Thank God by Anastasia DiFonzo

I’m bent in half on the bathroom floor, crater-veined.

God is my phlebotomist. She says She’s here to leave a mark,

but I’ve never been impressed with the falling tree question.

I already know there are so many ways to not hear.

 

I don’t know how to talk to Her, or what a prayer is,

only that I couldn’t hear Her a month ago, and that last week

I spoke anyway. I’d spent the last hour trying

to calculate the worth of a life, and I was wondering

 

what my shadow meant, why I could watch it walk for hours

and forget that my legs were the ones bearing the weight.

I asked if I should feel guilty for holding it hostage.

She told me She knew someone once whose arms bore the scars

 

of my pain, that i could find his blood in mine if I looked hard enough.

But I’ve already played miner on my veins more times than I can count,

and still have yet to find my own answer key.

So here I am, bent in half, again, pretending

 

the lightbulb is the sun, and the running tap the ocean, pretending

I’m thinking about the historical significance of flesh and blood

and not how to justify this to a nurse, pretending I have the energy

to open my arms to the sky, that every second I lie, body

 

pressed against the tile doesn’t pull me closer to gravity.

Then my phone is in my hand. A number is dialed.

Thank God

this is all I know of Grace.


Anastasia DiFonzo (she/her) is a San Diego based poet with a cat named Klaus. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Anti-Heroin Chic, Gnashing Teeth Publishing, Sledgehammer Lit, Punk Noir Magazine, Kalopsia Lit, Yasou!, Salt & Citrus, Tempered Runes Press, and Drunk Monkeys. She is on Instagram at @anastasia.difonzo and Twitter at @anmidaludi.

Grandmother by Daniela Dragas

 

The night was alive with the scents of early spring and the sounds of small insects stirring into life.  

The girl was sitting very still under the small circle of light coming from an old desk lamp turned towards a square sheet of writing paper.  

There was a certain yearning in her silhouette, in the way her skinny arms rested in her lap and her head just tilted to one side. Like she was listening for footsteps to approach.  

The angularity of her thin body rested inside a large wooden chair. Its high back carved into intricate grapevines. It was an old-fashioned chair, as were the other items in the small room; a cot, a wardrobe, a small writing desk, and a water pitcher made of heavy green glass her grandmother always claimed was the same colour as her eyes.  

Such extravagant statements were not unusual for her grandmother. She was a storyteller, weaving stories like village girls weaved their kerchiefs; with passion and hope. 

There were only two memories of her childhood she could remember clearly. The first was of talking to her great-grandmother, which, she was repeatedly told, was impossible since the woman died long before she was born. The second was of her own grandmother sitting in a semi-circle with other village women stripping feathers for duvets and pillows deep into autumn nights.  

It was never long before someone would say – ‘Come on Kato … ‘, and with that, her grandmother’s voice would rise above the chatter … ‘Listen then … I will tell you a story.’ Silence fell over the table piled high with snow-white feathers.  

Those were her favourite times. Hidden in one of the more obscure corners in a poorly lit kitchen, she would listen with her breath held and her heart open. As she grew up, she started to suspect that her grandmother was well aware of her hiding places but let her hide there anyway. In the world that was soon to become unrecognisable to them both, stories were all her grandmother had to offer in the way of wisdom. The way of warning. 

There was the story of a wedding that took place in a nearby village without the bride’s family approval. It ended in shooting and deep roses of blood growing over the wedding dress. There was the story of a young girl that gave birth out of wedlock. In the woods leading to the river. She placed her hand over the newborn’s mouth before the tiny breath could grow stronger. Strong enough to cry. A faint sound of an infant’s wailing has been travelling through the woods every night since. As a round-faced moon glides across the dark, velvety sky.

There were stories of mysterious illnesses and remedies for them, sudden deaths and the greed of those left behind, stories of land burned and stock starved or stolen in times of war. 

On some particularly long nights, when the piles of feathers or wool were especially high and the stories especially vivid, she would crawl on all fours across the kitchen floor and towards the adjoining room where her grandfather snored under the pile of blankets or (depending on the state of drunkenness) his long military overcoat he called ‘šinjel’. She would then curl up inside the folds of his large body that always smelled of stale sweat, tobacco and wine and fall into deep slumber almost instantly. In the morning, she would find herself neatly wrapped in blankets and left to sleep in the vast expense of his empty bed.  

Those were the easy days of her childhood and first youth, running wild amongst other village children over the stone walls and meadows, through the small woods that began just after the school’s field and finished before the village’s only church and graveyard. Her existence did not extend beyond those signposts – the white stones of the church with its imposing cross and shiny, coloured windows, the blackness of her grandmother’s long skirts shimmering over dewy grass, the smell of bread coming from the kitchen, and a glistening ribbon of the sea only just visible between cliffs rising in the distance.  

It was not until the year that brought an unusually cold winter with snow falling as white and thick as milk that she first learned of plans for her father to leave for work in the city. It was not an unusual occurrence in the village. Some of her classmates’ fathers would leave after the harvest was gathered and returned before the first sowing. Their kids would come to school with new shoes that squeaked when they walked and shiny pencil cases that had separate compartments, each stuffed with new, shiny pencils and crayons of every colour imaginable. She was once moved to stuff a few of the especially interesting pencils into her own bag but could not do it for fear of being found out.  

While there was no doubt that both her and her two brothers could do with new shoes and their mother with some of those new gadgets that help with washing, their father continued to say how they had everything they could possibly need so long as they had each other. Besides, he could never get a job in the city on account of his father (her grandfather), and so there was no point in asking. 

She did not understand, but her confusion was only deepened when no answers to her questions were forthcoming. Which was unusual as her father was always happy to spend lots of time explaining anything she asked of him. Except when it came to questions about her grandfather or some of her grandmother’s stories.  

Those questions were met with, depending on the gravity of their subject, a stern warning to never eavesdrop again, a change of subject, or, when lucky, her father would fish a mouth-accordion from his back pocket and play tunes they all knew.  

But that year, the snow was so deep that some of the kids could not make it to the school, which grew oddly quiet. Food was getting scarce, and her grandmother would arrange for some task she needed help with more often than usual to invite those she knew were struggling. They would leave with parcels of various shapes and undisclosed contents.  

Sometimes, while helping her grandmother tidy the kitchen after the last neighbour left, she would hear the grandma talking to nobody in particular about times when grandfather and his brothers were young, and their family was the first in the village with the best land. They employed everyone who needed work, and nobody went hungry. But all that means nothing now, she would say before sighing and turning around to face her granddaughter as if she had only just noticed her.  

The night before her father was to leave, they all sat around the fireplace choking on the smoky aroma of wet logs that sizzled and squealed but would not burn. As neither poking nor turning produced much change, her grandmother said it is a bad omen and went to fetch some dried herbs from the attic to scare evil spirits away. When tossed in the fireplace, they burned with a bright glow and filled the air with the smell of rosemary and myrrh. Then grandfather coughed and shouted that it is high time for the old witch to stop her nonsense. 

Her father gathered all three of them and took them to his and their mother’s room, where the bed was piled high with feather duvets and embroidered pillows. They sunk into the soft opulence of their parents’ bed with giggles accessible only to those as young as they were. Their father held them close to him and told them of a big city he was going to work in where houses are so tall that many families can live in them and people travel to and from work in trams run by electricity. He promised to come back soon and asked them what they wanted. Warmth and their father’s voice made her brothers too sleepy before they could count all the things they wanted. She still wanted that pencil case with separate compartments but was too embarrassed to ask for it, so she just hugged her father and let him take her to her own bed.  

Before daybreak, her father and a few other men made their way to the schoolmaster’s house. They needed to see the schoolmaster before leaving as he had the names and addresses of people they would need to contact in the city. It was the same each year; if you wanted to work in the city, you needed to be on good terms with the schoolmaster. His first cousin was the village’s only Party official, and while some said that was only because he judged the time to jump sides perfectly, his recommendations were critical. In return for this help, the schoolmaster was obliged to receive gifts from the families of men working in the city; produce, meat and sometimes money.  

The schoolmaster tried to help as many as he could and called it progress. Her grandfather cursed and called it a corruption of the worst kind – ‘First you take the man’s land, then you make him a slave to your bloody factory, and he is even to pay you for the privilege … what a fucking progress that is!  This is what comes when yesterday’s nobodies are put in power. Before the war, you would not trust that lot with the church money; they would steal from under the altar! They did not have a farthing to share between them, and now they tell me what to do!’ He would then walk outside with more determination than there was still left in his limbs before the grandmother’s usual reprimand to not talk about those things in front of kids could reach him. He knew it well anyway as grandmother never tired of repeating it, especially since they started school. Sometimes grandmother would follow the old man outside and speak to him for a long time while he smoked behind their barn.  

As practised as she was in eavesdropping, the girl could never manage to hear much (if anything) of what her grandparents were talking about on those occasions. As soon as she settled into her hiding spot, one of them would call her by name and ask her to come out right away. It was as if they expected her to be there, and on one occasion, while standing limply before them both, her grandfather broke into laughter, which, for him, was most unusual. But that one time, he laughed and laughed until tears ran down his face.  

After that, she gave up sneaking on her grandparents and tried to question her mother, who would often let one of them sleep in her bed now that father had gone. But her mother was no help. She really was a dreamer, as everyone said. All that came from her was the well-known tale of their grandfather and his family. How they were the first family in the village before the war but lost everything because the grandfather and his brothers were in the wrong army. How grandfather’s both brothers were shot at the border trying to cross to Austria. How grandfather gave in to grandmother’s pleas not to leave the village but was never the same again. As soon as the last words of the familiar tale left her lips, their mother would start the story about the most beautiful girl in the village who fell in love with a handsome prince, but their love had to be kept secret for a long time, as the girl was from a family of ill repute. It sounded terribly similar to the story of how she met their father, which she told them so many times the girl knew it by heart.  

The first money arrived one month after their father left.  

It was carefully placed between two sheets of lined writing paper filled with her father’s writing. It was the first time the girl had seen her father’s handwriting; the letters were large and uneven, standing awkwardly next to each other. They reminded her of her brothers’ school work. Over supper, mother read the letter to them all, and they learned that their father misses them terribly, that work is not too hard, and the pay is good, which means he will return soon. Meanwhile, they are to be good and respectful, work hard at school and home so that he can be proud of them when they come to visit him in the city. It would be the longest letter they would ever receive from their father.  

As the shy sun of an early spring appeared, the village was awakening to the ordinary rhythm of seasons. Spring is a time when many hands are needed to stir the land from the long winter’s slumber to make it rich and fertile again. It also meant the return of the men from the city’s factories was imminent.  

Houses were opened to air and heavy rugs and blankets taken out to bask in the sunshine. Some houses were getting painted, and their grandmother was entertaining the same idea, albeit not with much enthusiasm. She was never very fond of work that only added to appearances. As far as grandmother was concerned, the only things worth working for are those that matter, and the colour of one’s house was not one of them. Still, she gave in when their mother asked for her room to be painted and new curtains (with lace) sewn for the windows. Unlike the grandmother, their mother was convinced that the colour of one’s marital bedroom walls and the type of curtains hanging on the windows are things that matter. It was one of the many things their mother felt very differently about compared to their grandmother.  

After the room was painted and the newly sawn curtains hung, the waiting began. 

Their mother would stop whatever she was doing and run towards the road at the sound of any form of transportation approaching; motorcycle, horse-cart, tractor. But it would always be somebody else’s husband returning, or the postman, or a group of villagers passing on their way to the fields.  

It was the beginning of summer when a parcel arrived.   

The grandmother received it and placed it in the middle of the bed in their mother’s room before fetching her. Their mother ran into the bedroom and hugged the parcel close to her chest, stroking its rough brown paper before opening it. Inside she found three pair of kids’ shoes, bolts of multicoloured fabric, a carton of filter cigarettes, a large tin of roasted coffee beans, and an envelope.  

This time she did not wait for supper or call the kids before opening the envelope. Banknotes spilt from it first. There were more of them than before. A half-page letter amongst them. It told about the factory’s recent new order, a promotion promised if he stays to help complete the order on time, the money it would mean. Much better money than what they could ever hope to earn from the land. In any event, there is enough money in the envelope to pay day-labourers to work their fields. He loves them all very much and will come to visit them all soon. ‘Visit’ replaced ‘Return’.

