Issue No. 16, Spring 2016

To Sing Her Body to the Soil
Brigitte N. McCray

Momma wanted Jasper Waddell’s birds. On days when we trudged up the hill to our patch of woods, where the cherry, pine, and walnut trees waited for our axe, she glanced up at his birds swirling over the trees and whistled just to see if they would come. Some of the birds squawked and the birds behind them flocked closer to the others, as if they believed such safety in numbers would protect them from death.

Our trees were death’s arms and preferred to strangle the hymns and ballads that Jasper’s birds sang. Momma had grown up listening to them singing “Amazing Grace” and “In the Sweet By and By” at every wake in the holler.

“Those birds won’t sing us to our deaths,” she told me. “How is that fair?”

Momma and I, like all Cain women before us, had been attached to death for centuries. We predicted our neighbors’ deaths and made their coffins. We listened to soil eating our trees’ roots. Death’s whisper traveled from the water and minerals and up to the bark. We placed our hands on a trunk, and our insides rotted from the death that came to the holler that year. The sickness ate at us until dirt shoveled over coffin.

Jasper’s birds never died. We couldn’t guess the birds’ ages. Some of the robins and finches had paler feathers and nearly all of the birds had gnarly feet with heavy scaling. We only saw them though at the wakes and funerals. The edge of his property touched the Cain woods, and his birds sang warnings for us to stay clear. I told Momma her want for Jasper’s birds was a want that should be buried as deep as one of our coffins. We contained death on our property and in our woods. Living things struggled when they came near. Better, I told her, that such life stay clear.

But then came the day we placed our hands on a cherry trunk and Momma’s own death sank into our stomachs. She had two days before her heart would give out just like a bird’s clear whistles sometimes end with a soft wheeze.

Momma was right; it wasn’t fair that Jasper Waddell lived with so much life. I’d give Momma some of it before we built her coffin. I’d make sure she went to the next world with a belly of melody instead of rot.

#

The same week we found out about Momma’s death, we finished the coffin for Daniel Sizemore’s daddy. That prediction came a week before Momma’s. It was unusual for the holler to have two deaths so near together, but, as Momma always said, death’s about as tangled as roots.

Momma didn’t allow her looming end to slow down the coffin-making process. A skilled hunter, Old Sizemore had demanded tiny deer carved into his requested coffin, and, even though I argued she should rest, Momma cut the wood away to form the designs. It wouldn’t make death come any quicker for her, she said. I tried to take the cutting knife from her, but she gently shoved me. Curls of wood dropped to the floor as she continued. It didn’t seem right, her working so while her heart slowly faded to silence.

Every time I thought about that silence, I remembered Jasper’s birds’ harmony. In the evenings, when I dragged a log down our hill to our woodshop, their songs reminded me how loud life could be and how quiet death could be. It’s probably for that reason that Jasper always had them sing at wakes: to point out to the rest of us that life rules out death. I never believed that before. Not until Momma’s death taught me that I needed to be on the side of life.

Jasper and his birds would perform at the Sizemore wake, and it would give me the chance to steal one of his birds for Momma. How could I with so many people there?

#

We drove our mule Mabel, with the Sizemore coffin in the back of the wagon, down the holler. The ride gave me a chance to think more on how to steal one of his birds without the neighbors seeing. They were grateful for our predictions and our coffins, but they preferred the beauty of Jasper’s birds and wouldn’t take kindly to death taking hold of one. Some of the men in the holler even sprinkled gun powder near our property to keep animals from coming too close. After all, they witnessed what living with us did to Mabel. Our neighbors called our mule Walking Death because no matter how much we fed her, she appeared gaunt, and her muscles and bones were so weak that travelling by her was slow.

When we finally reached the Sizemore place, Jasper and his birds were already waiting by the porch and greeting the neighbors. All the birds swallowed his figure. They nested in his hair, perched on his shoulders, and roosted in the crooks of his arms. Robins, warblers, chickadees, blackbirds, great tits, thrushes, and finches sang fluting phrases, trumpet signals, and mellow glides while the neighbors walked up the steps.

Before the neighbors would cross the threshold, they stayed on the porch for a few seconds, flat footing to the music, as if moving their bodies would put off their own eventual deaths. The birds’ songs pulled at the ligaments and muscles in my legs and arms. I stretched my limbs and then shook them out, trying to defy Jasper’s life magic. I had always thought them silly for dancing at a wake, but with Momma’s death now a day away, I understood. However, if the music soaked through to my bones I might miss my chance to steal one of his birds.

The blue jays screamed harshly as we tied Mabel to the fence. She always gave the birds a start. We lifted the coffin from the wagon and started hauling it up the path. The birds, squawking louder, flocked from Jasper’s body to the porch railings.

They quieted when Jasper said to them, “Death ain’t coming for you like it did that mule.” The wings started flapping though, and they released high pitched whistles as Momma and I carried the coffin up the steps. Jasper started crooning a ballad that hushed the wings. When we passed him, I could smell the poop that stained his clothing, but it wasn’t as strong as the scent of honeysuckle and blackberries that stuck to his skin. His fingers were stained from the berries he fed to the birds. I wanted to reach out and take a hand, take those fingers into my mouth to taste what was left of all that living the birds had taken. The thought of Jasper then made me dizzy. Concentrate, I told myself. If I slipped one hand from the coffin, I could grab one of the birds, except Jasper finished a few lines of the ballad, turned, and moved to the far side of the porch. “Shush now. Death won’t be here long,” he told the birds.

Inside, neighbors rearranged plates of food spread on a large table. Old Sizemore lay on the cooling board in the living room. The kin sat on benches on either side of him. A pot of coffee warmed on the coals at the fireplace. His son, Daniel, stood there, probably waiting for it to warm enough to take another cup. He would need plenty to sit up through the night with the body. He would also need something for the grief; so Drew Stanley, the owner of the general store, poured a bit of whiskey into Daniel’s cup.

Such rituals tie the living to the dead for a while longer. I could list all the little customs we do for death in the hills. More than that, the rituals didn’t make sense without me and Momma. What did that make us? Withdrawn from the habits of daily living? No matter how much they needed us, our neighbors even withdrew from us.

They all bowed their heads when we placed the coffin down on the floor. Too afraid of catching death, they never would catch our eyes. Only if we knocked on their doors to tell them death was at hand would they look into us. At every wake I had attended, I would stare at their shoes instead of their faces, too ashamed of what meaning I held for them.

There was Momma dropping cedar chips around the body to improve the smell while her own death ate away at her. Our neighbors just kept talking about Old Sizemore’s hunting exploits while ignoring the living woman in front of them. I was so angry that I decided I didn’t care if I stole one of Jasper’s birds right in front of the lot of them.

I stomped out of the cabin and to the porch, where I grabbed one of Jasper’s goldfinches from his shoulder. The other birds shrieked and thrashed their wings.

“Let me have that bird back,” Jasper shouted.

I rushed down the steps and to the yard before he had the chance to catch me.

“Dora?” Momma shouted from behind. “Where you going with that bird?”

I untied Mabel, and climbed in the wagon seat. “Come on Momma,” I yelled. I had the bird trapped inside my cupped hand. Only its bill could be seen poking from the space between my index finger and thumb.

Jasper said something to Momma that I couldn’t hear, and then both of them jogged over.

I shook my head. “I’m not giving up this bird.”

“What’s got into you?” Momma held out her hand, gesturing for me to give the bird to her.

“It’s for you,” I said.

The neighbors crowded on the porch.

“A wake is no place to act this way,” she said.

Jasper stayed behind Momma and rubbed the heads of another bird with his fingers. “You don’t want to frighten the birds, do you?” Jasper asked.

“Why don’t you people ever think about how Momma feels?”

The goldfinch squirmed inside my hand; its bill nicked my skin and drew a tiny drop of blood.

“Dora, it needs air,” Momma said.

The birds’ chest pressed against my palm each time it breathed out, and I thought about how Momma’s chest rose and fell as she napped in her chair.

I loosened my grip. The bird’s head pushed out.

Momma crept closer. “Just open your hand.”

I did. The bird flew to Jasper and the other birds; they returned to singing a stanza of “Barbara Allen.”

#

The next day, Momma sat at the open window with an old quilt wrapped around her.

“If you would’ve let me keep that bird you could have been listening to some singing right now.”

“We don’t know how that bird would have fared here.”

“We could have found out.”

“Those birds don’t deserve to have life squeezed from them.”

“You’ve always wanted to be near them, to have them sing for you.” I pulled her quilt up and tucked it under her chin to make sure she stayed warm.

“Stop fussin’ over me.” She swatted at my hands.

“I’ll fuss all I want.”

She rose from the rocking chair and went to the windowsill, where she leaned out and glanced up at the sky. “Birds never have wanted to be near us. No use trying to change things now.”

She had a few more hours left to live. Even though she thought it was useless, I could tell by the way she searched the sky for signs of wings and song that she still wanted Jasper’s birds. Maybe she wanted them in the way he had them though—a mess of fluttering hearts and wings surrounding her body. If her body happened to give out, at least her flesh could be buried under spirited wings.

One bird would not do. I would bring her a flock to sing her body to the soil.

#

That night, while Momma slept, I carted the small animal trap I often used to catch rabbits for winter stew up the hill. As the birds squawked and whistled their fear, I placed the trap behind a large oak. I almost fell over Jasper’s stone fountain and into his honeysuckle and blackberry bushes that he used to keep the birds well-fed.

Pieces of black walnut meat shook inside my dress pocket. Weeks ago I had gathered the ripe green hulls from the ground and had placed the nuts inside our shed to dry. We snacked on the nutmeat often, and, as I had cracked open the nuts with a hammer earlier that evening, I had hoped the rich, smoky flavor would attract Jasper’s birds. I scattered some of the walnut meat inside the trap. I unwound the long string attached to the small door. Just a few feet from Jasper’s house I started to whistle “Pretty Saro,” the birds’ favorite ballad.

Before I reached the second stanza, the front door to Jasper’s cabin opened. He stepped out, and the birds flocked to cover him.

“I can only see the shape of you out there, but I know it’s you by the way my birds are acting.”

“I’m not meaning them harm.”

“They smell that stench of death about you.”

“Death isn’t the only thing that sticks to Momma and me. We got life in us, too.” To prove it, I continued on to the second stanza, my whistling growing louder and more confident.

The fee-baby, fee-bay of the chickadees and the chee-cher, chee-cher from the purple martins sounded. Then, louder than the first two species, the chiff, chiff of the flycatchers sounded. Some of the birds flew in front of his face; a few hovered over his shoulders and his head.

Who besides Jasper could take all those birds? All that noise and freedom beating from all those wings? Momma could.

“Death can sound pretty, but it’s uglier than even you suspect.”

“We’ll see about that.” I pitched the nutmeat and kept whistling.

A small flock flew from his porch railing, even a couple from the nest inside his hair. One robin, a flycatcher, and a swallow landed and pecked at the seeds.

Jasper cooed, “Come on back here.”

They wouldn’t return; he started to whistle, but his whistle came out a dry whisper. His nervousness showed again when he caught a crow that had tried to fly away. It screeched from the tightness of Jasper’s grip.

The birds hopped towards the back of the oak to the rest of the nuts.

“What’s back there?” He started towards me, but I quickly pulled the string.

The door slapped shut and I hurried over to lift the trap. “Birds don’t just belong to you. They’re of this land and these hills. They belong to all of us.”

I lit off down the hill. The birds shrieked and their wings beat against the trap. I stumbled a bit. Jasper shouted after me; I only heard the words “birds” and “kill.”

A few minutes later, I placed the trapped birds on the ground near one of our cherry trees, one closest to our fence. I agreed with Momma; it was unclear what our property would do to the birds. Our mule, Mabel, hung her head over the fence next to the barn. She was a good twenty-five feet from the house and she was still Walking Death. I couldn’t think about how near or how far the birds had to be to catch whatever rot death had given all the women of my family. I could only think about how to get the flock of birds to surround Momma’s body.

“Momma,” I called. I imagined opening the trap door and the birds flying right to her arms and perching.

The birds chanted high pitched distress calls.

“Shush, now. You’ll upset Momma.” I whistled again to calm them. They would probably fly away if I opened the trap door.  How would I coax them to her? Before I could think of anything, Momma came from the house.

She wore her nightgown and had the quilt around her shoulders. “What are you doing?”

I started to answer, but my voice disappeared under the rush of wings. I turned and glanced up. Jasper was running down the hillside, waving his arms, and yelling. His other birds, so many of them, hurried towards me. What were they doing? Were they just trying to find their fellow birds? Were they going to attack me? I sprinted for the house.

Momma screamed, “No.”

The birds’ chirping and squawking grew louder as they closed in. I stepped on the porch to face them just as they all flew over the fence. Their throats quieted. With each plop of a dead bird on the ground, Momma sobbed. After it was all over, dead birds blanketed the yard, and Jasper stood at the fence wailing like a sick animal.

Momma’s hands covered her eyes. She stumbled across the doorstep, and went back inside.

