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chiaroscuro


e

ditors’

note

T

he artists of the Renaissance were the first to put brush to canvas in

bold, sweeping strokes of light and dark. It is fitting that this style, later known as "chiaroscuro," emerged from an era renowned as a testament to the boundless potential of the human spirit. As the Renaissance artists perceived both light and dark within the fabric of human experience, so their works celebrate both beauty and brutality. This issue of Vertigo reflects the same duality. The heat of the Southern sun, and the secret nestled wetly among tangled roots. A flash of warm gold beneath sluggish waters. A disinterred corpse at the dinner table. The black and white of a chessboard. Warm milk and the persistent cries of children. A beautiful view in the midst of a teeming city. Streetlights illuminating a roil of jumbled words.

This is our chiaroscuro.

Vertigo is the official literary magazine of Lynbrook High School in San Jose, California. Advertising rates are available upon request by sending an e-mail to vertigomagazine@gmail.com with the subject: “Vertigo Advertising Request.� The views and opinions expressed within Vertigo do not reflect or represent the administration or faculty of this school or high school district. Cover art by Alisha Mowder Art on title page by Cindy Tan


Editor-in-Chief Editor-at-Large Genre Editor Genre Editor

Jasmine Hu Jenny Chung Cindy Tan Betsy Tsai

Art Editor Treasurer Secretary Production Managers

Cindy Tan Amy Sung Sahil Mehta Jessica Lu Cynthia Pang

Production Staff

Staff Writers Janine Adelberg Gwen Basset Evaline Cheng Sarah Destin Shen-shen Hu Emily Ku Tiffany Ku Kenneth Lai Daniel Lewis Megan Lee Alice Liang Janelle Ludowise Mitha Nandagopalan Jason Pang Dan Shevade Jennifer Tai Linda Wu Georgia Yang Iris Yuan

taff

Shen-shen Hu Tiffany Ku Jessica Lu Cynthia Pang Amy Sung Annie Tuan Georgia Yang

Art Staff

Janine Adelberg Gwen Bassett Jasmine Hu Cindy Tan Jennifer Wong Georgia Yang

Advisor

Mr. Rick Hanford

s

taff


prose

t

01 02 05 10 14 16 20 24 33 38 40 42 44 47 52 55

Almost// Cynthia Pang Stubborn Seeds // Sahil Mehta Night Terrors // Jenny Chung Belvedere Avenue // Amy Sung Last // Shen-shen Hu Ten of Swords// Tiffany Ku Black is Far Too Morbid// Sarah Destin The Tree // Dan Shevade Hidden Piece // Betsy Tsai The Sick House// Jenny Chung Checkmate // Janine Adelberg One Step Forward // Iris Yuan N.P.C. // Gwen Bassett Fish Tears // Emily Ku Twice Killed // Kenneth Lai Spam Mail // Jasmine Hu

able of contents

poetry

03 04 07 08 09 13 43 46 46

A Single Point in a Starry Sky // Janine Adelberg Saturday // Jessica Lu Hers Alone // Linda Wu Snow // Cindy Tan Icarus Laughed // Mitha Nandagopalan American Dream // Jessica Lu El Angel Caido// Georgia Yang Frontier Thesis // Jasmine Hu Salvation Withheld // Evaline Cheng


chiaroscuro // prose

Almost by cynthia pang

I’ve forgotten what it’s like to read, to sit mesmerized in your chair, barely moving, except for the habitual flutter of the pages. That gleam in the eye or excitement of the open mouth when reaching the climax, the shock or bubble burst in your stomach as you finally come to the conclusion. You grin with understanding and laugh as if you had just conquered the world. No one is around to see that perfect epiphany of yours. Apart from this world of your own is the flurry of hands and scurry of feet that hasten through the house, through the streets, through reality. The real world beckons you to join in its chaos and confusion, its efficient and expedited lifestyle. Chores and obligations overwhelm you, the daily routine of school and homework and sleep, school, homework, and sleep. I have nearly forgotten those after school days when the heart felt free enough to go skipping over leaves when it was autumn or racing down streets shining from yesterday’s downpour. Almost. Yet you and I still grasp for what used to be. When you had enough time for books, not schoolwork, but books to stay up for and cry and laugh with. Those were the moments, lonely moments, but nevertheless moments that inspired you. I’ve even almost forgotten what it’s like to write this, to sit still in my chair, barely moving, except for the methodical scratches of the pen. Almost.

photography by jasmine hu

Life is a cement trampoline. ~Howard Nordberg

1


chiaroscuro // poetry

A Single Point in a Starry Sky

by janine adelberg

A speck in the distance, nothing more. A single point in a starry sky in the outer branch of a spiral shaped galaxy, Carefree, weightless, light as a sigh. A million billion brilliant balls shining and burning nearly too bright Surrounded by masses of white and blue flame, Surrounded by light years of dark and light. A radiant sun, source of life– and circling it in the not-quite night are enormous rocks and balls of gas in shades of red and blue and white. A planet of water, soil, and clouds, of oceans hidden beneath the haze. Past the hard surface of the glowing moon, upon which only moonwalkers gaze. Only a patchwork from miles above, boasting lakes, mountains, and trees. Caps of snow, small in the distance, Animals galloping, wild and free. The tall tops of skyscrapers, oh so high, stretching, stretching, oh so far. Rows of houses, home to so many. Millions upon millions upon millions of cars. A lone house, not too big nor small where a lone child looks up at the night. And thinks of the meaning she has in this place; every worry or care, triumph or fright, And looks up through clouds and space and stars, an infinite distance, light as a sigh A speck in the distance, nothing more– A single point in a starry sky. ...living is like licking honey off a thorn. ~Louis Adamic

3


Stubborn Seeds

art by cindy tan

chiaroscuro // prose

by sahil mehta Cold struck the soil, lifting particles of dirt. The liquid of life meandered deeper into the clay pot and nurtured the seeds, spaced precisely away from one another. Sighing, the elderly woman set the watering can on the windowsill and stood back, as if expecting a stalk to shoot up. She had been trying to grow that particular plant for months. Its stubbornness was frustrating. This unwillingness to embrace life made her think of what was left to her. Once her grandson had asked her, “Grandma, when people die, do they feel pain?” Out of the millions of questions she had heard throughout her life, this particular one always lingered in her thoughts. Still, she had not found an answer to that innocent question, asked through mere curiosity. Her grandson was grown now. She expected to find an answer to that question soon. As quickly as her old age and withered bones would allow, she rose slowly. She walked outside to her other plants who had unfolded themselves into the wrath of the world—the unforgivable, the inevitable. What would happen to her germaniums and rosebushes after she left the world? She spent little time thinking about it, but quickly assured herself they would live on, more beautiful than ever. She had nothing against death itself, but just the idea of forever leaving the world. She was simply familiar with being alive and

following a daily routine and she could not see it any other way. Knowing she had her share of time on earth, she eventually accepted the intangibility of the concept. She worried for her flowers, though. For who would be there to water the flowers when she was gone? As winter came, she continued to prune. The darker days did not allow her to leave the house as often. Her paper-thin skin hung off her like a garment. Unable to shield herself from the chill, she focused on her seeds. Her bones, now rusty hinges, limited the woman’s movement in the course of her daily routine. The sickness had taken over her body and she was left bed-ridden. The gold hue of her short hair turned into a whiteness the woman will never be able to appreciate. Snow continued to fall from the morbid clouds and landed upon her flowers outside. The frozen particles of water, along with their attempts at ravaging the flowers, eventually melted into the earth and were followed by the arrival of spring—forgotten forever. Morning came and raindrops harshly penetrated the earth, giving her flowers no option but to drink. The woman lay in bed, cold. She had left the world, but her soul lingered in the vibrant garden. It gravitated towards the clay pot where a small sprout resided.

My grandfather always said that...

2


chiaroscuro // poetry

Saturday

by j e s s i c a l u

I gulp words as some do drink, the prospect of glory, cheap thrills, pleasant scenery, ravenous, insatiable–gagging on the excess, gasping for more. (The residuals make the most exquisite tea, I’ll have you know.) I uncurl my fingers as the knowing chortle of a double entendre, the hearty guffaw of a pun, tugs me off the bed and onto my feet. Breakfast consists of last night’s leftovers– an unsatisfying epilogue, some meatloaf– washed down with the saccharine sweetness of a day-old love letter. Water is a luxury, but today is Saturday, so I draw a bath, immerse myself in throaty vowels and sibilant consonants. Out of bath salts, I use line breaks instead–their fragrance is extraordinary. I soak until my toes are plump and wrinkled, I am bloated, and the pages blank.

art by georgia yang

We mourn the transitory things and...

4


chiaroscuro // prose

art by gwen bassett

Night Terrors by jenny chung

There were nights when he’d sit bolt upright in bed, clutching at the covers, forehead glistening with sweat, temples throbbing insistently. “Night terrors,” Momma would cluck as she smoothed his hair and fed him spoonfuls of tonic. “Heaven knows I had them bad at your age.” More often than not he’d slip into a fitful slumber nestled against Momma’s full bosom and wake to grits and sausage, the little girl in the corner all but forgotten. But at times she would still persist in tugging at his sleeve at table, watching as he ate. Her name was Night Terrors, and she didn’t look half so bad in daylight, really. Momma, who prided herself on raising self-sufficient youngsters, had never believed in bedtime. However, he felt it prudent to retire by seven-thirty at the latest, as Night preferred to visit at three. Once he heard a hollow thudding against the door at five and wondered why she’d chosen to come then. Momma had taken to locking his door after he’d fallen asleep. “So night terrors can’t get in,” she’d explained when he’d asked, casting a troubled glance down the hall. “They don’t have any keys.

They can’t open any doors without the keys, now can they?” He’d tried to tell her that it wasn’t “they,” it was “she,” and she did have a key, one she wore around her neck. It was heavy and made of brass and on the one occasion she’d let him touch it his hand had begun to sting in the morning. When he’d shown the rash to Momma at breakfast she’d clapped a hand over her mouth and stumbled to the sink. He’d never made Momma sick before and couldn’t tell why he had this time. Later she dabbed the tips of his fingers with ointment and bandaged them with her free hand as she dialed the local parish with the other. Her blouse was stained with sweat at the armpits; beads of sweat had gathered on her upper lip and were running in rivulets down the corners of her mouth. “I don’t understand,” she repeated over and over. “I thought it was just night terrors, you know, he’s only five and I don’t understand—of course I’m serious, why wouldn’t I be? You mean to tell me you can’t do a thing about— I know there’s something else here, I know it, I’ve been able to tell these things since I was a little—Hello? Hello? What are you—”

... fret under the yoke of the immutable ones. ~Paul Eldridge

5


chiaroscuro // prose She’d fallen silent, hung up and continued to bandage his fingers, several of which were now raw and red from exposure to the air. He’d been keeping them in his mouth since nine. And he wondered why Momma, who was an Adult and therefore expected to know everything (or at least everything he himself wasn’t sure of), couldn’t understand that it was Night Terrors, but she didn’t mean to hurt him. Accidents just happened sometimes. But he couldn’t tell her, because he was only five after all. Even so, he could tell she didn’t like Night Terrors and wanted to keep her out. He wanted to tell her she’d never be able to manage it because Night Terrors was born in, and had never been out in her life. As far as he knew she was born in the cellar, only it hadn’t been a cellar then but a nursery, and she’d been fond of ginger ale and hiding in the stairways, keeping quiet until her brother, whose name was also Jonathan, found her and carried her up to his room, which was really her room only not so much anymore, and read to her. Only one day she’d had a tumble and when Jonathan came looking for her he hadn’t seen her straightaway, but there she was at the foot of the stairs. Waiting. And he’d screamed. When the new Jonathan came along he screamed too, but only a little. Then he stopped playing ball on the cellar stairs. When Momma finished she didn’t say a word. She bit her lip and squeezed his shoulder and told him to run along now; everything was fine. Everything was fine but he would have a bedtime now. So long as he was in bed by eight, she whispered, drawing him close, there would be no more night terrors. And for a while he did see no more of her. He’d hear her shuffle past his door and sometimes he could smell her beneath the floorboards or hear her key clank against the windowpanes. It was the key to the cellar, the nursery and his room. Her room. And within the week Momma no longer kept her voice low and began to laugh again and read him stories. In her bed. The frame had come with the house. It was her frame and sometimes she coiled herself around it and tried to tell him things. But she couldn’t because there was something in her neck and

it hurt her very badly when she spoke. He didn’t mind. Momma said he wasn’t much of a talker anyway. An early riser by nature, he found he could get by on much less sleep than his mother insisted he have. By autumn she had begun to frequent his room again. She would take him to the cellar and he would sit on the stair with her until dawn. Momma would find him asleep on the bottom step and carry him to his room. She had arranged for the first of the movers to come on Sunday and estimated that they would be settled into their new home before the school year began. It was an apartment several blocks down she’d rented on short notice and though it was small it would suit her fine. There were too many rooms in this house, she thought, and the corridors were too long for her liking. The morning before the move Night Terrors had come again and he’d followed her to the cellar for the last time. He was sorry to be leaving her so soon and tried to tell her he had no say in the matter, Momma had decided and that was that. When they’d reached the stairway she’d run down without looking back and left him squinting into the shadows. He wanted to tell her not to be angry with him because he was sorry and placed a hand on the banister, but it was so dark and as he took a hesitant step forward he found she’d been behind him all along. She’d been behind him and now she’d given him a shove— When Momma found him crumpled in a heap at the bottom of the stairs she screamed like Jonathan had, and if he were still able he would have been screaming right along with her, kept screaming because in that split second before everything went black he saw Night Terrors, saw how her head lolling at a strange angle and her tattered eyelids, saw her slitted nostrils and slack jaw, and he knew she wasn’t his friend, no, not at all, and he’d prayed and prayed and prayed as his chest grew tight that she would let him leave. And from the cellar he saw Momma cradling his head and sobbing and heard sirens in the distance but as her clammy hand closed around his he knew leaving was out of the question.

I have measured out my life...

6


chiaroscuro // poetry

Hers Alone

by l i n d a w u

Who am I? I am the lass who has dug her glittery pink-spotted nails into the dandelion filled green meadows flowing with life and licked the overflowing milky juices of a single auburn leaf fallen from the pleading oak tree infested with moody white-toed termites. I’ve toddled upside-down in the depths of a bloody Mediterranean Sea

facedown on a school’s playground and waved my x-fingered hand at the sarcastic puffer fish while breathing the entire Sea into the slimy tunnels of my nostrils with my eyes blazing yellow flames from the stinging salts of the waters. I’ve swallowed a metallic green lollipop-breathing dragon

haughty girls wearing great pink ruffles atop the icy volcano in Atlantis, the underwater world, with the tinkling of cherry bells from the silver charms on the dragon’s ankle resounding with rhythms contrary to the thumping of my absent heart.

...with coffee spoons. ~T.S. Eliot

7


chiaroscuro // poetry for the first time, you wake up cold to a blank, white morning for someone who knew only sunrises and sunsets and explosions of tropical color, white mornings are strange to you even your memories are cut from hard edges and bright lights but here, here in this misty dreamscape the present is shrouded in monochromatic ambiguity for someone who knew only of skies stained with faraway fires this softly falling frozen water is mystifying you place your feet in it, marveling at its pale delicate beauty comparing it to the heavy golden sands you left behind paradise bores you, the energy of it stifles so you come here—to winter and ice and stillness shivering with the cold and some powerful unnamed emotion and then something is released from within swept away to make room for all this frozen air and frozen water rushing in, in, in you throw away the old brushes—they are stiff with salt and unusable you’ve become abstracted, searching now for purity tired of passionate art, you want to paint your canvases white and when they see, they will go cold all over they will freeze in awe, not smiling you want them to shiver with it, with colorless emotions the same way you shivered

art by cindy tan

when salt-flavored paradise and sunfire was forgotten when you discovered for the first time the taste of frozen water

Snow

b y ci n d y ta n

Writing is utter solitude...