Their mother took the gifts and handed them to those they were meant for.   

Grandmother fetched her old brass coffee grinder from behind the stove, filled it with beans and started to turn the handle. The aroma of freshly ground coffee filled their kitchen. She then reached for the long handle of a round coffee pot that looked like it was moulded from the same brass as the coffee grinder and filled it with water before placing it on the stove corner where it would start boiling with just the right speed. As soon as the water boiled, she took it off the stove and slowly stirred two teaspoons (one for each tiny cup) of freshly ground coffee in it. She then placed the pot back on the stove to let it rise twice (resting it for a few seconds after each rise) before leaving it to its final rest.  

It was the well-practised ritual and the one that usually drew all three kids to their grandmother waiting for her to dispense the usual treat – a sparkling white sugar cube quickly dipped into coffee before being popped into their mouths.  

Only this time, they were too busy with their new shoes to notice that coffee has been made.  

Their mother was sitting on a low stool near the window, stroking the fabric that came in the parcel, when grandmother approached carrying a round tray holding the coffee pot, two tiny cups and a sugar bowl. Both women sipped their coffee with the slowness of those who can only rarely savour it. There was also another reason for this deliberate slowness. Once all the liquid is consumed, each woman will carefully swirl the thick, dark residue around inside her cup and then turn the cup upside-down in one swift, fluid move, following the order of ancient rules. After several minutes the cups would be ready for ‘reading.’  

Their grandmother was well-known for her abilities to read what fortunes and misfortunes are revealed in coffee. Women would come from distant villages to have their readings, albeit always disguised as having some other task to do. If the coffee was not clear, there were other methods, but those were rarely practised as they needed more time and secrecy.

It was impossible to understand anything of what her mother and grandmother whispered to each other with their heads so close that they were almost touching, deep in concentration over the insides of two cups that looked like somebody drew very delicate and very elaborate roads in them. Maps of unknown. 

Whatever those deliberations were, they were interrupted by grandfathers’ cough and her brothers’ angry voices that sounded like a beginning of a fight over whose shoes were better.  

Spring turned into a long, dry summer and fears of drought reappeared until one late summer evening lightning cut through heaviness and fat drops of rain bounced over the dusty roads. When she was only a little girl, grandfather taught her a song to sing when thunder and lightning frightened her. It was about a gipsy girl running back home before the storm, managing to reach it just in time. The words and melody were both funny and soothing.  

As summer started to ripen into early autumn, their mother took to visiting her sister, who was married to a farrier in the next village. They had a brood of little kids whose faces were always smeared with soot and occasionally snot. At first, those visits were explained by their aunt’s ever-present need for help and their own mother’s loneliness on account of her absent husband, but soon they become too frequent and lasted too long for either of those explanations.  

Rumours started to circulate that their mother was returning to her old ways when she was an unmarried girl – floating inside her dreams which were only occasionally and only faintly connected to the world everyone else dwells in.  

In her youth, flocks of young, handsome men would follow her in her wanderings over meadows and marshes. Some said she was simply a slut, just prettier than most. The others claimed she felt what the rest could not, and so her ways were mysterious. Either way, everyone agreed she was a dreamer, a trait inflicted on all the women of her family. It was not a small surprise when the only son of the village’s only ‘kulak’ (wealthy peasant) married her. But then the war changed everything.  

When their mother did not return home after a week at her sister’s, the grandmother went to fetch her.  

She harnessed their old horse (to think they had so many before the Communists came) and left immediately after breakfast. The girl desperately wanted to go and almost succeeded in jumping onto the moving cart, but grandmother stopped the horse and called the girl to her: ‘Listen, I need you to stay here to look after your brothers and grandfather. I am relying on you.’ The girl felt both proud of her importance and angry at her mother for needing to be fetched home. They had more than enough embarrassment to deal with already, with grandfather clinging onto his old ways and their father not coming home as other village men do.  

The cart returned just before dusk, and their grandmother helped their mother off it before taking the horse to rest.  

They did not know what to do at first, seeing their mother’s face was smeared with tears, but when she dropped to her knees and opened her arms wide, all three of them ran to her at once. They followed her into her bedroom. She tucked them all in her bed and told them a long story about beautiful river fairies who dress in the most delicate spring blossoms and glide over the water’s surface until young boatmen draw them to their boats where they keep them in the most splendid rooms gilded with rose gold and shimmering silver where they love them until the end of time.  

Her brothers were fast asleep, but the girl wanted to ask her mother where she has seen such rooms. When she raised her eyes, she saw her mother’s face illuminated with a glow of such intensity that she said nothing.  

No new parcels arrived from their father that autumn. Paid workers did the best job they knew how, and their barn was well stocked. 

As autumn’s crispness turned into the first frosts, their grandfather’s cough became fiercer. Nights were the worst. The old man’s body would shake violently, and his eyes bulged from their sockets with pain and horror. Rivulets of sweat appeared on his forehead and travelled down in neat rows before mixing with tears he could not feel.  

Grandmother gathered the most healing of her herbs. She then soaked and steamed them until the last precious drop of their goodness has been extracted into grassy smelling teas and potions that required incoherent prayers to be whispered and the sign of the cross made over them before they could be used to bath old man’s chest and temples.  

But nothing seemed to help for long.  

Sometimes, after being washed and warmed with hot towels, the grandfather managed a few hours sleep only to awake suddenly crying names they never heard before and trying to rise from the bed shouting commands to troops nobody but him could see. A few village women would come to sit with grandmother and exchange knowing looks and quickly cross themselves. It was just like they feared – he was back there in that winter of 1943; God help him. 

Days followed each other like defeated soldiers, staggering between the old man’s illness and their mother’s silent disappearances.  

She took to visiting the schoolmaster wanting to know if he has any news of her husband.  

The schoolmaster assured their mother that the news will be coming soon. He offered to arrange for her and one of the kids, perhaps the oldest, the girl, to visit their man in the city. He is doing very well there, and a director of the factory has arranged for him to attend night classes after work. In no time, he will become qualified and take on important, well-paid jobs. Of course, it remains most unfortunate that the old man kept hanging around, as obstinate as ever, refusing to accept what is clear for all to see! And all have seen it but for that old fool, not letting go of his reactionary ways! Like there is anything he, or anyone for that matter, can do about it! No, they cannot! It is the march of progress, and it cannot, will not, be stopped!  

The schoolmaster could never help himself; his zeal for progress was such that he was compelled to launch into feverish speeches even when his audience gazed at the window and drew snowflake-like shapes on their misty panes, as their mother did. Still, the schoolmaster was hoping that the woman would pass at least some of his words to her mother in law (the old witch), and from there, they would reach the old fool whose time to join his dead battalion has well and truly arrived. After all he (the schoolmaster) and his family have done to join in with the march of progress, the whole village remains backwaters because of that stubborn old man!

It was usually at this point that the schoolmaster would wipe his sizable mouth and replenish his and their mother’s glass with silky, sweet wine he kept for special occasions and did not allow even his wife (a thin woman with mousy hair and claw-like hands) to know where it was hidden.  

Their mother would sip the wine and smile at the schoolmaster. The same smile that would come to her quite naturally and almost unknowingly ever since she saw a passion in men’s eyes for the first time as a girl of thirteen. There was nothing she could do about it while her limbs grew heavy and warm.  

Winter started with sleety rains, dirt and mould. Everything seemed gleaming with mist and smelling of decay. 

Grandmother tried to talk to grandfather about going to the hospital, but that brought such horror to his face that she abandoned the subject altogether. She continued to prepare herbs for him during the day and watch over him during the night. Sometimes, when he was a little bit calmer, she would let the girl come in and sit on the edge of his bed or gently stroke his large forehead that felt like glass under the girl’s warm, dry hand. It was in those moments that the girl felt more than understood that there was something heavy and secretive, some knowledge that is equally limiting and liberating, that had been silently passed to her from her grandparents.  

The girl and her grandmother were too busy with the grandfather’s illness, housekeeping, and looking over her two younger brothers to pay much attention to their mother’s whereabouts or the ever-increasing rumours.  

Until her younger brother came home from school with a cut lip and a large bruise over his left eye. He cried from the pain and humiliation of not being able to defend himself and, even more importantly, his family. He would not say a word to either his sister or grandmother, and it was not until their mother came home that he cried it all out while hiding inside his mother’s arms.  

Kids teased him at school, but that was nothing new. Either it was that their father is never coming back as he already has a new wife in the city, or that their grandfather is an enemy of people who should rot in jail, or that their grandmother is a witch who can cast spells. Only this time, it was worse. Much worse.  

They had dragged him to the corner of the schoolyard where the school master’s son usually sits quietly eating his solitary lunch. The schoolmaster’s son is odd. He dribbles from the corner of his mouth, and you can hardly understand what he is saying. Nobody plays with him unless made to do so by the teachers. This time they forced her brother to hold hands with the schoolmaster’s boy and then have them embrace and kiss each other once on each cheek. They all cheered then and called them true brothers.  

Her brother was sickened by the schoolmaster’s son’s hand in his and the wide grin on the boy’s flat face smiling at him like they had just become best friends.  

A tall, gangly youth leaned into his face and mocked him to go and ask his mother when she is gonna pop the schoolmaster’s bastard, so he will be a real brother to the idiot over there. Proper little family. If it is a girl, she can be a slut together with his sister and mother!  

At the mention of his family, her brother threw his whole body into the older boy. It was so unexpected that it knocked the older boy down. But only for a moment. The older boy stood up and started to dust himself off with the deliberate slowness of a showman. He then proceeded to punch and kick the boy until the school bell rang.  

Exhausted with the effort of recounting his ordeal, the boy let his grandmother take him from his mother’s arms to wash him and put him to bed. 

The girl watched her grandmother’s back until it disappeared into the boys’ room, then she continued to stare into the darkness left behind. She would not move for fear of catching a glance of her mother. If asked, she would not be able to name any of the feelings that were stirring inside her chest, which started to feel like it was shrinking so that even her own breath was too much for it.  

When the grandmother returned to the kitchen, she ordered them both to bed as there was nothing more they could do that night. Her mother left for her room downcast but clearly relieved to be out of the way. The girl, however, found that she could not move her limbs. Her breathing was becoming even harder, and tiny drops of sweat appeared above her upper lip.  

All through the night, the grandmother moved silently between her dying husband and her petrified granddaughter. She covered the old man’s chest with steaming hot poultices and massaged her granddaughter’s stiffened limbs with oils; she mixed herself until they softened and came to life again. She whispered words of love, forgiveness and hope to each of them as she judged were needed.  

In the pale light of dawn, as silent as a sentry on a deathwatch, grandmother rose from her chair next to the sick man’s bed and held a small mirror over his mouth. She then gently closed her husband’s eyes, placed a gold coin on each closed lid, kissed his forehead and crossed herself. She thought of putting a small wooden cross between his clasped hands as it was their custom but decided not to. You never know who is watching; besides, the old man would not let a priest anywhere near him ever since he first returned from the front.  

In the days that followed, grandfather was laid to rest with as little fuss as possible. When two of his old soldier comrades, each looking older and shabbier than the other, turned up for the funeral, grandmother stood between them and made sure that the songs they were intent on singing came out as a low hum only – old men’s garbled nonsense nobody pays attention to.  

Inside the coffin, the old man lay in his cheap civilian suit, the one he bought when, in the early days, he would still visit offices and courts and commissariats to try and explain how it all happened, but then soon abandoned it all as a waste of time.  

Inside the jacket’s small inner pocket cut to sit next to her man’s heart, the grandmother tucked a tiny parcel, his Iron Cross and their wedding rings, closely wrapped inside a piece of rich lace cut from her old bridal veil. 

The thick dirt thundered heavily against the coffin’s wooden lid. 

A few of the old women crossed themselves and proceeded to whisper prayers into their chins. Men stared into the distance, expecting to see the grandfather riding one of his stallions, cracking his whip high in the air for fun, laughing when the young girls jumped, as he did in his youth.  

Standing next to her mother and holding her older brother’s hand tightly in hers, the girl felt hot tears streaming down her face.  

When the thin drizzle started to settle over the freshly filled grave, they all moved to leave.  

Slowly, in groups of two or three, they reached their home where a long table was piled with food and drink. People ate and drank and talked. Mostly talked.  

