Issue No. 1, Summer 2012


This Window to the Soul (2012)
Eleanor Leonne Bennett

Queen Bees
Tegan Elizabeth

Rose was known as the bolder of the two, so everyone expected for her to go the furthest. She was the fittest, they said, with a beauty unsurpassed by any who dared to walk on God’s green earth. Therefore, it was decided by the scientists that she could not be anything other than the product of evolution, and the Creationists got upset because they thought she was the property of the Garden of Eden, and wanted her in their circles. But Rose hadn’t bothered with any of this; she was young then, and cemented her focus, as all children do, in imagination rather than science or religion.

Looking back, Rose wished that she could have stayed a child forever, for as she began to grow into her adolescence, both dogmas were proving to be equally disappointing. But if she had really wished for it, on things like shooting stars and pennies and birthday candles, she feared that her wish would be warped, the way genies often did in movies to teach greedy children lessons. She feared that if she wished to be a child again, she would still have to keep an adult mind, trapped inside the tight bronze curls, the lace, and the infant body with the skull bone sutures still soft and not yet fused. These were all things that could not sustain such a rampage of adolescent desires, thrashing about like a wolf held captive in a cage made of bone and straw. And she would have to keep it like a secret, as children do not take kindly to things they do not understand. But then, neither do adults.

So instead Rose became the bold one, and in the bones of her adolescent body she knew she had to be, for the sake of Honey’s heart.

 

Sometimes they called Rose the Desert Briar because of her thorny countenance. A countenance covered with dust and spiked cacti, and with nothing blooming in youth’s beauty. She was just Briar then, all thorns and no flowers, her demeanour indigestible to lovers. But now and then the rains would come and encircle her body with a wet caress, causing a whole spectrum of emotion to explode in a shower of ephemeral petals, swarming across shallow earth with the opening of her palms to the sky.  The drops would  fall from the clouds swelling black with compassion, but they came too fast and too few, and before long the flowers began to furl up, their petals browning in the penetrating sun that burned so harsh it could break open young skin like a pomegranate, and scatter the seeds to the wind. It was always only the seeds the remained, little cases of potential life clinging to the memories of such unpredictable splendor, waiting for their turn to explode.  It was a harsh life to be tied to, and certainly no place for a rose to lay her roots down. But when Rose was a desert in bloom, nothing could truthfully be called more beautiful.

Rose had just turned fourteen, and Honey only two years younger. Each was on the verge of their transition, and because everyone agreed that they were the most beautiful of all the girls, they waited with a quivering anticipation that stuck to the air and made it press against their shoulders .They waited in the big stucco house that baked children like pies in the California heat, with its mazes of hexagonal rooms, low ceilings and long windows. The windows were always left open, yet the curtains were nailed to the frames, so that occasionally the hibiscus vines would try and push their way in through the gaps. The bright fleshy flowers gaped open mouthed, their stamens choked with pollen, swaying their heads back and forth towards the door. Rose imagined that if they had voices they would be screaming “Get Out, Get Out!”, but their silent vigorous gesturing seemed to her all the more terrifying. They seemed almost unnatural to her, these flowers that were the softest parts of the garden, like omens. In many stories she had read, it was the roses that signalled the coming of something; spring, sleep, an eternity of beastliness, or death, roses kept in glass bell jars, growing on graves, growing in the snow. There are no roses in the garden here, Rose thought, just tough woody plants with thick grey leaves and no flowers, and the palms that broke through the endless powder blue sky and made the air smell like burnt sugar on hot nights.  If anything, it was the palm trees that could get her out, not the pink and orange imposter flowers that bobbed their heads in the stale air and served only to remind her of the danger of her situation. She hated them for that, and the phallic shape of their own genderless sex organs, so when she saw them she would tear the petal flesh in half and crush the stamens with two fingers till they were stained yellow, leaving the shreds of beauty at her feet as a reminder that it was something she could not rely on.

Honey, though, was sweet through every season, and they were all tired of waiting for it to rain, so they chose her instead; her beauty was more dependable, they said, more palatable, and accessible to everyone. So they kept her pure, in room away from the other girls, and if Rose wanted to see her she would have to sneak in after dark. The communal rooms were mostly bare, old strips of wall paper falling down like palm bark, metal  bunks with soiled floral mattresses from one hundred yard sales, and the curtains nailed shut over the open windows. Honey’s room, however, had the makings of a royal bedchamber; the room was a wide square, big enough to house a queen size bed, with a peony bedspread and gauze curtains that hung from the ceiling. The air was thick not just with heat but also with the smell of flowers; bouquets of star gazer lilies, birds of paradise, honeysuckle and roses, all bright and fresh with their perfume spilling out from the corners of the room and soaking into the bedspread and the walls and the floorboards. Rose knew that they were from well beyond the garden; there was a group of girls who were allowed out every week to gather the flowers, but where they came from Rose didn’t know. The markings on the star gazers made reminded her of eyes, eyes that would catch her out, and when Honey wasn’t looking she would pick the heads off from their stems and eat them, half because she was afraid of spies and half because she was hungry.
The final defining feature of Honey’s room was the small television set that sat like a great blue eye on a decaying damasked chair. The reception wasn’t very good in that part of the valley, so they had left her with an old collection of VHS videos; Disney movies, out dated American sitcoms, and wildlife documentaries tapped off BBC2. There was also the first seven episodes of Twin Peaks, and these were the only tapes that Honey wanted to watch; she watched them in secret late at night, with Rose beside her, her face pale in the cold TV land light. Sometimes they liked to imagine they were having coffee and huckleberry pie at the RR with Shelly and Norma, or breakfast at the Great Northern, but their life seemed to be parallel across the border.  Rose promised Honey that one day they would break out so they could find out who killed Laura Palmer.

The thing that Honey loved most about Twin Peaks was the trees; she had never seen a tree grow so tall that wasn’t a spiky palm. She loved them so much that she kept a PineFresh cardboard air freshener in her dresser draw, and pressed it against her nose until she could taste the dull scent. Honey wanted to go to a forest full of pine trees; she was sick of the look and the smell of the stunted eucalyptus, with their waxy grey leaves and the little nuts that fell and rolled painfully on the muscles of her bare feet. She was sick of the palms that pierced the sky and cut up your hands and feet if you tried to climb them. She wanted real tree scent, one that engulfed her senses and made her feel cleansed and didn’t just come from a piece of cardboard that could dangle from a rear view mirror. The seasons here weren’t right either, she thought, there was no proper winter, no time for hibernation; that’s why everyone is so strung out, they haven’t had their four months under the snow.  Before she turned thirteen, all Honey wanted was to go to Seattle, to a town with good coffee, surrounded by trees that smelled like her cardboard tree one hundred times magnified and the dead foliage soft under her feet.
Rose felt like she’d been asleep for a hundred years.

***

“Why do we have to leave, Rose?”

“Because they want to separate us. More than we are now; I won’t be able to sneak into your room anymore, Honey, they will move you to where I can’t find you, there will be guards outside your door. Soon it will only be men that will be allowed to pass through it. You won’t see me anymore.”

“Why not? You’re my sister! I will make them let me see you. When I am the new Queen, I will protect you,” Honey said.

“I don’t think that’s how it works, Honey,” Rose replied. Honey sniffed.

“So how come they didn’t pick you then?” Honey asked sharply, not taking her eyes off the television, “Everyone says you’re the pretty one.” Rose smiled a private smile, and replied darkly, “I would have given them too much trouble. Too much hard work. The hard work is for us.”

“I don’t believe you” Honey said. Rose gripped Honey’s chin in her hand and wrenched her gaze from the screen to face her, her eyes full with disbelief.

“Honey, this is not a Disney movie! Good will not triumph over evil, love will not conquer all, and everyone will not live happily ever after. You are not that kind of princess. This is not that kind of story.”

“Is our story worth writing down then?” Honey asked, rubbing her chin disdainfully, checking for bruises in the mirror.

“It could be, but it will be forgotten before long.” Rose replied bitterly. “Our fairytale is grim.”

 

Rose didn’t like to admit that she had believed in that archetype once, back when these stories were all she had to go on. Now she believed that if you were stupid enough to let the blue light of love draw you in, you deserved to end up as charred as an insect carcass.

 

“One day I will live somewhere up high, somewhere closer to the stars. I will be close enough to touch them, close enough to steal them from the sky,” Honey said.

“They’re dead, though. By the time their light gets to us, they’re already gone” Rose replied, “Why would you want to keep a dead thing?”

Honey thought that Rose was teasing her, that something so beautiful could not be dead, but then she remembered the face of Laura Palmer, mermaid blue and wrapped in plastic. Honey wanted a lot of things that Rose couldn’t give her.

 

For months Rose tried to convince Honey to leave with her, to go to the desert, or to the mountains; she even tried to entice her with the promise that they would go to Seattle. But Honey stuck fast; the thought of a world outside those hexagonal walls scared her into agoraphobia.  The others would say that this dependence made her weaker, that it would make her a subservient Queen.

 

Honey awoke early one morning with the tv still on; she had fallen asleep but the tape kept going until there was just a blue screen lighting her face like the dawn. She looked for Rose, but all she could see were the shadows of the flowers poking out from the corners, bobbing like demon heads. Honey rolled to the other pillow of her Queen’s bed, and something sharp cut against her face, her hand coming away from her cheek wet with blood. In her palm curled a single thorn, like a large gnarled dog’s claw, tipped red. Honey wiped her face with the back of her other hand, snailed herself into a ball of sad flesh, and pressed rewind on the remote. When she awoke again, three men stood over her bed, their heads bobbing like demon flowers.

 

Roses didn’t realize that she was out of her depth until the sun started to go down. The sky lit up rainbow colours with the smog, and the wind on her back felt hot and prickling like static electricity; she had visions of it igniting the poison gas horizon and setting fire to the palm trees. She didn’t know which way the city was, but she could see the Hollywood sign embedded in the hills, shining out like tiny edible birthday cake letters, so she began to head towards it. The heat of the day was still trapped in the asphalt, and the tar began to burn and stick to her bare feet. The fear Rose had always kept in check for the sake of her sister began to bubble with each searing step, but as she passed the through the suburbs and on into the lethargic evening metropolis that she hoped was Los Angeles, her eyes remained permanently fixed on her sign of life, the holy wood.

Rose went into a police station with expectations that she and Honey would be reunited within the week, and they would go off to Seattle and live in a tree house with the owls, but it seemed that fate couldn’t keep her hands to herself. Having not been in line for the throne, Rose was not pure of blood, and so her veins were constantly being invaded by the sting of their needles and a clumsy sedation. The nurse took one look at Rose’s pupils and tore open her sleeve that came away like flesh to reveal the track marks, giving her away.

“This explains your aggression”, she said, punching at numbers on the telephone while Rose kicked at her from under the table. “This one will have to go to Malibu,” was all she said into the receiver.

Honey stopped and glared at the nurse and her treacherous orchid shaped mouth.

“No, I’m going to Seattle.”

“No honey, that’s where your sister’s going,” she said, and slapped at her weary veins.

“My name is Rose,” Rose said through gritted teeth.

 

Being in rehab wasn’t all that different from the hive she had come from, but Rose was grateful because the rooms were square, the curtains could be drawn and then opened, and no flowers could reach her this high up. In the rec room at the clinic she found an old stack of watermarked National Geographic magazines. They reminded her of the documentaries she used to watch with Honey, and so every day she would come out of her room and read one. There were stories about the bleaching of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef, the destruction of natural Palm forest in Borneo, and all the different tribes of people that coexisted in the Serengeti. She saw photographs of draws of filled with taxidermy parrots in the Natural History Museum in London, great jade effigies to Buddah that the size of small houses, women wrapped in colourful silk burqas so you could only see their eyes; they reminded her of star gazer lilies. In one she saw a photograph of a great pine forest taken in a town just outside Seattle, and her heart cringed inwardly. She read an article about climate change, and imagined the high heeled silk of the starlets stained wet as they walked along Sunset Boulevard, the earth crumbling under the heavy steps of the punk kids heading towards the Roxy. She imagined the world as a balloon.
Rose thought that if she had the choice she would have been a scientist. Instead, she tried to call Honey from the pay phone.

The woman that Honey lived with now had told Rose it would be better for Honey’s recovery if she did not speak to Rose. She had an Irish lilt and used her words like a Catholic nun, sparsely and cold, so Rose knew there was no hope in contacting her until she got out of rehab. As she hung up the phone, Rose realized that as far as her sister was concerned, they were completely different species.

Honey’s new mother did not know that Honey was listening to her and Rose on the other line. The thought of meeting up with Rose after all this time made her anxious; she had friends now, she had classes and homework and yesterday she had heard rumors in the stalls about how Carey was going to ask her to prom. It felt as though Rose had been sleeping inside her for a hundred years, and after spending so long only inhabiting parts of her, this new life wasn’t something Honey was ready to share. This was a life that belonged to a real teenager, she thought, and she was afraid to see Rose because she had been having dreams about her body washing up on a pebble beach, blue and wrapped in plastic.

Three weeks later, Honey received a letter from Rose. As the PineFresh cardboard tree fell into her lap, Honey felt her heart swell like a nimbus cloud, and as she breathed the fake needle scent down into the bottom of her lungs, she realized how much she had missed her sister.

“Meet me at the RR. Tell no one. R”

 

Honey cut class and took the bus from Seattle to Twin Peaks. She could tell the exact moment she had left the city because of the smell of the trees, and this settled her nerves. The roads were quiet, and the rattle of the bus as it rolled was the only sound loud enough to cause any disturbance to the picture perfect scenery. Honey wanted to thrust her hand out of the window and grab fistfuls of needles, but instead she thought about what she would say to Rose. Would she tell her about her knew family, about school, about Carey? How she was taking dance classes and how she wanted to become an actress? Would she tell Rose about what had happened after she left her in the house in Laurel Canyon?

As the bus pulled past a diner that looked more or less exactly like the RR, Honey tried to cry out to the driver, but her heart rose up like a helium balloon and blocked her throat; a tall, pale woman with long auburn hair leaned against the stone wall, smoking a cigarette. Honey got off one stop too late, and the gravel from the road caught in the bottom of her shoes as she ran up the embankment. She wasn’t sure why she was running, but for some reason she felt like she needed to.
Rose heard the crunching of footfalls on the gravel, and looked up from her cigarette to see a skinny fourteen year old girl running with her limbs akimbo and then balk like deer in the headlights. She recovered by moving all of her limbs in perfect rhythm as nonchalantly as possible, which coincidently synced with the beating of Rose’s heart; the thump and  pace seemed to quicken simultaneously. When there was no more ground for Honey to cross, she stood inches from her long lost sister, the warm strawberry gum scent of her breath stirring the tiny hairs on her cheeks.

“The trees. They’re Douglas Firs,” was all Rose could think to say, as if she were confessing to Honey that Santa Clause wasn’t real. Her voice was rough, scratchy from the cigarettes. “I’m sorry.”

“I know.” Honey’s voice spread thin over the air, suspended in the mist of the fall morning.

“It’s ok. I cried when I first found out, but I’m over it now.”

The girls stared at each other, misty silence gripping at their confidence.

“Shall we have something to eat then?”

“I could go a cup of coffee.”

Honey and Rose sat at the counter of a diner that should have had Norma serving them coffee. Instead a woman with a mane of dyed brunette hair filled their cups with a sneer and a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. Nothing seemed as it should be; the atmosphere, the décor, the space between the two girls who were trying to decide what to eat, their hearts heavy as logs now that the veil had been lifted.

“How about a burger? I haven’t had one here, but Carey says they’re really good.” Honey says, the words falling nervously out of her mouth.

“I’m a vegetarian now,” Rose replies, chewing on her bottom lip, “Partly because the food they have in rehab made me sick, and partly because of the grasslands.”

“The grasslands?” Honey asks.

“I read in an article in the National Geographic about how natural grasslands are the most coveted, used and transformed biomes by humans. We destroy acres of ecosystems and whole species just so we can grow wheat to feed the cows and then we slaughter them to make burgers.”

The waitress poked her head out from behind the saloon kitchen doors and glared at Rose.

“Oh” was all Honey could say, and then “What else did you learn in rehab?”

“Not much,” Rose replied, holding her coffee cup up to her lips. “Who’s Carey?”

Honey’s cheeks blushed red the way they did when Carey walked past her in the hall or someone mentioned his name in conversation. “Oh, no one, just some guy at my school.” Rose raised her eyebrows slightly, and Honey continued to talk faster, not aware that Rose was not surprised by the mention of a boy, but by the fact that she hadn’t even considered that Honey might be attending Junior High. “He plays football, but he’s really smart too, he’s good at math and he’s a David Lynch enthusiast, like me – us.” Honey stopped at the end of the s, searching Rose’s eyes for the sister that she hoped she hadn’t lost. “And he’s really cute.”

“Is he your boyfriend?” Rose asked dully; she felt as if she were viewing her sister’s life through an outside window.

“What? Oh, no,” Honey spluttered, “But Lucy said he might ask me to Junior Prom.”

