Issue No. 18, Autumn 2016

All The Way Down
John W. Sexton

the magic rope …
lowering himself
into a mind

lost your memory
in a card game
go back three spaces

legs of jelly &
sixpence under the pillow …
the bone fairy

Forest of Hopelessness …
moths burst against us
in fortunes of silver

“tundra and lightning” …
the fridge sends
a brief biography

her newly fried house
of sausage meat …
she slices open the basement

those steam-driven shoes …
the gnomes shovel coal
apace of each pace

ears of lead, tongues of tin,
eyes of pewter … meet the chimps
of the future

fly Anxiety Airways
going all the way down
with the blues

more challenging than a saddle …
riding in
on the unicorn’s horn


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.

Issue No. 18, Autumn 2016

Insensible of Concussion
John W. Sexton

dense as moles
snuffling sightless
in the velour ground

from the nice
dead lady next door …
blood oranges and stricken soup

insensible of concussion
and x-rays … lumpen androids
of lead

each download takes
a geological age … software
for the granite phone

twist on an old trick
… bending their minds
with a spoon

sex but no eggs …
noise hour on hour
from the cockerel-clock

night further
darkens the black dress … a path of moonlight
all the way in

testing
his super length
in the Fortress of Exactitude

the serpent
in the hole watertight …
the strongest nail in the ark

inside the comet
four and a half billion years
the angel maggot

folding space …
hold on to your lungs
when entering the concertina


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.

Issue No. 18, Autumn 2016

The Inevitably Lost
John W. Sexton

deft the hummingbirds
drank deep from your thoughts
and all you knew

woolless sheep with
colostomy bags … perfect herd
for the space voyage

freckled curtains for the Fuhrer
shyly
they wait to be parted

sentient rayguns
bursting
with life

no sliced fingers in months …
a stainless goddess
rattles the cutlery

a muted din in
the slush oceans of Ceres …
krill tune their combs

Rothko’s last painting
SCARLET THREADWAY THROUGH GREY LIFE
(kitchen floor)

the hapless contortionist
… falling hands first
through his own pockets

invisible waiting room
… seating for
the inevitably lost

runny eyelets?
swollen tongues?
you’ve got the shoe ‘flu, son


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.

Issue No. 18, Autumn 2016

Ghosts of the Empress Hotel
Rebekah Rempel

No wonder they are here. Everyone knows
ghosts choose to linger where stones remain
cold despite the sun. Where ivy reaches
starving arms toward eaves.
In rose gardens and courtyards, rooms
with gabled windows that face the sea.
Where hallways stretch on
forever and smell like the dusty breath
of old books. In servant passages behind walls
and laundry tunnels underground.
Anywhere it is easy to get lost.

No wonder doors slam on their own,
carved armoires move, paintings of queens
crash to the floor. No wonder
silver spoons and antique tea menus
vanish from their glass case, only to return,
and a child’s laughter chimes through the oldest wing
at certain times of day. No wonder
a maid in outdated uniform still cleans
and a construction worker in the west tower
swings from the beam where he hung himself.
But what do they want from this place?

More time, they are trying to tell us. Time to steal
through the halls in their stocking feet,
slide down banisters and spin across the polished
floor of the ballroom, chandeliers raining
crystalline music in their wake. Time to explore
the gardens and feel the darkest roses
bloom in their hands. Then watch the sea
turn to sterling at nightfall, the moon form
a glowing corridor across the waves.
A little more time, they say.


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.

Issue No. 18, Autumn 2016

Spain
Katharyn Howd Machan

Who built the bridge? The hard stone bridge?
The dream of the lion and his harsh thick tongue.
Who forced the boots that crossed it to shudder?
The man with a nose like a sharp crooked moon.

The castles are crying. Who slammed their doors?
Look to the blue that dissolves into black.
Where is the sand of gold I’ve been promised?
Watch out! Silver knives wait to cut off your toes.

The princess. The princes—no matter how spoiled?
The lion has named them. Starlita shines most.
How can smooth water change a safe world?
A fist grabs a girl and hurls her in deep.

Where do I find her? What dangerous call?
Thistle of gold. You’ll touch the blood.
But what of my own pain must I live?
Searcher. Reader. Poet. Forgive.


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.

Issue No. 18, Autumn 2016

The Mermaid
Edwin Henry

Age eats you up. You don’t remember what it was like, being a child, having so much fear. So much of it. So little of you. The lunge under the sheet,”

I saw a mermaid the other day. The other night. I don’t recall, exactly, what time of day it was. Who can? The days shimmer and simmer like mirages and steam whistling from a pressure cooker. Not a bomb. Red flows in the veins, but they are dark, ensconced in that inky darkness. Who knows? How well the light penetrates the chest, does it light up the cavity like your hand held against a hot bulb? The smell of hot sweat and burnt hair. Raw skin and untethered yearning. Wet blood, warm then cold, dripping down the blade of a knife. Not on purpose. An accident. Shucking oysters. The muscle is thick and tendinous. Gurgling oysters.