“I’m sorry,” I said over and over. A few minutes passed before I realized I was only mouthing the words. I couldn’t even move my head to glance over at Jasper; I could only stare at the grave that our yard had become. “I’m sorry,” I finally said. I needed to say it to Momma, too, and so I walked forward, careful to avoid the birds.

“I’m taking these ones back,” he said.

I had forgotten about the ones still trapped. They had grown so quiet inside that I wondered if they had died like the others.

I nodded.

He lifted the trap and opened the door. “Get on out of here,” he said. Their wings beat quickly as they flew up to the sky.

“Won’t they return to you?” I asked.

He put the trap down on the ground and swayed a bit.

“Are you all right?”

“Go see about your momma.” He picked some feathers from his jacket and twirled them between his fingers before walking off.

#

Momma lay in the bed, no longer breathing. A piece of paper set on the night side next to her Bible. She had written, “No coffin.”

At the end, Momma tried to deny the way death stuck to us like sap to skin, but I needed to rid myself of the rot inside my stomach. If she didn’t want a coffin, I would make something different.

Momma’s body was twisted and small, just like one of the dead birds, with wings spread at odd angles.

I knew then what I should do for her.

#

I dragged numerous branches and twigs to the house. After I gathered more nest making materials (fine deer hair, spider webs, leaves, and strips of grapevine bark), I went to the yard and picked up feather after feather. I stuffed my apron full. With the materials collected, I worked on a nest, trying to mimic nest songs. I wove the pieces together and finished by gluing it all together with the spider webbing. The nest was as long and as wide as Momma. The perfect resting place. Although my hands enjoyed making the nest, they were used to carving coffins, and I would go on sawing and cutting wood. The birds on the ground taught me death would continue to grow inside me.

While I worked on the nest, Jasper came down the hill.

In the middle of the dead birds, Jasper went to his knees. He plucked and skinned the birds. Clumps of feathers swirled along the yard. Flecks of bird skin stuck to his fingers. Piles of flesh surrounded him.

“What are you doing?” I moved from the nest and tiptoed around the bird corpses. Bodies, even of birds, should be placed deep into the soil. I had planned on burying them after I finished with the nest.

“You took their aliveness from me; I plan on keeping a hold of their death.”

“You can’t hold on to death. It takes hold of you.”

“You made sure of that.”

He was right. I didn’t know what sort of amends I could make, but I could try. “Come see what I’m making for my momma.”

“What do you need me for?”

“You’ll know a thing or two about nests.”

He followed me.

Patting it with his hands, he said, “Seems sturdy. It’ll cradle her nicely in the ground.”

“Thank you.”

Eventually, Jasper collected all the small bird bones and took them up the hill and into the woods. When I saw him again, he had strung the bones one after another, and, as he walked, the bones trailed a long line behind, clicking and clicking together.

One early morning, days after Momma’s funeral, I woke to the clicking and came outside with a pot of coffee to ask if he’d like to sit a spell, but he had already disappeared. Instead, I found tiny carved birds, at least fifty of them, perched on the fence. He had a good hand for whittling. They were so well done that they seemed almost alive.

Whenever I hear his bits of death now, I remember how I tried to flee death, like unstringing bone after bone. Just as the bones trailed after Jasper, the deaths that I’ll predict stretch out before me. Occasionally a feather or two will swirl through the yard, the possibility of life lifting from the soil. If I listen closely enough, I can hear the carved birds whistling an old ballad, and I whistle along while sanding our holler’s next coffin.


Brigitte N. McCray is a 2014 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and she earned her MFA in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. She also earned her PhD in English from Louisiana State University. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and book reviews have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Prick of the Spindle, Mythic Delirium, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth.com, Red Rock Review, and elsewhere. She has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Issue No. 16, Spring 2016

Among the Phlox
Iva Levarre

Judie stepped with gladness into the shelter of the phlox-corner, as she called it. A large rock, smooth and without moss or lichen, was encircled by elm trees and ringed round the base by sumptuous beds of blue phlox. It was Judie’s favorite spot to sit in, and she was sure her mother did not know about it. Judie wouldn’t mind so much if she did, but she doubted her mother would delight in it in the same way that Judy did. Rosy and jolly, Mrs. Patlock was a fine companion to Judie, but she did not appear to possess an iota of romance or dreaminess, of which there was an abundance in Judie. Mrs. Patlock spent hours tending to their rambling cottage garden, but she did not speak of its beauty and atmosphere so much as its prosy aspects: weeds, bugs, and soil.

“Those pests are at it again,” she would say at breakfast, before proceeding outside with a grim face under her straw hat, gardening tools in hand like weapons. “Slugs! Slugs everywhere! If their slime had value I could export it by the gallon and make a fortune.” But she never had the heart to squash them. She only took them outside the garden gate and nudged them in the opposite direction. Anyone watching the spot might see, early every morning, a procession of disappointed slugs trooping off to find another place to feed. But no one ever was watching, for there was no one to do so. The nearest dwelling was several miles away, the town still further.

No, Judie was very devoted to Mrs. Patlock and they were happy in their cottage, but Judie sometimes needed more than the joy found in simple household tasks and the companionship that was by turns rollicking and quiet. Something in her must drink from the ethereal spring that set her spirits soaring into mystic realms enfolded in eternity. She always found it in the phlox-corner, where her soul drank in the rustling leaves and swaying shade. She felt that she could sit and stare at the serene blueness of the phlox forever. When Judie emerged from the spot she was always satisfied, ready for more laughter and practical busyness.

Judie’s prosy activities were mending, cooking, and preserving. At times she resented them for taking her away from her dreams and fancies, but she found that she could imagine beautiful things while working at her tasks, and they were necessary for the good of her and Mrs. Patlock. They had plenty to live on with the money Mrs. Patlock’s late husband had left, but they had to be economical in places too. They must do their own work and keep their purchases simple. “Some women go gadding off to buy fine stuff of organdy and silk as soon as they have a bit of money. Not us—we have no use for fine things.” Judie would nod, but, looking at their humble attire as she mended it, she thought that she would not at all be averse to a fine dress or two, arrayed in colors as bright as the flowers she so loved.

Today, perched on the rock and looking down at the flowers, Judie spotted a small piece of crumpled paper lying beside her foot.

Picking it up and turning it over in curiosity, she read, “I know a place…” The handwriting stopped mid-sentence.

A place what? Judie wondered. What had the person been planning to write, and who had found the phlox-corner? Someone who enjoyed its sanctuary like her, she was sure of that. Surely it could not be either of the two people who lived at the nearest house, two middle-aged, churlish bachelors who appeared not to have the slightest bit of poetry in them. Yet perhaps it was hidden and she had misjudged the brothers or at least one of them. There was really no one else who could have left the paper unless someone passing by had paused in the phlox-corner.

An idea struck her. She excitedly reached into her dress pocket for a pencil she always kept there in case she was led to transcribe her musings onto paper. But just now she would not use the fresh paper that accompanied it.

“I know a place…where…” Judie thought, looking down at the crumpled paper in her lap. “Where there are silver fields and golden woods.” She completed the sentence thus, then paused to picture leaves of pure gold rippling down from golden branches, stalks of silver swaying in the breeze. “But of course they are just like real leaves except for their color. They’re still soft and living,” she murmured. “And so are the stalks of the fields.”

Before leaving, Judie placed the paper on the rock where she had been sitting and weighed it down with her pencil. Perhaps whoever left it would find it and be pleased by what she had written.

The next morning Judie hurried to the phlox-corner before her mother was up. Of course it’s too soon, she told herself. The person couldn’t have responded yet.

She found the paper lying exactly where she had left it and felt a moment of disappointment that surprised her with its keenness before seeing that a third line had been added since the day before.

“There is a place…
Where there are silver fields and golden woods…
Moon tear houses and evergreen castles…”
the paper read.

“Vessels of dreams and seas of roses,” Judie added to it, then fairly skipped over the lawn and into the house for breakfast.

“Been gadding about since dawn, have you?” said her mother with a genial wink. “Ridding the beds slugs I missed, maybe. Did you use a magic—” Mrs. Patlock cut herself off as though she had choked on the word.

Judie, humming as she sliced a peach, did not notice. She was thinking of the piece of paper in the phlox-corner and wondering what her correspondent would write next. Would lunchtime be too soon to check for a new reply? So exciting was the written exchange that it occupied her thoughts constantly. Never had a thing so enchanting happened to her. She hardly heard her mother’s chatter in her wonderment over who her correspondent could be. She longed to know yet loved the delight of secrecy.

And so it went on with Judie and her mysterious correspondent for a week. They mapped many fair lands, conjured sweet fancies, and named charming personages far removed from human kin. Judie thrilled to every line she wrote and received. Somewhere she had a friend who also delighted in secrets, in hidden spots of beauty and dreamy imaginings. On the one hand, she longed to meet the unknown person, for she could not tell whether it was man or woman, adult or child. On the other, the novelty of the indirect friendship would be lost if they met in person. In addition, Judie had a feeling that it would end when the small paper no longer had room for more words, and she did not want to use any other. It had an enchantment that a fresh piece would lack.

Judie and Mrs. Patlock still had their golden hours of companionship, and Judie did not savor them less. Her mother brought laughter from her like no one else and instilled in her daughter gratification over honest hard work. The faceless correspondent, meanwhile, gave Judie a sense of magic lurking wherever she looked. Between the two comrades, Judie’s heart welled up like a fount of joy. It could not be denied, however, that she did feel a twinge of regret that both the prosy and poetical  personalities could not be found in one person and guilt that she kept the paper a secret from Mrs. Patlock, who, she feared, would spoil its witchery.

One day Mrs. Patlock asked Judie why she was often running off to the garden. “Oh, checking for weeds,” said Judie.

Mrs. Patlock laughed. “Ah, you think in my old age I cannot catch each one?”
“No, only…it is pleasant to weed a garden, to look all over it for weeds that may be hiding. It is wholesome work,” Judie explained, feeling prim and unnatural.
Mrs. Patlock nodded. “Practical. I raised my girl to be practical, and so you are.” Her eyes beamed approval.

Judie imagined what her mother would say if she knew her “practical girl” really spent those stolen minutes dreaming up imaginary places. “Fanciful girl,” she would say, shaking her head with a look like that she gave the undesirable slugs. “I never raised you to be so.”

“Extraordinary girl I have,” Mrs. Patlock was murmuring to herself. “I never met a young person so interested in weeding.”

At the end of one week Judie was sitting on the rock in the phlox corner with the paper in her hand. By now it was even more crumpled and a little grubby, but neither her nor her correspondent minded, for it held the fair fragrance of romance. Her eyes passed sadly over the last two lines again, the first written in the spindly writing she had grown familiar with:

“We must soon meet, for the end of this sheaf draws nigh. Another we cannot use.”

“Then let it be where our fancies haunt the shadows,” Judie had agreed the evening before.

Now she waited in the phlox-corner, hoping uneasily that her correspondent was going to appear, for never had so much time elapsed between replies. And yet, in nervous anticipation, she was fearful of  who the person might be. Suppose whoever it was disliked her in person or expected her to be beautiful and wildly charming? Suppose it was a terribly handsome man? How she would blush and stutter if that was the case! And was the person male or female? Maybe it would be a young woman her age, and they would find that their spirits matched and melded.

She heard soft footsteps just then. Her heart pounding almost painfully, Judie sat up, tensed. At any moment now her correspondent would appear. The footsteps came nearer, then stopped. Someone emerged between the trees that bowered the phlox-corner.

Judie stood up, mouth agape. “Why—mother! I—” She stopped and gazed steadily at Mrs. Patlock. She was swathed in a leaf-green dress, her long, silvery-gray hair braided and coiled around her head. No jewels did she require, for her eyes supplied the bit of gleam on her person. She looked part of the surrounding greenery, at home among the rustling boughs.

“I came dressed for the occasion,” smiled Mrs. Patlock with folded hands. She slipped over to the rock and sat beside Judie, who knew now that her mother was the one she had been exchanging fancies with for the past week.

“It was you,” she said, her voice soft and her smile radiant. “I do not know how, looking at you—for you look like a wise leader of the woodland dryads—I don’t know how I did not suspect you of writing on the paper for me. But I never thought that you had a fanciful side!”

“Do you know, I did not think you had, either,” said Mrs. Patlock, “Or that anyone else knew about the phlox-corner.”

Judie blinked in surprised delight. “Oh—is that what you call this spot, too? How marvelous and—and magical. It is a wonder we never bumped into each other here. I suppose it was because we only came here when we were sure the other was occupied elsewhere. And now I discover that my gay companion and soulful friend are both right here with me after all in a single person. Here I was thinking I needed someone besides you, mother. We must keep that paper forever and frame it!”

“I think we have just been misunderstanding each other all this time,” said Mrs. Patlock thoughtfully. “Both of us were hesitant to give voice to our imaginings with the conviction that the other would not appreciate or approve of them. But now all is out in the open and our imaginations can run rampant. When in the mood for prose we will talk prose; when for poetry, poetry. Which reminds me: in that golden wood of yours there are birds covered in jewels. I saw one once with tiny, blue-white pearls covering its feathers and a plume of sapphire upon its head. Would you not love to see it?”

