Issue No. 12, Spring 2015

"Innocent Sinner" -- Stella Rothe
Innocent Sinner
Stella Isis Rothe

Spring Feature, 2015
The Rumors of Buttons, the Knowledge of Shirts by Sarah Sadie
Sincerely, Persephone by Emily Sholly

Fiction
Briar Rose by S.E. Clark
Mr. Biggs by Timothy Day
Baby Skulls by Halley Sutton
Jacklight by Phoebe Wagner
Beyond the Fence by Marilyn Horn-Fahey

Poetry
Beauty by Ruth Daniell
You Wait For Spring by Julie Brooks Barbour
Father’s Cage by Andrea Sherwood
Now Spring by Carolyn Cushing
where the spirits drink the locals drunk… by Christopher Chamberlin Miner

About the Contributors

News Item #21

Dear Writers and Readers,

The new issue of Rose Red Review is now live. Many of these pieces address the longing for connection, biding one’s time, a passing. How appropriate, as we move from Winter to Spring.

Happy Equinox, and Happy Reading!

Warm Regards,
Larissa Nash

Feature: Issue No. 12, Spring 2015

The Rumors of Buttons, the Knowledge of Shirts
Sarah Sadie

The shirts listened, curious and pained,
as their buttons fumbled, but never quite explained
the ecstasy of thumbs, sweet in and out,
how lonely to gape separate.

They knew a gleam at lonely, but otherwise—
no. They did not understand their buttons’ sighs.
Armpits, thought the shirts. Elbows, whispered they,
and that pale nightmare, fray.


Sarah Sadie blogs the intersections of theology, poetry and the kitchen counter at the pagan channel at patheos.com. An editor (cowfeatherpress.org) as well as writer, her poems appear in places such as Midwestern Gothic, Literary Bohemian and Literary Mama, to name a few. Her poetry has received the Wisconsin Fellowship Of Poets’ Chapbook Prize, the Council for Wisconsin Writers’ Lorine Niedecker and Posner Prizes, and a Pushcart Prize. Her collection, Somewhere Piano, was published in 2012 by Mayapple Press. She is one of two Poets Laureate (2012-2016) of Madison, where she lives with her husband and two children.

Issue No. 12, Spring 2015

where the spirits drink the locals drunk around a bonfire in the back of a voodoo swamp blues bar in a bayou somewhere not too far southeast of Baton Rouge
Christopher Chamberlin Miner
for Robbie

one of these days my friend
you and I
are gonna drink
and howl our guitars
in a voodoo swamp blues bar
in a bayou
somewhere not too far southeast
of Baton Rouge

*******
we will make our way
down dark roads

where the spanish moss hangs thick
draped and dangling
from cypress trees
and telephone poles

we will breathe the warm and rotten
beautiful summer swamp air
that heavy and damp
poisonous and sweet
diseased
life giving
southern
oxygen
into our lungs

the stars the full moon and the fireflies
will render the light
and the shadows

creeping things
will hide
and stare
and be very still
while they watch
from the woods
and the ditches
along the sides of the roads
we will travel
on our way
to a voodoo swamp blues bar
in a bayou
somewhere not too far southeast
of Baton Rouge

********
we will head out
down
along Blood River Road
we will have heard
a rumor
about a place
where psychedelic banjos bleed out
biblical sized chants
and the beer and the bourbon flow
like honey in the Springtime
where hips sway like meandering rivers
to the beat of rhythms
carried across oceans
a rumor about a place
where the power and the glory
are not hidden away

a rumor
about a voodoo swamp blues bar
where the spirits drink the locals drunk
around a bonfire in the back

*******
we will make our way
through toxic and intoxicating
alligator marshlands
past homes where snakes are seen as gods
and also used for food
and neckties
and holy book scapegoats
past homes flooded out
toppled from their stilts
past homes where dobros
and washboards trance
at three thirty in the morning
past homes where LSD dreams
ritual screams
hearts and identities are sacrificed
while elderly dreadlocked women
sit and softly sing
songs from the spirit world
to give these things rebirth
past homes where anima and animus
are given divine tangible form
we will make our way
to an unnamed
seldom used
dirt road
barely a road
more like traces of tire tracks
muddied and overgrown

we will walk this hidden road
and we will find
this voodoo swamp blues bar
where nine lanterns will hang from the ceiling
and line the walls

where seven of them will be lit


Christopher Chamberlin Miner lives in Berkeley, California with his two cats, Isis and Bella. He loves them very much. He also loves music and sound.

Issue No. 12, Spring 2015

Beauty
Ruth Daniell

From my tower window the garden glossy
as glass, a cathedral window laid
flat in his courtyard. Up close, the roses thick
with prayer: I want to go
home.
But what that was
was newly changed, disfigured
as his face, its sad magic. The castle
with no mirrors or still water because he
could not stand to see himself reflected
but there was water unquiet in the garden
pools and everywhere roses slow and
deep as honey. The castle granted me every wish
almost before I thought it, except the one
he then gave me: I left him for my father’s house,
thinking it was still home, but returned
to the castle knowing different, searched for it
in every room, knowing somehow he was
dying from my absence—

After the wedding,
I used to wonder if the match
would have been the same if it had been him
tasked to hear past the enchantment—if
it had been my voice stuck in the throat
of a beast, my requests for love rumbling
out like threats. I could not hear past my own
prayers at first, the roses muttering after
me, but I came to understand his heart
invisible through the eyes he wore as an animal,
wished I could know he would have done the same
for me when I had been so easy to love, so visible
in the ornate gowns the ladies-in-waiting
insisted upon. That day I found him almost
dying in the garden, I wore my heart
in my human eyes, on my sleeves—
sewn in diamonds across my bodice,
rustling down my skirts
like rain beading off a stem.


Ruth Daniell is a Canadian writer who was named the winner of the 2014 Young Buck Poetry Prize by Contemporary Verse 2 and is a current nominee for the Pushcart Prize for poetry published in One Throne Magazine. Originally from Prince George, BC, she now lives in Vancouver, where she teaches speech arts and writing at the Bolton Academy of Spoken Arts and runs Swoon, a literary reading series on love and desire that she founded in 2013. Her poems and stories have appeared or are forthcoming in various journals across North America and online.

Issue No. 12, Spring 2015

Mr. Biggs
Timothy Day

A pitcher was in my hand when I spotted the flyer, old and wrinkled on a backwoods telephone pole. Last week I had planted seeds around the perimeter of the neighborhood and this was my first round of watering them.

LOST, read the flyer, accompanied by a picture of a cat on a lap. MR. BIGGS was handwritten underneath it, with a phone number in blue pen. The fingers petting Mr. Biggs were pale and long-fingered, with tiny streaks of lightning painted on the nails. I entered the number into my contact list under the name BIGGS.

I went home and did not think about Mr. Biggs again until that night, when I saw a commercial for cat litter. It was long and I was trying to be more spontaneously social, so I picked up my phone and dialed BIGGS and after four rings a woman’s voice came through the other end.

“Hello?”

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi.”

“I saw your poster,” I said. “Mr. Biggs.”

“Oh,” she said. “You saw Mr. Biggs?”

“No,” I said. “Sorry.”

“Oh.”

“Just the flyer.”

“Oh.”

“I looked for him though.”

“Thanks.”

“What’s he like?”

“He’s a little bastard.”

“Mhm.”

“But I miss him.”

There was a pause. I pictured Mr. Biggs knocking over food and scratching at people and I thought to myself: what a little bastard. And then I said,

“Lightning terrifies me.”

There was another, longer pause, and I almost hung up because I thought that she’d hung up. And then she said,

“I promise to never point at you.”

And I hung up because it felt like the farthest we could go, like when you’re swimming across a pool and you hit the other side, or when you have to leave wherever because the parking meter’s up.

On Monday, I devoted the whole of my morning to the search for Mr. Biggs. I didn’t call his name because if a stranger called my name I would probably think that I had broken a law. I saw other animals that nobody was looking for and chased after them for a moment to make them feel wanted; a chance to reject is the worst source of pride but at least it is something. Around noon, I came across a woman walking through the fields in back of the supermarket. She wore a sequined blue dress and high heels, fingernails bright pink.

“Mr. Biggs!” She called. “Where are you Mr. Biggs?”

I approached and asked if she was the owner, telling her before she answered that it was me; the caller from last night.

“I’m not the owner,” she said. “I’m just looking.”

“Oh,” I said. “Me too.”

The woman nodded.

“We’re gonna find that little bastard.”

We looked for Mr. Biggs together through the afternoon. Next to the old high school soccer field, we came upon a middle-aged man pacing slow through the grass, eyes scanning the horizon. When we saw each other, there was something distantly understood between the three of us, as if we had robbed a bank together in a previous life. Without words, we continued the search as a party of three, ascending the hill that marked the edge of the neighborhood and reaching the top by nightfall, where we gathered up twigs and made a bonfire and sat around the perimeter warming our hands, eyes resting on the gleaming lights of the next town over. The air was thick with defeat and my head sunk into my knees. I thought about my plants and how they, at least, were getting somewhere. When I looked up, the middle-aged man had fallen asleep. The woman and I stood and agreed to try again tomorrow.

The next day, there was a crowd with the woman when she met me in back of the supermarket.

“Who are all these people?” I asked.

The woman shrugged, still wrapped tight in her dirtied blue dress.

“Guess word got out,” she said.

The two of us led the way, the crowd following. I had never had a crowd follow me before and it made the haunting sensation that I was somehow supposed to know where I was going very real. We explored back alleys, peaked inside dumpsters, and tried to think like a cat. The consensus was milk and mice and yarn stores. There weren’t many of the last two around and the first wasn’t readily available to animals. One of the new searchers was a boy with a toy airplane and he attached the Mr. Biggs flyer to it and flew it across town until the airplane ran out of batteries and crashed on top of a Chinese restaurant.

By the end of the week, we were knocking on doors and handing out flyers on the street. New people were joining us every day and we had someone on every corner, in every neighborhood. The city itself seemed to be growing with us; it was as if more people lived there than ever before.

Months passed. The woman in the stained and torn blue dress went with me to make a presentation to the mayor, who declared the search for Mr. Biggs a citywide priority. Homeowners were instructed to leave bowls of milk on their porches at night and volunteers took shifts watching from their cars to see if Mr. Biggs came to drink. The sense of comradery in the streets was wonderful. Strangers stopped each other to ask if they had heard of any sightings and heads shook in unison at the bad news. We were like Christmas elves, all working together in pursuit of a single day: the day we would find Mr. Biggs. There was an unspoken feeling between all of us that when this happened, other things would follow. Things like love; world peace; the end of all sorrow. Or at least maybe an orgy.

When the boy with the toy airplane had his bat mitzvah, the streets outside the synagogue were packed with humanity, everyone doing the wave. The woman in the blue dress and I sat in the front row as honored guests, clapping until our hands got red. During his speech, the boy attached a piece of paper reading thank you to his new airplane and flew it above our heads. The paper dropped somewhere in the middle of the synagogue and a young girl caught it and blushed. Before landing the plane, the boy said,

“We’re gonna find that little bastard.”

And the crowd erupted in applause.

Nobody ever asked the woman in the blue dress about her wardrobe, but it got so you could smell her coming three streets down. I thought that it was probably something she planned to keep up until we found Mr. Biggs, like some sort of religious vow, and I admired the dedication. Sundays were my favorite, when the two of us would meet in my apartment and plan the week’s actions. Out there we had become celebrities, but in here we were just people again. Even though all we ever talked about was the Mr. Biggs movement, I felt closer to the woman in the blue dress than anyone. And there were moments together; moments when we agreed on a new tactic in shared jubilance and smiled across the planning-board; moments when we walked out of my apartment and she said goodbye as the paparazzi swarmed us; moments in which I began to feel slightly less concerned with Mr. Biggs.