No one believes me about the mermaid. Why? I explain it as thickly as I can, stating the facts as they happened. Plainly. As much as I am able. Some things fissure and ebb. Flow. Disappear. Smokescreens are surfaces to project images. A laser to the eye smells but doesn’t feel. Mushrooms and coconuts have the same texture. Not-desired. She was familiar, in a distant way, like nostalgia for something you haven’t felt in a long, long time. But you felt, you know, at some point. Vividly.

She handed me sea shells that day/night. Was it last week? She was distant, then near. Emotionally. She had no nose. Her voice, when it happened, rarely, was sing-song like. But without anything attached to it, no connotation or implication. Not sultry.

I hear that Van Gogh ate yellow paint to try to feel happiness inside his body. Was it the heavy metal laced cadmium kind? It must’ve been. Oils are so much more toxic than acrylics, but they’re both derived from the same source. In a metaphorical sense: death. People think dinosaurs, but it’s more algae. Is that less tragic? Crushing an ant and feeling its exoskeleton destruct under heel isn’t satisfying, but it is easy. I don’t care.

I mean, I dreamed of a mermaid. They can’t be real. She can’t be. To touch. I woke with salt covering my stomach like some piece of meat being tenderized for supper. My stomach hair swirled in that white crust. It isn’t worse. I whispered into the darkness that cascaded between dawn and dusk, cycling like clocks. I should clarify: I didn’t just see her, I touched her. Her skin was like a dolphin, slick and rubbery, a sliver of a dream coming up from the deep. The darkness. Those eyes, seemed to know more than I did. They glinted in the light. They oozed out of her face like cold magma. Hot steel. The difference is there.

Not like, eye gunk. Or wet tears with saline solution, one rub. The eyes themselves. The embodiments. Swelling with red ale like shimmer. Light penetrates something. The body. A bruise festering. A blissed blister. The eyes were like melted wax. Dried cake. Blue as dark as midnight, not blue at all. With lighter colors like the dark seas of the Moon, with sea-glass embedded in them. Not the object, the color. She was alive. Breathing. Not through her mouth, witch. Thickly. Her chest moved to match the swaying of the sea cast behind her, the setting, the theme. The swatch. The sand grated my toes, irritating. The seeds of ancient rocks, set in the future. Depending on your perspective. If you turn a sheet of map upside down it isn’t wrong. The shoreline was like an endless spine, scattered with pulverized bones. The shore’s rotted spine. Salt and brine on my tongue. Gurgling oysters, their raw sewage silk-like. A gash across my thigh, weeped dark blood. Oozing. Like the eyes, that is. Situated there in the dark cascades. Not on purpose. Her eyes, situated there, mimicked the moon, dropping into the sea, with its sharp incisors penetrating thick water like blued flesh, seared but not cooked. Vulnerable. Intimate. I shivered in the cold, but not from it.

Curdled milk-like clouds buffeted the scenery. I couldn’t really see them. I squinted in the darkness, robbing what light I did receive with grace. Not expectation. The opposite. Gratitude. Is that true? I don’t recall. An accident. “Should I be embarrassed right now?”

I don’t remember coming to the beach. I couldn’t have been dreaming. I keep a log. I don’t sleep. Not recently. Not anymore. At least five days. When I threw the sheets off the other day, in that abyssal dark, something clinked on the hardwood floor, besides the dust and memory. I grasped for the sound, and when I pulled my hand back into my sea-sick stomach, seashells were splayed between my digits. My webbing. They were wet. I was shaking. My hands were, the rest of me, still. Restless. Vibrating under the surface. A wave crests distantly.

She spoke to me, I should add. I should explain. I couldn’t understand what she said at first, a calibration was necessary. The words gurgled out of her mouth like a corpse. An accident; like a fish. Her lips were swollen a deep bruise. But, I could a hear sound inside my forehead, between my eyes. Where auras begin and migraines birth. I could sense a sound. Her words, like sharp crystals split between the folds of my mind:

– this is unique – she says, said. Will say.

Either way, those first things stayed with me.

Ever see a large spider or insect crawl behind someone’s shoulders? On a wall? It doesn’t move with a kind of urgency, a self-awareness. But when you point at it to show the person, it just then vanishes under some clock or some-such. As if it knew to hide at that moment. As if it felt your gaze, knowing your anxiety was mounting like piles of stacked stones, each barely balanced on the last. The moment is lost to some kind of gap. “What has been seen, cannot be unseen,” Nabokov finished his memoir, with a kind of persistent kind of horror – you cannot relive the present. That’s what I took from it. But in that case, less physical and more existential. This is a poor example. It has less to do with spiders and more to do with… something with a lot of eyes and less limbs.

