Cover Image Provided by © Fariel Shafee
VARIETY PACK ISSUE VI
MASTHEAD Editor-in-Chief/Reviews Editor - J.B. Stone Non Fiction Editor – Skyler Jaye Rutkowski Poetry Editor – Asela Lee-Kemper Flash Fiction Editor – Ben Brindise Short Fiction Editor – Ian Brunner Visual Arts Editor – Dior J. Stephens Poetry Readers – Eli Hsieh, Veronica Niero, Lauren Peter
EDITOR’S NOTE It’s that time of the year again, with Halloween right around the corner, we have some supermagical pieces in our sixth issue. We are so thrilled to include some wonderful contributors. From the surrealism in the artwork of Oormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad to the magical tale of oceans and motherhood in Sophie Fink’s The Water is Crying, through the interwoven truths in Camille McDaniel’s poem Last Rites of the Coloniser, we have a whole worthwhile variety pack outmatching whatever candy haul your kids have got this Halloween (although we do wish them all the best in their candy hauls of course!). A special thanks to our contributors, readers, submitters, and all of our fellow editors, trying to make sense of these crazy universe of ours.
Sincerely, Skyler, J.B., Asela,, Ian, Ben, Dior, Lauren, Eli, & Veronica TW/CW: The following pieces may include mentions/scenes of death, traumatic experiences and subject matter concerning and confronting issues such as abuse, suicide, depression, systematic racism, imperialism, assault.
Penny A. Page
Redfern Boyd Sophie Fink
Ebukun Gbemisola Ogunyemi Juanita Rey
David Harrison Horton
Sheila E. Murphy
Visual Art Oormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad Fariel Shafee Edward Supranowicz
LAST RITES OF THE COLONISER by Camille McDaniel
Dearest Warm body running Cold, I lap at your feet Collecting seeping memories Legacy Between Blades of grass Steering history Back on its course. I spill behind eyes Rectify— Reclaim Land that is mine (ma terre du sang) Sitting on the mother tongue Dearest intruder, Do you dream in crimson?
MENDING by Robin Foster
When she was in her seventies, my aunt, who had been single since her brief marriage and divorce before she turned twenty, met a man twenty years younger than herself, and not without the scars that every person drags with them into a new relationship, they were in love. They got engaged and travelled the world, to San Sebastian, Vietnam, Jakarta. They travelled to the coast of Maine and hiked the rung-and-ladder trail known as the Beehive Loop, precarious footing by any standards. They had Sunday breakfast in bed in his home in the sun-scorched valley beyond the acacia and eucalyptus-studded hills that hold the Pacific fog like a weighted blanket over Oakland and the East Bay. She loved to cook now that she was cooking for two. She made elaborate Christmas dinners and wrapped tiny presents in ribboned boxes while the scent of cinnamon and nutmeg wafted through the air. They enjoyed outdoor symphonies in Walnut Creek and sipped Bordeaux while inhaling the undulating phrases of Beethoven and Puccini. Quando la luce splendera! Ed il mio bacio sciogliera, Il silenzio che ti fa mia! She sang along to Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” on the CD player, dancing barefoot a coquettish dance in a silk dress that hung loosely on her lanky frame. Come a little bit closer, hear what I have to say. Just like children sleeping, we can dream this night away. Can you imagine this love affair? Have I painted a dreamy watercolor of two lovers, impossible, unlikely, what-were-the-odds, but so beautiful, so welcome, so tender, even with the scars and the craters that mottle the landscape? Can you hear the music, the passion of Puccini’s opera, the quiet comfort of Neil Young? Do you see the line of the silk dress? Spaghetti-straps and V-neck, falling almost to the ankle, negligee-style? Toenails painted a deep pink. Because she was conscious of her age, and of the difference between their ages, she often wore long satin
gloves, so elegant, so indicative of another time, pulled up over the elbows on her long, thin arms. Maybe you remember, or still know, the struggle, that gnawing and incessant longing of trying to find your person. How did you occupy your days while you waited? What substitutions did you endure? What promises did you make? What promises did you break? Love: What ecstasy is this!! Imagine listening to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in the warm evening air, surrounded by invisible Muses and Fates who twirl and drink under moonlit heavens: Ever singing, march we onward Victors in the midst of strife, Joyful music lead us Sunward In the triumph song of life! And then he died, suddenly, while out of town on business. Heart attack by the hotel pool. She had a hell of a time getting the state of Texas to release the body, to send it back to California. It was a nightmare. The lawyers were a nightmare. She made hundreds of phone calls to those lawyers from a little table overlooking the acacia-covered hills rolling their way towards the Bay. She never recovered from Paul’s death. Not really. Not even a little bit. When he died, she gave him the Catholic funeral mass she knew was important to him. She interred his ashes at a cemetery on a hillside. If you sit down under a eucalyptus tree in this cemetery you can watch the sun set over the Golden Gate Bridge. For a few years more her heart practiced at mending, she retreated to quiet places they had shared, although her heart had been filled to excess and then instantly deflated; scarred. They say stress has a tremendous impact on the body, and cancer takes its advantage where it finds it. Within three years after he died, the tumor had mangled her insides and left excruciating holes. She spent the final weeks of her life in her own bed in her cottage in the Oakland hills. My father, her brother, had just left her side
and was heading back to the airport in San Francisco when he got the call from Dianna’s healthcare aide. She was gone. I wasn’t there. Not physically, I mean to say. I called her daily from across the country, wrote hand-painted notecards and sent letters composed on my ancient typewriter. I sent a new copy of an old poem, The Prophet. I’m telling you this now, but it’s really myself I am trying to convince. Because it’s not the same as being there, and I know that. And now it’s me who is practicing at mending. So just a few years after Paul died, my aunt’s body let go its hold on this life. Her ashes joined his at the cemetery on the hill, under the acacia trees, rolling towards the bay. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. The Law of Conservation of Matter says that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, even though it may change form. After cremation, only a relatively small percentage of our body’s atoms remain to be buried or scattered. Most of the atoms that made up our body drift into the atmosphere to mingle with the 133,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 – let’s just say trillions upon trillions – of atoms that make up the Earth’s atmosphere. And then about 6,200 miles up, the atmosphere merges into the solar wind. Only helium and hydrogen atoms are light enough to escape further into the cosmos, but some other atoms can acquire enough heat from the sun to keep going farther, farther, farther afield. I imagine Dianna and Paul forever in the cosmos, much as the ancient Greeks imagined their heroes forming the constellations we see today. She is still singing to Neil Young and dancing her twirly dance, floating through.
BLUE MOUNTAIN by Maia Kowalski
At 6:22am, my father and I park outside the Second Cup on the corner of Yonge and Albertus. I never wake up this early, but it’s the morning of my elementary school’s annual ski trip to Blue Mountain. A little before 6am, my father woke me up, got me into my snowsuit and loaded me into the car with our skis and poles. I slept in the car on our way to the coffee shop, waking in intervals as the car slowed and stopped at each intersection. It’s the middle of January, so the sun is not even close to being out. The skies are as dark as when I went to sleep last night. I don’t like it. My father turns off the ignition and opens the car door. The lights come on and my eyes flutter open. “Coffee time,” he says, and walks around the car to my side. My eyes close again as he opens the door and unclicks my seatbelt. “Can I stay here?” I ask. My head begins drooping sideways from exhaustion. My father laughs. “Nope.” He reaches over and pulls me out of my seat, letting my feet touch the sidewalk. “Come on,” he says, and I reluctantly stand up and walk towards the coffee shop door. Dad slams the car door behind me. The Second Cup is manned by one guy in a blue uniform and matching visor. The coffee machine is going as we walk in: a whirring, grinding sound that fills the small, empty space. The ceiling lights have a warm, orangey hue that make the night outside the windows look even darker in the reflection. We walk up to the counter that’s my height: I can barely see over top of it. I peer up at the menu but can’t read that far without my glasses. My dad looks down at me. “What do you want?” “Um, a hot chocolate.” “Anything to eat?”
I glance over at the glass container holding half-empty trays of baked goods. They look crumbly and stale. “No.” My father looks at the man behind the counter and orders a cup of coffee, my hot chocolate and one of the leftover blueberry muffins from the container. The man nods, punches it into the register and walks over to the coffee machine while my father swipes his credit card. “Go sit down somewhere,” he says, looking over at all the empty seats, so I sit down at the nearest table and put my head in my hands. I wonder, like I do every year, why I go on the ski trip when I have to wake up so early. We meet the rest of my class at 7am in the school yard, where we board the bus to take the 2-hour drive to the ski hill. In these moments, sitting half-asleep in an empty coffee shop, it doesn’t seem worth it, even if by the end of the day, I’m happy that I’ve gotten a chance to twist and turn down powdery ski slopes and ride the lift to the top of the intermediate -- but not advanced -- runs. My parents put me in skiing lessons when I was younger, so the ski trip is something I look forward to every January. My father was not my first choice when it came to class trip supervisor, but he loved volunteering as one. On our last class trip to the Science Center, we weren’t even out the school doors before my dad yelled at one of my classmates for running down the stairs too quickly. I wasn’t friends with this classmate, but I was embarrassed enough to wish that my father would go home, and that no one would remember him doing that the next day. No one else’s parents ever scolded us when they were a supervisor. They were just meant to be there, to help the teachers out. I didn’t know why my parent had to act so differently. Mom wasn’t into volunteering. She was better at signing the permission slips, packing my backpack and making my lunches. Speaking of which: “Your mother’s asking if you have everything.” My father looks at his Nokia, then at me. I nod. “Lunch, skis, boots, goggles, helmet?”
I nod again. Dad types a quick text and puts his phone back into his pocket. The coffee machine has stopped whirring and the man behind the counter slides two cups across the smooth surface towards my father. He uses a pair of tongs to grab one of the old, crumbly muffins, puts it in a paper bag and slides that across the counter as well. Dad brings it all to the table, cups first then muffin. He sits down, lets out a big sigh, then smiles. “Ready to ski?” I cross my arms on the table and rest my head on top. I nod again, with the least movement possible. Dad laughs and pats my shoulder. He takes the lid off his coffee cup, picks it up and sips quickly before setting it back down on the table. I watch the steam rise, curl around his fingers. The store is playing the local radio station in the background. I can hear it faintly from the ceiling speakers: an over-enthusiastic voice is telling us about Leon’s post-holiday sale and how much we’ll save on a new couch now, now, now! I open the lid of my hot chocolate like my father, but it burns the tip of my tongue when I try to take a sip. I look at the analog clock hanging beside the menu: 6:31am. I wish I was in bed. Dad takes the muffin out of its crinkly paper bag and takes a big bite of the top, above the wrapping. Crumbs fall out of his mouth and onto the table. I watch as he takes another one, tilting his head in order to bite the big blueberry that’s sticking out of the side. As he chews, he pats his pants pocket and takes out his vibrating phone. He puts the muffin down and frowns at the screen. He clicks a button only once he’s swallowed, then stands up, phone to his ear. He walks to the back of the coffee shop with his head down. “I thought you packed that,” he says. I can tell my mother’s on the other line without even hearing her voice. “Why didn’t you leave it at the front?” he says. “How was I supposed to know?” When my parents fought, I’d see it in my mind’s eye as a thunderstorm rolling in. The dark clouds, slow but steady, were my father’s voice, gaining speed and volume as he spoke and gathered up his arguments. My mother was the lightning, piping in with little facts and counter-
arguments here and there, eyes bright, her words on fire. The rainstorm was me, crying in an effort to get them to stop, or, if we were in public, blurry eyes that’d hold in the tears until we got home.
The cashier is wiping down some empty tables and glances at my father, then at me. He looks away before I do. I shrink down in my seat and close my eyes again. “I asked you if we had everything. Sari just told me we did.” I wish I didn’t have a name. I wish it was something else.
“Well, we have to get there in twenty minutes. What do you suggest?” I thought we had everything. Maybe I made a mistake. “As long as you’re okay with that.” With what? “Fine. It better be right at the front.” I hear a sigh and some footsteps. I open my eyes. My father’s standing beside me. “Your mother didn’t pack your permission slip. She forgot.” He shakes his head. “I have to go get it or you’re not getting on that bus. Do you want to come or stay here?” I can feel the rainstorm starting already. “I’ll stay here.” “You sure?” “Yeah.” Dad looks at the cashier. “Is it okay if my daughter stays here? I have to go pick something up for her class trip. I’ll be back in ten minutes.” The cashier nods, waves, says it’s fine. “There won’t be anyone in here until 7 anyway,” he adds. “Great.” Dad pats his pockets for his car keys. “I’ll be right back,” he says to me. “Don’t go anywhere.” “Okay.” The coffee shop door opens, then shuts.
I’m hot. I didn’t take anything off when we sat down, not even my hat or scarf, because I was so cozy from the car. Now, my head is starting to heat up, and my neck is starting to prickle with sweat. I unzip my jacket and unwrap my scarf. I put my hat on the table. On the radio, they’re playing Where is the Love? by The Black Eyed Peas. I mumble along to the lyrics under my breath and look out the window. Still dark out. The cashier walks around the cafe, wiping tables that look like they’ve been cleaned a million times already. I wonder what time he had to wake up this morning to open the store. Probably 3am, or something. He glances at my table as he walks by, eyeing the crumbs leftover from my father, but doesn’t stop. I don’t want him to, anyway. It’s 6:37am. Dad’s only been gone for five minutes, maybe, and he may not even be home yet, but I still worry about the conversation that’ll happen between my parents when he gets there. In later years, my therapist will tell me that my parents’ divorce was not my fault, and any guilt I felt was unwarranted because they both still loved me unconditionally. But in these moments, before divorce even becomes a word in my vocabulary, I feel otherwise. I close my eyes again, leaning back into my chair. I hug my jacket around my shoulders and imagine it’s my duvet at home. I imagine the lights are off and I’m in bed and my parents are sleeping in the room beside me and not arguing. I imagine my mother is my class supervisor instead of my father and that my father didn’t yell so loud and my mother hadn’t forgotten to put the permission slip in my bag and that my father would’ve thought to double-check. I imagine I’m on the ski hill already, speeding through fresh powder snow and skidding to a stop so fast that a huge wave of snow falls onto my friends. I imagine the hot chocolate at the chalet will be much better than the one I have in front of me. I hear the door open, then close. I open my eyes and see my father, brandishing the permission slip in front of him. “Can’t forget this next time,” he says, and folds it into his jacket pocket. “Remind me to give it to your teacher.”
