Welcome to Issue No. 61 of Prime Number:
In 1980, when I was in fifth grade, my favorite song was “Ferry Cross the Mersey” by Gerry and the Pacemakers. My much-older brother Jimmy killed himself that year and left: framed ski photos, medals, a cat named Mogul, and his collection of vinyl LPs. I dragged the Beatles, the Carpenters and Gerry and his Pacemakers into my floral-wallpapered room. Jimmy’s records from his youth made more sense to me than Rick Springfield or Blondie. Lift needle, drop, again and again. Life goes on day after day. Hearts torn in every way. My life fell like dominos---Jimmy gone; then Mom left Dad, in effect leaving us; then Mogul died with a gory yowl when Dad started his car. I found Dad matter-of-factly washing black and white fur from his open hood with our garden hose. I spent hours alone in my room crooning in a British accent about a river I’d never heard of. So ferry ‘cross the Mersey. Gerry sang that line with hope in his voice as if it were the answer to every problem. I wanted it to be that simple. Dad and I moved nine times in eight years. We left in a hurry; we left for smaller places; we left our stuff behind--like a trail of breadcrumbs that would lead us back. And here I’ll stay. And here I’ll stay. And here I’ll stay. The final verse was repetitive, certain, emphatic, optimistic. My Gerry and the Pacemakers LP was in a milk crate too heavy to carry so it was left in a townhouse or apartment or garage somewhere in Orlando, Florida in the mid-eighties. Its worn grooves direct the next listener across the Mersey.
A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose
Letter from the Editor
It's the Contest Issue! Our inaugural Prime Number Magazine Awards opened for submissions at the beginning of the year. We turned entries over to our judges in the summer and announced the winners in September. We are delighted to present the winners in this issue! Thank you to all the fine writers who submitted work to the contest. We'll be making an announcement very soon about the 2015 contest, so watch for that.
We'd like to thank outstanding judges for the contest: Jacob Appel (Short Story); Ned Stuckey-French (Creative Nonfiction); Kathy Fish (Flash Fiction); Dinty Moore (Flash Nonfiction); and Erica Dawson (Poetry). A round of applause for our judges, please!
To see work from previous issues, check out the Archives, or order Editors' Selections Volumes 1, 2 and 3, shipping now from Press 53. These three volumes are beautiful books and contain some excellent poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Plus, Volume 3 has an interview with Pam Houston that you won't find anywhere else. Volume 4, which includes a previously unpublished interview with Sergio Troncoso will be available soon.
We are currently reading submissions for Issue 61 updates, Issue 67, 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!
Readers sometimes ask 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 (email@example.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.
Issue 61, October-December 2014
The 2014 Prime Number Magazine Awards
SHORT STORY (Judged by Jacob Appel)
FLASH FICTION (Judged by Kathy Fish)
POETRY (Judged by Erica Dawson)
CREATIVE NONFICTION (Judged by Ned Stuckey-French)
Flash Nonfiction (Judged by Dinty Moore)
First Place: Short Story
First Place: Short Story
Our Judge, Jacob Appel, had this to say about Gerry Wilson's story, "Mating":
"Mating" is one of those rare, magical stories that is much grander than the sum of its parts. Set in a failing Alabama wildlife park, the story follows the turbulent and torrid relationships of a couple who have jointly purchased an exotic black leopard. As a reader, one is instantly captivated by the complex pas de trois taking place between the desperate lovers and the exotic cat. Scene after scene is layered with suspense. Yet what sets "Mating" apart is the commanding authority of its narrative voice. From the first sentence to the last, the author's mastery of both language and human nature stands out indelibly. This is easily one of the best short stories I have read—not merely as a contest judge, but anywhere.
by Gerry Wilson
The first time Gail ran away from Cleary Mayfield, she drove south across the Florida panhandle to the Gulf and rented a room in a cheap motel three blocks from the beach. She rarely left the room, and when she did, she tucked her long, dark hair under a hat and wore sunglasses to hide the bruises. She walked to the gas station where she bought junk food and beer. Nights, she lay awake and peeked out the drapes every time she heard a car in the lot, expecting Cleary’s old van to come to a rolling stop in front of her room and shine its bright lights through the plate-glass window.
When Cleary didn’t come, Gail wondered why. Maybe she’d done too good a job of disappearing, or maybe he didn’t care enough to look for her. She didn’t love Cleary. She craved him. She drank herself to sleep in the dusky hours of morning and dreamed a black leopard lay at her feet, his eyes forlorn.
When she got off the interstate, she was still half an hour from the animal refuge Cleary owned. Virgin pine forest and swamp surrounded Animal World for miles and miles. The wilderness bred its own population of bobcats, deer, alligators, coyotes, armadillos, snakes, maybe even bears. Until the interstate opened up a few years ago, the old highway had been a major route to the coast. Now, not many people stopped at Animal World.
Near the refuge she saw the first hand-painted sign—ANIMAL— and then the others, a quarter of a mile apart—WORLD, STOP, and a hundred yards from the entrance, NOW! The signs had been Cleary’s idea, but she had painted them.
Gail parked next to the flamingo-pink wood fence. The padlocked front entrance had a yellow paper tacked up on it. “What the hell?” she said. She unstuck her bare thighs from the vinyl seat and got out of the car. “Closed until further notice,” she read, “by order of the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Fisheries.” She didn’t take time to read the fine print.
She pulled around back. Cleary’s van was there. She sat for a minute to let her heart calm down before she rummaged in her purse and found the key to the private gate. The minute she stepped inside, her eyes watered at the ammonia smell of urine, the sour-sweet stink of feces. The cages nearest the back of the compound held the big cats. Cleary had called it his anticipation strategy; let the customers see the other animals first and build up to the best part. They weren’t real cages, but pens built out of chain link fence. Fencing covered the tops, and each pen had a single, padlocked entry. Only the big cats’ pens had concrete floors. Cleary aspired to have real cages, he had told her. Real cages were part of his long-range plan.
In the first pen—or the last, if you were a customer walking through—the male black leopard, Garcia, stopped his pacing and leveled his yellow eyes at Gail. Those eyes sent heat through her, like a lover’s.
“Hey there,” she said. “How’ve you been, Garcia?” But she saw how he was—agitated, hungry, thinner than when she left. Big dumps littered the cage. Cleary must not have cleaned the pens at all while she was gone. The cat growled and rubbed against the chain link, and the light caught the variations in his blue-black coat, the rosettes of the spot pattern barely visible. He was beautiful, and he was partly hers.
After their only tiger died six months ago, Cleary had searched the Internet for a replacement. He had found the black cat on a private zoo’s website in south Florida.
“A panther?” Gail said when he showed it to her.
He shook his head. “No such thing as a black panther. There’s mostly black leopards or jaguars. This one’s a leopard. It’s a shame we can’t buy him.”
Gail saw the price. “I could pay some.” An impulse, the words out of her mouth before she thought about it. She’d made good money working as a waitress at the Beau Rivage on the Gulf coast. Casino customers, especially older men, were big tippers. After she lost that job, she’d worked in one bar or another and spent maybe half of what she’d saved up, just to get by. She’d held on to the rest and never told anybody about it, until now.
He clicked off the screen. “Naw. I can’t let you do that.”
But Gail couldn’t stop thinking about the black leopard. Except for her car—a clunker she’d bought while she had the casino job—she had never owned anything.
One night, in bed, she said, “Nothing on the refuge is mine. Let me help you buy the cat. He’d be, like, my stake in the place.”
Cleary had given in, or maybe, she thought later, her paying had been his strategy all along. Whatever, she had withdrawn the money—nearly two thousand dollars—out of her bank account, and they had driven all the way to Fort Myers to buy the cat she’d named Garcia.
“We’ll mate him,” Cleary had said. “We’ll make a fortune.”
Now, Gail regretted bringing Garcia here. The filthy cage, no sign of food—he deserved better.
“I’ll be back,” she said to Garcia. “I’ll bring you something to eat, I promise.”
In the next pen, the bobcat, Jewel, lay curled in the back corner, her eyes glassy and sticky with pus. Flies buzzed around her head, and she didn’t bother to flick them off. A piece of rotting horsemeat lay a couple of feet away.
“Cleary?” Gail yelled. She walked towards the trailer she and Cleary lived in, checking the other pens as she passed. The orangutan lobbed shit at her. “Same to you, buddy,” she said.
Cleary came out of the trailer. He wore a dirty muscle shirt and cut-off jeans and a few days’ stubble of beard. His eyes looked hollowed out, like he hadn’t been sleeping, and Gail hoped he had learned something. Maybe he would think twice before he hit her again.
He said, “Well. Look who’s here.”
“Yeah. I’m glad to see you, too. What’s with the place being closed?”
“The goddam Humane Society reported us to Wildlife. You wouldn’t have anything to do with that, I don’t guess.”
“Lord, no. Did they take any animals?”
“If we don’t comply, they will. They’ll shut us down for good. They gave us nineteen citations.”
“Did they mention sick cats? Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed Jewel. And Garcia looks like he’s starving.”
“What was I supposed to do? I can’t do it all.”
“Meaning you won’t.” Back five minutes, and they were already fighting. “We should call the vet.”
“It’s the heat, Gail. Jewel’s okay.”
“I don’t think so.” Gail started up the trailer steps, and he grabbed her arm.
“We can’t have anybody like that coming in here. Not till we get things shaped up.”
She looked at his hand. “Let go. That hurts.”
He stepped back, running his hands through his hair. “Jesus,” he said. “Damn.” He pulled her to him, kissed her hair, her face. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I about went crazy with you gone.”
She wanted to push him away, she really did. Driving back, she had promised herself she would go slow with Cleary, take the measure of things, see how steady he was. But she had never been with a man like him. He was not a big man, and he wasn’t handsome: he was lean and sunburned, sinewy and strong, as though he had been forged, not born. She had never seen eyes like his, green-gold and luminous in his weathered face, and once she met his gaze, once she felt his breath on her neck and his hands on her breasts and moving down, she forgot everything else.
He let her go, the space between them abrupt, empty, cruel. This is what you missed, she thought. This is what you almost lost.
“Where’s your bag?” he said.
“In the car. I’ll go get it.”
“No. I’ll do it later.”
She went with him into the trailer.
The next morning, Gail left Cleary asleep and went out. She needed to keep busy so she wouldn’t think too much. All he’d had to do was put his hands on her. She hadn’t even fed the cats last night. “Slut,” she said aloud. “Trash.”
She unlocked Jewel’s gate and tossed in a chunk of meat, but Jewel barely lifted her head. Garcia devoured his portion and looked at her like, Where’s the rest? Turned from her with a growl, ambled the length of the pen, back and forth, back and forth.
There was no more meat; she’d given them the last in the cooler.
No sign of Cleary yet. She would clean out the cages herself. She dragged a hose with a high-pressure nozzle to Jewel’s pen and washed it out. When the water hit the concrete in Garcia’s cage, he spooked, roared, charged the chain link. Gail shut the nozzle off. “Hey,” she said. “You’re okay. It’s okay now.”
She went to the shed and got the big broom and the heavy canvas coat and gloves Cleary wore when he went inside the cages. He had forbidden her to go in, but somebody had to clean out Garcia’s pen. Her pulse drummed in her ears. Any cat could be dangerous. An agitated, hungry cat even more so.
She waited a while for Garcia to settle down. Once he did, she filled a bucket with water, put on the coat and gloves, and picked up the broom and bucket. She opened Garcia’s gate and stepped inside, closing it behind her. Garcia whirled and growled, then backed away.
“It’s all right, Garcia. You’re all right. That’s a good boy.” Gail poured water on the floor and started sweeping the filth to the back of the pen. The muck stank something awful. She pushed it out through the chain link, keeping the cat in her line of sight as best she could. Garcia paced the far side of the cage, grumbling, pawing at the fence. “Just a little more,” Gail said. She brushed sweat out of her eyes and felt it trickle down her sides.
She heard a noise and turned, expecting the cat to be on her, but Garcia faced the path. Cleary walked toward the pen.
Gail didn’t raise her voice. “Cleary, stay there. He’s fine.”
But Garcia lunged at Cleary, fell back. Cleary didn’t flinch. “Garcia, Garcia. Easy now,” he said, his voice calm. He kept coming. “Gail? Get out while I have his attention.”
“Get out of there. Now.”
Gail slowly backed away and out of the pen.
Cleary came around and locked the gate. “Don’t you ever, ever do that again!”
“Somebody’s got to.”
He practically dragged her back to the trailer and shoved her inside. “Stay here. I’ll tend to ’em.” His hands worked and clenched. “The cat could have killed you. Don’t you know that?” She steeled herself for him to hit her, but he walked out and slammed the door.
She still wore the canvas coat and gloves. She stripped them off and sat on the unmade bed. Last night, she hadn’t paid much attention to the state of things inside the trailer. Last night had seemed like old times.
Nearly a year ago, Cleary had pulled a guy off Gail in a dark parking lot behind a bar on the coast, picked her up, and put her in the back of his van. She didn’t know Cleary, but she was too drunk to care.
Later, in and out of fitful sleep, she would wake in a curtained-off space with one high, dirty window. Sometimes, a man sat on the side of the bed. In her dreams she heard the roar of big cats, tropical birds calling, the howl of wild dogs. The man held her hair back when she vomited and bathed her face. He said little. He never touched her except to help her.
She finally woke late one afternoon, alone, not knowing where she was or how long she’d been there. She made it to the toilet on her own and vomited. When she was done, she turned, wiping spittle with the back of her hand, and the man was there, leaning against the open sliding door.
“My name’s Cleary,” he said. “What’s yours?”
When she was well enough, he took her outside and walked her around the place—a refuge for animals, he called it. All his. He told her he had bought the place three years ago with his savings from a twenty-year stint in the postal service. “My dream ever since I was a kid,” he said, “but the place has gone down. I don’t know shit about what I’m doing.” He used to own an ocelot and a hybrid wolf, both dead now, he said. He’d sold a pair of lions to keep the place going. The colony of macaque monkeys was down to one female. Gail felt a deep sadness, as though she’d lost the animals, too.
Cleary bought groceries but no beer, made scrambled eggs and canned soup. “You got to eat to get strong,” he would say. She had been at the refuge a couple of weeks when he asked if she had a place to go.
She thought about the dingy apartment and the guy she’d been living with, a kid, really, only twenty-two to her thirty. They’d gone to the bar together that night, but he’d done nothing to save her. Cleary had.
“No,” she said. “I don’t.”
“Well. You could stay here.”
She picked at her eggs, getting cold now, didn’t look up. “I’d need to get my car back.”
“No problem,” Cleary said, “if it’s still there. It might not be.”
He took her into town the next day. The car was where she’d left it, and she was surprised when it started. She followed Cleary back to the refuge because she didn’t know the way.
Cleary worked her hard. When she put fresh hay down over the old in the petting zoo barn, he made her rake it all out, hose down the stalls, and start over. “I don’t care if it’s just a stall,” he said. “You make one mistake, you won’t learn to think, and you’ll make a bigger one. You can’t work that way around animals.” Gail went back to the trailer most days smelling of shit. Cleary never praised her, which made her hungrier to please him. She fell into bed every night, exhausted, and he slept on the narrow couch. They moved about the claustrophobic space inside the trailer, brushing against each other, backing away, like a kind of dance. Each time she closed the sleeping alcove curtain that separated her from Cleary at night, she lay awake and heard his restless turning. One night, when Gail had been at the refuge for more than a month, she walked naked into the other room, took Cleary’s hand, and led him to his own bed.
For a while, things were good. Cleary called her his little wildcat. “Just looking to be tamed, aren’t you?” he would say.
When Cleary turned sullen and edgy, she got scared. She had lived this downward spiral before, but she thought what she had with Cleary was different.
The first time he hit her, he was headed out—the third night that week—and she stood between him and the door. “Take me with you,” she said.
“I told you, no. I got business to tend to. You’re not going anywhere.”
“You picked up another stray, Cleary? Is that it?”
He slapped her hard and walked out. She slid down the wall and lay curled and shivering on the floor. She didn’t cry.
Cleary came in at daylight and tossed a fat roll of bills on the bed. “Don’t even ask,” he said, and she didn’t.
That had become the pattern—Cleary going out, sometimes coming home with money, more often not, always mum about where he’d been.
Now, Gail looked around the trailer that smelled of cigarettes and beer and sweat. She ran her hand over the faded sheets. She’d been a fool to come back.
Her stomach rumbled. She found a box of stale saltines and ate half of them. She read the violations from the state wildlife people: insecure cages, unsanitary conditions, inadequate food, neglect, housing dangerous animals without proper license. None of them surprised her. Cleary had been given a month to get the place in line. If he couldn’t re-open, then what?
She tried the door, but it didn’t open. He must have padlocked it like he did sometimes when they were both off the place, as though they had anything worth stealing. “Cleary?” She listened, yelled again. “Cleary! Let me out!” The tropical birds cried on the far side of the compound, in a stir about something. Garcia roared. She would know that sound anywhere.
Early afternoon, Gail heard the van leave. She waited up until after midnight and finally fell asleep on the couch. Around two, Cleary stumbled in, humming a song she didn’t recognize. In the dark he walked right past her to the bathroom. She heard him pee and belch. He came back and turned on the light. “You awake?”
“I am now. Where’ve you been?”
He popped the top on a beer and drank. “I found a way to bail us out.”
Gail sat up. She had the hysterical notion that he’d robbed a bank. “What’d you do?”
He dropped beside her on the couch and kicked off his boots. He reeked of more than beer. His pupils were wide and black and bottomless. “I made a deal.” He pulled her close and whispered, “I sold Garcia.”
She thought she hadn’t heard him right. “You what?”
He slapped his thigh. “I sold the black leopard. Can you believe the luck?”
