Ya Want Ads With That?

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Amanda “The Bellman” Marlowe


The other day a friend sent me a link to a New York Times article describing how Borders was planning to install large flat-screen televisions in some of their stores. The idea is to display “unobtrusive” ads and other content.

I’m instantly reminded of the scenes in Minority Report, where pedestrians are constantly barraged with ads targeted directly to them as they go about their daily business. When I first saw that, I was horrified, because I could so easily see that becoming our future.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t go out to watch television. If I wanted to watch television 24/7 I would stay home—someone in my family usually has something on. I’m not particularly anti-television. I’ve watched my fair share of good stuff and my fair share of junk, and I have shows I try to watch regularly. But I generally prefer the printed word, and I have found I enjoy getting lost in my own thoughts. Television, for better or worse, does distract from thinking, from conversation, and from reading. I find I resent televisions in public spaces like grocery store checkout lines and restaurants. There’s something about a television that demands your attention, like a little child always shouting “Look Ma, look! Look!!” And suddenly all the attention is on the television, on some channel you have no control over. Gone with your attention are many human interactions you might have had. A chat with the person next to you, an intimate discussion with your date, or a smile at the checkout clerk are easily replaced by a glassy stare at an LCD screen. I understand that waiting in places can be boring, but do we always have to fill the blank spaces in with television? Especially with television that is little better than non-stop infomercials?

A bookstore is someplace I go to relax, to be with my own thoughts, to breath in ink particles (or book mold, if it’s a secondhand bookstore), and, oddly enough, to browse books. And if there’s a coffee bar, it might be a place I’ll go to chat with friends. But it’s not a place I go to watch television. It never will be. I don’t seem to be alone in this view. The overwhelming reaction I’ve gotten to people who have read the article is “Ack!” Several people have sworn if their local Borders follows through with the televisions, they’ll never set foot in the place again.

I understand a company wants to make money. And I understand that there is a great deal of money in selling ads—just ask Google. I also understand that Borders has always wanted to be seen as more than a bookstore. But given the reactions I’ve heard to this move, I have to wonder if perhaps they don’t understand their audience. Well, perhaps this whole thing will help out the independent bookstores. If so, then that would be a bright spot in an ad-filled future.
pencil

E-mail: bellman[at]toasted-cheese.com

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Persephone

Best of the Boards
Jennifer L. Justice


She picks out the seeds,
Sweet juice
running down crimson fingers.
She licks them clean, hungry
for change.

One by one
She chews.
Her choices stick
between her molars.
Every bite means she can never
go back.

She swallows,
unaware.

pencil

Jennifer is a recent college grad with the crazy desire to work with kids. She currently goes by Ms. Justice and spends her days corralling hyperactive teenagers—a.k.a. teaching 7th grade. She’s been told she needs her own superhero theme song, but she’s still working on the lyrics. Email: jjustice[at]olivet.edu

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The Retrieval

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Laura Magalas


“You’re not going, Fort.”

Xylan’s warning tone of voice didn’t seem to faze the youth, whose bright blue eyes still gleamed. Fort’s small green hand grabbed at Xylan’s belt and made a fist, tugging repeatedly.

“But I’m ready, you know I’m ready,” he said, straightening his posture and releasing his hand from the belt at Xylan’s strict glare. “How am I supposed to prove myself if no one will give me a chance?”

Xylan stared hard at him for a long time. Finally he grasped Fort’s hand and held it up in front of his face. “What color do you see?”

“But, Master Xylan—”

“What color, Fort?”

Fort shifted his gaze down to the dark tiles of the academy hallway. He sighed. “Green, sir.”

“Exactly,” said Xylan, dropping the hand, “Only those who are grey get to run retrieval missions on Earth. Blue for reconnaissance. You know this. Until you’re grey, you’ll have to be satisfied with running retrieval on Venus.”

“But the next Earth retrieval year doesn’t happen for another fifty years after this one! I can’t wait that long!”

“Fort, until you grow into an adult skin,” Xylan said firmly, “it will have to do. You know the rules.”

Fort stared up at Xylan for a long moment, his blue eyes dimming until they grew dark. Finally, he turned away and without saying another word, walked down the hallway, away from the loading docks.

Xylan watched him and tried to ignore the heaviness he found pressing on his two hearts, becoming heavier with each step that took Fort further away from him. He watched him turn the corner. He dropped his hands to his sides and his six fingers began grasping and releasing the trim of his robe, a nervous habit he had developed after leaving his home planet Falpor, as a child, for its academy. Times had changed since the academy’s inception, and rules were now rules, not recommendations.

He remembered what the academy was like when he first registered. The satellite for the academy had just been built, away from the distractions of the planet. Abduction missions were abduction missions and not “retrieval” missions. The name changed because the council (who never went on the missions anyway) thought that “abduction” invoked a negative image of the Falpians.

Xylan remembered when he snuck aboard his first abduction mission. He’d hidden in the back of the pod of some first runner named Tak who could barely navigate properly. He remembered what it was like to see that human come through the klystron tube, the expression on their face at what they saw and how calm they looked when they were put to sleep for the examination process. It was the best thing he’d ever done, experiencing it first hand, but it was only now, when he was older, that he realized how much trouble he could have been in had something happened while on board.

Xylan released the grip he had on his robe as he slid down the hall towards the dorms. He glanced up at the door marked Beta and remembered when he often frequented this very room. He would always have to knock three times before Fort would answer and always answered looking disheveled and wide-eyed, as though when he wasn’t with Xylan, he was sleeping.

When he wasn’t sleeping, he was brilliant. He was the best student Xylan had ever had. Fort was always attentive and ready to learn, but always tried to ask and integrate his own questions into the lessons. And most often, those questions were about Earth.

He wanted to know what the species was like, what they ate, how they reproduced. How they managed to survive on a planet that was mostly water when they all seemed to be land animals. In the odd moments that he wasn’t with Xylan or sleeping, he was in the Academy’s library, reading everything he could on the residents of Earth. He often became frustrated with contradictory reports, and continuously begged Xylan to tell the story again of how he snuck aboard the “retrieval” pod (which had become a private joke between the two). It was then that Xylan decided to recommend Fort to the Board for training for retrieval missions to Earth, on the agreement with the council that he would not begin until he was old enough to do so.