8


chiaroscuro // poetry

Icarus Laughed by mitha nandagopalan

as he fell, a spiral of laughter tumbling up. He laughed for blue sky and sea. Let no one tell you he screamed, or cursed the lover-close scorch of the sun, or lamented his heedless height— How else could he learn the exhilaration of freefall? And there are those who will say, yes, he laughed, and his laughter was bells, silvery music, gleams of sunlight dancing, glancing off the sea. Don’t believe them. There were no bells, but the cacophony of knowing for brief plummeting moments (only he knew) flight and flame and fall— shards tossed against the waves. He laughed for death—his own— one more thing to know. No mourning, no regrets, save one—that he would live immortal as the story’s moral: Do not reach or the sun will burn you, Do not dive or the sea will drown you, Do not fly or you will fall. He fell, yes, defiant, and tasted suspension between warmth and water, and waited weightless for release, and Icarus laughed. art by gwen bassett

...the descent into the cold abyss of oneself. ~Franz Kafka

9


chiaroscuro // prose

Belvedere “Here you go. All that you

asked for.” The door opens to a small room with a bed, a desk with a lamp, a chair and a window. The walls are bare and white, with no holes or shadows of previous frames. Yes, all I asked for, the bare minimum. The landowner’s crooked yellow smile lights up at me. “I have some friends coming over soon. Do join us for tea and some Scrabble.” “No, no thank you. I have to —” “Well, don’t forget to come down for dinner at six! Our dinners are the best on Belvedere Avenue, if not the whole city. ” The old woman smiles up at me again, then skitters down the stairs. Belvedere Avenue. Bellus—beautiful, videre—to see. Beautiful view. Your Latin studies are finally coming in handy now, aren’t they? Belvedere Avenue. The street is in the middle of the city. On the next block, there is the subway, and around the corner, a bus stop. Signs in front of small restaurants and stores sway in the winter wind. Bare trees dot the lonely streets, waving away brown leaves. Naked trees and old buildings. What a beautiful view. I run down the steep stairs, prompting a symphony of creaks and squeaks. The landlady looks up startledly from her steaming tea pot full of tea. I force open the door and hurry outside. I rush to the gate; it clangs open. “Miss, are you the new tenant?” “She is, she is! Welcome to—” “I need to go to—” I run, away from the group of bright flowery shirts and wide crinkled smiles. Then I stop. He is sitting on the sidewalk in the vibrant center of the city. The sidewalk is splattered

with the brown of old gum. Yesterday’s newspaper is pirouetting with the faded leaves, swept up by a gust of wind. He is sitting on the sidewalk in the hectic heart of the city. And a river of people flows around him. Men in business suits. Women with clacking heels, chatting on their phones. Teenagers plugged into their world of boomp-boomp music. Mothers tugging their children along. Fathers rushing to keep their families going. Students running after buses. All busy, rushing to their separate lives. He is sitting on the sidewalk in the busy core of the city. Cars honk. Buses grunt. Trucks roar. Subway trains swoosh by. His face is speckled with hair and dirt. Old gossip magazines and ads cover him. His legs—or what remained of them after a forgotten war—sprawl on the cold cement. The bitter winter sun has darkened him to a deep shade of brown. Stringy hair curtains his face from the world. His hands merge with the tumble of papers around him. His plaid shirt fades to the papers’ rainedwashed meaningless faces and words. A beaten shallow copper bowl rocks on the ground near him. And there he is, sitting, sitting on the sidewalk in the pulsing heart of the city. People do not look at him. But I do. I stare. I stare at the lines in his face, the cracks marring the brown surface. My eyes trace his whiskers, growing here and there like a tiger’s. My eyes jump to his crooked nose, his faded brown eyes, and his jumbled yellow teeth. He returns my stare, gazing out from his forlorn cave in the middle of the city. Startled, I break away from the pallid brown orbs, uncomfortably, as if I were six again and found with Mom’s personal cache of chocolates. I turn and topple down the subway stairs. The icy grey seat of the subway biting into my shaking legs, I scorn at my reflection

Reason and justice tell me there’s more love for humanity in electricity and steam...

10


chiaroscuro // prose skipping over passing tunnels and stations on the opposite dark window. “Oh dear, sorry! You won’t mind me sitting here, would you?” A woman, with a wet coat and boots, tumbles down to the seat next to mine. “No.” “Mighty strong storm we are having, isn’t it?” “Yes.” I scoot away to distance my coat from her wet one. She notices, frowns, and on the next stop, leaves to sit furtherfrom me. Now, where am I riding this subway to? I remember the last time I rode a subway. That time, I knew where I was going. I was going, for the first time, to my parents’ hometown, Meade. Meade, a bare spot of houses in the Midwest, a world I only knew from blackand-white family photos. After graduating from college, I visited it alone, out of guilt. Ha. And it was very different from the pictures, wasn’t it? But that plac, that creekIt wasn’t that bad, and that mime… He had been totally white. From head to toe, perfectly white. Walking under the beating sun, I was sweating through my short sleeves. But the man wore a long suit jacket, gloves, dress shoes, socks, and an old top hat, all white. A mime, I later realized. A mime bound to the streets, earning his keep by being a white, expressionless clown for others. He was entirely white. His face was as pale as a whitewashed fence, without a single trail of sweat to betray his natural color underneath. He stood there, behind a group of boys tumbling in the cool waters of a nearby creek. Next to him, children were grabbing for popsicles from the ice cream cart. But no child was in front of the white clown, engrossed in his whiteness and brisk, sharp movements. No one saw the expressionless yet sad face of the white robot, burning white under the summer sun. Laughing, the crowd of loud children skipped away, peeling the popsicles’ colorful wrappers with their already sticky hands. No one

was left except the ice cream cart owner, counting the money the young grubby hands had just given him. I turned to walk away. But there was someone in front of the white man. A little girl. A little girl, with two skinny pigtails tied up with yellow ribbons, smiled up at the white mime. She wore a buttercup-yellow summer dress with a big yellow ribbon ballooning in the back. A little girl in yellow, smiling, stood in front of the white man, the white robot, the white clown. A little girl in yellow offered him a red popsicle, cold from the ice cream carts. The white man hesitated, jerking his arms like a robot. His elbows crooked, his head twitched to one side, and his back bent to the girl’s height. “For you, Mr. White!” Mister. A title saved for men of honor, for men well respected, like the city police, not for a mime working on the sidewalk. “Here, Mr. White, I will open it for you so you don’t get your nice clothes dirty.” Her yellow ribbons bobbed, the young head bent in concentration. The eyes of the white clown grew big, blinking down at the little girl carefully ripping the red wrapper. Triumphant, the little girl put the popsicle stick in the shaking white hand. As the red colored the pale lips, the white face broke into a smile. “Ma’am this is the last stop.”A big, ursine man looks down at me. “Can I help you?” “No.” * * * The wind is worse than before. It sweeps up the fallen leaves, whirling them into the people walking on the streets, chasing them. It hurls the rain horizontally, causing it to splat into car windows and pedestrians’ faces. Mumbling curses, I run. And then trip. A pigeon, hopelessly caught in the wind, hurtles into me.

Avenue by amy sung

...than in chastity and vegetarianism. ~Anton Chekhov

11


chiaroscuro // prose “Stupid pigeon!” I swat the bird away. Reaching the familiar bus stop, I pant under the overhang. A rushing bus hurls a wave of rainwater at me as it squeaks to a stop. Great. All that hopping from one overhang to another wasted. I shiver under my wet coat, glaring vindictively at the bus. Searching for something to dry myself with, I come to face to face with a red handkerchief. “Here, use this,” a woman offers. “And take this too. This one is big enough for both Tony and me.” Before I can refuse, a red handkerchief and a umbrella are in my hand, and the woman is standing by the bus. A little boy with freckles, yellow hair and a jubilant smile bounces off the bus’s stairs into the arms of his mother. “Hi Mommy! Mommy, today, me and Calvin—” “Not now, Tony. Quickly, get under the umbrella.” The umbrella isn’t big enough for the mother and son; her left arm, along with the shoulder, is getting drenched, far from the umbrella’s red ridges. Her son is oblivious. “Ma’am—” I stop them. The boy titters, trying to stay balanced on his tip-toes so he could hold the umbrella high enough for his mother. I blink. “Here. Thank you,” I stumble, thrusting the handkerchief to her. I rush down the street. At the corner, I trip. Looking down, I see a claret thermos from a nearby house’s steps. A white note is tied onto the thermos. The note has “For The Mailman” written on it. A yellow note tied onto a thermos brimming with sweet, steaming hot chocolate. “Come on, come on birdies...uh-uh, where are you going? You are not staying on the telephone line tonight.” Across the street, a man with his hands on his waist wags a finger at a cluster of pigeons. The brown and white birds coo loudly in confusion. The man

laughs, throwing a trail of bird food onto his red- roofed shed. Cooing gleefully, the pigeons waddle across the yard on their stick legs. “Good. Now don’t come out until the storm’s over.” Why? Why do they do it? Why? I bolt. Then I turn back, upright the thermos on the steps, rush down the street, walking faster and faster. Passing under the flapping restaurant and shop signs, I stop in front of the old man, the old war veteran, in the middle of the street. His eyes are half closed, soporific, but I can see into them. They sweep me into another world, a world long past. There was a lawn of green, green grass and a blue sky, dotted with white cotton candy clouds. Red flowers blossomed around a house, a house flowing with the sounds of laughing children and the hearty clatter of dinner plates. Suddenly, a bomb dropped, shattering the tranquility. The children screamed. The wife’s eyes streaming with tears. The man turned away, his shoulders heavy. Grabbing newspapers from nearby, I cover the tattered man, tucking the paper around him. Then I leave the umbrella, a red shield protecting the man from the wind and the rain. I run to Belvedere Avenue. Silencing the swinging gate behind me, I open the door. The landlady and her friends, a red bubble of laughs and jokes, look up from a Scrabble game. Surprised, the bubble pops. I know why. I suddenly feel shy. “Sorry I’m late. Does anyone need help?” The women blink at each other. “Why, yes.” One tilts her wooden stand towards me. “This is all I have, and I can’t seem to make a word.” Peering at the wooden letter blocks lined up on the stand, I laugh. Taking the letters “L”, “V”, and “E”, I place them around the “O” already on the board. That’s why. Bellus videre.

Every creature stalks some other, and catches it...

12


chiaroscuro // poetry

American

Dream

ya a gi or ge y tb ar

Young, passionate, foolish, he painted his life onto canvases no one would buy, the colors vivid and harsh, seared into the fabric and reeking of vitality; lived on his wits, the charity of others, until a dealer with a discerning eye and deep pockets plucked him off the corner of 7th and Madison. He landed in a hotel room in upstate New York with gold inlay on the bathroom tiles and faucets that gushed champagne. Gone were the T.V. dinners, the drug-addled landlady, the roaches. Bickering neighbors were replaced by doormen with placid smiles and polished buttons. Even the housekeepers wore varnished visages and trailed perfume in their wake. Life was pleasant, if hectic: his presence was requested at gallery openings, museum exhibitions, charity functions, and he did not like to turn people down. In time he learned to daub on a touch of charisma, sweep a hint of color onto his cheeks before venturing out; his skill with a brush proved handy. Lavish parties were the norm, so he wined and dined, drank enough to be polite, rubbed elbows with celebrities and their handlers. Late at night he stumbles home and collapses on satin sheets, too tired to paint.

ng

by jessica lu

...and is caught. ~Mignon McLaughlin

13


chiaroscuro // prose

photography by jasmine hu

Last

b y s h e n -s h e n h u

He was the last one.

At times he might have been forlorn, as the last one in that prison, but greater was the anticipation of his own turn. He had seen them all go; he had watched his companions through that thick glass dome so far above him. Sometimes they were carried away, beyond his view, but sometimes-so cruelly-they were consumed immediately, and he watched as fragments of their remains scattered just outside the glass walls. But still he wondered what had happened to the others, the ones that had been moved away towards those bright white lights

There had been others with him, before, confined together in that great glass enclosure, but they were all gone by now. They had been lifted, sometimes one by one, sometimes in twos and threes, up and out of their confinement for a last breath of fresh air and a view undistorted by curved glass walls. Only one had ever returned, marred by bites and bruises, and they had gazed upon him with horror until he was taken again by the beings outside the glass walls. The victim hadn’t been returned the second time.

Unbeing dead...

14


chiaroscuro // prose

that shone upon his prison walls from afar. After all, there wasn’t much he could do but wonder. At times he thought he might go mad from the wait. Time crawled by on broken legs in that great glass prison; he could count the microseconds as they passed. In his deepest misery, he found that his only distraction lay in the numbers. Nineteen bits of his companions’ remains, seventy-one pieces in a nearby container, forty-three scuffs blurring the glass walls of his enclosure. Seven curved structures loomed above, reflections of the glass dome distorted in the polished metal. And not too far from him lay a collection of prisons similar to his own, but smaller in size. There were twentyfour of those. All the numbers he knew by heart. But he could never be sure, so he’d count again. He’d count them every day, just to be sure. It was while he was counting the scuffs on the glass when fear stirred from its hibernation in the den of his thoughts. Suddenly, he felt the rumbling, noticed the remains on the ground swept away, saw the shifting of those nearby mini-jails. He would have to count them again, he thought. And yet, he could not suppress an excitement prompted by the being that was moving towards him, its gleaming orbs fixed upon the glass enclosure. He would be freed at last. And he watched as the being clutched the domed ceiling. He watched as it was removed, as the being reached down, so close to him, almost touching him. And he might have exploded from the excitement. But then, suddenly, it was all he could do to watch as the being recoiled, slamming the glass dome back down upon the prison and pushing it into the darkness behind some great rectangular shape. He was baffled. He had been close, so close to the end, and so close to freedom. He was so close that he had yearned for it, and yet that he was denied. Why, he wondered, had he not been taken? Why, he mused, was

he the very last one? Perhaps he had been lucky. Clearly, he was better off than the others. Or was he? The end seemed so delicious in comparison to his mindless wonderings in these shadows. And then he thought of the being that had so nearly freed him. Why, he wondered, had it not taken him? Why, he mused, could it not have ended his thoughts then and there? Perhaps he was simply undesirable. Obviously, the being had not wanted to consume him. Perhaps he would be left to perish in that great glass prison, forever counting the scuffs on the walls, for there was not much else he could do. *** “Mama, can I have a cookie?” Joey drummed his fingers impatiently upon the tabletop, his searching eyes trying vainly to locate the jar his mother had hidden. “Did you finish the carrots? And the green beans?” “All of ‘em!” he grinned, chewing the last bits. “And me too-I want a cookie,” chimed the boy beside him. “But I’m afraid there’s just one left,” said their mother, pulling a glass jar out from a corner of the kitchen. “You’ll have to share.” “Just one?” Joey frowned, tugging off the cookie jar’s curved top. “And James has to get half?” he asked in disappointment. He sighed at his mother’s nod, and lifted the treat out of the glass jar. “Promise you’ll make some more?” “If you’re good,” his mother replied with a smile. Joey held the cookie out to his brother, and James tore off half with a grin. Crumbs scattered by the cookie jar as the boy shoved his half into his mouth with delight. “I think the last cookie tastes the best,” he said.

...isn’t being alive. ~e.e. cummings

15


ar

tb

yc

ind

yt

an

chiaroscuro // prose

Ten of Swords by tiffany ku

There once was a king and queen who very much wanted a son, and instead were disappointed by a daughter. The tavern door opened with unnecessary force. “Fear not, my feeble proletarian subjects! For finally, I have arrived to free the fair princess!” There was a moment of silence as the customer waited expectantly. The barkeep sighed. The prince snapped his fingers crisply, but the barkeep did not stir. Instead, the blushing buxom barmaid came to attend his imperious call, twisting her terrycloth towel into knots. He smiled charmingly at her and with a flourish presented to her a lovely blooming rose. “It would make me happy beyond delight if such a charming young lady as yourself would attend me, and graciously accept only this humble rose that I offer up as thanks in exchange for your charity and service—”

“Look, boy,” the barkeep interrupted, much to the barmaid’s dismay. “As far as I’m concerned, if you don’t have money then you can get out!” “Ah, but I am a prince!” he cried, gesturing dramatically. “I will go to the castle and save the princess from the evil fairy that holds her there! I will kiss her gently on the lips and she will fall in love with me, to be together forevermore!” “I tell you, no money, no service!” the barkeep shouted. “Especially not for stupid princes who doom themselves.” A frosty tension fell over the room as the prince and barkeep engaged in a battle of wills. The barmaid huddled in the corner, nursing her broken heart. The prince sniffed. “Well then. We shall certainly not invite you to our glorious and triumphant reception.” He stood to leave and his faithful barmaid cried out desperately, bosom heaving. “I will expect a room prepared for our return tonight,” he said curtly. “Until then, I bid you all adieu.”

This weary ol’ workhorse...

16


chiaroscuro // prose “Finally,” the barkeep muttered as the door slammed shut and he was left to consoling the weeping barmaid.

asunder. It was full of anguish and longing and frustration bordering on madness, and he felt his hair stand on end. A door flung itself open and the cacophony of voices echoed in the corridor. The prince ran to the open room, intent on completing his first rescue. He rushed through the door as an item hurtling the air passed through his face and collided solidly with the wall, sliding down to rest by his leg. The prince very nearly screamed. His face! His precious face! He pulled out his personal mirror and did a quick once, twice, thrice-over before he was satisfied. Then, he turned to the culprit who was lying silently on his side. He stared at it angrily and crouched down, yanking the cover back viciously. Almost immediately he recoiled in horror, scrabbling at the wall for stability. The small, bloated features of a newly born infant were revealed for the entire world to see, each finger and limb carefully and perfectly formed. It had the odd reddish tinge of blood seen through nigh-transparent skin. The blue threads of the blanket were slowly becoming a garish crimson. It was too much for the prince, and he retched in the corner before running out the door. This was not how the rescue was supposed to go! The bitter taste of bile stayed with him.

