numbers of trucks fill the parking lot, a sure sign of good food. We all walk inside, wash at the faucet on the wall and sit down at a table. As usual we are the only foreigners, and Jamie and I are the only women. Ed, Sofia, and I sit on one side. Marcus, Jamie, Michael, and Mohammed go to the other. Mohammed places his Kalashnikov on the table before he sits down. The barrel points directly at Ed, who gently pushes it aside.

What is unusual about this place is the mural painted on the wall, a pastoral scene with evergreen trees and a lake, people conspicuously absent. The menu is typical. Today they have ful, broad beans cooked with garlic and oil; fasoolia, white beans with peppers and tomatoes; laham, roasted lamb; meshekl, a vegetable mixture of squash, tomatoes, onions, and garlic. All of this is served with tea, large rounds of steaming hot flat bread, and zahawig, a spicy tomato sauce. We sip our hot tea, tear pieces from the flaky bread, and use it to scoop the food into our hungry mouths. Sofia eats mostly bread, but occasionally she dips the edges in ful and then takes a swig from her Canada Dry cola.

Back in the van, we head for Baraqish, nearly an hour away on a desert track. Walls and towers appear in the distance as a dark blur long before we arrive. Poised on the eastern bank of a large wadi, Baraqish must have been a lush oasis in the midst of all this sand. The phrase “middle of nowhere” could have originated here; there is nothing except the faint hint of mountaintops in the direction of Sanaa and the occasional dot of green against the expanse of rock and sand. My guidebook says that travelers are “neither allowed nor wanted,” but there is no one in sight who would care. There isn’t much I can find written about Baraqish (at least in English) even though it was the capitol city of the Ma’in kingdom. In its most glorious period, Baraqish controlled a large portion of the incense route. Strabo called it Athrula and recorded how it was “mastered without a struggle” by Aelius Gallis, who took it as a garrison for a futile campaign to control Saba. Locals say that in ancient times, neighboring tribes used Baraqish as a base to fight invaders. There are no defending troops now, and we are hardly invaders.

Marcus drives the van up to the wire fence surrounding the abandoned city, and by the time we all have our feet on the ground, an armed guard waits for us at the gate. He is not a government soldier, but a local who seems unfazed by our arrival. He unlocks the gate and welcomes us in, “Marhaba.”

Marcus asks questions, translating the guard’s answers. I try to pay attention but my senses are overloaded. This is a ruined city, ancient, tumbling with the decay of time, but it is different. Underneath my feet are potsherds too numerous to count, and scraps of cloth and metal that shine despite the dull dirt that covers everything. Mounds of broken ceramics lie in piles against the fence, scattered around the ruins by Italian archaeologists who have been working here off and on since 1992. The city was inhabited until the 1960s. Newer buildings were built on top of existing ones and as a result there are layers upon layers of civilizations in this one location. The walls reach fourteen meters and are in remarkably good shape. There are too many watchtowers to count. Anyone approaching Baraqish could have been spotted miles away. I can easily imagine people here, children shouting and running through the street, the bleating of sheep, the laughter of women at the market. 

Stones are exquisitely cut and the limestone is smooth and clean, the carved inscriptions so precise, so perfectly rendered that function and aesthetics appear to have been linked in the creation of this city. It must have presented a great display of wealth and beauty. We walk along, looking at the layers exposed, newer houses built on top of large limestone structures. Around a corner we come across what looks to be an apse in a domed shrine or temple, a vaulted projection from a wall, the stones in the center tumbled onto the ground. Thousands of years’ worth of buildings remain here, storage rooms, houses, mosques, all built over the previous civilizations’ storage rooms, houses and temples. We wander for a while in silence and then agree it is time to head back to Sanaa.

The guard escorts us to the gate, and Marcus hands him some riyals. Most likely he relies on these tips. At the gate we are met by a group of children, some asking for pens, “Kallam, kallam,” and some just practicing their English. “Hello, friend. What iss yourrr name?” An older boy tries to sell us carved marble heads that fit inside his palm. He says they are old, antique. I remember stories of tourists who buy antiquities only to have them confiscated at the airport when they depart. It is illegal to export artifacts without the proper verification and the permits to export. 

Bi kam?” Ed asks how much it costs.

Saba miya,” he says. 

Seven hundred riyals. Less than five dollars. Most likely these heads are not antiquities. If they are, they are quite a bargain. Either way, none of us buy the marble heads.

We pause for minute, look at the vacated city of stone before we get back in the van. By the time we are on the Marib road, we grow silent. The government doesn’t consider traveling towards Sanaa a problem, and we have Mohammed, so Marcus gets waved on at the checkpoints without even coming to a full stop. When we reach the checkpoint where Mohammed is stationed, we pull over, and hand him some riyals. Since yesterday we have paid for his food, but a soldier’s pay is notoriously low, and he has been kind. We say goodbye and give him our thanks. He stands at the side of the road waving as we pull away. “Ma’salaama Mohammed,” Sofia says as she waves out the window. “I bet he wishes he was coming with us,” says Jamie.

Mohammed fades away as we head toward the mountains. We spot Jebel Nuqum, the first sign that Sanaa is near. The sun approaches the horizon and we won’t be home until well after dark, well after Friday prayers are completed. We are quiet the rest of the way.

Desert winds carry sand, sometimes grain by grain, often in blinding storms, huge clouds of dust that can obscure the sun and hide everything in plain sight. When the wind calms, sand falls into streams and riverbeds, in fields, on trees and towns. And sand irritates eyes, which is why camels have such long, thick lashes. Desert people cover their heads not only for protection from the sun, but so they can quickly cover their faces when another dust cloud approaches. Sand finds its way into anything, everything. If I dust the flat surfaces in our house before leaving for work, by the time I return they will be covered in a fine, even layer of silt. Annie Dillard writes: “…we sweep floors and wipe tabletops not only to shine the place, but to forestall burial.”

If not for sand, the ruins of Marib would be gone, nothing but jutting fragments of pocked limestone eroded by time and weather. It took less than twenty years for the portion of Mahram Bilquis excavated by Phillips’ team to again be covered in sand, and now the process of removing sand has begun once more. Yet in time the winds will come, sand will rise and fall, dust devils will swirl on the horizon.

 

 

Lee Gulyas is an Okie married to a Hungarian and received an MFA from University of British Columbia. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in journals including Fugue, The Malahat Review, Event, Barn Owl Review, Quarter After Eight, and The Common. She lives in Bellingham, WA and teaches at Western Washington University.

 

Q&A

Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?

A: Surprises are part of the process, part of the fun. I originally imagined this piece as linear, with a traditional narrative arc. But I soon realized that was folly—to transcend time, history, and cultural bias meant another structure entirely. 

 

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?

A: There’s so much good advice, all useful at different times. Be greedy. Be curious. Trust yourself. And if you already know where a piece is going, what’s the point? What’s worth pursuing is the mystery. Brevity  is a great and accessible resource, especially since the addition of craft essays. The best advice is to be part of a community. Attend readings. Promote other people’s work. Buy books. And buy them from an independent bookseller.