At first, Fort had been thrilled, but as time went on, he realized how much more time he would have to dedicate to training before running missions to Earth. His first retrieval mission to Venus had gone off without the slightest error, and he had achieved the quickest turnaround time for the trip. But Xylan felt as though Fort was just going through the motions, doing whatever it was he had to do to ensure a place on the next retrieval squadron heading to Earth.

Xylan had gone to the council without Fort’s knowledge and requested that the age requirement on Fort be lifted so he could participate in the next trip, but the council refused. They claimed he was too headstrong, too focused and obsessed with only one goal, and in the event of an emergency, would be useless.

This had made Xylan angry. When the academy was first created, someone with as much talent and interest as Fort would have been guaranteed an early graduation and first choice of solo missions to any planet of his choosing, not dragged down to be suffocated under the average level. He remembered storming out of the assembly hall, the chairman still shouting after him about the strict rules and the changing times, but Xylan hadn’t listened. He remembered seeing Fort sitting down the hall, waiting for him. Still fuming from the meeting, Xylan had called Fort over. Surprised, Fort had come running. Xylan had sighed.

“I’m going to tell you something Fort.”

“What is it Master Xylan?”

Xylan looked down at the youth. “Sometimes you’ll need to listen to rules. And… sometimes you’ll need to break them. There will be people who’ll like you and there’ll be people who won’t. But the thing I want you to remember is to be true to yourself. Not me, not your fellow Falpians, not the academy. You. But always, always… be prepared for the consequences. A good explorer doesn’t just plan his trip. He anticipates the reaction of his return. And that is what you have to learn to do.”

Fort nodded his green oval head. “I understand Master Xylan.”

“Good,” he’d said, “Now let’s get you ready for your next mission.”

The two had walked back to the dorm room where Xylan now stood. Pausing as the memory finally passed and remembering the events that had happened this morning, Xylan finally raised a hand to the door and knocked three times.

No answer.

He frowned and was about to knock again as he heard the intercom spring to life through the static from the nebula near the satellite.

“Master Xylan to control, please. Master Xylan, to control.”

Making a note to speak to Fort later, Xylan swept down the halls towards the control center.

All eyes turned to Xylan as he entered the control station. “I was sent for,” he boomed. Within moments, a small figure turned away from the large window and came scurrying across the platform towards him.

“Master Xylan, thank you for coming.”

Xylan recognized the small horned figure as Hain, a Tarin from the Nars star and in charge of assigning missions to the students. He had agreed with Xylan about Fort’s skills, and had helped to get him on other retrieval missions as often as he could. Xylan looked down at him as he approached.

“What is it, Hain?”

Hain took a deep breath and released it quickly. “We received word that a storage unit was missing, and a ship that had been launched as part of the retrieval squadron to Earth was not responding to our calls to reconvene.”

Xylan stopped. He dropped to one knee, his full attention now on the Tarin front of him. “What are you telling me?” He felt every eye of every agent at the control stations trying not to listen.

“We believe that someone stole a ship and launched it with the rest of the squadron going to Earth to run retrieval missions. It’s the only one that didn’t return when called, and was still missing.”

Xylan’s caught the tone in Hain’s voice, and his antennas straightened. “Was?”

“Yes. We found him.”

“Who?”

Hain said nothing. Xylan frowned. Realization dawned and he dropped his head. “Oh, please don’t tell me,” he said, knowing full well the answer. He stood up and brought a hand to his face, pinching the space between his eyes with his three fingers. A small smile crept across his face as he tried to smother a little feeling of pride that began to rise inside of him.

“I’m afraid it’s more serious than that,” said Hain, noticing Xylan’s smile. “Much more serious. But you are correct in your assumption. It was Fort who stole the ship. The code used to activate the ship was the same one that he had been assigned upon first enrolling at the Academy.”

“Well, where is he now? Can you get him on the inter-ship system? Order him back?”

Hain swallowed. “I’m afraid that’s impossible sir.”

“Why the suns not?”

Hain lowered his gaze before looking back up. “I’m afraid he’s… crashed… sir.”

Xylan stopped. “What?”

He looked at Hain, now trembling evidently. “He’s crashed, Master Xylan. The ship’s signal died not five minutes ago.”

“But where? How do we know for sure?”

“We’ve got a lock on the location,” said Hain, “But retrieving him will be impossible without the threat of interplanetary warfare.”

“Where has he crashed?!?”

Those who were casually eavesdropping from their control stations straightened up at the sound of Xylan’s shout. Hain winced evidently.

“Earth, sir,” said Hain finally, “New Mexico. A place called Roswell. It seems the engines…”

Xylan stared at Hain, but saw only his two mouths move without sound. His mind was racing, his two hearts beating out a drumroll. Soon Hain was quiet. Those at their control stations felt awkward at the silence, and many went back to as little work as they could, in case they missed something. Finally, Xylan straightened.

“Hain?”

“Yes, sir?”

“The next retrieval year to Earth is fifty years from now, correct?”

Hain frowned. “Yes, sir,” he said hesitantly.

Xylan stared out the large front window of the control center. “Get me galactic control and assemble the council,” he said, dropping his hands and fingering the trim of his robe. “Let’s see if we can’t get it moved up a decade or two.”

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Laura has finished her Honors B.A. in English and is enjoying the freedom of being able to write more frequently. She lives for writing and tends to daydream excessively. She hopes to one day have one good novel to her name. She is planning to do NaNoWriMo this year. E-mail: atellix[at]hotmail.com

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Dragon Song

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Jessica Colomb


Kali stared down at the girl who hesitated at the edge of the inferno.

The girl, oblivious to the gaze of the Mother Oracle, contemplated the fire circumscribing the tower before she walked through it.

From her perch, Kali watched the surefooted stride, swaying hips, and gleaming eyes of Murin as she moved through the first challenge. The girl’s clothes smoked and smoldered at the edges.

