Atlas and Alice, Issue 20
Letter from the Editor It’s our Emerald Issue. When our founder Brendan started the magazine back in 2013(!), I’m not sure if any of us thought we would make it past the first issue, let alone 20 (21, really, if you also count our special pandemic issue). Yet here we are, and we have such amazing work to share with you, our faithful readers. Like other recent issues, this one is long, with 25 contributors, and there are so many lovely pieces for you to get lost within. Though much of this work appeared on the website in late winter, the ocean acts as a reoccurring thread in the issue. Also, as I type this little missive right before Independence Day here in America, I note that we have two poems that nod at the complexity of this nation (which, honestly, is in dire straits between gun violence and the Supreme Court stripping women of basic rights). There are copious moments of loss within these digital pages, but tucked in the corners of memory, there are also glimmers of hope, which we all need right now. If anything, please read these stories, essays, and poems as a brief respite from the world. XO, BW
Editorial Board Founder: Brendan Todt • Editor in Chief: Benjamin Woodard Poetry Editor: Liz Ann Young Fiction Editors: Whitney Bryant & Cathy Ulrich Creative Nonfiction Editor: Lindsey Danis Assistant CNF Editors: Alton Melvar M. Dapanas & Arielle McManus Editorial Assistant: Maggie Fulmer • CNF Readers: Mark Wallace & Eimear Laffan
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20
Table of Contents Mary Lynn Reed ƒ
J.B. Stone ƒ
Diane Gottlieb ≈
Virginia Laurie †
Harper Campbell †
Gray Birchby ƒ
Remembering the Ocean
Sage Tyrtle ƒ
Stella Is Smashed
Rosie Garland & Meg Pokrass ƒ
Understanding bird migration
Lutivini Majanja ƒ
Boots on the ground
Amy R. Martin ≈
Hayley Swinson ƒ
Stephanie Yu ƒ
Surf Sun Skin Rye
Georgia White ƒ
I ate no choice food.
Robert Vaughan ƒ
Julie Flattery ≈
Aelita Klausmeier †
Kathleen Hellen †
scared little rabbit
Lorelei Bacht †
Edie Meade †
American Wisdom [American sentences]
Natalie Marino †
Gloria Pearlman ≈
Bottom Feeder: Specimens in Silhouette
Avra Margariti ƒ
Thing with Feathers
Janna Miller ƒ
Folds Within Folds
Camille Newsom †
Chirp Creek Farm
Call for Submissions
Fiction – ƒ
CNF – ≈
Poetry – †
Issue 20, Winter/Spring 2022 Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine Sioux City, Iowa www.atlasandalice.com
© Atlas and Alice, All Rights Reserved
Mary Lynn Reed
True Things Thirty minutes standing at the bar, me complaining of my loneliness. She takes a long drag of beer, and asks, “Have you reconsidered dating?” “I have no time or energy for that nonsense again,” I say. She nods, sets the beer down. “You can call me. More than monthly, you know.” Her eyes dart above my head, searching for sports scores on the big screen TV. “You’re a lousy listener,” I say. “How many women can you ignore at one time?” She laughs. That short, muscular laugh that matches her body. On the walk to the subway, we step over a soaker hose, dragged across the sidewalk. “Grass has been dead all summer,” she says. “It finally rains and now they’re watering the sidewalk.” I think I’m dodging the worst of it, but after we pass, my jeans are soaked through. We hug goodbye, and she says, “I’m serious. Call me. I’ll listen.” “Sure,” I say. We both know I won’t. We’ve been walking away from each other for thirty years. I feel the dampness on the back of my calves all the way home.
I see the drunk kid before John does. We’re standing outside the Mexican place with the colorful chairs and the Mariachi music playing at full volume. The kid is singing some song about love, but the words aren’t connecting. John and I keep talking, as the kid circles around us. “You’ll be fine,” John says. “We’re survivors. Isn’t that what you always tell me?” How young is this kid? Twenty? John and I were doing shots of tequila at grad school parties before this kid was even alive. “Hey!” the kid yells. “Whatz yer prob-lhem?” 6
We edge away from him, away from the glimmering restaurant lights, toward the parking lot and our two cars. The kid dives left and right, falling into our path. His t-shirt is ripped and loose and his jeans ride low. There’s a thick rope snaking through his belt loops. Frayed at the ends, it looks like it should be anchoring a boat to a dock, not a kid to his jeans. “You deaf?” the kid yells in our direction. John reaches for my hand. All these years we’ve been friends, I’ve never held John’s hand. His skin is dry and our fingers are big and awkward, trying to entwine. We walk, and the kid starts after us. He trips on the curb and falls. The air is crisp and cool, and I’m obsessed with knowing how old he is. Eighteen? Twenty-two? Why does it matter? I want to ask the kid when he was born. John is walking so fast, he almost pulls me off my feet. We get into John’s car, as if we’re heading somewhere together, as if there’s a large dog with a full bladder waiting for us in a house on a cul-de-sac, with empty bedrooms upstairs, because the kids are gone now, off to college, drinking tequila shots in some campus bar, like their parents once did, though we prefer to imagine them at the library, studying math with friends. John starts the car and turns the heat on, as I watch the kid with the jagged rope belt stumble away, disappearing around the corner.
Hemingway said to write one true sentence every day. Just one true thing. Most adultery stories are written from the wronged spouse’s point-of-view, as if that’s where the conflict lies. Will she kill the cheating husband, divorce him, or forgive him? I don’t care. Show me the cheating heart, sneaking toward the scene of the crime, again and again. Show me The Other celebrating Christmas alone. The surviving spouse of the long, embattled marriage earns a trophy. Gold-plated, engraved. For her devotion and persistence. She is the Queen of Literature. I walk from room to room in a large, empty house, at three a.m. on a hot Tuesday in July. It’s not as bad as it sounds. The stillness. The solitude. One true sentence. It’s supposed to lead somewhere. It’s supposed to tell you what comes next.
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20
Suddenly —Everything was cake—and everything I thought wouldn’t be cake—was cake. I thought it was a nightmare of unknown origin tattooed to my psyche, but no. Now everything I knew—know now—and will ever know for the rest of my days: cake. The pair of Converse stacked tightly next to my closet was marbled marzipan. And the worn-out shoelaces, dangling from each end? Black licorice, of course! The basketball over by the stairwell, the one that felt unmovable by even the slightest breeze, was a spun-sugar sphere, blanketed in orange creamsicle icing with chocolate chip imprints. The stairwell was an 18-foot-tall caramel cake, each step a cookie crumb molding in disguise. As for my entire apartment: I could take the sharpest edge of the chisel, cut open the drywall only to find out it was more cake than caulk, only to find my walls were filled with more double fudge and marshmallow frosting than plaster and plywood. Cake doesn’t talk. It just sits there looking delicious, but what happens when no one eats it? Does it become something else? Does it become someone else? My mother’s best friend and go-to salon partner, at least when I wasn’t in town, Julia Salinaro, was a bright, yet boisterous family friend who spoke at speeds fast enough to break the sound barrier with a tone louder than an orchestra of lit dynamite: was she cake? Could cake evolve into someone with such range, such personality? When my cat Jasmine passed away, I never wondered if she was cake—but I do now. One composed of factory-processed tuna, and abandoned animal parts. Maybe her orange fur was something composed of super-thin fruit strips, to add a sweet balance to the fishy taste smothered inside her taffy skeleton. Maybe the milky-white saucer in her eyes, was just that: milk. And her: expired dairy left to curdle. If she turned out to be cake when the vet pronounced her dead, it doesn’t change how much I loved her. It doesn’t change the fact that this was the closest I would get to having and losing a child in my lifetime.
I now wonder if my great-grandmother on her death bed—was just untouched cake. A leftover desert; from à la carte to à la sentient, a highly decorated pastry, evolved into a lifeform with pixie stick limbs and peanut brittle blood vessels, all held together until the vanilla ice cream in her body melted, until her gumdrop eyes crackled. She was silent most of my life knowing her. Maybe her vocal cords were never shuttered by time—but never existed at all. I now must ask myself the obvious (and maybe should have asked this sooner): am I just cake too, and don’t know it? Is the yellowing of my once-pearl crème teeth just butter seeping out? Is my head just one giant gummi topping for a body that is nothing more than cake? When we die and our corpses are stuffed into morgues, are they really facilities used to examine our insides? Or just Dairy Queen depositories? Are we all just cake waiting to be cut open? Maybe I’ll know some day. Maybe God isn’t just some invisible hand, but an invisible hand with an invisible knife, held by an invisible schlub who is just getting over the worst break-up of their life, and like myself on many occasions, is just looking for some comfort food to keep them going. If my death brings this kind of solace, to be devoured by a god who’s more miserable than I am, more prone to anxiety attacks than I am, more isolated to a support system than I am, then I’m cool with being cake.