 

Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?

A: In nonfiction, Orwell, Didion, Dillard, Bernard Cooper, Langston Hughes, and Steinbeck. I work with amazing people; my colleagues Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola are a never-ending source of inspiration and enthusiasm. I love any writer with curiosity, regardless of genre.

 

Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own? (Remember, I’ve been there! Hahahahahaha!!!)

A: Ah, a dream space. Quiet, clean, mine. I used to write in a café, but it sold, and the ambience changed. Sometimes I write on the bus. Airports are highly productive. I always have a notebook, and also several projects going at once. Unfortunately, when is more of an issue than where.


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On Writing (Or Not) by Brock Kingsley

Followed by Q&A

1.

After my father died, I didn’t write for six months. Even though I sat in his room in the ICU and took notes on what I saw, what I was feeling; even as I watched and listened to the machines that were keeping him alive whir and click and blink and ring I left my descriptions in a closed notebook. I became aware that the machines had become him. Even before we pulled the plug, he had ceased to exist, become just a hollow body that used to house the man I knew. I put the notebook away and tried to forget.

2.

I was working on--and still am working on—a memoir about alcoholism—a trait my father and I shared. I was exploring not only my own personal history with booze, but also a kind of natural history of the disease. I was looking at the origin of the word, the doctors who first used it, the science of alcoholism and alcohol, how booze affected the body and mind and soul. I knew that my father’s death would have to go into the book. I understood that it would act as kind of a prime meridian—a line that everything else would follow and attach to. It would be the very stout stake of emotion Henry James wrote of. I knew this even while the death was happening. But I told myself that it was too soon, too hard. My emotions were still raw and everything still too new. I needed to step back, gain some space, look at it with fresh, objective eyes. I told myself I would come back to it soon, very soon. But I didn’t. I let it fester.

When I was in graduate school I would wake up early, put coffee on, and sit at my desk and work. I would sketch out an essay. Work on a piece of memoir. I would write and rewrite the first paragraph of something so that the trouble was up front. I would tweak dialogue so it fell on my ear the right way—with a bit of music. I was part of the creative nonfiction program and some of what I did each morning may have ridden the fine line between truth and fiction. But memory is plastic: it bends and stretches, and can be softened and molded and remolded.

3.

I was having dinner with a friend, a writer who, in her work, explored everything from motherhood and dreams to American Idol—in short, all that makes us human—and she reminded me that all of life was simply material. It was the raw stuff from which we make art. “Maybe,” she said, “You should try writing about something else for now.”

4.

“A man is lucky if he has one thing to write about.” Hemingway said that. Or something like it. 

5.

My one thing, it seems, is the booze. I write essays about my drinking. I read books about drinkers and drinking and the science behind alcoholism. Even the short stories I would write for workshops had drunks as heroes—or antiheroes—who tried not to but always failed; poems were heavy with images and metaphors of drunkenness. After dinner with my friend, I tried to write about honorifics—the little titles we use to express respect of one another; words that work as a type of coding for a person’s social status. 

In Indonesia, Ibu is the honorific for “ma’am,” “madame,” “Mrs.,” and “mother.” But I never called my mother “mother.” I called her Julie, her first name. In the same way, I called my father Rick. Rarely (never?) dad, daddy, pop, poppa, or father. I thought I would explore/examine why it was my parents were Rick and Julie and not mom and dad. I thought it would help me avoid writing about the booze and my father’s death. I realize now that I would always fail. 

When I started to write that essay, I thought about how even on his death bed I called my father Rick. My younger brother, twenty-four years old six-foot three, wept while we watched my father die. He wept and he said, “I love you, dad.” Then he said it again, and a third time. Each time a little louder, making sure he could be heard, maybe hoping that they would be the last words our father heard as drifted away. “I love you, dad. I love you, dad.”

I was last out of the ICU room. And when I left, I patted my father’s yellowing hand and said, “See you later, Ricky.”

6.

I am thinking of a game we used to play—my father and I. At dinner, we would have a conversation using the largest (read: most pretentious) words we knew. For example: instead of stinky, we would say malodorous. It was an unnecessary game. The words were empty, hollow. We weren’t having a real conversation; we weren’t saying anything. We were avoiding any real talking. 

I was sixteen, taking a 6:30 am Latin class, and in the afternoon an etymology class. I was learning where the words I knew came from and how their separate parts became a whole. 

7.

The word failure, the infinitive, to fail. From the Latin fallere: to trip, cause to fall; figuratively, to deceive. 

8.

I think about failing every time I pick up a pen, or peck at a keyboard. I think I can’t do this, I don’t know how, it will never be good enough. What I really think is that no one will care.

Every time we try to create, we fail. Somewhere. An errant brush stroke. A wrong note. A poor sentence.

Someone told me once that the man who kept doing was the man who won. What I think he meant was it’s okay to fail. It doesn’t matter that no one else will care. It matters that I care—that I continue to produce for myself. 

9.

I am not widely published—a few essays here and there, several book reviews—and the places where my work has appeared are not prestigious (but that is not to say they don’t possess quality; they cared about my work and the work of all the other writers they published). I haven’t submitted any work to magazines in over a year. And I don’t suppose for a minute that anyone, except for my wife, would be disappointed if I never wrote another word. I don’t plan on or expect fame. I write because there is something that pulls from within. Something that tells me to put my thoughts down on paper. And then to shape those thoughts into some kind of meaning. If I don’t, those thoughts will most likely drive me a little more crazy than they already do. I don’t write for you.

10.

It’s one thing to tell myself that I’m the only one that matters. It’s another to believe it. Don’t we all want to be recognized? Don’t we all want to please someone: the student wants to please the teacher; the son wants to please the father?

Who do I want to please? Friends, editors, colleagues, my wife? I think that if I could gain my own approval it would be enough. But it’s never enough.

11.

After each time an editor said yes to an essay or a book review, I felt proud. My sense of self-worth grew and I was able to walk around with my chest puffed out for few days. I got to feel like a working artist—having my work accepted by someone else, someone who wanted, in turn, to show it to other people. But that sense of pride deflated when I thought about doing it again. Would I be able to? Could I write something publishable again? And those questions led to doubt. Led to fear. Led to paralysis. It led to filing things I had written in a box and not showing them to anyone anymore. 

12.

My father used to show me things he had created. He would pull out a box that once held 24 x 36 sheet film. It was Kodak yellow and dusty. Like he kept it under his bed or in the back of his closet. Only took it out when he felt nostalgic. Inside that box were black and white photos, and he would talk about shadows, tones, exposures and f-stops. He would talk about how the picture was composed, the way the subject was framed. There were screen-printed posters. And he told me how the screen would have to be exposed for each different color. There were logos and designs that he had drawn freehand in pen and ink. I remember bringing my nose to the edge of the paper, smelling its mustiness and looking for pen strokes. But it was smooth and flat like it had been done with a brush. 