The girl sat on the low stool under the window and listened.  

When the two old soldiers become rowdy and loud with drink, as grandmother knew they would, she filled their glasses and asked them to scull it down one last time for their old commander and then go to their beds quietly. They did.

The following day all manner of cleaning and tidying commenced.  

Every scrap of dirt and decay was to be eradicated, and the house readied for what grandmother would not explain beyond ‘it is what needed to be done long ago.’ The yard and barn and whatever was left of the tools were to receive the same treatment as soon as the weather becomes warmer. She kept them busy for the whole morning. The girl was assigned to supervising her brothers and helping them clean their bedroom, a task she thought both terribly annoying and pointless since boys were incapable of either cleaning anything or keeping it clean. Between their bickering and her shouting, she did not notice when her grandmother took their mother by the elbow and walked with her outside their gate.  

They returned with a lilac sky behind them, grandmother supporting their mother, who walked unusually slowly and carefully like she was returning home weary from some exceptionally exhausting task. In that convalescent manner, grandmother lead their mother to her bedroom and lay her down gently, making sure to tuck her legs inside the covers and brush her hair away from her closed eyes.  

She then turned to shoo them away and closed the bedroom door.  

The girl was ordered to stir the fire inside the stove and warm up the stew for the boys’ dinner, which she decided not to do as she was angry for being treated like a little kid who couldn’t understand anything. Her chest was heaving like she was short of air, and tears were welling inside her eyes.  

She could feel movements and shifts of invisible destinies all around her. Inside her. Almost within her comprehension but not yet.  

And still, her grandmother behaved like warming up the stew and cutting large wedges from round cornbread is all that matters! The girl ran outside to cry bitter tears of those whose feelings run them ragged before they learn what to do with them.  

Grandmother fed the boys and put them to bed. She then sang to them one of their favourite songs, and their sleep came fast and deep.   

When she returned to the kitchen, the girl was warming her hands over the stove and trying to hide the peculiar hiccupping she always got when unable to stop crying. Grandmother rubbed the spot between the shoulder blades she knew would ease the hiccuping, then steered the girl towards the table. They ate in silence, the girl trying not to look at her grandmother for fear of starting to cry again and because she was embarrassed for being so hungry.  

Once fed, they tidied the table and kitchen together as they often did. Then grandmother took two glasses, an almost finished bottle of wine left from the funeral and poured them both a drink, albeit a small one for the girl. It was the first time the girl was offered a glass of wine, and she took it as a sign that, at long last, she will no longer be treated like a dumb kid.  

Her grandmother smiled at her and nudged her to click her glass with hers. She laughed at that as she remembered grandfather doing the same with their father. She hated herself for crying again. But grandmother hugged her tightly, let her cry for a while, and then told her a funny story that made her laugh. It was an old trick of grandmother’s – she would always make you laugh when you are most sad. She would sometimes have mispronounced the words on purpose and kept on doing it no matter how many times they tried to correct her, just to keep them laughing.  

She was laughing now, but tears still lingered in the corner of her mouth and her eyes that sparkled like fireflies on summer nights.  

And then (finally) her grandmother asked her – ‘What is troubling you?’ 

‘Is it true about mother?’

‘What about her?’ 

‘That she is pregnant to the schoolmaster?’ 

The grandmother took a sip of wine from the glass, then held the girl’s eye in hers.  

‘Would you really believe something like that?’ 

The girl thought for a moment. She wanted to say ‘Yes’. But then she felt that was not the right answer. So she said ‘No’ and, to be sure, added ‘No, I would not believe it.’

‘There you have it then.’ 

‘Is there anything else?’ 

‘Yes.’ 

‘OK, let’s hear it.’  

‘Is mother sick then?’ 

‘Sick. Why would she be sick?’

‘You left home without telling me where you are going and when you came back, she looked sick. She walked slowly, and you had to help her to bed.‘  

‘Oh, that. Nothing really. I did not have time to tell you, but that woman with a crippled son was calling for help. Her son had fallen again, and she needed help to move him. Your mother and I rushed over to hers. Once we finished, she insisted we had a drink with her. It was one of her own concoctions and made your mother’s stomach upset. She will be as good as new tomorrow.’  

It made sense. The girl knew the woman with the disabled son who often needed help when the rest of her household was away. She was also notorious for her homemade liqueurs and health tonics which she was fond of pressing upon friends and neighbours, most of which ended up quietly tipped out.  

Still, there was something, some unknown, unrecognisable shadow that was tugging at the girl’s mind. Some tiny, not fully formed hand, floating like a jellyfish inside a jar that wanted to connect with the girl. But it never could.  

Then her grandmother said that, if this is all, drink up and let’s go to her bedroom so she can write a letter to her father. It is high time for it, she said.  

The girl wanted to ask grandmother whether it is true what she heard some people were saying after the grandfather’s funeral, but she did not know how to start, so she just sat there and played with her almost empty glass.  

 ‘What is it now?’  

‘I heard some people … ‘ 

‘Yes? 

‘After the funeral … they were saying … ‘

‘Saying what?’ 

But it was too much for the girl.  

She just could not bring herself to ask whether it is true what they were saying. That grandmother fed the old man some of her secret herbs to make him leave this world a little bit quicker than he otherwise would so that her son can come home to his family before it becomes too late.  

Grandmother took the glass from her hand and shook her slightly. 

She told the girl that people always talk, mostly rubbish, especially at funerals and weddings, when they have few drinks and are well fed and idle. Best to pay no attention to any of it and just mind one’s own business. Besides, it was getting late, and she really needed her to write that letter. Which was the most important thing, really. Because they must let her father know what had happened. That his father had died. He will come home, and they will get rid of that land the grandfather insisted on holding on to. It brought nothing but trouble. They can take it to their collective farms and cooperatives for all the good it would do them.

Once that is done, they are all going to the city. To live in one of those nice, new places with schools and shops and playgrounds around. Not far from her father’s work. To live like a family. Their mother would be happy again. Like she used to be. There are plenty of things for young women in those new places. 

They went to the girl’s bedroom where the light was dancing on the heavy, green glass of a water-pitcher.  

The air was fresh and crisp with the change of season. 

The girl took one of her school notebooks and carefully tore a page from the middle of it, so it looked neat and tidy. It was a clean square of lined writing paper.  

She wrote the name of their village and date in the upper right corner as neatly as she could, then ‘Dear Father’ in the middle of the page. Waiting for the grandmother to start dictating. 

 


Born in Croatia, Daniela started writing as a student and continued until she moved to New Zealand in the 1990s as her country was devastated by civil war.

With few possessions and even fewer English words, it was not until the late 2000s that she found the courage to pen her first stories in English.

In 2018 Daniela’s short story ‘Taxi Driver’ was published in Mindfood.

More details are available at danieladragas.com     

The Carousel Ride by Emmalyn Danvers

            Stepping off the bus to go home is no different tonight than any other. The city streets have melted into a pleasant neighborhood with garden-themed street names. You’re nearly to your house when vice grips pin your arms to your sides, an icy hand claps your mouth. The shadows slide open like side-show curtains as you’re dragged into the blackened yard.

            Your muffled screams fall into the nothingness. Anemic streetlights blink out, replaced by the garish orange and blue, red and green of an old-fashioned carousel. You step on as music builds, squeezing into every corner. It’s dizzying and frightening, but you hold tight. You scan the empty seats, deciding on the one closest to the gate.

            The ride goes round and round as you consume the flashing memories of the life you’re about to leave behind. The time you stargazed with that boy from English. He pointed out the Seven Sisters just before stealing a kiss. You floated on clouds for weeks afterward. Until his best friend gave you a better kiss behind the bleachers at school. You never did learn your lesson. You’re leaving behind a scattered mess of scratched bedposts and bitter, hardened hearts.

            The scene fades into the image of your Mom. She was on the couch when you left this morning, nursing a brandy and an empty bank account. “We should have sold the house last spring,” she’d slurred the remainder of her dignity. You hugged her tight, just before heading to work, remembering how you’d guilted her into keeping the place. Pictures in frames and hand-me-down quilts wasn’t enough for you. You wanted – no, deserved – the house itself, goddamit.

 

            Memories shift and melt into an image of you at nine. That time you fell off your bike and the cafeteria lady walked you home. You made her a card with glitter heart stickers. She loved it, of course. Later, in fifth grade, you’d catch glimpses of that card in her front apron pocket as she served chicken nuggets. By sixth grade you’d forgotten her name. By seventh, lunch ladies were a joke you’d whisper to make your friends laugh.

            But then you’re five again and suddenly it dawns on you what it was you wanted to say that day Daddy left for Afghanistan. But you never got the chance, did you? His unit called him up early and he was gone by the time you came home from school. You curled up beside his photo and cried for nearly a year. Daddy loved everyone but he loved you most of all. His sweet pea. His brave soldier girl.

            And now here you are, encased by hands that’ve never shown love. The barrel-chested man who pulled you off the sidewalk reminds you of someone you saw on a popular Friday night sitcom – the funny one with a cranky grandpa and stubborn grandma who smells like floral water.

            Weird, the thoughts that wander through the neighborhood and settle in like the knife at your throat. Like the way your best friend convinced you strength was all you needed in a situation like this. One college self-defense class later, and you knew she was right, didn’t you? So, you push and push and push until he’s nearly stolen the last of your courage. Burning lungs and aching muscles fight and claw and reach and hit and push push push push.

            All it takes is strength, she said. Strength enough to make order of the faces you’ve loved as they pass by, to admit the wrongs you’ll never make right. There are too many slicing words you wish to cram back in your mouth. Too many shovels full of guilt and anger piled onto the backs of those you love.

            All it takes is strength, she said. Strength enough to hold open your palm as the wind steals the rose petals of missed opportunities.

            All it takes is everything.

            But the ride goes round. You hold tight to the bucking horse between your thighs, jump at the sharp pinch of metal gliding across your skin, and know you did your best. Your pounding heartbeat slowly becomes the fluttering of butterfly wings as you draw your final breath.

            This isn’t your fault, you remind yourself as Sitcom Man drags you – or, the you of ten minutes ago – into the wooded space behind your house.

            You stand awhile amongst the spindly pines and wait as the carousel pauses for a small group to climb aboard. This time, you throw your head back to laugh as red and blue lights overtake the pale gold of morning. Police dogs crowd the space, leaving no more room on the ride. Spin round and round.

            You slip through the daylight, cascade with the stars.

            In front of your house your mother falls to her knees beside the coroner’s van. Her wailing/rocking/fists in hair/terror-filled spittle flying is almost too much. You don’t look away. Sitcom Man is there, cuffed and head bowed against the neighbors’ storming hatred. Rage earthquakes tremble the manicured lawns.

            Cut the lights as the carousel makes its final stop. The music dims. In the distance, the carnival is shuttering its curtains. You gather what’s left of your self in hand and hold it close. You turn to leave, make your way down the narrow steps.

            Pity, you think, there are still two waiting in line to get on.

            Sitcom Man’s wife, hand clutching her cheek, stares into the void of her life. “Is this really how it ends?”

            Beside her, their daughter looks on as the ride comes to its close. You recognize something of the sadness in her eyes. Her steel bones have rusted and bent her into an old woman before she is old enough to drink. Still, she has tickets spilling out of her pocket. Tickets you ran out of not that long ago. There’s still time for her. A life to be lived and enjoyed and made better than it is right now.

            So you place a hand on the girl’s shoulder, guide her away from the carousel. Away from the fading lights and the brooms sweeping up shattered dreams.

 

 


Emmalyn Danvers is the pen name of a not-lost but wandering spirit. She is a librarian, lover, & perpetual observer of the world. She prefers a little coffee with her cream, dancing amidst thunderstorms, and dark literary fiction that will twist your soul.

Forget-Me-Not by Morgan Bonanno

 

            The deer carcass on the side of the road was missing its head.  There was a clean cut along the neck, which made the animal look unnatural.  Some backwoods bumpkin driving down the street must have seen the prize 12-pointer staring lifelessly into the asphalt and carved himself a trophy.  The Stag head was probably mounted on an oak plaque in the living area of a double-wide trailer.  Ethel wasn’t shocked by the discovery; only slightly irritated animal control hadn’t come to load the remains into their truck or hurl the body into the woods for the vultures and coyotes.  She had moved up north forty years ago to start her family in the comfort of a rural mountain town.  Every day she would wake up and take the wooded path down into the state park and walk four miles.  After her exercise, she would make a bowl of oatmeal and play the piano, preparing for choir practice later in the afternoon.  She drank cheap red wine from noon till midnight.  The years blurred together; her brain an alcohol soaked sponge feeding early onset dementia. 