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20
Hunger Take two pieces of Wonder Bread, Classic White. Place them side by side on a dessert plate. In a small, black, cast-iron frying pan, toss a healthy slab of butter. Two tablespoons. Three if you dare! Turn the flame on low. While the butter melts, take a paring knife to a Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bar. Hold the bar over one slice of Wonder and begin to shave it down. Watch thin curls of chocolate gently tumble, blanketing the bread like a milk chocolate snowfall. (You might want to stop here. For a moment. Breathe deeply the sweet, sticky Hershey’s scent. But the butter, it’s browning. The frying pan, sizzling. Move on.) Position the remaining white slice atop the chocolate. Then walk the sandwich over to the stove and pop it into the warm, liquid fat. Place the plate on top and weigh it down with a full can of coffee. (Yes, this is old school!) I prefer Maxwell House. Red. Whatever the brand, you’ll need that can. And then, you’ll need to wait. —§— In college, I would divide a Snickers bar in two each morning. I’d survey the pieces carefully, measure them closely with my eye. Toss the larger of the two. Eat the smaller. Breakfast. I’d starve myself the rest of the day. —§— My mother loved beautiful people. She never said I wasn’t beautiful. But her eyes, the way she turned down her mouth when she looked at me, when she took me shopping for clothes. She didn’t have to say a word. I was soft and round, sweet and doughy. Mom 10
preferred a leaner cut. So, in seventh grade, I did what I needed to do to make her proud of me. I lost weight. My family rarely ate meals together, so I cooked for myself. Late afternoons, I’d take a package of Waldbaum’s string beans from the freezer and lower the contents into a pot of boiling water. I loved to watch the ice melt, the freezer-burn vanish, the solid block of string beans pull apart. Five minutes later, I’d empty them into a stainless-steel colander I’d placed in the kitchen sink, then slide the thin, long lengths into a bowl and cover them in ketchup. String beans and ketchup. This was dinner, every night, for over six months. I often wondered if my mother knew. She must have. The freezer was always full of 9-oz boxes of frozen tasteless greens, the cabinet stocked with Heinz. —§— Wait beside the pan. But not for too long. Don’t worry, you’ll know when it’s time. Careful with the coffee can! Hold it in the center. (If you grab the bottom, your fingers will burn.) Next, lift the plate. (It may also be hot, but that warmth will feel good to the touch.) Take a spatula and flip the sandwich. Add a little extra fat to the pan. —§— Snickers was my go-to in college. I even loved the sound of it. The long, sumptuous “s.” The hard kick of the “k.” Hurt so good. As friends gorged on pizza, thick crust, extra cheese, I counted. All their calories, I added in my brain while sipping Diet Cherry Coke. I tried not to stare, but the mozzarella, it melted, s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g, as friends pulled slices apart. My nose picked up the bitter in the oregano, roasted garlic in the sauce. And as the sharp knife called hunger twisted its blade into my belly, I smiled. The pain made me feel alive. —§— My father worked long hours. Weekends were the only opportunity we had to spend time together. Late Saturday nights, he and I would skip hand-in-hand down 108th Street to the candy store. Most of the sections of the Sunday New York Times were delivered to the store around 10:15 P.M. “Hot off the presses,” the clerk would joke. Dad bought his paper and a Snickers bar for me. Sometimes two.
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20
Sunday morning. Another chocolate ritual. After Dad returned from the store with the rest of the Times, he went to work in the kitchen, a knife to a Hershey’s bar, chocolate curls on Wonder Bread. —§— Women have never been trusted around chocolate. Our desires, our lack of control, our consumption of the confection was, historically, considered a grave danger to the moral fabric of society—unless that consumption was controlled by men. Of course, men giving women fancily done-up chocolates and bonbons remained an acceptable practice … But … they could also unleash unhealthy sexual urges if consumed in the wrong contexts … Society’s codes allowed a man to give a woman a box of chocolates or bonbons. But if a woman treated herself to these same confections, she was guilty of pleasing herself instead of others … It was also risky conduct, because according to popular thinking, a woman by nature could not be trusted to control her own desires.[i] Poor men. What an impossible balance to strike! Gifting women with chocolate. The rich, delectable, creamy centers. Chocolate in small doses. Chocolate in exchange for love. Hey, men. Let me share a little secret: Pandora. She’s out of the box. There’s no way to manage our desire. —§— You’ll have to wait for the second side of the sandwich to be done. It’s a delicate balance—you want to melt the chocolate but can’t scorch the bread. Make sure the flame is low. Actually, lower it a bit more. You’re almost there. —§— College. Introduction to Composition. I learned literary terms and lived more than a few metaphors.
Literally: I began to disappear. Figuratively: It was the first time I was seen. Ironically: The less space my body occupied, the larger my presence became. My present. My body. My gift to the young men around me, to my demanding mom. I watched it melt, watched the fat drip away like Hershey’s on white bread, butter in the pan. Red lips, redder heels, clothes painted on. I walked across campus as if parting the seas. Oozing power, I lit match after match, torching the male gaze. Don’t mess, my smile said. Don’t mess or I’ll swallow you whole. I minored in English. My major, psychology. The science of the mind. I got straight A’s. —§— Chocolate is a chemical cornucopia, containing hundreds of compounds, many of which—including caffeine, theobromine, serotonin, and phenylethylamine— alter our moods. From antioxidant to anti-depressant to aphrodisiac, chocolate proudly carries its rep as a downright miracle food. (Some women claim chocolate is better than sex. I’m not sure what that says about their partners. “Chocolate does affect women differently than men,” says Anthony Auger, assistant professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. We have an intimate relationship with chocolate. We crave it. Especially when we’re expecting our periods. “This distinction can be found as far down the evolutionary ladder as rats.”[ii] Rats. —§— Some say cooking is a science. I’d say it’s an art. —§— Remove the sandwich from the pan and place it on the warm plate.
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20 (I was a lonely kid.) Press down on the sandwich to melt the chocolate even more. (Chocolate softened the sting.) Then take the knife you used to shave the bar. (Dad was gone a lot. Mom was there but gone.) Cut the sandwich in half on the diagonal. (I wanted to hold on to the taste, the flavor.) Savor. Each bite. Every last crumb. Follow the path all the way down to your belly. Follow it. Follow. Soon there’ll be nothing left.
[i] Wendy Woloson, Refined Tastes: Sugar Confectionery, and Consumers in Nineteenth-Century America. [ii] “Curiosities: Why Does It Seem Women Like Chocolate So Much More Than Men Do?” University of Wisconsin-Madison News.
Aloe vera She comes in like aloe on fried cheeks, all the sand behind my ear finally rinsed away, she is all flowing, pebbles in shoe unstuck, all the air, mint, unstuck. We take care of each other for free.
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20
Highway in Calgary there is a long highway it cuts through everything it cuts me down the middle I touch the cars hot in the sun the smell of concrete something is spoiling in the sun the cars go by very fast the smell of sweetgrass the smell of sweetgrass
Remembering the Ocean Chapter Eight: In which my father asks me to go into the ocean “No.” Chapter One: In which I go to the ocean for the first time There is sand and salt and shells and I love this place, so full of sunlight. I am four years old and I fall under the water and then (Though I am only under for a second I spend an hour there, in that beautiful land under the ocean. I make a friend there, and she teaches me to speak the language of the fish. We swear to be best friends forever.) I am back, my parents smiling as I shake off the water. I tell them of my adventures and they listen intently, indulgently, unbelievingly. I have always had a good imagination. They do not know that I am not making things up when I say the ocean told me they love me. I fall asleep on the car ride home, covered in sand. Chapter Two: In which I go to the ocean, again, and again I return to that place many times, each time I dive under the water I am there again, time multiplied. During the school year I practice holding my breath, one minute, two minutes, my lungs scream and I picture being away from this place and back in my home with my friend. It is not that land is bad, it is just lonely, a place where it is too easy to be looked over and forgotten. I go to the pool in town and the lifeguards yell at me for being under the water too long, scaring them with how long I take to come up for air. I do not understand how anyone could be scared by the water.