“Oh. Cool.” Rose’s body jarred with pain at the mention of Honey’s foster sister, so she changed the subject.

“Did you ever find out who killed Laura Palmer?” Rose asked, and Honey saw it then. The thin evolutionary line that connected her to her sister. She shifted her weight on the vinyl stool and cleared her throat; she had hoped the Rose already knew the answer.

“Yeah. It was her father.”


Tegan Elizabeth is a fledgling writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She loves reading, writing, fighting for wild endangered animals, and unexplainable phenomenon. To date, her work has been published in The Writing Disorder, Francesca Lia Block’s Love Magick anthology, Storychord, and Drunk Monkeys.

Eleanor Leonne Bennett is a 16-year-old internationally award-winning photographer and artist who has won first places with National Geographic, The World Photography Organisation, Nature’s Best Photography, Papworth Trust, Mencap, The Woodland Trust and Postal Heritage. Her photography has been published in The Telegraph, The Guardian, the BBC News website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United states and Canada. Her art is globally exhibited, having shown work in London, Paris, Indonesia, Los Angeles, Florida, Washington, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Canada, Spain, Germany, Japan, Australia and The Environmental Photographer of the Year Exhibition (2011) amongst many other locations. She was also the only person from the UK to have her work displayed in the National Geographic and Airbus run. See The Bigger Picture global exhibition tour with the United Nations International Year Of Biodiversity 2010.

Issue No. 1, Summer 2012


Lighthouse (2012)
Louie Crew

CATHOLICON
n:  a universal remedy; panacea
Emily Calvin

No one ever noticed Joe, except his girlfriend, who planned to break up with him.

Joe possessed no incredibly odd or strange characteristics to make him conspicuous.  He befell the unfortunate fate of a forgettable face—the kind of face you can look at a million times, study, draw, paint, write about, and still forget the moment you divert your eyes.  Friends learn to identify the unfortunate owners of such faces by other characteristics—body shape, hairstyle, clothing.  Then they get a haircut, and all their friends walk right past them in the supermarket, unable to recognize their one, immutable quality—that ill-fated, forgettable face.

* * * * *

Joe sat on an airplane next to his girlfriend.  The back of the chair in front of him slammed against Joe’s too-long-for-airplane-seats legs for the fifth time in a row.  The child in front of him bounced up and down in her seat, pushing buttons and laughing loud enough for the entire airplane to hear.  Joe rubbed his knee, felt the onset of a bruise, and rolled his eyes loud enough for the child’s father to realize not everyone thought his daughter’s cuteness made up for her rudeness.  “Stop that, honey,” the father said.

On cue, the little angel started crying.

Shrieking.

Joe’s girlfriend, Yves snored next to him.  She could sleep through a bomb.  Everyone else turned around, and Joe felt dignified in his annoyance as the little girl attempted to simultaneously wear out every last bit of her vocal chords and break all of the crack-proof windows on the airplane.  The flight attendant’s heels dented the carpet as she thumped toward the howling, and just in time, the father swooped his baby girl in his arms and rubbed her back until she ceased her death cry.

Joe slid his sleep mask over his eyes, pulled his headphones over his ears, curled up his legs, and attempted to drift into unconsciousness as the plane took them to their new home in Miami, Florida.  He stole a glance at Yves.  Her dirty blonde hair, the color of sand, covered her eyes, and her frail figure slumped in the chair.  His stature looked extra large next to her, like a Brobdingnang next to Gulliver.  I can’t believe she’s moving to America with me, he thought.  He loved her with every hair follicle on his shaggy, bearded head.

They had a long trip back from Cambodia—a 30-hour flight—to Florida.  They flew from Siem Reap, but they had lived six hours away, in the Cardamom Mountains, or Chuor Phnom Krâvanh, when in Cambodia.  They had lived there for a year before deciding to move to Florida.

* * * * *

“Let’s go to Cambodia,” Yves said.

They sat at their breakfast table in France, sipping coffee and reading the newspaper.  Joe looked up.  “Why?”

“Have you ever been?”
“No,” he said.  “Have you?”

“No, so let’s go!”

“Why not America?”

“I told you.  I’m not ready to move to America.  But Cambodia,” she pointed a finger in the air, “I could get behind that plan.”

She smiled.  He smiled.  “Okay,” he said, “Cambodia it is.”

“But we’ll have to find jobs,” she said.

“Yes, and a place to live.”

“Let’s find some mountains and farm or something.”

“I’ll start my research this afternoon.”

They both resumed their coffee sipping and paper reading.

* * * * *

Joe met Yves when he worked in France as an English teacher.  She never quite learned much, but she knew how to flirt in any language.  “How do you ask someone out for drinks?” she asked in their first class.

He blushed and told her.  She repeated after him.  “So now you say ‘Oui’” she instructed, and everyone in the class laughed.

Joe cleared his throat and resumed the lesson.  At the end of the class, the students stood up to leave.  Joe waited until the room emptied and made sure Yves left last.  He touched her arm.  She looked back.  “Oui,” he said.

She smiled.  “Eight o’clock.  Tonight.  Meet me outside this building.  I’ll take you to a nice bar,” she said in French.

“Oui.”

* * * * *

They took a bus from Siem Reap halfway to the mountains.  When the bus dropped them off, black cloaked everything.  All the stars shone above them, yet nothing seemed bright enough to light their way.  They had made hotel reservations at a tiny bed and breakfast with mosquito nets around mattresses on the concrete floor.  It couldn’t have been less romantic.  Yves, however, didn’t care.  She slowly removed Joe’s clothes and kissed him everywhere until they made love all night.  They got about three hours of sleep before the sun came up and they hitchhiked their way to the mountains.

It only took two hours before a van packed to the brim pulled over and squeezed them in.  To the mountains they went.

* * * * *

“Fuck it, I’m done brushing my hair,” Yves said to Joe one night in their flat in France after they had decided to move to Cambodia.

“Oh yeah?  And how will you manage that?”

Yves loved her hair almost as much as Joe did.  “It’ll turn into natural dread locks.  It’s the way it was meant to be.”

“Okay,” Joe laughed.

“I’m not going to shave anything either.”

“You barely shave anyway,” Joe said.

“Exactly,” said Yves.  “I’m done shaving everything…my legs, my armpits, my—”

“Vagina?”

“Yes.  Got a problem with it?”

“No, but what if I do the same?”

“Oh, you’re going to stop shaving your vagina too?”

They both laughed, and Yves jumped into bed next to Joe.  “No, everything.  My beard…my hair…everything…how about that?”

“I think it’s brilliant!”

“You do?”

“Yeah!  We’ll be all hairy and natural.  It’ll be beautiful.  We’ll be in the mountains, which are overgrown, and we’ll be overgrown.  We’ll finally fit in.”

“I guess it wouldn’t be so bad,” Joe mused.

“Nope.  It’ll be perfect,” Yves smiled.

Yves’s smile lit up the room with diamonds and stars and rays of sun.

It sounds cliché, but smiles can do such a thing when you’re in love, and Yves’s smile swallowed Joe’s face with charm.

* * * * *

Joe built a house in the mountains of Cambodia.  It wasn’t exactly a house, per se, but they lived in it.  It was a canopy, with dirt for the carpeting and trees for the roofing.  He made sure vines and greenery covered them on all sides.  During the day, Joe hunted for food while Yves washed their clothes in the river.  Some might say they lived a traditional, American life in Cambodia, but nothing seemed traditional from the inside.  Especially the hairy sex they had.  Hair got in mouths and many orifices that hair didn’t belong, but they loved it.

Until one day, Yves got bored.  “I’m sick of washing your clothes, Joe,” she said.

He returned home from a day of hunting with nothing to show for it.  Her smile had gone missing.  “You didn’t even bring home dinner!  And listen to me.  Somehow, in the middle of Cambodia, covered in fur, I sound like a 1950s American housewife.  This is disgusting.”

The world got a bit darker.  The stars didn’t shine.  Joe couldn’t see in the dark anymore.  Love changes with place and time and people, and Yves stopped smiling as much in Cambodia.  She hated how much Joe loved the life they created.  He loved going into the woods at sunrise with his bow and arrow, and hunting the mountains for wildlife to eat.  He loved making a fire out of wood and stone, skinning a wild animal freshly caught, and roasting it on the fire.  He loved being rugged and shaggy and manly and having hairy sex like monkeys.  She saw 1950s nuclear family; he saw Bonobos living alone off the meat of the earth.

His hair grew longer than his chest, and his beard grew to his shoulders.  He stroked it as Yves smiled less and less and yelled more and more about her unhappiness.  He wondered where he would find a flashlight to replace the light that had gone out of Yves’s smile.

* * * * *

“Obnoxious?  What’s obnoxious?” Yves stared at Joe when she woke up on the airplane.

Joe tried to tell Yves about the baby’s behavior while she slept, but they kept hitting a language barrier.  Yves furrowed her eyebrows in the way she always did when he used a word she did not understand.

“Really, really, really annoying.”

“Ah, je comprends—ob-nok-shus.”

“Oui,” he said.

Her French accent and sporadic use of her native tongue bothered him far more than he knew it should, so instead of voicing his frustration, he mocked her with her own language.

“They probably didn’t see that you were trying to sleep,” she said.  “Let’s play the couples game; I’m bored.”

“Okay, five points for me for that married couple holding hands,” Joe said.

Yves looked at him as if he had answered unfairly.  Joe smiled.  “I’ve had a lot of time to watch people so good luck.”

“Oh!  See that couple waiting for the bathroom?  A whopping fifteen points for me.  His hand’s totally in her back pocket.”

“Gross,” said Joe.

Yves nodded.  “Okay, five to fifteen your lead, but behind you there are two men holding hands.  That’s ten points for me.  We’re tied.”

Yves looked behind her and sighed.  “This isn’t a fair one.  I’m not playing anymore,” she said.

Joe laughed.  They played this game everywhere they went, and lately, Yves quit before they got very far because “it wasn’t fair.”  She always used to smile after they finished playing, but now she quit and frowned.

* * * * *

One night, after about a month of living in their new apartment in Miami, Florida, Joe couldn’t sleep.  He got up and walked to the bathroom.  He stood in front of the mirror.  He stared at his brown, spiky hair—overgrown, though it gave his face the shaggy look of experience and knowledge.  He used to shave his head so close to the skull his scalp sunburned, until that year in Cambodia, where he and Yves swore off all razors, haircuts, hair brushes, blow dryers, and the like.

His hair grew faster than he thought humanly possible, and when Joe and Yves returned to the States, she told him that he looked better with long hair.  When they moved into a tiny apartment in Miami, they purchased a parrot named Smithie who started off saying “I love you, Yves,” and “I love you, Joe,” but eventually began to say “Well, what did you expect me to do?” and “Why are you always so miserable?” and “You drive me crazy sometimes!”

Joe left his hair long, not because Yves liked it that way, but because he believed his hair held everything from Cambodia—the beginning: the happiness, the heaven; the middle: the questions, the emotional strife; the end: the knowing, the denial.

* * * * *

In front of the mirror, Joe watched himself.  He stared endlessly into his deep blue eyes—set a little too close to one another, in his opinion.  Yves used to stare into them and describe all of the sea life that inhabited his unsuspecting irises.  Her smile shone brighter than the heavens then.  Now, however, her dull teeth lacked enough sparkle to light a candle, let alone parallel the sun.  “I can see a stingray sitting at the bottom of your eye ball,” she’d say.

In France, she’d sit on his lap and stare into his eyes in the evenings.  She’d always look in from above, but never dive in.  “I’ll go check it out,” he’d say.  “What else do you see?

“Golden specs like rainbow fish floating throughout your entire eye.”

He’d swim among the fish and brush against the stingray.  He never wanted her to stop.  He lost himself in the underwater microcosms she created, even though most of the time she refused to get her hair wet with him.  It felt safer down there, even if he swam alone.

* * * * *

Joe’s nose proved harder to describe.  At some angles it looked round and round and round like a button or an inner tube or the curves of Yves’s waist.  But at other angles, it appeared more pointed than a sword or a knife or a sharpened pencil.  Square in the front with curves here and sharp edges there, his anomaly of a nose provided endless ammo for high school humiliation.

As a teenager, he dreaded walking down the halls of high school and preferred to sit on the bench by the sidewalk with his bagged lunch in one hand and a Walkman playing The Smiths in the other.  He escaped what he lovingly referred to as “the torture chambers of high school social life” that way.

* * * * *

Maybe the unassuming, barely-there size of his lips created some confusion in the synapses of the brain that record faces for later recollection.  The top one formed a pale slit across his face. The bottom one sunk emotionlessly into his skull, leaving just a hint of pink below his teeth when he smiled.  In contrast to his lifeless lips, his teeth shone perfectly straight and white, which caused him to over-smile in compensation for his lips.  Joe’s chin jutted out from his face as if it hadn’t gotten enough love as a child, and he swore his ears had been shrinking since birth.

* * * * *

Joe had not slept much the night before Yves dumped him.  After looking at his face for far too long in the mirror, he crept out of bed and wandered onto the beach to watch the sun rise and the seagulls hunt.  He thought about the day he met Yves—how he stood in front of the class and lost all use of language; how he could not understand her when she pronounced her name but just nodded and smiled anyway; how her French accent and innocent smile turned his mind to clouds, and he could not seem to remember anything about himself or his country or anything she asked him.

Their first few dates proved awkward.  She would ask about his life, about English, about America, about Florida, and he would stare at her as if he did not even realize he lived in America.  He felt stupid, but she kept smiling at him.  He knew after their first date that as long as she kept smiling, everything would be okay.

* * * * *

He closed his eyes and stared at her face behind his eyelids.  The wind picked up the sand and carried it around the beach.  It stung his face.  He’d known it would end.  He’d always known it would end.  He’d known it would end when it began, but he’d hoped things would change.  When they met, she had only planned to stay in France for a year.  Then, they went to Cambodia, and she said she intended to return to France when their trip ended.  Then, she moved to Florida and they rented a one-bedroom apartment, but even at that point, he knew one day she would have to return to France because she never belonged in America.  She did not fit.  She was too anachronistic, too avant-garde, too something-he-could-never-quite-put-his-finger-on, to live in this country.  They both knew she did not belong, but they hoped their love would cover up the problem like a fire blanket, suffocating it long enough to make it disappear.

Instead, her smile kept fading.  Every day, her smile looked a little bit smaller and shone a little bit less.  Her eyes stopped crinkling up in the corners, and eventually her cheeks barely moved when she did smile.  Her smile served as an hourglass for their relationship, and only a few grains of sand remained in the top.  He dreamed of flipping the hourglass, of flying to France with her and starting a new life there.  But they both knew it would never work.  If she did not belong in America, he definitely did not belong in France.

* * * * *

He opened his eyes and watched two seagulls fight over a tiny fish.  He had two choices—he could get up and walk back across the beach to their apartment where tomorrow he knew he would find Yves packing her things and preparing to say goodbye.  She would be crying and mumbling in French, and she would try to smile when he walked in the door.  He would stand there and stare at her silently until she finished packing.  She would stand up with her two small duffle bags, kiss him on the cheek and stain his face with her salty tears, and walk out of the room, leaving him standing alone with Smithie’s taunting chatter echoing in their one-bedroom apartment.  “You were never good enough,” Smithie would repeat.  “You’re not enough,” and “You never even smile anymore,” and “It’s like you’re talking to me from a million miles away.”

* * * *

Or he could stand up and walk straight into the horizon.  He could never stop walking.  He could let the salt take over his body until his flesh became water.  He would not die.  He would grow gills and swim around the ocean.  His face would always be stained with salt water, and he would never be able to distinguish the ocean from Yves’s tears.  He would roam the bottom of the ocean disturbing the stingrays with his incessant wailing.

He closed his eyes.

He focused on the sand beneath his feet until he could not feel it anymore.  Then the waves thrashed his body left and right until he could not tell up from down.  As his body toppled over itself and he began to breathe underwater, he saw Yves’s figure running towards him, splashing in the water.  He saw her mouth open wide in what looked like a frozen scream.  He saw her eyes bulge as she realized it was too late, and he watched her beat up the ocean, abusing it for his decision.

He wanted to tell her the ocean had nothing to do with it.  He wanted to tell her he could not live without her smile, and this was the only way everything would be okay.  Instead, he watched her cry, and he opened his mouth and swallowed every tear she dropped into the ocean.  He watched her stumble away as he finally found his own way to the bottom of the sea.


Emily Calvin is a 24-year-old cat lady, a wannabe mother, and an aspiring rapper, working on her masters in Creative Writing from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. She currently broods and writes in a hermit crab’s hole in Portland, Oregon with one foot on the East Coast and another in California. Her writing’s been called experimental, fantastical, fabulistic, disjointed, inaccessible, exceptional, and “interesting….” Her work has been or is scheduled to be published in Salt, Exclusive Uvula, Circus of the Damned, WordPlaySound, Medulla Times, Rods and Cones, Pale House, and The Fast-Forward Festival. She is just grateful she has fingers to write, a brain to think, and people to read her work.