I asked him why he did all the stuff that he did—all the pictures, posters, and design. Maybe he gave me an intelligent answer about being an artist, about creating something that mattered to him. Maybe he just said “Because it gave me joy.” That would have been the best answer. But I don’t remember. I do remember that when I asked why he stopped doing those things, he didn’t look at me. He just shrugged his shoulders, put the lid back on the box and put it away. 

13.

I heard a story about my father. A story he never told to me. Apparently, he had spent some time in the ‘70s and ‘80s working on a new font. I had no idea he was even interested in fonts. But I can imagine the time and patience it must have taken to create a certain type of a particular size and shape and face. The amount of tweaking, the amount of studying existing fonts: serif, sans serif, proportional, monospaced. And the metrics.

As the story was told to me, my father took the font/typeface he had been working on and sent it off to a famous type designer. I didn’t recognize the name. Maybe it was Doyald Young. Someone famous among type setters, graphic designers, and illustrators. It doesn’t really matter who he sent it off to. What matters is that he was proud enough to do so. To want to show this thing that he had worked hard on, that he had drawn, shaved, sanded down to a smooth representation of the thing that was in his head. And when Doyald Young (or whoever) received this font they felt it compelling enough to write back to my father. They told him that it was a good start—a strong start. They offered words of encouragement, ways to make the font better. And then they asked to see it again when my father had done more work. 

My father should have been happy about receiving a letter back. He should have been happy that someone took the time and effort to encourage him. He should have been able to read between the lines and see that someone else was excited about the work he was doing. More than that, he should have been proud of himself that he took the chance to send his work to someone he looked up to. He should have been proud of the work. 

Instead, my father quit. I imagine that his excitement of receiving the letter was doused by what he read. That what he thought perfection had not been attained. When he read the letter he did read the words of encouragement, he read that he had failed. That he had not lived up to the expectations he set for himself. Expectations he had no chance of reaching.  

He crumpled up the letter. Crumpled up the font. Threw it all in the trash and set it on fire.

 

 

Brock Kingsley lives and works in Fort Worth, Texas. His writing and photographs have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Juked, Junk, Paste, Pleiades, and elsewhere. He is a contributor at The Nervous Breakdown and teaches at TCU.

 

Q&A

Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 

A: I didn’t know where this essay was going when I wrote the first paragraph. What surprised me was the jumps and associations the mind makes when it is deep in creating something—whatever that something may be. 

 

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?

A: Lee K. Abbott preached “butt in the chair time.” He meant you had to work—had to try and sit and put pen to paper—if you wanted to improve as a writer. You couldn’t wait for divine intervention. Have I followed that advice? I’d like to think I have, but you’re never really working enough, are you?

 

Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer? 

A: I am a huge fan of anything by John McPhee, the memoirs of Nick Flynn, and the risk taking of John D’Agata. 

 

Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own? (Remember, I’ve been there! Hahahahahaha!!!) 

A: For me, it’s important to reme mber to snatch any time for writing I can--no matter how small. That often means being able to write where I am: my office on campus, my desk at home, or the wobbly table in the corner of the coffee shop. The space doesn’t matter. Only the work matters.


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Fox View, Montclair Neighborhood by Elaine Neil Orr

Followed by Q&A

Across clearings, an eye,

A widening deepening greenness,

Brilliantly, concentratedly.

Coming about its own business.

     Ted Hughes, “The Thought-Fox”

 

May 28, 2012. I turn the manuscript over to my editor. I enter a lull. Mornings I sleep until eight, drink green tea until ten, dress by noon, at which point I am ready to sit on the back porch and watch the song birds. This June is unseasonably cool for Raleigh and the birds still dance at mid-day. Two male cardinals vie for space between the fence and hedgerow. A chipmunk runs down the sidewalk, freezes for a moment, takes me for myself or a piece of furniture, darts past. It’s time to turn to afternoon tea: iced with lemon. I put on the tea pot. Before long, I will eat a pimento cheese sandwich. Not much later and I will stretch out on the lime-green couch in the living room. 

Our house sits on a hillock, a corner lot providing a view of the neighborhood. The front yard is deep and wide, the back yard abbreviated into one corner of the square-ish third of an acre. Montclair our neighborhood is called, behind the more famed and increasingly sought-after North Hills. We remain a little ragged around the edges, these homes built in the early to mid-nineteen sixties. 

The malaise continues for days. Symptoms include the need to sleep every two hours. Even eating tires me. So does talk. I avoid the telephone. I ache down through muscle into bone. When I stand I feel faint and have to sit again. The hint of a sore throat presents itself when I swallow. A fullness dips into my chest, sensations portending a summer cold. But nothing develops. Instead, these are constant sensations of deep exhaustion. The end of the teaching year at N.C. State, six years of writing this book, the on-going tightrope I walk as a transplant patient. If I push against this state of being, I develop a slight nausea. 

Recline. Rest. This may take weeks.

I am protective of our split level, a feeling almost primitive, as an animal might experience when its territory is being invaded, trees cut, fields shorn, creeks rerouted. Not far from us, other split levels are being torn down and replaced by newer, larger homes. This advancement is an offshoot of the renewed, North Hills. What I am talking about is basic shelter.

One afternoon I wake from a nap, sit up, gaze out the window into the back yard. An awfully large cat has entered our song bird paradise. I watch as it circles the base of a tree. Moving to the window, I see my mistake. Not feline but canine: gray fox, snout and tail and heavily bristled back; the ends of the fur dark; inner fur a lighter gray; dark streak down the back and along the top of the tail; rusty orange along its neck and hind legs. Wild. For a moment I am too astonished to react.  My languid hours, his silent stalking. And the fox is here in my yard, ringing round the pine tree’s base, his nose now here, now here, now. 

No!  

By the time I slam out the back door, the fox is gone. The neighbor’s cat, arched like a moon, side-steps backwards. So I saved her, I think. And just then I see the fox, the comma shape of mouse or chipmunk in his maw. Delicately he retreats, quiet as midnight, tail down, the yard now blank and blazing in the sun. Too late and yet I take off bare-footed, awkward and limping across bramble and pinecone. “No,” I cry, waving my arms like a lame bird.

Gray foxes are native to North Carolina while the red fox was brought by the British. In spite of hunting and trapping and urbanization, gray fox is probably as common in the state today as it has been over the past million years, trapping small prey, but also foraging on berries, peanuts and corn. And anything we humans leave around in our Raleigh yards and streets: an apple core dropped, the cat food, a teen-ager’s lunch remnants tossed out a car window. An adult gray fox is nine to eleven pounds, about three to three and a half feet from nose to tip of the tail.

There are things I have not told yet that lead to this malaise. These are the harder things. A misunderstanding with a friend that goes on for months. We are both stubborn as old captains. My ninety-two year old mother who needs me every day now. “Everyone has left,” she says over the phone. I am stretched out on the couch. Her voice pleads. “Where have they gone?” I say. “Isn’t it a holiday?” she says. “No,” I say. “Well, they’ve gone somewhere,” she reports from her apartment at Magnolia Glen on Creedmoor Road. I wonder if she means not her co-dwellers, but her husband, my father, her college friends—all dead, six of her seven brothers and sisters gone. She wants my attention. I am too tired. It weighs on me, her need for a different kind of shelter.