Desperate for her parent’s love, the princess summoned a fairy to grant her wish. He shifted his pack a little and winced as he brushed past a particularly sharp thorn. Everywhere he turned, there was a vine eagerly waiting to introduce some part of his anatomy to a friendly thorn. A foot-long razor-sharp friendly thorn. While their attraction to him was only natural, he wished that they might restrain themselves more. He hissed in pain as another thorn made his acquaintance. He mournfully observed that his beautiful clothes were shredded to tatters. He would have to buy a new set, but from there it would be a small matter to get fittings for his bride as well. He fixed his sights upon the castle less than ten feet away as the thorns grew more insistent in their activities. No matter, he would not be stalled from his princess! With a gasping heave and a mighty leap, he threw himself out of the vines’ grasping reach. They beckoned to him like so many ugly women starving for a fresh beau; while alternatively pitying their plight and commending their good taste, he was not dim enough to follow. He turned from the vines (ignoring their disgruntled rustling and vows of vengeance) and entered the castle. He pushed the door and it swung open as lightly as a feather.

Furious, the fairy cursed the girl; she would sleep forevermore… He decided to head towards the highest tower, the traditional location of all damsels in distress according to So You Want to Be a Hero, Third Edition. The sight of the stillborn child lingered at the edge of his thoughts and it was as if a heavy gray filter had fallen over his movements and thoughts and not even the call of his one true love could dispel the shade. Eventually, he came upon a tall flight of stairs crowned by a large stone chamber. The door had been left ajar and revealed a haphazard sort of room with bookshelves all around. The prince grimaced observing the clashing furniture color motif and made a private vow to redecorate. It would not do

Please make them love me, she wished, and the fairy only laughed. The prince was walking down yet another strangely bright stone corridor and recoiled as a musty draft of cold air hit his sensitive skin. Shivering, he wondered how a fresh draft could possibly exist when he was lost somewhere in the castle underground before reasonably assuming that it had been, in some mysterious way, provided for his comfort. Such was the way of things. A keening wail rent the abandoned castle

...is a unicorn, my friend. ~Jareb Teague

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chiaroscuro // prose for the honeymoon suite to look so horrendous…and wouldn’t the bride be pleased, to see the wondrous changes? Conscious of the high monster battle possibility, he carefully walked in and drew his dagger. A thick layer of dust covered everything and reminded him of the thick heaviness that pervaded his senses whenever he opened a particularly scholarly journal. It was not to be penetrated. Gently running his hand over the book spines, he felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle even as a shudder worked its way up and down its body. He slowly turned around, with a suppressed touch of fear. There was a person lying on the floor.

“Good afternoon,” said the gentleman, as if they had happened to meet on the street. “Hello,” said the boy, as if the pretty princess in his arms wasn’t certainly dead. His mental faculties had decided to embark on an extended vacation. “What’s your name, lad?” the gentleman asked. “What?” The boy was surprised. “I am Prince Will Charming. Look, can you help me out here? My princess seems to be dead.” He gestured with his body towards the girl in his arms. “Oh, well, you silly goose! Haven’t you ever heard of the story of the princess and the fairy? There was once a princess whose parents very much wanted a son. For them it was simply impossible, and she lived for nearly twenty years with the knowledge that she was unwanted. The princess one day summoned a fairy hoping for love and was instead cursed to sleep for all of time. A wonderful tale, isn’t it? The fairy tricks her most handily, winning her name and striking proper respect into her—” “That’s great and all,” Will said, “But do you suppose you could tell me later? I kind of need to save my bride right now.” The gentleman sniffed. “Well, if you had listened to the story, then you would have learned that the hero kisses the princess to wake her up, and they presumably go off to have hundreds of horrid little children who do nothing but waste water and air. Much like yourself.” But Prince Will wasn’t listening. His lips were firmly fastened onto the princess’s unresisting mouth as a plecostomus fish will attach itself onto a particularly delectable wall. It was similarly received. The gentleman heaved a great, suffering sigh.

…she would wake only when love came to call… He took his time in approaching the mystery. Long icy blonde hair lay tangled on the soft red carpet and the blue dress she wore was stained a crusty brown. With a jolt, he realized that it was the princess there on the floor and Chivalry promptly ousted Fear and nervous Self-Preservation. There was a lady in need. Rule #1: Always help a lady in need. He ran to her side and, dropping his weapon, gathered her in his hands with frantic worry, examining her face critically. She was worryingly pale and looked altogether unfit for marriage. Looking around for help, his gaze landed upon a circle of cards lying not a few feet behind him. They were Tarot cards, he noticed with a squint, and as his gaze traveled up, he realized that there was a tall gentleman standing in the middle of the Tarot circle. …and all her callers were destined to die…

“Fear not, my feeble

proletarian subjects!”

Reach for the stars...

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chiaroscuro // prose “How uncouth, how impolite people these days are. Honestly…” Prince Will paid no attention. The gentleman, deciding that this business of voyeurism was rather wearisome, turned instead to the deck of Tarot cards spread around him and began picking them up. “Say, can you read Tarot cards?” Will, a closet romantic at heart, was caught by the notion that his breath was becoming her breath and that her breath was becoming his… the gentleman took his silence as a no. “Ah, what a shame. It is a fine and noble art.” The gentleman absentmindedly shuffled the deck with a sharp riffling sound. There was a small sound from the princess, hardly more than a breathy sigh. But his breath was her breath, and her sigh became his sigh. “My dear fellow—Will, was it? Let me read your fortune. I assure you, it will be of the utmost interest to you.” Will honestly doubted that. He could feel her heart slowly starting to beat at a pace much slower than his own. …as she ended with her own hand, their love. “Let’s see—I think the five-card spread will be enough for our purposes.” The gentleman drew a card from the deck in a peculiar way and laid it down precisely. He smiled. “Ah, that would make sense. Understand, Will, that the first card represents your past. Clearly, you were a fine, upstanding young man with a bright future and good humor. I have drawn the Fool.” He laid the card down on the floor and Will could see that there was an illustration of a young man walking off a cliff. The man on the card, Will thought, was not only incredibly ugly compared to himself, but also stupid. The cliff was very apparent, after all. The princess’s vital signs were becoming stronger, and his hopes for their happy future together grew stronger as well. She shifted restlessly as if waking and he did not lessen the pressure of his lips one whit. “The second card,” the gentleman

continued, “represents the Present. Ah, I’ve drawn the Moon. Following your dreams are we? Well, there is a bit of danger in following mysterious nightly missives, but so long as you remember everything is not as it seems…” He laid down a card featuring a large, silvery moon and several baying dogs. She was kissing back now, and this was more like what he had expected. There was an answering pressure to his kiss that he was all too willing to accept. Her nerves seemed a little loose though. He’d have to have a doctor fix that; her right arm kept flailing around behind him. “Hidden influences are very important factors in your day-to-day life. The third card…ah, the Magician reversed. Someone is trying to trick you. Fortunately, you had me to read your fortune.” The picture on the card was odd and intricate, full of secret meanings and hidden codes. He tried to speak, make a sarcastic and lofty remark, but couldn’t. Her kiss had so much force now as to be bruising and her mouth swallowed his scream as the blade of a dagger drove itself into his back. Will stared at the gentleman desperately, trying to catch his attention. He felt her smile sweetly as she lifted the dagger high once more and stabbed him even more cruelly, again and again and again…. “Hm…” the gentleman muttered. “The fourth card represents advice—the Hermit reversed. Someone gave you advice you should have taken.” That presumptuous man had tried to detain him, Will remembered. The innkeeper. His vision started to grow blurry and his eyes drifted shut. “The likely outcome of your situation,” the gentleman continued, “is hinted at by the fifth card. Let’s see—the Tower. My, you are an unlucky one! Ruin in every way conceivable!” He peered closely at the boy, who lay quite still against the princess. Fresh blood stained her dress. She stared blankly ahead. “Are you listening? Ah, it’s too late already…People these days, so rude! All these young men, you’d think someone would have taught them proper manners!”

...even if you have to stand on a cactus. ~Susan Longacre

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chiaroscuro // prose

BlackMorbid Is Far Too

by sarah destin

As I forced my eyes to skim over the telegram, I couldn’t help but wonder why it was written in such an ugly font. And why it was so wordy— it needn’t have been so wordy; the point it expressedwas a fairly simple one. There was no need to go on about what great honor William had brought to his country. They didn’t know that. It should have merely said, ‘Billy dead, body not found.’ “There must be some mistake! My little boy, he can’t be…James, he can’t be…” Mama cried out, black tears rolling down her cheeks. “They don’t even have the goddamned body,” Daddy said slowly, his voice deeper than usual. “Then he might be…James, he might be…” Mama stuttered, her voice wavering. “He’s gone, Helen,” Daddy said heavily, as he walked over to the table and sank into his seat, his hands left to hold up his face. At this, I silently excused myself, running up the stairs two at a time, heels thumping into the wood. It would have echoed throughout the house, and on any other day, Mama would have been running after me yelling about the expenses of the steps and my unladylike behavior. I didn’t care about the steps or about acting like a lady. I only cared about getting far from that kitchen and those voices that talked so heavily of death. I walked into my room, slamming the door, as if somehow the door was responsible for this all. I could already hear Mama in my head, You’ll be paying for that door if you dare break it, Jacqueline. Breaking the door would be nice— I could punch holes through it, maybe. But I didn’t. Instead I walked, as though possessed, towards my mirror. It amazed even me how in such a few short minutes my appearance seemed to have changed so drastically. When I had woken this morning, a joyful girl had greeted me in

the mirror. Now, a somber woman simply stared back, watching as I examined myself. True, I was not German, but really how different could we have looked? Curly deep brown hair, light eyes of blue and pale white skin. When the German had shot Billy, did he see that? When he pulled the trigger, was he looking into Billy’s watering eyes, his beautiful eyes? Did he put a hand to his own white skin, to his own dark hair? Couldn’t he see that maybe they weren’t so different after all, two men forced to shoot at one another? I doubted the German had even been sorry. Or was I merely a hypocrite? After all, Billy had been there for over a year. How many Germans would he have already killed? To how many families had he been the American? I supposed the army didn’t talk about that kind of thing. The memorial service was held a week later. It felt as though the whole town showed up; I had only seen St. Cecilia’s this crowded at Christmas mass. People I had never even seen before, making me truly wonder if Billy ever had either. The priest called it a community effort, and had thanked them all for attending. “I feel like I’m going to be sick, it’s so warm,” Joan whispered in my ear. I nodded halfheartedly back to my sister, for Joan was right. It was warm, far too warm to be sitting in a church. Would Billy even have wanted this? This was what old men in suits wanted, friends and family to commiserate over their life. Billy would have just been bored. * * * We had nothing to wear for the memorial service. Black is far too morbid for my girls to be wearing, Mama would always say, leaving us with no mourning. Mama said she couldn’t even think of going shopping at a time like this and had called Aunt Lillian to

We are all in the gutter...

20


chiaroscuro // prose ask her to make us black dresses for the service. Unfortunately, Aunt Lillian must have written down the wrong measurements or liked making very confining dresses, for I couldn’t move an inch in it. I could almost hear Billy’s voice echoing through my room, Why, don’t you all look like little petrified maids. I frowned at my reflection as Joan walked in, tugging at her collar for, if it were possible, her dress was even more confining than mine. “Jackie, I simply can’t breathe. I swear to God, we’re going to end up suffocating halfway through the service,” Joan said with a lightness to her voice that I hadn’t heard all week. “Mine would probably fit you better, you can wear it if you want,” I said. “Then you won’t have anything to wear. I went in to show Mama and she didn’t even realize I was in the room,” she said, and the somber woman that Joan had become, that we all had seemed to become returned. “Was she looking at the pictures again? Daddy said we should try to keep her from doing that, or she’ll never get her mind off it,” I said almost to myself, for there was no way to keep Mama from her pictures. “She’s obsessed with them. It’s like she’s gone, like we’ve lost her too,” she said, clearly trying not to cry. “Come on, let’s change out of these things. We’ll have to increase our lung capacity before the service.” I said, filling my voice with false cheer. “I’m sorry Jackie, I’m just—” Joan finally broke down, tears streaming down her face. “We can’t cry Joan, we have to be strong. We have to be strong for Mama,” I said firmly.

If only someone could tell me just how I was supposed to be so strong. * * * “Perhaps the hardest part of William’s death, for many of you, is how tragically short his life was. And, unfortunately, there is nothing to be done about that. I beg of you not to ponder on it, but instead to remember that life is not counted by the number of days lived, but the way we lived those days. William lived a full life, a much fuller life then many men who will live four times longer than him. I invite you now to celebrate some of the memories you shared with William over the years,” the priest said as he paced the front of the church. I closed my eyes, allowing my thoughts to wander, oddly enough, to the time Billy tried to teach me to ‘spit like a man’. “All right, Jack, once you’ve got it in there, you can’t just spat it at your feet. If you want it to go far, you’ve got to really aim,” he said, his hands on hips as he shot a wad of spit a few feet in front of him. “Wow, Billy,” I said, my little seven-yearold voice full of awe. “Now, when you spit, you’ve got to be thinking of something that you’d really like to hit. Every time I spit, I always pretend I’m aiming for Joan’s bare feet. Trust me, it makes it go farther,” he said, chuckling a bit to himself. “Okay, Billy, I’m ready to try,” I said in. Once I had a wad of spit in my mouth, I cocked my head back and shot it out faster than I ever could have imagined. And it landed, well certainly not where I aimed. Right in the middle of the living room

photography by sarah destin

“Couldn’t they see that maybe they weren’t so

different after all, two

men forced to shoot at one another?”

... but some of us are looking at the stars. ~Oscar Wilde

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chiaroscuro // prose

“Their laughter seemed to fill the air, so unaffected by the tragedies of war.”

window now laid a huge glob of my spit, with Mama standing on the opposite side; her mouth dropped wide open. “Jacqueline! William! Get inside this instant!” Mama shrieked, seething in anger. We were given a lifelong ban on spitting and were fortunate that the spit washed off. Though, for years later, Mama always complained that it left a mark on what was, prior to the spitting incident, a perfect window. Now, I couldn’t think of anything that made that window much more perfect than that spit stain. I smiled. I was actually smiling, smiling during my brother’s memorial service. How many of these childhood rendezvous we had had I couldn’t even count. The priest continued on with his speech, but I remained with my memories. I thought back to the time when Billy and I tried to capture a squirrel and it ended up biting his hand. For weeks we were left to run around thinking he was dying of rabies. Or, the time we tried to push Joan down the banister, only to have her go flying off at the end and break her wrist. Billy attempted to fashion her a sling, but then realized Mama would see it and tried to lock Joan in his room. The summers were always best. Between the endless lazy hours of lounging on the beach we always managed to concoct our wildest adventures. But, nothing ever did beat the night we snuck into Old Man Jenkin’s house to try to prove to Joan that he really did have a shotgun. Of course, once we got into the house we were not only scared out of our wits, but there was no shotgun to be found. We left frightened and, in the excitement of it all, I slipped and fell into the

creek we were walking along, only to hear Billy let out a cry of joy. “Jack, there’s a gun! Someone threw a gun down here!” He said, his voice jumping with excitement. And with that, he lifted it above his head, motioned for me to be quiet, and fired off three shots. “Billy, you shouldn’t have done that!” I hissed at him, as we ducked down in the creek. “Imagine how scared Joan’s gonna be, she’ll think we’re dead,” he said, laughing to himself. “Imagine how scared the neighbors are going to be!” I whispered, and just as I did the voices of the neighbors filing out of their homes became audible. We were forced to spend the next hour lying in the creek, until the neighbors finally gave up and went back to bed. When we came home and told Joan what happened, dodging bullets, leaping into the creek and all, she nearly fainted. Over the years we added so much to the story, that Joan must have known we were lying. And yet, as I sat in the church, I couldn’t help but wonder where that shotgun was now. * * * In the days following the service, Mama announced that we were going to leave for Milford as planned. She said she needed the Connecticut beach to heal her wounds. This pleased Daddy; he thought it meant that she was showing improvement, wanting to return to life as normal. He was wrong. She merely wanted to be there without him, so she could fully dedicate her time to mourning Billy. After a drive of silence, we arrived the next morning, the beach beckoning us forward. Mama declined to come, of course.

In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me...

