Issue No. 18, Autumn 2016

Perhaps the breath of a pitiable god after all
Ian Angus MacLean

They met in the woods. They would tell no one where. John and Adelaide. It was autumn now and the forest posed individual scenes of death, plants holding spare leaves (leaves not of those base plants but leaves fallen from oaks and windswept and pierced onto the sharp twigs of that lower brush) as they rot or decay, colourful but blackened leaves, which dripped rue and grey from an earlier rain. The bones of a fox could be seen tended by wasps. And what had made all the trees to crack, the area become littered with giant branches? A freak snowstorm a few weeks prior.

On the forest floor there was decorated millions of pine needles fallen and browning now. So much detail to overwhelm them. Something to keep out of ledger.

John lay amongst the cattails beside Adelaide. They were both wet from the pond. He closed his eyes and rested, and soon felt a hot breath upon his face. He thought Adelaide had moved closer, leaning in, but when he opened his eyes he was staring at the sky and Adelaide was lying where she had been from the start.

#

They walked through the city, past the numerous storefronts of Market Street. It was summer, then.

There was an old silver woman sitting on a bench and eating lunch, and she watched the young couple as they approached. The man didn’t have many distinguishing features besides his left eyebrow, which was half made up of grey hair, odd for his age. The lady had very long and curling blonde hair. Cold blue, almost grey eyes pierced through. She was very thin and very pale, of Scandinavian origin, and the dress she had on seemed made of a material that belonged on an antique doll.

“Ohh, look at the lovely couple.”

“Hello,” said John.

They walked until they came to the Glenbow Museum and entered. They paid their entrance fee and ambled about the various floors. On the second floor, a few works by Titian were on display. John studied each painting carefully. Adelaide grew weary and drifted away. She sat on a bench and watched other patrons walk by. She took the elevator up to library and archives, and looked at few photographs of frontier life there. She took the elevator down another floor and walked quickly through the rock and crystal displays. She then took the staircase slowly down to the first floor. In the gallery’s bookstore she picked up a book about Titian’s work, and read from a section about The Rape of Europa. The writer noted how Europa has no choice but to yield. How the words rape and rapture share a common root in Latin.

#

The apartment was sparse. Softwood floors. The paint on the walls was of littoral blues, with some paisley patterning in one corner. An old iron bedframe and an overflowing bookshelf in the bedroom. In the main room, a radio sat upon a telephone bureau. The overhead light was humming loudly, so John turned on the lamp instead. He went into the washroom and felt the wall in the dark, then leaned back out the doorway to find the lightswitch he always missed. The bathroom was small, the closing door just clearing the sink. He took a plastic bottle out of his pocket and, placing an aspirin on his tongue, leaned in for some tap water and swallowed. He looked in the cabinet behind the mirror and found another bottle of pills. He stared at them for awhile. Then he left the bathroom and emptied his pockets on the telephone bureau, dropping a nickel in the process. He began opening the curtains and then the windows, which had to be kept open with wooden spoons from the kitchen.

Adelaide was sitting on the balcony, smoking a cigarette and rubbing her forehead. The chimes of some window rang. She read from a crumpled book. John came out to join her.

“What are you reading?”

“Some poems.”

“Who by?”

Adelaide passed the book to John. He read one.

“It’s very sad.”

“I think it’s hopeful.”

“Maybe it’s a poor translation.”

“Mm.”

“I’m just joking.”

“You should read the whole thing sometime.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes. It’s one of my favourites. I’ve carried it around for years.”

“I didn’t know.”

“Everyone’s got secrets.”

“The pages are bent.”

“Some of them. To mark my favourites.”

“Okay. Sure.”

“Okay.”

“Did you want anything to eat?”

“No.”

“Okay.”

John placed his right hand on Adelaide’s neck and rubbed.

“Did you take your medication today?”

“No. I’ve decided to stockpile them. In case anyone kidnaps me, I can poison myself before they do any serious harm.”

“Adelaide…”

“That was a joke.”

“It wasn’t funny.”

“Oh.”

They listened to the wind rustle the trees. Adelaide spoke.

“Did you finish the journals yet?”

“Your journals? Not quite. Almost.”

“Ah. Well.”

“What do you want me to say?”

“More than nothing.”

“I don’t really know what to say. I haven’t had much time to think things over.”

“There has to be something.”

“I guess I’m caught off guard.”

“By what?”

“The honesty, I guess.”

“Mm. Personal writings are usually that.”

“I’m new to this.”

“Sharing things from your life?”

“No. I mean things in this intensity. Besides, I don’t keep much from the past. Old journals or books or photographs. You know that.”

“I know. I hate it.”

“There’s just a certain…sentimentality…in keepsakes like that. I’m just not built for it.”

“You could learn.”

“What?”

“Sentimental value isn’t a bad thing.”

“I just think it can be dangerous to keep looking back.”

“So you’ve said. You’ve also said that people can learn anything.”

“Yes.”

“You should include yourself in that.”

“Okay.”

“Seriously. Take a day. Look at an old photograph.”

“Okay.”

“Good man.”

The two fell quiet. It was John who spoke first this time.

“Are you sure you don’t want anything to eat?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Have you eaten today?”

“Yes.”

“What did you eat?”

“Enough.”

Quiet again. A cat had been making its way up the nearest tree, and now it leaped onto the balcony. Adelaide picked it up and began stroking it.

“Hey Sweetie. Hey Sweet Dreams.”

The cat purred. After a time, Adelaide spoke again.

“I was reading the newspaper today. The police found 24 malnourished cats in a woman’s home. She was trying to care for them all.”

Later and into the evening they lay together in bed, not touching. It was raining now and John had closed the windows. Adelaide had brought the cat in for the night and held this tammy softly. John piped on the radio. Some nameless classical music filled the room. After awhile John noticed Adelaide had fallen asleep. He turned off the lamp and closed his eyes as well.

John dreamt of walking down a long stone hall. Adelaide dreamt of her mother’s pregnancy.

The sensation of water dripping on his forehead roused John from sleep. He thought rain was leaking through a crack in the ceiling, but Adelaide was sitting on top of him, crying.

#

Adelaide sat with her knees together, her feet bare on the wood of the small skiff. She faced the shore. A water snake wove along the water in a manner redundant to the shape of the river. The skiff was shallow going for a time after their castoff and the vessel bumped along rocks. John found a drifting stick and hauled this and used it to keep from larger rocks or the shore. When they got to a good piece of river, he relaxed. Now they regarded differently the gravel bars and little islands of stone they passed by. The two sipped beer and splashed water on the back of their necks. John’s eyes closed with the heat. Adelaide contemplated the riddles of the clouds.

The river chattered as they drifted along, the chattering eventually turning to the talk of shore folk seated on concrete slabs, and passing by this to gravel bars and privacy again. Without much care they noticed a few houses whose yards backed onto the river. Bridges passed overhead. Groups of mallards. The sun was kind and Adelaide was smiling slightly. She departed from the vessel and slid into the cool and velvet waters. She swam. She swam until the water was too shallow and small pebbles bit at her feet.

At night they walked in the park, again listening to the chattering of the river. With a flashlight John would light up certain sections of the water, mostly by bridges, to show her where muskrats would dip into the water. Adelaide had been reading a book on muskrats. She commented on the moon. Two other figures passed them by in shadow and Adelaide gripped John’s arm.

#

“Are you alright?”

“Why does everyone think something is wrong when one party is quiet?”

“I was just asking. Besides, you’re not touching your food.”

“Yeah.”

“I thought Italian was your favourite?”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Oh. We can leave if you want.”

“No it’s fine. Keep eating. The wine is nice.”

“If you say so.”

“So.”

“So.”

“What is it?”

“How was your session today?”

“Confidential as usual.”

“Okay. Sorry. But if there’s anything you ever want to talk about.”

“I know John. I know.”

John tried to hold Adelaide’s gaze but she turned away. He pulled a shrimp shell out of his teeth. Adelaide finished her wine and then spoke.

“Today I was just thinking about Jainism. Have you ever heard of Jainism?”

“No. What is it?”

“It’s an ancient religion originating from India.”

“And what do they say?”

“Many things. Mostly the followers just try to get through the world consuming as few resources as possible. Or if they have to consume, they do it in a humane way.”

“That sounds honourable.”

“Some practitioners wear masks to keep from accidently inhaling bugs.”

“Cautious.”

“Others still use broom-type instruments to sweep the ground ahead of them, to avoid crushing small insects.”

“Are you thinking of becoming a…what is it…a Jainist?”

Adelaide shrugged.

“Jains.”

The waiter stopped by to refill the water glasses, and spoke to John.

“How are you two doing? Can I get you anything?”

“Fine. No.”

“Ah, well. Ma’am, is everything tasting alright?”

“Yes. Could I get this meal packed up to go though?”

“Of course. And you sir?”

“Nothing for me.”

The waiter walked on.

“Did you want to eat back at the apartment instead?”

“No. I’m going to give it to the displaced person outside.”

“Who?”

“The fellow on the corner. We passed him on the way here.”

“Oh.”

“He’s a regular on this street. Usually in the same spot every day. We’ve been speaking recently. I haven’t learned his name though.”

#

They drove out of the city to and hiked into the mountains, a wild upland world where the trees were older than anything that was. A joyous and mortified so-called Mother this earth, whose birds burst forth from bellies of dirt to sing strong. A few feathers fell to John’s feet and as he bent to pick them up, he saw he was standing on some white cowl forgot there. He looked around for Adelaide. She stood by a thicker section of forest, touching the trees and patting the moss.

Next they had to climb a steep path of waterslick stones. It was slow going. There was a good view of a waterfall after awhile. The path eventually flattened out and they were admiring trees again. They were then led to a lake where the water seemed to glow. Adelaide thought it looked full of chemicals, compared the colour to glass cleaner. John told her the colour was created by the presence of fine particles of glacial sediment called rock flour that was suspended in the water: the minute, uniform particles reflect the blue and green wavelengths of light, giving the water its rich, jewel-toned colour. Adelaide said she knew this.

They ate a packed lunch and afterwards climbed past the lakes. Amongst a canyon they found rock paintings painted by the ancestors of Kootenai tribes a thousand years before.

#

Steam rose from the Banff hot springs. From their mountain heights, Adelaide and John watched this steam evaporate into the sky. These hot springs were commercially developed, expensive, and seemed almost sterile. It was quite crowded with tourists, and John eavesdropped on the other visitors in order to make jokes. Adelaide closed her eyes.

As they walked from the changing facilities to the parking lot, Adelaide heard laughter off to the side of a wooden walkway. She leaned over the railing, and below could see where a trickle of the mountain water was gathering itself in a natural stone arrangement to make for a tiny hot spring. An East Indian couple and their child had submerged their feet in the warm water and were looking off into the distance, relaxed and simple.

#

“No, Addie, no I don’t think it’s a courageous idea at all.”

“Why not?”

“I think it takes bravery, yes. And devotion. But it’s not moral.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Well, take medieval knights for example. They swore their lives by five main virtues. I believe they were temperance, courage, love, loyalty, and courtesy. Each is one of a number of functions. If you have one function dominate the others, you’ll go crazy.”

“But what I’m talking about involves all those things.”

“No it doesn’t. That final virtue, courtesy, is respect for the society in which you are living.”

“These are different times. Those knights only exist in fairy tales now.”

“No. It’s history. And I think that the medieval period was more brutal than this one.”

“How do you know?”

“It’s just agreed upon.”

“But you don’t know for sure. Historians haven’t had their say about this period of time yet. Personally, I think we’re living in the worst times. The climate has changed so radically. The earth has become suicidal, it’s shrugging humans off of it everyday. There’s simply too many people, and not enough resources. I could speak at length about the problems of our age, but you know them just as well as I do, you know that-”

“Even if things are bad there is the chance, the hope, they will get better.”

“Here we go again.”

“Think of the Renaissance. Hell, think of Darwin’s work. Paradigms shift. Then actions.”

“Deposed ways of thinking still exist. Outlawed actions will always persist. It’s just human nature. You can look to your history books for that.”

“That is one way of looking at it, but-”

“But I don’t feel like talking about this anymore.”

#

She refused to turn on any lights at night. More time for thinking and dreaming, she said. Reaching for his indiscernible shape in that dark, they were strangers again.

#

John pulled out of the parking lot and drove off. The back seat was filled with books. He was speeding.

“Adelaide, what were you doing in there?”

“I wondered if that man has ever felt the touch of another human aside from his family. Is that inappropriate?”

“You can’t just-”

“I was just holding his hand while we looked for books. I think I patted his stomach.”

“He wouldn’t stop following you around after that.”

“His mother didn’t need to freak out like that.”

“Adelaide, the guy threw a fit when you asked him to stop following you.”

“Well I didn’t know he would do that.”

“Well maybe you-”

“You weren’t jealous were you?”

“No. What? No.”

“Would you have been jealous if it were a different man?”

“What?”

“If I had been touching a man without a developmental disability in an affectionate way, would you have been jealous?”

“I don’t understand what you are trying to accomplish here.”

“Just answer the question John.”

#

The day was spent looking at the wares on display in shop windows. In the evening, Adelaide suggested a pub in the neighbourhood. They eased into a booth, ordered rum and colas, and watched people entertain themselves with karaoke. Adelaide was biting her cheeks but said that she was enjoying the singing.

At ten o’clock a blues band began to set up and play. John went to the bar to get more drinks, and Adelaide went to the bathroom to drink from a mickey of vodka she had snuck in. Blood from her gnawed cheeks went down her throat and her small wounds stung. She polished off the vodka and made her way to the main floor to dance. A few men made catcalls. She spun toward them and lifted her dress just a little, showing them a flash of thigh just above her leggings. This set the men to hollering and whooping. Adelaide approached their table and placed her hand lightly on one of the beer bottles.

“Do you mind if I have a bit of this?”

“You go right on ahead honey.”

She grabbed hold of the bottle and smashed it on the table, then pointed the jagged remains at the nearest face, speaking good-naturedly.

“Have you ever given yourself to something higher than flesh?”