Gail scrambled up off the couch. “But we’re going to breed him! And he’s half mine. You can’t sell him unless I say so!”
Cleary knocked back the beer and tossed the can on the floor. “I can’t wait around to breed him. I need money now. There’s this guy, runs a place near Tallahassee. I went to see him, showed him Garcia’s papers and some photos, and he wrote me a check on the spot for three thousand dollars. Three thousand, Gail. Didn’t bat an eye. We can fix up the place. We can—”
“But he’s mine, too,” she said again, knowing it didn’t matter.
Cleary stood, wavered. “I know you love that cat. Sometimes I think you love Garcia more than me.” He tilted her face toward the light. “That’s not true, is it?”
They had never talked about love. She shook her head.
“We’ll make it. You’ll see.” He let her go, knocked over a chair on his way to the bedroom, and yanked the alcove curtain shut.
Gail rubbed her chin where Cleary had touched her. An animal moaned, long and low, somewhere in the refuge. This time, she couldn’t tell which one it was.
At dawn, she slipped out of the trailer. She loved the refuge early in the morning: light filtering through the canopy of water oaks, bougainvillea and hibiscus opening, trees alive with calling birds, not the captives but the others.
The animals that remained were a different story. Hunched at the back of his cage, the thin, mangy macaque monkey watched while she filled the water pan. The orangutan, usually feisty, didn’t even rouse. The coyotes snarled and snapped. Hungry, and she had nothing to give them. Surfacing from the murky pond, the crocodile stretched his jaws. She had nothing for him, either. She spread fresh hay inside the petting zoo and threw out a few handfuls of corn, the goats nuzzling and nipping her and bedraggled chickens squawking around her feet. She didn’t go in the snake house. She hated their rickety glass cages. If she’d told Cleary once, she’d told him fifty times they needed to secure the snakes or get rid of them.
But he hadn’t gotten rid of the snakes and he hadn’t made the refuge better and he hadn’t meant it when he said he was sorry. And now he’d sold Garcia.
The cat pens were quiet. Jewel looked better. She had eaten some of yesterday’s meat. Gail stayed a long time at Garcia’s cage. He seemed in a kittenish mood, rolling on his back, climbing his fake tree limb and lying along its length. How long before the man who’d bought him would come? How much time did they have?
She went back to the trailer. Cleary was up, and calm, like he didn’t remember yesterday.
“One of us needs to go to the packers’,” she said. “We don’t have any meat left.” When they couldn’t afford to order frozen meat—which happened often—they bought waste cuts from a meat packing plant thirty miles away.
“Can’t. I got to fix a hole in the bird enclosure,” he said. “I get done with that, I’ll go to the woods, shoot them something.”
Sometimes Cleary went out and killed squirrels, a rabbit or two, a possum, whatever he could find, and tossed the dead animals whole into the pens.
“Don’t,” she said.
He looked at her. “Don’t what?”
“Shoot something. Let me buy the meat. Just enough to get by.”
Cleary pressed his palms over his eyes. “What the hell. Go.”
“I need money, then.”
He brought out his wallet and peeled off three twenties.
She shook her head. “That’s not enough. You know how much the meat costs. We need groceries, and I need to do laundry.”
He handed her one more twenty. “The laundry can wait.”
She drove to the packing plant and made a cheap deal on a few pounds of meat, mostly offal. At the grocery she bought two small ribeyes marked for quick sale. She put twenty dollars’ worth of gas in her car. She hoped Cleary wouldn’t ask for his money back. If he did, she would say she’d spent it all. The meat had gone up, she would say.
That afternoon, she cleaned the trailer. By the time Cleary came in, she was baking potatoes and cooking the steaks. She wore a low-cut black tee and jeans. She had washed her hair and pulled it back.
He looked around. “What’s this?”
He reeked of animal waste. It nauseated her, but she didn’t let on. Instead, she smiled. “Go take a shower. Dinner’s ready.”
After dinner, while she was washing dishes, Cleary wrapped his arms around her from behind and kissed her neck. “You know,” he said, “when I got this place, I thought it would be my ticket. But I screwed up. Then you came along, and I knew we could make it.” He let her go. “I’ll pay you back for Garcia, I swear. We’ll get another cat.”
“I know.” She turned, and he kissed her.
“I’m going to bed,” he said. “You coming?”
“Go on. I’ll be there in a little while.”
She waited an hour, thinking Cleary would fall asleep, but he didn’t. When he pushed up the tee shirt she slept in, one of his, she didn’t turn away. She lay under him, staring out the narrow window where she could see the tops of live oaks and stars and a few scudding clouds, no moon. After Cleary was done and asleep, she listened to the sounds of the night and the refuge. She imagined Garcia pacing his cage, his eyes penetrating the darkness.
When Gail got out of bed and found the keys to the pen padlocks in Cleary’s jeans, it was still gray-dark. After she had gone in Garcia’s cage, Cleary had kept them on him. She took a flashlight and stuffed her wallet and a change of clothes in a backpack and made her way along the path. With any luck Cleary would sleep till noon.
She walked to the back of Garcia’s pen. In the flashlight’s beam, his eyes glowed florescent green. He crouched, his body taut, as though he were about to spring. He would be like that in the deep woods and swamps, she thought: silent, powerful, stalking his prey, making the kill. Or would he? He’d been caged all his life. What if he ran for the highway instead? He wouldn’t get far before somebody shot him.
She shook off the thought.
Garcia slunk towards her, growled. “I know you’re impatient,” she said. “It won’t be long now.” She tried several keys, glancing over her shoulder, expecting not to be lucky, expecting Cleary to come.
By the time she found the right key, the eastern sky had gone rosy and birds called in the trees. Gail laid her palm flat against the chain link and closed her eyes. She could hear Garcia’s breathing, his footfalls on the concrete pad. It was as close to him as she would ever get. Her hands shaking, she turned the key in the padlock, wrenched it free, dropped the lock and the key ring, and opened the gate wide. She stood behind the gate and watched the cat. Garcia came to the opening, turned away, paced. “Come on, now,” she whispered. “Come out, boy.” But Garcia circled the pen, rolling his head from side to side.
Gail stepped into the open. Garcia stopped and looked at her, but she didn’t avert her eyes. “Come to me, Garcia,” she said, keeping her voice low. “Come to me.” And what if he came out but didn’t run? What if he took her down instead, pinned her, clamped his jaws around her neck, dragged her into the brush? But Garcia didn’t come. He backed away, bared his teeth, moaned. “Damn it, Garcia! Get out! Run!” Gail picked up a piece of pipe and banged on the fence post. Cleary might hear, but it no longer mattered. “Come on—” A swing of the pipe— “Come on, come on!” Another, and another.
Just then, the sun topped the tree line, washing the refuge in golden light, and everything—the water oaks, the flowers, the dew-tipped grass, the pond, even the dilapidated cages—looked lit from within. Birds rose out of the trees in a rush of wings like wind, and Garcia bolted from the cage, passing so close to Gail she might have touched him. He crossed the compound in a zigzag pattern, and for a moment Gail lost sight of him in a thicket of trees, but then there he was, on the other side of the pond, gathering speed as he approached the back fence that bordered the wilderness. He lifted into the air in a long, graceful arc and cleared the high fence. Gone.
She picked up her backpack and ran too then, down the path and past the trailer, expecting to see a light, or Cleary standing in her way, but the trailer was dark. She let herself out the private gate, locked it, got in her car and headed down the drive and out onto the highway. She gripped the steering wheel, her heart wild in her chest. She kept checking the rearview mirror, but there was no sign of Cleary.
She drove for three hours without a break. Near Tallahassee, she stopped at a gas station with a Subway and bought a sandwich. Cleary might be awake by now. He might be looking for her. He might already have reported Garcia missing. But a cat on the loose would bring the Wildlife folks and the Humane Society down on him fast. It would bring out the law. She didn’t think Cleary would make the call. She felt bad for the other animals, but it would all play out soon enough. Animal World would shut down, and they would be rescued. That was what she told herself. What she had to believe.
She bought a map and took to the back roads, avoiding the interstate, heading south. Where she was going, she wasn’t sure. She had always wanted to see the Everglades; now was as good a time as any, but it was a long, long way. She had forty dollars left, which meant one tank of gas, a burger, a coffee in the morning. Tonight, she would sleep in the car. Tomorrow, she would need to find some godforsaken, one-stoplight town and stay a while, get a job waitressing or tending bar, hunker down in case Cleary came looking. Then she would move on, like she’d always done.
The day had turned clear and hot. Garcia would be miles and miles from the refuge by now, running at a steady pace as though he knew where he was headed, going deeper into the wilderness until it swallowed him up. She willed him to be safe. She willed him a better place.
Gerry Wilson is a recipient of a Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship for 2014-2015. Her short stories have appeared previously in Prime Number Magazine and Prime Number Magazine Editors' Selections: Volume 2 and also in Sabal: Best of the Workshops 2011, Good Housekeeping, Arkansas Review, and other journals. Gerry is currently working on a new novel, querying another, and putting the finishing touches on a story collection.
Second Place: Short Story
A Simple Enquiry
by Jeff Weddle
On the morning of July 14 at ten a.m., two plain clothes detectives arrived at Borges’s door and directed that he accompany them to the central police station. He was surprised and more than a little frightened, but Borges offered no resistance. He went quietly, even deferentially, to their automobile.
“Police,” the big one had said. “You will please come with us.”
The big one, the one in the ill-fitting suit, got behind the wheel, while the little one with
the face of a weasel got in the back seat with Borges. They rode along for almost five minutes before anyone spoke again.
“What’s the matter? Why am I being arrested?” asked Borges.
“Who says you’re being arrested?” It was the weasel-faced policeman who spoke. “Did we tell you you were being arrested?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“Good. Remember that later. Be certain of it.” This from the driver.
“No Buts, Borges. Just be quiet and cooperate. That’s all we’re after, your cooperation with the authorities.”
“Yes,” said Borges. “Certainly.”
Ten minutes later the big cop in the bad suit pulled the car into the parking lot at police headquarters. The three men got out of the car and the officers led Borges into the station.
They went through the public waiting area, down a long, brightly lighted corridor and, when the corridor ended, through a black door with a word stenciled on it in white: Interrogation.
The smaller man directed Borges to sit on one side of a small table. There was a lamp on the table, but it was otherwise bare. Borges sat where he was told and the police officers sat side by side across from him.
“Tell me, Borges, what is it that you do?”
“Don’t be stupid. What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a writer. I write books.”
“What sort of books do you write, Mr. Borges?”
“Novels, short stories. Works of fiction.”
“And why is it you do this, Mr. Borges?”
This question stumped Borges. He wrote because it was the thing he did.
“Could you explain the question?”
“Surely a man who makes his living with words can grasp the meaning of so simple an enquiry. Why do you write these books?”
“Because I am compelled to do so, I suppose.”
“Compelled? By whom, Mr. Borges? Who on earth compels you to write books of fiction?”
“Why, no one. No one but myself.”
The police officers exchanged a look and Borges watched their faces, trying to determine the significance of that look and of the questions they asked.
“And if the authorities required you to stop? What then?”
“Certainly. Are you hearing impaired, Mr. Borges?”
“My hearing is fine.”
“Then please answer the question. If the authorities required you to cease writing, would you comply?”
“This is absurd. What possible reason could the authorities have for requiring that I stop writing?”
The small policeman, the one with the face of a weasel, flipped a switch on the base of the lamp and Borges was assaulted with a brilliant glare.
“Do you feel it is your place to question our actions?”
Borges was silent for a moment. He knew the answer that he should give, but he couldn’t bring himself to say it.
“Perhaps. Yes, perhaps I do.”
“And why is that, Mr. Borges? Where ever did you get such an idea?”
“I don’t know. Look, see here, what’s this all about? I haven’t done anything wrong!”
“Has anyone suggested you’ve done anything wrong?”
“Of course not. We’re just asking questions, just talking like gentlemen. Of course, we already know quite a lot about you, Borges. We know why your wife left you. We know what you ate for dinner Wednesday before last. Maybe we know your dreams even, huh?” The small man allowed himself a smile in the direction of his partner and a quick chuckle that sounded like a rat terrier barking. “You know the mayor. Slightly.” This was not a question, but the small detective said nothing else. He sat across from Borges and looked him in the eye.
“I don’t see how that could matter to you.” Borges had met the mayor just twice, both times at public functions and each time only to exchange the most banal pleasantries. The first meeting had been at a forum on public decency, which Borges attended more out of boredom than to learn about, or to promote, public decency. The second was at a fund raiser for the public library. Also, he had voted for the mayor’s opponent in the previous election.
“Please don’t trouble yourself over what matters to us,” said the small man. “Don’t give that another thought. But you still have not answered my question, Borges. Will you stop writing if I tell you that you must?”
“No, I don’t think I could stop writing. I don’t think that I could.”
“Certainly you don’t mean that. Be very careful of what you say here. Words can haunt a man.”
“I understand that very well, sir.”
“Good. Now, I will ask you once again. Be very sure in your answer. If we were to
require you to cease and desist from your activities as a writer, would you do so?”
“Very well, Mr. Borges. You have been most helpful to us. You are free to go.”
“Thank you,” he said, feeling the words in his mouth as if he were licking shit off a boot.
The officers stood in unison and the small one motioned for Borges to do the same. He pointed toward the door and smiled at Borges.
“You can find your way out? You can get a taxi home?”
“Good. Goodbye, Mr. Borges.”
“Goodbye.” Borges started for the door, but before he had taken his second step the small
man spoke again.
“Remember your loyalties, Mr. Borges.”
“Yes,” said Borges. “I will remember my loyalties.” He walked slowly out of the room, picking up speed in the corridor until he was practically running as he passed through the waiting area and onto the sidewalk. The sun was high overhead and it was already uncomfortably warm.
Borges realized he was sweating, and noticed his hands were shaking. He walked away from the police station and found a pay phone a block away. Soon a cab was there which picked him up and deposited him at his house.
For the next three days, Borges waited for something else to happen, but it never did.
There was no midnight knock on his door, no secret envoy sent to whisk him away, nothing at allout of the ordinary. On the fourth day Borges began to calm down, began to believe the whole thing had been a misunderstanding, or perhaps an elaborate joke of some kind. It was absurd, of course, that anyone would play such a joke, but Borges could put no other face on it, could come up with no other explanation.
He sat at his breakfast table that fourth morning, drinking coffee and preparing to read the newspaper. That was his common breakfast, coffee and the paper. Borges took a sip from his cup and looked for the first time at the headlines. The lead story caught his attention such that he almost spit out his coffee. Instead, he swallowed quickly and read: “MAYOR INDICTED IN SEX CASE,” screamed the headline. Borges quickly scanned the story. It was alleged that the mayor had engaged in a most odious sexual affair with a young girl, a twelve-year-old who was related to him by marriage. According to the indictment, his wife had begun to suspect wrongdoing and confronted the mayor. After he denied her accusations, she went to the girl, whotold everything. The wife then went to the police and the indictment quickly followed. The mayor had been arrested and freed pursuant to a hefty bond.
“Sweet Jesus,” said Borges. “Can this be it? What can this have to do with me?” He put the paper on the table along with his coffee cup and wandered into his living room. The shades were closed and he poked a finger in one so that it opened slightly and he got a view of the street. He saw nothing unusual.
Whether out of fear or caution or simple lack of inspiration – Borges himself couldn’t say which – he hadn’t written a word since the day the detectives came and took him to the police station. Now, for the first time in days, he felt inspired. Borges went to his typewriter and began working. He wrote for a solid three hours and when he stopped he had completed a draft of a story of a mayor and a young girl and an affair between them. In his story there was nothing of the evil that must have accompanied the actual events. Rather, Borges took another route, attempting to show beauty in the horror, romance within what must otherwise be called rape.
The story was rough, certainly, and greatly in need of polish. But, all in all, Borges was satisfied with his effort. He had just finished reading over his story when a knock sounded at the door. Borges laidhis story beside the typewriter and walked across the room to open the door. Standing there on his porch were the two detectives who had questioned him before.
“Hello, Borges,” said the small one. “Have you seen the paper?”
“Yes, I’ve seen it.”
“Do you mind if we come in?”
Borges thought of his pages, sitting in plain sight beside his typewriter.
“Now isn’t convenient,” he said.
“We’ll only be a moment.”
Borges hesitated, but felt powerless to resist. What possible excuse could he contrive that would stop them? He knew there was none. He allowed the men inside, but walked quickly toward the kitchen, ushering them along.
“Coffee?” he asked. “Would you both like coffee?”
“Coffee would be fine,” said the small man. “Wouldn’t coffee be fine, Dietz?”
“Yes,” said Dietz. “I could go for some coffee.”
The policemen each took a chair beside the table while Borges busied himself pouring coffee for the three of them. He always made a full pot in the morning, so there was plenty left now to go around.
“Too bad about the mayor,” said the small man.
“Yes,” said Borges. “I saw the headline. Some kind of scandal.”
“He was sleeping with a child.”
“Dreadful,” said Borges.
“Happens every day,” said Dietz.
“Every day,” echoed the small man. “It happens every day.”
“I suppose it might,” said Borges. He had poured coffee into three cups and was now carrying them to the table. “Of course, it’s none of my business.”
“But it was in the paper,” said the small detective. “That makes it all our business.”
“Perhaps. I don’t know.”
“Borges, I’ll get right to it. It may happen that you will be called to testify in this case.”
“Testify? Me? You yourself said you knew that I’m barely acquainted with the mayor. What could I possibly say that would have any bearing on this case?”
“You’re a writer,” said Dietz. “You’re a big man. People will listen to what you say.”
“And what is it you expect me to say?”
“Only the truth, Mr. Borges. What else?”
“But I don’t know the truth. I have no idea what happened.”