Guards stopped her at the entrance, as they had been instructed. Her hands flared but they remained silent in her path.

The roar of the girl wafted to Kali and cloaked her in its anger. The prognostication of Murin’s arrival had revealed her arrogance and pride. It had not prepared Kali for the scent of it, the taste of it, harsh and pungent at the back of her throat. It choked.

The cooling air wicked moisture from Kali’s lined faced and sank into her joints. Still, the Oracle continued her vigil, waiting to see if Murin could contain the burning within her. It was near the hour of stillness when the girl finally calmed and sat in front of the guards.

“I seek the guidance of the Oracle Kali,” Murin whispered hoarsely. “May I please see her.”

The guards looked to Kali. Murin followed their gaze. Moonlight glinted off the claws that gripped the balustrade and shimmered off the dark scales as the dragon bowed her head in assent.

In Kali’s chamber, Murin tiptoed across the translucent alabaster floor to where Kali sat at her throne. In her human form, Kali was terrifying. Her skin glinted blue-black, her nails were like shards of hematite, and her hair silky and sparkling like a moonlit river. Her skin undulated as if some creature burrowed beneath it. Murin stumbled backwards as one of the Oracle’s legs spilled out into the massive hindquarter of a dragon and then returned to the knobby human shape.

“It is difficult to maintain another form when I am cold and tired,” Kali said.

“If you’d let me in sooner you wouldn’t be so tired, Old Mother,” Murin snapped. She stood with her hands on her hips and was filling her lungs to begin a tirade when it struck her.

The blood vessels in Kali’s brain dilated as she shared the stream of visions. Quickly, she dammed herself.

Murin fell to her knees and clutched her head. She spiraled to the floor, unconscious.

Kali’s skin tumbled into the scales of her dragon form. She picked up the slack body and cradled it. Pressing her snout against Murin’s hot forehead, Kali chanted an incantation of protection. Her tail whispered across the floor as she carried Murin to bed.

Murin stumbled from the thickness of sleep. She searched the room for a glimmer of familiarity, but all was foreign. The ache in her head announced that another attack had happened. The blackouts brought bouts of memory loss; a minute, hour, sometimes up to a week evaporated.

Flashes of scenes from the visions between blinks disoriented her. A murmur slithered through the air and insinuated itself into the firings in Murin’s brain. Like a compass, the murmur snagged one of the images and brought it to the foreground. A black dragon sat in the center of a white floor with its eyes closed and its lips twitching in speech. Murin touched the threads of the pathways of sensation in her body and traced the one for sound. “Come to me, little one,” the dragon was saying. “It is time, Murin.” Murin flinched and her skin prickled. She burst out of the door and ran in a random direction only to find herself in that white-floored chamber, facing that dragon.

“Let me out of here,” Murin yelled.

The dragon cocked a brow and opened her eyes. Kali’s fabled topaz eyes regarded the frantic girl with a mixture of humor and sadness. “Only yesterday you were yelling to get in and now you’re yelling to get out,” Kali said, her multi-phonic voice expressed a range of tones in each syllable.

The sound of her flowed over Murin and doused the fear in her belly.

“Which is it?” Black lids veiled the pale eyes once more. Kali breathed evenly, with the patience of the universe. Without permission, Kali forged a mental connection with the girl and drew her into the time stream.

Murin thrashed at first, gasping for air as if she was drowning. She felt pieces of her consciousness breaking off and becoming entangled in the stream.

Kali supported the weight of her and sang to her.

All the tones collected the scattered parts of Murin, reassembling her to a point of singularity. She settled into the flow. She felt the past, present and future swirl around her in jumbled confusion.

Kali waded into the deep. Her intrusion sent ripples and cut a V-shaped swath. The stream expanded in all directions at once. Her mental self floated on her back and sank into the waters of time so only her snout emerged from the flow.

Murin detected the Oracle sensing the luminous incandescent particles and waves surrounding her.

Kali picked one.

It was of the past, something Murin had not yet lost to the blackouts, either because it was too far back in her memory or it was something she held too close to release to the mist. She sneered at the man who had called himself father and seethed at the moment she had stopped being his daughter and became, instead, a shameful burden.

Kali continued to pull pieces of Murin’s life out of the time stream, careful to only touch the shadowy reds and golds of her past. There was the particle of her accidentally burning the tomatoes with a fiery hiccup. There were her skin cells refining themselves into the golden shimmer of tiny tightly woven scales. Her thefts, her betrayals, her thick-throated desolation, and all consuming explosions. Kali plucked from the stream the moment of her conception, a mystery of cells merging, splitting, and roiling in the act of creation. There was the gilded face of a golden dragon, Murin standing at the fire, before the guards, before Kali.

Kali shifted her position and hummed at a different frequency. Now she pulled out images of the people Murin had collided with over the years. The slack weathered face of her mother, the seesaw limp of a tavern keeper who had refused her, the jagged scar marring the back of a friend who had intervened in a fight.

The humming grew louder and the images came more frequently until they barraged Murin like storm waves against a breakwater wall. The particles merged with her and she with them, exchanging pieces, shifting orbits and flashes of flame until she gasped for air.

Again, Kali changed the tone of her hum and picked out the moment that was now. Time zero. They returned to the chamber, Kali as tranquil as before, breathing deeply and drifting in meditation.

Some color sapped out of Murin’s skin, leaving her a sickly burnish of pale gold.  She rubbed feeling back into her fingers and wiped her sweaty palms on her pants. The spark of her anger would not grow no matter how she tried to coax it. She decided to sit on the floor, cross-legged, in front of the Oracle. She studied the chevron pattern of Kali’s scales and marveled that even dragons acquired wrinkles.

“You had no right,” Murin said after the hum dissipated and silence filled the spaces and gaps. It was a statement rather than the intended accusation that would have normally devolved into violence. Wading through the time stream, then the restoration and augmentation of her memory had somehow dampened her fire. Without it, she felt cold and vulnerable.

“Had no right to condense that of your life turned to vapor?”

“To change me.”