I nod. “Did you finish your drink? We should go.” I shake my head no. The clock says 6:50am. He’s right; we should go. I put my arms through my jacket sleeves and zip it up. Dad hands me my scarf and I wrap it around my neck while he pulls my hat over my hair. He puts the half-eaten muffin back into its bag and grabs his coffee. He points to my hot chocolate with his pinky finger, the only finger free to move. “Is that garbage?” “Yeah.” “Throw it out, then.” He gestures to the trash bin near the door. As we walk out, my father raises his arm to the cashier. “Thanks again,” he says, and the cashier nods back. Dad pushes the door open and I realize it’s snowing. “You’ll get fresh snow today,” he says, as we walk over to the car. He puts his coffee and the muffin on the roof, takes the keys out of his pocket and clicks the doors open. I love snow, but I’m already shivering as I adjust from the warmth of the Second Cup. I nestle myself into the backseat as quickly as possible. Dad slumps into the driver’s seat with his stuff and slams the door shut. He looks back at me. “Let’s ski!” he says, smiling, but I’m too tired to smile back. I lean my head against the door as he starts the engine and pulls out into the street.
AT DAWN by Bruce Meyer We began before dawn as the day I had feared for years arrived, the day every one of them would have to be killed, and I realized death doesn’t smell like other things, especially nothing living except for chickens. When we had to put down both barns the air was worse than death, and darkness fell... People used to say they could smell our farm from a mile up the road. The scent carried on hot summer nights when everyone who drove up and down our concession had their windows rolled open so the breeze could blow in and mess their hair. When they crested the rise, the aroma would attack them, make them gag, and sting their eyes so that they’d stop and shout at us if we were working on the free-run area near the road. They’d holler we had no business putting that kind of belligerence in the atmosphere and that we were a hazard to public health. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the vegetables and strawberries they consumed grew in the stuff that caused the stench or that the creatures who created the guano produced their eggs for breakfast or their breasts and drumsticks for dinner. If I told them that and started rolling up my sleeves, they’d drive away in a cloud of dust because most people are chicken. I didn’t tell them I couldn’t take the smell either, the way it lingered and hung over our property and stayed in my nose even when I went away. It couldn’t be washed off. It couldn’t be driven away. It was a fact of life that came with what we did. They should have been grateful we filtered the air from the barns before we released it. It would have been ten times worse if we hadn’t. When winter came, we had to keep the doors of the two large sheds shut because poultry and December don’t mix well. Cold air kills. No matter what the season, people need their scrambled eggs or their hot evening meal. To the average person, a chicken is a sign of plenty. Politicians campaigned on the platform of a chicken in every pot. No matter where a person goes in the world – Africa, South America, Europe,
Asia, from the poshest restaurants to the poorest villages – there is always chicken on the menu. Even people who refuse to eat the flesh of another creature will crack an egg in a pan without giving their sunny-side-up a second thought. The poultry business is one of the few truly universal forms of livelihood along with funeral parlors and brothels. You’d think people would realize all three possess their own dimensions of feculent aromas. Feculent. I learned that word one summer when the ventilation system in the west barn broke down. If the ventilation system fails, we’re in trouble. If we hadn’t gotten it up and running in a day, the pullets asphyxiate themselves on the overheated vapors from their own waste. In the winter, they don’t succumb to their guano but are so sensitive to cold their hearts stop if the barn dips below forty degrees Fahrenheit. The feathers on a chicken are a lousy reminder that the dinosaurs went extinct the moment something upset the perfect balance of their climate. Those ancient reptiles had feathers, too. If chickens had been intended to survive in the cold they would have hatched with fur. It is a wonder we have so many chickens in our barns. The moment I step in the door all I see is a sea of white heads pecking away in the perpetual daylight of the pullet rows. They never seem to rest. I often wondered if they ever rested, and if I turned out the light on them, would they dream? As Hamlet would say, ‘Aye, there’s the rub.’ And what would a chicken dream if it did fall asleep? When they are slaughtered, they must know fear. I know what that fear is because I felt it, deep down in me, right to the core of my soul, the night Ma and I rushed Dad to the emergency room at the hospital and we just sat by ourselves in an empty room lined with rows of chairs, a perpetual light burning above us in the windowless enclosure, wondering if he was going to make it. And when he didn’t, when I held my sobbing mother in my arms as her heart broke. I looked at the rows of chairs and they reminded me of our barns, of the portholes through which our hens poked their heads to peck and eat and drink and lay and survive without realizing they weren’t
leading a life as much as they were aimed at sustaining someone else’s existence, fixated on what they were doing because the others were doing the same thing, and none of them had any idea that there might be another life they could lead. I would rather be anything in this world than a chicken. In our hatchling shed where we have to keep the heat up high, we lose over seventy percent of all the new arrivals. Those have to be the worst odds an animal can face. Chickens are susceptible to a sneeze. That’s why we have to feed them antibiotics. Among livestock, they are the invalids of the food industry. They exist only when all the conditions for their survival are met, and there are so many variables to the business I’ve wondered if a bad thought wouldn’t be just as lethal to them as a failed heater or an errant virus. All things are delicate in their own way. Chickens possess a kind of marvelousness that leaves me fascinated. My grandmother used to chop off the feet off a dead hen she was preparing dinner and show me how one pull on a cord in the back of the leg could make the claws grab and pick up a pencil. I would turn the foot over in my hand, examine its scales, the pinkish hue of the claws, and wonder why the bird had evolved not only to possess the means of holding on to a tree branch but bear the weapons with which it could fight back against the world. The birds I knew, the pale descendants of ancient wild chickens that once populated the high branches and open-air, were so docile. I think they were afraid for their lives so they surrendered willingly to us. We bred the beauty out of them when we redesigned them to be food, and part of that beauty resides in the intricacy and craft that goes into a chicken. The eyes of a rooster, for example, are finely filigreed in a yellow membrane at the edges of the lids as if someone crocheted a fine band of lace around their field of vision so the bird has something better to look at than a bleak life spent in a shed or a barn. But what moves me more than anything about the thousands and thousands of birds I’ve raised and that I either killed or sent away to die is that they do not accept death, at least not physiologically. Something in them fights back when they encounter their finality.
Before he moved on, my older brother taught me how to butcher a bird for the pot, saying, “Winner winner, chicken dinner,” like a carnival huckster – which he became. He got fed up with the poultry business and declared all such winged creatures to be terminally stupid. I can’t say I agree with him, but to make his point he showed me how to kill a chicken both humanely and inhumanely. In industrial abattoirs, chickens are grabbed by their ankles, hung upside down, and dipped in a bath through which a high voltage current flows for a millisecond. That short shock doesn’t kill them. It only stuns them, so that when their throats are slit supposedly they don’t know what is happening to them. The idea is that to be insensate is to be immune to suffering and horror, at least to the point where death is not death but a state of extreme confusion. Is that humane? The humane way my brother showed me was to corner a chicken in a place from which it could not escape, an actual corner for instance, and after the chicken raised its talons at him and fought back and flailed in a cloud of feathers, he’d grab the bird’s body under one arm as if he was playing the bagpipes and snap its head with the other hand. The twist could be a problem because a chicken can turn its head almost three hundred degrees. If the rotation weren’t beyond the point where the neck snapped, the bird would suffer even more. That method of butchering was sickening to watch because the neck made a terrible cracking sound. The next time he caught a bird, an old, motley rooster that I knew would be tough and sinewy when served, he grabbed it, stroked its neck gently to calm it as it blinked, and tilted its cockscomb from side to side as if it was trying to make sense of the situation, drew his fingers through its long, plumed tail, reminding me how nice it looked, and then stretched the bird on an old stump we kept in a corner of the rooster shed, a solid piece of an old oak trunk we used as a butcher’s block, grabbed a cleaver off the bench beside the stump, and severed the animal from its head with one swift blow. I threw up.
The rooster’s wings flapped madly. My brother held it up by its feet as the thing tried to fly. Its body decided it could live without its head. The head lay in the sawdust shavings on the shed floor. The body attempted to set off in search of a better life without its brain. The neck and the wings splattered blood everywhere. When the flapping stopped, the body became limp. My brother sank the cleaver point into the stump, tilted the carcass upside down, and exclaimed, “That, little bro, is what you’d pay money to see in a horror show.” As I tried to wipe my mouth clean, I sputtered that what he’d done was worse than anything I’d read about in history books. Beheading was the way traitors and unwanted royal wives were executed. I pictured Charles I stepping onto the balcony of Whitehall Palace one cold morning, his torso attired in three white shirts so he’d be warm and the public wouldn’t see him shiver and think he had pangs of cowardice. I imagined Mary Queen of Scots. I’d seen her pearls in a traveling museum show in the city. One of her ladies-in-waiting had retrieved them from the pool of blood. She had refused to remove them for her executioner. Some were tinged brown. And the French Revolution – I didn’t even want to go there. I’d just finished reading Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The thought of losing one’s head is one of the most horrible ideas human beings have concocted; yet that form of death always carried a sense of nobility. The headsman wasn’t for common criminals. A person had to be someone important to die that way. I stared at the rooster’s head in the sawdust shavings on the slaughter area floor, nudged it with my toes as it blinked, and realized it was wearing a crown, maybe a fool’s coxcomb, but a crown, nonetheless. My brother pointed to the block. “That chunk of tree has meaning for us,” he said. “It’s a piece of the last tree our great-great-grandfather pulled from the soil of our farm when he pioneered here, and he kept it knowing we would see what he’d done to the forests and earth. Everything dies, buddy boy. Everything dies so that something else has a chance to live. You’re here because of all the birds we’ve put into other people’s mouths. Remember that. We didn’t want to raise chickens for a living. A chicken farm is always the farm of last resort, a kind of consolation agriculture for
those who couldn’t manage other types of crops, sane crops, crops you can pick from a tree branch or pull from the earth and shove right into your mouth. The old guy started by farming wheat, but when the West opened up, the market for grain from hereabouts fizzled. He wanted to plant an orchard but figured the trees would take too long to bear fruit. Everyone else was growing hay or vegetables, so he became a chicken man. And there you have it. That’s the story of why we’re here.” He held up the carcass by its feet. It was still bleeding. My brother had blood splattered on his face and his work smock. It was even on me. He began by pulling the major feathers from the tail, and then switched on a plucking vacuum – we were one of the few poultry farms in the area with such a suction device and therefore could sell the birds to local restaurants and butcher shops as “Fresh Killed.” With the feathers gone, he slit the bird along its stomach and with his right hand in a heavy rubber glove pulled out the entrails. He held up a few organs – the liver being choicest among them
– but tossed them aside. “We used to have a call for those. People made their own paté, but now it’s just as easy to buy it in the jelly block from a meat counter. It’s all spiced and seasoned, ready to spread on bread or crackers. It doesn’t look like it came from any living creature. That’s what we do to food. We disguise it, make it into something it never was. People couldn’t tolerate it otherwise.” He handed me the naked bird. “Take it in to Mom. It’ll be on the table tonight.” The carcass was still warm. When a person goes into a store to buy a chicken for dinner, the meat is chilled. It feels like it is dead. It doesn’t resemble a chicken to the eye or the touch. It isn’t a chicken. It is meat that needs to be cooked. In grocery stores there are rotisseries where the chickens revolve around a glowing element in a kind of Ferris wheel in a box, and when they come out, sometimes covered in barbecue sauce but more often than not just roasted with a bit of butter rubbed on their skins to
create that crispy quality, they are put under a heat lamp in a display case, each in its little plastic boat as if they are survivors of a maritime disaster waiting to be plucked from the sea in their survival pods. Hens have it much easier, though that statement needs to be qualified. They eventually meet the same fate when their usefulness for a purpose other than meat has been exhausted. Their lives are a monotonous purgatory spent in a barn where the lights are kept on twenty-four hours a day. A week in such a place would kill a human being. But hens are strong creatures either because they don’t take in their surroundings or because they choose not to care, though choosing not to care would give them credit for being more intelligent than they probably are. Brains come with a cost because those creatures that have them not only suffer, they, know what suffering is. I don’t know if it is better to be aware or not be aware. I am certain that pigs – there’s a pig farm down the road and the hog man’s daughter and I were considered a couple – know the score and feel for one another. If I pass them in a truck on the highway as they are traveling to the slaughterhouse, I can’t look at them. I can’t meet their gaze. When I see a load of chickens stacked on each other I don’t feel the same sense of despair. Maybe I’m immune to their fears or maybe they just don’t know any better. In the long sheds, the poultry barns that people complain about because they catch of whiff of the guano we shovel out several times a day – and in the summer we conserve electricity by lowering the air conditioning in the evening and opening the shed doors for ventilation – the hens are lined up drumstick to drumstick, their heads locked in place and poking through ‘neckings’ as we call them, so they can eat what we put in front of them and lay their eggs. They’d trample their own produce and break the white shells as they drop if we didn’t have a system where the hens drop their loads on a small conveyor belt that brings the eggs into the washing chamber where the shells are scrubbed and graded for size. Sometimes, if we’re not busy, we candle the eggs ourselves to make sure there are no blood spots inside them.
We do our best to keep the hens from the roosters, but there’s a kind of immaculate conception thing that happens on chicken farms and heaven knows how some of the pullets get impregnated. Maybe the Lord looks down on the hens in their white feathers, their heads framed by a veil of metal, and their beaks bobbing up and down as they eat or drink, and says, “Maybe this will save you. Maybe you can be the chicken who lays the golden egg,” or some such rot. I always imagined these things but never told my brother. He would have laughed at me. Or perhaps he did think these things, perhaps thought them too often, and maybe when he lay down on a sunny day in the backyard hammock and looked up at the sky when he should have been busy with me and Dad in the barn, he saw a billowing white cloud cluck across the sky and wanted to follow it. On an August morning, just as the sun was rising and the roosters were doing their chanticleer ‘I can sing louder than you’ routine from their shed without even being able to see the sun outside and maybe sensing dawn with some sort of weird chicken sixth sense, I called up the stairs to tell my brother Mom had breakfast on the table and there was no reply. I entered his room. He’d torn open his pillow and emptied the contents around his room as if he’d had a pillow fight or wrestled with an angel and lost. Granted, it was goose down, not chicken feathers. They haven’t made chicken feather pillows since before the First World War, but the entire room was covered in feathers, and opening his door merely raised them into the air so they floated like dandelion fluff or milkweed seeds. The sun was coming in through his drapes and each feather reminded me of a tiny angel, perhaps the spirit of a former bird who had looked me in the eye during its terrible, purgatorial life, and declared that it had a soul even though I fought the urge to acknowledge such tripe. I knew my brother had to leave. He’d stopped eating.