The small man nodded to Dietz who stood and walked past Borges and into the living room. He returned moments later with the pages Borges had typed that morning.
“Is this the truth, Borges? This that you wrote today?”
Borges felt sick in the pit of his stomach. He felt himself sweating.
“That’s nothing. Just speculation. Nothing at all.”
“But it’s what you do, Mr. Borges. How can it be that the thing a man does, the thing a man is compelled to do, is nothing? I ask you again, is this that you’ve written today truth?”
“It’s the only truth I know.”
“Then you are a sorry man, indeed.”
“But you haven’t even read it. How can you judge me?”
“We’ve read what we need to, Mr. Borges. We make judgments as they are necessary.
Will you get dressed please? I’m afraid you must come with us.”
Borges, not expecting visitors, was still in his pajamas and bathrobe. Dietz followed him into his bedroom and watched as Borges changed into pants and a shirt, put on socks and shoes. The two of them then walked into the living room where the small man waited.
“Are we going to see lawyers? To talk about the trial?” asked Borges.
“In good time, sir. Come, we must leave now.” Each detective took an arm and led Borges to the car. Like before, he rode in back with the small man while the larger one, Dietz, drove to the police station. The three of them got out of the car and the detectives led Borges into the building. This time they went through a door just off the waiting room, a door Borges hadn’t noticed before. They went through the door and down several flights of stairs, finally ending up in a poorly lighted hallway. The detectives pushed Borges forward and he stumbled a couple of steps further.
“Stop,” said the small man. They stood beside a steel door with a tiny window near the
top. The small man produced a key and unlocked the door. “Inside,” he said, pointing into the room. “Now.”
Borges considered running, but it was apparent there was no place to go. Maybe if he
cooperated everything would be fine. This was all beyond him, anyway. This couldn’t be happening the way it seemed to be. He took a deep breath and stepped inside the room. It was dark in there, the only light coming from the dim hallway. The small detective shut the door behind Borges. It was suddenly very dark, indeed.
“What are you doing?” yelled Borges.
“It’s for your own good,” said Dietz.
“Yes, said the little one. “If the public found out what you have written about the mayor,
how you condone his raping that child, my friend you would be ripped to pieces. You’ll be fine.
There’s a sink in there for water and complete plumbing facilities. Someone will bring you food.”
“Wait! You can’t do this! Let me out of here!”
But it was too late. The door was locked and the detectives had gone. The only reply Borges received was the echo of their footsteps as they walked slowly down the hall. Much later – a day, maybe two; it was impossible to tell – Borges again heard footsteps in the hall. They came quickly and, when they were just outside his door, stopped. He heard the fumbling of keys and prepared himself to bolt as soon as the door was opened. The key turned in the lock. No one had been around with food and Borges was weak with hunger, so when he tried to bolt and ran instead into Dietz, he bounced to the floor. Dietz was not alone. He escorted a man whose head was encased in a burlap bag. Dietz shoved the man inside Borges’s cell and locked the door. The faint sound of footsteps quickly faded. Borges, silent, slumped in the corner. He could just make out the other prisoner who lay sprawled on the floor, whimpering. After what seemed a long time, the man removed the bag from his head. Borges took this as an opportunity to speak.
“Who are you, my friend?”
“I’m no one. Please let me be.”
Though he had only heard it a few times, Borges recognized the voice at once. The man whimpering on the floor was the mayor.
“So, Mr. Mayor, it has come to this.”
“Do you know me?”
“Who doesn’t know the mayor?”
The whimpering stopped. In the dim light, Borges saw the other man stand and straighten his bearing.
“And you are?”
“Borges. I’m Borges, the writer.”
“Yes, Borges. Do you remember that we met?”
“Forget our meeting. You’re the one who’s ruined me. You’re the one who published those filthy lies.”
“I did no such thing. I saw a story in the paper, but somebody else did that.”
“More lies. It was all a mistake, a misunderstanding. Everything was fixed. It was going to blow over. And then today your story appeared. Front page. It was sordid, awful. They came and got me and put me in here.”
Borges started to speak, but before he could get the words out, the mayor sprang across the room and landed on him. Fists flew, both men kicking and biting and scratching, a battle royal, a fight to the finish.
Upstairs, in the office they shared, the two detectives drank coffee and read the morning newspaper.
“That Borges,” said Dietz. “What a writer.”
“Yes,” said the small man. “He has great talent.” They sat there in the office drinking coffee and reading the paper as the morning passed into noon. It was a quiet day so far, just the way they liked it. Dietz put his feet on his desk and the small man didn’t even bother to scold him. In the grand picture, such things are of almost no importance.
Jeff Weddle won the Eudora Welty Prize for his first book, Bohemian New Orleans: The Story of the Outsider and Loujon Press (University Press of Mississippi). He is also the author of a poetry collection, Betray the Invisible (OEOCO Press) and co-author of Negotiation for Librarians: Winning Strategies for the Digital Age (Information Today). His stories can be found in Out of the Gutter Online, Port Cities Review, Fiction on the Web, Roadside Fiction, Black Heart Magazine, Surreal South '13, and other fine venues. Jeff teaches in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alabama.
Third Place: Short Story
Her Back Is to Us
by Amy Foster Myer
How I came to be sitting halfway down the table at the pub where all the researchers meet is not much of a mystery – a few weeks with my lover away from her husband is worth the puzzling conversations I must pretend to be interested in. A week in, we’ve spent morning-to-night lining the tables, waiting for the local Irish government to issue the permits we need to begin digging. So far, a site nearby has yielded pottery shards and a handful of spear points, arrowheads. Sonographs of the terrain reveal the true find – six bodies, arranged in a row, facing east, each clutching a smaller bundle of bones to its navel. Six pregnant women close to term and otherwise appearing healthy in the hazy grey films returned via silent sound waves pulsated into the ground like a slow, methodic heartbeat.
So we share what we know with the researchers from Sweden and the one lone sociologist from Spain. The Brits cloister themselves in an agroturismo nearer the dig, passing time harvesting potatoes and trimming lavender. And then us Americans, a couple sociologists, a couple archeologists, and myself – an English Lit grad student with an on-again, off-again thing with my undergrad Ancient Civilization professor, a woman who claims that Ireland is not open to “girls like us.” What really concerns her is the puddle of scandal eeking nearer and nearer, threatening to swallow her academic integrity.
A pint appears before me, held at the handle by an olive-skinned hand, and Ruben slides in next to me. The oddball Spanish researcher, he quickly identified me as the oddball American and decided we should be friends. Point of fact, he believes we should be more than friends, at least here so many miles away from his girlfriend back in Madrid, and the boyfriend I let him suppose I have back in Oregon. I should be honored. The other researchers try to pin Ruben down like a rare and beautiful butterfly. He has seen burials like this himself, a group of five in the Pyrennees to which National Geographic once gave the cover story. Instead, I wish he wouldn’t sit close enough for his breath to tickle the tissuepaper-thin skin under my ear.
I thank him for the pint and raise my glass to his, then pull one of the terrain maps closer, as if it means much to me. The meadow, an oblong, oval shape, without hashes or lines implies that it is flat and dry. Our team penciled in a rectangle to indicate where the sonographs suggest the burial pit begins and ends. Four small squares, one on each end and two along the longer, east edge of the rectangle represent the tents set up by each team as a field base. We occupy the north end, the Brits the south. It looks like a soccer pitch with the Swedes and lone Spaniard playing referee.
Ruben pulls one of the sonographs toward us, then takes a piece of sheer carbon-copy paper and lays it over my terrain map. The rectangle shows through as thin grey lines, and he sketches out a handful of long oval shapes facing his and the Swedes’ tents.
He taps the pencil on these sketches. “They are lying just so,” he says, glancing from the sonograph to the map. He shows me the picture and delicately traces the bodies with the tip of the pencil, though careful not to mark one of the only images we have of those things lying below the surface. “See here,” he says and scoots closer on the bench so that our hips touch. His knee falls against mine. “This shows that the feet are deeper than the head. They are not in a standing position, but perhaps almost sitting. Like this.” He leans back, knees raised so they thud against the underside of the thick, oak table, feet extended and folded across an imaginary round belly.
I nod. “But why?” I say. “Why east? Why feet deeper? Why….”
“Pregnant? ‘Why’ is why we are here.”
A strand of my hair falls from the loose ponytail I wear, and Ruben pushes it behind my ear. He does this slowly and as I look at him, I catch the red, knee-length jacket of Holly entering the pub. I don’t look at her, but I don’t need to to know that the pale moon of her face was turned toward us.
She straddles a high stool at the corner of the bar. The barkeep’s grandson climbs up next to her and she lets him dial the many digits that connects this phone to one half a world away. Her hand lingers on his back, her eyes drink in his smallness. The sweetness of his dirty cheek and wooly smelling hair. The boy hops down to return to his crayons and she watches him go.
Then her voice greets him, unnaturally bright, as though she’s missed him. Karl. Every day at four in the afternoon. Back home, it is nine in the morning and Karl is sitting in his office in the Language Arts building, perhaps preparing for his ten o’clock Brit Lit class. Perhaps reviewing the final chapters of my dissertation.
Life is not without its messes, as I’m sure those women lying six feet under can attest to.
Though I’ve only taken a sip, the dark beer goes to my head, and a tide of sleepiness seeks to wash me under. I try not to listen to Holly getting an update on the dog, a tired, old mutt she used to bring round to my studio. They argue about putting the poor thing to sleep, but Holly insists she wants to be there, so they flog her along, Holly’s return date as hazy as the films scattered over the table. “When we’re done,” she’s always telling him, only sometimes meaning the dig.
The call ends, and the innkeeper bangs the handset on the receiver. Holly takes a seat at the end of the table, next to Dr. Hevel, and laments with him how the town is being so backward with the permits, invoking the historical societies from the surrounding areas and requesting each team to give a detailed report about what exactly it intends to unearth. “How can we know what we intend to unearth?” she says for the millionth time. Or perhaps it only seems like the millionth because she’s said the same thing every night we’ve been here, including the night before as she padded naked between the bed and bathroom while she flossed. She threw the wad of white string in the direction of the waste basket, missing entirely, not caring. She climbed into bed, her skin mottled with goose bumps and I wrapped my arms as tightly round as they would go and we rocked back and forth until the warmth made us push one another away.
Finally, my fish and chips arrive, steaming and greasy, a puddle oozing out from the red plastic basket in which they’re served. The moment the cod touches my tongue, I shoot up from the bench and dash for the stairs, one hand clamped over my mouth, the other across my stomach.
Holly comes to the room after a few minutes. “Your stomach again?” she asks, to which I nod. She sets the plate of saltines and glass of ginger ale on the side board and fetches a fresh washcloth. A remedy as good for an upset stomach as for morning sickness.
Pregnancy is not even on her radar. Not her Gold Star. Her untouched one. She wears my lack of sex-with-men like a badge she has earned. It is no secret between us that I have lived the life she might have liked to live if she hadn’t married her college boyfriend after their first year in grad school. Of course, she could not have been a Gold Star by then, too late for that. But a life with women. A life of warmth and softness. These are the things she says to me when she laments her past. When she wishes for a tunnel to appear under the timeline of her life and allow her to snake her way back. The most common refrain is “If only he’d just have an affair. Make it so much easier.”
But we are stuck, she tells me every time I urge her to leave. Stuck like the flies to the tacky yellow strip that hangs from the upper ledge of my balcony, trapping those little round bodies that circle, harmless but endlessly annoying, in the shade.
It seems to me that those who are so vehement about staying together are the ones who most want to leave.
The next morning, the permits come through and everyone races to their Land Rovers and Dusters, eager to be first on the field. Ruben pats the empty seat beside him, but I pretend not to see and climb in behind Holly in the driver’s seat of our own tan Rover. Dr. Hevel gives a thumbs up from the passenger seat of his own car, parked nose to nose with Holly’s, and we are off as though on one of those mad European cross-country races, dust and rocks spitting up onto the sidewalk of this one-street village.
The first days of a dig are always monotonous and grueling – pounding wood stakes into the ground, setting up the grid, labeling each square. In the tents, everyone argues about who will dig where, who will sift, who will record, who will extract the first body. Arguably, the Brits have the best claim but their funding is as tenuous as the Scots’, who departed miserably a few days after we arrived, handing over their sonograms like a woman placing her child into the arms of its adoptive parents. We have the best funding but the worst reputation. The Swedes seem to have mistaken themselves for Swiss and refuse to take part. And Ruben watches it all with a little smile dancing from his eyes to his lips, a smile I imagine is nearly irresistible to women who find men irresistible.
By the end of the day, we’ve laid out shovels, buckets, and screens along the perimeter of the grid. In the morning, the first blade will slice into the earth and we will dig down, inch by inch, until we find what we’ve come for.
That night, Holly turns away from me and just as I’m dozing off, I realize she is weeping. I am as awake as if I’ve been dunked into an ice bath. Weeping in bed usually means a new stream of guilt has rivered its way through her heart and I’ll not see her for many weeks.
I roll toward her and curl around her form – chest pressed to her back, knees tucked tight to her knees, even our feet pressed sole to top.
“Shhh,” I say. “Shhhh. What is it?”
“I don’t think I can look at them,” she says. “I mean, here we are, ready to dig. And I can’t stand the thought of seeing those tiny skulls.”
I pull her tight against me and hold her until my arms ache. Her weeping slows to a slight shudder and I imagine she is off to sleep, dreaming about the babies in the ground, their little round skulls and the pink skin that should have covered them and felt warm in the palm and smelled sweetly sour, like spoiled milk.
We began right after she had learned that children were no longer an option. It seemed to be the permission she needed. The infertility was no one’s fault but her own, and this seemed to lessen her grief. She was simply one of those women with a very small window. Her eggs, she said, had passed their Use By date. Karl had wanted children early – early as in during grad school – but she’d balked. She wanted a career first, had watched horrified as fellow students dropped out – always the women – with big plans to return and finish their PhD’s. Plans which developed into only so much dust to be vacuumed before the kids got home from school. By the time her career was where she wanted it to be, the having-children boat had sailed, taking with it her 2.5 kids and her love for Karl. These are her own words; this is how she explained it to me that first night when we lay on the mattress on my floor and smoked a joint.
How do you tell the infertile woman you love you’ve been knocked up by the husband she’s been cheating on with you? Again: life = messes. Encore.
My job is to carry the buckets of earth from the grid over to the table by Ruben’s tent. On the clipboard, I mark which square it came from and then dump it into a screen. Another assistant shakes the screen, examines the dirt, shakes it again, and examines it. This can go on forever. But I am back to the grid to fetch another bucket. If I were an actual sociology or archeology student, my knees would be damp and brown from the mud and I would be doing the digging. But I am not – I am a literature student who knows more about Austen than archeology – so I carry the dirt and try not to think of the time I heard my mother whispering to my aunt about my cousin’s miscarriage – how she brought it on herself by continuing to train for a triathlon. At the time, I told my mom it was ignorant and mean shit to say. Now, I can’t stop focusing inward, feeling for any little tearing or splitting apart. And confused as to whether it would be a good thing or not.
Those women, the ones lying under our feet, the ones we are slowly but surely digging down to – at the moment of their death, did they feel their children move inside them for the last time? Did they know that the babies would live on for some small amount of time before suffocating to death? Did the babies thrash about in their dead mother’s wombs, desperate for life, clawing at the soft warmth beginning to turn cold?
I run behind Ruben’s tent and sick up, careful that none of my vomit contaminates the dirt in the bucket. Ruben’s brown suede shoes appear in my vision, right next to the puddle, and I am awash in the kindness of that gesture – simply to stand near it. I sit down and lean back against his tent. He sits next to me and passes over a plastic packet with individually wrapped pink tablets. I pop out two and chew them, soothed by the peppermint.
“Drink,” he says, handing me his personal water bottle.
“I shouldn’t,” I say. “I don’t want you to catch this cold.”
He chuckles. “Right,” he says, “What you have? Is not catchable. Except the once.” His brown eyes draw mine to them, knowing and gentle.
And then I am crying. I am not a pretty crier – my sobs are loud and angry, they shake my body, and my breath comes raging down my throat like a death rattle. My face is red and puffy. But he pulls this weeping, wet mess against his shoulder. And what is sweeter, he drinks right after me, doesn’t even wipe the lip with the cuff of his sleeve.
Holly finds us there. She is embarrassed for me, and angry. She has watched Ruben and she has been jealous. Jealous but not worried. She turns on her heel and walks back out to superintend the dig with Dr. Hevel.
A story’s motion must always be forward. Keep the story moving – forward, forward, forward. Backstory is inert, moments in time frozen into place amidst the bog that comprises our lives. Those women in the ground will be interesting for what they are – pregnant and dead, not for who they were. It will be years, perhaps even decades before enough is known of this culture to understand why and who. Looking forward is how I’ve kept this thing with Holly going so long. Never looking back to see Karl standing beside a limpy, lumpy dog, surrounded by the ghosts of their children. Karl was always auxiliary damage, but so long as I kept him behind me – in that inert place I pretended was just so much of Holly’s backstory – I could continue.
Suffice it to say we both received the message it was completely, utterly, and without hope – over. I was the only one who knew there was a “both of us” and so he told me how his wife left him and I told him how my girlfriend broke it off. We got so ear-splittingly drunk, he forgot both that I was both a student and not his wife, and I that he was a man. We were simply two bodies cleaved by the same knife and trying to find a second half if only for the briefest of moments. And just as briefly, Holly couldn’t withstand either of our pain and we flooded back to her like water released from a dam.
