Issue No. 9, Summer 2014

My Wife’s Cryogenics
Paul David Adkins

A doctor said she locked

herself
in a closet
in her mind.

I stared outside.

The earth was covered with snow.

She’s frozen.

I nodded.

She’ll think
she’s thirty

forever.

I focused
on a drain spout.

She’ll wonder
how you aged.

A fat gray tongue of ice
lolled from the pipe’s iron maw –

a panting gargoyle.

Or was it
a dull hook

dangling

from a heavy chain?


Paul David Adkins lives in New York and works as a counselor.

Issue No. 9, Summer 2014

Emergence
Carolyn Cushing

I leave brush
burning for a new path
laid between dark
and the dark of the moon,
a beach rose forks the bend.
I emerge. A flooded yard,
two snakes swim
a circle broken
by sharp-toothed space
between mouth and tail.
You are worried, but no,
this is an improvement.


Carolyn Cushing is a poet inspired by nature, slightly obsessed with cells, and currently focused on the places where life and death meet. She has published recently in Plum and Freshwater. In 2012 she was a finalist for the Philbrick Poetry Award of the Providence Athenaeum. Her poetry blog is http://unstoppablewholeness.wordpress.com

Issue No. 9, Summer 2014

The Summerland
William Reichard

You pass into sleep in the House of Pain,
in the room where wounds will no longer
heal, where the needle prick sends life
stringing back into your bloodstream.
It’s a black and white dream,
a sad conflation of The Wizard of Oz
and The Island of Lost Souls.
Tornado’s coming! shrieks the Leopard Girl,
while the Scarecrow and the Tin Man
scramble for the dinghy that will take them
back to the fog-drenched ship.
Get out! screams Dorothy, half-woman,
half-dog. Get out while you still can!

You wake to brilliant Technicolor.
Same bed, same room, but the tubes
and machines are missing, no slow,
steady monitor’s beat, only birdsong
and wind, deep green meadow grass,
the sky, transcendent blue.
Same room but the walls are gone.
The house itself is gone. All of the sharp corners
are smoothed, the straight, slashing sounds,
the traffic, the sirens. The air is filled with bees.
You crawl from bed, fully healed, and head
to a village. You spot your house and move in.
It’s just that simple. The villagers don’t talk
about heaven or hell. No one worries about sin.

Daily routines are enough to satisfy
and the pantries restock themselves
at night as you sleep. At first you worry
it’s all a dream and will dissolve
back into the hospice room.
Then you worry that there’s no need to worry.
Then, you forget. Forget what worry
was ever about. The weather’s fine and
summer’s eternal. Such an autonomous
dream, this paradise. Listen to the wind
in the reeds along the lakeshore,
how they lash the air, how they sing.


William Reichard is a poet.

Issue No. 9, Summer 2014

Persephone Explains the Pomegranate
Anne Brannen

I was exhausted.
The flowers, the sun, the singing,
the abduction, Mom screaming
in the distance —
what an afternoon.

Even so, I refused,
adamantine. No crown, no
shadowed halls, no infinite
dark, no cushioned
throne. Then, the bowl,
heaped with ripeness.

In the dark the seeds shone
not like rubies or blood but
sun through red glass.
Lively creatures, in all this death.

I saw it all.
The grief, the rage, the
break, the bargain, beyond
compelling. Dark, peace,
quiet. The end of heat, of
singing, of sun; the harvest
of the relentless summer
of grain.


Anne Brannen currently makes her home in Albuquerque, to which she has returned after a decades long absence. She is a former professor of medieval literature and current mistress of herself. Her poetry has been published in such various journals as Cabinet des Fees, Literary Mamas, New Mexico Poetry Review, and Kestrel.

Issue No. 9, Summer 2014

The Giraffe

wanders the night, head
lowered, lurking in sprawling
anonymity.
It glides along—long-legged, long-
faced—dips its neck & slips past

the forlorn monkey
bars & swing-less swing set. Up
the wooded hillock,
parked cars hump to “Yeah! Oh Yeah!”
A foot juts out an unrolled

glass, ankle bracelet
jangling. Flickering headlights
pass through dark, trembling
leaves, so you can’t see the giraffe
slumped behind a butterfly

bush, watching, listening
for the sake of national
security. For
you might be a terrorist.
We might all be terrorists.


Matt Morris has appeared in various magazines and journals, including ABZ, DMQ, 88, Hunger Mountain, New York Quarterly, Runes, and others. He has received five Pushcart nominations. His first book won the 2003 Main Street Rag Poetry Award; Pudding House has published his chapbooks, Here’s How and Greatest Hits. He currently lives on what remains of a farm in West Virginia with his goldfish Homer.

Issue No. 9, Summer 2014

Two Doors Down
Molly McCormack

Little blue
comb waited,
half buried
in a crack in
the asphalt
driveway, where
crabgrass and
chickweed
pushed through.
Dropped from
the hand
that carried a pink
Barbie Fashion
Designer Case
during last
summer’s move,
its bent teeth
bared. The mess
inside the house
too big
to untangle.


Molly McCormack is the Managing Editor of A NARROW FELLOW Journal of Poetry. Her poems have been published in several journals. She is also an accomplished blues and folk musician, performing and teaching both mountain and hammered dulcimer at numerous venues across the country.

Issue No. 9, Summer 2014

Selkie
Julie Jeanell Leung

My husband moves in the bed like a seal. I watch as he opens the sheets on his side, pulling away the blankets and dimming the lamp. When he slides towards me, I observe his eyes wide, his head round, his body tapered like a seal, now beside me, on this queen-sized ice floe that is ours behind a locked bedroom door in our home.

Ted does not often sleep beside me. Work takes him to Los Angeles and France, to Amsterdam and New York City. From our island home near Seattle, he rides bus, ferry, taxi, train, and plane to his destinations. This fall he arrived home for clean laundry and a dinner with his children on the weekends before leaving again for the airport.

Years ago, when we dated and dreamed together, walking barefoot in the sand along the Atlantic, I imagined a life different from this one, different from the one my mother lived, a home where a man and woman shared the cooking and washing and driving. For the first few years of our marriage, making our home in an apartment near the university campus while Ted finished graduate school, we took turns and planned each day which one of us would cook, which one of us would clean and which one of us would haul the laundry downstairs to the machines in the basement. But now in the kitchen, I eat bars of dark chocolate, breaking off pieces in sharp edges, bribing myself to wash the stacks of greasy dishes waiting in the sink. I browse websites and shop online, marveling at shiny wonders for sale on the screen, hoping deliveries of packages will distract me with glass vases and new books. After the children are asleep, I push a path through the obstacle course of laundry baskets, discarded clothes, backpacks and books left in awkward piles through the hallways. In the bathroom, I ignore the electricity bill and fill the tub to the top, wanting to become aquatic and immerse myself completely, praying hot water can release the aches in my head, neck and shoulders.

Some nights, I don’t sleep in our bed either. Closing my eyes to rest for a few minutes between chores, I can fall asleep on the living room sofa, like I watched my mother do, book or magazine on my face, waking only when sunshine brightens the blinds. I am weeding the yard in the November rain, slicing apples, calling electricians, driving teenagers through dark winter evenings, scrubbing pots and pans after midnight. He is on a canal in The Netherlands, touring Times Square, eating sushi in San Francisco. Who knows where he is. Who knows who he is. Or what he is.

