Issue No. 5, Summer 2013

A Rectangular Depth
John W. Sexton

sew up the gaps
where the universe leaks
then I’ll be your love

my coat of light
just the rain
in the dark

headlamp eyes of owls …
the mice that sleep in my heart
restless in their dreams

grass:
memory, storage capacity, energy,
self-generation

a rectangular depth …
yet, the word hole
will receive him equally

sunlight …
a cat leaves the black of its coat
at the tree’s shadow

in the porch
a spider shapes
perfect silence

I exhale a hat of fog …
the moon is smeared
in its own light

oh you black sky …
more visible
than the brightest stars

grit-door opening grain
by grain … ants navigate
with larvae lantern


John W. Sexton lives in the Republic of Ireland. He was born in 1958 and is the author of four previous poetry collections, the most recent being Vortex (Doghouse, 2005) and Petit Mal (Revival Press 2009). His fifth collection, The Offspring of the Moon, is due from Salmon Poetry in 2013. In 2007 his poem “The Green Owl” won the Listowel Poetry Prize; in that same year he was awarded a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship in Poetry.

Issue No. 5, Summer 2013

Flood
Rebecca Aronson

And just as before the bridge,
topsoiled water
is sweeping twig cities
free from their scaffolds,
mud-made walls debone
themselves
into untrackable wakes
which eddy and spit brief nests
onto the surface
where they swirl and foam under
looking from here like small hands
cupping air—


Rebecca Aronson has had poems recently or forthcoming in Quarterly West, Tin House, Cream City Review, and others. Her book Creature, Creature was published in 2007.

Issue No. 5, Summer 2013

Fox
Doireann Ní Ghríofa

Death comes quiet
as a gentle thud
under a car on a grey day.
Oblivious, it drives on
while behind,
all is still.
Weeks pass.
By the roadside,
a rough red tuft
is overtaken by a slow decay.
Brown blood covers the body
in a crust of rust. Crumpled corpse:
soft stomach turned to the sun,
twisted back stuck to hot tarmac,
splintered bones pushed into stones
limp paws, smashed snout,
deaf ears turned inside out.
Within, maggots squirm like secrets.
Below, worms stir.
Passing cars push
a pile of pebbles
in a cairn
by the crushed corpse.
The wind quivers
through dead whiskers –
a final whimper.


Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s poems have appeared in many literary journals in Ireland and internationally, most recently in France, Mexico, USA, Scotland and England. She writes both in Irish and English. The Arts Council of Ireland has awarded her a literature bursary. She was a winner of Wigtown Gaelic poetry prize (the Scottish National Poetry Prize). Doireann has also been shortlisted for the Jonathan Swift Award 2012 and Comórtas Uí Néill, both in 2011 and 2012. She was selected for the prestigious Poetry Ireland Introductions Series. Doireann’s collections Résheoid and Dúlasair are both published by Coiscéim.

Issue No. 5, Summer 2013

Rainier
M.J. Iuppa

What is it that upsets the volcanoes
that spit fire, cold and rage?

-Neruda

Silent one, pacific mountain
the professor described as dangerous,

looms over Tacoma, making
its own weather–looking calm

yet rough-faced. Mother of waters
Rainier, whose internal fires brood,

waits another decade for our world’s
toothless insult to ignite its fiery river

that, in quick course, will match
the ruins of Pompeii.


M.J. Iuppa lives on a small farm near the shores of Lake Ontario. Her most recent poems have appeared in Poetry East, The Chariton Review, Tar River Poetry, Blueline, The Prose Poem Project, and The Centrifugal Eye, among others. Recent chapbook is As the Crows Flies (Foothills Publishing, 2008) and second full length collection, Within Reach (Cherry Grove Collections, 2010); forthcoming prose chapbook Between Worlds (Foothills Publishing). She is Writer-in-Residence and Director of the Visual and Performing Arts Minor program at St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY.

Feature: Issue No. 5, Summer 2013

Superficial Superfish #1
Superficial Superfish #2
Superficial Superfish #3
Superficial Superfish #4
Superficial Superfish #5
Superficial Superfish #6
Superficial Superfish #7
Superficial Superfish #8
Superficial Superfish #9

Superficial Superfish
Rebecca Forste


An award-winning poet, Rebecca Forste holds a BA in English: British and American Literature from California State University. Currently teaching language arts to middle school students with special needs, Forste was previously a staff writer for Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, CA.

Issue No. 5, Summer 2013

Red
Marybeth Rua-Larsen

She’s seated quickly.  Reads the menu with her eyes closed.  It’s memorized, and with each visit she tests herself.  Today she’s remembering cakes and rewards herself with a mouthful of water when she gets them all right.  She’s lived the harm of forgetfulness, and years alone have taught her that water is its only balm.

As usual, she claims the corner booth near the window.  If her grandmother were here, they’d bow their heads in a conspiracy of calm and she’d prove her cleverness.  She’d point to her courtyard outside, the one she designed, and whisper There – our oasis in the woodsI’ve put the stones to good use.   They’d hear a shush like rain before the fountain pooled its blues into glass.  But on this visit, she’s disheartened to find her fountain dry and her poppies ravaged by a howling spring, their heads dangling at their knees.

Only her nails are red these days, but she’s convinced the big-eyed are watching and frees her hair to float across her face.  When the waitress takes her order, she clicks her nails on both the Black Forest cake and a bottle of merlot.  She never stays long enough for the cake and wine to arrive, but every waitress in the place knows what she’s been through, that she’ll leave the money on the table with a generous tip.  Mostly, they remember her nails, how she’s sharpened them to blades, how she’s ready to slice through the thickest of bellies.


Marybeth Rua-Larsen lives on the south coast of Massachusetts, half-way between Boston and Cape Cod (but closest to Providence, RI), and teaches composition at Bristol Community College. Her poems, essays, flash fiction and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Raintown Review, Angle, Crannog, The Poetry Bus, Free Inquiry, and The Nervous Breakdown. She is a book reviewer for NYQ Reviews and won in the Poetry category for the 2011 Over the Edge New Writer of the Year Competition in Galway, Ireland.

Issue No. 5, Summer 2013

Nine to Forever
Nicci Mechler

Stories are true.

Gods exist.

Magic happens.

Belief begets power, and that’s what feeds the supernatural beings of the world. Well, that and, you know, food. We’re not all strange beasties sporting perfect hair, mystical abilities, and problems with sunlight. That’s mostly because vampires are a tiny portion of what’s para about our normal, despite their sudden popularity. Lately, people hear supernatural and go right to vampires—which is great if you’re a vampire.

Until the sudden onset of sparkles has them using curse words that fell out of use centuries ago. That never gets old. I’ve seen it happen twice. (I’d snorked my latte and almost choked on a bite of coffee cake, but the guy behind me knew the Heimlich. No lasting damage.) Sometimes new stories manifest themselves when enough Belief builds up around them. Being a creature of myth, legend, or fairy tale can be hard on a person over time and through trends in popular fiction.

I’m not a vampire, a werewolf, a goddess, a goblin, or a siren.

I’m just the daughter of a wicked step sister.

Most people forget the wicked sisters were anything other than the shadow to offset the princess’ light. While stories are true at their core, the details vary, and not everything popularly relayed is accurate to history. Cinderella? Not a woman we want our daughters to emulate. She smokes like two-for-one night at the seniors’ bingo hall, has been known to hide corpses in the deep freeze in her garage, and has knocked off at least one Prince Charming in her time.

She’s family. For family, we mostly overlook the little indiscretions. Mostly.

There’s a chance my uncle will thaw out.

Eventually.

 

I frowned a little and flicked my blinker on as the guy behind me honked his horn, really leaning into it. No turn lane—just me, traffic, and angry commuters slowly clogging the main drag behind me. Not a morning person. I checked my watch. Plenty of time to get into the lot and get inside for my very first day.

The slow cruise through the surprisingly full lot took a littler longer than expected. I had plenty of reading material to keep me entertained while a couple of other office drones lot sharked ahead of me.

Back off, I’m a Goddess!

Something Wiccan This Way Comes.

Honk If You’ve Loved Hermes.

Hades Does It Hot.

There seemed to be an inordinate amount of multi-theistic sticker prattle going on for your average American business. According to Chase, the acquaintance who referred me here, this place had practically been around forever. It was under the radar, she’d said. What radar? Who wants to keep track of a local office for some auction house? Or was it shipping company? The details were a little blurry in my mind. Not enough caffeine. I was only here to office temp.  Typing, filing, and fetching coffee were my likely purview. The alphabet—my war cry. Oh, ye word processors, fear me. Secretarial powers activate!

My Frakking Fandom Doesn’t Have Shields.

And one science fiction nerd in the mix. Good to know. If I have computer problems, I’ll just look for the pale guy with the Bad Toaster mug. I passed the little compact car plastered with intellectually nerdy stickers, and wedged my very own compact car (also plastered with intellectually nerdy stickers), into a space that was just big enough for it.

Parking lots tell you a lot about a sub-culture. And that’s what this world is, a mess of tiny little encapsulated cultures all vying for control of your life. Take this lot. It’s an office building, one of those typical multi-story numbers with the polished doors, tinted windows, unremarkable, but acceptable (and expensive) landscaping, and a large, well-lit lot brimming with just about as many middle of the road, middle class, nondescript cars are all you could ever hope to pack into one place. The status quo is a living, breathing thing here.

Bumper stickers are the billboards of the century. Political, sexual, social, scientific, philosophical inclinations—all of them can be found on the ass ends of cars. People only see them when you’re leaving. They barely have time to squint and see if it’s a Darwin or a Jesus fish before you’re gone, gunning it through a red light on your way to the supermarket, bar, or all night video rental down the way. That’s why I love parking lots.