Kali turned her eyes to the girl sitting in front of her, whose mouth softened in a pout and eyes darkened by melancholy. Of the various paths, Kali chose the one that began, “What triggers your blackouts?”

Murin scoffed. Kali had seen her memories just as clearly as she had. “The visions, ancient one.” She meant the moniker as a barb, but it rearranged itself into a demonstration of respect.

Kali let quiet slip between them. It expanded.

Murin shifted uncomfortably, uncrossed her legs and still the silence crept ever outward. She tried to puncture it with the repetition of her answer, but her throat closed. And the stillness. In the space that was not the time stream but a waking meditation of every single moment of her life, Murin mimicked Kali and waded into her memories. She submerged herself in them. When her muscles tensed from the snarled undertow, Kali chanted softly. Unfurling her limbs, Murin opened the channels of her senses. Humming did not help her pinpoint the moments she was looking for. She turned to her gut and the other mechanisms that built emotions. She choked as she realized that her method of seeking and controlling her visions involved emotions and their infinite shades.

Testing this, she chose fear. It belonged to the family of blue, which also included sadness and heartbreak and despondency, and drifted closely to the tones of violet and cobalt, that dark edge before black. She found a tone of fear. Focusing on it illuminated the stream, these bits of fear-filled moments revealing themselves in their peculiar color. She selected a few to confirm that they were what she imagined them to be.

Next, Murin meditated on the color associated with the visions. It was nacreous. Slowly she examined the visions, asked the memories to form root systems so she could trace them backwards to the trigger. Her heart pace quickened as frustration set in. There was no pattern to the vision triggers. Sometimes it was touch, a sound, or a smell. Sometimes it was a feeling or a place. She began to withdraw from the trance but Kali’s chanting morphed. She uttered instructions, which inserted themselves into Murin’s subconscious. A spark. Murin returned to her search, looking now for the blackouts. The blackouts had no texture or color. They were like spots of nothingness drifting around her.

She eased one into her grasp and traced to its beginnings. A flash of red stunned her into dropping the memory. She repeated the process. Over and over red blinded her, stifled her breath, shocked her into jettisoning the memory. Methodically searching all the spots of nothingness, the pattern that emerged was stark.

Murin paused and wavered between escaping to the alabaster floor of Kali’s chamber and seeking out the red moments of her life. Kali sang her encouragement and support. Breathing deeply, Murin elicited the hue of her anger. Everywhere was red and it engulfed her.

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“I have earned a B.A. in Creative Writing at UCSD and was awarded the 2005 Sherley Anne Williams Memorial Prize in Fiction for “Memoir, A Blind Spot.” During my studies, I was pleased to work with Eileen Myles, Anna Joy Springer, Ali Liebegott and Michael Davidson. My first publication is upcoming in Storyglossia.” E-mail: inkspotfever[at]yahoo.com

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In Memory of Maggie

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Liz Mierzejewski


Looking at that empty box covered with photographs and flowers that morning, I still held out hope.

“Is she dead?” they would ask me. Some would pull me by my elbow, being discreet in the company of Maggie’s family, but it was always the same question. “Do you think she’s dead?”

With as much discretion, I would whisper. I had to whisper, my voice shot to hell from screaming her name in the endless caverns. “I don’t know.” I want to believe she’s alive, but even using that word right now seems ludicrous, considering the circumstances.

She had come to my archeology research group highly recommended from the post-graduate studies liaison at UConn, and I needed someone on the team with that much enthusiasm, regardless of her lack of field experience. She’d been on a few digs, uncovering the remnants of one of the Connecticut tribes, and had even managed to get an article or two published, in Archaeology Magazine and Current Anthropology. What really came out of all this was an undeniable passion, a desire to connect to the past that was rare, even in my experience. Most of the post-grads I’d worked with had long abandoned the full absorption that would skew analysis, but not Maggie. Give her a scrap and she would tease it and love it like a puppy with a sock. It wasn’t always contagious. Some of the other more staid diggers would shake their heads when she would shout, sharing her discoveries, a child picking flowers. Their laughter didn’t bother her in the least. The item was a transport. The audience, herself. Nothing else mattered.

“Dr. Stiles?” she asked. I lifted my head from the endless sifting going on in the little, cordoned field we had been working the last few months. We had recently found some rather peculiar tribal sculptures scattered among the pedestrian remnants of ancient human culture. We had been filtering out these bits buried in the white stone of Falls Village, Connecticut. It was blasted hot in the reflected light of the limestone beds. I pulled off my standard-issue fedora, trying to shield my eyes from the glare. I thought she might want to show me some more pottery shards, trying to make out the images painted on the outside. This had become her most recent obsession. But no. She had her hands in her back pockets, pulling the waistband tight against her emaciated stomach. The girl just didn’t eat.

“Yes?”

“You need to see something.” She turned and began ascending the limestone and marble debris. She hadn’t waited for a response. I turned back to the screet, tossing the spade into the pile of dirt.

“I’ll be back, Kerry,” I said. I could hear her say something to Jim, and they both laughed. My old bones complained as I followed Maggie up the ascent to a little plateau. She now had her hands perched on her hips, and I imagined her tapping her toe with impatience. It was obvious she had made what she considered a considerable find. I muffled my own parental smirk.

“Well, Maggie?”

She shifted, and pointed low, and not with her usual confidence. “There,” she said, “Right there. I don’t know what to call it, but it’s big. Real big.” It was a hole. It looked small to begin with, not more than maybe two feet wide, but damn it if it wasn’t deep. It seemed to go far into the hill and fade to black.

“It’s a hole.” I wiped my face on the edge of my shirt, mixing the limestone powder into my sweat, making a layer of chalky paste. Maggie’s own face was an unexpected mix of guilt and discovery. It reminded me of the first time I found a dirty magazine. Something was going on. “What? Did you find something in it? What did you find?”

“Remember that little figure you found? The female with the… um…” she didn’t want to say enormous breasts, but that’s what it was.

“Yes, yes, of course. The fertility figure. Did you find another?” I bent down to the hole and did a cursory search of the first few feet.