My man is home tonight sliding in bed like a seal, his skin beside mine. Perhaps he is a selkie. My husband is a myth. He is magic. I will kiss him tonight and tomorrow when I wake he will be gone.

 

As a girl, I read books in bed, alone in the room my stepmother gave me in the house she shared with my father. On a shelf, I found the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, dusty volumes in thick red bindings with gold lettering, books from my stepmother’s childhood. My mother didn’t allow us to read or see violence beyond a G-rated Disney movie, but at my stepmother’s home I could read about Hansel and Gretel shoving the witch into the oven, and birds pecking out stepsister eyes in this Grimm version of Cinderella.

Mythical creatures enchanted me on the pages. Dragons and unicorns ran wild through magical forests. Princes turned into frogs and fish. Women transformed into birds and witches. Brothers became swans and then changed back to human brothers again. Later in life I would learn about selkies, seals that shed their skins to become humans at night. Reading my stepmother’s books during weekends at her house, I wished I could become another creature and disappear.

Stepfamilies and strange marriages appeared often in these fairy tales along with violence and horror. Cinderella’s stepsisters sliced pieces off of their feet to try to fit into the glass slipper, blood revealing their secrets. I didn’t know whether to be shocked or comforted by the violence, unhappiness, and suffering, so different from the Disney versions but the endings promised resolution and restoration, celebration and joy.

In the hall outside my room hung an enormous picture of my father and stepmother on their wedding day, a photo I tried to ignore whenever I walked past it. I didn’t like the frame with its dark, carved wood, and I didn’t like to see my father smiling for the camera beside his new bride. Angry over my parents’ divorce, I couldn’t believe in “living happily ever afterwards” yet I liked boys, writing their names in a secret code of pencil dots and lines in my diary so no one would know my crushes. I hoped boys would ask me out or talk to me, or just look at me once, despite my glasses, braces and chubby face. I didn’t plan to get married and I never imagined being a bride in an elaborate white dress, but somehow I still wanted to fall in love forever. As a girl at my stepmother’s house, I read these books filled with blood and magic, fire and transformation, knowing that fairy tales are fiction, yet hoping for my own happy ending, wishing for magic and amazement beyond what I had experienced and expected.

Selkies, people transforming into seals in daylight, I learned about later as an adult, a few years ago, from a writing teacher. That same summer also I started going to the nearby beaches early in the morning while my husband and children were still sleeping and the tides were low. Once as I stood on the shore of Rockaway Beach during sunrise, a round head emerged from the water. A harbor seal looked at me. I looked at the seal, staring into its dark eyes, until it disappeared into the sea again.

I could believe I am living a fairy tale. We have a home on an island described by real estate agents as “magical”, thick with mysterious forest, and surrounded by blue water, a mix of mountain rivers and Pacific Ocean, now named the Salish Sea. Ted and I have three healthy children. At the store, I can buy salmon, bok choy and mangoes, a feast compared to the toast and instant soup of my childhood. A photo of our wedding day wrapped in a silver frame stands on top of our dresser. I’m wearing a wreath of flowers in my hair and Ted is reaching to touch my face in the light of the church window. My husband still looks young, and his eyes still are wide with passion. If I stop to gaze at the photograph, I can remember how that bride in her princess gown felt twenty years ago. When my husband is with me in our bed, skin beside mine, I am happy.

I wish I could hide my husband’s sealskin, so he will not disappear, so he will stay. But I know he is not the only one. Many disappear. While our children play Monopoly, a neighbor tells me that her husband’s five-week absence for a business trip to Europe and Asia is normal for their family. A friend manages programmers in India. A mother I know travels across the country for her consulting. This spring our local newspaper, the Kitsap Sun, reports statistics from U.S. Census data that the top thirty work destinations for county residents include cities in Virginia, Maine, Rhode Island, Chicago and Georgia, along with cities in California, Oregon, Alaska and the United Arab Emirates. Even our school principal drives hours on the weekend to see his family and home near the Canadian border. A disappearing spouse is twenty-first-century life.

 

So this is the twenty-first century fairy tale. The selkie lover. The disappearing spouse. Marriage with a magic, enigmatic man who is gone in the daylight. I am also complex. I have multiple identities: girl and woman, mother and bride. My days are busy with adult duties, with dishes and electricians, driving and cooking. But I need to remind myself to be the girl who read fairy tales. The girl hoping for romance and transformation. A bride anticipating her enchanted seal’s return, living in a modern adaptation of Grimm brothers’ stories, awaiting the words to be written on the next page, the fairy tale ending yet unfinished.

In bed together, Ted and I talk about the future. My husband tells me he wishes I could share his hotel rooms, the king-size beds, the restaurants, the rides and the sights. We imagine. When this house is empty, I will find my sealskin.


Julie Jeanell Leung’s creative nonfiction has been published in the Bellingham Review and her essays have been selected as a finalist for the Annie Dillard Creative Nonfiction Award and the Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize. After studying biochemistry and writing at Brown University, she is currently a student in the Rainier Writing Workshop, the MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University.

Issue No. 9, Summer 2014

Backup and Restore
Troy Harris

John Getts walked past several holographic posters, ignoring his own face protruding back at him. He reached an intersection at the corridor. An arrow pointed to the right with the text: Here is Everything by John Getts. He went left.

A young woman stopped him and looked up, “Mister Getts? I love your work.”

“I’m flattered, but I believe you have me mistaken for someone else,” John said.

She glanced between him and the picture of him in the brochure she held. The woman started to object, but instead apologized and continued past John. A paparazzi drone camera came out of a hidden nook and recorded a holographic video of him. Three security guards ran up and disabled the hovering machine with discharge wands. They apologized to John and then began arguing with themselves about how the security breach happened.

John reached his destination: a cramped and forgotten room at the Tate Modern in London. He stood in front of a painting wedged in too close to the pieces around it: an oil painting of a family sitting in a living room. The family, except one, was depicted as happy and social. A young girl sat on the floor in the middle of the room. She stared off into space and appeared so alone it broke John’s heart. Digital paint, glazed over the top, subtly changed the lighting of the scene in a slow rhythm. The girl, though, never changed. She remained bright and lonely.

John Getts was a brand. He wasn’t an artist anymore, at least not a good one. His wife was a true artist. He had demanded her painting hung as a rider in his contract. The Tate’s curator put up a fight, calling it “too traditional.” Only when John threatened to take his new show to Paris had the curator relented.

John’s contribution to his own show was minimal: his role relegated to setting up meetings between the sound artists, holographic artists and programmers. One critic had described it as, “the most massive, full immersion art piece in history.” It felt like sensory masturbation to John.

John made a decision. It was so simple now that he thought about it. He will take a sabbatical and focus on marketing his wife’s work. He was a gifted promoter and she was not. He will focus his energy on supporting her. The world needed to see her work. It did not need to see his.

He made his way to the exit and his augment glasses popped up a connection request from his friend Sammy. He accepted.

“Hey, Sammy.”

“John. How are you? Where are you at?” Sammy’s voice appeared in his mind, bypassing his ears.

John flicked his eyes in a precise pattern allowing video to stream to his friend’s glasses. Sammy could now see what John saw. “I had my monthly brain backup this morning and I stopped by the Tate to check out Kiera’s piece.”

