Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine issue #45
Old Dog, New Tricks
Captain of the Icarus
Stand Up for Life
poetry Marie-AndrĂŠe Auclair
Macon, Georgia, 1955
Dreams of Dead Women
First Communion Day
Fourth of July
How do you lose
What the Gun Eats #111
I-122, Drive Song
Nancy A Jackson
James G Piatt
Robert Joe Stout
The Widow Hansen Remembers Her Husband 17 Daniel James Sundahl
The White Island
Wittgenstein at Hutteldorf
Engine 126 Bryson City
Sunset Mt. Pisgah 2015
Into the Unknown
Renaissance Renewed, Ole
Surrey BC, Central Mall North Entrance
Samantha Lashelle Fortenberry
W Jack Savage
images Peggy Baker
cover: Samantha Lashelle Fortenberry, Counterpart VII
Editor's Note This, our fifth issue, offers some outstanding writing and images. The multi-talented Susan Emshwiller contributes two stories. There is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek essay by Marco LoVerso. And among our poets we count Pat Daneman, Daniel James Sundahl, Robert Joe Stout, and Nels Hanson. Former locomotive mechanic Peggy Baker marries her enduring love of trains to her skill as a photographer, and we have vibrant ink and watercolor works from Canadian artist Allen Forrest. Although we accept work from anyone, anywhere, we do encourage senior writers to send us submissions. This issue continues to reflect strongly the astute and sometimes intense and penetrating insights of those living life's second half. Enjoy!
Stand Up for Life I enjoyed my career as a university English professor and dean. But there were aspects of my job that challenged my sense of humor. Having to be in the office every day by 8:00 a.m. was an unwanted discipline. Attending an unending series of meetings with overly chatty colleagues was often exasperating. And marking piles of undergraduate papers—most of which were rich in syntactical oddities, gross sins in grammar and punctuation, and insults to logic and intelligence—was tiring and often sleep inducing. Over the years, these various irritants joined forces and finally produced in me a deliciously acute pain in the backside. I tried to reduce it, but it never went away. The odd thing, though, was that I survived and even managed to maintain my health. This was a mystery to me. “How can I be well,” I thought, “if I’m walking around with this torturous discomfort?” Now that I’m retired, I know that the question answers itself: the pain in my rear was forcing me to stand up and walk. My research has taught me that one of the greatest obstacles to a long and healthy life—besides slipping and drowning in the Jacuzzi with a glass of wine in your hand or choking on a piece of artisanal toast overloaded with Baba Ghanouj—is sitting. Sitting too long, the experts tell us, has the effect of slowing the metabolism, which compromises the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar, process fat, and control blood pressure. It can also lead to a weakening of the muscles and bones. The surprising news is that regular exercise does not offset the negative effects of prolonged sedentary existence.1 If you spend most of your time every day sitting or lying around—for example, two hours commuting in your car, eight hours at a desk job, one hour in the Jacuzzi sipping Pinot Noir, three hours on the couch watching TV and eating snacks, and eight hours sleeping (that’s twenty-two hours off your feet)—then even a daily one-hour jog or gym workout is not going to save you. You will age faster and die sooner.
When I was working at my university job, I may have been overtaxed by stress, but I spent much of my workday on my feet: I walked the 150 meters from my car to my office building. (“Big deal,” you say. Wait—It gets better.) I never took the elevator but instead climbed the stairs up and down from the third floor several times during the day. I always taught standing up. And whenever I got anxious, I would leave the office and just saunter about the campus—thinking about work, of course; I was being paid, after all. Things are different now. I’m not teaching, which means 150 minutes per week less of teaching-standing time. I’m not administering, which means 450 minutes per week less of nervous-pacing-in-my-office or aimless-wanderingthe-halls-while-wringing-my-hands time. I have forty-six less stairs to climb: at an average speed of two steps a second, that’s twenty-three seconds up and twenty-three seconds down—so a total of 46 seconds multiplied by six times a day = 276 seconds or 4.6 minutes per day. That adds up to twentythree weekly minutes of stair climbing that I’m missing by working at home. And to make matters worse, since I no longer enjoy the pleasures of constant meetings and conferences, when I become sleepy I tend to shuffle (no climbing involved) into the bedroom to take a nap—usually twenty minutes, so that’s a total of one hundred minutes each week. In sum, retirement has produced activity debits adding up to 723 minutes (12.05 hours) per week, or 2.4 hours each weekday. I still spend about eight hours every day reading and writing—what else is a retired academic supposed to do? The question is, how can I put in those eight hours at the books or the computer and still achieve healthy longevity, especially now that every weekday I’m missing 2.4 hours of calorie-burning activity? I’ll admit that the question did not occur to me at first. I so much enjoyed the new freedom from scheduled classes and administrative duties —every day was like Saturday— that I’d do my reading and writing in an easy chair or at my desk. After a while I found that I wasn’t working efficiently. Sitting in these “comfortable” positions tended to make me sleepy. And I eventually developed tension and pain in my back, neck, and head. This made sitting at
the computer even more uncomfortable. I thought that retirement had freed me of the pain in the bottom. But it hadn’t totally gone away. It had just migrated north and turned into one massive pain in the neck. When I went for my yearly physical, I reported my pain to the doctor. To be on the safe side, he sent me for a CT scan of my head. This was a rewarding experience because the technician in the imaging lab was one of my ex-students, who told me that he had learned a lot from me. “Great!” I thought. “Maybe I shouldn’t have retired after all.” That sentiment didn’t last long as I was being inserted like a human torpedo into the CT scanner. “What am I thinking,” I thought, as I closed my eyes to fight off claustrophobia. “I’ve worked long enough. Best to focus on my aging body.” I am happy to report that the scan found nothing in my head (which would explain my inability to come up with new ideas at times). The doctor concluded that my problem must be “cervical strain.” He gave me three options: “I could send you to a massage therapist, to an acupuncturist, or to a physiotherapist. Which will it be?” I hate it when doctors do that. He’s the medical specialist. He should know what to do. I looked at him quizzically. “Tell you what,” he said. “I’ll give you a prescription for massage therapy and one for physiotherapy, so you can go to either one or both, if you like.” I found that solution somewhat helpful: he had narrowed it down to two options; and I was skeptical of acupuncture, anyway. But I didn’t want to reject totally the wisdom of the Orient. I remembered that Confucius said that “time flows away like the water in the river.” I was inspired by that image and decided to flow like water and follow gravity along the easiest course: there’s a physiotherapy center in the basement of the same clinic where my doctor works; so I started to favor physiotherapy. It proved to be the right choice. The physiotherapist was able to diagnose the problem: he determined that a few of the joints in my spine were locked, which led to the surrounding muscles losing flexibility and tightening up, thus provoking the pain in my neck and up around my head. According to him, “pain is a liar”—meaning that it manifests itself in places that are not the
actual locations of the problem. I might be experiencing pain in the back of my head and then around to my forehead, but the real first cause of the pain is lower down, in my spine. To illustrate this idea, he liked to cite the example of the phantom pain experienced by amputees: for instance, a foot has been removed, but the person still experiences a pain that seems to come from the foot. I’m not sure why he mentioned this example, since I was obviously not an amputee: my head was still attached to my shoulders, so we both knew that my head pain was not a phantom pain. But I was relieved to have him confirm what the CT scan had already suggested—that my head was not causing the pain. The second advantage of the physiotherapist is that, unlike some more gentle massage approaches, the former’s techniques incorporate a more robust torquing of the spine. He will start by assessing my cervical rotation. Then he’ll perform a number of maneuvers to loosen the vertebral joints: pulling on my head (I think this is making me taller), applying pressure to problem spots along the spine, and having me hug myself, rolling me over a bit, and then, while holding one of his arms around my back with his hand locked on my backbone, coming down with his full weight onto my chest, effectively expelling all of the air out of my lungs and producing a loud cracking sound. “What’s that,” I said the first time he did it, while catching my breath. “That’s the joint unlocking,” he said. Then he’ll do something similar to my neck, but in a sneakier way. He’ll massage my neck and manipulate my head much as you’d test a cantaloupe for softness—then snap! He’ll rotate the neck to produce another crack—in the same way a ninja does to dispatch someone stealthily, with the difference that I am not dispatched but, instead, very relieved that my head is still attached. The third point in the physiotherapist’s favor is that he provided a reasonable explanation for my cervical inflexibility: bad posture—specifically, the curved position that we tend to assume when we sit at a computer for hours at a time, day after day after day. Admittedly, a massage therapist had commented on my bad posture years ago, but like a rebellious teenager, I
wasn’t ready to appreciate the problem then. By the time I went to see the physiotherapist, my neck and head discomfort had progressed to the point that I was forced to mature and to admit that I was responsible for my miserable state. I had to regain flexibility in my spine by getting up from my “comfortable” sedentary lockdown. I should have remembered the importance of standing in the story of humanity. Going back about 1.9 million years, the first human-like creature was homo erectus (erect man), whose longer legs and shorter arms with respect to his torso made him unsuitable to dwelling in trees and better adapted to standing, walking or running long distances, and using tools (fossil records associate him with the development of the first stone hand axes). These characteristics made homo erectus an extremely adaptable and longlived species: longer-lived, my research tells me, than our own species—homo sapiens (wise man).2 This information suggested to me that, if longevity is the criterion, then being erect trumps being wise (those readers who see an obscene implication in this conclusion, one word—you should be ashamed of yourselves!). But this is clearly wrong: just remember that homo erectus produced nothing more sophisticated than the stone axe, whereas homo sapiens is responsible for the wheel, the printing press, nuclear fission, the keyless drill chuck, and a whole slew of other technological innovations. It follows that the best approach —as in politics and marriage— is compromise: we need to follow the lead of both homo erectus and homo sapiens. The former has taught us the importance of standing to achieve longevity. The latter has developed techniques and technologies that allow us to work more efficiently. The first of these techniques evolved from the example of homo erectus, with the difference that whereas that early hominid walked while axing a prey to death, homo sapiens learned to do intellectual work while walking. This is the approach favored by Aristotle, who taught his pupils as he paced among the columns of the Lyceum: hence the name of his philosophy — Peripatetic— a term that could derive from the colonnades (peripatoi) of the
Lyceum or from the Greek words for to walk (patein) around (peri). Since the time of Aristotle, there has been a strong tradition of associating walking with the creative intellectual life. We see evidence of it in 1888 in Frederich Niezsche’s book Twilight of the Idols, where the philosopher argues, in response to Gustave Flaubert’s preference for the sedentary life, that “Only thoughts reached by walking have value.” This might sound narrow minded (Is Nietzsche suggesting that paraplegics and long-haul truck drivers can never have worthy ideas?), but if the attitude is limited just to people like Flaubert, then it has some weight: remember that Flaubert spent most of his time not only sitting but also lying in bed with prostitutes, who provided him with a life-long case of the clap. This, according to one of my pet theories, has much to do with Flaubert’s decision to punish Emma Bovary’s sexual improprieties and self delusion by killing her off with arsenic poisoning. Moral of the story: if you spend too much time sitting at a desk or lying with prostitutes, you will be less healthy and, if you write novels, you will project your moral shortcomings onto your heroines and treat them vindictively. By contrast, in our own day, Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic has demonstrated how to avoid the pitfalls of the sedentary life. He is the obesity researcher who observed that, in a controlled population of people who were all fed an extra 1000 calories per day, some remained lean and did not gain weight because of a factor that Levine calls NEAT: non-exercise activity thermogenesis. That is, these lean people are able to maintain the body’s ability to produce heat (thermogenesis) and thus burn calories, not by going to the gym or doing other structured exercise but by being on their feet and moving throughout the day. Typically, lean people are up and about 2.25 hours per day more than obese people.3 As a result of this research, Dr. Levine has become an advocate for finding ways to change our sedentary habits. It is he, in fact, who invented the first treadmill desk. And it’s also worth noting that, in addition to his scientific research, Levine is a writer who has produced two novels recently: The Blue Notebook (2009) and Bingo’s Run (2014). Both deal with young protagonists who are challenged by very
