Blackbird of Bad Love by Roberta Murphy

art by Patrice Bouchard

Grandma was famous in our South Wales valley of Llanadwen, and all the valleys adjacent, as a spiritualist, a fortune-teller, and a specialist in the brewing of herbal remedies, as well as other potions to cure ills that were not of the body.  I had lived with her since my parents’ divorce, which was longer ago than I could remember. 

My mother taught Natural Sciences at Lady Hawtrey’s Academy, an elite girls’ boarding school in Hereford, situated in the mansion house on the expansive estate that had belonged to that lady.  An intellectual and suffragette, she had established the school in the 1920’s.  Mam came home to Grandma and me every other weekend.  She had not inherited Grandma’s gifts.  Sometimes they skipped a generation, Grandma said, and she was looking for signs in me.  I was fifteen and so far they hadn’t appeared.  “You’re a late developer, Arianwen,” she said.  “You’ll come into them eventually.”

After the divorce, my father had moved to Cardiff.  He was a GP and he claimed that Grandma’s thriving business, as well as her “demonstrations of malice” towards him, were bad for his practice and his sanity. I visited him during school holidays and he sent money to Mam for my support.  

My grandfather had never lived with us.  He was a coming-and-going person, a traveling salesman, selling kitchen appliances door-to-door, and offering other services as well, Grandma was sure, if a husband wasn’t home and the housewife attractive.

“How can you know that?” my mother had asked her.

“A little bird told me.”  Another of Grandma’s skills was her ability to communicate with non-verbal creatures.  When I was ten years old, a little bird told her that Grandpa had become a bigamist. “I’ve long thought ‘enough is enough.’ He’s on the far side of that now,” Grandma said, and she put him out on the road permanently, and that was the last we saw or heard of him until now, five years later, we received the news of his passing.  He had died in mysterious circumstances, the policeman informed us, in a remote spot up on Aberteleri Mountain. “What could possibly have taken him to that out-of-the-way place, Ma’am, do you have any notion?”  Even more mysterious, the autopsy revealed no physical reason for his presumably sudden death. 

“He had a bad heart,” Grandma said at the inquest.

“Indeed he didn’t, Mrs. Cadwalladar.  His heart was sound.”

“I didn’t mean bad in that way,” Grandma told Mam and me afterwards.

He was buried in a plywood coffin with no funeral, only we three at the cemetery, and none of us really mourning.  “Good riddance,” Grandma said.  “He’ll trouble me no longer.”

At the cemetery gates, her mood altered. “On the other hand, it’s well known that spirits of the dead come back to haunt those who’ve injured them.”

“Why should you worry?” Mam said.  “Aren’t you the injured party?”

“I didn’t have a minister at the grave.  He might resent me for that. He was a chapel-going man, albeit a hypocrite, lead tenor in Hebron choir when I met him.”

“You call up spirits,” Mam said.  “Surely you can oust them as well?” She was humoring Grandma.  She didn’t believe in spirits herself.

“Those I call up are obedient to my will.  His would be devious, defiant, unyielding.”

“No worries then,” Mam said.  “You’ll beat him hands down.”

“Don’t ask me,” Grandma told the detective who came to our door a week later and introduced himself as, “DCI Rolands, Ma’am, summoned from Cardiff to further investigate your husband’s puzzling demise.”

 “My late husband was always a puzzle to me, DCI Rolands, as were his whereabouts.  Even if I wished to do him harm, I wouldn’t have known where to find him.  You’re welcome to come in, however.”

“I believe you wholeheartedly,” DCI Rolands said when Grandma had seated him at our kitchen table where she served him herbal tea and poppy-seed cake and sat opposite him, twisting a lock of her auburn hair around an elegant finger, her lovage-leaf green eyes fixed on his face.  “I didn’t credit rumors of magic or malefaction for a minute, Ma’am.  It’s just that it has come to light that a passerby recalls seeing the deceased enter your house a day or two before his body was found…”

“And would’ve seen him leave again in five minutes if they’d waited. I assure you I wanted nothing to do with my faithless husband.  Surely you don’t suspect I murdered him and then transported his corpse all the way up the mountain?” She released the lock of hair and it spun into a long curl on her neck.

“Of course not, Ma’am.  Questioning you was not my idea.  The Chief Inspector insisted.  I’m sorry to have troubled you,” and as Grandma showed him to the door, “If you’d let me, I should like to make amends.  Could you fancy a dinner in Cardiff one evening?” 

Grandma, at nearly 60, still possessed abundant hair, smooth skin, an upright posture, and a sprightly walk.  There were potions for maintaining youth and beauty, too.  They sold well, though with more modest success for women who hadn’t started off with Grandma’s attributes.

“Thank you for your generosity,” Grandma said,  “but I must decline in such delicate circumstances, recently widowed, you know.  It wouldn’t be seemly.”

 “Ah…quite.   Understood.  A pleasure to meet you, Ma’am.  Sorry we shan’t meet again.”

“A married man, for sure,” Grandma said when she returned to the kitchen, “wanting a bit of carrying-on, a common failing among the male sex.  It’s a rare one of them decent enough to refrain, and even the decent can be persuaded.  The inclination’s in all of them.  Have you noticed that no man wears a wedding ring?”

“It’s not the custom in Wales.”

“And who do you suppose decreed it wouldn’t be the custom, and for what reason?  Ponder that, Arianwen.”

“Did Grandpa really come here recently as DCI Rolands said?”

“He did, one afternoon while you were at school.  Wanted to reconcile, if you please.  Fallen on hard times, he said, and come to beg my forgiveness. ‘Go and beg at the roadside,’ I told him, and I sent him packing, as you heard me assure that detective.  From the goodness of my heart, I did give him half a loaf of bara brith, a favorite he never could resist, but I warned him, ‘You’ll eat nothing more from my hand ever again.’  Now, Arianwen, let’s be light-hearted and go blackberry picking.”

Grandma baked an excellent bara brith, stuffed with sultanas, raisins, and dried cherries, and frequently gave a loaf to one of her clients that contained additional ingredients to those required in the recipe.  It was a pleasant and easy way to ingest a remedy—or, I now thought, an untraceable poison, if need be.  But she also baked perfectly innocuous bara briths for Mam and me and kept a batch in the pantry.  Surely she had given one of those to Grandpa.  After all, she couldn’t have known in advance that he would visit.  Could she?

Grandma and I lived in the countryside on the outskirts of Llanadwen, in an old stone cottage standing on the road to town. In the garden surrounding it, Grandma grew herbs for her remedies and flowers for her potions and, more mundanely, vegetables for our own consumption.  Beyond the garden were fields and woods, and the path I cycled on to school every day in fine weather, passing hedgerows filled with honeysuckle, trees filled with birds, blithely singing.  On days when the rain poured and the wind blustered, which were frequent in Wales, I stayed home.  I could have waved down the school bus but Grandma always said, “Go or not, it’s up to you,” and I preferred not, and instead spent those stormy days in our cozy, aromatic kitchen, helping her chop ingredients and writing labels for her jars: “For toothache,” “For headache,” “For stomachache,” “For heartache.”

She also allowed me to take down the rare old books on the shelf by the window and sit at the table turning pages.  They were all of them on necromantic subjects and the texts were beyond me, but the copies of pen-and-ink drawings of myriad plants, herbal and flowering, were detailed and exquisite.  She had acquired them from her friend Nudd Awen who kept the Thirteen O’ Clock bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, and who also advised her on purchases, “being a learned man himself, steeped in matters arcane,” Grandma said.  He was another man with an inclination for Grandma, but she respected him more than the rest.  In fact, Mam and I guessed he’d aroused inclination in her, for she always came home in a merry mood, with her hat askew and curls escaping from her bun, and saying, “He brews a formidable elderberry wine, Nudd.”

One afternoon when I was mitching school, we were chatting as we worked about my father’s plan to marry the woman he’d been courting for several years.

“She’ll be your stepmother,” Grandma said.  “She’ll always be there when you visit.  Tell me if you won’t like that and I can put a stop to her.”

I thought of Grandpa’s mysterious death and answered, “She’s nice enough.  She makes Dad happy.”

            “His happiness or lack of it is unimportant,” Grandma said.  “Tell me if she ever isn’t nice to you.”  She frequently told my mother and me she would do anything for us, no exceptions, even if she had to be unscrupulous. 

In her defense against the implications in that last word, it’s important to say, she helped a lot more people than she hindered.  Her herbal remedies were extolled.  People came from all over to seek her aid when doctors had failed them.  Her love potions had changed hearts and minds in favor of those previously unnoticed or spurned. 

In the afternoons, by appointment only, she gave private consultations, reading palms, or tealeaves, or the Tarot, customer’s preference.  She always sent the applicants away happy, for she told only the good news directly, euphemizing the bad in a manner that pleased rather than disturbed.  For example, seeing the lethal mark that struck across Mr. Dakin’s lifeline, she said, “You’re destined to make an unexpected journey quite soon, Dewi bach.  Put your affairs in order before you leave this country,” and Mr. Dakin went home believing that his son in Australia would send for him at last, or he might win the football pools and embark on a world cruise.

Her Friday night séances packed our parlor, so renowned was she for her ability to summon the spirits of departed loved ones to comfort the grieving.  I had often peeked in on these gatherings and seen how she enthralled her audience, speaking in voices not her own, male as well as female, children’s too, and even a baby’s babble.  On one occasion when I was eavesdropping behind the half open parlor door, she barked like a dog.  Not because anyone had wanted to call up a departed pet.  They all wanted humans, but as Grandma explained to Mrs. Evans, the supplicant, spirits don’t always come back in human form.  “Didn’t you notice,” she said, “that although Eurin sounded like a dog, the pitch and tone of his barking were human?” 

Women were nodding their heads in agreement with Grandma, except Mrs. Evans, who said, “I can’t believe that was my husband.”

“Then tell me this,” Grandma said.  “Didn’t he breed Welsh corgis? Dog fanciers came from all over to buy his pups.” 

The audience was nodding vehemently now, and Mrs. Prosser the Public House said, “I bought one from him myself, Maisie, a lovely girl doggie.”

“He had an affinity with canines.  Why shouldn’t he come back as one?

Mrs. Evans said, “I want Eurin to come back human so he can speak to me.”

“He did speak to you,” Grandma replied, “ in dog language, that I can interpret.  He asked me to tell you he’s happy.  There’s a lovely green meadow he frolics in, and sunshine all the time, and he said he’ll tell you more next week.  Now, see here, he won’t come again if he thinks you’re disappointed in him.”

“You want him to come again, Nell,” Mrs. Jones the Post Office said.

“I suppose I can get used to it,” Mrs. Evans said.  “As long as I don’t have to bark back to him.”

One way and another Grandma made a lot of money.  With my father’s contribution added, and my mother’s salary, we were well off, and Grandma spoiled me with everything I wanted. “Name it and it shall be yours, delight of my life.”

She’d told Mam the same, only changing the pronouns. “Just name him and you shall have him.”

But my mother didn’t hold with love potions.  “If a man is attracted to me, I’d prefer it didn’t happen through devious means.”

 “But you’re making no effort to attract, teaching and living in a girls’ school like a nun in a convent.  You’ve got my looks even though you’re not favored with my powers.  Men would be drawn if you gave them a chance.  So what’s wrong, Lili? You’re too young to be celibate.  Let me help.”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Mam said.  “I just haven’t met anyone I fancy.”

Until she did.  Mr. Islwyn Trefethic taught History at Llanadwen Grammar where I was a student. His daughter Crystin was in Form Four like me, and one of my best friends.  Every year, he co-directed the annual school play with Mrs. Dawes, our English teacher.  When we performed Lady of Marvels in June of my fifteenth year, Grandma and Mam came to see it.  I’d obtained a small part as handmaiden to the heroine Lady Rhiannon who, in The Mabinogion legend, brings about all that she wishes for, including a change of husbands, by the power of her magic.  Mrs. Dawes introduced the performance, and at the end, Mr. Trefethic gave the thank yous, to her, to the cast, and to the audience, and presented Mrs. Dawes with a bouquet and a bow.

As we walked home, Grandma said, “I approve the theme of Lady of Marvels.  A person shouldn’t be tied to a spouse he or she is not happy with.  You spoke your line well, Arianwen.  I hope you absorbed its wisdom.”

My single line, apart from a lot of saying, “Yes, M’Lady,” and curtsying, was, “Lady Rhiannon, go where your heart already resides.”

“Who chose that play?”

“It was Mr. Trefethic’s turn this year.”

“Ah, interesting.  I wonder if he had a personal reason.”

My mother said, “Mr. Trefethic is a fine figure of a man.  Courteous and well- spoken, too.  I could fancy him if—”

“Could you, Lili fach?” Grandma was thrilled.  “Ages since you’ve said that.” 

“You didn’t let me finish, Mam.  If he wasn’t married, I was going to say.”

“Married!” Grandma’s tone was scornful.  With our family history, she had no looks on marriage. “That can easily be put out of the way.  Husbands leave their wives.  Didn’t mine?  Didn’t yours?”

“And you called them both rotten for it, proper bewtis, you said, we were better off without them.  ‘Decent men don’t behave so’ were your exact words.”

“Don’t behave so without reason, I should have said.  Given a reason, a decent man can be persuaded.  And I have the means to persuade.”

“Don’t meddle with Mr. Trefethic.  I won’t take a man from his lawful wife.”

 “Lawful is a shackling word, Lili lovely.  It means a person is bound, that’s all.  Is he happily married?  I noticed his wife didn’t come to see the play he directed.  From what I hear, she hasn’t been seen  with him in the past year. What do make of that?”

“Nothing,” Mam said.  “It’s not my business.  It’s not yours either.”

It was not my mother’s official weekend off.  She’d come on Friday to see me in the play.  Next morning, she was leaving.  As we stood on our doorstep, waving as she got into the taxi that would take her to her train, I said, “That’s a coincidence, isn’t it?  Me being best friends with Crystin and Mam thinking she could fancy her father.”

 “It’s a sign, Arianwen, not a coincidence,” Grandma said. “Some things are meant to be.  We only have to study how to facilitate their happening. Now get ready.  Your bus will be here soon.”

Every Saturday I went to Llanadwen to meet my friends and go to a film matinee at the Queen’s Theater Royal and to Bracchi’s Café afterward to drink cappuccinos and flirt with boys from school, and then we girls went to Crystin’s house to play records in her huge bedroom and practice the latest dances she was learning from her private Dance and Deportment teacher.  Mr. Trefethic made us welcome and didn’t complain about noise.  Mrs. Trefethic hadn’t appeared in a long while. 

“I am ready,” I said.

“Not if you want to pack your pajamas.”      

“Really, I can stay the night with Crystin?” She had never let me before.  Previously, she’d wanted me home on the 9 o’ clock bus that dropped me opposite our cottage.  I raced upstairs to pack an overnight bag.