Judie’s eyes beamed into Mrs. Patlock’s. They pressed one another’s hands, smiling down into the blue phlox that had always held such promise.


Iva Levarre has always loved to write, particularly stories inspired by sentimental fiction and fairy tales.

Issue No. 16, Spring 2016

The Eclipse
Rebecca Harrison

Charlotte looked out her window through the noonday light. The prairie stretched in winds and horizons. Past the earth and grasstops, a patch of darkness swallowed the skies. Sunlight shrank at its edges. Darkness plummeted on the town below. Bird flocks circled the blackness.

She heard her parents’ low words from the next room, wrapped her shawl tighter and tried to see into the distant black roads. Carts of townspeople clamoured across the earth flats. A shiver ran over her. She ached to walk dust paths in the strange dark. She crept past her parents, ran from their wooden house and saddled her horse. The grasslands shook with hooves and winds. As she rode through the hard sun, she heard her mother calling her name. The sky was heavy with bird wings. She heard shouts as she galloped past wagons towards the towering dark. She stared across the prairie vasts to the unseen town. Blackness loomed to the sky tops. She wondered if anyone was there among the corners and doorways she had known. She stared

deeper but couldn’t see. Racing onwards, she heard her heart below the winds. The town loomed nearer. A wall of darkness reached across her view. She stopped, shivering as cool gusts swept over her from the inky land. The air was sharp with crow cries. She tied her horse to a thin tree and walked forward. A sheet of blackness fell to the dust. Her steps stilled as she felt the bright day narrow behind her. She stood in the sunlight and saw star-glint and night clouds. She felt alone with the dark.

 

At home, she moved through rooms crammed with townspeople. She tried to glimpse the distant gloom from windows as she watched her mother stir a big pot of stew. The kitchen felt large with her mother’s silence.

“Where’ve you been? There’s plenty of folk without places to stay tonight,” her mother said, without looking from the pot. “Go and make some hay beds in the barn. Anywhere there’s space.” Charlotte rushed from the house. She swept dirt and shaped hay, hands trembling as she tried to imagine stepping inside the shrouded town. She lingered in the barn doorway watching sunset seep around the faraway darkness. Then she hurried back into the house and helped her mother hand bowlfuls of stew to the townspeople. As her father lit oil lamps, she sank into a corner and looked round at faces and shadows. Blue dusk filled the windows.

“They say it’s a man that brings the darkness,” an old woman said. Her face looked sore from the wind.

“That’s just talk, Ma,” a broad woman hushed her. “It’ll be gone by sun up.” Charlotte inched near to the old woman.

“What kind of a man?” she whispered. The old woman leaned close.

“He moves about the land and it goes with him.” Charlotte felt the room tighten.

“Have you seen him?” Her words shook. She startled at her mother’s grip on her shoulder.
Charlotte settled children and handed blankets and quilts to townspeople. Her mother closed the window shutters. The house was warm with muffled voices. She lingered in a corner watching shadow shapes in the oil light until her father put out the lamps. Then she crept to bed. Night hours drifted between the wooden walls. She listened to folk sleeping and felt the strange skies past the prairie winds. She opened her shutters and looked out at the night. The grasslands billowed with silver light but the town stayed moonless. Remembering the old woman’s words, she wondered if there was a man who walked darkness across the land. She thought of sunless cities and valleys. She tried to picture his footsteps in the dust. She remembered when she was younger, leading the other children to go wind catching in the trees. In leafy heights, they tried to catch gusts in their hands. She always climbed furthest, past the other children’s reach.

 

Crow calls startled her awake. Fearing the black skies gone, she rushed to her window. Sunrise stained the prairie horizons, but the gloom remained on the town. She dressed swiftly and crept downstairs. Townspeople huddled in corners and low words. The house was chill with voices she did not know. Hearing her mother’s footsteps in the room above, she hurried outside into the dawn winds. She saddled her horse and galloped beneath flock swirls and sky tops. The day smelled of rock and dew. As she rode, she tried to picture town places now empty of song and chatter. She thought about setting candles in the windows. She rode faster until the blackness stretched across her path. Tying her horse to the thin tree, she walked forward, trying to see town shapes beyond the day’s edge. She reached out to touch the darkness. Then she stepped into the starlit cool. She heard her heart beneath the silence. Her view strained and softened into rooftops and pathways. The old road was hard under her feet. She glanced back at the prairie green and walked on to the town.

The darkness smelled of dust and wind. Emptiness swelled the buildings. She felt small among the dim windows. She remembered childhood evenings when she had sheltered in oil light and shut her eyes before her father put out the lamps. She had huddled beneath her quilt and tried not to breathe in the night. Silence towered over her path. Pausing at the school house, she peered in the windows at faint shapes and tried to picture the colours of past days. Her footsteps felt wider than the hush. She glanced behind her but saw only dingy ways. Then she saw light wafting past the church corners. She followed the glow down a pathway. The light drifted from a vast mansion. She climbed the steps of the porch and stepped to a window. Lamp glow and shadows flowed around a grand mahogany room. She held her breath and listened. The silence felt solid. She gently pushed open the front door. Candles clustered beside high walls. A corridor of flame shadows and rich wood stretched into the mansion. She walked slowly, trying to soften her steps. The house smelled of ash and velvet. Light poured from a bright doorway. Inching closer, she moved through thinning shadows. She stepped into the room. The air burned with lamp glow and firelight. A man’s shadow loomed across the floor. She froze. At the back of the room, he stood facing the fireplace.

“Did you bring the darkness?” she said. He turned and looked at her through the heat of the lamps.

“It never leaves me.” His voice felt like caverns and cliff edges. Charlotte stood hard against his gaze. She wanted to step back into the moonless paths. “What was the town like before?” he said.

“Lots of noise and folk. Like any other town.” She wanted to shut her eyes to the oil light.

“Every place I pass through is like this.” She glanced at the windows and asked him how far he’d travelled. He spoke of dim and silent cities and she saw the world as empty ways. On the walls were paintings he’d gathered of scenes he couldn’t see, ocean dawns and forest noons. He said he’d taken them from abandoned homes in far off towns. She thought of the prairie colours and felt the dark about the mansion.

 

Back home, she watched the townspeople as they stared across the prairie. The sun hurt her eyes. She heard women whispering about losing their homes. Children’s shouts tangled with grass winds. An old man talked of the days they’d built the church house. She tried not to hear him. Someone murmured about omens and end times. Charlotte’s blood was fast. She snatched up a basket of laundry and ran through noon sun to the creek. She stayed among tree shelter and water rush, while the townsmen stood in a group watching the darkness. She was glad to be outside their words. She remembered, when she was small, believing silence was a language. For weeks, she had stayed hushed and imagined she was speaking to the voiceless things, the stones and hollows.

She hurried her work. Her thoughts mingled with wind ends. She pictured Edward, the man in the dark. She ached to be in the world he had walked. Her hands were sore from soap and rock. She rested in stream glimmer and pictured the plain in moonless shade. She wanted to show Edward the prairie sweeps where she had played as a child. When she walked back through the sun bright grass, she gazed at the black town. Her hands shook when she thought he might go.

Dusk sank on the prairie. She scrubbed pots by her mother’s side and listened to the townspeople’s murmurings. She heard a child crying. The house smelled of stew and sundown.

She sat in a corner of the common room. The walls cramped. She looked at men crowding a window and tried to guess their low words.

“I told you,” said the old woman with the wind sore face. “A man did this.” Someone muttered in her ear. A woman scolded a sobbing child. Charlotte watched her father light the oil lamps, and pictured Edward’s cold journey. She thought she heard a family speak of going back to the town. The house became still with lamp flicker and sleep hush. That night, she tried to stay awake. She feared waking to light skies over the town. When she slept, she dreamed of candlelit roads stretching over an inky land.

 

At dawn she rode from her home. The morning was soft with cloud pink and wind still. She stood at the dark’s edge and glanced at the sunrise. Turning away, she stepped into the gloom. She walked through star glint and dust. The silence felt like faraway night. The dim houses and stores seemed full of long ago days. She followed the pathways between black windows into the lamp glow seeping from the mansion. Holding her breath, she pushed open the front door and peered into the mahogany room. Candles crammed on shelves. Golden light warmed the walls. He sat by the window.

“How long will you stay here?” she said. He stood and walked to her side.

Each dawn, they talked between oil light and shadows. They wandered paths in the strange dark and listened for day sounds past the town. She told him the colours of her childhood. She said when she was very small her family lived in a forest among wolf howl and tree smells. When they left, she had hidden acorns in the wagon to take the woods with her. On moonless nights, she had imagined the forest had grown over the grasslands and sky. She told him she had named winds and tried to hear words in their rush. Once, she hurt her ankle trying to run alongside a hard wind, and lying in the deep grass, she had listened to her parents’ far calls and wished the wind to carry her away. She used to think wind paths led to the sky. In her school house lessons, she had listened to gusts over the town rooftops and drawn maps of wind roads to sky lands.

He said he was born during an eclipse. The darkness stayed with him. His childhood was wrapped in star glow and silence. He learned of day from his mother’s words, saw the sun and moon only in his father’s books. He ran from home to find the dawn, but between hills and clouds he found only the dark. He hid candles in a hollow and pretended the amber shine was sunrise. In his home, he watched clock hands and tried to imagine noons and dusks. One day, his parents left him, and in the empty house, he burned the books with pictures of the sun and moon. He began to search for the edge of the eclipse. He journeyed days stretched by starlight. Woods drifted into towns, and he saw folk hurrying from the faded skies. Across oceans, he stood below sails and chants, watching for bright shores. The waves wound in night shadows and dim sweeps. On mountain heights, he wandered in lamp glow beneath black winds. In forests, he listened for birdsong in silent deeps. He roamed empty cities after people had fled, and resigned to never finding the day, he began to gather pictures from their walls. He said he hated the dark.

 

Beneath the prairie skies, Charlotte’s hours shrivelled. The grass pathways and wooden home seemed pieces of days gone. She worked among the townspeople, but felt far from them. In the evenings, she sat in cramped rooms, calming children and old folk while men argued over the darkness. They said it was a judgement. They said it destroyed whatever it touched. Charlotte felt them talking, but heard only the prairie night. The air clamoured. Her heart was loud.

When she was with him, she wandered in starlit winds. The strange dark felt full of his words. She gathered fallen feathers from the grasslands and showed him their colours in the oil light. He sat lamps by walls and corners and she saw the world winding in hidden pathways. They lingered in the school house and she showed him the rooms where she had day dreamed of realms beyond. Between rooftops and dust, they listened to the sky hush. He spoke of his journeys through lands of darkness and silence. She told him of prairie sights, of bird glide and sunrise. He lit candles in dim homes and held her close among the shadow shapes. He said he wanted to live forever with her in a land of light. He said could no longer stand the endless eclipse without her. She thought of the townspeople sweating under the hot sun. She imagined them circling the darkness.

 

She sat in the common room, stitching a quilt. The house smelled of ragged wood and shadows. She felt like a trespasser among the townspeople. She couldn’t look at them. She’d betrayed them. She pulled the thread hard as the sore-faced old woman talked.

“He’s not going anywhere. He has our town. What’s gonna happen to us? Where do we go?” She clenched her hands. They were shaking.

“I can’t go anywhere,” a wiry man said. “My store’s all I’ve got.” Charlotte looked down at patterns on the day-faded cloth. She didn’t want them to see her eyes.

“How are we gonna live? Scrape by in the dirt somewhere?”

“It’s our homes, our livelihoods! We need to take it back.”

“If it’s a man, we can make him leave!”

Charlotte gripped the quilt as more townsfolk shouted. The air was narrow and hot. She saw a small girl put her hands over her ears. The shadows and walls tangled.

“We should stop him for good.”

 

Charlotte rode out before dawn. Under the moon glow, her heart was fast with the townspeople’s words. She wished the eclipse had walls. Night swayed through the grass tops. The horse hooves stiffened the prairie sounds. When she reached the town, she raced through dust paths. Star seep whirled with empty homes. Her feet ached. She ran into the mansion and hurried through the candle light.

“They’re going to come for you,” she said. “You have to go.”

“I won’t leave,” he said. She couldn’t see his eyes. He pulled her to him. She sank into his arms. The shadows seemed full of far skies and secret ways.

 

Back in the prairie daylight, she saw townswomen packing wagons. Children’s calls weaved with the grass winds. Townsmen stood in a group watching the darkness. She saw guns. She slid from her horse and ran to her mother.

“Are they leaving?”

“Back to the town,” her mother nodded. Charlotte felt the air twist. She looked over at the townswomen. Someone was calling to her. “You gonna help?” her mother said. Charlotte’s voice was heavy. It stuck in her throat. She couldn’t feel her steps but found herself by the wagons. The sunlight was sharp and the air tasted of dust. Townsfolk were talking. She felt slower than their words. Someone had propped guns against the walls. She helped lift boxes onto the wagon. Rough wood scratched her fingers.