The mermaid doesn’t have a visible tail. But it is there. Scattered among her ashy skin (that tastes like sweet, white wine, just before it turns to vinegar). There are scales. Her neck, her long slender arms. Longer than they ought to be. More lithe. Mannequin-like. Is that, an objectification? It wasn’t a figment. A dream. I don’t have that kind of faith in my mind to conjure such visceral nightmares. I don’t dream. Not because of the sleep, but because I don’t remember them. What’s the difference between a memory and a dream, besides conviction?

They’re thus detached. In a strange way, her movements are, too. They don’t mirror the sounds that produce them. As if they are somehow out of sync, out of focus. A lazy operator forgets to achieve crystal clarity on a scene, a director and editor miss it, and it becomes part of the living creation they all birthed together. It takes a village, flush with cash. It wasn’t an accident.

I am failing at description. It is a ragged destiny to do so. Written word conjures a lie that fizzles inside the mind and vanishes between the thoughts. Like sheets drawn over springs. The first utterance or scratched mark (digital or not), begins the cycle. How can you expect to describe anything with the least amount of detail? That isn’t understanding, it is giving up. Failing. Not an accident.

It is a cheat to rely on experience, understanding or implication to fill the gaps. To expect that. Gratitude is the opposite. Right? How do you describe the color blue without reaching for metaphor: cold, harsh, ugly, bloodless, empty, beautiful, disgusting, repulsive, rotted, fetid, cursed, moonlight, fucking disgraceful excuse for red.

Describing anything is a lie everyone participates in. Psychoanalytic theory, a la Zizek, focuses on this inherent flaw of language: attempting to lower any thought process into a basket weaved of language is robbing it of specific detail to grant vague wishes something else. It destroys it as it is lowered from a prism of brilliant flashing light into white, blue, red, rainbow. There is an aspect of understanding that is intuitive, incommunicable, unreachable, un-understandable. You fail as soon as your mind has formed words in the some-place in your folds, where researchers have decided is so-and-so region, if you believe everything you read. Do you? But they are formed, and it doesn’t mean they must be sublimated into a gas that evaporates through your mouth.

You failed before you began. Falling to your knees to beg like some passenger on a ride you never signed up for. No one asks to be born, it is a wish granted without the words to attach to it.

All you can do is traverse the waking fantasy, the daydream, the figment of something unutterable, unreachable, impossible. Erode yourself into that desert of realism and grow your bones into a white ghost. Something, she said.

– a crypt displays something / evaporating / that once / aspirated –

I can’t explain the meter to her voice (whatever voice that is, that sinks into you like leaded veins filled with acrylic that are extracted and hung to display in an exhibit: these are the arteries).

There is an ordered chaos to things. By describing all of human thought or idea that can flow through someone’s mind, it highlights the absurdity that anything can be real or accurate. I know I’m real. That is something worth considering, or is it… banal? Mundane. Extremely nauseating? Everyone has a voice. Everyone has a way they laugh.

Imagine trying to understand the transplant of someone else’s mind into yours. The chaos, barely hewn together, so unlike your own. Sticky. Gooey. Molten steel. The linkages and connections ragged. You couldn’t understand thoughts like, “this is red,” because however their mind produces such an idea would be wholly alien to your own. Your mind entombed in your skull. But it isn’t a corpse. It breathes through the small apertures it opens up, the eyes, the smell, the touch, the taste, and it understands the glimmer of a dream and a whispered thought without a voice. It tries.

— what does a dream / taste like—

I told you, before. Didn’t I? A dream tastes like ash in the mouth. It tastes like a glimmer of light cresting between thick, fog-like clouds. Like pines hanging heavy against the backdrop of a fire. Like whiskey swirled in a glass filled with too many ice cubes, making it overflow and drip, drip, drip onto your lap. A dream is just that — a nothing. And an everything.

The worst radioactive incident to happen to us was because some high schoolers robbed the radioactive source from a CAT scan machine in an abandoned hospital. A CAT scan machine operates by sliding open an aperture of radioactive material to decay for microseconds as it is spun in a large circle around the patient. It is through this glimpse, this sublimation, it understands and passes the information to specialists. High schoolers are not specialists. The accident began when they broke open the aperture and spilt the seed of the machine, and through that insight gained, exposed 2500 people to radiation poisoning. Two of the three died weeks later. Radiation can be a metaphor, if you pulverize it enough. Everyone has a way they cry.

– bursting light irradiating electrons / and moving at full tilt / c is the designation for the speed of light / because it is a / universal constant –

Mimicry shortens the lease on empathy, it doesn’t lengthen it to any degree. What psychosis have people unlocked inside themselves in their feigned belief that they are truly telepathic or psychic? That they can understand the glimmer of anyone else’s thoughts to the same verisimilitude as their own? Correctly guessing the lottery numbers exactly is the same as being given to them through divine intervention, no one can prove you wrong. You cannot know who anyone really is, there is a layer of crust that builds up between things, like rust or coats of paint, thick and dark. Yellow paint. What’s the implication?