I glanced down as I stepped up onto the sidewalk and noticed a small ink stain on the hem of my skirt. My new skirt. My skirt purchased for this newly necessary employment. My mother cut me off when I said adios to her favorite of my suitors—her best client’s son. Thanks for the support, Mom. Since I’d grown accustomed to things like food and shelter, it was the job market for me.

I felt the eyes on me a moment before I glanced up. A tall, dark haired woman was standing on the walk watching me. Her eyes were a pale grey-blue and her gaze was intent. I put her age somewhere around forty-five. She was watching me in a way that made me feel uncomfortable. She was watching me in a way that screamed ‘superior’. I resisted the urge to fidget when I noticed she was wearing Italian tailored everything, and was, at that very moment, probably noticing the creeping run in my stocking that was presently making its slow course over my left kneecap.

As she turned to face me more directly, I noticed the wink of a fancy lapel pin on her jacket. A tiny owl, with articulated metal wings, seemed to be watching me too—with disdain. Perhaps the platform Mary Janes were a poor choice of footwear for my secretarial debut. I fought the urge to glance down at my toes, and reached up to adjust black-framed glasses instead. I opened my mouth to introduce myself, but the grey-eyed woman interrupted.

“You’re the new temp.” It wasn’t a question. There was something about the way she looked at me, the way she said those words, that brooked no argument. It was just a good thing I was the new temp. I didn’t see arguing with this lady as being a very fruitful endeavor.  She said temp like it was a special breed of not-quite-person.

“Yes. I’m Neva—“

“I know. Come with me. I’ll show you to your desk.”

She looked like a stranger, but I felt, for a moment, as if I were speaking to my own mother. She hardly ever deigned to let me finish a sentence either. All the comforts of home and a paycheck too? I consoled myself with the thought of free coffee and, I glanced at my watch, possibly doughnuts.

Visions of powdered sugar ushered me on, inside the chrome and glass structure, past security and up to the elevator. I was just sliding into true wakefulness when the elevator doors opened, and the reality of my situation became painfully clear.

A honeycomb of cubicles filled the largest part of the wide open room. Dozens of tiny workstations were nestled up against each other, and the sound of phones ringing, keys clacking, and clocks ticking came to me in a wave of sensory input. It was like stepping into a massive cave with fluorescent lighting. A woman in a pressed skirt and rumpled dress shirt ambled by, as if in a daze, half-eaten muffin in one hand, steno pad in the other. I glanced over at my guide, but she didn’t seem to notice. “Over there,” she said, “Cubicle thirteen.” She managed half of a smile, then turned on her heel and left me standing there. Cubicle thirteen. They had numbers? I glanced at the clock as I passed by. 8:02.

After some experimentation, mostly consisting of peeking over the edge of half a dozen temporary walls, I located an empty cubicle that could very well have been number thirteen. There were no personal belongings in sight—just a fresh legal pad, a cup of pencils, two erasers, and a single stack of post-it notes. I saw a long and glorious array of tiny yellow paper airplanes in my future.

I bent over to pick up a stray paperclip from the carpet, rolling it over in my fingers. I picked up the phone, listened for the dial tone, put it back. I was reaching for the power button on the computer when a voice startled me.

“New girl. Coffee. First hallway, last office on the right. Black, two sugars. Good luck.”

By the time I turned around, the speaker was gone. Vaguely creepy messages & luck wished for coffee delivery. Does that seem right to you?

It was only when I almost kicked it over that I noticed a large mug on the floor of my cubicle, dead center of the doorway. The guy could have put it on the corner of my desk, but he scrammed before even bothering to reach inside my corporate mini prison. The mug was blue with little white sheep on the side. It was also empty. I tugged up my sleeve and checked my watch. 8:02. Huh. Must be slow.

The hallway stretched out before me. I made my way down a darkened hall, procured coffee mug in hand, glancing back to the fluorescent cheer of the outer office only once before I committed myself to this venture. My attention was drawn as the lights flickered down the hallway. There was a thud, and a faintly ominous gurgling sound. I frowned slightly, then moved forward. A hand clamped down on my shoulder. “New girl. Wrong turn. Break room. This way.” My rescuer was a twenty-something in a blue button down and yellow tie. People were strange and abrupt here. They used a minimum of words to pass their messages. No one seemed to like standing still for very long. “Don’t eat the muffins,” the blue-shirt said sagely to me, before pointing to the break room. He turned to go.

“Ok, thanks.” I went to pour the coffee. It took me a moment to locate two sugars in the basket of artificial sweeteners and “substitutes.” Rip, pour, it was all pretty simple, routine. Mission well in hand, I took the mug up and turned from the break room, headed through the main office, and went for the last office on the right. First hallway. Before I could make it into the corridor, there was a sharp ding from the bank of elevators nearby. I glanced over.

The doors opened, and a trio of long legged, short skirted, long haired women stepped out. They laughed musically, loudly, and every head visible above the cubicles turned toward them. A few popped up from inside the cubicles like curious gophers. I noted most of them were male.  I glanced over to the women again, where they’d taken up posing against the water cooler. Several other bodies surged toward them, the drones rising from their work stations to drift into the orbit of three very celestial bodies.

A redhead in a champagne colored wrap dress skittered past me. She tucked something against my arm, but I paid her little mind.

Just then, the office manager strode down the way, a trio of steno pads in her hand. She stiffly held them out to the women, and nodded toward the corridor to a large conference room. She didn’t have to say anything. The tallest of the leggy ladies gave a brief pout, then they sashayed off en coiffed masse. I spun and headed out on my mission again, before the cool grey eyes found me malingering.  Clock said 10:04. How did that happen?

I glanced down to find a muffin perched in the crook of my arm. The woman who’d touched my arm earlier had slipped me a muffin. Drive by baked goods. Sure. I glanced back to the clock, and the snack food weirdness was chased from my mind.

The lighting in the back of the first hallway was darker, the walls painted a dull grey. Even the carpet seemed more charcoal than medium grey, and something about the decor prompted a little shiver of unease to slither right up my spine. That was silly. My everyday life is weird—this was just a day job. An office. A cup of coffee. A menial delivery.

I knocked lightly on the door, pushed it open, then stepped in to tiptoe into stark office, past the ash grey furniture, toward the large marble desk. The walls inside were painted middle grey. In fact, pretty much everything in the office was a shade of grey, and the walls had some sort of weird textured paint on them, like gritty sandstone, only… grey. This guy had a serious yen for cave-like office space. I traversed the length of the room quickly, blue coffee mug in hand. The merry little sheep design on the side seemed almost ominous in a room with this much oppressive lack of color. The white of the fluffy little sheep bodies almost glowed in a room this dark. The occupant of the office had his back to me, and was seated in a large leather chair. The length of the phone cord, also grey, spiraled in a little corkscrew around the edge of the chair, which led me to believe he was on the phone. There was no talking, though. Silence.

I crept up and leaned in, stretching my arm out to edge the coffee onto the very corner of the desk, so as not to interrupt the non-conversation at hand. Truth be told, I had no interest in meeting the grey overlord.

“WHAT IS YOUR NAME!” Yelled the mysterious guy in the chair. He was… loud.

I became aware of a burning in my hand, and realized I’d sloshed the coffee all over the floor, my hand, wrist, and down the side of his desk. It would be fair to say the volume the man achieved startled me. “Sorry?” It was not my finest hour.

I quietly flicked the cooling coffee from my poor pink hand. Ow. I was prepared for the second bout of yelling, but I was not expecting it to be directed to me. My hesitation didn’t phase the man. “SORRY, WHERE IS MY SNACK?” Snack? I turned, halfway between the desk and the freedom promised by the hallway. Maybe the man’s low blood sugar made him literal.

“Uh…” Sometimes I even impressed myself with my quick thinking.

“WELL?” He snarled, turning in his chair to face me, top-volume.

I blinked, and took in his appearance. It was a little disorienting, at first. He had very little limp blond hair atop his head, and one of those generic button downs with little grey pinstripes on it. The rest of him was hidden behind his desk, but I did note the monstrous coke bottle glasses, and the presence of an eye-patch. It’s hard to miss an eye patch. Arr, matey. Err, I mean, he probably had a scratched cornea. “Snack…”

I was looking directly at him when he talked this time, great gaping maw opening wide to bellow, “I HUNGER.” I noticed then that he was wearing a tie—a blue tie, with little white sheep all over it. The fluffy white sheep marched up his tie toward the knot. It kind of looked like they were streaming toward their doom, on a neat little carpet of blue, inside this slate-grey room, toward the depths of his gullet.

“Well, I do have this yummy blueberry muffin.” My brain overtook the shock of being yelled at by a bespectacled man with an eye patch, and I shoved the muffin forward, leaving it to teeter on the edge of the desk. Eyepatch swiped a meaty paw at it, snatching it up. He gave a great sniff, nostrils flaring and billowing as much as nostrils can.

“IS IT HOMEMADE?” He roared suspiciously.

Fib time. I didn’t know for sure where the lady out in the office got these muffins, but I had a fifty-fifty chance of being truthful here. Karmically speaking, I was willing to go with those odds. “Sure.”

He inhaled the muffin. I don’t think he even removed the wrapper. It was there one minute, gone the next. I hadn’t ever seen anything like it, not even in high school, when I had the singular displeasure of sitting across from the football player table. Seventeen-year-old boys didn’t eat like this guy. Seventeen-year-old football players would have been shamed by Mr. Eyepatch.