“Won’t take our men long to be done with him,” a woman said. She heard men speak of surrounding the town. The sky felt low on their voices. Her head hurt. The heat was thick. She saw her mother talking but didn’t know her words. Winds filled her sight. She wanted to run. She saw wagons being closed up. Her mother called to her from the doorway. “Stew’s ready.” She felt her mother’s hand on her arm. “You’d best get serving it.” Charlotte stared as townsfolk crammed into the house. She saw her mother turn away. She inched past the crowd. She thought they weren’t watching. She ran.

She galloped hard into the moonless dark. Her heart filled with horse hooves and black gleam. The town was fast shapes. Her hands tore on the reins. Blackness spun around her. She thought she could hear wheels in the dust. Her face was sore. The winds seemed full of the townspeople’s steps. When she reached the mansion, she raced. Through the dinge that smelled of cold lamps, feeling with her hands along the walls. She pushed into his room. He sat by a single lamp.

“They’re coming. They’ll kill you.” Her voice hurt. She was kneeling and his arms were tight round her. She couldn’t breathe. She heard him telling her goodbye. His words sounded far away. Her face was hot with tears. She felt him shaking.

“I’m going with you,” she said.

“You can’t. There’s no life in the darkness.”

“I’m not leaving you on your own.”

“If you go with me, you’ll never be able to come back.”

“I don’t want to come back,” she said. He clung to her under the lamp flicker. She thought of the townspeople. They’d be riding now. Coming with their guns. “We must hurry.” They stumbled to their feet. She picked up the lamp. They rushed from the room, through the corridor. The stolen paintings blurred colours. They ran down the stairs. Shouts froze the air. “It’s them,” she gasped. Through a doorway, she glimpsed windows. Lanterns flashed. The road shrank into shadowy crowds. Guns glinted. She stared at the moving shapes. The dark felt brittle. He pulled her near.

“Can you live in the darkness?” he whispered. She looked at him and saw the years he had journeyed through black lands. Walls trembled with shouting. The words were strange sounds. She heard heavy steps on the porch. Her grip was white on the lamp.

She threw the lamp down the hall. Glass shattered. Oil shimmered and lit. Fire poured up the walls. He held her close in light and heat as the mansion began to blaze. He said something. She heard only flame crackle. He grabbed her hand and pulled her into another corridor. They ran. He hurried her through dim rooms toward the back of the mansion. His grip hurt her hand. She heard beams crashing. Her feet stumbled. Smoke stung her eyes. He inched a door open. They looked into the street. They saw men running to the mansion front. Fire roar smothered their shouts. “They’ll see us if we run,” Edward said. He led Charlotte along the wall side. It was warm. They crept into an alleyway. She looked back. The mansion was flaming spires and billowing smoke. Tawny light burned across the sky. Embers bristled in the winds. She thought of the paintings turning to ash. Fire fell onto near rooftops. Horses screamed and stamped. Windows were jagged gleams. The men seemed small. She watched their shadows quake. Someone was pointing at her. She didn’t know his face. More heads turned. They lifted their guns. Edward and Charlotte ran to the horses. She scrambled up and seized the reins. She heard gunshots.

“This way,” she yelled. She saw men running. Edward was on his horse. They galloped. Streets rushed by as dust and shadows. The shouting grew distant. The sky was fire glow and ash. The town thinned into prairie spaces. She looked across the starlit grasslands towards her family’s wooden house. They slowed as she pictured the colours of gone days. Then they went onwards with the eclipse about them.

 

They rode on into the endless dark. Sometimes they were followed. The inky vasts clamoured with hoofbeats. Lawmen waited them at every town, and they fled west. In the black prairie night, they huddled and tried to feel warmth in the long grass. They tried to outrun the eclipse. Darkness smothered their sight. To see each other they set fires on the plains. Flames towered. They rode beneath a sky of smoke. Firelight soared over their path.

Their horses took flight and fled to the day. They went on foot. When they passed through silent forests, they lit the trees. She listened to ember crackle and tried to remember birdsong. When the trees had burned away, they held each other among the cinders. She dreamed of daylight. Their black sky shrouded deserts and rivers. In windless valleys, they heard only their own footsteps and words. When winter came, they carried fire into the mountains. They walked on together.


Rebecca Harrison sneezes like Donald Duck and can be summoned by a cake signal in the sky. Her best friend is a dog who can count. She’s been nominated for Best of the Net, and was a finalist in the first Wyvern Lit flash fiction contest. Her stories can also be read at Pigeonholes Magazine, Maudlin House, Luna Station Quarterly, and elsewhere.

Issue No. 16, Spring 2016

The Pearl Bed
Melinda Giordano

There was once a king who, when he was about to be married, summoned all of his carpenters and decorators to gather around him in a single, expectant battalion. He wanted them to use all of their skills and dainty armaments to build a marriage bed. And he wanted it to be decorated exclusively in pearl. He wanted it to be rich and rare, chaste and pure – as pure as his young bride.

The king was Henry VIII, and he was in love. Not politically, physically or intellectually in love – but foolishly and blindly…a doomed emotion, short-lived yet fraught with danger. The year was 1540: he was nearly fifty, and his bride-to-be was eighteen. Her name was Catherine – soft and curved, stupid and immodest, madcap and pathetic.

Her king was fat and clumsy, with suppurating legs which kept him immobile and irritable. He was over a foot taller than Catherine, and at their wedding ceremony stood next to her like a reeking colossus.

Yet court witnesses all attest to his inelegant caresses and embraces: he would crush her to him like a fragile bouquet, pink and white, petals undamaged: and upon releasing her was himself unharmed – she was indeed his ‘blushing rose without a thorn’.

He gave her jewels and enameled beads tipped with gold; gowns of twilight-colored silks and amber brocades. He gave her French hoods which perched saucily on the back of her head, revealing a daring view of forehead and hair. And he gave her a glowing, pelagic bed.

It flourished in the evening, a shining lake as translucent and pale as a saucer of milk. It was so pale that the moon, as curious as a cat, hovered low on the horizon to look at this reflection, this simulated echo. And when the inquisitive moonlight spread across the earth, it embraced the nacreous ornamentation as well, to create a radiance that was depthless and alive.

However, it wasn’t long before the King began to retire alone to his personal chambers – whether drunk, incapacitated with overeating or dulled with pain: he was no fit occupant for the dainty bed. And soon after, courtiers, whose only job was to lurk and listen, would hear the queen’s tiny hands open the door to welcome a new resident.

Eventually Henry found out about his flower’s guilty and treacherous secret. And when he did, Henry VIII – the proud, feared behemoth – broke into tears. He then gathered his wits to order her immediate execution. At one point he picked up his own sword and threatened to exact the punishment himself.

But he allowed the cruel laws of the 16th century to progress. Adultery and treason coiled into a single deadly helix with only one penalty: another queen was to be beheaded. (Catherine’s cousin was Anne Boleyn – they were buried in the same unmarked grave.)

She died early in the morning, in February 1542. She knelt in front of the block, her neck showing white against the wood, dark and scored by the marks of earlier condemnations. Courtiers and advisors had assembled, as well as ambassadors and spies who would write accounts for their masters, scattered across Europe.

Very few of them were sad. But in the distance, the moon, which would not be setting for another hour, watched with pity the little girl who each night had laid like a pearl in her oyster bed.

There is no other record of the pearl bed. It could have been sold, forgotten. It could have been destroyed, so that no memory of the shameless queen and the king’s humiliation would remain. But perhaps there came a night when the moon decided to linger before floating upwards like a ship through the twilight currents. And within that winsome pause she decided to embrace the lonely nacre to her, so that they could journey together – leaving only a pile of abandoned quilts and splintered wood behind.


Melinda Giordano is from Los Angeles, California. A published artist, her written pieces have appeared in Lake Effect Magazine, Scheherazade’s Bequest, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Whisperings, and Circa Magazine, among others. She has also been a regular poetry contributor to CalamitiesPress.com with her own column, ‘I Wandered and Listened.’ Melinda is interested in many histories: art, fashion, social — everything has a past — and anything to do with Aubrey Beardsley.

Issue No. 16, Spring 2016

A Small Evolution
Melinda Giordano

When the crescent of the Armada broke in the late summer of 1588, it scattered splinters and bodies across the North Atlantic and along the northern islands in a macabre embroidery.  Flags and riggings decorated with holy families and the Five Wounds bled into the sand.  Gold and armor lay untended and frosted with rust.

In the initial panic, the towering Spanish galleons leaned into the wind like rooks on a chessboard, eager to return to the hinterland of its ranks and the shadow of their king.  These were bulky assassins, and in order to lighten their load and so increase their speed, all that could be jettisoned was:  crates, food, drink, guns, cannon, ammunition.  And then – possibly as a last, pained resort – the horses.   Andalusians, Barbs, jennets were thrown overboard into the sea thick with salt and hypothermia.  In the months following accounts came from the outskirts of guilty Scotland and Ireland of the looted remains of soldiers and the sight of horses, either lying dead on the shore, or still swimming – the crescent of white in their eyes echoing the battle formation of Spain’s ‘Great and Most Fortunate Navy’.

Out of the 30,000 soldiers, sailors, priests, shanghaied criminals and farmers who sailed with the Armada, less than 10,000 returned.   Many horses were lost, but no one knows how many.  Some washed up onto the sand, dead or dying.   Some floated on the water, their fiery blood quenched forever.

But there were a few that sank.  Not to die, but to live – to feel the abyssal cold and pelagic molecules wind around their equine DNA, to be transformed, to swim, to forage for the particles of air that lurked inside the seaweed and water.  Their equine flesh became tinged with brine and a maritime sentiment.

Their journey was deep, and the pressure of the sea’s embrace increased.  They became small and toy like, and like mermaids their legs disappeared, submerged beneath a skin of scales and luster. They curled around shrouds of kelp far below the splintered ships and bloody riggings – floating through oceanic slipstreams and prisms of fish the color of silken horizons.

Centuries have passed since this incarnation, when the Armada’s herds escaped from their rancid bodies.  Neptune had long fancied a team to pull his chariot of pearl and blue-eyed scallops; his decision made, he pointed with his trident to the dying animals above him. He pitied their beauty.  Their drowning spirits offended him, for he was a sympathetic god, despite his brawn and salty humor.

There is little of the sea horse now that would recall its origins.  But riding along their backbones there are spikes that are still as sharp as the quivers of pikes carried by the invading navy.  And their curious skin is patterned in subtle plates, as if they wore the remnants of the armor once worn by the foolish and unprepared sailors.  Many are as bronzed as Spanish gold and occasionally dappled with scarlet, to show that they had not forgotten the distant invasion that had punctured the sea with drops of blood.


Melinda Giordano is from Los Angeles, California. A published artist, her written pieces have appeared in Lake Effect Magazine, Scheherazade’s Bequest, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Whisperings, and Circa Magazine, among others. She has also been a regular poetry contributor to CalamitiesPress.com with her own column, ‘I Wandered and Listened.’ Melinda is interested in many histories: art, fashion, social — everything has a past — and anything to do with Aubrey Beardsley.

Issue No. 16, Spring 2016

Forget Me Do
Sara Dobie Bauer

Her friends called her a witch. It was only a joke. Whenever one of the girls posted on Facebook that she felt a cold coming on, Debra was on the road with her herbal tea mixtures and tinctures. Then, miraculously, within days, her girlfriends would be completely healed and winning track meets. That was why they called her a witch. That and, well …

“You just made out with Stan in the back of his dad’s car.”

“I hate when you do that,” Rebecca said.

Debra couldn’t help knowing things. It wasn’t only because she had a certain sense for people’s emotions but because she could observe. For instance, Rebecca’s eye makeup was slightly askew. She didn’t have on lipstick. She looked tired, and her hair was a bit of a mess, only in the back, where Stan’s hand had probably tugged earlier.

“Can you turn off the witchy stuff tonight?” Rebecca whined.

Debra wished she could. She’d never been able to turn it off, no, not even when her father was cheating on her mom. Not when a car six blocks away hit her dog and she knew. Some would call her an empath: one who absorbed the emotions of others. Debra knew better. She was a witch, like her mother before her, grandmother before that, great-grandmother … the list went on.

It was mere coincidence that her friends jokingly called her “witch.” They thought she was good with herbal medicine. She was—because she worked spells as a child to harness health, prosperity, and luck. Debra didn’t use love spells. She didn’t trust them, as love spells could easily turn to curses.

“So I guess that means things with Stan are going well, huh?”

Rebecca smiled and nodded at Nicole’s question. “He’s a prize. What can I say?” She pushed at her hair with red fingernails.

“He’s failing history class,” Debra said.

Rebecca rolled her eyes. At least she didn’t say “witch” again.

Debra touched her decaf latte and wondered why she went out with these girls. They were friends in the on-paper sense. They had a lot of the same classes together. When one of them had a problem—physical or emotional—Debra was there with her silk-wrapped bags of protective properties. So far no one had ever opened the bags, she figured, since no one had yet to question the fragments of bones inside or, one time, the petrified bat skull.

“Is Tanya coming?” Nicole asked.