After a few years, the movement began to die down. People lost hope and moved away to cities less preoccupied with the finding of a cat. I still gave my regular Thursday night pep talk at the diner, but there were fewer and fewer people in attendance. Our weekly search parties dwindled until we were back to double digits.

The boy with the toy airplane got married at 21 to the girl who caught his thank you message at the synagogue. All of the Biggs searchers and former Biggs searchers were in attendance, the mood between us like that of a college reunion, our glory days firmly behind us. There was a fear creeping up in the back of my mind that all our movement had ever been was a bunch of people pretending to be not lonely. It was an outdoor wedding and a toy airplane flew through the air, carrying a paper that read: Harry and Cindy together forever! Most of us didn’t know who Harry or Cindy were but we could assume out of context and we smiled with parental affection as the boy-with-the-airplane/Harry kissed his bride at the altar. During the reception, the woman in the downright filthy blue dress asked Harry for a dance, sulking away after he gently suggested she take a shower already.

At the final search party, I was alone. After ten minutes of retracing my steps for the thousandth time, I felt around in my pocket and removed the original Mr. Biggs flyer. I stared at the fingernails, I stared at the lightning, I stared at that little bastard in the lap. And I turned the flyer over, eyes widening when I saw the address, printed on the back the whole time. I found a telephone book and looked it up immediately, landing on the name: Deborah Evans.

I felt nervous when I knocked on her door, as if I was showing up for a date nine years late. The woman who answered had lightning-bolt fingernails and wore a tank top with applesauce smeared on it in several locations. I held up the flyer in place of a hello and she looked at me long before inviting me in.

Deborah gave me a cup of coffee and we sat at her kitchen table. Behind us kids ran around and shouted and disobeyed her in a variety of ways.

“I found Mr. Biggs in the backyard a few days after we talked on the phone,” she said. “He was old, but I got three more years with that little bastard.”

I sank back in the chair; it seemed impossible.

“Mr. Biggs is dead?”

Deborah nodded.

“He’s in kitty heaven.”

Outside, Deborah told me where Mr. Biggs was buried and pointed towards the gravesite. Her directions led me to the top of the hill that marked the edge of town, where the middle-aged man was still sleeping, his belly swollen with a gentle rise and fall. I stood next to the mound of dirt that poked up with the presence of a dead cat and closed my eyes, waiting for lightning to strike me. Before this happened, I heard a rustling noise to my right and looked over to see the middle-aged man waking. He shifted up to a sitting position and looked around, as drowsy as nine straight years of sleep will make you.

“What’d I miss?” He asked.

I shook my head.

“Nothing important.”

I thought about all the dreams that the middle-aged man must have had over the years, all the love and world peace and ending of sorrows he must have seen. There was probably an orgy in there too. And I thought that perhaps it was not him who’d been sleeping his life away, but the rest of us who’d been living our lives away. I looked at him and said,

“Do you ever think that life is a bunch of people pretending to be not lonely?”

The middle-aged man put his hand on my shoulder and sighed, then began to walk slowly down the hill.

Five minutes after our meeting was supposed to start that weekend, I got a phone call from the woman in the blue dress.

“I can’t make it today,” she said. “Can we reschedule?”

I took a deep breath.

“Sure,” I said.

I knew that this rescheduling was never going to happen; our meetings had come to an end; there wasn’t even a reason for them anymore, and the woman in the blue dress was just trying to make it less dramatic.

“Great,” she said. “I’ll talk to you later.”

“Wait.”

“What?”

I sat over our planning board, with the notecards and post-its and thumbtacks. The hopes and dreams of our time.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

There was a pause and I knew that we had reached it; the end of the pool, the limit of the parking meter. Still, I held the phone tight.

“Amy,” she said.

“Hi Amy.”

“Hi.”

My plants would be grazing the sky by now.


Timothy Day is a restless, absent-minded and awkward person living in Seattle. His fiction has appeared or is upcoming in Menacing Hedge, The Apple Valley Review, Bird’s Thumb, Fiction Fix, WhiskeyPaper, Mulberry Fork Review, Burrow Press Review, and Petrichor Machine. You can visit him online at frogsmirkles.wordpress.com.

Issue No. 12, Spring 2015

Briar Rose
S.E. Clark

I see you.

Shadows will do you no good here; your footsteps betrayed you at the bottom of the tower. The smoke on the wind, too. You’d do well to lay down your sword and sit. That chair will do. Mind the hair and fabric; I’ve just managed to untangle it all.

Don’t bother with your false surprise. Your grandfather must have told you stories about me since you were a wriggler. And you have it all wrong. I can correct you, if you’d like. Or you can try to lob off my head but I’ll have cursed your gallbladder into a hunk of lead by the first cut. And then we both lose. You more slowly, I suppose.

So, sit.

Thank you.

It’s simple, really—they should have just invited me. It would have saved a lot of heart ache. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Her parents did not invite me to the party, which was their first mistake. The other guests didn’t try to hide their disgust when I arrived anyway. Their second mistake, for no one insults a fairy, wicked though she may be.  I don’t think I’m wicked, but the word gets tossed around whenever I must correct such disrespect, so I’ll bear it. I may be the youngest, but it’s my rightful place to be honored with my sisters, and besides, a free dinner is a pittance compared to a gift a magician of my talents can give.

I made a grand entrance at the christening, true; crack of lightning, plume of smoke, high-collared dress. There in the hall the lass squirmed in her crib, gurgling and soiling herself, and when I picked her up, the queen gripped the front of her gown with white knuckles. As if she thought I would throw the babe against the floor—the nerve of her. I meant no harm, the lass knew it; she held up her own head on an unsteady neck, stared with quick, dark eyes and did not cry, which put her in my favor, honest.

I only wanted to scare her parents. I proclaimed my curse—that on her eighteenth birthday the child would prick her finger on a spindle and die—but evoked no magic. No summoning circle, no incense. I bluffed. Any idiot wizard could tell. I figured the child would die earlier than her teen years, as many children in this kingdom do, or she would live, never having to card wool or spin or even touch a sheep in her shiny, special life. Her parents would be pleasantly surprised. You could say I was granting the princess a blessing.

But some people, they just love to overreact.

The queen fell into the arms of the pallid king, shrieking. My sisters—the sober ones—glared at me from the banquet table. And I was pleased as a peach because the mayhem was firing up, when my middle sister, who could never resist the chance to look good, stood from her seat and coughed into her fist. A prim, professional ‘ahem’. I expected a scolding. Instead, she made me a fool.

I should’ve thrown a glass of wine in her face as soon as she pulled the wand from her bodice. The stink of magic poured into the hall as everyone’s hair stood on end. A light jumped from the tip of my sister’s wand like an ember.

“On her eighteenth birthday,” my sister said, “the child will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a hundred year sleep.”

That stupid bitch.

Magic bolted from the end of her wand. It sparked along the baby’s nerves and she began to scream. The king broke out of his stupor, called for the guards. I had barely enough time to drop the babe into her crib and avoid a nasty skewering. I vanished into a cloud of feathers, which must’ve seemed impressive to the court, but mercifully, they’ll never know I overshot my reappearance by a mile and ended up knee-deep in pond scum. My sister appeared at the pond’s edge, haloed in dandelion seeds. She added this charm to all her transport spells; ‘it looks ethereal’, she said. It’s ragweed. People sneezed when she showed up.

“Still haven’t worked out the kinks of that spell, little sister?” she said, “You’re better with animal transformations anyway. Turn into a sparrow and flitter away.”

“Drop dead, Myra,” I replied.

My sister tutted at me, which I hate above all things, and I would’ve wished a lightning bolt from the heavens to strike her if I wasn’t standing in tepid water.

Myra cleared her throat. “Euphegima, this fiasco didn’t have to happen this way. You strayed from the plan—”

I ‘strayed from the plan’? You cast magic! You cursed the princess!”

“Like you were supposed to?” She paced the water’s edge, her feet hovering above the mud. “I told you to cast some little curse. Turn her blue, or into a cat. Something small. You escape, I fix it, and we both get what we want: you bolster your villainous reputation; I get a king and queen indebted to my kindness. But now you’ve complicated things.”

I climbed through the reeds and wrung out my skirt. “You didn’t have to use magic. You could have just lied, Myra.”

“But I’m no liar.” She scraped the underside of her nail with the point of her wand. “Listen, Euphegima. You wanted to be feared. And now you are. Beyond your wildest dreams.”

She paused. Frantic barking and the cry of trumpets echoed over the swamp.

“Best to skitter along, I think. Sounds like dogs.”

And in a miasma of pollen, she disappeared. The kingdom anointed her as their darling, and I became the boogeyman villagers scared their children with at night. Which I didn’t mind. Infamy grants a certain respect; you can have power and never owe anyone favors. It’s what I wanted.

But I was wrong.

Not about the infamy, of course. I’m saying this isn’t my fault, the princess’s curse. You don’t have all the details.

For one—she named herself Briar Rose. Her parents named her Rose but she never took to it, because when people think of ‘Rose’, they think only of the petals and never the thorns. She told me so. This woman asleep on the bed, with hair grown past her ankles. This is the princess you’ve been hearing stories about since you were a child. Her name is Briar Rose.

I put the christening behind me—left my highland cottage for a tower in the forest, bought on the cheap from a farmer who had no love for the king. The king’s men had taken his wife’s spinning wheel by royal decree, as with all such wheels, spindles, and distaffs in the kingdom, and burned them in the town square. Panicked, the shepherds sold their raw wool to whatever foreign merchant would take it. Textiles devolved into an underground industry; women smuggled needles in loaves of bread, knitted cloaks by candlelight. The price of imported fabrics swelled. Many went cold that winter; this was a long time ago, before you were a tickle in your father’s loins.

Some of the peasants blamed me for the disruption; but for many, it was the king’s knights, not I, breaking into their houses and bashing their wheels to splinters. Royalty can never understand what little their dramatics mean to people at risk of freezing to death. I kept my spinning wheel in the top room of the tower, where roses red as chicken’s blood had climbed the turret and shrouded the window. I cleared out all other rampant weeds except those. The vines held fast to the stone and bristled with thorns. They wanted to stay. And I obliged.

I’m a very obliging person. Briar Rose will tell you. For thirteen years I kept my neck out of the kingdom’s troubles, spinning fabric for the farmer to sell in the back of a pub. I stayed out of it, until she arrived.

I’d put on the pot for venison stew when I saw her through the kitchen window, this dirt-child stalking through my tomato plants. Poking at the ripe ones with a twig, like they were playthings instead of food.

The vines caught her before I did; they snaked through the garden and curled around her ankle. They pulled her off her feet and dangled her upside down like a skinned rabbit. She yelped and struck the vine a couple of times until a second tendril yanked the stick out of her hand.

I thought she was a nobleman’s daughter from her furred vest, studded with brambles though it was; I only realized the girl was the same child my sister had cursed when she looked at me. Same curiosity reflected in her gaze.

Her arms went slack and she swayed back and forth.

“Wow, you’re pretty,” she said. And perhaps I was a little aghast.

“Too pretty to be a witch. Are you?” she asked.

“Who said I was?”

The girl shrugged. Bits of twigs and straw fell from her loose hair. “People in the village. They said somewhere in the forest there’s a witch in a tower. But you don’t even look old enough to be one. Where’re your parents?”

“Buried under a rock. And you—you’re trusting villagers? They think if you look at a full moon you’ll turn into a wolf.”

“If you do and start howling,” she said, “they won’t leave their houses for a week.”