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20 We return to the ocean again and again and I build a life under the sea. The ocean always remembers me. My friend and I live in a house together, the walls covered with shells we’ve found on our walks. She always remembers me too, the same joy spreading quickly across her face each time we see each other again. I tell my family of this place where light from nowhere refracts through jellyfish, and the warm water that rocks me softly as I sleep and they laugh, I am growing too old for my childish fantasies. I stop talking about it and let people think I outgrew my make-believe. I farm plants and work hard, hands in the soft sand, digging out this life for myself. My friend and I hold hands and laugh, and return to farming our land. She understands that I cannot be in our home the whole year, and promises to think of me even when I am not there. The farm flourishes, the ecosystem bright with colors from everything we have planted. At night we can see the plants glowing from our room, shades of purple and blue and green and yellow lighting up the dark ocean night. Even as we hear rumors in the town of the ocean’s temper beginning to grow once again I am confident in the ocean’s love for me. I have seen their anger, their cruelty, their changing heart, the way they run boats aground or trap them in storms without a thought to the lives of those inside but I never believe it could apply to me. Why would it? I am not one of those nameless sailors, the ocean knows me. Chapter Three: In which I am free We bring boogie boards to the ocean, the waves are perfect, rising up then crashing down. The ocean is destructive and can destroy all the sandcastles I build but they give me shells and sea glass and the feeling, even later as I am going to sleep in my room, of bobbing in its waves. I head out into the water, excited to learn how to use these strange boards, my father’s tales of his time at the ocean as a boy echoing in my mind. My father shows me how to ride a wave down onto the shore. I cut my body a little on the rough sand but I do not care. The ocean will clean the scratch and I am having too much fun to be hurt. I dive under the water, my eyes open, taking in the beauty of the land I know so well. Chapter Four: In which I am torn apart
The ocean has always loved me and today is no different, even as my eyes sting I am full of joy, crashing to the sand again and again. This, this is what freedom is, sand in my hair and on my skin and all around, sticking to my salty body. I go to crash onto the shore again and Chapter Five: Twisting Twirling, hurled every which way at once, trapped forever in the breaking wave with no idea which way is up. Chapter Seven: In which my father pulls me from the waves He tells me it was only a few moments and not An Eternity. Chapter Six: In which I die I am pulled under the water like never before, no soft transition to a land of light and love, full of bright colors and warmth, but a harsh one. The land under the sea—my land under the sea—is stormy now, the waves pummeling me. Sand scrapes at me and I see my friend calling from our farm but I cannot get to her, cannot tell her that it will be okay. I would not want to lie anyway. The sand wears my body down, layer by layer until I feel my polished bones settle on the ocean floor. The ocean whispers in my ear, telling me I can never return, and I understand. I had a second life under these waves, but I am dead here now and will be dead if I return. I feel something grab hold of my other body, my only body now, and I bid the ocean farewell. Chapter Eight: In which my father asks me to go into the ocean [Expanded] “No,” I say, the taste of salt and fear still in my head, even two years later. I sit on the sand and read, I run in the area the waves just lap at. I have not told anyone what happened when I was under the waves Chapter Nine
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20 I do not go into the ocean again, do not dare to stick my head under for a long time. I am scared of what I will find, scared of what will be there now that I am no longer there. Scared that I will die again, but this time I will not have any other life to come back to. The ocean laps at my feet, still bringing memories of home and comfort to my mind. Tears well up in my eyes, prompted by this false show of kindness. I am nothing to the ocean now, and I know that. I go back to the ocean, summer after summer, and as time goes on I am able to live, despite everything. When I have the courage to put my head under the waves again I open my eyes and scream, salt attacking my eyes. I see nothing but sand and water. Nothing but what is there. I resurface and go back to shore, too shaken by loss to stay out long. The ocean is fickle and bores easily and no longer remembers my laugh, but I still remember the feeling of freedom that was better than any safe prison I have been kept in. I still wake at night and cry for what I have lost, salty ocean water running down my face. I miss my friend, and I hope she misses me. The ocean does not cry for me. I think about going back to the ocean sometimes, diving under and holding my breath until everything goes fuzzy, until the ocean has no choice but to remember that they love me. I think about returning to the place that always felt more like my home than the land ever can. In time I make new friends. The land begins to seem less foreign. I know in my bones that I am beginning to forget it was all real. The same bones that once scraped clean of me are now telling me that I am betraying myself. Betraying everything I left behind. I hope the ocean will still be there, even when I have forgotten them. I hope the ocean will not forget me. .
Stella Is Smashed Stella is tipsy. At dusk she and Harry are listing down the sidewalk to a smaller, darker bar. She trips and Harry catches her arm. They both pitch forward, laughing. She twines her arms around Harry’s neck and brushes her lipsticked lips over his five o’clock shadow. Tickles his nose with the end of her long braid. Stella is blotto. The questions she was afraid to ask before are buzzing around the bar room, under the puffy stools and over the glossy wooden trim, rolling across the long wooden bar. Harry says he is sorry. He is very very sorry. Stella watches Harry perform an Oscar-worthy monologue called I Am Sorry as he sips his sherry and watches her with his not-sorry eyes. Stella is snookered. She holds her margarita, edges chalked with salt, and considers Harry’s perfect triangle. His half-grin. The way he looks at her. At her. Only at her. His low and sweet voice, whispering I miss you into the phone in the kitchen. Stella contemplates and then takes aim. She throws her drink into Harry’s face and watches it with regret, wishing it were spilling into her mouth instead. When it meets his astonished moustache it drips down, streams over the long bar and fills the floor until waves run from the door to the back wall, bottles toppling. She breaks the perfect triangle of him. She scatters his charm into twenty-one perfect pieces. Stella is three sheets to the wind. She stands on the deck and watches Harry twirling down under the wine, the last of the air bubbles popping. She throws his hat in after him and it floats for a moment then lists, filling with pale elixir. Sinks. In the sky clouds are building, ruby wisps scudding to meet deep garnet. Stella is flying. The wind of her rage carrying her, the burgundy clouds so dark she can only see her own fingers when she wiggles them in front of her eyes. The gusts whisk Harry’s grey suits and toothbrush and favourite armchair up and up, spiralling around her in the furious air. The clamour of the storm sprinkled at first with tinkling shards of window glass and then just a roar. A never-ending howl. 21
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20 Stella is wrecked. She has washed up against a beech tree and she’s squinting against the morning light. She hears footsteps falter, a stranger’s voice. When the footsteps have faded again she curls up on her side and coughs until the cocktails reappear and water the grass. She runs her fingers over the fluff of a dying dandelion. Her head thumps in 4/4 time. She drifts. Rocked to sleep. Stella is dry. Her too-big tongue is trying to escape through her cracked lips. She drags her feet through deep dunes. Her bare skin blisters and bursts, and as she walks she tries to turn the sand into glass with her glare. She imagines tipping the glass into her mouth, one drop travelling across her swollen throat. She stumbles. Wheezes. Keeps walking. Stella is on the wagon. Sitting cross-legged in the red Radio Flyer as it bumbles down the sidewalk. She slurps a fast-melting Popsicle that’s dripping blue. The sunlight draws spangles on her sundress, on her knees and Stella calls to the woman with the long braid pulling the wagon, asks where they’re going. The woman turns and smiles. She says, You tell me.
Rosie Garland & Meg Pokrass
Understanding bird migration Irruptive migration The frozen men, they eat me up. I drive to the market and they swarm like autumn wasps, droning how the trees are shivering; how they want my warm honey to take the bite out of the chill. They tell me about ladies who jet to Florida every November and sit on their houseboats drinking wine in the sweet sun. They say I’m better than those prunes. They swear I was made for them and their weather. Honey, you’re hot, they say, following me with their winter eyes. What are you doing on such a cold naughty day? I’m fighting the urge to let one of these lonely warriors in. Frostbitten men with lopsided mouths and needy arms who want to warm their feet on my back like I’m a heater in handy human form. I quit the store before their black ice spreads. The snow finds its way into the vegetable section, into the juice aisle. The sun is a betrayal, it says hello but it doesn’t even thaw my nose and chin.
Vagrant The house glistens. The grass stands in stiff white spikes. Bad ideas roam the back yard, tapping at the window to be let in. I drop the blind and turn the TV up loud. I never saw the point of bird migration until I moved this far north. Now, all I can think about is sun. I even bought a SAD lamp. The shop assistant said it would make me happy, with the knowing smile of someone who counts the days to make the same joke.
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20 Passage migrant I find myself in the car park behind the bar, howling to match the wind’s banshee whine. Electrical appliances bring mechanical happiness. I need real heat, the real you, and I won’t find either here. Ten years ago my body enjoyed the frost more than it did mute thoughts. You flapped in like a bright summer bird, and quenched my need for flight. August-coloured skin, ripe for the picking. We lay together, and I wondered if love might keep this time. Despite your warmth, I found myself wishing for winter. Frostbite had nothing on my heart. I toughened over with sheets of ice. I had to get out first, before you got the urge for leaving. I knew you would. Mother told me my problem was never being happy with what I had, always hankering for what I didn’t. Reverse migration Ten years later, the gale blows sideways off the mountains. Wild geese live in front of days like this, on their way to Florida; ghosts lingering in the sky like an afterimage. They’ve left, but never really go. They have the urge and the feathers to fly and I can’t decide if I need them here or there. The next morning finds me packing, ready to leave. Everyone leaves, when the grass is turning down. I say, in my next life, make me a wild goose.