Louie Crew is an emeritus professor at Rutgers. Editors have published 2,191 of his manuscripts, including four poetry volumes. Follow his work at: http://rci.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/pubs.html
See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louie_Crew.
The University of Michigan collects Crew’s papers.

Issue No. 1, Summer 2012

Blanche and her Friends
Susan Phillips

The truth—if I can be trusted, even after all these years, to tell the truth—the truth is that I resented her as much as she resented me. Make no mistake about it. She resented my youth, my beauty, my vitality, my skills in the arts that she knew nothing about. And I? I resented the love she showered on my father that turned him not away from me—that I would have fought against—but indifferent to me. All the things I had done for years to keep him happy and content after my mother’s death—running the household, keeping him company in the evenings, listening to his stories—all these were suddenly nothing to him. No, it was worse than that. They had little value, but still had to be done, with no thanks.

And it was all because of her—my father’s second wife, my mother’s husband’s second wife. Even when she called me daughter to please him, I could feel, I could hear, the resentment in her voice.

So it was no surprise when life became difficult, even dangerous, for me.

It was my youth and beauty she minded the most. But I had heard stories of her youth, when she had been far lovelier than I was at the same age. Even when she married my father, she was considered to be the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. One day, my looks will be far more faded than hers will ever be.

It all began with matters so small, so trivial, that I have forgotten most of them. Lost trinkets, which turned out to be misplaced. Messages never delivered. “Surely I told you that, my dear,” my stepmother would say sweetly. How could I complain? I did not even know whom to question or blame. Minor annoyances began building. Lamps and candles that were unlit or went out when I needed them at night. Objects left lying on the floor in places where I was sure to stumble over them. My own things rearranged in such odd places that I could not find what I needed. Every few days something new, something annoying—but so small, so trivial that I would soon forget what had annoyed me.

After a time it occurred to me that these incidents were increasing, were happening more often. How many times could candles blow out just when I approached the darkest corner of a hallway? How many times could heavy objects fall just where I had been or was approaching? Eventually, I realized that I had been a fool to believe that everything was accidental. If this was my stepmother’s doing, I finally thought, she truly hates me. She was always pleasant to my face—never showing her dislike or resentment. We were both always polite and courteous to each other. After all, we had much in common. We were both considered great beauties and were a bit vain about it. We both loved my father and vied with each other to be seen as his favorite. He took it all as his due and enjoyed the extra fussing and coddling that our rivalry afforded him. I can’t really blame him. I have often thought that it would be nice to have people vie for my affection—offer me the finest portions at dinner, find me the plumpest, softest pillow to lean on, the warmest blanket to be wrapped in. Perhaps my own mother had done all that for me, but I have no memory of it.

Nothing made sense during that time: the exaggerated courtesy my stepmother and I showed to each other, the constant competition for my father’s attention and affection, the near accidents I almost got into.

And then I began to feel sick. Not all of the time: that would have been too crude, even for my stepmother. But every now and then I would get hot and cold at the same time. Sweat would run down my body as I shook with cold and bundled myself up as warmly, as tightly, as I could. I would vomit all night until my throat was sore, even as I continued retching.

The day I spat up blood I packed a bag and left. As I bundled up all that I could carry, my only thought was to get as far away from my stepmother as possible. I felt a pang of regret at leaving my father. I pictured him heartbroken, weeping uncontrollably when he realized that I was gone. Or not, said a contrary voice in my head. Suddenly I realized that my father might not notice my disappearance for days. My stepmother would be sure to continue spoiling him, showering him with affection. My world seemed to turn, and I saw what I had thought to be his love for me in a new light. He loved me for what I did for him—all the care and even protection I showed him. As, indeed, who would not? Love and protection, I thought, things I would have appreciated getting from my father instead of giving to him. That was enough. I grabbed a warm cloak and sneaked out.

I walked away from my father’s fine, large home, half-expecting that he or someone would run after me, begging me to return. But no one did. On and on I walked all night, carrying a small bundle, wondering what I would do when I reached wherever I was going. In the morning I stopped for a nap in an empty field, and then I continued on my way another night until I reached a town.

It was, I suppose, much like any other town in our country. I walked along, noticing the shops: the butcher, the baker, the cobbler, the tailor, the barber. It was too early for the shops to be open, and there was no one about. I found a grassy, comfortable spot and sat there, leaning against a tree. I must have fallen asleep and was perhaps dreaming when I heard men’s voices. I kept my eyes closed as I realized what a dangerous, foolish position I had put myself into. What had I been thinking? The unseen men could be robbers or murderers. And here I was: a young, pretty, unprotected girl, all alone, sleeping under a tree in the middle of town! What would they think? What would they do? I was too terrified to open my eyes, to say a word. And so I continued to sit there.

Gradually I realized that I heard different voices, talking and debating with each other. To my surprise they began by voicing concern about me and my situation.

“Is she dead?”

“No, no. See, she’s breathing.”

“How long can she have been out here, all alone?”

“Maybe all night. We would have seen her yesterday if she’d been here longer.”

“How could she have stayed here all night without anyone hurting her?”

“Maybe she’s dead.”

“No, not dead. But maybe sick.”

“Or perhaps dying.”

“If anything happens to her, they’ll all blame us. I know it. Lady, lady, wake up. Please don’t be dead.”

At that I finally opened my eyes and found myself staring at five remarkably short, remarkably ugly men.

“Ah, she’s alive. I told you!”

Then they started to argue with each other, interrupting and finishing each others’ sentences until I realized that I could make no sense out of what they were saying.  I started to stand up, but suddenly felt dizzy and sat down again. The men had stopped speaking as I rose, but now they all began speaking at once again.

“Don’t get up. Sit until you feel better.”

“Get up, walk around. You’ll be as good as new.”

“She’s hungry.”

“She’s thirsty.”

“She’s cold. She needs a warmer cloak.”

“She walked too far in those shoes. She needs sturdier boots.”

Finally one of the men held up his hands. The rest of them fell silent. “It may be all of these. Come, let’s help her up and see what she needs.”

And so, without even asking my name, these five strange little men helped me to my feet and led me, one by one, into their shops. First the baker, then the butcher fed me. The tailor found me a thick warm cloak and the cobbler a pair of warm boots. The barber washed my face and hands with warm, flower-scented water and then patted me with a sweet-smelling cologne. He combed out my long hair and braided it. In the middle of the day, when the sun was shining brightly and the air was warmer, the tailor found a light dress for me to wear, the cobbler appeared with sandals and then the butcher, then the baker fed me. I returned to the barber’s shop, sat in one of his chairs and fell asleep again.

Once again I was wakened by their voices, all speaking at the same time.

“Now what? What can we do with her? We can’t leave her here!”

“Why not? The shop is as safe as anywhere.”

“Where can she be from? We don’t even know her name.”

“She must go home. Let’s find out where she’s from and take her home.”

At that I woke up and found my voice. “No,” I said.

The five men just looked at me for a while. Finally one spoke. “No what?”

“No, I won’t go home. Thank you all for your kindness, and I’m sorry to have worried and disturbed you. Now I must be on my way.”

“And where’s that?” asked one of the men.

“There, over there,” I pointed.

There was more discussion, more arguments, with the men trying to figure out if I was ill or lost, confused or running away. In the end, when I refused to say anything, they took me back to their home—a small, cozy house. After much discussion, they moved some furniture around. The tailor picked up my bundle and led me to a tiny room, which was to be my bedroom. The butcher and baker cooked dinner, while the barber and shoemaker found linen for me, set the table, poured wine. We ate in silence, but after the meal no one moved.

Finally the barber spoke up. “Since you won’t tell us your name,” he said, “we’ll begin and tell you our names. I’m Robert Barber.”

“John Baker.”

“Leon Boucher.”

“Amos Taylor.”

“James Shoemaker.”

There was silence again, and I realized that I had to say something. “Messieurs Barber, Baker, Boucher, Taylor and Shoemaker, I’m Blanche. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to go to sleep now.” I got up and left the room. I hoped that I had not hurt their feelings, but I was too confused and even frightened to say much. If I told them who I was, where I was from, would they force me to leave? As I lay in bed, I heard them talking, asking each other questions, trying to imagine who or what I was. They came in to check on me every now and again: Taylor to cover me with a warm blanket, Baker to bring a warm drink, Barber to be sure that I had removed all the pins from my hair. I fell asleep listening to their voices.

I woke the next morning hearing their voices again, but I lay in bed pretending to sleep until I heard all of them leave. They were kind and trusting men, all five of them, but not the best housekeepers. I spent the day washing and sweeping, polishing and wiping, until the entire house seemed to shine. I rummaged in the larder and found enough ingredients to bake bread and a simple soup. By the time they returned from their labors, tired but still talking nonstop with one another, I had set the table, cut some flowers from their garden to put into a vase and changed into a clean dress. I greeted them at the door and, after they had washed, led them to their own table for supper.

And so the days went—many days and weeks and months. I took care of the small house, and the small men took care of me. Boucher brought home good cuts of meat for me to cook for our meals. Baker brought bread and cakes. Shoemaker made me new boots and slippers and shoes, and Taylor sewed me a complete wardrobe of dresses and cloaks. Barber trimmed my hair and brought me a brush and ribbons and combs.

I don’t know what they told the townspeople—if I was a niece or cousin or their new housekeeper. People were polite and courteous when I met them, but no one was curious about me or even very friendly. The men I lived with didn’t really care about the townspeople. They had themselves for company and were content to live that way. They spoke with their customers and other merchants, but their affection was for each other—and now, it seemed, for me.

I never learned much about them—where they had come from, how they had met or even how long they had lived together. These were not things that my companions liked to discuss. I can’t now remember what we did talk about in those evenings after they returned from work and finished eating the meals I prepared. Sometimes we all sang together, but I can’t remember the words or the tunes of those songs. We must have talked about something, because I can still hear their voices—interrupting one another, finishing one another’s sentences. Sometimes I would join the conversations; other times I just sat and listened, letting their words, their voices, wash over me. I didn’t really care what they said or didn’t say. It was enough to sit there at night and stay in their small cozy house—caring for these five strange little men and being cared for by them.

But I had not been totally forgotten. Had my father woken up after months of sleep and realized that I was gone? Did my stepmother miss having no one to compare her beauty with? No matter. Word began to spread throughout the town that the daughter of a minor knight was missing. Where could she be? Rewards were offered, and my description was sent throughout the land. Skin as white as snow, cheeks and lips as red as blood, hair as black as coal. Well, it had been my description. But I had planted a small garden in back of our house and spent hours every day tending it. My lily-white, snow-white skin had gotten darker, more tanned by then. The roses in my cheeks and lips had faded a bit. Fear and dread had washed the color out. Being in the sun so often had added a faint reddish tint to my hair.

Exactly when my new friends figured out who I was, I never knew. But it was clear they had guessed correctly. Of course, it wasn’t that hard. They knew when I had appeared, so they figured out when I had left home. Taylor and Shoemaker recognized the workmanship of my original clothes; Boucher and Baker knew the dainty tastes of those raised in well-to-do homes. Even Barber could tell from a hairstyle where a woman had been born and raised.

At first I feared that they would turn me in for a reward, but they were perfectly content with their lives. No reward could bribe them to lose my love and care. My father—finally alert and awake by now—sent more and more messengers out to scour the country, looking for me. Once or twice I thought I recognized the face of one of them. But no one seemed to know me. There were a few house-to-house searches, but I always hid successfully. I would stay in my bed, and my friends would declare that I was ill or asleep—too sick or too worn out to be disturbed. And then the strange tales began. A mysterious woman visiting different towns, befriending dark-haired young beauties. As often as not, these young girls would sicken or even die after the mystery woman left town.

There was, of course, only one person that woman could be, and I was surprised that she bothered to travel looking for me. I had known that my stepmother didn’t love me, but I had assumed that she was as indifferent to me as my father appeared to be. It came as a shock when I realized how much she hated me. For the first time since I had left my father’s house, I was truly afraid. And now I feared also for my new companions.

I wanted to leave my friends, but they were reluctant to let me go. At first I thought they were being selfish—that they enjoyed having a well-tended garden, a cleaner house and hot meals ready for them when they arrived home. I could hardly blame them if those were the reasons they wanted me to stay. I enjoyed our quiet, simple routines—the jokes we told every day and still laughed at, the stories we told and retold so often that any one of us could tell any one of them. With all these repeated, homely routines came peace, ease, even enjoyment for all of us. If one were to leave—even me—a new routine would have to be put into place.

But there was something else in their reluctance, and I soon found out what it was. My new friends were afraid—afraid that I would be hurt, afraid that they would be accused of something, afraid of losing me, afraid that I would forget them. As if I could! The only people who had cared for me, taken care of me, loved me. How could I, how would I, ever forget them?

But life changes. Nothing ever stays exactly the same, exactly the way it was a year ago, a month ago, even an hour ago.

My stepmother’s persisted in her attempt to find me. Though really, I often thought, what use could she have for me, if she found me? With her elegance, her grace, her beauty—why did she think that my youth and inexperience could ever be compared to her graceful loveliness?

There came a time when I was always tired—oh, so tired!—and sleepy—oh, so sleepy! No matter how early I went to bed or how late I stayed in bed, I was always tired. My friends didn’t know what to do, and I could hear them at night discussing the situation.

“She needs more meat,” said Boucher.

“More bread,” said Baker.

“A new warm cloak,” said Taylor

“Studier shoes,” said Shoemaker.

“Perhaps some perfume,” suggested Barber. “In my experience—”

“Well, in my experience—”

“In my—”

And I would drift off to sleep, listening to their voices. My energy began to come back slowly, although I still had slow, listless days. One day we heard that the city fathers had decided to hold a fair in town. The excitement could be felt all over. There would be singers and dancers, jugglers, merchants bringing wares from all over the world. I was as excited as anyone and certainly as busy. I helped Boucher make meat pies and Baker bake breads and cakes. I sewed hem and buttons on the cloaks and capes and scarves that Taylor created. I polished leather for Shoemaker. Barber had decided to try his hand at making more perfumes. I picked and dried flowers from the garden and tested everything that he made.

The day the fair opened, my friends set up stalls along with the other merchants in town and those who had traveled. I walked all around the fair—looking at all the goods, tasting the different food, listening to music, laughing at the jugglers. That night when I told my friends what I had done and seen and eaten and heard, they listened quietly, not saying a word. This was so unlike the five men that I finally asked what was wrong.

“Did I do something wrong?”

“No.”

“Have I hurt you—any of you—in some way?”

“No, not exactly.”

“No, not you.”

“Not just you.”

All of the townspeople, it turned out, and most of the out of town guests had done what I had: admired and bought and eaten the wares of traveling merchants. But not of my friends. And so the next day in the loveliest dress and cape that Taylor had made me, wearing the daintiest boots that Shoemaker had made me, sprinkled with the most delicate of Barber’s scents, I again set off for the fair. I took one of Boucher’s most aromatic meat pies and walked among the booths, taking small bites every now and again, savoring every bite. I was clearly enjoying it so much that several people asked where I had gotten it, and I waved them over to Boucher’s stall. Later I did the same with one of Baker’s sweetest small cakes. I was sure to wave my arms when I pointed and even tossed my head so that people would notice and ask about my scent. I lifted my skirts now and again as if to check that my boots were laced; I unbuttoned and re-buttoned my cape. By the end of the day, Boucher and Baker and Barber had sold out their wares; Taylor and Shoemaker had enough future orders to keep them busy for months to come.

With my friends busy and happy, I too felt relieved. On the last day of the fair, I started walking around again—looking, listening, smelling, tasting. So many sights, odors, sounds—I hardly recognized the small town I had been living in for the past few years.

And then I saw her. I saw both of them actually—my stepmother and my father. She was as beautiful and elegant as ever. Was she even lovelier than I remembered? My father was thinner and grayer than before, but he looked happier than he ever had. The two of them were strolling together—pointing things out, smiling and laughing.

I backed away, then I turned and ran straight to the first stall I saw. I pushed past the merchant, ducked down and hid behind the piles of cloth he had neatly stacked up. I heard footsteps ad the sound of three voices. The footsteps receded, and I heard a voice call out. “They’ve gone now. You can come out. You’re safe.”  I waited a bit more and crawled out from behind the stacks of cloth. Sure enough, there was no one around but the merchant—a young, pleasant-faced man.

“They did leave something for you, however,” he said, pointing to a large cake, quite elaborately decorated. It was nothing like anything my friend Baker had ever made.

“I have a knife and a dish,” the man continued.

I looked at him again and went back to studying the cake. In all my wanderings at the fair I had seen nothing like it. Why had my stepmother brought this from home? To remind me of all the riches—in pastry as well as other goods—which I had left behind? To show how sorry she was? Perhaps to lure me back?

“Shall I cut the cake?”

“Not just yet,” I said. “It seems perhaps too—”

“Rich to eat?”

“Yes, that must be it.”

The young man sighed. “Well, that’s just as well, you know. We must not start our life together with things you’ll never have again.”