The morning we arrive to bring up the first body looks like a scene out of a James Herriot story. Minus the sheep. Once the interns found the first body, the dig was suspended and a press release issued. The mayor in his top hat and tails; his wife in a blazingly white flower print wrap-dress that wants to ride up over the thick roundness of her rump. Reporters have ferried over from London. A small squadron of school-age boys, the Irish version of the Boy Scouts, stand at attention, lined up shortest to tallest. Even a few village women with their strollers – prams they call them – have wheeled out across the bog. Everyone is in high rubber boots, even the barkeep’s grandson in green boots that make me want to weep, so cute and tiny and new.
Holly, Dr. Hevel, Ruben, and the lead British archeologist kneel beside the mud where only the pale grey disc of a skull shows against the brown. They work side-by-side in the ground, carefully scraping back layers of mud. Cameras flash. From the bottom of the hill, tin whistles and bag pipes play a tune that I assume is meant to sound triumphant. To me, it is only so much wailing, as if the mothers had risen from their graves somewhere far away to bemoan their daughters and grandchildren.
Once the eye sockets are exposed, the media frenzy is over. Hours of digging and rinsing lie ahead before the body can be removed, but now they all have something to report on – a body, skin and hair still intact in places, and at least another’s month worth of updates.
Holly taps at my door around ten-thirty. She comes in carrying two hot toddies, and though I hate myself as I do it, I drink it all. Her hair is greasy, the golden tips browned by clumps of mud where her long hair dipped into the soil, the decomposing skin, the hair like spider webby dead hair, the proteins and enzymes and cells of the woman she had come to unearth.
I lead her to the bathroom and run a hot bath. She sinks down into the water wordlessly and I wash her hair, then her face. Then her neck. Her back. Her breasts. Her arms. Her legs. She reaches out of the water to wrap her wet arms around me, pushing her head against my abdomen, drenching my pajamas. Can she hear it?, I wonder. Would she recognize a heart-beat separate from my own? Does it call to her, sensing the mother she wanted to be.
Will she call back to it, accepting the child that breaks her heart and gives her life again?
We sleep late into the morning, waking with our love caught in our throats, propelling us out into the too-bright grey morning. We drive out to the dig, the only vehicle left in front of the inn. Still, Holly is wordless. We know what we will find when we begin the slow trek single file across that endless marsh, and sure enough, across the bog, we see the brown oval set atop Dr. Hevel’s table. Her back is to us, skin black-brown and tight. From here, the outline of each vertebrae, each rib pushes against the skin. At the shoulder, a great gash like old leather has ripped and rolled back on itself, revealing grey bone beneath.
At least she isn’t turned toward us. At least we do not have to see that skin tight as a drum over the round belly. The arms folded around it, the legs brought up as though her body could be a cocoon to protect it.
Holly continues to move toward it, each step slow but forwardly determined. Her hand reaches back and takes mine, pulling me out of the backstory, bringing me forward, forward, forward.
Amy Foster Myer lives, writes, and teaches in Portland, Oregon. She is a graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program.
First Prize: Flash Fiction
Our Judge, Kathy Fish, had this to say about Suzanne McConnell's story, "The Heavenly Editorial Offices":
An unnerving little tale that actually made me wince a couple of times while reading, "The Heavenly Editorial Offices" does what flash does best, and that is to create a powerful and resonant impact upon the reader in as small a space as possible. Out of a field of ten remarkable flash fictions, this one I felt was the most original and took the most chances. I won't soon forget it.
The Heavenly Editorial Offices
by Suzanne McConnell
You will notice, in Mr. Jameson's office, the hacksaw. It is to be used only with his permission, and only when very, very necessary.
Pardon? Au contraire. The hacksaw is quite dangerous. You use it by hand. That required, fierce grip is what endangers. Therefore it is under Mr. Jameson's care. No, he is not the senior editor. He is the editor with the hacksaw. (Yes, he looks genteel. But beware. Be extremely polite. He has been known to go into a temper. You will certainly experience it in your time here.) The hacksaw takes focus, muscle. The blade is jagged. It rips; it tears. Back and forth, back and forth, hacks through ribcage, thick bone (vertebrae are, you know, thick as a fist), and what have you: it is used to cut to the heart.
On the right is Miss Pringle's office. Don't knock. Miss Pringle is hard of hearing. She never hears a knock. She doesn't hear you, she will not hear you, she is about her own business. She is the line editor. It is said in the profession that the best are deaf. She uses a feather quill. If you are lucky, you will hear whispering. If you listen very very carefully standing ear to her oak door. She wields the quill so lightly it lullabies, one barely feels it’s paring.
Their personal lives? They are cloistered. (Here we do not reason why, sir, we only do or die.)
In the next room, the grand room, are the hooks. Notice they vary in size. Anyone can use them. They grab, gouge, yank. You will certainly, occasionally, have reason to employ them. The secretary notes who uses them when.
You will find the secretary extremely, how shall it be said, unctuous in executing her duties. She has a fondness for minutiae. You will find pencils, pens, clips, the usual – the skinning knives, the hide scraper, the blood sopping cloths. She keeps count of everything. She lines them up. She had, you see, an unfortunately chaotic childhood, about which she never speaks. It is common knowledge. The grapevine that you see creeping along the walls? On it her childhood story has sprouted for us all to know from the seeds that occasionally burst like shrieks from her prim mouth. There was, for example, not a mother, father, a pen or pencil in place in her childhood home, nor sister, brother, grandmother. They were interchangeable, they switched roles willy-nilly, don't you see, fragmenting her young psyche almost daily into unrecognizable assortments so that now she inclines her whole being into sorting, placing, distinguishing. She is, sir, a great secretary. Her mother, sir – and I mention this not as exemplifying the aforementioned exactly but of I'm not sure what contemporary dysfunctional non-category – fucked her sister Sally's brains out in front of her very eyes and our little secretary had to scrape those brains off the floor, the walls, under the carpet under the carpet, bits of splatter in the oven someone had left the door open and baking all night, off grandma's motorcycle, off her pop's trike...Need more be said? She is a very fine secretary. She never skips a beat. She does not lose track. If your mind wanders from editing, she will find it. She will direct you back to the business at hand in excruciatingly clear step-by-anal-step detail, hand you the proper scissors, knives, tape, sponge, and tell you in exactly what drawers and cubby-holes you can stick them.
On the halls on either side of that grand room are cubicles, one after the other. Many share in this operation. Along here hangs the minor communal equipment. No you will be not allowed, at first, to have your own mighty sword.
What? Absolutely not. We have decided. There is no going back now. We went over your application with a fine-toothed comb, as you might imagine. We have heard from very reliable sources about your modus operandi at your previous place of employ - the acquisitions, the stabbing in the back, the bloody Marys, the cutthroat lunches. Your credentials have been reviewed. We need a talented, aspiring-to-greatness-and-fame young man such as yourself, sacrificing all else to that aspiration, devoid of social life and family and personal obligations, bereft of loyalty to anyone or anything other than the office. We need new blood, as it were.
That last office, the cubicle there - the one the grapevine almost reaches? - is yours.
Suzanne McConnell's fiction has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize and an excerpt from her completed novel (now available for publication) won Second Prize in So to Speak’s Fiction Contest. Her work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, The Huffington Post, The Saint Ann’s Review, The Fiddlehead and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in Decameron and Water Stone Review. She is writing a book on Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to writers and is Fiction Editor at Bellevue Literary Review.
Second Place: Flash Fiction
Last Exit Before Toll
by James Keegan
“Excuse me, could you maybe help me out with some money for gas and the toll.” She smiled. Young, maybe eighteen. Dressed in a white jacket a little too light for how cold it was. A dirty fur collar framed her face, washed out in the fluorescent light. Trailer park pretty. Damaged blond hair.
He’d stopped at the Wawa before the bridge as he always did to piss and grab a coffee for the last push home. He’d been saying “sorry’ to the girl as he turned, as he took her in, but when he saw her face he’d reached into his wallet and pulled out the lone single snugged up against his saved receipts, smiled lopsidedly, said “all I got,” and handed it to her, already heading for his car.
He sat in behind the wheel and set his cup in the holder and thought of the ATM next to the restroom inside, the $400 in his checking account, the girl’s shivery smile. When he got inside he saw her talking to the manager by the sandwich counter. She turned and though he did not meet her eye he registered her smile and worried there was something in it that suggested she’d expected him to come back. It unsettled his charity and made him march quickly to the men’s room. The can was empty and he spent a minute looking at his face in the mirror and feeling foolish, thinking how his momma used to shake her head at him and say “Charley’s big-hearted aunt! Soft touch in a hard world.”
This time, as he made for his car, he did not look for the girl.
As he passed exit 30 for Whitehall Road, he flipped on the radio to the oldies station he liked. He recognized the tune right off and hummed along as the boy’s voice from a life ago sang:
Just walk away Renee
You won't see me follow you back home
The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same
You're not to blame
An image of his first wife, Marti, came into his mind then, on a pay phone outside a 7-11 on a steamy August night in Newark, Delaware, all manner of bugs bouncing and buzzing on the fluorescent light above her head, listening to her tell her mom and dad in Vermont that they had made it okay and the new place was nice and they’d have a phone soon. As he approached the next exit for Sandy Point Park, he saw LAST EXIT BEFORE TOLL beneath the sign. He said out loud, “Well, I’ll be a fool then,” yanked the wheel and crossed three empty lanes to make the ramp in time.
On the ride back he remembered the story from church of the good Samaritan and goosed the gas a little and pictured how he’d ask Renee (she became the girl in the song somehow as he got back on 50 West) which car was hers and tell her to pull it up to the pump where he’d fill it and then she could follow him through the bridge toll and he’d cover her, get her home safe. He was pleased as this plan allowed him to know for sure where the money was going.
He pulled in the opposite drive from the one he’d exited moments ago. He could not see her outside. But it was in the 20s so she was likely still inside. She wasn’t though. He went to the ATM and took out $50 and bought a couple of packs of peppermint gum. He craned his neck and looked back toward the racks of chips and pretzels, coffee station, freezer cases.
When he got back in the car, he wheeled slowly around the parking lot. He wondered about the dark cab of the semi parked around back. He thought again of the song as he got on 50 East, but he left the radio off .
You’re not to blame.
But he was. He knew he was.
James Keegan has published poems in Southern Poetry Review and Poet Lore, and his chapbook Of Fathers and Sons. He is an associate professor of English at The University of Delaware (Georgetown). He is also an actor and has been a member of the resident acting troupe of The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia. He lives in Milton, Delaware, with his wife, the writer Anne Colwell.
Third Prize: Flash Fiction
The Big Jump
by Ronald Jackson
Estevão makes the steep climb to the third level of the high platform, a place I never dreamed of visiting. His swimmer body stands tall at the top and he spreads his arms like Christ the Redeemer looking out on Rio. He calls out through cupped hands: Francesca! You can see all the way to Manhattan. I should nod my acknowledgement, but the chlorine smell from the pool reaches me and it’s all I can think of. That, and the large white lettering under my feet, which says Brooklyn Aquatics.
My knees go jello, something we’d anticipated during our talk-throughs. Estevão said deep breaths, shoulders back, one knee lift from each leg. I’m too tense for that. I mount the steps to the first level, brush my fingertips on the handrail. I grip the railings more firmly as I step to the second level. The final ladder stands ten feet away, across an open space. Mio dio, save me.
I reach it on wobbly knees and lean into the cool steel. The ladder is my sole companion, as it was for Vincenzo, my hawk-faced, raven-haired brother, who spent long afternoons climbing the high platform in his high school days. He floated up, grinning and shouting jokes and challenges to friends. Pure Sicilian, always. He called me bambino when I refused to go up there. That annoyed me. But at my wedding he surprised me, tapped Estevão on the shoulder after our waltz, and we slow danced together. When the song ended, he gazed at me with wine-misted eyes, whispered in my ear, “I danced at your wedding, bambino. Now you go off the platform when I get married.” I laughed.
I focus on one rung at a time, with a plan in mind to never look down. That’s obvious, no? When Estevão calls out two more! my head betrays me and I steal a glance. A man and woman, both in red bathing suits, smile up, hands shading their eyes. The wobble in my knees rises to a flutter in my chest, and I tighten my grip, lean closer to the ladder. How would they react if I came hurtling down on them?
Estevão grasps my hand and I clear the top, kneel on all fours, grateful for the wide platform, flatten my hands on it. It’s gritty, like rough pavement. First part over, he says. Inhale slow. I do that and breathing comes more regular. I think of what this day means, look into Estevão’s eyes as he kneels to me. He takes my hand, lifts me slowly, wraps his arm over my shoulder. In baby steps, we rotate to face the water.
Estevão says keep breathing and the time comes. No sense waiting when I’ve committed everything to this. I will count to five, he says.
We begin to move and the call from Vincenzo plays back like it happened two minutes ago. From the one hundred and sixth floor. Holding hands with his office manager, Gracie, he said. He couldn’t stand her. It did not sound like my brother and I heard only a few more words, but I knew it was him. And from the businesslike tone, I knew what was coming. Blistering . . . Can’t breathe . . . Going over. With that, the line went silent.
Goosebumps cover me, a blanket of electricity. My eyes fix only on Estevão, and just before my toes push off from the platform, I am dead certain of two things: The same electricity covered Vincenzo’s peeling skin, a small mercy, no? And he turned precisely this way toward Gracie in their last flash of connection.
As we leap out and I lose contact with Estevão, I register the empty space where two towers used to stand in the Lower Manhattan sky. I feel, more than see, two bodies tumbling into wide air, arms and knees bent at screwball angles, writhing as they turn, bride and groom dancing drunk at their own wedding.
Ronald Jackson writes stories, poems, reviews, and essays from his home in Durham, NC. His work has appeared in the North Carolina Literary Review, Iodine, and other venues. An epistolary memoir, “Letter to a Drowning Sailor,” was included in the University of Nebraska anthology Red, White, and True this past summer.
First Place: Poetry
Our Judge, Erica Dawson, had this to say about Laura Haynes's poem, "Mimesis":
The energy of this poem is absolutely irresistible, and its impulse inspiring. You can't get to the end without singing, nor without realizing how long it's been since you've really sung
by Laura Haynes
Consider the whole, the root:
The bowl of a cupped hand,
holding us. Fibonacci numbers
are hard to understand, and also
double-helix structures, or how
that one kind of squid can go
protoplasmic, then re-emerge, a
baby: tiny muscle contracting
upwards. Consider the infinite
overbrimming of new hummingbirds,
bubbling up out of themselves in
iridescent flocks, year upon year,
or the groped tendril of a sweet pea
as it climbs the spent shard of
redwood tree, or the finale of smoke,
twirled and rising. Take shelter:
you too kaleidoscopic, and just as alive
as anything, everything, just as prone
to sing in harmony, more prone--
fledged, at the edge of the nest
and the whole world fanned out below,
when breeze brings the scent of a
lighter hold on things, green field
and a layer of air between, wings
that unfold, new, and know how to,
up-dipped upon a thermal. Tip light,
and take the invitation to enter the turned
rope, the door opening, that certain
chain of notes that strips you down to
yourself, bossa-nova rhythm that pulls you
out of your chair, scent of pittosporum
on the air when March turns to April.
The radio plays every channel all the time.
Select the frequency, learn to twirl
The dial and bead back in on the beautiful,
And when it’s the blues, let it be Selma,
keep walking, keep to the road and know
that water will force itself through rock
if you give it long enough, keep walking,
the winds are with you, and the weather.
Laura Haynes is a former screenwriter who received her MFA from Bennington in 2012. Her work has appeared in McSweeney's and The Bennington Review. She lives in Santa Barbara, California.
Second Place: Poetry
Had We Known Our Time
by Amy Lerman
I didn’t know then how fixed our time—
only four months until you’d lay
under an overpass, the dented
helmet still on your head, some stranger
holding your heavy hand.
If I did, we would have kept driving,
recorded your voice,
thrown my diaphragm in the dumpster.
We’d have driven a cooler car,
your father’s beige Chrysler too geriatric
for runs to the drive-through liquor marts.
Away from bell schedules, pressed
clothes and parents, we’d head east
into a series of clichés: a toothless mechanic,
his corroded pickup home to chains,
crushed cans, a three-legged dog named Ringo;
the Sangre sky of a moist, July afternoon;
and rabbits as huge as the jackalopes
jumping off the billboards near casinos.
We could have visited the Atomic Museum,
where you’d wear a tie-dye. At Coronado Monument,
we’d stroll the maze of open-roof dwellings
while you’d serenade—guitar strapped
against your chest, the harmonica
at your chin looking like a neck brace.
You’d play my requests, “Lay Down Sally,”
“Meet Me in the Morning,”
until you’d wander away, leave me the lone tourist
circling the ruin of our lives.
Amy Lerman is Residential Faculty and Coordinator of Developmental English at Mesa Community College in Arizona. Over the years, her research interests have included twentieth-century, American literature, food and culture, chick lit., and popular culture, but more recently (and perhaps at the expense of grading her students’ papers), she has spent much of her time working on poems and has been published in The Gila River Review; ABZ: A New Magazine of Poetry; Generations: A Journal of Images and Ideas; and Garbanzo Literary Journal.
Third Place: Poetry
A Marriage from Six Angles
by Elizabeth Drewry
In our house, towels hang straight;
forks in their slots face east.
Precision of lunch, no meandering
all afternoon, cheese to apples—
Yet I find myself wistful for abandonment
of principle. Here’s an invitation to disorder:
not of mind, for I’m dazzled by logic,
not of spirit, I’m stunned by simplicity--
not even of body, each flyaway tendril
takes its place under his smoothing hand.
What calls me to chaos is the heart,
wild in its yearning to be broken, tamed,
freed, all at once, in a sudden sweep
the way an arm displaces tidy treasures
to make room for something greater
and more precious.
So I made space for him
in the jumble cleared of regret.
My husband has no taste for kisses
that wander all over, not getting to the point.
Candlelight’s wasted, Cole Porter,
artful dip in my neckline. He teases
my left frontal lobe, digging deep
for tender places he might have missed.