Boots on the ground When Morgan Mugula’s father returned from his peacekeeping in Croatia, he brought him combat boots. Avunjas. All cool people own avunjas, which they lace up to their shins and stomp in everywhere. Morgan strode into school with his brand new avunjas, shy and dull as always, but bouncing because everyone was staring at Morgan and his shiny black avunjas for once. Morgan is neither a chop nor a blot; he is somewhere in the safe middle. Morgan doesn’t get in trouble. Morgan who plays football or chobo mob or whatever other games boys in his class are playing at breaktime. Morgan whose school uniform is always ironed, not like Karim, the class ruffian. Karim’s shorts are tight and too short. His parents keep promising to buy him a new pair, and people tease him for coming to school in hot pants. Teachers don’t say anything because they know Karim’s parents won’t buy new shorts just yet. Anonymous well-wishers pay Karim’s and quiet-Juliet’s school fees. After that first day with brand new avunjas, Morgan rarely wears them. But everyone knows Morgan owns avunjas and they can never get avunjas like his because their fathers didn’t go to Croatia like Morgan’s father. Morgan’s desk mate is Fidelis, whose father is the pastor of a church which the President likes to visit on Sundays when everyone sees the President in the news singing Praise the Lord, praise the Lord let the people rejoice, and then Fidelis’ father preaches. When Fidelis’ father comes to school on Parents’ Day they all stare at him because it is as if he has come out of the TV but without his flowing robe which they think he wears every day, and he is somebody who greets the President. They ask Fidelis if she has ever met the President, and she says yes. They respect her because she is so humble as a pastor’s daughter. Morgan and Fidelis get along sharing rulers, pencils, and textbooks. Morgan brings Fidelis a pretty writing pad with pink flowers all around the edges of each leaf. It’s the type his big sister buys when going to boarding school every beginning of term. Morgan never writes to Fidelis—not his thing—but Fidelis admires Morgan’s neat 25
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20 handwriting and it doesn’t matter that he’s not a chop. She is kind of a chop but not in all subjects, she’s a teacher’s pet but no tell-a-teach. It’s because she’s a pastor’s daughter, and see how humble she is. Tania’s been wearing shorts under her dress since standard five—it’s two years since—because boys will stand next to girls at assembly and throw mirrors under their feet so that they can spy on them. Tania is afraid of being spied on even in class. Tania knows that her desk mate Davies is the type to try and spy on her but she hasn’t caught him red-handed yet. Tania wants a new desk mate. She’s always annoyed with Davies who is so untidy. Davies often turns behind to talk to Ben who is his best friend. They are noisemakers. Morgan goes home with all the military children who are picked up by a green lorry or Land Rovers driven by soldiers in jungle uniforms, green berets and avunjas. Their vehicles have special number plates. The military children are the ones who say to each other: our driver has come, and the driver will take us there. They risk playing far away from the home-time benches where all students are supposed to wait for their transport home because their drivers will never leave them. Other schoolmates are collected in that embarrassing Mbukinya bus. They’re mocked for entering or alighting from that bus—it’s so shady. Even schoolmates who walk long distances home laugh at Mbukinya-bus riders. It’s jealous laughter. The walkers are regularly getting punished for being latecomers. Nobody knows that Salome’s father is an important government man until the day a sleek Mercedes marked with government license plates arrives to pick her from school. Children run to the gate thinking it’s the president but it is just Salome’s father’s driver. Salome is Karim’s desk mate, what a contrast! Davies, Tania and Karim ride matatus but in different directions—a relief for Tania. Karim doesn’t always have bus fare but Mr Gicheru pays Karim’s fare whenever they meet at the bus stop. They don’t live too far from each other. Karim hates this. Other times Karim rides home with a standard four boy whose father who knows Karim’s family. Fidelis walks home with Wakonyo who is her best friend because they’ve always walked home together. They live close to school. They aren’t alike. Wakonyo doesn’t like her name because ever since she was in nursery school people have teased her for it. There’s even a teacher who said it’s a funny name. Wakonyo was reputed to be rowdy but she’s settled down now, the teachers say so. They praise her. Some classmates whisper that Wakonyo has been darwa-d, and others like Fidelis don’t even know what dara-ing is. Anyway nobody will talk about dara-ing near Fidelis, the pastor’s daughter. Wakonyo got saved and wishes to be baptized with a normal Christian name like many of her classmates. She wants a Bible name like Hadassah which is better than Esther, and anyway there is an Esther in her class. Even if she gets a name like Deborah she’d like it to have a different spelling like Devorah so it is unique but still a normal name. Wakonyo goes by Koni these days. It’s a clever twist derived from the name that is on
all her records, the name her teachers call her, the only name her parents gave her, when all her peers have at least two of their own names, which she doesn’t like. Wakonyo. Wakonyo has stopped watching Mahabharat since she got saved because it is against her Christian beliefs which she takes seriously. She used to like Mahabharat very much, but she’s dedicated her life to Jesus now. The problem is that Wakonyo’s big sister isn’t saved, and Wakonyo’s sister watches Mahabharat, so Wakonyo sees it by mistake sometimes. She does not judge her sister because she knows what it’s like to be judged, she is not Jesus after all! Wakonyo’s parents never go to church. They don’t even feel ashamed. Fidelis, whose father is a pastor of a church the president likes to visit, gives Morgan pass-it-ons and handmade bookmarks with Bible verses. He keeps the pass-itons and bookmarks between the crisp clean pages of his Good News Bible. He only ever read it for the CRE classes. These days, even at CRE, they concentrate on test papers and exam revision encyclopedias more than anything. That’s their only hope for going to good high schools. Morgan has no need to take his Bible out of his desk unless to add new pass-it-ons or bookmarks from Fidelis. Sometimes Morgan and Fidelis just talk about Mahabharat which he watches religiously which Fidelis does not because one can’t watch such things in a pastor’s house. That would be a wrong testimony, Morgan understands. When Wakonyo and Fidelis walk home, Fidelis talks about Wild Rose which they are both allowed to watch. They both like it when Mr Mbatia brings radio lessons and they get away with reading Pacesetter novels while the radio plays because he never checks their notes. When Fidelis borrows books from the school library she checks the synopsis to see if it is safe to take them home. At home she reads Elizabeth Gail, Grace Livingston Hill novels, and all the Bible story books which are good Christian books which they buy at Keswick and Scripture Union. She reads the books which aren’t safe for home during Mr Mbatia’s radio lessons. Fidelis is also allowed to read English Classics. The books at Wakonyo’s house are arranged in two places. There are books on display, and books that Baba suddenly hid away without explaining. Wakonyo knows where they are. Baba went away for a long time but he came back. When Baba travels, he is always travelling, and when Mama is out with friends, she sneaks into the wardrobe and takes a peek. They don’t make much sense but she keeps going back and reading them. She feels conflicted about it, now that she’s saved, but she won’t stop.
On Saturdays when they go to school for remedial classes, almost everyone rides matatus or goes walking. On Saturday, Salome’s the only who arrives by car but that’s understandable. Salome can be kidnapped for ransom if she’s not careful. School buses and the military cars aren’t available on Saturday. Morgan wears his avunjas to school
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20 but takes them off when he reaches the gate because he doesn’t want them to be confiscated. But before getting to school Morgan meets Fidelis at the shopping centre near the school and they walk together with Wakonyo who knows she’s a third wheel but she’s there anyway and they can’t ignore her. It doesn’t bother Fidelis that Morgan isn’t saved, the way it bothers Wakonyo but Wakonyo’s new at being a Christian and Fidelis knows everything about being a Christian. Wakonyo became a Christian from praying with the TV but Fidelis goes to those churches where they sing boring hymns. Saturday classes are fun because Mr Mbatia—who teaches business, or art, craft and music—likes to discuss football when he doesn’t have new cassettes for radio lessons. Everyone, especially Davies, gets animated. Davies’ entire family like football just as much as Mr Mbatia does, and so Davies says all the right things and even has stories to contribute during Mr Mbatia’s class. The problem is that it’s not useful being a chop in Mr Mbatia’s subjects—Business, Art & Craft, and Music exams are marked out of thirty, instead of a hundred. Anyone can pass those exams without studying, unless they are a blot. Morgan says the good thing about watching Mahabharat is that if he gets stuck in the CRE exams he can look at Hindu students’ HRE multiple choice questions, which everyone knows have the same letter answers as the CRE and the IRE exams because they are all marked by computers. People think Karim has an advantage in CRE because even though the school doesn’t offer Islamic lessons, he can refer to the IRE questions in the final exams. Karim’s never gone to school in a kanzu like Mr Abdul who was their class teacher in Standard Four. Karim’s not a Muslim, he was just named after a famous basketballer. Fidelis envies everyone who watches Mahabharat but she’s a CRE chop anyway this won’t matter for her. Tania sits with her best friend Sharon on Saturdays because teachers don’t mind students exchanging seats on Saturdays. It allows them to see who’s influencing who. Fidelis sits with Wakonyo, and then Karim and Morgan sit together. Most Saturdays they do more mathematics, science and Kiswahili because those are the students’ main areas of weakness. Mrs Odede calls them spoiled Nairobians just because they were hospitalborn. Rich people’s babies to Mrs Odede. Salome’s parents make her read Taifa Leo and do crosswords. She’s improved a little. Davies isn’t badly off which is surprising because he’s struggling in all the other subjects. Mumbua, who speaks Kiswahili with a Mombasa accent—where she lived until standard five—is always chosen to do shairi recitals on Parents’ Day, and interschool music festivals. She’s an all-round chop. Mrs Odede reminds them to watch the seven o’clock Kiswahili news as they rush out at the end of her class, the last one this Saturday. Out of the school they walk in groups, Fidelis and Morgan (in his avunjas) hold hands and then let go when people make kissing sounds. At the shopping centre, the students crowd around two shops, which sell sweets and sodas, and chips. Only Davies and Salome can afford to buy chips. They linger, or malinger or walk fast or slowly, in