A few months back, Ethel wanted to drive to the post office and realized her car was missing; she called the police and discovered it had been sold by her son Thomas.  The officer reminded her Tommy didn’t think she should drive alone anymore, winter was on its way.  With no other options, she would walk everywhere she needed to go.  Often while on her errands she would slip into a dreamlike state where she would watch the last of her memories pass by as if she could see them on a film projector, allowing her to relive lost happiness.  Sometimes she would come out of her visions and realize she had walked all the way to the other side of town, disoriented and unaware of her surroundings.  After Ethel stumbled upon the headless buck, she walked down a serpentine road, praying Tommy would find her and take her home for supper.  Headlights spread across the pavement as a car rolled up next to her, lowering the passenger window.  A man called through the dark space and offered her a ride; she was cold and took the invitation.  At seventy-seven years old, she had no sense of danger; all that was left was an empty feeling like she needed a glass of wine.

 The man adjusted the radio and grunted to make conversation, but Ethel sat in silence, watching as dusk approached them.  The man was probably in his mid-forties, tall with a protruding prenatal stomach. The aroma wafting through the car reminded her of skunked beer and wet pennies.  The man wore a distressed pair of denim coveralls stained with used motor oil which added to the pungent collection of smells surrounding him.  The name patch on the breast pocket was unraveling at the seams, the name, Daryl, appeared faintly on the fabric in traditional cursive embroidery.  Ethel felt a rumble in her stomach and couldn’t remember if she ate her oatmeal this morning; Daryl’s odor made her nauseous causing her to breathe through an open mouth.  The whole car was filled with foul scent, she attempted to roll the hand crank window with no success. 

 At a stop light the red glow revealed a number of thin scars wrapping around the base of his neck, working up from the collarbone.  He squinted into the windshield as rain began to form on the glass.  Ethel could feel a chill seeping through the silent car vents, the cold night was seeping in.  She thought about how Tommy would stop for his evening coffee during his shift, warming his hands on the thin Styrofoam cup.  Daryl continued to drive through the center of town, past the shops and gas station.

“You can drop me at the Luncheonette,” she said.

“You need to go home,” he said plainly.  

“It’s getting late…”

“Too late for you to be out all alone”

“Please, I’m ready to go.”

“I’m taking you home, Mother,” he hissed through clenched teeth gripping the steering wheel.  The passenger door handled was snapped off and could only be opened from the outside.  Her senses sharpened slightly as she realized the strangeness of the situation.  She glanced into the rearview mirror as light danced into the car.  With each flash of passing cars she caught a glimpse into the backseat; the antlers of a 12-point buck dug into the open panel of the back door.  The neck stump was laid out on an old bed sheet; blood soaked into the fabric of the car seats.  Her heart began to beat rapidly, a sudden dizziness taking over her.  She couldn’t remember if she had taken her blood pressure medication that morning, but it wouldn’t matter if this strange man wanted to hurt her.  She was so disoriented by the situation she didn’t quite register he called her Mother.

***

Tommy worked the graveyard shift for Cresthaven Police Department.  Every evening he would stop in town for coffee and a buttered roll before he began his rounds.  He would often find his mother waiting patiently for a ride home.  Her dementia was affecting her short-term memory but she always knew how to get to the Luncheonette.  She had always been a drinker, as far back as he could remember.  She was never a violent drunk like his father, she said a little drink always softened his blows.  Now that his father was dead he thought she would stop, get sober for her own health.  As time went on all the drinking did was help her forget.  Occasionally, she would ask if Paul was coming home for dinner; four years had passed since Paul jumped off the highway bridge onto the interstate.  She had found his suicide note taped to the bathroom mirror, “Everything will be better now, he was never sorry.”  She would ask about Paul, how come he never came around anymore, Tommy would end up telling her he was working late again, or he was studying in the library.  Lying was easier than reminding her over and over again. 

    When Tommy ran in to grab his coffee and realized his mother wasn’t sitting at the counter, he felt a twinge of panic spiral through his navel.  Jumping into the police cruiser he sped over to his mother’s house, hoping to find her in the living room sipping her sweet red.  He pulled up to the house and was greeted by darkness; she hadn’t made it home.  This wasn’t the first time his mother went missing.  The problem was this happened all the time and everyone in his department was getting sick of looking for her.  Protocol stated a person must be missing for twenty-four hours for it to be considered Missing Persons.  He was always the boy who cried wolf.

***

Ethel woke with a jolt; her eyes slowly adjusting to her surroundings.  She was no longer in the man’s car, she was laid out on an orange tweed sofa.  The stuffing of the armrest stuck out like cauliflower, the determined work of a bored cat.  The room was small yet packed with piles of newspapers and empty beer cans.  She heard the microwave beep and a burly man walked in holding two TV dinners.

“You need to eat, Mother, need to keep up your strength” he said.

“I’m not hungry I want to go home now.”

“You are home, I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

“Please, my Tommy is looking for me.”

“Haven’t I been looking for you, Mother?” He shouted in an exasperated tone.

“I could never forget my child.” she said beginning to shake.

She stared down at the frozen dinner steaming in front of her as the man stormed off into the basement, newspapers carpeted the floor.  The headline of one paper read: October 23, 1977 “Cresthaven Woman Found Dead, Possible Foul Play.”

The summer of 1977 was when Ethel and her husband Ricky moved to Cresthaven.  She was twenty-five and pregnant with their first son Paul; there was hope of living a quiet life in the mountains, surrounded by nature.  She had always imagined herself staying a spinster but even at her age it was unreasonable to have a child out of wedlock which may have been the safer choice.  She never loved Ricky; only married him to pacify her mother and the good family name.  What was that saying?  Hindsight is always clearer, or something like that. The only thing she loved about that man was the children he gave her, even though she never wanted to keep them.  He beat her on their wedding night, didn’t matter she was with child.  She thought about hurling herself off the second-floor balcony onto the cool pavement, save herself and the lost soul inside of her.  Funny how things eventually come full circle.  Instead, she drank every day, so the pain and guilt eventually melted into a thick layer of resentment.  Seeing the tattered article on the floor of Daryl’s trailer gave her a vague thought; the memories she had left were scrambled but she remembered when that woman died.  A battered woman knows a battered woman. 

The sun-bleached newspaper article said the woman had been found in the woods, or what was left of her.  Two hunters had stumbled upon her remains after a few days, the wildlife had started eating her.  This made it hard for the town coroner to determine a definitive cause of death.  The torso was covered in bruises and she had sustained four broken ribs.  Many suspected she had fallen down the mountain and broken her neck.  After the police identified the jane-doe as Lyla Unger the story never picked back up.  Everyone in town knew Lyla, she was raising her bastard son in a trailer off of Snake Den Road in the backwoods.  She often entertained local men and would smoke crack or whatever she could get her hands on; everyone knew what she did out there.  Small towns operate on a don’t ask, don’t tell basis.  With no relatives in the area the young boy was sent to a foster family, and that was all the papers mentioned.  Half the women in town were grateful Lyla was dead, their husbands started coming home after work.  Lyla’s body stayed in the morgue since no one claimed her and the town was not willing pay for a funeral.  The church wouldn’t even hold a service for her.  The pieces of that woman laid in the morgue collecting dust for god knows how long, sitting like an estranged specimen waiting to be rediscovered. 

In Daryl’s mind, the only people to mourn his mother’s absence were the men she lured into her trailer with the prospect of something in return.  They would stop by after a long day’s work and blow off some steam, pump out their frustrations before they went home to screaming wives and spoiled children.  When Daryl was put into the foster system he felt as though someone would eventually come for him.  As far as he knew, his mother had left without a trace.  The police told him she was gone but they never explained the important details, or that she had died since there was no funeral service.  There was no closure for young Daryl.  He wasn’t the brightest kid and never went to school much.  The little bit of understanding he had of the world was from watching television while his mother played with her friends.  The day she disappeared Daryl saw his mother frantically racing around the trailer searching for something.  She grabbed a handful of small plastic baggies out of the bedside table and stuffed them into her purse.  She kissed Daryl on the forehead before leaving, she promised to bring him a treat when she got back.

After scoring some crack Lyla and a John drove to the edge of town where there was a trail leading into the woods.  Deep in the trees was an abandoned slaughterhouse hunters used, and kids dared each other to go inside.  In the shack, Lyla and the John smoked their score and drifted into a lucid state.  The John wanted a piece of Lyla’s sweetness, but she was still drifting through her high.  She tried to scratch invisible insects crawling under her skin while pushing his hands away from her.  Her eyes felt like they were bleeding, her vision was blurry and all she could see was the John taking off his belt and wrapping her wrists together.  The last thing she could sense was his moist body pressed up against her while she screamed at the dingy cement walls.  He smacked her head against the concrete wall trying to stop the sound.  Rasps of air escaped her gnarled teeth and the John removed the belt from her wrists and fashioned it around her neck.   

***

Ethel stared into the haggard face of the man sitting in the recliner across from her.  He had lost his mother all those years ago.  She could not remember what had compelled her to get into the car with this man but now in a short moment of clarity she knew to get out of this situation she needed to provide him with a sense of security.  “Sweetheart, why don’t you come relax next to Mommy” she said calmly.  There was a change in the man’s demeanor, his shoulders relaxed into the cushions of the tweed chair.  Sitting across from him she could finally see the scars coiled around his neck.  As a mother, it was clear to Ethel, even in her deteriorated state, Daryl had suffered all his life.  She wondered if Lyla had given the child LSD, or exhaled crack smoke in his face, or if those scars told the story of a little boy groomed into a tortured creature. 

Ethel thought about Paul.  She tried to put herself in harm’s way to save the kids from Ricky’s rage.  There were very few times she would leave the children alone with him.  She knew deep in her bones he was a disturbed man.  A memory danced in the back of her mind only for a moment, she remembered walking into the bathroom to find Paul and Tommy naked showing each other their private parts.  Tommy had to be about four years old and she thought it was normal for children to be curious.  Paul wasn’t being curious.  He had scratched himself all over; he was hurting himself.  That is when she realized she was a coward.  Ethel didn’t know how to help him, back then everything was seen as a phase; there was no real help.  People just never talked about those types of things.  If she reported him the state would take the kids away because of her drinking, or that was what she had told herself.  She rolled the dice and Paul paid the price.  When Ricky was dying of cirrhosis the hospice nurses asked Ethel if they should bump up his dose of morphine so he could drift away painlessly, she had cackled in the nurses’ face.  When the nurses left, she unhooked his IV, she stood and watched him feel all the pain he had drank away.

Ethel could feel a voice deep inside her whispering for a drink.  There was an unmeasurable block of time since she had any wine and her frail body was beginning to notice the absence.  She couldn’t seem to remember why she was with this man in the first place; she knew Tommy would be worried.  Her head began throbbing and her hands started shaking uncontrollably.  She couldn’t help but drift off into a sleeplike state as her thin bones sunk into the soft cushions of the tweed sofa.

***

            Tommy drove around a dozen times the evening his mother went missing again.  The doctors had told him if she did not cut down on her drinking the cirrhosis would kill her before the dementia.  He tried talking to her but the little information she retained was useless, she would never give up her routine.  The doctors estimated she would probably make it another year or two if she stopped drinking.  With her stubborn refusal to see any more doctors Tommy started to accept his mother would go on her own terms; no one would control her choices anymore, especially if she couldn’t remember them.  She had always been a tiny woman but now she was barely pushing ninety pounds.  He looked out the windshield at the empty night and imagined what it would be like when she was gone; he imagined a sense of calm not worrying about her anymore.  This made him feel selfish, he loved her so much and yet, he was exhausted. His father had been a worse,  he pushed Tommy to join the police academy.   In reality, the benefit was that Tommy could get him out of DUI’s when they happened, and they happened often.  After losing Paul he couldn’t help but think about when his mother would finally go, and he would be totally and utterly alone.  He would be an orphan with nothing left but ghosts. 