violent and ugly realities. But neither one commits suicide; each survives. We can only conclude from this that if you write a novel about poverty, prostitution, drugs, and crime while working at a treadmill desk, chances are you will not be tempted to kill off your protagonist in a painful way. Having recognized that, I’m still not convinced that I wish to invest in Dr. Levine’s treadmill desk. I can see the value of this invention for thinking and reading. However, I don’t think that walking while working on the computer is for me because when I walk I tend to swing my arms, so I suspect that I’d end up spilling my medicinal Scotch or making more typing errors than usual. I’m more tempted by a second invention (which Dr. Levine also advocates, by the way): a desk that is tall enough to allow one to work while standing still. This is a break from homo erectus, who clearly could not content himself with simply standing immobile with his axe in hand, because chances are he would never get within striking distance of his dinner that way. Such is not the case for the modern thinker/reader/writer, who is chasing, not mammoths and other ambulatory meat sources, but ideas and information, which are easily caught in written documents that can be placed within reach on a standing desk. Leonardo da Vinci used one in the fifteenth century; as did Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in the eighteenth century; Napoleon and Charles Dickens in the nineteenth century; and in more modern times, Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and Vladimir Nabokov.4 Granted, not all of their desks were marvels of furniture design. Hemingway, for instance, just placed his typewriter and reading materials on a belly-high bookcase that stood against the wall a few feet from the foot of his bed.5 This does not strike me as a very comfortable arrangement. And I suspect that having to face the wall while writing might have contributed to Hemingway’s bouts of depression. (Remember what happened to Melville’s Bartleby the scrivener, whose habit of staring at the wall just outside his office window drove him to a state of unsociability, physical inertia, and death.) A more dynamic desk —and therefore one more reflective of the
wisdom of homo sapiens— was the adjustable desk invented by Thomas Jefferson in the eighteenth century. Jefferson realized that even though standing is a good idea, standing absolutely still is not: the human body needs some motion from time to time. So he came up with a standing desk with a top that was hinged so that it could be inclined at different angles; and it also included at the front a pullout section that provided an additional flat work surface. I like this idea of a standing desk, particularly as it has evolved in recent times into the vertically adjustable work area that can be raised or lowered to allow one to stand for a while, then sit for a rest when fatigue sets in, and then stand again when guilt takes over. There are several versions of this kind of desk, with a variety of systems for changing the desk height. One Canadian company lists the following types:6 there is the desk with a manual crank; the desk with an electric motor; the desk equipped with a sophisticated “float” technology that allows the worker to quickly change the height by pressing a lever and effortlessly moving the desk up or down a vertical column; and then there is the quick stand, which sits on your existing desk and can be lowered or raised by squeezing the hand locks and moving the work surface to the desired height. Another company offers an even cheaper version of the quick stand model, cheaper because it is smaller—just the right size for a lap top computer.7 I have chosen this last option. And I am happy to report that it has improved my daily life significantly. In fact, I am using it at this very moment as I type this essay. I am standing, barefoot on a cushiony rubber mat, and facing my front yard and the houses across the street. This, by the way, is an unexpected benefit of the standing desk. Whereas when I sat at my desk I could see just the tops of trees and the sky, now in addition to those things, I can also observe (like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window) any pedestrians approaching my house and several of my neighbors’ living rooms. But that’s by the by. The real benefits are physiological and medical: my posture is much improved; the pain in my neck has all but disappeared; and if
the calorie calculator at juststand.org is correct, I am burning 340 calories per day more than if I were sitting while working.8 This is important because my last physical checkup reminded me that my weight has been creeping up of late. It makes me feel self-satisfied to know, as I shift my weight and squish my feet into the soft rubber mat while typing and spying on my neighbors, that I am also burning off unwanted fat and extending my lifetime by who knows how much. Thank God for that! And more mundanely, thank you homo erectus, Thomas Jefferson, and Dr. Levine! With a vigorous appreciative nod (now that Iâ€™ve gained neck mobility) to my physiotherapist! See, for example, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3404815/. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History: http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-erectus. 3 See, for example, the report in Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/killer-chairs-how-desk-jobs-ruin-yourhealth/. 4 See, for example, http://notsitting.com/standing-desks/general-info/famous-people/. 5 See, for example, http://www.openculture.com/2013/10/ernest-hemingway-standingdesk.html. 6 Ugoburo: see http://www.ugoburo.ca. 7 Varidesk: see http://www.varidesk.com. 8 See http://www.juststand.org/tabid/637/default.aspx. 1 2
Marco LoVerso Marco LoVerso is Professor Emeritus of English at Concordia University of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada. His recent publications have appeared in More Sweet Lemons, Descant, The Centennial Reader, Accenti, Italian Canadians at Table, Twisted Vine Literary Arts Journal, and Salon II.
Renaissance Renewed, Ole
mixed media: ink contĂŠ watercolor
Legend He will be born in a village in Poland. . . . I. B. Singer
The wind begins in the low forest where crooked, yellow-streaked toadstools hunch beneath the shadows of murmuring ferns. The smell of swamp wood rises and clings to the shuddering trees. An animal whistles and is answered by the wind. Then the forest, suddenly, is still. A voice. Not deep, sinewed with thunder as one imagines a prophet, but shrill, distorted, like a violin being played too fast. Slowly the rocks, knobbed and lichen-crusted, shoulder their petrified burdens and the mist around them condenses into shadows that once might have been men. A gnarled, limping creature with a jagged face and eyes of glimmering coals steps into the ring of swamp grass. His long fingers dig at figures dissolving in the breathless air. He snaps them and a fire begins. The ferns writhe and disintegrate beneath his dainty, hairless, pointed feet. His laughter shakes bats from their roosts; his cries awaken maidens from their tossing, restless sleep and they grunt, or shriek, choke on the sudden sweet mist as those images of themselves--spirits-are yanked abruptly away and abruptly return. Except one. She awakens in the bed of ferns; her gown dissolves; her limbs rise unwilling to his fingers of fire, his lips of ice. Waves wash around her thoughts in tumultuous singing. In the depths of the forest,
a lone beast screams, then all is silent. She rises from the thicket still bleeding and lifts one hand towards the dripping moon and stars that glisten like drops of ice on a ravaged toadstool. Robert Joe Stout lives in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Robert Joe Stout
Oaxaca Winter Legs tightened from an up hills run I squinted past the bougainvillea shimmering in bursts of wind that seemed to change direction on a whim. Wistful clouds gave way to sun, a momentary glow interrupting time and space as I, no longer arms and legs and chest and head, soared to something else out there, fulfilled and wonderful and warm. And then came back to stand alone, shivering in the cold. Robert Joe Stout
The Widow Hansen Remembers Her Husband He had a touch for flowers. You wouldn’t think so, looking at his hands or hearing him on shipboard with his rough talk. He liked roses—but more the daffodils: He’d dig the bulbs up every fall, separate the biggest ones and plant them closest to the porch. He gave each one a funny name—Lars or Thor or Tingvoll, things like that—and bet which ones would have the biggest blooms. When he got home, he’d pace around the house. Fix the stove. Put new railings on the porch. The only thing he couldn’t do, I think, was talk about nice simple things like food and clothes and church. The house seemed different with him gone. I’d sew and clean and visit friends. When he’d come back I’d ask about his trip and he’d recite times and lumber, passengers and engine parts, not wind so fierce it cracked the masts, or numbing fog, protruding rocks, engine aflame, rain beating down —none of that. Once, hurt or mad, I cried how hard it was for me, him out there on a wave-slammed ship where he could lose his life and me not knowing with each kiss goodbye if it would be our last. Slowly he nodded --almost as if he understood—then took my hand. I’m safe out there. I know the sea the way a logger knows the land… “Some don’t come back…” I pouted and he laughed—quiet little puffs of air I felt against my cheek. Some don’t come back from axing trees or going into mines. It’s what I do—what I do best. I left it there, like something dead —and waited, waited for that tip of sail, dockmaster’s bell, “The Svea’s come home!” to live again, to breathe, to know he’d made it back. Robert Joe Stout
The White Island But when the flame of Hephaestus had utterly abolished thee, lo, in the morning we gathered together thy white bones, Achilles, and bestowed them in unmixed wine and in unguents. Homer, The Odyssey
The first death was the death of a friend, Then the father, another friend, another, Each one different, each one brooded over. A glazing of pores, a shriveling of skin, The eye fading into vagueness, expanding, Then the streams of Oceanus, the White Rock. Is there benevolence, he wonders, in the ordinary Offered as a gift filling the blade-thin spaces Where the breath comes dumb and the throat Furls and fractures then chokes off in silence? He remembers how he loved the white skin, The whiteness that moves the word heart From beneath his tongue, the words he'd say to her, Soft, gentle, a vision of never fitful delicacy. Then it came to him again today, re-reading His own lines in which he dreamed of warmth, The dream of pure enjoyment invoked in February, Saw her, smelled her, unfastened the necklace, The earrings, the rustle as the dress slid down. And so remembered suddenly that same morning, The cold, the snow thin, powdered, the mourning dove Lying there in a gray blotch, him saying illusion, But settled among the oat fields and stalks, Alive as his own anxiety, thick, hampered, clogged. Luxurious of feathers but maimed or so the one small Spot of blood on the snow seemed to say. The poem he has been writing speaks of this, The laws of life, the waiting for fulfillment, The sharp severing of one's self from one's tasks, The journey to the place where life is simple, decent, Where lovers live on open wings, feathered, luminous, Where the breathing words are the heart's reception. Daniel James Sundahl Daniel James Sundahl is Emeritus Professor at Hillsdale College where he taught for 33 years.
Wittgenstein at Hutteldorf The monks are awake in the middle of the night, Worshipping their anguished God. Morning will come and once again They will warm their bellies and wonder About that feeling growing upward from the groin. What makes it possible for this worship To represent their faith in another world? The icons and statues could be manipulated To depict in different ways what might have taken place. God, I believe, must somehow show us His sense, Be something other than an extremely general fact of nature, Or spirit substantiated into matter. Father Superior calls it my "logical compulsion." Father tells me to let each day Lead me to the next, and to the next, From the coolness of morning to the coolness of evening. If I were more casual And if the clamor of my senses Did not so much disturb my thoughts, I could join these everlastings. I remember a poem written for a blond girl; The brightly joined rhymes were stolen, Wings rhyming with sings. Lord it is time now; Someone is being buried Beside the monastery's garden wall. Something dwells in the thick darkness, Finer than what gives light its shape and substance. Daniel James Sundahl
Even So I have my doubts about the Buddha I heard he went out in the middle of the night for a pack of cigarettes and never came back. I know there are other stories out there floating around but thatâ€™s what I heard I heard that he slunk back in years later seeking forgiveness from the family who had somehow managed to chop wood and carry water all those years without the blessing of his daily presence. Diana Decker Diana Decker's work has appeared in Silver Birch Press, Poppy Road Review, Verdad Journal of Literature and Art, The Avocet, Mothers Always Write, KY Storyâ€™s anthology Getting Old, and deLuge. Diana writes, sings, and counts the birds on the small farm in western New York that she shares with her husband.
Mission Wickedly clever, they were the old church-makers pulling us into the cool whispery chamber through these thick oak and iron doors that can only be opened by others Devious see how my faithless fingers move of their own accord to the font and, if no one is watching, sign the cross I cannot help but look upward at the glass-eyed saints, misrepresented and mute, who have no way to tell their true stories now hands held out, palms empty as if to say that none of us understand the first blessed thing which of course is absolutely true Poor dear saints, they have no way to warn us against spending a single moment longing for a shimmering beyond no, not while the sacrament of now anoints our heads and washes our feet. Diana Decker
Into the Unknown
What the Gun Eats #111 The judges are sad. They should be angry. The people that used to make decisions regarding the fates used to hold gravitas, used to demand truth above spectacle. I blame the television, but I love the television. Okay, I want strength in our court programming. I want the absurd light of an almost actor to make speeches that I write condemning the sellers & the shooters. Darren Demaree Daren Demaree's poems have appeared, or are scheduled to appear, in numerous magazines and journals, including the South Dakota Review, Meridian, The Louisville Review, Diagram, and the Colorado Review. He is the author of As We Refer To Our Bodies, Temporary Champions, The Pony Governor, and Not For Art Nor Prayer. He is the Managing Editor of the Best of the Net anthology. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, with his wife and children.