A fox’s home range might be a square mile or less and the fox may spend its entire life in this small range. The gray fox seeks brushy woodlands and hardwood forests, is generally nocturnal in its roaming, and chooses its den location based on proximity to water. The den might be a hollow in logs and tree trunks, crevices between and under rock, a space the fox and its mate will line with grass, leaves, or shredded bark. Our split level on the hillock in Montclair is within one hundred yards of a creek. I’ve tried to follow that creek. It goes down along Wimbledon, which Collingswood Drive (our street) intersects, coursing gently through front yards. In some yards, it disappears into a huge pipe and comes out the other side, into the next yard. And then somewhere in the curve of the road, it disappears. I’ve thought of cutting through yards, trying to find where the creek goes. Wimbledon comes out to Shelley Road and the last three blocks of Shelley decline steeply, coming to the larger creek that flows out of Shelley Lake and ripples along the greenway. So our creek must link up with it. But how and where I don’t know. 

“Who will you eat dinner with?” I say to my mother. “Oh, Dot is gone,” she says. I wait. “Are there other friends you can join?” I say at last. “Well, the other three are here,” she says, meaning the other three women she usually dines with. So only one friend is gone but she feels everyone is gone. ‘Oh good,” I say. “I’ll call you again this evening.” She seems better now. We can end the call. I turn over, pull up the white afghan, sleep. 

The fox comes back one mid-morning. I am on my usual schedule in this lull. I spy him out the window that looks onto our enormous fan of a front yard. He stands in the middle of the road but turns, looking over his shoulder, back in my direction. I call my husband. “Look,” I say, “the fox.” “Where?” he says. “There,” I say, pointing. We stand close to one another, looking out. The fox circles, comes onto our lawn. We walk out the front door. The fox is unfazed, though even the most domesticated dog would have reacted to us by now. In a moment, he trots over to the neighbor’s yard across the street. “That’s a bold fox,” my husband says. A few minutes later, rinsing the dishes, I catch a glimpse of the fox out the kitchen window. “There he goes again,” I say. He makes a path just where I saw him before, alongside the hedgerow. Then he is gone and we don’t see him again that day. Only later do I consider how he must have circled our house, only later learn that gray foxes climb trees, can jump from limb to limb with ease, have occasionally been spotted sleeping in owl or hawk nests. 

Time passes. July 8. It’s sixty-seven degrees at nine a.m. I shiver on the porch in my pajamas. A sweater would help but I am too indifferent to re-enter the house, climb the stairs, and retrieve it. I nibble on a breakfast of aged cheddar cheese and sliced avocado. A bright towhee lands on the back lawn. Members of the wren family that had a nest atop an upturned broom on our carport flit from pine to shrub and back. Light falling through leaves angles into the yard. A chipmunk comes running down the path, sees me, skedaddles into the grass, over to the fence and along it. From where I sit, I view larger oaks, two variations of pine, a pecan tree, a maple. Here appears a tiny young bird in the grass, its markings so indistinct, I don’t recognize its kind. A toady mushroom has sprouted in the night. 

Gray foxes breed between mid-February and late March. Gestation takes about seven and a half weeks. When the kits are young, the male will hunt for the female, who remains in the den, which is why I call this fox He. This time of year the kits are likely still in the den with the mother. The father is hunting by day and by night and our cul-de-sac, a relatively quiet neighborhood, with many old trees, over-grown back-yards, near a greenway and a creek, is a promising area from the fox’s point of view. In our bird-feeder we leave a mixture that includes berries and nuts, which the fox will eat if he misses the bird. 

My back aches. Otherwise I feel fine until I begin to move toward a project, say cleaning out a closet or organizing my books. Immediately I feel the revolt, dizziness, a sense of weight, a resounding “no” from the body. I remain on the porch, feet cool on the concrete slab. 

A cardinal lands, pecks among the pine straw, then sun bathes. 

Approaching ten o’clock, the air is still cool. 

At two thirty, the back yard itself is in a lull and it’s only eighty degrees. My eyes shift to the shining high oak leaves on the other side of the neighbor’s house. A small flying insect of some sort has hatched by the hundreds and darts about three feet above the grass, looking like spits of snow. Suddenly a wind rustles the day, tender against my skin, and I recall bodily pleasure but only as memory. 

A week later I begin reading a novel, my first intellectual activity in weeks. I make a good start. It’s a fine novel, a little discouraging because the life of the primary character is discouraging. And this condition of life seems not about to change for him. I keep at it, at least a chapter a day. I get half-way through and then leave the book on the coffee table. Several times I pick it up but do not read. I sit on the back porch instead, even at ninety-five degrees. Summer has finally arrived with a vengeance. Mid-afternoon the sun begins its decline. I focus on the hedge, the one the fox trots by. My vision goes hazy. My brain begins to rest. This is more than physical rest. It feels as though the curves of my gray matter are unfolding from a long tightness, unfurling like fern. The sensation is lovely. I wonder if I’ve ever felt it before. The neighbor’s yellow-green lawn shimmers through open spaces in the hedge. 

Like other canines, the fox has red-dominated retinas and sees better in the dark than humans do. His vision is dichromatic, meaning he can pick out two colors: blue and yellow, and shades of gray. He uses other clues to see: smell and sound primarily. His eyes, set at a twenty degree angle, increase peripheral vision but compromise his binocular vision (which humans have—the field of view of each eye overlapping). His depth perception is less acute unless he looks straight ahead, which is just how he does look in jumping, leaping, catching. He also has less visual acuity than a human and must be within twenty feet to see me as well as I can see him at seventy feet. Motion sensitivity is the critical aspect of his vision. Is this why the fox turned his head when my husband and I stepped out the door? He heard sound and saw motion.  

***

The third time I am on the back porch talking on the phone with a friend. It’s eleven a.m. My friend and I are both tired. If we aren’t careful we will try to outdo each other with our complaints. The day is bright, though I am sheltered so that anyone looking from the neighbor’s yard would see me, if at all, as a figure in a hollow: the bright surround of daylight and me in deep shadow as of a cave.  

I glance up and there is the fox, sitting, staring, twenty feet away, just there at the break in the hedgerow, where he could, in the dark of night, make a choice: this way behind the hedgerow, or this way through the yard.  

Did he smell me first and then see me? Does he see me yet? 

“There’s my fox,” I say to my friend on the phone, just above a whisper. I am almost as startled as I was the first time. Startled by his presence, his calm, his gaze. I try to explain to my friend, keeping my voice low: “This fox. I’ve been seeing this fox; he’s been coming through our yard.” I try not to move. “How exciting,” she says. “A good omen.” Exactly, I think, which is why I don’t want him to move. For now, he sits with the patient, regal demeanor of a cat, peering and peerless. What did I do? I don’t remember. I looked away for a moment and he was gone. I kept watching for him all that day but he didn’t show himself. 