As she accompanied me down the path, the motive for Grandma’s change of mind emerged.  She said, “I’ m allowing this on one condition, Arianwen.  I want you to observe Mrs. Trefethic.  She must show herself eventually if you’re there until morning. Watch her behavior to Mr. Trefethic.  I want a report when you return.”

That night, when the other girls left, I had supper with Crystin in her kitchen.  Mr. Trefethic joined us.  Mrs. Trefethic did not.  I’d had no glimpse of her thus far. After supper, Crystin went to say goodnight to her mother wherever she’d sequestered herself, and I went up to my friend’s room to unpack my bag.  I’d be leaving next morning after breakast.  I hoped Mrs. Trefethic would remain as reclusive as always, sparing me the role of spy and informant.

Then Crystin came in.  “Ari, my Mam wants to speak to you,” she said.  “She’ll come to you in the parlor.”

When I was seated on the parlor sofa, Mrs. Trefethic came in.  Immediately, I saw why she’d kept to herself for a year.  Her left side was partially paralyzed, her arm dangling uselessly, her leg managing, with difficulty, to limp.

“I’m sorry to shock you, Arianwen,” she said.  “I had a stroke last year, and I avoid people since then, but I want to consult you.”  With a heavy, clumsy movement, she lowered herself down beside me. “It’s well known that your grandmother is a healer.  Many people in Llanadwen claim she has cured them.  I’m wondering if she can do anything for me.  I’ve given up on the medical profession.”

“I don’t think she can, Mrs. Trefethic.” I said, for it struck me that Grandma might take her condition as proof of an unhappy marriage—a burden to Mr. Trefethic, she might say—and thus reason for the meddling Mam forbade. “She’s had no experience with strokes.  She might prescribe a treatment that will do you no good.”

“Ah well, even if her remedy doesn’t help it can do no harm.  Will you tell her of my condition and ask her to think about me?”

“Their marriage might still be happy,” I said when I’d given Grandma the message.  “My Chemistry teacher had a stroke three years ago and it hasn’t stopped her from living a good life.”  She’d never consulted Grandma either, being a believer in science like Mam.

“Obviously, Mrs. Trefethic’s life is no good,” Grandma replied. “I can work with that. Leave me, Arianwen.  I need to consult my reference books.” As I went out of the kitchen, she was muttering, “…focus on persuading him…before I deal with….”

Next morning, one of her tomes lay on the kitchen table, a sprig of lovage inside it as a bookmark.  Grandma was out gathering herbs so I opened it. The chapter title on this page, To Achieve Desired Effects on the Subject’s Mind by Supernal Telepathy, worried me, but when I read on I found this: “The power weakens as distance increases. Therefore, the first task is to draw the subject near, to within a radius of one mile.”  She would never be within a mile of Mr. Trefethic.  His house was five miles from ours, Llanadwen School was three, and nowhere in between where a meeting was likely.  My mind was at rest.

The following Friday, when my mother arrived, she said, “Sorry I’m late. You’ll never guess who I met in town.  Islwyn Trefethic stopped  me in High Street. ‘It’s Arianwen’s mother, isn’t it?’ he said, and after we’d chatted a few minutes about interests we share as teachers, he invited me to have a cup of coffee at Bracchi’s café. By the way, Mam, he appreciates the bara brith loaf you left in his office as thanks for Arianwen staying the night.”

“So the two of you found out how much you have in common.”

“Not so much that we’ll become more than friends,” Mam said, “so you can take that smug look off your face.”

But I was worried again.  By being in my teacher’s office and thus achieving the proximity supernal telepathy required, and through ingredients in her bara brith—a potent combination—Grandma had aroused Mr. Trefethic’s inclination.  He would want to be more than friends.  Shouldn’t I warn my mother?  But then I’d cause ructions between her and Grandma, and Grandma would turn on me, the telltale.  We three had never quarreled.  How dreadful might the outcome be?  Trepidation was stronger than conscience.  I chose to remain silent and guilty.

Three weeks passed.  My mother continued to arrive late on Fridays.  I continued to worry whether Mr. Trefethic’s inclination would evoke hers.  Grandma made no further comment to Mam.  She’d once told me, “Enchantment is like a seed, Arianwen.  When planted, it thrives best in the dark.

In the first week of July, a new an pleasing occurrence diverted me.  Riding my bike to and from school, I was used to seeing country creatures, cows, horses, and lambs in the fields, a variety of birds in the trees.  Cycling home on Monday afternoon, I met a blackbird perched in a hazelnut tree, singing so thrillingly, I stopped to listen, enraptured, until he flew away into the wood.

He returned next morning and again in the afternoon. That blackbird continued to appear every morning and afternoon that week, on the same branch and at the same times that I passed by.  On Wednesday morning I stopped my bike and whistled back to him, to the tune of If I was a blackbird.  The actual blackbird had fallen silent, listening, his bright, intelligent-seeming gaze fixed on me.  Then he recommenced singing, and the tune indeed mimicked the one I had introduced.

I knew from an early age that I was to inherit Grandma’s gifts, and one of them, as I’ve said, was communicating with non-verbal creatures.  Might this punctual and constant blackbird be proof that my power was coming?  Might I be making a new friend?  I decided to give him a name to see where that got me.  “Telor!” I called that afternoon.  It was an old Welsh name for boys meaning Singer.  “Telor, come with me!” and I started cycling homewards, looking back to see if he was following.  He was not.  He stayed perched on his branch, but his head was turned to look after me.

At home, I told Grandma, “There’s a blackbird I meet on the path every day.  He sings to me, and he sounds almost human, as if he were carrying a tune.  I whistled If I was a blackbird, and I swear he whistled it back to me.”

Grandma stopped stirring the pot simmering on the stove and gave me her full attention.  “It’s a sign at last.  Your power is sprouting.”

“That’s my hope, Grandma.  But the power isn’t strong in me.  I wanted to bring him home to live in our linden tree but he wouldn’t follow.”

“You’re not versed in the procedure for attraction. Here’s what you do.  Tomorrow afternoon, take a slice of bara brith.  When your bird appears, tear the slice into pieces and toss them under his tree.  He will swoop down and consume them.  Then start cycling home, scattering more crumbs behind you.  To strengthen the spell, whistle the blackbird tune also.  He will follow.”

I did as she instructed and Telor did as she’d predicted, pecking up the bara brith crumbs and then coming after me.  When I entered the garden, he flew to the linden tree and perched on a branch.

In the kitchen, Grandma was at the window.  “Do you see him?” I said, expecting her to be pleased, but the face she turned on me was scowling.

“We’ve made a dreadful mistake, Arianwen.  You’ve heard of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  That thing out there is a bad love clothed in blackbird feathers.”

“No, Grandma, you’re mistaken!” I cried.  “Telor is a good creature.  His nature is joyful and friendly.  There’s a rapport between us.”

“Now hark to me, genethig,” she said, “and as I’ve always known what’s best, believe me.  See how that blackbird is larger than most of his kind? Observe his proud way of holding his head up and pointing his beak high.  Notice, too, a trace of unusual white feathers around his neck.”

“All features that make him so rare and handsome.”

“He was handsome, I’ll grant him that, and he did have a fine singing voice.  His wing-tip collars were always pristine.  His comportment was that of a man full of himself.”

“You think the blackbird is Grandpa!”

“He’s come back to haunt me as I foresaw at his graveside.  You haven’t come into your power after all.  You’re as easily beguiled as the next giftless person.  He’s using you as a pawn in some plot he’s hatching.  Look how he’s preening himself and taunting me.”  On his perch, Telor was whistling and singing with gusto.

“I have to stop him, but I must bring him close to make that possible.  It will require craft and ingenuity.  Tomorrow I’ll confer with Nudd.”

That evening while she was holding a séance, I went down to the linden tree.  Telor was asleep, his head under his wing.  I called his name and he untucked himself and looked down at me.

 “You can’t stay here, alas,” I told him.  “You must go far away.  My Grandma has dark intent towards you.”

He was listening.  He’d cocked his head to one side.  His golden-rimmed eyes gazed at me gravely.  Then he raised himself up, spread his glossy wings, and sprang into the sky, soon to vanish in the direction of the woods.

Next morning, Grandma dressed in her going-out clothes, a fitted gray silk costume that showed off her figure, lavender velvet lapels on the jacket, a bunch of fresh-picked lavender in the brim of her jaunty boater.  She would take the bus to Hay, in the opposite direction from Llanadwen where she never went.  “What need?  I have no wish to meet in High Street clients I see often enough on my doorstep.” Beuno Bevan, the dairy farmer, brought milk, cheese, and eggs, and our other food supplies were delivered by Dafi the Co-Op, both going out of their way in service to Grandma.

“No need to consult Nudd,” I said.  “The blackbird’s gone.  Look out of the window.”

Not seeing Telor didn’t convince her.  “Your Grandpa was wily.  He’s hiding, thinking to fool me.  He’ll be back.”

What if she was half right, and Telor, pining for me, did return?  I decided to stay home from school and keep watch.  Morning wore into afternoon and he didn’t reappear.  I missed him, but I felt mre glad than sad.  I had saved my friend’s life.

Grandma came in, perfectly sober.  She had work afoot.  “Nudd was most helpful as usual,” she said.  “He advised me that you must be my proxy, Arianwen.  I will inject the antidote to your Grandpa’s malevolence into a loaf of bara brith.  You must scatter the crumbs on the window ledge, and I must go out, Nudd says, so he doesn’t sniff my vengeful olfactory aura.  Now, where is that bird of ill omen?” and she strode across the kitchen to the back window.

“He seems to have gone, Grandma,” and in the nick of time.

“Indeed he has not.  Come and see.”

Telor was perched in the linden tree.  When he saw me, he burst into song with as much hywl as ever.  Either he had failed to understand my message, or his attachment to me was too strong for his blackbird brain to rule his blackbird heart.

“How he defies me,” she said.  “It will take only a minute for me to do what I must, and then it will be up to you, genethig,” and she went into the pantry.

As I waited, I thought of Grandma’s endearment genethig that meant “little girl” or “maiden,” a pure and innocent creature.  A maiden I was, and pure, I hoped, but innocent no longer.  Recent events had brought new knowledge, and with it had come dissidence.  Standing at the kitchen window, listening to Telor sing, I knew I must pit my fledgling power against her virtuosity.

 Behind me, she said, “I’m ready.” 

She had placed the loaf of bara brith on the table.  “Let him see you tearing pieces from it and spreading them on the window ledge.  Then call him.  He’ll come to you.  I’m going to spend the afternoon with Nudd.  He’s promised to explain his latest research, alchemy applied to humans.  So intriguing!  Such an advanced inquiry!  An occultist non pareil is Nudd.  Whn I return, I expect to see an evil spirit laid.”

I watched until I saw her board the bus.   Then I went down to the linden tree where Telor waited.  How could I make him go?  A notion came to me: the best way to communicate with a bird must be through song.  I stood back, throat raised, and sang a ballad I’d learned in Music at school, changing some of the words to fit the circumstances: “Here lives a woman fair to see/ Take care, oh take care!/ She can both false and friendly be/ Beware! Beware!/ Trust her not/She intends harm to thee.”

“Do you understand this time?” I asked him.  “You must go away and not come back, never, ever.  This is farewell, dear friend.”

As before, he cocked his head.  Then—I swear!—he nodded.  Emitting two long, piercing notes, as if to sound the two sad syllables of farewell, he opened his magnificent wings, flapped them like flags waving, and rose into the sky, swiftly to become a mere black speck.

I scattered bara brith crumbs on the window ledge in case Grandma returned, and then I rode my bike to the tree where I’d met Telor.  There was no sign of him.  I had imparted my warning successfully.  The first of my gifts had materialized.

 “Is it done?” Grandma asked as soon as she came into the kitchen, and seeing the bara brith crumbs, “Where is his corpse? Death should have been instantaneous.”

“He didn’t come near.  But he has been gone since shortly after you left.”

 “My olfactory vengeance must have lingered,” she said, “and alerted him.  Possibly, it was sufficient to frighten him away forever.  All the better.  I prefer not to use extreme measures so long as we are rid of him.”

Loyalty to Telor impelled me to contradict her.  “You’re wrong, Grandma, Telor wasn’t Grandpa.  Proof is that I never loved Grandpa and I did love my blackbird.  You wanted to kill my first creature friend.”

“He was a trickster, genethig hoff.  I will get you a real creature friend, a lamb to raise, or a puppy dog.  Not a kitten, mind.  Cats are self-serving and crafty.  They tell more lies than truth.”

And like you, the have no qualms about killing birds, I thought.

In the evening, Mam arrived.  It was her weekend. She was even later than usual. This time, Grandma questioned her.  “Another coffee tête-à-tête? You’ve met quite a few times now.  Any progress to report?”

“Not of the kind you hoped for.  I’ve told Islwyn we can’t meet so.”

“Can’t meet? Darling silly Lili, that’s perverse.  You’re denying true love.”

“I don’t know about true love.  It is true I was tempted, but here’s what I’ve learned, Mam.  Allure can’t win over a firm conscience, and I’ve discovered I have one. I’m late because I went with Islwyn to meet his wife.  She asked me to bring her to see you.   I did my best to dissuade her, but she’s determined.  They’re outside.  She’s slow walking from the car so I’ve hurried ahead to warn you to deal fairly with her.”

“They’re on the path,” I said.  I was near the front kitchen window so I saw.

Mam left the kitchen, saying, “Best I get out of the way now.  Don’t do her harm, Mam.”

Grandma came beside me to watch Mrs. Trefethic approach on her husband’s arm. “Should a woman be living in such misery?” she muttered, and then, “Firm conscience, my arse.  She had to get out of the way.  Of course allure triumphs.  My mistake was dealing only with his scruples and overlooking hers.”  She went to open the front door.

“A good day to you both,” she said, “though I can see it isn’t for you, Madam.  A sorry state you’re in, alack.”

“We’ve come, Mrs. Cadwallader,” Islwyn Trefethic said, “to ask you to help my wife.  Specialists say they can do nothing more.  We hope you can.  You are our last resort.”

“From now on, I shall be your first,” Grandma said. “Don’t worry, for certain I can aid you.  Will you walk into my parlor?  We’ll confer.”  She ushered them in and then shut the door on me, saying, “Private.”

My mother called me upstairs.  In the bedroom we shared, she said,  “Pack your belongings.  You’re coming to Hereford.”

“My belongings!  How long am I coming for?”

“Indefinitely. We have to part from Grandma, Arianwen.  She believes she’s infallible and that can lead her into dire mistakes.  She’s about to make one with Mrs. Trefethic.  The only way to stop her is to remove her motive, and that’s what I am.  I have to keep away from Llanadwen, and keep you from her bad influence. You’ll live with me and attend Lady Hawtrey’s.”

A few weeks ago, my mother’s decision would have plunged me into anguish.  I would have rebelled fiercely.  Now I felt no roiling emotion.  What she said was true. Believing her judgment impeccable, Grandma had intended to murder Telor and make me her accomplice. The outcome would certainly have been dire for Telor…and in a different way, for me.  It would hurt me to part from her.  But I no longer trusted her.  I started bringing my clothes to the suitcase my mother had opened on the bed.