This time I turned and looked straight at him. “Our life together?” I asked. “I don’t know you. I don’t even know your name.”

“Weaver,” he said. “Jack Weaver. You don’t know me yet, but you will soon.  You know my cloth already. You were hiding behind it, so you know that I’m a fine weaver and do excellent work. I noticed that the tailor over there,” he pointed to my friend, “has taken quite a few orders and will need all sorts of material to sew up. I even noticed a small vacant shop when I first entered the town. So you see, Mistress—”

“Blanche,” I said.

“Well, Mistress Blanche, we’ll have all the time we need to get to know each other.”

He was right, of course. We did have all the time and we did get to know each other—very well indeed. My friends were sorry when I told them that Jack Weaver and I were to wed, but our lives did not change very much.  They eat supper in our house as often as we do in theirs. I have learned some of all their skills, though I will never be as proficient as Baker, Boucher, Taylor, Barber, Shoemaker or even my own Jack Weaver in what he does. I shine the most, they all agree, at our annual fair, when I stroll around the grounds, showing off the goods made by my five friends and my husband.


Susan Phillips, a Boston area writer, has had work published in many newspapers and magazines. Her short stories have been printed in Poetica Magazine, Literary Brushstrokes, Living Text, Eunoia Review, Lissette’s Tales of the Imagination, Red Wheelbarrow, Wild Violet, IdioM, Perspectives Magazine, and All the Women Followed Her. She is currently working on an historical novel about King Agrippa I.

Issue No. 1, Summer 2012

Bridge Night: A Fairy Tale
Caroline Patterson 

Who, she thought, would kiss her awake?

It was bridge night. Elizabeth’s parents and the Thompsons were sitting around a card table in the living room, under the chandelier with crystal globes.  They were sitting in proper bridge partner formation, like points of a compass: Bill Thompson on the south side of the table, his partner Elizabeth’s mother, Nora, to the north. Elizabeth’s father, Ted, sat on the east by the card shuffler, Peg Thompson, his partner to the west. By their elbows were bridge tallies, decorated with colored leaves to celebrate the season, and leaf-shaped dishes of bridge mix. They were drinking coffee and eating Nora’s chocolate torte, made of graham crackers and chocolate pudding, having what Peg Thompson called “a Methodist evening,”—their little joke—because even though Methodists didn’t approve of playing cards or drinking coffee, by the early 1960s, no one really cared.

From the other room, Elizabeth heard the sounds of guns and hoof beats as Dale, the Thompsons’s sixteen-year-old son, whose spikey blonde hair was visible above the lounge chair, watched “Bonanza.”

She stood at the edge of the bridge table, eating butter mints and watching the grownups sort their mysterious cards—one deck edged silver and decorated with blue birds, the other blue with silver-edged cards—as they turned up spades and diamonds, sinister one-eyed jacks and lonely queens.

As she scooped up a third handful of mints, her mother rested her hand on Elizabeth’s. “Enough,” she said quietly. “Time for bed, kid.”

Elizabeth said good-night and pulled away from the table with great sadness. Peg Thompson patted her on the cheek. Her dad gave her a playful swat on the bottom.

As she headed up the stairs, she sat on the top step to spy on the living room. Her father leaned back in his chair, his cards fanned out in front of him, one leg crossed in front of the other.

With one eyebrow cocked, he was asking Bill Thompson, if the state could elect a Republican for governor, why couldn’t the damn country.

Bill, the history professor who reminded her of Abe Lincoln with his stiff formality, drawn-out sentences and cold hands (Elizabeth realized later she always assumed Abraham Lincoln had cold hands). “The Republicans ran right into the ghost of FDR,” Bill said deliberately.

Elizabeth tried to imagine Republicans running into ghosts.

Peg said, as she held out her fan of cards, arranging them with great finality, “Well at least our state—“ she shoved a card into her deck— “was its usual schizophrenic self.” Plucked a card, shoved it somewhere else. “Republican governor, Democratic house.” She snapped her cards down on the table. “You gotta love it.”

Elizabeth’s father crossed the room and stood in front of his bookcase of records. He selected one and gently pulled it out of its sleeve. Elizabeth knew exactly what it was: Glen Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” Her father loved big band music and had it all— Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Artie Shaw—kept in carefully alphabetized stacks that she was forbidden to touch.  But his greatest love was Glen Miller: “In the Mood,” “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” “Stairway to Heaven.” As the horns, trombones, and trumpets began their ebullient swing, he stood still, directing the speakers, his face flushed, beyond reach.

Her mother leaned over and looked at her.  “I know you are up there, Elizabeth. Go to bed.”

Elizabeth took one long look back at that room with its oriental rugs, the shining piano stacked with music, her father and Ted laughing, and Peg scribbling something on her bridge tally, then she trudged on up the stairs to the dark landing.

Her mother followed her to make sure she went all the way to her room, opening the covers to her bed, like an envelope to hold her, patting them around her.  She kissed her. “What you need now is sleep,” she said, “Sweet dreams.”

Words were replaced by wind, freight trains along the river, and the neighbor dog, barking, always barking.

At night, Elizabeth made up stories. There were loud bangs from freight trains in the Milwaukee rail yard below the house. Elizabeth imagined gun battles, two men stalking each other alongside the freight trains, gunshots, bodies curling in the dust. Someone had found a bum once, dead, in the ditch below their house. A lost prince, of course, who had been coming to find her, to have her let her hair down and join him to run away, but instead was caught in the deadly thicket of thorns around their house, like so many princes before him.

She was nine, in bed, in her red flannel nightgown. Now her father was playing “Tuxedo Junction.”  She heard the rise and fall of laughter as her parents played cards. Something seemed to tap itself into her brain as she listened to the patterns of their voices: the bursts of laughter, the pockets of silence, followed by the nervous welling-up of conversation.

“Deal, would ya, Ted!” she heard Peg cry out.

“I’m hurrying, I’m hurrying, Peg,” her father laughed. “Thirteen cards takes a while, you know. We’re not all as quick as the Butte Irish.”

Elizabeth’s mother laughed. It was a nervous sound, a laugh that didn’t get much exercise.

There was a creak of shoe leather on wood.

Cloth rubbed against cloth.

Elizabeth’s heart froze.

She waited, pinned to the bed. Her bed had a rounded headboard in which, during a nap once when she was five, she scratched a story with the butt of a toy gun, a story about a little girl who climbed over a tall mountain on her way to her grandmother’s house.

One of her favorite stories was the one her father told her about the cat’s paw the hobos drew on posts to let the others know that her great-grandmother was an easy mark. They came up from the tracks to knock on the back door and her grandmother gave them things: overcoats, pants, shoes, bread. Elizabeth imagined that one of these hobos might be a princess in disguise, like the Goose Girl. Elizabeth would look out her window and see her standing at the back door in ragged clothes, herding geese, unbinding her long, golden hair, saying,

“O wind, blow Conrad’s hat away,
And make him follow as it flies,
While I with my gold hair will play,
And bind it up in seemly wise?”

The door creaked open. The voices downstairs grew louder. Peg said, “Damn you, Ted, don’t you dare trump my ace!”

He is standing in the door, his body dark, outlined in light from the hallway, the thatch of hair illuminated. “I came to say good-night.”

“I said good-night,” Elizabeth said.

No. That story wasn’t right.  She was the ragged princess at the back door. Nearly dead with cold, she was lighting matches to keep warm. A king looking out the upstairs window saw her unbinding her long chestnut hair and recognized her. “She is no mere goose girl,” he said to the others. “She is a princess. Look at her fine fingers.”

“This is your room?” he whispered. He took two steps inside the door, stepping from heel to toe on each foot very slowly. He tiptoed over to the window. “You can see the trains from here.”

“I know that,” she said. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

“The Milwaukee Railroad,” he said. “They call it the Silk Train because it carries Chinese silk from Seattle to New York.”

“So?” Elizabeth said.

“So, we could walk down there and hop that train and in a few days we’d be in New York. That’s so.”

“I don’t want to go to New York.”

“I do.”

“They bang together every night.” Elizabeth said.

He smiled. “They call that coupling,” he said. His teeth were very even. Very white.

The racheting of a zipper. How he wanted her to touch it and she didn’t want to, but she did too, and the head of it was smooth, the rest of it bumpy, reptilian. Never tell, he said. Just like a spell. Never, never, never.

What she remembered was how quietly he slipped out the door. And how quietly, the next time, he slipped in.

Wrong again. She was the princess in rags at the back door. She was the one who walked in to the house, her dog’s head nailed to the wall, that said:

“Princess dost thou so meanly fair?
But if thy mother knew thy pain,
Her heart would surely break in twain?”

 

She crawled in an iron oven and told her story about the boy who comes in her room and made her touch him until he shuddered, but she can’t move, because her parents have so many troubles—the aunt who shot herself, the grandmother who is in and out of the mental hospital—and there they are in this circle of light, laughing. With these words she, the child, would tap her wand and this bubble of laughter and friendship and happiness would disappear and they would be back to their usual diet of pain and grey and cold dinners, so instead, she decided to heal herself. As she says all this to the iron oven, the woman who hears her says (she finds out later), “Thou has spoken thy own doom.”

There are other bridge parties. Elizabeth in her nightgown, Dale’s hands sullenly shoved in the pocket of his letter jacket. She’d go upstairs to her room and he’d part for the television, while the adults made coffee and settled around the bridge table laughing and she’d lie in bed and listen for the squeak of leather on wood. How it became like penance, a spell, some grim endurance. They went through the Nixon years. Watergate, the beginning of Johnson’s years in the White House, then Dale went off to college, and Elizabeth started babysitting.

Stop. The script must be rewritten. The scriptwriter was menopausal and weepy and we had to fire her. This is the correct story. The princess walked up from the tracks to the back door. She knocked. No one answered. She knocked again. This time she decided to go in. Everything was just as she left it twenty years ago, but everyone was asleep: her father, mother, Peg and Bill Thompson at the bridge table, her father holding his bridge hand, her mother easing a slice of chocolate torte to the white Spode china with the delicate pink rose in the center. Prairie rose the pattern is called. Peg Thompson’s pencil was poised over the bridge tally, even the ticks on the dog are sleeping. There, at the foot of the stairs, is Dale. His foot is on the bottom step, his hand on the banister.

In this version of the story, Elizabeth kissed the girl. There is no prince. Are you kidding? Honestly. This is the twenty-first century. The nine-year-old screamed and the sleeping people came to life. The mother threw down the server, the Spode flew to floor and shattered. The father cried “What the hell is going on?” and jumped up and hit his head on the chandelier and broke not one crystal globe, but two, before he ran to her rescue amid the glorious sound of breaking crystal. Peg blinked as she turned her head about, looking at the candles sputtering to life, the flies stirring in the window casements. Her father comes thundering down the stairs and there are angry words among the adults and the Thompsons take their bad boy home and punish him soundly and send him to bed without supper.

But, alas, that is mere fiction.

Elizabeth saw Dale twenty years later at his father’s funeral, which was held in the Methodist church in Bridger. After the tributes and prayers, a group of old men known as the “Past Dues” sang “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place,” their voices wobbly with emotion. Bill Thompson was well-respected man, a pillar of the community with his civic duties and long career at the university.

After the service, Elizabeth stood in line to pay her respects.

He was a middle-aged man, overweight, dressed in a blue jacket too short in the sleeves. Her mother told her he lived in Spokane. She wanted him to be a car salesmen, so she was pissed when her mother told her he was actually a reporter.

A reporter? She thought. With a commitment to convey the truth?

She would shake his hand, tell him how sorry she was for his loss, see if there was a flicker, a shade drawn down across his eyes, any registration of what had gone between them.

He looked at her, fingering the button on his jacket. There were still comb marks in his grey-blonde hair. “Where are you now?”

“Helena,” she said. She wanted to go on and say, “I jail child molesters. I cut their balls off.” Instead she said, “I’m a prosecutor.” She shook his hand and took pleasure in the spider-like finger of hairs combed across his bald spot.

His eyes widened. He turned quickly to the woman behind her in line. “Mrs. McSweeney! How nice of you to come. My father was such a fan of your singing.”

She went on into the reception, drinking thin punch and eating cake that had spun sugar frosting, the kind that makes your stomach turn.

 

One more story. Fiction, yes, but who cares about fiction or nonfiction at this point.

Elizabeth arrives at her old room, painted blue, with the large Renoir print of the girl in the rowboat on the wall. She is there to wake her nine-year-old self. She sees herself lying in bed, her braids brown ropes across the white pillow, her round freckled face. She stands over the girl, clenching her fists and roars, two bitter tears rolling down her face. When they touch the girl’s eyes, her eyes flutter open and become clear, and bright, and blue, and she can see as well as ever.

Elizabeth lifts the girl gently out of the bed and carries her down the stairs, past Dale, still asleep, his foot poised on the stair, his hand on the bannister, to the living room where her mother, father, and the Thompsons are asleep, the brambles growing around them, and lets the girl see them one last time: all of them, kings, and queens, and hearts and knaves, trumps and no trumps, before she carries her out the front door and into the waiting world.


Caroline Patterson has published fiction in Southwest Review, Terrain, Salamander, Seventeen, Epoch, and Alaska Quarterly Review. She was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and have won fellowships through the Montana Arts Council, the Alison Deming Fund for Women, and the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation. She is currently working on a novel, The Stone Sister.

Issue No. 1, Summer 2012

The Wood Maiden
Joanna Hoyt 

Yes, I’ll tell you how I came here.  I’ll try, anyway. I could tell you my life here easily enough.  First the spinning machine at the mill, my back hurting, my eyes wanting sky. Then Ernst, and the children, and saving for a place with a bit of garden, and finding real neighbors.  You’d understand all that, but it wouldn’t interest you much.  But the beginning!

See, where I grew up, this place was a fairy tale.  That machine you’ve set on my table to catch my voice: now I know it’s a tape recorder.  Then I would have known it was magic.  Maybe I was wrong then. Maybe not.

 

When I was a little girl there was only one fairy world that we could fall into.  The same one you tell your children about, only we knew it was real.  People went walking in the woods alone, or they stepped out of the house at night, and they passed through shadows that weren’t really shadows, and they disappeared.  No one saw them again. We all knew they’d gone to the other world.

That was why we listened well to fairy tales.  If ever we found ourselves in the other world we’d need to know its rules. Youngest children were often heroes, and eldest children and heirs were like to be no better than they should. Very ugly women might be beauties in disguise.  Very beautiful women might be wood-maidens, lovelier than a spring morning and crueler than a summer frost, who danced with men and stole their hearts and then disappeared, so the men never worked at anything steady, never loved any human woman, just dreamed of the beauty they’d seen.  Cripples and old women had the power to bless and curse, so it was wise to treat them with respect.  (There weren’t beggars, not in our world, and not in the parts of the fairy world we knew about; in our world people had neighbors, they had families, and the land was good enough.) It was prudent to save hurt animals, and it was mortal dangerous to break a promise, or to accept a gift from anyone you’d cheated, even if you thought they didn’t know what you’d done.

It might be hard to know if you’d passed through.  In some tales that world didn’t sound so different from ours.  There might have been a fairy village that looked exactly like our own, and people looking the same, too.  My mother took it farther than most; she’d say, who knows, we could be in the fairy village now.  It was a good way to make us take care of our neighbors, but I think she meant it too. I can’t go back to ask her now.

The gates opened both ways. Folk from the other world walked in our woods, and sometimes our people met them. When my mother was young she knew a girl with fierce scared eyes and a whispery little voice she hardly ever used. That girl spent a lot of time alone in the woods. One day she came back strong-eyed and singing. She didn’t tell what had happened, but her neighbors could guess.  I heard that woman when I was a girl, I remember her songs. There was another woman who’d shy at things that weren’t there, or scream and accuse people of stealing from her. My mother remembered her as a handsome woman who wanted a little more than what she had, who set herself a little above the people around her, but who seemed in her right mind apart from that until she went out alone one night and came back raving.  I told my mother it wasn’t fair.  My mother said she didn’t know about that, but she knew what her grandmother told her: “Beware the fairies, for they give you what you want.”

 

So I listened to the tales, and in the woods, in the evenings, I’d wonder what might be moving in the dark unseen.  I was excited as much as afraid, wondering that.  But I never met anyone from another world until I was twelve years old.

Now I know it was a helicopter.  Then I just knew that something like a giant dragonfly hovered down through the sky, roaring like two thunderstorms fighting in a closed room, and settled on the screes above the village. I knew it had come from the fairy world–where else could it have come from? I ran to call my mother. I ran back before she could catch me or order me to stay safe away.  I picked a twig of rowan to ward off evil magic. When I got back to the not-dragonfly two men had come out of it; they carried boxes full of flashing light and unearthly sounds, and their skin was pale as if they’d never felt the summer sun.