Why do I desire the fox? Killer of birds, a chipmunk’s beating heart laid open. Imagine him stepping silently into the road, looking back over his shoulder. Moving across my lily bed, he licks water from a leaf. He ambles near the coneflower; a spore attaches itself to his tail. Later it falls near our creek, a stretch where sunlight hits. Next season, it germinates. By July the pink flower blooms. Just so, our Raleigh neighborhood—if we can keep it a little ragged; if all the split levels are not cut down and all the trees with them—we remain an ecosystem. We haven’t yet destroyed all natural means of distributing seed and sustenance, even though with these new houses, nothing appears to happen naturally. The entire lot is shorn. Every blooming thing—dogwood, azalea, iris—cleared out so that rolls of grass can be laid once the house is built. To the fox’s eye and nose such a space is neutered.  

Aug. 28. We have come through a season of limp gray skies, warm temperatures, and rain into mild sunny days of late summer, temperatures in the sixties in the morning, sunlight filling the morning, every color of the outdoors heightened.  

I seem miraculously healed, waking with energy and desire, thinking—“What will I find today? What can I do?” I experience that deep pleasure that comes with interest in my own life, in what I will create. Our neighbor has acquired a rooster and chickens. Now we hear a rooster in the morning. We also hear him mid-day and evening. Lie down for a nap and I am sure to be awakened by the rooster. The chickens cluck. I can hear them moving about on the other side of the fence. It’s a tall, solid fence, so we can’t see into the yard. I imagine, grinning to myself, that they are free-range (good for them), and part of our somewhat haphazard, less-than-scrubbed-and-polished neighborhood. At first I imagine they will be safe from the fox next spring but then I remember that foxes can climb and jump.  

My mother calls. I ask her how she is doing. “I’m not doing very well,” she says. When I ask what’s wrong, she tells me that she doesn’t have any energy. She doesn’t feel like doing anything. “I need to ask my doctor about it,” she says. “Surely I’m not going to feel like this the rest of my life.” “You won’t,” I say, hoping for her. “Remember, you had that long day Sunday, going to church and then to lunch with friends, and then that musical program in the afternoon at Pullen Baptist. After a day like that, your body has to recover.” She doesn’t answer directly. “It’s such an artificial life,” she says. I don’t have a clue what she means. “Eating dinner and then coming back here to sit through the evening,” she says. I haven’t heard her say this before. She has been largely content in her living. When I asked her about moving in with me after my father died, she graciously declined. “Can you take a walk with a friend after dinner?” I say. And add: “I could come over some evenings.” “You have things to do,” she says. She is right, of course. My semester is started up. Like the fox, I’m on a schedule. She is beyond schedules. I have rested and rebounded. She may have some more energetic days but in general, her slope is downward. “I can come walk with you,” I say, “at least once a week. She would like more. 

Gray foxes inhabit all parts of North Carolina, from the Outer Banks to the Appalachians. Even as coyotes expand their range and displace the red fox, the gray fox holds its own. Is it this species’ ability to climb that helps it survive a coyote’s stalking? Folklore has favored the red fox for cunning, but the smaller gray fox is surviving better against intrusion, the human factor, the larger canine factor. 

After years of debating and deferring and sometimes arguing over it, my husband and I have decided, against a realtor’s recommendation (“Why not sell your house and buy one that already suits your needs?” –apparently split levels, even near North Hills, are not ever going to become fashionable again) to remodel our house. We are staying put in our sixties suburban dwelling with the small bathrooms and narrow hallway, three bedrooms squeezed together in the upper level, a room that will never escape the nomenclature of “den,” and a carport rather than a garage. We are within reach of what we need: the greenway and a grocery store, shaded groves and the airport, open sky and my husband’s office, bluebirds and Peking Garden Restaurant.  

I haven’t seen the fox for weeks. My husband saw him one more time, trotting his line behind the house, on the other side of the hedgerow. I was disappointed that I had not been chosen to see him that last time, as if some divine spirit had been choreographing these “chance” meetings and had somehow erred at the last. Surely the kits have now matured and he is not required to hunt as often. It’s doubtful the fox and his mate have moved to another location. They generally remain put so long as food and water and shelter are adequate. They mate for life. 

I won’t see the fox until next year and only then if I am exhausted enough to be required to sit on my back porch for a month of mornings.  

If the fox were writing this essay, he would report more sightings of me than I of him. But he would take less interest. I am only a slow and occasional inconvenience. His interest is elsewhere and his knowledge of Montclair is both more complex and more complete than mine. He knows it better than the realtor, better than the children who play basketball in the cul de sac. Human dwellers see separate yards. He sees zones of safe passage. We see surfaces. He sees in the dark. We enter our dens at night. He leaves his. We are surprised to hear the ripple of the creek. His ear perks to know its depth and coolness after a rain. He passes easily through a bed of poison ivy, maneuvers over or under oddly angled fallen trees left in back yards, knows in his certain, steady trot just where our creek intersects with the larger creek on the greenway. He knows the habits of the birds, and the habits of the large, unfurred mammals who periodically and unwittingly feed him. He walks by the moon and slips, knowing everything, at the edge of my perception.

 

 

Elaine Neil Orr is the author of A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa (Berkley/Penguin, 2013) and a memoir, Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life (UVa.P, 2003). She was born and grew up in Nigeria. She publishes in such journals as Image, Shenandoah, South Writ Large, Blackbird, and The Missouri Review, and her work has been widely anthologized. Her memoirs and stories have been nominated for the Pushcart; she has won grants from the NEH and the North Carolina Arts Council, and she is a frequent fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

 

Q&A

Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 

A: How much it revealed about my own need for shelter.

 

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not? 

A: Read great literature. Yes, I have followed it. My day job is teaching literature at N.C. State University!

 

Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer? 

A: Thoreau’s Walden, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.

 

Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own? (Remember, I’ve been there! Hahahahahaha!!!) 

A: My writing space is a desk in front of a window in a room with a door closed behind me. I have a computer and a journal and books and green tea. The “window” can be a view of the yard from a back porch as long as I’m alone.


Jen Michalski's The Tide King, reviewed by Curtis Smith

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Jen Michalski 

The Tide King

Westland: Black Lawrence Press, 2013

Paperback: $18.00

Our lives are dictated by tides. Days. Seasons. Years. The tides of youth, adulthood, old age. There are man-made tides: the currents of nations and their often-cruel histories. Balancing these are the internal tides that are ours alone: tides of individual awareness, tides of our struggles and our loves. These individual tides, while powerless against the world’s greater forces, are uniquely ours, our only toehold in the greater landscape of our days. We fight. We learn. We gain and lose . . . until our time comes and we are consumed by the greater current. But what if we could step outside the tide? What if we could be released from the limitations of flesh and float on forever? What would that mean to us, to our views of our world and ourselves? 

In her deeply involving new novel, The Tide King, Jen Michalski takes these questions and frames them in a story that makes us reconsider the most basic of tides and asks the question—if you could, would you want to live forever? Perhaps one would offer a reflexive Yes simply to avoid the pain and uncertainty of death, but Michalski goes beyond and illustrates a more complete portrait of what might happen to a soul adrift in time’s endless sea. A magic root travels across centuries and continents, and it allows those who ingest it not only eternal life, but also the powers of physical regeneration. Time passes, loved ones die, and, as they do, Michalski’s survivors become ghost-like, trapped by a history that refuses to claim them, a history always new but with repeating motifs of man’s search for love and his capabilities for horror and brutality.