Debra nodded. “Should be here any minute.” She didn’t know this because of a text; she felt it. She also felt Tanya was tense. She was about three blocks away—Debra’s best guess—and the stress ran off her like summer sweat. Something was apparently wrong with her perfect boyfriend, Beau.

Rebecca and Tanya had those things: perfect boyfriends. Nicole and Debra were single, Nicole not by choice. She was a lovely little thing, barely past five-foot-two with overly developed breasts and dark hair to match her dark eyes. She was single because she jumped from boy to boy like a girl on a trampoline, always believing one might catch her when she fell. They never did.

Debra, on the other hand, stayed single on purpose. Her mother died of heartbreak when Debra was thirteen; ever since, she felt love was nothing but a disadvantage.

Which was again why she wondered at her presence at the coffee shop that night with her crazy cast of fellow students who discussed silly things like celebrity gossip and the latest cut of blue jean. She went out once a month with these girls to appear normal. Her mother always told her to act normal, as if they still lived in Salem, circa 1690, and she might be burnt at any moment.

“There’s Tanya.” Rebecca waved toward the door.

Debra turned to see their redheaded friend push between all the college guys and high school girls who wanted to date them.

The ladies were at one of the many popular coffee coves in the gas light district of San Diego that featured a limited martini menu, as well. Wooden chandeliers hung from the ceiling and illuminated the room with fist-sized orbs of yellow light. They sat in a wooden booth, uncomfortable but stylish, with leftover chocolate chip cookies from their earlier nosh session. Across from them, the bar was loaded with warm bodies.

Debra could see her own curious reflection in the mirror behind rows of yellow-lit tequila bottles. Her black hair with blunt bangs was pulled up on top of her head. Her dark eyes looked bottomless. The tilt of her red-painted mouth was bored.

Tanya arrived with a huff at the table, hands on her slim hips. “Prom is ruined.” She slid in the booth with Nicole.

“What are you talking about?”

She buried her red head in her hands. “For a smart guy, Beau is an idiot. He blew our limousine cash on some new video game.”

Debra took a long sip of coffee and sighed into her mug. Another fifteen minutes and she could leave without being rude. Blame it on a long day at school, on the rainy California weather. Blame it on the pelican poop that covered the sidewalk outside their La Jolla Beach high school. Anything.

“Why are you still with that fool?” Nicole slurped until the ice danced in her empty glass—a chilled chai tea.

“I love him. I do. He’s just an idiot.”

Debra didn’t like Tanya’s boyfriend. She thought he was controlling. She’d spent the past two years watching her “friend” first go vegetarian then go atheist, all because her boyfriend talked her into it. He had a bad energy around him, like when milk is about to go sour. For Debra, he was past his expiration date.

She half-heartedly listened as Tanya explained exactly how her boyfriend had screwed up her perfect prom dream. Debra also listened to the sounds of the coffee bar. She flipped her lashes open and closed and took in the emotions around her, predominantly those of lust and occasional self-interest. Lust felt like a heavy steak in her stomach, cooked well done; pride was like sour grapes.

Then, there was something else. The feeling crept over her shoulders and down her chest like a winter wind. She let go of her coffee mug. Her fingers clutched to her upper arms, and she made a noise.

The noise scared the vapid young women around her. The way they looked at her, their perfectly waxed eyebrows turned down in the middle, made her realize the sound must have been animalistic. Like something dying.

“Debra, are you okay?” Rebecca touched her, but all Debra could see was Rebecca with her tongue down Stan’s throat.

Debra robbed her hand away. “I need to get up.”

“You’re not going to be sick are you?” Nicole looked vaguely concerned.

“No, I just …” She shoved her hip against Rebecca until she finally moved and permitted Debra to exit the booth. Then, she stood. She searched out that feeling again, something horrible, and found it, ten feet away.

He was mostly obstructed from her view, painted over by layers of men in black-rimmed hipster glasses, women in short skirts. As Debra moved closer, she saw the edge of a slumped shoulder covered in blue. She saw the back of a long neck. Then, visually blocked, she only felt him again: cold, so cold.

“Excuse me.” She said it once, then twice. People wouldn’t move out of her way, too focused on getting a phone number, trying to sound good, act cool. They didn’t notice the cracked shell of a human in their midst.

She wondered how they couldn’t feel it, feel him? How could they not see the way he hurt? How could they not sense it like an incoming storm, smell the rain on dry pavement? How?

Debra did not usually heal in public. She shrank from human touch, because she knew what her powers could do. Yet, as she passed one more man, this one in a pink button-down, she reached her hand out and wrapped her open palm on the blue-clad shoulder.

She closed her dark eyes against the images. She would not betray a stranger’s intimacy that way. Instead, she focused on the pain, the horrible pain. She clenched her jaw and tried to suck some of the ache from his chest. She pulled at the despair inside him until she heard him take a loud breath. Warmth radiated out from Debra’s palm into the t-shirt material. Some of his pain went away.

Then, he crushed her to him. She didn’t see him move, feel him move, but there she was, her nose against his neck. His grip surrounded her. Her slim, strong arms pressed into his back. She stood between his legs, parted on the barstool. He smelled like overdue laundry, but he was warm. His skin was warm, and his t-shirt was soft. He moaned a shuddering breath against her collarbone and pulled away.

He stared up at her, eyes impossibly light in the yellow lamps, rimmed red. Up close, his hair was light brown. He was a little bit older than her. He looked like the kind of man who had an incredible smile. He reached up with long fingers and touched the side of her chin.

Debra looked at the half-empty glass of something dark and menacing on the bar. “You need tea,” she said.

He smiled just a touch, one side of his mouth curved up in the shape of a U-turn. Then, he nodded. Debra took his hand and pulled him through the crowd. She did not say goodbye to her friends.

***

There was a diner down the street from the coffee shop that stayed open until 2 AM. Debra didn’t take the stranger there. She took him back to the apartment she shared with her aunt, a couple blocks away, hidden above a music store and a place where tourists bought t-shirts adorned with the Hotel del Coronado or the impressive San Diego Bridge.

She did this not because he looked trustworthy—although he did—but because he made her feel safe. Despite the soul-sucking pain in his chest, the way his slim shoulders drooped, he gave off fragments of joy, peace, and love, so much love. These were mere fragments, camera flashes, as the despair wracked his system like a fatal disease.

But mostly, the stranger felt … familiar.

He sat at her cluttered kitchen island on a hand-me-down bar stool and watched her prepare the kettle on the gas stove. Debra’s aunt would still be away for another three days, gone to a healers’ conference in Arizona. They were thankfully alone.

When she turned around, he didn’t look at the cozy apartment, pieced together from her mother’s old things along with trinkets, lucky charms Debra had received from other witches at coven meetings. To the untrained eye, the trinkets were decorative. Debra knew they were protective, too, which was why she now trusted the stranger even more. He’d made it through the front door.

“Why did you approach me in the coffee shop?” It was the first time he’d spoken, and Debra was surprised at the depth of his voice. He had the tone of a cello, wrapped in silk. The voice was completely at odds with the slim young man in front of her, who wore a frayed Pink Floyd t-shirt and plaid shorts that threatened to slip from his thin hips.

“You seemed sad,” she said.

His light eyes were still red, watery. “No one else noticed.”

“I did.” She reached into her pantry and pulled down two homemade bags of tea. She knew their contents by heart: nettle leaves, St. John’s Wort, spearmint, and more. Her mother once called it “Blues Tea,” although it had nothing to do with music.

The stranger shook his head. “There was something different. You felt different.” He rested his head in his hands. “Or maybe I’m just drunk.”

Debra watched him, and an image came unbidden of this man’s naked skin from the waist up. Hands were on him. Then, she blinked and said, “I’m Debra.”

The kettle screamed behind her. Over the sound, she heard, “Damian.”

She filled two matching mugs with hot water and dropped in the tea bags. They would need to steep for ten minutes to achieve full results, and she muttered a few incantations under the veil of a hum.

“Why are you sad, Damian?”

He rubbed his head until his light hair was a mess of knots. Then, he ran his fingers through it until he looked windblown. “Who are you?”

“My friends call me a witch.”

“Maybe you are.”

The scent of the steeping tea surrounded them both in an herbaceous haze.

“Do you often let strange, drunk guys into your house at night?”

“No.” She shook her head.

He splayed his hands, palm down, across the counter. “I know I won’t hurt you, but how do you know?”

“I can feel it.” She looked up at him from beneath her black bangs.

He reached his hand out until his long fingers covered hers. Again, an image in her mind—less image, more sound—sweaty skin but the sound of heated breaths, the sound of Damian’s moan. She closed her eyes against it.

“Will you hold me again?” His deep voice shook. “Just for a second?”

She circled the counter, and it was like at the coffee shop. She stood between his parted legs and wrapped him in her arms. She felt his breath against her collarbone. He smelled like alcohol and musk. Then, he squeezed her tighter, his arms around her ribcage. He buried his face against the flesh of her neck and sobbed, just once, but the sound was like an open door that allowed Debra to walk right through.

That was when she saw the lovely young man with the brown eyes. He was shorter than Damian, broader in the shoulders. He was built like a rugby player. His hands were on Damian. His mouth covered Damian’s slim body in sloppy, open-mouthed kisses.

Debra felt rude, like a voyeur. She pulled away so jarringly Damian almost fell forward off the barstool. She steadied him with her hand on his shoulder and said, “I’m sorry.”

“I should go.” He moved to stand.

“No.” She kept her hand on his shoulder. “The tea. It’ll help.”

Although his eyes still glistened, he lingered on the seat edge and smiled: a beautiful thing, unabashedly filled with teeth. “It doesn’t have hallucinogenic properties, does it?”

“Practically.” She turned her back on him and removed each bag of herbs, discarded in the kitchen sink. She added a pinch of cinnamon to each cup and a half spoonful of honey. “Here.” She handed him his glass.

“Thank you.”

She knew, as she watched him sip, the pain in his chest was not about a breakup. The man with the brown eyes had not walked out on Damian. Which meant one thing.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

He cuddled the teacup in his hands. “I don’t know.”

“Tell me about him.” She knew it was a brazen move, but with the alcohol plus the tea, she knew Damian would feel a sense of calm and trust.

He looked at her with red eyes. “How do you know about him?”

“I catch images sometimes, when I touch people.”

He took a lingering sip of steamy tea. “There are several choice images where he’s concerned.”

Debra pressed her lips together and hid a blush behind her hand.

He spun his mug on the counter. “He’s dead, Debra.” He paused. “He’s dead.”

She nodded.

His light eyes took in the smallness of her San Diego apartment: the ratty family heirloom afghans on the couch, the potted herbs on the windowsill, and strange paintings her mother made before she died. “So you’re a witch,” he said.

“Yes.”

“Is that a career plan, or …” He shrugged.

“I’d like to be a massage therapist someday.”

He lowered light brows. “But you would have to touch people a lot. Wouldn’t that be difficult?”

“No.” She took a small sip of warmth. “Most people don’t feel the way you do. Most people think about bills or work or whether or not to buy that new Dior dress. Most people don’t feel that much.”

He stared at the countertop.

“I didn’t need to touch you to feel you, Damian. I felt you across the coffee shop.”

“What did I feel like?”

She shivered at the memory. “Cold.”

She watched his face crumple before he could hide behind his hands. He sucked in quivering breaths as she rounded the counter and cautiously ran her palm across his upper back. “I’m not cold,” he murmured.

“I know. Look at me.”

He still hid behind his hands.

“Damian. Please.” She tugged at his fingers until he let go. His face shined beneath tears. She put her hand on his damp cheek. “Let me see.”

“No.” He pushed her hand away. “You don’t want to.”

“Let me.”

He took a deep breath. His bottom lip shook. He didn’t turn away from her.

Debra rested her forehead against his, and only then did she move past the sweaty embraces, the laughter. Only then did she catch stout windfalls of Damian’s lover’s depression, his hopelessness. She could feel the way Damian lessened this, but then, she saw blood—too much blood—on white linoleum tile. Damian’s moans turned to screams.

She pulled back, and Damian must have seen it on her face like blood spatter. “Why wasn’t I enough?” he said.

Debra led him to her bed where she could hold him properly. She wrapped her arms around his neck and ran her fingers through his short, light hair. He clung to her, their legs tangled above the bed sheets.

“Why couldn’t I make him stay?”

“I don’t think that’s how it works, Damian.”

His breaths came in ragged spurts. “If I’d loved him more, he would have stayed.”

“No.” She rubbed her chin on his forehead.

“I found him in our dorm. He’d been dead for hours. I should have seen it. I should have … He was pulling away. Could barely get out of bed in the morning. He would hold me so tight—” His deep voice cracked. “He was so sad. I didn’t know what to do. Maybe I was scared. Maybe I pulled away, too.”

In her mind, Debra went back to that day when she was thirteen—her mother in the bathtub, cold as ice. “I found my mother,” she whispered. “It wasn’t depression. They say she died of a broken heart.”

“Isn’t it the same thing?” he said.

A huff like a chuckle exited her throat and burned.

