Issue No. 10, Autumn 2014

Thousand Eyes
Kelly Weber

One day she woke up to find the magic eating at her bones. She’d been a practitioner for forty years— touching a lump on the neck of a cow to make it disappear here, calling a bit of blue flame to her fingertips there—but more and more lately, even with the trips down to her grandmother’s grave out back of the house, nothing quite eased the pain in her wrists from having to work harder and harder just to drag up a bit of light to her hands in the morning. The “settling of the bones,” it was called, the toll of carrying such a gift around for years. One day, she knew, she’d wake up to find even to try to touch the magic was pure pain—couldn’t move it, couldn’t get rid of it, just something eating away at her she herself couldn’t heal. Same as her hands hurt from years of mashing the seeds into flour paste every day, or digging out back in the garden in the aching blue stillness of mornings.

So that morning she took it slow, creaked off the bed to light a small flame—with just a bit of a tinder and flint, not the magic in her veins—beneath the tea-kettle and look at the silver trees the winter storms had brought last night. She said the few words you were supposed to say over tea, for a few good spirits to come spend some time in the village today—maybe some wandering souls from nearby wars who’d left their bodies behind, and could lend some luck they no longer had use for to the village— and had just settled down to drink, when the boys came knocking at her door to tell her Thousand Eyes needed killing.

*          *          *

She took only her skinning knife and a bit of snare for rabbits, drew the old skin satchel across her chest to hold enough water for a few days’ time. The boys who came to her door kept her eyes on the floor as they told her how Thousand Eyes, after all these years, had come again in the night, torn open a dozen cattle, left the butcher’s boy blind in one eye just from staring into Thousand Eyes’ own. He trailed the stench of poison that always followed his kind, dragging his big heavy body quick across the ground back to his lair of webs in the woods.

The town had never said a thing, but everyone knew she could work the magic in her hands; and for forty years they’d come to her quiet on the side to ask for a little extra help in growing the crop this year, a little charm said over a child whose fever wasn’t  breaking, anything she helped as much with her herbs and her own sweat as with her magic. They never thanked her or paid her for her services, beyond what was paid to a neighbor doing a duty, but after Thousand Eyes came back, she was the first person they turned to. She didn’t even think to say no. She simply grabbed her things, knowing that, just like last time, no village elder or blacksmith with a sword would go striding into the trees to meet Thousand Eyes, and left unchecked, he wouldn’t stop at swallowing cattle. Some part of her had hoped he’d really been dead all these years—since last they met, when she was eighteen—but she’d secretly been waiting for his webs to reappear.

She left her chickens in the care of the boys before setting off alone for the trail in the woods. She’d only walked up it once—when she was eighteen—but now she knew she wouldn’t be coming back down. The chickens would tide them over for a few days in winter, at least.

*          *          *

Thousand Eyes—the king of his kind, they called him, the King of the Spiders, the Spider King, but one look at him when she was eighteen had told her he was no king. What was a king without subjects, a king with no kingdom? He was not a king because he needed no kingdom, he ruled over none but himself.

When Thousand Eyes first came—when she was eighteen— to the trees near the town and slaughtered eight cows and maimed three people, the villagers, in their secret tavern meetings, decided trying to slay him would be a fool’s errand. Instead, they came up with a different solution. Her grandmother, who’d worked the strongest healing spells, was dead, and lately the tide was turning against her kind; people said it was blaspheming to work spells and talk to the trees. They thought that if they sacrificed her to Thousand Eyes, perhaps their town would be cleansed, or Thousand Eyes himself would die of her magic.

Either way, they came with the frost one morning to blindfold her with sackcloth and drag her down the path through the woods to Thousand Eyes’ lair, all draped and covered in webs. They shoved her to the ground and ran away, never looking back behind them.

As she’d lain on the ground clawing at the sackcloth round her head, she’d heard the soft quiet clack of Thousand Eyes’ long, black feet coming, and the stench of his body moving through the trees. She managed to wrench the blindfold free enough to find a large sharp stick on the ground at her feet; she stood up and whirled around ready to go down stabbing at least one of those thousand eyes with her stick. And yes, as she realized in that one glimpse of him, he did have a thousand eyes—not because she counted them, but because they were all there, filling her head. She faced Thousand Eyes, the giant spider, the Spider King, bearing down on her to devour her as he’d devoured every chicken and cow he’d come across in the land. Thousand Eyes, who’d never get another chance to kill a man.

*          *          *

She knew she was close to his home, the morning she went looking for him again, when she found his webs winding through the woods. Thick, fat, heavy webs like a king’s finest candle wax drawn into cords, looped and roped through the trees here where no rabbits ran anymore and where her snares did no good. A few leagues on and she found the broken bowl of trees that was his lair, all the branches bent backward in the pearl of morning. She kept her skinning knife by her side and waited with a patience she had not had when she was eighteen, waited with the patience of rising every morning and waiting for her bones to catch up.

When she heard him approach through the trees, she turned without fear to see or be seen. She approached the one thousand eyes again, skinning knife in her hands.

*          *          *

On the day when the villagers had sacrificed her and Thousand Eyes had come for her— when she was young enough to barely hold onto her name while staring into the face of him, when he was filling her brain with the great big shining black carapace of his body— his voice had come into her head to ask her a question. He asked what she would give—what would she give— just to live? Not to beg, not to promise or to plea, but merely to understand what her life meant to her, what it was worth, how much he was taking away. As he asked of every life he took, wanting to know what it weighed.

She had lived with her grandmother the first fifteen years of her life, alone these past three, had just barely figured how to make bread and had only chosen to speak since the age of ten; she had no family name, no scrap of cloth beyond the dress she wore in the woods, no work she could do with her hands except for the spells her grandmother had taught her for the gift she had been born with. But when Thousand Eyes asked her what she would give, she thought of what her grandmother had said—that all her things in life, her magic, her own two hands, what she stitched and sewed and cooked together, were not hers to keep, but had been given to her to share with others. Thousand Eyes did not mean to receive anything. But that did not stop her from stretching out her hands and giving him what she had, as she had been taught to by her grandmother—because he had asked, and because nobody had ever given him anything before, and because she figured she was about to die anyway.

She reached out and gave him magic from her hands, gave him cool blue mornings spent milking the cows, gave him the favorite song her grandmother used to sing. She gave what tiny bit of herself she had as freely as she had been taught to, and would not have called it love, only doing as she would for any who asked.

She would not have called it love. She would not have called it anything. Certainly she would not have called it the downfall of Thousand Eyes, but that was what it was, for he squealed and fell backwards at the shining that leapt from her hands. He had not been prepared for it, for someone to give so freely of themselves to him. He dragged himself away through the woods trailing a death-scream, leaving her to stare at her own two hands and wonder if she’d killed him.

Afterward she’d found her way back to her village, where the others looked at her in stricken silence. They said nothing to her or of her till she helped them make pies in the fall, thinking she had killed him with a magic stronger even than his own. But as she still made good pies, and helped a few children break fevers in the winter, they agreed never to speak of Thousand Eyes or the march through the trees ever again. Until the morning after he came back, when they asked her to kill him.

*          *          *

Killing him was what she intended to do now, to finish the job she’d started when she was eighteen. She faced him in his clearing in the woods, knowing already it would take all the rest that she had. She’d brought the skinning knife and the snares and the traps to give them as gifts as well, to set at his feet and then have nothing left but her own bone-house body walking around, to kill him—and herself— with love, as she would call it now.

But Thousand Eyes had a few surprises, whether because he was old and lived long and alone in the woods, or because of the gift she had given him herself. She thought he had come back because he assumed she was dead; when she moved toward him, she intended to kill him by pouring forth the rest of her mornings making tea with the sun, trees silhouetted at sunset, the last memories of her grandmother, her own songs she hummed to herself sewing by the firelight. Instead, he gave her gift back to her.

He gave back to her all that she’d given him, and all that he was—all his nights creeping through fields and through the trees, seeing off his thousand one children (yes, he’d had children) spinning their tiny nets of webs to carry them on the breeze, stalking deer and rabbits through his lair and learning to live with the memories she’d poured into his mind of day and sun and blue skies and working with the villagers. He gave it all back to her, and he gave of himself—all he’d seen with his one thousand eyes— because he couldn’t take it anymore, and because her gift had been killing him the same as her magic was killing her. In exchange for giving it all back, he took all of her magic away. He lifted the magic from her bones and set it within himself, and was eaten up at last, released from nights he’d spent wandering, no longer able to be quite himself.

There was no body in the clearing when she came to herself, yet again, and knew this time Thousand Eyes was dead for sure—not because she’d killed him, but because they’d set each other free. In what weak light of day was left, she found her skinning knife and satchel once again. She started back through the trees to collect her chickens from the boys, thinking she might even— with her hands no longer aching— chop one of the hens up for supper and grind up some herbs over the meal.


Kelly Weber’s poetry has appeared in The Neihardt Journal and Caper, and her poetry and fiction has appeared in The Judas Goat, for which she was selected as the 2012-2013 Aletha Acers Steel Burgess Poetry Prize Scholarship recipient. She has served as an editorial intern on The Platte Valley Review, and will teach Composition this fall at Wayne State College.

Issue No. 10, Autumn 2014

The Pet
Ken Poyner

I have always been afraid of the sea.  It is too rumpled; it has so many angles.  I do not like that at one moment it is a soft intimacy, and the next it knocks me like spent prey flat to the sand.  I do not care for the swells that seem to be whole countries.  I do not like that it will not lie serene.

Like anything that is worthy of fear, it is fascinating.  I love to walk along the shore, listening to the sea crack its nose on the edge of the land, feeling the spray of its frustration.  I go in ankle deep.  Then I dodge back out and kick sand into it.  I guess I am a coquette and I tease the sea with the completeness of my body, my possession of edges.  I contain myself; poor sea, you are contained by the land.

Yes, I can swim.  And I swim in the sea.  I swim hand over hand like a man gathering distance; and I swim with a mermaid’s undulation, stitching distances together.  I wade in from the sand-laden shore; or I dive, when the tide is lurking high, from the rocks that poke their fists into the sea.  I swim, and I am afraid.  I am more aware of my breath, cautious with buoyancy.  I like the swimming, but I keep the shore in sight, and I know when the currents pull that they pull for me and I swim across their grip and into friendlier waters, before rushing into the limit of the land to delight in my escape.

It was on a night similar to this one, when the clouds were fathoming the moon; and stunted moon-rays would jut out from the clouds’ inadequate cover, tinkling over the sand beach like a small boy’s water-making; that I first met my love.  I was tasting the salt in the air; the tide was as full of itself as it has ever been; and I was adrift in my fear and taunting of the waves.  At first I only heard him: a gasp of air coming out of the water; and then I saw him rise impossibly from the surface.  Eight feet tall, or perhaps nine.  With the dark, I could not see his body waiting still beneath the craggy line of buffer between air and water – but I knew he had to be nearly beached, sucking himself as thin as wafer, just to get this close to the end of the sea, given that he could push his thin neck and dart shaped head as high from the water as he was doing.

I did not love him at our beginning.  As he first looked at me I did not know what his heart held:  if I were prey, or if I were simply an accidental witness.  I thought to run, but no one has ever mentioned a creature like this, and I might have been the first to meet him, courageous captain or scoundrel.  I am no coward.  I fear the sea yet I kiss it with my body.  I have my fears, but I hold them by the throat.  I could stand the company of this newly found resident.

And so I stood watching him, and he rose watching me.  His eyes set slightly to the side, he turned his head inches to get the view of me from both planes.  The wind was sounding slightly behind me, whipping my dress flat on the backs of my legs and curling it pleadingly out in front of me.

My fear made of itself a ball, a ball I could float out on the foamless sea.  A ball that could be the center part of a child’s game.

The water fell lazily from the part of him exposed to air, and I could not tell if his skin were scale or leather.  His broad, strong trunk quivered a bit from its efforts, and his arms writhed like tentacles, or his tentacles wrangled like arms.  I could see power in him, though I could not see the meeting of muscle group with muscle group or any outcrop of bone.  But he had a presence of power, of mastery, of world making.

After a few moments I cooed, “Oh.  Oh you. You.  What are you?”   And his head leaned back a bit and then forward a bit, and I asked, “What do you see?”

The small night air shifted, and my skirt fell flat against me all around.  Fearing he might perceive the wind in my clothes a threat, I pulled them off and wadded them into the sand.  He seemed to enjoy the fact that, for a moment or two, I was not focused on him, but on some other activity that did not know him.  I wonder how many nights had perhaps he seen me, or others like me, moving through our lives in curious steps that had nothing to do with him; yet, there he was in the frame, an unknown watcher?

I should have feared him as much as the sea, or more:  but I could not do so.  My fear was adrift, but a ball in a child’s game.    He did not smell of aggression.  He made no attempt to manage me, to marshal my movements.  I felt free to go.  I felt I could be still my own master.   I could not, then, even hear his breathing.  And, the unclothed fact that he held his head so long out of the sea informed me that he must not be entirely of the sea, but must love the air as well.  And so I waited.   I watched.

We eyed each other thus, the naked girl and the leathery sea serpent, for ten minutes or perhaps even a few seconds more, as time began to miss its mark and the clock within me retraced its steps; and then slowly he backed away, and down went his head, the neck lying out into the surf, the skull slipping last away into deeper water.

I dressed.  I walked home.  I hoped the smell of my excitement did not give me away.

I did not see him the next two nights, but on the third he was back.  As with our first visit, I did not see him approach.  But then I felt him, all eight to nine feet of him poised in the air, his attention gifted to me.   This night I stepped half steps into the ocean in front of him, my dress gone at the first sight of him, the water coming up to my ankles, my toes coiled in the sand like roots of the mangrove.  When he bent his neck slightly, I bent my body.  At my sympathetic movement he stopped, cold as snow on the face of still water.  And then he whipped side to side, the supple coil of his strong body barely angering the surface; and I whipped side to side and he whipped even further and I could not bend so far, but I tried.  In this way we mimicked each other near half an hour; and then he retreated, and I went to where I had left my clothes in a sack I had brought for them, and with my fingers tingling of salt dressed luxuriously before skipping all the way home.

Four more nights, each separated by two unfulfilling cycles of dark, we did this.  And each night I stepped further out:  the third night to my shins, the fourth night to my knees, the fifth night to the mid of my thigh, the sixth to the join of my legs.  I whipped and he whipped and we spun but a bit on our axis, and we tipped our heads to one another, and by the sixth night I was in love.  I wanted the serpent to eat the whole of me and I wanted to eat the whole of the serpent and I thought maybe I could love the sea as well, even if I were afraid of it; or I could turn my fear into understanding, into currents and fish and chasing the embarrassments of oysters.  I could evolve, and my fears could be small glints in the corners of his eyes, the laughter he would make if he could only laugh.

Three more nights of loneliness, and on the seventh of our courtship I arrived and even with no sight of him I bared myself and slipped my dress into the bag and began to scan for him; to look down the beach in very small, incremental steps; looking for the blow of air that would be his arrival; looking for the disturbance of the water that would mean he was working his way, for me, out of his secure and justly conquered realm.

And as I looked along the edges where the land and sea meet mouth to mouth, I saw it.  Made of what I think is pearl, fashioned either by a community of magical hands, or by someone who had the command of thousands of artisan fishes.  An ornament, placed well up on the beach by someone who had the command of thousands of crabs and crawlers and residents of the wash between completely dry and untangled wet.

I could not yet see him, but I asked of the empty night, “For me, my love?”

With the sound of me, he suddenly rose and trumpeted.  Trumpeted.  He had made no noise before that night.  I had taken his silence as the cost of his hoisting himself into an unyielding air.   But his voice was a harkening, deep like the sound of a man snoring in the bed of another man’s wife.  I had no fear of it.  Fear had drifted away, passed out of the bay with the last school of bait fish.  Fear had become a memory.  I welcomed him calling me, forming my name – I am sure it was my name – in his secret language.  Or wrapping his sound around his pride at this small gift he had commissioned for me, this pearl wicker cage, with door and loving lock, standing formidable on the sand.

All love is entrapment.  To be loved is to allow oneself to be owned:  the thought of one owning the thought and physical shade of the other; a mutual trust in a physical binding; a sensual ennobling in the taste of ownership and surrender.

I would be anything that was his, and yet I did not even know if truly he were male, or if the concept of sex, stirring directionless to distraction within me, would to him make any odor of sense whatsoever.  But I would be anything that was his.

I went over to the gift and ran my hand along its spines.  It was a device we shared, this pearl cage.  I could sense no edges, no welds.  It seemed almost as though it had been formed complete.  The weight of it could not be moved, and I marveled that he could command so many creatures as to fashion it and move it and place it here simply to dazzle me, simply to declare his love and endless protection.

He looked at me with his left eye alone and I walked into the pearl house, pulling the door shut behind me.  The hinges moved with salty ease and the latch fell into place like a young man’s first properly used erection striking home.  I placed my hands on either side of the thin bars of the door and tilted my head back and he tilted his head back and let go three mournful blasts, the sound rattling my skin and sending waves of ecstasy chasing each other all about the thrilled surface of me.  I closed my eyes and quivered long moments as though to let the whole of me crawl within the precious brine of my own blood, holding myself upright with my grip on the bars, my feet in the sand digging in as if to steady me for the next wave, to hold me against the sea’s wish to push me out and onto the land.

I did not hear at first the lights of my village going out.  In time, I heard the trumpeting released by the aim-of-my-heart’s fellow creatures, each rising out of the sea and then lumbering out of the sea and then charging out of the sea and swallowing my neighbors and friends and rolling about their houses, making sticks and mud of what were walls and trellises.  Flattening, in their numbers, community and conscription and social obligation and institution and bonding each to each, bringing the land underneath again to its pristine state of destruction and disorder. I opened my eyes, dreaming and dreary and drugged with the vastness of my oceans of commitment, and I said, “My love, you have made this for me?  For me?  You have fashioned me this unimaginable gift?  More than any other suitor could have managed; more than anyone worth the taking of me might muster.”  I was thick with the blood caressing my brain, rolling through the center of me and leaving my limbs.  “I will live within it forever.”