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chiaroscuro // prose She said she would stay behind and make lunch. “I don’t even know what to say anymore, I just get so worried about her,” Joan said as she laid her towel onto the sand. “She’s never going to accept it. I guess we have to accept that,” I said, settling into a chair. “It’s so sad though, it’s like our family of five has shrunk down to just the two of us,” she said quietly. “It’s just going to take time, you’ll see.” I reasoned. The voice of reason, I was always the voice of reason. “However, for others of you, the hardest part is the fact that we do not have the body here to bury today. Or, that since William died at war, you were not able to say goodbye. But, the one thing you must understand is that, regardless of these factors, William is at peace. I invite you all to now say goodbye,” the priest had said. Goodbye. Well, saying goodbye was harder than it sounded. I had said goodbye; I said goodbye when Billy left for London. He had been fully dressed in his uniform, I barely even recognized him underneath it all. Daddy had smiled the whole time, he looked so proud. I had doubted I would ever be able to make him that proud. “I’m gonna miss you so much, Jack. Don’t change too much.” Billy joked as he hugged me. “I’ll miss you, too.” And, it was true, I would miss him. I buried my feet into the sand as I gazed at the other families surrounding us. Their

laughter seemed to fill the air, so unaffected by the tragedies of war. I remembered Milford the way it used to be, lounging on the beach with Billy, Joan and Mama. Daddy would always stay back in New York, he always said there was too much work to be done to be sitting on a beach. Without Daddy, Mama would transform in those summers. I left my makeup back in the city, she would always say. And she did. A new side of her left to emerge, a side of her that laughed, that really laughed. Where it didn’t matter if dinner was promptly at six o’ clock if there were sand castles to be built. “Let’s go swimming,” I said defiantly. If Billy were here now, he would be pulling us into the water, I thought. “Oh, Jackie…let’s just…” Joan whined, touching her hair. “Oh come on, you’ll have the rest of your life to be a fussy old lady,” I said, jumping up from my seat. The water was just what I needed, for it seemed to return the life that had been sucked out of me. The sun sparkled on the water, and the radiance of it, the spontaneous beauty of it all, seemed to touch something in me that I couldn’t quite explain. All I knew was Billy was there. And with that, the tears began to fall and for the first time, I truly allowed myself to mourn my brother’s death. You will always be here, I thought. You will always be the stars shining down on me. You will always be the light reflected on the water, the cool breeze of autumn, the flowers of spring. Goodbye, Billy.

“Goodbye. Well, saying

goodbye was harder than it

sounded. ””

...an invincible summer. ~Albert Camus

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art by jennifer w ong

chiaroscuro // prose

The Tree by dan shevade

To everyone is given the key to heaven...

24


chiaroscuro // prose

I don’t know much about him, but I know he liked

I collect the glass, stare at the tree stretching for the moon, and return inside. The reason Saul attacked me yesterday is simple: I reminded him of something he’d like to forget for as long as he lives. There was this girl, rumor has it, some time ago. They were drunk: tipsy and filled with giggles. He took her to this cheap motel and laid her there. They were getting all worked up and he was at his peak, moaning, when she told him to stop. She told him she was bored, put on her clothes, and left. He tried his best since then to keep it secret; but someone found out, as they always do. Since then he’s been putting up more fights than ever before, trying to defend his name down at the bar. He’s wilder-blooded than a bull and less of a man. To think we both have our father’s blood running through us. If there’s one offense aside from me he can’t tolerate, it’s someone saying he’s not a man, or not enough of one, at least. Somewhere, the struggle to keep his reputation got mixed with the struggle to get rid of me. Now, I’ve put it up with his shit all my life; it’s just, every man has his limit and I feel like I’m sure as hell about to reach mine. I remember when he caught Carol Ann trying to kiss me. He’d been crouching in the weeds just around the corner where we were, standing before the barn doors. We were just talking. She was leaning on the gate, playing with the hem of her skirt. I was feeding the pigs. Emptying the barrow of slop in the trough for them to eat, wiping the sweat from my forehead, when she kissed me. She got right close when I wasn’t looking and pecked me on the lips as I turned around, and I said to her, “That’s enough, Carol Ann,” as she leaned in for more, and just as I did, Saul leapt out from his spot, finger burning at his sister. He went straight to her and slapped her across the face, he slapped her so hard that blood burst from her lip and she lay there on the ground, crying. “That’s enough.” I said to him, helping Carol Ann to her feet.

that tree. Its stiff, bent arms stretching in the sun, lines of age etched into its skin. To know he rests right there, in the dirt underneath, is darkly comforting. I look out from the porch into the mass silence of the country. Everything conspires to be still. The heat beats on the ground like hands molding drying clay and there’s nothing in the land but silence. I walk back inside into the kitchen. It’s nicer here, cooler. It faces the shadow of the house. The sun never reaches through the open window and the house is always calmer here, looking out on a different world through that square, like a painting that hangs over the sink. I stand before it, gazing out. The weeds in the shade of the barn sway, leaning. It’s where Carol Ann tried to kiss me, the summer before she ran off. Twisted fingers piercing the sky. It catches my attention. It looks like a hand that has burst out of the earth, from the dirt in screaming agony. It rests squarely in the yard, next to the road leading to the house; straight up above it is the moon. It is the alignment of an incredible path. My father’s hand, reaching for the moon from where he lies. Reaching for the shining afterlife, marked by the warped gravestone that he loved and looked after. It stirs. The blackness of the tree, the creeping shadows that cling to its every twig, descend, slithering across the baked yard like snakes. I leap to my feet. They oil over the stairs, engulfing my feet like black liquid. I shake them off, dropping the glass from my hand in panic, and it hits the wood. The sound is thick. It was just a hallucination my mind playing tricks on me. I look up, and the tree is as dark as ever under the night. No shadow-snakes writhe at my feet. It was just my imagination. None of it really happened. Vivid, though, I think. He must have hit my head hard.

... the same key opens the gates of hell. ~Ancient Proverb

25


chiaroscuro // prose She couldn’t bear meeting eyes with me, she didn’t want to cross eyes with him and ran to the house in tears. I remember the look he gave me then. That jealous, disdainful mist in his eyes. I could bash his head in for that. Saul was always a wild one. His Mama sutured the wound but it was Carol Ann who was quieted, not him, as if the slap that had made her lip bleed had also shut her up in some other way unknown to us. The lady never said anything. I reckon she was afraid, just as Carol Ann was. She was afraid and didn’t have the force in her to open her mouth since her husband died. Since the man died and was laid in the ground in the yard just out the window she stares from now. Staring at that tree. It stretches in the sun, fingerlike branches reaching for the sky. During the day, it looks petrified, as if the heat or the light scares it into stillness. I always thought of it as alive. I know trees are living, but I always thought this one was somehow more alive. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because the tree is about the only thing left of my father now. It is the only thing that ties us to each other, however weakly. But one crooked spot on the earth, one crooked growth in a man’s yard. It wonders what there is to love. It wonders why he was so fond of the tree the way he was.

I don’t know much about the man. But I know he liked that tree. The lady told me he would spend hours sitting beneath it, just thinking. He would spend the day under its crooked arms, like an Indian sage, contemplating what more there was to this world. He planted it. He sowed the seed that took to life and watches over him now in return. I don’t understand why he liked it so much. It’s crooked, stiff. Like fingers on a broken hand, exploding from the ground. But love works strangely, see, and I can’t always see. I can’t see what he saw fit to love in that tree. Nor can I see what Carol Ann saw fit to love in me. Or why she kissed me in the barn the summer before she ran off. “That’s enough, Carol Ann,” I had said, hardening. I pried her hand from mine and returned to the barrow to get more slop. She stood there, damp and hapless, and started crying. She started crying then, not any time else. Not when Saul slapped her. Not when her lip burst and bled, but when I refused her. When I spurned the love she kept alive for me. It was then that she cried. Only then. Saul’s gone out to fetch the doctor. She’d been looking paler the past few weeks, sicker as each day rolls past. There’s something in her eyes. Beyond the fatigue, there’s something more. She’s suffering, though she can’t say it. Though she can’t say from what. She only rests in bed and it’s impossible to tell whether or not she’s asleep, lying there in that quilt like the skin of a molted snake whose life lay elsewhere. She’s sleeping now; I checked.

“My father’s hand, reaching for the moon from

where he lies.”

30

I don’t think of all the misery but of ...

26


chiaroscuro // prose I wait for them on the porch, looking out. The road beyond the yard is bare and narrow. Ferns on the roadside rustle in the lightest wind. So light that my skin can’t feel it but I know it’s there because the ferns are rustling. They sway, in the wind, the wind that I can’t feel but know is there. I remember the day Carol Ann ran off. I haven’t heard of her since. Not a day goes by I don’t wonder if she’ll turn that road and march up the yard into the house and go right back to cooking those pies she makes. It was a day like this, only colder. There was a note on her pillow. It said she’d left. It said she had to go. Bobby Ray from her senior year had told her he wanted nothing more in this world than her, that she was the prettiest thing he’d ever seen. She’d said yes to him. She’d said yes and they eloped. They ran off, some high school quick shot, and the closest thing to my father I ever had—except that tree. It’s stiff. It never moves. In all my life, in all our years together, the tree has never moved. It stays put, right where it is, watching over my father, watching over him as he watched over it when he was a little boy. Cared for it, watered it. Watched over it, as it watches over him now, a warped gravestone where he lies. He loved it, and perhaps, in a way that I can’t understand, it loved him too. Saul’s truck pulls into the driveway, scraping to a stop, and out come two men: one, my half-brother and the other, a lean spectacled man, a trim suitcase in his hand. He walks up to me and shakes my hand. “Bernard Cook,” he says. “I’m here to see your mother.” I nod, ignoring the flare of outrage in Saul’s face, knowing he was turning that sallow shade right now, and lead the gentleman inside the house. “Water?” We pass the kitchen. “Yes, please,” he says, hurrying behind me to the stairs. Saul lags behind. “Saul,” I say, not looking. I can only picture the rage simmering in his eyes, but I know he won’t say or do anything out of step so long as the doctor’s still here. He retreats to the kitchen as the doctor and I go up to the patient’s room. “She’s sleeping.”

I nudge the door. She sleeps in the heat. It’s never been this hot. Like a blazing oven. “Come, sit,” I say, entering. I pull up the chair for the doctor and he accepts it. I kneel by her, passing a hand over her moist forehead. “Nina.” Her eyelids flutter awake. She sees the doctor, then me. She blinks heavily. “The doctor’s here to see you.” She doesn’t object while the man undoes his suitcase and begins removing his apparatus. Her eyes are tormented. It’s like she’s forced to see something in every waking moment, though she can’t say what. Something worse than death lurking at her door. She whispers something. “What?” I ask, leaning in. She repeats it, so meekly I can’t hear it. I lend her my whole and devoted ear and manage to catch just a hint of what she’s saying before Saul enters the room, a glass of water in his hand. “Ah, thank you,” says the doctor. He takes a sip and lays the glass on the table nearby, then gets to work. He passes a stethoscope over her thinning chest, telling her to breathe in and breathe out, looking off out the window like he’s watching a curious bird. Though she doesn’t have the strength to listen to him, he gives her hollow praise, saying “Good” or “That’s better.” I’ve never seen Saul so broken. As I rush out after the doctor into the warm glare of the afternoon, all I can think about is his mouth, quivering. “Sir,” I call. The man stops, turns to face me. His face is apologetic but inaccessible. “I’m sorry,” he says. “There’s nothing more to be done. She has very little time left.” I look away at the tree, at its broken fingers pointing at the sky, stretching in the sun. “The only thing I can prescribe is company.” The tree stretches in the sun. “If only I’d been called sooner, I might have b…” “Are you saying it’s our fault?” I cut in. I don’t know why I was so enraged. It’s like looking at the tree is making me angry, as if the tree itself is making me desperate, like red does a bull. I turn to him. ...the beauty that still remains. ~Anne Frank

27


chiaroscuro // prose

“But one

crooked spot on the

earth, one crooked growth in a man’s yard. It wonders what there is

to love.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over m…” “That’s fine,” Cook says. “I’ll be off.” He turns on his heel and is about to leave when I stutter, “Well, don’t you want a ride? I’ll fetch Saul.” “I can walk. Thank you.” The man storms away out of the yard, turns onto the road, and marches out of sight. I face the tree, stretching in the sun, and frown. I wonder what it is that did that to me. It changed, made me snap, whispered in my mind. I was alarmed to find that it felt good to listen. Before I know what’s happening, it warps. It curls around itself, twisting like a rose. Its bent arms wrap around themselves and turn into a single whetted beacon pointing into the sky, then straightens all at once, sharp twigs hurtling out on all fours. I duck to the ground to cover myself, and the countless darts fly past overhead. It’s just an illusion. It’s just my imagination. But it’s still moving. The tree grows in height above my cowering figure like a tyrant, and looms to hurt me. I can’t believe my eyes. I can’t believe what is happening. There’s a cry. I look. It came from upstairs. The tree is a tree once more, stretching harmlessly like a beggar in the sun.

It strikes me then: He’s still upstairs. He’s still in the house with the lady. I forgot all about him. When I came to speak with the doctor I forgot all about the one whose name she had taken just before he walked into the room with a glassful of water. Saul is still upstairs. He’s still upstairs, and there’s no telling what he’ll do. An ominous feeling clouds my head, and I run. I dash inside. It’s hot, it’s never been hotter and she’s dead. The lady is dead. To tell whether or not she’s asleep is one thing, but whether she’s dead is another. I can tell. Something about her is gone. Gone now. She’s stiff like wood. I rush to her side, kneel beside her. I pat her on the hand, stroke her hair back, something. It’s the only thing I can think to do. Saul is standing, gazing out the window. His arms dangle at his sides. He has a pillow in one hand. “What did you do?” I yell. “Saul!” “She’s dead,” he says and turns. Beneath his eyes are long trails of tears. His face is white. “She’s dead.” With that, he leaves the room, mumbling to himself the words “She’s dead,” over and over. He left the pillow behind. I turn my attention to her. I pat her hand, I stroke her forehead. “Nina.” I say, calling for her attention, as if the sound of my voice will fetch her from that darkness. “Nina.” But she looks at peace. The peace she could not have, lying here for days

All our knowledge merely helps us to die a more painful death ...

28


chiaroscuro // prose

on end in the heat, she has now. I cannot, will not, take that from her. She shimmers in the light from the sun. Now, the sun shines from ahead, from the window, filtering through and falling on the two of us holding hands, she resting and I by her side where even Saul cannot be. I, the son she never had; she, the mother who died when I was three. I knew the warmth of a womb, I remembered the heartbeat of a mother, but had never known her. Had never found her embrace, her soft hands. When I was three, my father brought me here, to this farmhouse. A child that age, his family is the only world he has. I was told then that my father was not my own. That he belonged to several other people, in fact, than my mother and myself. It seemed ages and lifetimes ago. I remember when I was brought here through a haze, through a frosty pane. Brought here to live on my father’s true soil, with his true family. With a family that was never mine. But now…perhaps. “You stay away from her,” he says behind me. I don’t let go. Her hand is lifeless, but nonetheless I can’t let go. “Get away.” His words teem with bile. I turn my head, but only just, so I can catch a glimpse of him from the corner of my eye. He’s standing at the door, legs square apart, with a shovel in his hands kept ready. I understand. He’s strayed so far from the path of sanity. “What are you going to do with that shovel, Saul?” “First you took my father…” he seethes, gripping and loosening his fingers from the shovel as if mustering strength from it. “Then you stole Carol Ann…” “Saul. I didn’t steal anyone. He was your father. She was your sister. I didn’t steal her. She ran away…she was your sister, Saul…” “…and then you took my mother too,” Saul says, sobbing. Then he screams, “You took everything from me!” I rise to my feet, slowly, not wanting to trigger a violent reaction from him. I try to

move as little as possible, having seen the fits of flying rage he’s capable of. “Saul. Put the shovel down. Just lay it down, and we’ll see what to do…” “You stole my life! The minute you came here, the minute Papa brought you in, you little bastard – I hated you since. I hated you from the moment I saw you…” “Saul…” “You were just a little bastard…a homeless, motherless bastard.” “Saul!” That sets him off. He charges toward me bringing the shovel round into the wall as I duck. It chucks into wood. I whip around and pin him there, the shovel pressed against his chest. He groans and snarls, teeth gritted, and throws his head back. I don’t see it as it hits me and stagger a few steps behind, blinded by the impact on my nose. He takes the chance to regroup and comes down on me with the blunt end of the shovel. He hits me in the chest, and I fall back. Shovel bearing down sharp, he stands over me, panting. His eyes are stiff; his arms, bent over his head, stretch in the sun. I grasp his leg, yank and he tumbles. There is a clang of the shovel hitting the floor. It makes me realize how quiet the room is. How dead. I straddle him, my weight bearing down on his chest. He groans in pain. I punch him in the side of his neck. He stiffens. I punch him again, across the cheek. It bruises, shattering pain into my knuckles as well. His arms squirm about, pinned by my knees. He can’t move. Then, at last, he gives up. He stops squirming and lies motionless, stiller than the stifling afternoon. All of a sudden, it dawns on him. He bawls. Loudly, into the hot afternoon. He cries in his pain for his mother, for what he’s done. He cries and lets walloping wails into the air. I let him, but I do not let him go. I stay there, watching him from above, as though I were presiding over some kind of exorcism. “What’ve I done…?” he moans. “What’ve I done?” His squinting eyes roll about in tears, lost in horrid visions, at which point they