#

Her feet were up on the dashboard as they drove through the countryside. Mariachi music on the radio. Canola fields out the window. They passed a town called Frank’s Slide that had been buried under a rockslide in 1903. At the borders of a cattle ranch Adelaide asked John if he could pull over. She got out and approached the fence, and soon some curious cows were within arm’s reach.
Adelaide fainted. John leaned her against the fence and fanned her face with a magazine from the car. When she came to, she squinted into the sun. She had woken again as she always did from the images, images which she had told him were just recurring nightmares, and that telling a false telling and she remembered this:

The downing sun shining weakly through the trees, through the branches two children found her naked and shivering, not knowing if she was dead for her face was so pale, body so wooden, her dress ripped but wait again she is shivering. Something ominous seemed to hang in the air, suspended like a sound you could hear it. She was in her body but looking down on it, she was the two children looking down on her. She was muttering and what she was muttering she would repeat for months, years, afterward: piercing scintilla, piercing scintilla
 
                                                                  
#

A flu kept her in bed for two weeks. She would see no doctor. They argued. Adelaide asked John to pick her up some cola, bread, butter, and ibuprofen. A few minutes after John left, Adelaide raised herself out of the bed. She felt very light and she could feel her blood pumping for the heart was loud. She put on a jacket. Then she left.

John arrived at the apartment building with simple groceries. It had been a nice day for walking, the weather fair, he had taken his time. He entered the suite and placed the bag down, put the cola in the fridge. Adelaide was nowhere to be found. The hours passed and slowly the colour in John’s face drained from red to stone. In another moment he was out the door and in the car, pulling out his phone.

#

She ran through the city, down paths of argchymists and godfear, numerous roads to thrones and poisons. Nine hundred and ninety thousand people make up this city, nine hundred and ninety thousand self-worshipping deities. And what am I amongst them? I have but one path to follow.

Farewell to this fortress I once did trust to stop entire floods. Walls great and high, and note the sealed gates. Celestial city that has no need for sun or moon to shine upon it, for alchemical man has given it lamp and light.

I want omphalos!

Nests of larks to the east. Now the red-gold antimony glass of more buildings, always multiplying towers. Man was made in the image of god, and the city made in the image of man, so it is said. Divine geometry. Phallus does sicken. Domes do come in pairs exaggerate.

I want omphalos!

“Our future temples will be wonderful representations of unified experiences,” said Hugo Hoeppner. He who helped qualify Ravensbruck.

Walk on. The homeless are eating stolen corn behind copper pillars this day. In odd places you can see these discarded vegetables gathered, the corn’s golden strands. Heaps of flowing blonde hair amongst the sound of gnashing teeth.

I can detect the scent of myrrh in these poor and church riddled keeps. These buildings shall remain inaccessible to the godless, from those uninitiated to the teachings of the son of god. He who had strongest love reserved only for virgins and repented whores. Did Mary agree to the entrance of the Holy Spirit? Could she feel that ectoplasm or see? Excretion almost as light as water. Which they said must represent charity. In destiny is only water, the rising seas of a ruined world, all things slowly returning to the first, like those germs of life that once drifted on the cooling oceans of this planet’s infancy

Mother. Goddess. Queen.

Medusa. Siren. Hag.

Rapture

They said

They said

A void in me

Omphalos, I

#

He would meet her again in autumn, as told. It was a Wednesday in the first week of October, and John decided to visit the winding paths of the nature reserve which lay in the south of the city.

He noticed only one car in the parking lot. After walking for a few miles, he was deep in forest. Few autumnal colours were about, as a freak snowstorm, beginning on the 10th of September, had added much weight to the already burdened and fully dressed trees. How else could he describe the scene around him, except that the plants looked sad, that everything seemed to be decaying?

He had spent a couple of hours navigating off the main path, then came to a break in the woods which led to a field spotted with a few ponds. Far off, he thought he could make out the shape of a hooded feminine figure, moving very slowly amongst the cattails. A bit of golden and curled hair fell out of the girl’s hood. She seemed to be moving towards one of the ponds. She was moving so slowly, almost limping. He had cause to think she had broken her leg or foot somewhere out here. He began to move towards her.

Before John had reached the girl, she had reached the edge of the wide pond and was gently swaying there. A few ducks called. Rope trailed from her legs, tied to her ankles and two large stones which she carried in her hands. John began calling out to her but she moved slowly forward into the pond and threw the stones into the deep and dropped from sight.

He ran to the pond, kicking off his boots as he went, and dove in. In that murk, all he could make out was her hair spreading through the water. It was all he could do to grasp at it. He tried to pull but he could not. The two struggled in those lower depths. Her legs or hair seemed tangled in reeds. Which way was up? She was still sinking very slowly, and he could feel her flailing at him. He swam lower and with his pocketknife cut the ropes that gripped her ankles. He then looked for the light of the outer world and hauled her forth.

Sputtering and dragged, she lay in the cattails, catching her breath. When John recognized who it was he felt faint, and lay down beside her, speaking, sputtering too, still:

“Adelaide was happened to you happened you Addie-”

And her crying,

“John what have you done you idiot you goddamned fool-”

“Addie please just tell me what happened I can help I-”

“You idiot what have you done I belong down there can’t you see that I-”

“Addie I-”

“You idiot! I live down there!”


Ian Angus MacLean is a Canadian writer. His most recent work is forthcoming from The Literary Review of Canada.

Issue No. 18, Autumn 2016

The Frozen Pond
Jessica Dylan Miele

waiting just for you

Alexander and Gillian are twins, but it takes Alexander two years before he finally allows himself to be born. Their father advocates for the surgery to pull him out, but their mother says, Patience, please. Their mother has to speak through her tears, because her son has not stopped crying since the moment he knew himself. Their mother is so overflowing with emotion that Gillian, who has not yet spoken a word, drinks her mother’s milk salted with tears. Curled inside his mother’s womb, Alexander misses his sister and trusts his mother’s infinite affection, but he does not trust the rest of the world to be so welcoming. Finally, their mother is done with sharing her body and she sings about Soren-Lucas, the boy Alexander is destined to be with. He is waiting, she sings. He has hair like the sun, eyes the color of bay leaves, and a mouth just for you. Believing his mother, Alexander slides out into the world with his eyes open and his mother swaddles him in a yellow blanket and holds him close.

Gillian wants to know if there is someone waiting for her, but she does not have the means to ask, and their mother thinks she is being fussy because she now has to share everything with her brother. Don’t be selfish, Gillian is told, and learns again and again that to keep something for yourself is very bad.

 

Alexander and Gillian braid their hair

Their father leaves them a few years later for another woman, another life. Alexander is not terribly upset at the loss, because there is so much of his mother he only has time to concentrate on what she can teach him. But Gillian yearns to have her father back, and continues to set the table with four place settings. What upsets Gillian even more is that her brother doesn’t feel what she feels, and their mother teaches them how to sing so that they can appreciate the importance of harmony. She also teaches the twins how to braid their long, glossy brown hair.

On a cold February night, Gillian sneaks into their brother’s bed to keep warm and they weave their hair together to create one thickset plait. Though they fall asleep on the same pillow, Gillian wakes up with all the hair and Alexander has none. Soren-Lucas would like you like this, their mother tells Alexander, stroking his bald head. And immediately he forgives his sister.

Gillian refuses to cut out the braid. When their mother comes at her with scissors she screams and tries to barricade herself in their bedroom closet.

 

the sound of Soren-Lucas

At school, the other children find it easy to like Gillian but not Alexander, and Gillian can’t explain her secret of fitting in. The other children sit at their desk just like Alexander sits, but somehow he sits differently. He can’t stop petting his eyebrow when he gets nervous even though he knows the other children don’t like that. When the teacher talks about the science of ice, Gillian has a bouquet of questions but when Alexander asks one, the other children show him their teeth and tell him his voice sounds like his tongue is too big for his mouth. They try to pull his hair and spit in his pretty face at recess but he escapes to the swings, whizzing up and back and up again, moving to the pendulum sound of Soren-Lucas, Soren-Lucas, Soren-Lucas. The other children ask Gillian what it means and she pretends not to know.

Schmalexander, why do you talk so funny? they ask him, and he keeps his eyes open as he swings past them, seeing them and not seeing them at all.

Someday Alexander will sing his song to Soren-Lucas, and Soren-Lucas will be amazed at how he can control his breath. Alexander still has no clue what this boy looks like beyond hair and eye color, nor where to find him, but he knows what he will feel like when he finds him, and that is enough to keep swinging.

 

whisper softly

When Gillian and Alexander turn sixteen, they both feel messy, like their eggs have just been cracked and their yokes are spilling over everything. Gillian bleeds every month and uses up all the hot water in the shower; Alexander wants to rub himself on everything, and decorate the whole world with his stuff. They share as few secrets with each other as possible, but then Gillian can’t resist crawling into bed beside her brother and telling him about the frozen pond at the darkest part of the forest.

It is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to her, or so she thinks. It might not be a pond, she tells Alexander. It’s very small. It’s late at night, and they are both looking up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on their ceiling. It’s been so long since they’ve whispered in the dark that Alexander has forgotten how much he loves his sister’s breathy voice. It reminds him of when they used to blow over the lip of glass bottles to make music.

How can something be frozen when it’s already summer? Alexander asks. He’s been counting down the days until summer vacation since September.

I think there’s someone down there, says Gillian. I can see a hand pushing against the other side.

You must have seen a fish.

I saw a hand, says Gillian.

What are you going to do?

Wait until it melts.

What if it never melts?

Gillian doesn’t respond. Not because she has fallen asleep, but because she doesn’t have anything more to say.

 

the frozen pond at the darkest part of the forest

Alexander doesn’t believe his sister, but he skips school the next day and ventures to the forest near his house to investigate anyhow. He is mostly excited about something that is frozen at even this time of year. His sister’s pond is not his, but it is something that would belong to him if only he had gotten to it first. Every part of the forest is dark with shadows, but there is the smell of cedar trees in the air, a slightly sweet, soothing smell that gives him courage. He arrives at the spot his sister told him about, and he knows that he has found the right place when he feels a pain deep inside his chest. The first time he saw the ocean expanding before him, it was an encounter of such incredible beauty he felt like he might die, and he feels like that now. He gets down on his hands and knees, and sees something move beneath the ice.

It could be a fish, but the feeling inside his chest tells him that his sister was right. He doesn’t wait for the ice to melt. He smashes his fist into the ice, and smashes it again with his other fist with a power he never knew he possessed. His knuckles are bleeding when he finally breaks through, and he reaches in as far as he can. The water is so frighteningly cold he can’t breathe. His fingers hook onto something solid and he pulls it up. It’s the arm of a boy, connected to a shoulder, connected to a head. The boy’s hair is dark auburn and his eyes are closed. His lips are blue. Alexander feels for his waist and hauls him all the way out of the pond. The boy’s mouth moves and Alexander bends down close to hear.

So cold, so cold, the boy says.

Let’s get you back to my house, says Alexander.

Hold me, says the boy.

I can do that, says Alexander. He wraps his arms cautiously around the boy’s soggy body, who lay on his side with his knees tucked into his chest. He can feel the boy’s coldness infecting him, making him shiver. You’re not Soren-Lucas, says Alexander. He wishes he was home in bed, underneath the covers.

My name is Paul, says the boy. Kiss me.

I won’t kiss you, Paul, says Alexander. My mouth belongs to Soren-Lucas. He has hair like the sun, eyes the color of bay leaves, and a mouth waiting just for me.

So cold, so cold, says Paul.

And that is when Gillian swoops in, with her shiny nut-brown hair in a fancy french braid, and gold bracelets jingling around her wrist. Without a word, she pushes her brother out of the way and mounts her prince, kissing him and hugging him, pulling off her shirt to wipe him dry.

Alexander looks away, wrapping his arms around himself. The pain in his chest hurts worse than before.

 

Gillian and Alexander’s mother dies

The years go by, and Alexander leaves his small town and moves into a different time zone. He becomes a dentist and sticks his hands into other people’s mouths for a living. Men and women, some with blonde hair, some with green eyes, hit on Alexander but he turns down the offers and spends his nights alone.

His sister becomes a dentist also, but she stays in their hometown. She marries Paul on a Sunday morning, at the meadow on the other side of the forest. Alexander does not attend the wedding at the last minute, because he has what feels like a heart attack. At the emergency room, the doctors tell Alexander that he is perfectly healthy, and is only suffering from a broken heart.

But I haven’t yet met the one I love, says Alexander.

It could also be loneliness, says the doctor. Why don’t you let me take you to the top of the mountain tonight? The fresh air will do you some good.

When their mother dies, it is the first time Alexander realizes that his mother might have been keeping secrets from him, and that Soren-Lucas might not exist. When he returns home for the funeral, he shows up at the house, which now belongs to Gillian. He lets his sister hug him. She smells like soap and lilacs, like their mother.

 

Alexander and Paul finally kiss

It isn’t something they can stop. Gillian leaves them alone in the middle of the afternoon to buy groceries, and as soon as she leaves the sun floods into the living room despite the blinds tightly closed. It is one of those kisses, those ordinary kisses where everything fits together, Alexander putting his tongue into Paul’s mouth, and it is inevitable that they take off their clothes, and Paul’s chest is broad and hairy, and Alexander is scrawny but he loves himself, each part of himself that Paul’s hands touch.

They have to be fast because Gillian will be back at any moment. But when it’s over, they are still touching each other, still kissing even as Paul steps into the shower and Alexander pretends to take a nap on the couch.

 

Soren-Lucas

Gillian takes herself out on a solo date. She wears a new purple dress with a swishy skirt and a rose gold pendant blooming on her chest. She doesn’t bother telling Paul and Alexander where she is going because she knows they don’t care, but she stands before them with a hand on her hip, daring them to come clean about what they’ve been doing behind her back. Alexander sits on the floor before the coffee table, playing chess with himself, moving each pawn with gentle, ruthless strokes. Paul is in the easy chair, looking at the open book in his lap without turning the page. That’s a nice dress, says Paul.

Alexander is now forwarding his mail to their address, and he keeps asking Gillian to share her practice with him. For now, her brother is still sleeping in the guest bed but he might as well be snoring between them in the master bed, stealing all the covers and with his back to Gillian, treating Paul like a teddy bear.