When I’d packed and we went downstairs, Grandma was in the kitchen chopping herbs.  “I’ve diagnosed Mrs. Trefethic,” she said, “and she’s agreed to the treatment I’ve prescribed.  I’m making up her first dose now.  Arianwen can give it to Mr. Trefethic at school on Monday.”

“Arianwen won’t be going to school on Monday.  I’m taking her to Hereford to live with me.  And you can stop your chicanery with Mrs. Trefethic.  I won’t be showing my face in Llanadwen for a very long time.”

Grandma dropped her knife.  She slumped in her chair as if Mam had punched her. “Don’t speak so, Lili!  Don’t break my heart.  How can I change your mind?”

“By changing yours,” Mam said.  “At present you’re a dangerous woman, and negligent too, regarding Arianwen. Her academic record is patchy, Islwyn informed me. ‘It’s all the days she’s missed,’ he said, ‘due to her chronic anemia.’”

“It was only in bad weather I kept her—”

“Excuses won’t serve.  I’m not blameless, either.  I’ve been leaving it all to you.  Now I’m taking over.  A sound education will cure her anemia.”

Next morning, my mother woke me at seven o’ clock.  “It’s too early,” I grumbled.  “Town Taxis won’t be open.”

“Grandma will phone a local man.  Get washed and dressed.”

“Grandma is calling someone?  But she doesn’t want me to leave.”

“She wants to get on my good side.”

When we went downstairs, Grandma was coming from the parlor where the rarely use black telephone perched in a dark corner.  It existed only for emergencies.  Words sent into air, she opined, were subject to baleful forces.

In the kitchen, she said, “I will show you I’ve changed, Lili.  I’ll put Mrs. Trefethic on a course of healing remedies.  By summer’s end she’ll be so much improved, I trust you’ll let Arianwen come back to me.”  She hugged me and whispered, “I’ll be sending you a sign sooner, cariad.  Heed it.”

A car horn hooted.  “How could he come so fast?” Mam said.  “It’s only minutes since you rang.”

“I told you he’s local.”

“But the nearest local houses are still closer to Llanadwen.”

“It’s an out-of-the-way house in the opposite direction.  Do you intend to cross-examine me, Lili, on such a trivial matter?”

“Come on,” Mam said to me.  She wheeled my suitcase.  I carried two bags.  All my possessions were in that luggage, but my heart lagged behind.  I had to rip it away from Grandma.  She stood in the garden as we went down the path.  Our driver was a stranger.  I’d never seen him before.  But then, as we got nearer, he looked somewhat familiar…as if I had seen him, but not often enough, or too long ago, to place him.

He  bid us, “A good new morning to you, ladies,” and gave Grandma an army salute as if she were a general and he reporting for duty.  As he stowed my bags in his trunk, I looked back at Grandma, weeping, waving a spray of rue and rosemary she’d plucked.  Their symbolism was for my mother’s benefit, but Mam wasn’t moved.  “Get in, Arianwen,” she said.  “No need to prolong Grandma’s melodrama.”

As we drove towards town, our driver said, “Going to Hereford, I hear.”

“I teach there,” Mam said, “I’m taking my daughter to live with me.”

“Hereford’s a fine city, wara teg, but there’s no beating the Welsh countryside.  Your girl will suffer heraith, I’ll wager.  Tell you what, I’ll give her a memento to take with her,” and he startled us by bursting into song.

It was a well known lament he gave us, that ended with a promise: “We’ll keep a welcome in the hillsides/ We’ll keep a welcome in the vales/ This land you knew will still be singing/ When you come home again to Wales.”  I was nearly in tears.  He couldn’t have picked a song more likely to make we want to rush back to Grandma.

“You have a fine voice,” Mam said.  “Your choice of song, however—”

“Lead tenor in Llanadwen Male Voice Choir.  People pay well to hear us, but I’ll give you ladies a free concert out of my fondness and esteem for your mother.”

“You’re a neighbor of hers,” Mam said, “and yet I haven’t met you before.”

“There was no call before.  Now, young miss looking so melancholy, what song would you like to hear?”  In his rear view mirror, his dark eyes framed by gold-rimmed glasses were looking at me keenly. 

“She doesn’t want another, thank you.  You’re upsetting her.”

“I do want another!”  I was beginning to suspect this driver was more than he appeared.

“I’ll give you one about a blackbird.  Listen well now,” and as we entered the town he sang, “Morning has broken, like the first morning/ Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird/ Praise be the singing/ Praise be the morning.”  His fine, thrilling voice soared out of the open windows onto the summer air, people in High Street pausing, lifting their heads to listen.

There was a message in that song, and I looked more closely at the driver, noticing his longish black hair, glossy with Brylcreem, his white shirt collar under a black pullover, and the way the way he held up his head, proud of his singing.

As we arrived at the station, I said, “You sing like a blackbird.”

Well that’s a fine compliment,” he said as he unloaded my luggage, giving no hint that he’d heard any insinuation in my remark. Yet, as far as it was possible for a human, he resembled Telor.  He wasn’t a reincarnation, for Telor was still living.  He was a carrier, just as Grandma’s bara brith was a carrier, albeit unbeknownst to its loafy self.  This human carrier knew what he was up to.  And I knew him.

I’ll be sending a sign.  Heed it.

Only one person Grandma would trust with her message; only one person possessing the remarkable skill of transmutation, “alchemy applied to humans.”  It was prearranged via a late night emergency call after Mam announced our departure.  He was already homing in when Grandma pretended to make her morning request.

“Don’t forget, ‘Far away a voice is calling,’” he said to me as we left him.  It was the first line of We’ll Keep A Welcome.

“What a peculiar chap,” Mam said.  “No wonder he’s friends with Grandma. Birds of a feather.”

On the Hereford train, I decoded the lyrics of his blackbird song.  “The first morning,” and “the first bird,” alluded to the first morning I met Telor, my first bird friend.  First also meant more to come. There would be other mornings, other blackbird encounters, unhindered by dark intent.  Grandma had let me know her remorse.

When a second taxi had dropped us at the school gates and we were going along the winding path to Lady Hawtrey’s mansion, my mother said, “You can stay with me in my flat until you feel settled in.  Do you remember how much you liked those woods outside my back door?  We picked hazelnuts and went bird-watching.”

Everyone lived in the mansion house, the girls’ dormitories on an upper floor, the teachers’ small flats on the ground floor.  It was a long time since I’d visited my mother’s flat, preferring to spend my Saturdays in Llanadwen with my friends.  Now I recalled the many birds in those woods, blackbirds among them.

“I made friends with a blackbird on the path to school,” I told her.  “I taught him to whistle, If I was a blackbird.  Can you believe that?”

“Blackbirds are famous for their mimicry, usually of other birds.  Mimicking a human voice is less likely…but not impossible, I suppose.”

Definitely possible if that human knows how to connect.  I’d practice during the summer.  “I’ll enjoy hearing the birds sing.  I’ll miss Grandma terribly though.”

“She has to show she misses you and me sufficiently to alter.”

“She will.  Grandma’s always said she’ll do anything for us.”

I would be with her by summer’s end.  Meanwhile, I would branch out on my own in the woods at Lady Hawtrey’s.  Telor’s kin would be safe to draw near with a natural sciences teacher and a creature-communicator as neighbors.  In time, I might train a whole choir of blackbirds to sing in unison….

If I were staying, I reminded myself.


Roberta Murphy was born and grew up in Wales, the setting for this story.  She now resides in the U.S.A.  Her two novels were published in the U.K.  Her short stories have appeared in the U.S. in two anthologies, The Best American Short Stories and Abundant Grace, and in many literary reviews including The Baltimore Review, Feminist Studies, The Georgia Review, Harvard Review, MSS, Nimrod, Rosebud and The Chaffin Journal.  She has been the recipient of an NEA grant for Creative Writing. 

Daddy’s Blues by Kelly Ward

art by Josh Newton

The creek was cold and hungry, the rapid sucking at Billie’s toes as he waded in the water.

            Minnows darted in every direction across the black slate rock of the creek bed. The water was muddied from last night’s storm, the silt trickling past his ankles to collect in muck further down the creek. Tadpoles flickered through the shallows, and a baby crawdad scurried backwards beneath the sandstone along the creek’s edge. Billie watched the cloud of mud slowly feather out from the rock wall like a deep sigh in the crawdad’s wake.

            A screen door slammed shut over the creek bank, echoing, and Billie turned his head at the sound. Ellie was shouting for him from their trailer on the other side of the bank.

            “Billie! I got your gown ironed! Where are you? Do you wanna be late for your own graduation?”

            Billie waded out of the creek and sat in the soft grass where his socks and shoes were. His high school graduation was in one hour, and there he was, in a creek.

            He tugged his socks onto his wrinkly feet as Ellie hollered and searched for him, but  paused when he realized both of his feet were blue.

            The creek hiccupped around the slate rock. Billie stared at his feet. There was no mistaking the bruised tone of his toes, the bridges of his feet, and both of his ankles. The creek water had been cold, but nowhere near cold enough to do this. Billie probed the stained skin, but felt no difference in texture. The closer he looked, he realized the wiry veins on top of his feet were darker, almost black, a spider web of elderberry blood pulsing beneath his skin.

            He wiggled his toes again, expecting to feel numbness or pain, but didn’t. He scrubbed at the flesh on his ankles with his socks, trying to rub off the blue color, but his socks stayed white. He knew what this blue was. He just didn’t know when it had started.

            Above him, the leaves of the poplars rustled together in a quick breeze. It almost smelled like cigarette smoke was floating out of the forest of kudzu across the creek. Ellie called for him.     Billie shoved his feet into his socks and sneakers and left the creek bank.

#

            His time on the graduation stage lasted ten seconds. Ten seconds was walking across stage to generic applause, shaking clammy hands, eyes roving to the next student in line, a pat on the back to move on from the spotlight—hurry—and it was over and he was walking off the stage with a high school diploma that had his name spelled wrong on it.

            “Billy” Walker and Billie Walker just weren’t the same person.

#

            That night, Billie went to the graduation party at the quarry. He sat by the lake water in a circle with Carlisle, Hiram, and some other kids he knew but wasn’t friends with, passing a joint around until it was nothing but a skinny roach. Billie held an opened bottle of Bud Light in both of his hands but didn’t drink from it as he watched the water, and the condensation from the bottle drooled down his fingers, dripping onto the knees of his jeans.

            A small bon fire crackled from the circle. The fire crunched away on bits of plywood and pallets. Billie listened to the fuzzy sounds, his mind like cotton tugged apart, as the moonlight glistened mercury on the lake. Hiram offered Billie a cigarette and he declined.

            What his friends didn’t know was that although Billie didn’t smoke, he kept a half-pack of red Marlboro 72’s stuffed under his pillow on his bed, the plastic soft and crinkled from years of toying and care. The sweet smell of the old tobacco was sometimes the only thing that calmed him down when he woke up from a bad dream.

            Carlisle elbowed Billie then and said, “Watch this!” and picked up a big chunk of sandstone rock and hurled it into the lake. The rock plunked into the water and splashed some girls lounging by the shore. They screamed and laughed and threw handfuls of pebbles at Carlisle as the lake swallowed the sandstone.

            “Dude, you’ve barely touched your drink,” said Hiram.

            Billie handed him the full beer.

            He left the quarry and the warmth of the fire and the voices of the people he would probably never hear again just as bottle rockets sizzled into the night sky, screaming.

#

            A mile down the road from the quarry, Billie pulled his daddy’s Chevy truck over to the side of the road and lifted up his pant leg. The blue had spread up his leg, to his knees. It hadn’t even been a full day.

            An night owl watched as the boy clawed at his blue legs until they bled red.

#

            Every light was on inside the trailer when Billie got home. The front door was wide open. His mom’s Impala was parked crookedly in the front yard, the tire tracks biting deep into the earth where she’d cut the car through the overgrown flowerbed of day lilies and cone flowers.

            Billie took the porch steps three at a time and entered the trailer.

            He could hear Ellie’s bawling from their small bathroom at the end of the single-wide trailer, just beside their bedroom. One of the kitchen table chairs was jammed under the rattling door knob, and Ellie beat on the door from the other side.

            Billie surged down the hallway to their shared bathroom and started to knock the chair loose from the door when he realized a shadow leaned across him. He looked up and saw his mom standing in the doorway of their room, gripping his Little League baseball bat he always kept in the closet, her eyes so dilated they were pitch, cast iron skillets sitting in her eye sockets.

            “What the fuck is going on?” asked Billie. Ellie continued to beat on the bathroom door and bawl. “Are you high? Mom, have you lost your goddamn mind?”

            “It’s safer for her in there, baby,” said his mom. Her eyes lifted to the ceiling, down to the floor, to the corners of the hallway where the cobwebs lived and the shadows were darker. “I seen a demon on the roof when I got here. I knew it was after Ellie—it was calling her name. Ellie’s safer in the bathroom, baby. Cain’t you hear it, Billie?”

            “Give me the bat, Mom. There’s no demon. You’re high.”

            His mom turned from him and returned to his room. She mumbled to herself, and Billie watched her jump onto his bed and swing his ball bat at the ceiling, over and over, the thump of the bat against the popcorn ceiling like a heart beating so hard it could stop at any moment. Flakes of white rained down from the ceiling, dusting the open sores on her face like powdered sugar. She kept whispering to the ceiling, spittle flying from her lips as she beat a hole to the roof and Pink Panther insulation caved in, drooping thickly into her hair.

            She screamed and swatted at the insulation, the bat clattering out of her hands, and Billie dove for her, grabbing her by the waist and wrestling her off of his bed.

            She hit him with her fists, her elbows, her knees. She raked her long, yellowed nails down his arms and chips of red nail polish flaked off onto the fresh welts. She hollered from the deepest part of her throat, and Billie pinned her to the floor as she squirmed like a dying maggot and he shouted, “That’s enough, Geneva.”

            His mom went still beneath him, and Billie’s chest heaved.

            She whispered from the floor, her voice tangled in the threads of her hair sticking to her wet lips.

            “Cain’t you stop, Mom?” Billie felt his hands shaking as he held her shoulders down to the floor. “Why are you like this? Did you even know I graduated high school today?”

            “It had blue eyes like your daddy—that devil on the roof. Your daddy’s eyes, Billie. I seen it myself. Go look if you don’t believe me.”

            “Stop it, Mom.”

            “Your daddy always said ‘Geneva’ sounded like diamonds and gold. Ain’t that the prettiest thing you ever heard, Billie?”

            Billie pushed himself off of her, sitting back on the floor and covering his face in his hands. As his mom sobbed on the floor, he slid his hands over his ears and squeezed his eyes so tight the dark began to turn to color.