“Kiera, right. Listen, that’s why I’m calling. Did she happen to tell you what she was doing today?”

“We didn’t really get a chance to talk this morning.”

“Okay, well hey, this is probably nothing.”

“What is it?”

“Shit John, I don’t want to start anything, but you’re my friend. I was just at Dev Null–that new trendy cafe on Brewer. Kiera was there with a guy. Probably innocent, but they seemed friendly–too friendly. John, I think they were holding hands.”

It took John a second to register what Sammy was telling him and a split second to dismiss it. Kiera wasn’t a person who sneaks around with other men. “Are you sure it was her? I’m sure there’s an explanation Sam.”

“Of course. I probably shouldn’t have even told you.”

“No, no. Thank you. You’re just looking out for me. How long ago was this?”

“I just left. I don’t think they saw me and they were still there.”

“You’re sure it was her?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“You’re right, of course.”

John said goodbye to his friend. He felt annoyed that Sammy had any doubts about Kiera’s faithfulness. I’ll just stop by and say hello to her, he thought. The south bank of the Thames was crowded with tourists waiting to ride the latest eye-sore of an attraction: skimmers that flew over the river, around Big Ben, and shot high up, giving passengers a view of the old city. He walked west and made his way across the bridge to Soho and Brewer Street. The overcast day threatened rain.

Kiera and John hadn’t been as close as they once were. That’s what happens to married couples over the years, John thought. Work kept him away and she spent countless hours on her own art. They didn’t eat together much and when they did it was mostly in silence. Still, their love for each other was unquestionable. Kiera’s commitment to him was unquestionable.

John arrived at the restaurant lost in thought. The liquid chrome of the restaurant’s exterior clashed with the old bricks hugging it. Sammy is too negative, too distrusting. I bet it wasn’t even her–just a doppelganger, he thought. But no. There she was. Just leaving with–Charlie Pritchard. Bastard!

They went northeast up Brewer Street and John followed but kept his distance. His mind had gone blank and his chest ached. The street was narrow and claustrophobic. Trendy young people wearing the newest, flashy augment glasses crowded the sidewalks. Ahead, Charlie and Kiera laughed and he rested his hand on the small of Kiera’s back. He had less hair than when John had last seen him. Charlie was Kiera’s old agent. She had fired him years ago at John’s request.

“He hopes for more than business from you,” John had said to her back then, “I can tell.” They were eating breakfast at their modest apartment in Shoreditch. Both were struggling artists back then.

“Are you jealous, my big strong man? You know I’d never even look at another.”

“I know. I just feel that it will eventually affect his performance. He won’t have your professional interests in mind.”

“You’re jealous.”

“You’re wrong.”

“I’m not mad. I think it’s sweet. You’re never jealous.”

“So you’ll do it?”

“This afternoon. I promise.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too. Almost as much as Charlie.”

They both shared a laugh and then a kiss.

When was the last time I kissed my wife,John thought. He followed them around a bend onto Great Pulteney where the buildings squeezed the street thin. Charlie walked to one of the apartment buildings on the left and opened the door. He grabbed Kiera’s hand and they walked in together.

John balled his right hand into a fist and put it against his mouth. He stood in the same spot for several minutes, taking in short bursts of air. He felt a raindrop fall but others didn’t follow. It never did rain that day.

 

#

 

Charlie sat on the edge of his bed smoking a pipe. Kiera lay still on her stomach trying to muffle the sobs. Her flaxen hair was not long enough to cover her face.

God, I hate John Getts, Charlie thought.

This was the fourth date since Kiera and he had reconnected and the third time they had made love. He had planned everything out to be perfect. He had even programmed his house controller to put Kiera more at ease. When it detected her coming into the apartment, it changed the lighting to a welcoming sepia glow. It also changed the music to genres that she loved but obscure musicians that she would have never heard; no chance a song would remind her of John. The art-screens along the walls recreated classic works selected to instill warmth and comfort.

Nothing mattered. For the third time, Kiera lay on his bed and cried. She was ever loyal to that evil little man.

Charlie ran his hand over what was left of his hair and his fingers came back with a few strands. Sure, John never hit Kiera or yelled at her. His abuse was more subtle, manipulative. He stamped the life out of Kiera while he grew his own cancer of a brand. John ignored Kiera and devalued her. Charlie saw in Kiera a talent, personality and beauty he doubted had ever existed in the world. John saw her as a threat to his empire of shit that he called art.

As Charlie fumed under his own tobacco smoke, Kiera sat up.

“What time is it?” she asked.

“A quarter of two.”

“I need to go.”

“Why?” Charlie knew he was getting in a strop but he couldn’t help it. Thinking of John upset him.

“I told you. John and I have a rebirth to go to.”

“Rebirths. I’ve never seen the point in throwing a party for it.”

“It’s what civil people do. It was my good friend, Lucy.”

“How did she go?”

“Bloody auto-taxi got a virus and ran into her while she was walking home,” she said as she picked her clothes up from around the room.

“You don’t say? I think I saw that on the news. Didn’t know it was your friend.”

“Quite. Anyway, it was only two days since her last backup. It shouldn’t be too terrifying for her.”

“I suppose not. More reason to skip it, I say.”

“I wish you’d stop smoking that. No one smokes tobacco anymore.”

Charlie rounded his mouth and blew a meager smoke ring. “It calms me.”

“What do you need to be calm about?”

“You know.”

Kiera’s emerald eyes moistened. “I suppose I do. You know, maybe this isn’t worth it.”

“Like hell it isn’t! Don’t let that maniac take away something else that you love.”

“I still love him, Charlie.”

“He’s brainwashed you.”

“I’m not going to argue with you when you’re like this.”

“I’ll see you again, right?”

“Maybe, but then again, maybe you won’t. Oh sorry, that sounded awful. I’m just so confused right now. I’ll talk to you later, okay?”

She kissed him on the lips but with less passion than earlier.

God, I hate John Getts.

 

#

 

John and Kiera arrived at the Rebirth Center close to the same time. John saw Kiera crossing the street and waited for her before going in.

“We’re both late,” she said.

“Not the first time. They never start these on time.”

“Let’s hope you’re right.”

John grabbed Kiera’s arm and he felt her tense. It took tremendous willpower for him to act normal. There would be time for a confrontation later. They entered the main room where Lucy’s newly generated body lay motionless. She had always been an attractive girl, but the Center had done an amazing job with her new body. It looked like the old Lucy but they had gently smoothed some of the angles in her face. She was stunning in a simple black cocktail dress.

“I need to switch my business to this Center,” Kiera said. “What an amazing job.”

“She looks good,” John said.

The room itself was more of a small ballroom than a clinic. The elaborate hover lights and expensive curtains recalled a festive party that would go on well into the night. The couple made their way through the room and chatted with the other guests. After a while, Lucy’s husband went to the front of the room and grabbed the partygoers’ attention. He wore an ill-fitting black suit and held a champagne in his left hand.

“Hello and thank you all for coming. Lucy’s death was tragic and it has been tough being without her for these last few weeks. I need to thank Doctor Meyer and his whole team for their work on Lucy’s new body. As you know, Lucy had a backup done just two days before her death. Still, these things are always stressful so please remain calm and be supportive. Thank you.”