Gillian kisses her husband before she leaves, and Paul’s lips are as dead as a fish. She doesn’t lock the door.

At the restaurant, she orders a slice of every kind of pie they have. When the waiter sets each plate before her, he teases her about her sweet tooth, and she doesn’t give him a smile until it registers how green his eyes are and how yellow his hair. His nametag reads, Hi! I’m So.

Soren-Lucas, Gillian whispers. And then she can’t stop talking. You’re Soren-Lucas. Soren-Lucas! It really is true. I bet we only have a few years until that hair of yours goes gray.

Keep it down, says the waiter.

You have to come with me right now, says Gillian. She rises from her chair, fork still in hand. He’s been waiting for you all his life. His whole life he owes to you, and just look, you actually are a Soren-Lucas. Do you know I always thought your name was ridiculous? Ridiculous and also the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard. Oh, you must come with me at once.

I’m taken, says the waiter. I’ve been married for fifteen years.

You didn’t wait for Alexander? Well, he didn’t wait for you either. He almost lasted, but he couldn’t possibly be to blame. It’s so difficult to survive loneliness, isn’t it? Loneliness can drive you mad.

I’m afraid I’m not who you think I am. Enjoy your pie. Cherry is my favorite.

He goes with her even as he tells her he wouldn’t. He walks her to her car, hand squeezing her elbow even as he tells her he has other customers to tend to and to kindly allow him to move along. He folds his long body into the passenger seat and buckles his seatbelt even as he tells her he will have to ask her to please leave the premises.

You can stop pretending now, says Gillian. I’m just asking you to meet him. You get to choose whatever else you do, so relax. Here, you can even hold my hand as I hold the steering wheel.

Why do you think you know who I am? His hand is warm when he touches hers.

I’ve known you practically my whole life.

I don’t know where you’re taking me.

Gillian smiles at him, her lips wet with spit. She says, If you were paying attention, you’d know.

As she pulls into the driveway, Soren-Lucas leaves his hand on hers. The car is still running, and she realizes they had been driving the whole time with the radio playing static. Her brother and her husband are dancing together. She can see their shadowy bodies turn into each as they sweep around the living room, not talking about her, not thinking about her, wishing she would go away forever.

Shall we go in? asks Soren-Lucas. I’d like to know the song they are dancing to.

Let’s stay in the car forever, says Gillian. Or that’s what she thinks to say, but she knows that would be impossible and so instead she meets her mouth with Soren-Lucas’ mouth.

But I’m married, says Soren-Lucas. But he keeps the kiss going, and they both have their eyes closed, and Soren-Lucas tastes like french fries.

While his sister is in the driveway, fogging up the windows, Alexander races Paul up the stairs to the bathroom. They let the cold water fill the tub, as cold as they can stand it, and then they hold onto each other as the coldness spills around them. Alexander holds onto Paul, the same way a baby holds onto his mother, and yet Alexander doesn’t trust his lover, not completely, because why would he, when nobody ever told him that this person was the one meant for him.


Jessica Dylan Miele is a writer, librarian, and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. Her short stories have been published in numerous literary magazines including Quail Bell, Coming Together, Spickety Love, and Gingerbread House. Her short story was also featured on Short Stories Podcast. You can find her online at JessicaReads.com.

Feature: Issue No. 18, Autumn 2016

The Wild Swans
Laura C.J. Owen

The Museum preserves and makes vivid not only what constitutes the glory…it deals with our weaknesses, our mistakes and our crimes…Shouldn’t we think more often of this kind but truthful chronicler? Yes, to think about it in the fever of our work! We shall not escape the judgment of the Museum.

—Vl. Nemirovich-Danchenko

A Walking Tour of the Museum:

(1) The Green Room

The most famous room in the Museum, the Green Room provides a natural starting place for a walking tour.

The unusual furnishings of the Green Room are assembled from a variety of materials, including emeralds, marble, poplar wood, and glass.

According to one contemporary source, King P_____ the III ordered that the room was “to be made to resemble as closely as possible a cave in the woods—a dimly limit enclosure whose walls are thick with green vines, a solitary place into which only a small diffusion of sunlight would enter, like a thin golden mist.”

 

The Green Room’s Origins

No record remains of what the room looked like before it became Green.  However, we can tell from some of Archbishop B______’s correspondence

that a pre-existing veneer—believed to be amber—was removed to expose the dark stone underneath. This gives the room its characteristically earthy, wet smell.

After it was stripped, the room was hung with rich green tapestries. All the original furnishings—almost certainly made primarily from gold and silver and onyx and ruby—were removed. No one knows what became of them; presumably, they were destroyed.

Note: It is possible that Archbishop B_______ ordered the valuable furnishings taken to his personal residence. A persistent contemporary rumor alleged that the Archbishop—who oversaw the Greening process—secreted the original furnishings as a method of private payment for his services. No definitive proof of this exists, however.

As you can observe, the ceiling is covered with a dark green glass. The Green Room’s only illumination is provided by a solitary chandelier, so that the reflective ceiling creates a dim filigree of light, designed to mimic the effect of the sun filtering through greenery.

The centerpiece of the room is, of course, the pile of green nettles atop the table.

These are a traditional tribute to Queen E______ the Mad, also known as the Good.

The Queen was brought to the castle by King P_____ the III, who discovered her living all alone in the woods.

 

The Courtship Myth

According to legend, the King’s hunting party tracked a stag deep into the forest. When the hunting dogs surrounded a pile of moss-and-vine-covered rocks, the King at first believed his dogs had led him to a dead end. Coming closer, however, he saw that that a tapestry of vines concealed an entrance into the stone structure.

Concerned that perhaps they had cornered some violent creature, the King indicated that the rest of the party should stand back. He advanced upon the rock cave, cutting apart the vines with his sword.

At first, he could see nothing in the dim light of the cave’s interior. Gradually, however, he processed a blurry white movement. As the figure came into focus, he saw a pair of small human hands in motion: they belonged to a young girl in a dirty white shift.

When she sensed his presence, the girl looked up in fear and hid her hands behind her back.

The King held out his hand to her, assuring her that he did not mean any harm. The girl only retreated further into the recesses of the cave.

At a crunching sound under his feet, the King looked down and saw that the floor of the cave was covered in nettles, as well as animal droppings and thin animal bones and long, white feathers.

He reached down to touch a feather, but his hand brushed a nettle instead, and he drew back, shocked at the sting. The sharp feeling where the nettle touched his finger seemed to burrow inside him, increasing in intensity, and then bloomed up under his skin in an angry red blotch.

“Come with me,” he said to the girl, again holding out his hand. “Come out of this place.”

He grabbed her arm and began to drag her out of the cave. She screamed, but he managed to carry her outside and lift her onto his horse. The girl cried the entire way back to the hunting camp.

The King ordered the servants who had traveled with him to tend to the girl: clean her and find her fresh clothes to wear.

When he saw the girl again, her hair was no longer matted, her skin no longer dirty, but her hands were mummified in bandages. The servants told her that her hands were covered in deep sores, canyons of red and pus-shiny skin in her palms.

The girl would not speak to anyone or look anyone in the eye.

The King sent an order back to the Palace that a Green room was to be created, so the girl would have a place that reminded her of the woods. No expense was to be spared.

In fact, in order to pay for the room, a tax had to be levied on marble mining and exporting, which led to widespread unrest.

At last the room was done. The King took the girl by the arm (careful not to touch her hands, which were still healing) and led her to the Green room.

The room smelled of stone and even the air seemed to be a dark green. Blobs of gold light from the chandelier reflected off the glass ceiling and crept across the tapestry-covered walls.

“I hope this room will remind of your home in the woods and that it will calm your spirits,” said the King. “Perhaps you can grow easier in your mind and begin to speak again.”

The Green Room was, however, not efficacious. The girl spent her days inside it, but she still refused to speak; she never smiled, and barely ate. She spent her days sitting at the green table, picking at the bandages on her hands.

The King developed a theory. He ordered some servants to return to the cave in the woods and bring back some of the nettles found there.

When the servants returned, they informed him that along with a pile of nettles, they had also found a curiosity in the cave.

They spread it out before the King: it was what looked like a shirt, stitched out of an odd, coarse fabric.

The King reached out to pick up the object and was warned away. “Do not touch it, your majesty,” said one of the servants. “It stings to the touch.”

The King ordered that the shirt, along with nettles from the forest, a quantity of needles, and a weaving loom, were to be taken to the Green Room and presented to the solitary, mad girl.

When he arrived at the Green room with these gifts, the stone face of the girl broke into a smile. The King smiled in return, certain that he had been right about her. A warm feeling spread through the King—excitement and gratitude at having partially unlocked the puzzle.

The King reached out his arms towards the girl, but instead she grabbed the green shirt and clutched it to her, oblivious to its burn. Eagerly, she assembled the loom and began the process of weaving fabric from the nettles.

Thereafter, the girl spent her days preoccupied with her task. The sores on her hands opened again, and her hands grew ever more cracked and swollen. When she had stitched a full suit of clothes out of the nettles, she started again on another. When that suit was completed, she began another. And then another.

The table of the Green Room was always covered in piles of nettles, and the room was always silent, except for the sound of the loom.

As she completed each new suit of nettles, the King arranged to have the finished product hung in the Armory Hall, displayed in a row next to the ceremonial suits of armor.

 

Tradition and Upheaval

After the Queen’s death, the Green Room remained preserved as a tribute to her. It became traditional to leave a nettle on the table as a gesture of respect towards the departed monarch. Over time, this tradition began to be more elaborate, and courtiers would leave nettles carved out of jade or emeralds, with ever more intricate designs.

During the Revolution, the Green Room was ransacked, and the nettles made of precious stones were lost or dispersed. When the castle was later converted to a Museum, museum staffers began the tradition of leaving nettles on the table again. However, it was found that Museum patrons could not resist the temptation to the touch the nettles, and it was deemed easier to leave false nettles made of cloth out on permanent display.

During the Great War, the entire Green room was ransacked and heavily damaged by fire and artillery. The current Green Room is a restoration, taken from contemporary accounts and paintings.

 

(2) The Cabinet of Curiosities

Down the hall from the Green Room, we find the former of study of King P_____ the III, dedicated during his lifetime to his scientific studies and converted after his death into a display room for his specimen collection. The unusual nature of much of his collection is how the room became familiarly known as the “The Curiosities Cabinet” or “The Cabinet of Curiosities.”

The King was a great reformer; he was profoundly interested in the latest scientific research, and dedicated to ridding the land of what he deemed the influence of a backward, superstitious peasant culture. He paid for a great many of the foremost thinkers of the time to come and live at the Castle, invested in the latest agricultural and shipping technologies, and contributed to scientific research himself.

The King had an interest in anomalies, biological deviations from the norm. His great concern was in preserving the strange workings of nature for the benefit of future study. For instance, he commanded that any woman who gave birth to a deformed child should after the child’s death send the body to the palace where it could be pickled in a then-newly-discovered formaldehyde solution.

So if you look around the room, you can see the preserved remains of several sets of conjoined twins, including those linked at the head and stomach; a stillborn baby who suffered from Sirenomelia, or Mermaid syndrome, in which the legs are fused together; a baby born with four legs, and other wonders of nature.

A famous nineteenth-century visitor described this room as “a strange scientific museum of ghosts; the grotesque babies, bleached of all color, float horribly suspended in liquid, every detail preserved with a power that is frightening and uncanny.”

At the time, the arrival of such children was seen as an evil omen or sign of the devil; the King was committed to uncovering the underlying causes of such abnormalities. The King saw magic as natural phenomena that had yet to be named or categorized.

 

The Continuing Story of the Specimens

The contents of this specimen room remained untouched during the Revolution. During the Great War, the fetus jars were hidden in the basement of the museum to protect them from harm.

Several specimen jars were lost during the Second Great Siege of the War; according to legend, several of the Museum curators, who were trapped inside the Museum with no source of food, broke into a jar and ate the pickled fetus of a two-headed calf, only to die later of poisoning from the chemical solution.

 

(3) The Coronation Room

Here we see faithful reproductions of a number of items traditionally associated with the coronation of Kings and Queens, including a medieval-style throne, several types of scepters, and a selection of royal jewelry from the P______ reign.

The slim golden crown, studded with rubies, which sits in the center of the collection, is reputed to be the coronation crown of Queen E______ the Mad, also known as the Good. According to legend, the Archbishop of B______, angered at the wedding of the King to a mad girl of unknown origins, pressed her coronation crown down so tightly around her head that blood was drawn. Supposedly, after the fact, the drops of blood transformed into rubies, coagulating into jagged, scab-shaped gems.

In the nineteenth century, a crown covered in rough rubies was discovered in a previously unknown room of the palace and popular legend attributed it as the Mad Queen’s coronation crown. This crown was later lost, however, and the current crown on display is a twentieth-century reproduction.

 

(4) The Armory Hall

In this hallway, visitors can admire the Museum’s substantial collection of arms and armor. In pride of place are the eleven suits of green armor, created in the eighteenth-century as a tribute the legend of the Queen E_____’s eleven brothers. The eleventh suit is missing its right arm, in acknowledgement of the physical deformity suffered by Queen E______’s youngest brother.

The elaborate nature of this armor makes it unsuitable for real combat, and these suits were created for ceremonial purposes only.

 

(5) The Portrait Hall

Past the Armory, we come to the hall where originally portraits of the Royal Family were hung, as well as other valuable paintings acquired by the P______ or R_____ or B______ dynasties over time. Sadly, most of these paintings have been lost or sold over the course of time.

The Museum has managed to acquire a splendid painting by nineteenth-century British artist John William Waterhouse, entitled Demands for the Execution of Queen E_____, which while not strictly historically accurate, illustrates the mythically famous moment at which a mob stormed the Palace, demanding that Queen E______ be burned as a witch.

 

Demands for the Execution of Queen E_______

According to most versions of the story, the Archbishop of B______ was behind the original rumors of witchcraft; when word spread through the land that the Queen spent her days weaving clothing from nettles, it took very little for the lands’ residents—distressed already over the levying of new taxes and trade restrictions—to become convinced that the Mad Queen—who had still never uttered a word to anyone—was indeed guilty of witchcraft.