He fell asleep tangled against her. Debra watched him sleep. In dreams, he gave off flashes of joy, remembered peace. Mostly, a festering cloud overtook him. She felt the pain in his chest like a hammer to the ribs. She ran her thumb across the side of his face and realized why he felt familiar.

When she was thirteen, her mother felt the same.

It was right after Debra’s father left, after years of infidelity. He disappeared one morning with a suitcase and some clothes. He never came back, never called. It didn’t take long for her mother to “fall ill” as Grandma called it. The elders barely let Debra see her, but she heard her mother’s cries at night—cries Debra’s father would never answer.

Sometimes, love ended that way, which was why Debra didn’t work love spells. She would never wish the eventual loss on anyone, whether it be from lack of interest, lack of memory, or death.

Now, this stranger felt like her mother. Debra knew he didn’t have long.

She remembered, when she was thirteen, there were mutterings of a counter-spell that could have saved her mother. Yet, her mother refused. Debra never understood why, but she supposed, we never understand the people who leave us.

She was careful not to wake Damian as she rolled to the opposite side of her bed. He sighed and curled in on himself, Debra’s heat stolen away. She tiptoed to the closet where she kept the ever-expanding Book of Shadows. It had been built, cultivated, and developed for centuries. It was impervious to water, flame, and even curses. It held every secret her family had to tell. Now, she needed it to whisper one more time.

Debra did not need to search a table of contents. There was no index. She laid the book at the base of her bed and pulled Damian’s pain into her chest. She concentrated on the poison of despair until the book exploded open. Debra’s dark hair blew back in the breeze of flipped pages, and then, the flipping stopped, open to a page marked “Forget Me Do.”

It sounded so harmless, like a 1950s pop song. Debra knew better. This was the spell her mother refused in her dying days—the spell that could save a broken heart.

She read through the steps. It was easy enough. She had all the ingredients. She just needed Damian’s approval. The spell couldn’t be cast without approval, which was why her stubborn mother was dead.

She woke him immediately. He looked childlike, confused. “Damian, wake up.” She shook his shoulder until the haze lifted from his light eyes.

“Debra?”

“I can work a spell that will make you feel better.”

He sat up slowly, rubbing his forehead. “What do you mean, feel better?”

She sat next to him and pulled the big, battered book with the purple leather binding close. “It’s called Forget Me Do.” She pointed at the three words. “You’ll still remember the boy you lost, but the feelings won’t be there. The pain will be gone, almost like it never happened.”

“The pain will be gone?” He lifted an eyebrow.

She put her hand on his chest. “It could save your life.”

His hand found hers, and she watched his eyes study the Book of Shadows between them: the thick, yellowed pages; the smudges of ink; the enchanted words only Debra could understand.

“It’s a simple spell,” she said. “We could finish by morning. It will feel like you never lost him.”

“But I did lose him.”

“I know, but I’ll take the pain away.”

He studied her face. “You’ll make me forget about him.”

Her hand on his chest sucked the icy pain into her forearm until her own chin shook. “Isn’t that better than the pain?”

He pulled away from her and stood. He stared at her bedroom floor, but Debra couldn’t shake the chill that now filled her room like a melting glacier.

“Damian?”

“I don’t want your spell, Debra.”

“But the pain could kill you.”

“I don’t care.”

She stood up, angry. “So you’ll die, too?”

“No.” He shook his head. “I can’t give up all the good we had just because it hurts now. The first kiss. The first time he held my hand. The first time I made him laugh.” A tear rolled down his cheek. “The last time I heard him laugh. I can’t let those things go.”

“But it hurts.” She put her hand on his chest again.

“It may hurt for a long time.” He nodded. “But I can’t give up that pain. It reminds me that I loved.”

She stared up at him, and Debra suddenly realized her own lack of loving.

Without warning, Damian’s shoulders shook. His knees gave way. They ended up in a pile of appendages on her bedroom floor. Debra couldn’t tell who was crying more.


Sara Dobie Bauer is a writer, model, and mental health advocate with a creative writing degree from Ohio University. She spends most days at home in her pajamas as a book nerd for SheKnows.com. Her short story, “Don’t Ball the Boss,” was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize. She lives with her husband and two precious pups in Northeast Ohio, although she would really like to live in a Tim Burton film. World Weaver Press will publish her novel, Bite Somebody, this summer. Read more of her work at http://SaraDobieBauer.com.

Issue No. 16, Spring 2016

The Seventh Swan
Gina L. Grandi

One of his brothers was getting married so he needed to get a suit. Normally, he’d just cut a sleeve off something he’d picked up at a regular store, slicing down the side seam in order to fit his wing, but this was a formal occasion and loose threads just wouldn’t do. The princess, his sister, had called to say she’d be happy to help, but he had said, Are you sure you have the time? I wouldn’t want you to leave anything unfinished, and she had hung up in tears. When will you stop punishing me? she had asked. When will you forgive me? He wasn’t sure. It wasn’t a normal situation; there were no models of behavior.

 

At night, he still dreamed of flying.

 

Have you seen a doctor? well-meaning friends were always asking. He would sigh and say yes, and leave it at that. There was no need to go into details, to talk of the parade of specialists that had clamored for him once he and his brothers had come home (they to resume their lives, he to learn to work the can opener with one hand). Every surgeon had wanted to be the one to save him, to cure him, to add ‘doctor to the stars’ on their nameplates. (He had been a star of sorts, at first. Or at least an object of curiosity.) They had poked and prodded, measured wingspan and plucked pinfeathers. Each was grimly determined to cut, to fit a prosthetic, possibly to preserve the amputation on an attractive wall mount. But there was something complicated about tendons and arteries that, in short, meant he would bleed to death if the wing was severed. Now when he went in for a checkup the doctors mumbled and averted their eyes, embarrassed. They resented their lost shot at glory.

 

He didn’t sleep well. Sometimes he stood on the bridge all night, leaning over the side. Listening to cars rattling past. Closing his eyes into the wind. Wondering if falling held hands with flying, if they might be that close.

 

The tailor made faces and used what seemed an unnecessary number of pins. It was hard to move through the world without apologizing.

 

Tell me how it happened again? His date swirled her wine.

He sighed. It was a spell, he said.

I figured, she said. All these stories are about spells.

We were turned into swans, the six of us. My sister had to make shirts.

I remember the shirts, she said. To change you back, I remember that part. And she wasn’t allowed to talk. The whole time she was making them, no talking, right?

Right, he said. Or the spell wouldn’t break. And the shirts were made of nettles.

Right, she said. Ouch. Well, that was nice of her, to try. So she made the shirts, yeah? And you all changed back?

There was more to it, he said. The story. There was a curse and a king and a wicked stepmother and there was a fire, and the last shirt didn’t get finished. The sleeve.

I don’t remember that part, she said. I remember she married the prince. Happy ending and all that. Which is right, for a story.

It was called The Six Swans, he said, irritably. When they wrote it down.

I don’t know about that, she said. I heard the story and remembered the wedding.

You know, she still doesn’t laugh, he said, realizing.

Sorry?

My sister. The princess. She doesn’t laugh. Maybe she forgot how. Having to be silent for so long.

Well, I don’t know about any of that. I just remembered the spell breaking. And the wedding.

Right, he said.

I didn’t remember about the sleeve.

It’s only a mention, he said.

I guess, she said. So, no sleeve, no arm.

No, he said. No arm. Still a wing.

Well, it could be worse. Hey, you ever seen a doctor?

 

The second oldest brother’s toast was sloppy, champagne in his grin, toasting the groom, the bride, the family, the happily ever after. The brothers sat in a line down the table and clapped, except the youngest, of course, who couldn’t. He tapped the table, self-consciously. The second oldest toasted his sister, the princess, and her bravery and her love. The brothers cheered, except the youngest, who looked at his fork. The princess blushed and said nothing. She did not smile.

 

When he got home he threw the suit jacket away. His date had left a lipstick in the pocket but he didn’t retrieve it. He went to the bridge and he stared at the water.

 

Your nephew’s birthday is next week, his sister said, on the phone. Are you coming?

I might, he said.

He’d like to have you there. His father is – often away.

He’s only two, he said. He doesn’t know the difference.

I’d like to have you there, she said.

He heard her breath through the line.

I’m trying, she said finally. I don’t know what else to do.

I don’t know either, he said.

 

When he arrived with a present his nephew burst into tears. He tried to laugh, but the nephew hid his head under his mother’s shirt and wailed. The princess apologized and said it wasn’t the wing, it was the boy’s age, please stay. He put the gift on a table and went home.

 

He woke from a dream of flight and lay in the dark. As a swan, his brain had been small. A swan didn’t worry about life or love or destiny. A swan ate and eliminated and slept and mated and lived and then died. He wondered how long he had left, back in this body, human brain clicking. He saw his life stretching before him, an endless series of days. The weight of time still to be lived sat on his chest and howled.

 

He went to the bridge and trudged to the middle of the span and someone else was there. He stopped and looked at her. She stood on the rail, palm flat against a cable. Her feet were bare. She had left her crown at home.

Hey, he said, finally. The princess startled and swayed, clutching the cable.

Hey, she said, looking over her shoulder at him. What.

Nothing, he said.

She looked back out. He waited.

Are you still looking at me? she asked, not turning around.

I’m looking in that direction, he said.

Did you want something?

No, he said. I just wasn’t ready to go home.

She pivoted, slowly, on her toes, holding on with both hands, and turned to face him. He moved forward and leaned on the rail next to her.

Have you ever wondered, she asked finally, if, instead of falling, you might fly?

I have flown, he said, and she ducked her chin, embarrassed. I can’t anymore, he said. The bones are wrong. I’m too heavy now.

Do you miss it? she asked, her chin still down.

I miss being whole, he said. I miss being one or the other.

Me too, she said. I miss that, too.

Will you come down? he asked. She didn’t answer. He looked at the water.

I just want to be held, she said after a while. I just want someone to hold me. Her eyes might have been wet but he couldn’t tell in the dark.

I can’t get up there, he said. I only have the one hand, for gripping. I don’t want to slip.

I will come down, she said. But I don’t know how long I will stay.

That’s ok, he said.

I am not coming down permanently, she said.

And then she stood before him, looking up.

I don’t know what else to do, she said.

I know, he said. Neither do I.

She rested her forehead on his chest. He folded himself over and around, and she leaned against him, feathers over her face. The underside of his wing was warm and she sighed, tucking herself in, a bird, a chick, an egg.


Gina L. Grandi was formerly a public school teacher, a teaching artist, and an arts administrator. At the moment she is a doctoral candidate and adjunct professor at NYU in Steinhardt’s Educational Theatre Program. She is also the artistic director of The Bechdel Group, a theater company that works to challenge the role of women on stage.

Issue No. 16, Spring 2016

"Bear King" -- Ruth Daniell
Bear King
Ruth Daniell

Sara Dobie Bauer is a writer, model, and mental health advocate with a creative writing degree from Ohio University. She spends most days at home in her pajamas as a book nerd for SheKnows.com. Her short story, “Don’t Ball the Boss,” was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize. She lives with her husband and two precious pups in Northeast Ohio, although she would really like to live in a Tim Burton film. World Weaver Press will publish her novel, Bite Somebody, this summer. Read more of her work at http://SaraDobieBauer.com.

When she is not translating, Alessandra Bava is writing the biography of a contemporary American poet. Her poems and translations have appeared or are upcoming in journals such as Gargoyle, Plath Profiles, THRUSH, and Waxwing. Two of her chapbooks, They Talk About Death and Diagnosis, have been published in the States.

Charlie Baylis lives in Spain. His chapbook Elizabeth can be found on Agave Press. He reviews poetry for Stride. Charlie has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, the Forward Prize, and for the Queen´s Ferry Press´ Best Small Fictions. He has made the shortlist for the Bridport prize. He was (very briefly) a flash fiction editor for Litro. He spends his spare time completely adrift of reality and tumbles, sporadically, here: theimportanceofbeingaloof.tumblr.com.

David S. Briggs has worked in trade book publishing for more than a decade, and he’s recently published pieces in The Paterson Literary Review and U.S.1 Worksheets, with pieces forthcoming from Bombay Gin and The Apalachee Review.

Lanette Cadle is a professor of English at Missouri State University where she teaches both rhetoric and creative writing. She has previously published poetry in Weave Magazine, TAB: The Journal of Poetry and Poetics, NEAT, Menacing Hedge, Yellow Chair Review, Young Ravens Literary Magazine, Blast Furnace, and Stirring.

Ruth Daniell is an award-winning writer and a visual artist originally from Prince George, BC, who currently lives and writes in Vancouver, where she teaches speech arts and writing at the Bolton Academy of Spoken Arts. She is also the founder and organizer of a literary reading series called Swoon, which focuses on discovering new and innovative work about love and desire. She holds a BA (Honours) in English literature and writing from the University of Victoria and an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. Her poems and stories have appeared or are forthcoming in various journals across North America and elsewhere, including Arc Poetry Magazine, Grain, Room Magazine, Qwerty, Canthius, The Antigonish Review, and Contemporary Verse 2.