The best of books challenge us to reexamine our beliefs. As I read The Tide King, I found myself reconsidering death, thinking of it not in the simple terms of negation and loss, but as an integral—and even welcome—function of life. In my own work, I often address matters relating to death, but The Tide King brings a new perspective, and I envision death not as a period or destination but as a sounding board. Death echoes our voices and heartbeats, the sound evermore distinct as we near. But without death, the sounds we make would simply radiate and fade into the void. One would be left empty and cold, abandoned in a life that might very well feel like one’s current notions of death. 

Magic roots? Lives without end? Regeneration and resurrection? Perhaps these aren’t the elements one expects to encounter in a literary novel, yet Michalski deftly escorts us across this border. Yes, we encounter the supernatural, but the supernatural is merely a bridge that escorts her readers to larger, more resonate issues. We encounter longing and fear. We witness acts of compassion and savagery. We are transported to locales of beauty and danger. And given the context of character lost in time, these situations achieve a new aura, a rendering in a unique light, the characters’ sufferings suffusing into an eternity, their underlying emotions evolving into inescapable truths.

Michalski’s writing is crisp and assured, straightforward yet also lyrical. This style suits her well—a sure hand that smoothly shepherds us through the back and forth years. Consider this short section from the novel’s first page:

"Andrei turned his attention back to the road. The days and nights were separated by subtle gradation. Congested, industrial skies the color of bone and smoke bled into charcoal and faded into smoke and bone again. One found different ways of staying awake, of keeping the lines between them sharp, understandable." (1)

Here waits not only beautiful language, but through deft utilization of images, Michalski also sets up her readers for the story’s deeper focus of how the cycles of life bleed into one another. It’s a motif revisited often, subtle touches that strengthen the novel’s deeper currents. 

As a reader, I find myself drawn to the shape of fiction. Every story needs a vessel, and the structure of The Tide King is one of its strongest and most fascinating elements. The story weaves in and out of time, seemingly disparate narratives which in time come together, linking past, present, and future. At times, we are left guessing—only in the best of ways—as we are exposed to clues and hints of the larger picture waiting to unfold. There are “a-ha” moments when the elements click, realizations that are never forced or leave us scratching our heads. Like the tide itself, the ending returns us to the beginning, a deft bit of craft that reinforces the feel of the narrative.

The Tide King offers its readers a trip through time and soul. It’s a journey well worth the effort. 

 

 

Jen Michalski is the author of a collection of novellas from Dzanc Books; two collections of fiction, Close Encounters (So New, 2007) and From Here (Aqueous Books, 2013); and the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore (CityLit Press 2010), which won a 2010 "Best of Baltimore" award from Baltimore Magazine. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of the monthly reading series The 510 Readings, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown.

 

Curtis Smith is the author of the novels An Unadorned LifeSound and Noise, and Truth or Something Like It. His work has been named to the Best American Short Stories Distinguished Stories List, The Best American Mystery Stories Distinguished Stories List, and the Notable Writing List of The Best American Spiritual Writing.


Pam Houston's Contents May Have Shifted, reviewed by Katrina Prow

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Pam Houston 

Contents May Have Shifted

New York: W.W. Norton, 2012

320 pages

Paperback: $14.95

What started off as a writing exercise to produce new work for a reading in Madison, Wisconsin, became Pam Houston’s fifth book, the novel Contents May Have Shifted. Published in 2012, Contents is a collection of 144 episodic chapters, numbered and named for the destinations in which they take place. And because Pam—the writer and the character—thinks in 12’s “something to do with moons or months, and nothing to do with the apostles,” each group of 12 chapters is subdivided into 12 different chapters taking place on an airplane, named by flight number, showing the transit from one place to the next (260). In Contents May Have Shifted, readers follow the character Pam as she travels the world, experiencing holy place after holy place, taking part in secret healing rituals, and discovering her own innate spirituality in the meantime.

Spirituality and healing are not easily defined for Pam in Contents. Physically, she is ailing with the leftover ache of childhood abuse—back pain from an “accident” that occurred when she was four, which resulted in a three-quarter body cast. Emotionally, Pam is broken by memories of her alcoholic parents, failing relationships with men, and the thought of giving up. In Creede, Colorado, Pam wonders “whether the bigger problem is space or time” (14). Houston navigates both of these obstacles as she takes her character from place to place and one time to another in little snippets, which may feel random and, at times, disconnected; however, there is a science behind each fragment and its organization. The through-line of plot is established early on when Houston writes: 

"I have spent my life trying to understand the way this rock and this ache go together, why a granite peak is more dramatic half dressed in clouds (like a woman), why sunlight under fog is better than the sum of its parts, why my best days and worst days are always the same days, why (often) leaving seems like the only solution to the predicament of loving (each other) the world." (14)

This becomes the catalyst for the beginning of Pam’s journey, though in the end, Contents May Have Shifted is not as simply reduced to a novel about leaving or loving, emotional or physical healing, but perhaps, it is more closely tied to the comfort and security of finding and coming home.

In Contents May Have Shifted, readers experience Pam jumping head first into the foreign and familiar. When connected, each isolated chapter is woven into the fabric of something bigger: 144 reasons to live. In the Bahamas, Pam swims off an archipelago and eats roast pig. In Jamaica, she smokes pot and watches the “sun move out of the clouds… turning the flowers a purple [she] thought existed only in coral reefs and crayons” (12). In Tampa, Florida, “a waitress named Shaila with beaded dreadlocks and bright green pumps takes both [her] hands and pulls [her] to the dance floor” (21). Pam “watch[es] the thousands of white prayer flags that line the river’s course, that stand all over town in battalions of forty to four hundred, that move in wind like something alive” in the Kingdom of Bhutan (26). She rides horses in Argentina; she rows past icebergs in Alesk Bay, Alaska; she drinks pickled Mekong water in Laos, and later, eats an antibacterial wipe, “suck[ing] every drop of juice out of it” (54). In Luang Prabang, Pam recalls “watch[ing] the Earth get made” on the Big Island of Hawai’i, how she was “standing right next to it, even straddling the little rivulets of it as it found its way through tiny gullies formed in the drying black glass of the prior day’s lava, [making] the whole thing so intimate it took [her] breath away” (76). In Tibet, at the Dalai Lama’s apartment, she is greeted by beggars: “Hello. Money,” they say (99). 

Houston straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction, as she’s been known to do in the past. But the Pam in Contents May Have Shifted has a graduated perception of relationships and life, leading readers to believe that the narrators from her stories in Cowboys Are My Weakness have found the patience they were always seeking to understand. As an echo to her short story “How to Talk to a Hunter,” the Pam in Contents questions her original reading of a Janis Joplin song, “what if … it’s actually a whole lot better to be free?” (263).