He is avid for my mind, rapacious
for a look down my cerebellum.
Tonight I squirm in the scrutiny
of his logic. His eye is bright, voice firm--
I think of a laser, marking papers
of whitest white to fold into fractals.
And it’s here we connect,
in the skein of a leaf, crystalline quartz,
Pollock’s self-similar brush--
those meeting places of math and art.
I would have him no other way,
quizzical arch of brow, questing eye.
He wants more than most,
taking more to be satisfied.
3. In the Same Day’s Travel
Death Valley and Mount Whitney,
low and high, hot and cold--
my husband is pleased by symmetry.
I think of our tracks--
his, angled to an hypotenuse with perfect catheti.
Mine, a scrabble of loose shale.
For me, the shortest distance
between two points includes a detour
to see dinosaur bones.
My choices have internal logic
especially if viewed from a point
in outer space. Mazes come to mind.
Water swirls, I tell him, maple seed pods
and vigorous conversation. He’d like to waltz
with me in a perfect circle.
I’m game but the floor tilts. My inner ear
requires a rigorous balance
not this vertiginous romance.
4. Something New
In my second half-century, and surprised
to learn it’s good to take a divot,
that clod of grass and dirt flying up
simply a way to check the swing.
He reads it like a tracker to know
why he slices, why pitches
scull into sand. No divots when shooting
a high, soft flop shot.
I watch him practice in the den.
He explains it all to me,
the person who has no perception
of objects in space. The surprise is
how deeply I care, soak it up
as if the library of Alexandria
had been unearthed and opened to me.
His face is illuminated like a text
explicating the mysteries of joy,
so I strain to see the graphs
he draws in air, the angles he creates
with his arms and imaginary club.
5. Mathematics of a Late Marriage
Define irrational. I dream a table,
after dinner. My husband clears an ellipse
of yellow light where we’ll sit with tea.
It’s Tuesday. If there were children,
a school night, when homework nullifies TV.
Two is my imaginary number.
Our boy’s dark curls tessellate.
Thick lashes cast an arc across his cheek,
his wide lovely mouth worries a pencil.
In his sister, everything’s twinned,
though she is honey-haired—
an equation sublimely balanced.
I can’t extrapolate from this.
Is this the axiom of regret?
6. Code Blue
My husband centers
the over-bright room, centers
white-coated flurry so precise
it seems slow motion.
Last night, he and I failed
to mention the fear, each steeping
in a private tisane of foreboding,
loathe to burden one another.
I touched a smudge
of moth-wing on the sill
and thought nothing of brief lives.
Now his gown’s ripped navel to neck,
a fist buries the large-bore needle
in his belly. I see his pallor,
his smile for me alone,
and know our reticence
was the moth’s wheeling
the eye of the flame,
and the silence, our longing
beyond words for the chance
to say everything that matters.
Elizabeth Drewry’s poems have been published in various literary magazines, including Arkansas Review, Tiferet, Kakalak, Broad River Review, and Yemassee. She was a finalist for the Joy Harjo 2012 Poetry Competition, runner-up for the 2013 Pocataligo Poetry contest, and finalist for the 2013 Ron Rash Poetry Award. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. After a newspaper management career in New York and California, she now lives and writes in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains.
First Place: Creative Non-Fiction
Our Judge, Ned Stuckey-French, had this to say about Sheila Webster Boneham's essay, "A Question of Corvids":
I love an essay that teaches me something, by which I mean one that introduces me to not just some new understandings of ourselves and our world -- though it must do that or it's not an essay -- but also some new information. I did not know what a corvid is before I read "A Question of Corvids"; now I do. It is one of the 120 species of whip smart, hoarding, mimicking birds that include crows, jays, ravens, and magpies. This essay, rich with research, travel, examples, anecdotes, humor and epigraphs, taught me not just how to look at birds but how to look at the world. Essays are also conversations built of sentences that while written, sound spoken, and this essay is full of lovely sentences that work that way. Take these four, for instance: "If gulls are the berserkers of birdkind, swooping and screaming and plundering, then corvids, including crows, are the strategists. They watch. Face a crow at close quarters you will see that you are the one under study. With an eye sharper than his pointed bill, the crow pins down your moves and knows you better than you know him." I can hardly say how much I admire such sentences as well as their author and this essay.
A Question of Corvids
by Sheila Webster Boneham
1. Corvidae Corvus brachyrhynchos
If men had wings and bore black feathers,
few of them would be clever enough to be crows.
– Henry Ward Beecher
Birds are everywhere here on the Carolina coast. Pelicans skim the blue-bellied rollers, bank for advantage, plummet and rise. Sanderlings and stilts drill for morsels in the sand while egrets stalk the marshes. Birds are everywhere. They are hungry, and they come to dine on the veranda of this inn on the beach. Flocks of gulls hang heavy-bodied over the tables long enough to check for an unguarded bit of fish or bread or meat, and the bold ones find the thing they all want. I watched a herring gull last October pluck a fillet from between two halves of a tourist’s bun and rise on the same wing beat. Laughing gulls, with their black bonnets and chuckling calls, are less common, but they do come, mostly in Spring. Other birds, too. Pigeons, of course. Grackles and cowbirds. Dozens of the hard-to-name wee guys that birders call LBJs – “little brown jobs” – flit here and scurry there for crumbs and handouts.
Crows. If gulls are the berserkers of birdkind, swooping and screaming and plundering, then corvids, including crows, are the strategists. They watch. Face a crow at close quarters and you see that you are the one under study. With an eye sharper than his pointed bill, the crow pins down your moves and knows you better than you know him. Scientists have documented what farmers have said through the ages: crows can count. They communicate. Consummate mimics, they even copy human speech.
Picture this: you are sitting on the hotel verandah with a friend, tucked under a huge red umbrella, gazing through dark lenses across dunes and beach to the glittering blue Atlantic. You chatter, you listen. Your lunch arrives. And a big black bird. He, or perhaps she, perches on the back the chair directly across the table and tilts his head. “Hello,” you say. You smile at the bird. You fancy that he smiles back. You and your friend watch him and laugh. He hops onto the table, tilts his head and eyes you again. You ask, in your clever human way, “Are you hungry?”
And the bird says Yeeees.
His voice scrapes your eardrum, and his enunciation could use some work, but there’s no mistaking the word. Just to be sure, you ask, “Would you like something to eat?” and again he says, Yeeees. Who could say no to that?
Still, we have to be cautious when we interpret animal behaviors, especially when we want a behavior to mean something in particular. Wanting is a drug, a hallucinogen. Even scientists trained to be cautious can be duped by their own desires. In the 1960s and 70s, much was made of attempts to teach apes to communicate with their handlers through American Sign Language. The researchers believed they had succeeded. They cited examples of clever, grammatical constructions produced by the apes, and their scientific articles were soon published in plain English to overwhelming public delight. The scientists wanted to believe, and we the public wanted to believe, but later attempts to replicate the results of those studies failed. The apes had learned something, but it was not human language.
The crow who sat down to lunch with me and my friend said yes. I doubt that he understood my question, or the meaning of the word he uttered, but he knew that if he made that sound we were likely to give him some food. Someone, perhaps a long line of someones, taught him the rising tones of a question, taught him to mimic human speech in response. Taught him that saying yeees in his gravely way might cause someone to share a bit of lunch. He delighted us enough that we repeated our behavior six, seven times, handing over bits of turkey and fruit, bread and tomato. If we looked on from another angle, we might suspect that our black-feathered friend trained us. As in all good training, in the end it doesn’t much matter who trained whom; we all got what we wanted. Crow ate, we laughed. We tell the story for years. Perhaps Crow does, too.
2. Family Corvidae
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore....
– Edgar Allen Poe
Corvids, or more properly Corvidae, are a diverse bunch. Commonly known as “the crow family,” they count among their number some one hundred twenty species of crows and choughs, jays and jackdaws, ravens and rooks, magpies, nutcrackers, treepies. Most corvids have voices a bit like well-amplified, well-rusted hinges, but they are still considered to be the largest of the so-called “songbirds.” They are more accurately “perching birds,” or passerines. More than a third of corvid species are crows, ravens, and jackdaws, members all of the genus Corvus.
With brain-to-body-mass ratios that match those of the cetaceans and apes (and lag only slightly behind our own), corvids are considered by many people to be among the most intelligent animals. They certainly top the avian honor roll. Ravens and crows in particular have been seen in many traditions as divine messengers, tricksters, mediums, and omens. Tinglit, Haida, and other Native American traditions honor Raven as both Trickster and Creator. Many other traditions link corvids to war, death, and the underworld, perhaps due to their dark plumage and fondness for carrion. These associations remain alive in contemporary literature and popular culture.
As is the case with much folklore, truth lives in tales and beliefs. Ravens, crows, and magpies hunt and scavenge in life as in tradition. Hunters report that ravens and crows are quick to arrive after gunfire, adapting millenia-old symbioses between these birds and large predators, particularly wolves, to modern realities. Beyond that, corvids are messengers of death, not in some prescient other-worldly way but for practical reasons. Field studies have shown that ravens “call” wolves to large animals they find dead. Why invite wolves to dinner? Because, unlike birds of prey, the raven lacks a bill or talons designed to open a carcass. Someone else – wolf or human hunter or motor vehicle – needs to do the job. Magpies have been observed working with coyotes in much the same way as ravens work with wolves, and the canine hunters have learned to listen when corvids call.
Corvids aren’t entirely dependent, though, on the kindness of other hunters. For one thing, they are omnivorous; they eat everything from insects and meat to seeds and fruits to garbage and animal feeds. Many corvids are fond (in a dietary sense) of small mammals and other birds. They prey on eggs and nestlings, and are not exempt from their own cousins’ raids; ravens have been seen to take apart the elaborate nests of magpies stick by carefully woven stick to get at the nestlings. We can hardly fault them (although traditionally we do); we too kill to eat. So do the raptors that commonly prey on corvids. So do many birds. Still, in Western traditions and beyond, people have both respected the cleverness of corvids and feared their presence. In Cornwall and other parts of the Celtic world, we are advised to greet any magpie we meet politely and loudly. This is, I think, good advice.
3. Corvidae Pica hudsonia
I have a magpie mind. I like anything that glitters.
– Lord Thomson of Fleet
Something glitters in the bright Spring light on the far side of Evans Creek. Something moves, and I stop. Watch. A black-billed magpie stands at the top of the far bank, wings open wide and slightly drooped, head down, tail feathers spread like a Spanish fan, back feathers raised and fluffed. Three more magpies flutter in the cottonwood to my right. I sidle into the shade of the tree. The bird on the ground shudders, steps toward a desiccated clump of rabbit brush, goes still. We think of these birds as black and white, but the sun on outstretched feathers reveals startling blue, at least three shades of violet, a teasing of green and orange and gold. Paiute fancy-shawl dancers come to mind, their embroidered finery outspread like wings. I watch the bird, bedazzled.
This is the first time I have seen this behavior, but I have read descriptions and know that this magpie is not dancing, but “anting.” Many birds do this – crows, babblers, weavers, owls, turkeys, waxbills, pheasants, more. Magpies. They pick up ants and place them on their own bodies, let them walk around or squish them like little sponges against their feathers, showering themselves in formic acid, the ant’s chemical defense. The birds won’t say why they do it, but scientists have several theories. The formic acid may serve as an insecticide, fending off parasitic mites, or it may help control fungal or bacterial infections. Why not? We use formic acid to fight off mites in honey-bee colonies, to slow fungal growth in animal feeds, and to battle deadly E.coli bacteria. Other researchers suggest formic-acid-as-grooming-product or ant-as-vitamin-supplement because it contains significant levels of Vitamin D.
My bird shudders again, and I remember reading that anting appears to intoxicate some birds. Again, why not? Shamans of south-central California ingest harvester ants to induce religious visions. All functional explanations aside, perhaps some birds just like to get wasted. My magpie lifts his wings a shade, lowers them, lifts them again. He bobs his head, shakes it, stretches his neck forward, lifts his gleaming black bill skyward, says grrrk grrrk. As I watch him fold his wings and turn his profile to me, I don’t care what moves this bird. I care only that I was witness, and that I will never again see magpies in black and white.
4. Corvidae Corvus cornix
Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th' rooky wood.
– Shakespeare, Macbeth
New Year’s Eve on Balscadden Bay. It is late afternoon, and a pale sun hangs on the horizon as if hesitant to plunge into the cold Irish Sea. Gray is all around. I sit on a gray concrete wall above a beach strewn with gray rocks. A heron stands at the surf line, not the Great Blue or the White I know from home, but Ardea cinerea, the Grey. A flock of gulls swoops and screams over the bay; another group hunches on a trio of boulders now high above the outgoing tide.
A bird I have only just met works among the pebbles and pools, and I am enthralled. She – I don’t know that the bird is female, but her industry and style make me want to think so – pulls a length of seaweed from the surf and hauls it away from the sea. This brings her closer to me, so I have a good view. She drops her treasure into a small tidal pool in the bowl of a gray hunk of rock I take to be limestone. She picks it up again a few inches from one end, works it in her bill for just the right grip. The bird swings the short end around and whacks it against the rock side of the bowl. Repeats. Again. She drops the length of seaweed and pecks around in the shallow water. I watch for twenty minutes as the gray-and-black bird repeats the process, working her way to the other end of the soggy vegetable. She flies back to the surf and I walk to her pool. The remains of the seaweed are a raggedy mess, but I poke around the strands and look into the pool, and I find what she was after. Tiny crustaceans. She hasn’t left many, but a few little shells are still caught in the fibers.
This is the hooded crow, the hoodie. She goes by many other names as well, and I discover that not many people share my enchanted view of her here in Ireland. My landlady tells me they frighten her, but she can’t give me a solid reason why that is so. Perhaps, she says, it is from seeing The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic. Or perhaps her fear has been handed down from mother to daughter, a thread woven into the cultural fabric. For this is the corbie of ballads; a loose translation of one perches a pair of corbies on the dead hero’s white breast-bone to peck out his bonny blue eyes. Depending which source we believe, the hooded crow or the raven embodied the Morrigan, Celtic goddess of war and death; when the Irish mythic hero Cú Chulainn is dying, the hooded crow perches on his shoulder. Hoodies have been variously thought to be in league with fairies, to attack livestock, and to herald death. Perhaps what puts people off is the hoodie’s somber dress, black and dull brownish-gray, as much as her fondness for carrion. Perhaps it is her intelligence.
The last light leaves the horizon and my hooded crow on the beach beats one last length of seaweed. I have resumed my watch from this chilly concrete perch, reluctant to leave even as evening cold seeps into my bones. Whatever legend and local opinion make of this bird, I want to know the hoodie better. The crow snatches a few last bites from the limestone bowl before her and then, with a parting caw-caw, she opens her wings and is gone.
5. Corvidae Pica hudsonia
What I am interested in with birds...is what they do and why they do it.
– David Attenborough
Bartley Ranch Regional Park lies south of Reno in the shadow of Mount Rose and her sister peaks of the eastern Sierras. On a good day, the park’s population includes walkers and dogs, trail runners, horses and riders, jackrabbits and cottontails. Coyotes, although they are wary. In the year I have lived here, I have only ever seen one coyote in the park, and that one a long way off. There are reptiles, too. Horned lizards, and snakes – gopher snakes mostly, despite widespread fear of rattlers. Ground squirrels, marmots, other furry things. Birds.
Golden Eagles ride the thermals over Bartley. Vultures, too. Red-tailed and Cooper’s Hawks are common, and owls – Great Horned and Burrowing and Barred. California Quail are everywhere, strutting and chattering in the brush, or hollering ne-VA-da ne-VA-da at everyone, no matter the birds’ common name. Crows and songbirds of all sorts. Magpies.
At first I think the bird is injured. I am walking along the edge of a parking lot, headed for the trail that climbs up and back down Windy Hill, when a wild fluttering catches my eye. A wing tip and tail’s long feathers wave and shake at me from behind a hassock-sized boulder. Magpie, I think, and a vision of the anting magpie dances across my memory. Magpie in trouble. I will check the bird and, if necessary, call for a ranger. Then a scream from behind the rock clutches at me. Not a magpie scream. Before I see, I know.
The magpie is not in trouble, and even as I rush toward them, she pecks at the little rabbit. Another scream. New from the nest, smaller than my fist, covered with downy gray-brown fur and, now, a spattering of blood. Get off, I yell, waving my arms at the bird, feeling a surge of adrenaline and something else, something that makes me want to hold that baby, save him, stop the hurt and fear. The magpie slowly lifts her body into the air and sinks like a hovercraft onto a branch just over my head. I could reach out and touch the long tail from where I stand. A hard black eye bores into me. As I turn back to the baby rabbit, the magpie rasps mag-mag-mag-mag, and I wonder vaguely whether she might not come for me. The bunny is still, but its eyes are alive. I shoo it from the open space behind the boulder into a thick tangle of sage. It moves quickly and disappears. Safe for the moment, I think.
The bird on the branch is still glaring when I look up again. I am no coward about the facts of nature. This is what animals do, all of us, and even as I wave my arms to drive the bird away, knowing she will be back, I ponder my right to do such a thing. I think about such things a lot when I walk. Part of the path I meant to take this morning lies between two pastures where feeder calves graze the summer away, and because I walk there, and because they are no longer visions in a distant field but individuals who come to the fence to watch me, whose faces I know – the red steer with the question mark on his brow, the black one with the punky topnot that stands between his ears – I have been grappling with my own conflicted habits.