Captain of the Icarus My old friend and I had just finished an excellent meal. We sat back with a bottle of Laphroaig, telling sailors’ stories and reliving our youth. After a time a more recent event came to mind. “You remember the Icarus?” I asked. “Of course. Container ship. Lost with all hands in a storm off the Bahamas. Maybe two years ago.” “Exactly. That sinking really bothered me. Thirty-three people dead.” “I know. What the hell was he doing there? I figured the official inquiry would work it out.” “That’s what everyone thought. But when I looked into it no one was making any progress. And, as a mariner, the incident offended me. It should never have happened. I needed to know why. Anyway, I had some time, so I decided to look into it myself. Turned out to be the damnedest thing I ever ran into.” With that I sipped my single malt and proceeded to tell him my story. ### I thought the logical place to start would be with the shipping company that owned the Icarus. Turned out to be one Pegasus Shipping, operating out of San Juan. It was a fairly large company, running fifteen ships under the US flag. No flag of convenience, no shoddy one ship tramper operation. The next thing I did was call their corporate office and ask to speak with the head of operations. When his secretary found out what I wanted, she shuffled me off to their head of “Corporate Communications.” In other words, the PR guy. We talked for over an hour. I asked about the Icarus and how its course had been determined. He talked about the regulations under which the company operates, the Coast Guard inspections, licensing requirements for officers, and a great deal else I either already knew or could not have cared
less about. After several attempts to redirect the conversation, I gave up, thanked him for his time, and hung up. Then I picked up the phone and called Richard. Richard is one of the wealthiest people in the maritime world. I knew him when he was just starting out. That was before he grew his fleet and took the company public-making a very large fortune in the process. Years ago I had done a bit of work for him. I figured he would be grateful enough to at least take my call. I caught him on his yacht. I think it was tied up in Capri or some other pretentious place his wife favors. I told him of my curiosity and the reception I had gotten from Pegasus. He told me he knew the owners and that I should wait for their call. That was that. The next day I got a call from one Ari Rosen, owner of Pegasus. He said he had heard from Richard and asked how he could help. I told him I wanted to talk frankly with his head of operations, and why. He said he would arrange it, as a favor to Richard. Two conditions. All discussions would be strictly confidential, and no documents would change hands. ### I had to finish a small report for one of the Miami cruise lines. That kept me in Florida for the rest of the week. The next Monday I flew to San Juan. Tuesday morning I met with Magnus Sorensen, Pegasus’ Vice President for ship operations. He turned out to be a stout, ruddy Norwegian with thinning gray hair. As I entered his office he peered at me over those funny half glasses some people wear for reading. Then he pulled them off, reached awkwardly over his desk, and offered his big callused hand in greeting. I shook it and sat down in his leather visitor’s chair. It turned out he was a former Chief Engineer. Had sailed with Klaveness for a while. We knew some people in common and he seemed comfortable with talking with me. “Mr. Rosen told you I’m interested in the Icarus?” I asked. “Yah. He also said this was all confidential.”
“That’s fine. I don’t want to make any trouble. It’s just driving me crazy how that ship ended up where it was. I know no captain who would have put her there.” “To tell the truth, I agree. . .” I didn’t know what to say to that. This was the man who ultimately had veto power over the ship’s course. How could he not know? “So tell me what happened.” “Well, you know, I wasn’t dealing directly with Captain Thomas. We had a superintendent, Lars Pedersen. He was the one who dealt with the whole mess.” Sorensen went on, “We knew about the storm. They called it Irene. About the time the Icarus was sailing from Jacksonville it had blown up to a category two with winds of about 85 knots. Nothing to fool around with. . . . I asked Lars to keep an eye on it and to let me know what Thomas planned to do. At sailing time he came to me with the ship’s passage plan plotted on a paper chart.” “So you knew the course he planned?” “Of course. Pedersen and I looked it over. At that point the storm was blowing up east of the Bahamas and, like usual, was forecast to move west toward Florida. Thomas had charted a course west of the Bahamas. His plan was to get through the Florida Straits before Irene passed through.” “Would have been better to have gone out east and stayed away from it.” “Of course. And if that’s what Thomas had put up, that’s what we’d have done. Captain’s still the Captain in this company. At least within reason. . . . As it was, his plot kept him at least sixty-five miles from the storm’s center. It should have been enough. It also saved two days on the passage to San Juan.” “And so it saved you a fair bit of money. . . .” “Ah, shit, you think that’s what happened? Bullshit.” His cheeks got even redder.
“Sorry. I don’t know what happened. That’s why I’m here. Please go on.” “Hell, if he’d stayed to the course we approved he’d probably been fine. The storm got worse. By the time it hit the straits is was a cat three and blew over a hundred knots. No place for a forty year old ship. But never mind that. If he’d stayed his course I believe he’d have made it.” “You mean he changed course?” “Found out later. Eight hours out of Jacksonville he changed course ten points to the east. Aimed the ship right at the center of the storm.” “My God.” I sat and thought about that for a minute. What sailor in his right mind would do such a thing? It was against all the experience and training that goes into a Captain’s education, into his soul. “What can you tell me about Captain Thomas?” “Adam Thomas. Seemed like a thorough seaman. At least as thorough as you Yanks can get. . . .” With that he gazed at me over the tops of his half glasses, and showed a little grin. “He was a King’s Point graduate. Worked his way up the ladder and got good ratings from his Captains. Got his own ship when he was only thirty-five, which is pretty young these days. Over the next few years he became the fair-haired boy. Ship always on time. No deficiencies during inspections. On top of it, the crew seemed to like him. Not easy to find a guy like that.” We talked for another hour. Sorensen showed me the last inspection reports for the Icarus. The first was her annual Coast Guard inspection from March of 2014. The second was the survey of the classification society, done in June of that year. Both found a few deficiencies which were small enough to be deferred to the ship’s next dry-docking, in 2015. All routine stuff. In September 2014 the Icarus sailed into Hurricane Irene. Sorensen was as confused as everyone else. He was working with the authorities as they tried to figure out what had happened. They still had not recovered the black boxes that would give them more details, even though the wreck itself had been located, sitting on the sea floor in fifteen hundred
feet of water. The more we talked, the more he simply shook his head in disbelief. At one point I asked about Pedersen, the superintendent. Was he available? Sorensen told me he had left the company about a month after the sinking. “I think he took it personal,” was all he would say. He didn’t know where Pedersen had gone. Aside from that, only one other curiosity emerged from our discussion. While browsing through the file from the Icarus’ last voyage, I read an email sent from the ship’s agent in Jacksonville. Apparently an able seaman, Joshua Harding, deserted the ship just before departure. According to the report, he simply walked off, leaving all his gear, documents, and clothing in his fo’csle. Now, desertions happen. But to leave everything, and just before sailing, is very strange. The man would likely lose his job for life. I made a mental note of the seaman’s name. I thanked Sorensen for his help and his honesty. I knew many others would not have been as forthcoming. Still, after several hours of talk, I only had more questions about how the Icarus found herself in the middle of a major hurricane. . . . ### When I got back to Miami my email contained an offer for a consulting assignment involving a ship under construction in Genoa. That kept me away for the next month or so. Still, I could not forget the Icarus. ### Upon my return, I made up my mind to try to find either the superintendent, Pedersen, or the missing able seaman, Joshua Harding. Sorensen had said he didn’t know where Pedersen had gone. Harding had to be a union member so I thought it might be easier to track him down. I made a quick call to the Seafarer’s International, and asked to speak with the President, Angelo Acardi. I had known him as an organizer back in the sixties. A tough brawler who never backed down. Anyway, he took my call and we laughed about old times, and then I told him what I wanted. He called
his secretary and she looked up Harding’s file. As I expected, the company refused to ship him again. Harding was pushing the union for help, but Acardi had little stomach for it. However, he did have an address in Charleston, South Carolina. He was happy to give it to me for old time’s sake. I found Harding tending bar in a sailors’ tavern outside the Columbus Street Container Terminal. I had almost forgotten those places still existed. It was one of those old brick buildings, probably an old warehouse, with wooden floors and a juke box in the corner. Now it catered to longshoremen ducking in for a quick hit, and sailors from the nearby docks who never get farther ashore than the nearest dive. I approached the bar, ordered a draft beer, and when it arrived, asked the bartender if he was Josh Harding. He took a step back, looked me in the eye, and simply said, “I am.” In general, sailors tend to value their privacy, so I’d expected more hesitation. I told him what I wanted and was not ashamed to hint that helping me might benefit his cause with the union. “Look, I don’t mind talking, but there’s a shift change at the terminal in ten minutes. Then I’ll be slammed. I’m off in an hour. Can you come back?” I said I would. If he’d wanted a chance to run, I had just given it to him. I came back in an hour. A new man was behind the bar. When he saw me he pointed toward a corner table, where I found Josh Harding sitting with two pints of beer. I sat down across from him and he pushed one of the beers my way. Before I could say anything he simply asked, “So who the hell are you?” I explained a bit of my story and my, by now, obsession with the loss of the Icarus. I told him the union had given me his address. “You’ve been a sailor?” “For a while.” “Then maybe you’ll understand.”
“So tell me. But tell it all. Start with who the hell are you.” I could tell from the beginning he was better spoken than the average sailor. He explained he had graduated from University of Florida with a degree in English Lit. “And then what should I do? I bummed around for a while, thinking I was Jack Kerouac, you know? Then I figured out I better find some work. I remembered an uncle who’d been a sailor and still worked for the union up in Maryland. During the Gulf War they needed people, so he set me up with the papers and got me a job as an ordinary seaman. I shipped out for the Gulf. Never saw any action there, but the life agreed with me. I was making money and the long vacations gave me time to write and not worry about going broke. So I stayed with it. In a few years I made able seaman and got a bump in pay. I also didn’t have to police the sailor’s heads anymore, so that was a good thing.” At that he looked up and chuckled. I could see he enjoyed the shipboard life, even the nasty, mundane parts. “About two years ago I picked up an AB’s job on the Icarus. She ran part year between Jacksonville and San Juan. The other part from Seattle over to Japan. She was an old ship. I think she was built in the seventies. She leaked, and things broke down a lot. But the crew was good. They got things fixed and everybody got along, you know?” I had often thought how the atmosphere among a crew could make up for a wealth of hardships. On the other hand, with a few bad apples on board, a luxury liner became a miserable place to work. “Captain Thomas joined the ship just after I did.” “What did you think of him?” “Great guy. He would actually talk to you, you know? Like when I was on the wheel we would talk sometimes. He knew my background. Sometimes we would talk about books. Sometimes he would push me to study for a mate’s license. Even loaned me some books to study. But he was that way with everyone. Not at all like some of your Captains. You know the ones. Nose in the air. Seat next to God. Or the other ones. Lonely. Gone to the
bottle. Can’t say a word to them before eleven in the morning when they’ve had their first snort with their coffee. “So the Icarus was a good ship and I liked sailing her. At least I did until near the end.” I asked what changed. “It was around, I don’t know, June or July. The Captain, he got really quiet. Didn’t speak much anymore. He’d only turn up when he needed to be there. Like for maneuvering or docking. Even then he was all business. If anyone, even a pilot, asked a question he’d snap a reply that left the rest of us looking down at the deck. “It got worse and worse. On the Icarus, the Captain’s quarters are right behind the bridge. During the day the door is always open so we could sometimes hear what was going on. Now, it was part of the Chief Mate’s job to keep the official log. After each entry he had to get the Captain’s signature. Time was that the mate, that was Mr. Timmerman, he would go in each day at coffee time. The two of them would drink a cup of coffee, chat, the Captain would sign the log and that was that. After the Captain changed, I noticed Timmerman would stay away as much as he could. Once a week or so he would try to catch the Captain on the bridge, or some other public place, to get the signatures. I think Captain Thomas was giving Timmerman hell for no reason at all.” I asked him if the Captain’s behavior was why he deserted the ship. “No. Not really. I mean the rest of the crew were still good people. We got along. Everybody was talking about the change in the Captain, but we just hoped he’d get over it. You know, like maybe he got some really bad news, a divorce or something, and that he would get back to normal soon.” “Then why the desertion?” “We were in Jacksonville. But you already know that. Anyway, we were getting ready to sail. I was on the bridge waiting to take her out. Everybody on board knew about the storm. It was a big one. Quite a few of us
wondered whether our old ship was really up for it. After all, there were already leaks and problems everybody knew about. “So I was on the bridge, drinking coffee, and waiting for the Captain and the pilot. That’s when I overheard the Captain and Timmerman arguing. The Captain had laid in a course west of the hurricane. Timmerman was arguing that they should go out east to be safer. I knew a bit about hurricanes and I knew Timmerman was right. I could hear him shouting. Something he never did. “Captain Thomas stood his ground. In the end he just said, ‘Look. I’m the Captain and I say this is the course.’ At that point Timmerman had to choose between shutting up and getting on with departure, or making an issue and probably losing his job. He was a family man, and not all that far from retirement, so you know what he chose. “There I was. On the bridge. I heard all the arguments back and forth. I knew Timmerman was right. More important to me though, was the way the Captain sounded when he spoke to Timmerman. He’d never been like that before. Just refused to hear what Timmerman was saying. Suddenly nothing felt right. My head was kind of spinning. I guess I just lost faith. Faith in the Captain. Faith in the ship. I didn’t panic or anything. But without thinking at all, I left the bridge, went down to the main deck, and off the gangway. It was like I was walking through a fog. And I just kept walking. I walked until I found the nearest bar. Then I settled in with boilermakers in an effort to calm the war going on inside my head. What had I just done? “Well, the drinking didn’t help much. After a few hours I checked into a flop house near the port. Fortunately I had a credit card and a few bucks in my work clothes, because I had left everything else on board. I slept until next morning, and then walked down to the port. I could see the Icarus had sailed. I had no doubt she was on the westerly course the Captain demanded. I said a small prayer for my friends, then another for myself. I had just thrown away a job I liked. Maybe the only job I ever liked.