“Okay, enjoy. I’m… there’s urgent filing to be done.”

Dark, beady little eye turned to me, pasty lips still slightly parted. He looked hungry. He looked like he was going to howl something else at me. He reached for his mostly empty coffee mug, lifted it, and took a hearty slurp. Before I could say more, he yawned, then pitched right over on his desk, face down in his blotter.

Divine intervention. I took advantage of it, and took off into the hall. I left Eyepatch in his cave with the sheep. The irresistible urge to check my watch guided my hand. 12:57. Something was wonky with my time piece. Almost lunch time?

I approached the water cooler where several of the ladies from secretarial seemed to gather when they weren’t engaging in flirting rituals and internet surfing. I discovered that the cafeteria is on the basement level.

“Where’s the cafeteria?”

“Basement,” someone muttered. I wasn’t sure whom.

Behold, my investigative prowess in action.

The natives didn’t really like to chat. Several of the ladies eyeballed me, straightened their office garb, then turned to go. One reached her hand up to her mouth to gnaw her fingernail. She watched me, a tremor under her eye.

“You should bring your own food from home,” she finally muttered, hoarse voice barely understandable thanks to the contiguous fingernail gnawing.

“Hey,” I asked the straggler, “Is the food really gross or something?,” but she scurried off toward her cubicle without an answer.

This level of avoidance in a population is usually reserved for a murderous colonizing force with a serious case of Manifest Destiny. Or pyramid scheme peddlers. Since I was neither, I must have missed some nuance of corporate etiquette. Ever since I walked into this sterile little environ, I hadn’t been able to think clearly. Can a brain overdose on office fresh scent? Maybe corporate America was just like that. I noticed they squirreled away office supplies before they headed out of the room. Right. Lunch.

The lunch room was a large, open space with huge windows in one wall, and lots of potted plants suspended from the ceiling. Cheerful wooden tables were clustered in groups. It was certainly very clean. The majority of the room was already occupied with seated office workers. The ones with cafeteria trays lounged lazily in their seats, a few of them even tipped back or slouched, mouths open, eyes closed. I could hear the snoring from my place in line. One of them provided a lot of bass. I turned back to the rows of freshly-made sandwiches, Jell-o bowls, fruit cups, and other fare. My hand hovered over a cup of yogurt pretzels. A small sticker with a flower caught my attention. It was a black and white design edged in silver—very striking.

“A lotus, I think,” I said to myself.

The guy ahead of me in line looked back. He shoved a yogurt covered pretzel into his mouth. They looked really good. He grunted a flat, “A lotus.” I couldn’t really tell if it was a confirmation. I squinted a little. His eyes were slightly glassy, a little red. While I watched, he blinked a slow, soporific blink, and teetered a little on his feet.

Something tickled at the back of my mind. I didn’t have a handle on it yet, but when a girl like me gets a feeling like that, she listens. I stepped back from the counter, hands empty. The lady who’d handed me the muffin earlier sat at the register ringing people out. Vending machine. Maybe I’d just go find a vending machine.

I assure you, there was never a bigger lie than happily ever after. My auntie murdered my uncle and stuffed him into the freezer in the garage, where he sleeps with the ice cream. I think there’s a Chubby Hubby joke in there somewhere, but I love the guy too much to think it through to a punchline.

My mother designs living spaces for demonic entities—really. She’s an interior designer. She doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or moral leaning. Just cash. Boy does she spend a fortune on flame retardant upholstering.

I don’t want to get denominational or preachy here, but demons do exist. They aren’t all bad. ‘Demonic’ really is a misnomer. Just because something’s evil doesn’t mean it’s a demon. And just because something’s a demon, doesn’t make it evil. I’ve seen plenty of plain old human evil—too much to pass judgment on everyone else. That said, my ex boyfriend—kinda evil. His Dad? Evil. But rich. And that’s just how my mother likes them.

My cell phone went off in my pocket on the way back to cubicle land. Speak of the devil.  The dong-dong of heavy church bells was rounded out by the call of a raven and leathery flap of bat wings. I customized my ring tones. “Mother.”

“Neva, do you think you’ll come to dinner at the end of the month? I’m having a little gathering, and I’d like you to make an appearance.” On the surface, the request seemed reasonable.

I love my mother, but she doesn’t make a habit of being reasonable. “I’m at work. Do you think we could skip to the part where you tell me Dev’s going to be there, so I can remember that I have an elsewhere to be?”

“Yes, I’d heard you’ve taken the leap into the realm of gainful employment. An office temp? Really, Neva. No one in our family works for a living. You’ll come my dinner party, and we’ll forget all about this silly spat.”

“I work for a living, Mom. I have an apartment and a life.”

“I thought the working was just a phase. After you lost your last job, I didn’t think you’d bother again.”

“Dev got me fired, Mom.” I frowned. It was a war we’d been fighting for months now. “Wait, why are you giving me three weeks notice for a dinner party? That’s a bunch of time for me to find an excuse.” My mother preferred to corner me at the last moment. She arranged lives and furniture like other people waged war. Take no prisoners.

“You might be there a while, dear. When you’re through appeasing the Greeks, stop by my office. We’ll settle this once and for all. Try to make it soon, I really do despise waiting around for these odysseys to work themselves out.” She made a sound in the back of her throat. “I’m afraid I can’t get you out of your mess.”

The Greeks? The way she’d said that made it important. Greeks, big G. I wouldn’t usually think anything of that kind of phrasing, since my mother was given to dramatic over stating, but last month… last month I assaulted a Greek god.

“My mess.” I took a breath. “I’m—I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” I had an idea, but telling her that would just encourage these life checkup phone calls. “If you’d support me without trying to foist my ex back into my life that would be great. You’re my mom, Mom. Great customer service doesn’t include bargaining your daughter off to some rich guy’s son so you can try to talk your client into a top to bottom renovation.” Ever since she was beat out for the last prince, Mom had this thing about getting me married. It went a little past cute and was sliding on down into creepy territory.

“He’s a prince, darling. You should be so lucky!”

“I’ve got to go, Mom. My hands are pretty full. I really—” Click.

Some people think it’s unforgivably rude to hang up on your mother. Or lie to your mother. Pretending to lose a connection mid-sentence isn’t quite a lie or a hang up. It’s more of an all-around polite fib. I turned my phone off just in case she was quick on the redial.

I shoved my phone into my pocket, and continued on my way down the corridor. So much for finding a vending machine. A half hour for lunch really isn’t enough time to deal with the combined crazy of this place and my family life.

Last month, I caused a little bit of a ruckus when I clothes-lined Cupid in the back alley of Bar Olympus. The little shit meddled in my personal life, and wasn’t even sneaky enough to cover up his own tracks. I feel kind of bad about it now—not just because the bartender is pissed at me. Cupid’s over the hill these days, and not in a small way. The man has some serious centuries under his belt, and I don’t think his back has yet recovered from the little scuffle we had. I don’t like beating up on old guys, even when those old guys deserve it.

 

Shortly after that back alley misadventure, when I’d been down in the laundry room of my apartment, trying to get the feathers off my assault ensemble. A neighbor wandered in. Her dark hair still shimmered blue-black despite her advanced age, and her skin showed barely a wrinkle. Though she harbored all of the old lady traits (six cats, rollers in her hair at 3pm, and cranky possessiveness about her newspaper), Nemesis lived the night life of a thirty-something clubber. Vengeance was alive and well in the modern era.

She glanced over at me as soon as she walked in. Her voice was smoky, a little throaty, with an undercurrent of gravel. “Zeus serves a mean Appletini. You should show respect in the house of a man who serves an Appletini like that.” News traveled fast on the Grecian grapevine.

I glanced over at her, my fingers hovering guiltily over a large feather. I pulled it free of the weave of my dark sweater. I needed a drink. My mouth was dry. I eyed the goddess of retribution. She had a laundry basket. Maybe she was there to do some laundry, I remember thinking. “I was thinking more like: you should show respect when the bartender is the Daddy of Greek Gods, and he has a lightning propelled vengeful streak wider than the Aegean Sea.”

She’d just smiled and moved down the row to an empty washer.

“That one doesn’t—”

She shoved her quarters in and the thing started right up. She ripped off the taped on ‘OUT OF ORDER’ sign and tossed it aside. Her smile widened, but she didn’t say anything.

“Oh.”

Every once in a while after that, I caught her watching me. That is I saw her out of the corner of my eye now and then over the weeks following, but she was always on the move by the time I looked over. Maybe it was just coincidence.

 

After the little phone conversation with my mother, that vague inkling of unease settled into a ball of full-on worry right in the pit of my stomach. Flashing back to Nemesis turned that ball of unease into a giant rock. I frowned.

Demons exist. Glass slippers are real. Except that they aren’t true in the way we normally think of truth. The truth in the supernatural world isn’t static. They exist, the bare elements of them—the flavor of them is real and immortal. Ghosts, goblins, witches, and trolls—all real. They have their own societal bias, their own cultures, traditions, and language. And they also have their own stories. Eventually every story is twisted, and molded back into something suited to the purpose of the teller. Pieces are lost, re-invented, recreated, but the essence remains the same, and eventually someone down the line will recognize the elements, re-tell, and re-make.             Sometimes the changes stick. There’s power in those stories too. Sometimes the will of a fairy tale creature or an old god can play a role in what it is, but sometimes that is overpowered by Belief. The human mind is a very powerful tool. Get enough humans thinking the same thing and it can change our reality. The trouble is, we always remember what changed, when, and why.