I was to be his.  The fulfillment of my transformation, the metamorphosis he had these long days called forth from me, left me awash and uncaring and nothing more than a shell that would be what he wished it to be:  nothing more.

And he twisted his left eye as close as it has ever come to me and I could luxuriously feel his breath: an air of deeper, fuller seas; and of fishes I have not eaten before, nor had the like of run through my fingers as I sat entangled and unsettled and selfishly fearing the sea.

And he was gone.  And my village was gone; and gone were my neighbors and the boys who had sought to bind me to them, and the friends who wanted me to play at being more than a means to an end with them, and the elders who saw in me and in those like me their own dry, leathery limits.  And the tide went out and the sea was gone a little, but still lapped at the land and promised it would return.

Now he comes back, coming so close as to leave fish and kelp within my reach at the edge of the pearl enclosure, and we bob and undulate and weave as reeds or Sargasso, and bend blending together:  and I know he has come to understand the inflections in my voice, to trumpet in companion syllables.  I understand his love as being but a mirror of the love I have for him, an eddy in the sea that carries us both around and around; and if one day I drown from this divine connection I could think of no better way to end my corporeality than in the crush of his sea:  thrilled, loved, and unafraid.


Ken Poyner has lately been seen in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Café Irreal, Cream City Review, The Journal of Microliterature, and many other wonderful places. His latest book of short fiction, Constant Animals, is available from his web site, www.kpoyner.com, and from Amazon.com. He is married to Karen Poyner, one of the world’s premier power lifters, and holder of more than a dozen current world power lifting records. He is also the animal parent of four rescue cats and two self-satisfied fish.

Issue No. 10, Autumn 2014

Dragonsilk
Sandi Leibowitz

The other wives were still at their paints and powders.  All that was required to freshen the bloom of the Peony was to pinch my cheeks and bite my lips. I strolled to the rosewood gate that marks the entrance to the Pavilion of Pleasures.  My eyes wandered over the carved scene of ducks and cranes gathering around a pool, a sharp-beaked parrot peering down at them from a pomegranate tree.  I used to love the parrot until In-Sa explained the water-fowl were symbols of married bliss, the pomegranates of fertility, and the parrot a warning to wives to remain faithful.  Before she told me that, I thought he looked comical; now he seemed an annoying busybody.  At last the others straggled in, still fastening robes or putting on their jewels.

When Zaj the eunuch opened the gates, the emperor did not enter the Pavilion of Pleasures alone.  A skinny little girl walked through beside him, her tiny hand grasped in his.

Oh, the light in his eyes!  I hadn’t seen him look like that since my arrival at the royal court.

My entire body shook.  But I smiled even wider, stood even straighter, and pressed my breasts forward so the emperor would remember how much he adored them, the petals of the Peony, as he called them.  They were still firm and plump, even after suckling two sons.  I had weaned little Han-Su a few months ago, but only his recent departure to Suvik had enabled me to wean the emperor.  I was sorry now that my milk had dried up.

“This is Shijerra, my Twentyfirst wife,” he announced.  “Welcome her, be kind to her.”

He merely glanced at us.  Enough to show he’d given an imperial command, and we would pay for disobeying.  Then his eyes flew towards the girl, as if she were a ripe peach and he a man who hadn’t eaten since yesterday.  He brought her tiny hands up to his lips and kissed them.

“Until tonight, bride of my spring.”

I kept standing, straight and tall, fighting the urge to launch myself onto the girl and scratch out her eyes.

The emperor left.  The rosewood gates closed us in.

Firstwife In-Sa stepped toward the new bride first, as was her duty.  “Welcome, Shijerra.  May you bring the emperor joy.”  An old lady, motherly toward the rest of us, she had been won by the emperor as a youthful prince in the war against Sehkal.  Though grateful for the children she had borne him, he had never loved her.  It was easy for her to be kind.

“I am Secondwife Ta-Lin.”  A renowned beauty decades ago, she now was sour and pinched, as full of loathing for the rest of the wives as Mother In-Sa was full of love.  There was no danger in her malice, though; she spent her days feeding herself haru leaves, living in dreams of the distant past, when she had enflamed the passions of the heroic young emperor.

I thrust myself forward.

“Welcome.”  My lips fought off a snarl.  I tamed them into smiling.  “I am Kir.”

Surely the tale of my rise to emperor’s favorite had reached even Suvik.  How three years ago the emperor had seen me on a visit to the province of Sheetow.  How, no noblewoman, I had joined the parade of peasants offering gifts.  How my natural beauty overcame him the instant I knelt to spill at his feet a bounty of peonies from the hothouses of the lord of Sheetow.  And how the emperor had brought me to the palace, an honored bride at the age of fourteen.

I introduced the other wives to the newcomer.

Shijerra was perhaps fifteen, a northerner, clearly a prize won in the treaty with Suvik.  Slim and graceful and impossibly beautiful, she looked like the paintings of goddesses on the ancient scrolls that In-Sa had shown me.  Her face seemed chiseled from white jade.  If butterflies could mate with pink roses, they might resemble that dainty mouth, designed for kissing.  But it was her hair.  Black as a summer pool on a night of no stars, of such a glossy sheen that all the colors of the world shimmered inside it.  It fell all the way down to her ankles, so smooth it looked as if no wind could ever trouble it.  A flock of hands reached out to touch it.

“Ooh, it’s like dragonsilk!” foolish Cinja cried.

Shijerra laughed shyly.  “That is what Barrrr-am calls me!”

Bar-am, not “the emperor.”  The chit.  And her ridiculous accent.  She couldn’t even pronounce his name.
“The emperor,” Ta-Lin corrected, “will not want his treasure pawed over by hands not his own.”

We dropped our hands at once.

We passed the afternoon asking questions about Suvik, answering questions about ourselves.  Every so often, the slight girl cried when speaking of her homeland.  Foolish creature.  I made certain to take the lead in showing Shijerra about the Pavilion, forcing her to taste tidbits from my own plate as if she were a lap-dog, selecting a pale pink peony from the hothouse for her, giving her a necklace of precious pearls from my own treasure-box and a bottle of rare scent from my cabinets.  The child hugged me, teary-eyed, for my generosity and vowed that we should become great friends.

That night, I lay waiting for a summons that never came.  The winds howled outside.  Were they always so loud?

“You are the bride of my winter, Kir,” the emperor had whispered when I first arrived.  And so many times since.  How I had cherished those words!  I’d thought he meant I was the bride of his old age, for he was sixty, and I was his twentieth and surely his last wife.  But I see now he just meant the season.  The Sorcerers’ War had left us in winter for so long I barely remembered the other seasons.  The curse was said to be coming to an end soon, but it was hard to believe in spring.

In three years I had rarely spent a night in my own apartments, except when I was pregnant.  I was the emperor’s Peony, as fresh, as fair, as bountiful as the spring flower.  Even when I failed to arouse him (and this seldom happened), he enjoyed the sight of my plump, smooth body, the feel of it against him when he slept, my scent greeting him when he awoke.

I did not love him.  But I loved awakening his desire, the power it gave me over Bar-am, the Lord of Three Realms, Fount of Wisdom, Celestial Glory.  And the power that, in turn, gave me over the other wives.  I loved my nights in the royal bedchamber, the feel of imperial silk on my skin, and the white fox furs atop them keeping me warm, so warm, the huge fire lit all night.  It never felt like winter there.

#

Next morning, I rose early.  How to repair the damage done by such a sleepless night?  I told Lan-Lan to go outside and scoop snow into a bowl.  She soaked a cloth in the snow and held it to my closed lids.  The treatment helped reduce the puffiness but left me chilled all morning.

In the dining hall of the wives, I ate little.  Shijerra did not join us.

Ta-Lin, indolent with the effects of haru leaves, also did not eat.  But she watched me push away my laden plate, and laughed, a low, long laugh.

“The Peony wilts,” she slurred, and laughed again.

Cinja and Mei giggled.  They would not be sorry to see my supremacy come to an end.  I’d won over the others with my easy nature and occasional false flattery.  With them, the wives closest to me in age, I’d needed to concoct this or that tale to make them lose the emperor’s favor.  But surely Bar-Am was merely infatuated with the northerner—like someone tasting pickled octopus for the first time.  Who could eat pickled octopus every day?

Late in the afternoon, the wives sat in the winter-garden listening to In-Sa’s dull recitation of Bar-am’s ancient victories.  My mind wandered even worse than usual.  My fingers kept straying to my mouth; I had to constantly remind myself not to bite my nails.  Shijerra finally joined us, her cheeks flushed.  No doubt she found the heat of the emperor’s chambers taxing.

She bowed courteously to In-Sa first, then all the wives.  I marshaled my lips into a hearty smile.  Shijerra chose to perch on the ledge beside me.

“How lovely you look,” I murmured.  I have learned it is possible to be coquettish not merely with men.  The means are different, but the goal is the same: power.

As if it had a will of its own, my hand crept up to caress the night-black hair.  Indeed it felt like dragonsilk.  No thing softer.

In-Sa resumed her tale of the emperor’s exploits.  When she’d finished, Cinja and Mei strolled arm-in-arm through the indoor garden.  In-Sa went to visit her grandchildren, escorted by one of the eunuchs.  Her daughters were all older than I, and had married distant kings and lords, but some of her sons still lived in the imperial palace with their families.  She was always visiting them.  I rarely bothered with my sons.  Bohai and Han-sun were hardly entertaining, always whining or wet or drooling.  I’m sure I’ll like them better when they’re older.  Ta-Lin reclined, half-dozing.  The haru leaves brought her dreams of the emperor’s love; you could always tell when that simpering smile crept across her lax features.  The rest of the wives fell into their customary twos and threes.  When Geiyun approached me like a hopeful puppy, I turned away.  From the corner of my eye, I watched her slink off.

“I’m restless.  Let’s walk, too.”  I led Shijerra to a more secluded path.  The failure of spring had crept indoors and beds of chrysanthemums showed themselves mere ghostly stalks.  Outside the protected glass room, the faded sun pouted over snowy hills.  Black branched trees flaunted their nakedness.  Indoor gardens are better than none at all, but how I pined for the sight of fresh green grass.

The girl stared at the view, then wiped her eyes.  “Forgive me.  Perhaps once the curse lifts I will find your land beautiful.  But oh, I long for the blue hills, the golden wheat-fields of Suvik!”

We walked on in silence.  I was sure she wouldn’t long for fields if she’d ever had to break her back harvesting the wheat.

We passed a bed of fat melons.  My mouth watered thinking of how they’d taste.  A scrawny willow tree cast a patchy shadow onto the path.  Shijerra stopped in its shred of darkness and placed a tiny hand on mine.

“Kir,” she whispered, “may I ask you something—private?  You are not much older than I am so you must know ….”  I had to nod before she would continue.  “Since we were married, the emperor—visits—me every night.  It hurts.  Not just at night, but all the next day.  When you are married long, does it stop hurting?”

Much to my credit, I didn’t slap her.  Instead, I offered sisterly advice.  “It will stop hurting soon, my dear.  And think how happy you will be when those pains become the pangs of childbirth!  But if your sacrifice to the emperor’s pleasure dismays you, you must ask the wu to provide you with a remedy.”

The thought of the wu was timely.  I could not abide the child’s presence another moment.  “I have some business with her, it so happens.  I can ask for you.  Yes.  You lack the wisdom to handle such a delicate matter.  I’ll ask her now.”

“Oh, thank you, Kir!”  The ridiculous creature hugged me as I rose to go.

#

The wu was painting inscriptions on a turtle-shell when I entered her rooms.  Her talismans jangled prettily as she turned to greet me.

“My thoughts have been with you, Kir,” she said.

“You didn’t tell me!”  I hadn’t known I’d blurt it out like that.  Like me, Xhin was not well-born; on the other hand, she belonged to the separate aristocracy of sorcerers.  With her, I always danced back and forth between impertinence and awe.

“Tell you what?”
“About her—the new bride!”

“I may attend the imperial wives, “Xhin said, with neither scowl nor smile, “but my concern is for the emperor.  Even so, the oracles gave no indication that he would be bringing home a bride.”

“Perhaps your oracles cannot be relied on.”

Xhin chuckled.  At home on the farm, I hadn’t believed in sorcerers.  Village folk laughed at the emperor’s reliance on so-called sorcerers—until the Sorcerers’ War brought us the curse of a five-year winter.  Who better than farmers to tell when spring fails?  I had only glimpsed the imperial sorcerers, the solemn men in dragonsilk, from a distance.  But the wu lived among the wives in the Pavilion of Pleasures (although she had the freedom to leave it when she wished), caring for our health, but more importantly, in charge of ensuring our fertility and prophesying the futures of our children.  Since my arrival, I had plagued Xhin almost daily, observing, questioning.  She knew that I, foremost of anyone in the palace, had faith in her magic.

I resumed my pretense of keen interest in Shijerra’s welfare.

“It is on her behalf that I’ve come to you, Xhin.”   I told her the new bride’s complaint.

Xhin narrowed her eyes as she listened.  She didn’t for a minute believe my concern for the girl.  I suppose she knew me too well.

“I’ll be visiting her later today,” Xhin said.  “I must finish this shell first.”

She dipped her brush again into the bowl of ox-blood and resumed writing on the shell.  Of all her magics, this was the one that intrigued me most.  The other wives could read and write but I, a farmer’s child, of course had not been taught.  By observing Xhin at work, I had learned the meaning of some of the characters.  Unlike the other wives, I knew more of the magical script (of which they were entirely ignorant) than of ordinary writing.

“With this you are calling the gods of Earth and Sky for aid,” I said pointing to the two largest characters.  “This is the character for ‘wife,’ this the one for ‘sons’ or ‘heirs.’  This one means ‘health.’  I don’t recognize these.”

“Well done, Kir.”  Xhin blew on the writing to hasten its drying.  “This is the character for Suvik and this means ‘twenty-first.’  I am invoking the gods to protect the emperor’s twenty-first wife, and asking them to tell me what her future holds.  So you see, we both are occupied with the new bride.”  She smiled in a way I did not like.

Was this new girl now the center of the universe?

Xhin finished the inscriptions.  I always admired the way she painted so carefully that not a jot of blood dripped onto the shell.  Today it took all my restraint to keep from smacking her arm and forcing it askew.  Let it spill, let it spill, I thought. Wash the shell with blood!

“I want to help place it in the fire,” I said.  “I want to watch you read it.”

“It must dry first.”  Xhin must have enjoyed having an audience to let me haunt her as I did.  I suppose even an old woman like her, just past childbearing, wants to be admired.  “Meanwhile, I’ll prepare the new bride’s bath salts.”

I watched her choose this ingredient and that.  Along with the herbs, powders, and vile-colored liquids, there were collections of bones, corals, seashells, dried toads, mummified monkeys’ paws and other oddities.  Used to my perpetual curiosity, the wu let me wander at will.  Today she reached for a jar on a high shelf, moving others aside.  For the first time I noticed a fantastically ugly root in a large glass bottle.  It was knobby like ginseng, ending in blood-red tendrils, and mossy with green mold.  Its twisted shape resembled some strange, savage creature.  I reached towards the bottle.

“No!  Never go near that!  Merely to touch it would call down disaster.”

I snatched back my hand.

Xhin finished mixing her ingredients and spooned the bath salts into a porcelain jar.

“Now it’s time to place the turtle-shell in the fire.”

With a long pair of tongs she picked up the shell and held it in the fire.  A nastily sweet odor arose, but I ignored it.  Lines corrupted the surface, the fire showing through from the other side.  I loved the way the flames encroached upon the shell, how the impenetrable-seeming surface began to crack.  New patterns of characters leapt to life.  I wished I could read it!  What worlds of power were contained there!  What might I not do if I could command the gods—not merely bow to them in order to do the emperor’s bidding like compliant Xhin.  I would shatter hothouses!  Hurl thunderbolts!  I would raise armies of demons and trample half the earth!

The letters glowed.  The wu had to be careful now and not let the shell burn too far.  Already the edges crisped.  I crept close, clutching Xhin’s shoulder, so I could be a part of the moment when she drew the radiant shell from the fire and placed it in the brass dish.  As I did, I touched the dragonsilk of her robe.  Somehow every time I visited the wu, I managed to stroke her garment—I could not help but desire to touch it, its softness superior even to that of imperial silk.  I loved everything about it.  Its brilliant yellow-gold.  The thousands of embroidered dragons.  The magical characters spelling out who knew what mysteries.  Did dragonsilk come from the same worms as other silk?  Who made it?  I’d asked Xhin a thousand times and she always merely smiled, full of her secrets.

“What does it say?  What does it say?” I asked.

But Xhin was lost in studying the scrawl of glowing characters.  She would only have moments to analyze them before they faded.  I watched them extinguish one by one.

“What does it say?”

Xhin roused herself from her scrutiny.

“Shijerra will live a long and fruitful life, the mother of untold children.  She will become a legend.  All this despite the ill-will of the Peony.”

My breath almost stopped.

“It spoke of me?”

“Look.”  She pointed to the last still-glowing character.  It was the one for ‘Peony;’ I recognized it from my own divinations.

In the next breath, it burnt out.  The shell broke along the cracks and crumbled to silent pieces.

I knew then that I would do anything to make the turtle-shell a liar.  The ill-will of the Peony would destroy the new bride’s destiny.

“I will take the bath-salts to Shijerra,” I said, anxious to escape the knowing smirks of the wu.

“No, I will deliver them to her, along with the pronouncement of the turtle-shell.  As soon as I have spoken with the emperor.”
#

That evening, my hatred turned me giddy.  I was more pleasant than I’d been for days, my lips almost sore from smiling.  At dinner I made sure dear Shijerra had the most succulent bits of crab.  My funny stories made everyone laugh, even Ta-lin.

Afterwards, when we removed to the main hall where there were couches for lounging, I sang for the wives.  They loved to hear me sing.  This, along with my merry disposition, had enabled me to win their trust when I’d first arrived.  I knew nothing courtly, just such songs as peasants know.  Most were complaints about ill weather, mothers-in-law and poor harvests, but many were crude songs not fit for imperial wives.  At first the ladies had been shocked to hear them; In-Sa would rush off to her sons.  But Qiu and Huilang in particular begged for songs like “The Wife of 99 Positions.”