“No, sir. It’s more of a confession.” I looked up, and she was biting her lower lip, brows twisted from some internal agony. I was starting to feel really old. I’m supposed to be her mentor, not her father. “It was mine. I made it.” She winced and turned her head aside.

“What? You seeded the field? That’s— that’s—” It’s criminal, is what it is. “Are you crazy? We could lose our funding! We’d be laughed off any dig… What in the world possessed you to do that? What if we had published?” I had begun to pace on the plateau, and Maggie was now up against the stark, bright wall of the cliff.

In a voice so small she said, “We still could.” My rant was cut off, and I stared at her, my disappointment sitting plainly, I was sure. She did not drop her gaze. Rather, she lifted up her chin. “In fact, I know we can.” She pulled something from a satchel that had been sitting on the plateau. It was small, swaddled in some scrap of cotton. Another little figure spilled into her palm. It was freshly carved, cheaply painted. Another female figure, this time wraith-thin, with representative light brown curls long, and down the back. Maggie had carved herself. Holding it briefly to my vision, she bent down to the hole and tossed the figure. It bounced and echoed out of sight.

Two days later, we found it. Kerry and Jim had been digging in the next quadrant, and it had screed to the surface, old and worn, paint but a memory, rubbed to a worshipped patina. I hadn’t told either of them what had transpired up there on the limestone ledge, and now I didn’t quite know how to tell them that the rejoicing was misplaced. They hadn’t discovered a new Goddess. Rather, Maggie had discovered a passage into the past.

And it was giving us a little bit of notoriety. The liaison from UConn had come by, and examined the figures. He called in some of his contacts, and it wasn’t long before we were getting some local press, all over a handful of bogus figures. We hadn’t told a soul. We couldn’t. Maggie continued to carve figures, careful not to make them too modern. We continued to find them within days, rich with the years that consumed them from the hole to the fields.

How can you explain something like that? To be sure, as the weeks went by, it became more difficult to imagine exactly how such a conversation would take place.

“Oh, yes, and by the way, Mr. President, we’ve been using a time-travel portal to artificially salt our dig site. Isn’t that truly amazing?” The shroud of secrecy was becoming hot and suffocating, more like a wool muffler.

Being published and celebrated was intoxicating, dragging my little team from obscurity to relative celebrity. How could it last? It couldn’t of course, and it didn’t. The fame faded, and the work resumed, and Maggie even began focusing more on her pottery shards once again. We had managed to secure another dig grant through the bogus figures. It would keep us in clover (and maybe even clover points) for a few more months, at least.

But the end of the dig was coming. We were closing up, packing up the last of the equipment. The Connecticut winter was finding its way into our site, making digging uncomfortable, if not downright impossible. Kerry, Jim, and most of the others had managed to get signed on to other, warmer digs that had not yet been spent and glorified. Only Maggie and I were planning on hanging around.

I was helping Jim load the last of the screening equipment onto his flatbed. The leather of our gloves sounded hollow as we shook our good lucks and separated. As Jim and the equipment took that last turn out of sight, I sensed Maggie behind me. Her tiny frame was wrapped in a tatty fur-lined winter coat embedded with the limestone dust. She rubbed her hands together, inexplicably bare of necessary gloves. Her breath froze in front of her as she tried to form the words she was trying to share.

“This can’t be it, Dr. Stiles. It’s been…” She shook her head, unable to put into words what the past five months had been. “I can’t… I can’t let it end.”

I took off my gloves and offered them to her. She begged off with a wave, plunging her hands into her coat pockets. “I’m just here for a few more weeks, Maggie. The holidays are coming, and I’m thinking of visiting some family. You should do the same. There’s nothing left here.”

“Not yet,” she said. She turned and made her way up the now-familiar path to the plateau and our goldmine hole.

“Maggie, we can’t do it. We can’t just throw more stuff in there. It’s not right. It’s unethical, and frankly, it’s just not meaningful.” She ignored me. I was nearly puffing as I made it to the plateau. It had been at least a month since the last time I had ascended this hill.

There in the bitter breeze Maggie stripped off her jacket. “Meaningful? Well, that’s about to change. This site needs meaning; I need meaning. I think we can help each other with that.”

“What are you doing?” My voice was shaky. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I tried to grab her wrists, but she surprised me with her strength.

“Don’t worry, Dr. Stiles. You’ll see me in a few days.” With that she hopped into the hole, barely big enough to encompass her tiny body. The sound of her sliding reminded me of an avalanche of pebbles, echoing into the dark. She was gone before I got a chance to protest.

I did see her in a few days, she was right about that. Alone at the last quadrant, having given up my last chance for a Christmas vacation, I found her. The body was an old woman, all bones and hair decorated with ancient spring flowers. Buried with molded beads and carved figures, it was obvious this was a revered and loved elder, perhaps a teacher.

I had no way to explain this to her family. Where would I begin? “She just disappeared once the dig was closed,” I told them. I just hope they never want to see the article about the strange remains of a tiny woman, odd and out of place, but so natural, buried and loved, a true goddess.

pencil

E-mail: mizem55[at]yahoo.com

Posted in Uncategorized

Prairie Song

Ana’s Pick
Devin P. Bates


Daddy always told me that the prairie has a woman’s heart. Memory may be fallible, but when I try to recall, it seems that he always said it at the same time of year, during the late fall after harvest but before the snow. We would sit there in his old truck with the heater going full blast, looking out across the rows of overturned earth that were our fields, and he’d say it then: “Son, the prairie has a woman’s heart.” At that time of year, the sky is gray and the trees essentially divested of their foliage; skeletons under the dullness of the clouded heavens. The prairie goes on far past a point of infinity, expansive and open, but also uniquely full. It is interrupted only by the stands of woods that surround farm houses and line river banks.

I sometimes weep inwardly when I recall those moments. The prairie in such instants has been the womb I matured in and the canvas of my whole life. What I could see on the horizon was the farthest extent of what I could imagine. Visitors have sometimes said to me that the prairie seems empty or desolate, but in all my years here, the open space unfolding farther than my eye can see has been like a snug, warm blanket. When life begins to get the best of me, I can draw it tightly about myself for comfort. The thought of leaving this country makes me as desolate as outside people feel coming in. All that I have seen and experienced since I was born has become as much a part of me as I am inextricably a part of it. The soil in the fields, the deer in the woods, and the fish in the rivers and lakes do not belong here any more than I do.

