Volume 51 Spring 2022
The Emerson Review is an annual literary journal by undergraduate students at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. All genres of original, unpublished writing and visual art are considered for publication. Rights to individual pieces revert back to the original author after publication. The reading period for the 2022 issue ran from August 1st through February 1st. All submissions are handled anonymously. Materials can be submitted to The Emerson Review through our Online submission manager, http://emersonreview.submittable.com. Complete guidelines can be found on our website. General questions and comments should be sent to email@example.com. https://websites.emerson.edu/emerson-review Design by Ana Hein, Emma Albright, Calli Prat, and Eden Ornstein. Printed by Flagship Press. ©2022 The Emerson Review
MASTHEAD EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Abigail Michaud (Fall) Michelle Moroses (Spring)
HEAD SOCIAL MEDIA MANAGER
Sean Etter (Fall) Gracie Warda (Spring)
ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR
Abril Macho Andy Ambrose
SOCIAL MEDIA TEAM
HEAD FICTION EDITOR
Olivia Loftis (Fall) Nina Powers (Spring)
Cari Hurley Annalisa Hansford
ASSISTANT FICTION EDITOR Anna Carson
HEAD POETRY EDITOR Kelsey Marlett (Fall) Athena Nassar (Spring)
ASSISTANT POETRY EDITOR Samson Malmoli
NONFICTION EDITOR Cassandra Koenigsburg (Fall) Lily Labella (Spring)
TREASURER Taylor McGowan
HEAD DESIGNER Ana Hein
DESIGN TEAM Emma Albright Calli Pratt Eden Ornstein
READERS Susan Kuroda Kinsey Ogden Alexis Shultz Ayaana Nayak Shelbi Church Basia Siwek Madyson Grant Anna Grady Annalisa Hansford Cari Hurley Caroline Helms Isabella Astuto Jackson Bailey Kira Salter-Gurau Lynn Vecchietti Maeve Lawler Rachel Gazzara Abril Macho
LETTER FROM THE EDITORS don’t normally include these kinds of letters, but this is a special Wevolume. If the production of Volume #50 hadn’t coincided with
the 2020 pandemic, this letter might have appeared in the last issue. Fifty years is nothing short of an amazing achievement for an entirely student-run literary magazine, and we were looking forward to holding a big celebration. We know how that turned out. It is now the Emerson Review’s fifty-first year in operation, and we’re doing what we’ve always done—bringing pieces of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, photography, and artwork to our community. We also sought to make some new changes—one of which was strengthening our presence on the grid, thanks to the work of our amazing social media manager, Kathleen Nolan, and her very talented team. Our next steps involve the reestablishment of our website and the creation of an archive that will showcase our past volumes. We would also like to thank everyone on our staff, with a special thanks to Sean Etter for his bravery in the face of great obstacles as well as for coming back from the dead (a.k.a. post-graduate life) to help us in a pinch. It’s been an honor and a joy to work with you all. Last but not least, a great big thank-you to our contributors and everyone who submitted during this reading period. We wouldn’t have a magazine without you. The next half-century of the EmRev has already started, and we don’t plan to stop this train from rolling anytime soon. With love, Abigail Michaud and Michelle Moroses
NOTE FOR INSPECTOR Sean Madden
CHAOTIC SYMMETRY Igor Zusev
WOMEN PORTRAITS: BOTANICAL GIRLS Val e r i a Amir k h any an
SHE PREPARES HER BODY FOR THE EARTH Erin Wilson
SPRING FIELDS Matt Rogers
APPLESEED Gigi Guizado
THE STORE Joanne Skerrett
BREAKFAST WITH GRANDMA Zebulon Huset
TEA MAGIC Carl Gagnon
MY SISTER MAKING DINNER Erin Aube
REFILOE Lori Eslick
THE FIG TREE Megan Rilkoff
I’LL FIND ANOTHER USE FOR IT Hallie MacLeod
A QUEER CHRONOLOGY Elena Anderson
BALTIMORE ORIOLE/UNTITLED Rachel Coyne
CHICKEN FETE Ronald Walker
DAWES ROLL Melissa Wabnitz Pumayugra
BROODY Joshua Kulseth
THE OTHER ANNA Elliott Gish
HORSES Joshua Kulseth
DONT FORGET TO CODE SWITCH Chanice Cruz
VEIL OF NIGHTFALL Dóra Kazó-Horváth
THE MUSTARD SEED GARDEN MANUAL Marsha Solomon
PHANTOMS Joanna Grisham
SWEATERS OVER SARIS Samina Hadi- Tabassum
THE FILTH GODDESS Devin Thomas O’Shea
SECRETS OF THE DEEP Sandra Vucicevic
ODE TO YARMOUTH Amanda Dettmann
NAKED MAN IN THE CHARLES RIVER Owen Elphick
SARAS PRIMARY MEADOW Angelica Esquivel
FOREVER YOUNG Samantha Crooke
PHOTOGRAPHS OF HOW IT WAS Lameese Badr
N OT E FO R I N S P E C TO R P O E T RY
S e an Ma d d e n If you’re here for the window, newly installed, framing exposed for your scrutiny: please, do not knock. Please keep your thumb off the bell. I won’t come to the door, preoccupied as I presently am. Use the gate, which I’ve unlocked for you; the one by the gardenias, the birches. Shut it softly, so the wood by the latch, already splintered, doesn’t snap. Follow the path along the house; mind the toy trucks my sons have left scattered about; I would hate for you to trip, fall. Take in the scene. The Indian hawthorn, the African daisies. Toward the crape myrtles, you might spy an Easter egg, the plastic, hollow kind, nestled near the base of a potato bush. Open it, I implore you; when you see me, don’t tell me the score. And you will see me, you will. I will find you in the yard, in the shade of a redbud, sniffing a rose. I will bring the permit for your signature. I will be with you. I will be with you shortly.
CHAOTIC SYMMETRY Ig or Zu s e v
WOMEN PORTRAITS: BOTANICAL GIRLS Val e r i a Amir k h any an
S H E P R E PA R E S H E R B O DY FO R T H E E A R T H P O E T RY
Er in Wi l s o n She lets it out of its cage each morning. She braises it with sunlight. She douses it with water. She tacks pages around it, a cluster of cowlicks; she uses them as wings; sky is but a capstone, an apogee to falling. When not soaring, she grunts through woods. She noses through meadows. She huffles for grubs and mushrooms, sometimes with clitoral appetite, sometimes with a grace-starved hunger. There are interludes of sadness... fire devours an ancient sequoia, quarantined Italians keen from balconies, a dark man is shot in Houston,
a veiled woman is stoned to death in Afghanistan, a child is dangled like a leaflet and then eaten by a monster, like licorice. She feels she is done here. The death beetles saw their eye teeth while waiting. She lies down, falls asleep in leaf rot. The stars weigh, heavy stones bearing down upon her skullcap.
SPRING FIELDS Mat t R o g e r s
APPLESEED P O E T RY
Gig i Gui z a d o Nettie and I walk and talk where trees line both sides of the street Black tar long-since poured has cracks where the roots are stored Paradise is delineated The line dotted and faded snakes through Citizens take sides over what color to paint it Sheet white or Totec yellow? Nettie asks, “Tia, how do you straddle this tiresome road?” Baggage from both sides is a heavy load I sprinkle seeds along the way so Nettie’s mind grows wide as her roots to bear nourishing fruit one day Long after I’m gone she can pass it on Help others like sister Lisi to breathe freely Thick skin doesn’t let bigotry sink in Variety of color adds to our beauty like the bark of a Eucalyptus tree We climb a wise old Oak with thick branches low and wide extending its canopy to shade as far as the other side There we sit sneakers dangling enjoying the perfect view “This is mi estrella,” I said, “and it is yours too” 7
Our vantage point between the earth and sky allows us see beyond the line And know we come from a dirt path leading all the way back to Arkansas Black Lined with enough fruit for all to dine As much Negra de Arkansas as Macintosh
T H E STO R E FICTION
Jo ann e S k e r re t t
ou are here to make bank. That’s what he said. We gotta make bank. So you pull your braids back into a ponytail, pull your hoodie over your head, and try to get your mind right. “They got cameras everywhere these days.” He didn’t need to tell you that; you are ready for this. You are here because you, too, believe that some ice on a chain, new J’s, new drip, might set things right in your world in some magical way, might even give you a glimpse of the person you were a year ago. You hop off the bus after him and wonder how Georgetown and Congress Heights can exist in the same city, on the same day, at the same time. In your neighborhood, the streets are quiet, empty, gaping with fear; good people have no business lingering outside. But here, rich people are moving in a slow, carefree, Saturday kind of way, wandering in and out of stores, drinking coffee, staring into restaurant menus with very serious looks on their faces. “There’s one right there, on that building.” You point at the camera above The Sandwich Shoppe where dozens of people are lined up outside, as if a sandwich could be that great. “Keep your head down.” He adjusts his cap. “The camera’s real good these days.” You already know that from your foster mother’s posts on the neighborhood watch Twitter. She’s been calling the councilman three days now to replace the cameras by the bus stop after the Kings shot it out. She still calls the cops when the Kings start shooting in the alley and laughing, like it’s BB guns they’re playing with, like it’s not real life. They wake her up every night; she complains to the cops. “I pay my taxes, dammit! I deserve a good night’s sleep!” You sometimes wonder how you’ve come to know all these things in just one year, like how a 9mm bursts through the night in staccato pops and how a Draco AK47 obliterates all silence, leaving a thunderous echo in your
ears until the sirens, until she stops muttering about those murderous boys, another funeral she’ll have to attend, another meal she’ll have to cook for their wailing families. Now, he could stand to learn some things from you if he’d just stop fronting so hard. Those boys on Atlantic Ave. laugh when he walks past them on the way to your house. His head-down-shuffle tells them he’s not from around the way. You and he have that in common. But at least they haven’t messed with him yet. You feel like a bug in a bowl of Cheerios even from the sidewalk. People say sorry when they brush by you on the sidewalk. He laughs, but you can tell he’s nervous from the way he looks up and down M Street. The only other lost-looking people are taking pictures and asking for directions to the White House, the waterfront, and the C&O Canal Trail. You start to say you don’t know but he grabs your elbow. “Come on, let’s go inside.” This store is made for rich people that can’t see or something — all these white walls and bright white lights everywhere. You lean on the heavy glass door, but it doesn’t move. He snickers and pulls the handle. Classical music is playing inside. You feel like an alien. Everything around you is so bright, open and honest. You recognize nothing on the display shelves. Where is the jewelry case with the rings and necklaces? You follow him as he strides throughout the store daring the clerk to even acknowledge him. Your neck swivels around, and you fear your head will twist clean off. You don’t see any jewelry. What the f —” he mutters. p You worried things could go really wrong when you settled into the back row of the Circulator bus from Gallery Place an hour earlier. He was corny and annoying, playing his music extra loud. An old lady kept sighing all loud and glaring at you. He bopped his head and rapped louder, and the old lady begged you with her gray eyes. Like you could stop him. The other bus riders melted into their phones. You studied your nails and thought maybe you shouldn’t have paid fifty bucks for those acrylic tips. It was crazy hot outside. But there you were, wearing a hoodie in July. He put his arm around you, and your heartbeat calmed, your teeth unclenched. You looked up 10
