Issue No. 6, Autumn 2013

Wilburton Tap
Leah Sewell

I erase my ex-husband’s name here
because no one knows me. Maybe time
gets away from me. The clock is numberless.
I like to think there’s a sudden hush when I coast
through the door in my cloud of vanilla. I might be wearing
too much eyeliner. Do I seem earnest?
Colin the bartender says a ghost sits in this booth.
When one of the charred men of this bar
takes me in the parking lot—after closing
but before Colin tosses a bucket of ice in the alley—
and drives me to the high woods where
the ghost of Belle Starr watches me bridled,
raped, and tusked through with a hunting knife,
I’ll come back to the Wilburton Tap
and sit here in shadowed booth
with the perfect vantage point
to watch Colin’s nimble hands
and gray-blue eyes grow old.


Leah Sewell is assistant editor at Coconut Poetry, an MFA candidate at the University of Nebraska, and a book designer, poet and mother. Her work has appeared in such publications as [PANK], Midwestern Gothic, and Weave Magazine and was nominated for a Pushcart in 2012. Her chapbook, “Birth in Storm,” was the 2013 winner of the Emerge Publications Chapbook Competition.

Issue No. 6, Autumn 2013

Red Scales
Julie Brooks Barbour

I named him and the fish outgrew every bowl I could find.
His fins overlapped each rim and water rippled out
when he tried to move. Finally I threw him into the pond

behind my house where he sank to the bottom
and waited for me to call. When I did, his large head
rose out of the water and he planted his face in my lap.

I stroked the red scales around his mouth while his gold eyes
searched my face. I fed him scraps after every meal.
My stepmother stood watching. One afternoon

she put on my clothes, wore his name on her lips,
and killed him. But that did not keep him from me.
I unearthed his bones from the dung hill

and hid them under my bed. Whenever I prayed
out of despair or desired something I knew
I could not have, those bones rattled. He gave me food.

He gave me pearls. He sent a gown of kingfisher feathers
and when I stroked its plumage, I felt his scales
at my fingertips, the rise and fall of his breath.


Julie Brooks Barbour is the author of the chapbook Come To Me and Drink (Finishing Line Press, 2012). Her poems have appeared in Waccamaw, Kestrel, UCity Review, diode, Prime Number Magazine, Blood Lotus, storySouth, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, The Rumpus, and Verse Daily. She teaches at Lake Superior State University where she is co-editor of the journal Border Crossing.

Issue No. 6, Autumn 2013

The Witch’s Daughter
Shannon Phillips

What Susan did was terrible, of course; but, although Rob couldn’t have deserved it, exactly, it was certain that he had handled the situation badly.  Though it’s also true that trouble was brewing from the very moment Susan turned her dark stare on young Robert Miller, and maybe there’s nothing anyone could have done to avert it.

Susan was the witch’s daughter, for one thing–though she never sold any of the potions, charms, and cures that her mother had peddled.  Instead she spun, and searched out herbs from the forest to sell, and then there were always rumors that she lived on coin her father gave her. (One story did claim that her father was the Devil Himself, though the rumors named Thomas the blacksmith.)

Susan was, to be sure, a completely improper young woman, with her dark hair unbound, bodice always worn loose, and brazen stare never softened, but all and all she was rather liked in town. She certainly provided a welcome subject for gossip.

Rob, the miller’s son, was born with one leg slightly shorter than the other, and as a baby took so long to learn to walk that his mother feared he was slow.  In time it was clear that he had nothing more serious than a limp, but he had also become painfully shy.  The only thing he did unselfconsciously was play the reed-pipes, and that only when alone.

Somehow he caught her eye; in a duck of his head, or a lilt of his voice, she thought she saw something wild and estranged after her own heart.  So she sought him out where he played alone, approaching him as she would any timid creature, with gentleness and courtesy.  And after initial disbelief he was charmed enough to accept her praise.

Very soon the scandal was generally known: Susan and Rob had been keeping company unchaperoned.  The disapproval of Rob’s family was inevitable; though they had no dislike for Susan, she was far from a suitable marriage prospect.  And yet Rob was prospering.  He was smiling, speaking up more, even walking with less hesitancy.  Susan, on the other hand, was more withdrawn, seeming most of the time to be lost in thought.  Her eyes drifted restlessly through every crowd, searching for a single face.  Those who remembered what a first love could be shook their heads, but if they tried to warn her she would not listen.

Then there was a harvest dance, to which both Rob and Susan came; but Rob, with newfound boldness, stayed by the grocer’s daughter Lily.  And Susan, who had given her whole heart freely, was forced to barter it away piecemeal to any power that could keep her from crying while everyone watched her walk away.

#

Alone in her cottage, the witch’s daughter collapsed on the flagstones before the cold hearth.  She stared into the darkness and rocked herself, whimpering. Then she screamed aloud suddenly and plunged her hands in the ashes.  She smeared the soot up her arms, in her hair, down her face.

A small mostly-black cat stood up from a pile of rumpled bedding in the corner, stretched itself lazily, and stepped over to Susan, pushing its head insistently against her knee. “Hello, mother,” Susan said hollowly.

The cat said nothing, but fixed her with its round green eyes. After a moment Susan spoke again: “No, it should not be so easy for him! I thought love had power!”

The cat only yawned, but Susan tilted her head, as if listening. “I remember the cursing stone, of course I do, but—”

The cat looked away, and Susan broke off. “Yes,” she said after a moment. “I don’t care. I will bind him to me somehow, in death if not in life.”  She stood up then, and brushed the palms of both hands across her face to wipe the tears away. The wetness left a pale stripe against her soot-stained skin.

She stalked to the door and flung it open, pushing heedlessly back into the night. She was almost running as she made her way through the woods, following a crooked downhill trail.  Stones cut into her bare feet; brambles grasped her tousled skirts.  She pulled them free impatiently.

When she broke free of the trees it was at the bank of a stream, in a place where it collected for a bit into a wide eddying pool.  A huge oak dipped tangled roots over the bank, and under them, wetted by the water, was a large rock pocked with many small depressions.  Susan jumped directly into the stream.  She strode forward, fighting the water and her encumbering clothing, until she stood before the cursing stone. Then she bent down, dredging the stream bottom for a pebble.

When she straightened, her arms, the front of her, and the ends of her hair were all wet.  Her skirts pooled up and eddied about her waist.  Her teeth had begun to chatter with the cold: the harsh noise joined in with the splashing of water and the tossing of the oak’s higher branches, dried leaves rattling. Behind the branches shone a half-moon. Its reflection wavered brokenly in the water as Susan weighed her pebble, formulating her curse.

She lifted a thumb to her mouth and bit down almost savagely, then wiped the thumb against her pebble, leaving a dark streak on its surface. Then she began to speak. Her voice was rough and low as she chanted:

“Until you see the moon again
I shall not shed my blood again
And all things that in cycles go
Shall be bound by you to be hard and slow
In Robert Miller’s breast;
Not by all that flows with the tide
Or is ruled by day and night
Shall he have any rest.”

Then she turned the pebble over, hiding the smear of blood, and laid it in one of the depressions on the larger stone.

The wind shook the branches of the oak.  The moon’s reflection wavered on the disturbed surface of the water.  There was no other sign given as Susan turned and clambered back up the bank of the stream. She staggered home, walking much more slowly than she had come.

#

Susan did not go into the town the next day; she did not go in for a week, and then only to buy food and leave again without saying more than one word to anybody.  She looked terrible, dirty and sullen, with sunken, feverish eyes.  Opinion was that she was a queer girl to take things so hard, but stronger opinion was that Rob had used her thoughtlessly.  Maybe he felt the blame, for he started to look poorly himself.  He said that he couldn’t sleep.

By the next week he couldn’t drink anything, either.  He would vomit it up as soon as it passed his parched lips.  He sank into a restless fever, tossing and muttering, pleading for water.  Then it was wondered if Rob and Susan had given each other some sort of sickness.  No one would go near the mill after that, and Rob’s family tended him by themselves.  Lily Edwards stopped in daily to bring them milk and eggs.

Rob’s skin turned grayish.  His throat was so hoarse that they could not make out his words, even when he looked straight at them as if trying to tell them something urgent.  One evening he reached out to his mother, his long piper’s fingers clutching at her skirts; but he could only move his cracked lips soundlessly.  “This is nothing natural,” Lily said then, and left the mill to find the witch’s cottage.

#

Twigs snapped loudly beneath Lily’s shoes; she pulled her shawl close about her shoulders.  Dark clouds scudded past, overtaking her, and a cold wind stirred her skirts.  Night would find Susan before she did.  The trail she followed was very narrow, and in the dimness she had a sudden fear of straying onto a deer-track or dry stream bed.  If she wandered the witch’s woods into midnight . . . .  She quickened her steps.  She would not falter from her decided course.

She was nearly at the doorstep of the little stone house before she saw it; the light from its window was too dim to travel far through the forest.  She went to the doorstep and knocked.  She waited, then lifted her fist to knock again.

“Go away,” called Susan from within.

“Susan?  It’s Lily Edwards.”  Her voice was strong and angry.  “I know you’ve done something to Rob, and I’ll not be leaving your doorstep until I’ve spoken with you.”

There was only sullen silence.  Lily hammered at the door with her full strength, and to her surprise it creaked open–it had been left unlatched.  She stepped around it into the cottage.

The fire was so low that she could make out little of the house, but what she saw seemed simple and common enough.  Her eyes went to Susan and stayed there.  The witch’s daughter was huddled by the fire, wearing only a loose muslin gown.  Her dark hair was lank and matted.  She gazed angrily at Lily for a moment, then turned back to the fire, as if Lily’s presence was no more than an unwelcome distraction.  But what most drew Lily’s stare was her distended belly.

Things shifted in Lily’s mind.  If Susan was with child that meant the affair between her and Rob was more serious–and, by the size of the swelling, had begun much earlier–than anyone had thought.  She wondered how Rob could have been so callous.  He must not have known.

“Go away,” Susan repeated wearily.  One glance at Lily had told her that the other woman did not belong in her house.  Lily was dressed neatly and somberly, her dull blond hair pulled back properly, her features marked with unapologetic shock.  She wore her shawl as tightly as if it were armor.  Susan wanted to push her, all protesting, out of the cottage, but she could not summon the energy.

“No,” said Lily flatly.  “Susan–are you . . . expecting?”

“Ha!” breathed Susan sharply.  “No.”  She continued to speak into the fire.  “I’m only two weeks late.  This is blood, nothing else, gathering in me.  It was part of the curse–I sealed it with my blood.  I didn’t anticipate this, but it’s fitting enough.”
Susan’s words were diffident, almost off-handed.  Lily stood at the threshold, still filled with offended grief; but she sensed it would gain her no response.  She paused a moment longer, then stepped into the house and knelt beside Susan at the hearth.  Susan shifted away but did not rise.

Lily watched the low flames flicker.  There were a few logs piled at her side; she pulled out a narrow one and added it to the fire, which sparked briefly, then settled.

“It must anger you to know that Rob is so well nursed,” Lily said softly, “while you are abandoned to your illness.”

“I have my mother,” Susan said dryly, with an unreadable twisted smile.  Lily saw that she addressed a green-eyed cat, and for the first time it occurred to her that Susan might not be magical, but simply mad.  As she searched Susan’s face, the witch’s daughter finally returned her gaze, her dark eyes challenging.

“I think,” Lily said, “that my claim on Rob is as great as yours.”

“It is not,” Susan hissed.  Her black eyes flashed with hatred.  “He said he loved me.  He talked of marriage.  But he wouldn’t even look at me to tell me he’d lied.  Go back to your safe neat house and your bright new dresses, Lily Edwards.  This is far beyond you.”

Lily drew back in the face of Susan’s venom, and forced herself not to look away.  She groped for the words to break through to Susan, to penetrate the darkness she’d pulled around herself.  “I will not,” she said with quiet force.  “There are others besides you who can grieve.  I don’t love Rob.  But some do, and if you loved him truly you would not be trying to hurt him now.  And it is not his right to kill you!  Susan, I know that boy, and he has a weak soul.  Why have you given him this power over you?  He could never have gotten it on his own.”