***

            Ethel had dozed off on the tweed sofa and woke up as the birds started stirring with the dawn.  The television was blaring infomercials about non-stick copper kitchenware and Daryl was passed out in the matching recliner, beer in hand.  She felt stiff, like all her bones were fusing together.  This could be her only opportunity to escape.  Careful not to disturb the snoring beast, she crept into the kitchen looking for an exit.  She began to feel her age as her vision swirled in front of her, grabbing the sticky counter to steady herself before she could move further.  The kitchen was filled with beer cans and empty packages of frozen food.  Dishes in the sink overflowed onto the counter where she saw a small, brown shadow run across a plate.  The side door fashioned a deadbolt and the faint impression of where a handle used to be. Thoughts crept slowly, he could have cleaned up if he planned on inviting me over here, no?

            Now, she thought she knew him, and this was a misunderstanding.  Maybe he’s friends with Paul, I just can’t remember.  A coughing-snort came from the living room as Daryl stirred in his sleep; Ethel held her breath and waited for him to start snoring again before she continued to explore the claustrophobic rooms of the double wide trailer.  Moving through the pathways of garbage it was hard to step firmly with the debris littering the hallway.  Without any of her medications she would not be able to function on her own much longer, her only option was to creep around the small trailer like a snail clinging to the walls.  There was a door which led down to a man-made basement.  She scaled the old wooden stairs into the basement and pulled the hanging string turning on a single light bulb.  Much like the rest of the house, it was packed to the ceiling with junk, the far-right wall covered in taxidermy mounts. 

There was a basement window leading to the driveway which she could climb through if she could muster the strength to lift herself through the opening without knocking down all the debris littering the room.  She managed to dislodge a folding chair from the mess and set it below the window.  She heaved the wooden frame of the window and propped it open with a rusty hammer she saw on the floor.  This task took an incredible amount of her energy and she immediately felt weak and light headed; the fact she lived on booze and oatmeal left her with no upper body strength or stamina.  Standing on the folding chair she did a little hop while her legs were only mildly shaking and tried to gain leverage to push herself through the window.  Even in an emergency situation her body was destined to fail her.  Pushing her foot against the top of the chair she tried again to hoist up her eighty-seven-pound skeleton; she felt her foot catch fabric and a rack of coats went tumbling over, ripping a fish mount off the wall.  Before she even processed the mistake, she heard the creature’s heavy footfall above her.  She was losing steam, the small amount of adrenaline her body exerted was wearing off and she could feel herself getting dizzy again.  She dug her fingernails into the pavement and dragged herself out the window.  The sun had begun to crest over the mountain, highlighting the frosted ground and blinding her.  Shaking uncontrollably, Ethel crawled over to the station wagon and used both hands to maneuver the heavy door open.  She hoped her hands would function as she pulled the keychain out of the cup holder and into the ignition.  Through the rearview mirror the deer’s empty black stare held her gaze as it sat silently on the back seat in a puddle of frosted coagulation.  The front door of the trailer burst open as Daryl thrusted himself into the morning air; a shotgun resting on his shoulder.  She watched him lift to take aim; putting the car in drive she accelerated with as much weight she could press on the pedal as the bird-shot sputtered out of the end of his barrel.       

            Ethel hadn’t driven a car in over a year.  The sun was lighting up the trees, a beautiful sight and for a peaceful moment, she forgot she was fleeing danger.  She rolled up to a stop sign and decided to turn right down a vacant street.  Time lost all meaning as she started creeping in and out of consciousness.  Her foot became heavy on the gas while she gripped the wheel with panic as she felt herself slipping away.  Her surroundings began to darken as her eyelids fell heavy.  The station wagon veered off the road into a ditch pinning itself between a boulder and a gnarly oak tree.  Ethel’s head hit the windshield with enough force to create a spider web across the glass, but she had already been unconscious.  If God had been good to her, the blow would have been fatal.

***

            Right before the end of his shift, Tommy was called to the scene of a possible hit and run.  An old station wagon had driven off the road and crashed into a tree.  There were signs that the driver was severely injured but no evidence of where they could have gone.  Most people don’t put their head through a windshield and run away.  The car hadn’t been registered in almost forty years.  The original registration belonged to a Lyla Unger.  The address would lead to a vacant patch of land in the middle of the woods.  There was an itch tickling inside his stomach, he thought about his mother while he rubbed the hair standing static on the back of his neck. 

***

            Ethel woke up in a dark room.  Her eyes felt like they had been ripped from their sockets and shoved back in upside-down.  The pain she felt covered her entire body and all she could wonder is if she was finally dying.  The light creeping in from the hallway cast strange shadows, she couldn’t remember where she was or what had happened before this moment.  A man walked into the room holding a cup of lukewarm instant coffee in a Styrofoam cup.  He held it to her lips and helped her drink.  She tried to blink her swollen eyes open to see her savior, her son. He sat on the edge of the bed ready to care for her every need.  The smell of rancid beer and wet pennies filled her nostrils.

            “My sweet boy, Paul?” she asked hopefully to the figure standing in the dark. 

 

           


Morgan Bonanno is a Professor of Literature and an avid true crime fan from Northern New Jersey who enjoys the eccentric and unusual.  In addition to her research in feminist literature, she writes short stories and poetry that try to invoke surrealism and the unsettling truths that surround people in their every day lives. Growing up in a rural mountain town has inspired the dark imagery within her work.  

Ancestral by John Trent

Some places keep the old magic
Barrows warrened & warded
By sticky blood oaths
That we in guttural language
Spoke through our absences, our invocations
Of the black honey bee.


John Michael Trent writes poetry and fiction in his native Houston TX. ‘Ancestral’ is his first published work.

Waiting for Yvonne by Dianne Blomberg

 

Yvonne plopped herself onto the familiar hotel bar stool and waited. The man she’d met online was expected. Once again, she’d interview the man then toss or keep. Tonight, she would introduce herself as widowed, careful not to come off as abandoned.

Some thirty years ago, Yvonne and co-workers from Fineman’s swished into this historic Denver hotel bar on Friday nights after work. The girls’ energy and sparkle caused head-turns and represented all that was mesmerizing about youth. This continued as long as there were young ladies willing to shimmy onto bar stools and hoist a few. Eventually, the girls married, took jobs in nearby towns, or simply aged out.

After twenty-five years at Fineman’s, Yvonne’s service was rewarded with a laminated lifetime 20% off card clipped to her final paycheck. Not even a luncheon, would go through her head whenever the unused card surfaced somewhere in the house.

Each room in Yvonne’s home was devoted to one of her collections. The ceramic cats in the kitchen needed once-weekly arranging. Insects she’d caught and pinned to framed cardboard hung in the second bedroom and demanded constant straightening due to the rattle of noise from the cellar below. The front room was full of medical oddities and not an inch of space remained for even a picture-post card.

Her living collections required food and water, and sometimes air. They lived in the cellar. Easily tended, Yvonne could manage this responsibility before she left the house.

Yvonne was only seen at the bar now when expecting someone she’d met online.

A woman, in a black cocktail dress at the bar’s curve, snickered and whispered something to her mate, indicating toward Yvonne. He glanced and shook his head. Intimate muffled conversations warmed the room. Candlelight at each table tipped onto the faces of people leaning in for private exchanges. Women shimmered in black, and men relaxed in tight-cut suits with open necked shirts. Yvonne sat not unaware and tugged at the lilac-colored dress to stretch over her midriff.

An hour passed. I don’t have all night. Lips pursed. He doesn’t know what he’s missing! In a highball glass, the swizzle stick poked into a red cherry that matched the color of her lips. Twirling and twirling it melted enough ice to render a sip of water. She raised the glass and tried to match her lips onto the lipstick stain imprinted on the rim. With another slurp through the short black straw, the bartender approached.

“Another whiskey sour, Yvonne?”

She lowered her head, “How much’ll that be, Jerry?”

He noticed the grey roots looking up at him from a nest of black hair. “Tell you what, this one’s on me. Say, did that guy work out you met here a couple months ago?” He put the cocktail in front of her and gathered the spent drink.

“Sort of, well, you know.” Yvonne snagged the swizzle stick. “I collect these.” Reaching deep into her bucket-sized purse she removed a baggie of pretzels. The edge of a key ring had attached itself and made an unexpected tinny plink when it hit the bar. Jerry turned toward her. She nervously yanked the cellar key lose and stuffed it into the purse next to an oversized prescription bottle.

As Yvonne nibbled the contraband pretzels and sipped the gifted whiskey sour, she fantasized about escorting tonight’s catch home with her. His husky phone-voice intrigued.

A man surprised her from behind.

“Is this stool occupied?”

“Oh,” she straightened and turned to see a man and woman. “Well, oh, yes. I, I’m saving it for someone,” she exhaled thirty years of dismay then yanked at her purse to sit tall on the stool. Hmm, he looks familiar.

Yvonne retrieved a small pocket mirror and a tube of Revlon Red lipstick from her purse, to touch-up. Squinting, she drew fuller lips than her withered skin could manage. Revlon Red had always been her color. She returned the mirror and lipstick to the purse and felt around for the cellar key. There it is.

Bottles of fine spirits watched as she spied between them into the beveled mirror behind the bar. It reflected crystal glassware, the grimace of a woman adjusting a white plastic earring, and the door he never entered. 

“Excuse me, Jerry, may I have the time?” She imagined Jerry among her collectables, with a naughty thought of where to put him.

“It’s 9:30. Can I get you another drink?”

“No, I need to get home. I’ll be missed.”

“See you next Friday, Yvonne?”

“It depends.” With a wry smile, she drew the swizzle stick out of the fruit it had captured, lifted her glass, and grabbed its cardboard coaster, then pushed off the stool with a grunt.

At 10:05 pm Yvonne stepped from the number 15 bus. The tap of her heels on flagstone echoed through the stillness of her old neighborhood, making her sound bigger than she was. And the rattle of pills in the prescription bottle filled in the quiet spaces as she moved. Yvonne turned to be sure she was alone on the street and snugged a grizzled fox collar to her neck. Splashes of streetlight highlighted her rigid figure as she walked the two blocks to her jagged brick house. She leaned against the tall back gate to creak it open, squeezed through, and moved a few steps past the twenty-foot blue spruce to the cellar door. A good pull on the shovel handle wedged between the ground and the doorknob released its hold. It fell to the ground… as it always did. The alley light shone brightly so a glint from the cellar key in her purse revealed its whereabouts. Yvonne turned the key slowly until it… just clicked. She glanced left-to-right. Inched the door open. She sensed movement from something in the cellar.

“Hello-o, anyone still awake? Yvonne’s home,” in that sing-song voice a man could grow to hate.

 

 


Dianne Blomberg’s essays are published in Feminine Collective, Across the Margin, and soon, DoveTales. She has authored two children’s books. Her research is found in Good Housekeeping, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Family Life, Newsday New York, Boston Globe, and more. She is a Professor, an author, and speaker living in Colorado. Emmy, the Norwich Terrier, serves as the administrative assistant in Dianne’s writing office. Currently, Dianne is working on a memoir, All Else is Shadow.

Lyssa by Molly Osborne

I snuck out of our tan stucco house and ran across the hot blacktop barefoot. I wanted the bottoms of my feet to touch something other than carpet and linoleum. The asphalt baked all day in the Central California sun and it was cooking my toes. I ran straight into the golden grass on the hill just across from our home. It was higher than my head and dry as uncooked noodles.

Mama would never let me go out there to play, even with a friend. She worried about rattlesnakes, about ticks, about black widows. She said I’d be up on that hill when someone flicked a cigarette from their car, lighting the whole thing up and leaving me trapped at the top. Mama liked it better when I stayed inside and played video games, watched television, or better yet, read a book. I watched that hill across from our front window for all fifteen years of my life. I watched monarchs migrate through our valley in the spring and poppies bloom just after the winter rains. They may as well have been on television. We were only separated from glass but they weren’t a part of my world.

I never would have had the chance to go outside at all until Mama had to start bringing meals to Mrs. Rodriguez across town. Mrs. Rodriguez hates kids. But she had cancer and Mama said she had helped us out before. I couldn’t wait in the car either because Mama worried I’d burn up like people’s dogs you hear about on the news. I promised her I’d stay inside, a promise I broke the first day. This was my third time on the hill. I hadn’t been caught yet.