into his brown eyes and his innocent smile. “Everything’s going to work out, you’ll see.” The bus driver kept eyeing him through the rearview mirror, and you want to go up there and tell him to mind his damned business. p You took the Circulator to school with her back when things were normal, before the immigration people came knocking that crazy morning. She would make Ugali for breakfast on Mondays. “But that is not the kind of breakfast I would eat growing up in Burundi,” she would say, as if you were so lucky to be eating this African food. Then she would run her fingers along your hairline to smooth the flyaways. She walked you all the way to the school entrance. “I don’t want you talking to those girls from Langley Park, okay? When I get my new job, we will move to Silver Spring and I will put you in the Catholic School.” Those Langley Park girls? Those girls made fun of her accent, even though their own parents were foreigners, too. Ethiopians. They laughed when you spoke. “Your mother a bush lady and you a bush baby.” p The whoosh of the air conditioner disorients you back to the chilly, sparkling present. He is strolling around the store, inspecting preciouslooking things on the white shelves. You follow him a pace or so behind. Finally, your confused eyes meet and silently admit: There is no jewelry case. No rings to be tried on, so the skit you practiced for the last two days will go to waste. You realize this was a stupid idea. Nobody would care if you stole some ice from a fancy jewelry store. Only those boys in his class he was flexing for would. You just want to go home. “Is this the right place?” He scowls. “Don’t ask dumb questions.” The salesgirl is bored but suspicious. “Can I help you?” The kind of accessories they sell here are vaguely recognizable to you, things you saw in the houses your mother cleaned in Bethesda— or was it MacLean? —glassy things that go on a wall shelf 11
or in the center of a dining table. Or for the spelling quiz word you failed. Credenza. You told him your mother cleaned houses on the bus ride here, and he laughed. Then you told him the bush baby story, and he pulled you closer into him. “Maybe we go and find the store with the fancy jewelry,” you whisper. But he only glares at the salesgirl, who immediately shrinks into a back room. He grabs a shiny thing from a display table, a glass fairy with wings holding a baby fairy to its chest. “We might get something for that.” You stare at him. Who would want that? The fairy glints in the white light then disappears as he quickly shoves it into your sweatshirt pocket. You follow him out of the store into the enveloping heat of M Street, into the crush of tourists, into nicely dressed people carrying salads in cardboard bowls. “We’ll look for the jewelry place now?” He shakes his head. “Nah, we better get outta here quick before that girl realize her little glass toy is missing.” On the bus ride home, he tells you his mother OD’d when he was in kindergarten, and that he’d gotten into the system when his grandmother died last year. That’s how you met him in the social worker’s office that first week of school. He had just left group home and moved in with his new fosters. “Keep it,” he nods at the fairy thing bulging in your sweatshirt. p Later, your foster mother comes into the living room, surprising you, and you tell her the glass fairy thing is a present for her birthday. You meant to find a hiding place for it and then mail it to Burundi as a Christmas present. You’d looked at it a hundred times since you’d gotten home that afternoon, the fairy mom with wings holding the baby fairy. Maybe it would remind her of you and her and what your life in America used to be. The yellow sunlight above the couch hits the fairy mom’s wing, sending a ray across the room. Your foster mother turns the thing over in her hand a few times and eyes you suspiciously. She 12
asks if you were out with him again and whether you finished your homework. You remind yourself that in two years you will turn eighteen. After dinner, you wash the dishes. She is in her room posting on the neighborhood watch Twitter again as darkness falls and the Kings prepare for their nightly battles. She has abandoned the glass fairy mom and baby next to a carton of expired milk on the counter. You wonder if the cassava leaves back home in Burundi are fresh enough— finally— to her satisfaction. You wonder if she wonders what you are doing with your Monday afternoons.
B R E A K FA STS W I T H G R A N D M A P O E T RY
Z ebu l o n Hu s e t Sitting by the frosted window like a sentinel guarding her outpost from wintering cardinals, my grandma held her triangular spoon like a detached bayonet and stabbed her halved-grapefruit. She wasn’t watching us kids, or the birds, her attention somewhere off in the mist of the past as she, again, takes a sour first bite sloppy against her dentures and thin lips, tongue curling against the citric acid, she reaches for the old frosting container where we kept sugar for our generic baggies of Rice Krispities or Corn Flecks. Every morning, the same sour-faced bite, the same triangle spoon with little teeth to dig into the split fruit’s acute, segmented flesh. The same distant look occupying her eyes glazed over with the ice of almost a century’s worth of winters, most with far less insulation or electricity. No matter what we said it was as if we were cardinals in a skeletal tree, or shoveled snow lining the driveway or shell-shocked ghosts she couldn’t recall the names of, even if she tried.
T E A M AG I C C ar l G ag n o n
M Y S I ST E R M A K I N G D I N N E R P O E T RY
Er in Aub e The garlic reeked burned and bitter, and a hiss whispered with each drop of the tomatoes’ sweat that splashed the glowing coil. Noodles still raw and hard would crunch like kindling under feet between our teeth. The cheese somehow half melted but the other half still frozen from its time in the broken refrigerator. Dinner was ready. The singed gray oven mitt being just out of reach — along with my sister’s best judgment —she grabbed the next best thing, an aquamarine bathroom hand towel doing double duty as a dish towel, the blue-green a shade we sisters decided brought a splash of seaside to the valley in Tennessee, and most certainly, classed up the place. From the oven, along with the dish came the towel, blue-green now instantly wet with waves of red-orange flames. Dropping the dish— but not the towel —my sister began to spin. Fire chasing behind her, first running from the aquamarine then lengthening to overcome it. She had to have known better. Hearing the screams I came to the rescue. A fire extinguisher being a non-essential in the apartment occupied by underprepared college students, I grabbed the next best thing, a staple in every good Tennessee home— White Lily flour. The towel now in the sink the flames momentarily shocked by the dingy stainless steel, I bravely poured five pounds of all-purpose on the conflagration which choked and suffocated the flames, and which when mixed with the smoke, left an almost peaceful haze in the air, with two sisters emerging, looking less like firefighters and more like mothers from a story book, wide-eyed and powdered sugar coated. Decades later I would text her. “The baby came early. All is well.” And a picture of a little face as red as flames with eyes as blue-green as a painting of the sea, framed and lovingly hung in a house
in a landlocked town. We’ve all been there. Fanning flames, giving life to fire, panicking or delighting with the climbing blaze. Spinning when we should be still. In spite of knowing better.
R E F I LO E L or i Mc E lrat h - E sli ck
THE FIG TREE P O E T RY
Me g an Ri l k of f We decide you will keep the cat when I leave. Snow falls in Tokyo, the streets filling with white ash. Your father wakes early for the last time. We both leave, separately. Me to Maine, you to Arizona. We crave coasts and deserts. In my hometown, the figs are budding, readying themselves for the picking. A child plucks a dandelion, pushes his tiny fist past rows of Chiclet teeth. In sleep, we lay like two fallen petals, my chest cupping your back. Or we both leave. Together. Move back home to Massachusetts, next to your parents. Spend our days trying not to become them as teenage lovers lean in for a teeth-clanging kiss. Children stare out school bus windows, picking at the seams of broken seats. They dare fill their mouths with cottony filling when they think no one is looking. Or we both stay. Neither of us wants the final word. I sleep well in foreign beds, 19
corners tucked in by a stranger who was preparing for me, or any body, to arrive. The figs ripen and fall. The figs wrinkle and go black.
A QUEER C H R O N O LO GY
Elena Lee An d e r s on
Seven up as a Home Depot Worker for Halloween. Baggy jeans with Ia dress hammer slung through the loop on my thigh, a backwards cap, a bright orange apron. In the photographs, I’m grinning a gap-toothed full moon smile, looking like every stereotypical lesbian you’ve ever heard of. Maybe everyone should have figured it out then. Maybe they did.
Nine They think I’m contemplating astronomy—what this expansive universe looks like through the keyhole of my father’s telescope— but on the tip top of Honeywell Hill, I have something else on my mind. My Girl Scout troop is working toward another badge, but I’ve checked out, only able to eavesdrop on my dad’s conversation with another parent. “That used bookshop on University, Biermeier Books, you know it? My uncle and his partner own it.” My mind is speckled with light, small openings to hope like the stars poking through the solid black night, but I can’t explain why yet. My great uncles, David and Bill, are like my second parents. I know they live together, travel together, and love each other, like my parents do. But (per what I’ll later learn was their request), my parents always called them “roommates,” until now.
Sinjun Bergen Betty Strom. Practicing my cursive. Pretending I know how to draw, even though her body has come out angular like two-dimensional stacked building blocks. Sinjun is all bones and close-cropped hair, sharp black eyes and White Stripes t-shirts. I draw her in my Lemony Snicket journal, lying on my bottom bunk bed. I swirl her name over the drawing and all throughout the lined book, so many times that I’ll remember it, every syllable, my whole life.
Eleven Everyone has left the house, so I pull out the VHS of Home for the Holidays and fast forward to the scene where Tommy and Jack are holding each other tight on the beach. When it’s done, I rewind and watch it again. And again. This year, my sister starts watching Will and Grace. I watch with her, too young to get the jokes, starving for narratives the rest of the world hardly shows me. Everything that resembles a reflection looks like gay men. I’ll take it. I’ll take anything.
Tweleve I steal the copy of Julie Ann Peters’s Keeping You a Secret from the St. Anthony library. “She sauntered away, but not before I caught a glimpse of her T-shirt. It said: IMRU? Am I what? She glanced back over her shoulder, the way you do when you know someone’s watching. That’s when it registered—the rainbow traingle below the message.” No one at my middle school wears t-shirts like that, so I’m desperate for a friend, someone who knows what I won’t tell. I walk to the library by myself one afternoon, pay the fine, lie and say I lost it. It comes out of hiding from my desk drawer after Kayla dumps me at the end of 6th grade. Older, she’s going on to high school. I’m still 22
a baby, so she lets me go “even though she still cares about me,” her Adrienne. That’s my pen name in the notes we’ve written all year— made up names that we address and sign the two-page daily love letters with, not willing to risk anyone finding out. My mom always told me: “Be careful what you put in writing.” Joscelyn, my only friend who knows, tells me to burn the letters when Kayla leaves me. I don’t. I tuck them into the same desk drawer with Keeping You a Secret and try to re-read, for the fourth time, the book about coming out as a lesbian and the terror that follows. Abandonment, isolation, harassment, the heat death of the universe. I’ve slept in Kayla’s bed every weekend for the last year and I can’t finish the book this time. I put it back in its drawer.