Dad is gone now, resting in the graveyard just outside Gentilly. His grave is not far from the grain silo on the corner of Ostgaard’s farm, right in a part of the cemetery where he can look out over the land rolling down into Proulx’s soybean fields, towards the river. Things have been rough for me since he died. Most everyone else goes to Swede’s of an evening to sit at the bar drinking long draws of Grain Belt and Leinenkugel’s. But since Dad left us, I have taken the moments between dusk and dark to drive out to the graveyard and visit him. The shadow of Ostgaard’s silo is a good place to stand when the sky begins to flame at sunset. I always take my hat off and bow my head when I visit his grave, and then it almost seems that Dad misses me as horribly as I miss him. But it is an impotent longing; all I can do is pull the weeds and grass out from around his headstone and brush the dust and spiderwebs off of the granite before I go home.

Regular rifle season for whitetail deer has just about arrived in Polk County, and its approach is another painful reminder of my father. He was a master hunter, obsessive and meticulous in his preparation, and never unsuccessful. When the season opens, then as now, some folks just get in a line and fire off boxes of ammo, yelling and whistling as they walk across a field. Dad never drove deer that way, but still always managed to fill his tags. Our land was never open to anyone but our family and Dad knew every deer that crossed it. He had scouted every trail through the woods and fields where he was likely to see something, and started getting ready for one deer season before the previous one even closed.

Our place was a whitetail heaven. Dad made sure there was something special for the deer all year long, even in the coldest part of the winter. Sometimes it was pumpkins or surplus apples that came from our trees when Mom had got sick of making jelly. Later in the year, it was sugar beets that had fallen off the transport trucks or chunks of salt from a broken lick. He even planted a couple of small patches of corn exclusively for the deer, and when things got really nasty cold, he would fork out piles of hay, just to make sure they didn’t suffer. And Dad never stopped watching deer. For every week of hunting, he spent months just watching. It was a year-round thing with him.

“You have to respect animals, Son. God gave us stewardship over them. And we need to show reverence to the things of the Lord.” God help me if I ever did something cruel to an animal. If I even so much as stuck my horse a little hard with my spurs or hit the dog when he messed on the floor, I could only hope my Dad wasn’t there to see.

One time he caught me with my friends at the Winter Shows building in Crookston during a livestock show. My friend Ted had got a new, greener-than-fresh-cut-sapling gelding from some fellow at the show, and had him in a round pen off the end of the auction arena, trying to catch him and put a halter on. After a few attempts to soothe him, Ted lost patience and decided to run the horse until he was too tired to fight anymore.

By the time my Dad came along, that horse was dead terrified. His eyes were the size of dinner plates, with white showing all the way around. His ears were kinked back and his whole body was dark with sweat. Snap-marks from the longe whip we were hitting him with as we chased him around the pen marred his body from poll to croup on both sides. I had just hit the gelding when Dad saw us, and Holy Jesus, I have never been more scared in my life than I was when I saw him striding up the arena railing. His face was flat and drawn out, with ominous flashes of dark lighting streaking through his eyes.

I honestly thought my dad was going to hit me, but that just wasn’t his way. I still don’t think he ever came closer to losing control of himself than he did at that very instant. Instead, he pulled the longe whip out of my hand and threw it over the railing, giving me a look that said “You stay right where you are, boy.” The other boys shrank away and melted into the fencing, watching with fearful eyes. Dad went straight to the horse, and all the tension magically flowed out of its body. It stopped quivering right away, its eyes got soft, and its ears came up. Dad murmured to him, scratched his nose and face, and dried the excess sweat off his body with a towel, soothing him with every movement. He haltered the gelding as fluidly as could be, snapped a lead rope on, and handed it to Ted, saying, “You have a lot to learn where horses are concerned, young man.”

He didn’t say a word to me until after we left the show and were headed back towards Gentilly on the Highway 2 truck bypass. I wanted to cry, because I had never felt that much distance between my Dad and me. I knew he was struggling with his temper, wondering what he was going to say to me. His disappointment was almost tangible in the truck cab. The words finally came as we went down into the dip where the road crosses Red Lake River. “I never thought I would be ashamed to be your Father, but I was back there, Jaden.” He wasn’t looking at me as he spoke. “That little gelding may be Ted’s horse, but you are my son.” He took a few deep breaths and really struggled to keep the tears out of his eyes, but a few began to glisten anyway in the crow’s feet spreading across his weathered cheekbones. “I would have thought you knew better.”

Many years have passed since that day, but I have never been able to forget it, as much as I would like to. Every time I call it to mind, shame rises in my throat like bile, hot and bitter and more terrible than about anything I can imagine. Dad never said another word to me about the incident. He never needed to.

Lately I have been leaving the house after supper, walking around the Quonset work huts where the tractors and equipment are stored, and walking north directly across the hayfield behind our house for a half mile. I have never neglected my Dad’s lessons about being prepared for deer season. But sitting in our stand on the edge of the big woods and watching deer has taken on a new meaning for me since his death. I think my wife understands. She never asks me where I am going; she only comes up to me and holds me tight for a minute or two before I put on my jacket and step out the door.

I go to the same stand where my dad started to take me hunting a half century ago. On the morning rifle season opens, I will be carrying the gun he used for most of his life, an old lever-action Winchester .30-.30 with open sights. It glows with the care that has been taken of it, being more used than it is worn. The metal parts have been re-blued several times and the stock has been oiled and polished so much that its nicks have simply been smoothed over and imperceptibly absorbed. Even after the better part of a century, the barrel has never needed to be replaced. Dad never pulled the trigger unless he had a killing shot and knew it. If the rifle went off, that meant Dad had a deer, and one box of shells might last him through two seasons, even with the practice and sighting-in.