“I want to die,” said Susan clearly, and sudden tears dropped down her face.

Lily hesitated a moment, then reached across and clasped the other woman’s shoulders.  “Susan, Susan, Susan!” she cried.  She gave Susan’s shoulders a little shake for emphasis, and the witch’s daughter quieted for a moment; she stared back at Lily, wild-eyed and vulnerable.  Lily took a careful breath, scared of breaking the fragile connection.  “How did you go so wrong?” she whispered.  “You are better than this!”

Susan broke down completely and collapsed against Lily.  When Lily’s arms closed tightly about her she cried harder still, unable to refuse the unexpected solace.  She barely heard the other woman’s soothing words, assuring her that all could be set right.  Her only coherent thought was that Lily’s shawl was the softest thing she had ever felt in her life.

#

Susan led Lily down the forest path.  The night was black and chill, and the wind had grown stronger.  Lily’s shoes crunched the fallen leaves; her own bare feet made less noise.  The strongest emotion she felt was surprise:  she had never thought to be walking this path again, never thought to be keeping her present company.  The surprise was good, hopeful.  She had thought all the ends were certain.

The moon fractured on the upset surface of the little pool.  The stone at the oak’s roots gleamed wetly.  The high heads of trees bowed and heaved in the fretful wind, casting untraceable shadows across the luminous surfaces.  The rattling of the leaves mingled with the distant rushing of water in an aloof, unbroken conversation.  “What is this place?” Lily whispered.

“That’s the cursing stone,” Susan said, pointing.  She stepped carefully into the water.  The stones bit into her feet.  She waded across and bent over the boulder.  Her little pebble was there, in the hollow she had laid it in.  She picked it up, turned it over, and dropped it in her palm.  On the shore, Lily held very still as Susan lifted her head, turning toward the moon.  She stood with her hand half raised to the sky, watching tattered clouds race past overhead.  For a moment the moon shone whole.

“Light—dark—light,” Susan whispered.  “All the heart knows.”  Then she flung the pebble away with sudden violence, and in a tiny splash it was gone.

“What is it?” Lily cried.  Susan turned back to her, her drawn face etched with shadow, and waded back to shore.

“Nothing,” she said.  “It’s all over.”

“That’s it?  The curse is broken?”

“Yes,” said Susan, then her eyes flew wide.  “Unh!” she gasped, doubling over.  Her hands flew to her stomach.

“What’s wrong?” Lily asked sharply, holding her up.

“I don’t know–a sharp pain.  In my stomach,” Susan said.  Cautiously, she straightened.  “No, it’s gone.”

“Come on,” Lily said, pulling her along.  “We’ve got to get you home.  I think you’re having a miscarriage.”

“I tell you,” said Susan, “it would be a miracle.  A botched one, at that.”  But she walked quickly, and her eyes were worried.

She had another pain before they reached the house, a longer one.  Lily brought her into the shadow-haunted cottage, built the fire up again, and spread a blanket before the hearth for Susan to lie on.  She hung a pot of water to boil, and tore up a clean sheet for rags.  “It’s as I thought,” she told Susan after examining her.  “You’re bleeding between the legs.”

“Mother,” Susan whimpered, “what’s happening?”  Again she addressed the cinder-colored cat, which picked its way delicately over the blanket, waved its tail, then leaped away to a shadowed ledge.  Its green eyes gleamed from the darkness.

“Hush,” said Lily, “it will be all right.  I’ll have no deaths tonight.”

She kept up the fire, made tea, and chattered of inconsequentials to keep Susan distracted.  Outside a storm began in earnest.  Rain dashed against the roof and door, and the wind sang a mad song around the corners of the house.  Lily wondered briefly of Rob, whether it was his side she should be at; but something was happening in the witch’s cottage that she could not turn her back on.  Susan’s pains began coming closer together and lasting longer, leaving the young woman trembling with effort.  She clung to Lily’s hand.

“Can you feel anything to push?” Lily ventured.  “Anything to bear down on?”

Susan nodded.  The sweat stood out on her forehead.  Her gasps and small moans were the only sound other than the crackling of the fire.  Lily held her hand in both of her own, looking on anxiously.

The cat yowled, a long, rising and falling meow that blended with a rumble of thunder. Lily’s neck prickled.  When she looked back at Susan, she saw a dark shape half-protruding from her womb.

“It’s coming!” she cried.  “Push as hard as you can!”  She moved around to catch the infant, but when her hands brushed the dark glistening mass, she knew it was not a baby’s head.  It gave under her fingers like pudding.

Susan’s fists pulled at the blanket, and her voice sounded wordlessly from behind her gritted teeth.  The thing slid out into Lily’s hands.  It was a deep red, like clotted blood, and its skin was slick and quivering.  It twisted through Lily’s hands and dropped to the floor.  She saw then that it had something like limbs, four of them, strangely jointed–but no head or face that she could see.  She shrieked and jumped to her feet, but the thing was moving, crawling away.  It pulled itself along the floor with unnatural speed, making for the door.

But something else was faster.  A dark shape leaped past Lily and landed on the bloody creature with a loud hiss.  It was the cat.  The thing Susan had birthed writhed against it; ears flattened and tail lashing, the cat swiped and snapped at it.  The two dark shapes closed in a violent struggle too quick-moving for Lily to follow.  She pressed her hands to her mouth and stared in horror.

Locked together, they rolled against the door, which Lily had thought latched; but it nudged open.  Rain streamed past the threshold and drenched the combatants in seconds:  the cat seemed suddenly very small.  The slick bloody thing gave a sinuous heave, gaining the top of the battle, and Lily could not see the cat.  But she heard it give another long yowl, for a moment drowning out the noise of the wind and rain.

“Mother!” Susan cried from the hearth.  Then the newborn creature gave another twist, and both it and the cat rolled beyond the door and out of the circle of firelight.

Rain streamed into the house, and nothing else.

Lily stepped to the door, struggling to close it against the storm, against everything evil.  “No,” Susan whispered behind her.  “Wait.”

The wind dropped for a moment.  Lily, scared to her bones, squinted against the rain.  A hundred shadows tossed just beyond her feet; then one moved closer.  The bedraggled cat, dragging an indistinct carcass in its teeth, crossed the threshold and dropped its burden at Lily’s feet.  Its luminous eyes held hers for a moment.  Then it lowered its bloody muzzle back to the shape, and Lily could hear it chewing.  She slammed the door quickly and moved back.

“Susan,” Lily said, her voice cracking.  “What was that thing?”

Susan pushed herself upright.  “Something evil,” she said tiredly.  “But we don’t have to worry about it now.”

Lily looked slowly from Susan to the cat.  “It was born out of your curse,” she guessed.

Susan only closed her eyes.  “It tried to be,” she said.

#

Lily returned to the mill as the sun rose, to find Rob sleeping peacefully.  His fever had broken early in the night.

And that was the last that was ever seen in town of Susan, the witch’s daughter–or, from Lily’s story, witch herself.  She left that same day, a bundle of possessions on her shoulders, and a black cat at her heels.  But it’s assumed that she’s doing well.  Apparently she was sighted not too long after at one of the country fairs, in the company of a dark-eyed, slow-voiced Spanish man:  they were selling love potions.


Shannon Phillips lives in Oakland, where she keeps chickens, a dog, three boys, and a husband. She likes old things, wild places, tall tales, and the people who tell them.

Issue No. 6, Autumn 2013

Rawhead and Bloody Bones
Sandra Giles

Her mom named her Sundae, like the ice cream, not the day, and for her eighth birthday embroidered a denim shirt just for her—covered it with mushrooms, bees, owls, ladybugs, peace signs. Sundae wore it even when it got too hot for long sleeves. Her mother also painted bright red poppies on two leather wrist bands, a large one for herself and a small one for Sundae. She said it was the hip thing.

Her mother let her own hair grow out long and straight, like Sundae’s, but parted it in the middle instead of clipping back one side with a barrette. This was when Gus started hanging around. Gus with the long frizzy beard and the chains on his pocket and the big loud motorcycle. Her mom’s name was Sharon but Gus called her Daisy and laughed about it. They both laughed, Daisy and Gus, a lot. Sundae had never seen her mother so happy, dancing around the house singing Stairway to Heaven along with the scratchy old record. Sundae was afraid of Gus. He changed her mother. She felt like a side effect.

When school let out in June her mom packed two suitcases, a big brown one for herself and a small blue one for Sundae. Daisy and Gus were going on a road trip, wherever the wind blew. Sundae would get to stay up in middle Georgia at her Grandma and Granddaddy’s house—a wonder-filled place with hollowed-out trees to climb and stands of bamboo to get lost in and a pond that dried up to cracks. The only scary thing there was Rawhead and Bloody Bones, which Granddaddy said was in the attic, so she planned to stay out of there.

It took three hours to make it up to middle Georgia in the green Pinto hatchback, Gus following blaringly behind. The Pinto got parked next to one of Granddaddy’s sheds. Then Daisy got on the hog—didn’t even remember to take her luggage—and grabbed Gus around the waist. They took off, white chalk dust blowing out like it does in those parts. Kaolin country. Granddaddy used to work in the chalk mine.

Grandma held Sundae’s hand while they left. With her other hand, Sundae held on to her blue naugahyde box of a suitcase. She and her Mom had decoupaged brightly colored flowers all over the front. That was before Gus.

Granddaddy said, “That all they brought for you?” She couldn’t tell if he was kidding, like he did a lot of the time.

She said, “I’ll just be here a few days.” She still held Grandma’s warm, calloused hand.

Grandma said, “hmmph.”

Sundae could always count on Grandma to tell the truth.

 

#  #

 

Her cousin Charlie lived two doors down and came over all the time because his mom and dad both worked. His dad was a preacher at the little white Methodist church down the road. Charlie was exactly thirteen days older than Sundae, so he had to be in charge.

“You can’t go up there.” He tipped his head toward the stairs. They sat on the brown pleather couch watching The Pink Panther.

The stairs had been built by Granddaddy long ago, built into what used to be a closet along the back wall of the den. There was a large bottom landing, then three steps that spiraled to the right, then a bunch of steps going up the regular way, then three more at the top that spiraled to the right again. Some of the steps in the middle made a cracking sound so you had to hop-scotch a little if you were sneaking up there. And you had to be careful to step on the wide end of those spiral steps, because the other side got real narrow. Your foot could slip off and you’d skin your knee.

If you made it up those last steps, you found yourself in a bedroom where the ceiling peaked in the middle, and the side walls didn’t even come up to your head. This was where Granddaddy had been sleeping since Sundae came, in a twin-size bed.

The far wall had a big window where you could climb right out onto part of the roof, but you weren’t supposed to do that. Charlie would always brag he’d done it, and Grandma would say, “You better not.”

A door with a wooden twist latch led to the attic, which had only a patchy floor here and there. In places, pink fiberglass insulation showed between the beams on the floor. That was dangerous. You could step right through and fall through the ceiling of the room below, or get stuck between walls until you died of starvation like a mouse.

Charlie had dared her one time to stick her head in and look around, and she did. But she didn’t like what she saw. Shadows everywhere.

She had no desire to go up there now.

The Pink Panther was going on vacation to a cabin near a pond. Charlie elbowed her lightly and said, “You better not go up there. Want to know why?”

“Because Granddaddy said so.” She didn’t feel like getting into it today. Charlie knew she knew why.

“Yeah, but do you know why he said so?”

She didn’t want to say it out loud. The Pink Panther twitched his tail at a flea that was bothering him.

“You remember.” He leaned close and whispered in a stagey voice: “Rawhead and Bloody Bones.”

She watched the cartoon but a chill stabbed her lower back.

“I said, Rawhead and Bloody Bones is up there.”

“It is not!”

“Is too.” He sat back and folded his arms. “I saw it once.”

“You did not.”

“Oh, yes, I did. And you know what? It glowed.”

She didn’t believe that last part, she didn’t think. It was new. The Panther wrecked the whole cabin trying to get the flea. Sundae and Charlie kicked their heels against the couch. Grandma would fuss, but she was in the kitchen cooking scrambled eggs, and bacon thin and flaky like pie crust, and cat’s head biscuits they’d poke holes in with their thumbs and pour maple syrup into. It sure smelled good. Sundae was used to Froot Loops or Lucky Charms for breakfast. Or in the old days, her mom would make cinnamon toast, with a quarter-inch layer of melted butter and sugar, with lots of cinnamon sprinkled on top.