He couldn’t put a bite in his mouth, whether it was from a chicken pie or a breaded fast food cutlet. I think he understood too much about what we were doing. He was twenty-five, had outgrown the rebellious teenager thing. He’d watched a heavy metal rocker bite the head off a chicken during a concert at the local fairgrounds and on the way home as I sat in the back seat necking with the hog man’s daughter he turned to me and said, “I can’t take it anymore.” My Dad said it was because my brother had seen too much of the world. In Portugal, my brother must have suffered something close to a nervous breakdown. He told me about having lunch one day in a sidewalk café in Lisbon. “That country is really beautiful. I ordered the sardines because a man I met, a Portuguese guy, said that sardines and chicken were their national dishes. I should have had the chicken. When they brought out the plate of fish, the heads, eyes, and all, were still on them. They’d been roasted so their skins were black, but their eyes were still shining and staring at me. I paid the check and left. Thank God for the cheese, bread, beer, and olives or I would have starved. And the oranges are brilliant. After I’d finally gotten enough to eat, I was walking aimlessly around the streets of the Alfama where the light cuts like a knife between buildings, especially late in the afternoon, and on the shadowed side of a street there was a shop that sold souvenirs. I was looking for something for Mom. I chose some bird tiles because the birds didn’t look like chickens, but as I went to the far side of the narrow store there was a whole wall of these hand-painted black chickens. I asked the clerk what they were, why they had all those roosters. He understood me.” “Ah, sim! Sim!” he said, “meaning yes. Those black roosters with their red combs, brightly painted, are called barcelos. They’re supposed to be the national symbol of Portugal. I asked why on earth they would choose to have a chicken as their national bird. I mean, Americans have an eagle – vigilant, warlike, dangerous – and Canadians have their loons and geese. But the Portuguese chose a chicken, a barcelos. You know what he said?” “The barcelos represent honesty, integrity, trust, and honor.”
“I bought the biggest honking one on the shelf for Dad, the one he keeps on the kitchen table. I mean, what’s a chicken? And as I walked around the streets until I was dog tired and sat down and had a glass of wine in a barzinho, I watched all the people passing by, their eyes fixed on the ground as if they were searching for something they’d dropped as they hurried from shop to shop, and I realized they saw the world in an entirely different way, in a way that said life was about patience and perseverance. And I could see it everywhere, even the sidewalks. The sidewalks aren’t cement slabs like the ones in our town. They’re mosaics composed of millions of small, perfect, pale stone cubes laid together in a mortar of sand. Think of it. Think of the people who create the sidewalks of Lisbon, laying cube after cube. And I thought of home, our farm, and our poultry.” After he told me that story, I knew my brother wasn’t going to stick around the farm. He had reached the point at which one has to stop raising animals for slaughter, that point when the farmer looks at his herd or his flock or his brood and understands each creature not merely as something he raises to make money but as beings, physical and, yes, spiritual that are as brim with vitality and the inexplicable desire to keep existing. to fight for with every breath. And I knew once he’d gone inside the head of a rooster or a hen he would have to leave the work he’d been raised to do since he was a small boy. My brother reached that point where he not only understood his flock, but where he saw each bird, each pullet with its neck tethered to the feeding system, each rooster fighting for its space against its fellow kingbirds, and he saw them as symbols of nobility and life. Maybe that’s why he and Dad painted the giant roundel with a red and black cockerel on it, surrounded by maple leaves, and hung it on the face of the west wall of the barn like a barn star. The west barn is what someone sees as they come over the crest of the road toward us. They highlighted the Portuguese bird with the words O Por Bem Barcelos as the farm’s motto: All to the good for Chickens. It was my brother’s tribute to the life he left behind, its traditions handed down over three generations, and to the birds that lived to die.
People often pulled into our laneway and asked if we were Portuguese. They seemed disappointed when I told them we weren’t, that the roundel on the barn was purely a fanciful decoration my brother and father had dreamed up as a kind of blessing or benediction on the brood. That’s what the agriculture inspector was looking at two days ago when I walked out of the barn and found him staring at the roundel. He asked me what the motto meant and whether it was Latin. He said he didn’t know Latin or any other foreign languages except for a smattering of high school French. “Well,” he said handing me a summons printed on official Ministry of Agriculture stationery with the department’s federal logo at the top and the red and white flag beside the branch’s name, “for the good of all the other chickens within a five hundred mile radius, you’re going to have to close down your operations, exterminate your stock, and make sure every last feather is either carried away or plowed under.” I stared at the paper. I couldn’t believe I was being ordered to destroy my brood, hens, roosters, chicks. Even the eggs had to go. I’d heard that avian flu might be coming to our county but figured the antibiotics we fed the stock would stop all that. I was wrong. I tried to explain the antibiotics. “No,” he shook his head, “that won’t stop it. It has spread and we tested the hens you sent to the processing plant and traced them back here. Most of your chickens are infected or will be infected in a day or so. I’m sorry to give you the bad news.” “I don’t have a bulldozer. Am I on the hook for the extermination and the disposal? I’m not sure we have land enough for a mass grave.” He guaranteed me that part of the bill would be covered by the province and the federal government. He said the exterminators would put a tent over both barns and a small covering on the rooster shed and the egg sorting building. “When it’s all covered over, we pump in the gas. It won’t take long. We’ll provide a hazmat crew. Part of the bill is on you and I hope you have insurance to cover this sort of thing.”
My father had let it lapse. I knew the local inspector. He was a cousin of the hog man’s and even though I’d broken up with the girl my license had been renewed twice yearly. I thought everything was in good order. The extermination crew arrived the next morning at about three a.m. I think they startled the roosters from their sleep. The men were dressed in white coveralls, their heads helmeted with only plastic portals revealing the masks and respirators over their mouths and noses and eyes that signaled there were human beings inside the suit. I was going to lose the farm. I would have to take my Mom out of the home and put her in the care of the county. This was defeat, not just for the birds but for everything that had been my life. One of the men left the door open to the rooster shed and a Rhode Island red flew out and perched himself on the crest of our house. There weren’t supposed to be any escapees. In the darkness, with the buildings covered and sealed and my chickens inside and anticipating only another day of the constant monotony of their lives, the valves on the gas canisters were opened. I could hear clucking from inside the barns, then squawking as a kind of madness must have broken out among the flock. I knew they were suffering but there was nothing I could do to save them. The inspector who had shown up with a coffee in one hand and clipboard in the other pointed to the red atop my roof. “That’s going to be a problem. Got a shotgun?” “I don’t want to put a hole in my roof,” I said. “I have a gun, an old hunting rifle of my father’s, but I don’t think he ever shot one of his chickens. We never had any fugitives, at least not until now. The birds seemed to like it here for as long as they were fed and useful to us.” The government man was talking into a hand-held two-way when I noticed the barns had gone silent.
At that moment, just as the dawn was approaching and the sun’s bald and glowing head rose above the far end of our property, the rooster began to crow. It crowed three times, stopping between each burst of ignited energy and sound, and looked down at me as if to say, “So this is what it comes to.” The hazmat men opened the barn doors and began to carry out the limp birds by their legs, tossing their white bodies into dumpsters, and I wanted to cry but instead, and I’m not sure what possessed me, I looked up at the barcelos, the living cockerel to whom my farm had been dedicated, and saluted. The rooster flapped its wings and stretched its neck as if it were about to crow again when a shot broke the dawn and the sun appeared to stand still in awe for a moment before the day could begin.
FAMILY TREE by Edward Supranowicz
THE STARS ABOVE, THE EARTH BELOW (Tu Fu) by George Freek
Tonight the moon looks like an ancient scholar whose mind is unfulfilled. A stunning cantata of stars sings over my bed, but they can’t tell me what lies ahead. As I look out my window, a pigeon disappears into the jaws of a darkening sky. Clouds breathe like vagabonds, who have traveled for years, only to lose their way. The night encloses me like a cocoon, as the moon turns to clay. I stare at it as at some flower of stone, which can never bloom, but will never fade away.
UNFORTUNATE by Megan McKinley 1
How unfortunate it is for me to be thinking of that night the same night I kissed the girl who used to bring me flowers; and when she playfully poked the soft spot of my side, I violently flinched away, and she asked with a lilt of laughter in her voice, “are you ticklish?” before doing it again.
That night my father came into my room to say goodnight to me before bed, with our usual bedtime routine of: prayer, goodnight hugs, goodnight kisses on the mouth, and a game of tickle that I never enjoyed, but I always laughed anyway, always played the part of gleeful daughter that my father always wanted, and the game of tickles always made him laugh so I thought it must be something fun, but it was never fun at all, it always hurt; rough, calloused fingers poked at flesh and bone relentlessly, even when I cried and begged for him to stop, please, it hurts, stop; quarter sized bruises were left on my rib cage, under arms, stomach, waist; one night I had tried to get away from him, while he was on top of me, tickling me, I rolled out of bed and toppled on the ground, fake laughing on the way down to fool him into thinking that I had my fill and was ready for the play to cease but he followed me down and pinned me to floor, his knees caging me in on either side as he continued to poke at me; he laughed while my fake laughter turned to screams, and I screamed and screamed and screamed until I did not have enough air to fill my lungs and all I could manage were breathy cries for help; that night my mother rushed into my room to help and had to drag my father off me as she cried, stop, stop, stop, can’t you hear her scream, can’t you hear her cry, she wants you to stop; that night my father, who was breathless and smiling replied, don’t be ridiculous, she’s fine, we were just playing; that night I laid in a heap of broken joints and bruised, achy skin on my bedroom floor.
RAVENHOOD by Penny A. Page
The texts told the story. Her name was Amanda. She and Dillon worked together, and judging by the dates on the messages, their affair had been going on for several months. Dillon had gone downstairs to the parking garage to retrieve something from the car, and gotten careless, forgotten his phone was on his dresser open to the messages. That’s what happens when you lie for too long: the details of deception become impossible to maintain. I remembered meeting her at the last company Christmas party, a tall, bleached blond with slightly buck teeth and a guffawing laugh. She tottered around in a sequined mini-skirt and skyhigh stiletto heels that elevated her to the six-foot mark and accentuated her coltish legs. Standing next to her, my head barely reaching her shoulder, my brown hair styled in its usual boring bob, and my knee-length black shift lacking any trace of sequins, I felt dumpy, underdressed, and worst of all, insignificant. They were involved then, even as the two of them stood making small talk and smiling into my face. Today she was texting him nonstop about what they were going to do that weekend. And here, on all those other weekends I believed the slimy cheater was working overtime. When he returned from the car and saw me holding his phone, he froze—a deer in headlights. “Amanda wants to know what you two are going to do this weekend,” I said, and hurled the phone at his face. I didn’t think I’d actually hit him, that he’d be able to deflect the hard, plastic rectangle flying toward him with a hand or an arm, like any normal person. But he was slow to react, and my aim was good. The phone bounced off his forehead, knocking his wire framed glasses askew. He fumbled to pick it up and then clutched it to his chest as if it could protect him, his glasses still hanging crooked on his nose, a purple mark growing between his eyebrows.
The blood had drained from his face, even his lips had gone white. His mouth fell open and then closed, and then fell open again. He couldn’t seem to speak. I thought he might be having a heart attack. “Valerie . . .,” he whimpered and took a step toward me. “Don’t!” I raised a flat hand, like a cop stopping traffic. He kept whimpering. He swore that she meant nothing, that I was the one he loved. He’d break it off with her today. He’d do anything to make it up to me. “How are you going to do that?” I asked. I was angry, but after clocking him with the phone, my anger took a back seat. I felt detached, as though I had separated from my body and floated upward to watch the scene from the ceiling. The floating-me didn’t feel furious, or enraged, or incensed, just numb at the revelation, at the depth of his deceit. The serious calculating anger would settle in later. And take up housekeeping. “I’ll quit my job,” he said, his words tumbling out with a panicked edge. “Every business needs an accountant. I can work anywhere. I’ll get a position in a smaller city. We can live in the country like you’ve always wanted. Valerie, please!” he begged. “I know I made a terrible mistake, but I’m pleading with you. We’ve been together ten years. Let’s not throw that away because I was a stupid ass. Won’t you at least consider saving our marriage?” I said I needed time to think about it, but he didn’t give me time. Every day he’d cry for forgiveness. I asked myself again and again; should I cut and run, walk away from ten years of a mostly tolerable marriage, or should I stay and try to get past the hurt, the breach of trust? He was making a sacrifice, offering to quit his prestigious, well-paying job in the city. That was a big concession for him. He was trying hard to please me by cutting his Amanda work-ties and agreeing to live in the country, which had always been a dream of mine. Never a dream of his, however. He was a city boy, through and through. I knew that going in. When we were dating in college, I thought we were a perfect match. He, the left-brained finance major, me, the right-brained artist. Opposites attract, or so I’d always heard. He was a
planner, constantly thinking about the future and how he was going to invest his money for the greatest return. His logical, pragmatic way of approaching life was a nice balance to my intuitive, dreamer approach. Back then I appreciated his attention to stuff I didn’t want to think about, like balancing bank accounts and forging career paths. Plus, the sex was fantastic. He was long and lean with a full head of sandy hair and a flat, well-toned stomach. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other. After we got married, things were good for six or seven years. The sex stayed hot, and early on Dillon snagged a position at Microsoft that paid well, allowing me time to pursue my work without the pressure of supporting myself. After that however, things changed. We found out we couldn’t have children. Dillon’s issue, not mine, and he adamantly refused to adopt or pursue any fertility alternatives. I accepted a childless future, but the sex cooled. Soon he was spending more time at the office, financial deadlines you know, and I was spending more time in my workshop. When we were at home, I got tired of listening to his plans. Plans, plans, plans. Why couldn’t he be spontaneous, play hooky for a day, spend a few hours with me? But no, no way. Had he always been this hard-headed, this set in his ways? Plus, time had not been kind to his physique. The young lean business prodigy whose words I had hung on, whose body I had craved, was now an obstinate, balding, pot-bellied bore. His persistent whining pleas for us to try and make the marriage work wore me down. He argued that most of our ten married years had been good. Which was true. We could get back to the good days if we worked at it. Just give him a chance to prove himself, that was all he was asking. I got tired of listening to it. Before my mind, or my heart, was ready to make a renewed commitment to our relationship, I relented to the pressure and said I’d try again on a trial basis. No promises for the long term. Dillon was ecstatic I held him to his promise that he quit his job immediately to sever his contact with Amanda. But as it turned out, it wasn’t as easy for him to get another position as he had anticipated. We
were left without his income, and we had lived primarily off his salary because my wood-burning art didn’t bring in enough to cover the bills, especially in high-priced Seattle. Four months later he settled for a position about fifty miles outside of Seattle in a town near Mt. Rainier National Park called Enumclaw, population 11,000. He was the new accounting director for the Mutual of Enumclaw insurance office. It was a definite step down from his former position at Microsoft. His salary was half of what it had been, but we sold the condo for a big profit which enabled us to buy a farmhouse and ten acres outright, with money to spare. I was excited about the farm, even though I knew Dillon wasn’t, but we’d already lived his city-life. Now it was time for us to live where I wanted. A deal’s a deal. Country living, here we come. The house was a two story, seventy-five years old with a wrap-around porch. The former owners had recently painted it bright white, and as we arrived with Mr. Whiskers and the last of our boxes in the backseat of the Lexus, it glowed in the sunshine, standing out against the green meadows and forests that surrounded it. Seeing how pretty it looked in the afternoon light lessened my anxiety about whether any of this—the reconciliation, his new job, the move—was a good idea. I looked over at Dillon to gauge his reaction, to see if he saw the same lovely setting that I did. He squinted up through the windshield, the glass in his wireframes reflecting the house like twin mirrors, and said, “I see moss all over the shingles. We should have had a separate inspection on the roof.” Typical. His reaction to anything was predictable: forever the tiresome pragmatist. Every time I looked at him, the first thing that came to mind was his dull, uninspired response to everything; the second was his affair. This was the place we were supposed to start over, put all that behind us. You’d think he could muster some enthusiasm. Mr. Whiskers meowed from his crate in the backseat. I heaved a sigh and stepped from the car. Mr. Whiskers didn’t like traveling in the car. He had crouched in his crate and yowled all the way here, which irritated Dillon, whose jaw clenched every time the cat let loose. Mr. Whiskers’ amber eyes were wide as I gently pulled him from the carrier, held him to my chest, and
petted his thick orange fur. “How’s my best boy? Don’t worry, Whisky, we’re here. The ride’s over.” With Mr. Whiskers’ soft, solid weight in my arms, I started up the porch steps as Dillon pulled boxes out of the trunk and the backseat. A piercing skrawk-skrawk startled me and I stopped to turn around and look up at the sky. Two very large black birds were circling above our heads, swooping back and forth across the front yard. As they dropped nearer, their long wingspans sent shadows racing across the grass. Dillon squinted up at the birds. “What in the hell are those? Some sort of giant mutant crow?” The two birds flapped down and settled into an apple tree at the edge of the yard. One was bigger than the other, likely the male of the pair. They cocked their heads, watching us as we watched them. They weren’t crows. I was sure of that. They were larger than crows and their feathers were glossy, shining with an oily iridescence when the sun glanced off their sleek bodies. “My guess is they’re ravens,” I said. The male cawed loudly three times, a deep raspy croak that filled the air, impossible to ignore. Then the female took up the call, her head pushing forward, her shaggy throat feathers fluffing with each squawk. They studied us and took turns cawing, as if discussing our arrival. “That’s fucking annoying,” Dillon yanked the last box out of the trunk. “What are they doing here anyway? I thought ravens lived in England, at the Tower of London.” I huffed out a scoffing laugh, but he was serious. He didn’t appreciate my reaction, and he shot me a surly squint. That was another thing; why was he always squinting? Maybe the stickup-his-ass was working its way out. “Yeah, they live in England, but they also live all over the Northern Hemisphere,” I said. “Well, whatever. They’re ugly looking bastards. I hope they fly off into the woods. If they keep up that screech, I’ll use them for target practice.”