...than animals that know nothing. ~Maurice Maeterlinck

29


chiaroscuro // prose find me. He looks into mine. “Kane? Kane. Oh, Kane, I killed her, Kane. I killed her. I killed Mama. What’ve I done?” “You haven’t been yourself, Saul. You need help.” He looked at me, eyes starting, like he was trying desperately to find something. “No! Kane, no, I haven’t been. I haven’t been myself. It wasn’t me. It was never me. You have to understand…” He sobs. “It was the tree.” I stare at him. “It was the tree, Kane.” Its stiff bent arms, stretching in the sun, stretching without moving. The hallucination. I remember the hallucination. “It’s always been the tree.” “What are you talking about, Saul?” “It made me do things I never would’ve done. It controlled me. It took me and controlled me. There were times when I felt like it wasn’t really me doing any of those things. When I felt like I was a different person, looking at myself through a telescope, trapped – inside my head…” “Saul. This isn’t right.” “Kane! You got to believe me. I would never hurt a fly! Mama didn’t raise any killers, Kane. You got to believe me it wasn’t me. I didn’t do nothing…” He melts into tears. “It wasn’t me…” “Saul you know how this looks. You know how this sounds. They gonna try you for murder! They gonna hang you by the neck for killing her!” I point at the corpse, shimmering in the sunlight. “They gonna electrocute you!” But somewhere, against all my reason, I believe him. I believe him because of his eyes. “It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me, I didn’t do it, I didn’t do nothing…” “Convince the jury!” “It wasn’t me!” he screams, distraught. “It’s the goddamn thing out there in the yard!” “It doesn’t look that way, Saul.” He looks at me, and when I see in his eyes that he is more aghast than fearful, I know it’s no lie. He’s telling the truth. I climb off his chest. He uncurls slowly and lies on his side, weeping. The sun’s setting now. It’s

the end of the day. I pant, and rest against the wall behind me, eyes closed. “Tell me, Saul.” He’s mumbling to himself, his face out of sight. His hand reaches beneath the bed and plays with the dust bunnies, like a child who’s lost everything and doesn’t know how to react to his distress. “It don’t want us here,” he murmurs. “It wants it all to itself. It wants to gobble this place all up.” Twilight drapes the land. Shadows begin to creep away, resisting the coming darkness. “What you talking about Saul? It’s just a – tree.” “No, it ain’t. It ain’t just a tree. It’s living. Not just the tree-life. It’s living more.” I think about the hallucination. It plays out before my eyes. The tree, stretching one moment, stiff in the sun, attacking me the next. Hissing shadow-snakes at my feet. Like out of a dream. It had to be a dream. It had to be…How could it be anything else? But two people falling victim to the same delusion? It had to be more. More than coincidence. The transcendent law of what is real, rather than what is accepted. “I see it, sometimes,” he says, “When I’m not looking at it. Even in my dreams. It calls to me. It comes to me in my nightmares and tells me what to do.” He’s mumbling to himself again. “What d’you mean it don’t want us here?” He doesn’t reply. “Saul. What d’you mean it don’t want us here?” Like it’s got a will. “I mean it wants us dead,” he says. “It wants this place to itself. It wants us to be gone, to be dead, and all it wants is to be alone. With him.” “With who, Saul? “Papa.” A creeping horror travels up my spine. “It loves him, and it wants us gone.” Then he says: “Go dig it up.” “What?” “If you don’t believe me. Go dig it up.” “You talking about digging up his grave?” “Yes, dig him up.”

Reach for the stars...

30


chiaroscuro // prose The silence of the twilight reigns. Everything conspires to be still. Stiller than wood. Then, he rises, with sudden resolution. He turns over and reaches for the shovel, I brace myself for a wild assault, but it never comes. He’s gonna go dig it up. He’s gonna dig up the grave, like a prospector with a feverish find. He has to prove something. But the moment he touches the spade, he leaps back and screams in agony as if it were burning hot. He falls to the floor and rolls around, screaming, clutching his head. He pounds his fists against his temples, trying to drive out whatever it is that’s hurting him. “Kane! Kane! I can see it! I can see it!” he screeches. He’s writhing. I don’t know what to do. I scramble to my feet, bewildered. “It’s hurting me! It’s hurting me! Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph it’s hurting me!” He takes in a breath, a harsh wheeze, like he’s being choked, and yells, “Kill me! Kill me!” I seize the shovel, grip it, unsure in my panic, when he screams one more time. “Kill me!” I raise it over my head and bring it thundering down. The thick sound of metal on flesh silences his throes. Everything falls silent. The walls stare at me with judgment. Blood begins to leave Saul, abandoning his wooden face. I took everything from him. With the shovel still gripped hard enough that my knuckles go white and

speckled with red, I stand above him, panting. I took everything from him. Go dig it up. His words haunt me. Go dig it up. Circle me like spiteful birds. It wants us gone. Go dig it up. Kane. It wants us dead dig it up. Never hurt a fly never raised no killers it was the tree dig it up. She lies peacefully. He lies peacefully. The blood seeps from him, but he’s calm. Never seen him so calm before. Just lying there, like a fetal pig dead before birth with nothing more than his blood and even that is sliding away from him, picking up speed. The only thing racing in this room is my heart. My mind. They’re both racing and racing and thrashing and wheeling faster than the earth and sun and the walls of the room stare at me like I’m some lunatic like I’m an animal in a zoo and I can’t stop thinking about his words go dig it up. Go dig it up his dead mouth says to me. His lips mouth the words go dig it up. Then she says it too. She blinks and smiles. Them both, they get up, from where they’re lying and come at me smiling eyes blacker than darkness and their mouths both filled with spite, they say, Go dig it up. Go dig it up. Go dig it up. I back away to a corner of the room, arms raised across my face, and yell as if they’re attacking me. I let the

“The tree is a tree once more, stretching harmlessly like a beggar in the sun.” ...even if you have to stand on a cactus. ~Susan Longacre

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chiaroscuro // prose shovel fall with a clank to the floor and retreat, sliding down to my knees with the safety of the corner behind me. I stay that way, shaking, terrified more by my insanity than the ghosts, like a haunted child. When I open my eyes, there’s no one there. There’s no one in the room. I’m all alone. Saul is lying on the floor in his blood and she is on her bed, and I’m in the corner alone. I get up, slowly, listening to my rough breath, and stand there a moment, staring at the wooden face of Saul, a terrible red cavern across his forehead, and sigh. “Go dig it up,” I say, to no one but myself, and walk out of the room. Shovel in hand, I descend the stairs like a man in a dream and walk out to the front porch, entering the twilight. I cross the yard and come to the tree. Its crooked arms stretch toward the sky, like the squashed-up fingers of a broken hand. A hand bursting from the ground, pleading for release. A black shriveled hand. The hand of my father where he lies. In the darkness, I think I see it stir, but pay it no mind. I pierce the dirt. Draw it out. Clunk. More soil. Clunk. Clunk. The night takes hold. It’s warm, still, in the lingering tyranny of the sun. But it’s

darker. I wipe the sweat from me. The tree grows stiffer, more crooked, as the shadows it houses distort it further and further in some twisted parasitic relationship. Chuck. I hit wood. Throwing the shovel aside, I fall to my knees within. The ground is cool. It feels rugged and cold, almost like metal debris, to my fingers. I scrape out what’s left, hurrying to see what lies within. It wants it all to itself. The coffin slumbers here. Old wood, cracked and ridden with weeds. But wood at peace. With the shovel as leverage, I open the casket lid. It falls aside and exhales a plume of dust. I hold my breath to curb the stench and kick the lid away. The cloud dissipates. I look down into the grave. Inside the casket is a bloated corpse, still intact, as if the years of decay had been averted somehow in this grave. My father slumbers in the dirt, coiled among the untold curling roots of the tree he once loved. It loves him, and it wants us gone. I feel a nudge of horror in my ribs at what seems like a smile on his face.

Men who never get carried away...

32


art by

jen nif er wo ng

chiaroscuro // prose

Hidden Piece by betsy tsai

There was a little boy near my feet, occupied with a colorful puzzle in the waiting room of the Manhattan Psychiatric Clinic. He was the fourth to attempt the picture since I had sat down in this seat. Each child before him had only fiddled with the pieces for a total of around eleven seconds. It was a difficult puzzle. It wasn’t only because there were pieces missing, but the missing pieces probably had a significant clue printed on them. It had something that put the others into place, like the keystone of an arched bridge. But this boy was at it for more than eight minutes now, and I admired his ...should be. ~Malcolm Forbes

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chiaroscuro // prose persistence. He was clever enough to leave empty spaces where the missing pieces would have gone. I caught a glimpse into his eyes and saw a familiar face. I had always been strangely adept with puzzles, but I had gone beyond the colorful jigsaws of childhood. My life was the master labyrinth. And I was the unlucky soul chosen by God to walk it. “Malcolm Daly,” a familiar nurse called, interrupting my thoughts. I rose from my seat to follow her. “Dr. Simmons wants to see you in his office.” Before I left the room, I craned my neck behind her to find that kid again. I didn’t see him, but he had solved the puzzle, with all the empty spaces in the right spots. The nurse led me to an oak door that stuck out in the bleached-white hallway. “Thanks,” I said. I entered and was surprised that I didn’t have to wait. The doctor was already at his desk. He forced a dry smile to greet me. “Officer,” he said.

folder, his eyes targeted the label that read: EDWIN DALY. “Oh shit,” he cried out. “Not that again. Malc, we closed that case ages ago! Now you better put the folder back in the cabinet—” “Sam died this morning, committed suicide,” I interrupted. Ray froze. “The doctor said that she bit her tongue off,” I clarified. “I’m sorry.” We both sat ourselves at the table in the room. He took a breath. “Malc, I was as surprised as you were when we arrested your sister. It was little Sam, right? But you found her at the scene of the crime. It’s undeniable.” “I know,” I snapped. “I saw her there. I know she did it, but something else is missing.” My voice was rising, but I calmed myself. That agitated me. I found my thin fingers sliding into my gun sheath, caressing the weapon cautiously. “Malc, what are you doing?” asked Ray nervously. I jumped and my fingers came to their senses. I set them on the table. I had had my share of problems, but since my child years, I had a temper like none other. I was at my lowest point about seven months and three weeks ago. There had been a few incidents where I had been what was known as gunhappy. “It’s fine. Relax, Ray,” I said. “Look, I know how quick-thinking you were back then, and I can’t say I wasn’t impressed, but let it go. Going back to that

* * * “I’m back, boys,” I said as I marched into the office, heading straight for a certain file cabinet. I felt as if I were committing an indulgent sin. I had been obsessed with that case. It was only last week that I had announced to the force that I had moved on. And I had. But I knew myself well; something like Sam’s death would draw me back. My partner Ray watched incredulously from the doorway. And as I pulled out a

“He was clever enough to leave empty spaces where the missing pieces would have gone.” So our human life but dies down to its root...

34


chiaroscuro // prose gun’s not going to make you a better cop. The thing’s like a drug, man. Even if you can pinpoint exactly how many bullets are inside, find its temperature, and solve a case in ten and two seventeenths of a friggin’ second, it’s not gonna make you feel better in the end. Who cares, anyway? You even made all those fancy FBI agents look bad.” “I’m just bothered, is all,” I said defensively. Soon after the incidents, I had recovered from my unhealthy anger, when my little sister, Samantha, decided to temporarily move in with me. She had been doing well at her nursing job, so she thought she could aid me with our brother’s problems. I had then ordered myself to keep my distance from my gun, and had been sober since. From that day until this one, I hadn’t touched my gun. But a month ago, it seemed that Sam had finally snapped. We were both working late shifts that day. We knew it’d be dangerous to leave Eddie in the house alone for a night, but we had no other choice. The first thing I remembered was that when I parked my car, I was relieved, observing from behind my dashboard that Eddie had not let anybody in. The door was closed. But something happened. The next thing I remembered seeing was Sam’s car badly parked next to mine. The front door was wide open. Her grocery bags were toppled on the doorsteps. Her keys on the foyer floor. When I entered, I heard her scream from the attic. I bolted up there, and found Sam hastily stuffing a pistol in her coat. Next to her, on the floor, was Eddie with a darkening red bullet wound to the lung. I blacked out again, which I later cursed myself for, and afterwards, my fellow cops were congregating in the attic, as I watched Sam being shoved into the backseat of a police car in cuffs. I remember Ray telling me that I had “guts to arrest my own sister.” I then whispered to myself, “What have I done?” in repetition of something I had heard. For the first time in my life, I felt unclear. There was something strange about seeing Sam with a gun. I had never been wrong

when it came to what I could remember, but it just felt wrong. I, along with my coworkers, had later convinced myself that my unease was simply due to my sibling love for Sam. I mourned for Eddie continuously for the next week. It was a rough time, recalling all the mistakes I had made by being so hostile towards him. “Malc, take it easy. What’s done is done.” “Whatever.” “No I’m serious, don’t beat yourself up. You really hated Eddie anyway, didn’t you? ‘All your life,’ is what you told me. I suppose Sam did too. I still don’t see why you’re so— ” “Ray, sometimes you don’t know what you got until it’s gone.” * * * As I drove home, I recollected everything that happened after the murder. I was in the temporary cell we kept her in, along with other officers. I never knew my sister was such a magnificent actress, for she had pulled off the greatest bit of denial I had ever seen. I was persuaded, but I said nothing. I was not a naïve cop; I figured that my unease came from our familial relation alone. I remembered having listened to a conversation behind a one-way glass window, which appeared to Sam and the interrogation officer as a mirror. “I didn’t do it,” Sam murmured, shaking her head. The officer gave a heavy sigh, clearly miffed. “Why don’t you tell me what happened?” “Okay. Listen,” she said. “I was pulling into the driveway. When I opened the front door, I heard a shot. I dropped everything, ran upstairs to the attic, where I heard it, and on the floor was Eddie, bleeding to death. I screamed, and a little while later my brother Malcolm was in the room, telling to put my hands up.” “So you didn’t do it.” “No. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

...and still puts forth its green blade to eternity. ~Henry David Thoreau

35


chiaroscuro // prose

“My life was the master

labyrinth. And I was the unlucky soul chosen by God to walk it.” The officer stood up. “Your brother says that you both have had a bit of a tiff with Edwin for the past eight months. There’s the number one reason that prosecution is gonna use. In addition, he says that he saw you, with the murder weapon in hand.” “I didn’t do it, I swear to God!” Sam shrieked, standing up. “I did not have a gun on me! Malc has to be lying! I loved Eddie, and I don’t care what the hell any of you have to say about it! He had his faults like anyone, but I’m not going to sit here and let anyone tell me that I killed him! I have had it!” I had been at a loss for words. How could I let my sister take that? But I hadn’t wanted my feelings to interfere with her sentence. I was not that kind of cop. A psychiatrist entered the room behind the mirror. She wanted to speak with me. “Mr. Daly, has Samantha had any previous signs of a mental disorder?” “No.” “And you’re sure that she’s the one?” “Positive.” “You know officer, sometimes humans can do things so unlike them, so wicked, that they go in denial. Do you think that your sister is the kind of person to have done something like this?” “It does bother me. But on the other hand, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the notion would come to mind. We’re both upset about the ‘accident,’ but our brother’s been like a parasite these past months. Always gambling, sleeping around, getting into trouble. And Sam’s the one who had to clean up the most after him. So—”

“That makes some sense. You see, when something like this happens, you can actually force your brain to erase a memory. In a similar way, you can also force your brain to develop new memories in place. I suppose it’s a big shock for her.” The officers then decided to send her to the psychiatric clinic, where six psychiatrists had dealt with her, trying to help her overcome her deed. But apparently, the therapy was of no use. And now, as I neared my street, I wondered whether it really made any sense. Sam had had it really rough, but her repeating pleas of innocence rung in my ear. Her round, terrified eyes from the day of the arrest were poring deep into my soul. Yet I had arrested her. Somehow, printed on a missing puzzle piece was the sufficient evidence that allowed me to do so. The only thing that didn’t click was the pistol in Sam’s coat that was never found. But I swear I had seen her stuff it in there. For weeks I hadn’t dared go back to the attic. I had wanted to stop grieving over Eddie. But Sam died today. All those doctors had her deemed “uncooperative.” How could that be possible? I now no longer wanted to believe what I had found. During the weeks after the murder, I had investigated everything thoroughly, to the extent that I would not even think of leaving the house for any second of the entire weekend. I had let my fanatical self loose in the attic. But in the end, there was no way I could find something that had vanished. Best try one more time, I thought, clenching the cold handrail. I looked up the stairs to the attic. I took deep breaths. Maybe

The mass of men lead lives...

36


chiaroscuro // prose this time, I would find the real killer’s identity once I opened the attic door. If it really had been Sam, I would deal with it somehow. Perhaps Sam’s death added a little vengeance to my will to solve this once and for all. There was a need to free her. I could feel something new awaiting me in the attic. I slowly mounted the stairs. Each step gave way to a wooden creak. I stopped. I noticed that my pulse had quickened. I reached the top and laid my hand on the brass doorknob. I let my body heat envelop the metal for a few seconds. I didn’t like that I was the one adding suspense to all of this. I then released the doorknob. Was I really going to find anything new? No, probably not, so what was I getting worked up for? I tried my best to muster up my courage. I quickly unsheathed my gun and let it twirl into my hand like it had in the good old days, just for kicks, and perhaps an extra dash of adrenaline. Then I opened the door, unafraid to once again meet the shadow of death that lived here. There was nothing new. The same boxes were in the same places, just as my photographic memory recalled. The forensics did a nice job cleaning up the place, so the only thing new was a little lack of dust. I suddenly felt at ease. I couldn’t even sense the haunting shadow. I laughed a little and glanced at the gun in my hand. I twirled it again. Why had I been so afraid to touch it before? I was in control now. So I stroked it. I looked around lazily, and came across an old mirror. I paused at the blurred image of myself. In front of the mirror. That’s where I had seen Sam with the pistol. I stroked the gun again. And my fingers sent a chill up my spine.