I made it to the top and watched the hawks circle around the sky looking for mice. A warm wind whistled through grass like a sad, slow song written just for me.  The sun was roasting but it made my skin tingle and feel alive. I know the air here in the summer isn’t very clean, but filling my lungs with the wind that ran through the trees felt so much better than recycled air conditioning.

A rustling nearby interrupted my moment. I saw its tail first: a black stripe on a flash of white. A skunk. They’d come onto our back porch to eat cat food, but I’d only seen them at night, never out in the day. I knew if it sprayed me, my summer days on the hill were over.

I stayed as still as I could, waiting for the animal to pass, when I noticed it zig-zagging and wobbling around. I could hear it breathing, a raspy, almost snore-like groan coming from its lungs. It was sick. I turned my body, still keeping my eyes on the creature. I was inching away when I lost my footing and crashed to the ground. I gashed the top of my foot on a sharp rock and blood poured out and in between my toes, pooling up on the hard dirt. Worse, the skunk noticed. She tore after me with all the confidence of a pissed off chihuahua. Maybe she was protecting her nearby young, I didn’t know. I jumped to my feet and felt a searing pain shoot up my leg. The gash was deep, but I could hide this injury in a sock. I wouldn’t be able to hide the skunk’s spray all over my clothes, skin, and hair. I forced my legs to run as fast as they could down that hill, but my body demanded a limp. The skunk was right behind me and gaining ground. I was only a few feet from the street but she was inches from me, her tail high in the air. I was just about to slam my bloody foot onto the asphalt when it happened: I didn’t feel her liquid spray soak my skin. Rather, I felt her sharp little teeth sink into the back of my calf. I shook my leg with a violent force. She wouldn’t let go. She growled, thrashed, and dug her bite in further. I pried the feral animal off my leg and tossed her as far as I could up the hill like a baseball.

 

 

Mama had been none the wiser about my outdoor excursions and I cleaned up my foot real good. It had been a couple weeks and it looked like it was healing alright, but I was starting to feel feverish. The spot where the skunk bit me, that got pretty itchy but I cleaned it up too. I didn’t worry about that as much. It looked like a cat bite. If Mama ever asked about it, I could lie. She’d know something was up with my foot though; any excuse I could come up with would be something she wouldn’t like.

I laid in bed and worried all night. I didn’t know why this night was so much worse than any other. I tossed to one side, unable to get comfortable. Every muscle in my body was taught and felt like they was ready to snap from my bones. I tried to think about other things. School tomorrow. Christmas. Visiting Grandma. Anything else. I knew Mama would find out sooner than later and I’d never be allowed to set foot outside again. She’d probably homeschool me. I wouldn’t see my friends anymore. I wouldn’t see Mrs. Larson in English anymore. No more clarinet or ceramics. I was just so hot. I kicked the covers off the bed onto the floor. She’d never even see the wound now, it was just a faint scar. But what if she noticed that scar? Would she realize that I’d tried to hide something from her and would be even more upset? Maybe I should have just told her right away. I should have ripped off the Band-Aid and got it over with. My sheets held in every ounce of heat that my body was trying to expel. I felt like I was under the weight of a thousand quilts, but it was just one thin cotton top sheet and a matching one that covered my mattress. I tore them off and opened my window letting in the cool night air. Like a lightswitch, it was gone. My tension. My anxiety, out the window with the wind. What am I doing? I asked myself, allowing my jaw to unclench. My fists to relax. Just as quickly as it left, my terror returned shooting through me like a nail gun to the brain. She’ll find out and I’ll never be allowed out of here again. I’ll live and die in this bedroom. I’ll be trapped here until I’m nothing but bones.

On my feet, I found myself pacing the room, fraught. It’s too late now, I told myself. I can’t go back and fix things. I have to keep hiding it. Maybe I’ll tell her when I’m sixty and we’ll laugh about it. That’s it, I’ll wait until I’m sixty and then nothing can happen. But she cannot find out about it before that. She cannot. I scratched the spot where the skunk had bit me, it was so itchy again. Probably because I was sweating. Sweating makes everything so itchy. Stop pacing, I told myself. This isn’t helping me cool down. I should stop moving. I want to stop moving. I can’t stop moving! I should try to lie back down. I yanked off my clothes and threw myself on the bare mattress. The upholstery dug at my skin, I could feel each fiber pull at my pores and let heat crawl inside. I was trapped in a humid bubble, unable to escape the persistent clamminess. I got off the bed and stood in the path of the breeze wafting in from outside, but even that wasn’t helping.

I flung open my bedroom door and swung it back and forth frantically trying to create a breeze. It just irritated me. I slammed the door shut and ripped open the door to my closet looking for a fan. I chucked clothes and toys behind me, desperately trying to find a stupid fan. My fear turned to rage. Where is it? Why don’t we have a fan in here? Why can’t I find this? Why is there so much stupid stuff and no fan? Why did Mama never think to buy me a fan? She’s so stupid. I hate her so much. God, I hate her. I just—hate!

Mama threw open my door, awoken by all the ruckus.

“What is going on in here—do you know what time it is?” She paused, seeing me naked on the floor of the closet, my room torn to pieces.

“Norah…stop!”

 I wasn’t phased by her plea. I needed to find a fan. Now.

Mama turned on the light in my room, and a surge of intense pain shot through every nerve in my body. I screamed and writhed on the ground, covering my eyes, cowering into the closet to escape the light. Unsure what else to do, Mama tried to hold me steady. I was thrashing on the floor. I burned. I was fighting my own skin. Her hands touched my body—the pain only intensified. A scream welled in my throat: I was livid. I threw my limbs around with all my might just trying to get her off me. I screeched and swore, my mouth slurring over every shout. I spat out every word I wasn’t allowed to say. I called Mama every filthy word I knew.

Mama didn’t let go. She held onto me tight and carried me into the bathroom and turned on the shower. I was as big as her at least, but she found the strength. For a moment, the cool tile soothed my skin, but the light stabbed at my eyes. Mama hauled me from the tiles and tried to put me in the shower but I didn’t want to be anywhere near it. I punched. I kicked. I fought. I latched my fingers and toes onto the sliding door of the tub, but Mama still wedged my leg in. Again, it all slipped away. I took in everything that was happening around me: my nakedness, my heaving breath, and a genuine fear in Mama’s eyes. I want out of this. I want out of this. Please let me go. I was just about to speak when she pushed me in further and threw on the shower water.

When the water hit me, I bellowed a cry so primal even I didn’t know where it came from. I was yanked from reality back into my nightmare. I was an animal again. Startled, Mama dropped me, and I crashed over the side of the tub. Any other time, this drop in itself would have been cause for crying, but I was too blinded with fury for tears. I bolted from the bathroom, slipping on water on my way out, crashing through the cracked open bathroom door. Mama grabbed my foot, She’ll see it! She’ll see the scar and know!

“Come on. We have to get something on you.”, Mama begged, holding my ankle with a death grip. I hollered and convulsed, kicking to get away. Her hand would kill me. It wasn’t her grip, it was the touch. She pulled me back and bear-hugged my body. She carried me out into the living room and rolled me up in an afghan off the back of our couch. My burrito-ed body was easier for her to handle, but the yarn from the blanket felt like a wire brush on my nude skin. It was everywhere but my face, and was holding in all my heat. I hated her so much. God how I loathed her. I wanted to knock her over and run as far away from her as I could. I wanted to run back up the hill. I’d kill her so I could get back up there. I’d do it. I’d kill her and I’d live on that hill.

I squirmed and hissed as she carried me to the car. It was dark outside and the air was sharp. She buckled me into the front seat, still keeping me tightly bundled. The respite from a sensory overload gave me another moment of clarity. Something was really wrong with me. Something wasn’t right. It had to be from falling. From cutting my foot open on that rock and letting every germ inside. I thought I’d cleaned it good but maybe I hadn’t, maybe my blood was poisoned. I was infected.

“Mama.” I said, my words coming out raspy.

She turned off the radio. The sound of the car roaring over the pavement was rhythmic. I could hear the tires hit every pothole, every patch of gravel, and Mama’s hesitation when she tried to remember the directions.

“Yes, Norah?” she said, looking at me, but quickly back to the road. I’d never seen her drive so fast.

“Mama, I went outside. I went outside up the hill and I cut my foot open on a rock. I think that’s what happened. I think my blood is bad.”

Mama didn’t say anything, and for a moment her silence cut deeper than any screaming or scolding ever could.

“Alright Norah. I’ll tell the doctor. Just hold tight.”

 

My eyelids weighed down heavy. My vision dimmed in and out of black, giving me momentary peace from the searing green of the fluorescent lights. The crisp paper on the doctor’s table crinkled under my seat. Mama fussed with her ponytail while a nurse filled an enormous needle.  The nurse plunged the needle into my arm eliciting a shocking pain. I screeched, startling the nurse who knocked over a canister of cotton swabs. I fell back to fading.

“She said she cut her foot outside—is it something like tetanus,”  Mama said, doing her best to avoid looking at me.

I wished I hadn’t thought those filthy words at Mama. I didn’t really hate her. I was just so tired. And so hot. I wanted to tell her I was sorry but my lips were so dry. So heavy.

“We’ll wait and see what the doctor says—her symptoms aren’t at all consistent with tetanus.”

The light was gone and the pain faded. I heard my own breath slow. My eyelids weighed so much I couldn’t keep them open anymore. I let them fall and they stayed that way.

The nurse lifted up my leg and pointed at the skunk bite.

“What’s this?” she asked Mama.

“I don’t know.” Mama said. “It’s probably from the cat.”


Molly Osborne is a Los Angeles based writer. She has fiction in STORGY and Blood and Bourbon. When she isn’t writing, she works in stop motion animation production. She is currently writing a dark speculative fiction novel for adults.

Royal Blue by Benjamin Rose

أَشْهَدُ أَنْ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا ٱللَّٰهُ وَأَشْهَدُ أَنَّ مُحَمَّدًا رَسُولُ ٱللَّٰهِ
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד
We were born to run

In my dream, it is always morning,
Wine-dark dawn breaking into rose
Against the grey of a high-rise skyline
And the leaden coiling scar of the highway.
The air is crisp with the death of darkness,
Sigh of Winter thawing into Spring,
The Spring in which we melt together
That neither need face the fire alone.
Kiss farewell to the lost, dear friend,
Before we see them again in Hell.
Let us forgive and forget our enemies,
For today is Shabbos, God’s holy Sabbath.
Midinváerne fades, but what will follow?
It does not matter. I do not know.
The Circle is Closed, the Serpent is Vanquished.
Ride with me, Rana. Ride on forever.


In this past of grave and sepulchre
Let us not weep for all we have lost.
All lights pass, and candles wither,
Whether in Raqqa or Yad Vashem.
From our past of grave and sepulchre
Jew and Gentile where each we bleed,
Let us soar far beyond Thames,
Far from the wounds of Indus and Ganges.
Let us leave our ruins behind us.
Ride with me, Rana. Ride on forever.


O azure resplendent tulwar maiden
Jacketed deep in Royal Blue,
Lead me, Londonstani Madonna
Roaring down the road to Paradise.
Weary ribs against your engine,
Waive in a last moulinet your sword
With glory and terror described in Urdu
Casting confusion on the whores’ sons.
Drown me in your well of calligraphy,
Drunk off perfume of obsidian hair.
There is you, my noor, or nothing.
Ride with me, Rana. Ride on forever.

Ride with me, Rana, bursting through April
And concrete vales of annihilation
Poised on the razor of Night and Day,
Tires rending the road in euphoria.
Ride with me through Frost and Fire,
Summer torrents, Terror and Hate,
Gas and gendarmes and rattling guns
Spitting their feckless fusillades of fear.
They shall not slow, they shall not stop us.
None shall reave our souls of the light.
Ride with me Rana, ride like Kaneda.
I will be Kei against your spine.


For though our jackets are crusted with carnage,
And our red hearts graffitied by sorrow,
Doubt, and torment till the end of our days,
I would die for you and no other.
Bind us in time, sublime and suspended;
We will not fail, we shall not falter.
We will rise, and together prevail,
Insha’allah, through Fire and Water.
Bear me, my lover, no heavy load,
Onwards to Dover and the Channel Sea.
Fast as a hurricane down the Queen’s Road,
Ride, dear heroine, forever with me.