She said, “That’s nothing.”

Charlie didn’t fall for it. He wouldn’t even look at her.

“I said, that’s nothing. You should hear what my mom told me about the fireplace in my room.”

“That’s not your room. That was her room.”

“It’s mine for now.” It had been her mom’s room when she was a kid. But before Mama took off with Gus and left Sundae here, Granddaddy’d been sleeping in that room because he and Grandma didn’t sleep in the same room anymore. They could both, individually, shake the house down with their snoring and they’d wake each other up in the night. Grandma herself could rattle the window panes. Now, Granddaddy was sleeping in that attic bedroom.

Sundae’s room had the California king-sized bed, while Granddaddy was sleeping on a twin up there. She worried about him rolling off. She worried about him sleeping so close to Rawhead and Bloody Bones. She would lie awake in that huge bed, glad when there was snoring or a chalk truck roaring down the road because when it was quiet, she could hear whispering coming from somewhere. Grandma said it was drafts.

Sundae didn’t want to tell Charlie about this yet. She just wanted to get a game going.

“I never saw any fireplace in that room,” Charlie said. “Show me.”

They scooted off the couch and walked down the short hall.

She pointed to the wall opposite the bed, where a low dresser sat with a big square mirror on the wall above it. Her Mom had said there used to be a fireplace there but it had been covered over when they installed the baseboard heaters. She told Charlie this.

“Where exactly?”

“Nobody knows.” She tried to sound like Velma on Scooby Doo.

“Well, so what? Who cares?” He jumped back onto the bed like the Nestea plunge and disappeared in the hobnail bedspread. Grandma hadn’t made the bed yet. It was too big for Sundae to do by herself.

“Nobody knows where it was and you know what else? Nobody knows why they did it.”

He sat up straight. “What do you mean?”

“Mama asked them one time why they covered it up and they wouldn’t tell her. They told her to quit asking.”

He stared out the window like he was trying to decide what to do with this information. “Wait a minute. If there used to be a fireplace here there’d be a chimney out there.” He ran out of the room.

She hadn’t thought of that, and she’d never noticed. It was an interesting mystery. She opened the window and since that screen was missing, she leaned out. Charlie came around the corner of the house running and pointed at the roof, nodding.

Grandma called them from the kitchen: “Hey, y’all come eat breakfast.”

 

#  #

 

In the front yard was a ditch so steep you could stand up in it and they still couldn’t see you. You were not to play in it. If they caught you playing King of the Hill there, or anything else for that matter, they’d tan your hide. It was too close to the road. Dump trucks full of chalk thundered past day and night, leaving a coating of white dust on everything. On the grass, the leaves of trees, the curtains inside. Probably on you, if you stood still long enough. So the front yard was off limits.

In the back yard was a shed full of rusty old garden tools and an antique scythe and a real anvil. There was also a stand-alone garage with no door. The Pinto still stood beside it, now looking pasty under the chalk dust.

Charlie wrote “wash me” on the back window with his finger and dared her to walk down to the pond.

“Why?” Sometimes he made her tired. “What for?”

“I just bet you won’t do it. But that’s fine. Be a chicken.”

“Grandma said not to get too close to the water.”

“Oh my god. It’s not even deep.” He picked up a rock and threw it. It went plop and disappeared, ripples fanning out. “See?” But that didn’t prove anything.

He went down to the bank and started inching one foot forward. She cringed. He was going to slip and slide right in. Who knew what nasty stuff was in that water?

He hesitated, looking out across the pond to the woods. “Did you see that? Come here.”

“What?” This could be a trick. Gus had once thrown her mom into the lake at Holiday Beach, and he didn’t even spill any of his beer. Charlie could yank her arm just once and make her fall right into that water.

He put his hands on his knees and leaned over the water’s edge, squinting across at the tree line. “I mean it. I can see him.”

Sundae stayed put but scanned the expanse, trying to sort shadow from shadow, shape from shape. “There’s no such thing as a Bigfoot, Charlie.”

“I know that. I’ve been to Massachussetts.” He stood straight and waved vigorously. “It’s not Bigfoot. Can’t you see? It’s the Bubble Gum Man.”

She sighed and said nothing, but her heart was pounding. Charlie was generally full of crap, but just when you thought you knew for sure not to believe a word he said, it’d be just like him to slip in something real.

“Yeah. It’s the Bubble Gum Man, all right.” He looked back at her in all seriousness. “He wants us to go over there and talk to him.”

She looked across the pond at the woods again but still couldn’t see anything but trees, limbs, some big myrtle bushes. Shadows moved suspiciously but the wind was blowing over there. You could tell from a distance by looking at the pine tree tops.

“Come on,” Charlie said and started walking around the right edge of the pond, his hands jammed in his pockets and his head down. “He’ll give us bubble gum. Any flavor you want. And Hubba Bubba, too, not the cheap stuff.”

She didn’t want to be left behind, ten feet back from the edge of the water, watching her cousin face danger while she hung back like a chicken. Still, it didn’t seem like a good idea for her to go with him. If this man even existed, which she doubted. You weren’t supposed to take candy from strangers, and Charlie should know better. Somebody had to remind him.

You weren’t supposed to take candy from strangers, and you weren’t supposed to leave the yard and you weren’t supposed to go around to the other side of the pond, in either direction—by the dam on the right or through the bamboo on the left. And you were absolutely not supposed to go into the woods.

Charlie moved along now at a trot. She challenged herself to catch up to him. Be brave. Just where the grass became a thicket of wild blackberries tangled in myrtle bushes, just before the woods began, he stopped and peered in. She did, too.

“Here’s the thing,” he said. “The Bubble Gum Man will try to trick you into staying. And if you fall for it—if you stay—you’ll get smothered in grape bubble gum, so many bubbles you can’t even breathe.” He studied the trees for a while. Birds rustled, pine needles soughed.

“So okay,” he said, “I don’t see him anymore. I think he’s gone.” Charlie turned back toward the house and took off running. “Come on.”

 

#  #

 

This time he’d brought the stethoscope from his doctor’s kit. “This is from when I was a little kid, but it should still work.”

They moved the dresser out from the wall in Sundae’s room and tapped the wall up and down as high as they could reach, listening for changes in the sound. She listened by pressing her ear to the wall, and he of course used his stethoscope. They couldn’t hear anything. From time to time Charlie would stick his head out the window to gauge where the fireplace should be in relation to the chimney, but no dice.

“Let’s try a more direct approach,” he said. His parents let him watch detective shows until eleven at night.

Grandma was cooking down tomatoes from the garden. Elvis was on the record player. Not the rock and roll, which she did not approve of, but the church stuff. Charlie went right up and asked her why they closed up that fireplace.

“That old thing?” she asked. “We didn’t need it anymore. It was too drafty and took up too much wall.” Empty, sterilized Mason jars sat on the kitchen table. Later, when Grandma filled them and screwed the gold lids on, Sundae could help her listen for which lids popped.

“So that is your testimony?” Charlie asked.

Grandma was a fan of James Rockford, too, although she didn’t let Sundae stay up to see it. “Yes, siree. My testimony is, that old thing was a bother and took up too much room and if I remember rightly, it started leaking in the rain. Now get out of my hair, you two.”

They went back to her room and flopped down on the bed hard enough to bounce. He asked, “Do you believe her?”

Sundae had to keep this going or he might want to go back to the woods again. She didn’t like the woods any more than she liked the attic. “No.”

“So what do you think is in there?”

“A million dollars?”

“No way. They don’t have that much. And if they did they’d use it to fix stuff up around here. They wouldn’t hide it.” He kicked the wall.

“What if it’s a body?” She was just trying the idea out in her mind.

“Whose body?”

She shrugged.

“Like a vacuum cleaner salesman?” he said. “They drive Mama crazy. She said if they ring the doorbell one more time during supper she’ll—“

“Charlie! It’s the body of Uncle Ed!” This had just occurred to her. Uncle Ed was Grandma’s missing brother. He pissed away all his money with gambling and drink and nobody had heard from him in twenty years. It made sense. Drunk people cause fights. Other people have to defend themselves.

What a terrible secret to sleep in the same room with!

“Charlie? Is that where the Rawhead and Bloody Bones are?” Or where it is? Was Rawhead a he, in which case he could’ve once been a man, or was he an it?

“No,” he said, confident as ever. “They’re in the attic. Granddaddy says so. And anyway, Rawhead and Bloody Bones is just made up. Unless…”

He kicked at the wall again. She backed up and leaned against the unfinished back of the dresser, where her mother had drawn a heart with black marker and written “Sharon loves Peter. HA!”

Charlie kicked again and again. Bits of plaster and paint fell off, leaving white patches and more white dust. This was not a good idea.

“What in the world is going on in here?” Grandma stood in the doorway, hands on her hips and red splotchy stains all over her apron. “Y’all go outside. Now. Put that dresser back and go outside.”

 

#  #

 

When Granddaddy fixed the wall, he made them help. Which Charlie figured proved there was nothing hidden in the fireplace. “If there was anything in there, Granddaddy would’ve known we figured it out, and he would’ve snuck in here at night and got it out. Which he didn’t, or there’d be a big square cut out. Which there isn’t.”

So it was back to the Bubble Gum Man in the woods, only now Charlie decided it was actually a murderer. “You can hear him walking around. See?”

They stood ten feet into the woods. Noises all around. Rustling. Scooting. Squeaking. Sundae wanted to bolt every second, but she made herself stand very still, breathing in pine and sap and earth and mold. This was all natural. She started to get comfortable with it.

Charlie told her to stay there and walked farther in, behind a giant oak tree so she couldn’t see him anymore. The pine trees soughed.

Then he hollered all of a sudden, and came tearing around the tree, and ran past her so fast her hair blew in his wind. He ran out of the woods and kept going.

She listened to the sounds. The rustling. It was just birds and squirrels and such. It was not like the whispering coming from the attic at night. She felt very calm as she walked out of the woods, down the dam, into the yard. Charlie was on the tire hanging from the pecan tree, lying on his stomach through the tire hole, swinging.

“Took you long enough,” he said.

“I came back when I wanted to,” she said, still feeling calm.

“He tried to kill me. He tried to shoot me. Didn’t you hear the shot?”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Look,” he said, and pulled up his pants leg. “See that red mark? The bullet went right by.” He demonstrated with his finger, how the bullet just brushed his leg and went on.

“I don’t believe you. You’re making it up.” She went and sat on the big rock in Grandma’s flower bed, still in the tree’s shade. He kept swinging for a while.

Then he came over to where she was. “Fine. You’re right. It wasn’t a murderer.” He pulled up a piece of nut grass, like Grandma taught them both to do. He looked to see if he’d gotten the nut with it. He threw it out in the sun.

“It wasn’t a murderer. And he didn’t try to get me. But you know who it was? Living out in the woods? It was Ted Nugent.”

 

#  #

 

Just when she was tired of Charlie’s games, and tired of being at Grandma and Granddaddy’s house, and starting to forget what her own room looked like back home—starting to think her mom had forgotten about her—Charlie’s folks took him to Alabama to visit his other Grandma. So he left, too.

For a while, Sundae followed Grandma around doing chores inside and then she followed Granddaddy doing chores outside. She wished she had her Barbies.

But then she decided to stop being a baby. The summer would be over soon and she’d have to go back to school. They’d make her write one of those dumb papers about what you did. She wanted a good story to tell.

So one day when Grandma was hanging the laundry out on the line, Sundae crept up the stairs, being extra careful on the tricky ones at the bottom, stepping very carefully on the non-creaky part of the fourth and sixth steps. She didn’t want anybody outside or inside to know she was coming. The small of her back tingled but she kept going.

She went up into the bedroom, where Granddaddy had made up the twin bed neatly. She’d never seen Grandma go up here.

She twisted the wooden latch and opened the attic door. A hot rush of stale air hit her hard enough she took a step back. And there was a heavy smell, a mildewy, mousey odor.