Thirteen I participate in the National Day of Silence. I write letters of explanation to my teachers, telling them I’m an “ally,” and spend the day so quiet that I don’t even exist.
Fourteen “I’m thinking about cutting my hair,” I tell my mom, cruising over Industrial Road on the way home from the dance studio. “Oh yeah, how short?” “Short.” She doesn’t answer. The next night I tell my ballet teacher. “You’ll have to get extensions every time we perform. That’s expensive,” he says. “It’s not worth it.” He goes home to kiss his partner every night. I expect him to understand that I don’t honestly care how long or short my hair is, I just want people to know who I am. The haircut is a code I need him to crack, for him to see me like I see myself: like him.
Sixteen Nathan’s poems are like a smooth mixture of Pablo Neruda and Frank O’Hara, and the first time I read them, I love him. 23
We love each other like shy children and pry into each other’s bodies, tweaking the wires to carry currents of life. We give each other weekly writing prompts. We listen to Dessa and Eyedea and Tupac on the floor of his sunny bedroom and smoke weed out of apples down at King Park and have sex at 3 am on the grassy hill at Brigid’s cabin. I tell my safe but scattered first love that I’m bisexual when we’re sitting on the hood of his mom’s car in a parking lot downtown, eating gummy sweets bought at Candyland from a white paper bag. He laughs at me. Says he probably is too. Says he thinks everyone is, at least a little bit. He gives me a kiss and later takes a picture of me, smiling there on the grey Toyota Highlander, my eyes shooting light like meteors.
Eighteen “I don’t like the way he looks at you,” Pat spits. He’s been cheated on by every girl he’s ever dated. I’ve gone back into hiding. With him, my silence doesn’t grow because of bigotry, but jealousy. When I hang out with guys, he gets mean. I don’t need him to know the threat is more than just men. Until him, I clung to my identity, starting college out and proud. But he sucks me over his black hole horizon, and I’m lost in the trapped quiet. Slowly, his nerves sprout into anger that dulls my starlight to a flicker. I give him everything I have, shut parts of myself away to be what he needs, try to stay bright when he borrows money; squats in my apartment; keeps me up with his keyboard and bong smoke; comes home on a different drug every night, if he even comes home at all. He rapes me in his parent’s basement and afterwards, I apologize. He absorbs me, undetected — no one knows what happens in the depths. When I’m with him, I almost forget I’m queer, because I forget I’m anything at all.
My friend Taty shifts side to side in the San Francisco spring night as they light another cigarette. “You and KT seem close. Taty’s a constellation of all things gay, sparkling lip ring and buzz cut and cargo shorts. Just their one comment calls me back out of the closet. We’re on a spring break trip with our university. I take the cigarette from their hand and steal a tiny drag. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Taty shrugs, smiles a little. We both know what it means.
Twenty-One “Go left,” I tell KT. Just off the highway, we travel aimlessly over pitch black rural roads. Five minutes later, “Go right. Keep going straight.” “I don’t know how,” they laugh, and my eyes roll. Once we end up on the curve of a road where there’s no streetlamps and no house lights and no cars anywhere to be seen, we get out. I have no idea where I am. The frogs and crickets sync up their songs, and KT and I don’t have to say anything. We lie on the paved road, silently counting the stars that we can never see at home through the city light of the St. Paul Midway. Eventually, when we stand up, they pull me close to them and we dance like it’s our wedding reception. Gravity loses its grip.
CHICKEN FETE R on al d Wal k e r
B R O O DY P O E T RY
Joshua Kulseth For Annie, eaten by foxes Twice daily I carry her from the coop: ruffled-red, puffy Buff Orpington squatting relentlessly on her nest. My mother says she’s broody; some instinct of breeding. Sitting all day without food, dying sometimes in their discipline, they guard empty nests, no rooster here to bluster into fatherhood (the only egg empty, marked with an X, set to build the habit of laying). She stakes her claim on the middle nest box alone in the dark; would slumber comfortably but for my routine plucking her plump body, placing her on the corn pile. She gives back low grumbling clucks muffled in her plume, disheveled and annoyed, with effort moving to water; lets on she’s learned a lesson, then once I’ve turned away, waddles quickly back inside the barn to haunt the empty nest. I understand the impulse to brood on dead things, or whatever it might be— neither alive or dead, but only
with potential to live and die: those never-quickened impulses, germs of thought which force a mulling over, so these sedentary days seem natural. Hunger, restlessness; do we choose what drives us, or only ride to the end the wave of fervor, our obsessions, whatever is unhatched requiring all of us, time and stillness; a sitting discipline.
HORSES P O E T RY
Jo shu a Ku l s e t h And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses They spent the day breaking horses, My grandfather and his brother— his brother the natural with a broom handle, wielded with backwoods magic only slightly sinister. They’d finished the job in a single afternoon, walking beasts from the barn and climbing up posed for the picture posted years later beside grandchildren holding caught bass, snapping turtles—the brothers, my grandfather and great uncle, look brave in black and white, animals calm under their weight, nosing the air, curious maybe at their new condition. Maybe death is like that, walking from the bounded dark, unaware of what you were only moments before: not your own, following after each other into some new greenness, led by powers only slightly sinister, from some final shelter into the sun, 29
posed and smiling. They’re all dead, men and horses, greying to their end like the photograph, faster than our remembrance of them. The barn’s still here, and I remember when my grandfather took me to the place where they walked in reluctant horses and walked them out again. He would pause and smile as the sun caught him up and he entered some elsewhere, like he was all along in that moment with his brother, and didn’t belong here. Longing for home with his brother still as boys, he lives there now, finally, having walked from the barn, broken and renewed.
T H E V E I L O F N I G H T FA L L D óra Ka z ó - Ho r v át h
P H A N TO M S P O E T RY
Jo ann a Gr i sh am For Jenny and Carol Your mother scratches the air below her thigh, the nothing-place where her leg should be. I can still feel it, she says, embarrassed, pulling the white sheet to her chest like a child facing a midnight-monster. You smooth her hair, say she’s beautiful and strong, picture her dancing in the kitchen, making Halloween sounds into a spoon, while you balance on a chair, hair combed into a vampire-point, plastic teeth cutting your gums. Suddenly, you remember her tan calves, smooth and muscular from standing all day at the video store and The Brave Little Toaster poster she brought home for you, Baywatch for your brother. You recall, too, the sugar you spooned into her mouth, trips to the ER instead of Friday night parties, the day your father left and she wouldn’t open the bathroom door, the sound of her voice after she learned to talk again, the way she wore her hair before and after, the two lives you lived with her– everything that led to this moment, this loss, this beginning of an end. She looks out the window, turns to face you, the sun’s rays streak the hospital tile, her brown eyes are dark, innocent, full of disbelief. I’m sorry, she says, when she reaches again for the blank space, a memory her body cannot purge, it was just right there.
T H E F I LT H GODDESS FICTION
D e v in Thomas O’ S h e a
Trigger Warning: Trichotillomania, Suicide I lost teeth as a kid, the filth goddess let herself in through W hen the front door at midnight. She’d borrow my dad’s tools to get
under the sink, wrench open the tap, and shotgun the sludge that had accumulated in the pipes down there. Half racoon, half woman, what caught in the drains of the showers was a delicacy to her. I snuck out of bed to watch from the hallway, noticing that crumbs and cobwebs from under the sink became magnetized to her clothes and fur. She came dangerously close to me, opened the door to the basement, and shuffled down the old wooden stairs to clean the lint traps of the dryer. Just another day on the job for her, but I peeked from the top of the steps, looking down at the trapezoids of light cast by the laundry room’s single bulb. You could hear the dryer door slam closed all over the house, and I retreated back down the hallway to my room. I locked myself inside with the light off as her stomping up the stairs got louder. My parents slept upstairs and didn’t hear a thing. The filth goddess barged in and flicked the Thomas the Tank Engine lightswitch I’d grown too old for. She was eating an old scouring sponge. “That’s the sponge we keep below the sink,” I pointed out. “We’re still using that.” I sat cross-legged and pulled the blankets around me like a monk—protection against her flies. “Someone decided it was garbage,” she said. As she spoke, larvae birthed to quick-winged black things at the back of her throat with every word. She belched them out into my room, and they began to swarm, blotting out the light. Dust and dander rose from the carpet—slow at 33
first, then fast, attaching to her slacks and boots as if magnetized. The filth goddess had lavender skin with black and white zebra fur. She wore a canvas chef’s apron tied around her waist, and her swarms of buzzing flies blurred the contours of her figure as she stood with hands on hips, taking a look around the room like an older sister back from college, sponge between her fingers like a snack donut. “What do you want?” I asked. “Tooth.” She enjoyed the last bite while looking over my shelf of Star Wars Legos, my proudest shelf. Licking her mauve fingers clean, she said, “okay. Heads up, chief,” and headed for the pillow, which I’d given some distance, suspecting that’s what she came to take care of. I froze at the other end of the bed as she rummaged through my sheets and blankets. Her eyes were cavernous pits without eyeballs, just impressions in the skull covered by a green moss that also painted her brow, cheeks, and whiskers. Maggots moved about her collar, bugs crawled into her ears, and that sharp smell was formaldehyde, but I didn’t know what that was at the time. “I dare you to block the path of a fairy,” my grandfather had told me when I was very young. He and my grandmother had held onto the Irish lore. “If you want a rash of worms to come flying out of your nose, get in the way of a puck. I dare you. They’ll vanish your pecker at the snap of a finger, with a curse on the family bloodline,”—a man of his generation, he was a little fixated on the gender/castration element—“or she’ll fill the floor beneath your feet with termites, and everything around you will crumble like sand, sucking you down into the earth forever. Shit!” he’d say, and we’d laugh, and he’d pinch the sleeves of my shirt, throwing my hands up to wiggle six-year-old fingers and I’d jump up and run around the backyard to escape the pull down into Hades. The filth goddess found her treasure and shook my baby teeth in her palm. “That it? Just two?” “Yeah…” I said, and risked putting my hand outside the covers to push on my other teeth, which didn’t have the itch; that discomfort in the gums that made it feel good to press on the tooth, and wiggle it, and let it come dislodged from the skin with the taste of copper. “That’s it for a while,” I said. The horseflies were everywhere now, crawling all over the sheets. “Two is a lot.”