Benjamin Rose is a Washington D.C. based poet and aspiring novelist whose work has also appeared in Beyond Words Literary Magazine. During the 2020 Covid Pandemic he completed his first full-length book, The Road of Glass.

Ghost by Elizabeth Niedra

 

            The bar this night has no walls. No walls, only a thatched-roof ceiling draped in cut-out pennants and Christmas lights hung like fishing nets, casting spackled light in red and blue, magenta and sea-green. There are no walls and so the walls are the colours of the darkness. They are palm fronts backlit in the fluorescent lights of shanties, motorcycle grease and moonlit dirt and painted concrete crumbling away. 

            Vivaan has nearly turned for the better from a worrying shade of green, after days of the moans and groans, of the was it the fish or was it the cocktail or was it a virus or the oh God at last, maybe syphilis or cancer or gangrene. His belly had rolled and settled to a precarious stop in the early evening, a dull thud against the shrimp a la diabla. We ate by candlelight and the roar of unseen waves at the beach restaurant; the restaurant which was plastic coca-cola chairs sinking helplessly in the sand, which was nowhere near home and so was perfection, to him and me. We had both blushed and laughed at the romance of it. It was the date of the century for the dearest of friends, for beautifully queer Vivaan and prudishly married me. 

            It had been a bad year- or a good one, depending on who you ask. Depending, are you a what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger type, a the-wound-is-where-the-light-enters-you type. Are you a character-building type. Or maybe you’re more the type that does believe that the weight of the world on your shoulders can sink you into the ground. That a friend leaving without notice can shatter your heart into a thousand shards. That you can love more than once at once, and that soreness and swell of your heart, no matter how you hold it, will in time pummel the essence of you into nothing. Into heavy, dusky, sickly ink. And yet you go on, because the ink, the exhausted gum of you, it keeps breathing. The air is thin in the morning and the sun is kind. You must, as the mountain dreamer says, get up after the night of sorrow and despair and do what needs to be done, to feed the children. And so you do. But not because you are strong or good or willful. Because, what else is there. If you’re the kind who believes this, you might understand the year it’s been. You understand what I mean.

            Vivaan’s year was perhaps different, though I feel from him it was the same. At least we were, it’s sure, both older now. More arrogant, more anxious, more uncontrollably changed. We both had stronger bodies, more tired minds. We had more money – much more money – and it shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. The money was what we could show, for the lines drawn in sorrow and fight on our two different faces. His was at last self-loving, for his heavy brow and amber skin and thick, broad build like a stiff-limbed mountain; providing comfort, soberness and shade. My face at last thinning, but ever-shrinking with worry from an already miniature height. Finally forgiving of its rounder, pinker, paler bits, but only as they faded with anxiety and age. It was thus and there, after the long night of the year before, that Vivaan and I found ourselves together again – weary and sun-starved at the beach.

            At the pool, Christobal had stopped writing back on the app. So had Hugo and Cael, and Vivaan wished it made no difference to him. Vivaan had wanted Christobal most, with his writerly thin moustache and unhumbly told editor’s perch at a fine art magazine. Hugo was a too-pretty throwaway. Cael had little to give; Cael he just wanted for the weed.

Christobal had so far been little more than a fever dream. He was transmitted in flash pixels and sound bites through unseen radiation, from the far-off spots of light of the town by the sea. Take some ginger for your virus, darling. Oh, me I’m just lying naked; I like to do it all the time, when I’m nearby the beach. Sensual intrigue in an ironic poncho and skinny jeans. Here he is in a shirt with pineapples. His self-deprecating caption begs us to forget the three buttons undone to show just enough sternum, slick with sweat and Adonis-clean. Here he is, a smiling charm at the wedding of a friend. Here he is, in a photoshoot for the important magazine. He says, I hope you feel better, darling. Maybe tonight, we can meet? 😉 Vivaan glows with flattery and possibility. But in the pool on the hill, as we warm ourselves sick with golden beer and the delirium-pink of a silent sunset, we hear the last of Christobal. As darkness falls over Zipolite, he disappears into the same purple haze that fades the beach into a deep black sea.

At the bar, Vivaan feels better. He is giddy, he is nervous, too aware of the angles of his thick shoulders from sides unseen. He’s worn his new shirt, the one I picked for him at the shop on the camino pavimentado. The one that is woven cotton in the colours of the street here and the sea. He had not known which earring to wear. No to the Diana Ross silver chandelier, the one he borrowed from his mother. No to the beaded pearl-drop, it felt far too formal, far too sweet. Yes to the thin gold hoop, like the one on the nose of the shiva writ large across his back in ink. He looks startlingly femme, with his thick shoulders and low brow and newly sun-warmed skin. He looks magnificent. He had tried to lend me earrings for my dress. I declined them, in the end; they were far too female for me. We would switch roles for the night, be the way we liked to be. We order the special from a barman, scatty like a cachectic jelical cat. It is the only thing on the menu because there are no menus, and we are nervous to ask and the Supremes are wailing and so in any case we can barely hear. The special is a flight of micro-distilled mezcal, which sounds to be a hair’s breadth from moonshine to me. It comes with hot red salt and a stack of sliced orange, and we drink it to Donna Summer. A petite local boy in a woven crop-top plays piano with his fingers on the arm of an old American. The rainbow room slowly fills with a kaleidoscope of stumbly, handsy, close-talking men. The first mezcal is drinkable in the sense that peroxide is drinkable, if you cut it with enough water and drown it in salt. The second we agree is like getting punched in the gut by a man armed with Lysol and seawater and cigarettes.Vivaan’s greasy stomach does a somersault as the glass lands heavily on the table, and we do not touch it again. The jelical cat, who is now shirtless with ribs like leathery driftwood, tells us this one is the most expensive. Especial. The third tastes like pure agave and is the colour of Chanel perfume. After the struggle that came before and with our shamed desperation to find mezcal enchanting, we guzzle it. Vivaan washes in and out of shades of pale. I drift in and out of the noisy place, retiring for long moments at a time to the sun-struck back rooms of my mind.

            Suddenly, a glimpse of a pineapple shirt in the kaleidoscope swell. A thin moustache and a dazzling smile, a nose bigger than the photos suggest. An arm around a too-pretty, familiar thing. Christobal and Hugo, hand in hand. Vivaan sees them when I do. He starts and closes his shoulders around me, building a close, warm room over the high-top between. His smile registers pure adrenaline – betrayal, embarrassment, dread. He cannot bear a response from me. Well God, he grins, imploring me to buy his indifference. I’m going to have to say hi now, I guess. He breathes in and turns his broad torso to the aisle, his woven cotton so close it bristles against pineapple polyester blend. Christobal breaks form from Hugo, pivoting effortlessly into the current between our seats. Vivaan’s face flashes with expectation. But Christobal does not stop or even slow. He makes for the bar, his opaque eyes passing through us as if, in fact, the ghosts were we. 

            Vivaan is sick again. His gut soars in a triple-backflip, landing into a deep, crunching ache. Oh God, Bea. Christobal whispers close in Hugo’s ear, in audible Spanish that pushes us a world away. Hugo feigns a stretch, scanning us deliberately from our painted eyes to our sandaled feet. He grins. Christobal laughs. Vivaan’s pretty earring catches the blood-red light; he smiles as his stomach doubles down viciously. My friend orders two mezcal margaritas, winking hopelessly at me. We linger until the margaritas are reduced to warm glass and crusts of salt, until Hugo and Christobal are lost in the surf of warm skin and close touch and laughter. Until they are less of each other and us, and more of a place neither Vivaan or I want to be.

 

Thank you for staying, he says, as we march up the long, cicada-lit steps to our place.

No problem, I say later, as we lull into sleep. You were wonderful tonight, I think.

 

On Friday I walk out into the water. It is the windiest day we’d had that week. The sun is strikingly hot, beating down in sine waves on my pale chest and arms and face. My skin is slick with saltwater – of myself or the sea, the same. The waves come in with a menacing approach. They rise slow but unrelenting to towering heights, full iterations from where I thought they could be. They are far too high for safety, storming the sand bar with a thunderous, overwhelming beat. The water is up to my ankles; just as suddenly, up to my knees. For a moment at a time I stand chest-deep in a pillowy plateau, white surf oozing lacy foam across a perfect bed of mint blue-green. Only then to be gone again, to leave me without a trace of its fullness, even the sand under my feet rushing out in a sucking vacuum to the sea. I stand there and the sun is white and the surf is white and my skin feels white-hot like iron. For the first time in days, my mind is as blank as the blinding glare off the waves.

Out of nowhere, there too is Christobal. He strolls languidly into the water some fifty feet up coast from me. He looks my way. I drop my eyes, back toward the surf sucking the earth out from under me. I regret not holding his gaze longer, forcing him to bear the full brunt of my rage. Instead, I let him wander from my mind. I fill the empty space with the sound of the crashing waves, coming in to wash me clean.

I look back and Christobal is gone, from where he had wandered in too deep. I imagine that I do not know, if he had left the surf or was pulled beneath the sea.

 

 


Elizabeth Niedra is a writer and home-visiting physician in Toronto, Canada. She writes about memory and loss, the labor of caring and the dark magic of everyday life. Her work has appeared in Canadian Family Physician and CBC Opinions. 

Zombie Finds A Lover by Rachel Moulton

                                                                                                      

            The world was just beginning to warm to the idea of spring when Collette began to see the zombie. She thought it funny at first that a zombie would find itself so comfortable positioned in the middle of the south and northbound lanes just when the rest of the world was beginning to bloom and come to life. The highway was nothing but hurry and concrete and asphyxiation. But, then again, what did a zombie need with fresh air or air at all? Collette asked herself before answering with confidence. Nothing.

            The zombie was of average height, as far as she could tell, with shoulders so broad he seemed, even from a sitting position, top heavy. He had short red hair, not quite a military haircut but close, and a thick neck she would have found unattractive if not for the way his head sat softly on it—she would describe it as contemplative—so that all meathead possibilities were null and void. If he had not been dead, Collette would have placed his age at forty. His skin was pale, normal for a redhead if not for the bluish tint. He sat on the concrete divider just at the curve where the median was at its narrowest. If she drove in the fast lane, Collette could get a pretty good glimpse of him even at 70mph.

            Collette worried about the zombie’s feet. They seemed his most vulnerable spot and not just because they were edged out into traffic, inches from being squashed, but because their yellow-brown hue, the dark toenails, and the veins all along the top that sunk in when they should have protruded looked like the part of him that was the most dead. She knew that this thought was silly. No one died feet first, but she thought it anyway, in spite of herself. Perhaps he was a brave and inquisitive man who had walked the earth in search of truth and love. Perhaps he’d been so far and seen so much of what humanity had to offer that he’d collapsed. His feet had given out on him and the rest had no choice but to follow. She liked this idea. She found it romantic. She felt too that the zombie would find it complimentary if she ever got the chance to explain it to him. She wanted to ask him exactly how far he’d gone. Had he been to other continents and countries? Did he know the Red Sea? The open markets of Abu Dhabi and Dubai? Had he been to the Webster Street Market on Saturday morning? Had he canoed the Mad River or had a glass of wine at the jazz bar downtown?

            Collette’s husband never went to jazz bars. She had never been attracted to her husband—a fact she’d never admitted to anyone. She’d been tempted to tell her girlfriends over cocktails that she had never lusted after him, but as they gushed out their complaints about their own spouses between sips and outbursts of laughter, Collette held her tongue. It seemed to delight her friends—their dislike of their own husbands—while Collette’s dislike sat inside her rank and solid, too pernicious to spit up and out.

Collette had a long history of making friendships and then maintaining them diligently with people she suspected she did not actually like. Her husband sat number one on this list. He was an attractive man, successful, who loved Collette as best he could. She’d married him, because he’d asked. He’d gone to a lot of trouble and spent a lot of money on a ring. When she’d said yes, it had not occurred to her that she was saying yes to a contract that was meant to last forever. He’d asked her a question: “Will you marry me?” She hadn’t known immediately what to say so she’d looked into his eyes—she had a habit of doing this, searching the other person’s face for the correct next move—and seen that the correct answer to the question was “yes.” She’d done the same thing during the wedding ceremony. She’d looked out at the crowd, all those faces yearning for the “I do” and then at her future husband, and so she’d provided it.