She licked her lips when she handed the clattery and clinking shells like they were some kind of trade or purchase. What was I giving in return? Had I already done it? Am I failing? Did I actually hear them clink, or did I only imagine the sound carried along? The surf was loud, the water too irritating to focus on anything. My skin, like hers, burnt to a crisp (from hours before.) – I couldn’t actually hear the shells clink. As when you hear a muted movie because you’ve heard it so many times. The way singing music you know is like you’re creating it from the abyss. It wasn’t an accident. It was an accident. What was?

After she licked her lips (which definitely happened) she handed me the five shells. They were varied in size, incremental. Warm, radiant, but somewhat tacky like glue and wet. They won’t dry off. They clink with a sound as if they were dry, like keys trying to scratch the reinforced plastic glass of a phone. Front pocket. Right. My main hand. I find myself touching them without remembering when I started. Something obsessive. Reassurance. Affirmation. Validation. A talisman or charm. What other habits are manifested and hidden under layers of social engineering and obsessive compulsive touching? Regimented thoughts cyclical and douses an inner fire with ice cold black water.

– a leap of faith is something / you have never done / and will need to do / immediate / will you–

I’m not diagnosed with anything. Nothing important. Do schizophrenics recognize their illness, when medicated, or is it a strange befuddlement like tacky syrup, amber, or dried batter?

– wait inaction / through lack / erosion is movement –

I shake my head. No. Shut up. Stop. Fingers pressed against ears, silencing the surf but not the voice, like sharp crystal. What do memories mean if you remember them in third person? Is that only possible because of influence from media? Did people imagine scenarios in third person before cameras recorded, before visual storytelling could be easily disseminated? Have you considered how often you’re plugged into music and how absolutely bizarre that is in regard to human culture? That, people had to congregate to create or listen to music, and might not do it so eagerly without a constant IV flowing into them… ear worms breeding and festering in the folds of your brain? That you have distinct after-images and effects from watching video and film with cuts – that you divide events by passages like car doors, automatic glass, locks clicking closed or open? When you walk to a store, a rare event, and walk out, these divisions are fewer in number and more striking in their absence?

How much of your life is contracted time? The narrow passage in an hourglass? Present. Then past. Then future. Cyclical.

The mermaid’s hands weren’t sticky when I touched them, folded them into mine. Even though, they looked like they should be. A kind of salty brine was left over across the shells, but it didn’t come from her. She wore a torn and battered blouse, wind-swept and raged. It looked homemade. Seamade. Her fingers were slender and thinner than they should be, spider-leg like, with long pointed nails that looked like they could scoop clams dry of vibrancy. They had. Grime was encrusted under them, and the hands themselves looked smooth with a kind of porous quality like a sponge. They smelled of octopus and hope. Of dread and ink. That metallic twinge. Like dreams and reality.

When she tilted her head, her eyes shifted subtly. With a delicate mass, inertia to them. Were they following? Beckoning and yearning in a way that is not voiced but simply understood on a deeper level of comprehension. There was no distinct pupil to track. Were they figments of eyes, slivers of dreams, or something else? I could not lock eyes with her. It was like, being shaken awake. An accident. It tugs something inside you. Like from the deep recesses you barely could feel. That cavity in your ribs. Something peering into you, through you, raking its long fingernail of obliterating desire down to the stone-walled well of your soul and pulling you up by saliva and starch. Not like a puppet, less constructed, more whole. That sleep paralysis, empowered by fever, where you can feel something watching you. You were told that people don’t actually have eyes in the back of their head, but you desperately wish you did so you could see the surmounting fear. Is it a physical presence you feel, or simply a crackling kind of anxiety that roars like a fire in the background of your mind? An absence, not a presence. Your face is turned to the wall, your bed considered propped against a window with the glass pulled open and a trampoline smell of the screen wafting against the smooth summer air, you can feel a breath on your neck. Is it simply too hot to feel warm, or too hot to feel cold? You swear it. You build and build your nerve, finally wracking loose to turn in a flurry, terrified you’ll freeze up halfway and be trapped in a half-state of want and desire. A gorgon watching you disappear. Vexing white eyes glimmering in the darkness. There is no moonlight to reflect it, but they are glowing. They can only be reflecting something coming from within you, but there is nothing within you. The sensation of being watched fades like a de ja vu that makes you question if you even had it at all or simply created it by force of utterance.

No red color blushed the mermaid’s skin. Her flesh was ashy white like a corpse. A ghost, is what, a corpse aged beyond decomposition? The part that cannot flee. Shouldn’t there be trillions of ghosts? 99% of all life has died. Ink and swollen gums. Breasts and swaying height. Erupting looks and longer reflections. Dirges and Symphonies. She was familiar. Infrequent, but familiar. Something about the way she didn’t move. That stillness seemed to quake beneath my hands, holding them against a flame. Searing. Longingly. Yearning.