In 1959, when I was barely past eight, he took me out to the stand and slipped seven shells into the magazine, chambering one and easing down the hammer so the gun wouldn’t fire accidentally. Then he handed it to me and bent over his canvas hunting bag, looking for his Thermos of hot coffee and binoculars before settling in for the long wait.

I was born and raised in a deer-hunting culture. Here, the whitetail hunt is a literal religion. A boy’s first deer is about as important as graduating from high school or getting married, so I was taught to respect guns almost from the cradle. Before I ever even held one, I had to have a hunter safety course. Because my dad was who he was, I was taught to fear the destructive power of a gun as much as to admire its utility or mystique.

But I guess going hunting for the first time with your dad in rural northwestern Minnesota is about the same as your first sexual encounter. No matter how much you have imagined, rehearsed in your mind, and obsessed about it, when the actual moment comes, you are going to mess up. Maybe that explains why, as I sat there, eager to the point of nausea, I slipped the hammer back with my thumb and found my finger somehow inside the trigger guard. The sequence was almost instantaneous. A faint click as the hammer went back and in the next heartbeat, a deafening explosion, the rifle pointing straight upwards.

Down to the bar at Swede’s of an evening, when the night has got on a bit and tongues are well-lubricated by the golden streams of malt ambrosia that Swede pulls out of the tap like gossamer beams, you hear stories about this sort of thing. The fellows are just drunk enough to the point where they begin to brood on mortality and start talking like busted faucets. God knows, I’ve been there enough times. I know that’s when the stories of childhood come out, and all the stories of childhood center around hunting, farming, and horses. The “gun-mishap” stories of Gentilly’s collective repertoire ought to be written down in a book someplace. I can’t think of a time in Swede’s when I haven’t heard a story about some accident or the other that happened with a rifle in childhood.

“…tossed the damn thing out of the stand, and as soon as it hit the ground it bounced and went off like a firecracker,” I heard Bert Olmsted saying not long ago, “I about shit my pants.” Here he stopped and laughed almost helplessly, tears rolling out of the corners of his eyes, hunched over the bar in a paroxysm of mildly-drunken mirth until he was able to stop and breathe again, his eyes more sober. “Dad was sure a mite sore. I literally don’t think I could sit down easy again for a couple of weeks after that.”

In 1959, sitting on a battered old rotating metal stool in a deer stand so remote that it might as well have been on the moon as in Gentilly, Minnesota, I was hardly laughing. I can remember little specks of wood floating down from the newly perforated roof as the echoes receded across the expanse of the prairie, and the silence was terrible with impending tragedy. I hear from time to time these days of sons who don’t respect their fathers, who don’t love them. Well, I worshipped my Dad, even back then, and I was scared almost to the point of passing out as I waited for him to stand up straight and turn around.

A second or two after the gun went off, he turned and looked up at the hole in the roof, then down at me shaking like a tree’s last autumn leaf in an early winter wind. I was waiting for him to yell, to strike me, to send me home. To do something awful that I couldn’t imagine but richly deserved. But instead, he took a single cartridge out of the red-white-orange Winchester box and handed it to me with a look that said: “Well now, we won’t be doing that again, will we?”

Years have become decades and I still struggle to understand that day. I had every right to expect that it would become common knowledge in a little town like Gentilly, where everybody has known everybody else since birth. I should have been taunted about it at recess and kidded about it by the men in town, and even to this day, it should be a staple of discourse in the dark, smoky, neon-illuminated room at Swede’s. It is a stigma I should never have escaped. But a half-century later, all the other kids are like me, bald or grey, too heavy, and pushing sixty. And none of them knows the story. Most all of their fathers are either helplessly geriatric or dead, and not one of them has ever kidded me about that day. Even Mom, who worries more than a rabbit in a cosmetics lab, never heard a whisper of the incident. Dad imparted many lessons, but I think this was one of the greatest. When I visit his grave, I always thank him for it.

Dad was going downhill for a long time before he passed away. When he was too bad off for us to watch at home anymore, we had to put him in a room at the Villa St. Vincent in Crookston. He had trouble walking; he had become hunched over and gnarled, and was in pain a lot of the time. His room was small and ascetic, overlooking Riverside and Summit streets with their young children happily bicycling and playing. The nunnery was right next door, and his room was close enough so that at night, he could see the glow of the ballpark lights and hear the sounds of summer softball games.

One day, he turned to me as I came in and said: “I can’t do a goddamn thing these days, Jaden, except sit here forgotten in a rocker, watching the world go by. I’m just waiting to die.” I didn’t say anything. I don’t know what I could have said. But I do remember thinking that he wasn’t going to last too much longer away from the farm and open prairie. And I recall that my heart started hurting that very instant in a way that has never fully stopped.

The last time we had him out was that same summer, to the Water Carnival in Erskine. He was using a walker and had a small green tank of oxygen hooked into his nose. We drove past a colorful explosion of sparkling light that was reflected on the waters of Lake Cameron by the carnival and parked on a side street. We stopped at the beer garden and drank deeply out of plastic cups, sitting on wooden tables in front of the bandstand to listen to the band and watch people dance. My wife was on one side of Dad, and I was on the other. We were afraid to leave him even for a second. He was wavering and tired, but didn’t want to go home. “Take me on a ride,” he said, and my wife Lucy’s eyebrows went straight up, communicating urgently with me across the top of his head that this was a dangerous thing, and we should take Dad back to the Villa.

But I said, “Okay Dad,” and tried to placate Lucy with a glance that I hoped conveyed why this was so important. She wasn’t happy, but turned wordlessly away in mute assent. I was going to catch hell when we got home, but I didn’t care for the moment. We weaved slowly through the light and color and noise of the night. On the periphery, a ticket stand was doing brisk business in the shadow of a brightly-lit carnival food emporium. While Lucy bought tickets, I got a big wad of blue cotton candy and a coke to share with Dad.