She waited in the doorway, listening, breathing quietly. She could hear Bob Barker call contestants to “come on down!” on the television downstairs, where nobody was watching it anymore. Applause and trumpet music came up through the ceiling. There was a doorstop just inside, a brick covered in embroidered fabric. And a flashlight, too, an extra camper’s flashlight like the one Grandaddy kept under his bed, this one dusty and the blue plastic cracked.

She propped open the door, stealthily, wide enough to let in sunlight from the window behind her. She took hold of the flashlight but didn’t turn it on yet. The attic was dim but you could see. She took two steps in. Then three. There were old wooden chairs, a small broken side table, cardboard boxes. Christmas decorations. She sat down on one of the chairs, still tingling in her lower back, her heart beating hard. She listened.

Then she whispered, “Rawhead.”

Nothing. Maybe he hadn’t heard.

While she still had some gumption, she cleared her throat, licked her lips, and said, almost in her regular voice this time, “Rawhead and Bloody Bones.” His full name.

There, far off in the gloom, a suspicious shadow. Like an arm coming out of a shoulder. She clicked the button on the flashlight. But it was just an old bed frame and poles. It wasn’t him. She clicked the light off.

Another noise, off to the left. Something shifted. Sundae breathed into her fear. She forced herself to stand and walk farther into the attic. She went along the right, out of the sunlight from the door, crouching under the angled roof joists, creeping around the outer perimeter. Five steps. Then four more, concentrating hard to stay on the dusty ply board flooring, working not to make noise. She braced her hand against a roof joist and rested, willing her eyes to get used to the deeper gloom. There was a big black steamer trunk, and a dresser mirror without the dresser.

She said, “Rawhead and Bloody Bones.” That was twice.

Another sound, this time like something fell softly. Or stepped. Farther away, toward the front of the house. She shone the light again, leaning forward to make it shine farther.

And then she saw it. The chimney, the column of red bricks coming up from her room, dry and crumbly. Get it over with, she told herself. Breathe deep and just do it.

“Raw Head And Bloody Bones!”

Something was shifting back and forth now, slow, like it was rocking from side to side on hurt feet.

Her eyes hurt from staring so hard. Her ears hurt from listening.

No. It didn’t sound like shifting. It sounded like scratching. Muffled. Like it was coming from inside the chimney.

She leaned out as far as she could, holding onto the joist, pushing the light as far as it would go.

And there, about five feet up, something dark and narrow. Like a finger sticking out between bricks. A finger black with soot. Scratching to get out!

“I’m not afraid of you!” she yelled. “You can’t get me!”

The scratching stopped.

“I see you!”

Silence.

“You don’t scare me. You old…you old scratching thing!”

Then she couldn’t find that finger with her eyes anymore. She shined the light inch by inch from floor to roof.

Nothing. She made a broad sweep sideways with the light, as far left as it would go to as far right as it would go, leaning as far as she could without losing her balance. All of a sudden the attic felt empty.

She listened to see if he was whispering, but all she could hear was noise from downstairs.  Maybe next time she should turn off the television first.

She heard the spring on the screen door stretch and then the door slam as Grandma came into what they called the back porch, even though it wasn’t a porch anymore. She heard the dryer door open. Grandma must have changed her mind about hanging the clothes out.

The wind picked up outside. It whistled in the eaves. That was what a ghost was supposed to sound like. A bare hint of thunder rumbling in the distance. She could feel the vibration come up through the bones of the house into her knees.

It was coming up a bad cloud.

#   #

 

When Charlie got back he listened wide-eyed as she told him what she’d done. “A black finger?” he asked.

They sat on the screened-in front porch where Grandma had parked them, shelling zipper peas in round pans made of white porcelain over tin, with a red stripe around the rim. Sundae liked to shell enough to cover the bottom about two inches and then just run her fingers through the peas, like cool, smooth stones. They were supposed to throw onto the trash pile any pea that’d been stung, but Charlie wasn’t serious about shelling. He just liked to toss peas like little basketballs.

A chalk truck thundered by and he called out the number. He liked to count them. Granddaddy always said it was bad luck to count things out loud.

Charlie asked her if new things had been happening since she challenged Rawhead.

The whispering at night had picked up. It was louder now and it almost formed words, like he was saying behave or stay away, or just stay. She could hear him creeping around on the beams up there, scratching. She’d taken chalk and drawn a cross in each corner of her room as close to the ceiling as she could reach standing on the rickety step stool from the kitchen.

Things had started happening downstairs, too. Grandma kept losing things, like one of her knitting needles, or the good slotted spoon. Sundae couldn’t find her leather wrist band with the red poppies, although she hadn’t been wearing it anyway.

There had been wild storms with wind whipping and lightning popping, and she and Granddaddy ran around unplugging everything electric. And that was spooky—the special kind of quiet when the power got knocked out and the window air conditioners didn’t work, so you had to sit huddled up in the humid dark with a candle while all hell broke loose outside.

Charlie said, “We need to do something.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know yet. Let me think about it.”

When Grandma came to check on them and saw how little Charlie had gotten done, she sent them outside.

 

#   #

 

Sundae had taken to spending a lot of time in the woods, which really when you thought about it weren’t woods anyway. Just a thick strip of trees and bramble between properties. Granddaddy said it was fine as long as she didn’t go in anybody’s yard or cross a road. As long as she didn’t go too far. Grandma said, “I know you won’t get yourself in any trouble.”

Sundae showed Charlie her favorite tree, an old oak with a hollow at the bottom where she’d make acorns be Weeble people and use the hollow for their little house, with leaves and sticks and such for furniture. Predictably, he thought that was girly. He set the acorn people in rows like army soldiers fighting each other.

She showed him the antique graveyard where the little headstones were so old you couldn’t even read them, and they fell over at odd angles, covered in vines. “See,” she said, “this is so old it isn’t even scary.” He just nodded, thoughtful.

She showed him what was on the far side of the woods. The back yard of some brick house, the yard filled with junk cars, some guy always tinkering under one of the hoods. In front of his brick house, a road, and beyond that some farmer’s field, planted in something low-growing and dark green. The land rolled gently and the horizon stretched for miles.

“Wow.” That was all Charlie said. Not even a crack about the Bubble Gum Man.

She wanted more from him. It wasn’t like him to be quiet. “That field over there makes me want to run. Like a dog or something, just run.”

Charlie said, “You see what he’s smoking? That ain’t no cigarette.”

They watched the man take a drag.

“I’ll tell you sometime about my cousin in Alabama. He’s thirteen.”

They watched the mechanic until the afternoon started to cool off.

 

#   #

 

Sundae’s other favorite tree was that pecan right near the house. If you were careful you could get up on top of the tire and climb the rope and sit on a branch. Camouflaged in pecan leaves, you could just sit and watch the house. Watch the attic window for any shadow or movement.

“So okay,” Charlie said, sitting on a branch opposite Sundae. “I figured out what we’re going to do. This will fix our little problem for once and for all. Have you seen The Exorcist?”

She’d seen the cover of the book on her mom’s nightstand and that was enough. A catholic priest, with his back turned, dressed all in black with a black hat on his head, holding a black bag, standing under a street light in the fog and rain looking up at a house. “No, I haven’t seen it. Have you?”

“That’s not the point. Can you get a candle from the dining room?”

Sundae nodded.

“Wait,” he said. “Not one of those, she’ll notice.”

“There’s one in the pantry drawer we use when the lights go out.”

“Good. Get a plate to put under it because you have to save the drips. Get some salt, too. I’ll bring my Dad’s Bible. You have to say some Bible verses backwards in front of a mirror, so you bring a mirror.”

“There’s a big one already up there.”
“Where? I didn’t see it.”

“Behind the trunk.”

He looked confused for a minute. Then he said, “Oh, yeah. I forgot. So, you say the verses backwards to the mirror and ask him what he wants. You got a cross on a chain?”

But they never got to execute their plan.

A loud rumbling approached from the distance, getting closer. Then miracle of miracles, the hog roared down the driveway and parked in the back yard, right underneath them. Charlie looked at Sundae.

Daisy looked even skinnier and tanner, and Gus looked even fatter and more grizzled. They sniped at each other about where to leave the motorcycle, whether it was going to rain.

Grandma opened the screen door and stood on the top step. “Just in time to help with dinner,” she told them.

The three adults went inside, the screen door banging shut behind them.

“Dinner! Shit!” Charlie said. “Mama’s gonna kill me.” He climbed out of the tree and took off for home. Sundae stayed among the pecan leaves.

Just when it was getting a little too cool to be sitting up in a tree, mosquitoes getting more awake and aggressive, Grandma called out the door for Sundae to come in to supper.

She climbed down slowly, wondering when she’d be able to come back. Wondering if things would be the same when she did.

In the den, her mom said, “There’s my girl!” and hugged her with one arm.

Gus said, “There’s the brat!”

She saw the wrinkles around his nose, at the corners of his eyes. He didn’t scare her anymore.

Her mom still had that arm around her when they went to the dining room, and then they took their places around the table.

Her mom, as she sat down, said, “Girl, don’t you ever take off like that again without telling anybody.” She pointed her fork at Sundae. “Is that how your grandparents have been letting you behave?”

Granddaddy stabbed a pork chop and slapped it down on his plate.

Grandma said, “Let’s just say the blessing.”


Sandra Giles teaches at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, in the department of Literature and Language and in an innovative bachelor’s degree program in Rural Studies. She holds a Ph.D. from Florida State University. Her work has been published in such journals as The Southeast Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Writer Advice and in anthologies such as On Writing and Shout Them From the Mountaintops II: Georgia Poems and Stories. Her work has received awards from New Millennium Writings and the Southeastern Writers Association. She has also published articles on teaching writing, including co-authoring a chapter in Creative Writing: A Guide to Its Pedagogies, forthcoming from Southern Illinois University Press.

Issue No. 6, Autumn 2013

Sandra Giles #1
St. Simons Island #1
Sandra Giles

The Mushroom Hunter
Lynne Williams

Leigh’s father always advised her to have multiple income streams, so if one source went south, she would still have money coming in – a wealthy guy’s version of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”  It was easy to say when those income streams are bonds, stocks, real estate and a trust fund.  Sadly, though, even with the multiple income streams, her father managed to blow through the trust fund, while a stagnant economy, a few unfortunate corporate bankruptcies and a bit of an insider trading scandal took care of the rest.  Leigh occasionally visited him in the federal prison in Danbury, where he seemed to be surviving the limitations of federal prison with great joie de vivre –  playing bridge, writing his memoirs and holding cooking classes, with a heavy emphasis on the preparation of hors’ d’oeuvres.

Upon Leigh’s mother’s death, all of her money had gone to the chauffeur, which didn’t come as a big surprise to either Leigh or her father, considering that her father’s profligate spending consisted of the extravagances he bestowed on a series of mistresses during most of his forty year marriage.  Neither Leigh nor her father had either the fortitude or the funds to pursue a challenge to the will.

Having listened to her dad, Leigh did have multiple income streams, but her income came from actual work, a first for her family, at least for many generations.  She wrote freelance articles, occasionally taught a writing class at adult ed, did temp work and took whatever other interesting work came along.  She frequently felt that she was on the verge of bankruptcy and homelessness, but it was just at those times that something came along.  That something used to be her father, but now she knew she had to make it happen for herself.

Leigh’s latest well-paying gig was foraging for wild mushrooms and it had all started quite accidentally.  She had foraged for years, and couldn’t even tolerate store-bought mushrooms any more.  One day last year she had dropped off a basket of mushrooms for a waitress friend who loved to cook.  The chef at the restaurant expropriated them for his “special of the night,” assuming that they were meant for him, and declared them “absolutely divine!”  He demanded she bring him more and said he would pay top dollar.  Other chefs, not to be outdone, had hired her as their forager and a seasonal career was born.

She loved foraging and was even occasionally rewarded with the discovery of some psychedelic mushrooms, which she dried and later ingested when she really wanted to escape reality.  Those were pleasant experiences without any great risk, better than drinking herself into oblivion or getting hooked on oxycontin.  However, her current reality was that she had so many demanding clients that she could hardly find enough damn mushrooms to satisfy them all, especially in the spring, when the season began, and no psychedelic escape was going to take care of that.