So I have a soft spot for mischief, and perhaps I was easily impressed back then. Perhaps it was being called ‘pretty’, something that’d never happened before, or since. That’s all she had to do to snare me; she called me pretty. It is the simplest, most shallow things that can strip away your sense when you’re young.

She paused and sniffed the air. Her stomach growled. I snapped my fingers and the vines released her. And, yes, I may have laughed when she fell into the grass, squawking, but I did invite her in for lunch. She picked at her vest for a moment, then followed. Hungry people are so easy to lure inside, it’s almost sad.

Briar Rose sat at the head of my table and I could tell then she was definitely a king’s daughter by the way she held her soup spoon, pinkie extended. Regal, until she shoveled whole hunks of venison between her teeth and chewed with her mouth open. I teased her, said that’s no way to eat like a lady.

“Maybe I’m not a lady,” she replied.

“And maybe I’m not either.”

The girl’s eyes widened. She swallowed her mouthful and barraged me with questions, you know the kind: ‘Then what are you? A monster, a fairy? Is your house made of gingerbread? Do you eat other children?’

I said, “Are you so fearless to ask me if I eat children while you are sitting at my table, devouring my lunch?”

“I’m not afraid,” she said, “You can’t eat me. I already know how I’m going to die.”

“How’s that?”

“On a spindle. I’ll prick my finger and die and wake up in a hundred years. The scullery maids whisper about it all the time.”

“You mean you’ll sleep for a hundred years.”

The girl sucked at her fingers. “Nobody can sleep for that long.”

It has been long. I keep thinking about what she said. Wondering if she dreams, or if she’s been trapped in darkness for years. I couldn’t bear it if that were the case, being a muted breath away from dead. You know the funny thing? I’ve spent nights watching for a leg twitch, a grimace, anything, so I won’t have to keep spinning through possibilities, like unraveling thread and never, ever getting to the end. Can you give me an answer? How does someone who sleeps for a hundred years ever sleep again?

No. I suppose you can’t.

That day, Briar Rose stayed in my kitchen until the sun dipped under the tree line. I shooed her out with a sack full of marbles and a promise not to tell her father where she’d been.

Teach me spells, she said. Teach me how to turn people into frogs.

Not my specialty, I told her, and shut the door in her face.

I didn’t think she’d find her way back. The forest has a way of disorienting people; it sends them home or lures them into its deepest pits. But the next week I caught her in my garden with her mouth around a tomato, and the next week, and the next. For years. I guess I’m happy she never figured out who I am. Not until the end.

I wouldn’t show her enchantments, so we talked a lot instead. While peeling carrots or field dressing deer, she didn’t care; one of my sisters gave her the gift of gab. We talked philosophy and art and science, how vast a change a hundred years can make. We gossiped boys and their gaping idiot mouths. We wondered what would happen in a hundred years, each birthday. It evolved every time.

On her 14th birthday she said she wanted to become a pirate queen.

On the 15th she hoped to wake to a new age of splendor and flying machines. She hoped I’d be there, too.

On the 16th, she talked about love. She’d snared a couple of rabbits that morning and I braised them in wine. As I cooked, she sat on the windowsill, shelling peas.

“My cousin’s getting married to a girl he met at a ball,” she said, “The reception’s tomorrow. His parents say it’ll be the grandest in all the land.”

“Another cheese tray I’m going to miss out on, I’m sure,” I replied.

Briar Rose squinted and leaned close. Her lips twitched into a grin.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen. Doesn’t like her at all. Said she’s a gossip, and her feet stink. He’s planning on running away.”

“With who? The chambermaid?”

“No. The stable boy.”

I laughed. Briar Rose pulled back and flicked a lock of hair out of her face. She’d cut it short, for a princess—hair the color of chestnut shells, clipped at the shoulders. She thumbed open the pea pods.

“It’s not so strange, is it?”

“What, the eloping?”

“No, the stable boy,” she said.

“No. Not rare for royals or peasants. But with royalty no one cares until some romantic twits decide to flee, instead of keeping things on the sly. It’s all about appearances. Some baron’s son running away with a stable hand? Priceless. His fiancé will have a lot to gossip about.”

Briar Rose sidled up to the stove, poured little green peas into the skillet. She leaned against me, head on my shoulder, watching as I threw in sprigs of rosemary.

“You think they’d notice if I ran away?” she asked. I snorted. She bumped me with her elbow.

“Wouldn’t it be fun?” she said, “sailing to the east, incognito. I’ve heard there’s a port like a jewel—the walls painted blue, red, vermillion. A city of colors. Wouldn’t it be romantic?”

“Like you could keep your mouth closed long enough to stay unnoticed. And I thought you didn’t like the idea of traveling alone?”

“I wouldn’t be alone.”

I saw then, as I opened my mouth to ask her ‘who’, that the roundness of her face had gone, replaced with a certain regalness to her jaw. She had tried covering a speckle of pimples near her hairline with powder and her lips were swiped with vermillion. The center of her gaze never wavered. I could see, as I could in my own face each time I stepped in front of a mirror, a flash of the woman she could become. And she was beautiful. My mouth went dry.

I threatened to whack her with a spoon if she didn’t stop talking nonsense. She snickered and blew kisses from across the table the rest of the day.

I thought she was teasing me. I thought she was dream addled, or worse, curious. But every time she pursed her lips, I blushed. When she grasped my hand, I squeezed back. I never put an end to, or began, anything.

Perhaps I am a coward. You princes never hesitate with these things, do you?

On her 17th birthday, she didn’t show. I waited with beer and cake until the crickets sighed in the brush, drank a stein and tried to sleep through the afternoon. But I dreamed of Briar Rose choking on weeds, or trapped in a ditch, or surrounded by wolves. So I left my tower and searched the forest. I couldn’t find her. I may have panicked, disguising myself as a blackbird and speeding toward the castle.

Yes, the same outside this window, past the trees. Beyond the wall is a courtyard with every fruit tree in this land and the next, tended by fifteen gardeners. All this, while their people couldn’t afford the thread to sow a button onto a cloak. So much for noblesse oblige.

I flew over the wall and into the courtyard where I found Briar Rose sitting with a woman I didn’t recognize, not yet. I eavesdropped from a lemon tree; I could barely see the woman’s face, shadowed by the brim of a hideous velvet cap. Something watery about her skin, like it floated on the surface of her bones. A glamour.

Briar Rose crossed her feet on top of the table. A globule of mud dripped down her boot and onto the glass top. The woman went rigid and her tight smile, which I’d seen a thousand times before, shattered the glamour; my sister sat across from Briar Rose, shaking with the urge to slap her boots off the table.

“That’s not very lady-like,” Myra said.

Briar Rose lifted her feet from the glass and slouched in her chair, legs set wide apart. Myra’s cheek twitched as she strained to keep her smile neat. If birds could laugh, I would’ve.

“I can work with this. This is fine,” my sister said.

Briar Rose held up a hand. “I don’t need a matchmaker.”

“Oh. Because of the curse? It is a bit of a time gap but we can make arrangements—”

“My parents said they’ve broken the curse.”

Myra smoothed out the folds of her dress. A bee drifted past, wings humming through a pod of dandelion seeds on the wind.

“How presumptuous,” she said, picking at the fabric. “Now I understand why they called for a matchmaker. But if you’re not worried about the curse—”

“I’m not interested in a matchmaker’s services.”

“You really need to learn not to interrupt!” Myra clutched at the lace trim, her voice high and tight. “And here I thought Jordana gave you the gift of wit.”

Briar Rose paused. “You were at my christening?”

Myra’s hands fidgeted across her lap. “Oh, no. But one hears rumors.”

She skimmed the garden, and I froze as her glazed eyes passed over my branch. She redoubled; her glance locked onto mine and she leaned forward in her chair. Her shoulders loosened and she settled back. Smug.

“My,” she said, “what an attentive little blackbird.”

Briar Rose turned around, and for all my sudden fluttering, my imbecile pecking at bark, she pierced through the veil of magic; the eagerness in her face betrayed us.

“Hello, pretty,” she said.

“You know where I live, blackbirds are vermin. We put them into pies.”

Briar Rose stood, stretching so the edge of her chemise climbed upwards, flashing a peek of her brown navel.

“They mustn’t have any taste where you come from,” she said, cheerful. “If you’ll excuse me, it’s sunny and I’m quite fatigued. I’m sure someone will lead you out.” She gave a half curtsey and jotted across the courtyard.

But for what should have infuriated my sister, she only seemed amused. She glanced at me and wagged a finger. Tsk tsk.

I didn’t linger. I flew towards the forest, made a sharp turn once I was out of sight. I huddled in an alcove in the west tower, where Briar Rose lived. The window below opened—a rope of knotted sheet slid onto the parapet below, followed by Briar Rose. She’d changed her clothes—a shirt knotted at the waist with a sash, pants with wide cuffed legs. A guard’s outfit; a little loose for her frame, but it suited her. She scaled the castle, practiced and sure, and headed for the forest. I glided before her, twisting through canopy until she stopped at a creek to drink. When I stepped out from behind a pine, human, she didn’t seem surprised.

“You’re late,” I said.

“Not by choice. My parents forced me to meet with her, I had no say.”

“Meet with who?”

Briar Rose grasped my hands, swiped a calloused thumb across my wrist.

“Coy doesn’t suit you,” she said. You can’t argue with some people.

We picked our way through the wood in silence. The shadows ripened into a thick, syrupy green as the sun fell towards the horizon. Soon, the lights of the tower and a hint of pinkish sky glimmered through the trees. Her pants caught on a rose bush and she tugged at it, groaning when it wouldn’t pull loose. I knelt down to untangle her.

She said, “You heard about the curse. You really think they did it? Got rid of every spindle in the kingdom?”

I wanted to tell her there were spindles hidden under the floorboards of every household. To lead her up the tower’s stairs and show her my spinning wheel with its spindle anchored to the bobbin, sharp as an obelisk. Then take an axe to it. I should’ve. I know that now.

“I think you need to be careful,” I said, “even if it’s true.”

Briar Rose stooped down. Her fingers ran down the length of the stem, riding the curves of the thorns.

“For all their faith in themselves, they won’t stop crying. I keep thinking how different everything will be when I wake up. Everyone gone. And I should be happy for the time I have with them, but I hate it. They act like I’m already dead.”

“They’re frightened,” I replied. “Fear makes people more stupid than they already are.”

“Are you afraid?” she asked.

I unhooked the vine from the fabric and set her free. She did not stand. We stayed huddled together; I could smell honey on her breath, the residue of tea.

“Let’s go,” I said.

“In a second.”

She jammed the pad of her thumb into the thorn, withdrew a jewel of blood. Pressed it against her mouth and sucked it clean.

“I just wanted to know what it’ll feel like,” she said and intertwined our fingers. A drop of blood trickled across my knuckles.

When we reached the tower, the sky opened into pillars of buttercream-colored clouds, hanging in the low sunlight. Even the starlings scattered throughout the yard seemed in awe of those magnificent creatures, twisting gold in a deep blue firmament. They cooed at the sky. Briar Rose gasped, startling the birds—they ascended into a black mist, the air whirling with the sound of a hundred beating wings. I squeezed her hand too tight, I’m sure.

“What does it feel like to fly?”  she asked.

“Like falling in a dream,” I said, “but you never need worry about landing. You sail on the wind. You trust it will take you to safety. You have to trust it will take you where you are meant to go.” And Briar Rose tangled her fingers into my hair and pressed her lips against mine and my stomach cinched and she tasted sweet and a little milky and I was so happy. She kissed me as the sun dipped under the horizon and turned everything blue.

“Run away with me,” she said.