My heart slows and I turn away from the sage brush, away from the birdless branch. I halt. The sand and high-desert plants around me are in wild motion. Magpies everywhere, thirty or more, swooping, pecking, chasing baby rabbits. My ears fill with the screaming of the bunnies, the raucous whoops and caws of the birds. Two adult rabbits – the mothers, I know in my heart – run in wild hopeless loops across the open spaces. I begin to run, too, yelling at birds and waving my arms, and stopping to herd the terrified babies into sage and rabbitbrush and spaces beneath rocks. I know it will all start again when I leave. But in this moment, it is what I do.
6. Corvidae Pica hudsonia
...the great and flashing magpie, He flies as poets might.
– T. P. Cameron Wilson
Lewis and Clark met their first magpies in South Dakota in 1804. They wrote that the birds were bold and gregarious, willing to walk right into the men’s tents and take food from their hands. The collected specimens they sent east to Thomas Jefferson included four live magpies, although only one made it to Monticello. When bison roamed the Great Plains, magpies went along, picking ticks off the great beasts and eating insects the herds stirred up. The birds scavenged as well, cleaning up carcasses left by people and wolves and other death-dealers. The Bald Eagle may be the avian symbol of the West, but it is the black-billed magpie who will dance for you on creek banks and call mag mag mag as you walk the riparian strands.
Smart and adaptable, magpies switched to other livestock when men with rifles wiped out the great herds of bison in the 1870's. They are supreme opportunists. I have watched flocks of magpies hunting on creek banks and picking insects and bits of grain from manure in horse paddocks. Adaptability to human-dominated environments has advantages. It also brings new dangers. Campaigns to eradicate these “pests” have caused thousands of magpie deaths; 1,033 black-billed magpies were shot in the Okanogan Valley of Washington in one “hunt” in 1933, and in Idaho an estimated hundred and fifty thousand magpies were systematically killed around the same time for a few pennies in bounty per bird. Thousands more have died from eating poisons set out for coyotes and other predators.
A modified war on magpies continues today. As is the case in wars, hatreds often rest on false beliefs. Magpies don’t peck livestock open for the blood; they pull off and devour ticks. Magpies don’t decimate “desirable” songbird populations; they all thrive together. Facts take a long time, though, to overshadow falsehoods, and although magpies in the United States are partially protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and some state and local statutes, judgment-call exceptions are written into the law.
7. Corvidae Corvus brachyrhynchos
I'd hate to miss an important message
because it came dressed in feathered black
and spoke a different language.
So I listen. I watch. I wait.
– Lynn Samsel
The new issue of National Wildlife has arrived, and in it is a story ostensibly about crows. Really, though, it is a story about people, or more to the point, scientists, and about their “discovery” that crows recognize human faces. Not as a class of things, mind you, but individual faces. That crow who seems to know you, well, she knows you. This, apparently, is a surprise. At least that’s the impression the researchers give in their comments, which seem crafted to fit a rhetoric of objective distancing. Their surprise at their findings implies instead a disconnection with the creatures being studied. Perhaps the question should not be whether the crows are able to recognize individual faces, but why.
Scientists are wary of anthropomorphizing. We all should be. But sometimes researchers seem to be even more wary of being accused of the act than they are of the act itself. It gets plain silly at times. Eight pages after the article about crows is another that asks, “Are Other Animals Aware of Death?” Have you ever watched an encounter between a predator and its prey? Or seen a mother animal with a dead or dying baby? I have, and would say that they know at least as much about death as we do.
Elephants are the focus of the piece. They often are when non-human awareness of death comes up, because they are known to linger over and handle the bones of their own dead. Corvids are mentioned as well. A recent study at the University of California-Davis reported that scrub jays (Aphelocoma californica) will gather around the remains of other scrub jays and scream for up to thirty minutes. Initially the ruckus was thought to be a warning, but jays, and sometimes ravens and crows, respond to the uproar by flocking to the sites. Still, so goes the report, the gatherings “don’t necessarily mean the birds understand death.” Whether they understand death seems to me as silly as asking a crow at table “are you hungry?” After all, our own species has been debating what death is, biologically and philosophically, for thousands of years. How far ahead of the jays does that put us in coming to terms with mortality?
“Would you like something to eat?” I asked the crow at the beach. Why else would he bother with me? I need to reform my questions. The sharp-eyed corvids may be clever enough to help if I can manage to listen beyond what I want to hear. Or perhaps they are clever enough to know that some answers are entirely avian and beyond our reach.
Sheila Webster Boneham writes across genres, often with a focus on environment, animals, and culture in the anthropological sense. Her recent work has appeared in Red Earth Review, Minerva Rising, The Written River, The Wayfarer, The Museum of Americana, and elsewhere. Sheila is the author as well of seventeen nonfiction books and four novels. Sheila holds a PhD in folklore from Indiana University and an MFA from the Stonecoast Creative Writing program, University of Southern Maine. She currently lives and walks with corvids and other creatures along the coast of North Carolina.
Second Place: Creative Nonfiction
The Green Light at the End of the Dock
by Emily Rosenbaum
It was the kind of brunch where you find out that your favorite student died six years ago in a car accident.
Karen was a colleague from the private school near Annapolis where I had been on the English faculty for two years between my graduate degrees. I had sophomore World Literature – a vague and somewhat ambitious title for a class that tried to cover everything from The Pillow Book to The Alchemist. We read a lot of excerpts. I also had two sections of junior American Literature – which was in reality only U.S. literature, a much more achievable goal.
My boss was a sonofabitch who yelled at his faculty and frequently belittled me, so in 1999 I jumped at the chance to move to North Carolina and get a doctorate. I say that as though the English department at Chapel Hill went out and recruited me when the painful truth is that I applied to twenty graduate schools and was accepted at three. For the rest of the school year, I listened to James Taylor’s “Going to Carolina” in my car on the long drive from my apartment in Virginia to Annapolis.
That was back in the old days when you had to email people if you wanted to stay in touch with them. It was five years before Gmail would be born, the Pleistocene age when email accounts were tied to things like work or school. In those days, saying goodbye to students really meant saying goodbye. While I would keep up with friends on the faculty, it didn’t feel right to impose staying in touch on my students unless they initiated first. No one did. I wrote a college recommendation for anyone who asked and gave the stack to the guidance department before I left. I had served my purpose.
A decade later, all this Facebook shit happened and there I was, in touch with all the high school peers I never liked much the first time around and the people I was sure I’d done theater with in college but whose faces I couldn’t quite place. Somehow, I ended up Friends with a number of students and teachers I had known at the Severn School.
In that decade, my husband and I had moved a lot, having babies in Philadelphia, London, and Los Angeles and picking up a cat in New Jersey before landing in Boston. It was a homecoming for me. I grew up outside of Boston, and many of my high school classmates still live in the area, as do college friends, blogging friends, and assorted nephews of my mother-in-law’s colleagues with whom we must get together because we have so much in common. There are only so many lunches I can do, only so many weekend get-togethers with families that also have kids. Karen made the cut because she kept asking.
That’s how we ended up at the Deluxe Train Station Diner, Karen eating eggs Benedict and me ordering a spinach, avocado, and mushroom omelet – salad instead of potatoes – and trying to catch up on thirteen years of our lives. Jobs, spouses, cities, my kids. I had moved on to the toast when I said to her, “I loved the class you advised.”
“I’m still in touch with most of them,” she offered.
Thus began the portion of the program during which I asked what everyone was up to and found out that not only was this one moving to Geneva, but he was getting married, and not only was that one living in Texas, but she had three kids and taught Kindergarten, despite dire predictions that had floated around the faculty room that she’d become a Republican and go into finance.
That’s how we eventually got to Dan.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born on September 24, 1896, in St. Paul, Minnesota. This much you can learn by Googling him. You can also learn that he fell head over heels for the beautiful Zelda Sayre when he was stationed in Alabama, that Zelda went nuts and had to be committed to an asylum, and that they had one daughter, Scottie. What you don’t need to Google him to learn is that he was an alcoholic. Everyone knows that part.
Here’s what you remember from studying The Great Gatsby in high school: East Egg and West Egg, the big eyes on the billboard, Gatsby’s fabulous parties, and the color motif. Maybe something about the butler’s nose. If you actually read the book, you may also remember Jordan leaving the top open on the borrowed car, but no one actually reads the book anymore, do they? There’s got to be an app for that.
You also probably vaguely recollect that Fitzgerald died young, at the age of 44, to be precise. I Googled that.
Dan returns to me as a series of images. Dan as a sophomore, bounding into my tiny classroom, tie askew and white button-down untucked, exclaiming my name and tumbling out important news with his words tripping over each other. Also, Dan with his hand raised, bouncing out of his seat like Horshack in Welcome Back, Kotter. Dan, bent intently over his work, legs moving and head bobbing to the rhythm of his mind. Dan smiling – exuberance and mischief with a dash of double-dog-dare-ya.
And, of course, Dan chewing things. I’d get test papers with the corners missing, because in the depth of his focus, Dan had torn off bits of the pages and stuffed them in his mouth. Once, during an end-of-year exam, Dan chewed through a bottle of breath drops. A hundred students had to finish their exam to the overpowering stench of spearmint.
As a junior, Dan sat in the corner of my new, much larger classroom, near the bulletin board, chewing on the tacks. No matter how many times I told him to stop, he couldn’t. I’d be helping a student identify a direct object, and when I turned back around, Dan would have something in his mouth. “Dan?” He’d look up, completely innocent, and then realize that once again he had a tack in his mouth. Sheepishly, he’d pull it out and kind of wipe it off before sticking it back in the board.
Zach Schneider, a mild-mannered, deeply thoughtful boy with a hockey obsession and a patient sense of humor, sat next to Dan. One day, I realized all the tacks were missing. “Dan, where are the tacks?”
“Ms. Siegel, I swear, it wasn’t me,” Dan protested.
Next to him, Zach smiled, a slow and twinkling grin that moved right up his face straight through to his eyes. He had quietly removed all the tacks as a preventative measure. Eventually, the boys just switched seats, Zach stationing his steadiness between Dan’s energy and certain doom. It was safer that way.
Facebook tells me that Zach grew up to be a doctor. Karen tells me that Dan never got a chance to grow up.
The Great Gatsby features a car accident as its climax, a fact that many people know only from their Cliff’s Notes. After the showdown in New York over their affair, Daisy and Gatsby leave. Gatsby allows her to drive his big yellow car, and she plows over her husband’s current mistress on the way home.
If you actually read The Great Gatsby, you’ll remember the description of Mabel Wilson in the aftermath of the accident: “her left breast was swinging loose like a flap and there was no need to listen for the heart underneath.” It’s a hard image to forget, and it struck the students in my junior year English class forcefully.
That’s what happens in a car accident. That’s what comes of living fast and throwing big parties and driving big yellow cars that draw the eye and impress people. Someone ends up on the road, destroyed.
That’s what happened to Fitzgerald and Zelda. She cracked up and he drank hard, eventually destroying his body and dying of a heart attack. He’s buried in Maryland, and while I was teaching at Severn, I visited his grave. His epitaph is the last line of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The big project of third term junior year was to research and read works by an American author. I suggested authors when students had a hard time deciding: Octavia Butler, John Irving, Zora Neale Hurston, and the like. For Dan, I suggested Tom Robbins, covering myself with the caveat that he needed parental permission to read the books. Nothing gets a seventeen-year-old boy engaged like needing parental permission.
For a month, teachers complained to me in the faculty room that they had caught Dan reading Tom Robbins under his desk when he was supposed to be figuring out equations or conjugating verbs in some other language. They also found him reading tidbits to his classmates, all of them a little breathless with the slightly risqué content. The R-rated bits weren’t why I suggested Robbins, though, nor were they what really engaged Dan. I knew Robbins would speak to Dan for the same reason that kid amused the hell out of me: sheer energy.
Robbins’s writing is alive. His sentences jump, his images pop, and his words bounce off the page. His writing is smart, funny, and irreverent. Reading Robbins is like reading a cup of strong coffee on No-Doze, which is sort of what being around Dan usually felt like.
I don’t know whether it was the Robbins or whether it was just time for Dan to bloom, but around this time Dan exploded into English student greatness. At the beginning of his sophomore year, he had bubbled over with so many thoughts that he had fleshed nothing out. For all his playfulness, however, Dan worked hard in school, and over two years’ time, he’d learned to organize his thoughts. Now, his ideas were arranged and developed rather than tossed scattershot around the page, and it was clear he was smart. I often saved grading his papers for last, not only because they were good, but because they had the same vibrancy I found in Robbins’ work, in Dan himself.
Or maybe it was the Gatsby that did it to him. Fitzgerald has been known to have that effect on people. Day after day, Dan’s hand shot up with another image, another symbol, or another example of the eyes or the colors that pervade the book. We had come together as a class, that’s what teachers say to describe the thing that happens in the early spring, the magic of all the students vibrating at the same speed, feeding off one another’s energy to ferret out motifs and dig out examples from the text to support one another’s ideas. Dan was irrepressible, Zach was insightful, and the class as a whole was kicking ass and taking names.
We were all young and alive, tearing at a great book with both hands, coming away with chunks of words dripping out between our teeth.
The Great Gatsby is lousy with taxis. Nick takes them home, sees them in the city, and hears them outside his house. It makes sense; for a boy from Minnesota, taxis epitomize New York City. Sprinkle them throughout the book and you get the flavor of people coming and going, living out a fast, fleeting, borrowed existence for the moment they get to be on earth. It’s a typical Fitzgerald move.
The morning after Myrtle Wilson dies, Nick – who came home in a taxi hours before – can’t sleep, most likely because he’s just seen five people’s lives torn apart. “Toward dawn I heard a taxi go up Gatsby’s drive and immediately I jumped out of bed and began to dress—I felt that I had something to tell him, something to warn him about and morning would be too late” (155). And by the morning, it would have been, because by then Myrtle’s husband will already have shot Gatsby in his own swimming pool. Just one more victim of loving too much.
You get a sense reading Gatsby that driving is a job best left to the professionals. When amateurs do it, they leave borrowed cars out in the rain or run over mistresses.
On the second-to-last page, the dénouement if you will, Nick, who has spent an entire book turning Gatsby’s tale into a story about him, explains that there’s a cab he now avoids: “One of the taxi drivers in the village never took a fare past the entrance gate without stopping for a minute and pointing inside; perhaps it was he who drove Daisy and Gatsby over to East Egg the night of the accident and perhaps he had made a story about it all his own” (188). You couldn’t blame him if he did. It’s hard to be a cabbie, spending your life carrying around the dregs of other people’s tragedies.
Delighted though I was to leave the bad boss and the pretentious school where kids drove cars that cost more than my year’s salary—it’s a cliché but it’s true—I was sad to leave those juniors. Of course, the year would have ended anyway, I wouldn’t have taught them the next year, and in a year they would have left me to go off to Bates or Franklin & Marshall. It’s the tragedy of teaching, this living on borrowed time. You build up a class just to watch them go off and live out their lives, leaving you with your student debt, a pitiful retirement plan, and an underlined copy of The Scarlet Letter.
Near the end of my time at Severn, I grew sentimental. I was just whipping the sophomores into shape and I wouldn’t have the chance to see them develop into young adults. I was leaving friends on the faculty. What would happen to the birds who had built a nest in my classroom’s air conditioning unit? I said goodbyes once, twice, another time—tried to avoid people I had parted with more than once so we didn’t have to say “Hello,” necessitating yet another farewell.
“Do you know what Dorothy says to the Scarecrow at the end of The Wizard of Oz?” I asked Dan.
He looked up from chewing on his pen cap. “No.”
“Find out,” I smiled.
I don’t know if he ever looked it up, but Dorothy tells the scarecrow: “I think I’m going to miss you most of all.”
“It was about six years ago,” Karen told me. “Soon after he graduated college. He was out with some friends. They took a cab home, and then Dan drove a friend back to his car. He took a turn too fast. You know how he always loved cars.”
Dan, sitting in the corner of the room, chewing tacks.
“I know you were close to him.”
Dan, clandestinely reading Tom Robbins.
“I went down for the funeral. Most of the class was there.”
Dan, hand in the air, unable to stay in his seat.
“Everyone loved that kid.”
Dan’s final project, ten astute, excited pages on symbolism in Tom Robbins.
Karen and I talked about Dan for a few minutes. I told her about the exploded breath drops, and I told her how my middle child, Benjamin, sometimes reminds me of Dan, with his buzzing energy and insatiable need to chew things. Then we fell silent. “Go ahead and feed the meter,” I told her.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m OK. Go ahead.” I sat alone in the huge booth at the Deluxe Train Station Diner, looking at half a slice of uneaten toast and a few crusts.
Dan, wrapped around a telephone pole.
“You’re a rotten driver,” Nick tells Jordan after they start dating.
Other people are careful, she responds. “They’ll keep out of my way. It takes two to make an accident.” It turns out Jordan had it wrong. It does not, in fact, take two to make an accident. All it takes is one person, a telephone pole, some trees, and a fence.
After lunch with Karen, I stopped by the grocery store to get some cold cuts for Benjamin’s lunch on Friday. Then I picked up my daughter from preschool, prepared dinner, and packed up the boys’ swimming bags. My sons got out of school at 3:00, and I gave them snacks in the car as we drove to the JCC for their lessons. We came home to the flurry of wet swimsuits, lunch boxes, and dinner. It wasn’t until after the three Bs – bath, books, and bed – that I could sit down at the computer and Google Dan’s accident.
I found one obituary and a single newspaper article. An entire life gone, and it barely made a dimple in the Internet. Dan died before everyone had a blog and then no one did. I sat at my desk, surrounded by camp enrollment forms and drafts of manuscripts, rejiggering search terms in hopes of finding something more, but there was nothing.
The accident was six years ago, on September 24—Fitzgerald’s birthday. The parallels came unbidden, crowding in on me. My go-to response was to organize it, make sense of this kid dying. I was trying to turn it poetic that his mother had gone through the last six years childless. Does it matter, though, that Dan died 110 years to the day after Fitzgerald was born? Any other day would have been someone’s birthday, too. There would have been some way to find the significance, to drip symbolism on the fact that he made that one stupid, stupid mistake.