#

            Together, they helped their mom back to her bedroom. Billie carried her, and Ellie led the way, clearing things out of the floor so he could walk straight. She must have been at it with the bat through the whole house before he’d made it back. Every picture frame in the hall was knocked down, large holes were punctured through the particle board walls, and all the couch cushions and pillows in the living room were strewn across the floor like missing teeth. Ellie tried to pick things up as she went, and Billie knew the mess was eating at her.

            Billie lay his mom down on her bed and Ellie tucked her in with an old quilt. He tried  not to look at the track marks dotted between her fingers and along her bare ankles. While Ellie got her fixed up for the night, Billie went through all her drawers and found her pill bottles stashed between socks and underwear. He found small baggies of white powder, little pouches of crystal dope that looked like Pop Rocks. A yellowed syringe with its orange cap still on was rolled up in a thong. He flushed everything he could find down the toilet and left his mom in her dark bedroom for the night.

            “You hungry?” he asked, as Ellie sat at the kitchen table and sniffled.

            She shook her head, but Billie went to the freezer and pulled out a Red Baron cheese pizza anyway.

            “It ain’t Little Caesar’s, but it’s still good,” he said.

            Ellie started to cry. Twelve year olds weren’t supposed to cry the way that Ellie cried. Twelve year olds weren’t supposed to cook and iron and do the laundry and help organize the bills each month at the kitchen table. Twelve year olds weren’t supposed to be locked into bathrooms by their mothers out of fear of demons prowling on tin trailer rooftops.

            Billie sat down at the table beside her and pulled her scrawny body into his lap, folding her close against him with his arms holding her shut together. She was too big to hold, her knees and elbows jutting into him, but Billie’s arms were bigger, always bigger, and he held her anyway. She bawled into his shirt. A dandelion puff was still tangled in her loose, knotted hair from where she’d been playing outside before their mom got home.

            Billie’s diploma was on the kitchen table beside him. An orange Nehi lay on its side on the scratched table and pop soaked the right half of his certificate.

            “You won’t leave me, will you?” asked Ellie. “Don’t leave me here with Mom. I can go with you if you move out. I don’t blame you if you leave. Just please don’t leave me here alone, Billie.”

            “Hush. I ain’t leaving. I won’t ever leave if I can help it.”

            “That’s what Daddy always said.”

            “Quit your crying, El. Come on. Let’s go outside.”

            Ellie pulled her face out of his chest. Snot stuck to her cheeks and chin. He wiped her face with his t-shirt like he used to when they were younger.

            He led her outside. Night song filled the dark holler: bullfrogs croaked from the creek and ground crickets hummed from the earth. A whippoorwill sang from the woods, and the scent of honeysuckle was sweet and lush in the air, growing in vines up a locust tree by the driveway.

            They went to the creek behind the trailer and Billie started to kick his shoes off before he remembered his legs were blue, so he stepped into the water with his sneakers on. He lay down on the slate rock of the shallow creek bed and let the cold water run over him, soaking into his clothes and chilling his skin.

            “Lie down in the creek, Ellie. You can hear the heartbeat of the mountains this way.”

            Ellie got into the creek and lay beside him, the shock of the cold water wearing off as she settled into the slick rock bed. Her breath came out in one big shudder, and she found his hand on the slate.

            “Wow,” she said, listening.

            The sound of mountain water rushed past their ears.

#

            Billie woke up to a frog staring him in the face in the dark. He sat up in the creek and saw the moon hanging high in the sky. His wet clothes sucked on his skin, and the night breeze chilled every exposed part of him. Ellie was asleep in the creek beside him, snoring softly.

            For a moment, he sat there in the creek water and stared into the woods that hugged the holler. Choked out by crawling kudzu and Virginia creeper, it was almost impossible to see past the first line of trees. He watched the shadows for a time before he turned around to stare at the roof of the trailer. In the dark, shadows were lazier, figures uncoiling and drifting with the slant of moonlight. The shadows almost looked like a person crawling across the tin roof, searching for a way inside the trailer.

            Billie tore his eyes away from the dark. He nudged Ellie awake, and after several tries, she finally stirred. She mumbled under her breath, eyelids heavy. Billie led her back into the trailer where she changed into warm pajamas and crawled into bed. Billie showered, the hot water scalding his sore arms and burning his skin pink, but it did nothing for the blue skin of his legs. He traced the river of dark veins going down his thighs, into that soft, hidden flesh behind his knees.

            When he left the bathroom, he saw that a lamp was on in his mom’s bedroom. He shut his bedroom door to keep Ellie safe before going to his mom’s room.

            As soon as he stepped into her room, the acrid scent of his mom’s Eagle 20’s cigarettes tickled his nose. She always smoked the cheapest she could get her hands on. Water ran from the bathtub in her adjacent bathroom, and Billie stepped inside, steam enveloping him.

            “Mom?” he asked, but there was no response, so he walked on in and saw his mom sitting in the bathtub, the steaming water up to the tips of her bare breasts. Her clothes were in a pile by the toilet.

            She smoked a cigarette as she leaned back against the dirty tile wall, her wet, thin hair slicked back from her angled face. Her mascara rimmed her bloodshot eyes and dripped down her ruddy cheeks as she stared at the wall.

            Billie sat down on the closed toilet and watched his mom.

            “Like what you see?” she finally asked, smoke trailing out of her nose. “I bet you ain’t seen a woman like this before. You still a virgin, Billie?”

            Billie didn’t answer her. He was too busy counting the pockmarked sores all over her body, dotting her chest and arms and throat. She had as many sores as Ellie had freckles on her face, only these sores weren’t kisses from the sun.

            “Want a smoke? I can share.”

            “I don’t smoke.”

            “You’re missing out, hon. Smoking is almost just as good as sex. Your daddy sure smoked enough when you were young.”

            “Don’t talk about him,” said Billie, and his mom laughed, sliding deeper into the bathtub. The dirty water trembled around her.

            “Be a good son and wash your momma’s hair while you’re in here,” she said, shutting her eyes.

            Billie minded, leaning over the bathtub from his seat on the closed toilet. His mom had one bottle of shampoo and conditioner combined which was supposed to smell like cucumbers but didn’t. He lathered her head, his fingers probing her skull and combing through her thin hair. The ashes from the end of her cigarette crumbled into the bath water.

            “Don’t you ever scare Ellie again like you did tonight,” he said, rinsing the suds out of her hair. “I’ll take you to court. Get them to put Ellie in my custody. I won’t let you ever see her again.”

            The bath water ran over her head and long strands of her hair came loose in Billie’s fingers like cat’s cradle waiting to be played.

            “What’s stopping you, Billie?” she asked. “Do you really want to be Ellie’s daddy that bad, hon? Don’t you want to leave her behind and live your own sorry life somewhere away from here? You graduated today. What’s keeping you here? You really want to be like your daddy? Go on and leave, just like he did. See if Ellie cries for you. She’s used to us leaving her.”

            Billie rinsed out the last of the shampoo and turned the faucet off. His mom grabbed him by the wrist, and she clasped his hand over her breast in the water and said, “You want to be your daddy, huh? Your daddy used to touch me like this, you know.”

            She started at his zipper and Billie jerked away from her, knocking her cigarettes and Bic lighter off the edge of the bathtub. She laughed at him, sinking deeper into the bath water, until her cigarette puffed out in the water.

            “I wish I could feel sorry for you,” said Billie.

            “Me, too, baby.”

#

            He didn’t sleep. He sat against the locked door of his bedroom with his baseball bat over his knees and watched the curtains ruffle from the cracked window. He watched Ellie roll over in her sleep. A whippoorwill called out from the back yard, a song in the dark you hear without thinking. A shadow danced by the window outside in the darkness, and when the tree branches scratched the windowpane it sounded like sobbing.

#

            One of Billie’s favorite things to do when he was younger was unlacing his daddy’s steel-toe boots when he got home from work each night. His daddy worked at a steel factory in the next county over. He would sit in his recliner after he got home and Billie and Ellie would race to untie his boots the fastest. Billie could still smell the old, warm leather of those boot ties, and feel the dirty texture of the laces in his small fingers.

            When the boots were off, Billie and Ellie would see who could yank off their daddy’s tube socks first, and the anticipation of yanking on the toes of the tall socks always sent one of them tumbling backwards into the wall of the trailer, and their daddy would laugh until he cried. There was nothing like the sound of his daddy’s laughter in their home. It was rich and full and a living thing on its own, like a speckled hickory tree growing from the thin carpet of the trailer, its limbs unfurling to each cranny of the home. It was a sound that made you feel warm, hugged, remembered. Billie only wished he could laugh like his daddy.

#

            He used to wake up at dawn each morning just in time for his daddy to eat breakfast before leaving for work. His mom always fixed his daddy a plate of fried eggs, fried baloney, and two pieces of toast. She would dab at his daddy’s mouth with the corner of her dish towel after kissing him and they would both share a smile Billie pretended not to see. Billie, bleary-eyed from sleep, would crawl into his daddy’s lap and help sop up the egg yolk with his toast, swirling the bread around on the plate until nothing was left, and his daddy would tuck him back into bed and kiss him on the cheek, the feel of his rough stubble a comfort which would send him off to dreams.

#

            It happened sometime after his mom’s car accident, which kept her home all day from work with tiny pills for company, whispering to her to always take more. His mom and daddy stopped eating dinner together. The refrigerator emptied of eggs and baloney, replaced with cans of Budweiser and frozen, TV dinners. His daddy started working double shifts and his mom started going out for more than just pills. At night Billie would hold Ellie in his lap in their shut closet as their parents screamed and shouted. Some nights Billie would catch them hugging each other in the living room and crying. Other nights they told one another they wished the other was dead. Small, powerful words a child always remembers.

            The best place to drown out the sounds was in the creek. Billie and Ellie would sit by the little rapids, the rush of water pure in their ears, and sometimes they would crawl into the wall of kudzu on the other side of the creek and pretend that they were the only ones left in the holler, holding hands like vines never ending.

#

            One day while mowing, his daddy found a needle in a long neck Ale-8 bottle under the front porch. Billie knew the needle belonged to his mom, had seen her put it there weeks before and had kept the secret to himself. Sometimes he would watch from the creek as his mom crawled on her hands and knees under the porch to shake the needle out of the bottle to use again. When his daddy found it, he threw the bottle into the creek and left in the Chevy, leaving the overgrown yard only half mowed.

            Billie couldn’t sleep that night knowing that needle was in the creek. It was a dirty, ugly thing that would hurt the water. He went out with a flashlight and looked for the Ale-8 bottle. He spent hours into the cool night wading in the water, searching, a lone whippoorwill in the trees his only company, but the bottle was gone, gobbled up by the creek current. He eventually gave up and went inside to sleep.

#

            After his daddy was fired from the steel factory, Billie noticed he started wearing long sleeves every day, regardless of the temperature outside. Sweat would drip down his daddy’s face and neck, but even when he worked in the backyard cutting wood or whittling sticks he wouldn’t hike his sleeves up.

            While his daddy changed one morning in his room, Billie watched him from outside, standing on a stack of plastic milk crates and peering through the window, and he saw that his daddy’s arms and chest were dark blue, the color of bruises that never heal.

            Billie and Ellie ate Beanie-Weenies that night in the living room with their daddy, watching cable TV, and Billie stole glances at his daddy’s blue wrists when his sleeves hitched up as he reached for the remote. His daddy didn’t talk much, left his dinner untouched. He fell asleep on the couch and Billie tucked him in with an afghan and watched his daddy’s closed eyes travel beneath his violet eyelids, as if he were looking for something in his dreams.

#

            He watched his daddy turn blue that spring and summer. Billie turned fifteen that year. Ellie was nine.

            The blue spread down his daddy’s legs and up his neck, his skin kissed by a blue that was an unforgiving lover. His daddy didn’t have a job, didn’t have friends. His mom was always gone, staying at other trailers in other hollers where her dope was exchanged and made. Billie and Ellie got by on their daddy’s disability checks and food stamps. Billie would drive Ellie out to town and buy groceries at IGA with their EBT card while their daddy wandered off into the woods behind the trailer for days at a time. Billie and Ellie mailed out the bills each month and saved every penny in a mason jar powdered with cornmeal on the bottom for good luck like their mamaw taught them. When their mom took to stealing from the jar, Billie kept their money buried behind the burn pit in the back yard.

            Although things were tight, Billie always made sure to use some of their money to buy his daddy cigarettes, even though he wasn’t old enough and had to ask strangers at the gas station to buy them for him, because he knew how much his daddy loved to smoke, and he believed everyone needed one thing to love in their lives.

            Their daddy only came into the house when their mom was gone on one of her runs. He was always outside in his long flannel shirts and blue jeans, whittling sticks into little people or trees, smoking. When the blue reached his ears, he wore a black boggan on his head day and night, his dark hair growing down his back in matted knots, his beard hiding the blue on his chin and cheeks. When his gums began to purple against his white dentures, he stopped speaking.

            “Something’s wrong with Daddy,” Ellie would whisper into the dark each night they slept. Billie couldn’t come up with anything to say. He wanted to say We ain’t supposed to live like this, Ellie, but he couldn’t.

#

            His daddy was blue as a haint, Mamaw would say.

            Mamaw knew things—could tell when leaves were blown back on the trees that it would rain soon, how stump water could make warts go away, or how you were supposed to place an ax under a woman’s bed when she was giving birth to “cut” the labor pains to pieces—things that were passed on to her from her own mountain kin and had faded to time over the years. Billie had grown up hearing her yarns and watching her magic. One night while breaking half-runners with her on her front porch, he tested the waters for his daddy.

            “Do you believe in haints, Mamaw?” he asked. “Have you ever seen one?”

            “Haints ain’t like ghosts, Billie,” she said. “You don’t question if a haint’s real or not. They’re always around, living up in these hills, just like me and your cousins. They go about their business, and we go about our’n.”

            “But what makes a haint different from a ghost?”

            “A ghost is a spirit from someone who’s passed on from this world. A haint is something made from folks who’s still alive. They ain’t passed on to nowhere, and God cain’t help them. Haints are pitiful, lonely creatures who roam the land and mountains forever, trying to make their sadness go away. That’s why they’re always blue, on account of them being so ate up with sad. When someone is full of hurt and their body can’t take it no more, Billie, that person gives up their life and becomes a haint, thinking that’ll make the pain go away.

            “When you see a haint, Billie, you let it be. You cain’t feel sorry for it and try to help it. If you do, the haint will follow you till the end of your days, or till its sadness rubs off on you and you eventually become one, too.”

            Billie broke his beans and didn’t bring up haints again.

#

            Their daddy’s sobbing was the only sound they heard from him that last spring and summer, and it haunted the trailer, the creek, the holler. It followed Billie to school, in the halls between class, the sobs echoing from his locker from a carved wooden owl he’d found one day on the front porch, a small thing his daddy had made. The cries rode with him on the back of his bicycle when he was out riding with Hiram and Carlisle, the baseball card clipped to his back-wheel heaving with moans in Billie’s ear. When Billie slept at night with two pillows pressed over his ears he could hear the sobs, and when he dreamed, the mournful sounds were there, painting his dreamscapes with a dark, bleeding blue.