My legs ached to go. We could board a vessel tomorrow; she’d peeked at the shipping charts, smuggled food and coin in her room. I wanted to leave with the taste of Briar Rose in my mouth.

But I cupped her hands in mine instead, feathered my lips along her fingertips.

“Your parents haven’t destroyed every spindle in the world. But they’ve done a fair job here. Why not wait until we know the curse has passed?” I said. “It’s only a year until we’re sure.”

Briar Rose bit at the inside of her cheek. Twilight settled on her brow, darkened her mouth.

“And if I’m still cursed?”

“Then you will be clever enough to prepare for the new world.”

“Will you be there?”

“I’ll try.”

“That’s not a good enough answer.”

“Then, yes.”

It is a promise I am keeping. One of few.

We pretended we weren’t running out of time. Seasons shuffled into one another like a deck of cards. The tower changed. Briar Rose left scraps herself in each corner: a stray sock under the bathtub, a bow propped against the kitchen table. On nights Briar Rose could slip out of the castle undetected, she climbed through the window and into my bed. I used to love to feel her sleeping against me.

One night, she unlaced my nightgown, gliding her tongue along my spine. As I trembled in my nakedness, she guided my hands to unravel her braid and it fell across her bare shoulders like ink in water. I tasted rose oil in the plush hollows of her body. She touched secret places. And we—no, there’s nothing more to say about it.

We made plans to sneak onto a boat and head for luscious ports. I could understand the fervor of her cousin and his stable hand, now. I used to think, in the seconds before I’d drift off to sleep that maybe this time my sister’s magic would fail her. That curses, like prophecies and fireworks, can decay after so many years. I even began to spin wool for a scarlet cloak, a birthday present. Something warm against the chilling sea.

The months grew hot and green. Seven days before Briar Rose’s birthday and I hadn’t been able to eat. I barely slept. I yanked weeds out of my garden, violently. When Briar Rose tiptoed behind me, covering my eyes, I almost sprouted wings.

“What’d you give me?” she whispered in my ear.

“What’re you talking about?”

“At my christening. What did you give me? Beauty? Grace?”

If I told you I nearly swallowed my tongue, would you believe me?

I cast her off, played dumb. No fooling her, though. She dogged me between tomato stakes, blocked the tower door with outstretched arms.

“Come on. I know what you are. You’re not a witch—you look the same as you did when I was thirteen. Not even witches can pull that off. Will you look seventeen forever?”

“Stop it.”

“You’re one of my fairies. You can’t give me wit and not expect me to figure that out. So what was your gift?”

She pulled us flush together, rested her palm in mine. Her free hand pressed into small of my back. My skin shuddered with gooseflesh.

“Do I have you to thank for my excellent dancing?”

“You dance like a sack full of cats. And there isn’t even music,” I replied, and Briar Rose hummed. We stumbled through the grass and accidentally trampled a bed of posies.

“Definitely not dance,” she said. Dirt crumbled into my shoes and slid down the heel.

“You know how to grow your own food and suture a wound,” I said, “You can take care of yourself, that’s gift enough.”

I broke away; she persisted, seized my shoulders. Her nails left marks.

“There must’ve been something else. All the fairies gave me a gift except one.” The muscles in her neck tightened as she swallowed. “Just tell me what it was.”

And I said nothing, not even when she whispered ‘please’, because if I opened my mouth I’d vomit. How stupid of me to dream that she’d never figure it out.

Do you know what happens to people’s faces when they look at a monster? Everything shrivels, except for the eyes. The eyes grow wide, glassy. They look at you like they do vultures.

“This is your fault,” she said.

“Briar, wait—”

“Never speak to me!”

She ran. I didn’t chase her, because I am definitely a coward. And after seven days, when I should have stayed home and waited, when I should have kept faith, her absence drove me out of the tower and into the air. I flew, small and feathered, to the castle, where I landed on a window sill and peered inside. The bedroom was empty except for the hand that lay, loosely curled, just beyond the door frame. I squeezed through the open hatch, shed my feathers; a sleeping maid sprawled out in the hallway, water from her overturned bucket soaking into her dress.

I snuck through corridors, stepping over guards and pages until I reached the banquet hall. The king and queen slumped in their thrones; they’d both gone gray since the last I’d seen them. I crooked a finger under the queen’s nose. A dandelion tuft floated out of her nostril.

The place reeked of magic.

I don’t remember rushing across the forest; only that I landed hard on the mat in front of my open door. I followed the stinging odor of magic through the foyer, the kitchen, up the stairs. The door at the top stood slightly ajar and I could hear grunting, a shifting of fabric, coming from inside. I flung open the door; my sister, elbows tucked under Briar Rose’s armpits, glanced up.

“Oh good,” she said, “Be a dear and grab her feet.”

Blood smeared Briar Rose’s thumb, left a trail along the stone floor. The spindle of the spinning wheel glimmered wet. Myra groaned as she hauled Briar Rose towards the spare bed.

“Help me. The floor’s no place for a princess to sleep.”

“Why would you do this?”

Myra rolled her eyes and dropped Briar Rose; her head thudded against the stone.

“Euphegima, please. Could you imagine the damage to my reputation if the spell didn’t work?” She gripped Briar Rose’s shirt, dragged her a few inches. “Nearly died when I couldn’t find her in the castle.”

“You put them all to sleep?”

“I didn’t want them to make a fuss. And besides—do you know how fast that kind of gossip spreads? A whole castle, dead asleep. They’ll be crying it from the hills.”

“They’re defenseless, Myra. They’ll be slaughtered.”

My sister paused. “Oh,” she said, and shrugged. “Well. So long as she’s here, a prince will come. I’ve got a hundred years to find a good candidate.”

She curled her tongue around her teeth and glanced up again. “It was the strangest thing. I nipped over on a hunch and here she was, at the doorway. Looking for you. I thought you might’ve lost your mind and eloped with her. Would’ve been a horror, tracking you down. So I told her you were upstairs, and—damn it.”

The seams or Briar Rose’s shirt split under Myra’s fingers; she recoiled.

“I broke a nail,” she said.

That’s when I wrapped my hands around her neck.

We drew blood; I snapped her wand, she threw me into my spinning wheel and the spindle pierced my side. I don’t know how we ended up so close to the window. Myra clawed at my lips, my eyes; I pinned her against the sill. My throat tingled, then burned. Magic erupted.

The rose vines across the window rattled; they twisted around Myra’s waist. I saw her mouth clench in surprise, a flash of her teeth, before the tendrils ripped her from the sill and hurled her down. My sister broke open on the grass like a pumpkin.

I stood at the window for a long time. Thought of burying her, but that’d be a waste. I grew vines from her bowels instead. They thrived, encircling the tower, the forest, the castle with thorns the size of a man’s index finger. The same briars you’ve cut through, which must mean a hundred years are up.

What’d you say your name was again?

Charming.

You’re polite, I’ll grant you that.

What’s this? It was supposed to be a cloak, but with so much time on my hands I kept spinning and weaving. I watched the most amazing thing sail over the forest—men flying in a giant balloon. Something as delicate as a sheet, yet it soars over mountains. Oceans too, I’d bet. A chariot like that can take you anywhere.

I’ve spun enough fabric for one. Don’t bother trying to convince me she should stay for the sake of her family; I know what your soldiers are doing to them in the castle. House cleaning. King-making. I can smell roses burning. It really is time, then.

Ah.

She’s already stirring. Once she’s steady and good and fed, she’ll be leaving. With or without me. It doesn’t matter. My sister gifted Briar Rose a bad end, you see—the least I can do is offer a clean start. Beginnings and endings thread together so well sometimes, I can’t tell which is which.

Keep that sword in its sheath, boy. I don’t know what your grandfather or his stories promised you but the princess doesn’t belong to you. She never did.

Briar Rose belongs to the new world.


S.E. Clark is a recent graduate of Lesley’s Creative Writing MFA program. She lives in an old Victorian house outside of Boston with two cats and several friendly ghosts.

Issue No. 12, Spring 2015

Beyond the Fence
Marilyn Horn-Fahey

Mr. Wolfe didn’t tell Kate much about this particular job before sending her out. “Old guy at Woodside, already dead,” he said, pouring himself a Scotch, even though it wasn’t yet noon. “Basic processing. BTF.” But now, here at Woodside Nursing Home, Kate saw that Mr. Wolfe had been wrong. The old guy was not dead. Barely alive, hardly breathing, nothing but a lump under a thin gray blanket, but not dead. Which explained the photograph still propped up on the nightstand.

In these types of cases (BTF — when the dying would be planted beyond the fence), any personal effects were thrown out as soon as the person died. This made it less complicated for Forever Tree seed sellers like Kate. This helped the seed seller forget that this was a human being lying here, one with a history. Easier to plant someone beyond the fence that way. But get a glimpse of any kind of personal effect and, like Mr. Wolfe liked to say, “You could end up watering a person for the next 50 years.”

Kate was about to grab the photo and stuff it into the briefcase strapped over her shoulder when the nurse marched in. She was an old woman, probably around 40, Kate guessed. Anyone over 35 seemed ancient these days. Kate had 10 more years before she fell into that group. Ten more years — the time stretched before her like a prison sentence.

The nurse gave Kate a quick glance as she picked up the chart lying at the man’s feet. “Basic processing,” she said, making notes and checking boxes. “BTF.”

The man on the bed opened his eyes. “BTF” — he knew what that meant. Everyone did. His soul would be poured into a Forever Tree seed, but instead of being planted alongside anyone he knew in a Forever Forest, he’d go beyond the fence. Alone forever.

The man didn’t look up at Kate, even though she stood right at his bedside. He stared at the floor and, after a moment, huddled into a fetal position. Her boss Mr. Wolfe called it “the hug of the dead.” An apt name for it, really, Kate thought, since so many of the dead ended up that way. During the summer when the plagues came around, most corpses scattered everywhere were coiled like that, in the hug of the dead. Kate had counted 15 in the Duncan Donuts parking lot last summer, their faces covered in flu smear, while men in hazmat suits loaded them into white trucks.

The last one they loaded in: Mr. Skeffington, her next-door neighbor. She hadn’t even known he was sick, but that was how fast the plague bug could take you. So fast you didn’t even have time to have your soul gene extracted. “The gene expresses a few minutes after death, when it’s getting ready to depart,” Mr. Wolfe had said, her first day on the job. “You gotta extract the DNA then, Kate, and there’s no time to tarry. No lollygagging. No wishing you were someplace else, doing something else.”

The briefcase strap dug deep into Kate’s shoulder, heavy with seed catalogs. The man in bed before her still hadn’t looked up, but she could see now that his eyes were clear and bright, unclouded by cataracts. Early 60s, she thought; maybe even late 50s. His eyes were a deep brown, so brown that the whites around the irises looked almost blue. Eyes like her Uncle Jack’s. “Uncle Jack,” she’d say, sitting on his lap, long long ago, Sunday pot roast and mashed potatoes cooking in the kitchen. “Uncle Jack, your whites are all blue.”

She slid the strap off her shoulder and set the briefcase on the floor. “Does he have a tree preference?”

“Not that I know of,” the nurse said, still engrossed in her paperwork. “Hasn’t said a word since he got here.”

Kate had met such people before. The people in the photo — the one she wouldn’t let herself look at — were probably his family, and they were probably all dead now, Kate thought, all except him. He was the only survivor, somehow untouched by the plague bug, and left to live the rest of his life alone. Such people often ended up like he did, wandering the streets, speechless and dazed, and picked up from the gutter and brought to a place like this to die and have their DNA extracted. Other lone survivors, like Kate, like Mr. Wolfe, hadn’t gone that route. They went to work every day instead. They drank their lunches alone and went home to quiet houses.