Dillon had recently purchased himself a pellet gun. He said now that we were country-folk, we should embrace the lifestyle and that meant having a gun. I put my foot down at a real gun, but I said okay to the pellet, figuring he’d be less likely to kill or maim a living creature. I knew he couldn’t wait to shoot at something, but knowing him, I was pretty sure his aim would be bad. Whisky meowed in my arms. “I think the ravens are beautiful,” I whispered into his ear. He purred his response. That night Dillon and I concentrated on unpacking boxes, him upstairs in the bedroom, me and Mr. Whiskers in the kitchen, which limited any kind of conversation—of the human variety that is. I talked plenty to Whisky who, as always, was an excellent listener. Dillon and I fell into bed at nine, exhausted from the long day. I put Whisky’s pillowed basket on the floor next to the bed, but he jumped up and curled next to my feet, much to Dillon’s displeasure. “Oh relax,” I said. “He won’t bother you. I’ll keep him on my side. He’ll go back to his own bed when he gets used to the place.” Dillon mumbled something in a contemptuous tone and turned his back to me. I didn’t ask him to repeat whatever he’d said. He was tired and cranky, and due at his new job at 8 a.m. No sense starting an argument, and frankly, I didn’t care what he said. Mr. Whiskers was sleeping with me. As much I wanted to sleep, my mind kept whirling, spinning down into the drain of why we were here in the first place. Today had not been a wonderful beginning to our “fresh start” as Dillon called it. Things between us were not back to what they’d been before Amanda. Far from it. Give it time, I told myself, but the longer we spent together, the less convinced I became that our marriage could be salvaged. Whisky padded up and curled into a comforting purring ball against my chest that eventually lulled me to sleep. The next morning Dillon was up and out of the house before I woke up. First day job jitters I suppose. Downstairs he’d made coffee and left a note on the counter telling me he left without saying good-bye because he wanted to let me sleep, and he hoped I had a good day. He was
excited about our new house and he would see me after work about five o’clock. He signed it, Love you, Dillon. I tossed the note aside and poured myself a cup of coffee. I gazed out the kitchen window at our newly acquired ten acres; five acres of grassy fields surround by five acres of thickly treed forest. Today the sky was a high-blue and the meadow grasses were waving lazily in the breeze in front of the emerald wooded backdrop. The view was postcard picturesque. Just looking at it lowered my blood pressure. Across the field, two ravens sailed out from the wall of evergreens. Must be the two who greeted us yesterday. They coasted above the pasture for several hundred yards, then tipped their long glossy wings and wheeled upward to float on the breeze before plunging downward to within inches of the tall grass. They repeated this maneuver three times, each time coming closer to the house, until the male dove down directly into the grass a dozen feet from my window. A second later he emerged with a mouse clutched in his twiggy black feet. The two birds flew back to the towering trees at the edge of the meadow and disappeared into the dense branches. I retrieved my iPad from a box in the hallway, returned to the kitchen window, and googled Ravens. Mr. Whiskers sat on the counter licking his forepaws and cleaning his masculine orange face with quick efficient strokes as I read out loud. “The northern raven is among the largest perching birds in the world. It can get up to 25 inches tall with a wingspan of 51 inches.” From what I saw, that meant the mouse-catching male raven was a sizeable specimen, about as big as they get. Whisky stopped his grooming, his golden eyes probing my face, as if waiting for me to continue. I cleared my throat. “It has one of the biggest bills, thick and slightly curved. With it, the bird can tear strips of flesh.” That was scary. And impressive at the same time. “Ravens are problem solvers and unusually intelligent. They are thought to play games with dogs, otters, and even wolves by provoking the animals to try to catch them in the air. They
feed on small animals, insects, cereal, greens, berries, fruit, and food waste.” Sounds like they’ll eat anything. “They make homes in wooded areas, low-intensity farmland, mountains, and open coastal regions.” No wonder they lived here. This location checked off three of their four preferred habitats. “A raven can live up to 21 years in the wild and up to 40 years in captivity. Ravens can mimic human speech.” Well, that’s interesting. I wonder if I could teach them to say hello. “In many cultures they have been revered as a spiritual figure. Ravens mate for life, with each mated pair defending a territory.” So, those two are Mr. and Mrs., a permanent pair, and this area is their territory, their home as much as mine. Even more so because they were here first. I wanted an up-close look at those two beauties. Unpacking the last of the boxes could wait. I got dressed, threw on a pair of hiking boots, and grabbed my binocs. “Come on, Whisky.” He willingly followed me out the back door. Mr. Whiskers was fifteen years old and I was happy that he would get to spend his remaining years living in kitty paradise, patrolling ten acres of fields and woods, hunting for the mice he’d been denied when we lived in the city. First, I checked out the shed in the backyard. Ten by ten, with a sturdy wooden workbench spanning one side, this was where I planned to set up my wood-burning business. Most of my work entailed burning scenes of wild animals or trees and lakes onto flat pieces of wood for clients who wanted something rustic to hang on their cabin wall. Other times I burned the name of someone’s dream ranch in large scrolling letters onto a barn board or reclaimed beam to adorn their gated entrance. Business was picking up and I planned to update my website and get more of my stuff for sale online soon. I was hopeful that this area might offer more clients with rustic tastes than the Seattle city dwellers. The shed was insulated and set up with electricity—lights and a small space heater—so all it needed was a good sweeping to get it ready for my equipment and supplies.
Whisky and I left the shed and continued through the knee-high grass. It flattened under my boots creating a path behind me as I made my way through the meadow. Up ahead, from within the shadows of dense branches, the ravens’ loud scrawks called me forward. Near the trees, my foot landed on something that cracked under my weight. I took a quick step back and then bent to scrape away layers of dead grass to reveal three wide rotting planks lying side by side. With the edges of my fingers I pried up the end of one board. It tore up easily and broke in the middle where it had splintered under my step. Underneath was a dark cavity. I pulled up the rest of the rotten boards to get a better look, exposing a gaping hole of about three by three. The hole was deep. I could barely see the bottom where standing water reflected the light. It looked like an old well. I made a mental note to come out later and cover it better. I wouldn’t want Mr. Whiskers to fall into that pit. Suddenly, the male raven shot from the woods and circled above us. We were near enough to the trees that I saw the female perched beyond in an upper branch. “Prruk-prruk-prruk,” she called. I raised my binocs and focused on her. Her feathered throat and black beak moved only slightly as she repeated, “Prruk-prruk.” And then, “Toc-toc-toc,” like the sound of wooden drumsticks tapping together. I tried to imitate her ‘toc-toc-toc’ making a small o with my lips and then pulling my tongue away from my upper palate with a slight suction. I played with my mouth shape and tongue placement until I sounded a lot like the female bird. At least I thought so. Whisky confirmed it by giving me a startled look, holding his ears upward and forward with interest. Mr. Raven swooped and floated nearer. He seemed curious about me with my newly learned bird call. I aimed my binocs at him and got a close-up look of the big boy. His wings and body turned a lustrous ebony as he tipped and soared, the sun glancing off his polished body. Black feathers extended like curved graceful fingers from the tips of his wings as he expertly navigated the air, his sharp eyes scanning all below.
I watched him wheel, sweep, and float through the air for several minutes, enjoying and envying his ability to fly. What freedom that must provide, the ability to simply glide away. I wished I could fly. If I could, I’d glide away from Dillon and his simpering apologies, apologies that lately had taken on an indignant tone, as if he’d suffered enough and wasn’t it time for me to just get over his cheating, his lies? Better yet, I wished that he would fly away and leave me here in peace. The thought, so abrupt and blunt in its intensity, startled me. Is that how I really felt? Was I ready to end it with Dillon? I tipped my face to the sun, feeling the breeze against my skin and listening to the quiet. The deep green smell of the forest calmed me, soothing the sharp spikes of my irritated nerves. I liked it here, and even though he hadn’t said it outright, I knew Dillon didn’t. This place was my style, not his. He was already complaining that Enumclaw was too small. It had nothing to offer, no chain stores, not even a Costco, just “local-yokel” businesses, and “a bunch of diners” that apparently didn’t serve the cuisine he desired. The longer we struggled to stay together, the clearer it became how little we had in common. Mr. Raven landed on a branch close to Mrs. Raven. I took a few steps nearer and imitated their prruk-prruk-prruk and toc-toc-toc. To my pleasure the female answered, “Toc-toc-toc.” I remembered reading Ravens can mimic human speech. “Hello,” I said. “Hello.” Mr. moved to a branch about four feet above my head. Up close his size was even more impressive. He was twice the size of Mrs. and bigger than any raven I had seen before. “Hello,” I repeated. He cocked his head, listening, I thought. Such a good-looking guy. As Whisky and I headed back to the house, we passed the open well and I reminded myself again to cover it. Or maybe I should ask Dillon to do it. On the other hand, Mr. Fix-it wasn’t his middle name. The last time he used a hammer he ended up with a black-and-blue thumb nail that he whined about for weeks.
In the kitchen, I put down a saucer of warm milk for Whisky, who lapped it up greedily. Then I peeled an apple and scattered the skin pieces outside next to my shed for the ravens. I was pleased when I later saw them eating my offering. For the rest of the week after Dillon left for work, Whisky and I walked out to where the meadow met the forest. Our path through the grass was getting well-worn. I would take along scraps from the kitchen, and it didn’t take long before the ravens were waiting for us in the evergreens, squawking an excited welcome as we neared. I’d practice my calls and often Mrs. Raven would answer me. Between my efforts at prruk-prruk-prruk and toc-toc-toc, I often repeated hello, hello, even saying hello instead of goodbye. On the fifth day Mr. Raven replied, “Heh-low.” I laughed, excited. “And hello to you Mr. Raven! Hello!” I threw up a cracker from my pocket in celebration and he caught it in mid-air. The ravens sailed along behind us as Whisky and I returned to my shed where I had all the leaves and spiderwebs cleared out and my various woodburning pens and solders set-up and ready to go. I was happy with how the shed was shaping up and I was sure it would be a pleasant place to create my pieces. Dillon hadn’t asked me anything about my work or if I needed any help getting set up. Not one word. Maybe he assumed I was still busy unpacking and organizing the house, or maybe he just didn’t give a damn about my work. Likely the latter. I was flattening the last of the empty boxes in the foyer at 5:00 when Dillon pulled into the driveway. Home, right on time. Not like Seattle when he was always late, coming home with beer on his breath. “Happy hour with the finance guys,” he’d said. Now I knew he’d been having after work drinky-poos with Amanda. Seeing her all day and on the weekends apparently hadn’t been enough. The car door slammed, but a few moments passed before he barged breathlessly through the door, lunging forward, clutching the knob for support. “Something terrible has happened,” he gasped. I frowned, confused. “What? You got fired? Already?”
“No. It’s Mr. Whiskers. He ran in front of the car when I pulled in and . . .” I dropped the box I was holding and shoved past Dillon out the front door. Mr. Whiskers was lying in the gravel, his orange middle flattened where the front tire had run over him. My heart lurched. I shrieked and thudded down the steps. “Whisky! Oh, no. No, no, no.” I dropped to my knees on the gravel next to him. He looked up at me, his eyes narrowed in pain. He tried to meow, but nothing came out except a thread of drool that hung from the corner of his mouth. My panic rose as I took in the extent of his injuries, comprehending that nothing could be done to save him and at the same time denying that any of this was real. A few seconds later he closed his eyes and was gone. I curled over him protectively and wept, my heart a beating fist full of pain. I don’t know how long I was out there, but when I finally swayed to my feet, Dillon was no longer in the doorway. I found him sitting at the kitchen table with his head in his hands. He whispered, “Valerie, I tried to stop, but he came out of nowhere, and it was too late.” He got up and leaned stiff-armed against the sink, his back to me. “I’ll take care of the body.”