Mary Anna Evans is an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma, where she teaches fiction and nonfiction writing, and she holds an MFA from Rutgers-Camden. Her short fiction has appeared in publications including Monkeybicycle, Spartan, decomP, and Vine Leaves.

Melinda Giordano is from Los Angeles, California. A published artist, her written pieces have appeared in Lake Effect Magazine, Scheherazade’s Bequest, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Whisperings, and Circa Magazine, among others. She has also been a regular poetry contributor to CalamitiesPress.com with her own column, ‘I Wandered and Listened.’ Melinda is interested in many histories: art, fashion, social — everything has a past — and anything to do with Aubrey Beardsley.

Gina L. Grandi was formerly a public school teacher, a teaching artist, and an arts administrator. At the moment she is a doctoral candidate and adjunct professor at NYU in Steinhardt’s Educational Theatre Program. She is also the artistic director of The Bechdel Group, a theater company that works to challenge the role of women on stage.

When he was six, Luke Guidici broke his family’s TV. Free to spend his days imaging new worlds, he grew to love storytelling. After graduating from SFSU, he moved to Los Angeles where he’s worked as an extra, grip, editor, falconer, writer, and director.

Rebecca Harrison sneezes like Donald Duck and can be summoned by a cake signal in the sky. Her best friend is a dog who can count. She’s been nominated for Best of the Net, and was a finalist in the first Wyvern Lit flash fiction contest. Her stories can also be read at Pigeonholes Magazine, Maudlin House, Luna Station Quarterly, and elsewhere.

Jennifer Hernandez lives in the Minneapolis area where she teaches, writes and dreams of Mexican beaches. Her most recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gingerbread House, Mothers Always Write, riverbabble, and World Haiku Review. She has performed her poetry at a non-profit garage, a bike shop filled with taxidermy, and in the kitchen for her children, who are probably her toughest audience.

Lana Highfill is an MFA student at Pacific University in Forest Grove, OR. She writes poetry and short fiction in Southern Indiana, where she is an English professor. Her interests include live music, comic books, and sci-fi. You will often find her at a convention, cosplaying as her favorite character from Doctor Who. She has been published in Nota Bene, Phi Theta Kappa’s honors anthology, and is currently working on her first manuscript.

Andrew Hogan received his doctorate in development studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before retirement, he was a faculty member at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the University of Michigan, and Michigan State University, where he taught medical ethics, health policy, and the social organization of medicine in the College of Human Medicine. Dr. Hogan published more than five-dozen professional articles on health services research and health policy. He has also published fifty-two works of fiction in magazines like OASIS Journal (1st Prize, Fiction 2014), Hobo Pancakes, Subtopian Magazine, Twisted Dreams, Midnight Circus, Stockholm Review of Literature, The Beechwood Review, Cyclamens and Swords, Festival Writer (Pushcart Nominee), and many others.

Robin Dawn Hudechek received her MFA in creative writing from UCI. She has two chapbooks: Ghost Walk, The Inevitable Press, 1997, and Ice Angels, published in IDES: A Collection of Poetry Chapbooks, Silver Birch Press, October, 2015. Robin lives in Laguna Beach, CA with her husband, Manny and two beautiful cats.

Emma Karnes was born in Rochester, New York and now lives in Ithaca, New York. She has had poems published in Cyclamens and Swords, Verbaleyze’s “Reaching Beyond the Skies: Young Writers’ Anthology,” and Word Soup End Hunger. Emma continues to write poetry and hopes to share her work with as many people as possible.

Virginia Konchan is the author of Vox Populi (Finishing Line Press) and a short story collection, Anatomical Gift (forthcoming, Noctuary Press). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets, The Believer, The New Republic, and Verse, her criticism in Boston Review, and her fiction in StoryQuarterly, Requited, and Joyland, among other places. Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, she lives in Montreal.

Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington State and an editor at the online magazine Literary Orphans. His story collection, The Dark Sunshine, debuted from Connotation Press in 2014, and his newest collection, I’m Not Supposed to be Here and Neither Are You, releases from Unknown Press in March of 2016. You can also find him at lenkuntz.blogspot.com

Iva Levarre has always loved to write, particularly stories inspired by sentimental fiction and fairy tales.

Gahl Liberzon is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan’s Residential College and School of Education, where he studied Creative Writing & Literature and Secondary English Education, respectively. A native of Ann Arbor, Gahl was a two-time member of the University of Michigan Poetry Slam team, a four-time coach for the Ann Arbor Youth Slam team, and a three-time Hopwood award winner. In his spare time, he enjoys singing, beatboxing, filmmaking, dialogue, dance, fighting arts, dance-fighting arts, photography, and impatiently fiddling with his tie. He plans to teach high school English.

Brigitte N. McCray is a 2014 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and she earned her MFA in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. She also earned her PhD in English from Louisiana State University. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and book reviews have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Prick of the Spindle, Mythic Delirium, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth.com, Red Rock Review, and elsewhere. She has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Kathryn Michael McMahon lives in Vietnam with her wife and dog. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Devilfish Review, Wyvern Lit, A cappella Zoo, The Subtopian, and others. On Twitter, she’s @katoscope.

Fabrice Poussin is assistant professor of French and English. Author of novels and poetry, his work has appeared in France at La Pensee Universelle, and in the United States in Kestrel and Symposium. His photography has also been published in Kestrel, and is scheduled for upcoming publications throughout 2016.

Christina R. is a coffee drinker and history buff. When not working on her photography, she’s normally spending time with her three dogs.

Jennifer Todhunter is a number nerd by day, word fiddler at night. She enjoys dark, salty chocolate and running top speed in the other direction. Find her at www.foxbane.ca or @JenTod_.

Cathy Ulrich can make several different kinds of soup, including a yummy onion chowder that’s perfect for winter. Her work has recently been published in Gingerbread House Magazine, The Bookends Review, and ExFic.

Anca Vlasopolos published the award-winning novel The New Bedford Samurai; the award-winning memoir No Return Address: A Memoir of Displacement; three collections of poems, Cartographies of Scale (and Wing), October 2015; Walking Toward Solstice (2012); and Penguins in a Warming World (2007); three poetry chapbooks, a detective novel, Missing Members, and over two hundred poems and short stories. She was nominated several times for the Pushcart Award in poetry and fiction.

"One Quiet Day" -- Christine R.
One Quiet Day
Christine R.

Issue No. 16, Spring 2016

Fire at the Soul
Mary Anna Evans

Once there was a girl named Lilja who lived on a mountain with a veil of ice and a soul of fire. But it isn’t fair to call her a girl and I shouldn’t do it.

Lilja was nineteen years old and a woman. She worked beside her parents in the family’s mill and in their home. She pulled her weight. She earned her keep. She was nobody’s little girl, but she was her parents’ only child and they loved her beyond the bounds of sanity.

Lilja lived in a stone house beside a stream, and there was never a day when she couldn’t look out her window and see snow. Even in the summer, her mountain was capped with glacial ice. Snow fell every year when autumn was barely begun. Sometimes, the barley fields lost their race with the snow and Lilja’s family knew that they would have hungry nights that winter. Still, they were lucky, because the potatoes, cabbage, beets, and carrots from their garden would carry them through.

In the best years, though, the barley didn’t die with the frost. It ended its life on the stone of their mill. Then, just when winter loomed, the people who farmed at the foot of their mountain brought their own barley for milling. Lilja was a happy woman and she had been a happy child, but her happiest times had come with the flatlanders and their grain. It took days for her parents to conduct their yearly business. While they did, young Lilja had played chase-the-goat with the flatlanders’ children.

An only child, even the cherished only child of loving parents, is bound to get lonely sometimes. On lonely days, she remembered that autumn was coming and that it would bring the friends she saw just once a year.

***

Lilja’s last sight of her father was a thing of color, light, and roaring water. One moment, she was standing at her washbasin, scrubbing her ears. In the next moment, she was at the door watching the brook she’d loved all her life rise up and cover everything. The fire at the mountain’s core had melted its icecap from below, trapping more and more water until the glacier couldn’t hold together any longer. A flood had burst out of the ice, and it soon carried whole trees in its mouth. The sound of it shook her teeth in their sockets.

She could see her mother working beside the water, cleaning leaves from the mill race. Nothing showed of her but pale hair hanging over powerful shoulders.

Her father was a finger’s length out of Lilja’s reach, but she reached for him anyway. He looked up and saw that she was as safe as it was possible for her to be—the ground sloped down in all directions from their little house—then he turned and ran for his wife. Lilja saw her mother’s head turn as she did the same things. First, she made sure Lilja was on solid ground, then she looked for her husband. He and the flood reached her at the same time.

This would have been her last sight of them, but her father’s red head hadn’t gone completely gray and her mother’s pale hair was like a beacon. They were easy to spot among the floating debris being swept away.

The cold water kept rising as she watched them go. It lapped at her toes. It covered her feet. It toyed with her ankles, but it came no further.

***

A day passed before Lilja found her mother face down in a cold stream. She wasn’t dead.

Lilja laid her on rocks cushioned by soft moss, then she couldn’t think of anything else to do. Nothing but time was going to fix her mother’s bones, but Lilja’s mother had no time left.

“You know how to tend the garden. And the sheep. You won’t be hungry.”

“Hush,” Lilja said. “You need to rest.”

Her mother ignored her. “The heart of the mountain. You have to go there. For the fire. And you must go, because no one should be all alone.”

Lilja knew there was a perfectly good fire still burning on their hearth. She also knew that nobody lived in the heart of the mountain. She would be as alone there as she was here, so why go?

Her mother heard the doubt in her silence and tried again. “The house fire…no magic in it. It will bake your bread, but the forge? Only coals from the heart of the mountain will heat a forge like ours, and how will you mend your tools without it? And how will you keep your food? Food dried with the mountain’s fire will never rot.” The eyes drooped shut and reopened. “Unless you replace the coal your father kept in the mill’s forge, you will have to leave this place.”

Lilja’s mother went silent, and her uneven breath mixed with the mountain wind.

An hour passed. Two.

Lilja’s mother stirred again. “The map is under the bed where your father and I slept.”

The word “slept” lodged in Lilja’s heart and burned. Her parents should sleep there tonight. They should sleep together there every night, forever. What would she do without them?

“Take the map and the stone basket where I keep my knitting wool. You will be safe. You will be whole again. You will be happy again. Remember that I love you.”

There were no more ragged breaths.

Lilja looked at her herb garden and remembered the sharp-sour taste of its dill and sorrel. Sheep grazed on a pasture fenced by stones she had dug from the ground herself. If she left here, her past would disappear. Maybe she would disappear.

Lilja had always been an obedient daughter, but here she drew the line. She was going nowhere.

***

Lilja never found her father. She buried her mother beside the pool where she had washed herself every morning. As Lilja laid stones over the grave, she thought of the way her mother would rise out of the translucent pool and into the translucent air as if there were no separation between the two. For the rest of the day, her skin would be as dewy and her hair as shiny as if she had just come from washing.

After her own morning baths, Lilja began her days alone by pouring a cup of water on her mother’s grave. She grieved her father as she netted trout from the stream, because the two of them had spent many a winter’s evening mending the nets and tying new ones. She tried to forget her mother’s voice, urging her to strike out alone.

As autumn neared, her cabbages were balls of crisp, icy green, and the beets’ red shoulders rose out of the ground beneath their tender leaves. It was time to catch more fish than she could eat, hanging the extra ones to dry. She and her father had always done this in the mill over the forge, but the hearth inside the house should work as well.

It did not.

Then she bent her trowel on a stone while digging for early potatoes, and she knew no ordinary fire would get the metal hot enough to mend it, though the single coal kept in her father’s mill forge had always been enough. It had heated her father’s entire mill without ever going out. She had seen it all her life, but she had never seen that it was magic.

Lilja spent a sleepless night imagining a winter without dried fish and fruit. She spent another sleepless night thinking of a life lived on a downhill slide as one tool after another broke and couldn’t be fixed. And still she vowed to stay where she was.

***

Early the next morning, she went to the pool to dip out some water to drink and the water spoke. It said, “You look like a person who would listen to her mother.”

Lilja had been squatting on the bank and now she sat down hard. She crawled to the edge of the pool and saw a man lying on the creekbed below. His eyes were open and he was breathing, even though he was fully underwater.

He spoke again. “You need the coals and they aren’t far away.  Why don’t you go?”

His hair was bronze but graying at the temples, and his red beard had its first streaks of silver. He had her father’s square jaw, but not his blue eyes, and her father’s beard had been nearly white. Still, she had to ask.

“Are you my father?”

“No, Lilja, you know that I am not. My name is Sigurvin.” He spoke without moving his lips. Around his neck was a finely wrought silver chain, and on it hung a slender ring of unadorned hammered gold.

“Why are you in the water?” she asked.

“A troll put me here. He piled stones on my arms and legs, then he built a dam to keep the water from washing me away. I can’t get myself free.”

It was true. The dam was nothing but a pile of rocks too big for Lilja to carry, but it would hold an ordinary man until he drowned. Who knew how long it would hold this man?  Perhaps he could lie underwater forever without drowning. Perhaps he could never leave.