The filth goddess shrugged and headed for the door. As she walked down the hall, I felt her chew my teeth with her own teeth, cracking and grinding as if those parts of my body were still, a little bit, me. I should have never gone after her, but kids at school had gotten to me. I jumped out of bed and ran down the hall. “What about my dollar?!” Grandma’s old stories said it’s you who should give thanks to the filth goddess, not the other way around. She is the cleanser of the primeval forest; she is a sin-eater; a child of Vishnu who consumes what’s not useful to the flourishing of life, clearing the way for the Brahman. I followed her down the hall and out into the living room. There were many of the filth goddess’s clones tending the earth all at once, but they all shared one mind. She looked back at me from the front door standing on an astral plane, viewing all of time at once, with the intensity of a wild fox leaving the hen coop. Cross the filth goddess and she was known for rearranging faces—eyes on chin, mouth on forehead—Picasso shit. “I don’t work for you,” she said. “I guess… I don’t care about the dollar. Can I ask you some questions?” “Nope,” she said, touching the door, and became gone; vanished in a space-time hiccup. I was relieved that the flies went with her—all except one, which stayed and buzzed around my room, biting my neck all night. p I was fifteen when we buried my grandfather at Calgary Cemetery. It was a hot Missouri morning, and though they’d taken me out of school, I had to work later that day at the deli. It was April, and almost summer. He was one of the most important people in my life, and now he was dead to prostate cancer as all the dogwood trees began to bloom. I remember I was sweating in my suit in the limousine because it was really hot out that day. All my aunts and uncles talked about was the humidity versus the heat. My cousins kept quiet and away from me. Most of them lived out of town and didn’t grow up with the benefit of Grandpa and Grandma as babysitters, support parents, and Sunday dinner guests. 35
I caught her later on that day in the alley behind the South City deli, up in the dumpster, diving around. It’s hard to even say “she” is a she; I’m just going off how the Aztecs phrased it. Fairies don’t really have a gender, but appear in the figure you need to see them mixed with their own will; it’s a bent-light kind of trick. It’d be a measurable property if the gods wanted to be measured, but Tlazōlteōtl—that’s the Aztec name—has always appeared as a she. My Guatemalan mother studied gods as a profession; all kinds of gods. She was an anthropology professor at the local Midwest college and wore a lot of poncho shawls. “Finished digging up graves?” I asked the filth goddess in the dumpers. I was weighed down with bags of lunch-rush trash in each hand. She ignored me. “I was there today,” I said. “At the graveyard. Calgary. I saw you digging.” “Okay,” the filth goddess said flatly. She was rooting around through half-eaten pastrami sandwiches. Between finger and thumb, she picked up a piece of greased paper, and stuffed it in her mouth like a slice of salami. Everything at the deli was so greasy; the trays were slick even if you washed them over and over with soap and hot water. It had been that way when Grandpa and I stopped in for a sandwich after church on Sundays; it remained that way until I was the one behind the counter, behind the greasy slicer, washing the plastic trays of the pastrami oil, mopping the rubber mats the sandwich-makers slipped on. If you weren’t careful, the slicer would take a thumb, but I liked the job, and I liked that I was old enough to have a job. I’d grown out of so much, including the time spent at my grandparent’s house. When Grandpa was sick, I stayed away because I was scared. Anyway, the dumpster was caked in grease, which made the opossums love it, and the filth goddess was the queen of opossums. The little bandits crawled out of the sewers at night, and if you didn’t lock up the lids, they’d trash the alley in the same way the filth goddess was doing now. “They buried my grandfather out there,” I said, wanting to offer her something. Flies began blotting out the sun the closer I got to her. She was a deity after all, and us humans have always known our place. It’s our duty to offer gifts to the gods. 36
“I guess you can have his body,” I said. I wasn’t ready to know deep down that whatever “he” was, was gone. The body at the funeral in the coffin was not a wax replica; that was him, devoid of life. Grandpa was not somewhere else, his mind was an aspect of his body, and now his mind was dead, his body inanimate. “He’s not using it anymore,” I said. “Or… it already belongs to you. I guess.” Her black hair was matted down with sweat and garbage juice. “Not filth,” she muttered. We’d thrown a broken tray out a few days ago, and she used it as a shovel to dig around. Her sleeves were rolled up, cotton smock covered in stains, flies like a storm cloud overhead. Everything crawled around the filth goddess—it felt like the dead cells of my skin seemed to peel themselves towards her, the un-shit waste inside my guts aching in her direction. I know that’s gross, but that’s how it felt. “How is he not?” I asked. “He’s dead. He doesn’t need his body anymore. He’s over that.” She peered over the edge of the dumpster to get a look at me, then went back to rummaging. “Has use,” she grunted. Her gaze drained the color from my vision. “The stone,” she said. “The stone matures. The one above the head. It’s useful. You’re using it. Not waste.” “The headstone?” I was talking too much and should have known better; there’s only four or five humans in history who have ever convinced a god to explain something to them, and sometimes that’s a curseable offense. The more you talk to something as powerful as the filth goddess, the more likely you are to bind yourself in some contract for your firstborn or enter an impossible riddle contest for your soul—every word is a possible trap for something fucked-up that the gods will think is funny. So I walked away. I went to throw my trash bags in the other dumpsters, but she snapped at me: “No! Bring those. Here.” She leaned over the side with her purple hand outstretched, coarse fur on her arm. Her mauve lips were wrinkled. “Give to me. Okay. Good. Yes.” I handed the bags up, and she pulled them into her dumpster, emptying them carefully. Another disgusting part: I got close enough that she made my zits pop. I was going through puberty, and the deli grease made it 100% worse. 37
“How do you know when a body’s ready?” I asked, wiping my nose with a clean dish towel I kept in my back pocket. “The name,” she said, clawing through the afternoon’s trash. “No one remembers the name. Then, no one remembers the body. If no one remembers the name, good to go. Someone remembers? Body needs more years. More years to forget. Takes up space in the graveyard, but then graveyard goes to meadow.” I took high school English, and tried to show it off to her—I was fifteen. “A memento mori?” I said. She stopped digging and her head craned up at the sun as if something important had just been written in the clear blue sky. I think the Latin upset her. She snapped out of it, looked down on me, surprised I was paying attention; “What do you want?!” she screeched. “Get outta here! I’m busy!” So, I went back inside,locked the door, and went back to work, slightly relieved that my grandfather was still real, unconsumed by the void of the filth goddess’ stomach. He was a body below a stone still being used by every aunt, uncle, cousin,every buddy from the war, his fellow managers at the furniture emporium. He wasn’t yet devoured by Tlazōlteōtl, because we, the living, still remembered. p I tried to give her things throughout the years—love letters from exgirlfriends, my diploma because I hated what I studied (Business Administration), old books that weren’t coughing out the answers anymore. But the filth goddess never appeared. Even if I didn’t want to use them, I was still using them, you know? In Chicago, I went through a pretty dark period when I considered depriving my body of oxygen using a rope, passing through the veil and into the filth goddess’ arms. One night, lying in bed, staring at the ice blue ceiling of my cramped studio apartment in Rogers Park, I wondered if the ceiling fan would hold my weight. Then I began to practice how I would explain the rope to the checkout girl at the hardware store one block over. “I’m making a tire swing for my nephew.” She wouldn’t care. Maybe I could just cut her off at the pass and say, “Haha, me? No-o-o. I’d never use this to hang myself from the ceiling fan in my apartment.” 38
A few days after those thoughts came, and went, and came again to drill at the core of my being until I couldn’t stand it anymore, I woke up from a bad dream. It was 2:30 a.m. and I was wide awake. It was Sunday. I’d been drunk all day Saturday, and now I was hyper-awake and alarmingly depressed. My heart raced. I had to get out of bed and move around, Shoes on, coat on, down the stairs to the sidewalk outside my building. I discovered it had rained. The streets were slick and bright with the orange street lamps, and the post office’s exterior lights blazed ice blue. My mind moved quickly and clumsily, ping-ponging between an all-encompassing rage at myself, loathing, and fear of what I’d do. So I started walking. As I made my way north in the humid night, I permitted a nervous habit: plucking at my beard hairs. I pulled individual strands of the beard out one by one; I did it all the time in those days. While watching TV, reading, writing, thinking, working, listening, worrying. The hard thick hairs felt the best. They were big and wiry, itchy in the skin the same way a first tooth is itchy. Yanking them out felt like relief. If I could yank the end of an impacted cuticle, there would be pus and a little blood at the end: repulsive, but the relief was pure bliss. It was like removing a splinter you didn’t know was there, realizing you’d been tolerating a great pain as normal for a very long time. My thoughts lit out toward doom. A deep part of me felt that the world was ending, and that I would have to witness the death of everything, and I plucked another hair from my cheek and cast it into the nighttime grass of the front yards in the neighborhood in which I hiked. My grandfather and I used to go on walks. That’s what he always wanted to do. He would drive over and give my mom a break from parenting so she could finish her thesis, and he and I would walk around my neighborhood, or drive over and walk the looping lanes of his, or we would drive somewhere nice, to rows of Victorian mansions where I think he had wanted to live if he’d had more money. I would chase the rabbits across the lawns, and then we’d stop at a good bench. There was a white stone one at the top of my hill, on the corner of Del Norte Avenue where we would sit quietly, and Grandpa would ask me simple things, and I would show him an interesting leaf. No one was awake in Rogers Park, but I didn’t look good: my beard had become scraggly, balding in places, and my hair was long and 39
crazed. To make it worse, I hopped the fence at Calgary—another Calgary, a different cemetery from the one my grandfather was buried in, and where my grandmother would be soon. Do all midwestern cities have a Calgary Cemetery? I wondered, pinning up my hair in a ponytail so as not to scare anyone. I was far from home in Chicago, walking the gravel path toward the lake, and I chided myself for complaining too much when I spoke to my friends about my depressive thoughts. I felt I bummed my parents out with my view of the world. I had decided a while ago that I would talk to them less about these things—so as to bum them out less—and so deeper into the hole I went. It was humid and foggy—an early summer night. I passed the cenotaphs and noticed that the L line on the western side of the cemetery was quiet; the trains stopped at 1 a.m. There were stars overhead, but I didn’t look up for fear of tripping over a stone. I rounded a path and surprised a pair of skunks, fat ones nosing around the gravel. They turned on a dime and waddled off into the bushes beside a mausoleum, frightening me as much as I scared them. My heart beat like a drum in my rib cage and my vision seemed to shimmer with unreality. She was digging near the eastern fence, near the boulevard that separated the cemetery from the lake. “They’ve been forgotten?” I said, panting in the moonlight, hiking in the grass. The filth goddess gave me the side-eye as I approached. She plied the earth with a spade shovel. The stone she was working at was so eroded and carpeted with moss that I couldn’t read the name. “If I die,” I said, not wanting to get so close but stumbling, “you won’t come to get me for a while because people will remember, right?” She plunged the spade back into the rain-wet soil, booted it down, and wrenched a fresh slab of clay from the earth to throw at my feet, freezing me in place. It was dark, and I noticed the flies less, but they were there. “I don’t know what to do.” I was bleary, still half drunk and now a little terrified. The goddess spat in the dirt and kept digging. “My grandmother can’t remember anything anymore,” I said. “She doesn’t know who I am anymore.” No response. What did she 40
care? I don’t know, I thought maybe she would know the gods of memory or something. Maybe she could talk to someone in the fifth dimension for me. “Can I stay?” I asked. “I just need to stay here for a while. Do you want someone to talk to?” Cavernous green-lichen eye sockets, purple cheeks sagging like old eggplant skin, dotted with whiskers—the filth goddess kept digging, obviously annoyed I was there but tuned in to some other radio frequency that was much more interesting than the one I occupied. “Before she couldn’t remember anything, grandma told me something about you,” I said, going for it. “She said you owe her one. You owe her something. She said she met you when she was a little girl. Margaret O’Sullivan. Detroit, Michigan, 1930-something. Do you remember that name?” The filth goddess stopped and leaned on the shovel, looking at me like an annoyed car mechanic. “I don’t work for you,” she muttered. “She was very poor. She said she met you some winter day, and you gave her a word. She told me the word, and I need to use it,” I said, out of options, wishing I could have held onto the promise longer, maybe passed it on to my children. But I spoke the word my grandma uttered one bright afternoon, as she lay there remembering the past on her hospice bed; it was a long word I didn’t understand. The filth goddess shook her head and said, “No deals like that anymore. Not since the plastics.” “Deals expire?” I asked. “Like coupons?” “Yes,” the filth goddess said, but produced a long pair of golden scissors from her smock. “Here.” She flung them into a tombstone with a loud plank, and they fell into the grass beside me. “I’m hungry,” she said, and touched her chin thoughtfully. I picked up the scissors and her flies swarmed about my wrists. The blood in my arms grew solid, my hands grew stiff, and they were purple for days after touching the metal. I felt at my beard. The waves of Lake Michigan crashed on the rocks. “Can I give you my hair?” “Yeah, sure,” she said, belching out new flies and gnats. “I’ll take a finger if you don’t need it anymore.” “Do I have to give you a finger?” I asked.