We knew them for fay-folk.  Some of my neighbors wouldn’t look at them.  Others welcomed them, maybe from kindness, maybe hoping for gifts of magic or good luck.  But it startled us to hear the strangers talking–talking the language I’m talking now.  Here and there were words shaped like the ones we knew, but with a funny accent, and mixed with much we couldn’t understand.  Mind, we’d never heard another language.  Our world was small–the seven villages and the pasture-lands, the places where people were, and the screes above, dotted with stonecrop, too steep and treacherous even for the goats to climb up, and the cliffs below, too steep to climb down, with clouds and tangled treetops underneath.   Some people said there used to be a way down, back in my great-great-great-grandmother’s time, and then a landslide swept it away.

So we couldn’t talk well to the strangers, but plainly they were hungry, and tired, and frightened, and one of them was hurt. My uncle took the men into his house.  I brought them milk and cheese from the springhouse.  Seven days they spent with us, healing and resting up, and trying to talk–we learned a little of their talk–and doing things with their boxes.  Then they went back to the not-dragonfly and flew away. We thought that was the end, but it wasn’t.

Next year another not-dragonfly came–came on purpose, you could tell, for its people weren’t hurt or afraid.  Then there were more and more of them, carrying men and women, all with that pale skin and those strange boxes, all healthy, all young.  Most of the far-comers moved about in groups of their own kind, talking to each other, pointing their boxes at us sometimes, and wanting to take things we’d made and give us coins, but otherwise leaving us be.  A few of them were different: they spent a lot of time asking questions, trying to make us understand them, and they watched us all the time. All of them were rich.  We used coins now and then, mostly for dowry money, or for buying land from someone with no kin to claim it, or for buying gauds from the smith.  Everything we needed we got by working, or by going into the woods and getting it, or by getting it from our neighbors, who knew we’d give them what they needed when they needed it.  But the new people had more and brighter coins, and they gave them lavishly for everything; they even tried to give them for food, which offended my mother and all the decent folk in the villages, though I won’t say there weren’t a few shameless ones who took what they could get.

Some of our people got to wanting their bright coins, and the cloth they wore, so much smoother than the cloth we made from wool and mohair.  I could do without that.  My clothes kept me warm and decent, and I thought the red skirt my mother wove me was the loveliest thing any girl could wear, the way it swung around me when I danced.  And I didn’t have to worry about dowry money.  I was sharp-eyed Betushka who never let the goats get into the mountain laurel; I was deft-handed Betushka who could spin better than my older sisters; I was light-footed Betushka who danced like a seed on the wind.  I’d be able to marry as I wished. And I liked the life I had: all the kinds of green there were in spring, the work, the family, the neighbors, the dancing, the happy lonely time on the slopes with the goats. Still sometimes in the autumn, or in the evening, I’d imagine something more, something richer and wilder, something I heard echoes of in the tales or saw flashes of in the eyes of the new people, and I wanted that too.  But my mother told me, “Pay attention to the tale you’re living! Do you think the folk in the tales knew what was happening to them?  Do you think they felt glorious all the time?”

Well, that was wise, and I listened.  But I listened to the new people too. I was one of the quickest at picking up their way of talking, so a lot of the people-watching ones asked me their questions and looked at me as if I was human.  Oh, they looked at the elders too, and asked them questions when I interpreted, but they looked at the elders as if they were looking at goats, or sunsets, or something besides people.  That was another reason we thought everyone must be young in the country they came from.  But they looked at me as though I was human, and they asked me how I lived, and what I wanted to do when I grew up.  They shook their heads and said to each other, What a waste.  She has so much potential. Back home she’d have so many opportunities. They didn’t realize I was still listening.

I waited a few days before asking one of them about the words I didn’t know. I didn’t say where I’d heard them. She tried to explain. The best I could figure out then, potential was what something turned into when it grew up, and opportunities were choices.  I thought of course I’d grow up, here or there, it didn’t matter, and of course I knew how to choose. And then I wondered what they knew that I didn’t.

In the fall they went away.  We thought they must come from a place of endless summer, for they shivered and complained at the first touch of frost.  I thought about them sometimes when I was out with the goats.  I’d be out on the slopes all day with the herd, spring through fall, carrying a basket of carded roving to spin into thread.  Once we’d found a good grazing spot I’d set the spindle dancing in my hands.  When the thread was spun–and sometimes before–I’d fold my arms and dance, while the does grazed and the kids danced around me.

That was what I was doing one spring morning a little bit before my fifteenth birthday, when I heard music behind me.  First I thought it might be my grandfather with his pipes.  Even when his fingers were so stiff he could hardly hold a fork, he could play like a faun.  But the tune wasn’t anything Grandfather ever played, it was wilder and sweeter and stranger, and the sound wasn’t quite like his pipe either.  I thought it might be Matyas with his fujara.  I felt as though a wild bird was fluttering in my inside.  I think a lot of girls felt that way about Matyas. I didn’t turn to look, because if it was Matyas I wanted to stop blushing before I looked at him, and if it was someone else I didn’t want to look disappointed.

I knew it wasn’t Matyas when the music paused and I heard a laugh like bells in the wind–a woman’s laugh, almost, but brighter than the voices of the women I knew, the way the autumn colors reflected in a pond look brighter and deeper than the colors on the trees. I did turn around then.

She was standing under an oak tree, and her eyes were beech-bud brown, and she had the loveliest gold gown.  She held her hands out to me, and I took them, and the music came up again, and we danced together.

I don’t have the right words for what that was like, dancing with her.  Like listening to the best tale I’d ever heard, and like dancing with Matyas, and like hearing the geese going over in the autumn and knowing I could fly with them.  The music seemed to come out of the lady, and it wasn’t really like a fujara or like any other instrument I’d ever heard.  It kept changing, like her eyes that flashed brown like the beech-buds and green like the new beech-leaves in spring and blue like the winter sky and gold like nothing else in the world, like her hair that was black like mine and golden like some of the far-comers’ and red like rowan berries.  I felt that if I kept dancing I’d change too, I’d be as beautiful as her, I’d be her. But I heard one of the goats bellowing. It cut through the music, sort of, and I could have ignored it, but I knew I shouldn’t, so I looked away.

One of the yearling does was tangled in the blackberry brambles.  By the time I freed her the music and the lady were gone, and the goats were scattering, and the sun was sliding down the sky, and my roving was in my basket, still unspun.  I was ashamed. Even more so when my mother asked what I’d been up to, coming home late with my clothes all anyhow and my eyes looking at something that wasn’t there and my work undone.  I said it wasn’t what she thought, and I said I’d see it didn’t happen again, and after a while she let me be.

Well, the next day I meant to do my spinning right away, and I brought enough to spin a double portion, but as soon as I set myself down the music came again, and the lady was there.  And while that music played I couldn’t think of anything but dancing with her.  I didn’t think we’d danced long, but finally I felt the air growing cold around me, and I saw it was late again, and I stumbled, and the music stopped, and I started crying like a little girl, not a maid of fourteen.

The lady asked me why. I told her about the spinning I hadn’t done. “Is that all?” she asked in her bell voice. When she spoke I couldn’t think why it mattered, but I knew it did.  “Such a waste”, the lady said, “for you’ve better things to do with your time. Here, see!” And she took the spindle and the reel and started up another music, and the roving spun itself out into a fine smooth thread in the time it took me to start the goats toward home.

As I went home I must have looked into that basket a dozen times to be sure the thread was still there. When I brought it in the house my mother looked at it and told me I’d done well, but she said not to go so far next time, to come back by full daylight. I said I would, and we sat down to supper pretty well pleased with each other.

After supper my mother went to string my thread onto the loom.  It didn’t look like so much in the basket, but once she’d strung all the warp threads—and that was a big loom, tall as she was, and wide as her arms would go—she turned to me and said “Betushka, you’d think I hadn’t taken anything out of this basket; there seems to be just as much in there as when I started.”  She took some then to wind over onto reels for dyeing.  I stood behind her to look.  She wound three reels full, and there was still as much thread in that basket as there ever had been.

I’d seen my mother angry before when she was frightened–when my older sister fell out of the lime tree and broke her arm, when my brother took the fever.  But I’d never seen her quite so angry as she was that night.  She wasn’t one to fume and fuss with her angers.  She went cold quiet, and it frightened me. She took my shoulders and stared into my eyes and said “Bet, what have you been doing?”

I didn’t know how to answer her.  I was afraid she wouldn’t believe me.  I was afraid she’d believe me, want to keep me safe, and decide to shut me away inside. I just stood there looking at her, and finally she breathed out slow and hard and turned back to the reels. They were empty. The loom was unstrung. There was nothing in the basket.

Oh, she warned me.  She said the things that mothers always said to children who spent too much time lingering in the shadows, hoping to be taken into the other world.  She reminded me of the fear and strangeness and darkness that were in the tales along with the light, and she told me the fairies’ gifts always came at a high price.  Finally I cried and I put my head down in my hands and I told her what had happened.

She held me then, and she told me she loved me, and she told me I was lucky I was a girl, for it must have been a wood-maiden I’d met, and if I’d been a boy she’d have stolen my heart for sure if she hadn’t just danced me to death. And then she looked hard at me and asked if the lady had stolen my heart anyway.  I said no. I hoped it was true.

She didn’t ask me what I’d been wanting that had brought the wood-maiden to me instead of some kinder guest from the fairy world. I don’t know that I could have told her if she’d asked.

She would have had me stay close to home and do the in-work, but I said no, if I lost the goats and the wild places as well as the wood-maiden and her music my heart would really be stolen.  So she let me go again, but she gave me a whistle to call for help, and wax plugs to put in my ears, and rowan to wear at my breast. And in the morning off I went again.

The wood-maiden came, and the music came with her. This time her hair and her eyes and her clothes were like mine, only richer, brighter. I put the plugs into my ears and took the spindle in my hand and shut my eyes.  It didn’t help much; the air kind of shivered with her being there.  I knew when she was gone again. I unstopped my ears and opened my eyes.  The spinning was off to a fair start–I’d done that well enough by feel–but the goats were gone.  I was late home again because it took me so long to round them back up, but my mother looked at my face and knew what I’d done, and she was proud of me just the same.  I was proud too.  And I thought that maybe the next day I’d be able to keep my eyes open enough to see the goats, if I just didn’t look right at the wood-maiden.

That day she didn’t come.  I spun my thread.  The goats chewed and muttered.  The sun blazed in the new beech-leaves, but the colors seemed thin somehow without her there.  When I’d finished spinning I got up and tried to dance to my memory of her music, but it was gone from my mind, leaving just the wanting behind.  I thought of the tunes I used to dance to, but I didn’t care about them any more.

That’s how it was all that summer.  The days were hard. The nights were harder.  Hardest was knowing my mother watched and worried over me.  At the Midsummer dances my feet dragged behind the music, and Matyas danced with Dana often enough so everybody noticed it.  They all noticed, too, that something ailed me.  Some thought that I was pining for Matyas, others that I was bewitched.  It got so that I wanted to be away from their watching and wondering almost as much as I wanted to hear the wood-maiden’s music. And then the not-dragonfly came again.

This time the far-comers didn’t say anything about potential in front of me.  Maybe it was because they knew I could understand them. They were careful and polite in their talk with me, as some people were careful with Ilonna, who had a woman’s body and a child’s mind, or Mirku, whose face was twisted and shiny with burn scars.  I wondered if they’d always been that way with me, with us all, and I just hadn’t noticed.  I wondered, too, what they had in their world that made mine seem so poor to them.

Finally I got my courage up to ask one of the people-watchers what the secret words were that got them their places on the not-dragonfly.  She didn’t understand.  I’d never asked about the not-dragonfly before: we all knew it was unchancy to ask about magic. But I had to know.  When she finally understood she told me it wasn’t words, it was coins–more coins than the whole village had. I smiled as if it didn’t matter, and I went away sad.

It was a proud and good thing to refuse the wood-maiden’s magic, or the far-comers’ magic, but to be forgotten by the wood-maiden, and too poor to fly in the not-dragonfly, that was bitter hard. That hardness settled on me, dimmed the colors of the leaves, soured the taste of bread and cheese, slowed my feet when I tried to dance.

One golden autumn day I heard a step that wasn’t a goat’s behind me. I turned, and the wood-maiden was there.  Music fell like leaves around us.  I shook like I had the chills, wanting to dance, remembering that I’d promised my mother.  I set my jaw and told her, “I can’t dance with you.” I couldn’t help adding, “And I can’t really dance without you any more, either.”

She looked at me with soft blue eyes like the far-comers’ and said, “You’re not happy here.”  I shook my head. She took something from the folds of her golden gown and gave it to me.  A little leather pouch, full but lightweight.

“Don’t look at what’s inside,” she told me, “until you’re alone in your room at home.  Don’t tell your mother about it, or it will be gone like the thread I spun for you. If you keep it, you’ll have a way out.”

I took the pouch, and she and the music were gone.

I told myself I should throw the pouch away, but how could I without knowing what it was?  I was afraid to sneak it into the house–my mother wouldn’t see it in my pocket, but she’d see it in my eyes. I started to open the pouch.  The first thing that poked out was a birch leaf, dry and dead. I stared at it a while, and I thought about myself growing old and dying and never dancing with the wood-maiden again, and never seeing the other world where the not-dragonfly went. I tore the leaf in little pieces and threw it on the ground. I pulled out two more leaves and did the same thing. And then I thought I should keep the rest, to remind me of the foolishness of listening to fay-folk’s promises. So I went home with nothing in my face but my old disappointment.

In the middle of the night I woke with the moon shining in the window and the wanting pounding in my blood. I sat up and opened the pouch again, hating myself. And it wasn’t full of leaves at all.  It was stuffed with bits of paper with strange figures on them.  Strange, but I’d seen them before. The far-comers used those papers–they said they were worth many coins.

So now I had a choice again.  I thought of it over and over while I was supposed to be minding the goats, and I let a kid get into the mountain laurel, and it died. It was harder to be proud then, and harder still the next spring when Matyas was betrothed to Dana just before the not-dragonfly came again.  I went off with the goats and tried to avoid the far-comers, I told myself they’d make me no happier than the wood-maiden had.  But I wanted…oh, I wanted.  I asked a woman–not a people-watcher, another one, who wouldn’t think too much about why I asked– if there was room for another person in the not-dragonfly, and she said yes, she thought so, but I’d have to ask the pilot.  She told me when he’d come again.  I didn’t tell my mother anything. I told myself I wouldn’t go. I went.

 

You can guess the rest. You’ve heard it all before from others who came here, not just from my place.  At first it looked like the fairy court, with all the bright lights, with the music pouring from the shop windows, with the bright screens flashing images of dances I had never imagined.  And then I learned that I needed money, not just for the helicopter ride, but for food, shelter, warmth, a place in the dances.  I saw old people shut away in bare white buildings with no kin or friends. I saw people who were hungry and went unfed, with all the food that was in the city, because they had no money. I gave them too much of mine–I thought I’d crossed over into a tale, and generosity there is wiser than it seems to be in this world.  I learned that I had to find work so I could get more money, and then I learned that no one in the city I had come to wanted a goat-herd, or a hand-spinner either.  Not that they didn’t think I’d do that work well, they just didn’t want it done.  They didn’t really see me at all.  I decided that going unnoticed wasn’t the blessing I’d thought it would be. Finally I knew that I didn’t want to be here, that I wanted to go home, but I didn’t have enough money to pay my way back.

I was lucky, still. I never had to beg.  I never had, either, to make money by dancing with self-pitying men, telling them they were beautiful, and doing what they told me.  A woman helped me to find work spinning with a great roaring machine instead of my drop-spindle.  That machine could spin as fast as the wood-maiden had, but the noise of the machinery was nothing like her music, or the quiet of the high slopes.

I was lucky.  Before my soul died of the noise I found the folk-dances on Saturday nights.  My legs weren’t graceful as they once had been, and always in the back of my mind I heard the emptiness where the wood-maiden’s music had been, but I heard too the quiet where the machine-noise wasn’t, and some memory of home.  And I found Ernst.  He wasn’t Matyas, but he was a decent man, and he wanted what I wanted: a place with room for a garden, and quiet enough to make music in, and neighbors who’d help and be helped by him, for in places here that happens almost as it did back home.  With working, and saving, and luck, we got our place in time for the children.  I gave them what I could, and I think I taught them to take pleasure in what they had. It got so I didn’t long so for the place I came from, for while that was my home it wouldn’t be home to Ernst, nor to the children either.

I found the center for immigrants, too. Their places and their languages were strange to me but I was quick with languages, and people took to me there, just as the far-comers had back home. I did a lot of listening.  Many of them had come here because they had to get away from where they were before. Some of those had scarred faces and missing limbs.  Others had scars under their clothes and behind their eyes.  But there were plenty who’d come wanting what I wanted, or wanting the bright life they’d seen in their magic boxes, and they were disappointed and lost.

I listened, mostly, instead of talking.  But there was one before who asked me how I came. I told him what I’ve told you.  He asked if my people could get into the fairy world from this place as well as from home, or could call folk from there to us.  He wasn’t just curious.  He wanted to know for himself, he wanted a way out.  I told him that I couldn’t help.  Whether or not this place has doors into the fairy world, I won’t see the wood-maiden again. I doubt that her kind come in any world to those who’ve learned to be content.