Abruptly, I felt the icy wind from the window. I turned my head. The window was closed. My pulse quickened again. My eyes flickered. Immediately I could feel the wind as I jumped from the window, landing stealthily into the shrubbery below. On the seat of my pants I could feel the cold concrete of the alley. “What have I done?” I heard my voice murmur. I could hear the closing of Sam’s trunk and the jingle of her keys. I blinked frantically, for I was still standing in the entryway of the attic. Where were these senses coming from? Did I dare trust something that I could not, at the moment, see? And the touch of my gun made me realize that there had been something new awaiting me. The missing piece. My pulse accelerated, and I gazed in fear at the weapon in my hand. I waited for my mind to set this new piece into its correct place, but it did something else instead. My fingers began to slide themselves along the sides of my gun, as if they were long lost lovers. Their tips began to caress the barrel gently, examining it for me after six wistful months. But my fingers stopped in their tracks. I supposed they came across something that surprised them. No, they concluded, it had not been six months that they had been separated from the gun. They pressed firmer onto the metal. It had only been twenty-four days. And deep within me, a strong little instinct told me that inside my gun, there was a bullet missing.

... of quiet desperation. ~Henry David Thoreau

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chiaroscuro // prose

ar

t

by

cin

dy

ta

n

The Sick House

by jenny chung

she asked for water. They never knew what they needed, only what they believed themselves to want. When I went into town to buy ointment for the bedsores I would think of them, the children, naturally Lila most of all, but even Mariah, who seemed intent on dying if only out of spite. The fits, the bouts of shrieking, her nearly taking off a finger as I’d attempted to spoon-feed her lentil stew. Mariah, who insisted she wasn’t ill, hadn’t ever been ill, was only biding her time until she could leave the sick house. But she was ill, that much was certain, her bones were as hollow as a bird’s and her eyes as flat, indifferent. By the time the sickness had reduced her to a shivering, whimpering creature whose spittle I had to dab constantly from her chin I knew she no longer loathed me, at least, not so intensely as before. She knew she was ill; there was no contesting that, no cause for her to repudiate my efforts. It was then I’d begun to feed her the gingerbread Lila could no longer stomach; the milk would invariably bring it back up. She couldn’t help it any more than Lila could. I could only give her water at the last, which turned out all right as that was all she ever wanted. Water. It was all I could do to keep up, running to the well every half hour or so to draw a fresh bucket. They wouldn’t drink any warm, the sickness had made their throats so sensitive. To tell the truth I was nearly at my wit’s end with Mariah, who screamed about the sand

Some nights I hear them clamoring at the windows, all of them, even Mariah and Patrick, who swore they hated me even as they pulled at my skirts crying out for water, water. They gnaw on the windowpanes and I’ve woken on occasion to smudges on the glass, as of half a dozen little faces pressed against it. I still make my rounds at night like clockwork, one, two-thirty, three, five. I resist the impulse to fling the curtains open; I do not wish to see them. I ran across little Lila on the landing three weeks prior and by then a sort of film had spread across her face, as though she’d only just been born. I tried to pry her mouth open but it wouldn’t unhinge. Little Lila, who liked her warm milk and sunlight filtering into her room, gingerbread cookies and the sound of bells in the distance. Her mouth refused to open, and when I took the milk away it too had grown a film. I broke a slab of gingerbread into pieces and ground it into the carpet just in case. Lila and I had not parted on the best of terms, but I am certain she loves me. She used to tell me so every time I changed her bedpan. I know it must be difficult getting on without milk, let alone gingerbread—in my absence I doubt anyone’s fed her or bothered with changing her sheets. I used to do it more often than was strictly necessary just to keep her comfortable. As her eyes grew dim she called me mother, mother, and I would give her milk though A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers...

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chiaroscuro // prose in her throat and thorns scraping against her stomach with no regard for anyone save herself. Ella, Ella, Ella, she sighed, licking her paper-thin lips. I want my mother; you aren’t my mother. I kept watch all the same, as flies began to land on her eyelids and her cheeks took on a strange, charming pallor. I watched her hollow bird’s chest rise and fall as she lay rigid in her cot, propped against pillows several sizes too large for my frail, hollow children. I hate you, Ella, hate you, hate you, where is my mother? She ought to know I loved her better; I’d seen her mother at church once, who by then had grown twice as disagreeable and nearly as weak. She grieves as though Mariah were dead. Not dead, only ill, I longed to tell her, but held my tongue. They’d have taken the children, no doubt, even in their appalling condition. The woman positively bristles at the mere mention of my children. She claims the devil’s snatched them from their beds, and now her Mariah—but Mariah had come with me of her own accord, I’d offered her berries daubed with cream and she’d come as readily as anything. The illness had been nesting in her even then. As she dozed, a half-eaten berry still lodged between her lips I changed her smock and took her home, to the sick house. They all belonged in the sick house. Patrick, who threw stones at wild birds and plucked their nests apart piece by piece in wintertime, who watched cocoons unravel in his complacent hands. Lila, who cried and beat her fists to get her way. Tommy, the solemn one, who hid the other children’s trinkets when they weren’t looking, Robert, who wheedled his parents into buying him a pony he neglected, Francis the fibber, Lissa who’d slapped her mother—and Mariah, my willful one, Mariah, whom I glimpsed briefly in the bathwater this morning. I will not draw any more baths. I will not give my Mariah, spiteful Mariah, ill as ever, the opportunity. I have locked the children’s ward away. Still I hear Lila gnawing on the banister, sucking at the faucet. She’s become

ravenous, I know, with no one to keep her fed. And Patrick I can hear at times against the walls, his arm thudding against the paneling. There are dents in the morning and I imagine it’s the sick house aging but I know Patrick is hungry as well, he’s never known a mother… No one calls at the sick house anymore, nor have I offered berries to the children who scamper past in search of them in the tangled undergrowth. My hands tremble as I light the fire in the grate and the imprints of bare feet appear in the ashes. Mariah’s berrystained smock is spread on the table; I drench it in wine and call my children to me. I eat a spoonful of the children’s medicine as they draw nearer still—but there’s something not quite right. The fire flickers and I can hear church bells tolling, tolling in the distance— She brought them in and fed them— Where are my children? Has the devil taken them? I can’t breathe, Ella, you aren’t my mother, Ella— I stumble to the fire, retching, I’ve become ill now, gravely so, perhaps the children had given it to me. I rest my cheek against the cold hearth, against the ashes. The powder leaves a bitter aftertaste, though there was never a word of complaint from the children— I feel something brush against my cheek and it’s Lila, without the film now, squatting on the mantle—and Patrick, hands behind his back, missing something—Mariah, mewling, calling me something like mother— My children, my children. But oh, how they’ve changed.

...looks around for a coffin.” ~ H. L. Mencken

39


chiaroscuro // prose

Checkmate by janine adelberg

The black Queen stood

No, it was her job, the Queen’s. At first she stayed back. Letting the Pawns be Pawns, luring unknowing White rivals into shadowy traps, then sacrificing themselves like the black Pawns they were. Then the Knights took action, clad in gleaming armor, but always jumping out of trouble, never into it. And the Bishops wove in and out of pieces, each keeping a saintly eye on the other, but stealing into shadows when White came near. The Queen gazed across the checkered surface with eyes devoid of emotion. Oh, yes, her King’s subjects were quite helpful, but only she had the strength the others lacked. Even her King was not as strong as she. Even now he was hiding behind a row of Pawns, a Rook guarding him on the left. The King had to be protected, but not she. It was time to make her move. Stonily, silently, she moved from the black square where she had waited, sweeping across the board. Pawns fell under her, then Knights, then Bishops. Only one possessed her strength. The white Queen swept along on her own path, nearly as strong as black, but not quite as strong, for the hand that guided her was not as skilled as the one guiding the black Queen.

straight and tall, her dark features still and stony. She did not move - at least, not right away. To her right was her Bishop, a thoughtful look frozen on his face. To her left was her King. She did not look at him, but she knew he was there, with his stern and watchful eyes gazing out across the black and white surface before them. The Queen herself stared out over the heads of the Pawns. That was really all they were. Pawns. Foot soldiers manipulated by a mind wiser than their own, serving no purpose but to die for victory. It was her job to finish the battle. Hers. Not the Bishops’, who were characterized by their saintlike appearance but could not see far enough in front of themselves to move forward in a straight line. Not the Rooks’, strong and silent, but not shrewd or calculating enough to do much besides blunder forward. And it was most certainly not the Knights’, who, in spite of their manly armor and rearing steeds, could never claim a victory for themselves and only themselves. Oh, for the time when I shall sleep...

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chiaroscuro // prose photography by cindy tan

And they did. The Pawn was down, but it was only a Pawn. With each carefully calculated move, the Queen emptied the board of White, while Black suffered at the hands of the white Queen. Something had to be done. The black Queen knew her rival must go. Only one, in the end, could wield that power, could be that strong. But how to do it? A Queen for a Queen? If it had been a thought, it would have been dismissed, but the black Queen knew without thinking. Funnily enough, it was a Pawn, only a Pawn, that forked the white King and Queen. But then the Pawn was gone, and so was the white Queen. Then the black Queen let loose her power, and mercilessly destroyed a White victory. Any White was gone, save for the King, who gazed at her with the same emotionless eyes. Only a few Black lingered. They knew without thinking, as she did, that their part was done. She checked. Retreat. She checked again. More retreat. The King was backed into a corner, his eyes as blank as her own. Beside her, a Pawn was waiting, and she made the final move. It was what she was meant for, and the Pawn was really just a Pawn.

More and more White gathered on the edges of the battlefield as the black Queen let loose her wrath, all the while never smiling, wavering, wondering. Her face was as expressionless as it had been before. Had she an expression, it would have been described as one of determination. A few white Pawns were sneaking toward her end. She knew this without looking. Perhaps White was looking for an advantage. Two Queens. It would not happen. Deftly, without hesitation, she swooped down on them. They were Pawns, nothing more. She was the mistress of the board, and no one, not even the white Queen, who was slowly felling black Pawns, could defeat her. A Rook fell for a Rook, a Knight fell for a Bishop; it didn’t matter. Only one was needed to finish. And it would be she, the dark one. Setting her sightless eyes on the white King, she knew she must make her move. But there! The other, as powerful as she, came between the black Queen and her prey. The black Queen did not blink, nor did she move at all, but her rigid body was not at all afraid. Most likely, she felt nothing, for she had known someone would come to her rescue.

...without identity. ~Emily Bronte

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d

chiaroscuro // poetry

El テ]gel Caテュdo by g e o r g i a y a n g

You were the most beautiful of beings with profound wisdom and infinite virtues, the Archangel ruling supreme over all other angels created by the Almighty God who named you the morning star. But then you were banished from that airy paradise, you, the leader of the heavenly lost. Pulled down by your own serpents A single lick of flame called pride sparked an all-encompassing bonfire and wiped out all your glories and virtues. God did not anticipate the dangers of reasoning You were his first mistake. Now your deeds can only produce fear, anger, disgust An enemy of God, they call you The Arch-villain. All is lost and nothing will ever be forgiven. For God will not take risks for his Perfect Kingdom and no one will remember A fallen star once it has disappeared from the sky.

... and occasionally mortal enemies. ~Emme Woodhull-Bテ、che

43


chiaroscuro// prose

N.P.C. by gwen bassett

every pocket that sprinted past, moving so quickly all he could take in was that the boy appeared to use a key over half his height as a weapon, and was being followed by a duck wearing a shirt and a dog wearing pants. Every day, sometimes multiple times a day, sometimes to the same people multiple times a day, he would warn them that they were entering a town. Just in case all the heroics had gone so far to their heads that they didn’t notice the sudden appearances of buildings and other people, was what he had been told. He had no name, and nobody remembered his face. They knew his role, and they never spared him more than a passing glance, because there was one of him in every town and they all said the exact same thing. These busy people were not to be concerned with the name of every set of dwellings they would terrorize; after all, there was a world to be saved. Whose world, exactly, he never knew, because quite frankly there was nothing wrong with his world and it certainly had yet to change, even though there were hordes of aspiring world-savers passing by weekly. “Welcome to the tiny town of Jotunheim. By the way, your lives are meaningless vessels through which higher powers sporadically entertain themselves.” The young man decked out in black leather, superfluous belts, and dragging a sword taller than he was (including the foottall spiky blonde hair) breezed past. The female companion, wearing a pink dress and a red jacket, gave him a bewildered look before flipping her long brown plait over her shoulder and hurrying after her man. As he surreptitiously watched the newest party make a beeline for the weapons smith,

It was a sad, sad life. He was nameless, all but faceless, in his small village. Day after day, he would greet travelers who wanted naught but to rest in the lone inn, buy from a seemingly endless supply of the same three products, burst into the locals’ homes only to rummage through their meager belongings and perhaps smash their pottery, and then disappear in a flurry of drama and importance. His village understood this. They prepared well, as a community, for these occurrences. Everyone had his or her role, from the shopkeepers to the innkeepers to the boy at the base of a cliff, yelling up at his brother to come down from there. If the adventurers felt like doing a good deed in exchange for the village’s rarest item (of which there was an infinite amount), they would guide the second brother down safely and collect their reward. After they left, he would promptly climb back up and wait for the next band of heroes to arrive while someone else restocked the treasure chests hidden arbitrarily throughout the town and the young girl threw her plush kitten back on the roof. “Welcome to the tiny town of Jotunheim! There’s not much to see here....” A young man with piercing blue eyes, thick blond hair, long pointy ears, and clad in all green gave him a passing glance before somersaulting away. Nobody remembered them, for there were far more important things to do. In a world of stasis, only the few elite were capable of progress. “Welcome to the tiny town of Jotunheim! ...There’s not much to see here....” This time, it was a brunette teenage boy wearing at least ten belts and zippers on All my best thoughts...

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chiaroscuro// prose

(noun)— non-player character, a character in a video game who is controlled by a gamemaster or computer, rather than an actual player. anyway we were wondering if this is Ozette because we lost track of-” “Welcome to the tiny town of Jotunheim.” “Oh, well, uh, thanks then. Do you know how to get to Oz–” Something snapped and he had finally had enough. No more of this ridiculousness would be tolerated. With a justifiably frustrated scream, he punched this Roid person directly in the nose, sending him careening backwards into a red-haired, androgynous-looking person wearing a pink cape-vest. “I do not know, I do not care, your existence is insignificant, and none of you should be trusted to dress yourselves without supervision.” Without a backwards glance, he stormed away from the bemused party standing in the town entrance and toward the rolling hills he had long seen but never dared to venture near. So help him, he was going to be the first person to actually do something in this crazy world. And they would forever remember his name. After he picked one.

he wondered what the point of it all was. They clearly had yet to accomplish anything relevant, and he most certainly was useless. Really, he could do a better job as a hero than what these people seemed to be doing. The party made its rounds, missing the treasure chest to the left of the mayor’s house and giving up on retrieving the stuffed cat from the roof when it could not find the ladder around the back of the house, and took its leave self-importantly. A lone leaf floated past his nose, twirling lethargically in the mostly still air. It landed by his feet, resting for a mere second before disappearing with a soft bzzt and reappearing on a nearby tree. At the soft cough behind him, he turned around and met the eyes of another young teenage boy, this one also brunette with spiky hair. He wore a red jacket and had dual swords in their sheaths, and was surrounded by a mob of strangely-dressed, but surprisingly well-covered (when compared with the usual ‘hero’ outfits) people. “Hey there,” the boy began. “I’m Lloyd, and this is my friend Colette. She’s the Chosen and turning into an angel and actually kind of looks like a zombie right now but she has rainbow wings, see, so she’s not one, but

... were stolen by the ancients. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

45


chiaroscuro // poetry

FrontierThesis

by jasmine hu

Was a time, Mr. Turner, when I trusted Your rhetoric. Man ends with land, you said. And broad-shouldered fields sang back Rhapsodies in yellow. But today, carrion— Highways of it. And the red rot of raccoon Said it was nothing new. We never did swerve To avoid what was and is our way: The rancid fissure of cities, atoms, gods. No, We’d drawn margins in dirt long ago, the red seeps and Defines us. On the creature’s upturned belly— Snaking entrail-paths, fluid pooled into oceans, Mangled continents— this, our frontier infinite. Peer, Mr. Turner, into this atlas. Unlikely you’d miss A thousand amber waves, sedentary with hiss.

At the ringing of the bells by the corner of the street she wallows, clad in fur from head to feetto her, that dollar in her pocket can’t keep anyone alive. She is an apparition, a relic of others who have passed, same actions justified by same thoughts: Why spare change when it falls on numb hearts? Why waste what cannot save? No one can influence to such an extent; not one need satisfied by my single dollar, my donations of expired cans once locked in the pantry, my worn-out sweats relinquished for tax deductions, my smiling nod. So she leaves, turns the corner, down the street, but I remain because each dollar that she keeps is my nights without ration, my insomnia on wintry slabs of concreted grime, my tremulous limbs, my breath that is lagging, receding, slowly fading, finally, mourned with the echoing of that street corner bell.

by evaline cheng

Salvation

Withheld

My language is the common prostitute...