Lucy’s husband nodded to the doctor who waved his hands and twitched his eyes in a rapid motion. Lucy’s new body took on life and she opened her eyes. Her husband knelt over her and rubbed her head.

“Daniel?” she asked.

“Yes love. I’m here.”

“What?”

“You’ve just been downloaded into a new body, honey. There was an accident.”

“I died?”

“Yes, but you’re back now. Everything is fine.”

Lucy shook her head in confusion and closed her eyes again.

“Honey, wake up,” Daniel said.

“I’m so tired.”

“That is to be expected. Don’t go back to sleep, though. Fight it off.”

“Am I dreaming?”

“No honey, but you’re okay. We have all of your friends here.”

“I was just being backed up.”

“That was twenty-three days ago.”

“I’m going back to sleep. I must be dreaming,” she said, closing her eyes again.

“My darling, this is real. Please try to stay awake.”

After several minutes, Lucy became more lucid. She accepted reality and attempted to stand up. Her husband helped her off the bed–itself decorated in burgundy coverings–and led her around the room. She exchanged hugs and greetings with each person, eventually making her way to John and Kiera.

“Hello you two. Thank you for coming,” Lucy said.

“Of course. How are you feeling?” Kiera said.

“This is quite the feeling. I’ve been to a dozen of these parties but always standing where you are.”

“We’re glad to have you back,” John said.

“You look beautiful, Lucy,” Kiera said. “I would kill to look half as good as you after dying.”

“I wouldn’t recommend trying it any time soon,” Lucy said and managed a weak laugh. “It’s quite disconcerting.”

“Call me after you get your bearings,” Kiera said. “I’ll catch you up on all of the art gossip.”

John and Kiera stayed for another hour and had a couple of cocktails. They said their goodbyes, exited the Center, and hailed an auto-taxi.

Kiera gave the computer the address and they rode in silence the entire way home. John put his head against the window and London passed by. Occasionally, a skimmer’s lights from the Thames ride became visible in the sky, breaking John’s concentration.

They arrived at their apartment and went to the bedroom to undress and get ready to sleep.

“Honey, I was thinking,” John said, “I want to take a sabbatical and focus on your work. I want to market for you.”

“Oh John, you don’t need to do that. You’d die if you couldn’t do your work,” Kiera said.

“No I wouldn’t. I’ll die if your work remains obscured.”

“I’m okay with how my career is going.”

“It’s not fair. You’re the better artist. It kills me to say it, but you are.”

“Lets talk about it later.”

“Okay.”

Kiera wore only a dressing gown, her back turned to him. Her figure was as good now as the day he met her. John’s throat went tight and his next breath taken in pain.

“So anyway… You don’t have to say anything, but I know about Charlie.”

Kiera spun around. Her mouth gaped open.

“No. Don’t say anything,” John said, holding his hand up. “I mean it. I can’t take thinking about it right now.”

Kiera’s hands shot to her mouth. “John–”

He waved to cut her off.

“No, really. Just answer this–If I promise to make some adjustments, would you cut it off with him and try to work with me?”

Tears had begun to stream down Kiera’s face. She nodded.

“Good, good. I’m putting all of the blame on me.”

Kiera started to say something but John cut her off. “We can talk about it down the road. I just can’t handle talking about it now.”

Kiera nodded again and whispered, “I’m sorry.”

The apology confirmed it and John didn’t trust himself to say anymore. He just shook his head and headed to the kitchen. He poured a generous amount of whiskey over ice and drank it in three gulps. He went into the guest bathroom and cried.

The next morning John woke up and smelled sausage cooking. He had slept in the spare bedroom. He walked into the kitchen where Kiera stood over the stove. She was pale and shaking.

“Morning love. You didn’t have to do this.”

“No, I did.”

John sat down and she served him a traditional English breakfast.

“We should talk tonight,” she said.

“I know. We will. What do you have planned today?”

“I have my backup scheduled and then–Well, I have to take care of something.”

John turned his eyes to the plate below him and nodded, not wanting to inquire further.

 

#

 

Kiera sat in the patient’s chair at the clinic, reading a book on her augment glasses, and sipped on black tea. The halo attached to her head pulled data from her brain and encoded it. The technician came by to check on the progress.

“Wow,” he said, “one hour and still only sixty percent. Someone must have had a lot on her mind this month.”

He probably didn’t mean anything by it, but Kiera glared at him. He blushed, realizing what he had said and excused himself. Kiera had a dark thought float through her mind. She should end this backup and kill herself to forget this ever happened. When did she last get backed up? The day before she ran into Charlie at a gallery opening. If only the universe had spared her that one coincidence. She shook the thought out of her head and the halo sent a warning to her augment glasses asking her to remain still.

I must face my problems as an adult, she thought.

She had conflicted feelings about John. She was both relieved and annoyed that he had taken her affair so well. He never handled problems like a normal adult.

The backup ended and Kiera made her way to Soho and Charlie’s apartment. He opened the door and looked at Kiera, surprised. He gave her a tight hug. He tried to kiss her but she ducked away.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. Worry moved like a shadow over his face.

“Nothing. Invite me in.”

“Of course. I wasn’t expecting you. Excuse the mess.”

Kiera walked in and the lighting made a drastic change from blue hues to brown. Music began playing at a low volume in the background.

“Your place is never a mess.”

“Please tell me you’re here with news of your divorce and are going to beg me to elope.”

“Charlie–”

“Please, Kiera,” he said. He was shaking. Rip the bandaid off, she thought.

“Charlie, we have to end it.”

He squatted to the floor and put his hands over his face.

“Don’t do this,” he said in a quiet voice.

“I’m just leading you on. I will always be with John.”

“That bastard! He’s ruining you. Have some self-respect.”

“No Charlie. This–” she encompassed the apartment and him in a sweeping gesture, “this will ruin me.”

“I’m one who cares for you. Don’t you see? You are not an average person. You’re one of a kind. You should aspire to greatness,” he started to sob between words.

Kiera dipped down to his level and held on to one of his hands, “No Charlie. I’m just a normal person with a little bit of talent. This was my fault. I wrapped you up in this and I apologize a million times. I have to go now.”

She started to walk out the door.

“Wait,” Charlie said, “let me just say one thing.”

Kiera turned around but didn’t say anything.

“Just promise me you’ll think about yourself. I’m not lying, you are more incredible than you will ever know. Don’t let anyone dampen that.”

Charlie stood straight and did his best to regain his composure. Kiera couldn’t help but admire him. He was right. No one had ever loved her as he had.

“Thank you. Goodbye Charlie.”

He nodded and she left.

 

#

 

Over the next three weeks, John lived up to his end of the bargain. He spent his time obsessed with marketing Kiera’s work. He called in favors and indebted himself to others. He schmoozed, wined, dined and hassled the important individuals in the industry. Kiera appreciated his work but they disagreed on many issues.

“You must do a few pieces that are more commercial,” he said to her inside of a cafe near Highbury Fields. Rich executives crowded the small room and stared into space, talking to unseen people through their augment glasses.

“I will not compromise. Make it work as is or give up.”

John sighed. It was the same old argument. “I’m not asking you to compromise with your real art. Just do a couple of pieces that pander to the masses a bit. That is how they will find out about your real art.”