The date did explain why no one had told me. By then, I had moved to London and had just had my second baby. I was nursing Benjamin and living five hours ahead of old colleagues on the East Coast. I’d been out of the school long enough that no one thought to send me an email. Not that the last six years would have been any different if I had known.
Two years after Dan’s accident, I had a third child on September 23. My birthday is on the 25th, so Fitzgerald’s birthday is the day between us. Did it mean something that Dan died on the day between my birthday and what would become my daughter’s? Or that Dan died so soon after the birth of the son who would remind me of him?
As readers, we have to forgive Nick Carraway, not for being an unreliable narrator – aren’t they all? – but for what he did to Gatsby’s story. We don’t ever get to know Gatsby, really, because in the end, it’s Nick’s story about how he experienced Gatsby’s demise. We forgive him because what he does is so recognizable.
We’re all like Nick Carraway, stealing someone else’s tragedy and making it our own.
Emily Rosenbaum holds a doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Kveller, The New York Times, Ms., Bitch, and Brain, Child. More of her writing can be found at http://emilyrosenbaum.com
Third Place: Creative Nonfiction
Her Body, a Wilderness
by Laurie Easter
My daughter, Akela, entered the world on the plywood living room floor between the woodstove and bathtub—naturally, like a bear cub born in a den. However, our den, on the fringe of wilderness, had hot running water and lights, thanks to an on-demand propane water heater and solar electricity. Only weeks before her birth, we had expanded our rustic one-room cabin with the addition of a separate bedroom and loft. The view from the new bedroom overlooked golden yarrow, black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower, sweet William—and the lawn, meadow, and encircling forest. Still, with all that beauty to envelop her, Akela was not ready to experience its wildness. She preferred the warmth and safety of the womb and seemed quite content to stay there.
We planned a home birth. I was two weeks past my due date, and the midwife recommended I drink castor oil-root beer milkshakes to induce labor—the combination of carbonation and ice cream cut the heaviness of the oil, making the drink bearable. But despite healthy prenatal checkups and a smooth five and a half-hour labor, Akela arrived limp and gray, an Apgar score of one out of ten. A total Apgar score of three or below requires immediate resuscitation. Akela scored a one because she had a heartbeat, but it was low and getting lower. Ruth, the midwife, held her tiny, wet body, gently jostling her to encourage a response, but as the seconds ticked by and Akela did not breathe, Ruth gave her mouth to mouth. Two little puffs. Akela’s body brightened with a pink hue just like a desert sunrise spreading from horizon towards the fading stars. She cried then, forced to accept her place in the world.
For the first week, her eyes were vague as I held her. It felt like her spirit hovered outside her body, caught between the worlds. But it was a strong spirit. I could feel it.
Now, Akela is muscular, strong, fierce. As a gymnast, she pushes her body past comfort and tolerates pain in the process of attaining perfection. Hard workouts exhilarate her—the ache of 50 push-ups, the soreness of 200 crunches, the burn of leg lunges across four lengths of gym floor. At twelve years old, she relishes testing her capabilities and moving beyond the realm of standard expectation. She is competitive—not only with others, but with herself.
Unlike her older sister Lily and me, who complain about any bump or scrape, Akela has a high threshold to pain and tends not to say when she is hurting but, instead, becomes quiet and inward. There have been exceptions, like the time she wiped out on her bicycle while riding down our gravel driveway which meandered between oak trees. She got to the curve in the road before gliding down into the meadow, and the tires skidded on the loose rocks, sending her crashing into them bare-legged. She got a gash on her knee which left a scar. She cried then—wailed in fact. She must have been five or six. There was also the time she picked up a young garter snake slithering through the lawn (she commonly handled critters: snakes, frogs, praying mantises). The snake bit her on the thumb and wouldn’t let go. Akela stood with her arm outstretched, trying to shake the snake loose, but it held on, its tiny jaw clamped tight. Akela screamed. Although, it was her bulging eyes pleading me to rid her hand of its new writhing appendage that told me she suffered more from terror than pain. She was nine.
My children were raised in the country most of their lives. We lived a “back-to-the-land” lifestyle on twenty-eight acres of mostly forested hillside, with a sloping meadow and pockets of clearings nestled among firs and cedars, a smattering of pines, solid oaks, and madrone trees with ruddy, peeling bark. Fifteen years before we bought the land, it had been selectively logged, but the remaining trees flourished, creating a healthy forest nurturing ferns, wild irises, and ceanothus, foxes, skunks, and raccoons, owls, pileated woodpeckers, deer, and cougar. The land sits on the north side of Grayback Mountain in the Siskiyou Mountain range, five miles as the hawk glides from Oregon Caves National Monument. Driving up the road, past our driveway, one would continue upwards, in a steep climb up the mountain into old-growth forest and, unfortunately, some clear-cuts. Often I took this drive, alone or with the girls and our dog, to walk on empty forest service roads, looking down on the valley and soaking in the quiet. There is a stillness up there on the mountain, the only sound a rustling breeze, the murmur of a distant creek, the flapping wings of a surprised pheasant—or the crunching of my own footfall.
To the west some twenty miles rests the 179,755 acre Kalmiopsis Wilderness, designated by Congress in 1964 and named for the rare, pre-ice age flowering plant Kalmiopsis leachiana, discovered by Lilla Leech in 1930. The Kalmiopsis Wilderness, renowned for its plant diversity, unique geology, wild sections of the Illinois, Chetco, and North Fork Smith Rivers, boasts an expanse of coveted roadless old-growth forest. That is it did until 2002 when lightning caused the Biscuit Fire—Oregon’s largest fire in recorded history—to rage nearly 500,000 acres, including all of the Kalmiopsis. During that summer we mostly stayed inside, for the smoke was so dense we could smell it from within the house even with the doors and windows closed. Smoke seeped through the cracks of our unsealed cabin, a mild stench of burnt permeating the walls. It was mid-July and very difficult to stay indoors, but the alternative—to go out—was more unpleasant. At times the smoke was so thick you could barely see the trees in the forest, like driving through fog and not knowing when a deer might be standing in the road ahead, only this fog was brown-tinged and roasted.
Seventy-five percent of vegetation was killed in the Biscuit Fire, including thousands of old-growth trees, and much wildlife habitat was lost. It pained me to think of all those hundreds-of-years-old conical spires burning to a crisp and the birds and animals fleeing in fright—despite my belief that fire is part of the natural process, an essential ecological step in long-term forest health. Nature, I believed, was meant to be left to its own design, a domain independent from humans, not to be tampered with. Although wilderness turns on itself, it also has an incredible capacity to heal itself. A forest may burn uncontrollably, but with time new seedlings sprout, regenerating the damaged ecosystem, as evidenced in the Kalmiopsis—pine trees have sprouted under the protection of the burned timber stand and many plants continue to thrive. Still, after the fire, a years-long battle ensued in the courts over the salvage timber sale. Some wanted to harvest the standing dead timber and replant. Others, like me, wanted the wilderness to be left to its own natural process of recovery.
I once heard someone say he considered his body a wilderness. Wildness lives in our external environment, functioning independently and without the aid of humans. Complex integrated ecosystems work to support each other and maintain balance. Similarly, within our bodies a myriad of functions occur simultaneously without conscious thought. We walk through life—or run or skip or trudge—and most often we never question how our bodies operate, hour after hour, day after day, year after year—until something malfunctions and we are forced to acknowledge our fragility. We take our bodies for granted much the way we have come to take for granted fresh water, clean air, nutritious food.
Five years after the Biscuit Fire, when we had relocated to town, Akela came home from dinner out with a friend at a local pizza parlor and said, “My stomach hurts.” She went straight to bed. Only a couple days earlier she had recovered from the flu, and I worried that I had let her go out too soon, maybe she was having a relapse. She slept till noon the next day. When she awoke, she continued to complain about her stomach and began to vomit. Her temperature rose to 101 degrees. Because a stomach flu was circulating the community, I felt certain that with her immunity down, she had fallen victim. I called the emergency room, describing her symptoms, only to have a nurse confirm my speculation. But the nurse and I were wrong.
Her body was no longer a pristine mountain to be weathered by time but an erupting volcano. The small opening between her appendix and her colon became blocked, causing increased pressure and inflammation until her appendix perforated, sending a profusion of bacteria-laced fluids into her abdomen and bloodstream. But we did not know it had happened until two days later when we rushed her to the emergency room, her hands and feet cold, her skin sallow, her temperature ninety-four degrees.
The ct-scan showed an abnormal amount of fluid in her abdomen, evidence that something had ruptured. But due to the excess of fluid, the doctors could not determine what. Her liver and kidneys were barely functioning. Even though I encouraged her to drink lots of water, she was completely dehydrated. All the water proved futile. More fluids leaked into her abdomen than she was able to ingest to hydrate her organs. The surgeon said they would need to do exploratory surgery, but when he tried to pull together a team, no one would back him. Her condition was too critical, and they were not versed in pediatrics. Akela was transported by Mercy Flights to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland.
There was room for only one of us to fly with Akela. Accompanying her terrified me. I feared I would have a complete emotional breakdown and be a burden rather than support, so when my husband Steve insisted on going with her, I did not argue and arranged passage on a commercial plane. It was nearing the end of the day, and there was only one remaining flight to Portland. I had to pack, make sure our older daughter Lily was cared for, and then drive twenty miles to the airport, all within an hour. My adrenaline kicked in, and I engaged in full function mode as I completed all my necessary tasks. The possibility of missing that plane and being five hours late arriving at OHSU—the time it would take to drive—was so emotionally debilitating I could not bear to give it a second thought, but it was there, needling me, whispering my worst fear: If I don’t get there in time and Akela doesn’t survive, I will never survive.
As I drove, with my mother silent in the passenger seat, all my attention focused on getting there, not missing that flight. My Subaru veered around cars, zooming back and forth between semis and other vehicles. Occasionally I glanced in the rearview mirror, but mostly my eyes were directed forward, concentrating on what lay ahead. So focused was I that I did not notice passing Mt. Grizzly or the brown, snow-topped hills enveloping the Rogue Valley or the horses mulling in their pastures along the highway. I did not notice that the sun was setting or that the temperature was dropping. I was oblivious to the revving of the car’s engine and the whooshing of the wind as it collided with my window. I did not notice as my car passed through Talent into Phoenix and on into Medford that all around me life was carrying on, just like any other day, people leaving work, going shopping, driving home.
Over the phone the travel agent had said, “You must arrive at least a half an hour early to get your ticket, or the counter will be closed.” I arrived fifteen minutes late, and although the counter was still open, I was prepared to defend my territory on that plane if I were denied access. Nothing was going to prevent me from getting to my daughter. Nothing.
Boarding pass in hand, I took off my shoes, passed through security, and joined the group waiting for the flight to Portland. Within two minutes the gate opened for boarding. Normally I get sick on airplanes and have mild anxiety. But there was no room for that on this flight. I just sat, numb yet terrified. Steve and Akela had already boarded the Mercy Flights plane and awaited takeoff. As my aircraft departed, Steve watched, telling a nearly unconscious Akela “There goes your mom.”
When I arrived at the hospital, as Akela lay there, in the pediatric intensive care unit, hooked to monitors and intravenous fluids, with a swarm of doctors and nurses gathered around her, asking me endless questions and offering possible scenarios of diagnosis while preparing to do exploratory surgery, one thing was occurring that I wasn’t even aware of: My body kept functioning. My heart kept pumping blood. My lungs kept taking in oxygen. My brain kept sending messages to neurons. In that moment, I never questioned how my body knew exactly what to do. All I questioned was whether my daughter would recover, whether her body was strong enough to fight off the infection, whether it was too late.
Reddish-purple, bluish-black, greenish-yellow. Those were the colors of her arms. The patches melded into each other, different stages of bruising progression, holes from needle pricks dotted throughout. Her veins had had enough. They were barely visible, receding the way the tide sucks a wave back to the ocean. Still, she was in need of an IV, and the nurses were unsuccessful in locating a suitable spot to insert one. This was her second round at OHSU. She had been released two days earlier, appearing to be healthy and on the mend, after spending eight days there recovering from surgery. But complications had arisen.
Dr. Harrison, her surgeon, had warned us of the possibility she might develop an abscess. “If she gets a fever, take her to the hospital immediately,” he had said. “She will need to have it drained.” Unbelievable. We had been home barely twenty-four hours when Akela spiked a fever of 101 degrees and had to be taken to the emergency room. Another round of doctors and nurses. Another batch of gut-wrenching contrast material she had to drink on an empty stomach. Another CT scan. Why hadn’t they kept her at OHSU another day? She appeared to be healing. Why didn’t they do a CT scan to make sure she was okay before releasing her? That is not how CT scans are used; they are expensive and expose the body to excessive amounts of radiation.
It was a sleepy Sunday night around ten o’clock when we took her into our local emergency room. Akela was the only patient in the ER, yet they still didn’t quite know what to do with her. They performed a CT scan, and believing her not to be in immediate danger, she was admitted to the hospital, put on an IV with lactated ringers and full-spectrum antibiotics, and placed in a room at the end of the hall of the original wing of the hospital, an old room with low particle board ceilings, stored unused equipment, two hospital beds, a chair that folds out into a makeshift bed, and a window which overlooked the parking lot but was covered in heavy drapery.
Late the next afternoon, the surgeon entered the room and introduced himself. As he looked down his nose at me, I got the distinct feeling his downward gaze had little to do with my shortness of height. There was no handshake, very few questions. My stomach tightened. I was the only parent present.
“She has two abscesses,” he said. “They need to be drained. I’ll go in through her back and drain them through a tube inserted in her rectum. It’s a simple procedure.” This doctor didn’t mess around. He was all business, straight to the point. Then he said, “If I was on duty when she had come in the first time, I could have done the surgery. It would have been a very simple operation. There really was no reason for her to be sent to Portland. The people on duty didn’t know what they were doing.”
The people on duty didn’t know what they were doing? They erred on the side of caution, acknowledging the fact that operating on a twelve-year-old is different from operating on an adult. They realized their limitations and, assessing her condition, made the best possible decision which was to send her to a pediatric hospital. They did not want to risk losing her on account of their egos. This man had never seen Akela. He didn’t even look at her now. He had only diagnosed her CT scan and read her chart, of which I doubted he had given it more than a glance. I wonder if he saw her as a commodity, like the trees in the Kalmiopsis, harvest them and add an extra ten grand to the bank account. Doctors like this were part of the reason I avoided traditional medicine. My jaw and neck tensed. I gritted my teeth. If I were a wolf, my hackles would have stood on end. “She was very ill,” I said. “She had sepsis, and her organs were shutting down.”
“All she needed was to be operated on and cleaned out. I could have done it.” This repeated assertion of his competence—not to mention the incompetence of his colleagues—and disregard for the seriousness of Akela’s condition grated me like a bulldozer scraping granite. “It really was no big deal. Appendicitis happens all the time. She probably wasn’t even in the ICU.” This last part was an assumption not a question.
No big deal. My kid just had kidney and liver failure. Her blood was saturated with bacteria. “She was in the ICU for two days,” I said. “She nearly died.”
He left without speaking to Akela.
When he came back, Steve was present. The surgeon approached Akela. No introduction as to who he was. No “How are you doing?” He sat on her bed, his weight lowering the side of the mattress, torquing her spine and buckling her stomach at an angle like earth during a quake.
“Ow, get off the bed, get off the bed,” she cried in pain.
He continued to sit, and just stared at her.
“Get off the bed, it hurts.”
Steve and I exchanged deliberate glances which informed us we were not only on the same page, but we were at the very same paragraph, the very same sentence, which read: This is not going to work; we’ve got to find an alternative.
With what little energy she had, Akela yelled “Get off the bed!” She glared.
Casually, slowly, he rose. “This is how it’s going to work,” he said to her. “I’m going to get your abscesses taken care of. I’m going to try to do it in the least invasive way possible. But I may have to cut you open again and go in through your original incision.”
“I don’t want to be cut open again. I don’t want another surgery,” she said, tears surfacing. The stress of the last ten days was winning the struggle. When the surgeon left the room, she said, “I hate him.”
The doctor on duty and several nurses told us that this man did not have a good bedside manner, but he was an excellent surgeon—the best. Either he knew this to be true, or he simply believed it. Whichever way, his actions left us convinced: There was no way that man was going to touch our daughter. In us, his demeanor did not nurture trust but rather a belief that overzealous confidence could lead to fallibility. It was eight o’clock at night, and snow was beginning to weight down tree branches and turn the roads white. Still, Steve called Dr. Harrison and explained the situation—that we didn’t like the surgeon, that we felt safer with him, Dr. Harrison, that this hospital really wasn’t conducive to children the way Doernbecher was.
“You’re welcome to come back up here,” Dr. Harrison said. “I don’t know if we can do it any better than they can there, but you can bring her back. We’d be happy to see her.”
So here we were at Doernbecher once again, preparing for surgery #2 to drain both abscesses, one the size of a grapefruit adhered to her uterus, the other stuck to her bladder. Unsuccessful with inserting an IV, the nurses called in a specialist from the PICU. She scanned both Akela’s arms and hands, settling with a vein on her wrist. She rubbed antiseptic on it, prepared the syringe, and in one smooth shot IV #14 slid into place.
For the next five days straight I confined myself within the hospital walls, remaining on vigil at Akela’s bedside. The wilderness of her body raged from the volcanic eruption of a ruptured appendix, the spreading fire of septic shock and ensuing dehydration, the threatened ecosystem of mild kidney and liver failure, the firefighter response of exploratory abdominal surgery, the natural complication of abscesses, and the backup team implementation of a second surgery which left her with two tubes sticking out of her belly—all within a span of two weeks. My husband and I watched as she withered away into near nothingness, skin on bones with a wounded, fragile spirit. There is only so much a parent can take before cracking from mental and emotional stress. I was at breaking point. I had to get out. My sanity demanded it. So while Akela lay napping, I slipped from her room.