46


chiaroscuro // prose

Fish Tears

by emily ku

photography by jasmine hu

... that I turn into a virgin. ~Karl Kraus

47


chiaroscuro // prose a response. He stared at his desk blankly as if nothing had happened or bothered him. “Dude, what’s with this guy? Doesn’t he have any feelings?” a classmate asked. “Well, of course he has feelings, don’t you darlin’?” Ms. Jones asked kindly. “Uh-huh.” Cooper muttered under his breath. Ms. Jones forced herself to smile. “Would you like to share that book that you were about to read before George rudely snatched it?” It took a moment for Cooper to respond. “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss,” Cooper finally spoke, cradling the book in his hands as if it were a newborn baby. “‘Some fish are thin. And some are fat. The fat one has a yell-oh hat. This one has a little car. Say! What a lot of fish there are.’” He read slowly in a monotone. “Very good. Is that your favorite book?” “Yeah… I like…” he paused, “I like…r-rr…” Cooper looked up at the ceiling. “Lemme see, lemme see.” he whispered, “Where are you? I’m waitin’…” “Who are you looking for?” the teacher asked. “A lotta people look up at the ceiling for answers.” “Hah, that’s so dumb. You could’ve just asked me and I would have said, ‘the answer’s rhymes.” George sneered. “Oh yeah, okay…rhymes. Rhymes. Rhymes.” “Ahem. Well, let’s get back on track, shall we? Would you like to read the book everyone else in class is reading? It’s about prejudice. Here, this is your copy.” Ms. Jones handed a book to Cooper.

Sandra and friends were preoccupied with the latest issue of Seventeen fashion magazine. They gossiped, laughed, and obsessed over their favorite outfits and actors. From the corner of her eye, Sandra saw the six-foottwo exile in orange sweatpants and an extrasmall t-shirt patterned with pink and green fuzzy fish walk past them. Nudging her friends, the group shrunk away as quickly as they could, giving him a belittling look. Cooper plodded in to his seat, pulled a book from his backpack, and began to read. “Hey buttface, whatcha reading?” exclaimed George who snatched the book from Cooper’s hands and ripped off the book cover to expose the title. “Hah, would you look at that!” He showed everyone. “Dr. Seuss…aww… are you still a baby?” George mocked. Cooper didn’t respond and sat quietly in his seat. George snickered, “Why don’t you say anything? Are you scared you gonna cry because I ripped your precious cover? Are you gonna run to your momma?”

“Claa-ass,” the teacher rapped the whiteboard with a ruler. “George, leave Cooper alone and return to your seat.” “Sure, sure, I’m gettin’ there, Ms. Jones.” George shouldered Cooper so hard that he fell out of his seat. George and his friends gave him an amused look and retreated to their own seats. Cooper dusted his eye-catching pants and sat down. The class watched him, waiting for

“Why don’t you say anything? Are you scared you gonna cry because I ripped your precious cover? Are you gonna run to your momma?” The coroner will find ink in my veins...

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chiaroscuro // prose

“Truman looked at him in compassion. Seeing that Truman understood how he felt, he closed his eyes and relaxed in the warm sun.” “I can’t read it.” “Oh, don’t be like that. Of course you can read it. No need to be so modest. Start on page one. It’s the easiest page.” “It’s an easy book. If you can’t read it, you’re stupid.” George added, giving Cooper a wink. Cooper tried returning the wink but blinked instead. “‘Guh-ess what…Last sum… last sum-er my frie-end Bil-ly Jo-eh, who is color, who is red, who is color-red co-uld now jo-in the pub-lic swim-ming pool. Lit-tleh did I k…k…k—’” “Hah! He is stupid. He can’t even read the first paragraph without stammering. What’s he doing in fifth grade anyway? He should be like, in second grade.” The class laughed and Cooper joined in sarcastically. The hours crept like snails in a mile race. Finally the end-of-the-day bell rang and every student bolted outside, leaving Cooper walking home alone. “Mommy,” Cooper called, approaching his house. “everyone was—” “Cooper!” his mom yelled from the garage. “I thought I told you not to bother me!” “Okay, okay—” “Go talk to your fish. I don’t have any time for you, but they have all the time in the world and are dumb enough to listen to your cryin’!” “But… what are you talking about? But I’m not even crying!” He could still hear his mom lecturing as he ran outside and slammed the front door. He sat on the porch steps with his head in his hands and turned to face the lonely

glass bowl containing his only friend. The sight of the beautiful golden-creamed fish blithely swimming calmed him down. “Truman, I needa talk. Needa talk. I went to mommy but she was mad at me.” Truman turned his head curiously. “But I don’t know why. So don’t look at me like that. I didn’t do nothing wrong. I think mommy’s mad because all mommies are born mad. It’s their nature. Was your mommy mad?” Truman swam from side to side. “Your mommy wasn’t mad? Maybe just human mommies are mad.” Cooper thought for a moment. “Today made me sad. George called me ‘butt-face’. I don’t even look like a butt, do I? I don’t, I don’t. I don’t.” His torso shook as he shook his head. “But why would he say that if it wasn’t true? I don’t look like a butt to you, do I?” Truman swam back-and-forth, shaking his head. “Then he ripped the book cover of my fishie book. The one with the pretty pictures that I can read by myself? By Dr. Seuss? I dunno if you re-member.” Truman’s tail whipped him up and down making him nod. Cooper’s smile soon turned into a frown. His shoulders drooped. “An’ I spen’ a whole week color that thing. Because I color and drew you. It had to be perr-perrr-per-fect.” Truman’s head turned from side-to-side. “Yes, you. Who else? No one else. No one behind or nex’ to you. I drew you because you’re speshul. You don’t say mean things to me. You are a good lis’ner. My drawing was bee-u-tee-ful. A lotta fish in the Seuss book was blue and red and yell-oh. But I wanted

... and blood on my typewriter keys. ~C. Astrid Weber

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chiaroscuro // prose my fishie to be goldie. I put red and yellow paint in a jar and I decided to see what it would look like. Shook out to orange. But I wanted gold. I ran up to Mommy’s nail-paint jar in her bathroom…she has little jars of colors that I call paint…there was one that said Gold but it wasn’t gold ‘nough by is’elf so I dumped it into the orange one and mixed it up. Turned out to be a dark goldie so I used…lemme see, lemme see…” Cooper counted his fingers. “I used…I think I used ’leven dots of white and I shook up. I kinda got the exact goldie as you, but not completely. Took me a long time because of homework. I always forget my homework at home so the teacher doesn’t know I did it. But it’s rite to tell the teacher the truth so I do, but she don’t believe me. Why does no one’s believe me? You believe me?” Truman’s gaping mouth stretched horizontally. Cooper beamed triumphantly. He stood up and hooted. “One believes me! Make it two! Me and Truman believe myself! I’m not alone.” Truman looked at him in compassion. Seeing that Truman understood how he felt, he closed his eyes and relaxed in the warm sun. * * * Cooper capered to school cheerfully. He had remembered his homework for the first time in a long time and wanted to show Ms. Jones. He walked through the hallway but instead of seeing Ms. Jones at her desk, saw

George. Muddled, he crept quietly so not to startle him. He got up close enough to look over his shoulder. George, feeling some presence behind him, leapt and challenged the intruder. “Cooper, what do you think you’re doing in here?” Cooper frowned, looking at the forbidden grade-book. He might be dim-witted and slow, but he knew what George was up to. “You better tell no one, you hear?” George snarled in his face and spat at him. Cooper swallowed hard to keep from flinching as the drool slimed down his face. George laughed in his face. Cooper was about to clean his face when George grabbed his shirt collar. “Did I give you permission to wipe my spit off?” he aggressively snapped. Cooper stared at him emptily and shook his head. George snorted. “That’s more like it…so…one word outta your mouth and you’re toast, ya hear?” he grinned confidently and yanked on Cooper’s hair as the bell rang and the teacher and the rest of the class joined them. “Ms. Jones, I needa take a piss.” George announced in front of the class. Ms. Jones shooed him off. A couple of minutes later, Ms. Jones, sitting at her desk, wrinkled her forehead in confusion and inhaled sharply. The class stopped what they were doing and laughed at her amusing expression. “My, oh my,” she looked at her gradebook. “Does anyone know anything about this?” She asked, still looking at her book.

Mouth open, he sat cross-

legged, a trail of tears beginning to sprout from his eyes and trickling down his chin and descending drop by drop into the broken fish bowl. How vain it is to sit down to write...

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chiaroscuro // prose “What? Know what?” the class wanted to know. “Someone switched and whited-out some of the grades in here!” The whole class turned their head to the back of the class at Cooper. Ms. Jones sighed heavily and glared at Cooper. “Cooper, do you know anything about this?” He remained silent and unresponsive. “Cooper,” Ms. Jones raised her voice sharper. Cooper drummed his fingers anxiously and looked hurt, “Don’t look at me like that,” he pleaded. “Saw George wit the grade-book this morning before the bell rang, I didn’t do nothin’.” he whispered. “I asked what he was doing and he said I was toast. I was toast. I was toast if I told.” He blurted. “Thank you Cooper. Now that I think of it, it would make sense if he changed it. He has the lowest grade in this class…but, why did you tell us if he threatened you? Weren’t you scared?” “Not scared, not scared.” Cooper shook his head slightly. “Because it wouldn’t be rite because you said the book was for-bid-in and he didn’t lissen to you. Rite, rite, you have a rite to know.” “I’m glad you did the right thing.” The teacher smiled warmly. “So I made the right decision?” Ms. Jones nodded. “Go back to your seat, I’ll take care of George and I’ll make sure he doesn’t hurt you.” Cooper smiled contentedly and returned to his seat.

decapitated head with its eyes plucked out of the sockets. Several torn-out scales accompanied the remains. On the ground next to an eyeball was a soggy note in fish blood. In crude handwriting was a note. Cooper: Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Now don’t you wish you never told? With all my love, George. Mouth open, he sat cross-legged, in a comatose stance, a trail of tears began to sprout from his eyes and endlessly trickled down his chin and descended drop-by-drop into the broken fish bowl. “Cooper, get your butt in here! Is that your fish? Why don’t you do something? Come clean this mess up!” his mom demanded him, hands on her hips. When she saw Cooper’s devastated expression she sighed. “You don’t have to do it this instant, but when I come back out here, I expect it to be spotless. You understand me?” she returned back into the house without waiting for his reply. When night arrived he was still sitting. He looked up at the sky but didn’t see any answer or clue hiding up there. He bore his eyes into his filthy shoes, forcing himself to plan ahead. It was hard. He couldn’t think of anything. When he closed his eyes to shut out the image of his friend he saw nothing but the haunting, empty fish head. He didn’t know what to do. He just needed time. Some sort of time. He needed time to think. He needed to get away somehow, to escape from reality, to somehow drown his sorrows. He forced himself to his feet and trudged a couple miles to a nearby lake. He took off his socks and as he stepped onto the bank, the cold waves suddenly surrounded and latched onto his feet. He seemed to welcome the cold. It numbed him a little, but that was all he needed.

* * * After the end-of-school bell sounded, Cooper walked cheerily home to Truman to share with him how proud he was that he had the courage to tell the truth even when he was scared. He half-skipped half-walked but stopped abruptly in front of the porch, jolted. “What…what?”Cooper managed to utter. He ran to the steps and his heart started to race. Littered on the ground were bloody strips of intestines and fish skin, a

... when you have not stood up to live. ~Henry David Thoreau

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chiaroscuro // prose art by jasmine hu

Twice Killed

by kenneth lai

One man was a historian, the other a coroner, and on the table before them there rested Paul Simms, who, in the more fruitful hours of death, had become a limp mass of budding maggots. It was a queer thought to ponder, that the two friends should meet while probing the flesh of the dead, but as this was the sole occasion upon which they met, one could have conjectured, if ever one were present, that the two shared an obsessive fascination with the dead. Their calm countenance, though ill-suited to the occasion, might have been excused as etiquette were they unacquainted with the late Paul Simms—as it happened, one was intimately familiar with him and the other was jealous of the man to such a degree that his belligerence seldom failed to provoke a brawl. Presently, there was an unnerving silence, due chiefly to the heated debate that had

concluded their previous meeting, common to both historian and coroner, which neither man would, by exchange of apology, have distorted his current repose. But whilst there was a job to be done, the air was not altogether stagnant. It was damp with the works of metal parting flesh and bone, prying Paul Simm’s sternum open to such a singular aperture that it struck the historian to relate the case at hand to a chain of murders succeeded by three centuries to this decade. Dissolving the silence, he said: “Why, if it were the 17th century, then we would likely discover the works of Gertrude Serling, and, of yet, for what we know to be true—or what we don’t know, rather—the intentions could bear so keen a likeness that he, as Serling did, slew the lover of his lover, and good God! how like are the wounds— this may be coincidence, as murderers, in the

Writing is...

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chiaroscuro // prose absence of a workable weapon, make do with their raw knuckles—that we may have no other choice save to accredit this case to imitative homicide.” There was a touch of passive-aggressiveness, almost accusatory, in his tone, but the historian subdued it with a light chuckle. His friend, more prone to skepticism than he, did not take lightly to the subject. “You speak ill of the dead?” he said. His scalpel presently clattered on the floor. “Why not? If I were he and he I, then he should likely be amused of my having suffered a death dictated by a recitation of the past. But surely you are more partial to obscure diagnoses by introducing the supernatural.” “And surely you are partial to denying it— even, and I stress this firmly, when it is scarcely beyond conventional practice and contained within the scope of logic. Firearms punched the body into a porous entity, which we observed previously in plain sight, yet the cause of death was suffocation. The bullets were certainly not applied postmortem, else we would have observed interrupted autolysis. There was neither penetration of the lungs nor impressions of any object cutting off airways. But you proposed an explanation to this, did you not?” “There is no other possibility save for suicide to mitigate the aching of his wounds.” “Yet not even that is a possibility: you understand that suicide, as an ineluctably introspective performance, evokes a copious rush of noradrenaline, even to say that it were bereft of reluctance to the action of suicide, but noradrenaline would manifest largely in the veins, which stands contrary to the lab results. Do objective studies explain this?” The historian shrugged. “You will not argue it this time?” said the coroner. “I see no reason that I should. The past has passed, has it not?” “I hope so.” He nodded feebly and in secret mirth that the historian did not question the body before them, for the coroner knew too well the cause of death. Before returning to his work, at any rate, he added, “You owe me, then, an explanation for your mother’s account.” She had taken

her own life, but the coroner, still discontent with his friend’s negligence, alluded to an occurrence beyond the grave. “Oh? And why should you believe that?” said the historian. He refrained from saying that it was the coroner who owed him the explanation. “You still deny it? How, then, was it possible for your mother, when encased in casket and earth, to appear abruptly at your dinner table with nothing more than a scruple of dirt?” “A prank—a child’s antic, more likely.” “The same child that dug through gravel and lugged a burden threefold his weight from her graveyard to your residence?” “Then an adolescent—what difference does it make?” “None. But surely you’ve distributed your keys to this adolescent?” “He entered through the window, rather.” “Without tracking dirt? Without a print of oil on the glass? Why do you deny that the supernatural is only an appendage of the natural? We are both learned in the practices of science, and you must certainly understand by now that an independent living mass is assigned a psyche, however slight its intelligence may be. Is it so erroneous, then, to premise that an independent psyche is assigned a living mass? And if not a living mass then what prevents it from assuming a form of the tangible? One can even conjecture that the psyche’s half-life fetters it to the body, even months postmortem.” The historian gritted his teeth, having nothing left to say, for, reared as he was in his profession, he could reason no further on a speculator’s foundation. Notwithstanding the unbalanced tempers, he attempted to retain his composure rather than breaking into anger. He said: “And will you offer me any other explanation about my mother?” The coroner’s lids fluttered, not understanding what his friend meant by this. But there was, he noticed, a tone of indictment aberrant to his friend’s placid eyes. “Do you mean to accuse me of something?”

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...both mask and unveiling. ~E.B. White


chiaroscuro // prose “If you confess it in advance, then I would not.” When both fell silent, the historian, a touch disappointed, continued: “Maybe you will understand when I quote a letter stowed in my late mother’s drawer: “ ‘My love, must we hide ourselves any longer? I cannot live another day—is it in days? or generations at a time?—deprived of your voice, without that sweetness which remedies me of my every pain. We must escape these confines without your son and husband, and if not, then hasten them first from this world, so that we can depart to our own.’ “The letter is perverse, and I will profane my lips no further by reciting the remainder, yet my eyes cannot make so righteous a claim, for they found, scrawled under ‘yours in body and in mind,’ your name at the end of it.” The historian’s eyes were now crimson with the passion of animosity. At that instant, likely made by a short in the circuit, the lights flickered and died so that the room was black as night. The coroner took a smarting blow to his chest that discharged a trifle of air from his lungs, kicked up a cough of blood, and sent him to the ground senseless. It took a violent effort to erect himself, and when he did so on shivering knees, he raised his fists in defense, but the room had been vacuumed entirely of light, so that he could not perceive from where to defend himself. Had he time to think, he would have pondered how the historian could have succeeded in landing so direct a blow, given the circumstance of temporary blindness. Possessed by the confusion, however, he listened for a shuffling that might defect his opponent’s location— there were none in the second that he waited. He jerked his heels back and searched wildly for the plaster against the wall, lodging himself in its corner where his assailant could attack him from only a single direction. As the thoughts dashed aimlessly about his head, he felt an iron grip tug at the lapels Writing is utter solitude...