Dark dreams and weakness float to the surface of the water like ice, white and filled with air and aspirations. What keeps the water cold down below? Besides distance and ambivalence. For millions and millions of years, the only light at night was the moon, a pale reflection of the sun hiding beyond the veil. How many systems of biology are tied to that light? That flicker of something more distant and a thousand times brighter? A hand clawed from a cramp that won’t stop. The mermaid closes my fingers over the shells, tighter, tighter, until I hear one crack and feel warmth slip from my palm and drip drip onto the gray-carpet-like sand. Mercurial sway, a serum that pools at my bare feet. Her lips move, that out-of-sync over-dub making me nauseous, like too much yolk pooling out of an egg:

– were all the paths walked / chosen for you? –

I blink and find solace in that gap for a moment. Her hands, boned and long with cartilage of some kind of non-fish, release their grasp from me. White imprints linger on me, leaving bruises that last longer than memory.

– dozens hundreds thousands of miles what does it matter / roads are portals passages / if you focus long enough / you can create your own / if you dig long enough / your own tunnels will escape / if you swim far enough / you might just find your way into hell –

A laugh echoes across the churning sea-sick and then her mouth opens to mime it. The key of E fills the surrounding cliffs as wind howls against their choked and pock-filled chasms. The sand flattens around us, her feet or fin submerged in it, and the gray-pebbles and coarse grains turn to a solid surface. The waves crest and break their thresholds, ever-shifting and redistributing themselves with each pull and dead-weight tug of the Moon hundreds of thousands of miles away. “Gravity is one of the weakest forces in the universe; but it can trap light itself.”

My bed. The sheets loose and soggy. Gray and damp. Trampoline. Smooth air. The bed looks almost black against the blue-tinted light filtering through the open window. I peel open the covers, my right shin is wet with blood, my hands sweating with it. Shells splay my webbing. Broken fragments jut out from my palm. My face is knotted. Seawater, brine, saline, metallic, what difference? Rimed with encrusted gray crocks, I stagger to the bathroom and light switch is slow to decay into light. I wash my face. The sun is cutting its teeth on the horizon. Somewhere. Not here. “Maybe we’ll die one day, so what’s the point of effort?” I remember. “Because we will die: but not yet.”

– the shaking of adrenaline filled hands / the rustling of wind / the gap between dreams –

I shake the voice away like a groggy after image. I don’t actually sleep. I review the log. Five days. It barely counts, because it was only twenty minutes back then. Forever ago. I caught the end of an episode I put on TV. I’m still mad, because I wanted to watch it but when I replayed it I knew all the lines already. Psychic insight. Not an accident. It was an accident. I remembered the episode, but had no memory of it. Music can flood you just so when you listen to it, decades later, you’ll know all the words. Did you ever really forget?

I touch my chest and feel a deep rattling coat my insides like thick, dark water. Reverberation is muted and sullied by it, but it resonates anyway. There is a blue light that radiates out of the pools in nuclear reactors, caused by the difference in light speed in water and air. I tell myself the rattling means nothing. Anxiety? Restlessness. Sleeplessness. I’m not insomniac, its too infrequent. At least, what I read on webMD tells me so. I believe everything I read. Don’t you?

What does it mean to be categorized but you’re not even good enough at failing to make the grade? The cliché? The trope? What character do you become when you don’t sleep for four days? Have you tried it? Fears of schizophrenia fade with age because the window of opportunity closes, but almost everyone is scared at one point that they might never stop hiccuping. I talked with a man that sold tacky paper about it one day. Or maybe, you’ll forget how to sleep. How do you sleep? What’s the trick? What point do you… fall?

Your latent familial insomnia finally takes hold and you die, your death becoming your only monument, rather than your life. A king of a deserted land.

If you can make it past your fifties without catching the cancer, you’re golden. In studies that researched brown bats or land-rodents, the ephemeral “they” were able to lengthen the life spans of these vermin through caloric restriction and other methods. They found when these pests outlived their traditionally experienced lives, they started to catch a lot of cancer and disease. There was no factor in breeding the disease out of the populations because they never reached that age before. The darkness beyond the edge of the light. Figure it like Huntington’s, something that doesn’t take hold in people until their late thirties, just at the edge of their fertility. What’s the use in existing beyond that, biologically? A lot of reasons. Music. Movies. Love. Still, it is like by cheating death, the pests discovered new ways to die. Insight is an awful thing.

It isn’t death that scares people, it is old age. But they seem to connect the two, too easily. Ask someone if they want to live forever and they shudder at the thought, their minds automatically jumping to their aged grandparents and somehow living another lifetime beyond that shiver. Their hips shattered into fine sand and their voices decayed out of their throats and their teeth missing out of their jaws. Necromancers. Liches. No one thinks of vampires, ageless and timeless, frightening and seductive. I tell myself, that is normal. I swallow twenty seven milligrams of melatonin and diphenhydramine and hope the nightmares don’t take root before the sleep does.