three different directions, Fidelis saying bye to Morgan because she lives close by. Morgan and others rush home to watch Mahabharat at 2:30pm. He might miss it as he does whenever the wait at the bus stop is longer than expected. When Morgan and Fidelis have gone away, Brenda who sits at the back of the class because she’s the tallest girl says that she saw Morgan and Fidelis dara-ing. Everyone knows that Brenda is a mbenye and shouldn’t be believed. But there’s a chance that Brenda is telling the truth. At Monday’s school break time—while people talk about Mahabharat, or play football, and the usual people who, like quiet-Juliet, don’t have snacks for break are going around asking nigesh please—Tania tells Wakonyo what she heard about Fidelis and Morgan. Wakonyo says it can’t be true. Wakonyo confronts Brenda because she knows what it’s like to have a story spreading about you when it’s untrue. Brenda says, haki ya Mungu it’s true! Adding, I swear to God and shame the devil, while crossing her heart. At home-time Wakonyo rushes Fidelis out of school. Anyway the military car has already arrived and the uniformed driver is standing at the parking lot telling all the military children to hurry up. A safe distance away, Wakonyo tells Fidelis what Brenda said. Fidelis doesn’t even know what dara-ing is until now. She goes home and cries in her bedroom. She has her own bedroom. On Tuesday, Fidelis moves her chair as far away as it can be from a desk mate. She refuses to share her stationary and does not talk to him. She can’t avoid sharing the textbooks. From Karim, Morgan learns what Brenda said. Morgan’s face doesn’t show how angry he is. Morgan has a boring face which never shows feelings except that first day when he wore avunjas and everyone was looking at him. Morgan waits for Saturday, when he will wear his avunjas after school. After classes he finds Brenda at the shops and he kicks her with such force that classmates have to step in and hold him back but not before Brenda who is bigger than Morgan has grabbed his tie and clasped it so tight he might choke. Shop attendants march them back to school but only find the watchman. They leave, ensuring that Brenda and Morgan go home separately. By Monday morning everyone’s taken sides. That’s why when Morgan disembarks from the military vehicle there’s cheering and booing. Fidelis has taken back her pass-itons and bookmarks from his neglected Bible. Brenda limps, and nobody will say she is exaggerating. They all think so. Brenda is not only a mbenye, she’s an oboho! She can just flash the WANTED symbol with her two thumbs and index fingers to threaten anyone. In class, Mr Gicheru moves Morgan to sit with Tania while Davies is told to sit with Fidelis. Tania is happy but tries to hide it. Davies will miss sitting in front of Ben. The reputation of Fidelis, whose father is a pastor, has not been soured. Wakonyo thanks God for the peaceful resolution while Morgan sulks. His father’s taken away his avunjas and nobody noticed that he used a move that he’d seen in Mahabharat. He cannot boast about it.
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20
Amy R. Martin
Oysters 1. Like some old-timey aristocrat, she sent my husband a clipping in an envelope sealed with a crimson wax heart. When I opened the envelope, it fluttered to the ground like a lady’s handkerchief, like an invitation: Pick me up, it said. It was from the Travel section of The Evening Standard: “The Limfjord is home to the world’s largest concentration of wild European oysters.” She’d drawn smiley-faced stick figures of herself and my husband—miniature flat-shelled bivalve enthusiasts, half-pint hunter-gatherers in rubber gloves and waders—holding hands on the beach at Aalborg, next to a basket brimming with mollusks. 2. “I will not lend thee a penny,” says Falstaff to Pistol in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Pistol replies, “Why, then the world’s mine oyster, / Which I with sword will open.” Oysters are notoriously difficult to open, but perhaps inside loiters a pearl, nacred, iridescent, a pale porcelain-white or bluish-gray beauty with a dark speck at its core. Something worth something. “The world is your oyster,” I say to my children. Yours for the taking—with violence, if necessary. 3. oyster shell drop a bombshell shell company in a nutshell she sells seashells by the seashore shell game shell shock shell out walk on eggshells with silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row come out of your shell no crawl back into your shell you are a shell of your former self 4. Tourists and adulterers alike bring garnishes like sherry vinegar and shallots, horseradish cream, or dill and lemon juice to Limfjord. Oysters are also delicious with wood sorrel and parsley oil, a Nordic favorite, or, more exotically, with ponzu sauce made with sugar, fresh lime juice, mirin, soy sauce, and rice wine vinegar. 30
5. My favorite story by Chekhov is “The Lady with the Dog,” but he wrote another called “Oysters.” In that story, while the father begged for money, the son imagined an oyster, which he’d never seen, to be part-fish, part-crab; no, perhaps like a frog with “big, glittering eyes” and “revolting jaws.” When he ate an oyster, he found it slimy, damp, moldy, with a sound of “scrunching” as he tried to eat the shell. Everyone laughed as they watched him. This story is about indifference to the poor, not about oysters. The oysters are incidental. But twenty years after the story was published, Chekhov’s body was taken from Badenweiler, Germany to Moscow, Russia in a refrigerated railway car labeled “For Oysters Only.” 6. People think oysters are aphrodisiacs, but no scientific studies prove this. Casanova, they say, ate fifty oysters every morning to jumpstart his libido. I don’t think they were Limfjord oysters, though. He also wrote, “Marriage is the tomb of love.” 7. I ate an oyster not long ago. It was not the golden-hued Limfjord oyster, with its bitter bite and its razor-sharp shell, but it was plump and springy, glacier-cold, oblong like an inkblot or a melanoma, a ragged teardrop the size of my palm. After detaching the oyster with the tines of a tiny fork, I tipped it from the wide end of the shell through my parted lips, where it swelled to fill the empty caverns of my mouth. I bit hard into its flesh, and its liquor pricked the insides of my cheeks and my tongue—it tasted of iron and brine, like the hulls of sunken ships. I let it slither down my throat, still whole, and until just that moment, alive.
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20
Wild onions My sister’s fingers dig deep in the dirt, encircle the bulb. Shorn roots pop, their tips wriggling like slashed worms underground. Can you eat wild onions? We are thirteen years old. Yesterday I was twelve; today, I eclipse her, and we are teenagers together for the first time. When she asks me about the onions, I feel new, a sharp and surprising taste on my tongue. My shrug turns the taste bitter, turns her away. She rinses them under the hose, pops a clove into her pink mouth. I watch her chew with envy. Tomorrow, she will grow a year older again, as new onion shoots rise, already inches taller than the clipped, even grass.
Tanglewood The garden soon outgrew everyone else’s on the block. It overtook the raised flower beds and climbed up the sides of the house. It stretched across the lawn and arched overtop the sidewalk. The neighbors had to duck to avoid overgrown elephant ears and banana plants. They asked me where it had started, what was the germ. They wouldn’t have believed me if I’d told them the truth. Everything has roots, they’d say. No skill sprouts overnight. I told them that my green thumb came from my mother. Who would have believed me if I’d said I’d just thrown seeds among the lava rocks to see what would happen? That I’d watered them like mad because it seemed like the right thing to do? My mother, for her part, was mum about the lie. She was pleased that her legacy had become more than what I told my therapist on Tuesday afternoons. And when the honeysuckle climbed over the walls and onto the roof of the house, everyone marveled at the delicate pink and yellow flowers, at the hummingbirds buzzing around what used to be the brick facade of my house, and when I shut the door and pulled the blinds, shoving the vines out of the door jamb as I did so, the neighbors whispered amongst themselves. How lucky she is to have such a natural gift. How lucky.
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20
Sun Surf Sky Rye The old couple is staring at the sun. Their sandwiches are Italian on rye. The air is salt and vinegar. The seals are molting on the beach. The tide is coming in. The wind is lashing at their weathered faces. It’s flicking pieces of sand against their skin. The wind is blowing crumbs from their fingers. It’s scattering them onto the beach. It’s polishing the sheen on the rocks. It’s boring grooves into the slabs. It’s flinging bits of seal skin into the air. It’s pulverizing seal skin flakes into dust. The sun is drawing up age spots from beneath their flesh. It’s pooling their melanin to the surface. It’s liquefying collagen. It’s rendering all elasticity slack. It’s turning the mayonnaise in the sandwiches. It’s separating yolk from oil. It’s breeding something in the lunch meat. It’s fostering pre-listeria. It’s willing the seals to shed their pelts. It’s transforming brown fur into ash. The old couple is beginning to feel clammy and cold, but the skulls inside their heads are warm. The rocks are tumbling in the waves, but the centers of them stay ancient and dry. The seals’ skins are sloughing off, but their hearts are encased in fat. The rye is exposed and turning stale, but the meat within grows dank and rotten. The tide is coming in. It’s pummeling the rocks. It’s warping the wood. It’s tearing seal from skin. It’s clambering up the shore. It’s lunging towards the couple. It’s spraying salt into their eyes. It’s moaning for flesh and rye. Their shoes are getting wet. Their brows are dripping sweat. Their stomachs are churning round. Their lungs are reaching for air, but they’re breathing in only surf and skin. A half-eaten, half-curdled sandwich is floating away on the waves, the loaves the color of two mottled hands. It bobs for a moment on the horizon before disappearing completely from view.