Kate sat down on the folding chair beside the bed. “I’ll sit here awhile, if you don’t mind.”

“Suit yourself.” The nurse set down the chart at the foot of the bed and left the room.

The routine in these types of cases, when the customer was a “nonresponsive,” was to choose an elm and be done with it. Sign the paperwork and move on. That is what Mr. Wolfe would tell her to do. He had said it plenty of times. “No need to give them the spiel, Kate. E-L-M. That’s all there is to it.”

If it were up to her, people could have a choice about the whole thing. If it were up to her, people wouldn’t be forced to graft their souls on to Forever Seeds if they didn’t want to. But the law said otherwise, and she could go to jail if she didn’t soul-extract this man. The United States of Forever Trees, Inc., Kate thought. That’s what the country had become.

So Kate had sold more than her share of elm seeds, and every night on her drive home she saw the trees they had become. Lonely, ragged-looking things, planted beside dumpsters, in abandoned lots, and on the edge of landfills; all of them slow-growing, and none more than 10 feet high, as if getting that tall was all they could muster; their leaves more yellow than green, since no one watered them or fed them Everlife Fertilizer.

And this man would be another. Soon she would drive by him, too, and someday she would forget which one he was, and no one on earth would remember him then.

“E-L-M, Kate,” Mr. Wolfe’s voice sang in her head, and still she sat there, not able to do it, and decided finally that at least she could let this man choose his tree. Just because he’d be planted beyond the fence, she reasoned, didn’t mean he couldn’t choose his tree.

But she didn’t know how to start. She cleared her throat and put the briefcase on her lap, but the man just stared at the floor and wouldn’t look at her. The room was cold and quiet, and the only light came from the small lamp on the nightstand. Kate wrapped her sweater closer around her. This place must be full of the dead, she thought, with corpses coiled in every bed.

She waited in the quiet, and after a while, the man slowly moved his gaze toward the photo on the nightstand. His expression softened, and his whole body seemed to relax as he regarded it. She told herself not to look at it, and Mr. Wolfe’s voice in her head told her not to as well, and that she had to stay strong in these types of cases, and reminded her about the whole “watering a person for 50 years” scenario, but the photo was like a living thing. It tapped on her shoulder, coughed politely and whispered in her ear, wanting her attention. She glimpsed at it before she could stop herself.

The picture showed a group of people. Smiling people, every one. They sat at a picnic table under a weeping willow, and there was a lake or river in the background. A happy summer day, from the looks of it. She picked out the man right away. There he was with a little girl on his lap, a little girl with bright golden hair …

She turned away again. “These kind of cases — they’ll break your heart if you let them,” another thing Mr. Wolfe liked to say, but never in the morning. Always toward the end of the day, when the bottle of Scotch was near its end.

The harder she tried not to think of the photo, the more it came to life, and then, dreamlike, it turned into her family sitting there at the table, with their easy laughter and gentle teasing. There they were, picnicking on the Delaware River on the 4th of July, her favorite day of the year. There was Aunt Dor, dishing red Jell-O salad from a big white Tupperware, and Uncle Jack next to her, sipping on a Budweiser, his arm draped around her shoulder. And Mom and Dad, they were there, too, Dad at the end of the table, manning the hot dog grill, tongs in one hand, cigarette in the other, and Mom, her head tilted back, eyes closed, laughing at one of his jokes (“Oh, Ned, you’re awful. Awful!”). But where were the children? Where were Kate, her cousins, her brother Max? Where were they? Down at the river, of course. Swinging from a rope tied to the big black birch alongside the river. Jumping into the swirling green water. “Watch me, Katie, watch me!” That’s what Max cried, every time he swung.

But those days were long past. The plagues had come and changed everything. Within a week, Kate’s family was gone. Dying in a summer plague, before the discovery of the soul gene and the planting of the Forever Forests. Her brother Max was the last to go. Just barely a man when he died, not even 18. He’d never even had a girlfriend. “You were always the lucky one, Katie,” that was the last thing he said. It was hard hearing anything in that big hospital tent full of the sick, so she had leaned closer to his cot to hear him. He reached out then, to touch the mask over her mouth, but she had jolted away.

She shifted in her chair and sighed. Mr. Wolfe was right. It didn’t help to think of these things. His voice had been silent in her head, but now it came back strong and clear. “Focus on the work, Kate. The work. That’s the important thing now.” She took out a catalog from her briefcase and started her sales pitch.

“We have a wide choice of seeds. Everything from crepe myrtle to dogwood, Lebanon cedar to redwood.” She flipped through the catalog, hoping to catch the man’s eye. “Deciduous or evergreen, that’s the first thing to decide. I’m sure you know the difference between the two.” No reaction so she barreled ahead. “It all depends on how active you want to be, once you cross over. You want to stay active, I’d suggest going the deciduous route. A flowering pear or a maple. You want to be more reflective, I’d go evergreen. Oak is our most popular.”

At the word “oak,” the man finally raised his eyes and looked at her. Some people were like that. Mention a hundred different trees and they’d say “no” to all of them, and then suddenly the right one came along and they perked up. Mr. Wolfe had a theory about it, like he did about everything. “Everyone has a favorite tree. Didn’t you? I sure did. A big old magnolia. That’s what I want to be when my time comes. Don’t forget.”

“The good thing about our oaks,” Kate said, “is the very fast incubation period. Because of our Growth Propel Technology, you’ll be fairly mature within a year. Here. Let me show you.” She scooted closer to the man’s bed and held up the picture of an oak with a wide canopy. He squinted to look at it. He needed a pair of glasses, Kate thought, but there were none to give him. “This is two years’ growth,” she said, more confident now, now that she’d drawn his attention. “Another good thing about oaks is that they’re drought-tolerant …”

She wished she hadn’t reminded the man that no one would water him once he was planted. Wherever he was, Mr. Wolfe shook his head and poured himself another drink. She blushed and sat back in her chair and busied herself by flipping through the catalog.

But after a moment, the man smiled at her. His eyes lit up, too, with the tiniest of flickers, as if this whole watering thing was a little joke between them. It had been a long time since she had shared a joke with anyone. She blushed even more, feeling shy, and tried to remember how to respond.

It felt dangerous, remembering such a thing, and Mr. Wolfe clucked his disapproval in her ear. But the memory sauntered back, quick and graceful, before she could stop it.

“At least it’s not eggplant” — she and Dad used to say that to each other at the dinner table whenever Mom experimented with a new recipe (“I found it in Good Housekeeping!”). Mom’s experiments turned out pretty good most times, but a few were downright disasters, including, worst of all, the eggplant parmesan, which Mom swore she had prepared just like the recipe said to, and yet the eggplant was a tough as an old boot. But Mom had worked so hard on it that Kate, Dad and Max chewed away until the whole pan was empty. Afterward, whenever Mom pushed a new dish on them, they were always glad for one thing, at least: “At least it’s not eggplant,” Dad would whisper to Kate, or sometimes the other way around, and always with a laugh in their eyes.

“At least it’s not eggplant,” Kate said now, very, very quietly. If only Dad had been planted, she could visit him and say that, and his branches would sway and his leaves would fall gently on to her head like little soft kisses. If only. If only. “The two worst words in the English language” is what Mr. Wolfe called them. He was right. There were no if only’s. She had no trees to visit.

The man had been watching her closely, his eyes kind, the slight smile on his face more sad than happy. Kate let herself look deep into his eyes, eyes so much like Uncle Jack’s, and she let him look keep into hers. They held each other in a kind of embrace that way, and for a sweet moment they were not alone.

Stiffly, slowly, he reached for the photograph. His hand shook as he did so. He had workman’s hands, Kate saw now, strong and calloused. A mechanic or a plumber, she thought. Or maybe a carpenter. Her dad had been a carpenter. “Hand me the sander, will you, Katie?” he’d say. “Or as we pros like to call it, ‘the thing that smoothes wood'” — sunlight streaming through the workshop windows, sawdust glimmering in the air.

The man pleaded gently with his eyes, and Kate took the photo from the nightstand and handed it to him. A small wrinkled snapshot, unframed, probably kept inside his back pocket for years and years. He put the photo against his heart and held out his other hand to Kate. “Don’t do it, ” Mr. Wolfe said, but she took the man’s hand without hesitating. Mr. Wolfe went completely mute then and shook his head, his eyes moist as he poured himself the last of the Scotch.

The man had a hand just like her dad’s — and like Uncle Jack’s, and her brother Max’s, too, if only he’d lived long enough. She had buried their ashes on the hill behind her house and then she put a bench there. One her dad had built, of polished oak. Most nights, after work, she sat at on the bench and looked out over Forever Forest No. 23, a particularly pretty forest of maples, which turned bright red, orange and yellow in autumn, and from that spot she could listen to the contented sighs of the Planted as they relinquished their leaves to the ground.

My spot on the hill could use some shade, she thought.

My spot on the hill is just close enough for the garden hose to reach.

My spot on the hill, she thought, sitting taller, has room for an oak. For more than one oak, even. There’s even room for a magnolia.

My spot on the hill could become my own little forest.

“Oak,” she said, and the man smiled a little smile and closed his eyes. “We’ll go with oak.” And gently, very gently, when she saw it was time, she let go of his hand. She took the photo and slid it gently into her briefcase. And then, when the time was right, just as the soul gene expressed, she extracted the DNA, just as she had thousands of times before. Just like Mr. Wolfe had showed her to—from right above the heart.


Marilyn Horn-Fahey graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a journalism degree and is now a technical editor and freelance writer living in Silicon Valley. Her short stories have appeared in publications such as Marathon Review and Waterhouse Review.

Issue No. 12, Spring 2015

Jacklight
Phoebe Wagner

The dark street paralleled the muddy river. Fissures and dips destroyed the pavement, but Mary had memorized when to pop her skateboard over weedy cracks or swerve from tar patches. The wheels’ chantlike clack joined with the rushing current. Three days of steady rain had swelled the Missouri River and chilled the night to the low forties, silencing the few locusts and cicadas that survived the mild winter. The quiet created a sensation of the year dying, and the last full moon silvered the choppy water. Mary hoped she might discover something magical along the border of a great river at the edge of a new year beneath a full moon—an atmosphere for magic, according to ancient magicians like Albertus Magnus and Johann Weyer.

Three weeks ago, Mary had discovered her first rune in a raven’s half-decayed remains. As if somebody had sifted the bone shards and feathers, they shaped a rune against a bloody backdrop. The rune set inside the broken chest cavity, the pried-open ribs spreading along the spine like leaflets or broken branches. A predator had dismembered the wings, but long flight feathers stuck in dried blood and expanded the rune so it appeared winged. Mary scribbled the design on a receipt and stuffed it in her hip pocket. The next day, she’d taken a spill off her skateboard and would’ve broken her jaw except, before she hit the asphalt, an air draft swooped her upward, so she landed on her feet like a bird pulling out of a dive. Heat had flared against her hip, and the air had smelled of firecrackers. She’d jerked out the paper. The receipt’s edges had browned, but the rune remained unharmed—a single line with broken ribs simplified to arrows, pointing upward to the final sweeping expansion, the motion of a bird spreading its wings.

She sat on her skateboard at the road’s crest before it sloped to a rickety dock and crumbling launch where rusted chains locked canoes to pine trees. She smoked her older brother’s cigarettes while examining her notepad, the smudged pages filled with runes, in neat stanzas or twisting strands, copied from behind-glass library books or photocopies of medieval manuscripts. The runes remained dead on the page no matter the conditions—the runes’ order, the moon’s cycle, the planets’ alignment, the paper’s color. She’d attempted simple runes to heal a scab or call a rabbit from its warren and tried the greatest spells designed to rain fire or freeze an ocean. Not even her paper shriveled.