Joanna Hoyt lives with her family on a farm in upstate New York where she spends her days tending goats, gardens and guests and her evenings reading and writing odd stories. Her work has been published in Scheherezade’s Bequest, Mindflights, and Daily Science Fiction.

Issue No. 1, Summer 2012


Hedge
Louie Crew

Unexpected Gifts
Kathy Stewart

Alice the Bird Lady filled the tower feeders with wild bird food for the second time that week and, closing the bulk bag tightly to discourage pests, she raised one hand to steady the silver feeder that dangled from a low maple branch.  She cherished her back yard as her private aviary, enclosed by tall, green arborvitae that served as an effective barrier against the outside noise.  It began one spring when Alvin had brought home a bright red hummingbird feeder and then had added a suet feeder that winter.  Afterwards, gradually and then suddenly, around the property she had added bluebird houses, wren houses, nesting shelves for robins and mourning doves, and a stately white condominium for purple martins.  Several pedestal bird baths, equipped with water heaters in winter, provided a year-round retreat for species that stayed and for those that returned to her care when the weather turned cold.  She and Alvin had shared a seat on the resin storage bench in the garden, bird watching together.  Inside it, she still stored binoculars, the notebook, and bird identification books.  Although she observed birds from here often, many of them trusting her as one of their own, she remained unable to open the notebook with her late husband’s written observations.  She avoided the feeling that rose in her throat when she recalled his lively penmanship that had never completely landed on the blue lines.

After Alice the Bird Lady had filled the feeders, she stretched on tiptoe to check the nesting box perched on a post.  She smiled at the season’s first brood of bluebirds.  Her grandchildren would love this, a rare site in the states where they lived; she would have to send them a photograph.  “Hello, little ones,” she cooed.  “Oh, how you’ve grown.”  The tiny bluebirds quivered, new and helpless, in the nesting box that Alice the Bird Lady had purchased online.

She understood that people in town called her Alice the Bird Lady because they thought she was obsessed with birds, preferring them over people.  She noticed neighbors pause before her house and point her out with a smirk.  She had overheard snatches of hushed comments, including words like “strange,” “recluse,” and “distant.”  She was unaware that the other reason they had renamed her was because she resembled a bird.  A retired nurse, she was a small, quick woman with thin legs, a tiny mouth and a nose that, though not large, resembled a beak.  She wore her hair, mixed gray and brown, short and feathered close to her head.

Yet, she never defended herself from their derision.  Alvin’s death had been sudden.  Not only had she missed the warning signs, but she had been unable to save him.  Afterwards, it became impossible for her to continue working as a nurse, so she retired.  However, with her grown children relocated and absorbed in the routines of career and family life, she found that the days became a silent, inactive child that she could not engage.  After nurturing everyone around her so well for so long, she realized that no one remained.  Hovering over the nesting box, Alice the Bird Lady comforted the hungry brood, their tiny beaks opening instantly, expecting no harm to ever touch them.

She straightened, suddenly stiff and stern, when she noticed just beyond the nesting boxes two faces side by side among the bushes.  They resembled garden ornaments except she believed that they had blinked.  She peered closer.  The faces of a tabby and a boy studied her.

“What are you doing?  Get out!”  She spat the words as if shooing away squirrels.  Wrens and chickadees scattered.  Equally startled, four eyes widened and the cat squirmed in the boy’s arms; it appeared to run in midair.  Then the boy lost his balance among the branches.  Both boy and feline tumbled forward with shrieks and snapping branches into Alice the Bird Lady’s yard and rolled to a stop at her feet.  She took one step back with her hands on her hips, and glared from boy to tabby and back again, as if trying to comprehend how it had happened.  Amazingly, boy and cat were still attached.  The boy’s arm remained wrapped around the cat’s chest, lifting up the two front paws as if in self-defense.  The boy, however, seemed unruffled.

“Whoa!” He bellowed, lifting himself off the ground.  “Didn’t expect that to happen!”

Alice the Bird Lady snorted and recoiled from the boy who lacked volume control and remorse for the intrusion.  “I don’t know you.  What do you mean by trespassing into my yard?”

“Mean?”  The boy wrinkled his nose.  A tuft of his hair stuck up in back.  “I wasn’t trying to be mean.  I just fell.”

Hadn’t this child’s parents taught him any manners?  Why was he shouting right in front of her?  Alice the Bird Lady crossed her arms and noticed the boy’s untied shoes; he had shoved the laces inside the shoes.  “Are you always so loud?”

Taking this as an invitation to chat, he lowered his cat to the ground.  It skedaddled before paws reached earth.  The boy, oblivious to being unwelcome, blurted, “Oh, I must be extra loud.  I threw my pill into the garbage this morning.”

“Your pill….  What?”

“Mommy said I definitely needed to get outside today.  Whoa!  Look at all this.”  He took off to explore the yard, a bird resort featuring an assortment of feeders, houses and baths in lovely gardens.  Alice the Bird Lady watched helplessly.  Having little experience with children anymore, she was unsure how to stop him or how to convince him to go home.  “No wonder they call you the Bird Lady!  Mommy calls me the Wild Child.  Hey look, oranges!  You sliced oranges for the feeder?”

She wondered if this child ever stopped talking.

“We had a bird feeder.  Then we got Sylvester.  Mommy said it’d never work.”  He started jumping as if to grab an orange slice.  “This is really high.  How high is this?  Could you put apples on it?

Alice’s head was spinning from the barrage of questions.  If he would pause to breathe, maybe she could answer.  “Stayawayfromthefeeder!”

He jumped once more and stopped.

She sighed and then noticed Sylvester scratching a defiant paw at the soil in her hummingbird garden next to the shed.  “Hey!”  She shouted and clapped her hands.  She was too late.

“Do you sit there to watch the birds?”  He shouted over his shoulder as he ran to the garden bench.  She followed him, feeling more tired than she’d felt in a long time.  “What’s this stuff for?”  He pulled out the binoculars and books.

Anxiety rose in her throat.  “Sit.  Stop talking.”  He crossed both hands over his mouth and watched her with big eyes.  Alice retrieved the binoculars and books, and said, “I’ll answer your questions if you stop rambling for a minute.  Cool your liver.”  He was silent briefly, considering this, until a giggle escaped through his dirty hands.  They sat on the garden bench.

“Now.”  She had perched on the edge and watched a few black-capped chickadees return to peck at fallen seeds in the grass until she calmed her breathing.  “What would you like to know about birds?”  Finally the boy was sitting and not grabbing anything.  Maybe if she answered a few questions to satisfy his curiosity, he would go home.

“Why do you like birds so much?  Why do you have all this stuff for birds?”

“Ah, I see.  Ask the crazy bird lady.”

“No… well… yeah.”  He squirmed in his seat and looked away.  “It’s not really weird to like birds.  I just wondered.”

He didn’t look convinced.  At least he’s honest, she thought, and definitely inquisitive.  “I like nature,” she began.  “Look at the trees and flowers here, the bright red, yellow and orange blooms.”  She pointed to various flower beds.  “Birds are attracted to these.  They need them to live.  The feeders give them food, and they have water for bathing and drinking.  The houses give them a safe place to nest.”

She glanced at him.  The boy inspected the yard thoughtfully.

“All of this works together.  I discover new birds and learn new things every day.  Most people aren’t that aware of their surroundings.”  He watched her intently now, absorbing her words like the earth takes in a soaking spring rain.  “So while people say, ‘Alice the Bird Lady is odd,’ I think I’m incredibly lucky to have this.”  Alice stopped, folded her hands in her lap.  Nature was such a complex, miraculous thing.  It amazed her that anyone could skate across the surface, never acknowledging the deeper mysteries.  “I think they are odd.”

The boy nodded.  “I like taking things apart.  Like Daddy’s camera.  He says I’m too rough with things.  I destroyed it.”

She visually checked the status of her binoculars.  “Well, I’m sure you didn’t break his camera on purpose.”

“No.”  He sounded defensive.  “I just wanna see how things work.  Staplers, flashlights, the kitchen clock.  Those cords that go to the computer.”

She felt a mix of sadness and hope for the boy.  She wondered if the Wild Child’s parents, despite their inevitable fatigue, could see beyond the pile of broken household items.  “Do you see those black-capped chickadees?  They are sweet, friendly birds.  If I sit very still with bird seed in my hand, they will eat right out of my hand.”

“Wow,” he said, impressed but distracted.  His eyes were shifting back to the shed.  “Is that a big butterfly?”

Alice chuckled when she spotted his butterfly sighting.  Despite its frenetic motion, she recognized the tiny bird’s shimmering green head and back, soft white feathers on its underside, and the tell-tale iridescent red throat.  “You are a fortunate young naturalist to witness a Ruby-throated Hummingbird’s visit.  A male.”  She opened an identification book to show him a picture and share more about the tiny bird that hovered around the hummingbird feeder, sipping nectar with its long, delicate beak.

Suddenly, the boy was yelling again.  This time, it was something about the cat.  “Sylvester, no!”  He jumped up, swinging his arms as if tormented by a flock of starlings.  When Alice looked up, she spotted Sylvester spring from the grass into the air.  As it approached the shed, paws swiped at the bird like a boxer.  Alice ran too, relieved that the cat had missed.  The tiny bird was too fast for the cat and had flown backwards to escape the predator.  Unfortunately, the hummingbird collided with the shed window and dropped to the ground.  The boy stomped his foot at the cat.  It darted through the bushes from where it had entered.

Alice and the boy stood looking down at the tiny bird lying at their feet in the mulch.  Neither said anything.

“Is he dead?”  The boy whispered finally.

“Yes, I think he is.  Unfortunately.  It’s a fragile, beautiful bird.”

He made a whimpering sound.  “Should we bury him?  Can we pick him up?”

Alice kneeled down, cradled the bird in the palm of her hand.  It was motionless, weightless.  The boy kneeled beside her.

“Look!”  The boy said.  “He’s still breathing!”  Indeed, the tiny chest rose and fell almost imperceptibly.  She didn’t want to raise his hopes though.  The chances of a hummingbird surviving both a devious cat and the impact of a window seemed slim.

“The hummingbird will probably die soon,” she said softly.  “I’m sorry.  But you can watch him.  People rarely observe a hummingbird this close.”

“I run into things all the time.  He’ll be okay.  Can I pet him?”

“Okay.  Feel how silky the feathers are?”  Green feathers glittered in the sunlight.  The boy moved gently and quietly as if attending a funeral.  He reached over to touch the tiny bird.  When he did, it grasped the boy’s finger, causing him to gasp and freeze in place.

“He’s still alive!”  He whispered.

Alice remained noncommittal, “For now, yes.”

“We have to save him!”  He insisted.  His eyes flashed intensely.

Alice wished she knew what to do.  It surprised her how much she didn’t want to disappoint the boy.  Yet, she was forced to admit that her knowledge was limited this time.  “I don’t know how.  It’s probably too late.”

“Try mouth to beak rescue-tation!”  He suggested.

She smiled, her mind racing.

“Rub his chest?  Call the vet?  Try something, Miss Alice.”

Alice was desperate for an idea.  She wasn’t used to flying by the seat of her pants to rescue half-dead birds while calming increasingly hysterical preschoolers.  “Okay, you rub his chest.  I’ll think.”  The boy seemed relieved to be helping somehow.  How do you save something so fragile and beautiful?

Then Alice spotted the hummingbird feeder.  “Let’s try something.  I can’t promise anything.”  She lifted the bird, still attached to the boy’s finger.  They looked like two EMTs lifting a tiny patient on a stretcher.  Carefully, she dipped its tiny beak into the nectar.

“He’s drinking!”  The boy fastened his eyes on the hummingbird as it took tiny sips, moving only its tongue.  When the hummingbird stopped sipping Alice’s ornithological IV, she kneeled again with bird and boy, and they waited.

Finally, the tiny bird stood in Alice’s hand.  Instantly, it was gone.  At first their breath caught, as if they had imagined the whole experience.

Alice and the young naturalist looked at each other, tossed back their heads, and they both laughed loudly.


Kathy Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, five children and newfoundland, Samson. She has an MA in English from Millersville University in PA and contributes feature articles regularly to local newspapers and publications in addition to writing fiction.

Louie Crew is an emeritus professor at Rutgers. Editors have published 2,191 of his manuscripts, including four poetry volumes. Follow his work at: http://rci.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/pubs.html
See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louie_Crew.
The University of Michigan collects Crew’s papers.

Issue No. 1, Summer 2012

Winter’s Kiss
Ian Wright

I had no idea where we were going.  We’d been driving for hours, heading north up interstate 95 to some destination Tomas kept a mystery to me.  We were in his car – a black Nissan something sedan.  The fingers of his left hand kept the steering wheel straight with the slightest touch, his arm relaxed against his armrest.  The fingers of his right hand wrapped loosely around the stick shift, though he hadn’t changed gears in a couple hundred miles.  I kept asking where we were going, but he refused to let me in on the secret.  “North” was his only reply, which he gave with a smile.

We’d started our road trip in Gainesville, Florida after lunch.  We’d crossed into Georgia a couple hours later and were now passing the state line into South Carolina just as the sun was setting to our left.  “So where are we headed?” I asked again.

“North,” he replied, turning his head to smile.  His eyes darted toward me for just a second, then back to the road.  “You’re going to have to come up with something else to ask.”

“Okay,” I said, pausing.  “Favorite food?”

“Turkey sub.”  The laugh that escaped my lips was so sudden I immediately clasped my hands to my mouth.  “What? Why are you laughing?” His eyes danced this little two-step between me and the road.

“It’s just so plain.”

“I’m a simple guy, Alana,” he said through a grin that brought out his dimples.  I could only see his right cheek, which was almost a shame, because when he smiled this wide his left cheek had a double dimple that I adored.

“Can’t even say it with a straight face,” I leaned over and kissed the single dimple on his right cheek.

We’d been playing this little question game a lot over the couple months since we’d met.  That same little get to know you back and forth people always do.  During that time I learned lots of little trivia about him.  His favorite color was green, he was twenty-five, he’d moved to Florida in high school, he was born in Michigan and raised in Pennsylvania.  But the stuff I learned that really mattered weren’t answers to background questions.  I learned how he’d rub the top of his ear with his right hand when he wanted to say something, but was still searching for the right words.  I discovered what it meant when he’d nod and look away – the three words he knew I wasn’t ready to hear.  I knew he always made a wish at 11:11 and that whatever he was wishing for, it had to do with me.  He never said as much, but I could tell from the way he’d look at me and smile as he opened his eyes.

Stuck in the car for however long he was going to keep taking me north, there was no escape from the questions.  Each one we asked was aimed at making the other uncomfortable.  My questions were flirtatious, vaguely sexual.  His were all serious.

“If you could kiss me anywhere,” I asked, “where would it be?”

“On the beach in the rain,” he said, answering without a second’s deliberation.

“Not what I meant.”

“I know.” I hated when he said that.  “What about you?”

“Everywhere.” He let out a breathy, quiet chuckle.

“What’s your biggest regret?”

“I don’t have one. You?”

“Regret means wanting something different,” he said.  “I couldn’t want anything but what I have right now.”  I turned my head away and looked out the window.  He was making me blush.  I wanted to be mad at him for it.

The tree line was getting closer to the road.  I don’t know trees, I couldn’t tell a spruce from an oak, but whatever else those trees were, they were massive, towering things with branches that didn’t start jutting out until at least twenty feet up.  The road began curving to the right and when I finally looked back to the left I noticed the lanes going south had disappeared between a median as thickly wooded as the forest to my right.

“Where are we going?” I tried again.  He didn’t answer.  Of course he didn’t answer.  But he took his hand off the black leather shift knob for the first time since Florida, and without looking over, he took mine.  He held mine in his for a moment, squeezed softly, and then weaved his fingers in mine.  His hand was warm, and as he gently brushed his thumb back and forth along the outside of mine, the warmth spread like wildfire through my veins and up into my heart.  I sighed, my pulse slowed, and I let myself smile – just smile.  A smile that wasn’t trying to get anything in return, that wasn’t hiding anything from the world.

“What’s your greatest fear?” I asked.  It wasn’t flirtatious or hiding an innuendo and that fact didn’t escape him.  He looked into my eyes and locked them there and gave me a smile that parted his lips – something I’d never seen him do before.  He looked back at the road then and answered.

“It’s a tie,” he said.  “Forgetting who I am and having to face who that is.”  I’d asked, but it was more than I expected, more than I could grasp.  Yet he said it so matter-of-fact, and still he was smiling.  It was then that I realized my eyes were watering, though I didn’t know why.  I used my free hand to dab at them, not wanting to let his go.

“Have you ever been in love?” He asked.

“Yes.”  I wanted to add ‘you’re my second,’ but I swallowed that back and instead went with “Once.”

“What happened?”