Wild rumors abounded that each night the Queen was carried away in a net of rushes by a group of wild swans, only to be returned to the castle in the morning, hands full of more nettles for the weaving. Sightings of the Queen transported from the castle at night became more and more frequent, with fresh elaborations at every telling.

According to one version of events, a mob surrounded the castle, chanting that the witch had cast a spell over the King, and that only her death would bring back balance and prosperity. Waterhouse skillfully depicts the moment of the crowd arriving through Queen E_____’s point of view: she leans out of a castle window, her strangely serene face illuminated by the unseen mob’s torches from down below. Her loom, still hung about with green material, is partially visible the in background.

Indeed, although much regarding the events of Queen E_____’s life remains disputed, it is true that there was a great deal of civil unrest shortly after her coronation: King P____  had strained his subjects’ loyalties through his frequent travels, his study with foreigners, his lavish lifestyle, and his levying of taxes.

According to legend, Queen E_____  remained seemingly deaf to the shouts of the mob outside and continued weaving a nettle-suit. She had already completed ten full suits by this time, and was at work on another. This last was almost complete, expect for the right sleeve.

As the crowd grew more and more restive, burning straw effigies of the Queen and throwing stones through the castle windows, the Castle Guards turned traitor and decided to hand the Queen over to the mob. When the Queen heard the Guards coming down the hall, she snatched her latest creation and fled to the Armory, where the complete ten suits were standing at attention, hung side by side along the wall.

As the Guards pursued her into the Hall, they fell back. The Hall’s windows were shattered as a bevy of giant white swans flew in, arriving in a crush of glass and blood and feathers. The swans were as large as men, and they hissed and snapped and flapped their wings at the Guards.

The terrified soldiers watched as the Queen threw a suit of nettles over the neck of each bird and, one by one, the birds transformed into men. Except, of course, for the last bird, the littlest bird, whose suit was not yet quite complete. His transformation was not whole, and he retained the wing of a swan instead of one arm.

At this point, the Queen was able to speak, and reveal the evil spell that had kept her brothers as swan creatures and doomed her to a vow of silence. Her true identity was revealed as the lost Princess of a large neighboring kingdom.

As for the rioting rabble, the arrival of the gigantic swans had either frightened or reassured them. Perhaps they took it as a sign of the Queen’s innocence—or they were cowed by what seemed an impressive display of her supernatural power.

 

The Historical Roots of Myth

Of course, this story is largely believed to be a fabrication, started in part by the enemies of Archbishop B______ and the B______ family. Some historical records seem to suggest that the King P______ the III did indeed marry the developmentally delayed child of the nearest neighboring kingdom, and that when the citizens revolted in protest of the Royal Family’s lavish lifestyle, an army from the neighboring kingdom, led by the Queen’s eleven brothers, quashed the revolt in a summary and brutal fashion.

It is true that the Queen’s youngest brother suffered from a congenital deformity—a weakened right arm, which was by all accounts shrunken and crooked, and lay limp as a folded wing by his side.

 

(6) The Swan Garden

Now we are outside the museum, we can see the eleven swan statues, standing next to the Museum in the front gardens, looking out at the Lake. They were constructed in the seventeenth century, in honor of The Wild Swans legend. They stand outside, to guard the Palace just as the Queen’s brothers guarded their sister.

During the Revolution, the statues were destroyed, their necks symbolically snapped and their wings broken, but the statues you see here today have been restored according to the original schematics.

After the Great War, when the Museum was in the process of restoration, an urban legend arose that the swan statues had healing power. Wounded veterans traveled from across the country to touch the Swans in hopes of a cure for their injuries.

 

(7) Fata Morgana

The last remaining sight on public display in the Museum Grounds is the beautiful lake. It is man-made, said to have been commissioned by Queen E______.

The name derives from the fact that the lake was so designed that, when the sun sets, the interaction of the light and the water of the lake produces an optical illusion. When atmospheric conditions are right, on the horizon of the lake, there appears to be a shimmering island, a peaceful-looking place where the towers of beautiful buildings seem to rise out of puffy pink clouds. This is a type of atmospheric disturbance, more commonly known as a mirage. This island appears so real, so much like a glimpse of heaven, that legend has that visitors have walked into the lake and drowned in pursuit of it.  Visitors are advised to avoid to lake at sunset in times of emotional distress.

 

You have now reached the end of your tour. Before you leave, we urge you to visit the gift shop and café. Please also consider making a donation towards our ongoing efforts of preservation and restoration. Perhaps you think it odd that our Nation should expend so much effort in the painstaking recreation of what are, after all, the relics of an oppressive monarchical system that ended with violent overthrow.  The Curators of the Museum would like to note that our efforts at historical preservation imply no political stance whatsoever; on a related note, we understand that historical truth is a difficult matter, subject to the vagaries of time and prejudice. We ask you to think instead of the miraculous efforts of the Curators of this Museum, who have recreated and preserved as much as they have, using only historical fragments as their guide. Think of everyone who has lived and died inside this Museum, in the interest of preserving what you see here today.


Laura C.J. Owen was born in England, lived in Minnesota for school, and keeps moving to back to Arizona, where she grew up. She has degrees from Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Arizona. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Annalemma Magazine, DIAGRAM, Litro, and other places. More information can be found at lauracjowen.com

Issue No. 18, Autumn 2016

Conjure
Jan Stinchcomb

Something happens in her skull as she goes to put her purse down. She is in the dark, by choice, so that she can enjoy the streetlights piercing through the branches of the enormous coral tree outside her window. She likes to pretend that her living room could be anywhere in the world.

There is a violent pain in the back of her head before she goes sailing somewhere else, to a land beyond words. She has the idea, either from her childhood religion or urban legends, that there is some magic to be found in these last seconds of life, but nothing from the past flashes before her. All her thoughts are of the future.

She wants to know more about the life she was supposed to have, which still glows, a wide-open promise. She was happy, enjoying the wedding planning so much that she thought it might be her true calling. The church. The flowers. The invitations, not yet sent.

She regrets the dress. She will never know the feel of it against her body, the yards of silk cut and stitched to fit her curves alone.

The stars turn into oceans of lace, a gift for her. She slips into the white forever.

***

She never knew how heavy her body was until she left it.

At first she drifts around the earth, anywhere she wants to go, really, just by willing herself there. Will isn’t the right word. She has been freed from will. Everything that she was once tied to is now gone, even the fears, the ideas. The plans! The good emotions, too, have lost their power. She is free from chasing after happiness. Free from happiness. What a thought. And it’s not true about love being eternal. It’s more like love goes without saying in this new place.

Place. Another useless concept, here, where there are no boundaries.

Why did she struggle so much? She doesn’t regret the hard work but she marvels at all the tension. The anxiety.

For what? It’s funny. The whole world misses the point. Everyone should stop. Everyone should be still. Everyone should simply be. She wishes she could tell the people she loves.

She finds herself at a child’s birthday party. The birthday girl is a princess who presides over a kingdom of pink sugar. Happiness is in the air, as well as fatigue, disappointment and jealousy.

The song begins. This is her little niece they are singing to. She has not seen the girl since Christmas. Kinship, blood, has brought her to this kitchen, this moment.

She jumps in on the final line. It is the last time she will ever sing this song, Happy Birthday to You, which is spoiled by the phone ringing. That should be her on the line but it is not. It should be her calling but instead the news is about her.

***

Around three in the morning the other girls get tired of waiting for the ghost and fall asleep. Zoe stares at them and feels betrayed. She is out of patience.

Using a camera with real film, she takes pictures of her guests, open-mouthed and innocent, as they sleep. Creepy. That’s what they call her at school, but still, they love her parties.

Zoe is the kind of girl who knows things. She is a valuable resource. A storyteller.

But she wonders if there are some things you simply can’t share. The best stories are secrets, hidden by her parents, carried in whispers. That’s how she heard about the previous tenant, the young woman who died in their apartment. Zoe knows what her parents would say if pressed for details: it was just one of those things, sad, but no drama. It was her time, that’s all. Still, Zoe feels chills all over when she remembers that someone died in her home.

Whenever Zoe is alone in her bedroom, she looks around and breathes in what she believes is the ghost’s air. Tragic, scary, it mixes with her oxygen, enters her blood. If Zoe feels any anxiety, or a trace of dismay, it is only because the room is devoid of spirits. No weird sounds. No white flickers. No vibrations on her skin.

On the night of the slumber party, while the other girls sleep, Zoe sets to work.

She steals into the little bathroom adjoining her bedroom and shuts the door. Then she lights a candle and stares into the mirror, where she begins conjuring. She is a natural.

Surely one of the other girls will wake and push open the door. There will be a dramatic overreaction to her late-night ritual, but she is undaunted.

Zoe both does and does not expect what happens next.

A woman appears in the mirror. She is smiling in the manner of the dead, wise and resigned. Her white gown is simple and sleeveless, not long and flowing. Zoe thinks: nice dress. There is a moment of something like communion between them, and then the mirror turns into an endless black room and the tiles beneath Zoe’s feet begin to give way.

The door flies open and everything stops. “Zoe? Can I come in? What are you doing in here by yourself?”

Her guest lets out a ringing scream. Forever after the poor girl will swear that she saw something but she can never say exactly what it was. Was it the dancing flame of the single candle in the dark bathroom? Or perhaps it was the specter that lived on, for a moment, in Zoe’s eyes?

All this happens fast, like a shooting star, but it is enough. It is a gift. Zoe is pleased, and a little awed. Now she understands that there are openings, small but undeniable, to the other side.

She is ready for the next time.


Jan Stinchcomb is the author of the novella, Find the Girl (Main Street Rag, 2015). Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in New South Journal, Gamut Magazine, Jellyfish Review, Gingerbread House and Paper Darts, among other places. She reviews fairy tale-inspired works in Notes From Rapunzel’s Tower, her column for Luna Station Quarterly. She lives in Southern California with her husband and daughters. Find her at janstinchcomb.com or on Twitter @janstinchcomb

Issue No. 18, Autumn 2016

The Spruce Room
Laura Knapp

The chair next to the head of the conference table was pushed out about a yard, like it had been every morning since Marjorie first noticed it a month ago. Now, before she left in the evening, she made sure it was pushed in, locked the conference room door and reminded the night cleaning crew to stay out. But the chair, as though taunting Marjorie or rebelling against inertia, seemed to will itself to the same spot at some point each night.

Marjorie closed the door to the Spruce Room, and as she walked into her office, just next door, she considered again the possibility of installing a security camera. Besides the chair, there had been other inexplicable things. Like random thuds that emanated through the wall her office shared with the conference room when she knew it was empty. And once, while she sat alone in Spruce, Marjorie heard a sigh and turned her head in time to see the closet door close by itself.

But Marjorie knew a camera was out of the question because she’d have to get permission. As a director in a company dominated by men, she couldn’t afford to let her colleagues discover her suspicions. This was an engineering firm after all. Precise, analytical reasoning was valued, superstition was not. Marjorie would let unearthly forces hound her into a lonely insanity before she allowed herself to slip back into the role of token female.

 

Tammy always arrived early and chose the chair next to the head of the table. She had spent most of her 20 years at the company hidden away in a cubicle, so she sat in a conspicuous spot for meetings. Then, as people walked in, they couldn’t help but see her. But she had noticed a marked descent in politeness as of late, most people seeming to find it unnecessary to return her smile.

As she sat waiting for others to arrive, Tammy gazed out the window. In the early morning sun, a shadow shot from the buildings across the street, and a corridor of light sliced a corner of the shade diagonally from the intersection. Tammy watched as the light advanced and the shadow moved across the street then retreated against the buildings like an undead thing hiding from the sun. It was then that Tammy realized it must be noon. Where was everyone?

She rose from her chair and bustled over to the supply closet for bottled water to offer the others whenever they decided to show up, but all she could find were boxes of files and old monitors. In her haste she knocked a monitor to the floor. It made an ominous thud when it landed. She moaned because she knew it was broken and her manager was intolerant of errors. And no matter how hard she worked, it seemed only her mistakes got her noticed. Only her mistakes.  Suddenly, she heard people come into the Spruce Room. She didn’t recognize any of the voices. How angry would they be about the monitor? Tammy sunk to the floor and rested her head on her knees. She prayed no one would open the door and find her sitting there.

 

Marjorie was working late, last one in the office suite, again. She stared at the CAD on the screen, listening for sounds from the Spruce Room. Nothing but quiet tonight. She was tired but kept working. She knew she’d bring her skittishness home with her, listening for sounds there, too, jumping at the slightest noise then getting mad at herself when she realized it was only her neighbors.

 

When Tammy roused herself and left the closet, it was dark outside, and the buildings across the street were lit up like Christmas trees. It was the McCaskey proposal – that’s why she was at the office so late, she told herself. Tammy was waiting for Lucy to return with copies to collate. She started to feel impatient to get home until she thought of her empty apartment. She sighed, took her favorite seat facing the door, and waited.

The lights in the buildings across the street blinked out one by one and the dark sky turned gray. Eventually, the corridor of light and the shadow appeared again. Meanwhile, the silence in the conference room pressed on Tammy like a frigid sea holding wreckage to the ocean floor. At some point, a woman Tammy didn’t know opened the conference room door and peered in. She looked right at Tammy without saying a word and slowly shut the door. Tammy sighed and bustled to the closet to search for bottled water.

 

“I found another broken monitor.” Vijay, a fellow engineer at Marjorie’s firm, spoke conspiratorially. He had recently admitted watching “Ghost Hunters” on the SyFy Channel, so Marjorie confided in him. Surprisingly, he had noticed weird happenings in the Spruce Room, too. They decided to meet secretly from time to time to give each other updates.

“Really?” said Marjorie. “Today when I checked to see if the chair was pushed out as usual, I swear I heard someone whisper ‘hi.’”

 

Twenty years previously, after her company’s merger resulted in the office closing, marketing assistant Tammy Glowicky packed up the Spruce Room closet. Everyone else had forgotten it. After she set the last carton of bottled water on the table, she returned to the closet for the other supplies. In her haste, she stumbled against the opened door, and it slammed shut. The lock could only be opened from the outside, so Tammy started banging and yelling. Then she remembered she was the last one in the office for the night. Then she further remembered the rest of the boxes were already loaded on the truck and no one from her company was returning to this office suite, ever.