“Pander? Do you even hear yourself talking?”

John shook his head. “A poor word choice.”

“No, it was the perfect word choice.”

“My darling, I’m only trying to help.”

“Of course, but you’re not.”

Their arguments would go on and on like this, day after day.

After three weeks, all John had to show for his hard work was two small gallery shows and a smidgen of media attention. He was starting to have doubts that he could go much further if his wife was not willing to compromise just a little. Of course, that would mean admitting defeat. One Thursday night, while he brooded in his study, his agent requested a connection.

“Hello Nigel,” John said after flicking his eyes in the pattern to accept the connection.

“John, good man, have you had enough of a sabbatical yet?” Nigel said, his accent betraying his wealthy upbringing.

“Of course not. I’m enjoying seeing how far we can take Kiera.”

“Right. Well, you might have to postpone that a bit.”

“I told you, Nigel, no more contracts right now. I’m out of the game for a bit.”

“Uh huh. Okay, but I just had a virtual conference with Holoart.”

“You’re just wasting your own time.”

“John, they love the new show. They’re ready to invest in you.”

“Stall them for a few months.”

“You’re not understanding. They’re offering the world.”

“Say again?”

“They want to tour your current show for two years, rights to three Holo docs about you and your work, the rights to your next three projects, three books, a retainer to be a consultant and a seat on the board.”

“Oh my.”

Nigel activated his video stream and his face appeared on John’s glasses. He was smiling into the mirror on his desk. “They’re offering a big number and I can get it bigger. You’re going to be set for life. You’re going to be the world’s most famous artist. Let me close this deal, John.”

“I need to talk to Kiera first.”

“I’m going to take that as a ‘yes’. I’ll start planning the counter.”

“Don’t do anything until I talk to Kiera.”

“Just planning, I promise. Let me know by tomorrow, though.”

John ended the connection and shook with excitement but also guilt. Nigel was right. He had to accept this.

John found Kiera in the workspace they had set up for her in the second guest room. John told her everything and she listened with little reaction.

“I’ll turn it down, though. I swear I will,” John said.

“Don’t be silly. This is everything you’ve worked toward.”

“It’s not fair, Kiera. It should be you.”

“You’re a great artist, dear. The world loves you.”

“I’m a hack. You’re an artist. The world needs you.

“Well they have you. Congratulations… I’m excited. I am, I swear.”

“I can still help you out too.”

Kiera shook him off, “I’ll be fine. Maybe this is all I’m meant to be. I’ll open a bottle of wine in celebration.”

She left the room and John sank into a chair in the corner.

 

#

 

The next morning, John left for a meeting with Holoart and Kiera was home alone. The chime for the front gate sounded and Kiera accessed the gate camera on her augment glasses. Charlie stood outside.

She hesitated for a moment then buzzed him in. Within seconds, he stood in her living room.

“Hello Charlie.”

“Kiera, hi. Thanks for not shooing me away.”

“We’re still friends, Chars. I still care about you.”

“I’m glad to hear it. Listen–” he trailed off and dropped his eyes toward the bright electro-glow floor.

“No need to say anything.”

“No, not that. I’ve done something for you. I hope it’s not weird that I have.”

Kiera swallowed and her jaw tightened, “What have you done?”

“Nothing bad. Something good. I–You mean so much to me.”

Kiera was terrified in anticipation, “What did you do?”

“I got you a show at the Tate. A real show. Two rooms. They’re small but they’re all yours for a month. They want to incorporate you into a larger show as well. Something about mixing old disciplines with modern disciplines. They want to you have a say in the curation.”

“You’re lying, right? Charlie, don’t lie to me.”

“It’s true.”

“Stipulations?”

“None. Enable a transfer.”

Kiera gestured to allow Charlie to transfer a file.

“That’s the contract,” he said. “I can help you fine-tune it if you’d like.”

“I’m not sure we should be–”

He took two steps toward her and put his arms on her. His musky smell that Kiera found so attractive hit her nose and chipped away at her inhibitions. She felt herself relax into his arms.

“Charlie–”

“No one knows you better than me. I promise you that.”

Kiera let herself be kissed by him–at first on the neck and then on the lips–and then she led him onto the couch where they made love. After, they sat up and Charlie pulled out his tobacco pipe.

“Are you mad?” Kiera said. “John will smell that the instant he walks in the door.”

“Fuck John,” Charlie said and lit the tobacco.

Kiera closed her eyes and took several deep breaths, “You need to leave now.”

“Sorry, okay? Sorry, I’ll put it out,” Charlie said pushing the tamper into the pipe to extinguish it.

“No, I mean you need to leave now and not come back.”

“Kiera, what–”

“Leave Charlie!”

“Are you mad? The show–”

“I don’t want the show. I don’t want you meddling with my life. I don’t want you trying to ruin my marriage and I don’t want you smoking your damn tobacco in my house.”

“Kiera, wait–”

“Get out, get out, get out!”

“I’m the one that loves you, can’t you see? I’m the one that cares.”

“You don’t care about me. You hate John and you want to steal his wife from him to hurt him.”

“Why are you saying this? You know it’s a lie.” He was crying now.

“Is it? Get out of my house and don’t come back. Don’t talk to me on the street and don’t try to contact me.”

Charlie’s bottom lip quivered and he sputtered out unintelligible noises. Kiera stood with crossed arms and his sadness turned to anger. She feared she had gone too far. She didn’t care. At that moment she hated him like the devil he was.

Charlie stood up, trembling so bad he threatened to collapse. He grabbed a hovering light out of the air and slammed it on the floor. The tile cracked in a dazzling display of colors. He stormed out of the house. Kiera finally cried.

 

#

 

The next day, John and Kiera sat down for breakfast at a quarter of six. It was still dark out.

“I don’t do well at this time of day,” John said.

“It’s your own fault for scheduling your backup so early.”

“It couldn’t be avoided. My entire week is filled with meetings. You didn’t have to get up.”

“If I ever want to see you, it’s going to have to be first thing in the morning and the last moments before bed.”

“I’m sorry. I suspect it will slow down in a couple of weeks.”

“I suspect it won’t,” Kiera said, about to refill John’s coffee. He put his hand over the cup.

“No more. I have to run. The repair man is coming to replace the floor today?”

“Yes,” Kiera said, turning away.

“We need to contact the hover light manufacture. That could have killed someone. Just nose-dived into the floor? It’s lazy programmers, I tell you.”

“I’ll handle it. That’s the last thing you need to stress out about.”

“Okay honey,” he said and kissed her on the cheek.

John grabbed his coat and headed into the predawn morning. The fog hung heavy and blurred his vision. He checked the time on his glasses and swore. He would be late.

He took a shortcut through the narrow alley behind his complex. Footsteps echoed behind him and he turned around. A hooded figure stumbled toward him. A drunken bum. John stepped up his pace and the man yelled after him, “John Getts!”

John spun on the ball of his right foot. The drunken man tripped over his own feet and fell to the ground. John walked toward him to help him up, still unsure of who it was. He offered his hand, and the man took it. Up close, John recognized the face.

“Charlie Pritchard?”

“What is it to you?”

“You’re trollied, man.”

“You’ve brainwashed her against me.”

“Charlie, it’s over. Go home.”

“We made love yesterday on your couch. She doesn’t love you.”