When I returned to the maze of cubicles, I glanced at the clock. Barely 1pm. No way. The day somehow slowed down even more. My mother’s words echoed in my head. Greeks. Vengeful Gods. Odyssean something or other. If I remembered my mythology right, these things tended to go on. Forever.

Cupid isn’t good at keeping secrets. I still think it’s a little gauche to go tell Grandpa you got beat up by a half mortal girl. He only did it because he’s mad I refuse to call him Eros. Cupid fits better. It’s kind of valentine-y and silly. Ok, it could be because I broke his bow. Next time, maybe he’ll be more careful who he shoots in the ass with that thing. Right. Maybe next time I’ll just count to ten in my head.

How could this day get any worse?

I sank into my chair, and those words repeated themselves in my head. “New Girl.” Thud. A huge stack of papers landed on my desk. The office manager stood next to an office paper mule. The young man mechanically dropped off some originals of a few hundred pages. The manager’s grey eyes were sharp and fixed on me. “Fifty copies of this, bound, on my desk. You can go when you’ve finished.” She watched me for a moment, and I opened my mouth to reply. She cut me off. “Only when you’ve finished can you go.” Her calm eyes remained on me for a beat while the finality of her words settled around me.

The tower of paper teetered precariously and half of it slid onto the floor. I glanced down to the papers resting against the toe of my shoe. When I looked up, Athena was gone.

“Never ask how things can get worse,” I chided myself under my breath, and bent to pick up and reorganize the paper-lanche attempting to eat my shoe. The terms had been issued.

Those collated copies would be mine.

I don’t have forever to sit around in a cubicle if I plan to get out of this place before I age up to Cupid. The copying would distract me from the rising urge to kick his ass. Again.

Some people learn faster than others.

 

“Excuse me. Could you tell me where the copy machine is?” I asked a petite woman who was trekking across the office. She turned to me, little bits of shredded up paper stuck to her upswept red curls. She looked a little strung out, stressed out, or just really tired. “Are you okay?” I asked. She looked like she was really pretty close to snapping and certainly very caffeinated. I was careful to make no sudden movements.

She lifted one pale hand and pointed down the hallway I’d explored earlier in the morning. A spatter of ink stained the skin of her hand, wrist, and forearm. There was a brownish-black stain spreading across the sleeve of her eggshell silk top. She burst into a sudden bout of tears then ran for the bathroom. At least I assume that’s where she went. That’s where I’d go if I were buzzing from caffeine, and I looked like I’d had a shredder attack me with a cavalry of leaky pens in tow.

“Okay, great. Thanks,” I told the air where the girl used to be, before I turned to look down the hallway. No time like the present.

I hefted the stack of papers, tried to ignore the impression that someone was watching me, and headed down the hall. That creepy tingle between my shoulder blades was persistent. The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. Zeus couldn’t keep me here forever, could he? It’s bad form to entrap other creatures of myth, legend, and fairy tale—yeah, even the relatives of the supporting cast.

The hallway stretched on before me. Every question, every hesitation, seemed to make the journey longer. I stopped walking. I squinted. Very slowly, the hallway stretched. As I stood still, the proportions shifted faster. My hesitation literally made the journey longer. Shit.

I took off at a run, office decorum be damned. I caught up to the pace of the hallway’s growth, held even for several paces, and struggled with the papers. I kept a hand on the top of the stack, supported all the weight with the bottom hand, and ran. I almost dropped the whole thing twice before I saw the doorway I needed. I lunged through it when I drew up even, without giving the corridor a chance to pull any Hogwarts-style shenanigans.

No, I’ve never met Mr. Potter. I wouldn’t mind meeting Severus Snape.

Sorry. Too much information.

The lights flickered once as I rested against the wall, stack of papers clutched in hand. After that, the lights remained cheerily on, buzzing slightly. The room was empty save two appliances—a massive fax/copier, and an espresso maker.

“That’s a weird combination.” I settled the massive stack of papers down on the lid of the copier. There was an unusual ink stain on the wall behind the thing, and the paint was a little cracked here and there. This area of the office wasn’t as well-kept or traveled as the rest. It had a sort of desolate vibe going on. I reached for some papers, and engaged the behemoth.

Ten minutes into trying to feed the first stack of papers through the copier, I didn’t think the espresso machine was so weird, mostly because my attention was focused on the copies. It was the slowest, most grumbly, archaic piece of machinery I’d had the displeasure of coming across in the last decade. It scanned the pages, printed half of them crooked, the ink was spotty, and it took close to four minutes to spit out seven copies. I could have desktop-printed them faster. I probably could have handwritten them faster.

“Oh, come on. I have fifty copies of hundreds of pages to do, Junkzilla!” I tipped back and kicked the copy machine. A spray of hot espresso caught me in the side. Sneak attack.    “Yow!” I turned on the culprit, tugging my steaming clothing away my body. It didn’t really help the slow burn.

I reached over and yanked the espresso machine’s plug out of the wall. Its logo read Whirlpool. I made a mental note to avoid that brand, then returned my attention to the ailing copier. It read paper jam in flashing letters. I sighed, and bent down to pull the side door open. A crumpled piece of paper obstructed the rollers, wedged in. “Oh, come on.”

I leaned in closer, bending over the machine with my head practically in its belly, fingers searching its innards for a good place to grab the offending paper. It was in there pretty good. A small scrap of the corner ripped off in my grip.

Plastic groaned. The copier door swung partially closed and trapped my arm. My hair was sucked in halfway, and the machine rumbled to life again. Toner smeared over my skin as I struggled with the beast, yelling obscenities while I kicked and flailed to free myself. It sucked in my sleeve, and I braced my foot against its side, then kicked off as hard as I could.

There came a plastic gnashing from the belly of the beast, a hard, brittle sound. It let go just after I kicked off, sending my body hurtling backward with momentum that sent a shot of adrenaline through my system. I shrieked, arms windmilling. I fell through empty space. The button from the cuff of my shirt cracked and splintered as it was sucked between rollers. It rattled into the belly of the beast.

I stumbled against the opposite wall and slowly slid down the nondescript off-white paint to sit on the carpet. A dull ache crept up my spine, and settled somewhere in the back of my cranium.

Only when you’ve finished can you go. Athena’s words did a little drive by in my brain. Fifty copies. Collated. Bound.

My headache grew to the size of Nebraska. The burn on my side throbbed dully. The spray of of coffee cooled slowly, setting into my office wear. My new office wear. Sticky toner smudges halfway up my arm smelled strongly of despair. Ever get the feeling that someone is very unhappy with you in the very cosmic sense?

Me too.

The ancient coffee machine burbled, the copier chugged, and toner dripped from the still-open maw of a door, as if awaiting a wrong move, a step too close, a loose piece of clothing within grappling range. Wait. I unplugged the espresso machine. My eyes flicked to it. Still unplugged—still bubbling. Great.

I edged up the wall, pushing off of the floor with one hand. The papers meant to be copied lay in a heap across the floor. The tray of warm, recent copies was still, peaceful. A lure to come closer.

I looked between the machines. A normal person would run. I told myself this, and straightened my espresso-stained shirt, pulled my jacket closed, and did up the buttons. The office door slammed shut on its own. I eyed the two machines again, and straightened. “Okay. I see how it is.” A normal person wouldn’t talk to appliances.

I am not, as discussed, a normal person.

“Look, you and I are going to work together, and than I’m going to leave, and you can torture the next doe-eyed temp or intern or Grecian misfit that walks through those door—.” In all of the tales I’d ever read about the Greek gods and their antics, one thing held true for all, at least that I could remember. Whether it was hubris, jealousy, passion, or revenge, every story revolved around a power dynamic. Gods vs Greek mortals.

I’m not a god, but neither am I entirely mortal. Or Greek. I believe in Zeus, but I don’t believe in the all powerful, almighty, thunderbolt hurling, swan seducing, look-at-me-I’m-a-sexy-bull and I own you Zeus. Sometimes stories have power over you. In some cases, they have only as much power of you as you allow.

“Scylla and Charybdis, I presume.”

Gnash.

Sizzle.

“If you want me to go all Hercules on your butt, I will. And then I’ll drive to Staples, shell out the thirty-five bucks, drop the copy job on Athena’s desk, and call it a day.” I leaned in a little. “Wouldn’t you two rather play with someone who Believes? My suit’s already ruined, but I can go a few more rounds.” I pulled off a shoe. The heel was high enough to do some damage. “You think paper jams? Think again.”

I’m not above tough talking a copy machine into submission.

“How about if I make an offering of a fresh toner cartridge?” The one-two punch of a threat and a kindness proved too much for the old gal. It spit out several copies it’d been hoarding somewhere in its mechanical guts. Who says a woman can’t be reasoned with?

I glanced over to the espresso maker. Its logo glinted in the dull lighting. I thought for a moment, then reached over very slowly. It bubbled at a fairly sedate pace. I took hold of the cord,  gently plugged it back in, and said, “Sorry about earlier. It’s been a tough sort of day.”

The spouts and dials of the machine remained stationary. Nary a droplet of hot espresso burbled up from the valved pipes.

It didn’t take me long to fetch a new toner cartridge for the surly behemoth. I took a few moments to clean the espresso machine. It was clogged in places. The exchange was tense, but no further assaults issued from either side.

I emerged some fifteen minutes later, collated stacks of copies finished in hand. My sleeve was torn, hair a little shorter on one side. I had a few burns, but those were hidden by my closed up jacket. The espresso stain barely showed.

When Athena bid me a good evening, she smiled. Her eyes stayed on me when she said, “Eros is recovered. If you plot revenge, it’s best served in time, when his grandfather has forgotten this business between you, and best done in a more anonymous fashion.”