“So I spent one more night with boilermakers and the flop house, wondering what I should do next. Woke up the next morning, my head hurt like it was going to explode. I put on CNN, and saw the Icarus was missing inside Hurricane Irene. When I saw the background pictures of the ship and of some of my friends, all I could do was to run to the toilet and throw up. Over and over and over. When it stopped, I got in the shower and tried to wash it all away. Then I got on a bus for Charleston, hoping my sister would take me in for a while so I could figure out what to do. I’ve been here ever since.” It was an odd story. Sailors often question their Captain’s decisions. They sit around the mess hall and tell each other how much better they could run the ship. But that’s as far as it ever goes. In general, seamen are a sedentary lot, preferring, in the end, to leave the heavy thinking to those above them. Apparently, Mr. Harding was of deeper stuff. In any event, while his story was interesting, it had only taken me a small way toward the answers I needed. Why had the Captain altered course? Why was the Icarus caught near the eye of a major hurricane? Everyone on board was dead. The only person left to ask was Pedersen, the superintendent. ### Why do you suppose so many of the ship operations people are Norwegian? They have a great seafaring tradition, no doubt, but so do the English and a few others. Yet everywhere you look the guys actually running the ships are named Sorensen, Kristensen, Larsen, or Pedersen. And, in general, they are damn good at what they do. And they all seem to know each other. It took only a few calls to find out the Pedersen I was looking for had been married to a woman named Liv and they had lived together in Jacksonville before he took the job with Pegasus in San Juan. She refused to move with him to Puerto Rico. That was not so unusual in the maritime world, where men are shuffled around the globe in pursuit of a decent job. It was also not one likely to result in a long and happy marriage.
It was easy enough to get a number for Liv Pedersen. I was not surprised when she told me she was divorced. But she knew he was living in Tampa and working for a charter boat company, Loki Marine, which was owned by his brother. I called the company. The phone was answered by Pedersen’s brother. I asked for Lars and was told he was out. I explained why I was calling and asked when he might return. “He won’t talk about it,” was all the brother would say. Then he hung up. That made me even more curious. Since I could make no progress over the phone, I decided to get in the car and make the drive to Tampa. It turned out Loki Marine was located well north of Tampa, near the little town of Tarpon Springs. It sat on an old pier jutting out from a light industrial area along the town’s waterfront. There it shared the street with two auto repair shops, a bait and tackle shop, a small engine repair company, and a couple of bars. Now that I had found where he worked, I wasn’t at all sure how to approach him. I walked onto the pier, entered through a sliding glass door, and saw a big blond man standing behind a varnished counter of dark mahogany. He had a full head of hair, sunburned cheeks, and wore a polo shirt over khaki cargo shorts. He looked the picture of the ruddy good health that comes from the outdoors. I guessed he was not Lars Pedersen, but his brother, to whom I had already spoken. I made no mention of our telephone conversation, told the brother I had been a colleague of Lars’ at Pegasus, was just passing through town, and wanted to say hello. “Well, gee, I’m sorry. See Lars hasn’t been feeling too well lately. Hasn’t come in for the last few days. Talked to him this morning and he says he may not be in ‘til the weekend…” I thanked him, expressed my regret at having missed his brother, left the office, and headed for the nearest bar. No one looking like a Lars Pedersen was there. So I walked down the block to the next tavern. There I found him.
It was one of those fisherman’s bars. Gray wooden frame. Old nets and trophy fish for décor. At the back, grimy, salt stained windows looked out on the harbor, making the crystal blue water of the gulf seem dirty gray. He wasn’t hard to identify. He was a smaller, thinner version of his brother. Same blond hair. Same nose. Same blue eyes. Except he was worn thin. His face was ashen, like he had been spending too much time indoors. He sat at a small table in the back of the place, hunched over a half consumed beer. I still had no idea how to approach him. What the hell could I say that wouldn’t result in an insult or a punch to my nose? In the end, I opted for the sailor’s default approach. Complete honesty. I walked up to his table, introduced myself, mentioned a few people I was sure he would know, and asked if I could join him for a beer. He looked up from his drink and let out a sigh, then replied in a clear voice, “if you want.” I motioned to the bartender to bring two more, and sat down. After the beers arrived I leaned forward, “Mr. Pedersen, I am no kind of official, I’m just an old sailor who can’t let go of the Icarus. Can we talk?” He looked at me through his bushy eyebrows for the longest time. In the end he kind of shrugged his shoulders and simply said, “Okay. Got to talk to somebody. Might as well be you.” “So what happened?” “Damn fool drove right into a bloody hurricane. Killed thirty-three people. That’s what happened. He did it.” “I know. But why?” “Why? Why? That’s what I sit here thinking about. It’s all I think about. Why?” “Well, what about Thomas? I’m told he was a good seaman.” “Yah. And he loved that old ship. That’s why it all makes no sense.” But it must have made some kind of sense to him. Otherwise, why was he wasting his life in a gin mill?
“That’s why I need to know. Tell me, you were the ship’s superintendent. How was your relationship with Thomas?” “It was okay. With me he was always professional. By the book. But you know, sometimes you can’t always go by the book.” “How do you mean?” “I mean sometimes you got to be smart enough to shut up. You say you were a seaman, you know what I mean. You don’t show a surveyor everything. Otherwise you’ll never sail.” I knew what he meant. Sometimes you had to make a judgment call. “Did you and Captain Thomas argue over something like that?” “Yah. At the last inspection. There was a little rust. But you know, the ship was over forty years old. There’s always rust. If you don’t sail with rust, you don’t sail. Anyway, the survey was just being done on the run. There was no time for any big repairs. Those had to wait for the next dry-dock. Otherwise the company would be out a fortune. It was my job to make sure that didn’t happen. Before the survey started, Thomas showed me a couple of rusted plates. He was concerned they wouldn’t last. To me they looked worse than they really were. Pitted, you know, but still strong enough. “But I didn’t want the surveyor to see them like that. So what I did, I got hold of the bosun and he gave me a couple of ordinary seamen. Between us we took a batch of red lead and used it to fill in the pitted metal. Then we painted it over. Didn’t look too bad after that.” I didn’t know what to say to that. To overlook a minor problem was one thing. To out and out hide it from an inspector was something else. Pedersen had to know that. I wanted to keep him talking, so I didn’t confront him. “What did Thomas say about that?” “Didn’t tell him. Not ‘til after. Inspection was over and I had our clearance. Took it up to him. He asked about the plating and I told him it was good enough to last ‘til dry-dock. Then he asked if the inspector thought that way too. I told him what I had done. Didn’t want him calling that inspector or anything like that.”
“What did he say?” “Said he wanted those plates inspected. Wouldn’t take my word for it. Problem was, how could I let that happen and admit I’d covered them over? Be my job. Told him ‘no way.’ He said he’d go to Sorensen, or to Rosen himself. I told him again the plates were okay. If he made a fuss all that would happen is the ship would be delayed and the company would lose a hell of a lot of money. He would look like a fool. Probably lose his command. All over some perfectly good shell plates that just happened to show a little rust. “In the end, he just sat there at his desk looking up at me. Didn’t know what to say. I handed him the surveyor’s report and left the ship. That was the last time I saw him.” “And that was in June?” “Yah.” “So by September he’d been sailing around for nearly three months with shell plating he didn’t trust and nothing he could do about it?” “What? Not trust? I told him those plates would be good ‘till dry-dock. . . .” Now perhaps I understood the Captain’s change of behavior in the months before the storm. There he was. Wondering. Wondering about his ship. Perhaps worse, about himself. Every day the doubt would have been eating away at him. And, as Captain, he was alone. No one at all to share it with. I asked Pedersen about the storm and the events leading up to the Icarus’ departure from Jacksonville. He more or less repeated the version I had heard from Sorensen. The Captain had charted a course ahead of the hurricane. Then the ship changed course directly into the storm’s path. “Does that make any sense to you?” I asked. “Sense? There’s no sense in it at all. He must have been crazy. Would you? Would anyone do what he did?” “What was the last you heard from Thomas?”
“We talked on the phone just before departure. Nothing unusual. Then, just after he changed course, I got this email. . . .” He pulled a dirty sheet of paper from his breast pocket, unfolded it, and handed it across the table. It read simply, “I must know.” “What the hell does that mean?” asked Pedersen. A flash went through me. “Don’t you see it? What he wanted was to know his ship was sound. And he hated himself for not making damn sure it was before he sailed from that last inspection. For three months he sat on that ship, watching every wave, and wondering if his world was about to collapse around him. And knowing he was responsible. A man like that, a thorough Captain, who thinks he may have failed his duty, is left with nothing. Everything he does seems a lie. So he was going to make up for it and find out for himself. He had to know. One way or another. . . .” “What are you talking about?” “I’m saying he sailed as close to the storm as he dared so he could test the ship. If it held up, he could sail on until the next dry-dock knowing everything was okay. He would be okay. He could forget about his failure. It wouldn’t matter. And if it didn’t hold up. . . . Either way, his torture would be over. “My guess is, before he got very close to the storm something, maybe a scuttle, gave way. Who knows if the failure was even related to the rusted plates? Then the engine room flooded. They lost power. The storm overtook them. And that was that.” “That’s crazy!” shouted Pedersen, slamming his palm on the wooden table. “It is. But there’s also a reason for insanity.” At that he sat back and thought for a few moments. I watched him grind his teeth. Then he looked up at me and spat out his reply, “it would have been okay. All he had to do was drive her like a proper seaman. Not take her into a goddamned hurricane. . . .”
I left him there at that scarred wooden table in the shoddy fishermanâ€™s bar. As I left, the bartender brought him another beer. This time he brought a shot of bourbon with it. The alcohol would, no doubt, smooth things out for a while. Then Lars Pedersen would also need to know. Lawrence Rapp Lawrence Rapp is a former shipping executive who contributed to many ship construction projects, including that of the Queen Mary 2. Today he and his wife Julie live in Asheville, North Carolina, where he enjoys writing and manages a successful maritime consulting firm.
Remembrance I sit on a rock at pondâ€™s edge and crumple a cluster of last yearâ€™s leaves in my hand till a cold breeze carries the brittle bits away. My brother and I used to ice skate here, this place called the Clay Pit, and the slick tan mud that was yanked from the earth here was formed into clay saucers that men with shotguns would aim for. When hit by a shotgunâ€™s blast, the clay would shatter, raining down like dust--or so my brother said. No one comes here these days to skate, or to dig out clay, or to hunt for the muskrats that some in these parts still eat. My brother has remained incommunicado since his last breakdown, and his wife, the gatekeeper, sends me cards twice a year, with only their names signed under some spurious verse. Of course I no longer skate at this pond, nor would I remember how, except here. Nancy A Jackson Nancy A Jackson is a retired attorney and social worker and has been a writer since she could hold a crayon. She lives with two daughters, a husband, and a cantankerous cat near Detroit.
Sunset Mt. Pisgah 2015
In October Like the heron, my thoughts stretch their wings, extend their thin legs, long necks, and fly away as soon as they sense me looking at them. To view these shy critters, I sit immobile and wait for them to alight again in the shallow water where sunbeams glitter dense as fireworks in a July sky. I sit on the grassy bank hearing the silence, smelling the words, seeing the pulse in my fingers. I tear apart the gathered images, casting off the peel, shredding the pulp, seeking the central mysteryâ€” a dark germ inside the chinaberry blister. I will harvest the seeds, string them as a necklace, and wear them in my disguise as a poetic wise woman. Yvonne Carpenter Yvonne Carpenter's poetry has appeared in Grain, Concho River Review, Red Dirt Review, and Westview as well as anthologies and ezines. She has published three books: Red Dirt Roads (with the Custer County Truck Stop Poets), Barbed Wire and Paper Dolls, and To Capture Fine Spirits.
Dreams of Dead Women Dead women dream of daylight, day moon white as a pillow. Dream of walking unclothed, cigarettes between glossy lips, smoke asking its questions. They want dishes to wash, water too hot, weightless flight of soap bubbles. They dream of unhappy daughters, heavy quilts folded back, the satisfaction of seeds teased from their teeth. They want pockets to mend, splinters to pull, triumph of breath on their necks. They want to feel dust shudder in corners, hear their own footsteps on stairs. Pat Daneman Pat Daneman's poems have appeared in Moon City Review, Bellevue Poetry Review, Stone Canoe, and Comstock Review. In January 2016, she was the featured poet for the web magazine Escape Into Life. Her chapbook, Where the World Begins, was published in 2015.