The body. As if Whisky was nothing more than roadkill. “No! I’ll do it.” My voice shook. “You didn’t even like Mr. Whiskers.” He turned to face me with slumped shoulders. “That’s not fair, Valerie. At least let me put him in a box. It’ll take a shovel to get him off the gravel. I don’t want you to have to do that. You can bury him as you see fit after.” I sank onto a kitchen chair without answering. He continued softly, “Mr. Whiskers was fifteen years old. Chances are he wouldn’t have lived much longer anyway. At least this way it was quick. It’s really for the best.” I raised my head, unable to believe what I was hearing. “Is that what I should do with you? Take you out and run over you when you get old?” I wiped away new tears. “He had lots of life left in him. The least you could do is say you’re sorry.”
He stiffened, offended. His hands clenched in anger. “I’m sorry, ok? I’m sorry for a lot of things.” He stomped out of the house. “Me too!” I yelled after him. Dillon and I spent the night in separate rooms. He slept in the guest bedroom, which was fine with me because if he hadn’t then I would have. In the morning I found an empty square shoe box in the closet. It was a box I had opened last Christmas to find a new pair of boots inside. Happier times, because back then I didn’t have a clue that he was having an affair. Looking back, I probably should have at least suspected, all that overtime every weekend, but I trusted him. I picked up the box, feeling Mr. Whiskers’ familiar weight. I couldn’t bear to look inside at his smashed body. I carried the box inside, found a red ribbon, wrapped it around the outside and tied it in a bow. Dillon had left the shovel out on the porch for me to finish the job. I cried as I dug a hole near the apple tree in the front yard where the soil was soft. Mr. and Mrs. Raven joined me as I placed Mr. Whiskers in his grave. They perched in the apple tree and watched as I sobbed and covered Whisky with dirt, telling him good-bye. I didn’t care that Whisky’s final resting place was in the front yard where Dillon would see it every morning and every night when he came home. In fact, I thought that was fitting. A reminder, not just about Mr. Whiskers, but about all he had done to ruin our marriage. The ravens followed me to the shed and perched on the roof as I used a jig saw to cut out the form of a cat from a piece of plywood. I burned the words “Mr. Whiskers, Best Cat Ever” across the body with his birth and death dates. Then I painted the form burnt orange and attached it to a stake. Mr. and Mrs. trailed me to the front and perched in the apple tree while I pounded it into the ground at the head of Whiskey’s fresh grave. I took a step back to regard my work and then looked up at the ravens. “Thanks for keeping me company,” I said. “Heh-low,” Mr. Raven replied.
After a week of sleeping in the guest room Dillon said, “Are you ever going to forgive me? You know I would never run over Mr. Whiskers on purpose. It was an accident. I understand that you loved Mr. Whiskers, but we can’t go on like this.” I said, “I know you didn’t do it on purpose.” I didn’t say, I’d have murdered you on the spot if I thought you did. It was what you said afterward that was hurtful and unfair, as though running over Mr. Whiskers was a fortunate turn of events. I said, “I’ll always love Whisky.” And then I added, even though I didn’t believe it for one second, “I’ll probably feel better after some time passes.” He walked over and pulled me to him. I stood stiffly, my arms at my sides, my face flattened against his chest. Mercifully, the awkward hug ended quickly. He held me at arms’ length and said, “Maybe we can get another pet. We have ten acres! We could have a whole menagerie,” and then he added a little sheepishly, “if you want.” I shrugged and retreated to the kitchen to make dinner. That weekend Dillon volunteered to pick up some groceries, which was unusual, he normally left that kind of stuff to me. The thought crossed my mind that he might be meeting Amanda. Only twenty-five miles for each of them if they met in the middle. But he returned in less than an hour, not much time for a lovers’ rendezvous. Plus, he always drove the Lexus, and this time he’d taken the old pick-up, which was my vehicle, the one I used for hauling wood pieces. Not something he’d want Amanda to see him driving. He called to me from the front door. “Valerie, I have surprise for you!” He sounded excited. I stopped what I was doing and walked out to the front porch. He had run back to the truck and was opening the passenger door.
A long-legged hound dog jumped out. Gray with ugly black splotches and flapping ears, it ran in crazy circles, frantically sniffing the ground, its skinny tail flailing wildly. Suddenly it stopped smelling, turned its big snout toward me, and bounded up the steps. It lunged and jumped up, putting its dirty paws on my shoulders. I pushed it down. “What’s this? I thought you went to get groceries,” I said. “Not groceries! I got a dog!” Dillon grinned and grabbed the mutt by the collar. The collar was new, a bright green. He had already shopped for the dog. “I thought this guy might help you feel better after Mr. Whiskers’ accident.” Mr. Whiskers’ accident? As if Whisky’s death was his own fault and Dillon had nothing to do with it. I shook my head. “A dog will not replace Whisky. You know that, Dillon,” “But you like animals. You like cats and dogs!” “No. I like cats. You like dogs.” “Come on. Loosen up. He’ll be fun. His name is Rupert.” Rupert chose that moment to break free from Dillon, run past me into the house, lift his leg, and pee on the wall. Dillon dashed after him. “You should have asked me first,” I said. “I’m not cleaning that up or feeding or walking him. You are.” “Okay fine.” He squinted up at me as he struggled to maintain his grip on the jerking Rupert. “I thought you’d enjoy him, after losing Mr. Whiskers . . . and everything. That the three of
us could have good times together. A fresh start.” This out-of-control mutt was Dillon’s idea of contributing to our fresh start. Not the way to make up for Mr. Whiskers or win back my affection. Not even close. *** I was in the shed working on an order, the first from my updated website, when both ravens took up squawking, persistently loud, as if to get my attention. I stuck my head out the door to see
Rupert, butt up and nose down in the middle of my flower garden, his front paws digging savagely into the rich soil. My newly planted marigolds flung every which-way, uprooted and broken.
“Rupert, no!” I yelled. He raised his head, his long snout and gapping mouth covered in dirt granules. I ran at him full speed. He saw my fury and dodged just as I reached him. I chased him around the yard, cursing, pure anger driving me on, but he was quick and easily outmaneuvered me. I finally gave up and sank down dejectedly next to the marigolds, salvaging what I could and replanting them. The ravens dove above us, coming close to Rupert who tried to catch them. Stupid dog. He’d never catch them. Mr. Raven swooped very close to Rupert and I saw him nip the dog’s skinny back with his thick curved bill. Rupert yelped and spun. Again, Mr. came down and nipped him, his beak striking firmly along the dog’s spine. Rupert, his expression no longer one of happy mischief, ran back toward me, but he saw the anger etched on my face and remembered that I was not his ally. He tucked his tail between his legs and changed direction. With Mr. Raven in pursuit, he tore down the driveway to the road and across a neighboring field. Mr. Raven followed him, diving and pecking. I heard Rupert yelp twice and then watched until he disappeared into the underbrush. “And don’t come back!” I yelled. Rupert didn’t come back. But Mr. Raven did. He and Mrs. sat on the shed roof and kept me company as I finished replanting what was left of my flowers, about half of which, thanks to that damn dog, were trashed. That evening Dillon arrived home at 5:05, still punctual, still reminding me of how he had betrayed me. He bounded up the steps and entered the kitchen on a half-run, an expectant smile on his face. The smile wasn’t for me. “Where’s Rupert?” he asked. I shrugged. “He ran away.”
His smile dropped. “What?” “You heard me.” “Well, where did he go?” “How am I supposed to know? He made a beeline for the road and he didn’t come back.” “I can’t believe he’d run away. Did you do something to him?” “Did I do something to him?” I slammed the wooden spoon I was holding down on the counter, and to my satisfaction, Dillon flinched. “No, I didn’t do anything to him. But he dug up all the flowers I planted yesterday, so he did something to me!” Then, because I knew it would sting, I added, “Maybe Rupert didn’t like it here with you as much as you thought.” Dillon shot me a disgusted squint. “I’m going to look for him.” He got in the car and drove off slowly, calling the dog’s name through the open window. Dillon never found Rupert. Mr. Raven did an excellent job of chasing him away. With my workshop ready, my website up and running, and a couple of orders in the hopper, it occurred to me that with the house paid for, and money left over, I could support myself. I didn’t need Dillon’s salary. Even more reason to separate. Ha! Maybe Dillon would trade his half-interest in this property for my consent, and approval even, that he move on to be with Amanda. Leave me here in peace. “I guess that means for me it’s really over,” I said to the ravens as I tossed them bread crust from my sandwich. I openly shared my ideas and feelings with Mr. and Mrs. I suppose this could be categorized as talking to myself, which is not the most socially acceptable habit, but I used to talk to Whisky all the time. It seemed natural to me. One day, Mr. surprised me by flying into the shed, landing on the workbench, and cocking a shining eye all around the space. “Hello,” I said. “Heh-low,” he responded.
My heart always did a happy flip whenever he talked. Amazing. Maybe he could do more. For fun I said, “Hello Valerie, hello Valerie.” He was listening, I could tell. Every day I repeated “Hello Valerie, hello Valerie,” because who knew? One of these days he might say my name. Days later, Dillon was still pissed about Rupert. He wanted to blame me for Rupert running away, but he didn’t have any evidence that it was my fault. And he never would have because Mr. Raven did the job for me. On Saturday I was in the shed when Dillon appeared in the doorway. He glanced around my workspace, a look of unimpressed dismissal on his face. In one hand he held the pellet gun. It looked like a real handgun. I despised it, and I could tell by the way he was standing, legs separated, arms held out from his sides, that it made him feel tough and manly. He raised the gun to his waist, and for a frightening moment I thought he was going to shoot me. Even he couldn’t miss from this close. “I’m going to try out my new gun,” he snarled. I didn’t answer. He stomped along my path out to the middle of the meadow, and soon I heard a repeating sporadic pop, pop as he shot at who knows what. I kept working, tuning out the intermittent bang of the gun. An hour later I was feeling good, happy about the progress I was making on my first project in my new workspace, well second project, if you count Mr. Whiskers’ grave marker. I decided to take a break and went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Out the window, I saw Dillon walking across the field toward the house, and I gasped. In one hand, he held his gun. In the other he held Mrs. Raven. His hand was wrapped around her feet so that she hung upside down, her head grazing the grass, her black wings flopping out, bobbing to the movement of his step as if she were trying to fly. Mr. Raven was swooping in circles near Dillon’s head, cawing shrilly in piercing, panicked alarm.
Mr. dive-bombed the top of Dillon’s head, coming within a of couple inches. Dillon hunched his shoulders and ran the last few yards to the house as Mr. tailed him, zooming closer and closer until he finally pecked the back of Dillon’s head just as Dillon vaulted into the kitchen. “Crazy bastard! Did you see that? Those ravens are a menace!” He held Mrs. up proudly. “I got one!” “What have you done?” I screamed. My coffee cup dropped from my hand and I stood horrified, speechless at the sight of Mrs. Raven’s hanging lifeless body, round bloody spots marking where the pellets had hit and sunk into her shiny black chest. For a moment he looked surprised by my reaction, and then his defensive indignation returned. “I got rid of a scavenger,” he sniffed. His determined, righteous expression infuriated me. I stepped toward him, my fists clenched. A look of fearful uncertainty rippled across his face.
Dillon pointed to a short red gash in the middle of the bald spot on the back of his head. “Look what that bastard did! Is it bleeding?” Mr. was still circling between the house and the shed, emitting long anguished squawks, keening with grief. The gash was nothing, and not nearly what Dillon deserved. In that moment, the buried furious hate I felt toward him erupted from my gut, swamped my heart, and surged into my brain. I could taste it. I felt it in my fingertips, my aching raging heart pumping loathing for my husband into my every cell and extremity. I hated his thin hair. I hated his narrow nose, his perpetually pursed lips, his weak chin. I hated his squint. But above all, I hated the way he had made me into an angry bitter woman. I wanted to slap him, to knock him down and kick him until he curled into a pitiful ball. “Ravens mate for life. Did you know that?” I yelled. “My God, you just killed the male raven’s lifetime companion, his soulmate. Destroyed their lives with your stupid pellet gun!” “Don’t be ridiculous.” He shook his head, as if what I was saying made no sense.
“This is their territory, more their home than ours!” I shrieked. “They were here first!” And then I blurted something that I thought I’d never tell Dillon. “Mrs. Raven was my friend. I talked to her.” “Huh?” His eyes widened in disbelief. “You’re talking to birds now?” A noise escaped from my throat that sounded like a growl. He raised his chin and added, but with less certainty, “That dumb bird will find some dumb other bird.” “Like you did?” I shot back. “Those birds have a stronger sense of commitment and loyalty to their mate than you ever will.” “You’re never going to let it go, are you?” He was incredulous. “I’m here, aren’t I? Living in the boonies, supporting you and your third-rate art.” And there it was, what he really thought of my work. “Ho-ho. Lucky me,” I sneered. “I supposed there is nothing third-rate about Amanda.” He threw up his hands in frustration, the gun in one, Mrs. Raven’s dead body flopping in the other. “At least Amanda is nice! She likes me. She finds me interesting.” I knew then that my suspicions about them had been correct. “She likes you. She finds you interesting? Why are you speaking in present tense, Dillon? Oh, I know why. You’re still talking to her. Probably still fucking her, too!” Dillon put the gun on the counter and stormed out. He tossed Mrs. Raven’s body to the side like so much garbage and stomped on, pulling his cell from his shirt pocket. I stepped out onto the back porch and heard him. “Amanda, it’s me. Yeah. It’s over. I’m coming back to the city.” Mr. Raven was on him immediately, diving at his head and shoulders, trying to strike him with his curved powerful beak. Dillon attempted to turn back toward the house, but Mr. kept at him, forcing him out into the field. Still talking to Amanda, Dillon got onto the path and kept moving with hunched shoulders, his arm bent protectively over his head, batting ineffectually at Mr. when he got close.