As Pam’s journey within the narrative develops, her growing understanding of love continues to manifest in the natural world around her first, and then blooms into relationships with others, lovers and friends, that are reciprocal. Pam receives body massages, experiences meditation, and muscle therapy in Tibet, Tunisia, and New Zealand, but it is when Houston begins to feel the repercussions of a real, healthy relationship that the novel lifts off and takes readers away.

 

 

Pam Houston is the author of five books of fiction and nonfiction including Contents May Have Shifted and Cowboys Are My Weakness. She teaches at University of California, Davis, in the Pacific University Low Residency MFA program and directs the nonprofit Writing By Writers. She lives in Colorado near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.

 

Katrina Prow is a PhD student in fiction at Texas Tech University. Originally from California’s Central Coast, Katrina received her BA and her MFA in fiction from California State University, Long Beach. Her short stories and poems have been published in Pearl and Spot Lit Mag.


Patricia Hughes's Until the Eye Opens: Writings from Blind Faith, reviewed by Dalel Serda

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Patricia Hughes 

Until the Eye Opens: Writings from Blind Faith

RAW ArT PRESS, 2012

197 pages

Paperback: $15.00

Patricia Hughes’s Until the Eye Opens: Writings from Blind Faith is, perhaps above all else, a chronicling of her love affair with her writer self. Unlike all others, this particular relationship transcends both time and space. Consequently, it outlives or outweighs all other relationships, including those socially-constructed, compulsory ones meant to be unconditional and binding like the relationships with her mother, her father, her grandmother, her sisters, her lovers, and her sons. The relationship that most tortures and satisfies her simultaneously—the one that is, in the end, everlasting—is in fact this one with her writer self. 

The brevity of the above description obscures, however, the complexity of Hughes’s undertaking in Until the Eye Opens: Writings from Blind Faith. For writing for and about a love affair that stems for and from the writer self is more than an exercise in revelation and confession: this kind of writing scratches at old wounds hiding under years of hardened scar tissue. It is self-serving and masochistic at once. For Hughes, writing is more than mere words: for her, written words represent life more than her actual life represents it. For Hughes, writing yields being. 

She writes: “If I feel the call to come here where I am washing dishes, I heed. No more everything else first. The call is a miracle. Do what you do with miracles. I move in and out of consciousness, when I am the pen and when I am not the pen. All I need is to be like glass” (28-29).

What is implicit in Hughes’s work, what is buried under much easily identifiable deliberation and self-doubt and is far more difficult for us to access, is awareness of Hughes’s courage: 

"When I write, I feel I must learn to shift to a lower gear, to listen for different sounds that don’t feel like the usual me. I haven’t written in almost ten days. I stay away from here when heavy stuff is clunking down around me in my real life: fights with Richard, a big decision about Shane. I rarely write about daily life. When I am calm, writing happens. When I’m an emotional tornado, writing stops. How do I do it—life and truth and writing? I am somewhere not in poetry and not in journaling, avoiding the truth and trying to find it. Wherever the Amazon takes me." (83)

Writers doubt. We doubt our worthiness, our ability, our audacity when we give our writing priority above all else and when we recognize that we expect our readers to also give our writing priority above all else. Our doubt propels us and makes us strive for more. We discretely document doubt; we discuss it with ourselves, with those who love us, with those who listen. We are often crippled by it or plainly stopped by it. What we do far less often is publish that doubt for our readers to become intimate with it. 

For Hughes’s work, this is both a virtue and a weakness. Though she is courageous for doing so, there is a point in the narrative when, as a reader, we long for Hughes to discard the writer’s doubt—though doing so happens only rarely in the actual life of a writer. And yet, this is what readers need. We need the illusion of stability, of confidence, of defiance against that monstrosity of doubt. We need Hughes to more readily release herself from her self-imposed imprisonment. When Hughes releases herself from doubt, it is in the moments that Hughes’s writing is at its best. It is when she stops writing about writing—or her lack of writing—and starts writing about the life she feels she fails to live while she waits to write that she engages us most. 

Hughes complains about her inability to write fiction. She asserts that she must write of her life, though she finds that difficult because she claims she doesn’t have a life of which to write. Then, as quickly as from one paragraph to another, magic occurs. She releases herself and illuminates the page. She gives us that life that passes for moments in between writing for her, while existing as nuggets of her Hughes’s truth for us:  

"Catholic girls. Sixteen Catholic girls, hanging out at sixteen, on the corner for all to see. Downy fresh and Tide bright and smelling of Jean Naté and Heaven Scent. Pure white blouses, not a scuff on a shoe, hanging out there on the corner of the Bellville Turnpike and Kearny Avenue where the curb has been worn down to street level and old cobblestones moan through the macadam and the road bed has separated from the hill, where every sound of every truck on its way to Jersey City is stored in the vast empty bottomless drum of the land." (68)

It is in these wielding creeks of Hughes’s life that erupt between doubt and writing-doubt that become the most nourishing, both for us and her relationship with her writer self.  

 

 

Patricia Hughes lives in Prineville, Oregon and loves to live close to nature. She works in the education field and received a degree in English from the University of California, Davis.

 

Dalel Serda spends most of her time documenting the lives of those overlooked by the status quo. She seeks them out both here and overseas. Recent chapters from a larger project have recently been published in Amarillo Bay and the forthcoming NewBorder Anthology (Texas A&M University Press).


Interview with Ramona Ausubel by Lisa Lynne Lewis

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Ramona Ausubel 

A Guide to Being Born 

New York: Riverhead Books, 2013

208 pages

Hardcover: $26.95

The characters in Ramona Ausubel’s A Guide to Being Born, published in May, experience various passages that are strangely beautiful: some fleeting, some permanent, all life-changing. These moments manifest themselves in physical ways in some of her stories; in “Atria,” a pregnant teenager envisions the baby growing inside of her as a shifting array of animals. When she feels the baby’s kicks during her sixth month, she imagines it as a large bird of prey: “It spread and curled its wings. Hazel felt them strong and tickling. The nest it was building was a round of borrowed organs, her small intestine twisted up in a pink knot, the bird’s sharp claws resting in the center . . . Hazel bought yarn and began to knit three-pronged booties, which she had to invent a pattern for.” 

Other characters grapple with coming to terms with loss. For the recently widowed professor at the center of “Magniloquence,” a sense of connection comes unexpectedly in a pitch-black auditorium full of other professors after the featured speaker fails to show: “Faustus looked into the dark and tried to make a list of reasons for existing. Kissing was on there, and so were hollandaise sauce and racquetball.” Eventually he approaches the podium and addresses his dead wife before returning to his place among the napping audience members: “He was glad to be able to fall asleep shrouded by the breath of so many others, and he did so curled up under the dessert table.” 

In a similar vein, a group of grandmothers adrift on a cargo ship in the collection’s first story, “Safe Passage,” find comfort in each other: “‘Tell me the story of my life,’ someone asks. ‘Tell me what I was like when I was a baby.’ And they can do it. They get the details wrong—locations of birth, names of parents and siblings—but this does not matter to anyone. They chime in, answering together, bit by bit.” 