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of his coat and a succession of strikes to his chest, this time surer and with greater force. But, as the coroner had braced himself, he threw his fist back, and, with the superhuman strength born in desperate men, charged it sluggishly across the face it found, which responded by emitting the crunching sound of a fractured nose. The force behind this last punch had pushed the coroner’s opponent back, and he felt the grip tear from his lapels a sizable section of cloth, leaving the coroner’s coat scarred by a radius of torn polypropylene. A sound of disturbed metal, as if aroused by a quake, signified that his opponent now rested on the table. And he could now hear only the tumult of his own breathing. His opponent, it seemed, had been rendered unconscious. The coroner’s back was presently pressed against the wall, perspiration staining the crook of his arms and the whole of his back, which tightened with quick repetitions of breath. He felt the bitter taste of bile and became sick. When reserve power revived the light and visibility, the coroner, brushing the weakness from his mouth, stood up on his unreliable feet. Looking about him he found, to his great surprise, that the historian was immediately to the left of him, clutching the walls and appearing as startled as he. Their eyes then fell upon Paul Simms, the father of the historian, who had, in his pale fist, a patch of torn polypropylene.


chiaroscuro // prose

I

M AP

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by jasmine hu

M S

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art by jennifer wong

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SpamMail

The Poet somewhere in ,

that no man’s land between the two big ones of thirty-nine and forty-nine, hair graying at the temples (but you wouldn’t know because he rectified this once a week with Clairol number five hundred and seven), a type-one diabetic who always carried a sugar packet from 1975 in his wallet, an accomplished writer of five anthologies and several poems in the New Yorker, the winner of the National Book Award for Poetry and a rumored forerunner for this year’s Pulitzer, currently sitting with the talk show host on a plush velvet couch that had graced the asses of somebodies and nobodies and anybodies alike, is a man who values consistency and always gives the same answer. “I get it from issues of human identity and the anachronism of modern man. I like to juxtapose things- completely unrelated things- until it gets to the point of absurdity and then it becomes relevant, because as humans we do this too- we struggle to forge identities in this absurd, absurd way.” The Poet has everything pitch perfect by now, the hand motions, the slight hesitations, the abstractions and permutations and constant regurgitations. The talk show host nods and smiles brilliantly, remarking with how she just loved his poems. He doesn’t really know why he’s on this show. The women in the audience are nice, motherly types who could clearly care less and would much rather see the guy from Titanic. It’s backstage that he’s allowed to wipe the sweat and makeup from his brow and melt a little, away from the strong glare of the TV set lighting. He pulls out his Blackberry – it was strange how everyone seemed to peg poets as automatic Luddites, like poetry was analogous to cave painting and quiet hermitage when in reality he liked his iPod as much as any technological lemming- and checks his email.

...the descent into the cold abyss of oneself. ~Franz Kafka

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chiaroscuro // prose friends or else your grandfather will die of a stroke too, but the Poet claps as hard as anyone as the girl totters off the stage. He orders another macchiato, hoping that if there was alcohol last time they’d take the trouble to slip some more in. They seem to get better as the night progresses, or maybe he’s just getting acclimated to the evening. The broken glass hearts and bleeding wrists and bright green orbs that connect with mascara-lined brown ones don’t make him wince inwardly anymore; they’ve even gained a sort of repetitive dignity, Homeric epithets of rosyfingered Dawn and wine-dark seas for the braces-and-lip gloss set. The Poet gets through two particularly painful poems by a pudgy brunette about a bad breakup and a good hook-up, respectively, without as much as a hint of a knitted brow. He deems this progress and checks his Blackberry. Twentyfive new spam messages. Good. Then a boy with glasses and a checked collared shirt gets up, all legs and trembling hands. He’s so fragile under the stage lightshis pale skin seems to glow painfully and for a moment the Poet wonders if it’s an instance of divinity or albinism. The boy’s lips part with a frail rattling honesty, colorless leaves crushed under a thousand callous feet. He squints at the crumpled piece of binder paper in his hands and recites a poem, a real poem, something about the spray of the sea as his mother makes tea in her kitchen, some mention of gleaming teapots and lost steam, some scent of salt, some turned-away faces, a silence at the dining table as the tea is poured. The Poet’s Blackberry is forgotten and he almost shatters his cup of macchiato upon the café’s beaten hardwood floor. It isn’t genius, not yet anyways, but it’s decidedly something. The whole room smells of sea salt as the boy’s words linger and reverberate in the air. Now, the Poet decides, would be a good time for him to leave. But just as he steps out onto the sidewalk, exposing himself to the harsh sodium streetlights, he feels a tap on his left shoulder and spins around to see the boy. He’s thinner and paler up close- his glasses are slipping from the bridge of his nose from the sweat

Twenty new spam messages. Good. He puts the Blackberry into his pocket and gives himself an insulin shot with the seasoned efficiency of someone who had almost died from a sugar packet in 1975 and is determined never to repeat that particular experience. He likes surviving- after all, that’s why he’s on a talk show. Before the host can snag him and stuff him with complimentary bagels and muffins while waxing lyrical about how much she loves his poetry, he leaves the building, dashing across the street to a dingy little café. It isn’t a particularly stylish café; it reeks of stale coffee and faux-beatnikism with its framed photos of Jack Kerouac next to its automatic blenders, its quotes about the best minds of my generation hanging on scarlet walls as teenagers dude and whatever their way through their lattes. This place seems to be the watering hole of the teenage social periphery. These are not the cheerleaders or even the elegantly jaded urban cynics; these are the ones that name their graphing calculators, who don’t understand that bangs need to be washed, the ones whose faces are such hot spots of dermatological activity that you might think they were the meeting points of the Atlantic and Pacific tectonic plates. It’s Open Mike Night at this little beatnik café and one by one the ghostly apparitions filter in, bits of sodium streetlight still clinging to their shoulders or the gloss of their hair. The Poet knows that the best idea is probably to run out of the room screaming, never looking back- he’s tasted the strange aspartame and plaster of teenage poetry before and it’s an experience he’s not intent on repeating. But the Poet stays put, sipping at his macchiato even though there’s nothing left in his cup but dregs of foam. His limbs seem to grow heavier under the wooden table that has accumulated dozens of carved initials and confessions of unrequited love. For a minute he wonders if something hasn’t been slipped into his drink, maybe a few dashes of something alcoholic. A girl gets up and recites a poem about her dead grandfather. It’s shit, the kind of rhythmic sing-song thing you get in chain emails that tell you to pass it on to all your Loafing...

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A

chiaroscuro // prose

M

“The Poet has everything pitch perfect

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by now, the hand motions, the abstractions and permutations and constant regurgitations.” of the stage and the yellow glare of sodium engulfs his slight form whole. There’s something broken about him, with his toolong fingers and elephantine flapping ears. The Poet pegs him at sixteen, quiet and unloved by the female of the species. He wants to tell the boy not to worry, that poetry gets all the chicks later on in life, but he doesn’t. “Are you the Pulitzer guy?” the boy asks. Offstage his voice is shrunken and desiccated. The Poet is surprised. In his four years of literary prominence he’d only been recognized two times before this. Poems don’t come with faces; that was part of their appeal. “Not yet,” the Poet says. “But yes, I’m that poet.” “Oh,” the boy says. He doesn’t pretend to like the Poet’s poetry, doesn’t give him empty compliments about their absurd imagery that he’s heard a million times before, and for this the Poet is thankful. But then he licks his leaf lips and makes the mistake of asking The Question, the same question Oprah and a thousand others had asked under the glare of TV lighting. “Say, if you don’t mind telling me, what’s your inspiration?” The old empty rattle on human identity and absurdist juxtaposition lingers at the tip of the Poet’s tongue, tickling his palate, ready to be expulsed at the first sign of stimulus. But for some reason it doesn’t come out, some neurons refrain from firing, the action potential is truncated at mid-breath. Maybe it’s the soft fragility of this boy, so thin you could almost see his bones or at least imagine that you saw them superimposed upon his pale, pale skin. Maybe it’s the five possibly-spiked macchiatos or the sodium

streetlights. But in any case the Poet doesn’t speak his old worn speech and instead takes out his Blackberry. “Spam email,” the Poet says without a hint of embarrassment, showing his bulk folder on the screen. “They use random word generators for the subject lines, so you get stuff like rudimentary Sasquatch, nonrecognition panoptic, leonine salmon, that sort of thing. And there’s a music and a careful serendipity to them. I’m not a poet like you- in fact I’m quite the fraud. I just collect spam email and string it together with some sense to counter the nonsense and there you have it. Critical claim and cash and talk of Pulitzers.” The boy seems shattered. The Poet knows he would have preferred the absurdist rant. But the boy is truth and that lie would have splintered his fragile bones into a thousand unidentifiable pieces, and though the Poet is capable of a good many things, splintering the boy is not one of them. In the darkness illuminated only by sodium streetlight, the Poet walks away. When he reaches the bus stop he gives himself another insulin shot and checks his Blackberry- twenty-nine spam messages. Good. It’s only when the bus driver starts the engine that the Poet realizes he forgot to tell the boy to keep writing. When the Poet enters his apartment, the woman named Naomi is perched atop their leather sofa, smoking a cigarette and painting her left pinky toe with clear polish. The Poet, after a hasty greeting, goes to get himself an egg sandwich and sits across from her, watching her meticulously dab the polish across her cuticles as she unconsciously draws in and expels cigarette smoke, sending twisting tendrils of gray

... is the most productive part of a writer’s life. ~James Norman Hall

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chiaroscuro // prose around his head. The Poet doesn’t understand the point of clear polish but the woman named Naomi says it’s the best kind so he doesn’t argue. The Poet keeps the woman named Naomi around because there is nothing poetic about her. She has inoffensively brown hair and a placid character and plain eyes with no secret depths and a name that nothing rhymed with, except perhaps sigh oh me. When around the woman named Naomi, the Poet never feels moved to write odes to her forgettable plain face or her habit of dressing in the same drab olives and browns of their apartment so that her limbs and torso seem to meld seamlessly with the environment, and that was the way he liked it. On some nights the woman named Naomi wants to know what his inspiration is, and he would mutter without hesitation that his inspiration was human identity and the anachronism of modern man and, with the slightest pause, “my love for you, of course.” Other nights the woman named Naomi would sulk and wonder why she kept the Poet if he wrote no love poetry and demand a poem for herself and herself only, no rudimentary Sasquatches there. And so the poet, eyes half-closed from the weight of dreams, would mutter some nonsense about Naomi, how you make me sigh oh me, oh try oh me, oh me, and the woman named Naomi would be content and he would roll over and they would both sleep until the sun stroked their bed sheets with cold light, their legs crossing and mingling in a sort of silent frigid aubade. “I used to think my mother was an outlaw,” the Poet says to her, words blurred by egg sandwich. “She had a big library full of books, and the books all had different names written inside. I thought she stole them from people.” “Did she?” Naomi says uninterestedly. “No, she wasn’t an outlaw, she was a librarian. She took all the rejected book donations home, so we’d have copies of completely inappropriate books like the illustrated Kama Sutra.” The woman named Naomi doesn’t look at him, but the words “You aren’t that good

in bed” are stamped brazenly across her wrinkled brow. “How was the show?” “Good,” the Poet says. The Poet doesn’t love the woman named Naomi but he knows he thoroughly needs her and he knows that’s stronger. Right now as she paints over her toenails and sucks on her cigarette she is an Edward Hopper painting without the stark lyricism. Her gaze is focused utterly inwards, the wrinkles of her crushed satin camisole perfect facets of kitchen light. He needs the woman named Naomi because she doesn’t look up when he enters the door anymore, because the woman named Naomi couldn’t tell good poetry from bad if her life depended on it, because one strap of her crushed satin camisole is slipping past her shoulder but she doesn’t stop painting her toenails a color no one else can see or letting out breath after breath of smoky air. That night, they slip into bed and as their feet search for each other’s warmth the woman named Naomi demands a poem. The Poet doesn’t feel like writing another sigh oh me oh me, so he tries to repeat the boy’s poem to her. But it’s late and he can hardly remember the words, the words that seemed to click into place when the boy read them, something about teapots and seashores, mothers and fathers, love as cold as the tea she pours. But in the end it doesn’t matter that he skips lines and forgets phrases because the woman named Naomi is already fast asleep, her right foot curled around his left leg. For a moment during this twoperson somnambulistic tango he can’t tell which limb is his. In the morning the Poet sees that the woman named Naomi has disentangled herself from him and left for work, the sheets cold and bright where she would have been. The Poet showers and eats breakfast before giving himself a routine insulin injection and checking his email. He refreshes his Blackberry twice in disbelief when he sees the number, but there it is, blatant and irrefutable. Zero spam messages. He checks throughout the day, constantly consulting the Blackberry, daring the number to change. It never does and droplets of panic trickle slowly into his lungs,

I even shower with my pen...

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chiaroscuro // prose When in reality it was spam- just spam! When in reality they’re all so m-” And then somewhere behind the Poet’s tongue a dam breaks and words cascade forward. “Meaningless, yes! Meaningless! But I shaped them into transparent nothings and then I let you pluck whatever damn meaning you wanted from them, you see? I mean, ultimately, can you tell? Do you mind?” The Poet’s words run like rivers, they float down the deltas and gorges of his lips, swirling in angry eddies and stagnating furiously within the hollows of his cheeks. The woman named Naomi stops laughing as she drops the carrot she was cutting upon the linoleum floor. Suddenly she can’t bear to look at him, like he’s full of light too harsh for her plain eyes. Like a cigarette, he seems to burn. Like a cigarette, he makes her eyes water. “We go around looking and looking for this thing, this thing with a capital M but really it’s all just stamps on an envelope, addressed to nowhere in particular. Go ahead, play a game, ask me to find you anything meaningless and I wouldn’t know when to stop, from your clear toenail polish or the sugar packet in my wallet- the precious little meaning we hold- it’s not there. It’s all spam, all generated by some blind God sitting in a room with no windows. And to create meaning - it’s too heavy a burden for one poet- I want to let someone else do it, I want the boy under the streetlights to do it. I don’t want to write, I don’t want to provide meaning like some two for one deal- just give me something arbitrary and free from context- I want someone else to do it.” As the woman named Naomi begins to cry from his brightness, something in the Poet’s jawbone creaks and locks into place, giving his features a jutting primitive look as he sits down at his desk with a defiant ferocity, a piece of paper in front of him and a pencil in hand. And as the sun sets and the skies darken and the sodium streetlights outside flash their harsh chemical yellow, the apartment echoes with a woman’s dry hacking sobs and the furious scratching of pencil upon paper.

suffocating them with an unreasonable drowning madness. It was just spam mail, the Poet told himself, but he wasn’t convincing anyone. When the woman named Naomi comes back from work with a cigarette in hand, tossing off high heels and pantyhose with her customary inward gaze, she tells him she had a spam blocker installed for their emails. It cost her fifty dollars and two hours to set up but it’s worth it, she says, because she hasn’t gotten a single spam message for the entire day. “What about you?” she asks. “No,” he says. “I haven’t.” She claps her hands in approval over her little act of domesticity, she is a good technologically Betty Crocker. “Is there any way I could have it uninstalled?” the Poet asks, the algae-green muck of panic flooding his chest as the woman named Naomi walks into the kitchen. “Uninstalled?” she says. “What for? You said yourself you haven’t had a single spam message in the entire day.” “I like getting them,” the Poet says, bile blistering and coagulating in his mouth. “Those things have viruses, you know,” she says as she cuts the carrots. “Look, you don’t understand. I use themI use them to write things.” The woman named Naomi wrinkles her nose sardonically. “I can’t remember the last time you wrote about breast enlargement or dating services.” “No,” he says with a rattling breath. “The subject lines. I use them in my poemsrudimentary Sasquatch, nonrecognition panoptic, leonine salmon, you know-” For a moment the woman named Naomi is silent. She puts down her carrot knife, gazes steadily at him with her plain shallow eyes that are no color in particular, and then laughs. She throws back her head and laughs steady, convulsive, inelegant laughter, the hoarse peals tumbling down the side of her face like an avalanche. “So,” she says between gasps, “all this time! All that shit about anachronisms and absurdity, about your careful juxtaposition. All that crap about it being inspired by love.

...in case any ideas drip out of the waterhead. ~Graycie Harmon

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Vertigo Literary Magazine