I ate no choice food. On my first day in therapy, the doctors told us we had to separate our eating disorders from ourselves, personalize them, name them, make them something other. But I wasn’t sure if I could yet. That’s the thing—when the only permanent thing in your body is the shrinking of it, the lines of yourself aren’t quite so clear. You start to mistake your own face for a scrawl on a medical chart. For a little too long I’d let it puppeteer me, wear me like an oversized coat. If you’re not eating the next best thing is to be consumed. So I read books on it, devoured pages on an empty stomach and I learned that girls like me have two excuses: one, we’re the patron saints of beauty standards, and aren’t all women scared to take up space, we’re just the only ones brave enough to fix it; and two, we’re trying to shrink ourselves back to childhood, and the best way we can think to do it is to claw off our own flesh. And what was left of my reflection, held in the jaws of a frosted-cold bathroom mirror that listened as I repeated: we weren’t sick. We weren’t sick. We weren’t sick. We were artists, it wasn’t a hospital room, it was a gallery and we were the mousy, mangled sculptures, vitreous dolls in collapsible bodies, and bodies— Bodies we knew how to keep quiet, but not safe. And on my second day in therapy the doctors told us we had to separate our eating disorders from ourselves, personalize them, name them, make them something other than what they were so I asked, what are they, and someone said, they’re killing us. And on my third day in therapy I learned how to answer to a weight index before my own name and count my bible verses in BMIs—Danielle 18.2, Jill 17.5, Alicia 13.1, and me—our sunken cheeks the most divine form of offerings, this is the word of the Lord, and blood spilled on every altar and puked in every bathroom stall, this is the word of the Lord, and every girl who kept stumbling back was Lazarus, still alive, one more day, and we say to the mirror again: 35
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20 This is my body that I have given to you. I didn’t want it. I don’t think I ever will.
Candy Crushes Todd We’d read our book reports aloud in my treehouse. He’d read first. His dimples and his cupid lips. He played clarinet and on the opposite side of the room, I blew the baritone. He never looked at me during Band. Alex Walked him to his dentist appointment in 7th grade. Went back to his house to play Mario Brothers. Our vice-principal, Mr. Nash, showed up at his door. We hid in his parent’s closet. Marlon You didn’t need me at all. Your eyes were a room. Your lower body was a suggestion. It was like cats in water—they’ll sit in the sink waiting for you to turn on the faucet. Ben I hope you are in the depths of a new invention. Far away from the trailer and the chainlinked fence. That picnic table. I imagine you in a canoe, on some Wisconsin lake. Griffin When I close my eyes, I can see our tennis matches. Balls bouncing, aces, winners, losers and set points. The cool August evenings. The ache of school looming. 37
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20
Fly Away “You should put bird seed on the floor and open up all the windows,” my mom tells me. Her icy blue eyes stare past me at something I cannot see. “But we might get in trouble, Mom, like Eloise, when she went to Paris,” I say, recalling a favorite childhood story. “Remember how she left all of the windows open, and the birds invaded her apartment?” She squeals with delight at the thought of it, then wraps her arms around her waist and winces. Colon cancer does that. It robs you of your dignity and then tries to take away your joy. But she’s not having it.
I moved in with her to help. The living spaces in our condo are upstairs and are lined with windows that look out onto the treetops. “The treehouse,” we call it. We call our balcony “the nest”. Since her cancer diagnosis, she has made a morning ritual of sipping coffee in the nest while enjoying the show of bluebirds, robins, and cardinals as they dart about the live oaks. Now she has a new nest: a home hospital bed personalized with an array of pillows and double-lined with foam mattress toppers to pad her lean, 78-pound body. I bring her tiny animal sculptures to adorn her room and I plug in the fairy lights on a wooden birdhouse—made by her own hands—that lives on a shelf next to the bed. It’s not the balcony, but it has its charms.
My head is resting on the bed next to her and she leans in close. “Never mind me. I just flit about from flower to flower.” “Like a hummingbird?” “Yes!” she says. She laughs again and holds her stomach tight. 38
I wonder if the cancer has spread to her brain or if it’s the gummies, which she calls her “happy pills”. It doesn’t matter. My only concern is that she’s comfortable, which she is. “Bring me some more paper towels,” she says. When I return, she smiles and tells me that she can ask for whatever she wants now, and it appears. “Bing!” She says this while snapping her fingers. She then begins to fold the paper towels into neat squares. “Is that a squirrel up there in my tree?” she asks, pointing to the ceiling fan. I laugh. “There’s no squirrel in here, Mom.” What would happen if I went along with it? She tucks the paper towels around her right side. She has lined her whole bed with them—more padding for her nest.
Our world has turned inside out. She sleeps all day and stays awake all night. I’m the exhausted mother bird and she’s the fledgling, wide-eyed and full of wonder. I bring her bits of food until she can no longer chew. She puts the uneaten morsels on a tray by her bed, telling me that she wants to save them for later. I feed her water with a straw like an eye dropper. I collect the paper towels that fall to the floor and tuck them back into her nest. I do what I can to prepare her for something neither of us knows how to do. Eventually I try to sleep with one eye open in her old bed, pushed into the corner of her room. Sometimes I wake up to find her lying with her arms raised, bent slightly at the elbows and wrists. She flutters them up and down, her lips moving rapidly with no sound escaping her mouth. Her bones are slight, her skin almost transparent. “Is there someone up there, Mom?” I’m hoping she can offer me some insight into my own future. “Somebody pinched my toe,” she says. I make her promise to reach across the ether and pinch my toe someday and she agrees. She chirps all night, talking and laughing as her eyes begin to glaze over and her feet begin to swell. Tomorrow she will stop chirping, and the next night, she will fly away. But for now, we are nocturnal birds, hunting for whatever we can find to sustain us.
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20
December They’re cutting down the Christmas trees one by one, dressed in their red and blue jackets like toy men watching toy trees topple into damp grass as if in slow motion. They hoist them up, strong bodies with strong arms, tie them in neon orange plastic and load them into the backs of shiny trucks. They had worked all morning, and now the clouds are stretched low across the sky like strips of gauze, but there is no promise of snow. In the forest behind the shed, animal tracks and children’s boot prints, indistinguishable from one another, clotting the frozen mud. They had been here yesterday at different times, the sounds of many feet and of laughter deadened by the silence of the trees. The children, left to their own devices, had taken to tormenting the strange fishfaced boy, had tied him to a pine with nylon rope and left him to grow cold. They found him later that evening, face wide and pale in the moonlight. He wouldn’t speak. He thought of the family of deer that he had seen earlier, of their manifold hooves running through the trees. As his parents wept, talked to him, wrapped him in wool scarves, he thought of the cold numinosity of the stars, and of the wail of a faraway freight train, a sound like there was a god buried inside the earth. 40
scared little rabbit “At five we reach a point not to be achieved again,” Margaret Wise Brown whirling in the kettle your quick your clot your quiet —alert larch, violent pale, overt heart big as a plain-white washer deep as a cracked mirror cooked as a sizzling heater your dumb fear bounding into green tiny peas the bighead lettuce hopping like a rhyme into the awful winter awful freeze the lady butcher sees herself in ice-cold water
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20
define joy. when all the work of suffering is done. when the warrior fallen, consumed, when bone returned to sand. when a photograph is just that— a photograph. when the blade is rusted, broken, the scissors lost amidst the daffodils, trampled into the mud of a few springs ago. when what am I doing. when the throat hoarse, the wifely voice done with booming. when not a single choice in sight. when running out of sodium light and uncertain about the existence of doors. does one ever? when finally sitting. when done with trial and error. when no longer
like fingers, unclasping.
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20
American Wisdom [American sentences] A greased glass jar under each leg of the crib frustrates the scorpions. Get you a man who shakes out pantlegs, who inspects seams, who takes his time. Writes you in American sentences: consecutive, no chance of parole. The second child hits different than the first – don’t get me started. A rainbow baby against a blue sky is still a little bit blue. Get some Blue Blockers if you want to see, or not, I’m not one to judge. A house of glass jars, you better believe it my shoes stay on indoors. Vaseline is a byproduct of offshore oil rig pumps — get you some. Good for windburn, preventing diaper rash, keeping the scorpions down. From time to time I feel like shaking my can, spray-painting some pallets. It’s all for sale, American flag décor on Facebook Marketplace. Get you some jelly jars, good for wedding receptions and scorpions. You never know unless you check for carbon monoxide or radon. Men are always hiding dismembered bodies in basement crawlspaces. That’s what they say in details at eleven: he was the quiet type.
You always think it’ll be different when it happens on your block. You think you’d be able to smell a danger like that, but there’s the rub. Any news show worth its salt keeps “THE SILENT KILLER” graphic handy. You never know when you need to report a tragedy or a crime. You can’t be a pillar of the community without tossing salt. As luck would have it, inflation-adjusted prayers are still so cheap. Count in American syllables by finger by candlelight. That I’m a traditionalist explains my seasonal depression. Seasonal garments are getting harder to rend on my mom’s porch goose. Especially how outside the Midwest, nobody sees the appeal. Especially now, when we’re all living in a desert of some kind. Nobody cares how a concrete goose is dressed for the end of the world.