            His daddy was turning into a haint. Billie knew that. There was so much blue and hurt inside of his daddy all of the pain had punched through to the outside of his skin, just like a dog ate up with worms.

            On the nights when his daddy stayed in the woods and sobbed to himself in the dark, Billie would sit in the back yard with Ellie and watch the last of the summer sun sink behind the mountains. The moment the cool shadow descended over the valley he would hear the rising gale of night crickets start their soft music for the twilit holler. Only when the crickets played together at night for those first few moments of breathless awakening could Billie no longer hear his daddy’s sadness.

#

            It was at the end of that summer when his daddy went away. The cicadas cried Billie awake that muggy morning, where milky fog grazed on the trailers and pickups of the holler. Billie couldn’t see a thing outside except for the bones of the trees. He went to the kitchen and poured himself a glass of milk and saw his daddy’s pack of Marlboro cigarettes on the kitchen table.

            Billie drank his milk, picked up the pack of cigarettes, and breathed in the sweet, earthy smell. Outside, he could hear his daddy crying, a soft sound lost in the fog. Billie stepped out on the front porch and stared into the mist, where he saw his daddy outlined through the fog’s breath, standing by the mailbox, his face and eyes dark with indigo as his blue hands stayed slack at his sides.

            “Daddy,” hollered Billie, waving the Marlboros in the air. “You forgot these.”

            His daddy mumbled to himself, his dark lips lost in his dirty beard. Billie watched as he turned from him and walked into the road, mumbling, the mist blending him away.

            A hard knob swelled in Billie’s throat. He ran down the porch steps, barefoot, racing across the dew-slick grass and snake spit. The mist ate everything. Billie ran down the foggy gravel road in his bare feet, shouting, “Daddy, don’t go. I don’t care if you’re a haint. I can help you, Daddy. Just let me help you.”

            His daddy never came back, gone into the blue-pearl morning, and the sobs gave themselves to the fog, dissolving with the dawn.

#

            The baseball bat clattered against the floor and Billie jerked awake to sunlight streaming through the window, painting his room with gold. Ellie was sitting up in her bed, staring at him with sleep crusted in the corners of her eyes.

            “Did you sleep on the floor all night?” she asked.

            Billie shrugged. He listened to the quiet of the house—his mom must have already left for the day.

            Ellie wiggled out of her bed and sat down on the floor in front of him.

            “I had a dream we was twins,” she whispered to him. “But we weren’t normal. We was stuck together at the hands. We didn’t have fingers, either. Just arms, stuck together where our wrists are, and our arms made a big circle. Wouldn’t it be weird to share your blood with someone else like that?”

            Billie flicked her on the nose and changed the subject by asking, “Want to go to the quarry for a picnic today?”

            “Really?” Ellie’s eyes popped wide as she grinned. “I’ll pack us a lunch. Oh—we can go swimming, too, so I better pack my swimsuit. I washed your swimming trunks last week and left them folded in your drawer if you need them.”

            Billie tousled her hair until it was a haystack. Before he let Ellie out of the room, he carried his baseball bat with him to the living room and looked through the blinds to the driveway. His mom’s Impala was missing from the front yard. A breath loosed from his lungs as he watched the morning sun trickle into the holler.

#

            Later that day, Billie loaded up a cooler with baloney sandwiches, Ale-8’s, and Grippo chips and they got into their daddy’s Chevy and drove to the quarry with the windows rolled down and Johnny Cash blaring from the speakers. They spent the afternoon on the pebbled shore by the lake, skipping rocks, telling funny stories. Ellie went swimming in the water, and Billie watched her from the shore, keeping his blue legs out of sight in his jeans. He made a small fire when it was nighttime and Ellie fell asleep on her beach towel beside him.

            Billie watched the black lake. The mountains hugging the quarry were pitch, and Billie knew there wasn’t a human soul in those hills tonight. The hills at night belonged to the haints, according to Mamaw. He had a feeling his daddy was out there, wandering aimlessly, crying to the poplars and cedars, whittling knife passing between his hands as he left small wooden totems behind him in the dead leaves, walking the hills forever, alone.

            Crickets chirped and echoed in the ravine, and a frog jumped off the dock, splashing loudly in the water. Billie wondered if the creek of their holler eventually joined the lake water, too—a shared blood, just like his and Ellie’s arms had been connected in her dream. Maybe the longneck Ale-8 with the needle had washed all the way here, sinking to the bottom of the lake.

            The shape of the crescent moon rippled like a shut eye in the water. Billie pulled out his daddy’s pack of Marlboro 72’s, unfinished for three years, and drew out one of the short cigarettes, rolling it in his fingers. He lit the end of it in their campfire and puffed on it. The taste was bitter, not sweet at all like it smelled. He held the smoke in his lungs until he choked on a cough, and when he looked down into the surface of the water, he saw himself, the image still and pale, his blue eyes just like his daddy’s in the drifting smoke. A sound cracked loose in the back of his throat and his shoulders shook as the noise escaped him.

            Ellie stirred beside him at the sound, her nose twitching at the familiar smell of cigarette smoke. She sighed in her sleep and smiled. Billie scrubbed his eyes. He smoked the whole cigarette and flicked it into the water with his blue-tipped fingers.            

The ripples of the black lake carried his reflection away, to the dark and waiting hills.


Kelly Ward grew up on a hill in rural Kentucky, where she spent her youth dreaming up fantastical and unsettling stories in the woods behind her home. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Eastern Kentucky University, and is a recent graduate of the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop. Her work is inspired by the dark foothills of Appalachia, or as she would call it: Home. She currently lives with her two cats in her hometown in eastern Kentucky, where she once wrote an op-ed about a UFO sighting that was so convincing, it was published in a local newspaper.

any incident you like by Vännen Sauls

art by Julian Paolo Dayag

every moment drowns
in light of fear
brought aground
without pier


motions toss up praise
i have empty hands


lackluster shine
on ageless specks
announcing missing
missile heads


designed for hitting
fleeing heads
popped balloons
fissured veins
mopping mopping
puddled thoughts
lost in lost
in vacuous space


i remember towers of delicate things
coming together in definite ways
tossing and churning
waking up in the flames


i remember all the shapes
disfigured and twisted
making out the cinderblock shadows,
seeing plastered in pain pain pain
pain pain pain pain
in countless irretrievable nights
i’m just begging for shade


Vännen Sauls, 22, is a philosophy and math student at UNC Chapel Hill. He spends his spare time with his partner and by keeping up to date on the Premier League. He hopes to one day become a mathematician, have a resting heart rate of 45 or below, and have a family with his partner.

Watch Like Blackbirds by Alec Montalvo

art by
Srinivasan Venkataraman

Loudly the Red-winged Blackbirds reigned atop the pylons of backcountry Mississippi. They periodically strode north among the powerlines that tore through the trees. It was a gray morning when the hunters passed beneath them. They held their rifles at their sides by the mid-barrel, their steel-toe boots pressed against the dead grass that painted the landscape in a familiar dry yellow. They’d just begun their trek and the blackbirds remained guileless. Today, a man was going to die.

The Father and The Boy walked side by side through the country. Every so often, a familiar utterance would escape from the throat of the boy. The utterance was something The Father was accustomed to hearing for the past sixteen years. He never realized until now how loud the utterance could be in such a desolate place. The utterance, somewhere between a hiccup and a groan, would release unexpectedly in the past, not loud enough to impede a conversation, but noticeable enough to be heard at churches, movie theatres, and Sunday family dinners. Frustrated, The Father considered the utterance was perhaps being timed to scare off any game that they would come across, surely hindering their chances of a score. But he knew that wasn’t the case. He shook away the thought, he knew The Boy couldn’t help himself.

As they continued forthright through the land, The Father spoke, “I know passin’ a football in the yard wasn’t much to your liking, I hope we can find your niche out here huntin’ jus’ you n’ me.”

The Boy, unresponsive to the comment, dazedly lifted his chin and looked at the pylons once more and saw the blackbirds watching over them.

“Birds.”

The Father ignored the comment as they pressed through the dampland. “Boy, you ever feel like me n’ you should find somethin’ we can both enjoy doing together?”

The Boy let out another utterance, walking forward, still looking upwards, his eyes frantically searching the sky.

“…Well, that’s what––that’s what this is all about, that’s all.”

The Father and The Boy pressed on. In the silence, The Father reminisced about his younger expectations of fatherhood. He used to daydream of having those future father-son quality moments. He wanted to fill the gaps of what he lacked when he was a child himself. The only quality time he ever had was wrapped in cigarette clouds, technicolor television sets, and the scent of stale beer escaping his father’s mouth.

This memory was interrupted by their first sight of game. It was a deer grazing the dead grass about forty yards away, half covered by green shroud. He quickly grabbed The Boy by the back of his collared shirt and pulled him down, hushed him and whispered, “Quiet, quiet, take a knee and hold up your rifle like this.”

The Boy mimicked The Father’s actions and held the rifle up in the direction of the deer, but his eyes quickly drifted away from The Father’s positioning and onto something else. The birds, the pylons, the sky, the grass, birds, sky, pylons, grass and grass again.

“Alright look down the lens, I’m goin’ switch the safety off for you.”

The Father gently positioned himself behind The Boy. They both held the rifle, The Father aimed the rifle for his son and put his hand over The Boy’s trigger hand.

“Alright, take the shot. Just pull the trigger.”

The Boy lost focus again and quickly began to glance at how the dead weeds seemed to wrap his boots. He noticed how the harder he pressed his weight down to the ground, the more dead weeds would curl up around his boot.

The Father aggressively but quietly said, “C’mon focus! This is our chance, look at the damned deer and pull the trigger.”

The Boy began to slowly squeeze the trigger, surrounded by The Father’s arms. An utterance was released from his throat. Triggered by reflex, the shot was wasted and the deer ran off. The sound was exponentially louder than the usual utterance. The Boy looked up at the sky again to watch the birds take off from the pylons and across the sky. The Father, frustrated, readjusted his hat.

“Hey, hey, that’s okay. That is okay, hunter’s don’t make all their shots, that’s part of the game!” He put on a forced smile and picked The Son off the ground and motioned for him to keep walking, forgetting to apply the safety back to his weapon.

The Father remembered the outbursts The Boy would have when he was younger. The outbursts would arise from nothing and escalate to head pounding against the carpet of their living room. He remembered bringing him to playgrounds to meet other children, and how they would slowly disengage from him. He remembered holding him still on the pews at church. He remembered stabbing steak with a fork, and feeding it to his fourteen year old son, and then manically trying to retrieve the meat that had become lodged in his uttering throat. These outbursts with time shrank into an utterance, an utterance that encompassed everything, a small noise that squeezed its way through The Boy’s vocal chords, and released itself into the air.  A reminder of the past, every time. The Father reflected on how his dreams of being a father had become compromised, and how he became no more than a caretaker after his wife gave birth. He wasn’t even sure if The Boy really knew who he was half the time. Would The Boy even realize if he were to just disappear?

They continued to walk further across the backcountry. Not a word was spoken, just the familiar utterance that escaped The Boy’s mouth every so often. The Boy was expectedly distracted by the dead logs and yellow weeds. He noticed how the dirt on his hands formed a pattern. He noticed how the breeze whizzed passed his ears, tickling him slightly. The gray sky began to melt into a hot blue day as the hours trickled on like the sweat across his brow. He noticed Killdeer birds atop of some logs that formed the landscape they trudged through.

The Boy spoke, “Birds.”

He stumbled over a large stone. The rifle went off. The bullet hurled in The Father’s direction. The Boy laid face down in the dry weeds. The rifle, horizontal above his outstretched arms before him. The birds in the field took off once again, and the pounding steps of nearby game could be heard trailing away further and further into the distance.

The Father charged at The Boy on the ground. He picked his scrawny body up by the back of his collared shirt.

He shouted, “You and your malfunctioning skull almost got me killed! Do you even understand what could have happened?”

The Boy’s eyes didn’t know what to focus on, he saw the birds fly away, the dirt on his shirt, the sweat on The Father’s face. Birds, dirt, sweat, shirt, sweat, birds, dirt. He felt the pressure of The Father’s grasp on the back of his neck. Loud noises from The Father’s mouth. The Father grabbed The Boy’s cheeks and squeezed his face.

He looked him in the eyes, shouting “Do you see me now?”

He picked up the rifle, engaged the safety and shoved the weapon back into The Boy’s chest. He then turned away and began to walk off momentarily before coming to a halt. He took a deep breath in and exhaled with pressure. He turned around to face The Boy who was now looking at the ground with the rifle in his hands.

 “Let’s go home. If we just follow the pylons back we should be back in time before it gets dark–easy.”

The Boy looked up at the pylons.

“Let’s just get goin’.”

The Boy, still looking at the red-winged blackbirds spoke,

“Birds.”

“Yeah, I know. Birds. Birds birds birds.”

The Boy followed closely behind The Father. He noticed the yellow and brown trim of his bootlaces. How they wrapped one another, hugging effortlessly. He tried to follow each lace with his eyes up the boot, but he kept losing track and starting over. Every so often, he would have to catch up with a quick sprint to not fall too behind. He recognized the sky. He recognized it everyday and everyday it touched him. His eyes were looking straight up again, counting the clouds and finding the patterns of the world.

The two hunters headed back through the country. The Father remembered how hopeful he and his wife were before having their first and only child. He felt the cool breeze nights on their front porch, wrapped in moonlight, a tobacco pipe, his lover cuddled in his arms on their porchside bench. He remembered the nights smelled greener then. They used to smile about the thought of a child, the happy family they wanted to be. He remembered what it was like before she left, and before The Boy.

The Boy let out an utterance, and the memory faded.

Frustration set in while the sun continued to beat down on them both. Of course, he couldn’t help it, The Father thought. Maybe if he just went away for a while my wife and I could rekindle. Maybe he would be better off somewhere, like a place for people like him? A place where he could get the help he needs. Maybe just one day without–

The Boy let out another utterance, and then another bullet.

The birds of the pylons scattered again into the sky while The Father turned around to find The Boy in the dirt. There was a bullet wedged above The Boy’s knee and blood began to pool, corrupting the dry yellow weeds to crimson. The Boy held his leg in his hands, saw the birds again, the blood, the gun, The Father, the gun, the blood, the birds.

“Jesus Boy, ain’t got the sense God gave a piss ant, whatja do?” The Father called out.

The Boy let out another utterance followed by, “Birds.”

“Okay look, you’ll live, we just gotta get you outta here, alright, I’ma pick you up now, Ima…I’m goin’ have to carrya.”

But when The Father reached down to pick up The Boy, he twisted along the dirt and released a shrill shriek. He rolled away across the dirt, tracking his blood further across the ground and over his legs. The Boy would not be touched. The Boy caught the birds circling back to the pylons.