The filth goddess shook her head like, What a moron. What the fuck is this guy’s problem? “It’s your sacrament,” she said, and went back to work. I sat on the headstone of a thing once named Bryan, and bit by bit, I pulled parts of my beard out, and sliced them off as short as I could. The pieces of my hair came off like downy balls of wool tumbling into the moonlit grass. I cut my ponytail off with one slice. Carefully around the back of my neck, I cut, and cut, and felt better. There was a puddle nearby, and I used its glossy stillness to see my reflection. I used one blade to shave my face and head. It took an hour, but the darkness attained a benevolent quality, and I felt the wind behind my ears, and listened to the Lake Michigan white caps meet the cement boulders and spray the night air. “Here,” I said when I was done, and I gathered the hair up. I placed it close to the edge of the grave, on some grass so it wouldn’t get muddy. She was down to her shoulders now, nearly six feet, and popped up to grab my offering. She ate it without paying much attention, like a candy bar consumed while stressed. My lungs felt cleaner, my head felt light, but I became exhausted. “I don’t want to see my parents get old and die,” I said because the words came up and they felt right. It was as though she’d eaten my stresses and uncorked a dam. The words poured out. “I don’t want to watch the planet heat up. What if I have to watch the forests burn? What if I have to witness all the birds drop out of the sky?” I looked up at the void between the stars overhead, and felt the toil we all labor under, the debt, the lightless future—it all left through my lungs, and I was happy to be alive in the now, in the moon-blue grass, with the black iron fence, and the empty road, and the rocks breaking up the lake waves, eroding small bits of themselves away. “I don’t want to have to see it,” I said, staring up at the stars so long my neck became sore, listening to her dig in the black mud, ignoring me. “I don’t want to watch everything decay and die.” Her shovel hit a coffin lid; she stopped and caught her breath. “Hey. You. What are you still doing here?” she said. “Go. Go on.” I became un-transfixed by the sky, blinked, rubbed my eyes. I said, “Thank you.”
Lifting the coffin lid, browsing the contents like a charcuterie board, she said, “I do not work for you.” I climbed back over the cemetery wall and walked south through the neighborhoods with Beckett’s chant in my head: you must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on. I kept walking those Chicago neighborhoods as the sun began to color the sky between the buildings pink, and people appeared to take the garbage away, and the shops opened, and the trains began to carry people between night and day shifts. I walked along the lake, somehow allowing myself to feel the feelings I had kept bottled up inside: grief, despair. I got back to my apartment at 7 a.m. and laid down on my futon. I fell asleep. When I woke up, it was all still there, but less so.
O D E TO YA R M O U T H P O E T RY
Am an d a D e t t m ann i was mothered by sober women who gathered at book club to drink wine & whine about this printing press town this brick mill in Maine this waiting list yoga class sneaker-filled with sand in imperfect
& blank checks their hands Botoxed origami air Abbi didn’t get into her top college
Emma keeps inserting tampons in the wrong hole holy moly mothers with artichoke dip rosaries wet wiped marble counters those little butter knives that fit in manicured grips Got peachy keen topcoat today All out of lipstick promise, Shelley SUVs on lease parked in my driveway like bowling alley bumpers report cards sunken in Grade A leather seats Did you hear about Hannah? vodka at Clam Festival
the daughter who drank too much then drove her high school friends
home Did you hear Reddi-wipped with jesus
her brother’s balding at twenty? PTA sundaes these hairless skiing
mothers who come back of sunscreened tans the color of expired go at birth
from Sugarloaf smelling Goldfish how can they let
& stop & slow down when this town predicts your future Ivy League valedictorians volunteering
at soup kitchens for resumes for Instagram the day i turn eighteen i knock on Tracy Glessner’s historic house smell her daughter’s
hanging above the evergreen fireplace my friend it’s time for dinner come downstairs & pray for me
S A R A’ S P R I M A RY M E A D O W Ang eli c a E s quiv el
P H OTO G R A P H S O F H O W I T WA S VS. HOW IT SHOULD’VE BEEN P O E T RY
L am e e s e B a dr
Trigger Warning: Sexual abuse
i am seven a body on top of mine too dark to see i am seven a barbie in my hand and a sleepover is just a sleepover i am eight a hand inside my green skirt this time it is not too dark too see this time it is daylight this time he looks into my eyes asks how the family is i smile i look at where the hand is i don’t ask him to stop i am eight my cousins and i playing in the street and i don’t hate the color green yet my mother in a nightgown an ocean apart from everything she loves her eyes frantic her home burned down a husband still inside and a Saudi policeman telling her to cover up 46
my mother a golden tea set henna on her hands and legs flaunted never covered laughing with her mother and sisters the last time i held him my back slumped, knowing it was the last time his tight grip on my back never knowing it was the last time henna on my hands and legs gold on my wrists grandmother holding our heads al-adil wa al-zain in the background our smiles wide enough to erase this family’s prejudice my mother holding you like a son never like the one who couldn’t fill her daughter’s shoes the last time he held me his eyes hollow, knowing it was the last time mine glowing with oblivion a field of sunflowers i am twirling with all the women inside of me you love them all and we are not too much for you this time *al-adil wa al-zain: a song played during Jertik, a traditional Sudanese ceremony where the older women gather to bless the newlyweds through rituals
I ’ L L F I N D A N OT H E R U S E F O R I T Hai l l e Ma c L e o d
B A LT I M O R E O R I O L E / U N T I T L E D R a ch el C oy n e
DAW E S R O L L , 1 8 9 8 P O E T RY
Meli ss a Wab nit z P um ay u g ra Everyone wants to be Indian red, stoic, somehow innately mystical, free dental care, casino checks, wisdom, or so says a rumor in the wind. White ladies wait with bated breath to identify spittles of saliva, genetics. But it won’t change a singular headline, or rewrite reservation statistics. Where are all these people? Stolen, lost, murdered? Ancestry is a box on a college application, an HR afterthought. Will you wake up one morning and greet the day with a rain dance, or knowledge of the setting sun? Though the Earth grew on the turtle’s back, my spine grows crooked, worn with single parenthood, our family claims fractions of Indian blood. Thick with superstition, maybe we should just burn some imported white sage and call it a ceremony. Let me tell you about loss. Let me share the names of the children, sprinkled tombs, dug too shallow, I am weeping. 50
My needle punches the fabric of colonization, it continues and it belongs to you too, your 23-and-me results, a new identity. My rage boils into smoke. I don’t have enough beads left Of my Indian DNA, RNA, my altruistic soul, to memorialize the tears, hearts, bodies that were shed here, there, ever. Let me remind you why. Where all the missing indigenous live, die, dream. Too many to list, Wikipedia can’t keep up, each one vanished, forgotten. Why isn’t violence a single horrific story? Here, this world, it’s more. Cycles of this tradition, familiarity like a Father’s handprint on the face, I am ashamed and alone. Because cities still own our land piled on the backs of ancestors and elders, because Yale still won’t return Geronimo’s head, femur, dignity, because the history of this place is tampering with my elders, each nailhead solidly hammered on the backs of my people. Yours too if you dig back far enough, Dawes and all these people recording our lines, Embedded generational trauma 51
drop by exhumed drop of Indian blood. So what is the sacred circle? Death, Disease, America, treaties burned, lands harvested, displaced, government lies and inherited scars, this is what Indian blood means to me. It isn’t wrong to try to find the link between she and me, and he and they when it means the difference between appropriation and birthright. No matter what the lines reveal, Pow-wows, red earth, mirrors for whiskey, feather dances and smoke signals, I still won’t see your soul.
The Dawes Roll of 1898 established lists of people with Native American ancestry and who were eligible to claim membership in one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” that were relegated to what is now known as the State of Oklahoma. Prior to the Dawes Commission and subsequent cumulative recordkeeping, there were few widespread means of tracking direct descent from these particular tribes other than birth records, which were sometimes falsified or revised to reflect the norms of the time– caucasian superiority. 52
T H E OT H E R A N N A
E l li ot t Gi sh
T he storm has already started by the time Anna and I head back from
the lake, the snowfall blown in loops and whorls by a snarling wind. We navigate the trail bent almost double, feet skidding over ice hidden beneath shifting clouds of white. Anna’s hand is in mine, mine in hers. The two of us fall through the back door, tangled together and laughing those gasping little laughs that happen when you can’t breathe properly. “You’re pink.” Anna grins down at me. The snow in her black hair beads into water. “You’re not,” I tell her. I feel an icy trickle down the back of my neck, soaking into my sweater. I am reluctant to relinquish her hand. “You’re magenta. You’re burgundy. You’re… you’re blood orange.” “Kate, those are all different colors,” she says. Her faint accent, one of the last traces of her Polish childhood, lends a hardness to her r’s and a softness to her th’s. “Still true.” Taking a step back, I shake myself vigorously, drops of melt scattering and falling to the floor. There is a little puddle there already, spreading slowly from beneath our boots. “Let’s get warm. I’ll grab some wood from the basement.” When I first slept at Anna’s house—which is to say, when I first slept with Anna—I had been delighted to discover the woodstove in her living room. I had never known anyone with a wood stove before; having a stove that burned actual wood instead of a heater seemed like an unimaginable luxury. Now I know that the stove exists because Anna’s landlord is too cheap to fix the central heating, and that wood stoves are an incredible pain in the ass. Still, there is something enchanting about having a real fire in front of you, and something very satisfying about being the person who makes it.
It was the other Anna who taught me how to build a fire, on a camping trip many years ago. I remember this without meaning to, without wanting to, as I make my way down the flimsy basement stairs into the dark, praying as I do each time that the boards won’t give way beneath my feet, that nothing will reach up from the empty space behind the stairs to grab my ankles. I know that there is nothing there, of course, but the slow, sluggish part of my brain that activates as soon as the lights go out begs to differ. Anna’s basement is small and smells like rot. It is thick with little noises, water dripping, insects rustling, traces of living things that can’t be seen. It’s an old house, she says whenever I mention this. Things live in old houses. Half the packed dirt floor is swallowed up by a teetering pile of split logs. Like the stairs, it looks like it could collapse at any moment. I move gingerly through the dark to grab an armful of kindling from the top of the pile, then freeze. From somewhere in the basement comes another noise, a new one: a faint but unmistakable hissing, like a kettle singing in the distance. I settle the logs into the crook of my arm and squint into the darkness. The hissing comes again, louder, sharper, closer. The sound wends its way through the air towards me, then dies. I cannot see what is making it. An animal. The wind. The house settling in on itself. Or… But I can think of nothing to follow up that thought. Shaking my head, I turn back up the stairs, taking them two at a time, my logs cradled protectively against my chest. After I close the door, I slide the hook into the eye to latch it. Anna is already snug on the couch when I get to the living room, her legs tucked under a blue and red checkered antimacassar. The battered radio on top of the bookshelf is tuned to one of those adult contemporary stations with music that thins and fades into the background, the mildest counterpoint to conversation. Fiddleheads of steam curl out of a pair of mismatched mugs on the coffee table. “Coffee?” I ask hopefully, kneeling in front of the woodstove. The ashes are dead, no embers left glowing beneath them. I’ll have to start from scratch.
“Hot chocolate,” Anna replies, stretching luxuriously. She is an inveterate sprawler, always quick to take up as much space as she can with her long limbs. “Not the good stuff, though, just water and powder. I’ll make it properly tomorrow.” The good stuff is the hot chocolate she makes with whole milk and kakao, squares of dark chocolate stirred in and left to melt at the bottom of the cup. She made it for me on our first morning together, laughing when my eyes widened with that first sweet sip. There were still crumbs of chocolate at the corners of her mouth when she kissed me later. It was the Polish way to make it, she’d said, although I would later learn that sometimes she declares any way she does a thing the Polish way to do it, like when she tries to spread cold butter on toast and ends up with holes in the bread. I spare a moment to glance at the languid sprawl of her body beneath its field of checkered wool, admiring the way the light from the lamp behind her accentuates the sharp planes of her face, turning her into a creature of shadow and gold. She watches me build the fire and does not criticize my slow-moving hands or rush over to shove me out of the way and do it herself. She never does, and this is a surprise and a pleasure that I have not tired of turning over and over in my mouth, like a sweet. I find myself humming as I stack the logs crisscross on the bottom of the firebox, three layers deep, and toss in a handful of wood chips. There is an old newspaper on the coffee table, and I steal a few sheets to knot and throw on top, lighting it with a flourish. Anna mock-scowls at me. “That better not have been the sports page,” she says, but she barely gets through the sentence before her face cracks into a smile. In spite of all her boyish outdoorsiness—the hiking, the flannel, the house in the woods—Anna is not a sports person. I know that she is joking. I remind myself of this as I climb back onto the couch, pulling my half of the knitted blanket over my legs and reaching for my mug. My heart does not need to pound, my breath does not need to catch. A deep inhale draws the twin scents of burning wood and hot chocolate into my lungs. The wind lashes fitfully against the house, scouring the glass of the wide back window. It looks out onto the pines that fringe the lake, thick and dark as Anna’s eyelashes, although I
can barely see those pines through the storm. I have been here so often over the past year—it has only been a year, barely even that— that I can trace the shape of them from memory, the rise and fall of the treeline just beyond the little deck outside the door. She had a barbeque out there for her birthday in the summer, friends and family crowded together in the sun. Her people were kind, warm, curious about me. They asked me questions and listened to the answers while Anna worked the grill with the focus and intensity of a suburban dad. We stayed on the deck for hours, drinking weak cocktails in plastic cups and watching the sun sink slowly into the lake. When she was done with the grill Anna came and stood behind me, her hands resting lightly on my waist, and I leaned back into her touch, closing my eyes. That wasn’t a thing I thought to do or meant to do. It was as automatic as a blink. The other Anna once threw a party with cocktails and a barbeque. The barbeque was abandoned when it started to rain and everyone fled indoors. The cocktail was thrown into my face when I dozed off in an armchair. When I woke the next morning to the sound of someone pounding on the front door, my lashes were sticky and smelled of gin. “It’s supposed to keep up until tomorrow afternoon,” Anna says. “We might be snowed in when we wake up tomorrow.” I like the thought of that: the two of us marooned here, an island in a sea of snow. “I’ll keep the fire up,” I say. “I’ve had lots of practice.” Anna’s eyes roll in a perfect circle. They are brown, the color I have always liked the most for eyes. “You haven’t had that much practice.” “Have so. Every time I come over you get me to do it. I’m literally slaving over a hot stove for you.” “So am I,” Anna says, settling an arm across my shoulders. “Who cooked dinner?” “You did,” I admit, curling in close to her. It had been a good dinner, too—roasted squash, asparagus, venison sausage. It’s the kind of food she likes to cook, the kind that makes me feel faintly guilty, as though I am despoiling it with my plain-cheese-pizza mouth. “But who brought dessert?” Desserts are my forte. Tonight it was a strawberry rhubarb pie. The crust was too tough, but Anna ate three slices and declared it perfect.
“You did,” Anna admits in turn, very graciously, and plants a kiss on the side of my face. “Let’s stop before we end up tallying everything we’ve ever done.” I murmur an agreement, and the two of us sit without speaking for a while. Anna is no Luddite, she has a phone and a computer, but there is no television in her house to paint it with color and noise. We have learned to do without, to fill the quiet with talk and music and, sometimes, nothing at all. I was worried at one point that the lulls in our conversation meant that she found me boring, that we had run out of things to say to one another, but when I voiced that concern, she just laughed and said she liked that we could be quiet together. I reach over and touch her hair, enjoying the way it feels under my fingers. Coarse and soft at the same time, like the fur of some lovely animal. She turns a little at my touch and gives me that broad, goofy smile that always makes my own mouth unconsciously curl. Sometimes we sit together in public places, cafes and shopping malls and theaters, beaming foolishly at each other. Once an old man saw us smiling at each other like that as we waited out a rainstorm beneath an awning and demanded to know what, exactly, we were so goddamn happy about. We didn’t even answer, just burst out laughing and ran out into the rain, our feet slipping and skidding on the wet pavement. I was not allowed to touch the other Anna’s hair, which was blonde. This was a rule made clear to me on our second date, when my hands strayed upwards towards its silky length and were met with a fierce and crushing grip. Startled, I looked up into blue eyes that didn’t blink. “Don’t,” the other Anna said. Her hands, small as they were, could not completely encircle my wrists, but they could squeeze surprisingly well. “There are oils on your fingertips. It’s bad for the hair.” A log in the fire pops and fizzes, some hidden pocket of moisture hissing to the surface, and I remember suddenly the noise that had come from the wood pile. “There’s an animal in the basement,” I say. “I heard it down there earlier.” “An animal?” Anna sits up straighter on the couch, as though preparing to leap up and rush down the stairs that very moment. “What kind?”
The hiss echoes through my mind again. “I don’t know,” I reply. “I didn’t see it. But it hissed at me. A snake, maybe?” Anna raises one expressive brow. “A snake,” she repeats. There is something about the way she says it that I don’t quite like—a hint of skepticism, a dash of ridicule. Is it really there, I wonder, or do I only think it is? “That’s what it sounded like,” I say, trying to ignore her tone. “It hissed like a snake, anyway.” “Are you sure?” “Of course I’m not sure. I didn’t even see it. How could I be sure?” My words are laced with a feeling that I can’t properly describe. Irritation, partly, like the rasp of rough cloth against vulnerable skin, but more than that. My heart begins its insistent thumping again. The song on the radio switches to something new, a treacly ballad that grates on the ears. The calm has shattered. Anna shakes her head. “Kate, it’s winter,” she says, and there it is again—that whiff of something in her voice, that trace of scorn. Unless I am imagining it. “There wouldn’t be any snakes in the basement in winter. They hibernate. It could be some other animal. A racoon, maybe, or a rat. They hiss sometimes when they’re cornered. Do you think that might have been it?” I was always imagining things with the other Anna. I imagined that she promised to stop drinking, that she would start going to meetings and stop going to bars. I imagined that she came in through the door at 5 a.m., whispering to some stranger whose face I never saw. I imagined that she struck me, once, the back of her thin hand striping my cheek in pink and white, and that she blamed the blow on the sound of my voice, how high-pitched it got when I was afraid or upset. “Like a mouse,” she said. “Like a goddamned rat.” I must have imagined things, because when I told her about them later, she would insist that they never happened. It was just my silly mind, playing tricks. And so, when I say, “I don’t know anything about snakes,” it comes out sharper and louder than I mean it to. Anna flinches. “I don’t know if they hibernate or not. All I’m saying is that there was something in your basement, and it sounded like a fucking snake.”