Just as when I had discovered that Dillon was having an affair, this final scene in our marriage left me feeling numb and disconnected, as if I wasn’t part of it all, but simply a spectator, like a theater-goer watching actors in a play. The one emotion I did feel was relief, a huge washing wave of relief. It was over. I didn’t have to keep struggling to be a good and reasonable wife in a pretend marriage. I grabbed a bottle of red from the counter and went upstairs, crawled into bed, popped the cork, and took a long swallow. I spent the rest of the afternoon and all night there, reading magazines and drinking, anaesthetizing myself into unconsciousness with alcohol. I drifted in and out of sleep until noon the next day. The first thing I focused on through crusty eyes was the empty wine bottle on my bedside table. I had downed the whole thing. But if the end of a ten-year marriage wasn’t something to get drunk over, then what was? Had I been celebrating or grieving? A little of both I suppose. My head pounded and my stomach lurched as I wobbled to the bathroom and threw up. I showered, and took a Tylenol, and after that I felt much better. Downstairs all was quiet. Dillon must be gone. Maybe already back in Amanda’s arms. I was surprised at how unmoved I was by that idea. I made myself breakfast and left some toast and eggs out for Mr. Raven. Mrs. Raven’s body was still on the ground by the backdoor stoop where Dillon had tossed her. Heartless murderer. I picked her up, smoothed her sleek feathers, and cradled her like a baby as I carried her around to the front. I planned to bury her next to Mr. Whiskers. That seemed appropriate. Oddly, Dillon’s Lexus was in the driveway. He must still be here somewhere. Maybe he got drunk, too and was sleeping it off in the guest room. Or maybe Amanda had come out here to the “boonies” to pick him up. But why do that? I still had the old beater truck, not that he would care if I had a vehicle or not, but still so much easier for him to get into the Lexus and go. I drew a sharp breath as the image of Dillon following the path out into the meadow flashed through my mind and the realization exploded like a bomb. I laid Mrs. on the ground and ran to the back of the house and down the path to the well where I loomed over the edge to peer down
into it. Dillon was at the bottom. He was lying face up as if he had backed into it, his wire frames still on his face, the glass reflecting the sky’s pale light. His neck was tilted at a 90-degree angle, his chin jutting up, his mouth open, as if in amazement. His legs were propped straight up against the side. I could see the swirling pattern on the soles of his shoes. The extreme twist of his head made me believe that his neck was broken, and if he fell yesterday afternoon and had lain there all these hours, even if he had been alive, he was dead now. Plus, the look of him; the gray pallor of a face devoid of life. There were marks all over his forehead and cheeks. They looked like small deep cuts, just like the one Mr. Raven had inflicted with his thick beak on the back of Dillon’s head after he shot Mrs. Raven. With it, the bird can tear strips of flesh. And who could blame Mr. Raven? He and Mrs. were perfectly happy until we arrived. Or should I say until Dillon the villain arrived. Dillon’s cell was lying where he dropped it on the rotten boards next to the well. He must have hung up before he fell, otherwise Amanda would have sent someone out or come out here herself. Maybe she assumed their call was cut off. Regardless, no one had come to follow up yet. Mr. Raven soared above me, keeping me company as I walked the path back to the house. I felt strangely calm. What to do now? Call the police I suppose. Tell them I found my poor husband at the bottom of a well. Explain how we had just moved in and weren’t familiar with the property. Neither of us had any idea there was an uncovered well out there. Dillon fell. It was a simple as that. There was nothing to connect me to his death, and rightly so. I didn’t kill him. I’ll admit that we had a fight, and I was drunk upstairs, drowning my sorrows, when the tragedy struck. The wine bottle was still sitting beside the bed. If Amanda squeaked about their affair, I’ll admit that’s what our fight was about and the reason I was upstairs drinking. Yes, officer, perhaps I do have a drinking problem, but I didn’t push my husband down the well. Yes, I’ll gladly take a lie detector test because I am totally innocent. Dillon’s death was a terrible, terrible accident.
The Enumclaw police came and went. They asked me surprisingly few questions and offered a lot of sympathy, especially after they saw the puncture wounds all over Dillon’s balding head. I explained how yesterday he had shot and killed a female raven. I showed them Mrs. Raven’s body and speculated that the irate male bird must have later attacked Dillon causing him to fall into the well because, “Ravens mate for life, you know.” The police nodded in agreement. It helped when Mr. Raven soared above us filling the air with deep raspy cries, his thick ebony body and impressively wide wingspan briefly blocking the sun. The coroner hauled Dillon’s body out of the well using hooks and pulleys—quite the operation. I was morbidly entertained, but I managed to squeeze out a few tears by thinking about Mr. Whiskers. There was no mention of a lie detector test. I buried Mrs. Raven next to Whisky, saying a few words over her grave while Mr. looked on from the apple tree. Poor guy, he must be lonely. I quickly put away the shovel and went to my shed where a prime piece of reclaimed barn board was waiting. I carefully burned the scrolling letters into the wood and held up the sign up to admire: Ravenhood Named after my hero, my knight in shining feathered armor. He saved me from a hellish drawn-out divorce, ensuring that I inherited Dillon’s share of the assets, and exacting the revenge I could never take. He restored my life and my self-respect. The name seemed fitting. As a finishing touch, I burned the outline of a raven on each end of the board and painted them a slick black. The split-rail fence at the end of the driveway provided the perfect place to hang our new sign. Mr. Raven perched on a nearby fencepost as I looped thin chains over the rail and through holes I had drilled in the board. The sun created iridescent waves on his sleek feathers as he watched my every move. Handsome devil. “Looking good, don’t you think?” I asked him. He answered with a toc-toc-toc which I repeated. “Hello,” I said. “Heh-low Val-ah-ree.” His black eye met mine and winked.
I walked up the driveway back to the house as Mr. glided above me. We had each lost our mate, but we had each other. I opened the front door and Mr. Raven flew in.
FOUR AUTUMN GHAZALS by Sheila A. Murphy 1/ Maternity requires no leave, merely biology. She taps a pencil on the glass topped desk facing the window. Metronomic capture of experience means invisible memories. What is recorded lapses before it resurges to thought. Velvety petals in a vivid purple taunt the soul envisioning informal majesty at least for now. A neighbor often is a mirror, and small talk, the polish. Intervening variables make research harsh. Listening perfumes interaction quietly. A tipping point most often recognized in retrospect.
2/ She knows something by memory and cannot find the words. How jostled recitation, given all things once considered.
Witnessing redeems theory from pretension. Intaglio grows shrill to the point of no relief. She routinely resides in the solarium. Wildlife impinges on claimed centrality. The thought of an infraction taints the myth of purity, delicious as the mental faculties insist. Research, best reported sung: soprano, alto, tenor, bass. The conductor keeps making history in her tiny heart.
3/ Premonitions traipse across the landscape of intention where the pale heart remembers. Weather repeats the recent years untangling a string of better living almost shared. Clay like skin like firm protection holds its place to keep sadness alive as part of the experience. Corpus keepsake shines against the velvet in the special box with polished wood. The tenses look alike during meditation as the sacrament of purity rinses itself.
4/ North of urban pastures lives a mountain made of salt. She kismets afternoon by rote, primping probabilities. A master stroke of genesis impedes the wild reversion to encumber struts from breaking into new found language. Composition of the tree absorbs sufficient water to deplete the lines of code made vocal as a tune. Whispering repeals intention of emotion drawn freehand and shared without a Rubicon. How the water plays upon the light, reversing quotients seen as real within rectangles arranged in flight.
WHAT REMAINS by Natascha Graham She beat the splintered end of a fence post further into the earth. The ground—sodden from rain— gave way easily, but still she beat it, enjoying the jolt and the bounce-back. Chickens pecked at the soles of her boots through wire hexagons. They'd escaped again early that morning. The wind had blown three of the fence posts down and made little glinting metal hillocks of wire mesh across the garden. When she had drawn the curtains first thing, she hadn't been sure of what she was seeing. Now, here they were. Seventeen of them: Araucanas, Bluebell's, Maran's, Orpington, and a few Goldline's rescued from slaughter. She looked at them now, the Goldline's, pecking, clucking. Clawed feet curling, flexing, cocking their heads to one side, eye-balling the ground for worms or bugs. Raptors. They'd taken a while to feather up. Serena had wanted to knit them jumpers after finding a pattern online. And she would have done it too, in the space before death, if she could knit. She wiped hair from her face with the back of her wrist. The wind was getting up again, but the fence should hold. She dipped her chin into her scarf that still smelled of Serena. Her perfume. Her laugh. Her life. She looked out across the field. Nothing was left of the trees now, just swaying branches, skeletons the lot of them, branches rattling like bones in the wind and around the very edges of the field she could make out the golds, reds, yellows, and browns of the leaves from the old great oaks.
A pair of pheasants running, necks outstretched. A hare standing perfectly still in the rolling shadow of the clouds. The storm had left the air taught and threatened, another storm waiting to follow, and the wind had blown the grass flat. She would be rebuilding the run again come morning. She stubbed the toe of her boot into the ground. The soil bruised and squelched a belch of watery mud across her laces, hair wild and whipped against her cheeks, caught in her eyelashes and the wet of her lips. She felt weak for the first time in years. Only moments before she had felt hot and heady and full of the thrill of life. A fleeting feeling, like water through the fingers. Now winter had arrived and she hadn't even noticed it's coming. The garden was dead. Rose petals had turned to brown pulp, the brilliant sweet-smelling purple Heliotrope she had bought Serena had turned grey and brittle, and the trees sung a wandering song of their own. She turned to where Serena had always stood by the door. Watching her. Serena, a shadow now, with her loose-fitting coat, and the blue-green blanket from the back of her chair wrapped around her shoulders, both hands clasped about a mug of tea. She barely seemed to move beneath the flap-flapping of the blanket, and the gentle ruffle of her short dark hair. But then she smiled, seemingly unable to help herself. Serena was beautiful. Serena was always beautiful. Graceful. Whereas she was standing in a fine mist of rain in her old boots, losing hair grips in the mud. But that one smile was all it took to remind her of why she (and the chickens) remained.
Serena. It had always been Serena.
BUTTERFLY SCALES by Raymond Gibson if rust could sleep would it dream maybe of being paint proud flesh or fire of where the metal went like so many spent petals
THAT YEAR by Meghan Kemp-Gee
THE WATER IS CRYING by Sophie Fink
Diego is working for the canal company and María is okay with it. María has lived 20 paces from the ocean her entire life, and when the tide comes in it meets her at her door, sweeping away her footprints and sometimes her shoes. When María was pregnant with Diego she would stand knee deep and feel the waves hiss against her skin, washing away the sand that clung to her legs. But you can’t wash clothes in the ocean. So after Diego was born in an angry, screaming tangle of wet limbs, she strapped him to her back and walked to the river. María knows two rivers, one on either side of her village. The first is where the waste, human and dog, is dumped, and it is wide and shallow. Fools who walk through its warm waters cannot tell where the shit ends and the mud begins. Both are silky soft between your toes. The second river is slightly cleaner, and that is where Maria works, six days a week. When Diego grew taller he went to school in Jinotepe and began to dream. Barreling through the jungle on an old American school bus, Diego thought about solar panels and God and the chickens squawking mindlessly on the seat next to him and how even though he loved his village he didn’t want to watch his wife die slowly from the poisons in the river where she washed his neighbor’s clothes. María heard about the canal when she was buying papayas from the market women in town. The foreigners were going to carve up the trees and houses to make way for cargo ships and cruise lines. The sweet waters of Lake Nicaragua, home to sharks and sawfish and companies who bottle it up to sell in the supermarkets, was going to be bombed, then flooded.
María has seen the foreigners who visit her village. They eat at the seaside restaurants, laughing nervously when the tide rushes onto the dirt floor and grabs at their ankles while they eat fresh-caught fish and plátanos. They do not stay to hear the ocean’s heartbeat lull them to sleep every night for 43 years. They do not understand that the washing women, illuminated by the leaf-dappled sunlight, would much rather be standing in a clean river. Diego is from his mother and the village and so he understands the water’s pulse. This is why it pains María when he tells her, softly, that the canal is offering good money to anyone who can pick up a shovel. His shoulders are heavy but his eyes are fixed on the hard blue horizon. And María cannot hate the canal now. When Diego leaves it is a quiet goodbye. María slips mangoes and rice and fish and dulce de leche into his backpack until he waves her off with a gentle smile and a protest that it will all spoil before he eats it. They stand in the ocean together, their feet sinking into the velvet sand until it feels like nothing could ever uproot them. Three weeks later María receives an envelope full of córdobas and it is not light. Far away, the water is screaming, and María listens and cries because she doesn’t know what else to do.
VARIED LANDSCAPES OF NEW SOUTH WALES (TRIO OF ARTWORK) by Oormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT
THE EARTH IS LAVA RED
GRACING THE HEADLAND
OUR TRANSATLANTIC LESBIAN LOVE STORY By Natascha Graham “You make a million decisions that mean nothing, and then one day you order take-out and it changes your life.” - Annie Read, Sleepless in Seattle I didn’t order take out. But I did post online, and moments after that, my whole life changed. A couple of months ago somebody in a Facebook group for highly sensitive people wrote a post asking for movie suggestions for HSP’s. I could count on one hand the amount of times I comment on group posts, but for some reason that morning, whilst I was sitting in my sitting room, drinking tea, I decided to reply, and I posted my list. I immediately let it go. I forgot that I had replied. Went back to my tea, my sitting room, my work... Then Lori Graham replied. A name I had never seen before, belonging to a person I had never met. We swapped obscure similarities as easily as we swapped films and books and asked each other simultaneously if we could be “Facebook friends”. I clicked on her profile, I saw her profile picture, and my chest tightened, and my heart felt as though it were speeding up and slowing down all at once. Then I saw where she lived. “North Carolina” typed neatly on the page, a simple fact that caught in between the unravelling beat of my heart and made me wonder why I felt so sad that this stranger lived 3,815 miles away from my English home. We talked on and off all day, all evening, and the next.... and the next... we shared our lives in stories and moments, videos, pictures, and voice clips. She was endlessly fascinating, brilliantly funny, and we connected in a way neither of us ever had, and I will never, ever forget the moment I found out she was in love with me, or the smile she smiled, or the overjoyed relief I felt when I told her, “I love you too”.
She arrived at the airport in England looking more beautiful than I had ever imagined. Watching her speak on a phone screen was nothing compared to the hug we shared across the barrier. It was nothing compared to the way her eyes sparkled, the way her hair smelled, the way she moved or the way she glanced sideways at me and smiled at me with a smile so full of love that I fell in love with her all over again. And again. And again... We took the train to Brighton and walked the labyrinth of streets in between sunshine and graffiti. We held hands and we kissed, we drank cider in a pub and made plans to steal the coasters. We stood together and watched the sun set on the pier, wind (and hair) in our faces, and watched a drag queen sing ‘The Lonely Goatherd’ in The Queen’s Arms. She fed me strawberries dipped in Nutella in bed, we stopped to dress as hippies in the street, and we laughed at how umbrellas on the beach look from the birds-eye view of the British Airways tower. We stayed a night in London and had a meal in a Greek restaurant that was so awful, from a waitress that deliberately ignored us, so we left without paying and were chased down the street by the aforementioned, self-important waitress, who blamed us for her incompetence. We got to see each other “get sassy” (as Lori with her gorgeous accent would say) and we hid in a bookshop down the street to recover. We had a terrible meal somewhere else to make up for it and walked hand in hand to Tavistock square where we took selfies with Virginia Woolf and watched a little boy hand-feed squirrels.