Days passed before anyone missed Tammy. Security in the building was lax, so it wasn’t until the next tenants had moved in that she was found. Two weeks later.

 

Again it was late and the suite was nearly empty as Marjorie sat in her office, this time fuming: Some kiss-ass young twit got the promotion she deserved. Suddenly, Vijay poked his head around the doorjamb. “I’m glad you’re still here, Marjorie,” he said. “Can’t you hear that? Something’s happening in Spruce right now.”

 

Tammy rummaged through the closet when she heard whispering in the conference room. She slowly opened the door to find a man and woman staring at her, their eyes large with fear. Then, rudely, as though she wasn’t even there, the woman turned to the man and said, “Screw this place. Let’s get out of here and grab a drink.”

“I could use a stiff one right now,” he responded.

They rushed out the door. And Tammy was alone again.


Laura Knapp currently works as a marketing copywriter and was also a freelance reporter in metropolitan Chicago. She received her MA in English from Roosevelt University, also in Chicago, and had fiction published in its literary publication, Oyez Review. She has two short stories forthcoming in Rum Punch Press and Rivulets.

Issue No. 18, Autumn 2016

Newlyweds
Evan McMurry


Dogsat

Brody and Julia returned from their honeymoon, scooped up their terrier from the couple kind enough to dogsit for the ten days, and arrived at their apartment still resplendent in newlywed dew—until Brody leaned in to kiss Julia, and Tennis (named for the type of ball he loved to chase) let out an alarm of shrill barks. He’d never done this before. They soothed him with soft pets on the back, figuring him rattled from their absence. But when Brody cupped his new wife’s face in his hands the dog again shrieked in protest.

The couple who’d watched Tennis broke up viciously the next week. In those days Brody and Julia had been unable to touch each other in their dog’s presence, until Tennis was exiled to the bedroom, howling from beyond the plaster as they made love on the futon.

They tried various remedies—kissing each other while petting Tennis, Julia repeating “it’s okay” as Brody stroked his wife’s cheek—but still the dog let out a piercing trill at every act of intimacy.

At last they gave him up to a family down the street, Julia crying and Brody beside himself as Tennis was handed over.

After that their friends remarked how amorous they seemed. But at home they never lost that carefulness they had developed, circumspect when they kissed, closing the bedroom door against the empty apartment when they had sex. They never saw the two dogsitters again, but carried their hurt in every move, eventually believing it had sealed their love like a bruise.


First Test

Tyler had a conference to attend just a couple weeks after he and Emily got married. “Bad timing,” he said. The second night of the conference, celebrating his paper’s decent reception, he ran into an old grad school flame at the hotel bar. It was the first test of his marriage and he failed it, clammy with regret within moments of coming inside her.

No point in any weak attempt at lying: he confessed to Emily as soon as he walked in the door. After her initial rage was spent he told her he felt a strange relief: gone were the years in which each would worry whether the other was being true, that smog of suspicion he’d heard overhung every marriage, darkening all moves with menace. He said he could not fault her if she slept with someone else, even, as he got carried away with his idea, encouraged it, so they could recommence their marriage on the even ground of unfaithfulness.

Emily told him and his wicked proposal to go to hell, but he was adamant, so that Friday night she removed her pristine wedding ring and headed to a club. She was quickly and repeatedly hit on. She considered the men buying her rounds or complimenting her dress, thought them attractive or un-, interesting or not, but liked none more than she had her husband, which she thought had been the point.

She arrived home to an overly expectant spouse. “Well?” Tyler asked.

“Slim pickings,” Emily said.

She went out the next Friday night. This time a man she found quite handsome bought her a vodka-soda, and after two more rounds did not reveal himself to be dull or delinquent. Emily accompanied him to his apartment, whooshed along by a gust of the adventure her husband had promised. But no sooner was there an erect foreign cock in play than she found the whole thing startling and wrong, and left still pulling on her bra.

“Nothing,” she told Tyler when she got home.

Emily continued to go out on Friday evenings, made some friends, spearheaded a girls’ night, bought tickets to plays and the ballet, met men but did little more than entertain herself with them. In his imbalance her husband became frantic, haranguing her nightly with questions of where she’d gone and what she’d done, sniffing her clothes for new colognes, scrutinizing her credit statements, unraveled by the very paranoia he’d schemed to avoid.

After they divorced Tyler told every willing ear how unreasonable she’d been.


Omens

Simone’s only request of the wedding DJ (friend of the groom) was for the love of god not to play that “let’s call the whole thing off” song. She’d heard it at the last three weddings she’d attended, and it was a hit with the seniors, but seemed to her deliriously bad luck. “You know they stay together in the end,” her fiancé told her when she’d brought it up. “I think they both order lobster in the last verse because it’s what he wants.” But nobody ever heard that part.

Wedding DJ Michael played it anyway, during that valley of receptions after the toasts, when elder couples reign. Parents and grandparents shuffled to the dance floor at the first schmaltz of potato-potahto. Her now-husband danced with one of his friends, leaving Simone alone with her bubbly.

It was a bad omen. They were transferring in a tiny Key West airport en route to their Costa Rican honeymoon spot when the second plane’s engine sputtered; no more flights were scheduled that afternoon; the next day’s were full; they forfeited the deposit on the hotel when they finally flew home.

Within days of their non-honeymoon Simone’s husband was laid off from his software company after a market dive took a chunk of its value. He assured friends he was zen about his unemployment. But six, seven, eight weeks of rejection, boredom, vulnerability scraped at his resolve. He started snapping at Simone. He threw a wine glass mid-argument, not at her, but its shattering shook her as if he had.

It rained when it wasn’t supposed to; their apartment leaked from the roof. It was as if their world were a dish into which someone kept tossing too much of a wrong ingredient.

One day Simone was found cringed on their living room floor, legs latched beneath her chin. “Everything’s gone wrong,” she sobbed into her knees.

For a moment he was her husband again. He squatted beside her, told her nothing was wrong. They were married, together, in trouble but not imperiled. Nothing they couldn’t survive.

“But if we were right for each other,” she said between breaths, “why would it feel like this?”

When she turned her husband had vanished and this recent stormperson appeared. “There’s no right or wrong,” he growled. “It’s all just chaos.”

This was new. Simone didn’t know her husband thought everything was chaos. “If that’s true, how do you build toward something?” she asked. “How can you count on anything?”

Even his shrug was angry. “You savor what you have in the moment. That’s all you can count on.”

This struck her as bullshit. But she considered that if she were adrift and exposed it might be the type of bullshit she would find comfortable, maybe even necessary.

Simone adopted her husband’s chaos theory. She took off sick from work to stay home with him; the illicitness of 11:00 a.m. sex thrilled them into bolder feats; they fucked in front of the sliding glass door, daring anybody across the street to watch. Their savings account was starving; still they dined at a downtown wine bar, feeding each other moldy cheeses. She bought a used bicycle and tried to keep up on those hours-long meanderings he’d formerly ridden alone, now the two of them making slick love at the trail’s peak, a symphony of sweat.

He emerged from his fugue. He’d been applying for all the wrong positions, he declared, underselling himself. He recast his resume, submitted to jobs he’d thought beyond his limits; a couple of weeks later he accepted an offer. The last of their finances went toward new office clothes, the old ones having withered in the closet. At last he was again the man with whom she’d fallen so astonishingly in love that, on their wedding day, they’d seemed one person maddeningly divided their whole lives at last divinely joined.

Simone definitely had no difficulty recognizing her husband when she came home the day before he was supposed to start his new job to arrange a sexy surprise and saw him savoring the moment inside the friend he’d danced with at their wedding.

She threw him out before he could grab the suits he’d blown the remnants of her money on. From the doorstep he begged: “Where am I going to go?”

“Don’t know,” she said. “It’s all chaos.”

Eventually Simone stopped blaming the song; it was just an omen, not the curse itself. Still—hadn’t she been right to forbid it? How differently would things have turned out had the DJ only listened to her? Who cares if the couple ordered lobster in the last verse; you don’t tempt the fates. You respect them. You study their signs. You learn. “Chaos” is bullshit. Knowing there’s a plan is the only way you start fighting it.


Evan McMurry is the Social Media Editor for ABC News. He graduated from Reed College and received his MFA from Texas State University-San Marcos. His fiction has appeared in Post Road and The American Drivel Review, and is forthcoming from Euphony, Corvus Review and Mulberry Fork Review.

Issue No. 18, Autumn 2016

Summer House
Christian Holt

It had been a year of comparison. At Christmas, she wanted to make sure the kids got as many presents as the year before. That their grades were just as good. Now, with the whole Glasser family assembled at the Summer House, Whitney wanted to make sure her kids still caught fireflies after dinner— if she could, she would pluck the little insects from the grass herself, open her hands, and watch as once again her children’s faces broke into smiles of wonder. That was the magic of the family Summer House.

But now her brother Kevin was missing and ruining everything.

“Could the ghosts have taken him?” Sam asked, his voice brimming with ghoulish curiosity.

“No, stupid, our ghosts don’t work that way. They’re too boring to kidnap people,” Jane said, not looking up from her fashion magazine.

Sam and Jane were sitting on the porch. Sam’s lingering baby-fat cheeks were lit by his handheld gaming screen while Jane, with her headphones and her too-young-for-it bikini, lay in one of the peeling green deck chairs next to him. She was imitating starlets she’d seen on a tourism ad for Los Angeles her father had mailed her— sunbathing: sunglasses and tanning oil on full display. That’s where Allan was living, where the kids would be flying after the week on the Cape.

“Jane, don’t call your brother ‘stupid.’ And I’m sure your uncle Kevin is just out in town,” Whitney said. The closest town, Orleans, was nothing more than a village. But as a child, just shy of Sam’s age, Whitney had always felt the sleepy place held the entire universe: a candy store, the lighthouse bar whose floor was strewn with peanut shells that snapped when you stepped on them, and, of course, the row of storefronts threaded with little flags, each flapping as if they were waving to her in their own language. In the thirty plus years Whitney had been visiting the Cape— first as a child and then with her own children— there had never been a need to go further. She had only gone further up once, two years ago, when Sam had begged to see the maritime graveyard.

Maybe because the Glasser Summer House was haunted, Sam used to be obsessed with the dead. He’d follow the spirits throughout every room— from the ‘50s style kitchen to the large glass-paneled dining room to the family room and wing of bedrooms—  trying to figure out their source until he’d bump his head into a wall, the little ghost detective so consumed by his work that he didn’t watch where he was going. He was such a precocious child that Whitney indulged him by getting him a library card a few years ago. This was back when the family had the house in Morristown and he’d surprise them at the dinner table sometimes, offering gems like: “In Egypt, they used to serve the recently deceased food and talk to them as if they could talk back.” He was full of macabre trivia like that. No one much had felt like eating meatloaf that night. Her ex-husband, Allan, had been hard on him, wondering what kind of kid talked like that. Allan blamed the ghosts too, but when he said the ghosts, he really meant Whitney’s family.

“Is that why he took his toilet kit?” Sam asked.  He was playing on his video game handheld, but routinely surprised her by saying something that demonstrated he was particularly observant. Her little multi-tasker. His favorite game involved navigating a pyramid full of booby traps, the same death knells playing every time he died until she asked him, dear, can you please put it on mute?

“He did?” Whitney asked. Sam had been forced to bunk with Kevin in the back bunk room where Sam reported his uncle snored like a broken boat engine.

“If he can leave early, can we?” Jane asked, with that dagger twisting of the last vowel—  at fourteen, she had newly mastered the trick. She had whined about coming, whined when Whitney could no longer afford figure skating lessons— Jane didn’t even like skating, just liked that her revealing outfits freaked Whitney out— and whined when Sam got to ride shotgun the entire drive up even though Sam was the one who got carsick and Jane spent the entire ride asleep.

“No, Jane, this is a family vacation. I’m sure Kevin will be back soon. It’s lobster dinner night. Everyone loves lobster dinner night.”

Jane chortled.

Whitney stood as if struck. It wasn’t the expression on her daughter’s face, but the tone of dismissiveness that reminded Whitney of the marketing firm, of asking the sales team to quiet down and then seeing their barely contained smiles when they said sure. “I’m going to go see what grandma is up to,” Whitney said.

It was a cloudy, New England summer day, and so thick with humidity that the world felt stuck in itself. Did she tell her daughter to put on some clothes, that Whitney could clearly see the little blue veins on Jane’s not-tanning-whatsoever skin? That her matchstick limbs wouldn’t likely resemble a starlet’s until she’d hit puberty, a subject that they’d talked about only very recently? No. Whitney’s approach was the opposite of Allan’s. She encouraged, allowed, experimented. Within reason, of course, and whatever she could afford on an associate marketer’s salary. Some experiments failed— the “no bedtime” experiment had lasted 48 hours and resulted in a phone call from Sam’s 5th grade teacher saying the poor kid was falling asleep in class—but the kids respected her for trying, for really making this family her priority. Whitney’s mother told her she should be dating, but no, haha, she was having too much fun being a parent.

Inside was her brother Don sitting on the couch, his hairy legs like two pine branches plopped on the coffee table. On the other couch sat a ghost version of her mother and a ghost version of her father. Both looked displeased but their gaze wasn’t on Don, but off to the right to some unseen audience.

“We just don’t understand how you could do such a thing,” said her ghost mother. Like all of the ghosts, she was pale and seemed to blur around the edges like an unfocused photograph.

Whitney felt a flare of memory but held back in responding— what was the point? The Glasser family’s ghosts were not spirits of the dead— both of her parents were alive, her father likely sitting in his chair watching TV in the den and her mother in the kitchen, burning lunch—  no, the Glasser clan was haunted by recitals of past events. The ghosts were harmless, incapable of lifting so much as a penny. Other houses on the Sound were infested by termites or dry rot but the Glasser Summer House had ghosts.

“This isn’t how we raised you,” said the ghost father.