As Leigh walked through the woods on this beautiful day, the mossy green ground was refusing to reveal the abundance of wild mushrooms that usually confronted her.  She did find a small patch of morels, but not nearly enough for all of her chefs, really not even enough for one of them.  Jeez, she thought, if Raoul got some, Jon would be pissed when he heard.  And there’s not enough for both of them, much less Michael, Jodie and Caitlin.

The harder she looked for the elusive fungi, the more frantic she became.  If she lost her clients, she would be back to temping to provide at least a minimal level of financial stability.  Leigh hated temp work, hated being in an office all day and taking orders from some unimaginative functionary.  Maybe she could call the chefs and say she was sick?  No, she had assured them that she had a backup forager in case she got sick.  But she never got sick, and so she never bothered to get a back up.

Leigh leaned against a tree, let her knees give out and slid to the ground.  She sighed, and tried to get some clarity about what she should do.  She looked up at the tree in front of her, since her mentor had taught her to not only look down, but also up, as many fungi grew out of tree trunks.  Nothing.  Despair set in, although the optimist in her tried to shake it off.  Unproductive thoughts ran through her mind.  She should not have gone into this business by herself, she needed someone to help, to commiserate, to have her back.  She had always been so proud of her independence, but now she just felt alone.

Still sitting on the ground, Leigh cocked her head to the side and squinted her eyes upon seeing a bunch of tiny violet somethings peeking out from beneath the leaves.  Since she was already on the ground, she crawled over to where she could identify what it was that she was seeing.  Ooh, she thought, amethyst deceivers.  But way too tiny to pick now, she’d have to come back in a couple of days.

Still sitting on the ground, Leigh looked around.  Sometimes coming down to their level reveals the mushrooms that are so facile in hiding from the upright creatures that seek them out.  Suddenly she saw something that she hadn’t seen in decades – a fairy house.  When she was a little girl, and her family was roaming around Europe, they had lived for awhile in the west of Ireland.  One day while playing imaginary games in the forest, she came across a tiny house built of sticks and leaves and straw.  She ran back to her house and asked her mother about it, and was told not to let her imagination run away with her.  Not one to pay any attention to her mother’s usual dismissiveness of most of her questions, she asked her father about it.  “Well, dear, it sounds like a fairy house,” he said.  “People build them to attract fairies to their property.”  She asked her father what the fairies looked like, were they small, to fit in the houses?  “Some are,” he said, “and others can be adult size or child size.”  But, when she went back to find the fairy house, she never could locate it.  Over the years, she began to think she had just imagined seeing it.  Now, though, she was staring at a similar tiny structure.  It was made very carefully with sticks held together by slender thread and mud.

Leigh stood up and started walking deeper into the woods, not knowing what she was looking for, but feeling that she had to look.  As she came to a partial clearing she saw a fairy circle consisting of small brown mushrooms lined up in a partially curved line which stretched for yards, if not further.  She walked around and saw that the mushrooms created an oval and Leigh admired the symmetry.  Every year fairy circles expanded and supposedly this was where the fairies danced and performed many magic rituals.  At least that was what she liked to believe in some of her more fanciful moments.  Maybe that was what she needed, a little magic.

Leigh looked around, now feeling disoriented.  Suddenly she heard the crunch of leaves on the ground.  Someone was coming.  She glanced around the tree and saw a man walking through the woods.  Oh no, with a basket.  Another forager.  Great, she probably couldn’t find anything because this guy had cleaned out this part of the woods.  She ducked back behind the tree, but he had already seen her and walked over to where she was standing.  “Hi,” the stranger said, smiling.  She immediately noticed his green eyes and could not help but respond with a hello.  The man asked her how her foraging was going, and she wondered how he knew she was a forager.  “Tough going today.  You?”  The man showed her his basket, which had many varieties of wild mushrooms in it.  She was amazed, given her failure to find anything.  The man smiled and offered her some of his take.

All of a sudden Leigh felt very tired.  “I’d love to look through what you’ve collected, but I’m pretty tired.”  He motioned to a log a few yards away and they walked over and sat down.  She became more and more drowsy, and leaned back against a rock.  When Leigh opened her eyes, it was dusk, and the forest shadows were in the ascendancy.  She yawned and sat up, wondering where she was.  Had she been dreaming?  Finally realizing she was in the woods, she  remembered that she had been foraging, but had not gathered any wild mushrooms for her clients.

Panic set it and she pulled out her cell phone.  Leigh felt like this time she really was on the edge, probably had angry phone calls from all of the disgruntled chefs.  She was breathing heavily and feeling dizzy.  Was this some sort of panic attack or something else?  She dialed her voicemail, dreading what she was about to hear.  Numerous messages, damn.  Her dizziness returned and she sat down on the ground, pressing the playback button on the phone.  Oh no, the scariest chef was the first to call.  He will ruin her.  Then she heard, “Darling, the fungi were spectacular tonight, some of the best ever!”  Similar sentiments from the other chefs.

Leigh didn’t know what to think.  She called Caitlin, her favorite chef, and told her that she was glad the day’s mushrooms were good, then inquired whether they were delivered in a timely manner.

“Yes, they were.  The nicest man brought them in, saying you had a previous engagement and he agreed to make the delivery.  I was glad that you finally brought someone in to work with you, it’s good to have a backup.”

Leigh thanked Caitlin and hung up.  She knew she wouldn’t be able to find the man, to thank him and to ask how he knew what she needed.  But as she stood staring at the fairy ring, she also knew that she was no longer alone and that it doesn’t really matter who your associates are, as long as they get the job done.


Lynne Williams is a writer based in Downeast Maine. Most of her work has been political non-fiction and has been published in such journals as the Monthly Review online. She has also written two stage plays, one of which was given a staged reading. Sensing that the political reality of the world has taken a turn towards what used to only appear in fiction, her own writing has likewise moved towards fiction.

Sandra Giles teaches at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, in the department of Literature and Language and in an innovative bachelor’s degree program in Rural Studies. She holds a Ph.D. from Florida State University. Her work has been published in such journals as The Southeast Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Writer Advice and in anthologies such as On Writing and Shout Them From the Mountaintops II: Georgia Poems and Stories. Her work has received awards from New Millennium Writings and the Southeastern Writers Association. She has also published articles on teaching writing, including co-authoring a chapter in Creative Writing: A Guide to Its Pedagogies, forthcoming from Southern Illinois University Press.

Issue No. 6, Autumn 2013

"The Dreamer," Barbara Carter
The Dreamer
Barbara Carter

Folie à Deux
Allie Marini Batts

I have dreamt her so many times by now that her face is familiar to me as any I have ever known. I don’t even have to be asleep anymore.  She’s just there, watery and blue, waiting for me, in the moments of sleep and in the awful in-between of our insomnia. I say ‘our’ because nothing belongs to me anymore. Sleep, dreams, daylight—it’s all shared now. It has to be. I don’t like sharing, but really, what choice do I have at this point? I don’t.  She just moved in, like she belonged, and unless I leave, we’re stuck here together. A fucked-up détente.  I don’t know anything about her except what’s obvious. Clearly she’s dead, or else she wouldn’t be here. She doesn’t talk, so I don’t know her name. I say doesn’t, but I suppose can’t is probably more accurate; she’s got black electrical tape over her mouth.  On those rare nights where she lets me sleep, I sometimes wonder when I fall to twilight, that inbetween-waking and dream time, if I can touch her, maybe take off the tape. But I’m not sure I would want to, even if I could. So she just hovers there and looks. Sometimes I look back. Sometimes I ignore her. I keep hoping that she’ll go away, but she hasn’t yet, and it’s been weeks.  She wants something from me, but she hasn’t got the power to ask for it and I don’t have the stones to ask her what it is that she wants just yet. Soon, I’m going to have to. I can’t go on like this forever, not sleeping, with a dead blue girl floating in my room, dripping water no one else can see all over the floor.  She’s tenacious, I’ll give her that—it’s not like she’s going away.  I’m still scared of her, when I really think about it—but then, that sort of goes without saying, doesn’t it? Mostly I can’t let myself think about that, or even really think too deep about her, though. My brain is on fire with the buzzing that comes from sleep deprivation and the certainty that you are out of your mind, because, well, you’ve got a dead girl that only you can see kind of tagging along with you everywhere you go.

Part of me hopes that she’s an insomniac hallucination, just a snippet of something disturbing I saw on TV, conjured up into a sentient being by my overtaxed synapses—nothing to worry about, get some sleep, and she’ll go away as quickly as she materialized. But another part of me is even more terrified that she’s not—that this is absolutely real, that she is as real as I am, in her own way, and that even if I slept for a week, she’d be waiting when I woke up, just looking at me, like she does. This is terrifying to me for two basic reasons: One, I am not a channel to any kind of otherworldly shit, and Two, I am a goddamned skeptic. Well, I guess was is the more appropriate tense, since I either have to cowboy up to being full-on crazy or admit that maybe there are things in the world that are unexplainable to both science and religion.  Because trust me, I have tried to science and pray her away. No amount of Ambien or Lord’s Prayers have managed to make her even get filmy around the edges. She’s just there.  I don’t really see her move, she’s just…there. Floating, I guess. Like the air is made of water and she’s suspended in it.  To say it’s creepy is probably the understatement of the year.  Decade. Millennia.

Now, I know that there are a lot of ways that people lose their shit. There’s a million ways to go crazy, and everybody’s crazy looks different from anybody else’s. I’ve never been the tarot-reading, crystal rubbing sort. I read my horoscope for fun, but not because I take it seriously—I read every sign’s horoscope and then pick the one I like best. So I know I’m not seeing her because I want to see a ghost. I used to read ghost stories because, well,  who doesn’t like to be scared by the weird and spooky shit that’s hiding in the dark? Not because I particularly believed in ghosts or wanted to see one—but shit, maybe reading about ghosts was an invitation, I don’t know how it works on the other side. Not that I think that’s what she is—a ghost—but then again, what else do you call an obviously dead blue girl that basically swims in the air around you, and makes you scared to sleep? Maybe I’m just scared to call her by the name that’s rightfully hers—ghost—because if I name her, she’ll have power, and if she has a name, she might want a voice next, and I don’t know what would be worse—the tape coming off for her to talk, or her finding a way around it to make herself heard. Honestly I don’t know what she is and I just want her to go away. But more than anything, I want to sleep again. I wish I knew that sleeping would make her go away. But I don’t—and I haven’t slept—because  I’m scared of the What, then, attached to that question- as in, If I go to sleep, and wake up and she’s still here, what then?

My sleeplessness has never been like this. I’ve been an insomniac for so much of my life that it seems kind of pointless to try and reach back to a time when I wasn’t one. As far back as elementary school, I can remember being awake when everyone else was asleep—as a child, it was actually pretty cool—I had the will and the means to stay up way past my bedtime, and past everyone else’s bedtime, too. It’s how I discovered the joys of infomercials, Dr. Who reruns, and the Delilah radio call-in show. Likewise, insomnia was both useful and not a serious issue as a teenager—I was always wired well past my curfew, I never fell asleep first at slumber parties, I was always up for anything, awake when boys and friends tapped on my window for me to sneak out.   In college, insomnia was de rigueur, it made me life of the party, made paper-writing a snap—everyone else stayed jacked up on coffee; I was just naturally jacked  up. Half of the ridiculously cheesy B-movies that I’ve seen, I first watched on USA’s “Up All Night,” with Rhonda, because the programming was geared towards people like me—the graveyard shift workers, the exhausted college students, the tweakers or the sleep deprived.  In fact, this is the first time it’s ever really been a problem.  This is the first time I’ve actually started hallucinating, and she’s been here so long I’m sure she’s not a LSD flashback from college come back to haunt me.  I’m scared shitless in my own skin and I don’t know what to do about it, because telling someone means risking getting Baker-Acted, and not telling anyone means she’s still there, out of the corner of my eye, or in the main line of my sight, just waiting for me to do something about her. Daring me to be proactive.  Willing me to either sleep or stay awake. I’m afraid to dream, because, come on now, I saw Nightmare on Elm Street, and took that shit to heart. But I’m afraid to stay awake much longer, because I understand the basic principles of biology and physiology. I get that I’m not a shark, and that I have to sleep sometime. But fear is a potent upper.