First Communion Day Morning is noisy with birds and restless with leaf shadows. My veil is loose, the lace cuffs of my socks sag into my shoes. Pear blossoms float in the tulips like the torn pieces of bread we throw in the lake for the ducks. My father lights a cigar, rolls down the car window. Grandma sneezes, pulls a handkerchief out of her sleeve. I have confessed, but I am not cleansed. On Easter, I saw Aunt Helen take money from my mother’s purse. I have memorized the women’s faces in the pictures in my father’s bottom drawer. My brother killed three ducklings, buried them under the hedge. He will drown me if I tell, put spiders in my bed. I will get presents today— I want a dog, but I will get Lives of the Saints and a figurine of St. Theresa, holding flowers. She will live in the dollhouse with Barbie and Midge, keep spiders out of my dreams. My hair was still wet when my mother pulled the rollers out. My neck is sore. In church everyone rises, sits, kneels. The priest punches himself three times in the chest. My brother pinches my arm. We say the prayer for the dead and the prayer for eternal happiness. The line to the altar is slow. My stomach growls. Prayers swell in my mouth like lake-water bread. Pat Daneman
Fourth of July The day starts slow, sun a cigarette burn in the sky. She helps him from the car, into his chair, pushes fast. She wants a good view of the parade. He shivers as the sun climbs. He is always cold. She is always hungry, watching illness nibble him away. Soon he will go back to the hospital. His tongue will harden, his feet turn blue. People are filling sidewalks, shaking chairs open, spreading blankets to claim a small share of curb. Children beg for ice cream, mothers open water bottles. She buys him a chocolate cone. He lets it melt. Chocolate traces the grid of the cone, the slope of his thumb. In the distance, a siren whoops. Fathers lift toddlers high. Dogs bark at policemen on motorcycles. I love parades, he whispers. His breath smells like winter earth, and something white and gummy is always on his lips. She places her hand over her heart each time a regiment of veterans marches by. People throw candy from trucks decorated with streamers; children gather it like treasure. A girl gives them a daisy. I will be dead by Labor Day, he says. Clowns surround them, skipping, running, riding on tricycles close to the ground. Horns bleat, drums thunder. Later, as the sun sets, they lie back on a quilt, its patches a field of yellow and blue. Fireworks plume to earth, like flowers or candy strewn from an invisible parade, light that goes out on the way down. Pat Daneman
How do you lose someone you know everything about? Utterly. And not at all. You slow down on that stretch of highway with the long curve where he always told you to slow down. Pour the third glass of wine with her old excuse—the bottle wanted emptying. There are surprises— a prayer book in a jacket pocket, a good night’s sleep topped off with a minute of waking without remembering. Best of all, a dream of a hard and long embrace, for days the comfort of it available as a sweater tossed over a chair. But weeks begin and end, and there is still a space not quite empty at the table, a clouded presence always in another room. As summer withers, morning, like an old dog, remains expectant of some touch or kindness coming, that does not come. Pat Daneman
Driftwood I stand by the flower bed Mary planted under the kitchen window. Marigolds and sweet alyssum are in bloom, furling their foliage around the driftwood branch we brought back from the beach that day. And I remember. Mary and I, hand-in-hand on our honeymoon. We traced the shoreline for miles, dodged the crashing waves and kicked up the silver sand with our feet. The lines of bark-stripped driftwood strewn along the shore were like strange beached sea creatures, with twisted, tortured limbs, bone white, white on white. Mary dug her foot into the sand, burying her toes in its warmth. She saw something. Her foot hooked on to a small half-buried branch, about the length of an arm, which she eased up, brushed the sand off, and examined. “See here,” she said, “the pits that little birds once made to extract insects. Termites have fed on this part, here, where it’s all rough. And see this hole? That was a knot a woodpecker hollowed out for its nest. And here is a scar, from a gash a porcupine might have made. It never healed properly.” She looked up at me with wide eyes, “Once this branch was green and alive. Even dead like this, it holds memories of life and the living creatures it served.” I smiled at her earnest face. “Deep,” I said, and we both laughed. We kept the driftwood branch, and later, when we bought our first little home, Mary laid it among the flowers in the pocket handkerchief garden. It went with us to our next home, and the next, and the next. Mary never forgot to pack it with the clothes and furniture and flower pots every time we moved. Our homes got bigger, then they got smaller. Now I’m packed, ready to leave. Going somewhere even smaller, with no garden, no balcony even for flower pots. A place where the old go when they’re tired, and no longer have the will or energy to cook and clean for
themselves. I could still take the driftwood branch, put it inside on a windowsill or a shelf, but that’s not right. It’s an outside thing. It comes from the forest and the sea and the windy beach. So I leave it. Before I go, I take the box from the mantel shelf and scatter Mary’s ashes beneath the piece of driftwood. I say goodbye. Then I’m ready. Christine Forth Christine Forth, born in England and now living in Edmonton, Canada, is a retired public policy analyst. She has written stories and novels for years for her own enjoyment. Now that she’s 70, she thinks it’s high time to get serious about her work.
My Wife She is white winter scenery, frothy waves bursting in from an incoming tide, a brook racing down a green mountain side, a singing wind bursting though tall pine trees, she is ecru shale on the side of a placid pond, a terrifying idealist among blasĂŠ pessimists, a silent soul amidst raucous crowds, she is an idea giving birth to patience, an aging mind yearning for completeness, a pure soul in search of redemption, a prayer hidden in the gray haze of a foggy morning, she is the moon rising, and the sun setting, tears from a lost dream, a smile, a touch, a feeling, a slice of hope, a cry of anguish, she is a beautiful aging soul with the mind of a youth, a dreamer of lost memories, the last aroma of a rose on a fading arbor, a voice filled with happy memories from the past, and she is the reason for my life. James G Piatt James G Piatt, a retired professor and octogenarian, has had poems published in the 100 Best Poems Anthology as well as three collections: The Silent Pond, Ancient Rhythms, and LIGHT.
Aspens Yes, in the long run there is something to be said for these shiftless days, each distilling its drop of poison until the cup is full; there is something to be said for them because there is no escaping them. John Ashbery
Aspens clatter in the wind outside the casita where I read Northrup Frye on the Apocalypse. Finished for now with teeth-pulverizing contemplation of class enmity, I bask in the light of brief days. The woman three doors down told me this morning of the instructions the crows have inferred from the visored men in the black jet. Best listen when crows or magpies speak. I wave whenever I walk to the graveyard where Kit Carson’s bones rest despite what he & his did to so many. Forgetting history for days at a time now, I stroll the consecrated ground behind the chapel, where three signs speak of keeping valuables safe. Mockingbirds. A piñon. Three boys zipping a frisbee. Five aspens. A bench blue as the doors open to the cool darkness of the sanctuary. Frye says the scriptures are a vast metaphor hiding the real to reveal it, each of us Moses dying in sight of Canaan. So far, work, reading & a skepticism I can’t but call “healthy” are my worship, but only a fool would fail to listen up this high on the mountain. John Repp John Repp is a native of the Pine Barrens region of southern New Jersey and has lived for many years in northwestern Pennsylvania. His most recent collection of poetry is Fat Jersey Blues, winner of the 2013 Akron Poetry Prize from the University of Akron Press.
Engine 126 Bryson City
Say Yo! The new casualness had been introducing itself casually, of course, but suddenly its credentials lay everywhere. John Ashbery, The New Spirit
Say Yo! & render yourself out-of-date, whether racking billiard balls or etching a crossbow over your right ear. Boy, I loved mentholated cigarettes when the rack at Forcinito’s bore a “$5 Carton!” sign & the clerk ducked her head making change, slid the new Warlock & the last two Captain Marvels in a bag & said I should come back soon. Next day, nifty & keen as a cool breeze, I tossed a tide table on the counter & a buck on top. Jaunty in white jeans, I crooked my arm & she took it, crinoline rustling. A stallion knelt on the worn boards & we mounted, gazed for a regal moment past the penknives & gum balls then cantered through the purple heather of my mind. M’lady Ann, did I not court thee, wisp of Wheat Road, musk of the Boulevard? ’Twas not long ago you smoked a cigarillo on the water slide, tied the damp tails of my best shirt across your belly & ran the table at The Oaks as I gobbled half a fried chicken. Hey, man said I when Melvin slid through the door. Yo, bro said he, chalking a cue. Who's that? Cinderella? John Repp
Bulldozed Dead cats in shoe box sarcophagi, sacrificial marbles on an arid cistern floor, assorted farm chaff tossed asideâ€” and trapped in time's unkindest grave, its dream-ridden glory stolen by rust: a twisted Schwinn Hornet. Red as the roses trellised in the yard, sleek as the horses muzzling hay and arguably as fast, it fell to a feed truck backing blind. Weeds behind the barn received it, time eventually blanketing allâ€” The buildings swallowed, the land incorporated, swept by winds raking memory's bones loath to relinquish childhood's heyday: spokes slapping Bicycle cards, horses whinnying, poised, that race to lane's end about to begin! Darrell Petska Darrell Petska is a retired university editor. His writing has appeared in Blast Furnace, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Boston Literary Magazine, About Place Journal, Tule Review and elsewhere. He lives near Madison, Wisconsin.
Prairie Burn Antlered skull, arrow sprouting from eye, rough jewel on charred grass. Sturdy femur 10 strides north, four vertebrae aligned with the slope one hoofed metatarsal descended. Nothing more. Tall prairie grass embraced his blind descent toward stillness, setting off an onslaught to the feast: a contracting kettle of vultures to peck and tear eye and anus, marauding coyotes to violate the belly, cautious foxes for seconds, opportunistic crows, hawks, flies, all other fauna of decay. Last comes a human to the scene: a scattering of bones, skull grimacing at wind's intrusion, scorched earth. Life, death, flesh, bone: words, littering a tangled mindscape, emerging as neuron fires burn to be arranged and stitched, a body sewn of stark truths lethal as time, transient as bone. Darrell Petska
I-122, Drive song dirt side streets the bank that changes names those same day lilies two convenience stores, potholes, an airport no one flies out town lines fire stations, for sale homes, free range eggs for three dollars in blue coolers at the end of driveways solar farm solar farm, stonewall, solar farm, alpaca, alpaca sunday hour repurposed gas station churchâ€”no fuel left in the pumps and an old broken tooth mill still eyeballs you with yellow windowsâ€” even if youâ€™re cynical, can you forgive New England? Michael Fisher Michael Fisher holds an MFA in poetry from New England College and is an MA candidate in English at Clark University. He is the author of Libretto for the Exhausted World. Currently, he works as an adjunct professor and lives in Barre, Massachusetts.
Barbie's Legs In the alley aside the mosque among concert posters and condoms, pieces of Barbie stretch like breadcrumbs. Pink legs flash in the shade. I dare not wonder why Barbie had to die like this. I never saw it back in Ohio, even in the '80s after all the '70s girls grew up and spent their afternoons masturbating at Bon Jovi. Someone was perturbed. Someone had had enough of nakedness or thinness, not having that waist or that unwieldy chest. Maybe the holy man, maybe his daughter while he sung the call to prayer across the buildings. Disturbed, I stoop to search for Barbieâ€™s clothes, the shorts as wide as band-aids with the tell-tale Velcro. But there were only legs and a torso mashed in the chain-link fence. More perfect would be an arm screwed down a can of Coca-Cola Zero or strands of hair peeking from a tube of Colgate, but we minor detectives must tamp our fantasies and surrender ourselves to random cruelties. Carl Boon Carl Boon lives and works in Izmir, Turkey. His poems appeared most recently in Two Thirds North, Jet Fuel Review, Blast Furnace, and the Kentucky Review.
Macon, Georgia, 1955 Twice an alliance persisted beyond his window, twice the fire mocked him in the dark: show your nigger skin to us, they said, that whore wife of yours. He stumbled against the counter. A cool cup of coffee trembled there, and Irene found shelter in the blankets. Someone forgot to switch the light, so the porch, like a target, glowed: his work boots, the garden hose, thirty moths as witnesses to the ache of the place—Forsyth Street alive with crosses, howls, and seven men moving swiftly to an even darker place. It’s impossible, he thought, to study the sky: Orion, the Dipper, what his father taught before he went. Even the stars are impossible. Had he known his boy would die in Vietnam, his girl—worse— in a Florida swamp, stoned and cursed, would the stars he missed have mattered? At dawn Forsyth street is sweet with pink azaleas, purple rhododendron, cautious Irene retrieving the Georgia Informer. Carl Boon
Spoons The day her father died she removed the spoons from the kitchen drawers and wept. Admittedly, the sequence was odd, and no one asked why, not even her mother, but I knew in the gloaming of that December day it was the coffee. The arrays of spoons that made her fatherâ€™s life, the sugar he kept in the blue porcelain bowl, the way he sat in his pajamas and stirred. Nothing touched him for an hour, not the news, not the dog, not her mother in a robe the color of pale azaleas. Marches, when the robins arrived in Indiana, he never turned to the window. He already knew their heads bent sideways to the grass, the sunlight breaking on the pines, the neighborâ€™s old Toyota sputtering again. Carl Boon
The Gleaner Autumn runs downhill the forest now naked I upturn the canoe on the pebbled beach shiver into a sweater as night blankets the hills. The lake falls asleep to whispering wavelets that winter will silence. I’ve dug out dahlia bulbs tied burlap cocoons around weigela and folded the garden. Ahead is indoor time, an attic full of summer herbs for winter tea pantry filled with jars of garden spoils, preserves, slow nights when I’ll husk seeds winnow what to keep or leave rummage through reveries and blanket under snow what to winter over. Marie-Andrée Auclair Marie-Andrée Auclair’s poems have appeared in filling Station, The Maynard, Structo Magazine, Canthius, and others. A chapbook, Contrails, was released in 2013. She lives in Ottawa, Canada.