I didn’t know what to say then.  Normally when people ask me about my first love I just tell them he was a jerk and that’s the end of it.  This time, it didn’t feel like enough.  I stared then, unfocused, at the line of trees rushing by.  I don’t know how long I waited, but a few of those little blue call boxes passed across my gaze, so at least that many miles went by.  He didn’t push, though.  He just waited.  And eventually I said “he could take me or he could leave me.  And it was in his indifference that he’d never let me go.”  I blinked a couple times and turned my head so I could look at Tomas.  He just nodded, so I continued, “Eventually I got smarter.  I moved on.  The getting over him part I’m still working on.”

I was uniquely uncomfortable now.  Bare.  I didn’t even know if what I said made sense, but somehow I knew he understood.  He didn’t say anything.  He just kept holding my hand.  A few moments passed and I asked him “How many times have you been in love?”  I knew it wasn’t a matter of if with him, but how many.

“Seven,” he said, again, so matter-of-fact.  Maybe what I should have felt was jealous, but all I felt was warmth.  And all I could do was laugh.

“That many?”

He glanced at me then.  “You’re surprised?”

“No,” I replied, smiling.  I took my right hand and looped it around his arm and leaned my head on his shoulder.  “Not a bit.”

I closed my eyes as I rested there and wondered briefly if I was number eight.  I squeezed his arm tight, just for a second, as it occurred to me I couldn’t be; that I’d already been counted.

 

I don’t know how long my eyes had been closed, but when I opened them again I noticed we were no longer on the interstate.  We approached a curve and he reached across his lap with his left hand, grabbed the shift knob, pushed in the clutch, and changed gears.  I smiled and sat up.  “Looks like you need your arm back.  Where are we?”

“North-” He turned to look at me with that smug smile of his while a wave of frustration at the answer washed over my face.  “Carolina,” he finished.

My eyes went wide and I looked around.  We were on a road headed up a mountain in the fourth state of our journey.  “What are we doing here?”

He shifted gears again.  “Remember our first date?”

Of course I did.  He’d picked me up, opened the door for me, and taken me out to eat.  He’d called it a date and I called it lunch.  “Wasn’t a date.”

“If you like.”  He winked.  “I asked if you’d lived in Florida your whole life.”

“Yeah.”

“You said you had and I asked whether you’d ever seen snow.”  He pointed up as I blinked away my disbelief.  I looked out the windshield again, my eyes wide.  “That’s not rain that’s falling, sweetheart.”

I couldn’t believe it.  I rolled down the window and stuck my hand out.  The air was painfully cold, like a thousand needles pressed into my skin.  I didn’t care.  I stuck my head out the window and tried to catch snowflakes on my tongue, but I was so numb with cold I really couldn’t say if I’d caught one or not.  I pulled my head back in and rolled up the window.  Without looking over he put his hand in mine again.  I held it tight and looked over at him, never wanting to let it go.  He was beaming with this radiant glow.  So sincere, so pure.  I unbuckled my seatbelt, hopping up to crouch on the seat and wrapped my arms around him, kissing his cheek and squeezing him tight.

I looked at the clock.  It was just after midnight, nine hours after we’d left Florida.  We drove a few more miles up the mountainside until there was actual snow on the ground.  We got out in t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers and we didn’t care.  We made snow angels right there by the road where the snow wasn’t quite white – where it was tinged a light gray and was more slush than hard-packed whiteness.  I threw snowballs at him; he threw them back at me, missing on purpose.

His little black Nissan sat beside the road, hazard lights blinking their orange-yellow glow which the whitest bits of snow soaked it up and reflected it back.  We trudged a ways farther up the mountain where the snow was thicker.  We rolled it up together, no gloves, and made what may have been the feeblest, stupidest, saddest excuse for a snowman of all time.  I found some twigs for arms sticking out of the ground where the mountain became rockier.  When I came back he’d used his pen for the nose and made a smile out of pocket change.

Once we’d put the final touches on our already wilting snowman, we got back in the car.  My shoes and socks were soaked through, the bottom of my jeans was heavy and the denim was clinging uncomfortably to my calves and ankles.  I couldn’t feel most of my body and the rest I wished I couldn’t.  Back in his sedan with the heat blasting in an attempt to thaw ourselves I realized my whole body was shivering almost violently.  Tomas reached into the back seat and pulled out a couple of blankets.  He wrapped one around me as my teeth chattered incessantly and draped the other across my lap.  He leaned over and pulled my shoes and socks off.  “How are you not frozen stiff?” I hissed, trying not to bite my tongue.  He kissed me and I instantly felt like he’d dunked me in a hot bath – that spectacular stabbing heat that’s almost too much to handle.

We drove south then in silence. My body finally welcomed the warmth and I pulled the blankets tight around me, pulling my legs up and made myself into a ball with only my face peeking out of my cocoon.  His fingers snaked their way through the maze of fleece and he rested his hand on my thigh, sending a whole new shiver through my body.  I stayed awake long enough for us to get back on the interstate, staring wordlessly at him.  Once we were on I-95 south I shimmied closer in my wrappings, leaned my head on his shoulder closed my eyes, and drifted off to sleep.  It was just before sunset when we arrived back in Gainesville.  He began driving to my apartment, but I put out my hand, ensnaring his wrist in my fingers.  “No.  Take me back to your house.”  And that night, in his bed, I finally said the words he’d been waiting to say himself.


Ian Wright lived a little bit of everywhere, but has made a home in Tallahassee, Florida. Ian is studying Media and Communications at Florida State University, but can’t seem to stop writing fiction. Ian likes Dr. Who, pandas, and wearing gold short shorts while theatres full of virgins and sluts scream lines from Rocky Horror at him. “Winter’s Kiss” is Ian’s first publication, but not his last.

Issue No. 1, Summer 2012


Aunt Anne (2012)
Stephen Mead

One Kind Thing
Jean Rover 

The towering big leaf maple that grew in Albert Crowley’s front yard dropped a never-ending pile of golden brown leaves, so thick it looked like someone had spilled a giant box of corn flakes. Crowley worked for days raking the leaves and stuffing them into black plastic garbage sacks that now surrounded his front porch like a crouching swat team. He refused to rake any of the leaves that lay on the sidewalk or drifted into the street. “Let the damn city take care of ‘em,” he muttered.

Every time Crowley thought he’d cleared his lawn for the last time, he’d find another fresh layer of leaves. That afternoon, as he filled another garbage sack, he was grateful to see some bare branches. Most of the leaves had fallen except for a few clumps here and there. A big, impatient man, Crowley reached his rake up and swatted a branch causing more leaves to tumble and scatter.

“Come on, damn it,” he nagged the tree and smacked another limb. Just then, a piece of folded notebook paper drifted to the ground. Its blue lines had started to bleed, but he could make out the message printed in a child’s large scrawl:

Dear Papa,
I miss you every waking day. Penny misses you, too. I know because she hides under the bed and is off her food. Momma says you are in heaven and it is a nice place. But Papa, it’s so hard without you. Momma says when people go to heaven they sit up on the clouds and watch over us. I have looked at all the clouds, but I can’t see you. Please Papa send me a sign, so I know you are watching me. I miss you so very much.
Love, Patsy.

Crowley leaned on his rake and read the note a second time. Patsy lived in the white house on the other side of Crowley’s big laurel hedge. He remembered Patsy’s father had just died. It was a fluke, a heart attack or something. He was still a young man—maybe just forty or some where around there. He never trusted the guy. He worked with computers, had long hair, and a gold earring.

“Real men don’t go around looking like women, unless there’s something wrong with ‘em,” Crowley complained “No wonder he died.” And computers—well, they were ruining the whole country in Crowley’s opinion.

What was that note doing in his tree? Then he remembered. He’d left his ladder standing out after he painted the trim on a window. Little brat probably climbed on it. Now what would have happened if she’d fallen off? Damn people would have sued him, that’s what. Damn those people anyway.

Crowley stuffed the note in his pocket. He didn’t want trash blowing around his yard. Once again, he attacked the leaves with his rake. He always wanted to cut that tree down, so there wouldn’t be any leaves; but Edna had liked it so much he’d let the idea go. Still, it gave him great pleasure to imagine himself attacking the tree with a power saw.

People pretty much stayed away from Crowley. He was a testy grump of a man with a shock of white hair that he combed straight back, a large bulbous nose with visible pores and a stomach that hung over his belt. He always wore a white shirt tucked into dark trousers, even when he worked in the yard.

Whenever a ball or Frisbee came over the thick hedge that bordered three sides of his property, Crowley added it to his collection. “That’ll teach those little snots. If they’re gonna throw things around, they should find a park.” If ever a kid snuck into his yard looking for what was lost, he’d squirt him with his hose. “Get out of here!” he’d yell. He wanted to put a fence across his front yard, but the big maple’s thick trunk had grown so close to the edge of his property that any fence would have ended up in the sidewalk and violated a city ordinance.

Some scruffy older boys waited until dusk, about the time ole Crowley fell asleep in front of his TV. Then they’d sneak up his porch, ring the doorbell and hide in the bushes waiting for him to come out. “Crowley Fowley!” they’d yell and run.

Sometimes bleary-eyed Crowley would chase them down the sidewalk lumbering like an ole arthritic rhinoceros, until his lungs made wheezing sounds. “You damned gravel,” he’d bellow in between gasps. After his heart started to weaken, he gave up the running. Crowley now kept a bucket of water by the door. He was still quick enough douse one or two of them as they tore down his steps.

Crowley had been a grumpy fixture in town as long as anyone could remember. When he worked for that life insurance company over on third street, he’d crowd in the lunch line and mutter nasty things if people took too long deciding what they wanted. He’d pace in front of the copier if someone was ahead of him. Sometimes co-workers copied their stuff twice just to get Crowley’s goat. Finally, his boss set him up at a desk in a windowless corner behind a row of gray file cabinets, where he read thick actuarial reports that nobody much cared about until the day he retired.

Crowley’s life had turned to vinegar after his first wife left him and took most of what he had. For a long time, he lived alone until Edna came along. She must have seen something good in ole Crowley because she had the courage to marry him. People said she did it out of sheer loneliness; others just shook their heads. Her grown son, Eddie, never liked Albert Crowley, and he only came to the house when Crowley was gone.

Then there was the way Edna died.

During a late winter snowstorm, Crowley struggled to back his old, black Plymouth out of the driveway, but it hit a clump of snow causing the back tires to spin.  Edna, a little bird of a woman with stooped shoulders, said he should get the shovel, but stubborn Crowley just pressed his foot down on the accelerator with Edna trying to push. Edna apparently walked behind the car to check the back wheels when Crowley’s method of stomping on the accelerator kicked in. The car backed over Edna with such force, it killed her. People said it was just a matter of time before his impatience would come home to bite him.

Eddie was so distraught, he filed a police report; but after hours of investigation, they determined Edna’s death was just a tragic accident. It left Crowley a bitter, bitter man. He only left his house to get groceries or to pick up something at the hardware store, and then he usually went during the dinner hour. “You run into fewer assholes that way,” he grumbled.

Crowley sat in front of the TV set, in his dark house, eating his dinner off a tray when his nose started to tickle. “ACHOOOO!” he sneezed so loud it rattled the windows. He reached into his pocket for a tissue when Patsy’s note fell out. He read it again. Please send me a sign. He remembered seeing the little girl stop in front of his house. She stared up at the stately maple and gazed at the sky.

Please send me a sign. Idiot kid, he thought. She thinks her father is in heaven, sitting on some damn cloud. She probably put this note in the tree because it was high up, and she figured her father could reach it. He shook his head. Kids these days were downright stupid.

At first, he thought he would wait for her to walk home from school. He’d give back her note and tell her there wasn’t any heaven, so she should just forget about it and quit loitering on his property. If she ever put anything in his tree again, well, he’d fix her good. That oughta scare her. He turned to blow his nose and happened to look at the picture of Edna that still sat on end table cluttered with pencils, the phone book, an unwashed coffee cup, a screwdriver and an ashtray filled with nails. He remembered the small bunch of flowers he got after Edna died. He’d heard the doorbell ring and thought it was those pesky kids again. He’d gotten his bucket of water ready, but when he opened the door, little Patsy stood there trembling with an awkward bouquet of early daffodils and some blue, beady flowers wrapped in tinfoil.

“What do you want?” he asked. She handed him the flowers and then ran for her life. But, she was the only person who ever came. She was just a little shaver then. He looked at the note again: Please send me a sign.

Well, there wasn’t anything he could do about it. Her father died. Edna died.  That’s the way it was. Life wasn’t fun. He glanced at Edna’s picture again. He remembered how she used to talk to the little girl when she played hopscotch on the sidewalk. She and that awful orange cat, the one they called Penny. Crowley hated cats. They climbed through his hedge and pooped in his yard. He should have had a big dog to chase them, but he hated dogs, too.

“Quit talking to that brat,” he’d told Edna. “Pretty soon she’ll wanna come in.”

“Before you leave this earth Albert Crowley, I hope you do just one kind thing.” Edna gritted her teeth.

“If I had a gun, I’d shoot that damn cat!” Crowley blurted not wanting Edna to have the last word.

“Just one!” Edna called out as Crowley slammed the door and went out to the garage.

Edna had never spoken up to him, and it was only time she did. It wasn’t long afterwards, that the accident happened. Crowley looked over at Edna again, and his dark, squinty eyes actually got moist.

Crowley fumbled through the cardboard box he kept in his basement searching for the baseball, among the other things that had come over his hedge. He especially remembered the ball because Patsy’s father had come to his door asking about it. He explained that Red Bailey, the famous baseball player, had autographed that ball. Patsy’s father said the kids had gotten hold of it when he wasn’t home. They didn’t know it was a special ball, and they lost it over the hedge. He wondered if Mr. Crowley had found it. If he did, he sure would like to have it back. Crowley claimed he never saw such a ball. Pasty’s father just stood there looking Crowley in the eye; as if he knew he was lying. Crowley stared at his earring.

“If you should come across it please, out of the kindness of your heart, return it. It means a lot to me.” Crowley shut the door in his face and left him standing on the porch.

“That’ll teach ‘em,” he said after Patsy’s father had left. “People should watch their kids. They shouldn’t let ‘em carry on like a bunch of wild Indians—especially people with long hair. Damn hippies shouldn’t even have kids.”

Hmmmm, Crowley thought. Patsy gave him the flowers when Edna died, so he would return the ball. Surely that would work. Then they’d be even. It was just taking up space anyway. Maybe then that darn kid would quit staring at his tree.

How would he do it? He could speak to Patsy, except she’d be so scared she’d run away. Maybe he’d sneak over to her house after dark and leave the ball on the front porch. No, that would be too obvious. She always came down the sidewalk after school and stopped by the tree.
The next day, Crowley waited until he saw Patsy coming. He placed the ball and her note in the crook of one of the tree’s big roots. Then he went back into the house and peaked through the blind. Sure enough, the little girl came to the tree; stood for a moment and gazed at the clouds.

“Aw, she’s gonna miss it,” Crowley muttered behind his blind. “Come on kid.”

He’d just about given up when Patsy spied the ball sitting on top of her note. She scooped it up and held the ball close to her chest. She stared at the sky with a wide smile. “Momma, Momma!” she called as she ran home.

Ole Crowley went back to what he usually did in the evenings eating his dinner alone off a tray, his dark house lit only by the flickering TV screen.

The next day, Patsy’s mother rang Crowley’s doorbell with a homemade coffee cake in hand. She wanted to thank him for the nice thing he’d done. She figured it was him, because she and her husband always knew he had that ball. She braced herself for Crowley’s cantankerous face and his lies, but she didn’t care. She wanted him to know how much his kind act helped Patsy. For the first time in weeks, her little girl slept clear through the night. When no one answered the door, she didn’t give up. She walked gingerly to the rear of the house, ready for a bucket of water, a squirt from the hose or whatever. She found Crowley, alone on the back porch. He sat there slumped over a bit, stiff and cold with a trowel still in his hands and a strange smile on his blue lips.


Jean Rover is a Salem, Oregon writer with an extensive background in corporate and marketing communications. She is a member of Willamette Writers, Oregon Writers Colony and two critique groups. More recently, her writing has appeared in Gold Man Review, Work Literary Magazine, and the This I Believe project.

A resident of NY, Stephen Mead is a published artist, writer and maker of short collage-films. His latest project, a collaboration with Kevin MacLeod, is entitled “Whispers of Arias,” a two volume CD set of narrative poems set to music. His latest Amazon release, “31 Kisses,” a poetry-art hybrid, is a celebration of romance for lovers everywhere regardless sexual orientation.

Issue No. 1, Summer 2012

 Steps Ascending
Stephen Mead

Machu Picchu has over 3,000 steps spread over its five square miles, some of these steps made from a single stone.  It is fortunate that these steps are spread out rather than in a single column since that would be perfect conditions for potential cardiac arrest.

Walking home from my hospital night shift, especially in the spring, I recall thinking about Machu Picchu, that sacred, unfinished, historical Aztec site.  The neighborhoods I wandered through were not so grand with breathtaking vistas, hidden niches, elaborate sanctuaries, temples, fountains, gardens, bridges carved right out of gigantic trees, or houses with thatched roofs,  but there was enough dew-wet greenery from the overhead leaves and postage stamp lawns lining both sides of the streets, to create a circumstance for wonder.  The fact that I was somewhat bleary-eyed and ready for sleep also helped.