Sleep: what a beautiful, yet awful, ring the word has to it. It seems like a delicious fantasy, like falling into a giant marshmallow and being enveloped by sweetness and dark.  Others take it for granted—and why not?—they get six to eight hours of it every night. There have been precious few nights in my entire adult life where I’ve gotten that many hours of uninterrupted sleep, and every time I have, it’s been like a vacation, I wake up feeling like a million bucks and wishing I could go on vacation every night, just like everyone else in the world. My biology, however, disagrees. Tylenol P.M., NyQuil, Heineken, Ambien,  melatonin, Trazodone,  valerian root, Lunestra, Valium: each a formidable opponent, each defeated by my body after a few short weeks of normal circadian rhythms.  I find myself up and awake, banging around my apartment, walking around the track at the nearby high school, on the playground of the park, at hours which are suspect at best, and dangerous at worst.  I joined a 24-hour fitness club, figuring if I have to be up and walking at 4 a.m., it should best be done inside, on a treadmill, with security.  I work graveyard shifts because no one else wants them; they’re all tired. I wish I could be, too.

Which brings me back to her. Because insomnia’s been a companion, maybe not always a welcome one, but it’s certainly been the devil I know. I do sleep sometimes; I have to.  It’s just never enough—like how an anorexic doesn’t always starve, they just don’t eat enough.  But  the blue woman—my ghost—she’s something new. Hallucination or apparition, real or imagined—I want her to go away. As ghosts go, she’s actually not very good at it—or if I’m hallucinating her, then I must be very bored at my core, because she doesn’t really do anything, interesting or otherwise. She’s just kind of there, wherever I am. Whatever I’m looking at, she’s looking there, too.  If she’s an apparition, the same logic applies. Everything I’ve ever read about ghosts or spirits indicates that they have an agenda, or a reason to be where they are or with whomever they’re with. I don’t know her, but she goes where I go, and she hasn’t made any demands on me, except that she insists on being wherever I am all the time.

But this—this is actually why she scares me: she’s bluish, which, besides the fact that she’s naked and no one else can see her, is how I know she’s dead, and that she’s probably not actually wherever I think I’m seeing her. And, like I said, she’s naked, except for the electrical tape. She’s bound, which is scary, too, because she’s got a story to tell that I don’t necessarily want to hear and it seems that no one will do for her audience except me.  Her eyes are filmy. They haven’t ever closed, at least, not that I’ve seen. She’s a spectre, and everything about how she’s appearing to me hints at some kind of abject horror, a story I don’t want to hear, because it’s not in  a book that I can close or on a TV show I can click off—but even despite all of that—for some reason, I wasn’t that surprised the first time I saw her, and that is what actually scares the shit out of me. Some part of me seems to have been waiting for her, expecting her even, and like I said before—I am not some sort of spiritual conduit, and more to the point: I don’t even believe in this shit. But the way she appears to me suggests something I’m not fully prepared to wrap my head around, which is why, among other reasons, I just keep ignoring her. I’m sure there’s something that could force me to sleep. I’m sure I could check myself in somewhere and some manner of modern chemistry and science could force the issue.  Pharmacology and sleep could make her just go away. But first, I’d have to admit that she’s there—or at least that I think she’s there—to someone outside of my own head. And even though she scares me in so many ways, I’m not sure I’m ready to just make her disappear. I mean, she did choose me, for whatever reason, and just because I’m scared of her doesn’t mean that I’m not curious, too—I mean, isn’t that also sort of the point?

She has long hair, and it’s matted, almost dreadlocked in places, and there’s water vegetation in parts of it. Not seaweed, but more like reeds or water grasses.   The wetness might explain the blue cast on her skin and the caul over her eyes, I mean, besides the fact that she’s obviously dead, or more to the point, probably a figment of my sleepless and likely crazy mind. I’ve imagined a million different scenes for her, all of them awful, many of them coming out like a very fucked-up version of John William Waterhouse paintings—as Ophelia, or the Lady of Shallot, that kind of thing, but with a dark modern twist of tape and bindings. Like Jack the Ripper and Pre-Raphaelite art, still more perversions of my wakeful mind, I’m sure.  If she is my subconscious speaking to me, I really am not sure what it’s saying, except maybe GO TO BED.  But even that seems superficial and simplistic. There’s something far stranger at work, to make her manifest so wholly, so vividly, so insistently. In the corner of my eye, whenever I’m outside of the house; at my elbow whenever I’m alone. In the car, in the backseat, so I catch just a glimpse of her filmy blue eyes in my rearview. Just looking. Waiting for me waiting for her, a Mexican standoff that can’t go on forever—but one of us has to make the first move, and I’m not extending her an invitation.

Well past midnight, I’m in my pajamas, pretending like nothing’s wrong, that sleep will come, that there isn’t a naked woman, bound up in electrical tape and lake weeds, dripping water that only I can see as she trails me throughout the apartment, leaving tiny puddles to reflect back on the tile for a split second before I glance back and they’re gone. When the late-night movie channel goes off-air just after three, I glance over to the other side of the couch, and she’s there, her ever-present dampness seeping a narrow circle of wetness into the cushions. I look at her and she meets my eyes, seeing me but not seeing me, looking through and past me to a point somewhere beyond. Maybe it’s the moisture—the black rectangle of tape covering her mouth has worked its way from her skin, leaving a moon-white patch of skin, squared off at the edges where the adhesive kept it in place before. I look away, and feel the clammy wrinkles of her fingertips graze my knuckles. Don’t look at her, I think, If you look at her, she’ll know you can see her. You’ll invite her in. I don’t move too quickly, but I pull my hand away from the center cushion.

It’s getting cold in here, I think, and move to bump up the thermostat, and it feels like I’m swimming through the air, suspended just above the ground but not touching it, my toes like phantoms that are cold and not entirely there at all, just little pinpricks of electrical shocks that let me know there’s something beneath. I breathe in the cold, the dark, the deepness of water that looks like air, but is not. Her fingertips, pruned over at the pads, slick as the lilypads floating on top of the lake, move from my wrist to my elbow and then down into the bone. I turn to face her, and she smiles, spilling water moss and algae over her lips and onto the floor. She leans in to touch her lips to mine—blue and white, like the light radiating down from dead stars—and pulls me down with her. She takes me down to the bottom with her, lays us down between the roots of reeds and lake grasses, pulls the water over us like a blanket. Finally I can sleep, and finally, she is not alone anymore.


Allie Marini Batts is an MFA candidate at Antioch University of Los Angeles, meaning she can explain deconstructionism, but cannot perform simple math. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She contributes to the publication of AULA’s Lunch Ticket literary magazine, Spry Literary Journal, The Weekenders Magazine, and The Bookshelf Bombshells. Her first chapbook, “You Might Curse Before You Bless” was published in 2013 by ELJ Publications, and her second chapbook, “Unmade & Other Poems,” is forthcoming from Beautysleep Press. Find her on the web: Allie Marini Batts, Author or You Might Curse Before You Bless

Barbara Carter is a visual artist living in Nova Scotia Canada. You can visit her website at: barbaracarterartist.com

Issue No. 6, Autumn 2013

Sixteen Ninety-Two
Shannon Ralph

I will die today.

I know this to be true. Two days ago, I stood helpless and watched as my mother—hands and feet bound—was hanged on a barren hill for all to see.  Yesterday my sister suffered the same fate. Today, it is my turn.

They say I’m a witch, but I’m merely a girl. I do not harbor an evil soul nor a contemptuous heart. But I will hang for the sin of witchcraft nonetheless.

If I sound cold, it is simply because I have come to terms with my fate. I will not live to see a sixteenth year upon this land. Today, Gallows Hill will claim me.

“Alice Proctor.” The reflection of flames dances upon the wooden planks of my holding cell as a deep voice calls my name. The onslaught of hurried footsteps assaults the early morning silence.

He is coming for me. It is time.

A man enters my cell and stands before me. He glares at me with blue eyes of pious indignation. His voice booms.

“Alice Proctor, daughter of George and Rebecka Proctor, you have been found guilty of the heinous crime of witchcraft, by you practiced and committed upon several persons residing in Salem Village. Therefore, in their majesties’ names, William and Mary, now King and Queen over England, you have been sentenced to be hanged by the neck until you are dead.”

I stand and brush the hay from my gown with chained hands.

“Have you anything to say before your God?”

I look into his pale eyes. I want to spit in his ugly face, but I know that’s an unwise impulse. Hanging is quick. There are much worse ways to die in Salem.  Instead, I close my eyes and whisper. “I have no God.”

His hand is quick. My reflexes are slowed by hunger and thirst.  My head explodes and my vision blurs as his fist makes contact. I feel the weight of my body collide with the hard dirt and hay-covered ground as I spit dust and blood and the shattered remnants of teeth from my mouth.

“You would be wise to watch your tongue, witch,” he says.

Something washes over me, a feeling that is at once soothing and disturbing.  Suddenly, my tiny cell is awash in color. I can discern each individual granule of soil on the floor below me. I see the intricate weave of fibers in my persecutor’s leather boots.  The subtle smell of fear and excitement leaches from his pores. His breathing is rhythmic and strong.

As I lay perfectly still in the dirt, I wish with my entire soul that this man responsible for the deaths of my mother and sister pay for his crimes. That he face retribution for his misdeeds. My hatred seethes. This feeling is foreign to me. It is wild and feral. Resting on the razor-sharp edge of my control, it threatens to consume me. I push back against the strangling force of my anger, aiming it instead at my persecutor.

His breathing quickens. He takes a step backwards and inhales sharply.

I am intrigued. I adjust the flow of anger to hit him square in the chest. His breathing quickens again and his hands reach for his throat.

I don’t understand what is happening. I can manipulate his respirations. By merely commanding it to do so, I can push the air from his lungs. I can refuse its reentry. Once again I thrust my will against his heaving chest as he stares at me with pallid eyes. The piety slowly slips from his gaze, replaced by revulsion. And then fear. He has always been so confident in his own righteousness that the truth was of little consequence. Today, that truth will be his undoing.

I hear him gurgle and watch as he gasps for precious oxygen. As he falls to the ground, I stand with a new sense of purpose. I take a deep breath of the crisp air I so resolutely deprived my persecutor of and I shed my shackles. I am Alice Proctor, daughter of George and Rebecka Proctor. Sister to Sarah Proctor.

And I am a witch.


Shannon Ralph is a writer of fiction, creative non-fiction, and some of the best Facebook posts around. She is currently working on her first full-length novel between short stories. She is a southern transplant living the dream in balmy Minneapolis, Minnesota with her partner and three children. When Shannon is not writing, she can be found hunkered over her laptop battling an ugly addiction to online shopping.

Issue No. 6, Autumn 2013

The Anatomy of Self-Destruction
Alisha Grace

It creeps into all areas of the body at once.  A cold flush comes to the skin and dives down deep, snipping veins as it passes.  Muscles are left numb and flat and full of expanding air.  The air is stolen from the lungs.  The lungs fill up with vines that grow thicker until they burst through arteries and claim all contours of flesh.  Limbs stiffen.  Eyes shut or peel wide, but nothing in-between. It is poisonous and it never stops growing.  It drains blood.  It steals breath.  It switches the heartbeat with a high-pitch screech and the rhythm of the body is gone.  It spreads just under the skin and pulls at your seams.  Your body never breaks, just stretches and stretches.

It comes when you are around others, a face in a sea of bodies, and in seconds it swallows you whole.  It brings ancient images of bloodletting and robed figures at the edges of forests.  It plays dark things on a projection screen behind your eyelids and never stops cycling.  Leeches and snakes and a pungent glowing vial sealed with a cork.  It is full of magic, the blackest kind.  It should be burned at the stake to save the rest but it’s nothing alone, it’s only inside of you.  You are its vehicle and it goes wherever you go.

It is broken but was never whole, no hope of anything to put back together.  It takes the pieces of your life, the places, the people, the moments. It douses them in gasoline.  They burn and you watch and you cannot touch because you are already on fire.  It leaves everything you bring near in a pile of ash that dissolves under your feet.  You cannot stop walking.  You trample every dusty trace of the things you knew and there is no footprint left in your wake.