Patience is key, but also the most degrading of all virtues. Time is a resource that cannot be retrieved, and patience basically demands it be given up willingly.

I still feel her eyeless sockets following me. How they don’t look through me, but into me, a shallow depth of field that permeates my self like a kind of vulnerability or intimacy breathed across your bare neck and tongue pressed against your ear lobes and a promise that says: don’t go, I know I won’t. You are intimate.

She beckons with her fingers, toward me. I don’t remember the melatonin or bar of xanax, if that’s why I felt a chord reverberate inside my skin-shrouded bones. Something lusty lingers. Lingerie. Something repulsive and arousing. Her skin lingers a scent. Rotting despising pleasure. She becomes something else, her arms spread open and inviting, ashen-milk and charred black contrasts mix and swirl. The char is bubbled against the surface, but when it is touched, it flakes away and reveals purity underneath. Blisters filled with bliss. Is gesso pure white, or titanium with a bit more bite?

She says, as she wraps her squid-length arms around me, their tentacles and itching fingers digging into my shoulders not with want but need:

– dolphins are / constantly drowning / crowning –

I shiver, her embrace is not warm, but disconcerting. As if that is a word that describes anything accurately.

– clocks are circular / you know / time is measured by how it repeats / until it doesn’t –

The water doesn’t froth with intent, but anticipation of my disgust. I cross the threshold in my mind and see a room emptied out of everything but scratching claw marks. Her mind is open to me. I step across, as if I were looking through distant binoculars. Surely the fever dreams taking hold inside my mind. The heightened sense of vertigo is a dead-giveaway. I choke back the surprising viscera and hold back a surmounting thrill that buzzes inside me like a long dip in an airplane that might crash if it wanted – did the engines just cut out or did they simply slow the throttle upon reaching cruising altitude? A dark sensation that I do not belong here. There is a shimmer across her pooled eyes, as if she has shifted her gaze away from me for the first time to something else. I appeared inside a beach with her, in her. There is a distinct feeling of cold absence on me when her eyes shine with that thick glimmer, and I feel a deep pervading loneliness I’ve never felt before.

– you absolve / time  / with your existence / it erodes / all of me –

I take a step further inside her, and feel myself go deaf. That howling muted sound. The vibration of sound does tickle my skin, but is muted on my drums. It doesn’t pierce anything but a growing mass of emotion growing thick in my chest like an illness. My prison of ribs, containing a heart and lungs, implying my ancient air-filled bladder that predated my lungs when I was a fish. Is the sea moving, or is that my imagination doing it? I can’t tell. I’m cloaked and ensconced in that hope and calamari smell, that despair that lingers, that repulsion and attraction that cakes my skin like semen.

As if you are being robbed of something outside of yourself.

– the rattling of any cage / is most distinct / from within –

The smell shifts to wet mud and I linger on the divide a little longer. The light beckons a distant ache and I feel my weight shift under me without my consent. Unsure of my footing, I can’t see where I place myself. I’m lost and hovering in a heavy atmosphere. The water crests and surrounds her fetid body. Cursed and destroyed, it eats at her like a crawling lust. Is this my fault? A riptide pulls my feet forward as I lose my balance. There is an obvious fluster of heat in this cavity and I feel self consciousness radiate through me.

– white weak brittle bone / is nothing more than scaffold / for something grander –

She opens her mouth again. I’ve heard her voice echo in the canyons of my mind for decades and over twenty six hundred days. Her pale lips are tinged with a scarlet shade, and rows of shimmering hello teeth glisten with wet want through the portal that is opened between us and her. I feel a dark impulse course me, grinding my guts like seven rocks against gravel and I swallow on a dare. I swallow a temptation that elevates my shoulders to match a vigor I didn’t know I could feel. A sensation I should be excessing. I was told not to be weak, to keep a strong upper lip, not bend the knee, not fall down and crawl on the stairs even though my legs were battered and bruised. My legs broke in four places, each.

Smoke rises like a fog from unseen recesses near her, the inky blackness exceeding some kind of physical barrier between us in my minds eyes. It is acrid and stings me like bruised egos or sliced onions. A sour taste invades my mouth and coats my tongue in bile. She is closer to me now. Her chest rises with a tempo I can’t pin point but can match. Blinkers in a line will inevitably coincide. If I am careful, we can touch each other.

But that’s the last thing I want. It felt like it’ll erode my body like time carving a canyon empty and dry. A husk. A temporary vessel filled with greed. Weather is a construction. A destruction. Lightning strikes the earth millions of times a year, but only innervates and slaughters dozens.

My tongue is then pressed against her milk skin and I taste the salted carbon of the earth before me. I can’t help it. My chest heaves and I feel like I’ll burst with need.

– he’s only my enemy / i’ll crush him with everything / i am –

The smell of curdled milk and breeze. It inverts my distaste for rancid. An arousal.