The Aztecs supposedly chose the geography for Machu Picchu due to key astronomical events whereas I’m not quite sure if there are any significant ley lines formed at the corners of crossing streets I meet except for the occasional Mom and Pop Shop or Laundromat.  Furthermore there is the Peruvian mystery as to why Machu Picchu was left unfinished.  Did the builders, resenting the grandiose vision of the rulers, finally just go on strike, saying “Eh, excuse me, but take off your fine robes and go do some of this back breaking work your own damn selves.”?  I don’t see such rebellious strike signs being raised in the residential neighborhoods I pass, but I do find an affinity with the knowledge that these places are in-process and, like housekeeping, like Machu Picchu, perhaps never to be finished.  Lawns must be mowed, sidewalks shoveled, windows caulked, and roofs be replaced whether any of us find a thing sacred about it or not.

I think it is a work of art to walk home from work each day creating patterns of the cosmos in the broken asphalt.  I came up with the preceding statement for a poetry magazine which asked authors for unusual one-liners as part of the magazine’s submission process.  I don’t recall whether my work was accepted, (I think not), yet I still find patterns of the cosmos in the broken asphalt.  In fact, as part of a project I was working on I went so far as to photograph a blue glass heart in the midst of such cracking bits of street.  The blue glass heart was personally symbolic, representing not only myself but any person’s journey through the world, while the shine of splintered mica and layered lightning-shaped cracks of concrete did create the impression of a cosmic event.  Either that or I was just bleary-eyed again, hoping no one would call the Mental Health Crisis Unit while seeing me set down the glass heart and take out my camera.

If there was any ley line of energy made where the heart was placed its origins were dubious and obscure at best, though walking from work to home, roughly a two mile jaunt, occurred mainly in a straight line and I found something resembling kismet in that.  It’s not as if I could see my apartment from the hospital or visa versa, (though I did occasionally imagine both and my stick figure walking to and fro from a geometric aerial view between point A to point B), but as I got closer to one or the other, a sort of internal frisson occurred, like seeing a long-destined island through a nautical spyglass.  Having one’s distant destination in sight through a whiter opening between trees, one could breathe easier with the knowledge that there was not much farther to go.  Mainly upon coming home heart and spirit lifted a bit knowing I had only five more steps to reach the porch to my apartment building, and then just maybe a couple dozen more to reach my bed, fall in and snooze.

Picture the rising five steps to the front porch, gray scuffed steps sagging slightly in the middle, steps without railings but made more vibrant by holly bushes on each side, holly bushes great to sneak clippings from for holiday decoration.  Yes, picture those steps and then the porch itself, a dusty, flaking, paint-peeling grey seeming to lurch, as if sea sick, a little from the house.

Red high heels, got the sways and reels, heading home…

Sometimes those lyrics from the Jane Siberry song “Red High Heels” plays through my system as I climb up, onto and over the porch for the slope does promote a slightly drunk vertiginous sense.  I also think of Anne Sexton and her lines:  “The sea is the face of Mary…grown rough and wrinkled/with incurable age.”  It is the chipping battleship gray paint of the porch which conjures those lines, the not entirely symmetrical, jigsaw boards of wood which are wave-like with the gray paint bubbling up to lighter shades.  In theory if not in refurbishment, I rather like paint-peeling wood, the grooves and texture of it, especially when the wood has different colors of paints from different time periods.  One can almost hear the voices of conflicting historical viewpoints, the dialogues of spirits squabbling over what paint color was best and what on earth could the prior painters have been thinking.

The word pentimento comes to mind, a word introduced to me by the author Lillian Hellman and used as a title for one of her autobiographies.  Pentimento refers to an alteration to a painting while the painting is in progress, an alteration not necessarily revealed by the finished piece but which nevertheless exists in the under-drawing where the artist took a different route from the original intention.  An x ray may show this or the change might be discovered by an art preservationist coming across a patch where, for example, a figure was painted over, changed into part of the background.

I also think of a passage in a Nabokov novel where he relates the origins of a pencil he is writing with.  If I remember correctly Nabokov contemplates the journey of the pencil to its beginnings as part of a tree, the cutting, the manufacturing, the factory worker adding the lead, the yellow paint along the pencil’s sides, the packaging, the travelling to a shop where the pencil was purchased, the many twists and hands along the way before the pencil made its way to Nabokov’s fingers.  I imagine such a storyline for the porch of my own apartment building, especially where the paint has been so worn that actual beige strips of Pine wood are visible, the knots even which once were branches.

How many thousands of grains in a board of wood compose what could be considered beauty?

Perhaps Druids were on the right track when honoring trees and nature, giving gratitude to that which offers sustenance, shelter, and does so mainly in peace.  Fibrous roots sunk yards into the earth may put up a persistent struggle against being yanked, but trees are not exactly an aggressive life form.  They do not become Tolkien’s Ents even when provoked, and who could really blame them if they did?  This is why talk about distressed wood being fashionable cracks me up.  If the wood isn’t being used in an experiment and shown “The Perils of Pauline” on a regular basis it must come to us already distressed enough.

I slowly run a hand over the sun-warm barky surface of this porch floor and a pentimento of memory occurs for other porches, other times.  There is an oily latex scent in the air and I am back washing windows with newspaper and vinegar on my grandparent’s enclosed front verandah.  It wasn’t that big in size but maybe veranda was the word used then in the vernacular of city porches just as the rocking sofa on that porch was called a davenport even though I don’t think it opened into a bed.  That porch, like the one I presently sit on, also had a gray floor, but was of such shine and polish as to almost glare with the sun reflected upon it.  Summer nights were the best time to be out there though, streetlamps giving a yellowish pink glow to the interior while the air carried the sounds of those shooting hoops in the park across the street.

The night soundtrack of my grandparent’s porch, which held an occasional siren too, was a big contrast to the crickets and cicadas we heard from the porch of my parent’s farm, the insect nightlife actually more gregarious and louder.  Also, what was it with battleship gray?  Was there just a surplus of cheap cans to be gotten after WW II?  Once again the floor of my parent’s porch had that color, but this time it was painted over concrete.  My parent’s porch was another enclosed one though this had not always been the case.  I’ve seen photos dating back to the early 1900s when the porch was wooden and open to the air.  Not being an expert on carpentry, (I barely passed Shop), I’m not sure how the outside porch was converted to an enclosed one but I do have a couple good memories of it.

I remember how the clothes dryer vented out onto that porch, and how, whatever the season, even when a hose was connected to the vent and run out the front door, the porch windows would steam up.  The air had that of a mild sauna, a warm comforting moisture, and squeaky doodles could be made on the tall porch windows with one’s finger.  My siblings and I were often told not to do this however as the finger marks left a residue when the windows dried and returned to being clear.  Frost also created incredibly detailed patterns on those windows in the winter, thick feathery wisps and swirls.  I photographed them one time at sunset with a 110 camera, compelled by the stained glass effect of oranges and reds on the icy panes.  Another thing I photographed was an old wooden step ladder that had been left on the porch.  I climbed up it so the lens could frame the steps further down, how each one was covered with blotches from different painting projects, a multi-colored Pollock impasto.

Layers being built up, layers peeling away, the motion of years, and how many storylines occur on the fairly simple structure of an ordinary porch?

I think of debutantes waiting in their shadowy wings amid jasmine and honeysuckle.  What suitor will appear?  Will he be a decent one or a scoundrel?  I think of rocking chairs on porches and elders speaking of “olden days”.  I picture glowing gold and burgundy Japanese lanterns, globes of festivity, of ritual and tradition.  I think too, unfortunately, of gang activity and drive-by shootings.

The porch to my apartment building I live in hasn’t, to my knowledge, seen too much in the way of a storyline while I’ve lived here, at least not a story line where a singular event occurred and changed the destinies of all players involved.  The events have all been more along the lines of small moments lending detail to landscapes existing unconsciously, like rooms in dreams.

On one occasion my sister helped me carry down onto these porch steps shadowboxed pieces of art.  I wanted them to be photographed in natural light, and since they were earth-based, housing painted hands shaped from clay, along with moss, feathers, twigs, I was struck by the affinity they suddenly had with the porch.  Those pieces were like small rectangular time capsules in their barn wood frames, as my sister and I were also in some sort of larger ephemeral diorama time itself formed.

On another occasion an accident occurred in front of the apartment building but since I had been inside I was unaware of it until I was leaving.  It was puzzling to me to find all these strangers both in the yard and on the porch, some having set up chairs.  I had a sudden impulsive feeling that I should sell tickets or hot dogs.  I could tell the accident was nothing bad, just a typical fender bender and, unless I can help, I have this perverse streak in my nature which goes against stopping and staring.

I have had this streak ever since witnessing the remnants of what appeared to be a fairly serious traffic accident when I was a pre-teen. It was mid-winter, the sun already down, and I was riding with my parents and siblings on the way to my mother’s parents.  We had just crossed a small bridge which ran high above rocky rushing waters when we came upon the blue and red flashing lights, the crumpled smoking metal,  the stretchers and uniforms, the shouts and foreboding urgency.  In the darkness I could not make out if what I saw was pooling fuels or blood but I know I was gripped by an inexplicable empathy and fear for whomever the trauma was happening to.  I remember starting to moan and my sister saying “It’s alright.  No one was hurt bad.”   To this day I think she said this just to calm me down and I am still grateful.

As far as the accident which occurred in front of my apartment building goes, I remember asking one of the women sitting on the porch if she lived in my building.  “Oh no,” she laughed.  “I live a couple streets over.”  I’m not sure if I rolled my eyes but I do know the woman and I looked at each other trying to decide which one of us might be crazier.

For the most part, especially now that I am middle-aged, I try not to court unnecessary drama, and though that may seem boring to some I find my nerves are the better for it.  My nerves are more interested in the contours of feelings regardless whatever storyline or landscape may be shaping them, though nature is an experience which shapes feelings too.

Besides the enclosed front porch of the house where I grew up, there were two different stone steps which were great for stretching out on.  One set was situated at the original front door of the house, a couple of great slate slabs which must have been hauled by strong horses, ropes, farmhands, and positioned just right on top of smaller square slate.  A Machu Picchu in miniature, there were many dark crevices under the largest slab, a place where garter snakes nested and bees concealed hives.  Inexperienced in maternal instinct, once one of our cats decided to have her first litter of kittens under this dark dry place and was stung repeatedly upon deciding to move them to a better situated locale.  My sister and I were impressed with this cat’s valiant devotion and kept applying ice in lunch baggies to her swelling bumps.  Oddly enough she continued to purr.

While listening to humming birds in the trumpet vine which grew along them, I did some of my first writing and painting on these slate steps so often flecked with heat by the sun, yet it was on the cooler gravel and concrete back steps where some of my more vivid daydreams took place.  We lived surrounded by fields, the green and yellow hay resembling waves for prairie schooners.  It was easy to imagine the house as being pulled along in their wake, easy even to imagine the waves of hay as being waves of water and the house a galleon.  Where I came up with the idea that the house could also be a sort of spaceship and the field, drifting pieces of land far below, I have no clue.  Perhaps because our property was not surrounded by neighbors and the sky was so huge and endless is why I would stand on those back steps, picturing them somehow as a deck from which I too would lift and soar.

The porch of the building where I currently live with its gray paint, gray like the sea, like the face of Mary, obviously has the capacity to transport me on a voyage also or why would I be sitting here thinking about the words of Anne Sexton? Those words are from Anne’s poem “Letter Written on a Ferry While Crossing Long Island Sound”, and surely this tilting porch with its knobby, none-too-secure banisters, and its half-shadowed wood beneath rustling leaves, could easily be unmoored.  I think that and am set adrift as I was when deciding to make a painting of that poem years ago.  At that point though, if I was a cast sail, I had no real compass for the direction in which I was heading.  Furthermore, I was without canvas and thus improvised as Chagall used to, by using a bed sheet instead.

Beginning a painting is like deciding to write or compose.  At the start, despite what images and colors one has carried inside, there is always nothing but stark blankness to face.  A person can only procrastinate for so long before taking the plunge or giving up entirely and I find it makes me grumpy to give up so I work myself up to doing the larger work by starting small.

Just doing the ground for the painting can be a big help; getting some gesso and covering the surface to be painted on so it at least is slightly different to sight and touch.  The next part can be harder.  Should I lay out a pencil sketch first or jump right in and draw with paint?  In the case with the Anne Sexton inspired piece I worked in stages and pretty much have with every other piece I’ve done ever since.  By this I mean I use drawings to map out the larger, deciding where I want things to go.  Sometimes I transfer these drawings to tracing paper and then using either pencil or chalk, I stencil the drawing onto the canvas.  Other times it is a mixture of the tracing paper route combined with taking my pencil and going in full throttle.  In cases like that I find the eraser is my greatest tool.

“Good News” was the title ultimately given to the Anne Sexton inspired piece, the concluding two words of her poem, and I think it was good news that I  finally managed to do that painting instead of surrendering to all the voices in my head which say my painting is a heaping selfish waste of time.  I realize such thinking is fairly stereotypical of the tortured artist myth just as I know of creative types who have no qualms about “following their bliss” anyway they choose, but if I’m going to be honest about the process of a painting I might as well be honest about how much of my own war with bad nerves is part and parcel too.  If this sounds like nonsensical arduous self-pressure that’s because it is, and I haven’t even mentioned the laborious task of figuring out colors or brush strokes.  Actually I feel it best not to elaborate much on that since it almost sounds like testing a superstition, and I am certainly grateful for those breathing spaces where colors and brushes seamlessly mix, flowing as if chosen by a force quite apart from me.

I learned a lot while experimenting with different mediums while working on “Good News”, learned the risk of allowing pastel-based watercolors and markers form the waves of Long Island Sound while using oils to create a surrounding arch-shape, that arch the shape both of a canoe and a church window.  Also,  luckily, (well, maybe not for me or for Anne), the protagonist of the poem, Anne herself, is not having the happiest of trips while crossing Long Island Sound, yet in her mind she has no choice but to go on.  True, she could jump overboard and ruin her mascara, but at this point in Anne’s life she didn’t feel like it, and if Anne didn’t feel like it, why should I?

There were some key details in the poem which became integral to the painting:  Anne holding her wallet, her cigarettes, her car keys, and the life preserver with its orange letters which spell ORIENT.  Also in the poem Anne comes across a symbol she seems to consider fortuitous:  four nuns who sit like a bridge club.  It is out of gratitude to Anne and these four nuns that I wanted to do a decent job of painting “Good News”.  It is not because I ever met Anne or these four nuns, but because through Anne’s poems I feel that I have met her while also sharing in her sense of sadness.  Still, it is not only her desperate sadness, but her willingness, her want or need if you will, to still try and have hope, which ultimately moves me since, by the end of her poem, Anne has surrealistically let a miracle happen; she allows her nuns to fly, calling back to us good news, good news. 

Here on this rickety porch with not much else going on for a storyline but a couple of passing chipmunks, how I would love to see Anne Sexton’s nuns appear and then suddenly take flight as they did in my painting and in Anne’s crossing of Long Island Sound.  That to me would be a truly wondrous, wonderful, sight to behold.


A resident of NY, Stephen Mead is a published artist, writer and maker of short collage-films. His latest project, a collaboration with Kevin MacLeod, is entitled “Whispers of Arias,” a two volume CD set of narrative poems set to music. His latest Amazon release, “31 Kisses,” a poetry-art hybrid, is a celebration of romance for lovers everywhere regardless sexual orientation.

Issue No. 1, Summer 2012

Dolls

Do dolls ever get used to this?
Used to holding still,
used to holding their breath?

their unblinking eyes
fixed in a glazed stare
while someone bleaches
and irons their hair?

Do they ever cry
when their little hat pins
prick and push through their little heads?

Do they squirm
when their feet are squished
into little leather boots?

With their arms outstretched,
dolls stand patiently as they are primped,
dressed and undressed
in a hundred different dresses.

Do they ever wince
when the scratchy lace sleeves
chafe their tiny wrists?

.

And here I am on my wedding day,
pins in my hair, paint on my face,
dress zipped up on ripped up flesh,
my eyes fixed in a glazed stare
on my hands and fingers.
I do, I do.
“You will get used to it.”

* * *

A Good Housewife

I sit here
on this slip-covered sofa
hunched over, bent neck,
mending tattered and thinning cloth
sewing his socks —
when I prick myself suddenly
my thumb releasing
a single drop of blood
I lick away.

I stare at the needle’s tip
still red
then push it into
my fingers’ pincushion flesh
and pull,
the taut cotton thread
tingling my skin.
I push and pull
through every finger
until my little hands
are bound
like mittens.


Magda Rose is a 30-something designer who fell into writing by accident, even though her fortune-telling neighbor had predicted it. She has been writing for more than 10 years as a demon-exorcising pastime.
She lives in Milwaukee with her crazy calico Tori.