Then to Paris, to sun dappled streets and bohemian apartments where the comforters were too small, but we slept curled into one another and whenever I woke, I whispered, “I love you” against her skin. We drank champagne and kissed and held each other at the top of the Eiffel Tower, we watched a woman walk by the Arc du Triumph who threw breadcrumbs to streamers of pigeons.
We read snippets of Emily Dickinson and touched the spines of Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway in the Shakespeare book Shop, overlooking the skeleton of Notre Dame. She took pictures, and I fell in love with the way she saw the world... and the way she pronounced “Pigalle”.
We bought a lock, and wrote our names on it, and we hung it on the bridge over-looking the Eiffel Tower, where we sat, at night, and watched it glitter and sparkle whilst falling in love even more. We had gorgeous food served by charming waiters in charming restaurants and found our way home in the middle of the May Day riots. We saw the Moulin Rouge, drank wine, and slipped in and out of shops, and smoked peach flavoured hookah in a blue lit bar where I watched her blow smoke rings and kissed her whilst she blew smoke into my mouth. Then she visited my town where we planned our future, and she met my family, my cats, my chickens and my friends...where we suffered strings of accidental, but very funny, injuries, found vicars playing bohemian rhapsody on the organ in a church, and where we dodged the rain and drank pretty cappuccinos and tea in arty coffee shops where David Bowie was on the radio and nothing seemed more alive, or more beautiful, than her. Now, a love-blurred flurry of weeks later, and she is in the sky, flying back across those 3,815 miles home from coming to see me for the first time, and I am missing her so much I can barely breathe. Some people speak of soulmates, some people seek “the one”, some people claim love at first sight... But this... “This was a million tiny little things that, when you added them all up, they meant we were supposed to be together.” And we knew it. I knew it the first time I touched her. It was like coming home, only to no home I’d ever known. I just knew it. It was like magic, and I knew, that this someone I had never met before, someone I had never known, was the only someone for me.
FLOWER GARDEN by Emily Enfinger
Aunt Nancy’s flower garden had just enough weeds for me to use it as an excuse to be outside. With every pull of a silver dollar and dandelion, I stuck my hands a little further into the moist dirt to ease the burns on my fingertips. I always told her the flower garden was too close to the road. However, Aunt Nancy insists that the lilies she has somewhat maintained over the years are the neighborhood’s spectacle that must be seen up close, despite having always come last in her street’s annual ‘Best of Beautification’ contest. This year she would win, I assured her, with my help and advice. Again, I defend my argument and will later suggest she moves the flowers a few feet further from the road, as ashy water flows downhill and directly into the garden, oversoaking it. The lilies, usually a milky white, flash red and blue today, and for the third time this week, from the emergency lights on the police cars and fire engines just a few houses up the road. Mr. Gentry’s front porch was the first to suffer a fire this week after the ashtray he keeps next to his rocking chair combusted into a roaring flame when he went to extinguish his after - dinner cigarette. His beloved rose-and-gnome garden that once capped the porch’s stairs is now no taller than the pile of weeds sprinkled on the ground around me. Mrs. Linda, last year’s contest winner, won’t have time to revive her neatly sculpted camellia bushes. It’s believed that a variety of fireworks were placed inside the shrubs and th en lit for a midnight show. A bottle rocket even busted through Mrs. Linda’s kitchen window and knocked over an antique cookie jar. Today firefighters are at Mr. Smith’s home. It was only a few hours ago, at daybreak, when Mr. Smith stepped outside to head to work but was greeted by a zigzagging line of fire across his yard. Aunt Nancy once said that it would take an unusual spring season for her to ever win the contest. I assured her that this year she would win.
BLOSSOM by Redfern Boyd
Ding at the eighteenth floor of twenty. They stumbled off. He mumbled that his parents were away, fumbled with the key. After that no words. In the wide master bedroom he undid her: one shoe, then the other, stockings peeled to her ankles. Like her father used to do. Under silk, feeling the flaws of the flesh. The search for places to pollinate. All in sweet time. His mouth like nectar. Her fingers like hummingbirds, pecking at his chest, her heart like a wingbeat. Later, he enfolded her, petal arms closing on their bud. A blossom in reverse. She held tight, not ready to wilt just yet.
A SONG OF BELLE ISLE by David Harrison Horton The bar floor is sticky and the ventilation is poor. There is a gecko clinging to the wall. The cinema plays art house classics that have not been restored. There is silence as an assistant winds the victrola. That fucking and baseball share a vocabulary seems the stupidest thing.
There was a mass, then a coronation, then a handover of empire. Rome was worth a mass.
THREE INSTANCES OF VERTIGO by Sara Dobbie The first time, it hits Joey like a tidal wave. In the middle of third period history, a sound like a spoon striking a crystal glass half filled with water. A high, clear ping, and then the classroom tilts and the teacher leans at an inhuman angle, circling her like a shark. She rests her head until the bell rings, then lifts her body from the desk. Trudges step by heavy step until she gains the wall in the hall and slumps against it. Students stream past her in a rush, and she inches her way to the bathroom floor, where she sprawls, the cool tiles a relief against her cheekbones. After a girl with green hair summons the nurse, Joey struggles to answer questions. Yes, she’d eaten breakfast. And lunch. She can’t admit the real reason her balance deteriorated, doesn’t mention the phone call the previous night, during which Alex said he couldn’t see her again. During which Joey asked him if he loved her. During which he said no, he didn’t think so,
not anymore. The thing is, Joey has always felt like she’s walking through the set of someone else’s movie. Every sequence of events in her life feels off kilter, like she’s been reading from the wrong script. Then she met Alex, and it was like a spotlight shone directly onto him. It was something about the ease with which he moved, his mild manner that exuded a sad confidence. Like he possessed an innate knowledge that he couldn’t help but hurt people. She looked at him and felt that she’d finally wandered into the right screenplay, that he was the only actor whose chemistry meshed with hers. The second time, it hits Joey like a cyclone. She is standing in a bar at an open mic night, watching a short play written by two of her friends and Alex’s roommate. Stranded among the crowd she haunts a corner, sipping beer from a plastic cup. She spots a beautiful stranger
walking towards Alex, who sits on a high stool. The girl carries a pitcher and her bare thighs glisten beneath a short plaid skirt. Joey has heard rumors that Alex is dating an actress; now that the mysterious beauty has materialized Joey wants to hate her but can’t. The actress is innocent, and Joey can see her fawn eyes pouring adoration for Alex. The crowd of spectators starts spinning as Joey scrambles outside to vomit at the side of the building. Joey sits on the curb, swirling head in her hands. Alex appears in the doorway, crouches down, his heels resting in beat up blue Converse. Asks her if she’s ok, tells her he can drive her home. This is the worst thing about Alex; he is kind, so people who lie in the wake of his embrace cannot blame him for anything. They can only sigh, wishing for the time when they breathed his air. The third time, it hits her like a tsunami. Joey is much older now, happy with the cast and crew she signed up for, the closed set of her life. She comes home one evening to find a newspaper tossed casually on the table. The front page features a photograph of a man’s face. It’s Alex. Ping. His hair is still long, smooth but shot through with threads of silver. He is smiling, eyes still benign and forlorn. The article talks about a film he’s directing, and Joey realizes Alex exists out there in the world as he always has. A buried storm rises up from the ocean inside her and the paper falls to rest like a reject on the cutting room floor. Joey falters amid the waves, struggling to brace herself. She isn’t shocked to see this picture of Alex, the surprise is in realizing that she hasn’t seen him in person, not once in all these years. Joey doesn’t know that she’ll never completely regain her equilibrium, but she suspects that she won’t see Alex again. Ever. And she learns that vertigo is not an illness, but a symptom. Of
what exactly, she can’t put her finger on. Maybe, she thinks, it’s a side effect of losing someone
who was never hers to begin with.
NEIGHBORHOOD by Juanita Rey Night rolls in like it’s never been away. Some streets are nailed shut by gangs. Others smell of fresh gasoline and old fire. For every store-front Baptist church, there’s a thrift shop forever putting off its opening date and an adult bookstore that never closes. The park is littered with needles and glass. I don’t trust the swing with my weight. A drunk makes a pass at me. As I turn, walk away quickly, the cross flops uneasy between my breasts. Once inside my building, I stop on the stairs for that waft of spicy cooking from behind every door. The place smells of lives like mine.
TO BE BORN AND NOURISHED IS TO BE LUCKY AND PRIVILEGED by Ebukun Gbemisola Ogunyemi half bread is better than none; that is why you latched on to your mother’s boobs and suckled on whitish emptiness.
the women who raised you fed your thirst with agony and bath your butts in magma while singing the praises of of your lineage. they said, you must remember from whence you came and from whom you came: child, we were scavengers. we fought one another while hurrying on the remains of our fathers to quench our hunger. you do not eat to be full; you eat to survive tomorrow’s hunger. a dry throat’s only mission is to gulp and not to taste; so, there is no milking joy out of sorrow. look at your mother’s chapped lips, they tell stories of love and neglect. they are years of sacrifice to keep you warm and moisturized. child, there is no grace here. not in your mother’s bosom, not in your father’s lineage. you must fight to break forth or watch your legs sink into quicksand before you get the chance to leave a mark. to be born and nourished is to be lucky and privileged. every time i approach fullness, i fall back into emptiness. my mouth wouldn’t spell joy even if my tongue tastes it. it goes sour even before i have time to relish it;
this is why i never crave fullness – i wallow too much in emptiness enough to drain quickly.
THREE O’CLOCK PUNCH by Philip Houtz
At two o’clock the door to Dr. Tanaka’s office opened and a girl stepped out. She was fire, no exaggeration. Even with her arms wrapped around a large pink stuffed rabbit. I couldn’t catch her eye. She didn’t look at anyone in the waiting room. I didn’t recognize her from any of my classes. Maybe she was eighth grade. I felt like my chest might explode right there. Dr. Tanaka stood in the doorway looking at me over black-rimmed half glasses. She had
a round face, tired eyes, short black hair streaked with grey. She wore a bulky sweater that looked like it was made by a knitting machine that started to tell a story but got distracted and just started making green and purple ropes. “Would you like to come in?” She said. “Not especially,” I said. There were two chairs in front of a nice wooden desk. On the walls were several paintings of flowers and dancers. A couple of plaques and posters. There was some kind of aromatherapy pot on the desk with a curl of steam coming up from the chimney. It didn’t stink too bad. I think it was lavender. One of the two chairs had a blue pillow sitting on it. The word “Love” was stenciled in white. The other chair was empty. I picked up the pillow, set it on the floor and sat in that chair. To show that I’m a take-charge kind of guy. Dr. Tanaka sat in the other chair and glanced at her notepad. “Do you go by Nathan, or is there another name you go by?”
“Everybody calls me Natty,” I said. “So ‘Natty’ is what you like to be called?” “Sure,” I said. “It’s fine.” “Do you like Nathan better?” “Yeah, I guess.” “Nathan it is then.” She made a note on her pad and then sat back in the chair like we were two old friends just having a chat. “We can talk about anything you like,” she said. “It’s your hour.” “I just need you to sign the paper,” I said. “That’s fine,” she said. “I have it in a folder on my desk. I’ll sign it before you go.” On the wall next to the desk was a diploma from Stanford University. Below that was a
cheap little framed certificate like you see in a barber shop. I had a feeling that if I looked hard enough I could find more contradictions like that. On the bookshelf were titles like Wired for Love and Hold Me Tight. Stuck between those was Counseling, Psychotherapy and the Law.
“Don’t you have to do an evaluation on me or something?” I said. “I might make a few notes. Just for myself.” “I thought you had to ask me a bunch of questions.” “I suppose I am a little curious about how you got that black eye,” she said. “It looks painful.” “You said it was my hour. What if I don’t want to talk about my eye. What if I want to talk about Fortnite?” “It won’t be a long conversation,” she said. “I haven’t gone past level thirty.”
“I’m not really into games that much,” I admitted. I watched the curl of smoke from the pot on her desk, dancing like some kind of spirit. “So what sort of things are you into?” “Apparently getting punched in the face.” As I said that I caught myself reaching up to touch the spot where my black eye was still puffy. “Really? What is there to like about punched in the face?” Dr. Tanaka folded her hands in her lap like she was getting ready to hear a long story. “Nothing. I’m not a masochist if that’s what you’re thinking.” An odd sort of expression passed across her face and she shook her head ever so slightly. “I’m just thinking it must be terrifying to get hit like that.” “You get used to it,” I said. She took her glasses off and set them on the desk. “I don’t think I would.” I bit my lip. So hard that I could taste blood. “Yeah well maybe you wouldn’t have a choice.” It came out sounding snotty and I felt bad. “There’s always a choice,” Dr. Tanaka said. “Even if it seems impossible in the moment.”
“If I tell you what really happened then you won’t sign the paper. So that’s my choice.” She cocked her head a bit and looked at me with an almost puzzled expression. “Well, let’s change that, why don’t we?” Dr. Tanaka got up from her chair and walked around to her desk where the manila folder lay. She opened the folder, took a nice fountain pen out of her drawer and signed a printed sheet
with a flourish. She put the cap on the pen, came back around and sat in the chair across from me. “It’s all signed,” she said. “That doesn’t prove anything. Once you hear what I have to say, you’ll just tear it up.” “I could scan it right now and email it to your principal if that would help.” “No,” I said. I bit my lip again. “How does it work when you send somebody to the nut house?” She didn’t answer right away. “That’s really not what I do.” “Yeah right,” I said. “If I start to tell you what’s really going on then you’re going to think, hey, this guy’s Tyler Durden Jr.” She let me come to a full stop before she spoke up. “If you were to tell me that you’re hurting yourself then yes, I would have to report it. If it was serious enough it, there might be, might be a period where you’d have to be under observation. It’s called a 72 hour hold.” I didn’t have anything to say to that. “Are you hurting yourself?” “Hell no,” I said. “I mean no.” “Well, you mentioned Tyler Durden. He’s the character from the movie Fight Club, right?” “I’m just saying what you’re going to think. It’s what my parents think.” “I’ve got a pretty open mind,” Dr. Tanaka said. She was very believable, the way she said it. “Why don’t you give it a try?”