Surrey, BC: Central Mall North Entrance
ink and watercolor
Old Dog, New Tricks “If I’d known how you kids’d turn out I wouldn’t have bothered.” Her milky eyes blink at me. Stop. Look away. Breathe. Almost done. Outside, the snow continues. Something to stare at other than her. “What was I saying, Davie?” She sputters and a flick of something lands on my hand. She’s got me confused with my brother again. I could pretend I am Davie and ask her about Philip. I could find out what she really thinks of me. Bad idea. I pull up a smile. “I’m Philip.” There’s a flash of rage in her eyes. “Don’t try to trick me!” She’s a feeble 92 to my 65, but her look still shrinks me. The grandfather clock chimes. Another fifteen minutes gone. Nurse Sharlyne comes in with her round brown face, bringing relief from white walls, white plastic chairs, and pale transparent skin. Sharlyne talks loud so the old ears can hear. “Y’all doin’ fine, Miss Clark? Everythin’ good, Miss Perris?” How she can tell them apart? They all look alike. Colorless hair. Stooped shoulders. Vacant blinking eyes. Sharlyne smiles at me, “Got plans for the weekend?” “I’m too old for plans,” I say, hoping to sound funny. “Nobody too old for plans, Mr. Philip—” “This is my son Davie,” Mother interrupts. Sharlyne bends close to Mother, “Miss Jessup, this son been coming every day, visitin’ on you since long ‘fore I came here. This son’s Philip. Far as I seen, Davie ain’t no count.”
“You don’t know,” Mother snarls. “I know what I know. You need anything, Mr. Philip?” I mouth thank you while shaking my head no, which turns out harder than I expected. Sharlyne’s brown eye winks as she moves past. Mother’s mouth opens and her tongue searches the yellow teeth for words. “She doesn’t know my sons. Philip’s the boy married that Janice woman.” “Janet not Janice.” Thirty-two years of marriage and she still can’t get my wife’s name right. “What was I saying, Davie?” Why does she think I’m Davie? He’s short like Dad was. Never visits. Bet she wouldn’t even recognize him if he walked in now. But he won’t. He’s off having fun in sunny Phoenix. No winter in Phoenix. The snow is really coming down. It’ll be a rough drive home. “Davie!” “I’m Phil-ip!” “Don’t you yell at me!” Mother spits. Best to be silent now. Outside, the patio fountain is wrapped against the cold. Mummified. When will this winter end? Be patient. Soon. I look to the right of Mother’s ear, at the fish-bowl on the counter filled with little bright pieces. What are those pieces of color in this monotone room? My boots have salt stains from the snow. By my dirty boot there’s a piece of a puzzle. This could be the piece everyone’s been looking for. I bend to pick it up and my pants tighten round the waist. I should diet, but I know that’s long past happening. The puzzle piece has a tip of green. Shrubs or a tree. A yellow edge of a building, a window? A touch of red. Flower box? Gardenias? Maybe this was a village scene. A colorful village somewhere nice. Costa Rica maybe.
Out the window the snow swirls. It’ll be dark when I get home. Janet never puts the porch light on. What is her class tonight? Sewing? She’ll leave the usual note. Back at ten. Heart shape. J. I always tell her she should use the same piece of paper and save on trees. She always says she will but that would make her a “tree hugger” type. That girl the final year at Syracuse, before I stopped painting —what was her name?— she was a tree-hugger type. From Costa Rica. I had just enough Spanish to her English. That hiking trip we took, two of us in one sleeping bag. Skin so smooth. What was her name? Yazmina? Would she have left the same note every night? Would she go to classes and return after I’m in bed? Would she have made me different? Grandfather chimes again. Another 15 minutes gone. Sharlyne moves through the room. I wave her over, “Found this piece of puzzle. Someone might be missing it.” Sharlyne tosses it in the fish-bowl behind Mother. “These are all missing pieces. Pieces that don’t belong nowhere. Sometimes someone dumps this bowl out and tries to make sense of it, thinking it’s one big puzzle. Lord, do they have a time!” She laughs and squeaks her white shoes out to the hall. Hundreds of lost pieces with no place to go. They’ll never find the place they belong. Oh, stop. It’s getting dark. Winter’s early-dark. Roads will be dangerous. I’ll stay ‘till the next chimes, then make my good-byes. A black crow lands on the handicap railing outside, perched in the frozen wasteland, waiting for something. A death? Maybe there’ll be one soon. Maybe before the snow melts. Mother’s a winter landscape, too. Hair white. Skin white. Eyes pale, but her pupils are black. Black crows in the snow. I make the effort and pull on a smile. It’s like most of my clothes these days: tight and barely covering what it should. “Snow coming down hard.
Remember how Dad loved the snow? He’d tinker with the blower like it was a race car and—” “Dullard. That man was nothing. My life was wasted with dullards.” The crows in her eyes glare at me. She’s including me, no doubt. “Dad was a good provider. He put up with a lot.” I shouldn’t have said that. She’ll know I mean her. “I put up with a lot. I could have had anyone. I had — I had pizazz!” There’s no use saying more. Her dander is up and won’t be coming down. Where is that clock chime? Where is Sharlyne? Snow scatters against the window, pixelating the view like a TV screen on the blink. Her chuckling sounds like choking. There’s a twinkle in her eye, “Snowing hard. Like that time at the boat house.” “Boat house?” “Snowed in all night. Couldn’t get to us if they’da tried. Lucky me. Don’t tell—” Mother looks at the other old women as if they have their hearing aids turned to maximum. She whispers, “We did more than neck.” This is new. “Who?” “Gosh, he was swell. You look just like him.” Splotches of red cross her winter cheeks. The crows in her eyes dance. “There for the winter semester. We did everything under the sun. He was kicked out for being a hooligan. I had pizazz. He saw it. Shoulda married him ‘stead of the other.” A jolt of something hits my stomach. “The other? You mean Dad?” “By the time I knew, Orville was gone and it wasn’t a time you could up and have a baby alone, so I took the dullard’s offer.” The florescent tubes shine bright, humming loudly. “Dad wasn’t my father?” “Orville is your father. Orville.” The room’s tilting. I never looked like Dad. Davie looks like Dad. But Mother gets things jumbled. I try to sound casual. “Orville, — what was his last name?”
Mother’s eyes travel over me like I’m him. “You loved the hooch. Made you wild and sometimes mean. But lord, we had a time, didn’t we?” She’s never looked at me like this. The judgment’s left her face. Her wrinkles fade and the girl from the old photograph slyly winks at me. The blood rushes to my face. I don’t want to see this side of her. But I have to know. Breathing in quick, I smile in a way I don’t ever smile. “Marge, we were quite a pair.” I take her hand and hold it in a way I don’t ever hold it. “You could have been Mrs. Orville...” Mother’s eyes are dreamy. “Mrs. Orville...” “What was my last name, Marge?” The clock chimes and Sharlyne comes in. Mother’ll lose this thread any moment. I grin at the nurse, “I’m Orville. We’re trying to remember my last name.” Sharlyne tucks the blanket close around Mother. “Don’t mind your son, Miss Jessup, he jes playin’ with you.” “My son?—” “I’m Orville. My last name—” Mother’s skin turns familiar white. “Why are you badgering me?! I’m tired!” Sharlyne smiles at me, as if apologizing for a naughty child. “Best let your mama rest.” “I’m sorry, Mother. The man, Orville, he’s my father?” Sharlyne tilts her head. Father? she mouths at me. The black crows in Mother’s eyes nod in unison as she sings, “Father, bother, mother, smother, shutter, butter.” She’s gone now. Off in fragments. I stare at the fish-bowl of lost puzzle pieces. I’m left with a missing piece that might be a father. My winter dusk envelops me. Snow covers everything and she may be gone before it melts. Mother lowers her parchment eyelids over the bowing crows.
My hearing aid squeals as Philip kisses my cheek. He’s sweating. I want to wipe my face but I don’t, so he’ll think I’m sleeping. He pulls on his heavy winter coat and pauses, waiting for more, but I’m done. “See you tomorrow, Mother,” he whispers and when he finally lumbers out, I open my eyes. That boy has gotten old. Some might say it’s “tendin’ to his mama” but I know better. He got old the day he married that Janet woman. She sucked the life out of him. “You want me to take you back t’your room now, Miss Jessup?” Nurse asks. “You a mite tired now.” “Not tired, bored.” This makes her laugh. “What you bored about? You had a nice visit with your son ’til you got mixed up.” I try not to grin but feel my lips twitching. “You trying to be Mona Lisa with that smile, Miss Jessup?” “Just entertaining myself.” Nurse shakes her head. “You need to spread a little kindness on that man. He’s all you got and he may get sick of you.” “Bother someone else,” I hiss, and try to spit at her, but it only lands on my cracked lip. “Why you so mean?” Nurse asks quietly. “You steal playin’ cards from the decks and puzzle pieces too. You hide people’s glasses. You a mean old lady. Some day your son may see you clear and never come back.” “He’ll come back. Especially now. Needs to find out about Orville.” “Who’s this Orville? Your son said he was his father—” I can’t hide my grin. “There isn’t any Orville. I made him up. I was bored.” Nurse jerks back like I’m a rattlesnake. Triumph spreads up my chest as she hurries away.
In the big window, the darkness outside has been replaced by this white room. In the center there’s an old lady slumped in a wheelchair. She doesn’t look like me, but she wipes the spittle round her mouth when I wipe mine. *
Snow swirls in the headlights, accelerating and zooming past like I’m traveling through outer space. Wipers screech and thwap, screech and thwap. The defroster doesn’t seem to be working. The windshield is fogging. Or is that my eyes? Could I be another man’s son? Philip, son of Orville. She said he was — what was it?—a hooligan. Could I be the son of a hooligan? A tincture of pride warms my face. What do you get to do if you’re a hooligan? Could I manage? The glow cools to shame. Turn on the radio to drown it out. The road is slick with wet snow, already needs more plowing. Flares burn up ahead, haloed red in the whirling flakes. I press the brakes lightly to slow without losing control. Past the flaming warnings, rear flashers blink on the left, a car belly up in the snow. Hope no one’s hurt. Or worse. Several cars have pulled over and silhouetted figures move about so I’m not needed. Good thing. Wouldn’t know what to do. Past the wreck I speed up a touch. Mother and Orville. Why didn’t Dad ever say anything? Radio reminds me to subscribe but Janet already gave. Someone will win a trip for two to Bermuda. Hope it isn’t us. Janet’s against the beach and drinks with umbrellas on principle. Besides, I can’t wear a bathing suit. Those days are over. I change the station to oldies.
The driveway’s got six inches already. Better shovel before Janet gets home. Gear slides into park when that song starts. I turn off the motor but leave the headlights and radio on. That song. Yazmina loved this band. We picked unripe walnuts and made a liqueur. Noir something. She was always laughing. Querido, she called me. When the song ends I start shoveling. It’s hard work but I make progress with every stab of the blade into snow. Inside, I turn on the porch light. Janet doesn’t like me wasting energy, but I think it’s cozier to come home to some light. The kitchen’s dark but for the blue microwave clock. Table’s empty but for the mail. Janet’s note is usually front and center. Nothing tonight. Maybe she didn’t go out. Maybe she’s still here. Maybe she’s taking a nap. Maybe she slipped in the shower. “Janet?” The house whistles where I didn’t mount that storm window right. I check the bathroom and bedroom. No one. But I’ve tracked snow all over. I’ll hear about that. Maybe Janet decided the note was redundant. Or maybe there was an emergency. There was a call and she raced off. A death? Mother died and Janet was racing out to meet me. The roads were slippery and she was driving fast. Maybe it was her car belly up flashing red by the side of the road. Mother is dead and Janet is dead. A flush of something cascades through me, tumbling my heart, making it lurch against my parka. The empty house feels open and infinite. If it were true— the dim light from the microwave clock, the refrigerator’s buzz, the endless winter could disappear. Replaced with… could it have happened?… replaced with… something new? Maybe her note’s under the mail.