“Birds.”

“Look, ain’t nobody in these parts and its goin’ get dark soon, either you let me pick ya up or I’m goin’ have to leave ya here, jahear?”

The Boy let out another utterance.

The Father, increasingly frustrated, reached again for The Boy. He managed to pick him up this time but The Boy twisted himself out of his grasp and hit the ground. He let out another shriek, and the birds stayed put.

 “Well whadya want me to do? I’m tryin’ to help you!”

The Boy let out another utterance.

“Look, I’ll come back. You’re goin’ have to stay here on your own a while until I can–”

The Boy lifted his chin and looked up again at the pylons, the birds, and then back at his wounded leg.

The Father didn’t finish. He instead picked up and slung a rifle over each of his shoulders.  He too then looked up at the towering pylons. He won’t even know I’ve been gone, The Father thought. He just had to follow the pylons. He saw the birds shift across the wires above and the sun was sinking closer to the treetop line. He turned to follow the pylons under the gaze of the blackbirds, releasing himself from a place he would never return to.

In the corrupting dusk, the blackbirds gathered closer to one another on the powerlines. They loomed above The Boy, and in the encroaching darkness of the coming night appeared to him as one. The Boy let out a familiar utterance no longer audible to The Father.  He watched The Father shrink in the growing distance between them. In the darkened blur, the rifles beat against The Father’s back in a rhythmic pattern, like wings.

He then spoke, “Birds.”


Alec Montalvo is a High School English teacher and poet. He holds his Bachelors and Masters in Creative Writing, has been featured in Inkwell Journal, High Shelf Press, and elsewhere. He was a finalist in the Kallisto Gaia Press Contemporary Poetry Chapbook Prize, and runs a Dungeons and Dragons role playing campaign as a Dungeon Master. Talk writing on his Instagram @AlecIntheInk

Too Much of a Good Thing by Laura LeMoon

are we home yet by Xenia Smith

Sucking on oyster brine from a shell

Seafaring corpse of pickled black emollients

That never crumble when you touch it

like other things

Put the coffin back in the sea and hold onto the good

She said

Nothing scrapes the bottom like a barnacle

The tiny rocks rips through the plateau of my freshly shaven legs

a forest fire of water and ash

chili peppers in the desert leaning towards the craftiness of a single coyote

in particular

spinning through orbs that may or may not be real

said she, while ghost hunting in the dark

suck out the venom and pour on the salt.


Laura LeMoon is a Queer, fat, femme writer and author. Her essays and activism have been featured in Rolling Stone, Huffington Post, AP News, Buzzfeed News and others. Her debut book of poetry, A Thousand Little Deaths (Weasel Press 11.03.20) was named one of the most anticipated book releases by Lambda Literary. She lives in Seattle with her three-legged rescue pup, Coco Bean.

Xenia Smith is a California native, currently working and creating out of Sacramento. She works full time printing for a local silk screen shop and helped establish Recluse Arts, an underground arts collective in downtown Sacramento. Xenia is a self taught artist who enjoys old school techniques such as film and silk screen and painting as well.

Snow Walk by Allen Ireland

some other planet by Xenia Smith

It gives us now a little guiding-light,

Like a thick midnight forest’s silver birches,

Or sculptured saints in empty darkened churches,

Or a black cavern’s sparkling stalactite.

It gives each path an unextinguishable light,

Like even unspoiled sand on stormy shores,

Or a dark deserted mansion’s marble floors,

Or a black cavern’s gleaming stalagmite.

No rays pierce through tonight from moon or star;

No lamps illuminate our graveled lane;

The glow is out in hearth and window-pane;

And at this hour you’d never see a car.

The only light is from the settled snow.

In this dark world it’s all the light we know.


Allen Ireland’s poetry has appeared in The Road Not Taken, The Lyric, Red Planet Magazine, WestWard Quarterly, and Tiny Seed Literary Journal.  His first book of poems, Loners and Mothers, was published in 2017.  His second book, A Sunray Lands in Syria, is scheduled to appear in June, 2021.  Allen works for law enforcement administration in Helena, Montana. 

Xenia Smith is a California native, currently working and creating out of Sacramento. She works full time printing for a local silk screen shop and helped establish Recluse Arts, an underground arts collective in downtown Sacramento. Xenia is a self taught artist who enjoys old school techniques such as film and silk screen and painting as well.

Desecration Circuit by Dylan Sonderman

Desecration by Nam Nguyen

COUNTER-CLOCKWISE:

Timmy walks around the house in a circle. There’s a little loop he follows that runs through the dining room into the kitchen. The kitchen connects to the living room, which has a hallway linking it to the foyer. And Timmy walks around in a slow and steady circle.

At first, none of the adults at the party notice the ten-year-old boy walking around the house in circles. They see him coming and going and think nothing of it as they eat slices of pepperoni pizza and drink off-brand cola from Red Solo cups. Some of the adults step outside for a cigarette or some fresh air, but Timmy keeps strolling the same loop through dining room, kitchen, living room, and foyer.

            The other children are watching TV, playing computer games, or glued to their phones. They are in their own worlds. Timmy walks around the house in circles. A few of Timmy’s friends wonder what he is doing. But he’s only been pacing the loop for about twenty minutes.

            ↺

Timmy walks around the house in a circle. He’s barefoot, wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt and white cargo shorts. His mother is at the party as well. It is not accurate to say she is at the party “with him” because she did not transport him to the party and she has no intention of bringing him with her when she departs. She plans to leave sooner rather than later.

When Timmy passes Beth, one of the adults who lives in the house where the party is being held, she laughs kindly and asks him what he’s doing. Timmy smiles. But he does not respond; he does not stop walking around the house in a circle. Beth shrugs and resumes talking with her boyfriend.

Big Boy, the family dog, is a huge friendly brown Rottweiler. Big Boy is by turns amused, disturbed, and then amused again by Timmy’s unwavering path around the house in a circle. Big Boy barks, runs around, playfully nips at Timmy’s heels.

Timmy continues walking around in a circle. A few of the other children have begun to follow him now. They see the reactions he is getting from the adults. They prance, march, gallop, skip, and frolic from the dining room to the kitchen to the living room to the foyer and back again and back again, laughing and whooping. Eventually, though, they lose interest or tire. Timmy has been walking the circle for an hour now.

Timmy is sweating a little. Not much. He has to pee, bad, but he holds it. He’s a strong ten-year-old boy. He doesn’t believe that there’s anything wrong or lesser or inferior about anyone who gets tired easily or doesn’t have the gumption for prolonged physical activity. But Timmy is determined to make his point. He is a strong ten-year-old boy.

In fact, Timmy decides, as he’s passing through the dining room past a table where his mother and his friend’s uncle are chatting and sitting in each other’s laps, he’s not going to be Timmy anymore after this party is over. He’s no longer Timmy. He imagines himself as no longer Timmy as he walks around the house in a circle. He can picture in his mind’s eye how he’ll stand proud, tall, and unmistakably important, and say: I’m Tim.

Some of the adults are muttering to each other about the boy walking around the house in a circle. One mother takes her kids and leaves, after getting into a nasty argument that remained in hushed voices with the hostess, Beth. Others continues drinking, eating, smoking, making out, and generally living in the moment, for the moment, not a care in the world about circles or boys or circuits.

Tim walks around the house in a circle. It’s been two hours now. He couldn’t hold his pee anymore and now his white cargo shorts have a large dark spot in the front. A few of the men at the party have taken it upon themselves to put a stop to Tim’s circuit. They’ve placed themselves in his path, tried to get him into a headlock, closed doors, and put chairs into his way. Tim understands. His masculinity and force of purpose is a threat to them. He doesn’t have the words, but he feels in the blisters on his bare feet, in the last remaining baby tooth in his mouth, in the pit of his eternal soul. He feels them, and he brushes them aside to continue walking around the house in a circle.

Oh, they detain him for a while, here, and there. They hold him still no matter how he kicks and screams and claws and bites. But eventually, he always breaks free to continue walking from the dining room to the kitchen to the living room to the foyer and back again and back again and back again. His mother has left the party with his friend’s uncle Dick. She did not say goodbye to her son.

There are tears in Tim’s eyes, and his feet hurt, but he walks on. Pain is nothing anymore. He doesn’t care that some of the older boys are calling him Forrest Gump, weirdo, faggot, loser, and more that they say under their breath so he can’t hear. Those names are not his name any more than Timmy is. And they can’t hurt him. He’s Tim. I am Tim, he says to himself, as he walks around the house in a circle. All that hurts is the name that no one calls out, the solar name called out by the horizon of earth at dawn each day. The chariot name of incandescent plasma and fire.

People have been drinking heavily at this party. Especially the older boys, in their late teens and early twenties. A few are doing methamphetamines, as well. But Tim doesn’t know anything about that. He doesn’t even know about alcohol’s impairing effect on judgment. He just continues walking around the house in a circle until an older boy kicks Tim in the chest and knocks him down the basement stairs.

            People come to check on him, fuss over his broken ankle. The bone juts through the skin. Tim’s mouth is forcing his teeth to bite his tongue to stop the screaming as he forces himself to his feet. He climbs the stairs, the jagged bone of his ruined ankle tearing more skin free with each step. The other foot is faltering, his legs are bruised. His vision is woozy from crashing down the stairs and hitting his head. Tim can barely breathe when he makes it to the top of the stairs. There’s blood in the eyes of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on his t-shirt.

            Someone is on the phone with the emergency services. Other adults are now dialing 911, shouting at each other, heading for their cars, swallowing or flushing drugs to hide evidence of the obvious. All of the children are crying in horror as one, a hive mind symphony of wailing and fear. Tim crawls around the house in a circle, leaving a trail of blood like a menstruating slug. Big Boy curiously licks some of Tim’s blood up. The dog later throws up on the living room floor. Tim has already vomited himself empty by the time the ambulance and police cars pull up out front.

            ↺

            In the back of the ambulance, Tim shakes wildly, gyrating, screaming until they sedate him. He’s spinning his eyes in a circle. He thinks that if he spins them fast enough, his brain will turn inside out and he’ll die. He spins his eyes as fast as he can until everything goes black.

            ↺

CLOCKWISE:    

The funeral happens through a deep haze of grief. There is no regret, no guilt. Or, if it is there, it is so massive that this woman cannot see it. If the regret and guilt were blue, they’d loom so large she’d mistake them for the sky. But the grief she feels, and people offer their condolences.

She says thank you for the flowers.

The boy who did the kicking is a high-school football hero. They let him off with six months of probation after his tearful public apology goes viral. Apparently, that’s all the more attention anyone is going to devote.

Her friends visit often, when they can track her down. She doesn’t have a permanent place to stay at the moment. Sometimes they bring her flowers. They also buy her food and cigarettes and let her talk about normal things, so that she may pretend it’s all ok. They tell her that it’s ok if she cries, but she swears that she will not.

She says thank you for the flowers. She does cry.

Dick isn’t returning her calls anymore. Nor is her ex. In fact, he filed a restraining order against her and the court seems committed to enforcing it.

She doesn’t blame either of the men. She doesn’t even blame the court. What comes out of her mouth when she tries to speak anymore could hardly pass for language.

She sleeps with strangers for money. She needs the money, of course. She knows that some, most, all people would say that she should sober up.

She says thank you for the flowers. She does cry. But she still gets high afterward.

            She can’t tell anyone the truth. She can’t remember her own name anymore. She tries to read it, but it just appears as a blur on her driver’s license. She hears people say it, but it slips out of her hearing like an oiled frog. She can’t remember his name anymore either. For if she could, it would allow her some kind of an identity. She could say I’m so-and-so’s mother. So-and-so, who she now could not remember the real name of.

She says thank you for the flowers. She does cry. But she still gets high afterward. She has to.

She just wants to know if she’s forgiven, or if forgiveness is a possibility. Her mind is oblivion. It has to stay that way. If she even thinks, it will begin. Hell awaits her, she is certain.

She says thank you for the flowers. She does cry. But she still gets high afterward. She has to. It’s the only thing that blurs out the mental image that haunts her every time she closes her eyes: a vision of her dead son rolling in an eternal looping circuit in his earthen grave.


Dylan Sonderman writes poetry, science fiction, and horror when he is not composing or playing music. He lives in Cleveland with his wife, Elizabeth, and their two dogs, Gertie and Ozzy. His debut book of poetry, Lucid_Malware.zip, is available through most online vendors.

Nam Nguyen is a multimedia artist who enjoys photography, writing, and filmmaking. He has been published in Glassworks, Jabberwock Review, Cirque, J. Mane Gallery, Sunspot Lit, The Ephimiliar Journal, The Esthetic Apostle, Cardinal Sins, Ember Chasm Review, The RavensPerch, Wild Roof Journal, Havik, The Paragon Journal, The Finger Literary Journal, The Write Launch, Glass Mountain, and Chestnut Review.

a forest grew by S.K. Brownell

Graveyard by Nam Nguyen

inside my chest one day
a rumbling of bones
cracking lungs wringed in bark
wreathed – splintering to expand
they want to grow but catch and catch
desirous lovers – throats in late nineties chokers
skinny jeans without the stretch
they are wanting – wantful – willful – wanton
they itch and stretch – crack – ache
every bronchiole a splinter i am screaming
[my name] sound echoing through through through my pleural cavity
clacking like manual keyboards – cracking like F Scott Fitgerald – rolling like
shoulders – clicking – licking – croaking – sticking – catching
the voice of every horror movie character from the early aughts – a grudge
slithering up stairs – rewound and backward – reaching — stretching — striving for [a name]
snapping – splitting – bursting – ticking – screaming [my name] at least
I am protected the diaphragm beneath them thrumming – taught – no sound
will slip between my knees – over my rib cage to
impregnate me a splinter lodged in my endometrium at least
the forest is only in my lungs – liver – gallbladder
maybe soon my spleen but I will never crack
open – cough out – spit up – expectorate the frog
in my stomach – lungs – atria – throat and
cry out [my name] louder than
the rustle of leaves


S.K. Brownell is a writer, artist, and educator from Wisconsin. Their poetry, prose, and drama have appeared in Great Lakes Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, Cathexis Northwest, Punt Volat, Decoded Pride, and elsewhere. Brownell is a 2018 Sewanee Conference Tennessee Williams Scholar and winner of the 2015 National Partners of the American Theatre Playwriting Excellence Award. They hold an MFA from Boston University, teach writing at GrubStreet, and create with Artists’ Theater of Boston. More at skbrownell.com.

Nam Nguyen is a multimedia artist who enjoys photography, writing, and filmmaking. He has been published in Glassworks, Jabberwock Review, Cirque, J. Mane Gallery, Sunspot Lit, The Ephimiliar Journal, The Esthetic Apostle, Cardinal Sins, Ember Chasm Review, The RavensPerch, Wild Roof Journal, Havik, The Paragon Journal, The Finger Literary Journal, The Write Launch, Glass Mountain, and Chestnut Review.