“I killed a bird.” I said. I hadn’t planned on telling her anything. It just popped out. And I kept going, like I couldn’t stop now that I said it. “I didn’t mean to kill it. It was kind of a joke. It was a Nerf gun,” I said. “You mean a toy gun?” “The kind that shoots little sponge darts. About this big,” I said, holding up my little finger. “That doesn’t seem very dangerous. How did it kill the bird?” “A freak accident, I guess,” I said. My voice was starting to choke up a bit. The last thing I wanted to do was to start bawling my head off. “How did it make you feel when you saw what happened to the bird?” “It made me feel like shit. I’m sorry, I mean crap.” Dr. Tanaka didn’t say anything. Her face didn’t show any emotion but it wasn’t blank either. She was like the Buddha or the Mona Lisa or something like that. “I mean, it was just a robin sitting under the bird feeder. I was at Heather O’s house. They got a big yard and a lot of us were hanging out and now everyone thinks I’m an asshole. Heather was holding the dead bird and petting it and just sobbing.” “That must have been hard. You already felt bad about the bird and now everybody is against you,” Dr. Tanaka said. “Middle school kids can be a pretty tough crowd.” I was about to agree with her when I felt like I was about to walk into a trap. “Wait a second, you’re going to say it’s my subconscious aren’t you?” “I don’t know how your subconscious would give you a black eye but I suppose it’s possible. Is that what happened?”
“It’s worse than that,” I said. Steam curled up from the aroma pot like a question mark. “What did happen Nathan?” Dr. Tanaka said. “How did you get your black eye?” “I can’t even say it. It sounds too stupid.” “I doubt that you can tell me something I haven’t heard before.” “Ok, well it turns out that robins are protected. Heather went on and on about that. I thought it was a bunch of crap. But I guess it’s not.” “Protected? You mean like an endangered species?” Dr. Tanaka said. “Ha. I wish. They’re protected by the little people.” I caught just a glimpse of Dr. Tanaka’s eyes going wide. If she’d been sipping on a cup of tea she’d have spit it in my face. “I’m sorry, did you say little people?” “You know, little people? Fairy folk? Leprechauns.” She leaned back in her chair and looked up at the ceiling and then, having regained her composure, looked back at me. “Well I was wrong. That is something that I haven’t heard before.” “Every day at three o’clock I get punched. Sometimes I get kicked. Or tripped. Bitten. Zapped. Paper cut. Once I got my hand slammed in a locker. “Every day?” “Every single day. That’s when I shot the bird. It keeps happening over and over. It’s been three weeks now.” “What do they look like, these little people?” “How the hell would I know? I can’t see them. It just happens.”
“I just want to make sure I’m hearing you correctly,” Dr. Tanaka said, leaning forward slightly. There was something very calm about her. Something that almost felt like I was going to be safe after all. “You feel that you are getting attacked every day because you accidentally killed a bird. And you can’t see who is attacking you.” “I don’t feel it, I know it. Don’t you think I’d make it stop if I could? “That sounds really, really hard” Dr. Tanaka said. “And I can see that it’s really troubling you. It must be very confusing.” “You try getting punched in the face every single day and tell me how it feels.” Dr. Tanaka picked up the notepad from her lap and wrote something down. “And there’s nothing you can do to make it stop?” “You mean like leprechaun spray? No there isn’t. I’ve actually tried bug spray. I’ve set traps. I’ve tried to punch them back. I’ve tried apologizing. I’ve tried stomping on them but how can you stomp something you can’t even see? I even got down on my knees and begged them to stop.” “And none of that does any good?” “No. I got whacked in the side of the side of the head by my locker. See I got five stitches.” I turned my head and parted my hair to show her the scar. “I don’t think I’ve ever said this to a client but you’ve got me at a loss.” Dr. Tanaka said. “If it’s all right with you I’d like to talk to a colleague about this.” “You mean the guys in the white coats.” That made her chuckle a bit. “Of course not. Even if I could, why would I? You’re clearly in a painful situation. I’d like to help you find a way out.”
I felt my heart sink. I don’t know what I expected really. Honestly, I didn’t even what to come. But where could I go? I just wanted it all to stop. “I’m very sorry, but our time is up,” Dr. Tanaka said, looking at the slender gold watch on her wrist. “I’d really like to give you more time but there’s somebody in the waiting room. Let me give you your copy of the return to class order.” She got up and started around the other side of her desk. “But the good news is that it’s three o’clock right now and you didn’t get punched in the face. So I’d say we’ve made some progress, wouldn’t you?” You know how you feel when you’ve had a headache all day and you’re not even thinking about it and suddenly you notice that it’s gone? That’s how I felt when Dr. Tanaka said it was three o’clock. Maybe somehow she’d broken the curse. And just as quickly the feeling left me. There was a loud crash. The diploma from Stanford tumbled off the wall, hit the framed business license below and kind of jumped out across the desk. It landed exactly on the aroma pot, spilling lavender water everywhere. “Oh my Lord,” Dr. Tanaka said looking down at her desk. “Carl Jung would have a field day with this.” I followed her glance down to the return-to-class paper, completely soaked now. The ink of her signature was slowly dissolving into a little blue blur. It looked like a bruise made by a tiny fist.
BELLOWING SUMMER by Katy Scrogin The summer they delivered my father’s ashes, all the neighborhood’s dogs spent a season in long lament. To my ears, it felt like fighting, an attack against each other, maybe as well a canny assault against the humans, high-pitched yips and resonant woofs all going at and alongside and after each other in one awful cacophonous broil. Were they yowling for their companion, the neighborhood’s most maddening vocalist, the territorial mutt who’d died the same day? Were they incensed that she, too, had gone—and not been returned in a decorative little box twenty inconceivable times smaller than the body or heart or infinite spirit it claimed to contain? Where was her reward? I prayed to the cicadas to roar in the trees, to bury all the barbarous noise, and my anger.
INFILTRATION by Katy Scrogin how are there always flies in here, in this my castle at least one always just out of grasping range just this side of courtesy at you with that needly buzz, hysterically ellipsing, a planet deathbent on breaking from orbit with its own sheer mad speed there are no crumbs here, no surfaces unscoured of allure for anything’s desire, nothing left for any sense to feed upon, doors and windows sealed against daylight, the air and still they come one by one knowing better than I where the secrets take shelter and how to suck them dry
BEACH BOTTLE By Cliff Saunders Moving on the sand is the sea which begins in a little bottle and opens into a boneyard beach of jellyfish
and a real ark filled with many secrets.
DESIRES by Fariel Shafee
CONTRIBUTORS George Freek is a poet/playwright, living in Belvidere, IL. His plays are published by Playscripts and Lazy Bee Scripts. His poems have recently appeared in The Stockholm Review of Literature, A New Ulster, The Gentian Journal, Miller's Pond, and The Whimsical Poet. Ebukun Gbemisola Ogunyemi (she/her/hers) is a writer, researcher, and aspiring academic interested in different forms of writing and expression. Her writing explores the complexities of human nature and being. Ebukun’s work has been published in Praxis Magazine, Trad Magazine, The Odyssey Online, SprinNG, and elsewhere. Ebukun enjoys documentaries, music, and nature. She is on Twitter and Instagram @ibukunwrites. Raymond Gibson earned his MFA from Florida Atlantic University, and published two chapbooks with Glass Lyre Press. His Microchapbook New Ruin is available now from Ghost City Press. David Harrison Horton is a Beijing-based writer, artist, editor and curator. His poetry has recently appeared in Ethel, Cult of Clio, Variant Literature, Noctua Review, and Acropolis, among others. He edits the poetry zine SAGINAW. Meghan Kemp-Gee lives somewhere between Vancouver BC and Fredericton NB. She writes poetry, comics, and scripts of all kinds. She won the Poetry Society of America Lyric Poetry Award. Her writing has recently appeared in Copper Nickel, Rising Phoenix Review, Tincture, Stone of Madness, Altadena Poetry Review, Anomaly, Rejection Letters, Autostraddle, and Skyd Magazine. She also teaches composition and plays ultimate frisbee. You can find her on Twitter @MadMollGreen. Camille McDaniel (she/they) is a Southern California-based poet, book devourer, and cat enthusiast. Their poetry has been published in Rue Scribe and countless composition notebooks living in their desk drawer. She's lived in Boston, Harlem, and Paris and (a true Sagittarius) is constantly fighting the urge to make another drastic change in scenery. Megan McKinley is the Texas Review Press Publicity Fellow and the nonfiction editor for Defunkt Magazine. They have work forthcoming with Gutslut Press and they are completing their MFA at Sam Houston State University in Creative Writing, Editing, and Publishing. Sheila E. Murphy is the recipient of the Gertrude Stein Award for her book Letters to Unfinished J. (Green Integer Press, 2003). Her most recent book is Golden Milk (Luna Bisonte Prods, 2020). Reporting Live from You Know Where which won the Hay(na)Ku Poetry Book Prize Competition (Meritage Press) and xPress(ed). Also in 2018, Broken Sleep Books brought out the book As If To Tempt the Diatonic Marvel from the Ivory.
Juanita Rey is a Dominican poet who has been in this country for five years. Her work has been published in Pennsylvania English, Opiate Journal, Petrichor Machine and Porter Gulch Review. Cliff Saunders is the author of several poetry chapbooks, including Mapping the Asphalt Meadows (Slipstream Publications) and This Candescent World (Runaway Spoon Press). His poem “Penikese Island Triptych” was just published in the anthology From the Farther Shore: Cape Cod & the Islands Through Poetry (Bass River Press). Other recent appearances include The Midwest Quarterly, Nine Mile Magazine, Monterey Poetry Review, Blue Unicorn, and Progenitor Art & Literary Journal. Katy Scrogin (she/her) is a Chicago-based writer and editor whose most recent work has been featured in The Fictional Café, MudRoom, Eastern Iowa Review, and Punt Volat. She can also be found at katyscrogin.wordpress.com and Walking the Wire. Natascha Graham is a lesbian writer of stage and screen as well as fiction and poetry. Raised simultaneously by David Bowie and Virginia Woolf, Natascha Graham is a writer of stage, screen, fiction, non-fiction and poetry and lives with her wife in a house full of sunshine on the east coast of England. Her short films have been selected by Pinewood Studios & Lift-Off Sessions, Cannes Film Festival, Raindance Film Festival, Camden Fringe Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival, while her theatre shows have been performed in London's West End and on Broadway, New York as well as at The Mercury Theatre, Colchester, Thornhill Theatre, London and Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York where her monologue, Confessions: The Hours won the award for Best Monologue. Her poetry, fiction and non-fiction essays have been previously published by Acumen, Rattle, Litro, Every Day Fiction, The Sheepshead Review, Yahoo News, and The Mighty among others, as well as being aired numerous times on BBC Radio and various podcasts and she has been short-listed by Penguin and Random House for the 2021 WriteNow Editorial Programme. Natascha also writes the continuing BBC Radio Drama, Everland, and is working on Bad Girls: The Documentary which explores the UK's ITV prison drama. Natascha also writes for the Broxtowe Women's Project for abused women and has also written and released several works of fiction and poetry which are widely available worldwide. When she is not writing, Natascha is co-editor in chief of Tipping the Scales Literary & Arts Journal with her wife and co-hosts the upcoming LGBT podcast, The Sapphic Lounge, with fellow writer, Stephanie Donaghy-Sims.
Bruce Meyer is the author of 67 books of poetry, short fiction, flash fiction, and non-fiction. His short stories have won or been shortlisted for numerous international prizes. He lives in Barrie, Ontario, and can be contacted at email@example.com Maia Kowalski (she/her) is a writer from Toronto, Canada, and has degrees in journalism and creative writing under her belt. She has been published in Yolk Literary and Montréal Writes. She is currently putting together her first short story collection.
Penny A. Page is a writer, a reader, a gardener, and a dog lover. She lives in the central coast area of California and writes primarily paranormal and gritty off-beat stories. Her writing includes a self-published novella titled Not Haunted, and three other novels: Coven Corners, Bayview Cemetery, and A New Kind of Monster. Fariel Shafee has degrees in science, but enjoys writing and art. She has exhibited paintings and digital art internationally. Her portfolios can be seen on http://fshafee.wixsite.com/farielsart and http://fariels.tripod.com Sophie Fink (she/her) is a student at Colby College in Maine. When she's not writing, you might find her swimming beneath a waterfall, folk dancing as the sun goes down, or planning her next big adventure. This is her first published work. You can follow her on Twitter @thekitchensfink. Emily Enfinger is a writer and photographer based in lower Louisiana. Her works focus on tragedy, loss, chaos, and the simple beauty within the mundane. She enjoys cuddling her cats, baking Halloween-themed pies, and gardening. Follow her on Twitter at @EmilyEnfinger and Instagram at @em.enfinger. Sara Dobbie is a Canadian writer from Southern Ontario. Her stories have appeared in Ghost Parachute, Flash Frog, Trampset, Ellipsis Zine, and elsewhere. Her debut collection "Flight Instinct" is forthcoming from ELJ Editions (2022). She is a reader for Tiny Molecules and Fractured Lit. You can find her on Twitter at @sbdobbie and on Instagram at @sbdobwrites. Redfern Boyd (she/her) often writes about travel, pop culture, and things famous people have said when they thought no one was listening. Her short fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and photography have appeared in numerous digital and print publications; she also serves as Poetry Editor of the Connecticut Literary Festival Anthology, Vol. 2, due out in fall 2021. She holds the MA in English literature from Central Connecticut State University. A New England native, she now lives in Berlin, Germany. Connect with her on Twitter (@CeciliaGelato) and Instagram (@c_m_giglio), and visit her at cosifaccioio.com. Oormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad is an Indian-Australian artist and poet, who serves as a chief editor for Authora Australis. Her poetry has been published in Eunoia Review, Bracken Magazine, and Black Bough Poetry. Her recent artworks have been showcased in 3 AM Magazine, The Amsterdam Quarterly, and Oyster River Pages, and on the covers of Pithead Chapel, The Rat’s Ass Review, Ang(st), and elsewhere. She received three Best of the Net nominations for 2021. Find her on Twitter @oormilaprahlad and on Instragram @oormila_paintings. Edward Michael Supranowicz is the grandson of Irish and Russian/Ukrainian immigrants. He grew up on a small farm in Appalachia. He has a grad background in painting and printmaking. Some of his artwork has recently or will soon appear in Fish Food, Streetlight Magazine, Another Chicago Magazine, The Door Is a Jar, The Phoenix, and other journals. Edward is also a published poet. Robin Foster is a writer and historian. She is currently enrolled at Bennington Writing Seminars and often teaches history at George Mason University. She is the author of the
biography Carl Van Doren: A Man of Ideas, which was named National Indie Excellence Awards Finalist for 2019. You can find her on Instagram @robinkayfoster Philip Houtz studied creative writing under Bruce McAllister at University of Redlands, and James Byron Hall at University of California, Santa Cruz. After a long career in retail advertising he is returning to his first love, imaginative fiction. He can be found on Instagram or Twitter as @phoutz