“Me? I wouldn’t—”

She smiled. “You would. You probably will. Be more careful next time.”

I couldn’t argue with that.

 

On the drive home, I fished my cell phone out of the compartment between the front seats, and dialed up my favorite Indian delivery place. If I timed it right, they’d hit my apartment five minutes after me, traffic willing. Nothing washes away a bad day like wood stove-baked naan. When a familiar voice answered, I smiled, already in a better mood. “Hey, it’s Neva. How are you?”

“Neva, where have you been? When you don’t come in on Thursday night, we worry.” The greeting was brief, and the concern was touching. It’d only been two days since I saw them last.

“It’s only been—” I tried to speak.

“Two weeks. We thought you got hit by a bus, or skipped town, or…” Hit by a bus? Skipped town? First, I don’t come in and it’s skipped town or hit by a bus? Second, two weeks? Cupid. Zeus. Dev. Someone, someone, would pay. Given the way I’d spent the entire day, I was leaning toward Dev paying the price this time. Even when you’re only mostly mortal, it’s a lot like tempting Fate to deliberately go after a god… or his aged godly grandkid.

I love Indian food, but Padmakali was going a little over the top with concern. It’s not like I lived in their kitchen come hell or high water. I love naan, but not that much. Padma fancied herself a seer, with intuition and knowledge beyond your average restaurant hostess. We were friends. “Sorry, you said two weeks?”

“Yes, two whole weeks. Where is it you have been?” When she got upset, she had a little trouble with syntax. Under normal circumstances, you’d never know English wasn’t her first language.

“Working. Working hard.” And, apparently, getting stuck in time distortions at the whim of geriatric deities. “Padma, I’ll come see you later in the week. We’ll sit, talk. For tonight, the usual, extra spicy?” It was a plea as much as a request. The day was a long one, and I just wanted to go home. She agreed, reluctantly, with a soft sound of assent (or disapproval). I disconnected and checked the date on the phone. Yep. Two weeks. Greeks are as bad as Faeries.

I arrived home in record time and lugged my stained, slightly crisped self inside to shower off and change. The doorbell rang when I was in the bathroom trying to figure out what to do about the lopsided haircut. I walked out through the living room and pulled open the door with a smile.

The smile vanished. It wasn’t Padma or her delivery driver standing in the hall.

He stood there with his head tipped slightly back, eyes taking a slow circuit of my body, wrapped as it was in a bath robe. He looked like trouble, mostly because he was. I hadn’t seen Dev in a few weeks, we barely spoke for weeks before that. We were not on friendly terms. I could practically feel him thinking inappropriate things as he dragged short nails across the scruff along his jaw. His leather jacket cost more than some cars. He was dressed in all black, except the tee under his jacket, which was a burgundy wine. Not that I was staring at his chest or anyth—damn it.

I tightened my robe sash and dropped my hands. My other robe was in the hamper, so I had grabbed the nearest one, the one hanging along the back of the bathroom door. It was warmer, fluffy. It also happened to have the Powerpuff Girls on it. (It was a gift from my niece. It was. I swear.)

Dev’s eyes lingered for a beat on the robe. Few seconds passed, but it felt like minutes. My hands went a little cold and my eyes narrowed. He smirked and asked, “How was your day, baby?” The bag of carryout, from a little Greek place down the street, crinkled in his other hand.

I didn’t even consider counting to ten.

I broke a nail and bruised my hand when I punched him in the jaw.

I slammed the door in his face.

I thought I heard a familiar throaty laugh from my watchful neighbor down the hall.

Sometimes, being descended from Princesses is a challenge.


Nicci Mechler is a recent graduate of Northern Kentucky University’s Masters of English program. Her fiction most recently appeared in Rapunzel’s Daughters. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she writes, paints, and falls asleep with armloads of books.

Issue No. 5, Summer 2013

A Bottle of Mania
Judy Hall

I give you my bottle, my friend, and request that you drink the sweet, heady draft, variegated in colors which are too changeable to name. You contemplate it, so I tip it to your lips and tell you to trust me, to try; and believing, you swallow.

We fly to the moon in a spaceship made of glass wearing gowns of dark matter and descend on the surface, which, to our delight, is made of sponge, not cheese and we bounce, almost weightless, turning somersaults in midair, simply enjoying the sensuousness of body on sponge and weightless twisting. There is an atmosphere, light enough to spring and strong enough to breathe, which stays long enough to rebound around the surface of the moon – twice. Invigorated, we smash the spaceship made of glass and grind it into sand and build a beach where waves cast over our languid bodies, waves which carry us toward the earth but not of the earth.

We swim.

We realize we are part fish and need no air so we swim out into the ocean; we can breathe salt.

I see you have gills, you say to me.

And you have fins, I point out.

We lie on the ocean floor and watch whales cavort and dolphins caper until we grow jealous of their joy and decide to go dance. We swim ashore, collecting seaweed as we go, wrapping our bodies in fine eveningwear of green and black, plucking pearls for my ears and your tie pin.

Don’t think I whisper as we dance, because I can see you slipping back – back to reality and meetings and bills and concern. You struggle so I offer you the bottle.

You sit, in your tuxedo of seaweed, contemplating the bottle whose color and shape are unfixed, transforming in your very hands and you are thinking thoughts too heavy to be light and too weighty to float, so I blow helium in your ear and we take flight, stripped of seaweed and swathed in the vapors of the night.

Your thoughts, each one a choice that should have already been made, fall like boulders to the dance floor, shattering it and propelling us faster until we are swooping over the countryside. You show me the patterns of the lights on the Parkway, dizzying crimson and a flash of brilliant white and you whisper, follow the flash.

Listening, I’m off and following, forgetting to remind you not to think; I’m flying at incredible speeds and I’m aware of the brilliance of the blaze and I allow it to consume me. Just as I turn into an inferno, I see you sinking and throw you the bottle, which turns into a fiery paper airplane and pierces you in the center of your forehead.

I burn, effervescent from the swirling night and the flash of the light and I allow it to consume me. My thoughts are only of the sensation of burning delight.

As my flame fans out, I come to land in a meadow, dressed in grass and leaves and bits of bark; I search for you, hoping you caught the plane and stayed with me in this land of vibrancy and enchantment, this land you can’t attain fully on your own.

You are in the middle of the meadow, a meteor on your naked chest. Your hair is aflame and your eyes are distant, starry and full, but the boulder is weighing you down. I look for some leverage to push it away, knowing it is a mass you own, knowing it is a mass I own, knowing the weight of it will return, but hoping that you might, my friend, be fully free of it for one night. I find a sturdy stick, perhaps a sapling struck down in the meteor shower, and wedge it carefully between the slab and your slippery skin, and slowly, gently, roll it off. You sit up, your hair still ablaze, your eyes still bright, and I suggest we find horses and gallop through the remainder of the night.

You shake your head, sadly; magic is here, but so is the weight of your world. You cannot cast it off as I can and finally I begin to understand: you don’t want to. I sit on the floor of the meadow, my dress of grass and bark fall away. I am clothed in the steely armor I wear when I leave the land of allure; I too have a wedge of rock and it is love and fidelity and filled with meetings and paper and emails to answer and children to feed. I nod my head and wave goodbye and you leave, some enchantment following as you roll your boulder away. I wish I could explain – but I simply can’t – that I may not enter this land at will; it comes to me when it comes, it leaves me when it leaves. No trace remains, no bits of magic embroil my heart when I am encased in the steel of the day.


Judy Hall is a teacher of English both at the high school and college level although she wishes she could just write all the time. She has a Masters in Literature from Rutgers and is an MFA candidate at William Paterson. She’s been previously published in Outsider Ink, Ostraka and Linguistic Erosion (June 13). She lives in New Jersey with her husband, three children, a very stupid cat named Vladimir, an evil cat named Tonks and a number of unnamed fish.

Issue No. 5, Summer 2013

Blurb
Sita Mamidipudi

i.

A story was sitting in my bedroom, naked. It was a new story, even a sexy story, but a strange story and a lost story and I didn’t know what it was doing on my bed that evening. I could hear voices coming from it. They were mumbling, low, crowded voices, and I could see that it didn’t know what to do with them, either. It was laughing like a mad woman on my bed, with tattoos on its face and neck but magic was coming from its fingertips and music was coming from its toes.

I held its hands all night that night. I took it into my home and heart and made it my own, excited by it and confused by it, listening to it and believing in it. That was when that story became my story. That was when the stories began to find me. It was then that I first set out looking for stories in cities, when nights were young and stars still shone when darkness fell. Very slowly, I made stories my business. Abandoned and forgotten as they are, these stories, I find them a home by fireplaces in books, with a drink in a pub, on a postcard, in a smile; I find them their storytellers.

It was how I reached this city at night one night, with a story in my pocket and nobody to tell it. Little did I know what this story was to bring me. How could I know that some stories are powerful and mean, more myth than fable, told only in secret and only to those who needed to know? What would I have done if I knew? I came, anyway, young and stupid, daydreaming my nightmare.

When I arrived, the wind was but an old acquaintance. It carried a tune from times past – a gentle reminder of my own song, one that my heart once sang to me. If I could whistle, I would have done. I hummed my song instead, hoping that my feet will follow. Like nostalgia, the notes were made of warmth and gushing emotion that surely belonged to some time else, having the edge of something completed.

But new people in old cities, we always sing our songs carefully. We are afraid of the rhythm of the new city beating against our old one. We shuffle our feet, hold our bags close to our chest and step watchfully. In this city, my song had an awkward place.

ii.