As if he heard her thoughts, he said, “I have five days.”

Lilja couldn’t move those stones in five days. No one could. Her tears dripped into the water and gave it a tiny dose of salt.

He closed his eyes and let her cry over him for hours. She spoke often, but he never stirred.

***

When Sigurvin opened his eyes again. she spoke quickly before he could close them.

“I know how to free you,” she said, “but I need to go to the heart of the mountain. I will be back before your five days are up.”

He thanked her, then listened to her tell him about everything she was leaving. The farm. The sheep. The garden. Her memories of her parents. Even the brook where he was trapped.

She asked him why he wore the ring around his neck, and he said, “It was my mother’s. She gave it to me on her deathbed.”

Then she listened as he told her how he had gone to a troll for help when his mother died. “I just want to see her again,” he had said. The troll had left him here, helpless.

“Now I am still without my mother’s voice in my home,” he had said, “but my father, my wife, and my children are without me.” Then he had closed his eyes and left her alone with her thoughts.

Lilia went straight up to the house and fetched the map from beneath her parents’ mattress. It seemed straightforward, laying out a clear path to the heart of the mountain. On its back were instructions that seemed to make going wrong impossible, giving instructions like these:

“If you reach a rock that looks like a man, you have walked three paces too far.”

“The downhill slope is treacherous, but it can be managed by hanging tight to the rock wall beside you.”

“You must swim to reach the coals of the mountain’s soul. Take care that you are able to find your way back. There is a rope tied to a hook at the edge of the water. Hold tight to it and you will return safely.”

 

The final instruction was so interesting that Lilja read it aloud to herself:

“The mountain is filled with fire for sharing, but it also holds a gift for you. You must take it. It would be wrong to deny the hospitality of a thing so large as a mountain.”

Shaking her head at the notion of a hospitable mountain, Lilja emptied the stone bowl of her mother’s yarn and filled it with boiled potatoes and fish her father had dried a year before. In a pack on her back, she carried a pickax to help her hang tight to any rock wall that presented itself. Last, she packed the tongs her father had used to handle the magic coal and fitted the stone lid over the full basket.

When all was ready for her trip, she took a mat to the creek and used coals from the not-magic fire in her home to build a fire. Its light reached all the way to Sigurvin’s face. She watched over him all night. In the morning, she told the sleeping man good-bye, put the mat in her pack, and walked away.

***

Lilja’s map was clearly drawn. The weather was good. By noon, she was at the mouth of a cave leading into the mountain. She could even see the rock shaped like a man, telling her that she was in the right place. She was surefooted as she passed through the cave, using her father’s pick to grab into its rock walls and steady herself. When the passage ended in water, she grabbed the rope tied to an ancient iron hook and plunged in. She was as comfortable in the water as her mother had been, so its shivery embrace felt maternal. Others would have been troubled by swimming with a stone basket, but Lilja hardly noticed it in her hand.

It was easy to swim in the right direction, because her destination was lit by hell itself. She pulled herself onto a narrow stretch of sand on the water’s other side. Still clinging to the rope, she found herself at the entrance of a world of flame.

The heat beat her back. She couldn’t take a single step closer, but she had come to do a job. Lilja reached in her pack, pulled out her father’s tongs, and managed to grab three coals without moving any nearer to the inferno. One coal had served all her family’s needs for as long as she could remember, but Lilja needed another one to save Sigurvin and she was prudent enough to get one extra. Then, she replaced the stone basket’s lid and let it drag her back into the water.

With the flames behind her, her path through the water was no longer clear. Without the rope, she would never have found her way. Hand over hand, she let it serve its purpose. At the end, it broke in her hands, leaving her wet hands scrabbling on the cave’s stone floor as she pulled herself from the water.

On her way back out of the mountain, the coals lit room after room. Some were full of gold nuggets. Others, silver coins. One was full of hay. At the cave’s mouth, she finally remembered the map’s instruction to leave with a gift for herself, but she didn’t want to turn back. The last chamber was full of nuts and seeds, which seemed like a good enough gift to a hungry woman. Lilja took a pocketful of nuts and headed home.

***

As she paused to make camp near the base of the mountain that evening, the warm lights of campfires stretching across the plains below her held her gaze. Her mother hadn’t just said, “Go fetch magic coal.” She’d said that no one should be alone. She let herself be drawn to the lights.

In moments, she was surrounded by people she had known all her life. This was the family of her father’s friend Jon, and she had played with Jon’s children whenever they came to mill his grain. She remembered twelve daughters and one son, and Lilja’s best friends had been the eldest girls, Bjarma and Eyja.

She didn’t see either of them in the crowd huddling around the fire, but she recognized their hand-me-down dresses on the little girls and she knew their brother Rolf. He was a few years younger than Lilja, and she remembered only that his face had always had a smudge of dirt. Now he was a man, but a young one, still slender and with a patchy brown beard that looked a little like dirt.

She rushed to him. “I’m so happy to see you. I’m happy to see all of you! Where are Bjarma and Eyja? We were girls the last time we were together.”

“They married,” said Rolf.

“They’re living with their husbands’ families? Do they have children?”

“They had children, yes. Two boys each,” he said. “Their older sons survived the flood.  The babies…” He shook his head, and Lilja wanted to crawl away without asking the only question she had left.

“Eyja and Bjarma?”

“They were sitting beside the creek with the babies when the flood came. Their husbands ran to save them. My parents ran to them, too. Gone, all of them. Evja. Bjarma. Husbands. Parents. Children.  Gone.”

She’d made him say it out loud. How he must hate her.

Lilja’s eyes swept over the faces around the fire. So young.  All of them so young.

She handed her dried fish and potatoes around, then she emptied her pockets of nuts. They still looked hungry.

Ten little sisters. Two tiny nephews. And all of them looking at the patchy-bearded Rolf for hope.

He looked at Lilja and said, “I’m all they have.”

***

Lilja and Rolf sat up all night, planning how he could feed all those children. His farmer father had taught him how to tend the crops and they were growing well, but he had no idea how to preserve food for the winter. The knowledge had died with Evja, Bjarma, and their mother. Lilja said that this was a problem she could fix.

She spent the next morning showing Rolf and the children how to layer root vegetables with hay so that they wouldn’t rot in the cellars. She spent the afternoon helping them hang fish and fruit to dry over the magic coal she’d given Rolf. A hungry family came for help and she gave them a coal of their own.

By nightfall, word had spread that there was a young woman offering help, and another family came. Rolf tried to stop her from giving her last coal away, but she shook her head. Then he tried to make her take back the one she’d given him.

“Please. Keep it. I have to go back to the mountain anyway. I can’t go home with just one coal. I need one to save Sigurvin and one for my hearth.”

She studied her father’s pick. It worried her. Its bent tip might not take her through another journey.

Rolf said, “I can mend the shaft while you use the coal to shape the tip.” Lilja thought this was a good suggestion, so that’s what they did.

The next morning, when she tried to say good-bye, he brandished his own pick and said, “I’m going with you. You need me. And you also need these.”

Grinning, he waved his own father’s tongs in her face. They were a full hands’-breadth longer than Lilja’s.

“You already took all the coals you could reach,” he said.  “You need me.  And my very long tongs.”

***

The way into the mountain was as arduous as the trip out had been. It wasn’t at all clear that their picks would last the full trip, but they did eventually reach the water. Lilja had given a great deal of thought about what she’d done when she last swam here. She had traveled long distances underwater without breathing, while dragging a basket of stone. And she was the daughter of a woman who could lie underwater for the better part of the day without drowning, a woman whose skin always glistened just a little with wetness, a woman who moved from water into air as if there were no barrier between them.

Lilja had come to understand what she was. Her mother had been a Water-person, maybe full-blooded, and Lilja was her mother’s daughter. She wouldn’t drown during the journey, no more than her mother had drowned in the flood, but she could be lost forever. And, like her mother, she could find another way to die.  Nevertheless, this was her quest and she needed to take it.

Lilja backed into the water, waving good-bye to Rolf and wondering how long he would wait before deciding that she wasn’t coming back.

The swim wasn’t difficult for a Water-person, even a half-blood, and Rolf’s long tongs fetched the two coals she needed. The journey back, however…it scared her.

She paused, afraid, at the sandy shore of the underground sea. And then she heard it.

A faint splashing noise echoed through the water and she knew she could follow it. When she rose from the water, Rolf was kneeling on the cave floor, patiently splashing his hands in the water to give her the direction she needed. The sound of his splashing hands had been her lifeline.

Their picks were strong enough to get them out of the mountain, though they would both need time in the forge and on the anvil before they could be used again. Lilja stood with Rolf at the mouth of the cave with two coals in her basket. He said, “You must go,” and tears came to her eyes.

“Not forever,” he said, “but you must go now if you hope to free Sigurvin.”

She nodded, turning back toward to the cave to fetch some more nuts. As a Water-person, even a half-blood, she knew that it was important to respect magic. Magic required that she take a gift for herself.

He held up a hand to stop her. “I already took a gift for you.”

He opened his pack to show her a handful of silver coins and a single nugget of gold. “I have a magic coal. How hard can it be to make a woman a necklace? Or a ring?”

***

Sigurvin was awake when Lilja returned.

“Tell me again,” she said, “how you came to be in this pool.”

“I told my friend the troll that I wanted to see my mother again. He knew that I came from Water-people, so he put me here where I would be safe while I waited.”

“When did he do this?”

Sigurvin smiled. “The proper question is ‘When will he do this?”

“Why this pool?  Why my pool?”

“Because for the rest of your days, you will tell your son about your mother’s special pool. When the troll asks him where he wants to go, the choice will be easy.”

“Did the troll tell you how to get back to your own time?”

“He said my mother would know how to free me.”

She opened the stone basket and used the tongs to grab a single coal from the heart of the mountain. She laid it gently on the rocks trapping her son. One by one, they glowed red and burst with a loud crack, each one lightening the load of stones holding Sigurvin down.

“I see it now,” she said. “The gold is not my gift.”

“Your gift is the love of a good man.” Another stone cracked open and Sigurvin’s right arm floated free. “And the love of your son, and the love of everyone who will ever meet you.”

The stones were so hot that the air above them shimmered with heat. She knew that she’d received more gifts than the ones Sigurvin had numbered. She knew now that she would live a long life, yet never bury her husband or son. She knew what her son would look like, even after she was gone.

The stones were moving downstream, taking Sigurvin with them. “I have to go,” he said. “Trolls’ spells only last so long.”

“Should I go to him? Should I go back to Rolf now?”

“You could do that.” Drops of water sizzled on hot stones. “Or you could wait the winter and tend your own fire. Let him get his family in hand. Let him hammer this golden ring at my throat and every link in this chain. Let him come into himself. When he does, he will come to you.”


Mary Anna Evans is an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma, where she teaches fiction and nonfiction writing, and she holds an MFA from Rutgers-Camden. Her short fiction has appeared in publications including Monkeybicycle, Spartan, decomP, and Vine Leaves.

Issue No. 16, Spring 2016

Rosie
Jennifer Hernandez

Rosie rounded the corner on her pink Schwinn, pumping her legs and picking up speed. Now that they were finally done repaving the bike path, she figured she’d be able to make decent time. She’d had to stay after class a few minutes to get the study guide for tomorrow’s quiz, and she knew she was cutting it close, but never mind. She needed all the hours she could get, and her smock should cover up the pit stains once she got to Cub Foods for her 3 pm shift. Another corner and  — oh shit! There was an old lady standing in the middle of the path.

Rosie hit the brakes and skidded to the side, narrowly avoiding a collision. She looked over, fully expecting to get cursed out, but the lady was standing stock still, a dazed expression on her face.  Rosie dropped the bike at the side of the path and walked over, “Hey, are you all right?”

The lady turned, glacial blue eyes unfocused, wrinkled hand at her throat.

“I am so sorry. I was going too fast.”

The lady’s eyes darted disconcertingly. She seemed cemented to her spot. Her hair stood up in wild white tufts.

“Can I help you? Maybe you should move over here to the side?” Rosie took the lady’s hand gently and led her to the edge of the path. “Are you lost or something?”

The lady licked her dry lips.

“Do you maybe want something to drink?”  Rosie opened her backpack and rummaged around, producing a bottle of water. She unscrewed the cap and held it up to the lady, who took tiny gulps like a baby bird, almost emptying the bottle.

“Thank you, my child,” she said finally, in a voice that was hardly more than a whisper. “You will be rewarded for your kindness.” Then she smiled and squeezed Rosie’s hand. “I must be on my way now.”  She turned and started walking in the direction that Rosie had come from.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” called Rosie, diamonds and flower petals trickling from her lips.


Jennifer Hernandez lives in the Minneapolis area where she teaches, writes and dreams of Mexican beaches. Her most recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gingerbread House, Mothers Always Write, riverbabble, and World Haiku Review. She has performed her poetry at a non-profit garage, a bike shop filled with taxidermy, and in the kitchen for her children, who are probably her toughest audience.