“How are we on lunch?” Whitney asked Don. Don was Whitney’s older brother, serious in all of the ways Whitney was not. Because she respected her kids, Whitney admitted to them that Don was a bit of a stick in the mud. She couldn’t have hidden that if she tried, no sir! So why not admit it and establish that sense that, hey, just because your mom is an adult, doesn’t mean she can’t laugh at her family too?

Still, Don worked in Philadelphia for a mutual fund and that allowed him certain things that Whitney admired. That new Norditrack Home Exercise Regimen. Juice cleanses. Private school. On Facebook, his wife Alice posted photos of their family trips from all over the world. “Greetings from Vail!” read one post, complete with the family of three posing with goofy faces. “Happy New Year from Rome!” was another, and Whitney’s mother called her and gushed about all of the things that the Don Glassers were doing and how much fun it must be. But Whitney always laughed and said oh but you should see the fun we are having! They weren’t going to Europe, sure, there was the mortgage to pay and her divorce attorney’s fees. But they went to the shore last Memorial Day and Sam won some green fuzzy dice that they keep in the family car. So in a small way, they always take the fun with them.

“Ma says to help ourselves,” her brother said, not looking up from his book. It was a book on the stock market, which didn’t really seem fair since Don knew that Whitney couldn’t play the stock market since the magazine closed. There had been a fight last year when she had told Don to stop giving her stock tips at the dinner table.

“Any idea where Kevin is?” Whitney asked.

“Think of how this is impacting the kids,” said her ghost father. Whitney flinched.

“With any luck, driving into the ocean,” Don replied. Don likely thought of Kevin’s absence as a blessing, a way for him to make more rude jokes that no one would comment on. No one to challenge him for his claim on the last cob of corn.

The ghost parents disappeared. The ghosts didn’t have a schedule, they’d just meander into their spiritual plane like walking into another room. Lately, Whitney had found the front den, the back bedrooms, the covered porches of the old Glasser family summer home to be overcrowded with ghosts of family memories. It was as if the afterlife had no more room and had simply left the Glasser clan to their own devices in a yellow ranch house with a bent sundial and a back bathroom that always flooded.

 

Whitney found her (living) mother in the kitchen.

“Any sign of Kevin?” her mother asked. She leaned on the chrome accented kitchen counter. Whitney remembered years where her mother would sit on the counter, kick off her shoes. Now she leaned against it when her cane wasn’t nearby.

“No,” Whitney said. “The kids say he took his toilet kit.”

“Where would he go?” her mother asked. As a child, it was Whitney’s mother who had instilled the magic of the place in her, the sense that all of these people here were parts of a great whole, a blanket that you wove together as a family. That when any person was missing, it was like there was a hole that left you cold.

“Who cares?” Don said, entering the kitchen now with a glass of brown liquid in his hand.

Whitney held her tongue and instead tried to meet her mother’s gaze. The two Glasser women exchanged a sympathetic look. “I just want to make sure he’s okay,” her mother said. “The roads are narrow and everyone out here drives like a madman.”

“He’s fine, Mom. He’s doing this for attention. This is like the summer of ‘72 all over again,” Don said, and took a long sip from what was Whitney thought was likely whiskey. In the summer of ‘72, Kevin, not more than eight, had hidden for hours during a family game of hide and seek. He had hidden so well— in a suitcase in the main bedroom— that the police had been called. Whitney’s mother was hysterical. The suggestion of peril always loomed over Kevin— he was frequently broke and on the brink of eviction, disappeared for months at a time, survived two car crashes, and yet always made it out okay, as if he was bathed in oil and the world could not grip him fully. Whitney knew that someday Don, who always found life’s to be one tough sled, would write off his brother and be wrong and Kevin wouldn’t be okay. Then the family would never be whole again.

“How are we doing on dinner?” Whitney asked, hoping to change the subject.

Her mother, still not turning from the window, mentioned that someone needed to pick up the lobster and crab. Lobster had been a tradition for generations, but they’d added crab when Don was a child because he had an allergy. Even at birth, Don had been difficult.

Whitney volunteered. She knew that was what they wanted her to do and she was happy to do it, the good daughter, haha, but no it was because she really liked seeing her family relax. She wanted her mother to sit down, talk to Sam about his newfound interest in the Civil War (he’d moved on from the dead, thankfully). And Jane could use some perspective on what it was like to be alive when her mother was Jane’s age. They didn’t have MallRun on their phones or 3-D nail polish parties. Whitney hadn’t had her own opportunity to bond with her grandmother, Mitsy, on account of her stepping in front of the 4:50 to Plymouth in 1948. Whitney would see Mitsy around the house occasionally, always exiting rooms and the only time she ever spoke was to declare loudly “I’m going into town, if anyone needs anything” which were her last words, as far as anyone in the family knew. Still, by all accounts, a sweet woman.

“Ask in town if anyone has seen Kevin,” her mother asked. Whitney hoped she wouldn’t just wait by the kitchen window, looking out at the seashell driveway in case he returned. She hoped that her mother would go outside, sit down, and be the kind of grandmother one day Whitney would be.

 

Maybe someday her kids would look back and think, “Hey, not everyone got to know their great grandfather’s jokes. Or were able to see what games they played during a rainy summer in 1967!”

But no. Last summer, Sam had questions about some of the words that Great Da had been using, and some of them Whitney had to Google and find that yes, they were indeed racial slurs.

Whitney, during her teenage years, had tried to ask the ghosts questions, seeing if this could trigger different memories. But the ghosts were not intelligent entities, but a bunch of home movies put on repeat. This is likely why Sam stopped asking about the apparitions. They could be boring to a ten year old.

She found Don’s son, who the family referred to as Junior Don, DJ, or JD, sitting in the sunroom. When he saw her approach, he shuffled the contents of his book. She saw that he folded a magazine underneath the seat cushion.

“I won’t tell,” she said.

Junior Don’s expression was hidden by the dusted clouds of sunlight, but she could tell he was trying to read her ability to be a snitch. “I was just taking a break.”

The poor kid had been studying for a standardized test all week. He was only a sophomore, but Don had related a litany of acronyms he was studying for— APs, SATs, ACTs, SAT IIs— that when their mother had asked, benignly, if Don could cut the kid a break and have him enjoy his vacation, Don had exploded that this was prime season for his son’s obligations— training for football, summer program applications, testing— that if they had only listened to him, they would have skipped the annual trip this year, thank you very much, and it was only Whitney’s “nagging” that got them there in the first place. Then the family had sung Whitney’s mother a happy birthday.

“Have you heard anything from your uncle?” she asked Junior Don.

He shook his head. “But Cousin Jack came through a bit but then went off somewhere.”

She nodded. Cousin Jack had drowned in the bay twenty years prior. His spirit could usually be seen on the porches, reciting Doors song lyrics and smoking ethereal cigarettes.

But now that she had completed the task that she had wanted, she lingered. Poor Junior Don hadn’t had a break all week. A tug in her mind came from when her brother had embarrassed her at her twenty-ninth birthday when he had wondered aloud how she would finish journalism school with two kids. She had showed him, of course, but why did she think of this memory now?

“Want to take Sam into town and pick up dinner?” she asked.

“Would Dad let me?”

She threw him the keys. “He will if you’re already gone,” she said.

After the boy left, she allowed herself a moment to rub her face and take stock. Yes, she had one missing brother. One high strung brother. A father somewhere in the back room watching TV, likely slowly dying while robbing his family of the little quality time with him that remained. But they were together at the family summer house, making memories. They’d likely find these memories roaming around the house, like untied kites, in a few years. Then they’d laugh and say, “Hey remember when?”

 

Whitney found that Jane had given up on tanning. Outside on the grass, a scene from an old family volleyball game was playing itself out. The ghosts kept hitting an invisible ball, setting it up for a spike and then looking to see if it would come down. It never did, and the scene would begin again.

She’d give Jane this: even her silly habits didn’t last for too long. The stick-on jewelry phase lasted a few weeks. The wish to be called “Aurora” only a month. Mrs. Johnson and the school nurse both said ADHD. But Whitney had put her foot down and said that was over-diagnosed and that this family was loving enough to take care of her.

Jane’s summer reading books remained pristine on her nightstand, and she was instead working on a sailboat jigsaw puzzle next to the form of two ethereal children Whitney didn’t recognize (maybe the Harrison cousins?) who placed blurry pieces next to Jane’s real one.

“I thought that puzzle was missing some pieces,” Whitney said.

“Well, there’s not a lot of other things to do here,” Jane said.

Whitney frowned. “Why don’t you get some of that summer reading done?” Whitney asked.

One of the children seemed to being having similar difficulties with his ethereal puzzle. She recognized him as Danny Harrison, Helen’s kid. When was the last time Helen had been up here? 1998 when Helen was seeing that tennis pro from San Diego? Was that before or after her first marriage?

“I’m not that bored,” Jane said.

“Licking birds bones, you can see your fortune,” said Danny to an unseen audience. Danny would later make a killing in the financial market before, of course, he was indicted for conspiracy and fraud. He was now in a white collar prison somewhere in Nevada. Sometimes, he called on Whitney’s birthday, which was always nice, even if sometimes he asked her to contact women he knew on the outside who he wanted to visit him.

Whitney wished her eldest had taken after her. But Jane had shown no interest in books and so graduate school—though Whitney never forced her own dreams on her children — was probably not a realistic goal; Jane’s grades were never even promising. Whitney just hoped that Jane wouldn’t one day have to humor CFO’s half-her age and worry about quarterly numbers.

Before the divorce, Allan had said that Jane would find her place, she’d grow into it. Instead, Jane’s grades had plummeted further while her social life had crowded out everything else. After a shouting match, Whitney had confiscated her cell phone this week. She didn’t want to be one of those mothers, but she had to put her foot down at some point.

 

Whitney tried to put on a happy face as the sun began to bleed into pastels and there was still no sign of Kevin. Even her mother had given up keeping vigil and settled into cooking. There was nothing to be done. The dinner that Whitney had looked forward to all year would be with one empty seat, one fewer smile and one less person there to create a memory. An unfinished puzzle, Whitney thought, and it occurred to her she might as well throw out that jigsaw puzzle so Jane would really have nothing better to do tomorrow than read.

So the family ate, sans Kevin. By this time, the light had nearly faded, the cicadas had turned up their volume and everyone sat famished. The table vibrated with conversation and the sounds of cracking lobster claws. Even though Alice, Don’s wife, was going on about that terrible ski accident last winter (a story they had heard at least three times), and Kevin was still missing—  even Don said he’d go looking for him after dinner with a flashlight if that would help—  and her mother was looking at the kitchen expecting him to show up— it was still a family dinner, just like she’d imagined when she suggested this on the phone a few months ago. Oh, they’d said that they were busy this summer, that they had already traveled so much (this was from Don), that they wanted to go to summer camp (Jane). But now that they were here, Whitney could feel the old electricity, the feeling from before Allan left, before the newspaper closed, before she took this godforsaken marketing job which paid the bills but only barely, and before Jane tuned her out. Now here Jane was, wearing a nice summer dress and passing the garlic bread. Good girl.

“Whitney!” her father said. She had not realized she was being addressed. He stood in the doorway, his nantucket red pants already stained with butter and sweet corn. He motioned for her to follow. Whitney hesitated to leave her mother to clear the plates, which she knew her mother would do, but it was rare to get an opportunity to talk to her father without the distraction of the television.

“Still a fan of Bloody Marys?” he asked, throwing ice into a long-ago-clouded glass.

She said yes. Of course. She didn’t like to drink in front of the kids; Allan would get short with his son after work if he didn’t have a drink in him first. The kid just wanted his father to share in his accomplishments! Would it have been so hard to pause making yourself a martini and just say, “Good job, sport, that’s a bang-up job you did beating Call of Duty 4, I bet not every eight year old could beat it!” But no.

“That’s my girl,” her father said, passing her the drink. She let herself indulge in a sip. The drink tasted spicy and heavy on the vodka. Her father bought vodka in cases. The only unkind word he had said all weekend was to her son when he had accidentally dropped a handle as he unloaded the car. That had been a small bump though, and her father was not a stern person, well, not since the stroke. Old grandpa would have been sour all day, she wanted to tell Sam. He used to brood for days and curse if he didn’t have silence while he read his paper. If you went out during a certain time of early evening by the front steps, you can see that old grandpa swear for a full five minutes because of a broken screen door. But now new grandpa is much nicer, don’t you think? She couldn’t say that to Sam, or to anyone, but she kept that knowledge in a secret place, like the lingerie she’d bought for her and Allan’s tenth anniversary. Like the lingerie, she’d likely forget it until it was beyond the point.

“You seem okay with Kevin’s disappearance,” Whitney said.

Her father didn’t answer at first, instead leading her down the hall and out the side door. The granite patio here had never been finished so it just looked like a gathering of stones.

A sunset greeted them; Whitney was tempted to go get the kids and take photos. But her father stirred his glass as if trying to sort through secrets buried at its bottom.

“He’s a grown man,” he said.

“But it’s really rude to mom. It’s her birthday week.”

“So? She’s had eighty of them. She’ll get over it.”

“Dad…” she said. He took a sip from his drink. His eyes fell to his boat shoes. She knew that look. When Milky, her cat, had gone missing one day when she was twelve, her father had that look. Turned out, he had run it over and was trying to find a replacement for her but the shelter was closed on weekends.

“Dad, what do you know?”

“Me? Nothing. Why would you think I knew anything?” His face cracked into a lip-pressed smile.

“Where’s Kevin, Dad?”

The smile fell. He rubbed his eyes and let out a long, haggard breath. Finally he opened his hands as if unveiling a magic trick. “With a woman.”

Whitney rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Why the big secret?”

“She was just driving up to Portland and was only stopping in for a day or two. Kevin isn’t getting any younger, figured I’d help him out.”

“There’s always a woman.”

Her father took a long sip of his drink. “He knows how you and your brother view him. Can’t say I blame him for leaving quietly,” he said.

“Dad, this is family. This is more important.”

“Whitney, listen to yourself. This is important to you. This week was important to you. Most of us have other lives to lead.”

Whitney thought that maybe her father was kidding, but no, he was implying that she, Whitney, did not have a life outside this family. “Dad, I was an editor for years at a prestigious publication and then Allan— ”

“I don’t want to go into it. Forget I brought it up.”