Slowly, she pulls her arm from my shoulders. I feel every inch of it going, the cold it leaves behind, and I want it back. But I don’t know how to apologize for what just happened. I’m not even sure what I’d be apologizing for. “Do you want me to go look?” she asks. Her voice is much quieter now, nearly buried under the banshee moan of the wind. I want to say no, let’s just sit here together, warm and safe. Let’s rewind the last few minutes and record something better over them, make it so this never happened. Instead I hear myself saying, “Do you even believe me?” She blinks, frowning. “What?” “Do you think that I’m making it up? Do you think I decided to pretend I heard something, just to make you go down into the basement? Or do you think I’m crazy? That I’m hearing things that aren’t there?” The greater part of my brain, the part that is in charge most of the time, can hear the senselessness of these accusations. I am horrified even as they tumble out of my mouth, knowing how foolish they are, how mean. But to the tiny piece of my brain that is in charge in this moment, the one that is always waiting for the sky to fall, they make perfect sense. Of course she thinks I’m crazy. Of course she thinks I’m lying. Of course she wants me to believe that there is nothing there. Of course, of course, of course. Anna lets the accusations lie, her face smoothing into blankness. She knows about the other Anna—not all of it, not everything there is to know, but enough to provide shape and context to moments like these. Frantic, tearful apologies for nothing in particular, nightmares that bathe me in bitter sweat, moments during sex when I suddenly flee to the corner of the room and crouch, shaking, until whatever’s in front of my eyes has passed. Usually she holds me through it, strokes my hair, waits it out with me. But today she says, “You never say my name.” She lays this truth before me without ceremony. Here is a fact, her eyes say. Do what you want with it. “Yes, I do,” I say. I keep my gaze firmly upon her, not flinching or glancing away, the way a liar might. “I say it all the time.” I hope that this denial will be enough, that it will keep the rest of this conversation at bay, but Anna is already shaking her head. 59
The light behind her flickers slightly, and we both look at it for a moment, distracted. The flicker dies. The light stays on. “Love,” she says, turning her gaze back to me. “Sweetheart. Babe. Sugar, one time, which was kind of weird. You call me all those things, Kate, and I like them, but you never call me by my name.” There is no anger in this statement, no accusation, just a vast and quiet sadness. What can I say to her? That those two syllables feel so heavy I’m afraid they’ll rip my tongue out with their weight? That I am so broken I can’t wear headphones or hear the phone ring or wake up next to someone without lightning zipping through my bones? That names are magic, and I am afraid to say hers aloud, for fear of what it might conjure in the dark? I can’t say any of that. So I say nothing. “I’m not her,” she says, and now there is an edge in her voice. “I’m not going to do the things she did. You do know that, right?” I want to tell her that I know, that I have never once thought that they were alike, that it’s just my silly, stupid brain that gets things all mixed up. But my mouth is firmly shut, my tongue pressing hard against the roof of my mouth. I have begun to slide inside myself, to retreat to that place I used to go when the other Anna would scream at me for hours into the night. It took only the slightest raising of her voice to send me slinking into my own interior, looking out at the world from the bottom of a well. From down there I can see Anna’s face, creased now with love, with frustration, with concern. The last time I looked up and out like this was at the other Anna, the night of the party. Everyone had already left; we were alone. She knelt over me in the bed we shared, drops of spittle flying from her mouth and into mine as she whispered a dripping string of hideous things, her fingers digging into me. The sticky cocktail she’d thrown in my face was still drying on my cheeks. It was dark, too dark for me to see her well, but I could feel the ends of her hair brushing my face. The oils, I thought frantically, it’s bad for the hair. “The keys,” she hissed, her long nails carving bloody little halfmoons into my wrists. “You bitch, you whore, I know you hid them, give me the fucking keys.” 60
It’s not the other Anna in front of me now. It’s this one, the one that loves me, the one that would never hurt me. I know that, but my body doesn’t, and it will not let me speak. Anna waits, her eyes on me. “I didn’t choose it, you know,” she says finally. “I can’t help that it’s the same as hers.” There is a sudden gust of wind that shakes the house, and the power goes out. The syrupy ballad cuts off mid-syllable. For a moment my eyes are dazzled by greenish afterimages, and I need to blink a few times before the ghosts of the room around us fade away. The place is not entirely dark—there’s the glow of the fire, the battery-powered night light in the corner. I can still make out the shadowy outlines of the room. Anna curses softly, first in English, then in Polish. “This always happens,” she says, more to herself than to me, and hoists herself up off the couch. I can’t tell if she’s looking at me. I can’t tell if I want her to. “There’s stuff in the basement,” she says. “Flashlights, candles, a couple of lanterns. I’ll go down and get them. And some more logs. We’ll need to keep warm.” I don’t want her to go anywhere, not now, not when it’s dark and there’s this awful silence forcing its way between us. I want to wrap my body around hers like a vine around a tree and keep her there with me. But instead I nod, knowing she might not be able to see me, say, “Okay.” She reaches down to cup my face with her hand, her thumb brushing tenderly against my cheekbone, and I bite my lip to keep my stinging eyes from overflowing. That casual touch, warm and brief, is overwhelming. It is so strange to be treated gently, to be cared for. It is so unlike what I have learned to expect. “I’ll be back,” she says, and walks away. I hear the jingle of the hook lifting from the eye, the thump of her feet on the basement stairs. I try to keep my breathing deep and calm as the wind howls in protest, throwing snow in angry fistfuls across the night. I gave the other Anna the car keys the night of the party. No one knows that. They think she found them on her own. But after hours of fending her off, waiting for her to pass out so I could finally get some sleep, I gave in. My face swollen, my breath hitching as I tried to stop crying, I told her where they were: the bottom drawer of my dresser, 61
hidden in the jewelry box my mother gave me, the one with the panel of stained glass. It was where I always hid them when her drinking threatened to spill over into something dangerous. She’d tried to take the car before. I knew she would try again. Kneeling, she clawed through it until she had them in her grasp, jingling silver in the moonlight that streamed in through the window. It was a pretty night, in spite of the rain. I wish it hadn’t been. “You thought you could keep me here,” she said, still clutching the box. Alcohol was so thick in her voice that I could barely make out what she was saying. I was surprised that she could still stand. “Make me stay here with you. Fucking cunt.” She threw the jewelry box onto the floor. I heard the glass crunch beneath her shoes as she turned to leave, her unsteady legs taking her out the front door and into the night, away from me. I lay in bed and listened to her footsteps on the gravel, then the rumbling of an engine, then the noisy lurch of our junker car as it went over the curb and onto the road. My hands lay in fists on top of the comforter as I waited for her to return. As the hours passed, they opened finger by finger, blooming. What would have happened if I hadn’t given her the keys? I don’t think she would have killed me, although she probably would have hurt me. In another hour or so she would have passed out, and I would have gotten up for work, and by the time I came home she would have been awake and aware, ready to assure me that what I remembered from the night before had not happened at all. A reset. Everything would have been fine until the next time, the next bottle, the next bad night. The police gave me the details when they came to the door the next morning. Over the shoulder, into the woods, a tree splitting the hood neat as an axe. It was quick, they said. Probably no pain. She might not even have known what happened. She was that drunk. Still wrapped in the checkered blanket, I struggle to my feet and go to the back window, pressing one hand against the glass. The sky is a dark pool, the falling snow frantic schools of little fish. The cold is coming through the cracks in the walls and the floor, despite the fire. Shivers ripple through my body, and I pull the blanket closer, swaddling myself. 62
“Anna,” I whisper. My breath makes a silvery patch of fog upon the glass that lasts only a second before dissolving into nothing. This is my penance, this saying of her name, this plaintive murmur that she cannot even hear. This is me, on my knees. From the darkness behind me comes a hiss. I do not turn around, not at first. Instead I fold my hand into a fist, pressing it against the window until my knuckles ache. “Hey,” I say, and I hear the tremble in my own voice as I turn to look behind me. “Is that you?” There is no answer. The basement door is wide open, a yawning black mouth in the dark. Stepping away from the window is the hardest thing I have ever done, but I do it, the blanket draped over my shoulders like a cape. I can feel my blood beating hard in my wrists. I take another step into the dark, closer to the basement door, and the hiss comes again, louder, closer. A smell drifts up from that black hole: old gin and sour sweat, cortisol and sleepless nights. There is the sound of something heavy coming up the stairs. Slowly, one staggering step at a time. It sounds uneven, its legs not quite steady. It could be an animal, I think. But I know better. “Is that you?” I call again, louder now, and make myself take another step towards the basement door. I am almost close enough now to step over the threshold. I want to believe that if I do, I will see nothing but Anna emerging from the dark, her arms full of flashlights and candles. I want to believe she will take me in her arms and lead me back to the couch, that we will close the hole between us and spend the rest of the night curled up together there. Talking, laughing, making love by the faltering light of a camping lantern, our shadows blown out and bleeding into each other on the living room wall. But I know better than that, too. That hiss slithers out of the dark again, and now I hear it for what it is. It isn’t the wind, or an animal. It isn’t even really a hiss. Instead, it’s the last sound in a word, so dragged out and mangled that its meaning is almost lost. “Keys,” says the thing on the basement stairs. “Keys, keys, keys.” I know that voice. I have snapped out of deep sleep for that voice, 63
left parties and abandoned friends, started crying and stopped, too, on command. It’s a voice I recognize not just with my ears but with the moon-shaped scars on my wrist, the chip in my front tooth, the shin that aches when it rains. In spite of everything, I cried the morning that the police came. I am crying again now, effortlessly, the tears trembling at the edge of my eye before spilling down onto my cheeks. The blanket falls away from me, and I leave it on the ground. “Keys,” it says, and now the word sounds even more distorted. It could almost be something else, like “kiss.” Or “Kate.” If I step forward and look down the stairs I will see her, swaying and staggering her way towards me, her blonde hair falling into her face. I will see her smile up at me, that terrible smile that always spread so slowly across her face, like an oozing spill of oil. I will see the unnatural angle of her neck, snapped neatly on impact, and the shattered bones in her legs and hips pressing through the skin. Her hands will stretch towards me, grasping at my wrists, hoping to pull me down into the dark with her. That is what I will see if I step forward, and that is why I don’t. Swallowing around the knot in my throat, I close my eyes and say her name.
D O N ’ T F O R G E T TO C O D E S W I TC H P O E T RY
C h ani c e Cr u z When you’re in school because then you’ll be performing that New York accent say the word “dog” “water” “Brooklyn” and you’ll say, “i’m not cha fuckin’ dog” and they all burst into applause, and you left mad confused. When you’re in New York make sure you pick up your accent at your wela’s house where everything is safe, When you’re at your wela’s house you better roll them “r’s” cause you not no gringa, where there is no separation of ethnicity and race code switch so visceral, like it sits between the layers of skin and cells, and the code switch legs twitch on your muscles so there’s so many versions of you, don’t recognize your voice anymore, like you don’t know who’s the real you, don’t ever find out who the real you is or she’ll burst from the cage you have locked her in, you don’t need her anymore make sure to remember your lines.
T H E M U STA R D S E E D G A R D E N M A N U A L Mar sh a S ol om on
S W E AT E R S O V E R S A R I S P O E T RY
S amin a Ha di - Tab a ssumy When we first arrived in America My mother piled her small stack of saris On the shelves of the wooden cabinet With lock and key They were simple cotton ones With bright borders and wide pleats But over time became emblazoned With sequins, beads, and gilded lace One cabinet became two and three As trips back to India gifted more Not just for summer soirees in suburbia She wore them in winter under L.L. Bean sweaters When the children grew older She went to work in the nearby factory Replacing her saris with jeans and shirts And gray smocks with lined pockets Then the grandchildren came to visit and play So she cut up her saris into large swaths Turning them into loose dresses and gowns Abiding by the gridded patterns and tracery These magical robes of my mother Fearless in color and style Are nested in our childhood memories Of an Indian woman determined to unspool herself
S E C R E TS O F T H E D E E P S an dra Vu c i c e v i c
THERE IS A NAKED MAN IN THE CHARLES RIVER P O E T RY
O w e n E lp hi ck and a happy darkness descends upon the city. His backpack lies in the rushes and the water cups his flesh. Passersby on the trail ask him if it is cold. It is February. The people on a nearby dock have their phones out. There is a naked man in the Charles River and the grime of a thousand wrappers dances in his pores. He is not swimming to the other side, there is no one waiting for him there. Instead, he treads, shoulders rippling. It has been half an hour now, and his body floats, invisible beneath the water. A river is a kind of body. We all need to be held by some body. Somebody help. He is calling to a group of teens. Will you help me? They go to the edge. Please, he begs, please come help me. Can’t you swim in on your own? they ask. You’re treading water fine. A body goes into a river and disappears. There is a naked man in the Charles River, and the river will not 69
give him back. The people on the dock have stopped paying attention. Why did you go on in the first place? the teens ask. Because I love you, he says. They draw away, unsettled. There is a naked man in the Charles River and he wants you to join him. I mean save him. I don’t know. Some people ask to be saved. Most do not. I have lied to you. It is me on the bank, calling out to him: Why did you go in? I love you, he tells me. No you don’t, I tell him. I do, I do, he insists. No, I say. Do you want me to call for help? The shore is right there, you can reach it. He will not swim to dry land. Some people do not want to come out of the river, do not want the kiss of February on their skin, would rather soak in decades of pollution. A river is more than just a body. More than a metaphor. You may think this man is a metaphor, but I am telling you he is not, he is there, right there in the river, a few yards out from the shore, and he wants me to save him, and I will not, he says that he loves me, and I cannot accept it, will not believe in his love. There is a naked man in the Charles River, 70
and the trees are bare with winter’s end and I am trying to reach across the space between us without getting wet, without getting hurt. Ambulance lights glimmer in the corner of my eye, but it is just us now, me and the bone-cold body I will not save, treading in the depths before me, dark hair melting into his scalp, arms spread wide, rippling in and out of sight, and now the darkness is complete, and I disappear.