It cannot die.  It lives only inside of you.  You are a mortal thing with a high-pitch screech where your heart used to be.  You feel nothing when you are alone, less than nothing, a void where ghosts roam and curse their prison.  You are the cold steel bars, and the bullet-proof glass between that blocks the air that might have drifted in.

It can only fall asleep.  It can be shoved into your stomach and left in concrete boots under a sea of whisky and vodka.  It will forget about you until the tide recedes.  It can be skewered with needles and pinned under razor blades.  You can trap it there, outside yourself, until it struggles free.  It can be blanketed in white powder and adorned with blue and yellow and green ornaments etched with medical hieroglyphics.  You will feel beautiful and strange and your heart will thump a few times before the nails-on-chalkboard screech returns.

It loves when you look in the mirror. It takes your image and paints itself over you and it’s only shadows. All you see are shadows. You have no features. It has stolen your skin and covered it to match the silent depths of midnight.

It loves when you take a lover. Another friend to hold by the neck, at a distance, a new pair of bright eyes to watch like nuclear blasts across a vast ocean. As you implode and implode but it never ends. It just starts again.

It is poisonous and it never stops growing. It is winning and it cannot die. It lives only inside of you. You are losing and you are mortal.


Alisha Grace is a writer living in Los Angeles, the strange urban patchwork quilt of movie magic and gritty realism. She is working on my M.F.A. in creative writing from Antioch University, with her second novel well underway. She has had poetry published in The Silhouette literary magazine, and enjoys reading everything from historical biographies to fantasy.

Issue No. 6, Autumn 2013

Old Ghosts
Cezarija Abartis

Caroline extended the bag of Halloween candy to the three kids wearing storebought ghost costumes. Why buy them when it was so easy to make over an old bed sheet? She shrugged. These were the premier kids on the street: polite, quiet, obedient. Ralph and Mary Anderson raised them right. These were the kids she and Eric would have, if they had kids. Theirs, however, would be creative and, of course, make their own costumes.

Little Tommy asked: “How many ghosts does it take to change a lightbulb?” Her hand rested on the door and she noted that the door and porch needed painting, that their house was a perfect Halloween shanty. She had heard the joke already that evening. Tommy had got it wrong. It was supposed to be “vampires.”

Caroline had her own ghosts. Real ghosts, not children in storebought costumes. Eric was late again. Perhaps he stopped for a drink at The Late Edition. He liked hanging out with journalists more than lawyers. This house that they bought with all optimism last year seemed to leak good things–vibes, happiness, luck, until she felt heavy with bad luck. He seemed unhappy with practicing law as she was dissatisfied with being a copywriter for an ad agency that was losing business and letting people go.

“Trick or treat!?” little Janey sang.

What if Caroline said “trick”? What would little Janey do? Did these children have a plan, a superplan, an overarching sequence of tricks? What was their plan of life?

When Eric came home yesterday, his jacket smelled of cigarette smoke, though he hadn’t been to the bar. Okay, he spent time with someone who smoked. So what? But there was also a red stain on his shirt cuff–was it lipstick?

Three teenage girls dressed as vampires with sharp fangs and scarlet shiny bustiers laughed and demanded treats. Caroline offered them the brown paper bag of chocolates. Antioxidants–good for them actually. Destroy the free radicals. How many vampires does it take to change a lightbulb? She knew the answer was “None. They like it in the dark.”

She wanted to leave Minneapolis and this house, and Eric wanted to stay: his job, of course, and people he worked with, and friends.

Who are your friends, she’d asked him.

“You know–Lou, Mike, others, Louise, Debbie.”

“Tell me about Debbie.”

“Nothing to tell. She’s a great paralegal, hard-working, knowledgeable, devoted.” His full lips stretched into a smile.

She wondered if his full lips had been planted on Debbie’s devoted lips. Caroline knew she had to stop being jealous. She would have to confront this ghost.

The newspaper had a story about the Halloween blizzard of 1991when it snowed nine inches then nineteen inches more over the next couple days, and the snow didn’t completely melt until April. It must have damaged a lot of roofs. That was a long winter. What did the homeless people do? And the stray dogs and cats?

Now a group of tiny kids, with a young mother as chaperone–Julie from across the street. Her little boy wore a wolf mask and a tiger costume. He giggled. “Ruff-ruff, boo,” he sang out.

“Hey, that sounds just like a wolf,” Caroline said.

Julie shivered. “I hope they don’t get colds in this weather.” She looked around at the falling twilight and hugged herself in her windbreaker.

Caroline thought it would be an act of  mercy to invite Julie in out of the cold. “When you’re finished with the walk, come on over for a drink, if you like.”

“I’d like that but I gotta watch the little one. Steve’s out of town.” She patted Kyle’s head. “Why don’t you come to my house. You can leave a note for Eric telling him to call when he gets home.”

“Mom, you’re mussing my hair,” Kyle said.

“I’ll see you in a while.” Caroline watched Kyle skip down the sidewalk. The lights in the windows of the houses across the street were jolly. On the porches skeletons dangled, pumpkins with missing teeth grinned widely, cutout witches flew determinedly on brooms. In the west the streaks of sunset were swallowed by the night.

The phone rang. Eric said he would be late. She listened intently but could not hear anyone else in the background, no pretty woman laughing, no pretty woman waiting, no pretty woman putting on crimson lipstick.

She had not turned on the light in the shabby living room. “We thought we were building a house, not a shanty.”

“What?” Eric said.

“Never mind. I was just missing you.”

“I’ll try to finish up quickly. This could be the case that makes me partner.”

“Okay,” she said. “Okay.”

Outside the window, what had been smudges of darkness pooled into clouds and continents of shade.

The wolf at the door shouted he’d huff and he’d puff and he’d blow the house down.


Cezarija Abartis’s Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Per Contra, Pure Slush, Waccamaw, and New York Tyrant, among others. One of her flashes was included in Wigleaf‘s Top 50 list of flash fiction. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University. Her website is magicmasterminds.com/cezarija

Issue No. 6, Autumn 2013

The Wolf
Beth Couture

An ugly young girl dressed all in red carries a large basket in one hand and a bundle of sticks in the other. She is walking from town back to her grandmother’s house. She wears a thick knitted wool shawl, and a hood so no one can see her face. Her grandmother is sick, she has not been able to get out of bed in weeks, and the girl is bringing her food from the market—a loaf of dark, heavy bread, carrots, potatoes, and a bit of meat for soup, and last, a small lavender box of almond cookies—the old woman’s favorite. The girl caresses the sticks, loves the roughness between her fingers. She has always collected sticks. They’re all so different, she says, like snowflakes or fingerprints. Or people, she sometimes thinks, but she never says it. She wraps the sticks in colored yarn and carries them with her wherever she goes. She gives them to people she likes, but there aren’t many of those. People often disappoint her. If she gives you a bundle of sticks and you don’t keep them forever, if you don’t seem proud of them, she will grow to hate you and demand the sticks back. If you see her after this, she will avoid you, will look the other way or even glare at you, scrunching up her nose and narrowing her eyes.

She is on her way to her grandmother’s house, her own home now, she thinks, as she has lived there for nearly a year, and it is just a little farther—just a short way through this patch of woods, past the hunter’s cabin. He is out front chopping wood, and he smiles at her, raises his hand. It is not a forest that she is passing through—it is too small and too bare—though she calls it that. She is a romantic, a child who grew up reading fairytales and stories about magic. Things her mother told her could never happen, but she has always believed they could. She has never seen anything magical, but she waits patiently. She still believes that if you want something enough, you’ll get it.

As soon as she gets to the house, she knows something is wrong. It smells like dog, and she knows no dog lives there. The old woman is lying in bed, panting, her tongue dripping thick pink foam onto the pillow. She has never seen anyone pant like that. The girl isn’t stupid. Naïve, maybe, and young, barely fifteen, but she notices things. Like the fur on her grandmother’s face, the fact that instead of a nose, she has a whiskered snout. She notices the teeth that gleam from her grandmother’s open mouth, strong and white and sharp. The fur around her mouth is tinged with red. The girl thinks she should keep her distance. She puts the basket on the table and opens it, takes out the vegetables and meat, the bread, the cookies. Another strange thing: her grandmother doesn’t speak. She hasn’t even said hello. She just lies there panting, her long meaty tongue lolling against the pillow. This is unusual. The girl’s grandmother has always greeted her with kisses on the cheek and kind words. The girl knows it cannot be her grandmother in the bed. The thought is too strange to even imagine. She breathes in the smell of dog and watches the animal in her grandmother’s bed lie there, bloated and panting like it has just run for miles.

It watches her too, yellow-eyed and open mouthed, then shifts, raises itself up so that it is resting on its haunches and sniffs the air, pointing its nose at her, breathing deeply. Its entire body is covered in dark gray fur, and its paws and chest are matted with blood. A torn and bloodstained cloth rests between its paws, and the girl recognizes it as her grandmother’s nightgown. The wolf sits there, looking at her, and she begins to move toward it. She can smell its breath, the blood on its body and something like sweat.

***

You will think I’m cruel, but I knew as soon as she was born. She came out and I watched her twisted mouth as she cried and knew there was nothing we could do with her. Her upper lip was thick and red and malformed, like someone had slashed it with a razor and stitched it back together without making sure it came together the right way. She looked like an animal baring its teeth. Her lower lip was normal, but the upper one didn’t allow her to close her mouth completely. When I saw her, all I could do was cry. The doctor told us she should be able to lead a perfectly normal life, that surgery wasn’t out of the question, but I knew it wouldn’t be that simple. Even with a normal mouth, she would still be horrid-looking—those thick eyebrows that met in the middle of her forehead, her nose as long and narrow and pointed sharp as a bird’s beak, those strange eyes, so pale they were almost white. Her father didn’t even want to hold her, but I made him do it. He sat with her on his lap and frowned, tried not to look at her. We wouldn’t let anyone snap a photograph. We held her, and she looked up at us like she knew we were making a decision, but she didn’t try to sway us.

We brought her home from the hospital four days later, our healthy, hideous baby daughter dressed in pink with a pink stuffed bear and a pink blanket we kept tucked under her nose, and two days later, her father left. He wrote a note, but I threw it in the fireplace without reading it, then burned the clothes and other things he hadn’t taken with him. He was a coward. You will think I’m cruel, but at least I didn’t run away in the middle of the night. It was cruel, yes, what I did, but there wasn’t any other way.

***

She is standing next to the bed near the animal that could never be her grandmother. It looks her right in the face, its eyes fixed on hers. She slowly puts out her hand, holds it, trembling, inches from the wolf’s mouth. The wolf leans its head down and smells it, then looks back up at her. She keeps her hand out, not moving, and it licks it, its tongue soft and warm and wet. The girl sniffs her hand after the wolf finishes with it, and it smells strong and salty. She holds her hand to her nose and inhales deeply, then touches her tongue to where the animal’s was just a minute before.

***

We named her Sarah, Hebrew for “princess” and her grandmother’s name. Yes, I found it ironic. Bitterly so. The older she got, the more I thought about the operation. Maybe it would help her. Maybe it was my job as her mother to do whatever I could to give her as normal a life as possible. But I couldn’t help thinking that it wouldn’t change anything. She could eat and talk, and she wasn’t in any pain, and no matter what miracles the doctor was able to perform, she would never be a pretty girl. She would probably never even look normal, never mind attractive. You think I’m wrong for not even trying. It’s a wonder what a good doctor can do with a scalpel these days, a skin graft or two. But I couldn’t bear the idea of her going through so much pain for nothing. They couldn’t give her a new face. When she was younger, it didn’t seem to bother her. She played outside by herself, collecting her sticks and rocks and all the other things she liked. She never asked me why her face wasn’t like mine.