Along corners of buildings, in shadows of crowded streets, as red lights turn to green, people hurry. A broken button, a stolen purse, a fallen slipper, forgotten books, the city gathers these like a magpie. It picks up distractions, expressions on faces just before laughter, lingering smells of the tired and the melancholic. Obviously, cities can tell quite the story.

The familiar know the inviting lights of marketplaces, the fading greys of oft used roads, the sound of snores on busy afternoons. And I, I am but the enraptured audience of a master story-teller. I watch hagglers of prices of cloth, their tricks and counter-tricks, like a game of chess between two best friends always playing the same first moves. Children crossing roads with habitual precision, fruit vendors on roads or people sitting on park benches, reading the newspaper. Nothing puts them off, not even the rain.

When everything is new, there is no guilt in loneliness. For amusement, I walk old streets with older stories, I sit by myself in coffee shops to read magazines, I scout bookstores whose every book the owners know, in cinemas I look at people’s faces instead.

As souvenirs, I collect evidences of stories. I wonder where couples come from in the trains, what worries line the child’s face, whether the man in the tight jeans has had sex yet. I take pictures in my mind of pink houses with no doors, of homes in slums with air conditioners, of the woman sitting with big bags in the bus stop, of old people riding rickshaws on crowded streets.

On such a day, I climbed on to a bus headed east and north. Nameless, faceless I, in a city full of blank faces and stolen stories, I sat by a window and counted the trees. The count was forty-two when a man with large ears and the most fascinating curly hair sat next to me. Stories come out of people’s hair, they say. The more tangled up your hair is, the more stories there are. Sitting next to him, I could feel the buzz in his hair. Those voices were calling to me again, and all I could do to stop myself from taking them was stare out the window, and count the trees.

When I tried to steal a glance at his hair again, he looked me squarely in my eye. “You are a thief, Story-Monger,” he said, snarling, “a thief, and now you will pay. Run. As fast as you can. As far as you can. Some stories are not yours to sell.”

iii.

Nothing is ever just a story. I learnt this too late. Youth is for making mistakes it is often said, but what you never hear is that growing old is for staying embarrassed. Your mistakes never really die with your youth. Along with bad knees and sweet cravings, age brings you regret. In my case, this is more than true.
So when the snarling man on the bus knew me and asked me to run, my first instinct was, indeed, to run. I got off at the next stop, took bus after bus after bus till I almost forgot how many buses I had changed and which direction I was headed. I knew I had reached the edge of the city when the smell changed to a sharper green, and the stories only grew louder.

Cities have rules. You feel them, but you never know they’re there. You have roads you don’t take at certain hours, tea stops you make if you’ve lived there all your life, cigarette shops you smile for, one ways without sign boards, standard orders everyone places, bus routes you avoid, theatres that show only one kind of film, places nobody ever talks about but everybody’s been. You draw lines all around yourself, lines that everybody sees and nobody crosses. Lines that make you and me what we are in cities: anonymous.

At edges of cities, rules become brittle. Your face becomes better defined; your name suddenly becomes heavy. Those lines that you made walls out of, break down. Often, and this is more so for me, stories start to feel different. An old story-teller I met once told me that stories are but facets. You only see what you’re meant to see; you believe what you want to believe. Conspiratorially, he leaned forward and told me, “Truth, at best, is fiction. Most of the time though, it’s just fantasy.” I pretended to laugh at him then, but I knew this only too well.

At the edge of this city, the story I was travelling with went quiet and sat still. I found a room in a new and upcoming hotel that readily bought my lies and was eager to please. A door-to-door salesman I was, for the night. The receptionist asked me my name, he asked if I had children, a spouse, a life like his. He asked me what I sold, and I said I sold lies; I wonder who was telling stories – not him, not me.

I hid there that night and I dared not dream. As calmly as I could, I asked the story to speak.

iv.

“In some ways,” the story said, “I am the story of stories. I am the Story. Stories, as you know us, don’t have lives of their own. You think we’re content by ourselves and within ourselves. For what it’s worth, this is a lie. Stories are everything. You are who we are. We are what you know, what you see, what you speak, what you understand.

“Each one of us is a story. Your memories are imagination, your lives are narratives. Pieces of fiction are strewn everywhere in your thoughts. A world that used to sit on the back of a turtle on the back of four elephants is now your world, a big rock that is suspended in space. This World is a story. I know her well. We are, in fact, sisters.

“She and I loved to travel together. We were heralded in the greatest of cities by the greatest of minds. Until one day, on a lonely road where not many of our kind often strayed, we were caught. We were written down in a book by someone who only understood what he saw of us then, never to change, never to travel except for where he went, and never, ever, to sing.

The stories know him as the Keeper of Stories, or simply, the Keeper. Your time would tell you that he is about two hundred years-old. To us, this means nothing. His story never changes. His story is never sung. He is the Keeper, and he keeps stories to himself. He finds us and he uses us, he passes us down in secret to those who never care.

So I ran away, and I found you. Story-Monger. Liar. Thief. You have many names. You have many stories. The Keeper is dangerous to your kind, Story-Monger.

Beware.”

With that, the Story went quiet again. The forms she took while singing her song dissipated, and she wasn’t she anymore. I was more afraid than anything, now that I knew what I was running from.

The Keeper of Stories. I had never heard of him before that, nor have I heard of him since.

v.

By dawn, I left the hotel and headed back into the city. I’ve made some stupid decisions in my life, but none of them have ever been as stupid as this one. I’m a coward and thief, not the hero of any story. The way I saw it, this Keeper wanted the Story back, and I was going to give it to him if only to see how he took it.

All day I took buses that headed south and west, not once finding a curly haired man in a seat next to mine. All day I told people stories in buses, stories about stories, stories about stories about stories. Some people laughed, some people listened with only half an ear. Some people gave me some stories in return. The story I was travelling with grew warm next to me, and by the end of the day I wanted to sing.

If the Keeper wanted his story back, what better way to give it to him than this? If I have a story to sell, who better to sell it to than the city itself? So I found my way to the heart of the city, where the stories go at night. There I let my story stew, until all the dreams came out.

vi.

There’s a story you know about a little girl on a lonely road. You’ve heard it in some form or the other, I’m sure. The wolf came to eat her, they say. The bad man on the road will take her away, they say. The ghost will come to scare her, they say. The woodcutter came to save her, once. She went missing and never came back, once. She lived, grew old and died eventually, once. But you know this story. It is in you somewhere, like many millions of other stories.

There’s a story you know about a little boy on a lonely road. You’ve heard it in some form or the other, I’m sure. He can shoot an arrow like a king, they say. He can fight all the monsters and fulfill every prophecy, they say. He found shelter in a farm and fell in love with the owner’s daughter, once. He sold a cow for some beans and went back home, once. He lived, grew old and died eventually, once. But this story isn’t new to you, either. You know it before I told you, like millions of other stories.

Have you ever wondered where these stories come from? How do you know all of them? When you weave your stories in your dreams, what do you do with them? Are your dreams really your own dreams? What do you feel when you feel your dreams? Where do you go when you dream?

Are you sure you stay in bed?

vii.

I can tell you what I did that night,

for that’s how far this story will go.

I can tell you how I freed my Story,

but I can tell you no more.

I waited for you to dream that night,

and took your stories from you.

The Story and I sang to you

until we could sing no more.

I waited for you to dream that night,

and gave my stories to you.

The Story and I sang to you

until you could dream no more.


Sita Mamidipudi is a PhD student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, India, studying Political Science. She works on issues of gender and development in drought-prone regions of India. Her work has never been published before.

Issue No. 5, Summer 2013

Eldest
Christina Elaine Collins

We watch them toss the shoes into the fire, one by one, at my father’s command. Satin, laces, soles burning. Freedom burning.

True, freedom is different for everyone. For the tired, it is sleep. For the poor, it is wealth. For the sick, it is health, even death.

For my sisters and me, it is a pair of shoes.

Was.

We watch the servants douse the fire and sweep away the black corpses of twelve pairs of dancing slippers. The soldier stands in the corner, the only one not looking at the ashes. He glances at the walls and the ceilings. At the estate that is now his.

The chamberlain approaches my father. “Their chamber has been boarded up. The entrance to the tunnel, too.”

My father nods. “And the new room?”

“Ready. Their belongings have been moved.”

“Good.” He gestures for the soldier to come forward.

The soldier bends in a bow of modesty, his handless arm behind his back.

“So? Which one would you like?”

“Which what, sir?”

“I haven’t forgotten what I promised you if you figured out their secret. And you did.”

“Ah. Yes. I haven’t forgotten either.”

“Well?”

The soldier turns to us. We tense, a litter of puppies in a shop window. I hear our thoughts twisting in our heads. First: rivalry. If he picks one of my sisters, it means I’m less desirable. Then: protectiveness. If he picks one of my sisters, we’ll be separated. And: dread. If he picks me, we’ll be separated.

I force myself to relax. My chances are eleven to one. Less, really. We all know the odds lean toward April, the fairest, and December, the youngest. They know it, too. Their eyes dart around for unguarded doors, open windows. Of course there aren’t any. Our only way out has been discovered, closed up.

The soldier shrugs. “I’m not so young anymore, so I’ll take the eldest.”

His voice drips with logic. I can’t deny it. To marry the one closest to your age—it’s logical. If he’d picked the fairest, that would make him shallow. If he’d picked the youngest, that would make him a pervert. The soldier is neither shallow nor a pervert. Anyone can tell by the lines on his face that he’s a sensible, middle-aged man who wants to retire into a respectable life.

My sisters lean in, clutching my arms, as the weight of my twenty-six years bears down.

My chances were eleven to one.