It was mid-May by the time Collette realized she was falling in love with the zombie. He had not asked for her love nor had he had the opportunity to love her back, and yet the feeling breaking open in her chest seemed like love. She loved him first because he did not wear shoes or suits or a heavy silver watch like her husband. He wore, instead, khaki shorts and a white t-shirt. Nothing else. He had tattoos on his arms that sneaked out from under his shirtsleeves and snaked down to his wrists. The patterns were not entirely recognizable from driving distance, and they seemed to have discolored and wrinkled a bit in death, but they still revealed to Collette that he knew something of the world, of pain, of beauty, of body. She liked the hint that he’d led a full life not made up of drives to work, house payments, and flat love stories. Most of all she liked his stillness. Her husband was always in motion. He was either on the phone, texting or talking, or pacing whatever space he occupied. Colette was always wishing he’d stay still. Breathe. Think. Notice.

Colette drove the same route at the same time every morning—except, of course, on weekends. He sat in the exact same spot, staring, always, down at the pavement just beyond his toes. He never looked up except, of course, for the one time he’d searched the sky, perhaps for the sun, and she could tell he was pondering the greater questions of life. Thinking so hard that he didn’t notice the rush hour traffic that zoomed by purposeful in its endlessness. He was so still, in fact, that for a long time, she imagined she was the only one who could see him.  She had, at first, even assumed herself to be crazy. In movies, zombies meandered and groaned with their arms outstretched. This zombie moved only when she was not watching—he was never there on her way home from work—and he radiated something like hope. If there was hunger, it was not for flesh.

Collette worked at a failing public school. She was only 25 and faced with the realization that the world was too fucked up to be saved.  She’d begun to hate her students. They were needy and pitiful. They would never be okay. No matter how her dislike grew, blossomed into secret hate, they continued to adore her. To seek her out like no other counselor in the school’s history. The only good thing about this love, as far as Collette could see, was that it made her hate herself more than she hated them. She hated her colleagues as well for the seriousness with which they took their jobs, and she hated her drive to work more than anything—until the zombie appeared.

People honked at him, angry honking that seemed to say: “What the fuck buddy?! Why don’t you have something to do? Why aren’t you on your way to work like the rest of us?” Collette was, at first, excited. It meant he was real. Throughout all the honking, he kept his eyes on the space in front of him, and his hands on the concrete barrier at his sides. He didn’t notice the commuters’ anger or acknowledge it in anyway. This, Collette felt was remarkable, because she herself was sponge-like, soaking up the feelings of others to such an extent that her own feelings had shriveled into raisin shapes that could not be accessed.

The fifth day of the angry honking, Collette began to feel bad for the zombie. Just because he didn’t look up didn’t mean he didn’t feel hurt by their anger. On that day, a Friday in May, Collette honked a quick, friendly hello, as if to say: “Don’t worry. I see who you are and what you’re doing. Enjoy.” After all, didn’t the dead deserve peace?

An incredible thing happened the day Collette honked. The zombie looked up and gave Collette a little wave. His hand, a bright, purple pink at the fingertips, soared lightly in her direction. She saw his peaked eyebrows and the 3 o’clock shadow of a red beard. His nose was a bit large for his face, but he was handsome all the same. In that one glimpse of his still eyes, she saw what must have killed him. His heart had been offered up too many times until the pieces that were left were just too small, too weak to pull together and pump blood. So, right then and there, she gave her heart to the zombie.

Collette was in love, and suddenly life was bearable. Every morning she would drive to work and honk at her zombie and he would wave. It made her giddy to think she was the only one he acknowledged. He made her forget how living among people who did not truly know you could make you lonelier than if you were the last woman alive. Soon, though, she began to come up with excuses to drive the route on Saturday and Sunday. She’d go to the park or go into the city for coffee or meet with parents and students just for the zombie’s wave. Then she realized she wanted more. She wanted to know his name—first, last, and middle. She wanted to know where he went in the afternoons and evenings. She wanted to know how he’d managed to come back. Why wasn’t there a loved one to provide him with a coffin and a deep cool grave?

There was no place to pull over. No way to be close to the zombie.

In late June, the zombie’s pale purple skin had begun to leather up. The direct sunlight was making his arms and legs look like something she’d adore if it were sewn into a wallet or purse, but on a person, it was disconcerting. Even his face, when raised to wave to her, showed signs of fading.

Collette rolled down her window, slowed as much as she could without threat of being hit (55mph) and shouted, “Get out of the sun!” The shout came out wrong. She regretted it right away. A tone that could have been perceived as angry. This was why, she thought, he had not waved to her that day. His lack of movement tore her open a bit.

So Collette began to offer the zombie objects. She practiced throwing them out her car window on country roads. Some of the objects were heavy; so she wanted to make sure she could throw them without destroying the object of her affection.

The first day Collette threw suntan lotion. On the second day, she threw an umbrella. On the third day, she threw sunglasses. She threw a mirror so he might see his burnt skin. She threw lip balm and windbreakers and insect repellent. All these objects sat seemingly untouched at his feet. So finally, Collette did a very brave thing. She taped a small note under the bill of the baseball. The note said only: “I love you.”

She had to drive past him before releasing the hat. In her rearview mirror she saw the hat fly back to land at his feet and then she saw something miraculous. Her zombie bent down and picked up the hat. The next day when she drove by, he was wearing her Cincinnati Reds hat.

Collette began to offer him more and more. She threw books she loved, clothes she’d thought he’d look good in, an ipod with all her favorite music. Each object was taped with the same note: “I love you.” On good days, when she’d drive by, he’d be reading what she’d offered or listening to the ipod, but on most days, he would only be sitting there, her offered objects piled up around his feet as if they were nothing more than highway litter. It didn’t matter to Collette. She was pretty sure he loved her, and more importantly, she knew she loved him.

As the winter months began to threaten harsh weather, she threw sweaters and blankets, mittens and scarves. She began to notice, however, two things: 1) no other cars seemed to notice him anymore. This was good, she thought. He was safer if they simply considered him litter or road kill. 2) Like road kill, he was rapidly decomposing. This was not good. He was beginning to slough off patches of skin, not holding together well.

In early December, someone ran over his feet. They were flattened to the pavement. Comically spread out as if they were clown shoes and not her beloved’s feet at all. Collette couldn’t stop crying. She had to cancel her appointments for the day. She could tell no one what was wrong. What would she say? Zombie, my lover, is dying?  She was a married woman. No one would sympathize.

Now he was always there. Morning, noon, and night. And although it seemed it might cost her her job, her marriage, her friends, she began to drive the highway as much as possible. In fact, she did little else but drive back and forth. She spent money only on gas, gifts for Zombie, and the meager sustenance she needed to keep herself driving.

Zombie lost his first body part in a hailstorm—his left arm. It sat among her gifts like it had little value. She wanted badly to tape one of her love notes to it, but stopping was impossible so it became just another book or toy in the pile. His “good” arm was sure to come loose next and then how would he wave to her? How would she feel his love?

It was then that Collette got lucky. It was New Year’s Day. She hadn’t been home for days, she’d finally been fired from her job, and her cell phone battery had long ago died so that her husband’s nagging calls of worry no longer bothered her. It began to snow, and by late afternoon, the snow was blinding, and so the city did a miraculous thing. It shut down the highways.

Collette heard it first from the clerk at the Speedway—Alexis—who she’d come to know quite well, as it was the quickest gas stop off the highway.

“They’ve shut down the north and southbound lanes. This snow is a bitch.”

“That’s not possible,” she began to say. “I can’t stay here. I have to see my love,” but then it hit her. Smiling, Collette left her shopping items on the counter—at some point, she’d begun to buy Zombie impractical things just to have something to give, like candy bars and toothbrushes and fruit snacks.

Out in the blinding snow, Collette’s body knew the route. She ran when she could and walked purposefully the rest of the time. Her full heart, all of her enchanted insides, were pulling her down a gloriously empty highway.

When she reached Zombie, her toes and feet were numb. The snow was falling fast and thick so with each step she first had to sink in and then had to pull herself back out. Her snot had long ago frozen into drips on her upper lip. Her face pink with windburn. She had very little warmth left in her body and so none to offer Zombie. He looked up at her right away and tried to smile. He would have smiled too, but she could see his jaw was loose. It would fall off if he moved too much. Both his arms were gone now, buried in the snow she assumed, and his left leg had come loose from its socket. She had always imagined she’d touch him when they met. Hug him. Help hold him together in some way, but now she could see that touching him would only tear him apart. She had imagined too that they’d talk. He’d tell her his real name. Tell her how he’d come to be. Tell her what he’d seen and done in his life…in his death. She saw now that none of this was going to be possible, but she did not let herself get sad. Instead, she cleared a place next to him and sat, looking at his spot of pavement to see what he’d been seeing. The snow obscured the pavement, but even without actually being able to see the black asphalt, she knew now what he’d been doing.  

 It was an absurdly obvious realization for Collette, but in realizing it, she began to refocus her attention on her own body. She felt her heart pumping despite the cold. She felt how the blood it pumped rushed her veins, how her muscles responded and twitched and stretched and thrived. She felt the cold pucker and pull at her skin. She felt how alive she was; how difficult it would be to stop her body from living.

She’d been wrong about Zombie. He did desire flesh. He wanted more life just like everyone wanted more life. All this time he hadn’t been looking at anything on the pavement. He’d been looking inward, dreaming of his insides. Trying to feel them again. Colette knew how that felt.

She turned to him and put her hand on his back so that she could lean in to find what was left of his lips. With her fingertips on his back, the exterior of his body began to give way. His skin began whirling up into ash that was barely distinguishable from the snow. The red of his muscles exposed held in place for a moment by the surprisingly thick weave of his veins and a thinner network of white, his nerves, thin as a fishing net. The warp and weft of it all was no longer strong enough, and she watched it drip away, puddling to red at the bones of his feet. His organs, however, stayed put. They were beautiful, still beating, flush with blood and full of color—pink and red and blue and purple. She put her forehead to his, looked at the blur of his empty eye sockets, the sharp jut of his cheekbones in her peripheral.

Reaching forward she found his last rib with the top of her hand then turned her fingers up and pushed in, feeling the warmth of his left lung in her palm. She wrapped her hand around it, pulling it gently free. She leaned back away from him to look at his lung. It’s gentle swell and pulse meant it still held breath. Laced through with white and red it reminded Collette of the leaves she used to collect in the fall. How they’d lay flat in her hand, crisp enough to shatter if she wasn’t gentle, the veiny tunnels that had once fed an entire tree as visible as Zombie’s bones.

Collette tilted her head back, poured the lung into her open mouth. It was warm, heavy, like the drinking chocolate she’d once tried on a trip to the Southwest. Sweet and bitter, thick with flavors she couldn’t name. Once she felt it settle inside her, hot against her own organs, she greedily reached inside of him again, grasping his other lung, then his liver, his kidneys, his heart. Her body grew warm from him, giving off a heat and light that she knew others would be able to see. She felt his joy move through her, his rage, his grief, his desire to keep going. She reached into him one last time up into his skull to gently scoop out the wiggle and swirl of his brain. She felt hot, steaming. Capable of dying. Capable of living. Her options were endless.

His bones, now empty, clanked against each other as they cascaded down from skull to ribs to hipbones and femurs into a pile that was so shiny and white in the moments before the snow set about swallowing it that Collette could only find it beautiful.

When Zombie’s bones were fully covered, she began to walk the yellow line against what would be oncoming traffic when the storm cleared. She was headed home, thinking of how, before she left, she’d explain to her husband, to her colleagues, to her acquaintances, to all the people she’d shut out, how much she’d been holding back and how capable she’d been all along.

 

 


Rachel Eve Moulton earned her B.A. from Antioch College and her M.F.A from Emerson College. Her work has appeared in Beacon Street ReviewBellowing ArkChicago Quarterly ReviewCream City Review, Bryant Literary ReviewNarrative, and New Ohio Review, among other publications. Her debut novel—Tinfoil Butterfly—was long-listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and nominated for both a Shirley Jackson Award and a Bram Stoker. She’s spent most of her life as an educator, working primarily with middle school to high school students. She lives with her husband and two daughters in the mountains east of Albuquerque.