I escaped out the grand hospital entrance—high ceiling, tiled floor, and circular driveway— through the parking lot, up an outdoor stairway, and onto the street. The season had been transforming from winter to spring without my knowing. Daffodils were blooming, and narcissus and crocus—bright spots of color in a crisp and bare landscape of pavement-lined yards and leafless trees. I swept around the U-shaped road, past buildings labeled “School of Nursing” and “Campus Services,” then followed a side road that bent around to the entrance of the Veterans Hospital. I needed earth: dirt, plants, trees. A winding foot path beckoned me across the street.
The beginning of the path was lined with planted trees and roses. Each had a plaque, a memorial marker designating for whom that tree or rose had been planted. Some had been hospital employees, others were patients—all people gone from the physical world, all people loved and honored. “Memorial Lane,” I called it as I passed the dedicated quotations. How sad to lose someone you love, I thought and hurried along, fearful to linger.
The path was not long, not hidden or private, yet it conjured the feeling of escape. Winding snake-like among dense firs and rhododendron, the path offered solitude, relief, perspective. Along its edges, there were two benches—the type found in English gardens, wrought iron framing with a wooden seat. I chose the bench surrounded by plant life where sunshine filtered through openness at the end of the path, creeping stealthily among the shadows. It was the farthest from any buildings, the farthest from civilization, the farthest from my current reality. The bench was cold. Sunshine streamed on my face. I closed my eyes and breathed fresh outdoor air, not the recycled filtered air of the hospital. Sturdy, rooted, age-old beings towered over me, protecting me, gathering me in their embrace, if only for a moment.
Few instants in life a person finds herself wrapped fully in the present, ensconced in the crystalline now, every particle of her being, every atom of her molecular structure poised in the experience. These rare moments, fleeting glimpses of true presentness, tend to surface during extreme tribulations. And there in my mini forest, I found myself existing within timelessness: sitting, watching, breathing. I had caught the last minutes of afternoon sun and stolen peacefulness. When the light finally faded beyond my reach and responsibility weighed on me, the delicate thread connecting me to my daughter gave a gentle tug and called me back, away from the grounded trees, away from the sword ferns, back to the inside world of pain, illness, and prayer.
Today my twelve-year-old daughter wears a battle scar: a five-inch long, half-inch wide, raw, reddish-purple welt that runs vertically down her abdomen. The scar has horizontal ridges like teeth on a zipper, as though the gaping cavity had been merely zipped back together. On each side are two smaller scars a few inches out from the center and low, just above her bikini line, where tubes drained her two abscesses. They appear like the dimples on her cheeks, only one of them sticks out while the other goes in. These scars are fresh, only three months old. I tell her they will fade. They will not always stand as blazing announcements declaring her survival. Still I am not certain.
My eyes gravitate toward the middle scar, a mark so large and unexpected on the stomach of a child, as if my vision is the negatively charged end of a magnet drawn to her positively charged abdomen. The doctors told us she should wear a one-piece bathing suit so as not to let the sun darken the scar. Akela resists this cover up—she is a bikini girl through and through—yet she cooperates, knowing the importance of the healing process for “fitting in” and appearing to be a “normal kid,” not a freak of nature. But her time of normalcy has passed. A young girl does not fight a battle of suffering and remain the same. Some moments she does not seem to care if the scars are noticeable. She almost seems proud, as if they symbolize a major accomplishment. And they do.
“I know why it happened to me,” she said once she was recovering back at home, “because I was strong enough to survive it.”
“Yes,” I tell her. “You are right. You are very strong.”
There is a whole universe inside our bodies, a wild, untamed universe. Humans have tried to conquer the wilderness of outdoor nature, to wield it to serve and benefit our own desires. Similarly, we have tried to conquer our inner wilderness by manipulating and controlling disease and pain within our human shells. Akela had gone into septic shock. Bacteria multiplied in a pus-filled environment and spread throughout her blood stream, attacking every “normal” function of her body. Her inner wilderness was ablaze with a fire of catastrophic proportions, a fire out of control, consuming everything in its path. Her only chance at survival was the human urge to conquer and control the uncontrollable. They cut her open and hosed out her insides, sprayed and sprayed at the fire, attempting to extinguish it or at least to smolder it. Then they hooked her to a successive drip of three types of broad spectrum intravenous antibiotics: a human creation designed not only to control, but obliterate bacteria. And the process persisted. Oxygen was added to her intake of breath. Bile was pumped out of her stomach through a tube in her nose. Morphine dripped into her veins to manage the pain. Bolus after bolus of lactated ringers, sodium chloride, and potassium chloride supplemented her system. And ever so slowly, her wilderness recovered, not by any natural process of recovery, but by the commitment to dominate, subdue, and manage that wilderness.
Three and a half months after the onset of her appendicitis, Akela’s gymnastics team is having an end of year celebration and performance. Akela returned to workout barely four weeks ago, starting slowly, no tumbling, nothing but stretching and strength building. She hasn’t gained much weight back. Her leotard and gym shorts hang baggy and loose; there’s no muscle to grab onto, no curve to her butt, merely a straight slope from her back towards her feet. When she first returned, another girl’s mom, a nurse, was concerned and consulted the coach. The word anorexia may have been mentioned. This surprised me because at that point she looked much improved from what she had before. But I had the grisly memory of her depleted self; anything looked healthy compared to that.
Girls fly through the air, swinging on bars, vaulting over mats, running and tumbling on the floor. Akela can do only a few things: back-walkovers, handstand forward rolls, dance moves. She looks happy back in her element, her wan face smiling, content to participate in the thing she loves. At the finale, Akela surprises us and does a standing back-handspring. It is not perfect. But it is her. Doing it. Steve and I sit, overwhelmed, watching our daughter, her body, a wilderness that once needed intervention, now on the path to restoration.
Parents clap and cheer their children. They are not thinking about the randomness of nature. They are not thinking about how one bolt of lightning can consume a forest. They simply clap and cheer.
Laurie Easter writes from her home in Southern Oregon, where she lives off the grid and on the edge of wilderness. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Chautauqua, r.kv.r.y, and Under the Gum Tree, among others. She has been awarded a fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center and holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College. She can be contacted at www.laurieeaster.com. Laurie is happy to report that her daughter, Akela, is now a thriving college student studying in France.
First Place: Flash Nonfiction
Our Judge, Dinty Moore, had this to say about Emma Bolden's essay, "About My Tenth Year as a Human Being":
The author tells a complex, compelling coming of age story with humor and surprise primarily though a listing of intimate details. Clever, original, and emotionally-charged, with a distinctive voice.
About My Tenth Year as a Human Being
by Emma Bolden
I had witnessed the deaths of over twenty goldfish in the tank in my bedroom. I ranked among the five percent of Caucasian girls who had breasts and the eight percent who had pubic hair. I kept a 4.1 GPA and a monthly place on the Honor Roll. I received all of my inoculations. I received the Holy Sacrament of Reconciliation once a month and attended mass every Friday and Sunday. I started having monthly periods before the average age for American girls, which is 12.77 years. I knew my multiplication tables up to the number 12. I ranked in the top ten percentile on Standardized Achievement Tests relating to math and spacial reasoning, the top five percentile on SATs relating to history and science, and the top one percentile on SATs relating to reading comprehension and vocabulary. I did not know that the word for a first period was “menarche.” I knew all of the capitals of the fifty states in the United States of America and I could sing a song about it, too. I could convert decimals to fractions and fractions to decimals, though I did so very slowly. I ran very slowly in PE, and when I ran, I experienced stabbing pains in my side. My PE teacher required a signed note with a diagnosis from my pediatrician. My diagnosis was “A Stitch In Your Side.” I made a salt-dough relief map of the state of Alabama and a popsicle-stick replica of Arlington Historic House in Birmingham, Alabama. I wore a uniform pinafore. I was allowed to carry a purse because I had to carry Kotex feminine hygiene napkins on my person at all times, just in case. I experienced stabbing pains in my side when I ran and when I walked. My new diagnosis was “Abdominal Abnormalities.” I was required to wear underwear and shorts under the skirt of my uniform pinafore. I was required to remove my pinafore and wear only the shorts during PE class. I was allowed to wear red, navy blue, or white knee socks. I experienced stabbing pains in my side when I ran and when I walked and when I sat in my desk. I received my first pelvic examination. My new diagnosis was “Problems Related To Her Menstrual Cycle.” I was referred to my mother’s gynecologist. I confessed to Father Mullen that I was jealous of my cousin because she got a Lite Brite for Christmas. I had not yet begun to shave my legs. I carried a larger purse to school because my Kotex feminine hygiene napkins had to be very large, very thick, and very absorbent. I refused to remove my pinafore during PE because I was afraid that Neal could see the Kotex beneath my shorts. I received a punishment of twenty Hail Marys. I told Mrs. Miles that I planned to give up giving things up for Lent. I received a punishment of fifty Hail Marys. I threw up in the first graders’ bathroom due to stabbing pains in my side, and because the toilets were so close to the floor, I threw up all over my uniform pinafore. I had not yet had the chicken pox. I knew the difference between a noun and a verb. I did not know that the actual word for my vagina was “vagina.” I believed Amanda Lee when she said a girl was mauled by a pack of wild dogs because she was on her period. I fainted in English class due to blood loss. I read all of the Little House on the Prairie books. I believed in mermaids and the Virgin Birth. I sat on my mother’s lap and prayed the rosary while we watched Operation Desert Storm on TV. I was afraid of hermit crabs, death, and goldfish. I learned to circle the days I bled on my mother’s calendar. Circle, circle, dot, dot, I gave myself a cootie shot. Once I passed out while vomiting and I shat myself and bled through two overnight Kotex and my pants and every Friday and Sunday mass I thanked God, I thanked God, that it happened in my own bathroom. I circled and circled. I used a red pen. I circled, almost every day.
Emma Bolden is the author of Malificae, a book-length series of poems about the witch trials in early modern Europe, published by GenPop Books, and medi(t)ations, forthcoming from Noctuary Press. She is also the author of four chapbooks of poetry: How to Recognize a Lady (Toadlily Press), The Mariner’s Wife (Finishing Line Press), The Sad Epistles (Dancing Girl Press) and This Is Our Hollywood (The Chapbook), and a nonfiction chapbook, Geography V (forthcoming from Winged City Press). Her work has appeared or in such journals as The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Conduit, the Indiana Review, the Greensboro Review, Redivider, Verse, Feminist Studies, The Journal, Guernica, and Copper Nickel.
Second Place: Flash Nonfiction
Vinyl: A Triptych
by Pamela Rothbard
The River Mersey is in Northwest England.
A pacemaker is an electronic device planted beneath the skin for providing a normal heartbeat by electrical stimulation of the heart muscle; it can make the heart beat even after it has stopped wanting to.
Gerry and the Pacemakers were a British beat band from Liverpool that played alongside the Beatles but by the mid-sixties, their popularity was in rapid decline on both sides of the Atlantic.
Untreated depression is the number one cause of suicide; shutting the garage door and leaving the car running is one way to commit suicide.
The American divorce rate hit its all-time peak in the 1980’s. This has been attributed to the 80’s value system with “more emphasis on the individual’s emotional fulfillment and gratification.” (Orlando Sentinel, 1987)
Among Billboard’s most popular songs of 1981: The Best of Times, Another One Bites the Dust, This Little Girl, Crying, (Just Like) Starting Over, Keep on Loving You
Scientists at Yale discovered that listening to repetitive continuous noise--such as music--can hinder a child’s development.
In 1980, when I was in fifth grade, my favorite song was “Ferry Cross the Mersey” by Gerry and the Pacemakers. My much-older brother Jimmy killed himself that year and left: framed ski photos, medals, a cat named Mogul, and his collection of vinyl LPs. I dragged the Beatles, the Carpenters and Gerry and his Pacemakers into my floral-wallpapered room. Jimmy’s records from his youth made more sense to me than Rick Springfield or Blondie. Lift needle, drop, again and again. Life goes on day after day. Hearts torn in every way. My life fell like dominos---Jimmy gone; then Mom left Dad, in effect leaving us; then Mogul died with a gory yowl when Dad started his car. I found Dad matter-of-factly washing black and white fur from his open hood with our garden hose. I spent hours alone in my room crooning in a British accent about a river I’d never heard of. So ferry ‘cross the Mersey. Gerry sang that line with hope in his voice as if it were the answer to every problem. I wanted it to be that simple. Dad and I moved nine times in eight years. We left in a hurry; we left for smaller places; we left our stuff behind--like a trail of breadcrumbs that would lead us back. And here I’ll stay. And here I’ll stay. And here I’ll stay. The final verse was repetitive, certain, emphatic, optimistic. My Gerry and the Pacemakers LP was in a milk crate too heavy to carry so it was left in a townhouse or apartment or garage somewhere in Orlando, Florida in the mid-eighties. Its worn grooves direct the next listener across the Mersey.
Honk before starting your car to scare out cats who may have sought shelter under your car’s hood.
A mogul is a small hard mound or bump on a ski slope, from Old Norse mugl: tiny heap.
An iconic Mersey Ferry offers a 50-minute journey exploring the River Mersey’s rich past.
A ferry travels back and forth along the same route, over and over.
The vinyl grooves in a record force the needle to travel the same spiral route, over and over.
Audiophiles often say everything sounds better on vinyl; they cite the ritual of setting the needle on the platter and the click, pop, and scratch as part of the experience.
Vinyl records were edged out by eight track tapes which were replaced by cassette tapes then CDs then digital files and on and on.
Analog is the sound of our youth. (NPR, February 10, 2012)
In 2013, Gerry and the Pacemakers played their Farewell Tour.
Pamela Rothbard is a writer and photographer living in Glencoe, Illinois. Most recently, her work has been featured in River Teeth and Creative Nonfiction and has appeared on the "This I Believe" segment of Bob Edwards' national Sunday show on NPR. Her parenting and baking blog, Flour on the Floor, will be featured in this December's issue of Better Homes and Gardens. Her photography has been displayed in Michigan Quarterly Review and is currently cover art for Steam Ticket Journal.
Third Place: Flash Nonfiction
by Laura Ruth Loomis
To the People Who Bought the House at the End of My Court:
You don’t believe in ghosts, obviously. You were probably glad to get the house at such a bargain price. Still, it seems like someone should tell you.
Their names were Jason and Cindy. He was forty, she was thirty-five. They bought the house twelve years ago, in a brand-new development, the same time I bought mine.
I didn’t know them well. We said hello and chatted in passing. They were sociable, outgoing people who organized a block party for the neighbors every Fourth of July, where the street was effectively blocked off as people brought out their camp chairs and barbecues. It was, ironically, not the only time they caused the street to be blocked off.
The economic good times seem so long ago. We bought the house for under $200,000, right before prices started going up. We refinanced once or twice, pulling out a little cash along the way. Jason and Cindy did too. I don’t know what they used the money for. Maybe it was something noble, like a college education, or medical bills. Maybe it was something frivolous. Some of it surely went to landscaping: the Greek goddess fountain in the front yard is still running.
Back then a house seemed like a source of infinite wealth. When prices hit $500,000, I wrote in my journal that, “In another year or two we’ll be millionaires on paper.”
It was hard to know where to point the finger when the economy crashed. And “crash” seemed like the right word: an endless freeway pile-up where one car slammed into the rest, and then another, and then another. Some, like me, managed to just scrape past the wreck and escape with only minor damage. Some didn’t.
The neighborhood started to empty. We could always tell when a house was foreclosed: the lawn went wild, and more than once there was a pile of junk in the driveway, nothing even worth stealing. Ghost houses, I called them, haunted by good intentions and promises that were never kept.
Squatters would move into one house or another until the police chased them away. I didn’t even mind the squatters: at least they took care of the yard.
Somewhere along the way, Jason lost his sales job. Cindy kept hers in tech support, but it wasn’t enough. Cindy’s parents came to live with them; the reasons might have been health-related or financial. Maybe both. Jason and Cindy filed for bankruptcy.
I don’t know what mistakes they made in those twelve years. I don’t know how they came to owe $500,000 on a house now worth less than the $200,000 they paid when they moved in. I don’t know if Jason had mental problems, or if Cindy and her parents saw it coming.
All I know is: on the last day before they had to vacate the house, I woke at four in the morning to the sound of my dogs barking a furious alarm. The police had sealed off the street after getting a phone call from a desperate Jason. They tried to talk to him from outside the house, but got no response. They tried for a long time. Finally the SWAT team burst in and found all four of them: Cindy and her parents murdered, Jason shot by his own hand.
The news reports say he’d already killed the rest of the family by the time he called the police. Maybe he just wanted somebody to bear witness.
Four people are dead and a bank got a little bit richer. I don’t imagine for a moment that anyone at the bank meant for this to happen. It wasn’t their fault that Jason lost his job, that the housing market collapsed, that four people together couldn’t pay their debts. Jason is not absolved for what he’s done, and Cindy must have had a hand in whatever financial choices they made. And yet. These people were more than dots on someone’s ledger. I can’t help thinking that the only comfort for Jason was knowing that the bankers, too, were getting far less than they’d been promised.
You don’t believe in ghosts. I’m telling you, there are four of them who are dead certain that your house still belongs to them. They’re angry, and they don’t know where to turn their anger. Tread carefully.
Laura Ruth Loomis is a social worker in the San Francisco area, currently working on a novel-in-short-stories. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Writer's Digest, On the Premises, and Many Mountains Moving.
61 © Kevin Morgan Watson