Gales of laughter had just followed my performance of “Ning, Whose Jiji was Mistaken for a Cashew.”  A satisfied silence followed.

“Why don’t you sing for us, Shijerra?” I asked slyly.  She with her mousey little voice and mincing ways—if she could carry a tune at all, it would be a miracle.

“Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly.”  She blushed.

The others would have let her off the hook, but I insisted.

“Please, dear Shijerra, let us hear you sing!  Something from the north, a song of Suvik.”  I knew talk of her homeland could not fail to move her.

“Well, then, yes.  Let me think of something that would please you.  Ah—‘The Ballad of Benserris.’  That is one of our greatest songs.”

She rose, closing her eyes, her little hands clasped before her.

When she opened her mouth, out came a sound of such expressive sweetness, my fan rolled from my hands.  She had a voice worthy of a professional court performer.  Yet there was a kernel of something so real, so true—it made your heart hurt.

I rolled my eyes at her sentimentality.  I imitated Dragonsilk’s gestures, trying to get the others to poke fun at her seriousness and self-importance.  Spellbound, they wouldn’t even look at me.

I stopped trying.  The notes flowed over me, making me too sad, too caught up in that sweetness, to mock the singer.

And the words.  They made you yearn for something you knew didn’t exist.  Yet—could not a woman love a man of her own choosing, who loved her for her very self and not for any pleasure he might gain by her or wealth win from her?  A love so pure, it was more precious than my ruby peonies, warmer than the fires in the imperial bedchamber.  Warmer than summer used to be.

Dragonsilk’s voice grew in power.  I closed my eyes, too.  Goose-pimples covered my arms.  Shijerra’s voice died away to a wisp of smoke.

Finally she finished.  I opened my eyes.  Hers were still closed.  She swayed slightly.  The room hummed with her song.  Ta-Lin’s face was streaked with tears.  Moments passed before the silence was broken.

“Oh how beautiful!”

“Wonderful!”

The others crowed and crowded around Dragonsilk, praising her.

I could not hang back.  I swallowed my resentment and rushed over to my rival.

“I have never heard anyone sing so well!” I grasped her by the shoulders as if carried away by my enthusiasm.  If I shook her too hard, no one noticed.  “You must sing for us every night!”  It was the last thing I wanted.  But I had to say it.

“Every night? No, no,” she mumbled, casting her eyes to the floor.  She sank back onto her couch.  “I will be happy to sing for you now and then, that is all that is fitting.”

What a cunning ploy!  As if she didn’t know she’d win every wife’s sympathy with her false modesty!

“Oh, Dragonsilk, your name is only half right!” Huilang said.  “You are all silk and no dragon!”

“Don’t be silly,” I said.  “Dragons aren’t real.  They only live in stories.”

“But you are wrong!” Shijerra jumped to her feet, facing the rest of us like a terrier barking at a pack of lionesses.  I had never seen her more animated.  “Not in my country!  They are as real as you or me!  They have merely flown away and wait for better days before they return.”

Ta-Lin sniggered.  Geiyan poked Shu, and they both tittered behind their hands.

“It’s true!  My ancestors are descended from the Great Dragon Javanoth.  For centuries, my forebears—the kings and queens of Suvik—called upon the dragons to bring rain, temper the winds, swell the grain.  And the dragons listened.  It is only in these shameful days of corruption and greed that the dragons have disappeared from sight.  But they are real!”

I could not have hoped for a better ending to the evening.  Shijerra had ruined what she’d accomplished with her song.  Now all the wives, even generous In-Sa, laughed at her simplicity.

“It is different for you here,” she averred hotly.  “Your dragons are merely stories.  But they are the heart of Suvik.”

The laughter grew louder.  Dragonsilk stared at her hands, which folded in upon themselves helplessly.

“You must not let them bother you,” I said, drawing my arms through hers.  “Come, let’s go to the winter-garden.  It’ll be quiet there, away from the clucking of these hens.”

I picked up a lantern and whisked her away.

It was eerie in the winter-garden at night.  The lantern threw odd shadows amongst the planters of trees and the raised flower-beds.  Outside, the night seemed oppressively dark.  Shivering like a cold child, the glass rattled in its frame.

“You are so kind to me,” Shijerra sniffled.  “Like a sister.”  She hugged me closely.

I thought of my sisters back home.  We’d enjoyed chasing each other in the fields, pelting each other with stalks of wheat, but I hadn’t missed them at all since coming to the palace.  My sisters were part of those memories of shabby clothes and dirt and cold.  Warming myself against the flank of a cow as I milked it.  The never-ending work.  I was well rid of it all!  Who needed a sister?

Yet somewhere deep down, a part of me wished I did not hate Shijerra.  With her here, I was no longer the youngest wife.  She looked up to me.  There was something about her more genuine than anyone I’d ever met.  She wasn’t silly like Cinja and Mei.  What would it be like to embrace her, to make of her a friend?  My heart leapt like a tiny flame.  What would it be like to no longer feel alone?

A servant shuffled into the garden.

“A thousand pardons, my Ladies.”  She bowed low, her long sleeve trailing in the gravel path.  Once I would have given anything to wear a robe as nice as hers—now of course, I thought of it as mere servants’ trash.  “The emperor requests Empress Shijerra to join him in his bedchamber.”

Dragonsilk cast a sad smile at me as she followed the servant to her master.  The tiny flame extinguished in a puff of smoke.  In its place, my desire to crush the new bride re-kindled.  Oh, how I burned.

#

Weeks passed.  The emperor did not call for me.  I felt indeed like a peony past its prime, and wondered if in time I would seek the oblivion of the haru-flower like Ta-Lin.  I understood now the urge to dream and forget.

But I would not dream; I could not forget.  I schemed and plotted.  And now I waited.

A few days later the opportunity I’d been hoping for came my way.

“I cannot let you hold the tongs, Kir,” Xhin said.  She was watching over another prophecy.  “Only the wu may do that.  How many times must I tell you?”

I sulked, peering over Xhin’s shoulder to see the flaming characters take shape.  Every day Xhin burned a turtle-shell for Shijerra; the emperor fretted over when she would bear him a child.

Feet pounded through the hallway.  Something was wrong.  The door banged open.

“Come quickly, mistress Xhin!” The servant panted.  “The empress Ta-Lin has taken too many haru leaves!  She will not waken!”

Xhin dumped the incomplete turtle-shell into the brass basin so it wouldn’t burn.  Hastily she poured three liquids into a bottle.  Red, yellow and blue lost their separate brilliancy and turned the color of mud.  Pausing only to stopper the bottle, Xhin rushed after the servant.

I was left alone in the wu’s rooms.  The characters just coming to light in the turtle-shell still glowed.  I poked them with the tongs.

Oh, the light I shall extinguish soon! I thought.

I pushed a chair over to the highest shelf, searching for the jar with the peculiar-looking root, and brought it down to the worktable.  I found Xhin’s pearl-handled knife.  I’d always admired it, a pretty instrument involved in doing who knew what deeds.  Magical characters I didn’t understand were inscribed on the blade.  I found a rag amongst Xhin’s herbs.  With utmost care I held it against the deadly root so I wouldn’t touch the poison.  I cut off a tiny piece, making sure to get some of the red tendrils; they looked so evil, surely that was where the potency lay.  From the pocket of my robe I pulled a cinnabar jar I had stowed away for this exact purpose.

I hid the jar in my room before I made my way to Ta-Lin’s apartments.  The younger wives clustered outside.  Mother In-Sa and the elder wives were inside with Xhin, helping her revive Ta-Lin.  Zaj the eunuch waited with us, cringing, as he debated whether to summon the emperor.  I almost pitied him.

Whisper, whisper, whisper.  The imperial wives set up a storm of gossip, thrilled with the drama.

“I always knew the old lady would take too much.  She was stupid and careless,” Yuan said.

“You’re a fool,” Liqin chided.  “It’s all because of Dragonsilk.  The emperor’s love of his new bride was more than Ta-Lin could bear.”

“You think she did it on purpose?”

Who cared?  The old woman’s life had been a waste for years.  I for one wouldn’t mourn her.  Neither would the emperor.

Shijerra, Shijerra, Shijerra, the wives whispered.  Sometimes the name Dragonsilk cut through the murmurs like a knife.

Dragonsilk stood apart from the others.  Her fists were balled up against her sobbing mouth.  She looked like a child.  Mingled with my hatred and envy came a desire to sweep her up and comfort her.  But I caught myself, remembering all she’d stolen from me.  It was right that she should pay.

“My sister,” I insisted gently, “come away from this scene of tragedy.”  I led her off, my arms half-embrace, half-support.  “Don’t let their cruel words hurt you.  You are utterly blameless!  Ta-Lin has been unhappy for many, many years.  Since before your birth she’s clouded her mind with haru leaves.  If your coming made her see just how low she’s fallen in the emperor’s esteem, it’s surely not your fault.”

Dragonsilk made a desperate little cry.  My kind remark had hit its target.

“Ah,” I said, as if suddenly remembering, “I had meant to give you another preparation from the wu.  It’s a special cream I use to keep my skin soft.  I know you think that, young as you are, you needn’t worry about such things.  But you will see, as the days of your wifehood ripen, your beauty will fade.  The emperor is always praising my soft skin.”  She was too ignorant to doubt my words.

“You are too kind, sister.”  She smiled gratefully.  I knew it was not the promise of increased beauty but my caring that she prized.  She joined me in my apartments.

I handed her the ointment.  I hated even to touch the jar.

“You must put it on out of sight of the emperor, when no one, not even your maid, is nearby,” I warned.  “It’s best to do it in the daylight, when the rays of the sun first shine.  As soon as you leave the emperor’s bed.”  It cost me to say that last.  “It may sting at first.  Don’t worry.  That’s good!  That means its power is waking.”

“Thank you, Kir.”  She hugged me.

“Now, go to your room and rest.  Don’t worry about Ta-Lin.  If something bad happens, your worrying can’t make it better.  And if she gets better, well, you can’t help with that either.  Sleep well, dear Dragonsilk.”

#

I myself couldn’t sleep.  I waited, listening.  How would it happen?  Xhin hadn’t said.  Would Shijerra drift into a slumber from which she’d never awaken?  Too peaceful, I thought.  A slow gnawing of the gut?  Fierce explosive pains?  Or would she burst into flames?  I sat up, biting my nails to nubs.

Dawn came.  My stomach fluttered.

At last I heard the screams.

I raced to Dragonsilk’s rooms.  Mine were farthest from hers, which was the best part of the plan.  I would be the last to arrive.

Her maid cowered on the floor, head buried in her lap, hands covering her head as if to protect it.  Mei and Cinja huddled against the wall.  Mother In-Sa embraced Geiyun.

Was Shijerra dead?

No, she stood in her doorway, her pretty little face distorted.  She stared at her arms, holding them out to us, as if asking us to behold, to confirm what she could not believe she saw.  They were covered in scales.  Golden-green and silver-blue like those of a fish.  And the scales kept increasing, marching across her arms, her body, bit by bit.  Her hands contracted, misshapen like an old woman’s, then lengthened, at last becoming claws—the nails growing longer, sharper, alien.  Still Shijerra held them out for us to witness.  She put one to her breast—and accidentally raked it, leaving a streak of blood on the white flesh.  Which soon vanished, covered up by scales.  They consumed the little white feet, still bare as they’d been when she’d risen from her bed.

Shijerra saw me, where I shrank against the wall amongst the other wives.  Looked straight at me—and suddenly laughed.  Her eyes sparkled.  Not with tears but a bizarre joy.  She shook with laughter—she of the demure mouth, the delicate ways, now rocked with mirth.

She is hysterical, I thought.

“See, Kir?” she said.  “Dragons are real!  We are real!  Look at me!”

With one scaled claw, she reached across her back and ripped the flimsy silk robe.  Her other claw reached for the opposite shoulder.  The robe fell down.  My first ridiculous thought was the shame of her showing us her naked body, which belonged only to the emperor.  But already the scales were engulfing her budding breasts and belly.  I saw now why she’d freed herself from the robe.  On her back, blue-gold wings were unfurling like young fern-leaves.

There was no sense of horror in Shijerra now.  Her expression reminded me of how I’d looked when I beheld myself for the first time in a mirror as imperial bride—a combination of astonishment and glee.

“Now I can go home!”  She laughed again, drunkenly.  “I can go home!  To the mountains and fields of Suvik, to the land of my people!”

Her laugh became shriek became roar, as her face exploded, a dragon snout thrusting out from the fully-scaled body.  Gone, gone, the magnificent hair.  Nothing of Shijerra remained, except the expression of rapture.  The creature burst past me, rushing in the direction of the winter-garden.  I heard the burst of shattered glass.

#

Ta-Lin is dead; she died the night I led Shijerra away from the whispering wives.  Xhin is dead, too.  The emperor executed her for failing to divine his bride’s fate.

I think the wu did not fail completely.  The turtle-shell did not lie.  I believe Shijerra prospers despite the malice of the Peony, that she will live long, and become the mother of many of her kind.

But if she becomes a legend, it will not be here.  We are forbidden to speak of Shijerra, or even Suvik.  It is a proscription none of the wives wishes to break.

I’m the emperor’s favorite once more.  Yes, this is as it should be.  But for months, I felt chilled, even under the fox coverlets of the imperial bed.  Now, a new warmth creeps through me.  The child I carry, I’m certain, is a girl.  Instead of sharing the emperor’s disappointment, I’m glad.  I rub my belly, anxious for her arrival.  When she’s born, I will take her into the gardens, the true gardens outside.  I will speak to her as I might have to my rival, my lost sister, the only person I have ever missed.

On the day Dragonsilk left us, I went to the winter-gardens to see for myself if any trace of her remained.  An entire wall had collapsed, letting in the cold air.  I stepped outside.  In the glitter of snow and glass, I detected green shoots, the first crocuses announcing that spring had come at last.


Sandi Leibowitz is a native New Yorker who writes speculative fiction and poetry. Her works have been published in magazines such as Strange Horizons, Mythic Delirium, Goblin Fruit, Apex and Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year volume 5.

Issue No. 10, Autumn 2014

Luna e Talia
Molly Lazer

Luna sleeps during the day, skin warmed by sun streaming from the lone window, her head on her mother’s chest. When Luna sleeps, she dreams Talia’s dreams, fragmented patchworks of spinsters and spindles, slivers and silver. Somehow, these pieces make up the body of her mother, lying not quite asleep, not quite alive, on a dusty bed in the tower that has become their mausoleum, a monument to an unremembered life.

When Talia was a baby, her mother, the Queen, marveled at her small fingers and button nose, at the wisps of dark hair on her head and her curly eyelashes. If only she could stay this way forever, perfect, like a doll. The Queen watched Talia sleeping, the rise and fall of her moppet’s chest, and feared what she would become. She was afraid of the scrapes and the tears, changing bodies and the changing of the world. As the Queen held Talia’s tiny hand, a wish wrinkled its way through her mind to rest between the baby’s heavy eyes.

Luna’s fantasies are reserved for nighttime, for her waking hours, as she sits at the window, listening to the nightingale’s song. She tears petals off the pale night-blooming roses that reach inside. She looks down, and even in the bright moonlight, she cannot see the ground for the briar that encloses the tower. Luna wonders what she would see if her dreams were her own. She begins to plan.

The fairy came riding the scent of an unmentionable wish. Her eyes were ancient, plucked from the head of a soldier fallen from a tower, casualty of a cycle older than the earth upon which his body bled. The Queen was firm in her resolve. On the eve of Talia’s thirteenth birthday. The Queen would not give her over to the world. Talia would remain her perfect doll-child, immortal and unchanging until the stars winked out of the sky.

Luna grows her hair long, down to her knees. She combs it with a thorny branch she plucks from the climbing roses at the window. She remembers Talia’s dream in which the Queen stood behind her, taming Talia’s wavy locks into submission. Luna’s hair is more unruly, curling around her shoulders like the protective barrier of roses outside.

Dreams of Talia’s childhood: a sunny day spent outside, a ball tossed between friends with featureless faces. A kitten’s gentle nip, the bell-ring of a girl’s laughter. But always the eyes, the dead soldier’s eyes and her mother watching over the wall, around the corner, across the room. A mother’s hand, ready with a parasol to block out the sun, a quick grab if the ball got too close to her face, a bag and a river for the kitten who bit once and whom Talia never held again. An unblemished childhood.

The sun splays on the floor in a window-shaped patch at the foot of Talia’s bed. Luna sleeps next to her mother, dreaming Talia’s dreams. Her hair coils at her feet, rope lowered into a hole of light.

On the eve of Talia’s thirteenth birthday, the Queen entered her bedroom with a vase of unflowered roses plucked from the garden before their time. They are lovely, the Queen said, just like you. Talia ran her small hands over the flowers, fingers hovering above the thorns.

It was quick, quicker than the Queen expected. A squeal of pain, a pearl-drop of blood, and Talia fell back onto the satin pillow, hair haloing her face. Her eyelids fluttered once.

When she leans out the window, the rope of Luna’s hair reaches halfway down the tower, tangling in the briar.

The Queen left long ago, unable to sit by Talia’s bed, watching Talia’s constancy as her own face folded over itself. The citizens who found Talia brought her to the tower as a challenge for the young men who came to the kingdom, risking their eyes and lives for the sleeping girl. A necropolis of bones and briars rose up around the keep.

Luna fashions a blade from briars and bee stingers. She tests it on the posts of Talia’s bed, cleaving the wooden columns that surround her, the forest of preserved wood, resin-covered and unable to breathe.

The soldier kissed Talia’s lips. When she did not wake, he kissed her lips, stealing a rose from between her pale thighs. He scaled down the tower; the walls earned their vengeance. He slipped, a handhold lost, a foothold run away from his boot, and the briars took his eyes. A fitting trade. They would give those eyes, blue like the sea, to the daughter who would come after.

When Luna’s hair has grown past the briars, she plaits it and cuts it off, tying one end around the foot of Talia’s bed. She kisses her mother on the forehead in the same spot where a wish once lingered and climbs out the window, lowering herself down the rope of her hair. When the thorns come, she lets them take her skin. The throng of ghost princes rises up around her, clothing and souls ripped apart by years of haunting the briar. They move to the side, watching with hollow eyes as she passes.

Her feet touch soft earth. With her sword, she cuts a path outward through the briar, ignoring the blood that runs down her legs and pools at her feet. When she reaches the edge of the thicket, she plucks a single rose, unflowered and perfect. She tucks it behind her ear and sets off down the path. She will keep it long after it blooms, opening its petals to meet the sun.


Molly Lazer is a MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Rosemont College. A former editor at Marvel Comics, she now teaches high school, acts, and directs plays outside of Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette, Gingerbread House, and at flashfiction.net.

Issue No. 10, Autumn 2014

Lost & Found
Samantha Barron

It’s fitting that they use the phrase, “tickling the ivories,” because pianists can sound like they’re doing just that—flirting with the notes, teasing them, warming them up before the big crescendo. The keys hit lightly, as if they themselves are surprised by first contact, taken aback before responding to the touch.

I’d seen him there for a while. The Lost and Found was the kind of place where you saw the same people again and again, knew them even if you never spoke. I ran into the woman they call Lucky at the mall once. She looked exactly the same: bright red hair done up in Princess Leia buns, slim torso squeezed slimmer by a leather corset. We embraced as if we were long lost sisters, but fell back to perfunctory nods and indifference the next time we met at the bar.

I like to imagine him sitting back against the cracked red leather booth, barely distinguishable in a cloud of cigarette smoke, but of course that couldn’t have been right. We were both devotees of Ivan Johnson Trio Thursdays, when Ivan took his post at the piano in the corner of the bar and his band mates hovered close to him, creating a makeshift stage just out of the way of the pool tables. Tonight they were playing through Straight, No Chaser.

He beckoned me over and called me by a nickname I never use. I didn’t correct him. We became old friends within minutes, his arm around my shoulder, nose inches away from my cheek as he spoke into my ear. My red nails tapping out the melody of the trio’s current song on the tight denim above his knee. We both loved jazz, we both loved Ivan, we were both too young and too vital for the Lost and Found. He wanted to make movies, but didn’t usually like to tell people that, because they automatically assumed he was some wannabe Tarantino or Wes Anderson. Guys like Howard Hawks on the other hand, he said, they didn’t write themselves into a hole, they could do anything, any genre, you name it. And hey, come to think of it, I sort of reminded him of Rosalind Russell.

We danced around the bar after last call and we could feel scattered pairs of eyes settle upon our wheeling figures. We gave them a show: this is what it looks like when you’re laughing and carefree and you still have it all ahead of you. “You’re a terrible dancer, you know that?” he said. “It’s a Box Step. You just make a box with your feet. You do know what a box is, don’t you?”

Music is something I feel in my body and sometimes I can’t even reason out why it makes me feel like it does. But I’m giddy in anticipation of that ultimate moment when the sounds swell up around me, crash overhead and carry me away. And when I spun out away from him and pressed back in, I almost believed that I could stay suspended there.

When I was a teenager and I first discovered alcohol, I loved the way it heated me up from within, transforming me into something graceful and wanted and capable of being known. So I kept going, hoping to drink myself into my body until, of course, I learned my lesson hunched over white porcelain one forgotten night. Sometimes we are able to spot our limits before we come up against them and sometimes we crash into them at full force, but either way it hurts.

I wait for those moments when all of the instruments play in unison, when all of the pieces work conjunctively to achieve something bigger than the sum of their parts.

I glanced over at Lucky as she held court at the corner of the bar, gesturing with the stem of a maraschino cherry as she told a story to a couple of drooling 40-somethings. Barlight bouncing off of her glittered cheekbones, posture perfect, she inflated under their gaze. Something like life flickering in their dull eyes as they locked onto her.

When he pulled me up, ironing out the curve in my spine, we could have kept dancing, but the charm had worn off. That’s the thing with charm: it wears off. The magic of intrigue fades and you’re exposed, clutching.

The bartender flipped the lights on and there we were, pressed against each other, swaying on the stained green carpet.

I’ve heard the saxophone ring as clear as a human voice, but articulate in a way that language can’t be. It’s simple to fall in love with strangers, to twirl around the perimeter of the room until people start to stare. You can call it whatever you want, but you risk spinning out into the revelation that you’re dancing alone. I pressed my hands to his chest. It hardly mattered whether I meant to draw him in closer or to push him away.


Samantha Barron is a writer.

Issue No. 10, Autumn 2014

The Lace in the Window
Kristi Petersen Schoonover

When the sleeve of Susan’s wedding gown, which hung on the shower rod, moved, she was sure it was because the fierce July storm was forcing its way around Room 15’s closed bathroom window.

She hated the country. Wind, dirt, rain, bugs, sleepless nights from strange animal noises and sticky, just like in that God-awful summer camp her parents had sent her to every summer.

It didn’t help that she knew the Howe Caverns attraction and its adjoining motel had been hit hard by inflation. But this was the price to pay for a wedding the social pages were devouring: as an actress who hadn’t worked in awhile, her agent and publicist had insisted that she do something to create headlines. She wouldn’t be working again anytime soon if she didn’t. She’d been planning on marrying Larry somewhere swank and glamorous back home in the City, maybe the Waldorf. But being the first to wed at Howe Caverns in 38 years—the last one had been in 1938—was getting her a spot on something new called the “Page Six” in the New York Post.

Thunder shook the thin walls. Despite her room’s avocado-mustard décor, she could tell from the structure’s motor-court style it had been built well before she was born. It might have even been the kind of place her parents had stayed in on their wedding night—and the brutal rains weren’t helping, as everything was clammy and the air smelled faintly of wet grass, despite the staff’s overuse of lemon freshener.

Perhaps inflation hadn’t been the only contributing factor to the place’s precarious position.

She suddenly realized she really didn’t want to go through with any of this, but she had no choice. If this didn’t come off, she’d no longer be Susan Night, actress. She’d just be Susan, Larry Dillman’s wife.

However, Larry, the wedding party, photographers and her publicist weren’t arriving until tomorrow. She was, at the moment, glad to have time alone.

She turned on the clock radio, noticing the words Solid State had nearly worn off. Karen Carpenter sang she needed to be in love—something Susan wouldn’t have minded if she hadn’t listened to the A Kind of Hush album day in and day out since it’d hit the shelves in May. Annoyed, she turned it off and stubbed out her Eve, a new cigarette she was trying she’d already decided she wasn’t that crazy about, although now she was stuck with them, because she was pretty sure it’d be a hike to go find a pack of Virginia Slims.

She wanted a shower.

Her wedding gown had been heavily inspired by one she’d seen on Days of Our Lives last year. She admired its lace bell sleeves, Empire waist and gilt panel while she moved it from the rod to a hook on the back of the door.

There wasn’t a shower head—it was a pipe stuck out of the wall—but at least the water pressure was strong. Just as she’d finished lathering her hair, though, the flow abruptly trickled to nothing. Someone in another room had probably just flushed the toilet. Christ. Not wanting to wait until it recovered, she rinsed away as much Wella Balsam as she could, turned off the water, and thrust aside the paisley shower curtain.

Her gown was heaped on the linoleum.

She hurriedly smoothed a towel around her and went to the dress, hoping it hadn’t gotten too wrinkled or soiled. It had a high collar, how could it have come off the hanger?

The back of it was unzipped.

She glanced up at the window. Of course! She’d only thought she’d zipped the gown, and the wind had taken care of the rest. She sighed in disgust, then hung it back up and made sure the zipper was securely fastened.

This was going to be a long four days.

~

She was due to meet Brenda, their onsite coordinator, for a cocktail. Susan hadn’t thought this necessary, but Brenda had insisted on a twice-a-day check-in. “We’re so wanting to make sure that everything’s perfect!” Brenda had said. “Howe had a long history of marrying people down in the caves and we’re seriously trying to bring this back, so this is just as important to us as it is to you and we need to make sure this goes off without a hitch.”

A cocktail—was it late enough for a Pink Squirrel?—sounded refreshing, though she was sure that if they’d even heard of it, they wouldn’t make it as well as they did back home.

The geraniums and mums around the main lodge, which looked like a cross between a Swiss chalet and an English manor, drooped: the storms over the past few days had been too brutal even for them.

She ascended the slate steps and found whom she assumed to be Brenda—a petite, wiry woman in a paisley maxi-dress who was still copying Mia Farrow’s Rosemary’s Baby hairstyle—sitting in one of the verandah’s rocking chairs. When she got up to greet Susan, her bracelets made a tinkling sound.

“It is fan-tastic to meet you.” She reached for her patchwork hobo bag, which sat on the floor under the rattan cocktail table. “Oh, I hope you don’t mind.” She handed Susan a TV Guide ad for the last movie she’d been in three years prior, Don’t Turn Out the Light. “My son, he absolutely adored you in this movie, I mean it just scared him clear to high school. Would you sign it?”

She was surprised to find herself glad someone remembered her—and sad that this was, if she didn’t get more work soon, going to be all she was remembered for: a low-budget Movie-of-the-Week flick about gremlins trying to drag her to hell through a hole in the refrigerator.

“Sure.” She smiled, took the thrust-out pen, and signed over her own face.

Brenda took the ad and examined it. “Oh, this is just great. He is going to be completely thrilled. Not to mention he’ll believe all my stories now about working with you.” She tucked it back into her bag and lit up a Kool.

A waiter set two orange drinks on the table.

“I figured Harvey Wallbangers would be just the thing!” Brenda twisted the orange garnish over the glass and dropped it in.

Harvey Wallbangers. So last year.

“Well, and how is everything going?” Brenda exhaled a long column of smoke.

“Fine.”

“The room’s comfortable?”

“Yes.” Susan sipped the drink and tried not to grimace. It was too heavy on the Galliano. She decided to smoke a cigarette instead and pulled out her pack—again grimacing at the taste and again wishing she had her regular Virginia Slim.       

“Everything’s…going as planned,” Brenda said.

“Yes.”

“Nothing…unusual?”

Jesus, Susan thought, what does she want me to say? “Well, I’m not happy at all with this rain.”

Brenda nodded. “Unfortunately we’re just going to have to handle that for a few days. It isn’t supposed to stop, but as long as everything is okay on your end, we should be fine.”

Susan sipped from the straw, and there was a moment of silence between them. Then, she said, “Actually, there is something.”

Brenda froze.

“There’s wind.”

Brenda seemed to relax. “Wind?”

“Yes, wind. Coming around the frame of the bathroom window.”

Brenda smiled nervously. “That’s all.”

Susan frowned. “What do you mean, that’s all? I know it’s an old building, but it knocked my gown off the hanger this afternoon.”

Seemingly non-plussed, Brenda smiled. “Well, we’ll just have to get someone over there to put something across that window. I do apologize for the inconvenience. In the meantime, we need to talk about your photo shoot this afternoon. What’s happening?”

“The first round will be just me, with the others after they get here. Maybe we can do theirs in the dining room.”

Brenda seemed to hesitate. “Listen, with all the set-up going on for your wedding, the dining room is going to be the one place we can’t swing the space, but as you can see, on the property, we have lots of other—even nicer—areas…how about the gazebo up on the back hill?”

~

On the walk across the drive, which split the attraction’s expansive lawn through the middle, to the motel, Susan was bit by mosquitoes twice. She managed to stop the second in the middle of its meal. A tiny starlet of her own blood shot from its mangled body.

 She wanted to pack it in.

Stop it, stop it. You have to go through with this. Hopefully the AfterBite® you bought will take care of it.

She fumbled for the paddle key and shoved it in the lock, then stopped.

Was that music coming from her room?

She pushed open the door. Her clock radio’s face was half-lit, and Carpenter wallowed in “I Need to Be in Love” again. The last guest must have left the alarm set. God, don’t these radio stations up here know how to play anything else? She switched off the radio, took another shower, and coated her bites. The itch receded immediately.

Where the hell was this stuff when she’d been a kid, suffering up there in the deep woods, welts all over her arms and legs?

See? You can do this, she thought, and fell into bed.

~

At three a.m., the phone rang.

Startled, she answered it. “Hello?”

Not a sound on the other end. Just some clicking.

She hung it up and rolled over, slipping into a dream in which her wedding was at the glittering Waldorf-Astoria.

The phone rang again.

“Hello?” This time, there was the sound of something like rain on the other end. “Who is this?”

Outside, a crack of thunder. Ugh. Of course. Weather doesn’t interfere with the lines in New York like it does up here.

She resettled.

Five minutes later, a repeat performance, except this time what sounded like the roar of an angry ocean blasted her ear so loud it hurt.

She slammed the receiver back in its cradle.

The phone didn’t ring again for the remaining hours of the morning, but it didn’t matter, because Susan couldn’t get back to sleep.

~

The next morning, a peculiar lily-smelling fog cottoned the valley, shrouding the winding road down the hill. For the moment, it had stopped raining, but the sky was clearly not done; the bottoms of the clouds were the greenish hue of mold.

She met Brenda for continental breakfast.

The small café had a rug that had seen better days, although the tables looked new and had been lavished with souvenir ashtrays, diner-style napkin dispensers, and full glass jars of Brim and Maxwell House instant coffee.

Coffee, Susan thought, thank God.

Brenda dervished in, then stopped. “You look…tired. Is everything okay?”

“Not really.” Susan reached for the pot of hot water that had just been set between them and filled her cup.

Brenda seemed to hesitate, then slung her bag over the back of the chair and slid into it. “What.” She watched Susan unscrew the lid on the Maxwell House. “What’s the matter?”

“I didn’t get any sleep last night because the phone kept ringing.”

Brenda seemed relieved, then reached for the pot and filled her own cup. “Who was calling?”

“Near as I can tell, no one.”

“No one?”

“No one. There was nothing but noise on the other end of the line.”

Brenda shook her head, then spooned coffee granules into her cup and stirred. “Sometimes, in these storms up here, the lines get a little fuzzy. Hopefully, things will be better tonight. Would you like me to have the handyman come and look into it?”
“He hasn’t come to fix the window yet, either.”

Brenda frowned. “I left word last night. I’m sorry. I’ll make sure he does both while you’re out at your shoot this afternoon.”

~

Back in her room, Susan felt the need to shower again before the shoot. She’d done her hair so many times she was afraid she was going to run out of Aqua Net, but she knew she was just going to have to make do.

In the shower, she lathered her hair and thought about the coming shoot, what she was going to wear—she wasn’t even on the public’s mind enough to get an offer from any designers to model their clothes, so she’d gone shopping and picked up a few things, the most modern stuff she could find.

She felt something in her hair, something jelly-like and cool that tickled her scalp. Then the sound changed: She couldn’t hear the pounding of the water spewing from the pipe.

She looked at her hands. Brown. Her hands were covered with mud.

She turned around.

Earthworms dropped from the pipe.

She screamed and leapt from the shower, landing on her tailbone. She cried out in shock and pain, rolled over, and crawled to yank the curtain closed.

For a moment, there was only the sound of the rain pummeling the window.

She struggled to her feet and hobbled from the bathroom, stopping when she caught a glimpse of her mud-splattered form in the vanity. How was she supposed to do the photo shoot like this? Angry, determined to call up Brenda and not only give her a piece of her mind but demand she send the handyman immediately, she worked her way to the phone and picked up the receiver, frantically dialing zero.

All she got was a high-pitched sound, almost like a scream.

She yanked the phone from the nightstand and threw it against the wall.

She burst into tears. When she’d worn herself out, she faced the reality that the photographers were probably waiting for her up at the main lodge.

Complain later. Just right now, get the worms out of the shower. That’s all. Just get them out of the shower and throw them outside, turn on the faucet again and see if you can get at least a little water to rinse this mud off you.

The idea was abhorrent to her, touching worms, but she had to do it.

She scanned the room. There was nothing resembling any sort of shovel, anything that would effectively scoop them up without her having to touch them.

The trash can.

She went to the marigold-colored can and pulled out its plastic liner. Then she went into the bathroom, closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and pulled aside the curtain.

There was nothing there.

For a second, she panicked, feeling her skin crawl. Were they on the floor? Where did they go?

She checked the room, behind the commode, even beneath the vanity outside the bathroom.

There were no worms.

Enough. Enough. You need to go. Just get out of this whole thing. Go meet the photographers and tell them it’s off.

But she couldn’t do that, and she knew it. Nothing can stop this, nothing can stop this, nothing can stop this. You want your career to go down the drain? You saw The Stepford Wives! You want to end up like Katharine Ross? Be known as Susan Larry’s wife, do nothing but bleach the Formica, pop out a couple of kids and go to PTA meetings?

She looked at her hands. They were shaking.

They were also mud-free.

She looked at her stomach, her shoulders. No mud. There was no mud on her.

Calm down. You just imagined it. Go sit on the bed and have a cigarette.

For the first time since she’d bought the pack, the Eve tasted great.

~

The odd combination of unbearable heat and cold rain, combined with intermittent sky-splitting lightning, had made the gazebo photo shoot uncomfortable—Susan alternately felt as though she was being bitten by mosquitoes or like her skin was tacky as flypaper. After the photographers, who were staying seven miles away in town, had left to get something to eat, she headed to the motel, hoping Larry and the others had arrived. They were supposed to have shown up two hours ago. The driving’s probably treacherous, she thought.

Rivers ran down the driveway, and Susan lifted the hems of her pants to keep them from getting doused, even though there wasn’t much point—the insides of her shoes were slippery. She thought she could take them off and stocking-foot it, then changed her mind: Earthworms littered the pavement, the rains having forced them above-ground so they wouldn’t drown.

She shuddered at the sight.

At the base of the lawn, a distance away, she saw a woman, clad in white and carrying a pink umbrella. She seemed calm, meandering as though it were a fine summer’s day. As though sensing she’d been spotted, she turned and made eye contact with Susan, and waved.

Annoyed, Susan didn’t wave back. Was that one of the other motel guests? Perhaps the one who had interfered with the water pressure during her shower yesterday? Maybe the little country girl knew who she was and those phone calls were from her, pranking for fun?

The rain beat harder. That was enough. She ran the rest of the way.

There were no other cars in the motel lot—no Larry and the others.

In her room, she stripped out of her wet clothes and slipped into her silk robe, though it wouldn’t do much to ward off the sudden chill that had descended. She went into the bathroom and stopped short.

The small window was open. Water was pouring through it, sluicing down the walls and onto her wedding gown, which was once again mysteriously heaped on the floor.

She felt a stab of panic and raced to the dress. It was sopping wet, and as she started to cry she struggled to get it on the hanger, hoping the satin portions weren’t so water-stained that—

There was a knock at the door.

Shit.

“Hello?”

“Maintenance.”

She flung it open. “Weren’t you already here? You already left the window open in the bathroom and you’ve probably ruined my wedding dress, what more do you want?”

He blinked. “Ma’am, I didn’t ruin anything, I haven’t been here yet. Brenda told me to come fix your window and check your phone, but I had another—I’ve had things to take care of, down in the caves, first. We’re just real busy with this rain.”

Susan didn’t know whether to believe him. She glanced over at the phone—which was still in the spot it had landed after the earthworm incident.

He was telling the truth.

“Um, you know what, it’s fine.”

“Well, looks to me like your phone’s—”

“It’s fine, really, I don’t need the phone.”

“Well—”

“Really.”

Maintenance Man seemed to finally accept what he was being told. He weakly made an offer about letting him know if she changed her mind before departing.

Susan closed the door, sat on the bed, grabbed the Howe Caverns ashtray, and lit up. What the hell is going on around here?

Outside, she heard a low growl.

A car! Larry and everybody had finally arrived! She pushed aside the window drapes.

A female face, sugar white and malevolent, stared at her.

Don’t worry, it mouthed, the voice muffled through the plate glass, you will be remembered.

Susan felt bound, as though someone had tied rope around her legs, her arms. The face broke into a Mona Lisa-esque smile, then retreated as the woman it belonged to took a few steps back.

It was the woman she’d seen on the lawn.

Susan wanted to scream, but something filled her throat. She could do nothing as the woman turned and left with a swoop of her white lace bell sleeves.

Something pushed her, and she suddenly could move. She clambered for the drapes and pulled them closed. She tried to slow down her breathing.

Another bride! You saw her gown, that was a gown. That was another bride! That’s why Brenda had been so nervous. That’s why you couldn’t shoot in the dining room! Someone else got married here today! After all the hell in this pit you are not going to be the first person to marry here in 38 years! The desperate bastards double-booked and you’ve gone through this for nothing!

The chill was gone, and she was warm—in fact, hot. Enough. Enough! She looked at her watch. Four o’clock. Brenda would still be at the office.

She checked herself in the mirror, disturbed to see shadows beneath her eyes. She dressed and rushed from the room, not locking it, not conscious that she’d forgotten her raincoat until, halfway across the drive that separated the motel from the main lodge, the skies opened up and needled her with what she was sure were small hail stones.

~

The inside of the attraction’s lodge, done in faded elegance, Susan thought angrily, was chilly from what Susan had told her was the natural cave air pumped from below. No one else was in the cavernous main dining room area, which had been set for her own wedding tomorrow, its early-American tables draped in the soft marigold and orange linens she’d chosen as her colors. For a moment, it looked so beautiful, she stopped.

Not everything was as perfect as it should be—a crooked folded napkin, the forks and knives not quite evenly aligned.

Because they did it fast to cover up the other reception they had earlier.

With fresh bluster, Susan quickened her step and stopped Brenda from leaving the ticket window just as the woman was about to flip out the light and head for the door.

“What can I do for—”

“The bathroom is a rattle-trap, the phone still doesn’t work, my dress is ruined but this? This is going to destroy my comeback! I can’t very well be the first bride to marry here in almost forty years if someone just got married this afternoon! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Brenda reacted as though she’d been slapped. “What are you talking about?”

“Quit lying! I have had enough!”

“Look, calm down.”

“I will not calm down!”

“Okay. Whatever is wrong, we will fix it. I will do everything I can to get things taken care of.”

“That’s what you said about my phone, and that’s what you said about my window!”

“Listen, I know you’re upset—”

“I knew something wasn’t right with you, all cocktails and coffee to get me to not pay attention. Do you think I’m stupid?”

“NO. No, of course not. I promise you, no one got married here today! The only one getting married here is you.”

“Then who’s that bride I saw just now? She even had the gall to look in my window! I was looking right at her, face to face!”

Brenda paled. Her pen made a clattering sound as it hit the office’s flagstone floor. Her eyes were wide, full of a terror Susan had only seen on Lee Remick. Brenda pulled a chair over, sank into it.

Susan felt her rage weaken only slightly. “Spare me the dramatics—”

“Wait!” Brenda gasped. She swallowed, held up an index finger. “Don’t, just don’t. It’s alright. Just give me a second.”

For what seemed awhile, there was nothing but the faint whistle of the air coming up from the caves, the distant roar of thunder, and rain pattering on the roof.

Finally, Brenda bent beneath the desk, and Susan heard what she thought was the opening of a safe. When the woman sat upright, she presented Susan with a black and white photo in a gilt frame. “Is this the woman you saw?”

Susan noticed Brenda’s fingers were trembling. “It shouldn’t matter—”

“Just answer the question, honey. Is this the woman you saw?”

It undeniably was—the same hair, the same white complexion, the same, unsettling close-lipped smile…the same dress, the same lace bell sleeves.

She didn’t know why, but she felt off. Sweaty. A lump in her throat. “Yes,” she said. “That’s her.”

Brenda put her face in her hands.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m…I’ve made a terrible mistake,” she said.

“Yes, you have, but I don’t see what that has to do with—”

“No, you don’t understand.” She took the photo from Susan. “This woman’s name was Catalina. She ran this place and was somehow related to Lester, who discovered these caves, although we’re not quite sure how. In the 1930s, the caverns were hurting—not just because of the Depression, but because they’d just invested heavily in building this lodge, the motel, and the elevators that take you underground. They were in a lot of trouble. But Catalina must have had a lot of Lester in her. She loved the caverns more than life itself, and she would have done just about anything to keep them open. So, in a repeat of the publicity stunts Howe’s daughters Harriet and Huldah had done in 1854, she decided to get married in the cave. The advance press she got was pretty amazing.” Brenda looked up at Susan. “But the wedding was the same day as the Hurricane of 1938. No one thought it would affect this area. Too far inland. But during the ceremony, there was a flash flood. Everyone, the guests, the bride, the groom…they all died.”

Susan wasn’t sure how to respond. “Alright, so…I don’t understand.”

Brenda rubbed her eyes. “There’s a legend the locals tell about Catalina. If a bride who’s marrying here should see her, she and her guests will suffer the same fate. That’s why no one has ever been married here since the accident. But we’d just bought this place and it was a disaster. Then you came along, and…we convinced ourselves that what the prior owners told us was just probably…silly old superstition anyway. I mean, it’s the seventies, for God’s sake! No one believes in those poppycock farm country tales anymore.” She touched the picture, her fingers brushing Catalina’s cheek. “I guess we were wrong.”

Susan blinked. If you buy into this, you’re an idiot. It sounds a little like the plot of that stupid show that Larry’s mother made you watch, the one about the dead woman’s angry shadow sticking on the wall. Brenda probably watched the same one.

But what other explanation was there, really? There had been no other cars in the motel lot all day, except for those belonging to the photographers and her publicist, and they’d left right after the shoot. She herself hadn’t really seen anything to indicate there had been a wedding and reception. Only this one, lace-clad woman in her window.

And your gown falling from the hanger. You know damn well you’d zipped it. And the weird noises on the phone. And the handyman telling the truth that he hadn’t been there but somehow the window got opened and your dress was destroyed.

And the earthworms. Don’t forget the earthworms.

She recalled the woman’s words: You will be remembered.

“We made it! Wow, that weather sure is lousy!”

Both women turned to look. It was Larry. As though sensing something, he stopped shaking the water off him and stared at the women. “What?”


The opening chapter of Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s novel, Bad Apple, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her fiction has appeared in countless publications, including several anthologies such as Great Old Ones Publishing’s Canopic Jars: Tales of Mummies and Mummification and Western Legend Press’ Unnatural Tales of the Jackalope. She has received three Norman Mailer Writers Colony Residencies, serves as a judge for New York City Midnight’s story competitions, and is an editor for Read Short Fiction. She lives with her husband in the haunted woods of Connecticut and sleeps with the lights on. You can find out more at www.kristipetersenschoonover.com.

Issue No. 10, Autumn 2014

Chorie: A Tragedy
J. T. Townley

I see her again on Pacific Avenue in the golden summer sunlight.  It is the third time this week.  First, by the seaside, then wandering near the tent camp.  Now here, jostled by travelers, street-corner philosophers, and shopkeepers, a basket of market goods in her hands, sunlight glittering through her golden hair.  Can it be an accident?  It cannot.

I must consult the Oracle.

Along the footpaths, vagabonds and derelicts mumble and gawk.  The seaside teems with glistening bodies lounging devoutly in the sand.  The pier groans as the surf crashes against the pylons.  I search down below, in the smoky shadows where I first encountered the Oracle.  The air hangs thick with rotting seaweed.

“No can do,” a badly scarred intercessor explains, stepping into the light.  “The Oracle don’t work like that.”

“We come in peace,” I say.  “We seek the gods’ wisdom.”

He laughs, and his golden teeth glint in the sunlight streaming between the slats.  “Don’t matter, chica.”

“But it must.”

“It won’t.”

“It shall.”

He flashes a dagger.  “Tranquila, homegirl.”

I stumble back two steps, mouth agape.

“Fuck you need anyway?”

“Then you, too, are a soothsayer?”

“Say what?”

“A seer of the future.”

“You crazy or some shit?”

Gulls screech and swoop over the cerulean water.  The stench of rot makes me gag.

Claro,” he says.  “Call me the Prophet.”  His scars writhe like sea snakes when he chuckles.  “Now what you want to know?”

I would prefer to speak directly to the Oracle, but I need immediate assistance.  I inhale deeply despite the stench, then lay my soul bare:

“We seek our heroine.”

He clutches my shoulders and lays his blade across my throat.  “Who put you up to this, pendeja?”

“We fail to grasp your meaning.  It is some holy truth you cloak in mystery?”

“Why you came here?”

“We seek our heroine,” I repeat.  “Thrice she has appeared to us.  The gods will it be so.”

The soothsayer releases me and falls into the sand, racked by fits of laughter.

Chariots roar along Beach Street.  Overhead, fishermen gabble and hack.

“What say you?” I ask.  “What holds the future?”

Dime, homegirl.  What’s this chick look like?”

I explain:  golden hair and golden body, riding waves of gold.

The Prophet sheaths his dagger, rifling in a haversack buried in the sand.  “Big beach party Saturday night, chica.”  He passes me a fragrant bundle.  “There’s the chronic.  Hide that shit under your stinky-ass robes.”  I must appear mystified, because he says:  “Pass it around, mana.  Be generous.  You’ll get all the surfer chicks you want.”

“But how will we locate the celebrations?”

“Just look for the bonfire,” he says.  “And homegirl?  The Oracle don’t give credit or take no I.O.U.’s.  Cash only, got it?”

 

It is an eternity until Saturday night.  I pass the hours chewing feta and grapes, dousing them with tasteless wine.  When the day arrives, my saturnine mood turns gleeful.  Today, I shall join the celebrations.  I shall distribute the fragrant herbs as the Oracle commanded.  I shall at last meet my heroine.

For without her, what am I?

The scarred seer’s vision was apt.  Once darkness settles, the bonfire is impossible to miss, its blue flames licking at the night.  I linger on the periphery, blanketed in shadows.  I wait and watch, watch and wait.  Unseen creatures shriek across the black water.  My mouth tastes of stale wine and soot.  The night grows cold.

Millennia pass.  I dare not enter the circle.

I resolve to abandon the quest, burn the Oracle’s herbs, and hurl myself from the highest cliff into the sea.  But then a woman stumbles toward me through the sand.  She struggles with a pocket flame, turning her back to the crashing surf, covering herself with a hood.  I glimpse her face in the moonlight.

My heroine!

“And a timely entrance, too,” I say.

“Excuse me?”

“Stop—let us make your peace.”

“You sound like you’re in a play.  Did you miss your entrance somewhere?”

“All the world is a stage.”

“So I’ve heard.”  She sets her intoxicant alight and gazes across the water into the darkness.

I keep silent, struggling in the breeze with my dark, snaking curls.

“I’m Steph,” she says, passing me the smoldering herbs.  “Go ahead.  You seem tense.”

I puff away, listening to the bonfire pop and hiss.

“Get lost on the way to a toga party?”

“This is a chiton,” I explain, fanning a fold of green cloth.  “Similar to a peplos, worn in the same manner, but of larger dimension.”

Steph nods, smoking the last of her herbs.

I withdraw the seer’s fragrant bundle.

“You come prepared, I see.  May I?”

I nod my assent.  With deft hands, she sprinkles leaves into a paper, then rolls a worship stick and sets it on fire.  “Intense,” she says.  “Santa Cruz Gold?”

Do I know what she means?   I do not.

I nod.

We smoke and listen to the dark waves break on the beach.  The world whirls around us.  Then Steph says:

“So I get it.  You’re here on business.”

“No matter could be more important.”

“And,” she says, “you want me to vouch for you?”

I know not of what she speaks.  “Would that it were so,” I say.

“Cut me in—say, five percent?—and I’ll even broker the deals for you.”

“Self-control is always to be admired.  The fruit it bears for mortals is a good name.”

“Should I take that for a yes?”

“Now you must return to the firelight,” I say.

“Probably should.  Told them I was going for driftwood.  They’ll think I drowned.”

“To celebrate is right.”

“You could join us?” Steph suggests.  “There’s probably some beer left.”

I hold my tongue.

“Or not.  That’s okay, too.  No big deal.”

Sea snakes slither in the blackness.

“What’s your name?” she says.  “How should I get in touch?”

“We are called Chorie.”  Despite the cold night, I feel radiant.  “That we will meet again is certain.”

Then I gather my robes and step away into the darkness.

 

Rosy-fingered dawn begins to glow before Steph wanders home.  I follow, keeping my distance.  I discover where she resides, though I do not make my presence known.  I do not wish to frighten her.  Moon’s day follows sun’s day, and still I wait.  I crouch among the cypress, gnawing on a block of feta, watching, from dawn to dusk.  I come to recognize friendly citizens.  I identify her means of employment to be teaching the delicate art of wave riding.  I learn her patterns and rituals of piety:  burning intoxicants to honor twilight, bowing on a mat in praise of dawn.  She worships the sun with great devotion.

Despite her focus, she somehow espies me.  “Hey!” she yells.  “Toga lady!  I’ve got your cash!”  I duck, then scamper away.  Another time, she says, “I can see you, okay?  Come out into the open so we can talk.”  I refuse; she traces a path to my observation post.  From the highest branches I can reach, I watch her puzzle over my disappearance.

Yet Steph soon catches me unawares.

“Hey,” she says, nudging me with a sandaled foot.

I blink against the bright sun.

“Are you some kind of creeper?”

My mouth feels pasty.  I wipe my lips and squint.

“Come up and I’ll give you your money, okay?”

I stumble after her.  Her abode is welcoming, especially compared to the tent camp.

Steph passes me a wad of green paper.  “That was some good ganja.  Can you get more?”

“What shall be, shall be.”

“You’re an enigma,” she says, smiling.  Her liquid blue eyes shimmer in the sunlight.  She is more beautiful than I realized.

“They who await no gifts from chance have conquered fate,” I say.

 

That night, I find the soothsayer lurking beneath the pier.

“Took you so long, chica?  Thought you’d split with the cash.  The Oracle’s ready to put a hit out on your ass.”

I pass him the currency.

He counts it, squinting, then tongues a golden tooth and grins.

“Find what you was looking for?”

“Alas!  New disasters mingle with old.”

“Sure, whatever.”  He rifles in his haversack and passes me another fragrant bundle.  “Scatter more of this around town, right?  The Oracle says you keep ten percent.  Make it five and no hit.  That’s fair, no?”

In the spongy darkness, sea creatures yawp and bellow.

 

From my outpost among the cypress, I follow my heroine’s daily movements.  Until, one day, she is gone.  I inquire with her employer, Santa Cruz Surf.

“Expedition to Biarritz,” says a man with knotted ropes for hair and a golden ring through his nose.  “Back in a couple weeks.”

Do I grasp his meaning?  I do not.  Still, I understand that her domicile is vacant.

He devours me with his gaze, then blinks only with his left eye.  “Name’s Leaf.  I’m Steph’s partner.  You need a surf lesson, babe, I can help.”

“Please accept our thanks and praises.”

 

As expected, my heroine’s abode is unoccupied.  I rap gently on the door, so as not to attract attention from inquisitive citizens, who might then summon the Council.  “Steph,” I announce.  “We, your Chorus, have arrived.”  I anticipate no response, as she is thousands of miles away, on a beach in the Acquitaine—closer to my place of origin than her own.  I try the knob, but the door is locked tight.  I peer through the window:  all is quiet, everything still.  Yet the curtains to the glass door dance and billow in the sea breeze.  I slip down the stairs and around the building.  I shimmy up a palm tree, then clamber onto the balcony.

Inside, Steph’s abode is peaceful.  On a shelf, a timepiece ticks.  The wooden floorboards creak and moan.  A thick, syrupy aroma makes my head swim, so I throw open the doors and windows, filling the domicile with salt air.  In the near distance, golden waves pound the golden beach.

I locate blankets and fashion a nest on the floor.

How much better is it than the tent camp?

Words cannot describe.

 

I explore my heroine’s domicile, first with tentative fingers, but soon with complete abandon.  I rifle through her drawers and leaf through her papers.  I study the slick picture books filled with wet Olympiads.  Her wardrobe overflows with garments and coverings; everything smells of soap and incense and herbs-of-worship.  I ferret out my favorites and don them beneath my chiton.  They chafe almost immediately, so I tear them from my skin and heap them in a pile on the scuffed floorboards.

One day claws past another.

When the hours grow heavy, I burn herbs from the fragrant bundle, praising the dusk, praising the dawn.  I worship at midday, too, in the full golden light of the god’s greatness.  I set the nighttime sun ablaze using a tiny lever in the wall, praising and supplicating through the hours of darkness.  The room spins.  My gut gnaws and gnashes.  I devour foods of all sorts, everything tasting of sea salt, until I am sated and pass out.

I waken to Steph, my heroine, standing at the threshold, breathless and gawking.

“Who the fuck let you in?”

“We rejoice in your success.”

She heaves her enormous knapsack to the floor.  I follow her gaze, struggling to view the spectacle from her vantage.  Cabinets emptied across the floor, the air thick with the herbal smoke of constant devotion.  Steph peers into each room, agog.  I remain supine, content to be in her presence again at last.

“What have you done to my apartment?”

“The gods’ will has brought us to you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Thus was it fated.  We are bound together like sisters.”

“That makes no sense,” Steph says, lugging her knapsack to the bedchamber.  “You don’t even know me.”

“You are our heroine.”

“I don’t get it.  Junkies usually just smash-and-grab, right?”

Can I glean her intent?  I cannot.

She hauls her wave-riding implements to the balcony.  When she returns, her expression is stony.  “So what is it you want?  Did I miscount the cash?”

“Only to be near you,” I say, “to bask in your radiant glow.”

Steph waits for more, but I’ve already given her everything.  Her eyes pan across the room, then she says:

“Okay, play time’s over.  Get your shit and get out.”

She hoists me from my nest on the floor with unexpected strength, allowing me no time to gather anything, including the fragrant bundle.  Admittedly, after days of steady worship, there is not much left.  Still, it belongs to me, or the Oracle.

“Wait, please.”

She shoves me toward the door and glares.  Then she follows my gaze.

“You want this?”  She kneels, lifts it to the light, makes a strange clucking noise.  “Been doing some heavy product sampling, looks like.  All your profits, up in smoke.”

I stretch out my hand.  “May we have what is rightfully ours?”

“Tell you what,” she says.  “You’re not from around here, and you seem like a nice person, when you’re not trashing my apartment.  So instead of having you thrown in jail for breaking-and-entering, property destruction, possession with intent, how about I just keep what’s left?  Santa Cruz Gold, right?”

I know what is expected.  I nod.

“Sweet.  So we’ll call it even.  Deal?”

“The business has already gone too far.”

“Agreed.”  Her face lights up with expectation.  “And?”

“We think it would be best to leave things be.”

“Good.  Now go.”

 

After so much time has elapsed, the Oracle’s intercessor must wonder what has become of me.  I resolve to avoid the tent camp, to keep my distance from the pier.  Gutted by failure, I am uncertain why I care about the great physical suffering I will be made to endure.  I shelter alone on a remote beach amid unsettling rock formations.  The wind whips and whistles through the night, and  unseen creatures screech across the black water.  Darkness swells inside my empty heart.

Days pass.  I scavenge the beach for food; the sea brings me bounty:  half-eaten tacos, most of a pizza, an oily albatross blown in from the open Pacific.  I build a fire, first from refuse, then from driftwood.  The flickering light pushes back the blackness, yet it does little to warm me.  I shiver in the dark, with nothing but cold sand for a blanket.  The black waves crush the black shore.  I wallow in the grease of self-pity, shrieking at the empty night:

“And is no end of this ordeal appointed us?”

Red-eyed canines howl and bay.

One morning I am roused by the crackling sound of distance voices.  As if they’re trapped in a cave.  I crack my crusty eye slits, pawing at the caked salt and sand.  An officer.  Sent by the Council, no doubt.  At least it is not the Prophet.

“Hey, sorry to wake you,” he says, flashing a golden shield.

More voices from the cave.  The officer holds a black box to his face and yammers.  He sounds as if he’s chewing grapes.

I dig myself out of the sand and arrange my chiton.  My dark curls feel like one enormous tangle.  Perhaps I, too, will grow hair ropes.

“No beach camping, okay?  Especially here.  This is a state park.”

My innards groan.  Much time has passed since I caught and roasted a gull.

His eyes take in the cold charcoal remnants of the fire, the splay of feathers flittering in the sea breeze.  He shakes his head, chewing a lip.

“Looks like you could use a shower, some clean clothes.  You need a place to stay, there’s a shelter up River Street.”

I struggle to my feet, gut in knots, lightheaded.

“Happy to give you a lift,” says the Council’s officer.  “Cruiser’s up in the lot.”

I stare him dead in the eye, then wander off the beach and follow the sea wall back into the polis.

 

I have been crushed by suffering, so what more is there to tell?  I contemplate all manner of self-destruction:  opening my veins with a dull seashell, bludgeoning my head with a heavy stone, drowning myself in the angry sea.  I even consider offering myself to a sea snake.  Then it would all be over, the last act abandoned, the final curtain crashing down.

Instead, I stagger to Steph’s abode.

She is absent.

This time, I wait on the landing.

Hours pass before her return.  I lose consciousness.

She nudges me.  “What’re you doing here?”

“We request your aid.”

“What happened to you?” she asks, unlocking the door.  “You look like hell.”

I say nothing.  My eyes plead.

My heroine helps me to my feet and leads me inside.  She coughs and says, “Man, could you use a shower.  And have you looked in the mirror lately?”

A plate of glass mounted to the wall reflects my image.  Wild, knotted tresses.  Feathers and detritus stuck to a greasy visage.  Sand clinging to skin and cloth.

“See what I mean?”

Steph leads me to the shower chamber, demonstrates how the mechanisms operate.

“Here are fresh towels,” she says.  “I’ll get you something to wear.”

Later, warm and dry, dressed in her strange garb, we converse over a repast of falafel, hummus, and pita.  I explain about the Oracle’s fragrant bundle.  I describe his intercessor’s expectations for green paper.  I realize I have brought danger to my heroine’s doorstep.

“We must go.”

“Wait.  Why now?  Where?”

“They will discover our whereabouts.”

“You can’t go back with nothing, right?”  Her concern sounds authentic.  “That could get ugly.”

“We care nothing for ourselves.”

“Kind of melodramatic, aren’t you?”

“They will hold you responsible when they track us here.  We could not bear to watch you suffer.”

“Just stay,” she says.  “We’ll figure something out.”

 

Steph proves a generous hostess.  She offers me shelter, provender, a bed that mystically emerges from the bowels of the divan.  In return, I have my companionship to offer.  It is an unfair exchange, even I can see the imbalance, yet Steph is not only golden and beautiful, she is also gracious.

Days pass, then weeks.

One gorgeous morning, Steph and I clothe ourselves in skintight rubber suits, and she takes me wave riding.  The water is frigid, the waves relentless.  I attempt to ignore the shrieking of sea creatures beneath the surface and listen to her instructions.  She demonstrates techniques I cannot master.  Steph seems lithe and graceful, allowing Poseidon to lift her onto the shore.  I prove extremely clumsy, as I am terrified sea snakes will coil themselves around my ankles and drag me into the black depths.  I test Steph’s patience.  Soon we are both exhausted.  She must notice my shivers.

“Water’s pretty cold, right?”

My teeth chatter.

She leads me to an outdoor shower, where we strip off the rubber and rinse away the salt.  We both drape ourselves in her denim and flannel.  I miss my chiton but say nothing.  We heave the wave-riding devices into her chariot.  As we glide toward her abode, Steph says, “Maybe you’d have an easier time in warmer waters.”

“We believe this could be so.”

“Listen, I’m leading a group to Costa Rica next month.  Want to come?  I’ll tell Leaf you’re my assistant or something.”

Do I know what Costa Rica is?  I do not.

“We would be greatly honored.”

“Perfect,” she says, teeth glistering blue in the streaming sunlight.  “You hungry?”

We stop at a dining establishment and indulge in what Steph calls “veggie burgers.”  They are thick and tasteless and not at all to my liking, but she seems to relish their nuances.  I enjoy hearing her speak, every word tinged with golden light.  Also, I enjoy sweet potato waffle fries with ketchup.  I devour them, then thumb the remaining salt and crumbs.  Steph offers me hers.

It is a perfect day.

 

My mood alters significantly upon our arrival at her domicile.  I am overwhelmed by a premonition of doom.

“Lament, as well you might,” I say.  “You’ve suffered so much—you must cry out then on your misfortune, and cry out again.”

“Sorry, what?”

I shake my head.  A tear slithers across my cheek.

When we reach the stairs, Steph says:

“Why’s the door open?  Didn’t we close it?”

I nod, terrified.

“Maybe Leaf needed something?”

We climb to the landing.

“Hello?” Steph says.

We peer through the open door.  If it was Leaf, he experienced great difficulty locating whatever he sought.  For when we step inside, we discover that all the drawers and cupboards have been divested of their contents.  Pillows litter the floor’s wooden planks.  Chairs and tables have been upended and broken.  Steph wanders from room to room, gaping.  She gathers a strange assortment of fallen articles—a broken wave-rider statuette, silky crimson undergarments, a mug decorated with rainbows and Pegasus—and emits a muted shriek each time.  She seems stunned.  I feel wary.  Then she says:

“Outside, what’d you say?”

“We were overcome with foreboding.”

“But how did you know?”

“The gods willed it so,” I say.

Steph’s cerulean eyes bore through me.  “You’re not in on this, right?”

“We are not yet certain what has transpired,” I say.

She smiles weakly.  “I’m glad.”

We gather the fallen objects.  I collect, Steph arranges.  Many pieces are broken and must be discarded.  Most of the slick images of wave riders have been torn.  A sharp weapon, such as a cutlass or dagger, has laid open several, though not all, of the divan cushions, spilling their fibrous entrails onto the floorboards.

Someone pounds on the door.

“Maybe that’s Leaf?” Steph says, swinging it open.

“Don’t tell me you’re still seeing that surfer good-for-nothing.”  An aging woman stands at the threshold, gemstones sparkling in her ears, around her neck, on most of her fingers.

“Marilyn?  What are you doing here?”

“Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

Steph steps aside, and the woman enters.  She stands in the center of the room, gazing upon the devastation.

“Ransacked-by-Vikings.  Stunning.  I love it.”

“I wasn’t expecting anyone.”  Steph’s expression hardens.  “You could’ve called.”

The woman toes some cushion stuffing and rights a chair, then puckers at Steph.  “Well, I’m here now.”  Soon her gaze alights on me.  “And who’s this, pray tell?”

“Just a friend.  She’s staying with me for a while.”

The woman approaches, studying me like an ancient tablet.  “And does your friend have a name?”

Steph and I exchange a glance.

“Chorie,” she says.

Marilyn strokes my hand, ogles my dark curls.

“Aren’t you an Irish beauty.”

“Speak, then, and tell her all,” I say.  “It comforts those in pain to know beforehand all the pain they still must bear.”

“What on earth is she saying?”

“She’s a thespian, Marilyn.”

The woman drops my hand.  Her skin grows ashen, and she looks as if she may vomit.  “Oh, please, Steph.  Don’t even joke about it.”

“No, I’m serious.  Everyone knows about her.”

The woman drops into a chair, stricken.  “Didn’t you ‘experiment’ enough in college?  And on my dime.  Don’t tell me I’m still paying.”

I glance at Steph, but she ignores me.  It would seem she enjoys such histrionics.  She steps over, crouches beside the woman, pats her hand.  “It could be nature over nurture, Marilyn,” says Steph, and the woman’s gaze looks hopeful.  “But I doubt it.”

Do I fathom their meaning?  I emphatically do not.

“Have you still more to tell of her distress and pain?” I declaim.

“See what I mean?” says Steph.

“But you’re so beautiful,” the woman says.  “I don’t understand.”

Steph appears ebullient, reveling in the melodrama.

I would depart but my sandals are filled with immovable stones.  Somewhere across the water, sea snakes snicker.

“Take it easy, Marilyn.  She’s an actress.”

The woman sits up.  Her face paint has smeared.

“She’s an actress, Marilyn.”

The woman’s face brightens, but it doesn’t last.

“You did that on purpose.”

Steph chuckles.  “How could I not?  You take everything too seriously.”

“And you’re not serious enough, young lady.”

“I’m twenty-eight, Marilyn.  Remember?”

“Which is exactly why you need to be thinking about your future.  You can’t do—well, whatever you’re doing—for the rest of your life.”

Steph takes a deep breath.  “Is that why you dropped by?  To offer career advice?”

I, too, speculate about her purpose here.  She creates much animus and ill will.

“Can’t a mother visit her daughter?”

The room fills with murky silence.  I cannot plumb its depths.  The gods gaze upon our dumbshow with mirth and derision.  At last, Steph says:

“Los Gatos isn’t exactly next door, right?  And 17’s treacherous.  So what brings you over the hill?”

“If you must know, I have news.  I hoped we could discuss it civilly, perhaps over a quiet dinner at Gabriella’s.  My treat.”

“Sorry,” says Steph, “I have plans tonight.”

“With the dyke?”  The woman sneers at me.  “Maybe there is something going on between you two.”

“That’s enough, Marilyn.”

“Why is she still here?”  The woman withdraws a wad of green paper from her reticule.  “Make yourself useful, Chorie,” she says.  “Looks like we’ll be dining in.”

I ball the bills in my fist.

“You don’t have to go,” says Steph.

“Life is a theater.  We each have lines to say, a part to play.”

“What does that mean?”

“There is no release from destiny, from what must be.”

 

I wander down the seashore, mind vacant.  The woman Marilyn has sapped my will like a leach drains blood.  Clouds of black flies drift in the sea breeze, then settle on sun-drenched driftwood, absorbing the day’s dying light.  The afternoon feels weary.  The beach has emptied of all but the most pious, who drape themselves in thick garments against the cold and prepare to burn herbs in honor of the sun god.

“Are you holding?” they ask.  “Are you holding?”

I watch the sun vanish, grimacing against the chill.  My mouth feels dry, cottony.  I long for a sup of grappa.

Then, looming up out of the night:  the pier.

I flee, keeping to the glow of lanterns.  I move from one group of citizens to the next, paying little heed to our direction or destination.  Although he has not made himself known, I am certain the Prophet follows somewhere in the shadows.

In the market district, I pause to listen to a blind street-poet sing of bygone years.  I am transported by the melody, the jangly rhythm of the lyre, the song’s wretched emotion.  And then, there he is, one hand on my shoulder, a dagger at my side.

“Say, chica.  Been looking for you.  We gotta talk.”

He tries to force me into an alley, but I squirm and wriggle, escaping to a sludge house.  Roasting beans and burnt hopes foul the air.  Citizens sit at tables drinking from enormous mugs, their babble swelling over a machine’s angry whir.  I find a seat and watch the door.

The Prophet slinks in, then sits at my table without waiting for an invitation.  We listen to an upbeat tune leaking from the ceiling.  “You take the chronic and disappear?” he says.  “Man, that ain’t right.”

“The destiny of the gods has brought this on you—no deceit of ours.”

“Bullshit.”  Beneath the table, he lays his dagger along my thigh.  “Now you give me the bag of bud or the cash, or they’re gonna be mopping you up all night.”

I open my fist and drop the woman’s green paper on the table.

“Don’t nickel and dime me, pendeja.”  He counts with one hand, an awkward operation.  Soon a grin erupts.  His golden teeth shimmer in the muted glare.  “¡Puta madre!  What you got all this jack for, homegirl?”

“Don’t accuse a friend because you have a vague idea she might be guilty.”

“So—what?  You was looking for me?”

By now, I know to nod.

“Then why you was running?”

I say nothing.

“Shit,” he says and gazes around the room.

Citizens stare.  Perhaps at his scarred physiognomy.  The Prophet ducks back into his hood.  I feel the cold blade glide across my leg before he hides it in a pouch.

“You’re short, so let’s consider this a down payment.  Bring me the rest by the end of tomorrow, or the Oracle ain’t gonna be happy.”

“The rest?”

“Five-hundred, mana.”  He squints, then mimes slitting his throat with a grimy forefinger.  “¿Me entiendes?

 

I worry my predicament for a time, then listen to a philosopher rhapsodize.  It is not his words I attend to, but his cadence and intonation, his peroration’s rhythmic lilt.

Hours pass.  I wander back to Steph’s domicile.

The woman she calls Marilyn has departed.  Her mood is somber.  When she asks me where I’ve been, I hold my tongue.

“Well, you missed a real meltdown.”  Steph laughs, but mirthlessly.  “Marilyn hates Leaf, so she’s always trying to set me up with this or that friend’s strapping son.  This time she was pushing the twenty-three year-old heir to a Pasadena oil fortune.  Can you believe that?  Drives a Porsche, has a yacht in Marina del Rey and a house on Catalina.  I’m sure he wears tailored suits, probably plays fucking polo.”  She grimaces to herself and catches her breath.  “That woman knows nothing about me, zero.  So what if Leaf and I have problems?  Doesn’t everyone?  Anyway, it’s none of her goddamn business.”

The air grows oily with spleen.

“So Marilyn’s blood sugar started dropping after a while.  Turns her into a goddamn monster.  I told her she couldn’t really expect you to bring back tacos, the way she treated you.  Then she got nasty, called you all sorts of names.”  Steph shakes her head at the memory.  “That’s when I threw her out.”

We listen to the waves pummeling the sand.  The night thickens.  Steph rolls a worship stick, and we devoutly burn it.

“So where’d you go anyway?  Do you still have Marilyn’s money?  Maybe we could order a pizza?”

I linger over the fragrant herbs.  I hope she will not persist.

“So?” she says.

“We would prefer not to expound.”

Her silence is expectant.  Then she says:

“Right, the Mary Jane, huh?  Guess you ran into your connect.”  Steph finishes the worship stick.  “And you gave him Marilyn’s money, right?”

“We were not offered an alternative.”

“Was it enough?”

“We owe the Oracle five-hundred.”

“Dollars?”

“By tomorrow’s nightfall.”

“Holy shit.”

“Or we shall meet our demise.”

She wraps her arm around my shoulders.  “Don’t stress it, Chorie.  That’s not gonna happen.”

“We have brought peril and ignominy upon your house,” I say.  “We should be banished to the farthest shores.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”  She withdraws a black box hidden in among her coverings and holds it to her ear.  “I’ve got it covered.”

 

Before we finish burning another worship stick, the rope-haired man arrives.

“Jezus, babe,” he says.  “Where’s the fire?”

Steph leads him into the bedchamber, and I curl up on the divan.  An ill wind hammers the windows.  Palm fronds sway in silhouette like the tentacles of some odious sea creature.

The man tromps into the dull yellow light, eying me with skepticism.  Then he ties back his knotted rope-hair and asks:

“Alright, what’d the fucker say?”

I struggle to remember.  My mind is a haze of fragrant herbs.  I offer all the details I can dredge up.

When I finish, he chuckles and says, “Well, it’s all Greek to me.”

“Leaf?” says Steph.

“Come on, babe.  Lighten up.  I’ll see what I can do.”

The rope-haired man presses his own black box to his ear.  Steph follows him as he wanders from chamber to chamber, until he chases her away.  Then she slips out to the balcony.  Through a curtain of blue smoke, I watch as she burns a worship stick.

Soon I lose consciousness.  In my dream, I’m strangled by sea snakes.

Then the rope-haired man’s voice:  “She obviously doesn’t give a shit, babe.  Why should you?”

“People react to stress in different ways, Leaf.  Plus, we smoked a lot.  Probably just made her drowsy.”

I listen without opening my eyes, until I can no longer bear it.

“What’s with you and this chick?”

“She’s my friend, Leaf.”

“I’m starting to think she might be more than that.”

Steph seems dazed.  She pads across the floorboards to the eating chamber and sits at the table.  The man trails after her.  I have to crane my neck to see them.

“What is it, babe?”

“Nothing.”  Steph ties back her hair with a leather thong.  “It’s just that, well, I think you may be right.”

“You’re into her?  Stinky-cheese goatskins and all?”

“Fuck off, Leaf.  She’s like my—what?  Like a sister from another mister.”

“Well, in that case,” he says.  “Right on, babe.  Killer.”

Do I follow?  I do not.

Though perhaps I glean the essence.

“So what’d you find out?” she asks.  “Can you help her?”

“My friend Tom sometimes hangs with Batcan—”

“Who?”

“Don’t ask.  And Batcan’s solid with Julián, who’s the Prophet’s cuz.  Fucker’s real name is Pedro, by the way.  Not that it matters.  Anyway, yeah, it’s doable.”

“So what’s our play?”

“It’s all about cash, babe.”

“Five-hundred.”

“Think again.  This Pedro dude reps for the Oracle.  Dude’s a heavy, calls the whole Monterey Bay his turf, Surf City to Pacific Grove.  Expanding into the Valley now, or so I’ve heard.”

“And?  So?”

“So they’re gonna hold the bitch for ransom, is what.”

“Her name is Chorie.”

“If it’s less than five grand, Chorie’s getting off easy.”

They sit in silence.  I hold my breath.  Then warbling swells into the void.  The rope-haired man presses the black box to his ear, listens, mutters, waits.  Steph watches.  I watch Steph watching.  She espies me, offers a weak smile.  I attempt to reciprocate, though my face feels numb.  I’m dizzy and overwrought.  My skin is clammy.  Before I can stop myself, I cry:

“We are worried your friendship may leave us!”

“Fuck is she talking about?”

“Take it easy, Chorie,” says Steph.

I sit up.  My head reels.  I think I may retch.

“Get up, chick,” says the man.  “Time to do business.”

“How much, Leaf?  Should I call Marilyn?”

“That’s not what you want.  We just got you out of hock, remember?”

The man drags me to the door.

“How much do they want?”

He stops and turns, without loosening his grip.  “Fortune’s smiling, babe.  Just a grand.  We got off easy.”

 

The man’s two-wheeled chariot screams like a wounded sea creature.  I grip his abdomen.  His rope-hair whips my face.

I try not to think of Medusa.

We stop at Santa Cruz Surf, and he bids me wait with the chariot.  Constellations wheel above me in the clear blackness.  The man returns with a haversack filled with green paper.  I straddle the chariot, but he says:

“Uh-uh, leave the bike.”  He foists the bag upon me.  “That belongs to you now.”

“A gift from the gods.”

He leads me into the darkness.

“We shall make a sacrifice.”

He stops abruptly, spinning to face me.  I fear he may strike me.

“What’s with this ‘we’ shit?” he yells.  “There’s no ‘we,’ far as I can tell.  Just a freeloading bum in way over her head.”

“Wise words indeed.  Pay heed to them, or court catastrophe.”

“That doesn’t make any fucking sense,” he says, glaring at me as if I am vermin.  “Why’d you have to drag Steph into your mess?”

I say nothing.  The rope-haired man turns down the hill.  I trudge after him, falling behind.

When we arrive within sight of the pier, he stops again and leans on a wooden bench.

“So here’s the deal.”  He forces a grin, monstrous in the flickering lantern light.  “I pay your debt, you disappear.  For good.”

I try to protest, but I choke on my own silence.

“Nope, no haggling.  That’s it, take it or leave it.”

My skin grows molten beneath Steph’s garments.  My stomach roils with sea snakes.  Boiling tears spill across my face.

“Get this straight, bitch.  You pay your dude and vanish.  I don’t want to see you.  I don’t want to hear rumors about you.  I don’t ever want to think about you again.  We’ve got a good life, right?  And you’re not gonna fuck that up for us.”

“We were taught to hate those who desert their friends.  There is no infamy we more despise.”

“So fucking hate us,” he yells.  “We’re not your friends anyway.”  The rope-haired man studies me for a long moment.  “Well, there’s the pier.  Your buddy’s probably waiting.”

Then he swaggers off into the night.

 

I steal into the shadows beneath the pier.  I ready myself for the hot steel of the Prophet’s dagger, but he is nowhere to be found.  I sit in the sand, deafened by the echoes of the crashing surf.  Gulls shriek somewhere in the blackness.

When, at last, the Prophet arrives, he seems in no way perturbed by my presence.  He grins, golden teeth glistering.

“Long time, no see, chica.”

I hand him the knapsack of green paper.  He unzips the bag, shines a burning torch inside, counts the stacks.

“You lucked out, homegirl,” he says, fingering his scars.

I say nothing, backing away into the night.

 

I wake up in the sand.  The sun is high, pouring through the gaps in the unsettling rock formations.  I clutch the neck of an empty grappa bottle.  A half-empty bottle of wine lolls at my feet.  My mouth feels furry; my body smells sour.  Hercules, though unseen, crushes my skull with the force of the ages.

The sand scorches my feet as I wander toward the sea.  Were I to stay here, the Council would send an officer for me.  I would be mocked and derided, scorned and disparaged.  Such treatment I can no longer bear.  I drop into the sand, reflecting on the lives of Deianeira, Phaedra, and Antigone, their self-destruction, and I realize my own final exit draws near.  Shall I refuse sustenance until my body collapses?  Jump in front of a speeding chariot?  Douse myself in grappa and light a fire stick in a final, flaming sacrifice to the gods?

Such thoughts, along with the rest of the wine, overwhelm me.

When I come to, half-immersed by the rising tide, the sun has just slipped into the sea.  The breeze moans through the rock formations.  I slip off Steph’s denim and flannel, rinse my tresses in the frigid water, scrub my skin with handfuls of clean sand.  I watch the constellations twinkle and swirl until rosy-fingered dawn arrives.

The sea breeze and morning sun dry my garments.  I dress and tame my snaking curls.  Then I follow the sea wall back into the polis.

Outside Steph’s abode, I crouch among the cypress.  The day is cool and, although the wind cuts through my coverings, I shiver but feel nothing.

Days pass, then weeks.

I keep vigil over Steph.  The rope-haired man comes and goes, and he and Steph quarrel.  She does not depart on any new expeditions.  In truth, she rarely leaves her domicile, spending long stretches alone, empty gaze cast over the empty sea.

Only when my body grows weak do I forage refuse barrels for victuals.

Although I long to make my presence known, I say nothing, speak to no one.  I have lost all my lines.  Gulls shriek in the empty night; sea snakes scream across the black waters.  But I suffer in silence, the pain hot and raw and dagger-sharp.

Such are the demands of this, my final role.


J. T. Townley has been published in Collier’s, Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Istanbul Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other places. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he teaches at the University of Virginia. He’s also a Pushcart nominee and a Fulbright Scholar.

Issue No. 10, Autumn 2014

The Songs of Knives
Jessica Drake-Thomas

When I was about twelve, and Amelia was six, my family went on a trip to New York City to see the tree at Rockefeller Square. There was a woman, wearing a worn out coat, hair cropped in a crooked bob with greasy bangs, she was dirty. We were engulfed in the stink of roasting chestnuts because it was near Christmas. She yelled unintelligible words at Amelia. She turned to my mother. “What is she saying?” My mother grabbed her hand.

“It doesn’t matter. She is mentally ill.” But the woman was pointing at Amelia, her yelling rising to a crescendo. It sounded like a black magic spell. The woman frightened me. But now I understand. The woman saw Amelia, a blonde-haired blue eyed cherub in a thick, clean pink coat and envied her.

 

 

I am twenty-three and in college. I feel like something crawling out from underneath a rock: something moldy, mossy, wrapped in decaying seaweed. It is morning, hated morning. The sun is shining through my blinds, like it has for the past four hours that I have remained under my pile of comforters. My head aches from lying in for too long. Is it too late for coffee? I don’t care enough to make any.

I can smell the remains of bacon that they made for breakfast. It has seeped in beneath my closed door and is stuck on me—the glutinous residue of the smell in my hair, and my clothes, and the blankets. Nothing is safe from their gross morning rituals. I am a vegetarian. I only eat things that leave nothing behind. I want to be something that needs nothing, eventually.

I spent most of last night almost drifting off to sleep, and then ejecting myself out of bed, just to write more notes on my post-its for my book. They are arranged in a wreath around my face on my bathroom mirror. They read things like:

Pale skin, ossification, bloodless, floating in embalming jars beneath the Blood Orchid.

 He opens his mouth. Moths fly out.

Gone, her black glass eyes stare out into eternity. The Occido Lumen.

Instead, we tend the Bone-Garden. The Dead are not hidden.

Holidays are sinking ships. There are no warm Christmases. We sit in silence and tension that needs a carving knife.

 

I stopped taking my pills. The Lithium was making me puke water and Pepto Bismol. Nothing would stay down, and my esophagus was on fire. The others, I figured that if I stopped taking them, I might turn into a normal person again. Normal people don’t take medications that make one’s hands shake, or sleep for twelve hours straight, or make them gain forty pounds in under a year.  Normal people can work nine to five jobs. Normal people can lose weight. Normal people know what happiness is. Manic euphoria is not happiness. I always feel like the people I know think I’m a joke or an adventure when I get that way. And they all go away when The Sadness comes. No one stays for that.

Last night, about 4 am, I was wearing a black silk dress that Grammy had bought for me at a consignment store. I had been kneeling in the shower, hands raised above my head, like I was praying, or about to stab someone—myself. I was watching the hot water swirl down the drain. I was reciting my mantra, feverishly: “onetwothreefouronetwothreefouronetwothreefour.” My dress was saturated with sweat and water. I kept kneeling, repeating my numbers as fast as I could, hoping to be soothed by the hot water. When I got out, able to move again, I watched myself in the mirror, face almost plastered to the surface, like Alice poised to fall into the looking-glass. A couple of my Post-its fell off from the moisture in the air, their ink leaching outward from the drops of water from my skin. My skin was pale, luminous, and bright, and it left a smudge in the steam on the glass. I felt hot, sweating because the AC was off. I could feel that I was me inside of my body, so clearly, so clearly. I was seeing myself with a new type of clarity that I had never before achieved. Then something shifted. My eyes were dilated— something there was wrong, different—feral. And I thought of the knives in the kitchen drawer—so shiny, so sharp. And they sang a song to me, alluring like one of Chopin’s Etudes. I began to feel nauseated. I thought I saw a shadow out of the corner of my eye appear in the corner of the shower behind me. I jumped and looked. There was nothing there. I felt like I was being watched. I ran into my room, and I threw myself onto my bed, and listened to my blood, pounding in my ears, I was sticking to my sheets. There was a little man, dressed like a Christmas elf watching me from the door. He was made out of mist, the edges of his body swirling in circles. He was waving to me. I shut my eyes. He went away, but I could hear him sighing in my ears.

 

 

It is a hot Texas morning. My younger sister, Amelia, is still asleep. Mama is sitting on the back porch with the dogs, drinking a glass of ice water. She has been up since five, when the dogs wake her up. Emma is a terrier, with tiny bladder syndrome. She can barely make it through the night without having to pee. Marcy is a two-year old lab, and wants to do whatever Em wants.

“It’s about time! Good Afternoon,” She says as I step out.

“It is eleven,” I say.

“Mr. Man is coming to visit tomorrow.” She means my father. I keep telling her that this is creepy, because it is what Kathy Bates’ character calls James Caan’s character in Misery. My father lives outside of New Orleans in a crap town called Destrehan that is named after a plantation that I once visited in grade school. It had walls made out of cotton fibers and mud. Somehow, that made it cool inside. I don’t know how it didn’t melt. It is both rainy and humid in Louisiana. Anyhow, my dad isn’t allowed in the house here. It upsets my sister to the point where she is ill for days afterward. He is an angry person. And deluded. He thinks that everything is fine. All I can say is that I remember getting slapped in the face one too many times for illegitimate reasons. My parents get lunch together once a month. She gives him his mail, listens to his bullshit and sends him on his way.

“Where will you go to eat?” I ask.

“Five Guys, maybe.”

“I would like Five Guys in my mouth.”

Helen.”

“Heehee. Oops.” I say all of this in a flat voice. I want to distract her. However, this does not work. She’s like a pendulum.

“He really has no idea how much damage he has done. Really. Amelia gets sick to her stomach whenever he comes. Intermittent Explosive Disorder, I say. He would storm off, slamming doors, and then come creeping down, and laughing like everything was better. And he won’t even go for help. He doesn’t see how he has lost everything. The family. Our marriage. I am never living with him again. Two months in, and I was repairing doors and holes in the walls. And what he did to you—”

Mama. Stop. Daddy basically lied to her about going to see a genetic counselor or specialist or whatever. Now I have a genetic disorder. We go over this all of the time—how he is the reason I had my first episode and lost my religious beliefs and refuse to do math without a calculator (I actually can’t do math without a calculator).

I remember a morning, years ago, when I was still in high school. I could hear him yelling at Mama, downstairs. I was in bed, beneath my gray comforter, shaking. I had locked my door the night before, because he had been angry with me for my math test grades. What are you going to do? Work at Burger King? He slammed his way up the stairs like (I’d like to say a mad man, but he was) a mad man. “Get the FUCK up. We are going to church.” About an hour later, he chucked the car keys out of the car window onto the front lawn and then stormed back into the house. Amelia cried. Mama went looking for the keys. I took out the novel that I was reading.

Now, he is a pathetic thing. He goes to church pretty much every day, and feeds the homeless, and washes the feet of the Poor. The last time I saw him, he had forgotten to clip his nails in a long time, his clothes were covered in food stains, and he wore this saint medal necklace that the Catholics wear. The chain was corroding on the collar of his shirt. He showed it to me. One of the medals was held on by a rusty safety-pin. The whole time that we had lunch together, at an outdoor café in New Orleans, he spoke barely above a whisper, talking about how he had been saved.

Mama breaks into my thoughts. “So, when you were at the beginning of Freshman year at college, and you said that your roommate came home puking every night, did that really happen, or were you hallucinating? I have been wondering.” I sit for a moment. I remember the sounds of vomiting. I remember the smell. I remember pounding on the R.A.’s door, crying. I remember the R.A. shining a flashlight at Stacey in her bed, and declaring that she did not see any vomit. I remember sitting on a couch in the common area and crying so hard I got a headache behind my eyes. Now, I think. Did that really happen?  Two weeks ago, I was walking through the street downtown in New Orleans. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small white dog walking beside me. When I looked, there was nothing there. People may be afraid of us, the clinically insane, the mentally ill, but it is way more frightening to not be able to trust your own brain. I am not safe inside of myself.

 

At lunch, Amelia comes downstairs. She has just woken up, since she stays up until five in the morning doing homework for her AP classes. She is conventionally pretty, and she doesn’t wear make-up. But I guess she doesn’t have to. Despite the late hour of her bedtime, she has no dark circles under her eyes.

“There is nothing good to eat,” She moans in her tiny nasally voice that she utilizes when she is cranky.

“I just bought you some French bread and turkey this morning. And there are grapes,” Mama replies, false-happily, sycophantically—take your choice.

“No-ho. I don’t want that.” Amelia whines. She shakes herself a little as she says this. The child-tantrum is coming on.

“I can go to the store—or Brooklyn Café,” Mama prompts. Amelia is in love with the boy who works behind the counter at the Brooklyn Café.

“Noooooooo,”Amelia sits down on the kitchen floor. “I’ll just eat nothing.”

“Are you sure? I don’t mind,” Mama says, reaching for her keys. Amelia stands up and slaps them out of her hand. I throw down my sandwich, sickened.

“Don’t treat Mom that way, you bitch!”

“Fuck off you fat fuck!” She flies upstairs, punctuating her sentence with a scream and a door slamming. Mama sighs and shakes her head. I start to cry. The Lithium, for the first couple of months made me gain weight. I used to be one hundred and nineteen pounds. Now I’m one hundred and sixty, and I don’t fit in many of my clothes. I run from the kitchen. I need to find a shirt that fits.

I can’t find it. My green tank top. I need it. I go through all of the laundry that my mother is doing for my sister, folding as I go, even the dirty stuff. I take my own laundry, devoid of my shirt; into my room.  I sit down and cross my legs and start folding. A hard hard stone is in my throat. As I cry, harder and harder, that stone breaks into pieces of sharp edges. I am hyperventilating. Mom is helping Amelia to find something to eat, and there is no one to help me. I lean forward over my laundry, heaving, mouth wide. My white towels become stained with my running mascara.

“Helen? Helen!” It’s Mama. “What’s the matter?”

“My emerald green t-shirt. Someone took it.”

“I will go look. Relax.” She leaves, and I throw all of my laundry into the basket. There is an ornament, a tassel with a porcelain doll’s head hanging over the door handle. I snatch it up, tearing the string that holds the head to the tassel. I unweave the strings of the tassel, shredding them feverishly, like fiddling with a rosary. The pieces create a pile around me. I throw the head with its delicate red lips and flat black painted porcelain page boy at the corner. I don’t care if it’s broken or not.

I stand, and start tearing my watercolor paintings and charcoal drawings off of my bulletin board, now slowly and methodically shredding the Arches paper. It feels like vellum and it tears like moss. I stare at my dirty hands. On my dresser, there are framed pictures of my family. I can’t let them see me like this. Grammy and Grandpa. They are dead. They shouldn’t see me doing these things. I place all of the frames facedown. Even the ones with pictures of living people. Even the ones with pictures of me. I am just disappointing. I remember one night, during high school, I sat on my bed, sobbing loudly and chafing my legs that I hadn’t shaved in weeks, I can’t remember why (for either of them). Mama said something about praying to God. I said “I don’t believe in God. Why would he make me feel this way?” She looked straight at me, “Then I don’t think that you are the child that we raised.” This was before I was diagnosed. She didn’t know. But it was true. I am not the child that they thought they raised. There may be something to the changeling theories.

Mama comes back in. “I found it. It was my fault…” She is surveying the damage. “What did you do?”

“I feel better now, thank you.” I take the shirt and squeeze out of my old size small t-shirt and put the green one on, making charcoal fingerprints all over it. I feel better, relieved within the midst of my destruction. I have no intention of cleaning it up. It feels beautiful.

 

I am sitting in my reading chair, reading The Fellowship of the Ring. The blue book covers are falling off of it, and most of the pages taped or glued back in. I am feeling weird. Really sad, just sad. I might start crying soon. No reason, really. I feel old, tired, and skeletal. I have a head-ache behind my eyes that won’t go away. So I am consulting my comfort-book. I am in the middle of the Bridge of Khazad-dûm while wearing my replica Elven Leaf Brooch from the movies when Mama comes in.

“You upset Amelia earlier,” Mama says, “You have to understand—”

It is as though a door has been kicked open: I sit up and scream, shutting my eyes, and scrabbling at my face with my nails. It burns. Mama grabs my hands. Strips of skin are stuck in my finger-nails. I am beyond words. “I was trying to protect you, Mama.” She looks at me, eyes wide.

Helen. Calm down.” But I can’t. My throat is dry and sore. My face is on fire, like I am sunburned, and I am sobbing without sound. My book is on the floor, a pile of leaves. “Come eat dinner. Take a breather. Then come out and eat.”

When Mama leaves, shutting the door, I slide down to the floor and begin to beat my head against the hard wood of the floor. I don’t know what else to do. I hate myself. I want to hurt. I want to knock out the headache behind my eyes. I start hitting my head upon a nearby footstool. Heaving, sobbing, I scream. At the beginning of the scream, a flap of mucus membrane in my throat shifts, and the scream changes into something awful. I run out of breath, start again. When I stop, my voice comes out in a rasp:

“Send me to the hospital send me to the hospital send me to the hospital.” I throw a closed can of cherry lime-aid soda at the door. It dents both can and metal door handle. I cry, until I am tired. I rest my head on the floor, I am in child’s pose.

I am remembering another time. It was the summer after Grandpa died. The same year I moved away for college and Mama left Daddy and took Amelia to live in New Jersey at Grammy and Grandpa’s house. It had been a long day, and I refused to come downstairs for dinner. I was upset. All day, Amelia had been rude to me. Name-calling. Leaving me to pick up an unfinished one-thousand piece puzzle on my own, after harassing me to stop reading and play with her. That door had been kicked open. I had to fight it. I had to fight back, because the person kicking that door open might be my tormentor. I ran downstairs, screaming, just screaming with no words. Grammy, Mama, and Amelia were sitting at the dinner table. I threw chairs, and I broke a model boat that was on a shelf. Mama grabbed me, and held me down, forcing my head against the floor. I struggled, crying.

I creep into the kitchen. Mama and Amelia are at the table, I am in full sight, but they aren’t looking at me, as though I am an explosive deer. I pretend to open the cabinet to the glasses, but instead open the drawer for the knives. I slip out a knife with one hand, and a glass with the other. I fill the glass with water, and return to my room, walking gingerly.

It isn’t sharp enough. I run it over the skin on the inside of my arm. If it is going to do anything, I will have to gouge my skin. I sit disappointed, thinking of the false songs of the knives last night. This is when Mama comes in to check on me.

“What are you doing?” she snatches up the knife, holding it to her chest. “Why would you do this?”
“It would feel good.” I curl up on the floor, shaking. “I don’t want to die.”

She leaves and then comes back with the phone book and the cordless house phone. She sits down in my reading chair. She is talking to the doctor.

“Here. Speak to her.”

“Hello.” I whisper.

“Hi Helen. When did you stop taking the Lithium?”

“It was making me throw up Pepto-Bismol and water.”

“I am going to call a prescription in to Walgreens for the liquid version of it, ok? It should be easier to digest. What flavor do you want it in? Strawberry? And I will add some more of your Seroquel. Do I need to have you sent to the hospital?”

“No, and I hate strawberry.”

“Make a big-girl decision, here, Helen.”

Big-girl decision? Big-girl decision? I am an Adult, Doctor Crowley. I might not be feeling well. But I am still a Human Being.” I hang up and slide the phone vehemently across the carpet toward my mother. “Why can’t anyone help me? I am still a Human Being.” I slam my head against the floor in frustration.

“I know. What is happening?”

“Prescription will be at the Walgreens.” My mother gets the alerts for when my medications are ready on her cell-phone. I realize that the dogs have not come into my room all day. I miss them even though they are somewhere in the house. I start to cry into the white carpet (that I have stained with charcoal), silently, just tears. I feel lonely. I have no voice left to call them.

While I was still at school last month, I got tired. I stopped doing my work to stay in bed and watch TV. The Lithium started to make me throw up. I was in pieces that I could not pick up. One day, I realized that I wanted to leave. I had enough money in my savings account to fly from New Orleans to the New Jersey shore. Enough to rent a house for a couple of months, by myself. Every summer, Grammy and Grandpa would rent a house in Lavallette that would fit the entire family—us, and Mama’s sister and her children. We would spend all day on the beach, and get ice cream every night at Salty’s. The Shore. That is where I planned on going, with its pure white dunes and green ripcord salt grass. I wanted to feel the sand, scouring the skin beneath my toes. I would lie down on the blue and red plaid picnic blanket that my grandparents kept in the trunk of their car. I would pretend that they were still there with me. I would remember Grandpa, refusing to wear sunscreen, and wearing his blue plaid button-up shirt open, his lobster-red man boob tan. I’d think of Grammy, standing at the edge of the water, arms crossed and talking to either Mama or my aunt. She would wear a floral swimming suit that accented the wasp-shape of her body that older women develop. She would be looking out for sea glass. But that was my talent. Whenever everyone would come back to the group, they would hold seashells, and I would show up with handfuls of sea glass, misty colors of blue, white, green, and brown. I felt proud to hand everyone pieces. It was the only luck that I’ve had in my life. I made the mistake of telling my roommate that I would be gone for a little, and she called my mother, who came and picked me up. I suppose I am on a “Medical Leave.”

It is a drive-thru pickup window for the Walgreens pharmacy. My Mama parks, then rolls down the window and picks up the receiver.

“The Insurance company won’t cover the pills since prescriptions for both of them have already been filled this month.” The woman at the window says. She has a fat face and wears her hair in a bun on the top of her head like Mrs. Pillsbury Doughboy.

I need these pills so that I can stop feeling this way I need them and I need them NOW. I grab the receiver, and say:

“You are going to send me to the hospital.”

“I can’t give them to you,” she says, “The Insurance company won’t cover them.”

I need them now, I realize. My life depends upon this. My hands freeze over the receiver, and I scream into it, something more wordless and animal and painful that I have ever heard comes out of somewhere all inside of me. I am remembering the woman on the streets in New York. I could be her. I can see the woman at the window. She is holding her hands to her face. Then the words come back, just as Mama pulls the receiver from my frozen hands:

“I AM STILL A HUMAN BEING I AM STILL A HUMAN BEING I AM STILL A HUMAN BEING I AM STILL A HUMAN BEING.”

I curl up in fetal position against my seat. I have no more left. I start sobbing because that is the only thing left to do.

“I’m sorry.” Mama says, and then pulls away quickly, the wheels of the car screeching.

If they send me to the hospital, they will take away my underwire bras. When I took clothes and books to my friend Julia when she was hospitalized, they ripped the underwires out of her bras right in front of her. She cried. There is something cruel about destroying undergarments in front of people. Dehumanizing. They will take away the tie to my bathrobe. They will take away my shoe-laces. They will take away my books and shake them to pieces, looking for razorblades. They will take away my phone. They will take away my note-book. They will take away my pens. They will not let Mama in for 72 hours. I will be alone, alone and locked away where everyone wants to leave me.

We go home without the medication. The Pillsbury bitch at the Walgreens would not give us the medication because it would jeopardize her job. My life, my self is at stake. Every part of my body aches from exhaustion as I get out of the car. I walk straight to my room, ignoring Amelia who is watching Glee. I have a hidden bottle of Pinot Noir and a shit ton of Xanax. If I can’t fix the pain, at least I can dull it.

Everything is hazy. I want to fuck somebody but I’m stuck in a pseudo-suburban development ten miles from the nearest bar, called The Ice House. Within those ten miles, in the dark, lives the Texan wildlife—huge ass snakes, wild boars, cougars, and armadillos. You don’t fuck with an armadillo. They might be blind, but they are vicious, have claws, and carry leprosy.  Mama took my license and credit card away days ago when I started acting erratic.

The Xanax is on the top floor of the dollhouse that Grandpa made. I start to cry a little. He made the house out of wood, with real windows with plastic panes and a door with hinges and a working knob. He even added shingles to the roof. Then he painted the outside pink—my favorite color. I swallow five Xanaxes and then wash them down with some wine. Maybe porn will help this time. I don’t know how far I get. I black out.

I wake up in my mother’s bed. She is holding me. I don’t remember getting here. I am wrapped up in the picnic blanket from Grammy and Grandpa’s car. I have known that she loves me. I had forgotten how much.


Jessica Drake-Thomas is a graduate of Tulane University and Emerson College’s MFA in creative writing program. She currently lives out of a suitcase.

Issue No. 10, Autumn 2014

Song
Sarah Sadie

Where knots of water lilies dangle
and watergrass and willow mingle

burble of carp an ancient laughter
up from the muck of the noontime shadows

this the riddle stuck in my throat
to worry the tangle of bed and heart

what do you think the woman finds
who dares the deep where moonlight bends?

what do you think that woman discovers
who sets down her shields where the water shivers?

as wild and green as Grendel’s sister
the shadows at noon, the dark still water


Sarah Sadie blogs the intersections of theology and poetry at Sermons from the Mound, on the pagan channel at patheos.com. An editor (www.versewisconsin.org) as well as writer, her poems appear in places such as Midwestern Gothic, Literary Bohemian and Literary Mama, to name a few. Her poetry has received the Wisconsin Fellowship Of Poets’ Chapbook Prize, the Council for Wisconsin Writers’ Lorine Niedecker and Posner Prizes, and a Pushcart Prize. Her first full-length collection, Somewhere Piano, was published in 2012 by Mayapple Press, and she has two chapbooks: Quiver (2009, Red Dragonfly Press) and Given These Magics, (2010, Finishing Line Press). She is currently one of two Poets Laureate (2012-2016) of Madison, where she lives with her husband and two children. Her life consists mostly of kids, gods and poems, not necessarily in that order.

Issue No. 10, Autumn 2014

"The Archer #2" -- Carey Blankenship
The Archer #2
Carey Blankenship

Samantha Barron is a writer.

Micki Blenkush works as a social worker and lives in St. Cloud, MN with her husband and daughter. Her writing has appeared in Nota Bene; An Anthology of Central Minnesota Writers, in Limehawk, and in Crossings’ Poet-Artists Collaboration XIII, and Poetography VI. One of her poems was selected for St. Cloud’s 2013 Poetry in the Sidewalks contest, and is now immortalized in cement.

Carey Blankenship is currently attending college in the south of the United States, where she writes and practices photography in her spare time. This summer, she plans to send out her current novel, Flint, to agents everywhere.

Ellen Chai is currently a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis. She has been passionate about photography ever since she obtained her Canon EOS Rebel T3i and typically prefers black-and-white photography. She enjoys capturing close-ups of nature and abstract, expressive images that contribute seamlessly to aesthetic or introspective themes.

Sandy Coomer’s poems have been published most recently in Fields Magazine, Number One and POEM. Her poetry chapbook, Continuum, was published by Finishing Line Press is 2012. Her second collection of poems, The Presence of Absence, winner of the 2014 Janice Keck Literary Award for Poetry, is forthcoming later this year. She lives in Brentwood, TN.

Jessica Drake-Thomas is a graduate of Tulane University and Emerson College’s MFA in creative writing program. She currently lives out of a suitcase.

Tyler L. Erlendson is the writer and director of the documentary film STRAIGHT WHITE MALE, which was an official selection of Artivist Film Festival in Hollywood, Ca. (2011) He is currently a poet in Pacific University’s MFA program. He lives on a small farm with his wife in Sonoma County, Ca.

Martie Ingebretsen has taken many classes in creative writing, poetry and fiction throughout her life. Her novella, Sweet William, was published in 2013. She has also written a number of short stories and over two thousand poems. She is proud of the ones that have been published. She is a keen observer and finds imagery in all things, and in so doing learns from the beauty and wisdom that surrounds her. Martie lives in Sacramento.

Molly Lazer is a MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Rosemont College. A former editor at Marvel Comics, she now teaches high school, acts, and directs plays outside of Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette, Gingerbread House, and at flashfiction.net.

Sandi Leibowitz is a native New Yorker who writes speculative fiction and poetry. Her works have been published in magazines such as Strange Horizons, Mythic Delirium, Goblin Fruit, Apex and Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year volume 5.

Lucy M. Logsdon’s work has appeared in a variety of places. A sampling: Nimrod, Poet Lore, The Southern Poetry Review, Conclave, Sixfold, Seventeen. She has received various awards, including a Poetry Society of America emerging writer award, and a Macdowell Artist colony fellowship. She received her MFA from Columbia University in NYC.

Ken Poyner has lately been seen in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Café Irreal, Cream City Review, The Journal of Microliterature, and many other wonderful places. His latest book of short fiction, Constant Animals, is available from his web site, www.kpoyner.com, and from Amazon.com. He is married to Karen Poyner, one of the world’s premier power lifters, and holder of more than a dozen current world power lifting records. He is also the animal parent of four rescue cats and two self-satisfied fish.

Cindy Rinne creates art and writes in San Bernardino, CA. She is an author with Michael Thomas Cooper of Speaking Through Sediment (forthcoming). Cindy is a reader for Tin Cannon by PoetrIE and a Poetry Editor for The Sand Canyon Review, Crafton Hills College, CA. She is a translator. Cindy is a founding member of PoetrIE. Her work appeared or is forthcoming in The MOON Magazine, Dual Coast Magazine, Artemis Journal, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Pirene’s Fountain, The Poetry Bus (Ireland), The Wayfarer, Extinguished, Extinct Anthology by Twelve Winters Press, The Lake (England), and others. www.fiberverse.com

Sarah Sadie blogs the intersections of theology and poetry at Sermons from the Mound, on the pagan channel at patheos.com. An editor (www.versewisconsin.org) as well as writer, her poems appear in places such as Midwestern Gothic, Literary Bohemian and Literary Mama, to name a few. Her poetry has received the Wisconsin Fellowship Of Poets’ Chapbook Prize, the Council for Wisconsin Writers’ Lorine Niedecker and Posner Prizes, and a Pushcart Prize. Her first full-length collection, Somewhere Piano, was published in 2012 by Mayapple Press, and she has two chapbooks: Quiver (2009, Red Dragonfly Press) and Given These Magics, (2010, Finishing Line Press). She is currently one of two Poets Laureate (2012-2016) of Madison, where she lives with her husband and two children. Her life consists mostly of kids, gods and poems, not necessarily in that order.

After retiring from the Department of English at West Virginia University where she taught 20th Century Irish and British literature, Susan Shaw Sailer completed an MFA in the low-residency Program in Poetry at New England College in 2007. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Persimmon Tree, THEMA, and Paterson Literary Review. Her chapbook, Coal, was published in 2012 by Finishing Line Press. Her book, Ship of Light, was published by Port Yonder Press in 2013. Her reviews and articles about poetry have appeared in Indiana Review, Prairie Schooner and Alehouse Review. Sailer lives in Morgantown, West Virginia.

The opening chapter of Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s novel, Bad Apple, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her fiction has appeared in countless publications, including several anthologies such as Great Old Ones Publishing’s Canopic Jars: Tales of Mummies and Mummification and Western Legend Press’ Unnatural Tales of the Jackalope. She has received three Norman Mailer Writers Colony Residencies, serves as a judge for New York City Midnight’s story competitions, and is an editor for Read Short Fiction. She lives with her husband in the haunted woods of Connecticut and sleeps with the lights on. You can find out more at www.kristipetersenschoonover.com.

J. T. Townley has been published in Collier’s, Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Istanbul Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other places. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he teaches at the University of Virginia. He’s also a Pushcart nominee and a Fulbright Scholar.

Kelly Weber’s poetry has appeared in The Neihardt Journal and Caper, and her poetry and fiction has appeared in The Judas Goat, for which she was selected as the 2012-2013 Aletha Acers Steel Burgess Poetry Prize Scholarship recipient. She has served as an editorial intern on The Platte Valley Review, and will teach Composition this fall at Wayne State College.

Steven Westbrook is a poet, photographer and former Creative Writing tutor who is currently an undergrad at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. Work of his can be found in Torrid Literature Journal, Squalorly Literature, Instigatorzine, and The Cadaverine, among others, as well as a photography showcase at MOCA Jacksonville. Tony Trigilio recently awarded a poem of his second place in Columbia College Chicago’s Young Authors Competition. You can stalk him at http://john-lemons69.tumblr.com/

"Submerged" -- Ellen Chai
Submerged #2
Ellen Chai