– you asked for this / don’t forget / you wanted it –

The jagged slobbery splinter of the horizon piles purple vomit like clouds as if they were bonded chains against white wrists.

– i’ll destroy him / like everything / i have –

Her vertical lips embrace my horizontal and I feel inverted magnetism demand sacrifice. Pinched skin turns purple and falls off like death. I’ll taste the salt, the bloodied thirst, the burning brine.

– you’ll tear apart the years / to burnt pages that divide / want from brittle need / your fragile skin flays / secrets aren’t clothes for everyone / tell me a dream / tell me what a dream tastes like –

I step back and feel the saliva strands that bind us together break like gossamer. A dream is … what? I told you while we were hanging it. The night we skinned, tacked above our bed with posts. Moonlight white drapes, mixed with grey, teased laughter from our sweating faces in the dark. The sound of a typewriter echoed throughout the dark wooden, sand-grey floors of the house.

– i don’t believe you / i can’t ever believe you –

Like eager decay desperate for revival. A thirst that crawls deep into your abdomen and further still. Its claws leave marks inside the well of your soul. Like a coast that looks like collar bone and arches. Long gulps of water, dregs pulled from a brackish sea. Like supple and succulent leather-like eyes that stretch longer than cobweb. Like I blame you for the gates opening and the child leaving. Like I blame you for stained porcelain and sliced open finger nails. Quicks don’t heal quickly, but slowly. Effortlessly.

There, in the crouched darkness of pitch and drooling ink, she pressed her fingers against my chest and pushed me backwards. I stumbled and fell. The frame collapsed. There is a specific kind of anxiety when you realize you are lucid in a dream and you try your best to not convince yourself too fully, because if you are too aware of what-is, you will wake yourself up in excitement.

I woke myself up. A dream, a delusion, a hallucination. What difference is there, except where you find your body, displaced in time and day? I remembered going to a beach, miles away, too far to walk or bike, when I was a child. The sun hadn’t risen yet, not that I remember it setting. I decided to take a bus.

The sand was gray as a dream. Sunset glistened residue off the gravel. The sand. Closer, it looks less like fine dirt and more like pulverized bone. Bleached and barren. Flat. Mounds of seaweed washed up on the shore, like long green silvery claw marks. Accidents. They didn’t want to be out of the ocean, did they? If they had a choice, that is. I did. That’s why I was here, sandals and shorts in the cold, heavy air. The ocean looked thick with ice. The eaves moved with frost. The wind dragged across dead clouds and fog hung for décor. Frosting is glazed sugar.

Standing out there. I could still taste her secrets on my tongue. Despair. Swelling veins. Embarrassment, regret, deep gratitude. Taste like salt, brine, long gulps of ozone. Everyone talks about sky diving and parachutes not opening, but no one talks about how suffocating it feels to have wind moving faster than a hundred miles an hour pour down your slackened jaw and sinuses. Going under at the surgeon is terrifying because you don’t remember it, and people get paid a lot of money to make sure you wake up – and you might not.

The waves crested higher on the beach. The setting sun pulled the tide out. That can’t be right. The sun doesn’t affect the tides as powerfully as the moon. Dead. A reminder of something more ancient than ourselves.

I’ve missed you for so, so long.

I don’t remember the bus ride. It wasn’t short, otherwise, how could the azure glow of the night be stalking across the sky already? Didn’t I just beat the sun to the morning? I didn’t bring a book with dog-eared pages to tell me I had read. I didn’t doze, because my neck doesn’t hurt from slamming against the slobbered window. I don’t remember talking to anyone. It feels like my vocal cords haven’t worked for ages.

The beach is desolate. Growing more by the night. The waves pound senselessly, ceaselessly, against the spine of the earth. Deafening. I can’t forget the sound. The taste of turned clams across my tongue, horizontal. Vinegeared wine. Dessert wine. Desert.

I shamble over to the seaweed, frothy scum sticking to it like persistent headaches. There’s something swaddled in it. I kick it over with my foot, my toe grazing its soft flesh that gives as my nail nicks it. A disembodied arm, the hand tanned in three places, where a bracelet or watch covered it. The hair slimed across it in the wrong direction, wrapped in seaweed. Dead, clearly. The owner? I push more seaweed off it, like ropes hanging from a ceiling fan in a failed attempt to succeed at something, and part a channel around it to give it room. The curled strands frame the portrait of life and keep it frozen in some stand-still. Water pools lazily on its matted flesh. It’s fingers are clutching at air.  I decide, and nudge it over with my other foot. Where the nails should be, watery bulges rest. I fall to my knees, racked with some kind of guilt, and clasp my fingers tight to my thighs. I bruise myself. The seashells in my pocket clink and one spills on to the sand like a clumsy drink. Anxiety brims over my insides and I squeeze my face to try and stop whatever emotion is barreling out of me.