The current slogged and slapped the bank. Sweat cooled her skin, and she zipped her jacket against the river’s breeze. Wet air dampened her clothes until she smelled like the underside of a rock. She tried practicing a kick-flip, but the wheels’ crack as they rejoined the pavement echoed down the river and the road. She guessed the time by the moon’s height before checking her cell phone, the screen’s blue glowing making her eyes ache. Moonbeams glanced off the rough river, but no prehistoric muzzle split the surface, no fairy flames hovered along the shore, no strangely shaped shadows tapered from the pine copses. Twice, Mary nosed her skateboard toward town, but her limbs grew heavy while a tug in her gut said stay. She settled like a nesting sparrow, hunkered on her board with her knees drawn close and her arms crossed over top, pillowing her head. Stillness seeped into her, broken only by the water’s slurring.

Around midnight, a bluesy note spread like heat lightning. Mary raised her head and blinked. The moonlight frosted the water and launch except for a golden glitter at a dock’s edge. Another note spurted up like a jumping bass then lengthened into widening ripples.

Mary’s skateboard thrummed, and copper scented the night. She cruised down the cresting road to the boat launch. A man swayed on the stubby dockside. The moon’s reflection created a path before him, silhouetting his lean figure. He cradled a saxophone that shone like an apple, and a length of braided hemp dangled from the bell, interwoven rock bits reflecting the instrument’s gleam.

A moaning note stretched across the water as if to nip the moon, and the man glanced over his shoulder, his face a shadow. He motioned to a graffiti-scarred bench where set an open case, the velvet lining worn thin. “Take a seat. Plenty of room in the front row.” Whiffs of alcohol and dumpster rot drifted from his long trench coat, the pockets bulging and giving him a packrat appearance. A scruffy beard hid his neck and dreadlocks draped his shoulders.

Mary kicked up her board, catching the nose. “The folks down the road are going to hear if you keep playing. Probably call the cops.”

“Nah, that’s why I got this.” He swung the hemp braid. “Aunt Nancy charmed it. Lets only lonely folks hear the music.”

“I’m not lonely.”

He let out a long breath and wet his lips. “Never seen one of Aunt Nancy’s charms go bad. This one’s been working good since the old days when nobody wanted to hear me sing. Had to draw my listeners out of the woodwork, understand? So come on out of the shadows, and I’ll play for you.”

She looked both ways along the empty road, white as ice in the moonlight, before easing her board onto the wooden dock. The wheels bumped staccato against the slats, which the man copied, thumping his shoe. He leaned into the music as if bracing against the current.

Quick notes matched her board’s rhythm then lengthened into a moan that silenced the river and made Mary grip the bench’s backrest. He dipped toward the water, and the notes deepened to a resonant hum, aching like a bruise until she strained with him against the darkness, but when he bent back to salute the moon, the quickening tempo and rising pitch cycloned away the winter’s bleakness, leaving her light as river foam, her toe tapping. The beat breathed summer sweat and damp alleyways, the scents overpowering the loamy air, and she tasted oranges. His riffs slowed, the notes softening to velvet, brushing Mary’s skin. His saxophone conjured heartbreak, but nothing she’d experienced. This hurt burned hot as a forge, but the music faded until the tune was lost in swishing eddies.

She closed her eyes and tried to hold onto the song like a sweet taste. “Who was she, the woman you just played about?”

“Old Mother Earth herself. I was there when all was green and dew-fresh, but now she’s harder and harder to find, even out here, and she’s so restless, spooked by anything at all.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Don’t bother with surprise, sister. You’ve got magiclight in your eyes, just a spark.”

“You’re drunk.”

“Weren’t you listening? It’s the threshold of a new year on the land’s edge—you expected to find something tonight, and my instrument called you.” He stroked the bell. “Be grateful, plenty of darker things roam the edges on the year’s last full moon.” He sat on a bench and rested the saxophone in the scuffed case. “So, what’d you bring me?”

Mary perched near him, her skateboard balanced on her knees. “Bring you?”

“If you want something from me, you got to give in return.”

She removed her cigarette pack from her shirt pocket and offered him the box. He tapped out two and handed her one. They shared a matchbook.

“I’m Mary, by the way.”

“Just Mary? You can do better than that. I’ve been named more times than I remember: Jackrabbit, Hare, Brother Rabbit, Trickster, even Whiskey Jack. Just yesterday, got mistaken for Slim Greer. Take your pick or come up with something new.” He took a drag and exhaled, the smoke hanging like river mist. “Go ahead and ask for whatever you’re aiming to get.”

Mary pulled a notepad from her back pocket and showed it to him. “I write them again and again, but nothing works—well, except one, kinda.”

He scanned the pages and wet his lips. “You got some real runes of power, here. Old magic, almost as old as me.” He tore out several pages and lit them with his cigarette.

Mary cried and lunged, but he pushed her back.

He crumpled the flaming ball in his hand then scattered the ashes. “Some old magic should be forgotten. You’re not into that kind of darkness, I don’t believe.”

She snatched the notebook. “If I’m going to study a subject, I need to understand all of it, not just the rosy bits.”

“Fair enough, but if you don’t make camp on some side of the river, you’ll be sleeping beneath bridges with folks like me. And some of us bite.”

“If I were afraid, I wouldn’t be hanging out late at night smoking a cigarette with you.”

“There’s folks out here who make the darkest runes sing for them, and they’ll kill you with a few pencil strokes. This isn’t a world of love potions and good luck charms. You’re not scared because you don’t know what to be afraid of.”

Mary flicked her stub toward an overflowing trashcan. “Somebody who plays music like you, who can make the river listen, you can’t be such a bad…spirit.”

“I’m a god—get it right. Even if folks’ prayers take the form of stories rather than pleadings. You said you got one rune working, so show me.”

Mary walked to the boat launch’s far side and stepped onto her board. The overflowing trashcan set across from her, and with the domed lid, it reached four feet tall. She surged toward it, gaining speed with every push. She smashed her heel against the tail, popping the board and jumping the trashcan with a foot to spare. She dropped into her landing and swiveled the board toward the bench, the final momentum carrying her. She stepped off and showed him the deck’s underside.

He whistled and rubbed his thumb over the etching. “That’s a Flight rune for sure. Belongs to old Brother Raven’s children. In the right hands, that board could fly like a falcon.”

“I jumped off a house the other day, but I wouldn’t call it flying—just not falling very hard.”

“That’s because you’re still stretching your wings, building your magical muscles. Other than shaming the boys, why’re you looking for this magic? I can’t give up the trade secrets to every girl drunk on her first sweet-tasting spell.”

“We all need some sort of power in life, whether it’s money or fear or career. I want magic.”

Jack hefted the board and balanced it on his palm. The skateboard levitated a few inches. “So you are afraid; you do want to feel safe. Then you’re looking for the wrong runes. At your age, that’s what parents are for. Aren’t yours looking for you at such an hour?”
She took back her board and dropped it, the wheels smacking the asphalt. She balanced on the tail so the front wheels hovered. “My dad works for the gas company, so he’s gone for three weeks right now. Mom manages a movie theater, so she’s gone most evenings. She’s one of those people who always look sad—do you know what I’m talking about?”

The wheels slipped, and she lost her balance as the board skidded. She staggered a few steps then nudged her sneaker beneath the board and flipped it into her hands. “When I think of magic, it’s the power to do what you want. I don’t want to work behind a desk and only feel good when I have a beer in my hand on Friday night. There’s more to life—there’s magic somewhere.”

He drew himself up, now taller than her, and clasped his hands behind his back. “If you want to feel free, stick with skateboarding. Magic will drown you soon as save you—it’s not a security blanket, and neither am I. Nothing so ancient is safe.”

“Skateboarding down a hill makes me feel alive, but this”—she held up her notepad of runes—“makes me feel awake.”

“Well, if you got reason enough to want it so bad then I can get you started. Come with me.”

Still carrying his saxophone, he led her to the longest dock, a spindly contraption, the narrow posts and knothole-ridden planks spotted with bird droppings. A dead-fish smell rose between the slats, and the murky water frothed around the posts. Wood groaned as the rain-glutted river pulled at the dock.

Jack flicked his cigarette butt into the water and lit a second by snapping his fingers, the filter flashing red. “If you want to wake up whatever power you have, all you gotta do is jump—off a cliff, into the river. Seen it work every time. Survival kicks in, and if you got a drop of magic in your gut, it’ll save you. Those that don’t, they never take the leap.”

She braced her skateboard against her lower back, gripping the ends like a railing. “The current could drag me right out.”

Jack leaned against a post and blew a perfect smoke ring. “That’s the point. Give yourself up to magic and see what happens. Listen, I’ve got a story for you. Most folks think a trickster is a clever fellow, but let me tell you how I got the name.”

As he talked, his back straightened, and he raised his head, regarding the water. His voice deepened an octave, and his reverberating words quieted the river. “I was always singing a tune and thumping a beat, but I didn’t pick up that saxophone until not very long ago. I was knocking around town when I heard the saddest cry ever given by man—could make anybody start bawling.” His fingers glided over the saxophone keys as if remembering a tune. He patted the bell. “I followed it all across town straight into an old bar, and just when I thought the ache of sadness would split me in two, that golden instrument let out the happiest howl you’ve heard and got everybody dancing. I asked the fellow next to me what such a thing was called and went looking for a sax of my own.” He adjusted the instrument so moonlight glinted off the worn keys and arched neck while the charm’s crystals winked.

“Everyone knows old Raven collects shiny things, and I just bet he had one. Sure enough, he did, and I pleaded with him to trade me for it. He agreed, but he only wanted one thing.” He swiped his tongue over his bright teeth. “My tongue. Strange, I know, but a few years back, I’d taught myself human speech by way of a few spells, and he was so jealous that I’d learn to talk with the townsfolk, and he wanted to talk with them, too.”

His cigarette burned close to his fingers, and the filter’s glow illuminated a faded tattoo with a spider web of green filaments. He flicked the stub into the water. “Now, I made my livelihood telling stories and sweet-talking people, but I finally gave in, and we traded.” He used his hands to mimic flapping wings. “As Raven flew off, he called in his new manly voice, ‘Trickster, Trickster, will you always fall for my tricks?’ That’s how old Raven learned to speak.

“You might guess what happened when I put my lips to that saxophone—only a dying wheeze came out. I still couldn’t make music. Now, I only had half of what I wanted, and it was burning me up, holding my sax and not being able to make a sound. But this wasn’t the first time I’d gotten myself in such a fix.

“Raven, he loved to preen his feathers until they were shiny as fresh tar and strut his stuff down Main Street, but whenever a pretty woman caught his eye, he’d start stuttering and couldn’t think of anything to say.” He straightened his collar and winked at Mary. “I’ve always been popular with the ladies, so he came flapping back, asking advice. There wasn’t much I could mime to him, and he got ruffled, dipping and cawing, which sounded just silly coming from a human tongue.” His gestures mirrored the bobbing, and Raven became a puppet, Jack’s hands extending the story.

“‘Caw, all right, ca-caw! I’ll give you back your tongue only so you can tell me about those fancy words. If you try to escape, I’ll peck out your eyes!’

“I considered legging it, but Raven could fly fast as I could run, so I came up with another plan. Raven gave me back my tongue, and I explained the girls loved a hard-talking man and taught him some harsh words—hell and goddamn and the like. He flew straight to town and tried them, but now, the woman hurried away with a swish of their skirts, and their men said he should be ashamed to talk like that in public. Raven thought he must be saying the words wrong since he was still getting used to a human tongue. He came flapping on back. This time, I gave him some childish jokes and said the ladies loved when a man could make them laugh. Of course, those girls just harrumphed at old Raven.”