Ausubel’s book is hardly a guide in the traditional sense. But even as her characters navigate terrain that at times veers into the absurd (an expectant father sprouts a chest of drawers, a girl plays catch with a ghost), they ultimately find solace in their relationships with one another.

The past two years have been busy ones for Ausubel; she also gave birth to her first child and published her debut novel, No One is Here Except All of Us. (As with her current story collection, it was selected as an Editor’s Choice by The New York Times.) 

With its surrealist and fantastical elements, Ausubel’s fiction has been compared to that of Aimee Bender, Junot Díaz, and George Saunders. Below, Ausubel discusses her writing process, creating tension, and why the fantastical appeals to her.

 

Lisa Lynne Lewis: A Guide to Being Born has four sections, working backwards from Birth to Gestation to Conception to Love. How aware were you of these themes as you were writing these stories?

Ramona Ausubel: I wasn’t aware of them to start—I was just writing one story to the next. After a couple of years, though, I looked back at my stack of stories and saw the themes. At first I worried that it wasn’t a good thing! I thought I didn’t have enough range. 

Michelle Latiolais [MFA program at UC Irvine] read them and said, “no, that’s what a book is supposed to be.” So then I went back and tried to connect them even more to each other. While each story looks at some sort of transformation, some sort of new birth, I also wanted the collection as a whole to have that theme.

 

LL: Indeed, several of the stories in your collection are about birth and parenthood. Now that you’re a mother, do you find yourself still drawn to these themes, or has that changed for you?

RA: Part of what I was doing when I was writing them was looking at the whole project of life that was on the horizon but I hadn’t reached. It was close enough that I could see it as a reality even though I wasn’t there yet. 

It’s harder for me to write something if I don’t have enough distance. Right now, I wouldn’t be able to write about having a one-year old. 

 

LL: In “Catch and Release,” a girl meets a man who seems to be the ghost of a Civil War soldier, and plays catch with him. Can you tell us a little bit more about how that story came about?

RA: For that story, I gave myself a project to write about things that seem unrelated: a young girl coming of age in a strange family, baseball, and something from history. It was an experiment to begin with, and then the character of the war general appeared. I got really interested in the juxtaposition of his story up against the girl’s story. 

In writing, we talk about the idea of tension, and I think just having two disparate ideas gives you that. The exercise was a good way to approach things because I had these opposing poles and was stretching something between them. 

 

LL: In a broader sense, your stories seem to center on loneliness; so many of your characters seem to be seeking—and finding—a sense of connection: whether with a parent, a Civil War hero, or a roomful of professors.

RA: I think about that a lot. We all experience moments of deep loneliness, even people who are in great relationships. But we’re not really good about talking about it or expressing it. 

I come back to loneliness a lot in various versions. You can be lonely in different ways, including feeling distant from your own history. In “Catch and Release,” there are pieces missing in the girl’s history and parts that have been told to her that aren’t truthful, so there’s a sense of not knowing what’s real. 

In “Snow Remote,” there are teenage twins whose father is distant from them. The story he tells them about their dead mother diverges from the truth. He tells them that it was a great and wonderful marriage and then she died, when in fact he paid her to keep the pregnancy. It’s about that moment of not really knowing how you came to be. 

 

LL: Have any of your characters stayed with you? Have you had the urge to come back to them in future stories?

RA: They definitely stay with me—I worked on them over nine years, from when I started the stories and when the collection was published, so I’ve come back to them over a whole block of my life. But I haven’t yet had the urge to pick up any of these specific characters and keep writing about them. I kind of feel like they’re more alive in their own unique universe now. I feel protective of their stories: I do love them, and I feel happy the world is making a place for them. 

 

LL: Did the characters change over time as you came back to them?

RA: I write first drafts very, very quickly, usually over the course of a few weeks, and then I come back to them many more times. Up until the end, I’m up for making big changes. 

“Atria” was one of the first stories I wrote, but it changed the most over time. I came back to it years later and re-ordered it and made some pretty big changes. The layer of the story about Hazel’s absent father was much smaller to begin with and became increasingly important. Also, Johnny from the 7-11 became more fully-formed. Sometimes it takes a while for me to realize, “Oh this is the story.” 

 

LL: Your stories all have elements of the surreal and the fantastical. Is this present for you in your story drafts, or does this emerge for you as the writing progresses?

RA: It’s always present right away. While I want to be writing about emotional truth, I like to get there with some sort of magnification or exaggeration. It gets the electricity going in my mind. I start thinking, “What if we got to see that even bigger?” The surreal elements come about that way, usually as part of the idea process. 

 

LL: Which authors do you think of as influences, both in terms of those you’ve worked with and those you’ve read?

RA: The authors I think of as my influences change all the time, depending on who I’m reading right then. A few that I’ve come back to often: Ron Carlson, Christine Schutt, Geoffrey Wolff, Brad Watson, Doug Anderson, and Michelle Latiolais were my teachers and influenced me hugely both with their amazing work and their amazing teaching. George Saunders is a dear favorite. There are plenty of obvious classics: Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, Gabriel García Márquez, Leo Tolstoy. I studied in Prague in college and read a ton of Franz Kafka and the Czech absurdists like Bohumil Hrabal and Václav Havel. It’s good to be both an absurdist and a president. I try to be at least a little bit influenced by every single thing I read. 

 

LL: You’ve published a novel and a collection of short stories, and I’ve read that you used to write poetry. Do you currently have a preference?  

RA: I haven’t written poems seriously since I started writing fiction, but I still read a lot of poetry—it’s incredibly important for me. You can hold a whole poem in your head at once. I often start a day by reading a poem to focus on the language. 

For me, writing gets squeezed in whenever it can. I turn off the Internet and then read a poem or a chapter or a short story to get me back to the world of writing. It gives me something to aspire to that day. After that, it’s just working away . . . you try, sometimes you screw it up, and then you try again. 

 

LL: What are you working on now?

RA: I’m working on a novel that takes place over the course of one week. Everyone in the family is at the breaking point: the mom runs off with a giant, the dad tries to sail off to Bermuda, and the kids try to live as Plains Indians. It’s still in the early stages. 

I also have a new bunch of short stories about people far away from home. The stories take place all over the world and back in time as well, with mummies, Vikings and other characters from history.

 

 

Ramona Ausubel received her MFA from the University of California, Irvine. Her first book, No One is Here Except All of Us, was named one of the “Best Books of the Year” by the San Francisco Chronicle and The Huffington Post. Her story collection, A Guide to Being Born, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Story Prize. Ausubel was raised in Santa Fe, N.M., and now lives in Santa Barbara, California with her family.

 

Lisa Lynne Lewis currently writes for Literary Mama, and has also been featured on Modern Love Rejects. Lewis spent many years doing corporate communications; along the way, she also freelanced for magazines including Better Homes and Gardens and Redbook. She has an MFA from Mills College and an undergraduate degree from U.C. Berkeley. She lives with her family in Southern California.


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Radu Repanovici is a photographer and race car enthusiast. Visit his website at www.myracingimages.com