Curling sobs erupt from me. Sending spasms to the arches in my feet into cramps. I grasp the edges of my pants to hold on as if I’m swaying against the horizon and could fall into the white churn, the teeth of the waves. Tears wisp my cheeks and drop into the wet sand. What is it? Why?

Why did I come here? In the first place?

I stare into the gouged out eyes of the seal and feel a chill crease my forehead.

– you needed this / you chose this / as if you forgot –

I didn’t. I don’t. I draw my chin toward my chest and push myself off the floor. The carpet. And stand again, swaying a little in the crooked breeze exhaling off the waves that won’t stop. That seem louder than before. The riptides jiggle the seaweed and drag it back across the limb, as if to cover it in a veil. I can’t bring myself to move it again.

– how roads did you walk down / did you chose any of them? –

I shake my head. I don’t even know who that is. I won’t, either.

– did the ghost tell the truth to the mourning sun / or did it betray him / as he suspected he deserved –

I inhale, sniffling. The smell of the arm hits me. Rotten. How long has it been out here? Not more than… a week? But not less than a couple hours. Was it here this morning, or has it always been here?

– taste it / you choose this / I’ll forgive it –

Forgive? The sound is listless, atonal. Not like before. Not when I could taste her, raw skin. Her joy. Her misery. It’s … turned now. As if it is my fault. There’s a venom to the feeling, to the senses, that wasn’t present in my… last encounter. My dreams. My thoughts. My waking nightmares.

– taste / what / you’ve / sown / seeds spilt / aren’t dropped –

I stare across the horizon, breaking my eyes from the decay for a moment. Gathering what thoughts I can. The voice keeps.

– drag out what you hide / what has been seen / cannot be unseen –

Didn’t I say that? To myself? At one point? When? Yesterday? Last week? What linearity exists between pages that are decoded weeks or days after they were written? It takes many more hours to create anything than it does to destroy it. To consume it. To flay it. A bag for a book, the pages scattered and unnumbered.

Night falls further in time. Black ink stretches out before me and the sea. The only glow is from the moon casting shade above. The seal is tucked back into the seaweed, parts of it have fallen off and bones are exposed. I cannot see it now, you have to trust me on this. I tasted bile last time I considered it. I can’t consider anything now. There is no way back to the bus, there is no way back home, there is no path to redemption. I have trapped myself mise en abyme.

The light shines a spot in the sea and it moves steadily toward me with a relentlessness, mercilessness. My eyes grow wider as if I can access something different, or see the illusion beyond itself. The solution to any maze is to follow a wall until you reach the exit. That is, if you want to leave. All bodies are simply toruses with a single cavity entering the top and exiting the bottom. Gravity acts the same. Time works the same. Einstein-Rosen tunnels in nature, if you can call the maddening chaos of outer space nature. It isn’t an accident. Programming entries mirror one another and the same protocols will excite the same pathways in others, even if they are illicit or taboo. What can you do to stop your curious mind from becoming ravenous? The mind reels when it doesn’t want to, intrusive obsessive thoughts plummet like darkened stairwells, plastic crutches, and titanium rods inserted through surgical incisions created by machines and doctors in adjacent rooms to protect them from the radiation, the grander truth, of whatever work they are tampering with.

When did I sleep last? What kind of ideas permeate the mind-space that exists between that half-sleep/half-dreaming state of being when you feel you are still carrying out the actions your dream-self would have wanted, as if you are supposed to?

– we stain ourselves / with colors that don’t mix / their purpose is / divination / at least / we have faith / as one –

The light from the moon moves closer now, something breaches the waves. It makes no sound, as it cannot overpower the ceaselessly dripping sea. If it could, I can not hear it. The tree in the forest does make a sound when it falls, because sound is a physical construct of vibration in a medium – your mind is an extension of something in space, not entombed in a coffin of off-white bone and sinew. The figure touches the beach and hovers yards away, the mermaid. She moves closer to me, a gender I assume, and wraps her elongated, elvish, disturbed, rod-pierced boney, arms around me. The warmth is satisfying, but also familiar and chilling. I gasp for air. But it doesn’t come.

You asked:

— what does a dream / taste like —

Like the loss of a limb. Like reading words that were pulled from you sometime before you were born, in that chasm, and recognizing them for what-they-are. Like, electric current jerking muscles in circles. Like, waking up in the cold sunlight, the sheets just wrapped around you in a way that is perfect, of drinking water in the early morning, and receiving a gentle phone call that doesn’t contain anything soft or warm, but pitted and rancid. Of remembering a voice mail left when we weren’t talking and having that as the only evidence you existed. Like the color quinacridone magenta: disgusting, repulsion. Magnets turned to similar poles. I will hold on, you will hold out.

— this is different. —

I remember: Her laugh was like sunlight, how it would pour through a room and fill it with radiant warmth. You could feel your fingers thaw in that kind of joy. Her eyes were like deep glaciers, and when they looked at you (they would, the whites so bright like coronas) they would carve across your insides and move so much Earth and bone.


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

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