“You’re drunk and mad.”

“Did you notice the broken floor?”

John shoved him hard in blind anger. Charlie fell backwards and hit his head on a fire escape ladder. He crumpled to the ground. John wanted to kick him but he composed himself. Charlie started laughing.

“You’re a lunatic–” John trailed off when Charlie produced a gun from his coat. He pointed it at his own chin.

John held out his hand and stepped forward “Whoa, wait guy. Don’t do–” Charlie whipped the gun forward and right at John’s left eye.

“Wait, Charlie,” he whispered.

 

#

 

John sat down in the chair at the Rebirth Center.

“Hello Mister Getts,” the young male attendant said. John nodded.

“Same old drill,” the attendant continued. “The halo will start after it gets some baseline readings. Press the call button if you need anything. Can I get you a tea or coffee?”

“Coffee please.”

The attendant nodded and walked out of the room. John hoped the procedure ran quick this week. He wanted to get to the Tate. One of his wife’s paintings hung on display and he wanted to see it. His wife was the real artist. He had been considering the idea of a sabbatical to help his wife get traction in the art world.

“Backup commencing,” the halo said and the world went black for an instant.

John’s eyes were closed. I must have drifted off, he thought. I guess I need that coffee.

“John, honey? John?” It was his wife’s voice. He opened his eyes but the room was a blur. His head ached.

“Kiera?”

“Oh John! Welcome back.”

“Wait–”

“John, there was an incident. You were killed.”

John kept blinking rapidly to clear his vision. His body ached with fatigue. He had never felt more tired. He closed his eyes again.

“John, wake up. You need to stay awake. The doctors say it will be rough because it has been seven weeks.”

“Where?”

“The Rebirth Center.”

“I was killed?”

“Shot.”

“Why?”

“We don’t know. They never caught him. Probably a hoodlum. You were on your way to get backed up so you lost a lot of time.”

John shook his head as if to ward off the confusion. His vision started to come back. A group of people stood a ways back from his bed. He looked down. He had been dressed in his favorite navy suit and a green tie. He sat up in bed and thousands of tiny strands of pain raced up his back.

“Seven weeks? Dear god. Murdered?”

He allowed the doctor to help him to his feet and within a few moments, he could stand on his own. He kissed his wife. Her skin was grey and translucent. She must have taken this hard, he thought. He grabbed a mirror from the table next to the bed. It reflected his own face yet not; like looking at one’s identical twin.

His muscles came alive in increments. Before long he could walk with minimal assistance. He thanked everyone for coming, one by one. His agent Nigel held out his hand, grin from ear to ear.

“I always knew you’d be pleased when I died,” John said to him.

“I’m pleased you are reborn. We can get back to work now.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh John, it’s exciting to get to tell you twice. You’re a very lucky man. Your wife would kill me for talking business here, though. Stop by my office later so I can give you all of the details. We’ve lost three weeks of time and seven weeks of memories so there’s much to do.”

John nodded, confused.

Wally, an art journalist, hugged John next. He and John were old friends from university.

“Hey Wally, man. Thank you for coming to see me embarrassed like this.”

“This? I have hours of holos of us more embarrassing than this little thing.”

“So what did I miss in the art world in the last couple of months.”

“Well, your show was a success, obviously. Oh! Did you hear about that agent, Charlie Pritchard?”

“Charlie? No. I know him, though. He used to represent my wife years ago.”

“He offed himself in his apartment. Knife to the throat.”

“Dear god, how awful. I guess I should make an appearance at his rebirth, then. Kiera will want to go.”

Wally shook his head, “No. That’s the crazy part. Old Charlie never got backed up. Didn’t believe in it or something. He’s gone.”

Gone, gone?”

Wally nodded.

“Jesus,” John said.

“What’s the matter?”

“Oh nothing. I was just thinking about how my wife ended her contract with him. I wasn’t very nice to the man.”

“Well, you said yourself it was years ago.”

“Yeah. I’m sure he wouldn’t even have remembered who I was.”

John found his wife in the crowd. She walked with a frail gait and her eyes were bloodshot. His chest went warm with the knowledge of how much she loved him and how sick she must have been for the last few weeks.

I’m going to make it up to her, John thought. I’m going to make her more famous than me.

She was the true artist, after all.


Troy Harris is a computer programmer during the day and a writer at all other times. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

Issue No. 9, Summer 2014

The Red Red Rose
Karen Bovenmyer

You spend most of your time alone. This is okay. When you see the others in your village, they do not understand you anyway. You are the dirt girl. The animal girl. You spend most of your time watching a spider spin a web, or describing in long phrases the bend of wheat in the wind. You do not speak in ways they understand. They do not speak in ways you understand.

You have two older sisters. They have failed to teach you the proper ways to behave. They can cook and clean, so you have never needed to. You have never done this well anyway. You are separate. Different. But everyone goes when the carnival visits, even you.

It is, of course, best to go at night. You run through the tent of mirrors three times more often than your sisters. You love to see how things are distorted, changed by metal buffed so bright it weirdly reflects noses, mouths. The lanterns cast strange shadows and you feel as though you can see through them into another world, a hidden place behind the one we live in.

But by far your favorite is the fortune teller’s tent.

The woman who gives others their futures is very thin and wrinkled. She is Gypsy, like the others, but she is so old she could be your grandmother, but she isn’t.

She crouches over the cards and casts her watery eyes at you, past you. You sit at the cloth-draped stump and wait for her questions. The backs of your hands tingle, so you fidget. Her tent smells like melted wax and dried roses.

“Draw a card, little spider,” she says to you. You don’t know how she knows Father’s nickname for you. The backs of the cards are blank, the edges grey and tattered from use. Anything could be on the other side.

You turn a card over. Colors flash livid against the black cloth.

“The Devil. Another.”

You draw again.

“The Fool. Another.”

You turn over one last card.

“The Tower.”

The pictures are strange. The first is a bestial man with goat legs and a triangle with horns branching from his forehead. The second is a boy dancing toward a cliff’s edge. The third is a tall tower hit by a bolt of lightning, people endlessly falling, screaming, from its heights.

“Beware gifts,” she says cryptically. “Avoid stairs.”

You nod, as though this is wise. You see the fire-eaters next. By the time you see the sword swallower, you have forgotten all about your fortune. You follow your sisters home, laughing, and are so tired you go straight to bed.

You wake up thinking about the bestial man, the one with the steer horns and the goat legs. You wonder how he came to be. Was his mother the steer? His father the goat? You wonder if he could be real.

The carnival is leaving in the morning, but you don’t want it to. You visit the tent of the fortune teller, but she is already gone. You wander past people folding tents, pulling up pegs.

A woman wearing a colorful shawl stops you. “What are you looking for, little spider?”

You squint. She is not the fortune teller, but she could be her daughter.

“I want to ask about the goat man.”

You do not expect the woman to know what you’re talking about, but she nods. Her eyes are as green as a pond snake.

“Take this,” she gives you a red rose. “It will help you find what you need.”

You cradle the flower. You have already forgotten what the fortune teller said about gifts.

You take it home. You dump out your sister’s daisies and put your rose in the vase instead. You put the vase on the windowsill on your side of the shared bedroom. It seems to drink the sun. You stare at it for a long time, the delicate spiral of petals. You imagine they are a stair leading down into a secret place, like the hall of mirrors.