Bill from AT&T. AARP renewal. Christmas card, return address: Phoenix. Got to be Davie and Susan. I skim their yearly update. Trips, golf tournaments, news of the superachieving kids. There’s a picture of a fat bug-eyed baby. Grandchild number one. The ice melting from my sleeve drips onto the photo raising a glossy pimple on the baby’s cheek. I move my arm, dripping more, creating leprous flesh all over the face. What if the wreck was Janet? Should I call her cell phone? If she’s alive she’ll be angry that I’m interrupting her class and she’ll remind me we pay by the minute. If she was in the accident, I’ll know before too long. Someone will knock on the door, hat in hand. Good thing I shoveled the drive. *
Nurse bends close as she lifts my feet and places them on the tile floor. “This floor is too cold!” I yell. “Bring me a mat.” A grunt is her response as she locks the wheels. “You can be silent forever for all I care,” I say, lifting my arm. Nurse slides her big soft shoulder under mine and with a twirl she has me up and spinning and raising my nightgown just enough as she sets me down on the toilet seat. Usually she says something funny right about now. Tonight she’s got a monument face on. “Git! I’ll call when I’m done.” Nurse leans close. “I’d as soon leave you settin’ here all night, ‘cept I’m a good person.” She slides out the door. Ha! I got her talking! This seat hurts my bones. The lights are too bright. I can’t remember how to pee. I try to let go. Push. I did have pizazz.
I don’t remember where I waited. Maybe behind a tree. I remember watching the boys laughing and shoving as they left the boathouse and started their slog through the snow. Orville wasn’t with them so I slipped inside. The boathouse was cold. Orville must have had to store the equipment as punishment for something he’d done. He was cursing low with his movie star lips. He saw me and said, “Scram,” but I didn’t. I knew if he saw I was willing, he’d want me. We could stay in the boathouse all night. Tell people we were snowed in. He kept cursing and putting things away. I lay back on the tarps, trembling. Ready. He ignored me. When he finished the chores, he went to the door and gestured for me to get up. I pretended to twist my ankle and asked him to walk me to my dorm. He didn’t want to be seen with me. Told me to turn out the lights and left me there. Only time we ever talked. Tinkling sound in the bowl but I feel water from my eyes. Water spilling over the cheeks I lost years ago. Trickling down my neck, getting caught in the maze of wrinkles. Why is a full-length mirror facing the toilet? What idiot thought this up? The hag grimaces at me, tears glistening on her withered face. I raise my hand to show her what I think of her and she lifts her claw, middle finger crooked high. Go to hell. Nurse should have knocked by now. She’s punishing me. I don’t care. I don’t need her. I can get in that damn chair myself. Grab both armrests. Push and push and pull and unstick from the bowl, dragging forward, leaning, leaning. Can’t go back, can’t go forward. “NURSE!” Damn her! “NURSE!” I can’t hold this. I’ll die like all the old— falling. The withered witch in the mirror looks horrified, glaring at me from her worthless carcass, arms shaking like straw stalks strung with rubber-bands. I hate her so much I almost hope her arms give out. “NURSE!” the ghoul in the mirror screams.
White uniform blots out the hag and lifts and I’m turned and wet hits cold on the back of my legs as Nurse clicks her tongue. “Lordy, what am I gonna do with you? You got your nighty soaked.” *
What if. Where is it warm and sunny? Everything is easy on the internet these days. Airline tickets. Hotels. Researching local customs. Do I still have a suitcase? When was the last time I used one? Before they all had wheels that’s for sure. Headlights roll across the ceiling pulling me from my thinking. Or was it planning? Headlights go out. Is it Janet or a police cruiser? Car door shuts. Wait. Listen for a knock. Sounds of keys. Janet’s home. Porch light off. Purse down. Things are as they were. Are as they will always be. Breathe out what if. Breathe in what is. Light goes on in the bathroom. Should I pretend I’m asleep? If we don’t talk tonight, we won’t see each other until tomorrow night when I’m back from Mother and she’s back from her thing. Tomorrow’s Thursday. Is that sandwiches for the homeless? Bathroom light off. She slides into bed. I lie still. I should tell her about Orville. What would she think if I wasn’t the man she thought I was? Would she see me in a new way? I slide my hand over to find her shoulder. “Oo. Cold.” “Sorry.” I should touch her with the one that’s warm under the covers, but I don’t. “Your class thing go okay?” “It’s not a class, it’s a meetup.” “You didn’t leave a note.” “There’s not much point, is there?” “No.”
“You left the porch light on. Our electricity bill was high last month. Can you at least try to remember?” “I will.” “You won’t. I know you. You never change.” I grunt and turn to the window. She knows me. But what if I’m not that man she thinks she knows. Snow whispers against the glass. What if it’s warm in Costa Rica. *
“You’re late,” Mother scolds. “Snow made a mess of route 38. Had to take Collins Road.” “You think I care about roads, Philip?” At least she knows who I am today. Hopefully she’ll remember more about Orville. Sharlyne’s looking at me with her brows pulled down. Did I do something wrong? Snow fell off my boots in the lobby. “Sharlyne, I’m sorry about the snow on the floor.” She shakes her head to show she doesn’t care about that. “Mr. Philip, can I have a little a chat with you?” I did do something wrong. Mother grabs my wrist before I can stand. “Philip and I are chatting. He’s visiting me, Nurse.” Sharlyne nods. “Afore you leave today.” She takes a step back, but hovers nearby. Got to learn more about Orville, while Mother’s fresh. “You mentioned Orville. You said he was my real father. I —” “You want a sweet, Miss Jessup?” Sharlyne interrupts, unwrapping a peppermint. Mother holds out her palm and Sharlyne gives her the candy. “The boathouse, Mother. Orville?”
“Don’t get Miss Jessup talkin’ or she’ll choke on the sweet.” Sharlyne steps away. Mother’s lips pucker, as she rolls the candy around. Her jaw drops and rises, drops and rises, sinking hollows in her pale cheeks like she’s nursing on an unseen breast. I can’t watch. Outside, a bright blue bird lands on the canvas-wrapped fountain. An indigo bunting. What are you doing here, bird? Are you lost? Fly south. Janet dragged me bird watching when we first got married. Tested me on the names. Indigo bunting. Eastern phoebe. Yellow-rumped warbler. Had me carry the guides and gear but finally dismissed me because I made too much noise. “Stop daydreaming,” Mother says, candy clattering. I pretend she’s being nice. Smile. “Wonder where I got that. Maybe Orville? Was he a dreamer?” Mother bobbles her head. “I don’t want to talk about that. I’m bored. Tell me about your wife. What’s Janice up to?” “Janet! Not Janice! Janet! It’s been thirty-two years and it was Janet, still is Janet, and always will be Janet. What’s Janet up to? Well, we don’t talk. And now, seems we don’t even leave notes anymore. She's got classes. Meetups. Gardening, social justice something. She’s got that and I’ve got— you. You’re bored? Join the club.” Step to the window. The lost indigo bunting startles and flies away over bare tree-tops. Not that way! Go South! I press my fist against the cold glass and pretend I’m contemplating the weather. Sky’s darkening. Mother’s reflection is fidgeting. Shouldn’t have dumped my life onto hers. *
He’s pretending to look at the weather. Any minute he’ll turn around and do that meek smile and apologize. He disgusts me, but I made him. Be different. Don’t be that damaged boy. A tightness in my throat as — there it is— the turn. The meek smile.
“Mother…” “Don’t be a pussy,” I blurt out. Have I ever use that word before? Maybe it’s true what they say about getting older, or have I always been this way? As he looks away my son’s back doesn’t tell me much, but his shoulders are hunched and by his elbow I can see he’s wiping his face. Crying? Can I still make the boy cry? Sharlyne said Philip would disappear-never-to-return if I kept at him. I try to sound cozy. “Can’t expect me to change now. Leopard and its spots. Old dog with new tricks and all that.” His other elbow moves. Lifting his watch. I’m losing him. I’ll keep him. I can do it. “Did I tell you? Orville had a mustache.” His ear cocks toward me. “A big brassy one. Looked like black wings of a bat. People stared and he liked that.” Philip turns, hooked. In the window reflection Nurse moves behind my chair. She’s spying, wary of me and protective of my boy. She’ll give me another candy if I don’t watch out. I backtrack, floundering, “Janet, not Janice. I remember. You married her.” Nurse’s reflection steps into the hall. I wave Philip close. “Orville was wild and carefree and reckless. Wasn’t one to settle down. Wasn’t one for paying bills or buying groceries. He had balls!” “Maybe, but he got you pregnant and walked away—” “You don’t know anything!” I hiss, hoping it’s quiet enough that Nurse won’t come back. “You couldn’t know. You’re not like him. You turned out like the dullard.” Philip’s face tightens. Why do I do this? Because he’s so easy to break?
Philip pulls in a breath and holds it. “Maybe I should take after Orville,” he says in a low exhale. “Maybe I should walk away.” “I didn’t mean you, Philip. You’re a good boy.” “Maybe I shouldn’t be a good boy.” This has gone too far. I need to give him a morsel. Give him something to cling to. What was it Philip liked— golf? — no, that’s Davie. Philip liked— come on, brain— Ahh! Painting. “Orville was a painter. Big, brash, expressionist stuff.” A light sparks in Philip’s face. Or something. A flash of pride? Philip lets the words out slow, “I used to paint. Remember?” I’ve got him now. “You got that from Orville. Grow a mustache. And paint. Orville would have wanted it—” Nurse presses her hot hand on my shoulder. “Miss Jessup, you gettin’ tired and awful mixed up.” “STAY OUT OF THIS OR I’LL SEE YOU FIRED!” I scream. Nurse snaps upright. The old ladies in the room stare at me. Philip shakes his head. “You can’t fire Sharlyne, Mother. She doesn’t work for you. If anything, she works for me. I’m paying her. And she’s staying.” I don’t want this game anymore. “Nurse is right. I’m tired. Come back tomorrow.” Nurse chimes in, “Your mother got plenty tired these last few times. You best cut back on your visits, Mr. Philip.” My son’s world grows wide. His eyes dart with the possibilities. “Once a week?” Philip suggests. I open my mouth to protest but Nurse barrels through, “Once a month.” Once a month?! With the thought of it, my son gets lighter and straighter. At sixtysomething he looks like a man for the first time.
His face is circling me, waiting for permission. He thinks I’ll say no. He thinks I can’t manage without him. He thinks I need him. I’ll show him. “Once a month,” I make my voice say. Nurse lets out a sigh and her shoes squeak away. Philip’s glowing. He’s glad to be rid of me. He needs to remember his place. I’ll tell him something more. Something about Orville. He — died penniless. Died in jail. Was alone and homeless. Died of the clap. “Another thing about Orville…,” I whisper to my son. The squeaking stops. Nurse returns and I feel her heat behind me. Philip smiles at her, a twinkle in his eye. “Sharlyne, Mother’s been telling me about Orville. Orville’s my real dad.” She’ll tell my son that I made Orville up and Philip’ll leave forever. I twist to look up at her. I put please in my eyes. Revenge flits over her face as she turns back to my boy. “This Orville be what I wanted to talk on, Mr. Philip,” Nurse says calmly. Philip grins at Nurse. “Did you know I used to paint? Since I’ve got a month, my plan is to start painting again. Make a new start. Seems Orville was quite the painter.” “I heard,” Nurse says. “Miss Jessup tol’ me all about him.” Everything in me slumps. She’ll get the truth out and I’ll lose my son. Nurse shakes her head. “Quite a man, Mr. Orville. I’m glad you got told ‘bout your father. Never too late to change and be someone else.” My old heart flutters as Philip blooms with a real smile. Nurse laughs and flicks her hand to shoo him. “Best let your mama rest.”
Philip stands, flipping on his coat. “Gonna cultivate a little of the old man. See what it’s like to run off and leave the bills and groceries to someone else.” He brushes his lips against my cheek, looking close into my eyes. “And next time, next month, I’ll be sporting a mustache and a tan. Gonna leave winter and head somewhere warm to paint. Always had a hankering to see Costa Rica. I’ve Orville to thank. And you.” In the window the reflection of the old lady reaches out a claw-like hand to the man. He holds it with both of his. In the reflection, they look like they could be loving people. From this distance, it seems possible. The man waves and steps away as the view blurs. Nurse doesn’t know what to say. Guess I don’t either. She steps off to others but keeps looking back. My eyes won’t stop leaking. There’s a sad hole inside but it feels warm instead of cold. Maybe it’s not a hole, maybe it’s an ache from using muscles that never get used. The clock chimes and Nurse moves next to me. “You doing okay, Miss Jessup?” “Why didn’t you tell my son the truth?” I ask. “I was set to.” Nurse pauses, like she’s trying to figure out why herself. “But then —I mean, he got talkin’ ‘bout the plan to paint. Ain’t never heard Mr. Philip with a plan before. Weren’t ‘bout to stop that.” She clicks the brakes off my chair. “Month’s a long time, Sharlyne.” She’s surprised I know her name. It makes her glow. “Yes it is, Miss Jessup. But we can entertain each other. We got this big ol’ bowl of puzzle pieces. We can dump it out and see if we can’t get some back where they belong.” “That’ll take all winter.” “You up to it. You stole most all of them, so that should help.” She laughs that cuddling one and turns away.