F O R E V E R YO U N G NONFICTION
S am ant h a Cooke
ow am I supposed to explain to our relatives that you were baptized? We’re Muslim!” This was how my nene greeted me the day after I returned from a weeklong beach vacation with my best friends. I sat at her kitchen table, plucking olives from the big salad bowl she had placed at the center. I raised my eyebrows at my little sister, Ryan, who dropped her napkin on the table and stifled a laugh. “First of all, Nene, we aren’t Muslim.” “We are Muslim, Samantha.” Nene, who was fierce and could be backhandedly mean, was also loving and kind. Where other grandmothers would bake cookies, Nene would make cucumber sandwiches for my friends and me as we swam in her pool. Nene was the most stubborn woman I knew. She didn’t run the AC in her house, so even during harsh Florida summers, we held many a conversation with sweat dripping down our foreheads. She was backward in many of her practices; she donated money to the SPCA every month but always talked about how much she hated Ryan’s cat. She was a product of her environment. She had been raised in Cyprus, a small Mediterranean island, and at sixteen, she had been married off to my dede. The conversations I had with her usually centered around her life in Cyprus and her belief that our Turkish heritage automatically meant we were Muslim. Now, the way she said it so definitively in her bright kitchen made me wonder if perhaps I was Muslim. “I don’t eat pork,” Nene continued as she set a plate of my favorite Turkish dish, dolmas, in front of me. She stared at me, and I knew she was waiting for my explanation of the shenanigans she had seen. “Nene, that video was a joke!” The video, pure evidence now that Nene thought I was a sinner, had been filmed a few days earlier by my best friend. We had spent
the entire day on the beach, a day that had stretched into the late hours of the night as we sat around our rental beach house, our skin red. “You can’t be Isabella’s godmother, because you’ve never been baptized,” Jenna had pointed out. “Let’s baptize you right now so we can make it official,” Peter had added. “I have a water bottle,” Rafe had volunteered. The four of us had been best friends for a very long time. From driver’s license acquisitions to a teen pregnancy, we had been through it all. Whenever we were together and Peter or Rafe suggested something ridiculous, I would always flash back to cramming into a two-bedroom apartment to save on rent or getting part-time jobs at McDonald’s just to get free food. “The godparents of a child also have to be baptized. Since we don’t have any other friends, you have to get baptized so you can be Bella’s godmother.” Peter had then sat me in a chair in the kitchen, while Rafe stood behind me with a bottle of water, which he dumped on my head. Peter spoke words that didn’t form real sentences, and we all laughed as Jenna filmed the video and uploaded it to Facebook. “I’m obviously not really baptized,” I told Nene. “You can’t just splash some Aquafina on someone and call it holy water.” “And Sammi doesn’t believe in God,” Ryan chimed in. Nene glared at Ryan. “Don’t say that.” Turning back to me, she added, “Well, if the relatives in Cyprus see it, we will never hear the end of it.” The year was 2011 and Nene was very new to Facebook. She thought everyone could see everything. Maybe she was onto something, as this was right around the time that Facebook started suggesting “people you may know” just because you had both been in a five-mile radius of Chipotle six months earlier. Nene also commented on everything I ever posted with the same comment: NENE LOVES YOU SAMANTHA XXXX. “Nene, the relatives in Cyprus don’t even know me. Besides, we’re not Muslim, so—” “Will you stop saying that?”
Nene walked out of the kitchen, and I knew she was mad at me. But Nene also prided herself on forgiveness, so it would pass soon enough. Growing up, we always ate dinner at Nene and Dede’s house. At the kitchen table, Dede usually talked about whatever ridiculous new story he had seen on Fox News while hate- watching. He’d tell his young granddaughters about women’s rights and how we should be proud we came from a family of “hard-working liberals.” He told us stories of coming to America with his wife and two daughters, and though it had been good to him, the recent years made him wish he had never made the journey. One notable Sunday in 2003, after Dede finished talking about how he hoped the country’s run with a Republican president would come to an end, my mom placed her fork down and took a deep breath. “Carl’s in rehab.” Just the mere mention of my dad’s name pissed off Nene, who began to rant about how “that meathead was yararsiz bir adam,” perfectly blending her English and Turkish to talk about my father’s uselessness. She did not understand exactly what rehab was, but she hoped it meant a firing squad would line up and take turns shooting at him. She even asked if she could be part of that squad. “Not in front of the children,” Dede said, his warm eyes filling with regret that his youngest daughter had married “such a man.” The rest of my adolescence was spent at that kitchen table listening to Nene talk about how much she hated my dad. “I’ll believe it when I see it” became her catchphrase when describing my father, a phrase she supported with years of empty promises he had made to my mom. Ryan had asked Nene once if she would ever forgive him, and she laughed, mumbling, “Benim ceset uzerinde.” Rough translation: over my dead body. When I was eighteen and graduating high school, my dad had been out of rehab for a few years and was living with his parents in Tallahassee. When it came time to send out my graduation announcements, my mom insisted we send one to him and his parents. She knew her ex-in-laws wrote five-hundred-dollar checks to their grandchildren at high school graduations, and I needed the money
for college. My mom laughed and said it might be cruel to only invite them for the money but she hadn’t had a full day off in ten years and she “didn’t give a fuck if it was rude.” I hoped they would just send the check, but I got a phone call the week before graduation. They would be there. When Nene and Dede heard that they would have to see not only my dad but also his parents (with whom they had never gotten along), Nene sat down calmly at her usual place at the table and folded her hands around her teacup. “Nenem,” she said to me, “Muslims believe in forgiveness.” I thought of all the times in the last few years Nene had talked about never being able to forgive my father for what he had done to us. Yet she went on to explain a Turkish tradition of forgiveness. The one initiating the tradition was to invite everyone who had ever wronged them over to their home for dinner and bask in their company, letting forgiveness for everyone’s wrongs wash over them. Though we have done extensive research, my cousins, sisters, and I have yet to learn what that tradition is or whether it even exists. It speaks volumes to us that Nene might have created it for herself. Nene had talked about her death since I was a child. Early on, she began to gather her five granddaughters around her and tell us her time was coming. She started writing our names on little pieces of white paper and attaching them to different items in her house so we would know who got what when she was dead. She told us she wanted us to play “Forever Young” by Rod Stewart at her funeral and to make sure her sister-in-law knew she had never liked her. This continued for twenty years (and counting). I was lucky; despite Nene’s rants about how she was dying and couldn’t wait to be dead, my mom was always very healthy. The same, however, could not be said for my mom’s older sister, my deyze, whose health had been declining for many years. Deyze sent us the best birthday and Christmas gifts, hands down. When I was six, she got me hooked on collecting porcelain dolls. My favorite, a doll dressed like a faerie on a swing, hung above my bed for years. On every occasion, she’d send beautifully dressed dolls with painted faces. She would bring one wrapped carefully in her carry-on each time she visited Florida from Kentucky. 75
Eventually, the frequency of her visits began to slow, the time between them growing to months and then years, until she was forced to stop coming altogether. I always knew Deyze was sick. First it was breast cancer, then an autoimmune disease Nene also had. Nene and Deyze were competing in “The Death Olympics,” my mom would joke. They would each call my mom and complain about the other— shame the other, even—for thinking they were the sickest. The week before Christmas 2014, my cousins, Shannon and Amber, called my mom. Deyze wasn’t doing well—for real this time. My mom had no extra money saved, no emergency fund to fall back on, but she took a leave of absence from her waitressing job and got on a plane to Kentucky. At the time, I was living with her—the cheaper alternative to the student housing I couldn’t afford. My mom called our landlord, let him know we needed to break the lease, and Ryan and I packed our things. With nowhere else to go, we showed up on Nene and Dede’s doorstep. We moved into their two guest rooms. I slept on a waterbed, convinced I was the only millennial who could ever say that sentence, and though I was thankful for a place to sleep, I felt suffocated by Nene and Dede’s grief. I began counting down the days until my mom would return, not realizing I was simultaneously counting down the days until Deyze died. Nene grieved, but also maintained faith that Deyze would pull through. We tried, unsuccessfully, to convince her to get on a plane to go to Kentucky. Shannon and Amber would call frequently and let Nene know that Deyze was dying. “Well, she’s a fighter,” Nene would say. And Deyze was a fighter. She was a brilliant, sarcastic woman who had raised two brilliant, sarcastic daughters by herself because she, too, had married a man who was useless. However, even the best fighters hang up their gloves eventually, and on February 6, just six days before her sixty-first birthday, Deyze died with my mom, Shannon, and Amber by her side. Later that day, Ryan and I were on the road to see Glen Hansard in concert when our older sister Rachel called us, in tears, to tell us the news. We turned the car around on I-4 and drove to Nene and Dede’s house. We walked in just as they hung up the phone with my mom. Nene cried and wailed, falling to the kitchen floor. She 76
pulled tufts of her black hair from her head and screamed that God wasn’t real. When discussing funeral arrangements days later, Shannon told Nene that Deyze had wanted to be cremated and for Shannon and Amber to travel to Cyprus to spread her ashes. When Nene hung up, she told me the plans. “At least Deyze will get to go to Cyprus! Maybe we can plan that for you and Dede as well.” Horror filled me as I realized what I’d just suggested, and I quickly added, “In, like, twenty years!” I couldn’t even begin to think about what my life would be like without Nene and Dede. Nene said nothing as she stood from the kitchen table and walked to the back door, staring at a picture of my mom and Deyze as little girls. When she turned around and looked at me, her eyes were narrowed. “But, Nenem, Muslims don’t believe in cremation.”
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