As she got older, though, she began to pay more attention to the people around her. She looked at their mouths especially, watched them as they talked and ate and smoked, and then she would put a hand to her own lips as if trying to understand what made them so different. I noticed her looking in the mirror one night, trying to push her lips into a normal position, to mold them into something that looked like everyone else’s. It was like she was trying to shape clay. She stopped when she saw me watching her, but I caught her doing it many times after that. She stared at her reflection all the time, and then she would look at me and then at the pictures of little girls and boys in her books. She knew she didn’t look like any of them, but she never asked me why. She never confided in me. That’s how she was—never really like a child at all, never dependent on me to tell her things. I probably should have tried to teach her more, should have sat her down when she was very young and been direct with her before she could start making up the lies she told herself. I should have talked to her the way a mother talks to a daughter. But she wanted to figure it out on her own, so I let her try. When she couldn’t, she started wearing her hood all the time. She only took it off when I made her, when it started to smell or became so threadbare and dingy that it was time to replace it. And when I gave her another one, I had to make sure it was exactly like the one before it—always bright red, tied right under the chin so you couldn’t see her face.

Her body began to look more like a woman’s than a little girl’s, though she was still so young. She was as tall as I am by the time she was nine and had breasts before her twelfth birthday—real breasts, not just bumps like the other little girls. Breasts that made me buy her a bra and throw away all of the little girl’s dresses she had always worn. She took me by surprise every time I looked at her. She was slender and white, the skin on her hands translucent. With her back turned, she could have been a marble statue, a nymph or a goddess. Men would stop and stare at us when we walked through town. Sometimes they said things like “hey pretty” or “beautiful” at her. Of course they could only see her body and the hood hiding her face, and so they didn’t realize how ridiculous it was to call a girl like her beautiful. When they talked to her, I would take her hand and lead her away. Sometimes I walked so fast she had to run to keep up. She never said anything about the men, or my reaction to them, and I convinced myself she wasn’t bothered.

One night, though, when I got up to go to the bathroom, I heard her talking to herself in her room. Her bedroom was at the end of the hall, so I tiptoed down from the bathroom until I was standing in front of her door. I could hear everything she said.

“Hi pretty,” she said in a voice deeper than the way she usually spoke, “you sure are beautiful.”

And then, “thank you” in her normal voice, only teasing, flirtatious—a tone I’d never heard her use.

“Can I take you out to a movie, or maybe some ice cream?”

“Sure.”

And then she made mouth noises, wet, sucking sounds like she was kissing her hand. I heard her murmur “you’re so pretty” again, and then I left, walking back down the hall to my own room as quickly as I could. I didn’t bother to tiptoe.

She couldn’t grow up to expect a man to fall in love with her and carry her away. It couldn’t happen that way, not with her face. I sat down at the table with her one morning while she ate her breakfast, and told her as much. “Men just care so much more about looks than we do,” I said. “If you were a man, it might be different. Women aren’t so superficial.” She looked at me and nodded, but I could tell she didn’t think anything of what I’d said. I found her diary one afternoon. She wrote about the men in town, about how one day when I let her go there by herself she would talk to them, would ask one of them to take her for a ride in his car. “They like me,” she wrote, and next to it she put a little smiley face.

“You are not beautiful,” I finally told her, holding her chin in my hand and staring straight at her. “You’re a sweet girl, a smart girl. Maybe someday a man will love you for that. But never for your looks. You need to accept it.” When I told her this, she yanked her head out of my grasp with a hiss. I put my hand on her shoulder, but she shook it off and ran to her room.

It happened like I knew it would. We were walking one day, past the grimy windows of the café on Main Street. I could see the men inside hunched over their coffee and egg sandwiches, watching us as we walked. Watching her. A few of them got up and came to the window, pressed their red faces against the glass and grinned. “Hey,” they said, their lips sloppy and wet. “Hey sweetheart.”

You will think I’m cruel, and I am. It would be ridiculous to argue. But it couldn’t go on. I simply wanted her to face what she was. “Look up,” I told her, as the men made kissy faces at her, as they preened and showed off, “look at them.” She turned to me, confused, and I said it again. “Look at them.” And when she shook her head, when she ducked down and tried to keep walking, I stopped her, held her shoulders and turned her to face the window. “You look at them.” I pulled the hood back from her face and stared at the men. “Look,” I said. And they did. They stopped slicking their greasy hair back with cheap plastic combs and puffing out their chests, stopped grinning and licking their lips, and I could hear the word “sweetheart” as they exhaled it, half-said. “What the hell is that?” I heard one of the men say as they stumbled back away from the window. “What’s wrong with her face?” Sarah pulled away from me and ran, her hood and her long dark hair blowing behind her. After that, she refused to leave the house. She didn’t even want to go outside for fear of someone seeing her. “You’ll have to go out eventually,” I told her, but she shook her head. “No.” She stayed in her room for weeks, only coming out when I forced her to.

My mother, Sarah’s namesake, lived even farther away from town than we did, almost a full day’s walk, in a tiny log house in the woods. She tended a garden, only went to the market three or four times a year, went weeks without speaking to a soul. She was content with this, said she had no use for people anymore. I had tried to get her to move in with us when my husband and I got married, but she wouldn’t sacrifice her solitude. She loved her granddaughter, though, and when I told her about the troubles we were having, she invited Sarah to come and stay with her for a while. “As long as she likes,” she said, and said she was certain it would be no trouble at all. I asked Sarah if she would like this, if maybe she would be happy living with her grandmother so far away from everything, and she nodded and began packing her things. “It’s probably best this way,” I told her. “You’ll be happier there.”

***

She sits on the floor, and the wolf sits beside her, puts its head in her lap. She strokes its thick fur, and it nuzzles against her thighs. They stay this way until long past dark, and then she hears someone outside the house, leaves crackling under heavy boots. The wolf raises its head and looks at her, and she presses her face to its neck, then whispers “go,” pushes it gently away. It trots toward the back of the house, and the girl hears the back door creaking as it pushes its way through. It lets out a low howl as it runs through the woods.

When the hunter enters the house, she is sitting next to her grandmother’s bed, holding a torn and bloodstained nightgown in her hands, staring at it. She looks up at him when she hears his footsteps, and the hunter sees that her mouth is deformed, her upper lip twisted and grotesque. Her teeth are clearly visible, and they are beautiful, long and white and shiny. The hunter looks at her, at her horrible face and her long dark hair and heavy breasts, her thin moon-white body. She stares back at him.

“My grandmother,” she says, holding out the nightgown. “A wolf killed her.”

***

We had a funeral for Sarah’s grandmother, a small service that no one but the two of us, the priest, and the hunter attended. I saw the hunter watching Sarah the entire time, but whenever he saw me looking at him he blushed and put his head down. Sometimes he even pretended to pray. After the funeral, Sarah went back to wandering outside. I told her not to go too far, to stay away from the woods, but she just laughed. “Nothing will hurt me,” she said. She stayed gone for hours, often from dawn until dusk, and sometimes I was sure she wouldn’t come back at all until I heard her footsteps on the walk. Sometimes when she came back she wasn’t wearing her hood, and her hair was loose and tangled down her back, a rat’s nest. Sometimes her dresses were torn and dirty. “What do you do out there?” I asked her as I brushed out the tangles and sewed the dresses, but she only shook her head. I wanted to follow her one time, to see where she went, but I never did. She seemed happy, mysterious, like a girl in love. I waited for her to tell me, to bring the hunter home with her one day and tell me she’d gotten what she wanted.

***

The hunter is tracking a deer when he hears a wolf’s howl coming from the house where the old woman died. He wonders if the girl is there again, if she has come back to collect her things, and he raises his rifle. There are tracks leading to the door of the house, but none going back in the other direction. He looks in the window. The girl is on the bed, her dark hair loose and spilling over the pillows. She is wearing a torn red dress, and the hunter can see her naked white body underneath. She is on her back. A large gray wolf hunches over her, its mouth at her throat. The girl’s mouth is open, and her eyes are shut tight. Her arms are around the wolf’s neck, and it looks like she is embracing it, but the hunter thinks she must be trying to push it away from her and is just too weak. She is young and thin, and the wolf is clearly more powerful. The hunter watches the struggle for just a moment, sees the wolf bury its face in the girl’s neck, and then he shoots the wolf. It falls onto the floor.

When he enters the house, the girl is huddled next to the wolf. She strokes its head and back and presses her face into its side. She is crying, screaming, and the hunter thinks she must be in shock.

“Are you okay?” he asks her. “It didn’t bite you, did it?”

“Go away,” she says, her twisted mouth sneering and her teeth flashing in the dim light, “just get out of here. Can’t you see what you’ve done?”

The hunter doesn’t know what to say, and so he stands and watches her as she pets the wolf. It is barely alive, and it licks her hands. She presses its head into her chest. When it finally shudders and dies, the girl looks up at the hunter. “You’ll bury it,” she says, and the hunter nods stupidly. “And when you’re done, you’ll take me to my mother.” The girl is shivering. The house is cold, and her dress hangs on her body in shreds. The wolf must have torn it trying to get at her flesh. The hunter takes off his heavy wool jacket and gives it to the girl, and she wraps it around her shoulders without looking at him. “Bury it,” she says, her voice a soft growl.

***

The second time he brought her back to the house, I cried. It was like I had imagined it would be. He had his arm around her, supporting her as they walked through the yard, and she was wearing his coat buttoned up to her chin. He wasn’t a handsome man, but they made a strange picture walking together. He looked so wholesome, so lovely and bland next to her, with his wheat-blond hair and full cheeks and bright red lips. Next to him, without her hood, she could have been a charity case, a deformed orphan too ugly and sullen to even be pitied. I tried not to think this way as I looked at them. “Your daughter is very brave,” the hunter said as he sat down with the mug of coffee I handed him.

“Her name is Sarah,” I said. “She’s a good girl.”

“Yes,” he said.

He is a kind man, and he takes care of my daughter and their children, but the hunter is not smart. He has been in the woods too long. When he came to ask me if he could marry Sarah, only months after he saved her from the wolf, I don’t think he said more than twenty words. He stuttered and blushed and barely looked at me.

“What do you want?” I finally asked him, putting my hand firmly on his arm. I thought he might cry.

“I have money,” he said finally, “and a house. I can take care of her.”

I stared at him for a long time, until he met my eyes. “Will you allow it?” he asked, twisting his hat between his thick fingers.

“Do you love her?” I asked him. I smiled at him, encouraging.

“I want to take care of her,” he said.

When I asked Sarah if she wanted to marry him, she didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no either. She just shrugged and went back to the sticks she was tying up with twine.

“Do you think he loves you?” I asked her. “Has he told you?” She shook her head. “He must,” I said, “or at least he will learn to.”

***

The hunter is gone for days at a time, but when he comes back he brings freshly killed deer and rabbits and sometimes turkeys. Sarah makes dinners and soups out of some of the meat, and freezes enough to last the family through the times when game is scarce. She sends her son and daughter to their grandmother’s house every week with the rest, tucks them into their jackets and hoods and tells them to be careful in the woods, to come back as quick as they can. She knows she should be happy. Her husband touches her, lies beside her and strokes her neck and hair and legs. He has never kissed her mouth, but sometimes when he is happy he’ll kiss her hand or the top of her head. He never says much, but neither does Sarah. The children are loud and cheerful, and the house is never quiet.

At night, Sarah and her husband sleep back to back, and in the morning when she wakes up, he is already gone. She tells herself that he is a good man, that he loves her, and she is content. It is enough. She thinks about this when he touches her, when he buries his face in her neck and her chest, the nights he climbs on top of her and settles between her legs, and later when he falls asleep, his face in her hair. Sarah does not love him, but she loves his hard weight on her, his body’s heat, the scent of sweat and the forest in his coarse dark hair. She thinks of the animals he brings home, their blood on his hands and arms and mouth. She loves his body, so much stronger than hers, as it holds her to the rough mattress, and the sound and smell of his breath as he pants, breathless against her. She pleasures in her husband—half-awake as she lies next to him, gazing into such big yellow eyes, such sharp white teeth.


Beth Couture’s work can be found in a number of journals and anthologies, including Gargoyle, Drunken Boat, The Southeast Review, The Yalobusha Review, Ragazine, and Thirty Under Thirty from Starcherone Books. Her novella, Women Born with Fur: An Autobiography, was recently accepted for publication by Jaded Ibis Press. She is an assistant editor with Sundress Publications, and teaches composition at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA.