Issue No. 11, Winter 2014

Sayap
Kira Dreyer Messell

“Do come, my darling, oh come with me!
Good care my daughters will take of thee.”
Goethe: “Erlkönig”

Wherever you look, the jungle will deceive you. A venomous snake is camouflaged by moving leaves. A tiger materializes out of nowhere. Half withered leaves drop from tall trees, exhaling a last sigh before they cover the ground. They stir the stillness like flapping birds in flight.

Under all its green serenity, the jungle oozes with mystery. It can swallow and decompose you. In the midst of solitude, the jungle is awake with spirits. They wait behind every corner to confuse and lure you. There’s the Hantu Gala, thin as a pole hovering above the trees with his long legs apart. He’ll squeeze you between his thighs once you pass under what you thought was a natural bamboo gate. And the Panandom spirit waiting to drown you in the deepest part of the river as you quench your thirst. The Hantu Punjut takes children lost in the woods. They will never come back, which will teach them not to stray, though they’ll never get a chance to use their new insight.

Belian knows them all and claims to control them. As a bomoh he too considers himself a species of the woods and master of all things living in his wild garden. Every plant has a purpose and every animal its specific role to play. Even the spirits are part of the great chain of being. If you introduce crops from the outside villages, they will either be smothered by the indigenous plants or merge with them to create more diversity in our diet. Belian believes that every species has the potential to absorb foreign matter and change. It is all part of evolution, he says. Whatever succumbs in the jungle will quickly be replaced by something new. Take Sambar, for example, Belian’s faithful servant and adopted son. Abandoned in the jungle as an infant, probably by a single mother, he has now replaced Belian’s dead son. And what about me? Didn’t I literally fall out of the sky just to prove his evolutionary theory and help him foster his project?

Right now Belian is preparing his dramatic performance while he waits for obedient Sambar to bring home tonight’s prey. Belian will make our guest see what he wants her to see. Smoke blurs the facts. Darkness envelops his stage. The moon shines through swaying trees for illumination. It will be captivating.

I blend in with the jungle and watch Sambar play his flute. He doesn’t know I’m following him. The small clearing has been picked well and makes his music resonate amongst the trees, which obscures where it comes from. And there she is. Catch of the night and my new apprentice. The youngest till now and hardly more than eleven years old. He has lured her from a village wedding. Satin shoes and a pink tulle dress shine against Sambar’s earthen colours. Silly girl. She looks around, already lost. Sambar circles around her and plays tunes of longing. The music imitates the sounds of the jungle; a bird’s call; the growl of a tiger. Sounds that mirror the mysteries of her surroundings. Sambar’s notes float in the wind and glide down his narrow shoulders, long hair and lean body. Rhythms travel across the ground and crawl along the spine of the jungle and up through her satin feet. His gaze follows. Sambar has stared at the muddy river and the gnarled tree trunks until his eyes reflected their colour and depth. It’s too easy to drown in them, and most girls are blind to their own foolishness. Did she not listen to the women’s tales? Don’t go into the woods alone; never follow a stranger; girls who stray from the path will lose themselves. To her left the river, to her right the hills. The sound of water echoes against the cliffs. From my branch I sense both her reluctance and a childish curiosity. The smoke emerging from Belian’s settlement deceives her into believing her village is near.

Lianas wreathed with poison ivy weave a portal to our hidden home. Sambar leads the new girl through the night. Belian has heard the flute and is ready for tonight’s visitor. The girl will be attracted by the beat of Belian’s tambourine, matching the rhythm of her own heartbeat. It will give her a sense of reccognition. Once they reach our settlement, she’ll be met by Belian’s small body stomping around the central bonfire chasing his own shadow. Gutteral sounds, coarse chants and high-pitched singing follow his staccato dance. Belian has earthen jars of ground turmeric and hematite. For dramatic effect, he paints his face with yellow stripes. His curly hair is flattened by a tiger’s head, its pelt falling down his back like a king’s robe. With his broad flat nose he looks like the tiger’s dark fragmented twin. A loincloth made from softened tree bark hangs around his hips. Around his neck a leather band with animal teeth looks like an extra broad mouth. The better to eat you. Smoke from the central fire covers the area in an invisible ominous cloud. It circles around the singing birds and lends them angelic forms. The pebbles peeping out from the ground sparkle against the fire like precious stones. Belian is a master of deceit. When the sun rises and smoke lifts off the ground, the glittering stones turn out to be nothing but morning dew on hard sand, the musical birds are simply caged, and if you listen carefully, you realize their songs are desperate cries.

Belian has baskets full of colourful jungle birds. I weave the baskets from wild pandanus while it’s Sambar’s job to call the birds out of the sky. They land on Sambar’s shoulders, tilt their heads and tune in to his melody. Out of nowhere comes Belian and caresses them with a large hand. Snap, and faster than a blink, the other hand wrings their necks. Only the prettiest are placed in my baskets. Lately, he has taught me how to weave larger bamboo cages for the girls. Belian has cages full of village girls. Always adolescent girls, he says, because they’re still soft and can be molded. Just wait and see, Belian says, they will change to mirror their surroundings. To look like you.

“Once you’ve outgrown your wings I will let you out,” he tells them, “just like Sayap.” He doesn’t tell them that I was never caged. I was sixteen when I first came here. I don’t know how old I am now.

When I first met Belian he was leaning over me while I gained consciousness. He grinned, revealing pointed teeth filed triangular. I tried to move away from his too dark face too near my own. I had heard stories in the village about cannibalistic Negrito tribes and saw myself roasting over a slow fire. Belian only took me to his settlement, wrapped my broken wing in soothing herbs and bandaged it with palm leaves. Then he pointed towards the sky. A V-shaped formation of birds flew over our heads. He grinned again, blood red betel juice colouring his teeth, and thrust both arms in the air. As if pulled by a magnet, one of the birds descended towards us. A big black swan landed at his feet, rolled onto its back and instantly died. He took out his parang and freed it of its wings with a single cut. For you, he said, and attached the black wings to my back with strings of strong bamboo. “Just till your own ones have healed and grown large enough to carry you.” And they did. Out of my sore back the initial small grey feathers kept growing under Belian’s watchful eye, until they were an imitation of the borrowed swan’s feathers.

Belian once told me how he remembered me well and had been waiting for me. I was his proof of mutability, he said, and he had seen me in a vision too, riding on the back of Garuda. Ever since the night I was born, Belian had been expecting me. The night of my birth, my father had summoned him to come. Quickly. My mother’s bleeding wouldn’t stop. Only the bomoh from the jungle could save her now with his chants and herbs. Belian usually gave labouring women bitter potions to ease their pain. He also cleansed their bodies with lime juice to keep the evil spirits away. This time, he was too late. All he could do was ensure mother didn’t turn into a pontianak, the much feared black bird with a female white face, raven black hair and beady eyes. Pontianaks were known to lurk around houses eager to possess the bodies of dying mothers. Belian danced around my mother’s body and chanted. Raw eggs placed under her arms prevented her from lifting them and flying away, since a mother’s instinct always is to protect a fetus from harm. Needles were put into her palms to prevent her from opening and clenching her fists to aid her flight. Glass beads were poured into her mouth to prevent her from shrieking the hideous, mocking laugh of a bird-woman. As protection for the newborn child he placed a white feather close to my heart, before I was wrapped tightly in a clean sarong. Later on, when the women unwrapped me, the feather was gone. ”Clever,” Belian said and nodded approvingly.

She could have saved herself, he told me, by catching and eating the soul bird from the jungle. Pregnant women shouldn’t defy the spirits and take rituals lightly. If only she had come earlier.

Throughout my childhood, every night, when I closed my eyes, my mother came to me. She rubbed my itchy back with ointments and sang me to sleep or told stories; about the Princess who spent so much time in solitude she turned into a fairy; or the woman who spent every second year as a swan, forcing her lover to change form too. She told me about women surprised by angels at their windowsill, giving birth to half humans later on. She warned me about the Kertau, a killer goblin with a deer’s head.

I’ve been brooding on my mother’s stories ever since I first met Belian. I wonder whether I’ve left any stories behind in the village. I also wonder which tales this girl has heard.

The flowers in her hair are withered, as are the petals in her small basket. A flowergirl at a wedding. Sambar occasionally plays at village festivities. That’s where he meets them. Then they’ve walked through the jungle for a while. Her tulle dress is already ripped and dirty.

I glide from tree to tree and follow them to our settlement. Sambar’s flute cries tunes of hopeful longing. He senses my presence and occasionally casts upward glances. The girl trots after him and even seems to hum along. She has lost a shoe now. She won’t need that kind of frills out here anyway. Soon she will feel uncomfortable in her satin and polyester and prefer a plain sarong like the rest of us. I wonder what she is expecting from her moonlight walk. Shouldn’t she be looking over her shoulders by now and wondering how she’ll find her way back?

Belian starts his ritual, as soon as they enter through the portal, showing off for our new guest. With a piece of branch he combines claws from birds with earth from an ancient grave, tiger excrement, a feather from a raven, a strand of my hair, black pepper and a drop of his own blood in an earthen jar. He announces every ingredient to gain magical control over it. The girl stares and seems awed. Good. I might as well approach her and make friends. I usually take care of them in the beginning and make them feel comfortable. It’s important for them to have a role model, Belian says. Unlike the other girls, this one isn’t shocked when I unfold my black wings in front of her to make an impression. “Can I touch?” she says and without waiting for an answer walks behind me to fondle my feather coat. At first it confuses me, then I’m charmed by her curiosity and relax my feathers while I gently divert her to our tree trunk set up for Belian’s dramatic performance.

Belian dances around the fire, sometimes wrestling with his tiger robe, sometimes caressing it. I watch her reaction, but she seems more interested in the shadows moving in the cages. ”What are they?” she asks me. How can I explain. Usually they find out for themselves. ”Did you ever think about why we have shoulder blades?” I answer. She frowns, pauses and then nods. ”And you thought they were nothing more than that. Just shoulder blades.” She nods again. ”Well, they’re not,” I say, ”they’re leftovers from our former shape.” Her jaw drops. Belian hits his tambourine loud and insistently to get our attention. Then he invokes the spirits of both Shiva and Allah with all his archangels. We watch him in silence while she keeps peeping towards the girls in their baskets. ”So they’re angels?” I can’t resist, ”They’re the off-spring from archangel Mikhaael’s tears. His hair has a million faces and a million mouths. Every time one of the faces weep a child is born. Belian is just helping them to realize who they are.” She stops her questions. I relax again and redirect her attention towards Belian’s performance.

After the welcome spectacle, I take her to one of the huts. Split bamboo bound together by rattan twines and thatched with attap shield us from uninvited guests. I’ll sleep next to her on the woven mat and guard her tonight. In the beginning they’re usually scared and whine. Outside Sambar lulls the girls to sleep with lazy lullabies from his flute. I’ve covered their cages with colourful sarongs. The moon shines through the pattern of the fabric and creates a shadow theatre. It comforts them and silences their twitter. The girls sigh and smile dreamily when Sambar plays and stirs their secret dreams with his flute. That’s how they end up here in the first place, tempted by the sounds of yearning and romance. I know how they feel, although it wasn’t Sambar who lured me here.

The itching of my back and the roughness of the trees initially drove me into the jungle. The smooth surfaces in the house couldn’t relieve my swelling red back. Hard lumps formed under the skin creating an unbearable pressure, as if knives were cutting their way out of me. I hid under loose shirts and developed a hunched posture like so many tall and skinny teenage girls. I hid in the jungle and scratched against tree bark until my skin cracked open and left wounds refusing to heal. Stiff grey baby feathers forced their way out. Nothing remotely similar to the fluffy, insubstantial softness usually associated with feathers, but prickly affairs causing snaring clothing and hiding. Still, I felt an immense relief. After the internal suffering finally burst out, I was eager to try my frail wings.

Following the jungle river upstream, the river banks gradually become steeper. I experimented with running down the slopes, sliding in earthy sand only to take off for a few seconds and glide, feet lifted off the ground, my body carried downwards by miniature wings. I ventured further into the jungle, to free body and feathers from the constraint of bulky clothes, knowing the women from the Batek tribe wouldn’t notice another half naked being.

I never realized Belian was lurking in the treetops. If he doesn’t want to be seen he’s impossible to detect. He takes on the colours of the jungle and prefers to distance himself from animals creeping on the ground. From above, he watched my doomed attempts to overcome heavy gravity and lift to featherlight flight. Is it really possible? He might have thought, watching my clumsy attempts and still uncontrollable wings. After my crash, it was his lack of shock and his expert healing of my wing that made me trust him.

Maybe I could have returned to the village, I never tried. I was always certain my father wouldn’t let me return to Belian’s settlement. My only regret so far is that my mother never visits me at night here.

Now Belian sleeps on the ground. He prefers the open to our little huts. The girl in the hut sleeps in her ragged finery with both hands behind her head. No sobs, no whining. Sambar and I sit outside the hut and watch each other’s reflection in the moon. We don’t talk much. He only communicates through his flute. I turn my head and try to read his emotions in his eyes. He looks away and starts playing for a moaning girl again. The pain under my wings returns thousandfold to torment me. If I was a bird, he would allow me to perch on his arm and caress my feather coat. If I was trapped in a bamboo cage, he could sit next to it and play his tunes just for me. I look at my arms and hands. Skin. Hair. Nails. Belian thinks Sambar and I are different species and should allow ourselves to grow without any contact between us. I think we both just have some extra assets.

The other night I secretly followed him, just to listen to his flute. Like the girls, I can’t resist. One note and goosebumps appear under my feathers; one trill and a sigh unwantedly escapes from me; two clear notes from that bewitching instrument and my legs turn to jelly while my wings flap in his direction. I glided among the trees until he stopped to watch a herd of deer grazing in the moonlight. The stags dug their antlers in urine soaked soil and rubbed them against trees. They went on their hind legs, locked antlers and swayed and pushed like men arm-wrestling. Two does boxed as if they wanted to scratch each other’s faces. A young doe turned her head and seemed to greet him. He approached her with one of his lullabies and put his forehead against her small mossy antlers. Belian must have known all along. Any day now, I’ve heard him say, nodding towards Sambar’s lumpy forehead.

The next morning the girl has left the hut before I wake. I’m alarmed and stumble out. Belian is busy carving new images onto his totem pole. The girl chats away next to him. She interrogates him about the animals on the pole. He’s a fine woodcarver. He laughs and tells her about the thunderbird at the top. When it flaps its wings, he says, thunder rolls over the hills. The black swan is just underneath, seen from the back with its wings spread out. ”Just like Sayap,” he says and winks at me. The tiger sits on the base, carrying all the other animals. ”That’s me,” he says, ”making sure you don’t fall,” then he laughs again, “because you’re all my daughters now. We’re one big family.” I notice the new carvings taking form. Half women, half birds. “They’re taking on the characteristics,” he says approvingly in my direction, “they’re allowing their true nature to emerge.” He gestures towards the cages. He’s convinced his care and my presence brings about their transformation. As I’m the only role model around, they will try to imitate me and thus alter themselves.

When the girls first come here, he tells them they’re the chosen ones. The archangel will endow you with wings, he says, just like Sayap. And once you have filled a jar with your tears, he says, you will be ready to fly away. Their shoulder blades usually start swelling shortly after. Belian surveys how they develop inside the cages. He tells them they must learn to fly before they can leave the nest and his loving care, otherwise their wings will fall off leaving them nothing but a hollow back. He tries to motivate the girls and set them goals: “When you can fly up to the sky and cut out the liver from a black swan, you will be free.” Then his mouth splits open like a wound to reveal his red teeth.

The girls are trapped in Belian’s illusion. They refuse to see the jungle for what it is: a moist and earthy place full of stinging mosquitoes. I’m never bitten anymore, unlike the girls in their cages who scratch themselves till they bleed. Maybe the mosquitoes have decided I’m one of them; a fellow winged being or a giant insect.

All the cages are full now. It won’t be long before Belian asks me to start the next one. The new girl is still full of wonder and doesn’t seem frightened. He’ll leave her outside a bit longer. To get accustomed to us. Something in the way she looks at us makes me uncomfortable and acutely aware of details in the settlement I usually don’t mind, like the dirt on the girls’ bodies and the smallness of their cages. “Don’t they want to get out?” she asks Belian and nods towards the cages. I flinch. Nobody asks him such blunt questions. “One day,” Belian smiles his red smile, “when their wings are outgrown, they will fly up to the sky and bring me back a thousand mosquito hearts. Then they can go. If they want to.” She shudders, I frown. I notice his turmeric stripes need reapplying and that his lips are cracked.

As night falls, Sambar takes his flute to go on his nocturnal hunt. I acknowledge the pain in my chest and stay with the girl. ”What is he?” she says as she watches Sambar prepare to leave. I stare at her. I’ve grown so used to his fluffy, downy lumps. He keeps touching them and I’ve seen him lean his head against a tree to scratch his forehead. I can’t think of anything to say. She points towards his other instrument, dangling from his belt, ”What is that?” I tell her it’s his blow-pipe. For hunting. To get us food. I leave out how he lures the animals to gather around him with his tunes and how he only then secures our dinner. No animal ever escapes Sambar. Belian has engraved the casing to ascertain the accuracy of his aim, while the darts, dipped in poisonous sap from the Ipoh tree, ensure no suffering. ”So he kills?” she says. I wonder whether this worries her. Only animals from the trees, I tell her, since animals crawling on the ground are considered dirty. Monkeys, squirrels and birds are Sambar’s prey and our dinner. ”Birds?” she says, ”you eat birds?” I hesitate considering her innocence. ”Belian needs their souls,” I choose to answer, ”for the girls. To help them develop.” I don’t tell her how he drinks soma juice to go into a trance and communicate with the bird souls. I also leave out how he takes out one of his fake daughters for a nightly dance of ritualistic soul extraction. How he plucks off the feathers from the dead bird and pierces them into her flesh. How he feeds her bitter leaves to make her throw up her soul. Then he summons the bird soul to take residence in the now empty girl. It’s all part of the process, he says, to help them achieve their true shape.

The girl moves closer to me and watches Belian, who’s amused by her curiosity and unaware of how deeply her questions disturb me. He puts on his tiger cape and stomps and turns around the fire accompanied by his tambourine and his singing. Just for her. ”What is the Belian?” She asks. I tell her Belian is a Bomoh who communicates with the tiger spirit. That’s why he has ilmu – knowledge – about everything in the jungle. “So is this a Kampung Harimau?”

I tell her she shouldn’t believe everything she hears. I too heard the story from the women gossiping. About tigers walking about in the form of man and only getting down on all fours outside their secret Tiger Village. They are said to have the appetite of the tiger and the cunning of man. It’s just a story, I tell her, and wonder about Belian’s real identity. ”Why the tiger spirit then?” we’re keeping our voices down. I don’t think Belian would approve of her knowing too much. He trusts me. Everything he tells me is confidential. But I can tell her bits. Just to satisfy her curiosity.

So I tell her about how Belian’s tribe used to live here, in this very settlement, but had to flee. They were haunted. A tiger kept attacking the men, punishing them for their greed. Bateks should only kill the absolute minimum for nourishment. They must obey the natural laws of the jungle; only eat once a day; never cut a tree unless it’s needed for shelter. If taboos are violated, supernatural punishment will follow. There were more attacks. They ate less and less. Mainly tapioca and jungle roots. Belian performed ritual songs and sent out his soul to communicate with the tiger spirit. Then another killing. This time his only son. ”The Belian had a son?” she says and looks towards the cages. I want to tell her they’re only his fake daughters, rocking and singing themselves to sleep.

Belian has finished his dance and lies down to drink his soma. Sambar is preparing his darts for tonight’s hunt. Nobody hears our hushed voices. The tiger spirit visited Belian at night, I continue, it challenged him. Mocked him for his weakness. The other tribe members were eager to move away. After such a grim death, bad spirits hovered over the settlement and made it impure. If the bad spirits were distracted, they wouldn’t follow the tribe to a new settlement. Rituals were performed. Chants and offerings. Belian’s wife cut into her thigh, deep, to spread a protective circle of blood around the settlement. Her wound became infected and she lost too much blood.

Belian was furious. You can’t run away, he said, the tiger will follow. He had visions, he told them, of the tiger spirit descending upon them from the trees accompanied by avenging angels. He had nightmares too, about his soul shrinking and being swallowed by the tiger spirit. So he prayed and fasted, went into trances and recited chants until finally a revelation came to him. He had to go out and challenge the tiger. He had to avenge his son by merging his own Bomoh spirit with that of the tiger’s. One the most powerful among men, the other among beasts. An invincible union.

“And did he? Avenge his son?” the girl asks. He claims to have killed it with his bare hands, I say and hope to impress her. “They are very big,” she says, “his hands. And the cape?” I hesitate. Should I continue? So young and too curious for her own good. But then her curiosity is what brought her here in the first place. “Yes, he stripped it off its pelt and dismembered it.” That doesn’t stop her. “Did he eat it?” She whispers and I’m reminded of my own fears when I first met Belian. “No,” I say and pause, ”Not the lot. Only the heart. And the penis. Tigers have huge penises.” As expected her eyes grow wide. I enjoy the moment. “He cut it up in slices, roasted it and devoured every bit of it.” She closes her mouth and swallows. In the villages, the men only get a thin slice of macaque penis after the hunt. It makes them giddy and silly. They imitate the virility of the monkey in order for it to merge with them. Nobody eats tigers. It’s an animal of the ground. Dirty, dangerous. Belian doesn’t care. He considers himself King of all animals and master of the ferocious tiger spirit. It’s now a benevolent spirit, he says, gentle and void of aggression after its castration.

“What’s the difference between animals and humans?” She’s persistent. I pretend to be busy preening my wings, to win time to consider this. “Animals are hairier and humans can laugh,” I tell her. I think it’s a quote from my mother. She smiles her sly smile, while the macaques mock me with their silly giggles. “So what are you?” I want to tell her that we’re birds of a feather really, her and I, and that I once asked Belian exactly that question. Instead I choose to keep silent. I never willed my wings. They simply burst out of me. He told me that young people have flimsy souls with a capacity for transformation. It’s all a question of expectation, he said, and what goes in will have to come out. I look at the girl who watches Belian snore by the dying fire. She turns her head back to me, her eyes inquisitive. She’s still expecting an explanation about my nature. I shift around and avoid eye contact. I draw butterflies and circles and large eyes in the soil. I draw stick men and birds. From afar Sambar’s flute tries to soothe me. It’s no use. “Do you want to end up like them?” I say and nod towards the sarong clad cages. Some of the girls are weeping silently in their sleep. It always makes them restless when they can hear Sambar too far away. The girl shakes her head. “Let me tell you a story from the jungle,” I say and sound like my mother. I tell her how life force is in a person’s shadow and how shadows grow long around dusk. There’s a spirit in the guise of a leech that kills predatory animals by sucking their shadows. Only, I add, the spirit of the predatory animal has to be off guard or lured away first.

Belian snores like a tiger catching flies with his mouth open. A drop of saliva is trickling from the corner of his mouth. He once told me that all the fluids of the body must be protected from our enemies. They’re part of our soul in liquid form. When the girls have their monthly bleeding, he uses some of it for his rituals. “See,” I say, “a small spirit is looking out of his mouth. When he sleeps, his spirit sometimes goes hunting for other souls. If you paint his face, the spirit can’t recognize him when it returns. It will have to go back to the spirit world.” She looks at his jars of turmeric and hematite. Next to the jars his parang is casually thrown on the ground. “Will they be free then,” she says and turns toward the cages. I nod hesitantly and wonder what they will be outside their cages. And I? What will I be? I can’t go back to the village anymore, but I could stay here. Maybe with the girl and Sambar. We could tear down the poison ivy, destroy the cages and burn the totem pole. We could make our own family. “Are you coming?” the girl says as she gets up and walks towards the snoring Bomoh. An unusual grey mist seeps out of the ground.

If you see smoke and hear longing tunes, don’t fret. You’ll know I’m nearby and will steer you clear of malevolent jungle creatures. But beware of beckoning girls. They may be the fake daughters of the Belian. You should run, as fast as you can. It’s only when you succumb to their loving embrace that you realize their backs are hollow. And then it’s too late.


Kira Dreyer Messell is a Danish writer currently living in Berlin, Germany. She has been teaching languages, literature and history in both Berlin and Kuala Lumpur. Until 2013 she spent 5 years in Malaysia, where she wrote on a collection of speculative short stories. Kira holds an MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Copenhagen and the University of Edinburgh.

Issue No. 11, Winter 2014

A Ma
Kira Dreyer Messell

“Alone, alone, all, all alone
Alone on a wide wide sea.
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.”
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by S.T. Coleridge

You look lost, did you want to watch the show? I’m afraid you just missed it. What a shame. We’re playing again tonight, but I suppose you don’t care to wait. Most people just drop by to see the temple. Oh, you came for the wedding procession? Ah, yes that is a fine spectacle too. It will take a while before it arrives though. You don’t mind waiting? Have a seat then. You’re lucky. We’ve put up plastic chairs for the play. Usually the square is empty, but during the festival, with all the free food and, of course, our opera, devotees flock to the temple to celebrate Tin Hau. No no, it’s not for the wedding, but it is an auspicious time to marry. A double blessing from Tin Hau. Who that is? You’re really not from here. Everybody knows Tin Hau. If only you had seen our play.

What you see is the setting for the first scene. A painted junk on a painted ocean moves left and right until it topples over and throws out its sailors in a terrible storm. That’s just the opening of course and quite a spectacle too, with all the lightning, glitter paper and red spotlights. I’m sure you would enjoy it. Do stay and watch it tonight. You’re not here then? Never mind, if you’re interested I don’t mind telling you the rest of the story. I’ve never talked to someone who doesn’t know my story. Though I’ll tell you the real story, and not the modified version for the stage. Today would be a good day to tell somebody. My spirits are a bit low. I’m waiting for the wedding too you see. Come, do take a seat. Don’t just stand there. Lots of chairs to choose from, just don’t sit in the first row. It’s reserved for the Gods alone. I could sit there, but I don’t. I’d rather be on stage with the actors. I play my own father, you see, when they depict my life. A minor part really.

Oh, my former life looks so simple and glamorous when put on stage. I see you’re smiling. Surely I’m confusing you. It is a complex matter, recounting my life. Luckily, we have lots of time. The wedding procession hasn’t even started its journey yet. The women from the groom’s family are fetching the bride in her home right now. She is delaying the festivities. You know how it is. Wedding nerves. They have to redo her hair. The headdress keeps tilting when she looks down, which she does all the time. A timid thing. She doesn’t know how lucky she is. To experience the rest of her life with a husband at her side. And her family. They’re making a fuss, decorating oars with branches and ribbons. They will be singing, always singing, while their human boat sails through the streets on their way here to meet her betrothed.

I remember earlier, when they were still boat-dwellers, how they hated going ashore. When the ground stopped moving softly under their feet, their faces turned green and many a young Hoklo has thrown up on the floor of this very temple from land sickness. Nowadays they all live on land, either on Hong Kong Island or here in Kowloon, which doesn’t keep them from still sailing everywhere. Today they’re forming two human boats with the groom’s female relatives, ten in each and a sculler at the back. One boat ferries the groom to the temple, while the other fetches the bride from her home. They’ll row their way through the city to have their marriage blessed here in the temple. Like in a play, the Hoklos pretend to be what they’re not. Just like me pretending to be my own father.

Ah, I confuse you. Where to start. Part of my existence began a thousand years ago. I was born into a poor family. My father was a fisherman. My Mother prayed to the merciful Guanyin for another son. In a dream Guanyin appeared and gave her an edible flower. The next day she conceived despite being past menopause. When she gave birth to me the room filled with a brilliant light and the smell of fragrant flowers. Sky and sea played in harmony, the air filled with sweet music. Or so they say. In my mother’s tales of childbirth, her closed eyes tried to shut out darkness and pain. She said the room filled with an odour of sweat and bodily fluids. The only sounds were deep moaning and raw screams from a woman in labour. I, on the other hand, didn’t utter a sound for the first three months of my life, so they called me Lin Mo – the silent girl.

Let me remove my costume and make-up. Let me change back from my father to his daughter. The heavy white make-up makes me sweat. Come, we’ll go behind the stage. This is where we sleep and eat and dress. Like one big family. We used to have a thatched roof, which allowed the breeze to come in and the smells to get out. Now with the tin roof, I often find it too hot and stuffy. But they claim anything else would be a fire hazard, and we do take great precautions to avoid catastrophes and sickness. Just a few days ago our little Mo fell sick. High fever and rashes made her mother worry and the troupe jumpy. We had to perform a cleansing ritual. Fasting and washing our bodies while the stage was purified with incense.

There, it’s always a relief to get out of the costume. I get too warm under the heavy fabric and I always have to wear a set of cotton clothes underneath. To sweat in. To absorb bodily odours. The costumes can’t be washed or dry cleaned. Gold and embroidery, you know. Watch your head. We hang the stiff robes under the roof for airing, right above this make-up table. And here’s the altar where we offer to the gods and have objects blessed. The dummy belongs to our little Mo. The only child living with us. Whenever we can, we snap the dummy out of her mouth and put it on the altar. To be blessed, along with dried fish, candles, fruits and cigarettes. She’s named after me, though nobody here knows my real name. I wish I knew what she sees when she looks at me. Because from drunken dragons and young children you hear the truth. She’s a sensitive child our Mo, who doesn’t like it when her mother paints too red lips against a too white face and fills out eyes and cheeks with pink and black. She cries when her mother hides her hair under long pieces of cloth and headdresses and, like a curtain, hides her face behind hanging rows of beads. She is too young to understand the abstraction of pretence and disguise. I offer her the dummy, bless it, and she sucks it hard for comfort. She sighs and takes my hand. ”Mo,” she says and falls silent as if she recognises me.

Little Mo reminds me of my own childhood. I remember a game I used to play. At night in my sleeping corner I close my eyes and wait. I concentrate. If I’m disturbed it doesn’t work. I leave my bed and watch myself, forehead furrowed with concentration. I float under the ceiling of our little hut. I whizz around. There are my parents, mouths open, snoring barely audible, there my almost adult brothers, moving chests, jittering arms and legs. My oldest brother smiles in his sleep. Is he thinking of that girl we met while untangling nets the other day? I always help him with the nets. He says I have the fastest hands on the entire island and that I’m his favourite little girl. To think that he will probably marry and leave our home soon.

I love the nights when everybody is in the house and I glide around and watch them in their sleep. Most nights though my father and brothers are out fishing. They throw their nets and check the traps mother and I have made of pliable bamboo. These are the nights I sleep lightly. Always waiting to hear them return as dawn breaks.

One late evening a terrible storm rages. Mother and I can’t sleep. Mother wrings her hands and paces our small hut pretending not to be worried. I sit by the loom, weaving a tapestry peopled with mermaids and men. Mother disturbs my concentration. I wish she would sit still and let me look for them. I want to leave my tight body. Quick. Quick. Where are they? My hands busy themselves at the loom. Waves growl and chew on the rocking boat. The fishing nets are torn. A mouth of a wave throws up water and fills the boat. My brothers cling on. The greedy waves watch as flesh slides over the rail and into the dark abyss of the ocean. I dive through froth to search for my father and brothers whose lungs are drinking up the sea.

I slump over my loom.

Two soaking brothers throw up water after I drag and pull them to the shore. They pant for air like fish wriggling before they turn still. Then I leave my unconscious father with them and return to the capsized boat to find my last and oldest brother. Where is he? I dive, searching above and beneath the waves. The boat is disappearing under the surface. I cry his name.

“Hush, hush,” my mother’s voice says as her arms shake me gently.

There he is. I clench his shirt between my teeth and use my arms to swim to the now far distant shore.

“You fell asleep. You had a nightmare. It’s that horrible storm,” Mother says and unwittingly drowns her oldest son. “We must make offerings and appease the Sea God.” I stare at her. I stare at my dry hands on the loom. Then I run to the shore to help my brothers and father.

How did you know, Lin Mo? Father asked, still wet and shivering. How could I tell him I would have saved them all, had mother not roused me from my sleep. Why did you come to the bay? You must have known, he insisted. Then he saw it. My tapestry on the loom. An exact depiction of the events at sea. A boat tipping, bodies floating, waves crashing. Mermaids looking on in horror. Everything captured in a shifting still life. Except for one body at the bottom of the tapestry. Still and crouching. I’m not in the scene. Of course not. I’m the invisible hands that save and the invisible hands that weave.

“See,” Father said and showed everybody my tapestry. “She is a saint. My daughter. Our merciful Guinyin has bestowed her with special powers. The Goddess must have given our Lin Mo second sight and taken up residence in her body.” My parents took me, the silent girl, to the temple where I was declared a Goddess.

I was thirteen years old and simple fishermen suddenly bowed and raised clasped hands to their foreheads in submission to me. “Heaven’s Mother send us grace,” they said before they set out to sea. I felt embarrassed and obliged to spend my nights watching over them. During the day, exhausted and walking as if in a haze, I cleaned and salted the fish they brought me in exchange for my protection. Cutting, salting, drying. At night I closed my eyes and followed the men at sea. They explained my bowed head, pale complexion, and occasional catnaps as spiritual sublimity. My mother took me to the local monk, who saw me for who I was and agreed to teach me everything he knew. As a Goddess, he grimaced in an almost smile, you have to be knowledgable about scriptures and plants.

I was renamed A Ma and proclaimed Goddess of the Sea. They immortalised me at a small ceremony before a statue of Guinyin. I had just had my first period and tried to grasp that now, I didn’t only have the rest of my life in front of me, but eternity laid out like a glittering robe, full of endless assignments.

Do you understand the pure horror of it? You think I was flattered? No, I felt like a fraud. Had I not abandoned my favourite brother to the waves? I tell you what they never show on stage or recount in their tales: How I dived for days after my dead brother’s body. Without luck. He was washed ashore after a week. Bloated and pale, looking like neither fish nor man. I have tried over the centuries to save many sailors and fishermen, to make up for him, to save him at last, but there are always some that evade me.

So you see, I’m quite famous around here, even though you’ve never heard of me. Even some of the Portuguese had my humble person carved as a figurehead instead of their own frightening Adamastor. They even named the island of Macau after me: A Ma Gao, Bay of A Ma, after they set up their trading port 500 years ago. Macau always did fel like my real home, despite its shifting biography. I saw the invading Mongols kept at bay 800 years ago, and Hoklo and Tanka land turn into Portuguese villages. I’ve seen Dutch attacks fought off by African slaves and the poor coolies from Guangdong arrive here only to be sold and shipped away to Cuba or Peru. Catholic missionaries have warned my devotees against visiting my temples. I’ve been called heathen – can you believe that? – and a superstition and a product of ancient folklore. Jesuits, Dominicans, Japanese, Dutch, English. They have all built their houses of worship and convent schools on these isles.

You still don’t understand what I really am? I am merely a vehicle for godliness. So is the fate of any Boddhisattwa. God in a human body, staying on this earth instead of going on to Nirvana. At your service, bringing godliness to your neighbourhood. I slip in and out of different personas, but they’re all part of me. That’s why I like being around the theatre troupe. They too shed layers of personalities after the performance, as they step out of their robes and remove their make-up until they’re naked and ready to inhabit a new persona. Like little Mo’s mother playing my mother, although my mother never saw such extravagances as yellow silk and embroidery in her life. The part of Lin Mo is played by a young boy. His sex is hidden behind the auspicious red robe, although everybody knows she’s a he. Somehow, the melting of the genders in my part makes the acting all the more plausible. I derive, like everybody else, from the marriage of male and female. First I was a Hindu god in India called Avalokitesvara – he who hears the cries of the world. When I was brought to China and met Buddhism I was changed. I still cared for the sick and the childless. I still listened and was compassionate. But, alas, my new followers deemed these traits too feminine to ascribe to a male God. And so Avalokitesvara became Guinyin, the ultimate compassionate Goddess of Mercy.

Come, let’s walk across the square and into the temple. I often sit in my temples. Either the Tin Hau temples in Hong Kong or the A Ma temples in Macau. No matter where I am and what they call me, my devotees always have the same afflictions: Money, love, sickness. Money, love sickness. It’s a never ending story. Just like the incense coils above you. No, don’t look up. You can hardly see them for smoke anyway and you could get ashes in your eyes. Hence the signs: beware of incense coils above. Layers and layers of circles spiralling downwards and burning upwards. My life has turned around in circles too. Always the same even as the circles renew themselves.

Here I change into one of my other personas: the volunteer helper. I take care of the altars and sweep the floor. I light candles and sell incense, while I listen to the prayers devotees mumble. I try to help by my mere presence. What nobody knows is that Lin Mo aka A Ma aka Tin Hau is in the house. Like any other star I choose to go incognito when out among the public. Not even today’s bride and groom will know I’m actually waiting for them.

Ah yes, the happy couple. They’re slowly approaching. The girl walks in the middle of the human boat. Cheeks flushed with red and pink. One colour caused by the excitement of youth, the other applied by her future sister-in-law. You want to join them for their procession through the streets? Oh don’t. Please stay. I haven’t quite finished my tale yet, and it will take the women forever to get through to Yau Ma Tei. Remember, they are rowing their way across the city. You still have time and I don’t want to spend my birthday alone. Oh no, don’t congratulate me. When you’re more than a thousand years old, you stop counting. But never mind. It is the 23rd of the third moon and you are hereby invited to my party. I don’t expect any other guests, although you could argue that my devotees with their offerings of dumplings and fruit are uninvited guests too. That way I’m never alone and always have visitors.

Strangely though, the more visitors I have the more lonely I feel. Taoists, Buddhists or Hindus, they all borrow me and give me new names: Matzu, Lin Mo, A Ma, Guanyin, Tin Hau, Thean Hau, Motherly Matriarch, Empress of Heaven, Goddess of the Sea or Avalokitesvara. I’m always there for them. Still, when you’re in a perilous storm, they say, never cry out for the heavenly Empress, as she will take her time to dress in her finery. Just call Matzu or Lin Mo, she will come in her plain dress and help. As if I ever cared about appearances. Even if they often depict me with jewelled robes and an imperial fringed cap, I never owned anything fancy beyond a homespun chemise.

Let’s get out. Follow me down this street. Here is the pharmacy where I sometimes help out. You thought I worked with the theatre troupe? Ah yes, but I slip in and out of my personas and I have no problem with being in more than one place at the time. While I seem to sleep in the temple, while I’m off-stage at the theatre, I come here and inhabit the persona I call the Herbalist. Even as a young girl, before I became a Goddess, I had a knack for plants. The Monk who taught me Buddhist scriptures and martial arts also recognised my understanding of herbs. I collected and dried them. I taught people how to prevent illness and how to heal: Dress a wound soaked in garlic juice; stop diarrhoea with Lady’s Mantle; use Angelica roots against flatulence and indigestion; Snapdragon leaves work for fever, burns or haemorrhoids.

These days I mainly sell soothing teas and concoctions, though people seem more interested in desiccated deers’ antlers and turtle jelly. The ladies eat the jelly for a radiant and smooth complexion. I never worried about staying young. Besides, I always found the idea of using substances from a wrinkled green creature with a surplus of skin around its neck rather contradictory to the desire for smooth, white skin. The deer antlers increase energy. Very popular with athletes, though large amount of desiccated deer horns is rumoured to fail the doping test. Lots of yang and protein in these hard bones. And not just their horns. Wine made from deer penis is an efficient remedy against sport injuries and, obviously, against impotence.

You think you hear them? Ah yes, there they are. Slowly approaching, dancing and singing. If we stroll down Temple Street we’ll be there in time. On our way I’ll tell you the rest of my story. I’ll tell you how I died. Wasn’t I supposed to be immortal? Oh yes, but even a Goddess of Mercy may lack heart and test her immortality.

When I was 28 years old I decided to raise a fist against Providence. Eternity had so far been spent weaving horror stories at my loom and rescuing too many sailors at the same time. Don’t think I really made a difference. Even divine Goddesses have their limitations and I always lost a few good men in the storms. People were still grateful, of course they were, but I only heard the cries and curses from wives and children left behind by drowned husbands and fathers.

They say that I bid my parents goodbye. I explained that I had to leave this life to concentrate on divine tasks. There was no time for me to deal with a secular life, despite having all the time in the world. I climbed a mountain and ascended to the heavens on a cloud. Witnesses report how celestial music filled the sky and a rainbow materialized. The world blinked and beamed in orange as I, in my red robe, merged with the rainbow and disappeared.

There’s another version. Less colours and no music. I swam out in January to save a man in a storm. Exhaustion killed me and cold water washed my body ashore on the island of Coloane. I was 16 years old and given a lavish funeral by poor devotees.

No version mentions my ageing parents or my growing despair. This is what really happened: every day I watched my frail mother carry too heavy jars of salted fish into our humble kitchen. Her red, weathered hands were stiff with arthritis. She was shrinking. Her back was hunched. One day she would disappear under the dirt floor of our hut. If only I could lend her my young flesh and live my wretched immortal life without it. I looked around and felt the impact of my fate. I, the cursed one, was doomed to loose all my loved ones and live on, loved only from a distance. And so I walked into the too familiar sea and sank like lead, pulled under by the prospect of final silence.

There I was, at the bottom of the sea, and yet I lived on. I watched the sun rise from my ocean bed every morning. I watched the sun set and wrap the sea in darkness every night. My secular body was nothing but a heap of bones huddled on the ocean floor, eyes picked out, skin gnawed away by fish and salt water, clothes dancing with the waves and slowly disintegrating. My other self, the Goddess, still performed miracles and saved men. She hovered above sea and islands, uninterested in my skeletal remnants.

You probably ask yourself how I can stand here before you, flesh and bone. One day a fisherman’s hook caught my naked ribcage. A huge fish, he thought and pulled and pulled until finally, my skeletal self emerged and looked over the bow of his small fishing boat. He cried out at the sight of my grinning skull and I, attached to his rod, chased him all the way home, while my clacking jaw let out seaweed and drops of salt water.

Finally on shore, he grabbed his rod and ran and ran, occasionally looking back to see if I was still chasing him. In the hut he sat down and caught his breath realizing his own mistake. My legs were thrown over my shoulders. The sun peered through my ribs, as through a grate. A most unpleasant posture for me despite my grinning naked teeth. The fisherman took pity and untangled me. His movements precise and gentle from years of cleaning fish and handling bones. He put me on a sheep skin and went to bed in the far side of the hut.

What did he dream of? Did he try to imagine my tragic end in his dreams? I crawled on rattling bones to his bed and watched a single tear run down his temple. He whimpered in his sleep. Was he reliving the skeleton woman chasing him? I leaned over and caught his tear between my teeth. A tongue materialized and licked it. And so, from a single tear, my human form arose again. A single human’s compassionate outpouring manifested me. We woke, entangled warm bodies wrapped only in my long black hair.

I could have stayed and lived with him. I could have loved the way he crinkled his nose when he laughed, or the way his eyebrows lifted, as if in surprise, every time he looked at me. My gift from the sea, he called me. Tempting. To slip into the normal cycle of life and become someone’s wife. To carry his child and shed myself of the toils of a Goddess. A marriage between heaven and earth. Ahh, bliss. But then again, I knew it wasn’t possible. I couldn’t shut out the prayers and cries. Besides, I would only repeat the old agony and be forced to watch husband and children grow old and die.

So I left and continued alone.

Every so often I feel overwhelmed by an uncontrollable rage. Then I slip into my dark twin, the old lady under the flyover between Wan Chai and Causeway Bay on Hong Kong Island. Only 50 HK dollars to have your sweetheart’s new love thwarted or your boss fall sick with gastritis. It’s a bargain. I hit paper-cut-ups with my cheap plastic thong or the ladies’ high heeled Jimmy Choos. I curse the person they pay me to curse, while I pound and pound. I’m the cursing lady who helps people get rid of their dark thoughts and desires. They think they can’t reveal ugly feelings to a Goddess in a temple. HA! If only they knew it is the very same Goddess to whom they sneak out and pay for curses. I shout out the words they find taboo to utter but can’t keep in any longer. No matter which names or words I may shout, I always curse the fishermen who immortalized me.

I can hear the procession approach now. Look up ahead, there’s the square with the temple and the stage. The old men playing chess under the banyan trees are getting up to watch the bride. Perfect timing. We’re almost back to where we started. We just have to pass the row of tents where soothsayers and amateur singers compete for attention with keyboards, microphones, and singing voices of varying quality. You’ll hear anything from K-pop to Cantonese opera. The chubby guy over there sings Hotel California in English. He thinks it’s a love song. That lady with the mini skirt sings a popular Chinese tune. Couples growing old together, she sings, are the happiest people. How very fitting for our wedding couple. In a minute their procession will silence the music and murmur for a short while.

Finally. Here they are. Terribly late, just like I said. Look how proudly the bride wears her headdress now. She doesn’t know how lucky she is. To share a single life with a mortal love. I never had the privilege. Who wants a girl with an uncanny reputation of leaving her bed and her body at night, even as a husband clings to it, to dive and cleave to other men? To arouse real and enduring passion in a man you have to be passive and stay in his bed. I’ve had centuries to understand this mechanism. Another thing I’ve observed is how rare it is that people find what they lack in another person in one single life. Not that it ever prevents them from trying

I can tell that you pity me. Please don’t. I know I’m needed and I have been rather successful in my career. I’ve attained more than most goddesses could hope to achieve. I have songs and plays and even moving pictures about my life. I have houses everywhere. When devotees leave these islands they take me with them and build me new homes in faraway countries. Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan and Malaysia. Not many can boast of being older than a millennium and having 1500 homes and 100 million followers. You can even “like” me on Facebook. I have been revered by changing imperial courts of every dynasty and even declared a First Class Goddess by the current government. I’ve had twenty-two promotions through the years. And I still listen. The only thing I sometimes miss is somebody who listens to me.

I’m sorry I’ve taken so much of your time. I know that, unlike mine, your time is limited and I thank you for your kindness. I will go back to my hard stool in the temple and listen to the wedding couple’s hopes and prayers for their common future. Bless them. Later, when the devotees and the theatre players, the soothsayers and the amateur singers, the in-laws and the wedding guests have finished their songs and shouting; when they have finished their banging of gongs and drums, when the streets are vacated by singing and dancing people, this is when the Gods and departed souls descend to the world of the mortals. This is one thing they never will grasp. That in the end all things lead us to nothing. And that the greatest sound of all is Silence. My name is Mo and I am the history you see. My name is silence and oh! The silence sinks like music on my heart.


Kira Dreyer Messell is a Danish writer currently living in Berlin, Germany. She has been teaching languages, literature and history in both Berlin and Kuala Lumpur. Until 2013 she spent 5 years in Malaysia, where she wrote on a collection of speculative short stories. Kira holds an MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Copenhagen and the University of Edinburgh.

Issue No. 11, Winter 2014

Whose Woods These Are
Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin

You first spot the boy on the industrial side of town, off the highway.

The windows of your old Pontiac are rolled down to the sound of cicadas bouncing off the auto repair shops and plumbing supply stores. The sun-broiled air is humid and hard to breathe.

He’s sitting on a cinder block in front of LiMandri’s Vehicle Restoration, which is closed because it’s Sunday. You notice him before he notices you. His shirtless torso is thin and white and his skinny little arms fold across his knees as he watches the cars go by. When he sees you he sits up the way a cat would, expectant and alert. He stands slowly, pulling up the jeans that have fallen low on his hips, and starts walking toward you as you brake for the light.

He’s no more than eight or nine, and to your surprise he extends his right arm and sticks out a thumb, gazing directly at you. The light turns green at the last minute and you coast through the intersection, eyeing the boy.

You drive to the next block and pull to a stop, discomfort in your gut. Why is he trying to get a ride in front of a deserted body shop at the height of the day’s torpor, small and fragile as he is and only half dressed? No kid around here goes shirtless even on a day like today.

You know you can’t pick him up. He could be some sort of setup. And if he is just a little kid hitching, you can’t stop for him. He needs to learn this is a bad thing to do. But how can you just leave him there?

Not until much later do you recall how he seemed to be waiting for you, letting every other car pass until your faded blue coupe pulled close, reaching out with his twig of an arm while pinning you with his stare.

You make an illegal U-turn and head back to LiMandri’s, where the cinder block now sits empty. The smell of tar and cat piss rises off the road. This area is like the one you lived in not long ago, bare and shadeless, harsh to the senses. Pulling into the lot, you decide to wait for thirty seconds. If he doesn’t show up, you can leave with a clear conscience.

Fifteen minutes’ drive from here your cool and shady house awaits you, a Cape Cod with dormers that look out on linden trees. Behind it is state land, an uncultivated swath leading to woods a half-mile deep, a refuge for deer and hawks and Canada geese. At night often the geese set up rowdy parties full of cackling and chattering—and you feed on it, having been starved of nature for so many years.

A shadow at your side makes you jump. The boy is by your window, staring into the car, face smudged and nose dripping. A beaded metal chain with a soldier’s dog tag hangs around his grimy neck. You reach for the box of Kleenex next to you and hand him a couple, which he takes without a word and uses to wipe the offending mucus off his lip.

“Are you lost?” you ask. “I can call your mother or father.”

He continues staring, the dirty tissue clutched at his side.

“What’s your name?”

He uses the snotty tissue to swat at his arm. A smear of black and red appears where a sated mosquito has met its end. You pull another Kleenex from the box. He cleans his arm with it and then swipes it across his nose.

“Don’t do that! Here.” You hand him the box. “Listen, honey—” You can’t help yourself, he’s only a little boy. “I saw you trying to hitchhike. That’s very dangerous.” You glance at the sky. Not a single cloud to impede the white intensity baking your car into the asphalt. “Do you live around here?”

He tugs at the beaded chain as if it irritates his skin. What large irises he has, the color full and deep, hazel burning into gold.

“Can I look at that?” You point at the tag on his chest.

He hesitates, then lets you squint at the single name and phone number engraved on it.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” you start to say, then bite it back because maybe something is wrong with the boy and he doesn’t know what he can or should do.

You key the number into your cell phone, and a man answers on the first ring.

“Is this Mr. Gallagher?”

“Yes?” The voice is guarded.

“My name is Laura Valentine. I live in the Mahogany Run area—”

“Yes?”

You pause. “I’m at a place called LiMandri’s Vehicle Restoration off exit—”

“I know where it is,” he snaps. “What do you want?”

You take a deep breath. “There’s a small boy here, all by himself, and he’s got a chain around his neck with your name and number on it.”

“Brown hair? Skinny?”

“Yes.” A glance at the boy catches him running the back of his arm across his nose. “He won’t talk to me. Does he belong to you?”

The man groans in an obvious mixture of vexation and relief. “I never thought he’d wander so far.”

“Can you come get him? I’ll wait with him.”

#

He pulls up in an old maroon Chrysler that looks as if it’s never seen better days even new. The car is familiar.

Gallagher must have come to fatherhood late, or maybe he’s the boy’s grandfather. Or—you realize with a chill that you didn’t establish the relationship between them—he could be a pedophile reclaiming his charge. The boy immediately runs to Gallagher and buries his face in the man’s sweaty tee shirt.

Gallagher offers you a hand slick with perspiration. The thick glasses sliding down his nose give him an abstracted air, and his general scruffiness seems to have little to do with the heat. No wonder the kid is running around half naked.

“I think I know you.” You try to place the face as well as the car. “Where do you live?”

“By the woods,” he mumbles, clutching the boy.

The odd phrasing makes you consider a moment. “You mean Mahogany Run?”

He nods so vaguely it is obvious he’s not happy talking about it.

“Graham Road?” That’s the only street that backs up on the woods. “So we’re neighbors? Left end or right? I’m number 31.”

He shakes his head. The movement is more like a tic. “Other end.”

“Wait a minute—have I seen you walking a beautiful white Husky and a giant schnauzer?”

“I have other dogs too,” he says, averting his eyes. He takes the boy’s hand and they turn away. Gallagher glances over his shoulder at you as he opens the Chrysler door, but his “Thanks again” sounds like an afterthought.

#

You linger a moment after they leave. You should follow him, but what would that prove? Will it quash the unease bubbling inside, the unmistakable feeling that you’ve done something terrible by handing the boy over? What choice did you have, anyway? The kid went willingly.

You get into the Pontiac and go, half expecting to overtake Gallagher. You arrive home just as a car is pulling out of the garage next door.

The man inside lowers the window and waves. “We just came back from Cape Cod.” Everett Clark is dressed impeccably, as always, shirtsleeves rolled up slightly, silver hair neat. He and his wife are good next-door neighbors, the kind who offer to take your mail in if you’re going away.

“Everett, you know somebody on this block named Gallagher?”

“First name or last?”

“Last, probably.”

Everett thinks. “Oh, him!” he says suddenly. “He’s a real nut job. Why do you ask?”

You tell him about encountering the lost boy and calling Gallagher, but before you can even wonder how to ask discreetly if Gallagher is on the up-and-up, Everett shakes his head and says, “He’s certifiable. I mean it. Ever since his wife died—”

“When was that?”

“About ten years ago.”

“Any kids?”

“No.”

“So, no grandkids?” The sweat on your neck feels cold.

Everett shakes his head. “I was going to ask you who that boy was.”

“A nephew, maybe?”

“All I can tell you is nobody around here bothers with him. He doesn’t cause trouble or anything, he’s just weird. No joke.” He makes a looping circle with his finger near the side of his head.

You say goodbye and he pulls off before you realize you should have asked him which house Gallagher is in.

All afternoon you’re uneasy, thinking that maybe you should call the police. And tell them what? Wouldn’t Everett, an upstanding and trustworthy individual, have suggested that if he thought it a good idea? You phone his wife, Joan, but voice mail picks up and you don’t leave a message. You’re left alone with your concerns and disquiet.

After dinner, the August sky darkening, you step outside and walk slowly up the block toward the dead end, feeling conspicuous as you study every house on either side.

Your efforts are soon rewarded. A tumult of yips and baying rises from the very last house, on the same side of the street as yours. A white face with pointed ears stares out from the living room window, ghostly and beautiful in the soft dusk.

For a long while you stand there watching the Husky watch you. A smaller, leaner face appears at the dog’s side, but in the fading light its features are hard to make out. Now what? Now that you know where the man lives, what happens next? If Gallagher were observing you from a window, would you even know? You tell yourself he probably wouldn’t recognize you in this interstice of day and night, when colors and shapes blend.

There is nothing distinctive about the house, nothing that sets it apart from its neighbors or betrays seediness of character—or maybe the gloaming has removed the edges, the small discordances that would indicate unseemly things happening inside.

Finally you turn and head home. Soon crickets will start chirping, spiders will weave orbs in the cool damp of the dark.

Later, you float in and out of sleep, loving the pattern of moonlight spread across the sheets and the way slumber flutters over you like a proprietary bird. When at last it tucks its wings about your head, a sound from outside chases it away.

A yip, downstairs near the back deck—but not a dog’s yip, and you don’t know how you know but you do. It’s followed by a single thin howl, a high-pitched offering that is neither lament nor threat.

The skin on your neck prickles as you swing your feet over the mattress and look out the window. The moon is high and full and everything below is drenched in its light—and there is nothing, no one, there.

Yet you know what you heard. The coyote as interloper, as wild other trying to make its way through the detritus and perils of civilization, holds allure for you. Your sympathies are with the animal, whose only crime is to find itself in a world not of its own making. Who among us is any different?

A ripple of tall grass opens on the left, and a shadow with two bright eyes reflecting the moonlight looks up at you. The eyes burn into yours, and then the shadow leaps away in the direction of the woods, emerging from the grass into the scruffy band that runs along the trees.

When you get back into bed you have forgotten about the hitchhiking boy for the first time all day.

#

The next morning, as if attuned to some primal resonance in the air, you wake up before the alarm and step to the window. August’s fullness already cradles a harbinger of autumn.

As if on cue, as if you’ve heard their laughter (and maybe you have), two boys burst from the woods at the far right and caper through the grass. Even at this distance you can see they’re barely dressed, and you’re pretty sure one of them is the kid you found yesterday. In high spirits, they head toward the far end of the block, probably the Gallagher house.

Before you can give thought to what you’re doing, you pull on jeans and a tee shirt and rush out the front door. One house from Gallagher’s you cut through a yard, and there they are, right off Gallagher’s back porch—the white Husky, the black schnauzer, several other mixed-breed dogs with vulpine faces, and the two boys. The whole pack of them, dogs and boys, are play-wrestling like a huddle of puppies squirming all over one another.

Gallagher comes out dressed only in baggy shorts and leans over the porch railing. “Get inside! Come on, hurry up!”

No one on the ground listens and, obviously annoyed, he comes down off the porch and grabs the two boys, separating them from the waggling, festive mass. “Let’s get you cleaned up.” His words carry on the stillness of air already dense with humidity.

One of the boys breaks free, howling playfully—and the sound chills you. It’s the boy you’ve met. He bolts toward you.

“Come back here, dammit!” Gallagher stiffens when he catches sight of you.

The boy stops a few feet away and stares at you, not afraid, not threatened or threatening, a little timid but curious. His chest and face are filthy, his shorts tattered, his hair flecked with leaf bits. You intuit rather than smell a feral scent coming off of him. The mucus dribbling down his nose smears across his face as he drags an arm over it. In your head a thousand thoughts jostle. Are these the eyes you saw last night from your window?

The idea is dismissed the moment it forms.

Exasperated and very angry, Gallagher holds the other boy under his arm and yanks one of the vulpine dogs by the collar. The dogs are torn between following him up the porch steps into the house and assessing you. Your vulnerability hits you and you back up.

The boy raises his face and sniffs the air before giving you one last look and loping to the four waiting dogs, who surround him like a wave up the porch stairs.

As they enter the house you remain immobile, half afraid Gallagher will push open the back door with a shotgun in hand. Then you head back up to the street.

Everett Clark is pulling out of his driveway.

“You’re up early,” he says.

“Who lives next to Gallagher?”

He eyes you. “That still bothering you?”

“Yeah.”

“That why you’re up this way?”

You nod, and he sighs. “Call the police, if it’s going to eat at you.”

“I don’t want to be a bad neighbor, in case it’s nothing.”

“Call anonymously.”

“I don’t think you can do that.”

“Yes, you can.”

“People find out. They always do.”

He scratches his chin. “Well, to answer your original question, the Rosens live next door to him.”

“What do they think of him?”

“I don’t know. I never see them. They spend their summers away.”

“So they’re not home now?”

“I don’t think so.”

You let Everett go and rush home to shower and dress for work, which will give you a reprieve for at least eight hours.

#

That night, after a busy day made gloomy by rain, you fall asleep fast and heavy. There is no opportunity for conflicts of conscience or ruminations over what constitutes good sense.

What dreams! The night is filled with dogs, squiggling pups of every description biting each other’s ears in a tussle of paws and wagging tails, a mound of canine babies playing, terriers and dingoes, jackals and bat-eared foxes and mutts. Twice you get up to pee and twice you slip back into the dreams.

Again you wake before the alarm, this time a half hour before sunrise. The full moon, no longer visible from the window, shows as a faint glow in the contrast of sky and trees. Your gaze lowers to the thicket of long grass.

You sense him, of course, though after several minutes staring into the dark it occurs to you that maybe this is another dream—and then the eyes flicker below, catching the indirect light only a second or two.

You wait. The tops of the trees briefly bloom pink and then it is more day than night and the chirping of birds overtakes the fading bustle of tired insects. You grab the binoculars you placed on the windowsill last evening. A dark little face looks up at you, a triangular shadow in the grass.

You watch each other, not moving, barely breathing. You try to blink away the thoughts of boys and pups, unwilling to acknowledge what you’ve been thinking, what your heart tells you, the thing that defies logic and pulses like a firefly inside you.

“It’s okay, little one,” you whisper.

The coyote looks suddenly to the right at two small animals running out of the far woods, where the two boys emerged yesterday. With the distance and the light you’re not sure but they look like . . . puppies. Pointy-faced, long-limbed puppies.

Of course! Baby coyotes. A foolish relief flushes through you. It’s the mother below.

But why has she been at your window two mornings in a row?

Coincidence, naturally. She runs a circuit each night, hunting for food, and she ends up below your deck just as you wake up.

The mother quickly turns and tries to leap away, but she looks injured. Dragging herself amid the wild tangle, she heads not for the pups but for the trees. You swing the binoculars to see if the pups have noticed her, but they’re out of sight, hidden in the grass and the sprinkle of wildflowers.

The mother is fighting her way through a snarl of stalks and reeds. A sound of urgency escapes her. Pity wrings your heart, for both her and the pups. You glance their way again.

But instead of pups you see two familiar boys wading though waist-high grass and coming out the other end near Gallagher’s house. The dreams, the absurd thoughts of only moments ago, come back, and you keep your eyes on the boys until they’re beyond your vision.

In your heart, the little hitchhiking boy was the coyote below your window.

Clearly you were wrong. But something is not right. You sweep the field with the binoculars. There are no puppies following the two boys home. Baby coyotes came out of the woods and small children appeared in their place shortly after.

The coyote below has shown no interest in the boys and seems to have relinquished its interest in you. Its apparent preoccupation is attaining the woods. It reaches the perimeter of the trees and lies panting, turning its head to look back—at you. The binoculars do not deceive. The coyote is on its side catching its breath and gazing at your window.

You put the binoculars down to process what you think you saw, then hold them back up. The face is now patchy with ragged hair and dirt, revoltingly familiar, attached to a body it can’t possibly be connected to.

The creature rises to its wobbly legs. It tries to push up on its hind limbs but falls. It has no tail. Clearly it is male—and large. It shudders broadly, letting out a groan of anguish that cuts the morning air, and the earth around it seems to quake. The sky and vegetation are the same as before, but the creature’s torment is like an overlay that changes the scene for you. With a rush of forced energy, like the last push before birth, the russet coat blanches and thins in a matter of seconds. You stand riveted in the center of the window.

Several yards before the trees, the rest of its body transforms and a pale, naked man stands slightly hunched until he whirls around and faces your house, your window, you. Gallagher watches you watching him. He makes sure your binoculars have a chance to linger on his scraped skin and flaccid white body. Now that you’ve caught him, he wants you to get a good look. You were not afraid of the coyote, but you are afraid of this man. Your first thought is that he wanted you to observe this display. “I’m number 31,” you’d said to him.

Your second thought is accompanied by a sharp intake of breath: What if he didn’t want you to see it? What if he blames you for distracting him from a discreet metamorphosis in the woods?

Does it matter which is true?

Gallagher turns and disappears into the trees. A piercing sound—half wail, half keening—swells from the dark thicket. It is a taunt, a demarcation of territory. The land behind the house, a restful stretch of nature only moments ago, is now mocking and grim.

You back up into a corner of the room and stand there a long time, unable to think beyond the distress banging around inside you like a ball in a metal chamber. At some point the mechanical impulse to make coffee stirs you downstairs to the kitchen. A few hot gulps and you may see more clearly what to do.

The coffee brews strong and you sip and pace from one end of the house to the other. The white Husky watches your movements through the low window in the dining room, and when you first catch his blue-eyed gaze you start. Only a few feet away on the front walk, he appears to be smiling, or laughing. He turns from you briefly as Gallagher saunters into sight beside him, close enough for you to see the gashes in his wrinkled shorts and dirt crusted around the abrasions on his belly.

Gallagher seems taken aback, as if not expecting to find you at the window. “I want to talk to you,” he shouts.

But you’ve already leaped into the kitchen for the phone, which drops to the floor and clatters across the tiles as another voice sounds outside.

You creep to the window and see Everett on his side of the walk, pressed slacks and crisp shirt a sharp contrast to the other man’s dishevelment. “Did you hear me?” Everett says. “What do you want there?”

“Mind your business, Everett Clark.” Gallagher is stooping slightly and appears to be looking up at Everett even though they’re on level ground. The Husky is gone.

“She’s my neighbor. She is my business.” Everett walks toward him but stops. “Are you in trouble? You’re all cut up. What happened to you?”

“Nothing for you to mind. Nothing’s wrong with me.”

Emboldened by Everett’s presence, you open the front door and step outside. Something grotesquely carnal wafts off of Gallagher and then is gone.

“He’s been watching my house from out back,” you say. “Today and yesterday.”

“That right?” Everett steps closer and Gallagher draws himself up to full height. “You watching Laura’s house?”

Gallagher’s hands wander over the scratches on his stomach, his eyes glued to the other man.

“I asked you a question. What are you doing out back? You watching my house too?”

A mewling sound escapes Gallagher. The insight hits you fast: He’s not a bold man, and whatever he’s been up to is out of character, something that ballooned up fast inside him and could deflate just as quickly.

Your insight also tells you he may be erratic, and you pull back. “Are you trying to threaten me, Mr. Gallagher?”

He glances at you, but his gaze drops to the ground. When he picks it up again his eyes are flecked with the sunlight that’s already heaping itself onto the back of your neck. Your nostrils flare at the smell he throws off.

The white Husky appears suddenly at the end of the walk, accompanied by the little boy you picked up at the auto body shop. Dressed in jeans and a red tee shirt, the boy looks almost clean as they approach. His eyes are on you.

There he is, the child who isn’t yours, the child who could be yours, the one who might have been. And all at once you understand the twisting in your heart.

Everett, sensing your moment, watches the boy and the dog but says nothing.

Gallagher looks at them too, but sideways, as if trying to keep one eye on you. “Where did you get them?” you ask.

Gallagher reaches a hand to the boy, who takes it and stands beside him like a dutiful son, though his eyes never leave yours.

You clear your throat. “Who are the boys? Where did they come from?”

Gallagher hangs his head, chin to chest. “I found ’em.”

You signal to Everett with your eyes and hope he reads them correctly. He does, crossing over and standing near you.

“Found ’em in the woods,” Gallagher mumbles. “Tiny little pups, shivering without a mother.”

“The woods back there?” Everett indicates the direction.

Gallagher nods. “Took them in after a few days. I didn’t know they were little boys.”

Everett’s face registers confusion. You hold up a hand and he says nothing.

“What about you?” you say gently. “What happened to you?”

He looks down at his abdomen, flustered, hands fluttering over the scribble of blood and soil.

“Not that. I saw how that happened. How did you . . . become like the boys?”

At this the little boy reaches for your hand. He is now holding yours and Gallagher’s in a bizarre family tableau, clutching your fingers firmly.

Gallagher looks at him sadly a moment. “Puppies bite.”

The boy lets go of Gallagher and throws his arms around you, burying his face in your tee shirt the way he buried it in Gallagher’s the day you found him. He holds you close.

Automatically you hug him back, maternal instinct warring with prudence as if you’re holding the essence of nature in your arms, a tender wild thing that needs mothering even as it clamps the teat between its teeth and rips it off. He smells of fur and feathers and all things untamed, with a strange maple overlay.

“I knew he liked you.” Gallagher’s voice is resigned. “Animals have their favorites.”

Everett scowls. “What the hell’s going on? Laura?”

The burning in your side takes a moment to register, but when it does you push the boy away, feeling betrayed but knowing it’s your own fault. It’s not right to blame an animal for its nature. You touch the tee shirt and blood sponges through. Not much, but enough for you to understand your whole world has changed.

Everett yells, “Get that kid out of here!” He takes a phone from his pocket and punches in numbers.

Gallagher’s eyes glitter, and for a moment you think he’s crying. He sniffles hard and runs the back of his hand across his nose, pulling the boy close to him. The boy gazes up at you softly, without guile.

“The paramedics are coming, Laura.” Everett puts his arm around you as if to hold you up, but you’re still erect, merely shivering in the sunlight.

Your fingers move as if to touch Gallagher’s arm. “Is this why you came here?”     “No.” He looks at you directly now. “I was threatening you. No point in that now, is there?”

“No.”

Everett’s eyes narrow at the other man. “You are one aberrant bastard, and I’ll see to it that you pay for what that kid did.”

Gallagher ignores him. “If anything happens to me, will you take care of them?”

You glance down at your tee shirt and the red smudges on your hand, and for the first time it occurs to you to lift the shirt and look. It’s not a bad bite, more like a nip. A love nip, you think.

“Yes,” you say as the ambulance wails down the street toward you.


Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin’s short story “Tip of the Iceberg” appeared in Rose Red Review’s summer 2014 issue. Other short fiction of hers has been in Bards and Sages Quarterly, Absent Willow Review, and the anthologies Skulls & Crossbones: Tales of Women Pirates and Hunger: Stories of Desire, Discovery, and Dissatisfaction (a Kindle release from her writing group, the Penheads). She has had some poetry published in Shadow Road Quarterly, Rose & Thorn Journal, and Golden Sparrow Literary Review. Her first novel is due out from Permuted Press in late 2015.

Issue No. 11, Winter 2014

Nova and the Moon
Ani King

Stars wink and shine in her hair as Nova nods her head to the strains of music playing in the store. It is indistinct and tinny as grocery story music should be.

“She is terribly peculiar,” Mrs. Klatsch whispers to her friend, as they wait for Nova to place their items in stiff paper sacks.

“Yes,” Mrs. Sladder agrees, a little louder, and adjusts her heavy purse for emphasis. The patent leather purse is a veteran weapon, oft swung at hooligans on the sidewalk.

Nova smiles, despite their observation, and everyone can agree that Nova has a fine crooked smile, the kind that makes a plain girl pretty.

“Have a wonderful evening, ladies,” Nova beams, and the two women sniff in unison.

“Well, it’s morning, young lady!” Also in unison.

Among the waiting customers are Nils Manen — librarian, avid tea drinker — and Erik Saule — blonde, tall, elementary school principal. Their gazes are both firmly fixed on Nova who, according to the Nox sisters, is without romantic attachment.

Mr. Manen would like to leave her bouquets of soft white flowers. Mr. Saule would like to leave his wife and take Nova in her place. But only for a night or two, he does have a reputation to worry about.

Nova does not notice either of them most days. Not at first.

Ava Nox watches from her own register, notes Mr. Saule’s grin — wide, if the witness finds him charming, toothy if not — and wonders what might happen if Nova chose one (or both) of them. Mr. Manen is a smarter choice in theory, being the sort of man who will fall in love, but Mr. Saule has the sort of appeal that accompanies those who are largely indifferent to the feelings of others. In short, he might be a good time. Ava strokes the dark feathers peeking out of her sleeve absently as she spins the possibilities around in her head.

“That girl. Look at her,” Clothilde Nox remarks, passing Ava with a red cart full of produce that needs to be arranged. Nova is twirling in her lane, maybe even dancing, now that her queue of customers has been attended.

“I know,” Ava says. “I like her.” They both nod and return to their duties.

Ava and her sisters agree that perhaps it is unusual for Nova to pin her hair up with midnight-captured stars: unnamed constellations twinkling in the dark waves. Sure, lining her eyes with summer-harvested indigo night from a small tin pot is uncommon. And she does lace her heavy boots with pink burning strands of sundown.

“Why don’t you let Mr. Manen take you to dinner?” Clothilde sighs, in the break room of the North Star Grocery store as she unbuttons her wrinkled navy smock and places it in the grey locker.

“He’s handsome enough, he has a job. He only comes here on the days you work. You deserve to have at least a nice night.” Lacy Nox’s own buttons are a straight line marching down her ironed manager’s shirt.

Ava smiles at Nova and shrugs.

“Mr. Manen has never spoken a word to me, let alone asked me out. Besides, I’m not looking for anyone to take me to dinner.”

Clothilde and Lacy titter and tsk over Nova’s prospects as she makes her signature strong coffee in the aging French press. Hints of cardamom and cinnamon drift through the room. Because Nova is often sleepy, she brews a pot at the beginning and ending of every shift. She has confided in Ava that she just prefers the hours after midnight. A bit of a night bird herself, Ava understands.

Clothilde and Lacy would like to see Nova settled with Mr. Manen, who is polite, and nice to look at, but not too nice, which would never do. Nova has made it clear in her string of recent rejections that she is inclined towards shy men, but not fearful ones, and that she doesn’t care for dandies.

“I prefer the less cologned type, I suppose,” she once stated after Mrs. Sladder’s son, Jeremy, left without the expected acceptance of a date at the cinema. Clothilde took it upon herself to console him through a double showing and the rest of the night.

“What do you think of Erik Saule?” Ava asks, while she and Nova stroll on their lunch break along the wooded path around the store, gathering milkweed pods. Mr. Saule has taken to leaving Nova small trinkets and gifts at the grocery store.

“I really don’t think of him at all.”

Lacy decides that she and Clothilde will speak with Mr. Manen where he works. Ava joins them, though she is not convinced that Nils Manen will be a more interesting choice. She does not wonder at the idea aloud.

“Oh. My. Can I assist you ladies with finding a particular book?” Nils Manen asks nervously, as the Nox sisters bear down on him. He has seen this shared look of intent on their faces before, and would prefer not be their victim again. He once tried to pluck a feather from Ava’s long neck, on a dare, and he paid quite dearly despite his failure.

“Mr. Manen,” Lacy begins, voice pitched low, as is wise in a library. “We would like to discuss Nova and your intentions.”

“Oh dear.” He pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket to attend to the sudden beads of sweat on his forehead.

The three sisters discover that Mr. Manen is not sure he would like to take Nova to dinner because he doesn’t like to eat in restaurants, but he would like to talk to her, maybe take a walk. He reveals that he doesn’t care for the way Mr. Saule is often at the grocery store, waiting in Nova’s checkout line with his basket full of wine and his hungry smile. Ava absentmindedly knocks a pencil cup over as he makes the statement. Jealousy. She finds the concept interesting.

“Nova’s really lovely, isn’t she?”

“She’s not just lovely,” Ava states, with a faint look of distaste.

“She collects fireflies and owl feathers and scraps of twilight. She has a jar of moonlit water from high tide,” Clothilde explains.

“She catches her own stars, you know, just takes them right out of the sky. And she reads late into the night. And she tells terrible jokes.” Lacy pats Mr. Manen on the shoulder. He does a fine job of not flinching.

“Her whole house is blue! Every room. Her bedroom is as dark as blue can be without being black, and she hangs her stars from the ceiling at night,” Clothilde volunteers.

“You’ll have to speak to her, of course.” Lacy does not look convinced of his ability to pull this off. “Actually converse with her. And perhaps make eye contact.”

“I know. I mean of course. I have spoken to her, you know.” Mr. Manen does not look confident. “Would she like flowers? Or a picnic at night?”

All three women shrug as one, and then Ava startles her sisters by stating, “She dreams of the moon every night and would like a comet to pin on her blue wool jacket this winter. But the picnic might work, too.”

“How do I purchase a comet, then? And where?” Mr. Manen’s voice rises and studious patrons shush him.

“You can’t buy one,” Lacy laughs. “How ridiculous.”

“You have to catch it, or coax it, or steal it,” Clothilde explains.

“How do I that?” Mr. Manen considers, not for the first time, that perhaps he is out of his depth, that perhaps Nova is not a girl he can court with any measure of timidity.

The three women gather around the bespectacled librarian. Clothilde dictates the list of ingredients to Lacy, who jots them down on a slip of paper in her neat, angular cursive. Ava sighs and explains the spell again, exactly as she once explained it to Nova. Mr. Manen goes home that evening with the list and a dizzy feeling.

As instructed, Mr. Manen carefully traps shy night-blooming flowers. He saves a few blossoms in a thin vase to accompany his gift. Mr. Manen gathers his own small jar of moonlit seawater. In addition to feathers, fireflies and slivers of dusk, he gathers newspaper, glue and chicken wire. These items are not on the list, but he has his own secret idea to tend.

***

Twice a week Mr. Manen buys his usual eggplant, plums, deep purple grapes, and a single star fruit. He waits in Nova’s line, pays for his groceries, and revels in the single upturned corner of her mouth and the dwarf star winking in her hair. He tries to find reasons to go more often. He buys smaller bottles of milk, single lemons to slice for tea.

“It’s nice to see you again, Mr. Manen.”

“It’s nice to see you, too, Nova.”

“Nova?”

“Yes?”

“Nothing. Never mind.”

After months, Mr. Manen, now accustomed to speaking to Nova as he checks out, asks, “Nova, would you like to take a walk with me?” He has practiced the request ad nauseam for weeks.

“Thank you, Mr. Manen, but I have plans with Ava.”

He is disappointed; the sisters assured him that she would be interested. He begins to ask, gently, at every encounter, if she might like to have a picnic, or perhaps he could bring her a marvelous book? Nova declines, often for plans with the youngest Nox triplet, but does not seem bothered by his quiet insistence.

By spring they are having short chats about the weather, and then brief discussions about different types of owls.

“Are you familiar with the Athene noctua?” Mr. Manen gazes at his own nervously tapping fingers.

“Of course! The little owl. I do prefer barn owls though. They have such beautiful faces, don’t you think?”

“Miss!” Mrs. Klatsch interjects. “Could you please check the rest of us out?”

“Sure, just a moment please. Mr. Manen, how do you feel about the long-eared owl?”

Mr. Manen invites Nova to the library while he works and, solemn as a priest, he bestows upon her a renewed library card. Sometimes he joins her at a heavy round table and they sit across from each other reading. Nova prefers long travelogues and wishes she could drink coffee while sitting in the cushioned wooden chairs, sipping as she reads about women who travel to India and Milan. Mr. Manen joins her for his breaks, reading fairy tales and biographies, peering over the edges of his books to catch the way Nova’s lips purse when she is concentrating.

He almost holds her hand once on the way down the wide stone steps as they are leaving, but panics at the last second.

***

Nova agrees to meet Mr. Manen at her house at midnight for a surprise. She smiles at him when he comes into the store anyway and fumbles at a bottle of champagne while placing it on the checkout belt.

In line behind Mr. Manen: Mr. Saule, wedding ring tucked into a trouser pocket even though Mrs. Saule is not a secret. He chats with Nova, treats her circumspect responses as an invitation to keep bringing her small gifts. After her shifts Nova distributes bracelets, blushing roses, and silver earrings to the other women.

“What do you think of Mr. Saule’s gifts, Nova?” Clothilde takes and places a bangle on her own slim wrist with the others after he completes his purchase and heads for the doors.

“They aren’t my kind of gift, but I suppose he’s trying to be nice?”

Clothilde gives Mr. Manen a small wave as he exits and then turns back to the customers waiting for her attention. Lacy winks, but he does not see it.

Ava follows Mr. Saule out into the parking lot. Mr. Manen notices them speaking as he places his bags into his aging car, but does not have time to wonder at their conversation.

He picks his rarely worn suit up at the cleaners and hurries home.

At midnight, per the instructions, Mr. Manen begins to walk from his home to Nova’s, next to the old school house on Greenlawn Avenue. In one hand he has a basket with the necessary ingredients for the enticing a comet and a wooden box in which to place it, assuming he is successful. He has some doubts. In his other hand: a paper bag containing his own secret contribution. He is wearing his neatly pressed suit and shirt. His bow tie is a little crooked, but he looks quite charming.

As he walks down the sidewalk he approaches Nova’s two-story stone house. Nova is standing in the doorway and Mr. Saule is handing her a large jewelry box with light pulsing through the cracks. Mr. Manen considers then what Ava must have been telling Mr. Saule in the parking lot.

Crushed, he turns around and slowly walks home thinking that it would be a perfect time for rain.

Mr. Manen misses Nova’s firm rejection of the offered gift– a piece of costume jewelry with a blinking light attached. He does not see her pacing and waiting on the front porch, finally going inside.

***

When Nova appears at the information desk, confused, he says, “I’m sorry. I don’t have time to chat today.”

“Oh. Well, perhaps another time? I thought we-”

“Nova. I have things to do.”

He takes to hiding from her until she simply stops trying. He starts shopping at the big store just outside of town.

On the day of her last attempt an angry Mrs. Saule meets her at the front doors of the grocery store. She slaps Nova, hard, and says, “People saw him at your house. They say he gives you presents. That he waits in line to talk to you.”

“No, that isn’t true. I mean, he leaves me things, but I told him no! I sent him away!”

Mrs. Saule is as tall, toothsome, and svelte as her husband and together they look striking. This is what people in town talk about — the way they look so good together. How beautiful their children are, how wonderful their life must be.

Mrs. Sladder observes the scene outside of the store and immediately tells her son Jeremy, as well as her good friend Mrs. Klatsch. And while they do talk about how often Mrs. Saule has perhaps had to slap the tender faces of her husband’s conquests, they also talk about Nova.

“What was she thinking?” Mrs. Sladder exclaims to the butcher’s wife on Main Street.

“She really should have known better, poor thing,” Mrs. Klatsch tsks, while her hair is setting.

Lacy quietly suggests to Nova that she take a few days at home to let the dust settle. Instead she thinks she might take the season, traveling to Chicago to visit her mother.

Still, she finishes out the day. She looks for Mr. Manen to come through her line, but he never turns up.

***

Nova returns to North Star and the lights seem to dim in her presence. Even the older women who routinely whispered and gossiped about her odd appearance are concerned.

“Whatever is the matter with that girl?” Mrs. Sladder exclaims.

“I don’t know, but she doesn’t seem herself,” Mrs. Klatsch responds. “She has been gone for a bit, hasn’t she?”

“Since May, dear. It’s been months.”

Nova’s fine crooked smile has disappeared.

The coffee is bitter.

“No, I was foolish to listen to you,” Mr. Manen exclaims when the Nox sisters corner him outside of the library, the autumn air as brisk as his tone.

“You don’t underst-”

“Please, liste-”

“You have to-”

Mr. Manen continues to walk away as the women try to speak at once.

He finally goes to peer at Nova, to see how Mr. Saule might have stoked the warm glow of her. He decides he will choose a different lane in which to check out — he’s not insane.

Not seeing Nova’s telltale sparkle and shine, Mr. Manen still gathers his usual fare in a basket, as well as a yellow notepad and a jar of honey. He meanders a bit through the store, hoping to avoid the Nox sisters, and Nova herself if she happens to be around.

The girl at the register is Nova, but not. The constellations are absent from the dark field of her untidy hair. There are violet smudges under her eyes, rather than indigo night. There is no sparkling comet pinned to her breast.

“Hello, Nova,” he says.

“Mr. Manen.”

“Are you well, Nova?”

“That’ll be 22.76, please.”

“Where are your stars?”

“Gone. 22.76, please.”

Mr. Manen pays for his groceries and leaves.

***

Nova still dreams about the moon when she sleeps: the moon, splendid and shining, extending an opalescent hand, or the moon, apple cheeked and hawk-nosed, crowning her with flowers and fireflies. She is draped in silver-grey lengths of sky. The resplendent face backs away until all Nova can see is a gleaming disk in the sky overhead. When the dreams end she feels as if she’s been flung back to earth from great heights.

Nova pours her jars of moonlit sea into the sink. She gives the pot of indigo night to the Nox sisters to share. The stars with which she once pinned her hair up are discarded with the feathers and flowers and the rest of her rubbish. Nova resolves to be sensible. She buys plain black laces for her boots.

For reasons she cannot fathom or explain she pins the cheap imitation of a comet that Erik Saule tried to press upon her onto her blue wool jacket after she finds it, still blinking, under her couch.

***

As summer arrives once again Mr. Manen decides that he will acquire for her a real comet.

At the same time, Nova is tired of being sad, of being quiet, of being still. She wonders if maybe a small cluster of stars– not to wear, that would be too much– might lift her spirits a bit. She would like to replace the pin on her blue wool jacket with a falling star or a real comet. It is time to stop wearing the gaudy reminder.

Separately, they both approach Ava, Lacy, and Clothilde. They both gather flowers, feathers, water, and light. Mr. Manen digs through his hall closet and pulls out the discarded paper bag from the year before. He performs a few minor repairs on the item and once again dresses in his pressed suit. His bow tie is crooked. He has a spot of grey paint at his temple. As before, he looks charming.

Mr. Manen thinks, as he nears Nova’s house on his way to the field, that perhaps she might like to be a part of the capture. He sees her walking through her door and stops, uncertain if he should call out. He doesn’t want to frighten her, nor does he want to intrude on whatever plans she might have.

“Mr. Manen,” Nova calls, seeing him standing still on the sidewalk a few houses down. “What are you doing here?”

He waits to answer until he’s a few feet away. Stopping, he says, holding his basket out, “I was going to try and catch a comet. I thought perhaps you might, well, that is to say, perhaps you might join me?”

“Mr. Manen–”

“Nils, please. I wish you would call me Nils.”

“Nils.” Nova sorts through the basket with deft fingers, noting that the items mirror her own. “What’s in the sack?”

“Would you like to see?” Mr. Manen– Nils– is nervous. He starts to wonder if she will think him silly when he shows her the efforts of his labor.

“Yes please, Nils.” He likes the way his name rolls out of her mouth as he sets the bag and basket down on the sidewalk and very carefully extracts a large paper mache sphere. As he straightens Nils places the sphere over his head, and settles it onto his shoulders.

Nova lets out a small gasp, not too dramatic, but noticeable. Standing in front of her, hawk-nosed and apple cheeked, is the moon.

“Mr. Manen,” Nova says, inching closer. She runs her fingers over the mask, marveling at the uncanny accuracy achieved with paint and paper and glue. She straightens his bowtie.

“Nova.” The mask muffles the sound. “What do you say?”

Through the eyeholes in the mask, Nova’s fine crooked smile appears to him at last.

Across the street, crouched in Ava’s bushes, the Nox sisters watch as the pair gather their baskets back up and head for the field. It pleases them to see Nova casually reach up and pluck a small handful of stars from the sky and pin them in her hair.


Ani King is an oddly reliable whisky drinker located in Lansing, Michigan.

Issue No. 11, Winter 2014

The Fire People
Rebecca Harrison

One still dusk, Yasamine huddled at her window, peering out at the desert and stars. Far away, a mountain loomed into the sky. Twilight had hushed the town. As she listened to the night winds, her grandmother’s calls drifted up through the floorboards. Yasamine rushed downstairs, curled up under the lamplight and listened to her grandmother’s stories. Every day her grandmother told her tales of the desert. This evening, she said that the night winds were made by the wings of giant birds. She said the birds were the colour of night and must fly forever to stay unseen. Yasamine closed her eyes as her grandmother told of the birds’ endless flight over mountains and cities, plains and seas. When her mother came to hurry her to bed, she found her slumbering. Later, her father carried her to her room while she dreamed of falling feathers vast as rivers.

As dawn lit the town, Yasamine woke. She lay listening to footsteps and whispers in the streets below and then hurried to help her mother with the day’s chores, setting the table while her mother swept the floor. Her family settled into breakfast and chatter, and Yasamine watched her grandmother for hints of stories. When her father left for meetings with merchants, Yasamine followed her mother into the family workshop to tidy for the weavers soon to arrive. In the workshop, rugs draped and gleamed, and the air smelled of weaving and sunlight. Yasamine ran her fingers over glinting patterns and then wound twine while her mother dusted the five looms. When the room was neat and bright, the weavers knocked on the door. Yasamine squeezed in a corner and watched her mother bustle tea and study stitches.

All morning, Yasamine plucked silk from the tiles and sunbeams, while the weavers gossiped and toiled. At noon, she shuffled to the kitchen and crushed spices as her grandmother muttered recipes. Yasamine begged and sighed for stories until her grandmother told her of a desert king who wished to travel all the kingdoms of the world without stepping from the sand. She said his subjects carried a vast slice of desert for him to walk upon while they marched over meadows. The tale lulled Yasamine into a daydream and she dawdled at her tasks. Suddenly, her mother flustered into the room, clapped her to help and pulled her to the workshop. Yasamine watched the merchant swagger about the rugs and sunlight while her father paraded the patterns. She tidied the twine, then spied the merchant’s son, Davood, in a corner and crept to his side.

Davood was Yasamine’s best friend. Together, they played in the merchant’s gardens, roaming between walls and blooms, sitting in shadows as Yasamine whispered her grandmother’s stories. Once, when the noon swelled, they had named statues and waited for them to wake at sunset. They had sighed in sadness when twilight had sunk upon still stone. Other days, they wandered the halls and corridors of the merchant’s grand house, seeking treasure behind marble and silk. They hid in dusks and spied on banquets, huddling silent against laughter and song. Yasamine told secrets to gilded paintings and Davood hunted lost passageways. They slumped in archways and guessed at the world beyond the desert.

This day, they watched while their fathers bartered. Coins were counted and rugs were folded above the weavers’ hush. Yasamine’s grandmother carried a dish of sweets into the workshop and the air swayed with spice and rose. Yasamine and Davood saw the dish passed round the room. As the adults bargained and joked, they crept to the sweets and softly munched, then grasped and sipped honeyed drinks. The merchant shook hands with Yasamine’s father, summoned Davood, and strode through the door into the street. Yasamine’s parents clasped hands and Yasamine’s grandmother swept the sweet dish to the weavers. The day dwindled while Yasamine’s mother nattered, the weavers piled rugs, and Yasamine and her grandmother washed away syrup and lavender from the dishes.

When the evening came, Yasamine curled beside her grandmother and settled under another story. Her grandmother told her that blind creatures clung to the stars, only spying their glow dimly in the dark. She said the stars were moved about by the creatures’ lost and sightless wanderings. Yasamine listened as her grandmother told of a lone creature dragging a star to the night’s edge.

But what she really longed to hear about was the fire people. They were her favourite of her grandmother’s tales. They were made from flame and ember and spoke in hisses and crackles. They made the desert glow and left glass footprints upon the sand. Deep past the dunes, they dwelled in a glass palace made from sand melted by their touch. Some nights, Yasamine peered through windows trying to see fire people lighting the gloom. When travelling merchants came to the workshop, she hoped for stories of the fire people, but they talked only of dunes and journeys and the great mountain topped with airless snow. Sometimes, as she walked around the rooms, she imagined glass and sand beneath her steps.

When Yasamine’s grandmother had finished her tale, Yasamine kissed her goodnight and drifted to bed. But she didn’t dream of lost creatures crossing the sky: she dreamed of following glass footprints beneath the stars.

The following dawn, a glass footprint was seen on the sands. Word of it murmured along alleyways and paths, until Yasamine heard rumours wafting in the streets below her window. When she tip-toed downstairs, her father sat her still and spoke of old hoaxes. As the day stretched, she lingered at doorways listening for news while daydreaming of deserts that had melted to glass. While her parents dined on spice and grain, Yasamine begged to see the glass footprint, but her father shook his head. That evening, her grandmother’s storytelling was halted and Yasamine wandered between curtains and shadows until her mother sent her to bed.

The rumours wilted as days went by, but Yasamine still wavered outside doors listening for whispers. When her parents paced the workshop out of sight, her grandmother gathered her from corners and told stories in pieces. Then, one night, a fire person was glimpsed upon a far dune. Yasamine woke to murmurs beneath her window. As she pressed her face to the glass, she imagined peering out from a desert palace cooled by the wings of giant birds. All morning, daydreams spilled over her as she and her mother gathered silk and polished silver, dried herbs and brushed cloth. Each time Yasamine spoke of the fire person on the dune, her mother shushed her ramblings.

Days passed. The streets trembled with more tales of sightings. The town slowed as people turned towards the desert and watched for flames. On the day of Davood’s birthday, Yasamine was sent to stay at his house. Davood’s father was rich, and the house was one of gold and tapestry. In the halls, marble reached to shadows. Yasamine and Davood spent the day in the gardens. They settled under an archway, and in gasps and smiles told each other the scraps of stories they’d overheard. They wandered amongst statues and blossom while they whispered and planned. They walked beside the wall nearest the desert, listening for the hisses and crackles of the fire people’s words. When the sun sank, a servant ushered Yasamine to her room. Wrapped in silk and shadows, she lay listening to the darkness until Davood tapped on her door.

Yasamine followed Davood through passageways and gloom. After trudging up many steps, Davood reached for a small window and climbed out onto the roof. Yasamine pulled herself through behind him and clung to the tiles. They peered at dunes and stars past the town’s edge. In the distance, the mountain reached into the moonlight. Yasamine shivered under the night winds. Hours passed as they stared hard at desert corners. Then Yasamine saw a distant glow light the dark sands. She gripped Davood’s arm as glow steadied into flame and ember. They watched the fire walk across the desert until it disappeared beyond a dune.

For days, Yasamine drifted about her home and chores, clutching the sighting as her secret. But soon the fire people were glimpsed every night. The dunes glowed with their flames, and glass footprints patterned the sands. One morning, as the market began to bustle, a fire person walked into the town. The crowd hushed and stared. But the market stalls singed and the ground burned, and the fire stepped back into the desert. Word of the scorched stalls was muttered along pathways, until all work stilled. By noon, the townspeople hovered at doors, watching the sands.

That night, Yasamine fell asleep at her window, gazing at fire that paced distant dunes. She spent the morning squeezed beside her grandmother, while her mother scrubbed dishes until the china scratched. In the market, sellers bartered slowly, staring past their customers. That day, fire people walked through a far corner of the town. In the temple, the air was cool with prayer. But flames spilled up the walls, the door crumbled as ash, and fire strode inside the gloom while the worshippers fled. Soon the fire people were seen every day, all through the town. Where mansions stretched heavy with jewels, fire people walked the gardens into charcoal. Where shacks pressed close, the fire people walked until the walls were smoke. The townspeople cowered together and shut their eyes to the embers. Yasamine’s parents clutched her close in their hushed workshop.

Every dawn, sun mingled with smoke and ash dusted the rooftops. The town sweltered under embers. Davood’s garden burned and his father sent him to stay with Yasamine’s family. Yasamine’s mother watched alleyways for flames while Davood and Yasamine sat with Yasamine’s grandmother. Each afternoon, Yasamine’s father went to meetings about the fire people. In the evenings, Yasamine and Davood watched out the windows at the desert dusk until her mother pulled them to her side and closed the blinds. Fire people crowded the sands. Their words crackled above the wind.

Every day, Yasamine woke before dawn and gazed at the fire people wandering the dunes. Below her window, fire watchers patrolled the streets of the singed town. Lookouts waited through nights at the town’s edge. Yasamine and Davood lingered outside her parents’ door, listening as her father spoke of the townspeople’s failed plans. Her parents said that no one knew why the fire people walked the town: sometimes in burning pathways they stood still and gazed around as if looking for something beneath the flames. When they roamed, they seemed to search. Yasamine wondered if the glass palace had shattered, and now homeless, they would walk the world to ash. Davood guessed that the desert was shrinking and that they were seeking new sands beyond the town.

One evening, as Yasamine and Davood huddled under lamplight, she said they should find the glass palace. That night, they waited until the house and streets were hushed, and then crept out the door. They walked between soot and moonlight, winding through passageways by burned walls and empty rooms. They hid in doorways when fire watchers passed. As they moved, Yasamine wondered if the fire people might walk the seas into steam. And she imagined the world with oceans dried into deserts. Davood gasped as they reached the town’s edge: the sands glimmered with footprints. Yasamine stared up at the stars and remembered her grandmother’s story of the lost creatures’ blind journeys.

Together, Yasamine and Davood stepped into the desert. Night winds chilled the sands. Davood crouched beside a footprint and touched the glass. Yasamine gazed across the dunes: a glow warmed the horizon. Faraway, the mountain towered under the night. They began their walk, stopping to stare at fire people striding in a distant corner of the night. They followed the footprints below the stars. The town vanished behind them and sands filled their sight. As Yasamine’s feet ached, she thought of the night birds’ endless gliding. Davood said the dunes looked like waves and the desert like it was moving as a slow sea. They walked onwards, as the desert sloped, and began to climb up a steep dune. Embers smudged the stars beyond the ridge.

They stared from the top of the dune: across the desert, the glow of the glass palace stained the night. Chill winds tangled with heat. Footprints glinted in clusters. They trudged forward as firelight warmed their path. Far away, the glass palace twisted and loomed in shimmering shapes. They dragged their shadows over the lit sands. Yasamine pointed at great holes in the palace walls. Davood whispered that maybe the glass was always melting and that, every night, the fire people had to build the palace over again. Yasamine murmured that, no, the holes were there because fire needed air.

They walked on through the desert. Firelight smothered the sky and embers spilled over the stars. Heat billowed across the sands. The air blazed with the crackles and hisses of the fire people’s words. Yasamine and Davood stared as they neared the palace. Within glass walls, fire people walked through air which twisted and splintered into sparks. As the sand scorched their steps, Yasamine gazed up at the burning sky and wished for the wing beats of giant birds to cool their path. They halted close to the palace and stared into the flames glittering through the glass.

Yasamine looked across the palace: a giant archway reached into the glass. Davood reached out and touched the shimmering wall. Beyond the looming side, flames moved in the palace deeps. Yasamine and Davood stepped inside the archway. Yasamine felt they were entering a cave of glass and fire. They shuffled inside the palace and gazed out. Davood whispered that the desert looked as if had melted into the walls. They walked through a passageway towering with firelight, trailing their shadows in the glass. Their path circled and rippled, and Yasamine watched for handprints in the walls.

They gasped as the passageway widened into a cavern of gleam and ember. Firelight spiralled through glass stalactites. They cowered as a fire person walked past, leaving footprints of molten glass. They crept deeper into the palace, alongside the walls and corners, stilling whenever fire people went by. They paused beneath holes in the glass, and tried to glimpse stars past the sparks. Night leaked between gaps in the fire’s glow. They shuffled by walls singed with light and crevices twisted with embers. Glass thinned into gnarled pillars. Yasamine wondered, if she spoke, would her words crackle and hiss?

They walked through passageways and caves toward the centre of the palace. As they stepped under an archway, Davood gasped. A fire person knelt in a corner of the cavern. Yasamine grabbed Davood’s arm as the fire plunged its hands through the glass floor, scooping up sand which quivered over the flames into glass and light. The air shook as the fire stood and sank a hand into the cavern’s side. The wall gaped and flowed. Glass pooled by the fiery feet. The light trembled as the fire turned. Yasamine and Davood jolted as eyes of spark and flame glared across the shimmering heat.

They felt the cavern stretch under the fire person’s stare. The glass pillars swayed with firelight. Yasamine and Davood inched backwards until pressed against the wall.  The fire took a step forward and began to speak. The air strained under hisses and crackles which shaped into words from Yasamine and Davood’s own language.

“Who are you?” the fire snarled. “Why are you here?” The voice blazed against the walls. Yasamine and Davood cowered as its eyes flared. Yasamine tried to speak, murmuring into the heat.

“We came from the town at the desert’s edge,” she said. The fire hissed. “The streets are burning.” Yasamine looked away from the fire to the molten footprints. “People are hurt.” Her words stumbled. “Why won’t you leave the town alone?” Her voice sank under the simmering light.

“I rule this desert,” the fire sparked. “My people always stayed on the sands, away from men. But our lives are short. Yours are long.” He paused and watched as they quivered. “I want to live many years. I sent my people to the village to search for the secret of your long lives. I will make them walk over the world until they find it. They will walk until the cities and valleys turn to smoke. The oceans will boil. Deserts will reach over sea beds where more of my people will form. They will walk until the world is ash.” The air bristled with his words. He plunged his hand into a glass pillar which cracked and spilled upon the ground. Yasamine quaked as she imagined the planet as soot and sky. She thought of her grandmother’s tales of the world beyond the desert and pictured the fire people walking through it, burning towns and hills. She saw the night lit with embers and mountains below flames. The king of the fire people hissed. Yasamine looked up, glimpsing the mountain through a gap in the glass. Stars lit its airless peak.

“I know the secret,” she whispered.

“Tell me,” the king growled. Embers bristled in his eyes.

“It’s the mountain. My people used to live short lives, but then one man climbed to the top of the mountain, and now we live for many years.” Her words hovered between the pillars and sparks. The king turned to look at the mountain. Yasamine thought of her grandmother. “The desert was once a great forest with trees as high as hilltops, but then an endless wind came and went through it until only sand was left,” she said. “The wind raged for centuries, but got caught in a hollow at the top of the mountain, and it’s still there now. If you step inside and breathe it you get a bit of its endless life.” The king reached into the glass: the wall shivered and poured. The gaping hole dripped light.

“Show me,” he hissed as he walked through the hole. Yasamine and Davood followed him as he tore chasms in the walls of passageways and caverns. Glass rippled with flames as they stepped from the palace. The king stared at the mountain: moonlight drifted down the slopes. He began striding across the desert, sand glinting as glass under his steps. Yasamine and Davood followed him through the sparks and night winds.

At the foot of the mountain, they gazed upwards at snow and stars.

“The hollow’s at the top,” Yasamine said, starting to walk on the slope. The king quickly marched ahead, with Yasamine and Davood scurrying behind. Chill stone sizzled at his steps. Night clung to the mountain. Darkness sank on firelight. The king strode onwards, past steeps and ravines. Yasamine and Davood paused to look back at the palace: glass and embers lit the distant sands. They shuddered as the king turned and blazed, snarling at them to point the way. Yasamine and Davood struggled over jagged edges and gripped at sharp rocks. Davood murmured at her not to look down. The king moved faster through the moonlight, flames smarting the night winds.

They looked up at the peak towering far above. Night smudged around the sharp heights as dawn tinted the snow. The king paused under the winds, rocks sparking at his grasp. He halted as Yasamine and Davood clambered ahead, and then followed as Yasamine led the way.  She shivered as the sky chilled the air. The desert stretched deep below their sight. The slopes tilted as they reached higher climbs. Yasamine and Davood gasped and slowed in the thin air, and the king began to dim and cool. Daylight softened the stars and stilled the winds. The king hissed and crackled as the peak came closer, his burning words vanishing in the high mountain air.

“We’re nearly there,” Yasamine gasped out, pointing at a corner of the mountain top. She faltered as her grip weakened and Davood slumped at her side. They huddled on a ledge and stared as the king went on without a look back.

The king climbed on toward the peak, his fading flames singeing the light. Rocks simmered at his weakened touch. Yasamine and Davood clung together, and she whispered that the hollow was just her story. They watched as the king scaled the jagged reaches. He clambered further until snow steamed under his feet. His firelight stuttered in the thinning air. His flames began to dim and flicker as he neared the mountain top. His embers cooling, he dragged himself over the rocks, seeking the hollow in the stone. Yasamine gasped as the king began to curl and shrink. He hissed and crackled, trying to crawl while his sparks spluttered and faded. He was still searching for the endless wind when he was turned to a patch of soot.

“He’s gone,” Yasamine whispered to Davood, as they gazed up at the snow and soot. A hush clung to the mountain top. They looked out across the still desert toward their town, and then began to climb down the slopes.


Rebecca Harrison writes fairy tales, hunts bluebells, and can be summoned by a cake signal in the sky. Her stories have also been published in Axolotl Magazine, Wild: A Quarterly, Quail Bell Magazine, The Story Shack, and The Teacup Trail.

Issue No. 11, Winter 2014

Benediction
Anjana Raghavan

Today, I woke up with a dream memory. In my dream, a woman with a gentle face gifted me a pair of shoes that she had made by hand. They were sturdy, very plain, cloth- shoes; navy blue in colour. We were in a mountain- forest, beautiful beyond imagination, and the rain was heavy as a guardian wolf, hiding us from the world. The shoes had only one peculiarity – they were joined together by a strip of cloth. I asked the woman why she’d designed them this way. She smiled softly and said, “the band of cloth joining the shoes together will make sure that you pay attention to walking. It will make you take small, deliberate steps, so that you are not always running blind everywhere, forgetting to see things, to be conscious, to be here, and to be grateful every time you stumble, but do not fall. You inhabit so much beauty. The shoes will remind you.” May we all remember.


Anjana Raghavan is an academic with a PhD. in Culture Studies. When she isn’t teaching or learning social theory and feminism, she is either singing, cooking, or reading fairy tales, mythology and fantasy.

Issue No. 11, Winter 2014

Enfermos
Raquel I. Penzo

I fumble with my keys, looking behind me in terror. I’ve practiced this terrified look in the bathroom mirror many times. C’mon, c’mon, I whisper. The jingling of my keys will give me away if I don’t get this door OPEN! I’ve used the wrong key, and the lock refuses to turn. I can feel Pop, the creepy guy from next door, peeping through the door at me. “You okay?” he says from inside his apartment. This heightens my anxiety. I have to get out of the stairwell. Pop may be one of the bad guys. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken those caramels from him last week?

This is Day 3 of practicing my serial-killer-victim, mad-dash-to-the-door. The keys are new. Yesterday, I banged on the door screaming, “Let me in, let me in,” but Nana didn’t appreciate it. “Niña,” she yelled. “¿Estas loca?” She had sweat dripping from her brow from the heat of the stove, no doubt, and a crazed look in her eye. She hadn’t had time to put on her shades. Her brown eye glared at me in frustration. The green, bruised one was confused.

“Sorry, I was just playing,” I mumbled to myself.

“Play-ing?” she asked in her broken English, mocking me. “This no funny! Entra, ya, before they call police!” she whispered while pointing to Pop’s door.

So today I choose the classic horror movie key fumble. I think for sure no one would hear, but I forgot about our nosy neighbors—they hear and see everything we do.

I finally get the door open, slam it behind me and turn all the locks. I brace myself against the door taking quick victory breaths. Made it! “¡Niña, por Dios, no estrayes la puerta! ¿Que te pasa?” She’s getting fed up with my entrances. Tonight she will tell my mother. I feel it.

I walk down the hallway toward her, head down, whispering, “Nothing’s wrong with me. I’m just acting.” Nana puts her hand up to stop me.

“Oye, Yadira ees esleeping here, okay? So callate la boca.”

“What’s she doing here?” On a Thursday? Didn’t she go to school today?

“Está enferma.”

I nod at my grandmother and tip-toe into the den. Yadira is lying on the full-sized bed, the one that used to be Elenita’s, the one that used to be in Nana’s bedroom before the bunkbeds took its place. She is on her stomach, her face buried in the pillow, with orange-red hair is spread out across her back, just reaching her naked upper thigh.

Yadira is wearing Elenita’s Ice Cream is Brain Food nightshirt. I recognize the lavender trim on the cap sleeves. This is going to be a problem later, for sure. If I know my cousin, she’s gonna catch a fit that Nana allowed Yadira to wear her clothes.

I follow Nana into the kitchen, putting my book bag on the little brown school-chair that is also Elenita’s. It occurs to me, suddenly, that nothing here is mine. “What’s wrong with her?” I whisper to my grandmother as she stirs the beans with one hand, and adds flour-coated eggplant slices to a pan of hot oil with the other.

“No te preocupes. Go do you homework,” she instructs.

This smells of a scandal. Whenever I “shouldn’t worry myself” over something, it means the grown-ups will discuss it later. I hear Nana curse under her breath in Spanish, something about ginger.

“Agarra aquí,” she says, calling me back and handing me the spatula. I despised fried eggplant, and now she wanted me to help her cook it? Nana wipes her brow on her housecoat, the white one with the blue flowers and the missing buttons. A few stray salt-n-pepper strands of her soft hair remain pasted to her forehead. “I go to the store,” she declares, and leaves me in the kitchen.

“Going,” I call after her. “I’m going to the store.” She sucks her teeth, walking through the long hallway towards her bedroom to get dressed and go.

When she is gone, I transfer the eggplant to a plate covered with layers of paper towels and turn off the flame. The rice, beans and London Broil smell done, and I turn them off, too. Quietly, I inch over to the entryway of the den. Yadira is now lying on her side. Sections of redness have fallen over the side of the bed. I notice that she’s blinking, staring at the white molded ceiling of Nana and Papi’s third floor walk-up. Even her eyelashes are orange, seeming almost like they are not there. She is covered in red freckles all over her pink skin.

Yadira is curvy, with large breasts for her age. The first of us girl cousins to grow up. She is fifteen now, but had been this voluptuous for three years. Voluptuous. I learned that word last week. I liked the way it rolled off my tongue. I long to personify the definition. Personify was yesterday’s word. Elenita and I are still in training bras.

“Are you awake?” I ask her quietly. Wherever Nana is, her senses are telling her that I have awakened her patient.

“Yeah.” I walk over to the bed and sit next to her hair, gently running my hand over it. It feels rough, like straw.

“What’s the matter with you?”

“You’re too young to know,” Yadira doesn’t look at me. She stays fixed on the moldings. A tiny roach crawls up the wall next to the bed and we both follow it on its path up to the ceiling with our eyes. “God damn this fucking house and the fucking roaches!” she complains. She covers her face with a pillow and sobs.

“Don’t cry, Nana will make you feel better. I think she went to get ginger for your tea.” It was her cure-all: ginger tea with orange peels.

“What the fuck do you know?” Yadira stops crying and grabs my arm. “You’re just a stupid kid with no problems!” She lets go of me and I yank at her hair.

“Well then fuck you, too,” I yell. That is going to cost me three Hail Mary’s tomorrow. “And I’m not stupid, you are.”

“That’s right, you’re the smartest thing alive, no? You want to know what’s wrong, smarty pants? I just got kicked out of my house.”

“Why? What happened?” My anger for her leaves. What would cause Tia Frida to throw her only daughter out of the house?

“Because Sammy got me pregnant, and I got an abortion. There. Now you know everything.” She throws her face back into the pillow. “Go look that up in your brainiac dictionary. You know you want to.”

There is a thick pause between us. Instantly, I no longer crave her curves. I suddenly want nothing to do with breasts and hips and vaginas with pubic hair. I want voluptuous out of my memory bank. “I don’t have to, I know what it means.” I stare at my hands. Planned Parenthood ladies had already visited my fourth grade class to talk about our changing bodies and the consequences of those changes. The nuns added their own piece on treating our bodies as temples for Jesus. “You know you can go to hell for that, right?”

“Fuck you and your fucking priests! You think I believe in that shit?”

“It’s not shit!” Damn! More Hail Mary’s! I am letting her get me in trouble. Where is Nana already?

I turn away from Yadira towards the hallway to the living room. I don’t have to take this.

“Wait. I’m sorry, Muñequita.” She looks up at me with puffy red eyes that almost match her hair. “Please sit with me till Nana gets back?” I sit at the edge of the bed and stare out the window at the head of the bed, while Yadira returns to her moldings. “I know I’m going to hell. You think I don’t know? I been going to hell. This abortion ain’t gonna make no bigger difference.” We sit in silence some more, neither one looking at the other, until she decides to change the subject and lighten the mood. “How’s the acting going? Elenita told me you got in trouble for dirtying your uniform?”

“Yeah. I’m practicing being chased by a killer. Day before last my throat was cut on the steps before I could even reach the door to bang on it. I had to crawl the rest of the way, gurgling for help.” She laughs at my recounting of Day 1 with this new study. “I managed to tap weakly on the bottom of the door, and then Nana opens it and says ‘¡Ay Dios Mio!’” I do my best impression of my grandmother, throwing my hands up in the air, sending Yadira into full-on laughter. “You’re getting all dirty!” I use my best Nana-English, and Yadira is in hysterics. “Then she made me wash my uniform in the bathroom sink, by hand: jumper, knee socks, vest and shirt- the whole thing! Nana doesn’t understand modern cinema.”

“She understands, but you know that your mother would have beat your ass if your uniform had come home dirty on a Tuesday.” Yadira pauses to wipe tears of laughter from her eyes and stares at the ceiling again. “Nana understands a lot.”

“Yeah, I guess. She never told on me.” I look back out the window. For a second I think I see a shadow pass by the window across the alley from us, the window of the third floor of the abandoned building. I hate that window. “What does it feel like?”

“Sex? Or the abortion?”

“Both, I guess.”

“Don’t worry about it. You’re too smart to end up like me. You’ll probably marry some great Catholic guy and it will be painless and perfect.”

“It hurts?”

“When you’re a girl, everything hurts.”

“Oh,” I peek up at the moldings for a minute. I try to find what Yadira is looking for, help her out in the spirit of Jesus. Save her soul. Then I hear Nana’s heavy footsteps on the stairs, her key in the lock, her breathing in the doorway. I lean over the side of the bed and say “hey” to her as she shuffles towards the den. Her scowl sends me upright.

“You in trouble?”

“Yep. I better go do my homework.” I get up, grab my book bag from the chair in the kitchen and begin walking towards the living room, again. I keep my head down to avoid Nana’s glare.

“Muñequa,” Yadira calls after me as I pass the bathroom. “What’s your word today?”

“Ubiquitous.”

“Jesus Christ! What the hell does that mean?”

I walk back towards the den. “It’s an adjective. It means ‘being present everywhere at once’. Like God, you know, omnipresent.”

“You’re nuts! When are you ever going to use that word?”

I sit at the edge of the bed again, thinking. “I don’t know.”

Yadira laughs her hearty laugh that draws me into her. “Go do your homework.”

*****

When Papi walks in it is exactly 4:30, just like every day. He is wearing his navy blue work pants with the black sneakers he bought last week on Bushwick Avenue. I run to him, as usual, and jump in his arms. “Bendición,” I say, kissing his cheek. I am almost as tall as he is. I wonder if I will pass him.

“Dios te bendiga, Muñequita,” He kisses my forehead. I hug him, placing my head on his chest. He smells of Old Spice, and his beard is prickly with the day’s growth. “Yadira is here,” I whisper to him. “Tía Frida kicked her out.”

“¿Quien dijo?” he asks me, frowning. Papi dislikes gossip. “Yadira vino porque está enferma.” He scowls. She must have come last night—he already knows.

We walk the hallway together into the den, arms linked. I notice he’s holding a red and white striped paper bag, stapled shut. “What’s that?”

“Ees fo Nana.”

“What is it?” We enter the den, where Yadira is sitting up in the bed now, watching TV and finishing up her tea.

“Her medicine,” she replies. Papi sucks his teeth and rolls his eyes at Yadira. This is something I’m not supposed to know. “What? You think you can hide stuff from this one?” she points to me. “You might as well tell her.”

I look from Papi to Yadira and back. He also is covered in freckles, but his are brown, like a pinto bean. His hat is still secured to his head, but his jacket is now on the back of a chair. Yadira begins to stare out the window, shaking her head. I feel nervous all of a sudden and walk into the kitchen to look Nana in her face. “Nana, are you sick?” I open my eyes as wide as I can push them. I want to take in her whole figure while I wait for her answer.

“No, no. Son vitaminas.” She doesn’t look at me while she speaks. She busies herself serving Papi’s plate of food: the largest piece of London Broil cooked in tomato sauce with chunks of potatoes, a heaping mound of white rice, roman beans, and three hefty slices of the fried eggplant.

“She has diabetes,” Yadira yells from the den. I hear Nana curse under her breath. “Go look it up, Muñequa.”

Diabetes. I don’t know it. I’ve heard about it, but I don’t think I really paid attention. Something to do with sugar and needles. Needles. I look at Nana, and she looks the same as always. It’s something inside her body. I walk out of the kitchen quickly, avoiding eye contact with my grandparents and cousin. “¿No vas a comer?” Nana yells after me.

“I’m not hungry.”

In the living room, I grab my dictionary from on top of the mantle, stopping only to stare at the large mirror attached to the wall. My hair is in two French braids today. I do my own hair now that I’ve learned how to braid and my mom is too busy with the new babies. My shirt is not as white as it was on Monday. Tomorrow after school I will be made to scrub it clean by hand, just like I do every Friday. The eyes looking back at me wink. “Leave us alone!” I yell at it. “Just leave us alone!” The shadow behind the winking eyes does not retreat, so I do, and sit on the plastic-covered couch.

I hold the dictionary tight to my chest with my eyes shut. Most of the words in it are underlined or highlighted, words that I’ve looked up and forced into my vocabulary. Diabetes, such a simple-sounding word, is not one of them. I find the word, but the definition means nothing to me: inadequate secretion or utilization of insulin. I need a medical book, like the one I saw at the bookstore on Flatbush Avenue last week. Or answers.

Sweat accumulates on my back. With my stomach grumbling quietly, I get up and walk back to the den. Nana, Papi and Yadira are eating and watching the news on Channel 47. There are men in army attire holding large guns and running all over the street. Nicaragua, I think. Maybe Columbia. They’re always fighting over there.

“¿Quieres comer?”

“I can get my plate.” I look at Nana. “Are you okay?”

“Ay, si, m’ija. Ees jus my shooga. Estoy bien.

I nod in agreement, as if I understand and go to the kitchen to get some dinner. Justhersugarjusthersugarjusthersugarjusthersugar.

I sit with them at the table. Nobody is talking, just watching the news. We are all waiting for the novelas to come on. Even the shadows from across the alley, from the window I hate, are still.

I look into Nuno’s smokey, brown eyes. “Don’t make this harder than it has to be.”

But I love you. Don’t you understand?

“Please. It can never work between us. You’re always on tour.”

You can come with me. The band won’t mind.

“Nuno, don’t be stupid. I have to follow my dreams to Hollywood, and you have your music. You just need to forget me.” I turn my head to the side when he tries to kiss me. “Just go.” My tears gather, ready to slide down my cheeks.

“Who are you talking to, baby?” A brown, wrinkled hand with long, yellow fingernails peeks out from Pop’s door. His wife, so thin and petite she hardly looks real, questions me with her shifty eyes.

“Just my…secret INVISIBLE lover,” I whisper huskily in my best Kathleen Turner voice.

She looks at me in shock, hand over her mouth, and slams her door shut.

“That’s right old lady,” I put my key into the top lock. “Go back to your window seat and mind your fucking business.” Once inside, I’m grabbed into Nana and Papi’s room before I can even lock the front door. “What the fuck?”

Elenita puts her hand over my mouth. “You don’t want to go into the den.”

“Why not? Let go of me.” Elenita used to be much bigger than me, but now that we were in our teens our heights match up, and she can’t really boss me around like she used to. We’ve become more like sisters and best friends than cousins.

“Trust me, don’t go over there.”

“What is going on?” I adjust my leather jacket, the one that says GUNS N ROSES on the back in red and yellow letters, a large skull in a top hat underneath, one of Elenita’s cast-offs.

“Pedrito is here,” Elenita reveals, her brown eyes nearly popping out of her head.

“Oh my god! And Papi knows?”

“Yup. Nana says he’s been here since the weekend.”

*****

Pedrito is our third cousin, named after my grandmother’s brother who died in Santo Domingo before she came to New York. Cousin Pedrito was the son of the daughter Tío Pedro had unknowingly left behind, exalted by Nana above everybody else. He had his grandfather’s striking features, almost as if he were Tío Pedro reborn: dark as tar with the oddest, bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. They remind me of California swimming pools- or at least what I imagine California swimming pools look like, and I loved when he would come over and play the staring game with me; I’d fall into his eyes every time.

Two years ago, the day after I graduated from junior high school, Nana got a call from his mother that Pedrito was in serious trouble, hooked on drugs and living on the street. She couldn’t find him. Anywhere. Then one day, driving back to Brooklyn from the Washington Heights bakery where we buy our pastries, there was Cousin Pedrito covered in soot, offering to clean our windshield for a dollar. My stepdad waved him away, and my mother nearly had a heart attack. Pedrito was so messed up that he didn’t even recognize us. He just reached into the car, snatched my mother’s purse, and took off into traffic.

Now here he was in my grandmother’s den.

“What is he doing here?”

“Detoxing, and boy is he sick! It’s so bad, that Nana told your mom not to bring Livvy or Panda-bear over today.” I roll my eyes at hearing my sisters’ nicknames and at my mother’s insistence on treating them like delicate porcelain figurines. Yet here I am, in the middle of detox central.

“He looks real bad. Wanna see?” Elenita adds. Shoving me back towards the hallway. We tip toe towards the den like we are kids, like we are 10 and 8 again trying to steal handfuls of ground coconut while Nana makes bread pudding.

Nana peeks out from the kitchen and catches us in mid stride. Elenita and I freeze and grin wide, Cheshire cat grins. Nana holds her finger to her mouth, menacingly, and goes back to cooking after we nod in agreement. We continue our walk down the hall to the den, where a couch has been added, along w/ the full sized bed, table and chairs, refrigerator, food cabinet and TV that are already there. Cousin Pedrito is lying on that couch, his body protected from the black leather surface by Nana’s old quilts. I make a mental note to not use those quilts ever again.

I can’t see what he’s wearing – he’s tucked all the way in under the heavy blanket, but I can see the sneakers he came in placed neatly in front of the couch. They are barely shoes anymore, barely white anymore, the Nike logo barely visible anymore. The soles are coming apart forming an evil grin in his barely sneakers.

“Look at him- I can hardly believe he’s related to us,” Elenita whispers in my ear. He is sweating a lot and swaying under the blankets. Suddenly he gets up and pukes a thick yellowish liquid into a bucket carefully placed by his head. Cousin Pedrito looks up at us and smiles. Some of his teeth are missing. His face has craters that weren’t there before. The sweat is overpowering his face.

“Muñequa, Elenita, how are my two favorite cousins?”

“Fine,” we say in unison. I look at Elenita nervously.

“How’s school?”

“I’m not in school anymore, Pedrito. I work.” Elenita says flatly.

“Oh, okay.”

“It’s been a while,” I say. Since we last saw you. When you stole my mother’s purse.

“I guess.” He pauses to wipe sweat from his brow and throws up again. “Sorry you have to see this.”

“It’s okay,” I say. “I throw up when I’m sick, too,” and Elenita nugdes me.

“Whatever.” Elenita turns to walk back towards the living room. “Payback’s a

bitch.”

 

Last year at my quinceañera, as we smoked up in a bathroom far from the party, Elenita told me about her and Pedrito in his mom’s bedroom. She used to like to go to their house because they had cable, and Tia____ used to stock up on American junk food, stuff we were not allowed to have in Nana’s house. “We were eating Sugar Babies and watching videos, and he asked me if I had ever seen a dick.”

“No!” I said, beyond shocked and on the verge of losing my buzz.

“Yes. And when I laughed and said no, he pulled it out.”

“NO!” I had an immense vocabulary, but ‘no’ was all I could muster.

“YES. Then he asked if I wanted to touch it.”

“Elenita don’t tell me anymore. I’m gonna be sick.”

But she continued to describe how Pedrito finally got her to touch it, and so much more. Stuff that I try to forget I’d ever heard, everyday. She was only 12 that year.

 

“Okay, niñas, leave Pedrito. You,” Nana points at me. ”You mother say you

report card ees bad. Go do you homework. Ahora!”

“Yeah, I’m going. Bye Pedrito,” I say to the thing that used to be my cousin, and

start that long walk again. Always the same walk to the living room.

“Hey Muñequa? Do you still look up words all the time?” he asks before I make it to the door.

“No, I stopped a long time ago.”

“How come?” He is looking at me from down the hall now, and his blue eyes still sparkle. There is hope for him yet.

“They all started to mean the same thing.”

“What?”

“Nada.”

*****

“Is she gone?” Pedrito has been hiding under the blanket for about an hour, ever since Nana received a call from his mother and took Elenita with her to Manhattan to advocate for his return home. He emerges drenched in sweat, still shaking.

“A long time ago. That shit you’re on has you buggin out, dude.”

“What you been smoking?” He sniffs the air around me. I ignore him and keep changing the channels on the 20-inch TV that has lived in the den for as long as I can remember. Most of the knobs are messed up. There are pliers by the set we use to change the UHF channels.

“You’re crazy, man.”

“And you’re holding. You think I can’t smell that weed all over you?”

I do a quick air check around me, and notice the shaky amusement on Pedrito’s face. He gives me a toothless grin. “Gimme some.”

“No, man! You’re supposed to be getting clean.”

“Just to take the edge off.” I shake my head no. “C’mon, I’m freaking out here. I NEED something.” He’s shivering like a small child in the snow with no coat. Just some weed. It’s not crack, I guess…

“Okay, but you have to help me air the place out afterward.”

“Cool, Muñequa, whatever you want.”

We decide to light up in the kitchen so that we can blow the smoke out onto the fire escape. The window faces overgrown trees and shrubbery, what used to be a lovely garden I am told. I give Pedrito his own blunt, not wanting any of his crack cooties, especially after watching him throw up all afternoon. He takes hits off of it like a fiend. I notice that after a little bit he doesn’t shake so much anymore and he’s thinking clearly. We talk gossip about the family.

“…So finally, Yadira just had to call the cops on Sammy, and now he’s doin’ three years at Rikers.”

“Bullshit? I thought they was the next Luke and Laura.”

“Yeah, if Luke was a two-bit thug and Laura was a two-timing whore.” We laughed for a solid three minutes at the foibles of our relatives. The higher Pedrito got, the more fun he was becoming, missing teeth and funky b.o. aside.

“So what about you? Who you two-timing?”

“Didn’t you hear? I’m a fallen woman, now.”

“Word?”

“Word. The way Nana tells it, I’m fucking the whole junior class at school.”

“I thought you were at a school for nerds?”

“Shut the fuck up, I’m not a nerd. Besides, what, smart people can’t fuck?”

“Hey, cuz, you tell me.”

“There’s a guy. We kind of hook up sometimes, but you know, I’m keeping my options open.”

“For what?”

“For when I finally get out of this shitty borough and move out to LA.”

“Oh yeah, now I remember. You was always trying to get your mom to move out west, walking around talking to yourself.”

“I was acting!”

“Whatever.”

I notice the shadow from across the alley floating through some of the trees. It winks at me and gives a throaty laugh. It keeps floating, doing loop-de-loops through the air and giving me the thumbs up. I have to stop lacing my blunts. Then it occurs to me what a huge mistake it was to give Pedrito that smoke after all. Angel dust can’t be good for a crackhead trying to detox.

Meanwhile, the shadow comes closer to my window, and swimming pools appear. I lean back on the windowsill, and am on a hammock overlooking the pool that overlooks the Pacific. Nuno sits next to me strumming his guitar. Sing my song.

Which one?

The one you wrote for me. The one that made Axl jealous. He puts his guitar down, leans into me and sings a capella.

Saying I love you/ is not the words I want to hear from you/ It’s not that I want you/ not to say it but if you only knew/ How easy…

We kiss and the shadow is there, over the pool, watching us. Nuno smells like weed. We’ve been smoking all morning. It’s the only way he can write, and it’s the only way I can rest. I undo my robe and he squeezes my breasts. That last tour was a long one. He misses me. It’s not long before he undresses us both, and I’m thankful for the cool breeze over my naked body. Nuno watches me wait for him and I see he’s hungry for me. Next time he goes on tour, I’m going with him. We can’t be apart for this long again. Before long, he turns me over and thrusts into me. We are like this for a long time thrustingdancingsingingthrustingdancingswimmingflying. The shadow outside the window laughs and laughs. Fucking voyeur, I think. It starts to beckon me.

Come here with me, it says into the wind. I close my eyes and float out to meet it. “What do you want from me?” I ask.

What do you want from me?

“But you called me over.”

Because you asked me to. Don’t you like it here?

“Yeah, it’s nice. How long can I stay?”

How long do you want to stay?

“Forever.”

Oh no, not that long, just long enough for your grandmother to die. She’s sick, you know, in a lot of pain.

“When you’re a girl, everything hurts.”

Did you notice your grandfather brought home more medicine last week?

“Yeah, vicodin. I like that one.”

Sure, it’s good stuff, just for you.

*****

“Muñequa, hurry, put your clothes on. Someone’s at the door.” Pedrito’s voice is behind me, and just like that Nuno vanishes with the shadow from across the alley. I turn over on my back and Pedrito is zipping up his pants. “Girl, get the fuck up!”

“What, where are my pants?”

Pedrito throws them at me just as I hear Papi call out, “Do I smell rice burning?”

 

“Are you excited about today?” Ana sits on my nightstand, bouncing a handball and chewing gum.

“I’m a little scared, but yeah, I guess excited.” I empty the contents of my waste paper basket into a large trash bag. “I hear Papi’s new place is nice, across from a Portuguese bakery. I’m excited about that.” Ana continues to chew and bounce, ignoring me, not looking me in the face. “Are you going to miss me?”

One of the newer nurses taps on my door before peeking in. I knew right away it wasn’t one of the vets; they never knock. “You almost ready, dear?”

“Almost,” I call back, locked in a gaze with Ana, whose shocked and hurt expression is one I had hoped to avoid today.

“Okay, dear. Well, the doctor is waiting in her office whenever you’re ready.”

“Thanks, I’ll be down in a minute.”

Ana stands and plants herself between my luggage and me. “You’re not bringing me?”

“No,” I say staring at her bare feet. She tries to come closer to me, arms outstretched, but I walk around her, grab my bags and close the door to my room behind me. Muffled sobs follow me down the hall, into the elevator and through the lobby until I reach my doctor’s office.

Dr. Echeverria’s office is always a bit dark and today is no exception. She keeps her curtains drawn all the time, and during my first few weeks at the hospital, some of the other patients tried to convince me that she was a vampire. Even though they kept me pretty drugged up, I knew no such thing existed. Still, I never liked being in that dark office, talking about my feelings, alone with the creepy lady doctor.

“I have set up our appointments for Saturdays at three. Is that good for you?” Dr. Echeverria does not look up from her appointment book as she speaks.

“You tell me; isn’t that why my mom is paying you for?” In the three years that I have been her patient, Dr. Echeverria has never laughed at any of my jokes. Today is no exception and I tire of trying to lighten the mood. She doesn’t seem to have picked up on my sarcasm. “Yeah that’s fine. I’ll be here.” I stand there in front of her desk, waiting for her to say or do something. After a moment, she looks up at me.

“Did you want to tell me something?”

“Oh no, I just thought, you know, you wanted to tell me something before I go?”

Dr. Echeverria closes her appointment book and sits back in her large leather chair. She has long dark hair that she always holds back with a black headband that matches her hair exactly. Over the years I’ve had many opportunities to study her face: the sharp edges of her nose and chin, the pronounced cheekbones, the clear smooth skin. “What would you like me to tell you, Maribel?” Her detachment was something I could never get used to. That and how she always called me by my given name and not the nickname I’d answered to my whole life. Nobody else did that but her.

“Nothing, I guess. I’m just gonna go, then. See you Saturday.”

“Three o’clock. Make sure you’re on time.” Dr. Echeverria doesn’t even look up to wave goodbye.

I head back into the lobby, where one of my favorite nurses is waiting to say goodbye. Nurse Palmer holds her arms out to me and brings me into a tight squeeze. “Now you be good out there, you hear me, girlie? I don’t want to see you back here.”

“Don’t worry. The memory of this crappy food will keep me straight.” I kiss her cheek and leave before the lump in my throat gives way to tears. Nurse Palmer was the only thing that kept me sane in the hospital. She would sneak in some of her mother’s curry and roti for me to share with her when I had ground privileges. She would tell me about carnival in Trinidad and about her grandmother’s house in Tobago. I never understood why she took to me so, but I appreciated every moment of it.

Outside, my mother’s town car waits with the motor running. She couldn’t even come inside. I take a few deep breaths and walk towards the car. The driver, a new guy that I don’t recognize, gets out and opens my door for me and takes my bags.

My mother is in the back, talking into the little recorder she gives to her assistant every morning.

“…please review the contracts and get back to me…sincerely…fill in my name and CC Patrick and Jamie.” She clicks the off button and looks me dead in the face. “Is this the last time we do this?”

On cue I respond, “Yes.”

“Good.”

We drive all the way to Nana and Papi’s new house in New Jersey in complete silence.

The house is nice, nicer than the railroad apartment where we grew up. It has a large porch and a backyard. In her letters, Elenita told me the basement holds a full laundry room and the kitchen is big enough for a dinette set. I suppose this new faux suburbia is their version of the American Dream.

“¡Muñequita!” Papi yells from the porch as my mother’s town car pulls up to the driveway. “¡Ven aqui pa’ darte un abrazo!” He pulls me into the tightest hug just like when I was a little girl in two French braids. He smells like Old Spice, just like I remember.

“I missed you so much,” I whisper into his neck. “How’s Nana?” Papi furrows his brow in a way that tells me she’s not okay.

“Esta bien. Ya sabes…a little sad but she’s okay.” Papi dances around mentioning the sadness that has surrounded the family in the past three years since I’ve been away: my cousin Evie’s suicide; my other cousin Sahdi refusing to speak to anyone after her parents’ car crash; Elenita MIA since last month and Yadira back in Florida trying to divorce her husband.

“How is her memory?” Papi gets uncomfortable when I ask this.

“Why don’t you just go inside and speak with your grandmother yourself,” my mother interrupts. “I’m sure she’s been cooking for you all day.”

“Si, si…entra,” Papi says, ushering us into the large living room. The furniture is the same from the Brooklyn apartment, but the plastic has been removed. There is a small yellow cat sitting in the windowsill. For a minute I think I’m the only one who can see it, but then Papi walks past it and scratches its head. That’s new.

“Since when do we have a cat?”

“It’s a stray Olivia and Amanda picked up. Your grandmother refused to get rid of it. You know how she likes to spoil your sisters.” I notice my mother’s English seems different. Better. As if she’s been taking lessons. But I know better than to ask her. I’ll just ask the twins later. “They should be home shortly.”

Nana peeks out of the entryway of what must be the kitchen, the room she always seems to occupy. “¿Muñequita? ¡Muñequita!” She comes over to hug me, and her familiar scent of agua florida washes over me. I feel nine years old again. “Food ees almost feenish.”

“Gracias, Nana. I can’t wait; I miss your food.”

“Ven, to see your room,” Papi says when I stare too long at Nana. She’s aged; lost some weight. And her eyes looked…different. He leads me to the staircase that leads up to the four bedrooms of the house. My room is supposed to be mine and Elenita’s, just like when we were little, but I figure with her gone I’ve hit the bedroom jackpot.

“It’s gorgeous, Papi! Thank you,” I hug him again and he leaves my luggage at the door before he heads back down. I plop down on the bed and stare up at the ceiling, a habit from the hospital that I suspect will be hard to kick. “I thought I said you couldn’t come home with me,” I say to Ana, who has made herself rather comfortable in the far right corner of my new room.

“Yeah, you did. But we both know you weren’t serious. You could never leave me behind. Not in a million years.” She gets up from her spot in the corner and joins me on the bed. “I’ll always be here.”

Ana is the spitting image of Pedrito with her dark skin and bright blue eyes, but she has my long, thick, jet-black hair. She is all limbs—just like I was at her age—but she’s more graceful about it. She doesn’t trip as much. And she’s smarter. Ana doesn’t look up words in a dictionary like I used to, but she knows them all just the same. Words that even I have forgotten the meaning to.

“Does your mom know I’m still around?” Ana knew the answer to that, but I suppose she wants to hear it from me.

“If I tell her that, I’ll have to go back to the hospital for good. You remember what the nurse said. As long as you’re around I’ll have to stay at that place.”

“So I have to lay low here, too? I can’t even meet Nana? She would love me, I know it!” She gets impatient with me and I don’t blame her. Ana is young; she shouldn’t have to hide out. She should be allowed to run free and play. “And I suppose meeting my dad is out of the question?”

“Don’t ask me stupid shit, okay? You know the rules so stop being a baby. If you don’t like it you can always just leave!”

“But then who will love you?”

I get up and grab my suitcases. I attempt to unpack them when I hear a school bus pull up, the twins coming home from day camp. I go to the window and watch them walk up to the house, Olivia in front and Amanda shuffling behind her. They look so different! Have I been gone so long?

I abandon the luggage and run down to meet my sisters at the door. It’s a weird feeling, missing them so much, but nothing a huge hug and kiss for both won’t cure.

Olivia sees me first. Her hair is in one long, black ponytail and her skin has begun to break out in pre-adolescent acne. Amanda comes in and, upon seeing me, pushes past Olivia to wrap herself around me. I almost can’t believe her transformation, the weight she’s lost, the slight pep in her step. “I’m so happy you’re cured,” she says.

“Yeah, me, too, kid! Olivia? Hi.”

“How long are you home for this time?” She was never one to mince her words.

“For good.”

“No more dead babies talking to you?” She asks about Ana just to piss me off, and I decide that maybe I didn’t miss her all that much.

“I’m home for good, Olivia,” I say sternly.

“Yeah, Olivia. Shut up and leave her alone!” Amanda was always my favorite. The twins exchange a look before Olivia walks towards the kitchen in a huff. “C’mon, Kito,” she snaps and the cat saunters out of the living room behind her. “We’ll be in the yard,” she says to no one in particular. Amanda and I just laugh.

“Let’s go upstairs.” Amanda tugs on my arm and we head up to the room next to mine. The twins seem to have put up an imaginary wall in the space: Olivia’s side has movie posters and books everywhere. Amanda’s side just holds a few family pictures and a laptop where the pillow should be on her bed.

“Bye the way, thanks for all your letters and emails, Panda-bear. Don’t know how I would have ever kept up with the family gossip without you.” I sit on her bed to get a better look at the baby pictures of Elenita and me on her wall. “So where is she?”

“Nobody knows. Yadira thinks it’s a boy, but Papi thinks maybe it’s drugs.”

“With Elenita? Could be either one. So she just waltzed right out after dinner?”

“Yup, just got up, brought out her suitcase and said she was leaving for a bit.”

“That girl always had the biggest cojones I’ve ever seen on a female!” We stay silent for a minute. “I miss her.”

Amanda looks down at her feet. “Me, too.”

Nana serves all my favorites at dinner, and I eat it as if I’d been in jail instead of a hospital. I fix myself a plate three times and before I go for dessert my mother gives me the eye. “Cake, too? Now I know where Amanda gets it from.”

“I can’t have cake?” I don’t want to fight. I just want cake.

“No, Maribel, you can have whatever you want. Isn’t that the way it works?” says Olivia.

“Please, no fighting at the table,” Papi interrupts. “Sisters don’t fight.”

Nana gets up from the table and motions to me. “Come, Elenita, we wash deeshes and then you have cake, OK?”

“Nana, I’m Muñequa, not Elenita.” My mom sighs in frustration and Papi looks concerned.

“I know that!” she scolds. “¡Ven, a lavar, ahora!”

Everyone leaves the table as Nana and I gather the dishes and bring them to the kitchen sink. All this suburbia and still no dishwasher? I think to myself. Nana grabs the sponge and digs right in.

Sabes que?”

“What?”

“Everywhere you go, Ana go. She always go with you everywhere.”

I stare at her, soapy dish in my hand dangerously close to falling. “Ana? Did you say Ana?”

“Si, you baby, Ana. She never leave you.”

“How do you…”

“She jus like you, when you a chiquitita. Skeeny, bella. Like you.” I don’t know how to respond to her. She takes the dish from me and rinses it herself. “Yo te la cuido, I take care of her. No te preocupes,” she says and hands me another soapy dish. Nana looks past me and smiles. “I take care of her.”

I look behind me and Ana is there, propped up against the wall, bouncing her handball and chewing gum. “See,” says Ana. “She likes me.” I rinse the dish I’m holding, and continue helping with the dishes in silence. As long as we’re silent, we can stay in this moment where I’m not crazy and Nana is alive and Ana was never here. I decide that silence will be our home from now on. It’s the only place where no one is sick.


Raquel I. Penzo is a Brooklyn, NY native who has carved a career for herself as a writer, editor, and literary event curator. She hosts the New Voices Reading Series each quarter in NYC and works as a copywriter at Brooklyn Public Library. Raquel authored the self-published “My Ego Likes the Compliments…And Other Musings on Writing,” and the short stories, “Grey Matter,” published online at Blue Lake Review, and “Perspective on a Murder,” published by Mason’s Road. An anthology of works from participants of her reading series was released in 2014. She can be found online at RaquelPenzo.com.

News Item #20

Dear Writers and Readers,

Happy New Year! The Winter issue is now live. I apologize for the delay.

Beyond the Pale Motel

Please check out Rose Red Review’s Winter feature, in which I interview Francesca Lia Block and review her latest novel, Beyond the Pale Motel. Beyond the Pale Motel is a brutally beautiful work—one I’d recommend for anyone who suffers from, or is affected by, body dysmorphia or an eating disorder.

Warm Regards,
Larissa Nash

ETA: Flavorwire has included Rose Red Review in a list of ten “particularly funky literary magazines which are doing something unique and cool with their platform.”

I’m over the moon! RRR is a labor of love; it makes me so happy when it’s read and appreciated.