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20
Dear America Cornflower mornings when I danced on purple mountains. Your majestic flag, its stair of stripes and stuck stars. Now passed forty, my child is a lucky seven and I look for you in sunsets. At her Saturday tennis lessons, the court parents talk of teams. No one wears a black uniform. I stand on the same side of mothering but live under an empty sky. A woman tells me in the spring when the rain comes her children will pick blueberries in a wild field. 46
Bottom Feeder: Specimens in Silhouette I didn’t mean to drown her. It was only that she withered so quickly before my eyes. I was saving the morphine for a rainy day, but summer monsoons kept holding back. She always cried so readily in smooth strokes of night swims; I couldn’t choose another way. She had always been laid bare in the water, floating defenseless—the only time she let me see her. When the monsoons came, they came hailing. Water rushed the streets, picking up tumbleweeds and cigarette butts, carrying them down the gutter. When the storm drains clogged and the rain kept coming, it flooded roads, overtook medians; there was no way to drive home. Before the storm broke, a needle pierced my skin a few hundred times, depositing ink with each quick stab of my paper-thin inner wrist, marking my body with evidence. Summer heats the pool to a lukewarm even night cannot cool. Step into the pool and there is hardly a difference on her skin, which has ceased to sweat in the dry night. The air might as well be another water to move through, thick as it is with the heat still rising from the baked ground. She sits on the edge, watching the blue light of the pool bathe her legs, palely swaying through still water. Her skin goes dry, chlorine crisps the ends of her hair, and only the brightest stars emerge from a crowded purple-cast sky. I never would have drowned in those drainage tunnels, the ones that carry away the sins of our concrete, our city that rests in a bowl against the rain shadow mountains. I can smell the rain coming, the way it mixes with the wind. I can see the color of it, that purple dark approaching. While the flood channels wait to be filled, I wait for their filling to carry me away. A moment of taking stock of the body I carry: it is shaped like me and looks like her. I lift her up. She is smaller than she was, and weightless—wrists and fingers not quite yet emaciated, just a thinness in the extremities to tell me I’ve already lost a portion. I carry her to the backyard, and it is night, but the pool glows bright as it would 47
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20 in day, white flickers refracting off the blue bottom like the sun has set underwater. I take us to the edge of this pool and step down. I walk steadily into that water until she floats in my arms. She doesn’t wake. I let her head fall back, a face framed in tension halo. She begins to sink, or I begin to pull her down, and she is still under the surface. I didn’t drown my mother. She was dead only a few months before I decided to get a tattoo. I stole her drawing—two rough leaves and three small berries from a holly bush—and got it pushed underneath my skin. The needle pierces the inner wrist, pressing pain radiating sharp tingles again and again, my brain flooding with a loving kind of hurt. Just a pinch of her ashes mixed into the ink. I could have consumed her. Once I marked myself with her name, the monsoon broke. Water rushed downhill and blocked the road toward home. I watched it come up over the median, fast-moving and foaming with city debris. Bruised clouds folded over mountains, tearing open, bleeding themselves clean on the whole valley. Hail threatened to pierce the windshield while the water rose around me. I turned from the flood, wrist burning with the evidence of what I’d done, and waited for the waters to drain. I hear my mother calling me, her voice rising, urgent, bouncing off the floors of our home. My bare feet make slapping sounds against tile, mixing with her call. “Come!” The kitchen door is cracked, so I lean into the night and look toward the garden and down the path. I see her there, toward the end, a shadow waving me forward, silhouetted against a soft glow. The night is very dark. I don’t want to step away from the light the kitchen casts through the glass-paned door. “Come outside,” she says. “I want to show you something.” I walk down the path, running my hand along the wall of the house so the night doesn’t take me far. When I reach her, she grabs my hand and shifts to stand beside me. She says, “Look,” pointing at the full moon, large and bright, alien like nothing I’d ever seen. So large as it rose, home seemed close enough to touch the pitted surface. She’s smiling, but I can see her eyes, glassy in moonlight. I can see the shining against her cheeks, and the moon seems to sit right there on the sidewalk, seems to roll toward us as it rises. It seems to be making her cry and it’s too bright to look at. It hurts my eyes. This moon scares me. I pull away and run back into the house; I leave her out in the night, crying at the sky. I found her out there some nights, a cigarette crushed between her fingers, a tattered notebook’s pages lifting in the wind, eyes wet with clouds, staring impossibly at a full moon. I went to her side and turned her wet face away from it. She sipped from the halo at first, then gulped for the fullness of it. I fled from her still, back into the electric glow of the house. She stayed by its side all night.
I’ve been keeping a close eye on summer moons, trying to look for whatever it was she saw up there. I sit on the porch and watch the moon come up from behind the trees growing brighter and brighter. It’s lighting up the clouds beside it. This glowing, other-worldly orb, polarized like a morning. I don’t trust this moon; it seems hardly dark outside. I may drown myself in this moon. I may sit in its curve, like a womb, when it glows a bloody red. These cycles concern me. A daughter becoming a mother, phases of moonshine: the space a mirror lives in when it gazes into another. I used to think the new moon, my mother’s period, and the Gregorian calendar began at day one. I remember when the tide broke between us; a current moved out of sync with the flux of another, and the space between ebbed to riptide. We were in flux together, two mirrors in standoff. I know that rocky surface pulls against water, shifts back and forth. Once, a storm surge met a tidal push, and we found a thousand dying stars in the sand. Corpses pale against sun rays. To save stars still twitching, we cradled delicate arms, mouths suckling air, spindly limbs sticking to our palms as we dipped the starfish back in gulf shallows. We were only two, not enough to save every star in the tide, so we brought home their dried bodies. She enlisted my help, even as I kept running to water with the half-dead. We carried armfuls of starfish skeletons—dozens taken from the shore. She piled them on counters, leaving sand grit across the floors and the kitchen sink. The low tide-dead were dipped in bleach baths, washed with dish soap, set to dry. The atmosphere was thick with water as I watched her bathe the dead, preparing them for burial. Our kitchen was devoted to preserving bodies—a mortuary for bottom feeders. While most of the starfish made their way to the trash, a few were left intact. She painted them in glitter. She later admitted to insanity and desperate preservation. They were starfish. Ridding them of stench and decay with kitchen chemicals—a hysterical negation of what we’d seen and done, the death we witnessed at the hands of a storm and our hopeless hurling of their flesh into the sea. Two decades passed before the evidence of decay wafted away. I still have two stars whole, while she is ash—ocean—dried corpse, the last particles of her kept in a jar like a specimen, until I return to the place where we found all those dying stars and tried in vain to save ourselves from the moon. I threw her in the ocean.
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20
Thing with Feathers The angel you caught in your net won’t stop shedding. You gather the feathers from the cracks between floorboards. They stick to the walls, wet with bitter hope and golden ichor. You think you will stuff and sew them into a pillow. You will have the sweetest dreams. Cheer up, you tell the angel. Aren’t you grateful I caught you in my net? You were falling, you know? The angel blinks at you owlishly. Was I? You landed on my lawn, you reply. Practically in my lap. The angel doesn’t laugh. They watch old black-and-white shows in front of your television. Films where couples sleep apart in twin beds, under comforters embroidered with ivy and ferns. Where housewives wear polka-dotted dresses with puffy sleeves and hems, and carry casserole dishes as if they’re lighter than the steam they emit. The housewives stay behind while their spouses grab leather briefcases, go to work. They kiss in the doorway. You watch the angel practice kissing on the back of their hand. They have such sharp little teeth. Every vintage dress you buy for them, they tear to shreds. It’s nice that the angel is practicing how to be good for you, you think. But when you leave the house, they don’t even tell you goodbye. Never even look in your direction. Only watch the television, the window. When you bring the angel takeout, they gulp it down without chewing. Their spiderling fingers make origami clouds out of the greasy paper. Their nails are growing swiftly, like a newborn’s. Later, you find the regurgitated pellets. When you pull them apart with the tip of your pocketknife, they glint with half-digested anti-matter. Your migraine lingers for hours, strange lights flashing behind your eyelids. Serendipitous, you tell the angel once your fever cools. Our meeting was serendipitous. 50
You return from work and admire the industrial-grade netting of your backyard. You installed it yourself after hearing the weather forecast: cloudy with a chance of feather-fall. The angel’s welts from landing in the net at full speed look better than before. They smell of antiseptic cream and aloe, even the parts of their back and wings they cannot reach on their own. The television shows a couple ballroom dancing, swirling like jellyfish and anemones across the ocean floor. You haven’t danced since your youth. Must be nice to try it with someone so ethereal. But again the angel ignores you. The angel is glued so close to the screen, their eyes reflect pixels and static. You hide minuscule cameras around the house, catch the angel with their clandestine companion from down the street. The black-clad widow feeds them sunflower seeds from the palm of her hand. She grooms their feathers; sleek little darlings all in a row. I know my wife sent you, the widow says. She knows how I get lonely. How lonely I get. You watch recordings of your angel in the backyard, stretching their wings to their full span, wrapping the widow in their arms. Practicing flight together. Practicing escape. My people are coming to get us, the white-winged angel tells their black-clad widow. I can’t wait to show you the constellation of your wife. They say: serendipitous. Our meeting was serendipitous. In the background, the television actors twirl umbrellas, sing in the rain. You replace the natural fiber netting with industrial steel, hide sharpened stakes under artificial grass. Thousands in your bank account spent on hostile architecture, awaiting the next feathery thing to land on your lawn.