“No no, Dad…”

“Don’t tell your mother,” her father said, the bite making him sound more like his pre-stroke self. “She’s in hysterics about ‘having a perfect family gathering’ all the time,” he shook his head. “There’s no such thing. How could you go through this house and not see that?” and Whitney thought her father was seeing something through the walls— ghosts of past family fights, of shouting matches and bitter silences. But Whitney saw nothing but the window into the living room with its perfect shutters and white doiled drapes.

“But it’s worth trying,” Whitney said, her grin as broad as the bay.

“If you say so.”

“You don’t think we’re worth it?”

He let out a long breath that he seemed to have been holding for years, since she was a child and first asked her father if he was proud of her. “I think you don’t know there are other things that are.”

 

After the sunset, her father retired to his den. Whitney could tell by the classic rock blaring in the kitchen that Don was doing the dishes, and the relative silence meant that her mother and Alice had taken Jane, Sam, and DJ to get ice cream— another Glasser family tradition. So Whitney wandered around the halls— back by the back bunk rooms where she and Jane shared one room and Kevin and Sam another— through the glass-paneled dining room, by the blue couches of the living room, to the empty kitchen, the porches, to the east wing bedrooms and finally to the top of the stairs to the basement where the sounds of the TV announced that her father was back in his den.

She was looking for ghosts, but their haunting schedules remained elusive to her. Sometimes it was awkward sitting in the living room, trying to play a board game while you watched a ghost version of your mother break down crying because her grandfather didn’t want her marrying a papist. Late at night, you could get spooked when you’d wander into Cousin Jack trying to eat food from the fridge from twenty years ago. More than once, she’d heard the ghosts from different eras would argue with each other without comprehending what the others were saying, like a movie with two different soundtracks. Sometimes they would link up in surprising ways, but most of the time it was incomprehensible rabble.

Now, she wanted the company. Even that was better than right now, with the house’s unnatural hollow cold.

 

After the kids had returned from ice cream, their lips colored green and milky white, the family gathered in the living room. They were able to rouse her father too, as even he couldn’t resist the pull of the family sing along. The evening clouds had come in, their moist embrace seeping into everything. People put on sweaters, Jane and Sam sat on either side of Whitney on the couch, sitting with their legs tucked into themselves. For once, the annual fire in the fireplace was not met with protests.

Whitney’s father and Don took turns trying to start up the ancient furnace. Pilot light wouldn’t ignite, apparently. Junior Don brought blankets down from the cedar closets. Don brought in chairs for Alice and himself while her mother passed out the music sheets. Whitney had never been much of a singer, but she always enjoyed these moments. The entire family was there. It reminded her of the last number of a Christmas special, when the entire cast and crew finally gathered on stage. Here was mom, and there was mom of ‘67. Even Kevin was here, or at least versions of him from when he was younger. He still hadn’t returned but there was a version of him here as if to fill in the gap— and even wearing the same shirt! Perfect. Whitney counted four or five different versions of herself there in the crowd— seated on couches and on the floor, standing and with different haircuts and clothing styles. But despite all of the different people, and versions of people, the voices all blended together into one. Of course, she never could tell which of those times she’d been merely lip syncing, trying to pass. But here, now, she sang and she found it matched with the rest of the chorus, a song they’d been beating the walls with since forever.

There were the old standards: “American Pie,” which usually her father started and then everyone joined in; then “Country Roads, Take Me Home,” where they always replaced “West Virginia” with “Our Summer House;” and “Going on a Bear Hunt” which, thanks to the ghosts, still featured Kevin’s jumping form and the reactions of her children, in their younger forms, laughing.

They sang for what felt like hours. Feverish and ecstatic and then, during the finale, slow and wistful.

There were summers past where the fire would blaze and all of the windows would be flung open, casting light and mirth across the sound.  On these hot nights, the glasses that held their spiked lemonade and Bloody Marys sweated as generously as the rest of the family. But not this year. A breeze had whipped itself up into a frenzy. Sam had fallen asleep on the couch. Jane was working on a bracelet, one end of string tied to her big toe while she looped the strings back and forth. DJ was trying to ignite interest in a board game. Whitney said she’d be back in a second and went outside to watch the buoys rock with the wind.

“It’s not as bad as all that,” came a voice.

Her breath caught. She recognized the voice, her voice. Whitney saw herself, two years younger, pacing the porch on a cell phone. She wanted to reach out and grab it from her, hang up the phone just a few seconds earlier. Then, Whitney would unwind time further so that she would not meet him for that first drink, not attend that conference and spy him across the table, not fall out of love with Allan, not break up her family.

“They’ll like you,” the ghost said. “I’m crazy about you.” There was a pause that felt even longer, seeing it again. The scene’s volume was not loud enough to hear the phone’s reply.

From where she stood, the ghost of Allan emerged. She shivered as he formed, passed through her and, for a moment, she and this version of Allan occupied the same space. Then this Allan moved towards the ghost of Whitney. “Who are you talking to?” he said.

She knew what happened next.

So Whitney went back into the house and shut the door. With the wind, she decided, this year the windows had to be closed. She shut them all, putting her weight into the ancient pulley systems and hearing the wood scream on their hinges. But they were sturdy windows, tight. They could protect this family.

Jane eyes caught her mother’s in alarm. Did Jane know? It had been a hard year, one full of secrets and half-truths. The stare that her daughter gave her now made Whitney certain that she had seen through it all.

Whitney asked what the board game was and DJ said that it looked like no one was interested.

“Oh but we’ll play, won’t we, Jane?” Whitney asked. She could not hear their responses over the sound over the blood in her own ears, the constant drum of her heartbeat. The conversation outside was left out there, where hopefully the ghosts would freeze or be blown away by the wind. They just needed to stop haunting her.

Don put on another log to the fire. Whitney’s mother called it a night. Her father followed shortly after. The rest settled into Monopoly. The game ended when people began to stop trading properties, accepting their losses to Alice, who had managed to build hotels early in the game.

The game over, Whitney watched her family— corporeal, real— settle in for the night. Whitney felt Sam began to lean into her, wrapped in a blanket and already nodding off. The ghosts, too, began to shuffle off towards their eternal beds. It was over not with a final shout but rather a small dimming, like the fire going down. She made another attempt at starting up the furnace, but no matter how many times she turned the wheel or clicked the pilot light, the contraption failed to start. She fell asleep, aware of a fuzziness to the air, a sense that something had reached a boiling point and could not, however hard she tried, be made to settle again.

 

Whitney didn’t remember falling asleep on the living room couch. Her headache was monstrous. There was something thick here beyond the cobwebs of dreams. It was strange how Great Da’s words, the entire chorus of last night, Allan… all now faded except for the pulse of her heartbeat.

There was the furnace room and she turned, with a dread realization, towards the bedrooms. She could not let this house claim them. Don’t let it be too late, she thought. Not when she knew that this had been the last summer, the last trip, that the children did not deserve to be haunted by her or her choices. She ran down the hall, shouting for her children to get up, it was time for breakfast, time to leave, get up sleepy heads. She would shake them awake and together they’d open that bedroom window and finally breathe.


Christian Holt is currently enrolled at the University of Wisconsin’s MFA program in fiction. His work has appeared or is upcoming in Gargoyle, 7X7, The Bold Italic, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Huffington Post.

Issue No. 18, Autumn 2016

Juniper
Sara Button

I. From Father

We wanted to live our lives in dog years. Each day’s value was fifty-two times its normal worth, at least. Beauty and vigor and youth were ours, and it was splendor. Her afternoons were free and I would clear mine, wiping appointments from my work calendar as easily as I would wipe away the clutter and cloth from our dining room table before hoisting her there, breathing. Breathless. The only sounds were the flurries of inhalation and cotton rustling and the table’s creak. She and I both were firm then: our skin, her thighs, my hips. We promised to be together to see one another wrinkle and sag.

Soon our love was multiplied a countless fold by our own creation. You were perfect, more perfect than we had thought possible. On the first day you breathed, we lay together, sardined on the narrow bed with sanitized sheets. You slept. We counted your fingers and toes, kissing them all, wondering what might become of us now that we had this life depending on us. We drove slowly home the next day, caring nothing about the long line of cars behind us.

All ten fingers lengthened and grasped and eventually no longer needed our own fingers to hold on to. You were yourself and your own, more independent than she or I ever was. She called you her warrior.

She knew before either of us did that she was beyond protecting. She was wearing her blue dress, the one I bought her on our honeymoon, the one that dips just below her collarbone. Dipped. Outside the window, the tree caught her gaze. You were playing below it, make-believing with friends. Foreign words like “antigens” and “stage four” poured from her mouth, and I thought that if hopelessness had a sound, that would be it. Outside, you were climbing the juniper, your long limbs scrambling up the bark, its branches quivering as if it had heard her, too.

Cells aggregating and spreading forced us to consider every twenty-four hours once more. The difference, though, was the forcing. When time is forced, it slips through one’s fingers and falls away like her hair started to a few weeks into treatment. Even though the sun shone bright that day, she sat under the tree and cried. You, in your strange, young wisdom, said nothing but wrapped your thin arms around her shoulders.

January came and everything was barren. Her collection of scarves grew exponentially. I  tried to make our bedroom a livable place, and you helped me fill it with all her favorite things: books, brightly colored pillows and rugs, music. At least two months had passed since she had lazed beneath her tree, newspaper in one hand, apple in the other. Now the weather had turned more foul and gray. Clouds rarely parted. Her smile, though, remained.

The length of that last year together had dragged and raced in equal measure. The new year did not feel new, and it was the first snowfall of winter that was memorable not only because it hadn’t snowed in fifteen years, but because it took her from us. We took turns, you and I—you, in your too-short jeans and down jacket, I in my button-down flannel flapping in the chill—to dig and place her dust beneath the juniper tree. That night, I woke to your shouts. Standing at the window, I saw your diminutive figure overshadowed by the hugeness of her grave. You were angry, and it was the first time I had heard you raise your voice to anyone or anything.

“Why can’t you breathe?!”

II. From Stepmother

It’s not like I had a choice. It would be ridiculous to suggest that I had a choice. Your father loved me first, you know. Truth be told, I didn’t think much of him when we first met. He  started coming into my shop, kind of a mess. I suppose your mother had just died. But really, he should have cleaned himself up a bit, going outside like that. He ordered, we chatted, I helped the next customer. He came in the next day, and the next, always for a cup of coffee. Every time he came in, we’d chat a little more. He told me about you, he told me about his woodworking hobby. He told me about your mother. It was all in passing, though. He’d bring these things up openly, carelessly. He didn’t seem to care what anyone thought. But, you know, I really wonder. Why did he talk to me so much if he was so sad?

He told me so many little things. I don’t know why I paid him any attention, really. I’ve had many men more handsome. He was just another regular. Finally he started cleaning himself up, and maybe that’s when I noticed him. Yes, I think that must have been when it was. He cleans up real nice, your father. I asked why he was dressing so sharp now, and he said he had finally gone back to work. A big banker man, your dad is. He hadn’t seemed like it. He didn’t have the right arrogance, I thought. He had the wrong smile—too sweet, and just a bit too sad.

He offered to buy me coffee the next day and I told him I had all the coffee I wanted right there. He laughed and took me out to dinner instead. To a fancy place, I remember. I had never been there before. It was the kind of restaurant where there’s more than one fork at the place setting, and he wore his small smile the whole night. He made me laugh, your father. He wasn’t like the men I had been with before; he pulled the chair out for me, and asked how my day was. A real gentleman.

You remember the rest, of course. I came to meet you; your father had cooked a nice dinner. I even brought Marlene, still just a baby. You shook my hand, all angst and darkness, furrows riding your brow like Death on his horse. But then you sat next to Marlene at dinner and you made her laugh like I never could. She looked at you with warm eyes. It was the first time I saw you smile.

Years went by, you know. Your father was kind, and welcomed us. He kept his small smile, but the light behind his eyes did fade. Marlene was just fine. Fine with the wedding, the moving, the adjusting. You made it easy for her. She was your true sister, you always said. But I knew she wasn’t. She had been part of me before, and I knew what your father would give to Marlene would never be as much as he gave you. Yes, he tucked her into bed at night singing the same sweet lullaby he crooned to you sometimes when you thought I could not hear. But my gut told me he couldn’t be that good. What if something happened to me? Would he still tuck Marlene in at night and smile at her? Would she really have all she needed? What else was I supposed to do? Blood runs thicker. Doesn’t it?

I had thought about it before. Your father was at work. He always was working late, leaving home early, his smile getting smaller and smaller for me as the years went by. You sauntered in, having just arrived from school, and you wanted a snack. Our apples had just come in. I had spent all day before stocking up on the golden deliciousness, and you were there to ask for it. Of course, son, I said, of course, choose one. Here, I’ll even open up the trunk for you to have your pick of the sweetest, ripest one. Surprise danced in your eyes, and you forgot for a moment that I was not just the woman standing in place of your mother.

The trunk was deep and wide, an antique from my mother’s side of the family. My own mother was watching me then, I could feel her, invisible hands guiding my own to rest gently on top of the open trunk. The lid was unhinged, a wide jaw of wood and metal and you, rummaging in it, trusting. Yes, that one looks wonderful, and I pointed to the back. Your tall frame knelt and reached. Jaws clamped shut and your own mouth was stuck in a little frozen o, your last breath a grunt released while reaching for an apple.

III. From Marlene

I thought I saw you, your head on like my doll, the one you gave to me for my birthday. That doll, ‘member? The doll has a head on it, and a face and eyes that are not real. They looked like your eyes, though, because they stared at me and were blue. Your head was like my doll’s head because the neck had a black slice through it. ‘Member when I brushed her hair and it came off? And you fixed it? There was a red slice on your neck, too. I thought I saw it even though Mamma gave you a kerchief. You never wear kerchiefs. She is wrong a lot of the time.