As she looks out at the falling snow, Sharlyne puts her dark warm hand on mine and it feels good. Susan Emshwiller Susan Emshwiller has been a filmmaker, playwright, screenwriter, director, novelist, actress, teacher, chicken wrangler, painter, and poet. She has written and directed several plays including the critically acclaimed and award-winning Brushstrokes. As an actress she was featured in Robert Altman's The Player. Screenwriting credits include co-writer of the Academy Award winning film Pollock. She will be teaching at OLLI at Duke University this fall and at North Carolina State University starting in 2017.
Samantha Lashelle Fortenberry
Song Pluck a green string, now blue, then red, the green again or rose. Pick a ripe fruit, purple plum, scarlet nectarine, yellow apricot, golden peach. Wear your brown shoes, black, white, or bare feet color of flesh. Choose a young star, dying one, another in mid life by the shade of its fire. Amber, orange moon, silver, palest bone, watch full or quarter, crescent, new. Pluck green string, blue, then red, green again or rose until the song waxes as it wanes, each note an eye in the peacock’s tail. Nels Hanson Nels Hanson grew up on a small farm in the San Joaquin Valley of California and has worked as a farmer, teacher and contract writer/editor. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award. Poems appeared in Word Riot, Oklahoma Review, Pacific Review and other magazines and have been awarded Sharkpack Review’s 2014 Prospero Prize.
Tomato The tomato’s color suggests fresh blood. Its name is Aztec, tomatl, its first home Mid-America and Mexico, brought by violent Columbus or Cortez to the Old World. Europeans feared it poisonous before believing the red meat summoned tenderness, perhaps kind desire and they christened it amour de pomme, love apple. Pueblo people thought watching someone eat the seeds gave powers of divination, white kernels from this scarlet member of the nightshade family. Deadly cousin Belladonna – pretty lady – is medicine, cosmetic to make Roman pupils big, sign her body longs for sex, a poison wives of Augustus and Claudius mixed to murder enemies. Bearing small and black-purple berries but similar leaves, it grows among tomato plants and their large scarlet fruit, finding sanctuary with accepted relatives. Blood of Earth squeezed from the body of the darker loam, juice from the tomato’s flesh binds us to sacrifice the good ground provides as sacrament, remembrance life comes from life and death, a gift of those who built a pyramid with flat apex where live human hearts were plucked until men of Christ massacred to cleanse the stones. Nels Hanson
Farmer Brown I’m planting onions in my mind. I’m watering the sky-turnips. Weeding the infinite. And here’s a cow in a can-– when it moos the heavens tremble. Our Bessie chews the cud of the world. Cowpats she leaves behind are planets with vigorous methane atmospheres. And this is my exceptional hen. It lays hailstones and rubies. Very hardy and quite countrified, it struts about its grassy estate. In each pupil is a fine story. There’s no goat to speak of, but there is the idea of a goat, of what a goat is, of what a goat can be, the very concept of goatness. There’s also a horse that’s part donkey, part mule, and half zebra. And I’ve got a miserable tractor. But please, don’t mention the scarecrow. . . He’s allergic to corn-silk and is terrified. Our dreams are his reality. Every straw in your brown hair reminds me of him. We are eternally saddened. Bruce McRae Bruce McRae, a Canadian musician, has appeared in Poetry, Rattle, and the North American Review. He has two published chapbooks, An Unbecoming Fit Of Frenzy and Like As If (forthcoming).
Gallows Humour At the end of the rope is a china cup and glassy village. At the end of the rope is whalesong and a grimy light switch. There’s a screw that won’t turn at the end of this rope. There’s a once-bright nation. It swings, as handsome as the whistling hangman. It burns with a blackened intensity. At the end of your rope is a knot telling little white lies. There’s a perfume-drenched border no one can cross; plenty of tangle, but no ‘dangle’. Here, this is the rope we’ve given you. It’s made of spiders’ silk and the downy hairs of coltish virgins. Rays of starshine intertwine its strands. It’s like a road. Like a dead end. That’s what’s at the end of this rope-a queue that never moves, that never begins. Like truth, with its head in its hands. A lasting impatience. Bruce McRae
W Jack Savage
The Kid It’s not like I’d never done it from behind. That time in my art studio in graduate school was memorable. He was post modern and I was retro— the figurative painting girl. That night was a youthful experiment. Almost twenty years later, this was quite different. The foreplay was unexpected. The rubbing of his neck against mine was sweet if you ignored the smell. But it wasn’t ignorable. I knew the scent— only this wasn’t a scent— it was an odor— more than an odor — an assault. Made my eyes sting. A suffocating attack on my raw sinuses. Even my throat was scorched breathing him in. The smell was goat cheese to the nth degree. Ok. Back up. Pardon me, that’s the wrong expression. Let me set the scene. Saturday night. And why not? The perfect time for a rendezvous. Was I planning on going out that evening? No. Was I planning on getting lucky alone on the farm? No. Actually it wasn’t Saturday night but in the tail end of Saturday afternoon. There was a moment in the bath when I pressed low on my soapy belly and wondered what good it was. Lying in the tepid water, thinking three o’clock in the morning thoughts in the afternoon. That’s when I heard them. You know when coyotes get together under the moon and do their howling? This wasn’t that. The sun was still out and the sound was a yipping of happiness as the pack ripped apart some critter. They were
on the warpath and that path runs through my 10 acres, so I had a job to do. With 10 acres and no neighbors I don’t exactly stick to protocol. Rubber boots, a bath robe, and the .22 was my getup. I checked the fence line and the goat pen and didn’t hear another peep of wildness so stepped back into the kitchen. Putting the .22 by the door I started hot water for tea. With the back door open. It was very unexpected and quite endearing at first. He walked right in and I thought it funny, so, welcome to my kitchen! As I got out the tea biscuits he seemed to sense something. He came toward me and I knew. It was absurd. But I knew. My heart was pounding and why the hell was my heart pounding, I didn’t want it to. Was his pounding? I wanted it to. No, that was not right, I felt ill. He was in front of me, turning his head from side to side as if to see me cubistically. I shuddered and his whole being seemed to do the same. He and I were doing a dance far outside of understanding. Why hadn’t I gotten dressed after the bath? Why had I left the back door open? Was I really this lonely? His lips quivered as he leaned toward my face. This was absurd. I had to put a stop to it. Yet, gosh his foul breath was animalistic. It tore down into my gut. No. Lower. He grunted and my knees went weak. I had to clutch the kitchen counter. The sink with its pathetic solitary cup, bowl, and spoon laughed up at me. My robe lifted. What was he doing? Nuzzling against me, his stiff bristles scraped my cheek. I breathed like I wanted this. This was not me. Couldn’t be me. Not possibly me.
He turned his head and — how could hair hurt so much?! I wanted to push him away but his deep guttural moan sent my back tipping. Arching. That must have signaled him for he raised his head, looked sideways at me with a golden eye and slit pupil and just as I wondered if he saw in widescreen — he came at me, forehead leading and the tetea-tete dropped me to my knees. The next happened quickly. His teeth on the back of my neck. His hooves pinning my arms. He slid in easily. I’m embarrassed to say I was ready. Thrust and thrust and thrust and he was off, bellowing gutturally. Two tones simultaneously. Biblical trumpeting— resonating through his thick spiraling horns. A shofar. Panting over the sink I watched as Bruno trotted out the back door, crossed the yard, jumped the fence and slipped back with the others in the goat pen. It was dusk. Time to lock them in for the night. I put on jeans and a sweatshirt and went out, part of me trepidatious, part of me feeling something dangerously close to prom-night. Bruno was in the pen with the other goats and the one sheep. I walked up to him slowly and touched his wide forehead. He bent into my hand but no more than usual. I rubbed his silken ears. Pulled up on his thick curling horns. I nuzzled his face. Nothing happened. So that was it? That wild event forgotten? I wanted some recognition of what we’d experienced. Maybe that’s the problem I’ve always had with sex. I give it more weight than I should. Bruno was over me in a few seconds. He gave a friendly goat-grunt and nudged me. So did the others. They wanted their evening alfalfa.
After I laid out their feed, an emptiness spread over me. I stepped away from the goats to the one dumb sheep. What kind of person was I? How could that have happened? Shame and self-loathing crumpled me. Francine ate as I clutched her thick coat, pressing my face to her smell of lanolin to see if tears would stick to wool. I went back in as the lonely moon rose and the coyotes began their nightly sorrowful tune. A month later it was clear something was happening inside me. I was going to have a baby. My baby. DAMN! I want my baby! Wait! Did I say that!? No! I don’t want a baby! A screaming monstrous creature pulling at me all the time— They always said, “Oh, you’d be such a good mother!” What am I supposed to do with that? Of course I’d be a good mother! I’m kind. I could cuddle the thing. Cuddle It. The thing. The baby. I was thinking all this. And of course I was thinking of aborting it. But even as I looked on Google for local clinics to get rid of it, I was looking up the gestation periods of goats. We only go around once in life. I’ve always been a curious sort. I couldn’t bear not knowing what might emerge. I stopped looking up abortion clinics. There was only one path for me. This was going to be my baby or my hell, but my something.
Research online provided little as to when the creature might be born. Would it be the five months of goats or the nine months of humans? I wondered if I could be called a Nanny or a doe now. At three months the movement began. Constant punching and kicking. With each kick I’d wonder — is that a little wrinkled foot or a hoof? I knew that horns didn’t start growing until after birth, so I wasn’t worried about to be gored from inside. Would it be a Satyr? A human face and torso with a goat’s legs and horns? Would it be the opposite? A goat’s face and body with a human’s legs and ears. That would be weird. My belly was growing. That was normal I know. But the other stuff, I didn’t know. Like the smell of goat cheese rising from my crotch. Having heard of about fetal alcohol syndrome and wondering how that might affect goat DNA, I’d not had a drink since. Since what? The attack? Rape? Seduction? Bruno did to me what he’d always done to the does on the farm so I couldn’t judge. Back to drinking. Not true. I did have a drink. Right afterward. I drank that whole bottle of red that I was saving for guests or a special occasion. I don’t have guests and so I figured this was a special occasion. It was the first sex I’d had in several years. More years than I want to count. Maybe that’s why I romanticized it. That’s understandable. I hope. Six months and the ladies in the grocery store were giving me knowing smiles and patting my belly. They backed off quickly when they were kicked in the palm.
I’d taken to greens more than a normal body should. Fiber was not even the word for it. My mouth was constantly grinding on something. Celery. Kale. The stalks of Brussels sprouts. Mastication was what I wanted. I ordered a cord of organic fire wood. The delivery man didn’t get why it needed to be organic if I was burning it. Once he closed the door I started chewing. Seven months to the day I bend in pain and — bleat. It’s starting. I can’t go to a hospital. No one will understand whatever comes out. But I don’t want to be alone. I need friends. It’s dark. The field is slippery under my rubber boots. The flashlight shakes as I cross to the pen. Bruno bellows his shofar sound and I imagine that’s concern in his eyes as I unlatch the gate. His nose presses on my churning kicking whirling swell and he raises his lips to gather the scents and with a hard nudge pushes me into the dark stall. I collapse on the straw. Take care of me Bruno. Widescreen pupils tilt at me. Pain coming often. Bruno’s tongue is on my forehead. I’m a salt-lick now. The moon is full and everyone’s gathered over me. Lulu, Danton, Nina, Sierra, Jack, and wooly Francine. All stare with their rectangular eyes, except Francine who has regular eyes. I pull off my panties and a steam of familiarity rises. What happens next is panting and bleating and blood and rushes of pain and rushes of fluid and I want it to stop but it doesn’t and I see in their rectangular eyes they have been here before and will be again and we are all doing this and will be and it will go on forever and that is the lesson, except I can’t bear a lesson right now because there is no end to the pain and the moon is shaking and all the bleating blends into
a single note as something is pushed and the moon is squeezed and there’s a massive letting go as it slides free and all those rectangular eyes turn round as the moon shines white in each one. And in the darkness, in that darkness, shaking in the straw, I slow my breathing. I wonder what this thing is that slipped from me. It’s clearing its lungs, coughing up its birth between my legs. That quivering thing I can’t see— Should it live? Should it be? Should it be loved? The others do the licking. They clean the creature and push it towards me through the damp sticky straw. I can’t see it but I put a hand down to find a wet mass of slippery energy. It smells my breast and with amazing strength, rams me with its downy forehead and starts suckling. And in the darkness of the stall, I hear coyotes over the hill. Do they smell the blood? Do they want this creature? My baby? In the darkness of the stall, I hear my baby pull in a breath and let out a sound. It’s short and fleeting, but clear. “Maaaa.” Susan Emshwiller
Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine
pat moeller managing editor John Gordon Gail hipkins meredith norwood jasmine skye
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