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20
Folds Within Folds Under Edy’s hands, five seconds of life play out in folded paper. A moving menagerie of starts and sudden stops between origami creases. A kiss of birth. A gift. Five seconds is enough for: • • •
A butterfly’s wing to open and close once Five steps of a quick fox, pointed paper footpads skidding to a halt A layered rosebud to loosen and stretch its outer petals, opened forever to the sun
Edy tries to refold the lines, rebuild, but the gift is gone in restart. Her creations live only long enough to stumble, to bloom, to begin in the same space it takes for atoms to slough off a lazy pinwheel. A motor of moments. In potential she can predict an object’s start, its fall, the pattern of its undoing. She can fold paper into anything. In five seconds she can determine: • • •
If a train will stop If the boy will reach out, just slightly, towards her If she will fall
Edy builds and folds, a future in mind, a start as close as a blush.
Chirp Creek Farm It’s easy to squat in the dirt and shame the bodies of carrots, to speak of girth and width, to desire those slender and long, to discard those short and stubby. Somewhere I visit the museum of my body.
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20
Call for Submissions ______________________________________________ We’re always looking for writing that spans genres, that demands to be read, that might be considered the black sheep of a family. Art and science thrill us, but so does the simple image of a man standing at a crossroads. Surprise us. Thrill us. Make us laugh and cry and cringe. Tell us your thoughts. We can’t wait to hear from you! For submission guidelines, please visit http://atlasandalice.com/submit/
Contributor Notes ______________________________________________ Lorelei Bacht (she/they) successfully escaped grey skies and red buses to live and write somewhere in the monsoon forest. Their recent writing has appeared and/or is forthcoming in After the Pause, Harpy Hybrid Review, The Inflectionist Review, Beir Bua, Mercurius, Strukturriss, The Inflectionist Review, Sinking City, and others. They are also on Instagram: @lorelei.bacht.writer and on Twitter @bachtlorelei. Gray Birchby is a queer writer. Their first publication is in an anthology through Grubstreet Boston’s Summer Fellowship. Harper Campbell currently lives in Vancouver. His work has appeared in the Salt Chuck City Review, the Ormsby Review, Columbia Journal and Lunch Ticket. His translations of the Indonesian poet Chairil Anwar can be found at the Twitter handle @Chairil57115624. He has an honours degree in philosophy and Asian studies from the University of British Columbia. Julie Flattery’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Idle Ink, Red Fez, Emerge Literary Journal, Brevity‘s Nonfiction Blog, and Meat for Tea. Six of her plays have been performed at the iDiOM theater in Bellingham, WA. She writes professionally about architecture and building design. For the past two years, she has been temporarily living in Texas as a caretaker for her mom, who recently flew away. Rosie Garland, named by Val McDermid one of the UK’s most compelling LGBT writers, is author of The Night Brother, described by The Times as “A delight… with shades of Angela Carter.” Diane Gottlieb’s essays, stories, and reviews have appeared in About Place Journal, The VIDA Review, The Rumpus, Hippocampus Magazine, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Entropy, among others. She has an MSW, an MEd, and received her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles where she served as lead editor of creative nonfiction for Lunch Ticket. You can find her at https://dianegottlieb.com and on Twitter @DianeGotAuthor.
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20 Kathleen Hellen’s collection meet me at the bottom is forthcoming in Fall 2022 from Main Street Rag. Her credits include The Only Country Was the Color of My Skin, her prizewinning collection Umberto’s Night, and two chapbooks, The Girl Who Loved Mothra and Pentimento. Featured on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, her work has appeared in Ascent, Barrow Street, The Carolina Quarterly, Colorado Review, jubilat, New Letters, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, The Rumpus, Subtropics, The Sycamore Review, and West Branch, among others. For more on Kathleen, visit https://www.kathleenhellen.com/ Aelita Klausmeier is a poet currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in mathematics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Her work has been awarded the Academy of American Poets College Prize and the Jeffrey L. Weisberg Memorial Prize, and has appeared in several university journals and anthologies. Virginia Laurie studies English at Washington & Lee University. She has published in Apricity Magazine, South Florida Poetry Journal, Phantom Kangaroo, Cathexis Northwest Press, and more. Find her online at virginialaurie.com. Lutivini Majanja is a writer from Nairobi, Kenya. She has writing published in Wigleaf, Down River Road, McSweeney’s, Popula, Best Microfiction and more. Avra Margariti is a queer author and poet from Greece. Avra’s work haunts publications such as Baffling Magazine, Lackington’s, Best Microfiction, and Best Small Fictions. You can find Avra on Twitter (@avramargariti). Natalie Marino is a poet and physician. Her work appears in Bitter Oleander, Isele Magazine, Leon Literary Review, Rust and Moth, Shelia-Na-Gig online, The Shore,Variant Literature, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Memories of Stars, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press (June 2023). She lives in California. Amy R. Martin is a producer/screenwriter and essayist based in Vienna, Virginia. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama, Pithead Chapel, and Hungry Ghost Magazine, and she is the Stage and Screen Editor for the Southern Review of Books. She has an MFA from the Queens University of Charlotte. Edie Meade is a writer, artist, and mother of four in Huntington, West Virginia. Recent work can be found in The Normal School, Still: The Journal, Feral and elsewhere. Say hi on Twitter @ediemeade or https://ediemeade.com/.
Librarian, mother, and minor trickster, Janna Miller has published works in SmokeLong Quarterly, Cheap Pop, and Scissors and Spackle. Nominated for Best Small Fictions and Best Microfiction. Generally, if the toaster blows up, it is not her fault. Camille Newsom is a creative currently living in Portland, OR. She explores the world through teaching, poetry, farming, collage art, and vulnerable conversations. Her poetry has been previously published in SAND Journal and Inklette Magazine. Gloria Pearlman is a second year MFA candidate at Western Washington University. She loves the malleability of the Creative Nonfiction genre and enjoys pushing prose toward hybrid poetry and lyricism. Meg Pokrass is the author of 8 collections of flash and microfiction and two-time recipient of San Francisco’s Blue Light Book Award. She is Founding Co-Editor of Best Microfiction. Mary Lynn Reed’s fiction has appeared in Mississippi Review, Colorado Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, and many other places. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. She lives in western New York with her wife, and together they co-edit the online literary journal MoonPark Review. J.B. Stone is a Neurodivergent slam poet, writer, and literary critic from Brooklyn, now residing in Buffalo, NY. He is the author of A Place Between Expired Dreams And Renewed Nightmares (Ghost City Press 2018) and INHUMAN ELEGIES (Ghost City Press 2020). He is the Editor-In-Chief/Reviews Editor at Variety Pack. His work has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, Flash Fiction Magazine, BULL, Noctua Review, Rejection Letters, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. He tweets @JB_StoneTruth. Hayley Swinson is an overeducated troublemaker who loves learning, teaching, and everyday adventure. She teaches English and creative writing in Wilmington, NC and edits books in her spare time. Her writing has been published in various outlets online and in print, including Cutbank Online, VALVE Journal, The Messenger, The New Southern Fugitives, and Edinburgh City of Literature’s Story Shop. Sage Tyrtle’s work is available or upcoming in X-R-A-Y, The Offing, and Cheap Pop among others. She’s told stories on stages all over the world and her words have been featured on NPR, CBC, and PBS. She runs a free online writing group open to everyone. Twitter: @sagetyrtle
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20 Robert Vaughan is an award-winning author, playwright, and teacher. His books include Microtones (Cervena Barva, 2012), Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits (Deadly Chaps, 2013), Addicts & Basements (CCM, 2014), RIFT (Unknown Press, 2015), Funhouse (Unknown Press, 2016), and ASKEW (Cowboy Jamboree, 2022). He was twice the runner-up for the Gertrude Stein Award for Fiction. His work has been widely anthologized, including the New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (W.W. Norton, 2018) and Best Small Fictions 2016 and 2019 (Sonder Press). His plays have been produced in S.F., N.Y.C., and Milwaukee. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Bending Genres. www.robertvaughan.com Georgia White is a queer writer based in Berkeley, CA. Her previous work has been published in NUNUM, the Nasiona, and the Santa Ana River Review. Stephanie Yu lives and writes in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Eclectica, Hobart, Longleaf Review, and Phoebe Journal, among others, and has been previously selected for the Wigleaf Top 50. Find her @stfu_stephanie.
Cover Photo: Leanne Parker/Pixabay
Atlas and Alice, Issue 20