Genesis by Yoko Zhu

art by Lana Campher

Beginnings are fragile. A mundane Tuesday encounter could become a collision point for a spiral of events: a love story, a car accident, or a genocide. They’re a birthplace for the beautiful or the violent crash of the horrible. For that, beginnings are sacred.

When I first met John, he invited me to an intimate party. It was in a barn on the edge of Indiana with dim lights, loud music, and three girls in matching gingham dresses. They were kind enough to pour me a glass of punch. “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” Alana had joked. Her voice was raspy: half-natural and half a result of cigarettes. It was an honest voice, devoid of a siren’s beckon.

In the years before that moment, I had felt so alone. With the expectation that tonight would feel no different, I chugged the drink and ran through a list of excuses to leave. In the middle of my decisions, Claire plucked a piece of hay from my hair. She combed through it with her calloused fingers, parting the sections into braids to match her hairstyle. “Stay here with us,” she murmured. “John is a good man.” Our eyes met. She could see the parasitic loneliness hollowing me down. She saw it, and she understood it.

So, I stayed.

I shared a room with three girls who would fill the walls with cigarette smoke until midnight crawled around. That night I had curled half-drunk into the bottom bunk below a pretty brunette named Kennedy. There was an argument souring the mood, but I wasn’t sober enough to care.

“All we have is cheese and ranch in the fridge. If it wasn’t for John’s impulsive spendings, we could actually eat,” Alana complained. 

“You’re just an ungrateful, washed-up whore,” someone said. It sounded like Claire.

I stirred, opening my mouth to ease the tension, but the girls had already gone silent.

***

The idyllic property had two buildings: a barn for the animals and a tiny red-roof house for us. While John solely inhabited the master’s suite, the girls and I shared a room downstairs. We wore matching light blue gingham dresses. I was giddy when John gifted me mine. It was tangible proof that I belonged–I was wanted. In return, I gave him my financial accounts. We had no use for money. There was shelter, food, and water provided to us. Stripping ourselves of human possessions, John had said, was a return to a fundamental and lost human life.

He spoke reproachfully of it every Sunday evening, meticulously timing his sermon against the backdrop of an Indiana sunset. We would watch the colors mix, fading behind the fields as John shared his truth. He preached about good things: living in purity, stripping away the toxicity of the modern world to become the holiest version of ourselves.

“It took me years to find,” he said. “My little brother was murdered seven years ago, and I thought I would never find my Higher Self. Yet here I am, before you as the best version of myself possible.” John was the only person we knew who’d ascended that spiritual level. We followed his orders with little hesitation. If he wanted us to dance naked in the rain, we would do so for the sake of enlightenment. Our Higher Selves. There was no greater joy than claiming transcendence. Though, most people never had the privilege.

To John, I stripped myself bare. I told the story of my pregnant mother at twenty, a year older than myself, stumbling home to find my father’s splattered brains on her carpet. There was a gun and a poorly written suicide note. She burned the note in the fireplace and took the gun to the police. And the carpet? He tilted his head. She kept it still, I sighed. There was a bloodstain the size of a watermelon where mama had meticulously dragged a coffee table over. She would cry, and cry, and cry. But, she wouldn’t get rid of it. I was the second stain she couldn’t get rid of. A permanent, living reminder of what she had lost.

 “I can tell you had a fragile relationship with your mother,” John said.

“She blamed me for his death. Mama thought that a kid would be enough for him to stay, and she had pinned her expectations on me,” I shrugged.

John brushed a strand of my hair behind my ear. He smiled earnestly as if he understood me. That smile. It was all I ever wanted. “You will always belong here.”

It was the perfect thing to say.

***

I was massaging my bruised knees, a torrent watercolor of faded purple-blue on both legs. Against the grass, the color scheme resembled the Earth from space. I’d been smearing aloe goo over it in the kitchen until it became too intolerable to ignore: Claire’s moans piercing through the paper-thin walls. Collectively, we scurried outside to sit in peace.

“I’d rather hear pigs,” Alana yelled. For once, I agreed with her crude statements.

“What’s it like no longer being John’s favorite?” Kennedy smirked.

“You’re just mad because John doesn’t think you’re pretty as he used to,” she said.

“At least I’m not fat and mean.”

“I could still tear you to shreds, beauty queen,” Alana said.

Kennedy glowered. I had heard muddled rumors of Kennedy’s beauty pageant history. She had won countless crowns only to be forcefully removed after her family discovered her eating disorder. “I would’ve respected you more if you said you got disqualified for putting razors in your competitors’ lipsticks,” Alana had said once.

They were similar in nature, which was an easy explanation for their quick agitation towards another. Though, there were nuances from red and orange. Alana was snarky. Kennedy was superficial. Alana could torch cities with little remorse. Kennedy would shrink and bail. One was all bark, but the other one could bite.

Alana paused, pulling a cigarette from her bra. Speaking more to herself than us, she said, “Sometimes, I can hear my Higher Self buried underneath this chaos. It’s full of bitterness and vengeance. Most people like Claire are at their purest when they’re healing. I’m purest when I’m unhappy. It’s my natural state of being; bitterness is comfortable when it’s all you’ve known. This is my Higher Self. I’m enlightened, girlies.” Kennedy rolled her eyes, but I was quiet for a moment.

It was optimistic to assume that the best versions of people would always be good. There were people like Alana who thrived in misery simply out of familiarity.  The wreckage was constant and consistent. Ironically, that became stability. It was a flawed ideology rooted in pessimism. Yet, it had crossed my mind multiple times. What if I was one of those unfortunate people? Each attempt to drown those worries were short-lived. Eventually, they would resurface in my mind like a toy sailboat, bobbing on the surface of bathwater.

Alana grinned. Was there a sliver of happiness in accepting that the best version of yourself was misery manifested? I asked her, and she shrugged. “Do you think serial killers deserve self-love?”

Kennedy scoffed, “Ugly people don’t deserve to love themselves.”

“No,” I said, “if you intentionally kill without remorse, you don’t deserve to feel acceptance of any kind.”

“Maybe, but murderers aren’t seeking acceptance from society. They aren’t consumed with societal acceptance because it’s unattainable. As you said, they don’t deserve it. My theory is that serial killers love themselves more than anyone. Why? Because once you’re able to truly love yourself despite all the despicable crimes you committed, you’ve transcended. You’re your Higher Self.” Her teeth glinted like canines. She wiped her dirty hands on her dress, brown streaking the soft gingham print. I winced, knowing how much John would disapprove.
           

“Alana darling, you haven’t found your Higher Self. You’re still the same rambling trash bag you’ve always been. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here,” Kennedy said.

They resumed their usual bickering, and I refused to be roped into it. Trodding through the grass, I escaped to the barn in search of solitude. It was March, I thought to myself. The ferns I had bought weeks prior to my departure would have wilted by now–or thriving–away from my blackening presence.

Inside the barn, Claire was dumping feed into the plastic bins for the animals. I took a seat on a haystack after she waved away my assistance.  Sweat unpleasantly beaded her rosy face, and I actively pushed the intrusive image from my mind. 

“You always seem sad,” she remarked, sitting down next to me. “When I met you the first night at the welcoming party, I thought: this girl always looks like she’s on the brink of tears.”

“I believe that. First impressions can be misleading, but sometimes they’re right,” I said. She gestured for me to turn around. I did. Her fingers slid the elastic ties from my braids as she unfurled them like a secret. “How did you meet John?” I said.

“John finds you,” Claire said.

“How did he?”

 “Well, I was twenty-three, living out of a suitcase by 7th St. He offered me a place to stay, and I took it. This barn belonged to his brother before he passed away…I think he found it lonely.”

“What about Kennedy and Alana?”

 “Alana was the first one here. She knew John before all of us. It doesn’t mean she knows him best despite what she believes.” She tightened my braid, almost pulling at my scalp.“Kennedy was one of those lost small-town beauty queens. She stumbled here, claiming how broken her life was, and John took her in because she was pretty, white, and anorexic. She ate less, less of a hassle for us, you know.”

As her fingers weaved through my hair, Claire started to sing. It was an old worship song from the boys and girls’ choir. I hummed along. Our off-key, mangled voices blended into an almost angelic howl. As we belted out the last note, my voice cracked. The air shook from her laughter. I leaned my head against her shoulder, comforted by the rhythmic vibrations of her chest.

***

John moved like a force of nature with a charisma, capable of softening entire rooms. When we were alone, he had hard eyes like boulders on the sea’s edge. A necklace adorned his throat, a broken steel cross, with jagged ends gently resting against his skin. It dangled above me.

It was part of the enlightenment process.

When we finished, I wrapped myself in his soft sheets. Like all things in his room, it was of utmost quality, probably imported from a French linen shop. I felt like the cheapest thing in the room–a Sunday whore dredged from a church’s sewage.

There was no spark of deeper understanding like he had promised. I was still the same aching soul, chained by old ghosts. Blinking rapidly, I suppressed my disappointment by focusing on the curtains. Burgundy red with a hue of embarrassment and an undertone of shame. Burgundy red. Burgundy red.

“You’re special.” He touched my shoulder lightly.

I flinched but politely said, “Thank you, sir.”

Then, I got dressed and left.

During John’s Sunday session, my attention flickered in and out like a strained lightbulb. Meanwhile, Claire was enthralled, peering at him with a Reinassance idolization; Michaelangelo’s greatest creation was speaking.

Love didn’t exist, only worship.

Mama had done the same. She had glorified my father to that saintly status, tacking Mary down a peg to make space for him: the blood-stained suicidal martyr. I couldn’t love the myth of him; I had never truly loved anything with my entire being, much less a man.  I had told her this one night, and she had screamed the windows to shards. At some point, it’s easier to believe the lie that you’ve built than detangle the truth from thorns.

I placed my palm over Claire’s. We heard her sneaking off to fill that space in John’s bed that we all shared. Every Tuesday and Thursday, we would hand-wash his sheets. We would hang it out to dry on the clotheslines, snatching it from the cats when it fluttered in the breeze. The rest of the tasks were divided: Kennedy fed the animals, I cleaned the barn, Alana milked the cows, and Claire cooked.  The routine was comforting. We were a family.

A growing one. I was the first to discover the pregnancy test. Walking into the barn, I had accidentally tripped on a loose floorboard. I peeled it back, avoiding the nail glistening like a bullet, to find the test. It was relatively new, with no signs of scratches or dust, but two stark lines running down. It clattered from my fingers.

Unexpectedly, Claire showed no outward sign of elation, but perhaps a growing aversion to smoking: she swatted Kennedy’s clouds from her face. Though, she would occasionally spend the night upstairs in John’s room. It was one of those nights that Alana crawled from her bunk. She shuffled in the dark. We ignored her at first until she groaned in a loud, guttural cry for attention.

“What?” Kennedy snapped.

“Claire is going to kill me.” In the dark, Alana’s face pantomimed concern like a puppet’s: creased brows, puckered lips, and downturned eyes. There was something dishonest about the forcefulness as if she was feigning worry versus actually feeling it. Calculation laced the girl like arsenic in a summer wine.

“I don’t care. Go to sleep,” Kennedy said.

Alana was silent.

***

In the morning, I followed the smell of breakfast (mixed with last night’s spaghetti sauce) to the kitchen. Claire hummed, absorbed in the domestic bliss of her kitchen routine.

The space itself was bare and run-down. On the fridge were loose alphabet magnets and a shopping list we added to when John went on grocery runs. The table and chairs were mismatched, collected from different dumpsters. The roaches that would scamper across the scratched wooden floor was part of the eclectic charm.

I poured myself a glass of water from the tap. “Claire.”

“Yes?”

“Are you going to stay here forever?”

She cocked her head, “Why wouldn’t I?”

“Did you ever want to do anything else, be somewhere other than here?”

“No.”

“You’ve had to imagine somewhere other than here…ambitions, goals, a job,”  I said, “maybe a place that’s truly your own.”

The butter knife, in her hand, winked at me. “This place is my own. Becoming your Higher Self isn’t instantaneous. It’s a lifetime worth of work. We’re blessed here under this pocket of sunshine. We have leadership, a family, a home.”

“I didn’t mean to disrespect you,” I said. My cheeks flamed with embarrassment as I attempted to backtrack. “Of course, I love it here. I feel like I belong–I’m happy to finally find a place to fit in. I was just blabbering.” Claire ignored me and focused on slashing the toast diagonally. The knife sighed, grateful to cut something other than the tension. Awkwardly, I sought to find a remedy for the shift in mood. Claire had never directed animosity towards me before. The other girls, yes. Never me. “I figured with the pregnancy and all, you might have a change in mind…the ba–”

“I’m not pregnant.” Claire’s wary expression demanded an explanation. With identical confused expressions, I found myself speechless. “What made you think I was?”

I awkwardly shrugged, sputtering some nonsense under my breath about assumptions. Claire didn’t bother to follow me after I swiftly exited. Despite my inclination to skip breakfast, it was an established ritual like all things. Once, Kennedy made the poor decision of staying in bed. Her cramps, she had said through gritted teeth, were excruciating. It was as if someone reached into her stomach, twisted her organs into a bow, and sealed her back up. We had warned her, but she refused. John had whistled cheerfully that morning when he saw Claire made blueberry pancakes. Then, he noticed the empty chair. I told him, and he stormed into Kennedy’s room, ripping the tattered blankets from her bed. It flailed in the air for a moment before floating dramatically at our feet. With all its holes, the blanket looked more like a slice of swiss cheese. Take away her lunch and dinner for three days, he ordered Claire. She obediently nodded. To us, he said nothing. In that little leeway, we snuck scraps to Kennedy in soggy napkins after our own meals. Claire, I learned, refused to compromise against John’s rules.

I set the table. We listened to swallowtails, grasshoppers, and the sound of cheap utensils clinking. When the rest of our family trickled through the door, Claire scowled at John. Her discontent remained unnoticed until she forcefully stabbed her egg yolk. It bled like sunshine, and she played with it with furrowed brows.

“What’s the matter?” John said.

She shrugged. “I’m not hungry.”

Alana had whispered something in Kennedy’s ear. The former beauty queen giggled. I tensed, catching the corner of Claire’s mouth tighten at this exchange. She slammed her fork down on her plate, creating a brash and unpleasant clattering. “It’s been brought to my attention that one of you is pregnant.”

I put my hand on her shoulder, “Claire, calm down. I don’t think this is appropriate.”

“Yeah, I am.”

We swiveled our head to Alana’s nonchalant statement. Brushing back a strand of her hair, she leaned back in her chair with a poorly suppressed smirk. Downplaying the news only irritated Claire further. She’d rather Alana throw fistfuls of sand in her face than act insouciant.

“Congratulations.” John’s face glowed as he took in the news. He rose, taking Alana’s palms in his. Their foreheads touched, and their eyes held such an intensity that it felt like an intrusion to watch.  Claire seethed with envy; her outburst had backfired. Alana’s smile widened. It was bright enough to reflect in the brown of his eyes, melting his dark irises into honey. “This baby will be a prophet,” he said. The words trembled with heavy power–I could feel it in the room and down to the etches of my bones–it was a rattling, divine power.