That night you dream again about the goat-legged man. He walks down a path choked with roses. He twirls his beard and watches you. His eyes glint in the firelight. You are dancing, dancing, thorns catching at your skirt.

“New child. What will it do?” His voice is thick liquid, like mud.

“What won’t it do?” You answer.

When you wake, you dance through the house. You are underfoot all day. Your sisters tell you to go to town to play.

Geoffrey is in the square. So is Robert, the baker’s son, and Alice. “Icky Isabelle. Icky Icky Isabelle,” Robert says. You ignore him and play by yourself, as usual, until he throws a chestnut at you. It stings. You spend your time gathering more chestnuts. You throw them at Robert. He chases you.

You make it home safe, heart pounding, and you go to the window and stare at the red red rose and think about how much you hate Robert.

That night you dream you’re at a huge white banquet table with the goat-legged man. “What does it see?” His tongue is red with wine. He pours purple wine into a goblet for you.

“What won’t it see?” You are drinking, laughing, spilling your wine across the white cloth.

The next day you open every door in the house. Your sisters yell that you are a nuisance. You go to town and see a pie cooling in the baker’s windowsill. You steal it. Before you do, you see inside, the baker’s wife and the parson. They are wrestling, faces pressed close together. It is a strange thing to see. You take the pie anyway.

You find the baker. You tell him the parson was stuck to his wife. Your face and hands are stained with blackberries but he doesn’t say anything about the missing pie.

That night you dream of the goat-legged man again. He is at the top of a tower, humming down a song with no words. You climb the spiral and you can feel the song marching with you.

“What does it hear?” he says, as you reach the top.

“What won’t it hear,” you answer. He takes your arm and spins you, and you twirl over the top step. Then you are rolling, rolling down, like a marble in a chute.

You wake in the middle of the night and toss and turn. Your sister, the one that shares the room with you, is asleep. You creep out of the house, careful and quiet. You go to the baker’s window—maybe they are still stuck together.

You hear a wet sound. Chunk. Chunk. All of the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Chunk. Chunk.

You go home and climb in your bed. This is the first time since you got the rose that you hope you don’t dream of the goat-legged man. You dream of mirrors, noses and mouths, instead.

The next day there is an upset. Everyone is talking, buzzing like angry bees. The baker is gone. His wife is dead. The parson is dead. The baker’s son Robert is dead.

You wonder about the sound. Chunk. Chunk. You wonder. Like a chestnut falling.

Today is the first day the rose has lost a petal. It is curled on the windowsill, cupping the sun’s light. You put the petal to your lips. It is soft and you slip it between your teeth. It does not taste like much of anything and it is gone before you can chew it.

That night you dream of the goat-legged man again. He is in a churchyard, weaving among the graves. There is a great shadow behind him that follows.

“What does it say?” he asks. You run away from him, darting between headstones. You can feel the grave dirt tremble where his hooves strike. He is hunting you, snuffling somewhere behind the stones.

“It won’t say,” you whisper. “It won’t. Never, not ever.”

The shadow comes closer until it is over you. You feel the goat man’s hand on your shoulder. “There are many petals.”

You wake, tangled in sweaty sheets. It is still dark. Though your hands shake, you take the rose from the vase on the sill and go, careful and quiet. The town is silent, and the silence feels like tears. You go all the way to the carnival grounds. The moon casts shadows where the fortune teller’s tent used to be.

She is standing there, swaying in her shawls. You kneel before her. She points at the ground. She is young and old at the same time.

You sink your fingernails into the dirt, crushing earth over the rose, sealing it in the ground.

“What will it do? Little spider,” she pats you on the head. Her fingers are in your hair. “Remember.”

Then she is gone.

You go home, but you do not sleep. The next day you wash your hands, again and again. You are everywhere underfoot. Your sisters send you to town.

Geoffrey and Alice are in the churchyard. They are quiet. You sit by them. They are too sad to throw chestnuts. You ask them what they liked best at the carnival. They both have something to say to you. For the first time, you understand them. They seem to understand you. You watch your reflection in Alice’s eyes, twisting, turning, as if you are in another world.


Karen Bovenmyer holds an MFA in Creative Writing: Popular Fiction from the University of Southern Maine. She teaches and mentors students at Iowa State University.

Issue No. 9, Summer 2014

Path Before Giants
Jo Taylor

Cassiopeia appeared, low in the summer sky. I first saw her in my youth, when I stood on the vast Dakota plain with a calf in my arms and tears smeared on my face. Daddy pointed up to the stars, telling me how Poseidon banished Cassiopeia to the heavens for selfishness. “She reminds us of our duty to those in our keep,” he said. I looked on while Daddy took my sick calf and put it down.

I always searched for her. I oriented myself around the ancient constellation instead of the North Star like the rest of mankind; her sweeping arc through the heavens showing me how I moved, how I changed, and I judged my derelictions against her willful breach. I was miles and years away from that little girl, but Cassiopeia’s points of light still dictated her eternal repose. I wanted to be up there beside her.

Coffee warmed my hands and I stretched my feet toward the fire, the flames an adversary to the slight chill of the mountain air. John sat next to me in our forest campsite, high up on a hill and overlooking a tall grass meadow. The stars fanned out below us over the tops of the distant trees and I felt peace at seeing her again.

Camping was never my favorite thing, but the parts I loved, the stars and the quiet of evening, would usually make up for sleeping on the ground and waking to the cold of early morning.  I promised John long ago I would go with him, wherever he wanted to go.

In the morning, we decided to go for a walk among the trees of Calaveras Big Trees State Park. I was impressed on the drive into the campground, and up close they were surely giants. The high canopy overhead was like a cathedral: bright, peaceful, inspiring worship.

We walked in silence, far apart but not distant, the kind of closeness in space that long marriage brought. We came to a trailhead that had markers and a delineated path, but the first thing on the trail was a stump of a tree. It was not the most encouraging start.

“The Big Stump,” John read aloud.

“The Big Stump? Who named it that? Seems a little obvious. And why is a stump the beginning of a trail?”

John  finished reading the marker at the base of the stump while I walked up the stairs and stood on the large expanse that was once the base of an enormous tree, “It is so large, a small building once sat atop it.”

I could dance on it the way I danced at my wedding.

“Sequoiadendron giganteum.” John read. Made it sound like a dinosaur. “The species has been traced back fifteen million years. It is the largest living thing on earth. Only fractions of one percent of the seeds ever germinate. It takes a specific water content, sunlight, and depth for the seed to sprout into a tender beginning that looks like a blade of grass. It is the sole species in the genus Sequoiadendron.”

On day seventy-three I knew I would marry him.

I descended the stairs and we walked into the forest. I got dizzy when I put my head far back, trying to see the tops of the trees all around us, the full scope of height elusive. In the stillness, my breath sounded loud and even the slight elevation of roots beneath my feet had structure. We reached another marker and a majestic specimen stood before us. Blackened edges on the bark showed were a fire touched this giant, but he withstood the threat. “Look John, this tree is like us. Big and strong, scarred but still standing.”

John continued his narration. “The Empire State Tree. In 1907, Galen Clark wrote: ‘The bright cinnamon color of their immense fluted trunks, in strong contrast to the green foliage and dark hues of the surrounding forest, makes them all the more conspicuous and impressive. In their sublime presence a person is apt to be filled with a sense of awe and veneration, as if treading on hallowed ground.’”