~

“So you’re the eldest.” He smiles when we’re left alone. “Remind me of your name?”

“January.”

“Ah. Of course.” He reaches across the table and puts his hand on mine. I draw back. He raises an eyebrow.

I stand up and walk to the window.

“Didn’t realize I chose the coldest month of the year.”

I ignore him and look out at the hills drenched in gold. They look warm. It’s freezing in here.

“Is there a problem?”

I keep my eyes on the gold. “I’m sure you can figure it out. You were clever enough to figure out where we go dancing at night.”

He laughs. “I don’t know about that. It wasn’t all me.”

I turn my head slightly. “What?”

He shrugs. “It was an old lady who tipped me off. About avoiding your wine. Never would have thought of it myself. You would have put me to sleep like all the other fools.” He laughs again. “Funny little washerwoman. With all her doodads and ornaments.”

I turn and stare at him. A laugh rises in my throat, threatening to crack like thunder. “Where are you going?”

I pause at the door. “To tell my father.”

“Tell him what?”

“You cheated.”

“And he’ll believe you?”

“Yes. He will.” I leave, but as I walk down the hall, I know he won’t. I know there’s no point. I lost my father’s trust, for good, when he learned we’d lied about the dancing.

But to be fair, he lost my trust long before.

He lost it when I found him locking our chamber door every night. If he never locked our door, never kept us inside like precious, endangered pets, we’d never have looked for another way out. And we’d never have found the tavern. And we’d never have tasted freedom. And the soldier never would have taken it away.

~

The first night, November and March pulled the bed aside, and August and I lifted the door.

We stared at the hole. They looked at me, waiting. I knew that if I went down, they’d follow, because I’m the eldest. The eldest has to be bolder than the rest.

I grabbed a candle and stepped down. “Let’s see where it goes.”

As we crept squinting through the tunnel, I recognized the markings along the dirt walls. They were the same raven and wolf insignia from the banner hanging in the parlor—the crest of the family that had lived in the manor before us. My father liked to honor the history of places. The family was long dead, of course, but I wished I could thank them for the tunnel they built under my bed. For giving us something to do that night. Even if it was only going to lead us to the kitchens or the stables or back to where we started.

When the tunnel opened up, there were trees, silver ones, or maybe they only looked silver in the moonlight. There were sounds too. Close ones: Mosquitoes humming. Owls hooting. And far ones: Music floating. Laughter trickling. We followed the far sounds through bushes and branches until we stumbled into a clearing. We stared at the old brick house with a sign that said Fitcher’s Tavern. My sisters looked at me again, waiting. I knew that if I went in, they’d follow.

I blew out the candle and went in.

It was almost as dark inside as it was outside, but we could see the fiddlers, two women and two men, and, around them, women hooking arms and whirling and laughing and sweating. Men stood around the edges, watching the women and clinking jugs of ale.

We observed the dance for a while, but people stared. We were the new ones. I tugged on February’s sleeve. “We ought to leave.”

February nodded, but as we turned to get the others, a girl hooked arms with her. February squealed and reached out, hooking October’s arm. October squealed, too, and grabbed my hand. Panicking, I grabbed May’s. So we went, the twelve of us, into the dance.

I didn’t know what to do with my arms and legs. The women weren’t dancing the way we were taught in lessons. They were swaying, skipping, swinging, moving their hips in circles. There was nothing ballroom-like about it. August and November moved without hesitation, with authority, and I envied them. Each time I tried to imitate them, I felt more awkward.

Then I got my second drink and felt the movements less, the music more. The adrenaline more.

At one point I noticed my hair had come undone. Or maybe I had undone it. It swung a step ahead of me. I looked around; my sisters’ hair was loose too. Someone handed me another drink. June spun me and I laughed, heat and blood pounding in my cheeks.

When a barmaid told us it was closing time, we stumbled outside through the bushes and branches and fuzziness and somehow—I don’t know how—found our way back to the tunnel. We fell onto our beds, heads spinning, minds twirling, as we squinted in the sun that peeked through the curtains.

I must have fallen asleep, because the clock said eight when I opened my eyes. I shut them again, to stop the spinning.

August groaned in the bed across from me. “My head.”

Keys jangled outside our room.

April giggled. Then she groaned, too, from the effort.

The doors opened, and the servants rolled in our breakfast carts, on schedule, up to our beds. I attempted to sit up. The maid by my bed started. She looked at me. “Oh—Lady January—are you ill? Can I get you something?”

I couldn’t move my head because of the throbbing, but I managed to croak, “Just a new pair of shoes, please.”

~

They give us only high-heeled shoes now. Shoes we can barely walk in, let alone dance in.

We ache to move, me in my new chamber and my sisters in theirs. We ache because our feet no longer ache.

I can still dance barefoot; they can’t take that away. But I am never alone. The soldier is always there, or my father, or the chamberlain, or the servants. At least my sisters can dance in their room, after my father locks their door. And I, down the hall, lie on my back on the left edge of the bed, three feet from the soldier, watching the moonbeams dance on the ceiling.

It’s not the same, my sisters say when I see them at meals. It’s not the same without you. It’s not the same without the tavern. Nothing is the same.

Then one day they seem in good spirits. I catch them yawning and grinning at each other during breakfast. I pull June aside and ask her why everyone is so cheerful.

“We found another way out,” she whispers, beaming.

“Where?”

A servant walks by, and she presses her lips together, waiting for him to pass. She giggles and leans in. “Under April’s bed. We couldn’t believe—it’s the same tunnel, you know. And the chancellor was stupid enough to put us in a chamber without pulling up the carpets.”

I try to keep my voice straight. “You’ll be found out again. It will be worse this time.”

She shakes her head. “We go barefoot now. No slippers. No evidence.”

I glance down at her feet, but they’re covered.

She grins. “Yes, the blisters are worse. October stepped on glass last night—what a mess—but it’s a small compromise.

I frown. “She stepped on glass?” But that’s not what bothers me.

“She’s fine now.”

“Are you sure? What if it’s infected?” But that’s not what bothers me either.

What bothers me is that they can go on dancing without me.

She cocks her head. “You know,” she whispers, “you ought to check your floorboards for doors. There could be more. You could meet us.”

“I’ve checked.”

“Oh. I guess it would be impossible anyway, to sneak out with him in bed next to you. We know he won’t drink the wine.” She laughs.

I can’t bring myself to laugh back.

After breakfast, as I walk past my father’s study, I think about tattling. If I can’t go dancing, they shouldn’t be able to either. I pause at his doorway, hovering. I see his gray head bent over his desk.

After a minute, I keep walking.

In the main hall, two servants struggle to maneuver a sofa through the front entrance. The soldier must have ordered it for his study. He’s ordering all sorts of things now, for his new quarters. I pause at the corner and watch the servants bicker about who is carrying more weight than the other. They plod down the hall, almost dropping the sofa three times, leaving the front doors wide open.

No one is there to see me slip out.

The air is as warm as it looked through the window. When I get past the gates, I start to run. The road into town is long by foot; I’ve only done it by carriage. I move off the road into the trees, so as not to attract the attention of other travelers. I follow the road until I reach Chiddery, the brown roofs and cobblestone streets. People stare at my gown as I enter the crowd. I regret that I didn’t wear something plainer. I recognize nothing and no one, but I expect that. The odds of recognizing anyone from Fitcher’s Tavern are low, as low as the lighting there. I wonder, briefly, where the tavern is in relation to here. I know it sits on the outskirts of Marchen—something I’d learned during my last night at the tavern. Marchen neighbors Chiddery, but the tavern could be on the opposite side. I could ask one of the locals. I turn to a man selling apples on the corner. As I open my mouth to speak, I notice the shop behind him. An ornament of a ballerina hangs in the window. Wanda’s Washing, a sign says.

I walk past the apple cart and enter the shop. Ornaments hang everywhere: ballerinas, white, porcelain, toes pointed, frozen in arabesques and pirouettes and grand jetés. For a dance form so new to Europe, this Wanda seems very familiar with it. Everywhere else, clothes hang from lines, marked with tags that display different surnames. Soaps and towels and buckets lie scattered on shelves. A woman with rolled-up sleeves sits next to one of three tubs of water, scrubbing trousers against a washboard. She looks up. A few lines frame her eyes and her mouth, but she doesn’t appear to be more than forty. Not as old as the soldier made her out to be.

“Are you picking up?” she says.

“Pardon?”

“Are you picking up a load? What’s the name?”

“Oh. No. I’m not.”

“What can I do you for, then?” She stands up, tilted. I see a wooden leg peeking out below her dress.

I imagine her and the soldier bonding over damaged limbs and the demise of my sisters and me.

“What did we ever do to you?”

The woman blinks. “Sorry?”

“You helped the soldier. Gave him advice. Helped him take away our freedom. Why? You don’t even know us.”

She stares at me. She looks me up and down. “Ah.” Her eyes squint. “You’re one of the twelve dancing sisters.”

“I have a name.”

She doesn’t ask what it is.

“I used to dance, too,” she says. I look at her peg leg, wondering how. She follows my gaze. “I didn’t always have this.” She reaches out and fingers one of the hanging dancers. “I used to be good.”

“Then you should understand,” I say. “You should understand why we needed to dance.”

“Maybe. But it’s not that simple.”

“Seems simple to me.”

“When you hear about others who have something you lost, sometimes you can’t stand it. Sometimes you’ll say or do something to take it away from them.” She shrugs. “The day the soldier came by, I gave in to bitterness. I’m sorry it affected you so.”

“It was our one joy.”

The washerwoman shrugs again. “Then get your joy back.”

“I can’t. It’s gone.”