He patted the bulging trench coat pockets then fished inside one that had a bit of string hanging over the edge, or so Mary believed until it twitched and slipped into the recesses. He eased out a silver circlet and swept back his rootlike hair, threading the dreadlocks through the circlet and setting it high on his brow.

“Now, his coming and going went on for a week or so—Raven loaning me my tongue so I could teach him all manner of sayings, some of which were respectable and pleasant, just to keep him hooked. Finally, after a long session, I asked him a favor.” He slumped his shoulders, wringing his hands and shuffling. “With hat in hand, I asked if I could keep the tongue until morning so I could tell my town girl why I couldn’t see her any longer due to a piece of my own foolishness. I said it’d make a nice, noble story he could tell all the men in town, about how he helped young, naïve Brother Rabbit. He puffed out his feathers and cawed his consent.”

Jack straightened, rolling his shoulders and neck. The silver circlet caught the starlight, glinting from the hollows of his dreadlocks, and the saxophone settled at his side like a sword. “You can probably guess I hopped the first train, my sax case strapped to my back. I gave it all up—my comfy pine bed, my home in the briar patch, my friends and neighbors, even my name. If I got caught, I paid my train fares in blues and earned my dinner playing ragtime with the barroom pianist. Sure, I was sorry to leave it all, but the only way I could win my music was to run hard, which I am all too good at when the moon is high and full.”

He stilled, his presence a growing fog that cooled Mary’s skin.

She crouched at the dock’s edge, the water lapping a few inches below the boards. “That doesn’t give me any reason to drown in the river. You ended up worse than when you started—in hiding and even though you had your tongue, it’s not like you knew how to play.”

“But I had an instrument,” he said. “I had a place to start, and like you, I’m a fast learner.” He polished the saxophone with his cuff. “The rest I could make up as I went along instead of sitting at home, blowing down a mouthpiece and maybe by luck, coaxing out a note. Right now, you got a scarred skateboard. You need to leave that behind and shoot for something grander. There’s magic in the stars, in the tangled branches, in the spider’s web, in the river. You place yourself in the power of that old magic then those book runes will start dancing.”

Mary balanced her board across her knees and scrubbed dirt off the deck’s glossy underside. “You don’t think I’ve been looking for more runes in every piece of roadkill? It’s not like the first time.”

“Never is. You have plenty of theory written on that pad, so now, play it on the river—always a good proving ground. You got to improvise, make your own combinations and not just copy the originals.”

“What do you want me to do, turn myself into a fish?”

“I’m just an old soul with a saxophone—I don’t want anything. You’re the one asking for something. If you want to make your runes work, I’m telling you to test them. You’re scared. Scared the runes won’t work, that your skateboard is an accident, and you’re scared the runes will work because how can you go home once magic has caught you up in its current? Just to ease your mind, I’m going to give you something.” He stomped a tempo and raised his saxophone.

A bluesy moan caught her breath until the tune broke into rolling, rapid notes, the rhythm harsh but glittering like a rough cut ruby, playing with her heartbeat. Riffs lengthened and softened to a sonorous hum before swooping into a hip-swaying groove then the pitch rose to a sharp call that drove a splinter into the base of her throat. She shivered as the echo faded, the river resuming control of the night.

“There, now you have my blessing. Whether you chose to try yourself against the river magic or to return home, you will find success in all its forms, whether the praise of others or the courage to face failure.”

He returned to his bench, the saxophone gleaming like thin ice.

Mary dipped her hand in the murky water, the cold sending an ache up her arm. The low moon shone along the river so the surface appeared frozen. Mary slipped off her sneakers and took out her pocket knife. She flipped through her notepad and chose two runes, carving them into the sneakers’ soles—a jagged, oval rune meant to freeze whatever it touched layered with a wavelike buoyancy rune. Just in case, she piled her sweatshirt, wallet, cellphone, and pocketknife onto her skateboard. She double-knotted her laces and balanced on the dock’s edge.

“Hey, Jazzman, you watching?”

With her gaze fixed on the far bank, she stepped onto the river. The air grew cold, burning her nose and lungs. The water crackled as if she’d stepped on shattered glass. She kept her feet aligned and knees slightly bent, a skateboarding stance. The river froze beneath her soles, and mist shrouded her sneakers. She glided toward the center, each step crunching and dusting frost, while her footprints floated downstream. The current sucked at her feet, but as long as she kept walking, her path stayed even. Ice encased her shoes and numbed her.

Midstream, she shuffled her sneakers, freezing a patch wide enough to stand on, and she bobbed with the current. She waved at Jack, who’d returned to the dock’s edge, standing over her piled possessions.

“There you go, sister, but watch your step!”

She shifted her weight and let her right foot drag, a snaking line of ice forming beneath her toe. She scuffed the water, and the splash froze mid-arc. “Better than my skateboard trick?”

Numbness stiffened her ankles, and a cramp clenched her leg. She crouched, massaging her muscles, but her float hit curling rapids, pitching her forward. The freezing river shocked the air from her, and she convulsed, gulping gritty water. She twisted toward the surface, but ice clamped around her sneakers and pinned her. The float grew larger, more iceberglike as the river washed over her upturned soles, layering the ice.

Mary tried to slip off her shoes, but the laces were too tight and frozen. She jerked at the knots with her deadened fingers then tried to wrench free each foot, pain jolting through her ankles. Her chest hitched, lungs clenching, as she placed her hand against the smooth float and closed her eyes. She envisioned her notepad and chose a rune meant to untie knots, entangled threads that lengthened into a long tail, and a simple Escape rune shaped like an open door. She carved them into the ice between her sneakers, her numbed fingers bleeding as her nails splintered.

The laces writhed, their ends dipping and pulling free of the knots and first few eyelets. Mary kicked away from the float. The moon pierced the water as if it were a frosted pane, and she followed the light, breaching the surface and sucking in the cool air that burned her lungs. The current dragged her down river while the float bobbed behind her. She hooked an arm over the ice, her fingernails bloodying the frost. She dragged herself half onto the float and steered it toward the opposite bank, kicking through rapids. Grit crunched between her teeth, and muddy water flooded her nose and mouth. As her arms cramped, her fingers slipping, the float whirled into a cove formed by an uprooted pine.

Mary stumbled onto the pebbly bank, fell to her knees, and retched. River water stung her scraped arms and sliced feet. She shivered and rolled upright, pulling in her knees, trembling as she rubbed the warmth into her chest and arms.

Her ice float had grown into a small surfboard, five feet long and two feet wide. It rasped against the pebbly bank, and Mary flipped it over, her sneakers still intact and ice-coated. She shattered the float with a large rock then retied the laces, slinging the shoes over her shoulder, the soles heavy with ice. From her long night rides, she knew a bridge crossed the river a quarter mile down the bank, and she jogged to warm herself.

The setting moon faded, sunrise illuminating the empty launch. Her hoodie, cell phone, wallet, skateboard, and notepad were missing—all her studies, her runes, her anchor in the world of magic, stolen. Only a rock pinning Jack’s hemp charm suggested the god’s presence.

She moaned and knelt beside the rock. Words were gouged in the surface as if Jack had taken his finger to clay.

I name you Jacklight.

She held the charm to the pale sunrise. “What kind of a name is Jacklight?” The loop of hemp rope ended in a braided tassel with crystal bits tied among the strands, winking in the dawn. A running hare, carved in ebony, dangled from the final knot. She hung the charm around her neck and tucked it beneath her T-shirt. It settled against her collarbone, growing warm, and heat prickled her skin, following her bones like a fuse.


Phoebe Wagner is a new college graduate who studied fiction and poetry. She is currently working on a short story collection and full-length poetry book, but her first love is novels. When not hunched over her keyboard in Dunkin Donuts, Phoebe can be found kayaking at the closest lake.

Issue No. 12, Spring 2015

Baby Skulls
Halley Sutton

The room was too dark for them to see much.  There was a commotion of fumbling, hushed whispers and giggles as the five participants tried to find a seat.  Mr. Drummond parted the soft velvet curtain with a loud clearing of the throat and said, “I say, we could do with some light in here!  What, what!”

Two candle flames snapped into life.  A woman—Mrs. Hurst, of course—screamed.  Her husband grabbed her hands, and she giggled a little.  The scream relieved the tension of the room.

“I’m so silly,” she said.  “Perfectly alright, just a little nervous.  I’m so silly!”

Marjorie MacDonald was the only one of them who didn’t smile at Mrs. Hurst.  She kept her head bowed, staring at her clasped twin thumbnails.  Her black hair was pinned back into a thick bun.  Everything about her was dark except for her pale skin and her white rosary beads, which glowed a little in the candlelight.  She kept her left-hand ring finger tucked in, covering the whitened circle of a recently removed wedding band.  Between her feet rested a large carpet-sided bag that she kept with her always.  She had not said a word to her fellow spiritualists, not in the waiting room before they entered, not seated in the near-dark, not now in the candlelight.

Mrs. Drummond had explained to the group earlier, in what she thought of as quite a discreet tone but which Marjorie could not help but overhear, that Leonora had invited the newcomer because of a recent personal tragedy.  Mrs. Drummond reminded them all, quite in the know, that such people only helped to bridge the gap between the living and the dead.

“Is this your first time, dear?”  Mrs. Drummond asked Mrs. Hurst.  The younger woman smiled and bounced her feathered hat up and down.  “Well, no need to be afraid, it’s quite harmless, let me assure you.  Harold and I have been coming for years, haven’t we?  Speaking to my sister—Alice Evans, may she rest in peace, she was too good for this world, that’s what my mother always said, and it turned out to be true.  Dead now eight years this winter.  The influenza, you know.”  Mrs. Drummond patted at her eyes with a silk handkerchief, then tossed it off to the side.

“Oh, but that’s too terrible!”  Mrs. Hurst looked shocked, as though the actual loss of life was something too dramatic to contemplate.  “How awful.  Isn’t that just awful?”

“Do you have any children?”  Mrs. Drummond asked her new friend.  Mrs. Hurst blushed and shook her head—they had been married but a year, she explained, although they hoped for children as soon as the Good Lord saw fit to bless them.  Marjorie MacDonald didn’t look up from her thumbnails but she clutched the bag tighter with her feet.  The corners of her mouth tightened, the flesh stretched nearly enough to see the outline of her bones underneath.

“It’s almost time for tea,” Mr. Drummond said.  “Shouldn’t the show have started by now?  Damned unprofessional, this is!  What, what!”

“Oh, but Harold, a show, really!”  Mrs. Drummond laughed but she was angry.  It was going to be, she calculated, at least three nights until he rejoined her in the master suite.  She turned to Mrs. Hurst so that they could commiserate over the miserable failings of husbands only to discover Mrs. Hurst was still clutching her husband’s hand and now smiling up at him.  No doubt she has one foot up his trousers, Mrs. Drummond thought to herself, reassessing her earlier sympathetic measurement of the character of Mrs. Hurst.   She looks a bit of a shameless hussy, that one.  What would Alice say?  Alice is lucky she’s in the grave and doesn’t have to see this—disgraceful is what it is.  Disgusting.  Positively lurid.

The candles dimmed but did not go out.  Their flame color changed from a bright white-gold to a more menacing red, deepening the curtains into shades of blood-violet.  The round oak table at which they were seated lost its edges and seemed infinite in the darker light.  The whorls of the wood changed shape from tree imperfections into the outlines of what could have been spirits trapped in the bark.