You were sitting there and your eyes looked like my doll’s eyes and your neck looked like my doll’s neck but you were sitting. So I asked you for the apple and you didn’t say anything. You didn’t say yes or no, just nothing. You scared me, so I told on you to Mamma. Mamma said I should give you a slap if you didn’t answer me back, and I asked you for the apple but you still didn’t say yes or no, just nothing. You always were a good sharer, though, so I knew, I knew Mamma was wrong again. Remember when you shared the apples and we climbed the juniper tree? We climbed to the top and you said that sometimes you wished you were a bird that could fly to heaven and see your real Mamma? I remember. So I knew my Mamma was wrong again, but I still hit you. I was angry, but I don’t know why. The thing that happened to my doll when I brushed her hair too hard happened to you and I ran away. Mamma said it was my fault.

She slapped me on my face and told me to stop crying, but I cried anyway. I didn’t want her to slap me anymore, but I couldn’t stop. Mamma told me we had to change what I had done, but I knew she did it. I could tell by the hurry she made when she hugged you and put you on the kitchen table. She told me she had to make dinner now and to stop crying. She told me not to watch. I sat in the cupboards like when we played hide and seek. I sat there in the dark under the sink and I watched the silver go slice. Mamma made you bleed.

Papa came home. He smelled the stew that Mamma had made, and he gave me a big smile. He told me he thought Mamma had made something good for us tonight. But he asked where you were, and Mamma lied. He ate it all up, and when he asked why Mamma didn’t want any, she said she had a tummy ache, and when he asked why I was crying, she said I lost my doll. After dinner, when he went to his room, Mamma slapped my face again and told me to take my crying outside. A bucket full of you was under the table still and she made me drag it out before Papa came back for coffee. Instead, I ran upstairs and got my favorite scarf—the one I found in a box in the closet, the white one, silky smooth like a princess veil? I took you and my crying outside, just like Mamma told me to. Even though it was starting to get dark, the juniper tree didn’t scare me. The outside was quiet, and the stars were starting to come out. I wrapped you in my scarf, and kissed it like I’ve seen you kiss the presents you always leave for the tree. Dug a little hole, right there for you, and you went in. I wanted you to come back. My skirt clumped with dirt from burying you, but it was okay. I could stop crying. I could breathe.

IV. Goldsmith, Cobbler, Miller

Tuesday was normal for us. It started as all other days start. We rose early, ate breakfast with our wives, hurried out the door to work. The sun shone hot that day, but the sky was blue and we had our health. Much to be grateful for. Morning was slow— a few customers here and there, but nothing of note. Clients chatted, and in such a small town as this, gossip spread. Did you hear about the mayor and his secretary? one said, her mouth pursing with the words. What about the Baker kid running out of town? A wink, and out she went, order in hand.

We ate lunch, unraveling meat sandwiches from tin foil folds, wiping fruit juices from our prickly chins. Thirty minutes of rest, and then back to work. Pounding, shaping, until we were done, never resenting the fact that we were so few, that our trades were as old as we were. Afternoon shadows grew long and a song drifted through the windows. Its tune was simple, its melody lilting. A birdsong. Yes, a bird. But words drifted through our minds.

            My mother, she killed me, oh!

            My father, he ate me, no!

            My sister, my sweet,

            laid my bones at your feet,

            bound in silk, how my beauty shines so!

Our eyes drifted through the glass to the branches of the tree outside—a bird, red like a fiery sky, plumes of grassy green and a golden throat, where the song had nestled deep—and we had to hear it again. The bird’s eyes looked through us, and we knew we had to give up what we had for him to share his enchanting song again. We lifted our offerings: a glittering golden strand, crimson slippers, a heavy mill stone. He repeated his hymn and flitted away, laden with these. It wasn’t until his departure did we realize we had all been holding our breath.

V. Juniper

No one will believe what they see—a tree, its opening, he, who died in wooden jaws to be released from those of another sylvan thing. Trees are not meant to open and yawn, to birth birds from bones. To sing.

Red like the blood when he was born, the bird’s wings flapped until it settled, one foot and then the next, onto my branch. He repeated his ballad. She, the second who had shared his father’s bed, grew fearful. A dirge, her own, was the bird’s song in her ears. Worries of the world outside and lies of the son’s disappearance raced across her tongue to reach his father.

The father, who had made love at my base so many years before, stood sturdy outside the doorway and heard none of his wife’s babbling. Happiness lived in his cheeks. His exclamations of the warm air, the cinnamon scent on the breeze, the beautiful bird’s notes shook my leaves. A golden chain, a gift, settled onto the man’s neck and he rejoiced in the bird.

The sister’s tears fell fast and slippery, but she, being innocent, knew what might come. The girl—although bloodless, a sister in heart—emerged from the house, tears drying on her rosy face. From the branches the bird dropped a pair of shoes for her that glistened like rubies. The girl smiled and was calm.

The wife, oh, the wife. She rose, ranting, from their table to quell the truthful refrain, her curses rattling the windows. She then saw the gifts—the golden chain, the glittering slippers— and perked at what the others had received. Gingerly, aware of her guilt, she approached. The bird let loose his vengeance. Down fell the weight of the stone. Dust rose, and her body rested. Blood pooled at her skull, like his had at her hands.

No one will believe what they see—a tree, its opening, he, who died in wooden jaws to be released from those of another sylvan thing. Trees are not meant to open and yawn, to re-birth boys from birds. To breathe.


Sara Button has farmed in Italy, taught Latin in Arizona and made hostel beds in Ireland. Her work has appeared in places like Litro UK and BBC Travel, and she has an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. She now lives in California.

Issue No. 18, Autumn 2016

"Little Bones" -- Christine Kern
Little Bones
Christine Kern

Sara Button has farmed in Italy, taught Latin in Arizona and made hostel beds in Ireland. Her work has appeared in places like Litro UK and BBC Travel, and she has an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. She now lives in California.

John Davis is the author of Gigs and The Reservist. His work appears in The Beloit Poetry Journal, Cream City Review, Cutbank, Georgetown Review, The Laurel Review, The North American Review, Oxford Magazine, Poetry Northwest and Sycamore Review. He teaches writing, performs in rock and roll bands and lives on an island near Seattle.

Lynn Fanok’s return to graduate school reignited her interest in writing poetry. She has written a collection of poems about her experiences as a survivor’s daughter examining her family, memory, and history. Her poetry has appeared in several online journals. Lynn lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania where she leads a poetry series at a local independent bookstore. You can read more of Lynn’s poetry at lynnfanok.weebly.com.

HAEL is a Northern Kentucky recording artist and music engineering student, who also loves to capture the magic of nature and fantasy through photography, writing, painting, and building miniatures. Model Lady Elora Lionheart is a character performer, artist, aerialist and costumer who has modeled with Katalyst talent agency. The two sisters are very excited to be featured in this issue of Rose Red Review.

Edwin Henry has been writing since 2012. He studied Creative Writing at College of Idaho and completed his Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing through Southern New Hampshire University. He has a keen interest in the grotesque, sublime, and the strange magic of the surreal when they mix together. He currently lives in Idaho. A sample of his portfolio and work can be found on his website: edwinhenryjr.com

Christian Holt is currently enrolled at the University of Wisconsin’s MFA program in fiction. His work has appeared or is upcoming in Gargoyle, 7X7, The Bold Italic, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Huffington Post.

Seth Jani currently resides in Seattle, WA and is the founder of Seven Circle Press (www.sevencirclepress.com). His own work has been published widely in such places as The Chiron Review, The Hamilton Stone Review, Hawai`i Pacific Review, VAYAVYA, Gingerbread House, Gravel and Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry. More about him and his work can be found at sethjani.com.

Christine Kern is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts. She has recently completed her thesis work which has helped her define herself as a contemporary fiber sculptor. Within this short amount of time she has had the opportunity to engage in the contemporary art world, develop her portfolio and fully realize her artistic potential. Prior to her graduate degree she received her Bachelor’s of Art in Art Education and looks forward to her upcoming position as a high school ceramics/sculpture teacher. In conjunction with her education she has had the opportunity to exhibit her art in select galleries and in literary magazines.

Laura Knapp currently works as a marketing copywriter and was also a freelance reporter in metropolitan Chicago. She received her MA in English from Roosevelt University, also in Chicago, and had fiction published in its literary publication, Oyez Review. She has two short stories forthcoming in Rum Punch Press and Rivulets.

Barbara Krasner holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches creative writing in New Jersey. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Michigan Quarterly Review, Nimrod, Paterson Literary Review, Blue Lyra Review, Peregrine, and other journals.

Sandi Leibowitz is a school librarian, classical singer and writer of speculative poetry and fiction. Her work appears in Mythic Delirium, Mithila Review, Metaphorosis, Through the Gate and other magazines and anthologies. Her poems have been nominated for the Rhysling, Dwarf Star, Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net awards, and appear on editors’ lists of recommended reading. As a child she galloped through the apartment to the William Tell Overture, tossing her mane, but never did manage to lasso the moon. She lives in New York City in a ravens’ wood, next door to bogles.

For three and a half decades Katharyn Howd Machan, picking up where Rod Serling left off, has taught creative writing at Ithaca College in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. Her specialty courses, besides in poetry, are Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, Women and Fairy Tales, and first-year seminars called Fairy Tales: The Hero’s Journey. Her poems have appeared in 32 published collections (most recently WILD GRAPES: POEMS OF FOX [a kitsune shape-shifter]) and many magazines, anthologies, and textbooks.

"The Aeronef Tracks #2" -- HAEL
The Aeronef Tracks #2
HAEL

Ian Angus MacLean is a Canadian writer. His most recent work is forthcoming from The Literary Review of Canada.

Evan McMurry is the Social Media Editor for ABC News. He graduated from Reed College and received his MFA from Texas State University-San Marcos. His fiction has appeared in Post Road and The American Drivel Review, and is forthcoming from Euphony, Corvus Review and Mulberry Fork Review.

Mary McMyne is a poet, writer, and fairy tale aficionado living in northern Michigan. Her debut poetry collection, Wolf Skin (Dancing Girl Press, 2014), won the Elgin Chapbook Award. Her fiction has won the Faulkner Prize for a Novel-in-Progress, a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and other honors. Her writing has appeared widely in venues like Southern Humanities Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Word Riot, Ninth Letter, Pedestal Magazine, and Chattahoochee Review. An Associate Professor of English at Lake Superior State University, she co-edits the journal Border Crossing. She edits poetry for Faerie Magazine. Visit her online at marymcmyne.com.

Jessica Dylan Miele is a writer, librarian, and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. Her short stories have been published in numerous literary magazines including Quail Bell, Coming Together, Spickety Love, and Gingerbread House. Her short story was also featured on Short Stories Podcast. You can find her online at JessicaReads.com.

René Ostberg is a native of Chicago. Her writing has been featured at Tiny Donkey, The Masters Review blog, Literary Orphans, Thank You For Swallowing, Drunk Monkeys, Booma: The Bookmapping Project, and other places. She still lives in Illinois, outside Chicago, where she enjoys riding her cherry red bicycle all around town and spending time with her three cats. Her website is reneostberg.wordpress.com.

Laura C.J. Owen was born in England, lived in Minnesota for school, and keeps moving to back to Arizona, where she grew up. She has degrees from Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Arizona. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Annalemma Magazine, DIAGRAM, Litro, and other places. More information can be found at lauracjowen.com

Ana Prundaru is originally from Bucharest, but lives in Stuttgart, Germany. Her work appears in Severine, Watershed Review and Glass: A Journal of Poetry, among others.

Rebekah Rempel studied creative writing at the University of Victoria. Her poems have appeared in the anthologies Force Field: 77 Women Poets of British Columbia (Mother Tongue Publishing) and Unfurled: Collected Poetry from Northern BC Women (Caitlin Press), as well as the journals Contemporary Verse 2, Prairie Fire, Room, Lake, Transition, Cactus Heart Press, One Throne Magazine, and Rose Red Review.

John W. Sexton was born in 1958 and lives in the Republic of Ireland. His fifth poetry collection, The Offspring of the Moon, was published by Salmon Poetry in 2013. A sixth collection, Futures Pass, is forthcoming from Salmon in 2017. His poem “The Green Owl” was awarded the Listowel Poetry Prize 2007 for best single poem, and in that same year he was awarded a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship in Poetry. His speculative poems are widely published and some have appeared in Apex, The Edinburgh Review, The Irish Times, Mirror Dance, The Pedestal Magazine, Rose Red Review, Silver Blade, Star*Line and Strange Horizons.

Annie Stenzel’s poems have most recently appeared (or are forthcoming) in the print journals Kestrel, Ambit, and Catamaran Literary Reader, and the online journals Rat’s Ass Review, American Journal of Poetry, and Blue Lyra Review. Her work has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and once for a Best of the Net. She received a B.A. in English Literature and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, both from Mills College. Stenzel is also a letterpress printer, never happier than when her hands are covered in ink. She pays the bills by working at a mid-sized law firm in San Francisco.

Jan Stinchcomb is the author of the novella, Find the Girl (Main Street Rag, 2015). Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in New South Journal, Gamut Magazine, Jellyfish Review, Gingerbread House and Paper Darts, among other places. She reviews fairy tale-inspired works in Notes From Rapunzel’s Tower, her column for Luna Station Quarterly. She lives in Southern California with her husband and daughters. Find her at janstinchcomb.com or on Twitter @janstinchcomb

Kailey Tedesco received her MFA from Arcadia University where she now teaches English. She is the co-founding editor-in-chief of Rag Queen Periodical and a member of the NYC Poetry Brothel. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. You can find some of her poetry featured or forthcoming at FLAPPERHOUSE, Menacing Hedge, Quail Bell Magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, Prick of the Spindle, and more. She believes poetry is the closest thing we have to magic. For more, please visit kaileytedesco.com.

Sarah Ann Winn’s poems, flash fiction and hybrid works have appeared or will appear soon in Calyx, Five Points, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Massachusetts Review, and Passages North, among others. Her chapbooks include Field Guide to Alma Avenue and Frew Drive (Essay Press, 2016), Haunting the Last House on Holland Island (Porkbelly Press, 2016), and Portage (Sundress Publications, 2015). Visit her at bluebirdwords.com or follow her @blueaisling.

"Untitled #1" -- Ana Prundaru
Untitled #1
Ana Prundaru