The softness in her face hardens to impatience. “Shame. Now would you mind? I have customers.”

I turn to see two young women enter the shop. They wave to the washerwoman. “Morning, Wanda.” They look at me and freeze. The shorter one looks at Wanda, embarrassed. “You didn’t tell us Lady January was a customer of yours.”

I look at my feet. Do all the women in Chiddery know what I look like?

Wanda grunts. “She’s not my customer.”

They ignore her and rush to my side, groveling and admiring my gown. They chatter about the soldier.

“He picked you. Of all twelve, he picked you.”

I glance at the door. “Well, yes, but it was really only because—”

“Oh, don’t be modest. He could have picked any of your sisters. But he picked you.”

They keep giggling. My sisters say I have the most pride of us all. Maybe that explains why I don’t correct these women. Why I let them think he picked me for some virtue I might have, some personality trait, or even beauty, and that there was nothing arbitrary about it.

~

It was dim, the lighting, but we were used to it by then. Entering the tavern was like walking through the woods at dusk: Your eyes strained at first, then adjusted. It was dark, but not so dark that you couldn’t see shapes, figures, illuminations of cheeks and noses and arms. It’s hard to tell who’s who in that lighting. It protected us. No one suspected our nobility.

“He’s watching you,” March said in my ear.

I glanced behind her, at the man—boy, maybe—with reddish hair. He held his ale in one hand and kept his other arm behind his back. He stood with the men who waited for the right level of inebriation before joining the dance. When I met his eyes he looked away, as anyone caught staring would do. It should have discomfited me, this stalking, but it didn’t. It was real. More real than the walls of our bedroom, the pages of our books. He’d spent the last several nights watching me, and I did what I always did. I shrugged and grabbed March’s arms, swinging her until she laughed, and I knew without looking that the men had their eyes on us. That he had his eyes on me. And that, worst of all, it was what I wanted.

Five or fifty dances later, I felt him come up behind me. Not touching at first. Just joining my movements. I caught glimpses of reddish hair but didn’t turn around. His hand found my waist. We danced and I didn’t know if I should let his hand keep running up and down my thighs, but I’d let it the last few nights. Something tingled in me. Was this what it was to be young?

I felt a tap on the shoulder, an arm pulling me away. February. She led me to a corner, laughing. “You’re welcome.”

“For what?”

“Saving you.” She nodded past me. “He was about to eat you up.”

“Oh.”

Someone handed me another drink but I didn’t like the taste. I passed it to April and looked over my shoulder but couldn’t find the reddish hair.

February poked me and pointed to a girl vomiting in the corner. I squinted. December. I should have known better, kept an eye on her. She’d had too much ale. At fourteen she was still the baby. I shoved through the crowd and lifted her, gesturing for my sisters to help. Stumbling but more experienced now, we carried December home, back to our other reality.

~

Dusk’s shadows move across the hills outside the window.

The man with reddish hair is out there, one of those shadows. A shadow of the shadow he was. I kick the wall, and myself, for letting February “save me” all those times. He could have been my way out. We could have gotten to talking. Maybe we would have kissed. Maybe we would have run away together. Maybe he was an artist, or a farmer, or a sailor. Maybe he was a foreigner—I never did hear his accent—and we would have moved to a villa in France or a mountain in Switzerland.

I press my forehead against the cold window glass. Maybe nothing would have happened. Maybe if we’d gotten to talking, I wouldn’t have liked the man with reddish hair, or he wouldn’t have liked me. Maybe he doesn’t even speak English.

Still, it would have been nice to know, just in case. I draw the curtains and turn away from the window. Yes, he’s a shadow now. A shooting star not wished on. A dance not finished.

But my sisters can still finish the dance. It’s not too late for them. I should tell them—make sure they know. It’s important that they know.

The door opens and the soldier walks in. I call him a soldier, but I guess he isn’t one anymore. He cradles his handless arm dramatically.

I try not to roll my eyes. “There’s no need to put on a show. It won’t make me feel sorry for you.” His injury can’t excuse what he’s done, what he’s taken.

He frowns. The lines on his face pronounce themselves, deep with weariness; I pretend not to notice. “I don’t care if you feel sorry for me or not,” he says. “It got me out of the war. That was all I wanted.”

“You wanted to lose your hand?”

“Why else do you think I did it?”

“Did it?” I step back. Of course. All the sympathy he’s gotten from my father, from the townsfolk, from everyone…all of it was stolen. My chest tightens. I laugh. “You’re proud to be a coward, then?”

His eyes snap to meet mine. “You don’t know anything about it.”

“I know it’s one thing to take credit for an old woman’s wisdom. It’s another to cut off your hand to escape duty.”

His cheeks redden. I have never seen passion on his face, not this kind. “It meant freedom.” His voice shakes.

I stand my ground. “How is that freedom?”

He looks at the wall. I think maybe he is not going to speak again. He is surrendering. I win.

He turns to the window. A shadow veils his face. “Have you ever been on a battlefield? Freedom is different for everyone. For an insomniac, it’s sleep. For a prisoner, it’s bail. For a soldier in combat, it’s injury.”

The shadow passes and I think I see a hint of red in his hair. No, it can’t be—I’m imagining things. I blink and it is gone. We stand in silence. I look at his sling. I wonder if I’ve spent too much time thinking about what freedom means for me, for my sisters, for the poor, for the sick—for everyone else but him. I wonder if I’ve been wrong. An amputated hand, a pair of dancing shoes—maybe they can mean the same thing.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

He sighs and pats my arm. “It’s all right.” He’s softened, knowing I’ve softened.

But as I watch him leave the room, the shadow falls back in place, and I wish I hadn’t looked at him like that, like I was sorry. Because he still didn’t bother to ask what freedom means for me.

~

I find Wanda at her tubs, washing a dress. She rolls her eyes as I enter the shop. “Oh. You.”

“Fix this.” I glare at her, my hands in fists. “Do your magic, or witchcraft, or whatever it is.”

She laughs. “Magic’s not in my repertoire. I can clean your linens for a good price, though.”

“Tell me how to get rid of him. Make him go away. You’re the one who helped him trick us. You fix this.”

“Is it really him you’re bitter about? Or your luck?”

“What luck?”

“Being the eldest.”

I blink at her. “Have you been listening? This is about the soldier and my—”

“Doesn’t it all come down to chance? Your odds were eleven to one. Slim, don’t you think?”

“Maybe, but that’s not what I—”

“It was luck that the soldier came into my shop.” She scrubs the dress harder against the washboard. “Luck that he came days after the proclamation. Luck that I saw the wine bottle on my windowsill and it occurred to me: you might think to put something in the men’s wine, to put them to sleep. Luck that the soldier is old, and wanted the eldest. Luck that you were born the eldest. Everything is luck of the draw, don’t you see? Good luck, bad luck, sometimes it’s both. Depends on how you look at it.”

“Enough of your superstitions, witch. Just tell me how you’re going to fix this.”

She sighs and shakes her head.

“Well?”

She stands and hobbles away. She disappears behind a curtain at the back of the shop. I follow her and pull back the curtain. She isn’t there.

I look around the shop. I could trash the place, topple things over, kick barrels onto their sides, smash the ballerinas, but I don’t see what good it would do. I leave, making my way home, back along the road to the manor. Maybe I shouldn’t have called her a witch. Maybe I should have been gentler. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone to her at all.

When I reach the gates of the manor, I slow. Something about it looks wrong.

I hurry inside. Servants scurry around me, carrying handfuls of clothes and blankets. I grab a maid’s arm. “What’s happened?”

She looks at me and shrinks. “Oh, I can’t—I can’t be the one to—”

“Has there been a siege? A robbery? What?”

Her mouth quivers. “I’d rather that were it.”

“Tell me.”

She presses her lips together. I seize her shoulders, shaking her.

She starts to cry. “There’s a plague. Swept through Marchen yesterday. Everyone dead. It’ll spread. Your father says we have to flee.”

Marchen. The home of Fitcher’s Tavern.

I let go of her shoulders. “Where are my sisters?”

Her lip trembles again. She looks at the floor. “No one’s seen them since dinner last night.”

I turn away and lurch down the hall. I run until I reach their chamber. I bang my knuckles against the door; the knock echoes stupidly. I push the door open and step into the room. I scan the unmade beds, the nightdresses scattered across the floor. We always left such a mess; we were always in a rush to get to the tavern. But we made sure to clean up when we got back.

For a minute, maybe an hour, I stand there, my fists numb from clenching.

I notice in the silence my heart thumping in my chest. Boasting, bragging, taunting. Eldest, eldest, eldest.

Good luck, bad luck, sometimes it’s both.

I am standing here alive because I am the eldest.

I fly across the room, tripping on clothes and overturning chairs. June said it was under April’s bed, the fourth one. It takes all my strength to push the bed, to pull back the carpet, to lift the door. I descend the steps into the passage.

I can’t see without a candle, but it doesn’t matter. I feel along the tunnel walls. I start to jog. Then run. The tunnel opens up. I feel the village air seizing me, infecting me, contaminating my lungs, closing around my heart. I keep running. I inhale the fumes of burnt slippers, of blackened laces, soles, and corpses, and let them lead me to the place where my sisters wait for me, dancing on.


Christina Elaine Collins is an MFA candidate and teaching fellow at George Mason University. The Jabberwock Review has nominated her Cinderella reimagining, ‘The Last Midnight,’ for the Pushcart Prize, and her other fiction can be found in publications such as Empirical Magazine, Weave Magazine, Otis Nebula, and Status Hat. She was a writer-in-residence at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts from May to June 2012.