Mrs. Drummond’s cheeks flushed bright as a girl’s, and she leaned forward on her chair.  Mr. Drummond felt that teatime was passing rather melodramatically and that, by God, this was the last time he was ever speaking to Alice (what, what!).  Mrs. Hurst was pale again and clutching her husband, rather frightened (but oh so excited, perhaps even…titillated?  Oh no, perish the thought—blushes, blushes—perish the thought) and Mr. Hurst was enjoying his new bride and thinking that séances were going to be rather good for the marital bed.  Marjorie MacDonald rubbed the white negative imprint of her wedding band.

“Welcome my fellow spiritualists and pioneers of the occult!”  The voice came from behind the participants, clear and low-pitched—a pleasing voice to match a pleasing figure.    Leonora Dewitt was wearing a champagne colored knee-length flapper, a dress that Mrs. Drummond could not approve despite her affection for the medium.  Mrs. Hurst, upon witnessing the appreciative stare her husband was giving to the considerable length of leg showing beneath the dress, decided that her knees were too pointed, and that the dress must have been chosen because it made one look away from her face, which was, really, not that pretty.  Not pretty at all.

Mr. Hurst thought otherwise, but there was no need for his wife to know that.

Marjorie did not look up from her thumbs, but now she grabbed the white beads of her rosary and began rubbing the slick coverings.

Leonora took her place at the empty chair at the table, brushed her hands twice over its surface.  The candles flickered back into brilliance to the delight of Mrs. Hurst.  Leonora smiled a little to herself, careful not to look too reassured that her little trick had gone over well.  She began to explain the particulars of the séance, that each participant would have a chance to contact one spirit which may, or may not, speak to them through Leonora.  Any other spirits encountered along the way, Leonora said, with a quick dart of the eyes of Mrs. Hurst’s heaving form, should be harmless.  Mr. Hurst grabbed his wife—for moral support.

“Who would like to begin tonight’s proceedings?”  Leonora eyed each customer in turn.  Mrs. Drummond was sitting back with the relaxed posture of an old hand at spiritualism while Mr. Drummond fingered his tie and thought of the cigars tucked into his desk, the ones he allowed himself to enjoy after teatime.  Mrs. Hurst looked faint with delight and dread and Mr. Hurst looked faint with split desire between his wife and his delectable medium.  Marjorie met Leonora’s eyes.  She was a new customer and Leonora wasn’t sure how to read her.  Her eyes, so dark that it was impossible to tell where pupil ended and iris began, were not pleasant eyes.

“Can you feel Alice?”  Mrs. Drummond asked.  “Is she here tonight?”

Leonora’s eyes rocked back into her head and she began to sway a little in her chair.  She rolled her head back and forth on her neck, aware even with her eyes closed that Mr. Hurst was ogling her long expanse of throat.  Perhaps imagining tasting it with his tongue.

“I command the spirit of Alice Evans.  Alice, if you are here, tap twice on the table.”  Leonora closed her eyes and waited.  No one at the table breathed for fifteen seconds until the tapping sounded.  Bump!  Bump!  Mrs. Drummond let out a heavy sigh and Mrs. Hurst moved her husband’s hand into her lap.

“She is here.  Alice is here.  She is sad.”  This was a new one—Leonora had never made Alice sad before, but tonight it seemed like a good idea.

“Alice!  Alice!  I’m here, its me—Sarah!  Oh, Alice, don’t be sad, I’m here!”

“For chrissakes,” Mr. Drummond said under his breath, “how can a damn corpse be sad?”

“Alice misses you.  It’s cold where she is.”  Mrs. Drummond’s shoulders were shaking a little as she let the emotion carry her over into tears.

“Oh Alice,” she sobbed.  “Oh my Alice.”  Mr. Drummond couldn’t help but remember the time when Alice Evans had been alive—she had not been invited more than a handful of times to dinner.  Still, sisterly devotion came on strong at the oddest moments.

“Alice Evans, can you hear your sister?  Can you hear how she cries?  Alice Evans, speak to us!”  The table, through a complicated system of wiring and pedals, jerked, groaned, and began to levitate over the laps of the astonished participants.  It was a new implement to her repertoire of the paranormal and, Leonora thought to herself, worth every damned penny.  Mrs. Drummond had now given herself over to loud keening, and Mrs. Hurst would have been terrified, if it were not for the feel of her husband’s very warm fingers on her very upper thigh.

At the other side of the table, Marjorie had gone very still and was watching Leonora with wide eyes.  She placed her hands on the table, fingers spread wide, testing the weight beneath them as though afraid the table might not support her.

“The Devil’s own table,” she whispered.  It was the first time she had spoken since her arrival.  She reached between her feet and hugged her bag to her chest.  The whites of her eyeballs shone in the darkened room.

Something in Marjorie’s bag began to rattle quietly.  Mr. Drummond turned to stare at Marjorie, who clutched her bag tighter to her chest.

“Alice is trying to tell us something,” Leonora went on, unwinding into her grand finale of Alice.  She was tired of Alice Evans.  She saw the Drummonds at least twice a month—there was not much room for creative expansion with so much exposure.  “Alice Evans, speak to us of the beyond!”

The rattling in Marjorie’s bag got louder.  This time everyone heard and only Marjorie and Leonora seemed to sense that it was not a regular part of the program.  Leonora frowned, trying to determine whether or not Marjorie was onto her scheme, and if so, whether or not she had planted something in order to attempt to prove her a fraud.  Try it, Leonora thought as she glared at the older woman.  Just you fucking try it.

“Alice, please, speak to me!”  Mrs. Drummond begged.

“And make it fast!”  Mr. Drummond added.

The candles went out.  Marjorie’s bag was now chattering so hard she was having trouble holding it.  The room went cold, then hot suddenly, and then so cold the six participants could see their breath ripple from their mouths like fog.

“…Alice?”  Mrs. Drummond had attended numerous séances, but this was the first time the cold trickle of fear had made its way into her stomach.  This was the first time Mrs. Drummond believed that she did not have control over the proceedings.

Marjorie’s bag began to knock itself against the table.  Whatever objects were hidden in her bag were now making so much noise it was hard to hear anything else.

“Alice?”  Leonora asked, for a brief moment doubting her skill as a charlatan.  Perhaps, she thought to herself, perhaps there really are ghosts?

The corners of the room seemed to pulse with the sound waves of a child’s laughter that broke over the room.  It was not Alice.  It could not be Alice.

Marjorie stood up at her seat, one hand pressing the rosary to her neck.   Her bag began to make the noise again and she threw it on the table.

Mrs. Hurst started screaming as she felt the invisible fingertips of a young child rubbing the back of her neck.

“Leonora, what is happening?”  Mrs. Drummond screamed.  “Can’t you make it stop?  Where is Alice?”  The child’s giggling became louder and louder until it drowned out even Mrs. Hurst.  Marjorie doubled over as if in pain.  A mother knows the sound of her child’s laughter.  Even just one giggle.

Then, several things happened at once.

The candles relit themselves until the room was nearly as bright as day.

The chairs dove towards the table, taking Marjorie’s feet from under her and squeezing the Drummonds, the Hursts, and Leonora against the oak.

The locks on the door bolted themselves.

Most impossible of all, two nearly round bone-white objects rolled from Marjorie’s bag onto the table.

Two bright child-sized skulls shone in the candlelight and caught the stares of the six spiritualists.

Bad things are not supposed to happen in the light.

“Oh my God,” Leonora whispered.  “Oh my God.”

“Mother!  Mother!”  The child’s voice echoed around the round—now there were two voices.  One screamed the word joyfully, now one wailed, now one cried it out in fear.  “Mother!  Mother!  Mother!”

Marjorie started crying at the table.  She reached for the skulls of her children but they rolled away from her into the center of the table, chattering.  All the women around the table were crying.  Mr. Hurst held onto his wife, mouth open in terror, and Mr. Drummond began to bluster loudly, cigars forgotten.

“I say, this isn’t funny!  Do you have any idea who I am?  Stop this….this ridiculous display right now!  I am not going to stand for this!”  Mrs. Drummond was speechless for the first time in as many months as Mr. Drummond could remember.  “You are frightening the missus!”

The table began to bang up and down, sending the skulls airborne each time, but they rolled no closer to Marjorie.

“My babies!  My babies!”  Marjorie cried.  “My little lost angels!”  The table began to shake harder and an odd green glow hovered over the skulls.

What have you done?”  Mrs. Drummond broke her silence on her side of the table.

MOTHERMOTHERMOTHERMOTHERMOTHERMOTHERMOTHER!”

“Make it stop,” Mrs. Hurst kept whimpering.  “Please, God, make it stop!”

“I didn’t mean it! Tell them I didn’t mean it!”  Marjorie turned to Leonora, grasping her sleeve in her hand.

Leonora’s eyes were glued to the slowly growing green haze in the center of the table.  She didn’t hear Marjorie.  All six were glued to their seats, unknowing whether or not they might be allowed to stand up but afraid to try.

MOTHERMOTHERMOTHERMOTHERMOTHERMOTHERMOTHER!”

“I didn’t mean it,” Marjorie repeated.  “I didn’t mean it!  Tell them I didn’t mean it!”

The green haze resolved itself into a child’s face outlined in red.  The little girl smiled, one tooth missing, and then disappeared, with the green fog, completely.

Marjorie looked around at each member at the table, tearing her fingernails along her cheeks, her neck, as though she couldn’t stand her flesh over her bones, as though she longed to join her children at the center of the table.

No one could speak.

“Mother!  Mother!  Mother!”  The cries had decreased in volume but not in frequency.  The table, finally, was still.  The room was cold and bright.

“I held them,” Marjorie said.  “I held their bodies.  I was their mother, right up to the end.  Doesn’t that count for anything?” She began to pull out large clumps of her hair.  “Jesus God!”

“Mother!  Mother!  Mother!”

“STOP IT!”  Marjorie screamed.

“Mother!  Mother!  Mother!”

“Make it stop!  Make it stop!  Help me!”  Marjorie looked around the table.  “Why won’t any of you help me!”

Mrs. Drummond crossed herself.  Everyone wanted it to stop.  No one knew what to do.

“Mother!”

Marjorie screamed and with a superhuman effort, pushed herself out of her chair and grabbed the twin skulls resting at the center of the table.  Bringing down first one and then the other, she smashed them against the oak table over and over.  The cries of “Mother!” grew fainter as the bone chipped away.  A jaw fell to the floor.  The cries stopped completely.

The candles burned bright as a second sun.  No one moved.  Marjorie held the last bits of her children in her hands, hearing their cries for her over and over again.  The screams would never stop.

The doors unbolted themselves and Mrs. Hurst fled the room, one hand clamped to her mouth, keeping her insides in place.  Mr. Hurst, with a quick nod and smile to Leonora, followed.  Leonora stood up from the table, and in a daze, began to clean up the bone shards, sweeping them into her palm, her fingers shaking.  She bumped into the table, and sat down hard into her chair.  What now?  What was left now?

Mrs. Drummond and her husband stood up.  Now that the horrible things were over, Mr. Drummond could not stop thinking about his cigars again.  It was a little late, and that silly scare had put him into a terrible mood, but a Cuban or two would surely settle the events of the day.

“Dear me,” Mrs. Drummond said as she left the room, “that was different.  A bit grotesque, and much too melodramatic for my tastes, but goodness, exciting!  Leonora was in full form today—poor Alice must have been frightened out of her wits!  Well dear, what did you think?”

“Cheap tricks, all of it,” Mr. Drummond said, reluctant now to believe that he even had been frightened.  “I knew those skulls were papier-mache the second I saw them.  Quite a show, what, what!”


Halley Sutton spent her childhood traveling through tiny towns in the midwest and writing letters to her favorite book heroines, although none were actually mailed. She lives in Oakland, CA.