On day four hundred fifty-two, I said yes.

We began to wander more than walk, our purpose of getting to the end lost in the detail of really seeing majesty up close. Ahead of us, two trees touched at their bases and the marker named them ‘Mother and Son.’ There was an invitation on the marker to touch the trees here, the others on the path were guarded by words and short barriers. The softness of the bark surprised me and I petted it like a puppy, ran my hand slowly down, then back up and down again. “I wish I could be a tree.”

John laughed. “Why?”

On day one thousand four hundred forty-seven, our son was born.

I didn’t answer him about why I wished to be a tree, but right then, I did want to be part of them. We passed ferns and moss-covered stones, shoulders touching briefly now and then as we followed the path sedately.

“Really, why would you want to be a tree?” He looked at me like he did when we didn’t know everything about each other. I walked a bit more before I answered, letting the seconds emphasize the words. I didn’t want the timbre of complaint to overburden the idea.

“Everyone would see who I was; no hiding behind social customs, no worrying about hurting someone’s feelings. Just me. Beautiful on the whole, even if up close the flaws show, soft on the outside, but ultimately strong because I stand with others.” I said these reasons out loud because they were true and right.

There were other reasons I kept to myself. I knew they were not so generous.

I wouldn’t have to go where I didn’t really want to. I wouldn’t have a burden of duty to others. My child would always be close by.

John said nothing, just smiled and walked on. I wondered if he would like to be a tree.

After a few silent steps, I added softly, “I wouldn’t have to change. I would always and forever be just that one thing, a tree.”

He moved closer and put his arm around my waist. “But Julie, you would still have to grow.”

Growth and change are not always the same.

Another giant loomed ahead, but this one lay on the forest floor. Broken. Dead. The path led beside and through The Father of the Forest. Though it fell hundreds of years ago, only the interior decayed. The resulting tunnel was large enough for me to walk through. John noticed graffiti carved into the strong outer bark and he sputtered with anger at the defacement of something so beautiful.

“How could someone write his name on this? Who’ll care that they were here? They’ve ruined this wonderful tree.”

As I stepped inside, the sounds around me were muffled. The bark soundproofed the tunnel and my ears felt deaf in the few seconds it took to walk through to the end. It was a strange and new sensation of a physical barrier, of something damped down over me, isolating me from the outside world. Communication silenced.

We buried our son on day seven thousand sixty-two.

I came out the other side. The world reached my ears again. Wind blew through the leaves, and the scrunching of John’s shoes on the path brought comfort after the silence.

“John, in a few hundred years, someone may think it’s interesting. They won’t be offended then. Remember the graffiti in the pyramids? You thought that was fascinating. Remember?”

He grumbled to himself, and all I caught was “. . . still not right.”

The next stop on the path was in front of The Abraham Lincoln. It was mature when he was president and gave the Gettysburg Address. I thought of the rows of graves facing Lincoln that day, and marveled at his ability to speak those words with such a weighted grief as the loss of his own two sons and the war of a nation hanging over him.

“Rate of Growth,” read John. “They continue to grow throughout their lifetimes. The oldest known currently is three thousand three hundred years old. The trees gain two feet of height per year for the first fifty to one hundred years. After that, their growth is outward and upward. Rings of one-half inch thickness are common.”

“See Julie, always growing.” His words were kind, not chiding. He seemed to know I was fragile. He took my hand and we continued on. Up ahead, I could see the path going through one of the trees. We walked a bit faster, and I fleetingly thought I might run. I saw two old women standing inside the tree, touching the sides tenderly. We stalled at the marker and read about The Pioneer Cabin Tree. “A hole was cut in the base of the tree in the 1850’s for wagons to drive through.”

I wanted to give the ladies privacy, not push in and rush their enjoyment, but we couldn’t help drifting in beside them; it was big enough for us all. As I passed them, I realized they were searching for something. Here too were names and dates scratched along the tunnel carved by hand over a hundred and fifty years ago. They touched the names, carefully going over each one as if it were Braille for their fingers to read. I stopped and asked one of them, “Are you looking for someone?”

“Yes, my great-grandmother, Louise Marsden. She traveled through here in 1882. She was just eleven and carved her name in the tree when her father wasn’t looking. I wanted to find her.”

I decided to help look. I was shorter by inches and so more easily inspected the names below. A few well-spent moments found “Marsden 1882” underneath my fingers. “Oh, here!” I called them over and the same gentle touch greeted this name.

“I just wanted to touch her again.”

Like I touched Jared’s name on the cold granite stone.

I left them. It was not my memory. I rejoined my husband who was waiting patiently as always on the other side. “See John, someone loves the graffiti.” I was pleased to be right, but not in my usual smugness. The sunlight danced down through the leaves.

His hand slipped into mine again and we walked together, as we had for so many years. Around a turn, we found three giants standing majestically before us. The marker named them: “The Three Graces. Aglaea (Beauty), Euphrosyne (Mirth), and Thalia (Good Cheer).” We stepped back, side-by-side, and gazed from trunk to crown and back again.

I was humbled, amazed at these living things. They were graceful, beautiful, and strong; all the things I wanted to be. I looked at John and realized he was more full of grace than I. How could he be?

On day ten thousand two hundred fifty-two, the doctor said he didn’t have much time.

I looked more closely at his face. “What?” he asked.

“Nothing. Just looking at you.” I kissed him, silently thanking him for being strong.

As we wound our way along, a clearing opened up to show a section of tree that lay on its side, taller than our house. The marker proclaimed it was The Discovery Tree. “This is the first tree discovered in this grove and felled in 1853. The ring count gives an age of one thousand two hundred forty four years.”

This very tree started growing in the year six hundred nine. There were two hundred rings when Charlemagne ruled, six hundred when the Magna Carta was signed. It had nine hundred rings when DaVinci painted, and a thousand when Shakespeare wrote.

I was left, again, searching for words but this time due to awe and not for calculated effect. I was captivated by the idea of discovering something so grand, something that was here all along, but not seen by human eyes, not acknowledged to the world. My reverence was profound in front of this tree lying in repose.

It was day fourteen thousand six hundred.

John stood a few feet from me. “You know this is the tree to The Big Stump, right?”

“It is not!” I protested immediately. The idea took a moment to settle in. I peered down the length of the tree on its side and I saw, over there, the stump of its past. The Big Stump. “This is the same tree we saw when we first started on the path? But it looks so different from over here.”

“We’re just on the other side, nothing’s different.”

In the silence of the forest, I understood the faint whisper of meaning in my husband’s words, calling me away from the stars and back toward earth. Cassiopeia could wait. Maybe duty was service, and grief, and solemn watch, without regard for how it all turned out in the end. Self-recrimination didn’t fulfill a duty to anyone. The tree’s repose mirrored Cassiopeia’s, but the tree didn’t intend to be cut from its base. It merely happened.

My hand felt the tree in a different caress, newly aware of our common tie, and I breathed in the scent of the wood.


Jo Taylor is an ER nurse with twenty-one years of experience. She’s recently left the ER and found work from home doing chart reviews which is a bit boring comparatively but it allows her time to read and write daily. She writes fiction and poetry.