***

When I was fifteen, we moved from Florida to Indiana. There was a poorly ventilated, small shack of a house my grandmother passed down to us when she died. Mama didn’t care. She wanted to leave Miami. When we packed the truck, she dragged the rolled-up carpet with us. Biting my lip, I pleaded with her to leave it. It was in the past. How would we start anew if we went around carrying old baggage?  She had slapped me across the cheek, leaving a stinging mark. “I hope the entirety of your life is going to be as miserable as mine.”

Two years later, we were driving down the road. I had forgotten why, but mama was screaming at me again. I turned my head to the window, counting every street sign we passed. On the thirty-seven street sign, a car slammed into ours. My eardrums popped. For a moment, I wondered if my hearing had been damaged. Mama was completely silent. She was slumped in the driver’s seat, head against a ballooned airbag, blood soaking into the leather seats. There was a loud whirl. A squeak of tires against the road. The other car had bolted in panicked guilt.

I opened the door and walked home.

This was her problem.

I had been home for three hours when I received the phone call. I picked up the landline, chewing a piece of bubblegum. In my time, I had been blowing bubbles in front of the television. “Hello?”

“Is this the Astor residence?”

“Uh-huh.”

“I’m calling from East Indiana Hospital to inform you that Calliope Astor is currently in critical condition. We’re afraid she’s going to pass away tonight. The chances of her surviving are extremely slim. She received severe head trau-”

 I hung up and went back to watching The Simpsons.

The next day, mama passed away.

I would never know if it was a mere accident or a calculated suicide.

***

John had demanded a party, and we were happy to comply.  The girls and I decorated the trees with discount holiday lights until they glimmered like fireflies in the summer. I had propped up a shaky-legged plastic table, arranging the snacks and alcohol (lemonade for Alana) to accentuate Claire’s special cream cake. It was a vibrant centerpiece with its pastel frosting.  Ever since the news broke, she had pushed everyone away but John. In an attempt to ask how she was, Claire rolled past me like a violent wind, her shoulder slamming against mine. Naturally, I was hurt but empathized with her disappointment. We all had expected her to scowl through the entire party, but she had mustered enough enthusiasm to dance. For tonight, the old Claire was back. She moved to the music like a kite, swaying and spinning to the music. Kennedy and I joined her until our cheeks flushed, and we collapsed breathlessly on the air, gasping for air.

We heard Alana belting along to Springsteen: Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife, baby, edgy and dull/And cut a six-inch valley through the middle of my skull. John threw his arm around her in a gentle chokehold. Unfazed, Alana continued singing.

“She seems happy,” I said.

Alana was never happy. We exchanged a look of unspoken doubt until another song started. Claire yelled for us, and we jolted to the music like crazed nymphs. We were possessed by the chorus. Everything I needed–I finally had. In that golden-lit moment, euphoria consumed me. My Higher Self emerged, stitching together the preexisting wounds of my sinewed, broken soul. So rarely had I felt unadulterated happiness, maybe once or twice before. Yet, I felt it now, and I could hardly fathom letting it go.

When the swell of the music died, John cleared his throat, gesturing for us to gather around him in a circle. He fiddled with his necklace, running a finger down the jagged edges in contemplation before declaring, “I’ve always loved each of you in your special way. I’m grateful for your devotion to spiritual development. Most people don’t want to become better–seek the best version of themselves because they’re comfortable in their wreckage. Not you girls. For that, I’m proud of you.” He paused dramatically before continuing, “You might not know that I first hired Alana as farm help when my brother passed away. She was freshly out of prison at nineteen and completely lost. Fast-forward to today, and she’s nearly her Higher Self. There is no better joy than spiritual progress. Fittingly, Alana’s carrying my son. He will be a prophet with the Universe’s blessing coursing through him. Unlike the rest of us, he does not need soul-searching. He will be born into this world as his Higher Self. He’s a celestial being descended to this Earth for a purpose: spread enlightenment to the rest of the world.”

I shivered with anticipation. Kennedy and I exchanged excited glances, thrilled at the momentous occasion. We were lucky enough to be alive at such an epoch. Beaming, we paid our congratulations to Alana, kissing her cheek. Claire’s jaw clenched, but she maintained a respectful demeanor.

“Let’s have cake,” she suggested. When Claire took the knife, she lifted her chin to her blade’s reflection. It was a silent homage. Her lips moved in a silent recitation as she measured out the slices. A slice perfectly between the lavender and pink frosting–for Alana, she said specifically. The rest of the pieces were cut with less care, almost slanted in its laziness. It was an odd contrast, I thought.

“Say, John,” Alana suddenly, “will you switch plates with me? The color lavender makes me nauseous.”

John obliged, seeing nothing wrong with the request. He took a large bite of his new cake, decorating the corner of his mouth in purple frosting. Claire paled. She turned into a statue. Alana winked cleverly.

No one spoke as John two-thirds of the cake disappeared. He was oblivious of Claire’s little party prank. As was Kennedy, who was blissfully absorbed in another world, humming along to Fleetwood Mac. I averted my eyes, unable to verbalize the horror that confronted me. I was on the brink of screaming to him, but I didn’t. The minute the truth slipped from my lips, Claire would be evicted, thrown out to the side of the road like an old gum wrapper. That would be the best of circumstances. The other involved a gruesome death that Claire, as much as I despised her in that moment, did not deserve. Alana side-eyed me, calculating my silence with no alarm. Her Cheshire cat grin widened. Considering I had the power to ruin her, she showed little concern, almost daring me to tell him. She was confident in my cowardice. 

“John,” Alana said, “the girls and I will be in the house. We must retrieve a gift for you.”

For the first time, we didn’t wait for a response. I dragged a bewildered Kennedy with me without daring to look back. My heart rattled in my ribcage as I locked the door behind us. The room was spinning. Dim yellow light illuminated our faces, contorting us into demons. Claire paced back and forth like Newton’s cradle in motion, trying to exorcise the guilt out of her. The heaviness of the crime was settling. Even Alana had stopped smirking. Pushing her whole body weight against the door, she gravely squinted out of the peephole.

“We killed him,” Claire said.

“No, you killed him,” Alana corrected. “You are the murderer–the rest of us are innocent.”

I shook my head, “We didn’t stop it.”

We didn’t know,” Claire said.

“But we did,” I said, wiping my sweaty palms on the gingham print, half expecting a red blood print.

She fumed, “Alana, you don’t even care that John’s dying.”

“I know if that was me out there, you’d be ecstatic,” Alana snorted.

“If you knew, why’d you let it happen?” I said.

Alana pursed her lips, “ My baby is more important than any man. John doesn’t care about this monster he’s trying to raise–not his child. My baby deserves a chance, and I’m going to give it one.”

Kennedy blinked in confusion before processing the pieces. Sudden realization broke upon her face, as she desperately shoved Alana, fighting to open the door. The effort was partly successful until Alana dug her nails into the bump of Kennedy’s shoulder. She threw the girl to the floor like a paper doll. “He will kill all of us if he finds out. We’ll be buried in shallow graves like chickens.”

“I will kill you,” I spat at Claire. “You can’t be happy for anyone, huh? What’s it like living in a perpetual state of jealousy? This is supposed to be our place.” She recoiled, unaccustomed to my viciousness. Never had I shown a sign of contempt towards her. She was pacing in circles trying to find a shred of redemption in this mess.

“I didn’t feed it to him,” she sobbed. “Alana did.”

“Who started this, Claire?”

“Alana, you’re not innocent either. You knew exactly what you were doing,” I said, “how did you even know?”

“I saw her adding some rat poisoning in the frosting…girls, he’s moving,” Alana said, squinting through the peephole. “He’s still alive.”

“Should we call the hospital?” Kennedy said.

“No.”

We whipped our heads to Alana in simultaneous disbelief. “You shouldn’t. He’s not a good man. Never was, never has been. When John offered me a job when I left prison, he was a lot more upfront then. None of this mysticism crap. He told me that people like us would never find salvation. Instead, we would fill our entire lives with meaningless drugs and people to fill up that gaping space. We’re here to fill up that empty space. That’s all. He didn’t want us to leave, so he made up all those lies about ‘finding ourselves.’ For God’s sake, do you truly believe a man like John found himself?”

Claire stopped pacing. “You barely knew him then. He’s a good person who cares about us. I love him, and you’ve always been–”

“Then go save him.” Alana unlocked the door, inviting the frigid air in. Goosebumps ran down my arm. It had hardly been this chilly twenty minutes ago when we had been serenading the stars. The warmth of the celebration had slipped away, lost like an ancient artifact. “As you do, remember the time he made you sleep outside during winter. When you got a fever, who insisted that you still spend the night outside? Think about the black eye John gave you when you mixed up salt and sugar. Think about the fact that this baby–I didn’t even want this baby, but if I showed one sign that I was nothing short of ecstatic–consider how he would’ve reacted. God, look at what we’re wearing. We don’t get to choose what clothes to wear. Clothes. It’s him exercising his control over us. After all of that, how can you still think he’s a good person?”

“He is,” whispered Claire. She stumbled down the porch steps, gripping onto the railing for some form of stability. Like a lost duckling, Kennedy hesitantly followed Claire out the door.

Alana didn’t bother to stop them. She sighed as if it was what she expected. She was right about most things. Especially John.  You could strip the things he did, flay them with an onion peeler, but the intention was never pure. It wasn’t an epiphany. Somewhere inside, I had subconsciously justified his actions for the sake of conformity. 

Alana stood in the doorway, watching Claire and Kennedy move to his aid with empty eyes. There was no sadness. No anger. Instead, dull acceptance. I’m purest when I’m unhappy. It’s my natural state of being; bitterness is comfortable when it’s all you’ve known. This is my Higher Self.

I touched her arm, a small gesture of warmth before following the girls down to John.

***

In my hand, was a small bouquet of daisies that I dropped at mama’s grave. I could hear her shrieking in Hell, furious that she wasn’t buried next to my father. In my head, I did my best to explain to her that I couldn’t bring her cadaver to Florida. She would have to make do in Indiana.

Once, it would’ve been satisfying revenge. It seemed pointless now. What was the point of fighting with someone when they couldn’t argue back?

Mama, I kept the carpet, I wanted to say. It was sitting in the new house with the darkened bloodstain like a wine splotch. During my midnight bathroom trips, it would stare at me. It took me ages, but I finally understood it.

Sometimes, we don’t deserve to forget.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” a man said. He was three graves over, finely dressed in a business suit, biting his lip as if he was genuinely apologetic.

“Thank you,” I said, rubbing away a noticeable brown smear on mama’s headstone with my sleeve. He noticed and kindly offered me a handkerchief from his chest pocket. I protested, refusing to dirty the fabric, but eventually gave in to his insistence. “Why are you here?” I asked.

He shrugged sheepishly, “My little brother. It’s been years, but I miss him.”

“I’m sorry about that.”

“And you?”

“My mother. Calliope Astor,” I gestured to the inscription, “car accident five months ago.”

He gently laid the silky handkerchief next to my flowers. The blue fabric was tainted with soil. “For Calliope.”

I shook my head, picking it up to him, “No, you don’t have to do that.”
           

“I want to.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said again.

He outstretched his hand, “I’m John.”

“Genesis Astor,” I shook his hand, “it’s nice to meet you.”

“Genesis?”

“Yes sir, it means ‘in the beginning.’ My mama named me that after my father died. When someone dies, someone else is born. It’s a relentless, apathetic cycle. She found it heartbreaking, I guess.”

John touched my shoulder, holding my gaze with those sterling eyes. I felt butterflies crawl from cocoons, unfurling, and slamming their wings against the walls of my stomach. “Listen, I’m having an intimate party Tuesday night if you’re interested. There’s a couple of girls I’d like you to meet.”

“I’ll briefly stop by,” I said, feeling as if I owed him a favor for his kindness.

That evening, I walked down those rural country roads, overgrown with invasive weeds and emerald trees. There was a chill in the air as if mama’s ghost was beside me. In the distance, I saw a homely little farm with green-yellow grass. It looked warm. Safe.


Yoko Zhu is an aspiring journalist from Atlanta, GA. Her work has appeared in Sunbow Zine, 22 Under 22 by Flexible Press, and JUST POETRY!! Yoko is the author of a children’s book called Matcha the Mooneater. In her free time, she composes short stories and poems.

Seven Portraits of Emily Withers by Regina Caggiano

art by Noah Buscher

In the late afternoons she would fill brown paper bags with a week’s worth of remains and hike them all thrown over her shoulder seven tenths of a mile down the road to the Bay House Compost Center. It was a place that bordered the forest. Along the treeline the receptacles sat like sentries of the garden in a neat yellow row of bins waiting to be turned over and shaken back down into the earth. In the late afternoons she is there, always, with brown bags tightly in her fists.

x

Once there was an old wooden bench with red knots of a wool sweater caught among the slats. The fabric had faded with sun and rain and there was nothing more to say about it, except that the slats between were mottled by flat fungus and creaked in the seat of her small weight whenever she sat down there, and though she weighed nothing at all, the screws groaned with a decade of labor.

x

One morning she found herself surrounded by the last of the yellow bees frantic in the grass, flitting through the reeds with a chaos that only ever portends the onset of fresh death. Little striped bodies skimming over the architecture of the lawn and the fallen leaves with a ferocity that brought the grass very alive. She spent a long time watching the movement of these small shadows. 

x

Then came the dark shape of a bird which passed over the softly yellowing plot of land with a sharp dart of spread wings, close to the sun, a shadow the size of a large man’s fist that twirled with the fluidity of a lithe body dragged through water.

x

And then, inexplicably as the morning passed, she found a rash of white ceramic chips dusted over the soil of the garden that, upon first glance, looked to be the remnants of a destroyed dish. Closer inspection revealed however the many milky slivers to be a collection of shattered seashells, whether thrown en masse or individually against the bark of the tree around which they were scattered it would never be made clear.

x

While wandering through the altars of the forest one night she thinks, there is something metaphorical about this arrangement of things: the single log freshly dead, the pile of fist-sized dark grey stones, the bottom ones not yet dried from the rain, and the pyramid of lumber, mossy and dark now, impossible to say how old or how long it has existed, only unnerving the way wood becomes soft. 

x

She knows when trees are cut down and die they release something that can be sensed by the others. Things not sentient by our or any definition but a place to be, still, nonetheless. And finds her way home in following the bandages of birch trees that have been felled, by time and storm and human hand, bark unwinding in a spiral from the brush.


Regina Caggiano is a 20 year old emerging writer and Literary Arts student. She lives on the upper East Coast where she has never meaningfully left New England. Her work has appeared in Crash Test Magazine, 805 Lit + Art, and is forthcoming in Beyond Words Literary Magazine. More of her work can be found at regina-caggiano.wixsite.com/writing.