There was a ride just kitty-corner to the ticket booth, the kind where the seats are somewhat like an undulating horizontal Ferris wheel. We got in line, but Lenny Overgaard, who was operating the ride, immediately gave me a glance that said: “No way in hell, Jaden. Get him out of here.” I had to leave Dad with Lucy and go talk to him. “Jesus Christ, Lenny, let him get on the damn ride. He’s ninety-two; this is his last Water Carnival, and probably his last wish.” Lenny started to shake his head, “Jaden, you have no fucking idea the kind of trouble I could get in over something like this…” but before he could continue I put a twenty-dollar bill in his hand and walked away. “Lenny says it’s okay, bring him on over,” I hollered.

Lenny gave me a dark look, but let me get in a seat with Dad, and we rushed up into the night and sped down towards the lake over and over again. Once, Lenny stopped the ride to let some kids on, and we were suspended at the ride’s highest point, with a light nighttime breeze rustling our hair. Streams of people were wandering in and out of the maze of booths and rides and games of chance that had taken over two blocks next to the lake. The doorway to the bar glared against the dark silhouette of the building. It was one point in a miniature sea of flashing lights and bright sounds. Out beyond town, the darkness of the prairie spread out in all directions, and cars hummed by on Highway 2, heading west to Crookston or east to Fosston and Bemidji.

While we waited, Dad leaned over to me and asked: “Jaden, do you suppose this is what Heaven is like?”

“What do you mean, Dad?” I answered.

He sighed in contentment, “Well, you know, here I am, looking at the place where I was born, at the only horizon I have ever known.” He heaved another sigh. “I grew up here, married your mother here, ranched cattle here, this is where you were born and where my whole life has played out. I have never known another place, or wanted to.” Just as the wheel began to rotate down again, he said, “I’d like to think I could always stay close to here and look down on my family and this place. That would be Heaven to me…”

Two weeks after the carnival, I was out cutting hay when my cell phone rang. The clatter of the tractor and wail of the old haybine were almost too great to hear my wife on the other end, but I could make out “…your Dad’s in Grand Forks…” That meant he had taken a turn for the worse and the Villa had transported him to Altru hospital, across the state border in North Dakota. Not what you want to hear when you have an elderly and failing parent. I shut off the tractor and told Lucy to come get me on the 4-wheeler and call our boy Andrew to finish the swathing.

It was an hour and a half before we could pick up Mom and get to the hospital. Dad was almost beyond words when we arrived. He was hooked up to a bewildering panoply of monitors and medical equipment, looking completely out of context in the high-tech setting. There’s not much I wouldn’t have given then for him to be at home, looking out the window at the farm.

A grave faced technician in green scrubs met us outside the door and told us, “If you have anything that needs said, you’d better do it now.” We went in and sat beside Dad for what seemed hours. He was too weak to talk much, and we all strained to think of something to say that would fit the situation. We prayed and asked God to make him better, but there was no miracle. Afternoon became nighttime. Mom went to sleep on one of the chairs in the hall and Lucy went out to pick up some food. I stayed, still wearing my coveralls and work shirt, sunburned and covered in chaff, dirt and sweat.

Just after Mom and Lucy had left us alone, Dad spoke, wan and smiling: “I can smell the prairie on you, Jaden.” He breathed deeply, coughed hard, and riveted me with his eyes. “Do you know what I am most proud of now?” he said.

The moment was so heavy I was almost unable to speak, but I had to, then more than ever before in my life, “No, Dad, I guess I don’t.”

He smiled, weakly, and said: “You were my son.”

I never was able to respond to that, to hug him, to tell him that I loved him, because he stopped breathing then, and it was all over. Part of me died with him.

Dad’s service was held a few days after he died, at St. Peter’s Catholic Church on the west end of Gentilly. The church is made of red brick, and has a white spire reaching above the tree tops. The spire is visible a long way off. It has guided me home more times than I can remember now. The funeral was mostly anticlimactic, but about the whole town showed up, a mark of respect for Dad. All the fellows shook my hand and told me they were sorry. I went to Swede’s afterwards, just as a matter of formality, and even Swede was not his garrulous self on account of Dad’s dying. He wouldn’t let me pay for a single beer that night. I wasn’t really thirsty anyway.

Deer season has now rolled around again. When harvest was done, I sat by myself in the truck, gazing absently over fields that had become mine when Dad died. I felt terribly alone, and broken inside. Life in Gentilly had returned to normal, but I just wasn’t there yet. The fellows had long been back to their usual nighttime banter at Swede’s. I had stopped going as much, and preferred to visit Dad, instead of the bar, when the day’s work was through.

On Sunday morning, the last day of rifle season, the day dawns calm, clear, and just a bit cool and breezy. I take a small canvas sack and Dad’s rifle and walk out to the stand before it is light. The air is so clear that it is almost liquid, a crystal stream flowing and ebbing constantly over the face of the earth. With every step, the undulating carpet of dead prairie grass crunches underfoot, but the sound quickly wafts away on a cold breeze.

I have been hours in the stand, gazing on the prairie’s bosom, when I hear steps behind me and turn to see a child’s figure in blaze orange approaching. It is my grandson, Scott. He looks up at me plaintively, holding a canvas bag and carrying a rifle over his shoulder. “Grandma says she reckons you can use some lunch.” I look behind him and see my wife at the far end of the field, waving. “Well, is that so?” I say, and smile, remembering how Mom used to send me out to Dad the same way. “Why don’t you come on up, Scotty?” He hands me his bag and his gun, a fancy new .270, and climbs into the stand, quivering with excitement.

Perfect moments, like jewels, come in settings of exquisite poignancy. They are the crowns making a good moment an immortal one. As Scotty and I wait quietly in the deer stand, I can feel such a perfect moment coming. “Do you know how to shoot open sights, Scotty?” I ask him, hoping he will say yes, and he does. “Here, give me your gun, and use this one.” I hand him Dad’s .30-.30, unloading his gun and standing it in a corner. A perfect moment requires the perfect weapon, after all.

Scotty is almost asleep when the moment arrives. I have to shake him awake. A hundred yards away, moving out of the woods between our field and DNR land, is an enormous buck, with twelve perfectly symmetrical points and a spread of what is easily more than thirty inches. He steps through the flowing crystal air, each footstep making a small noise in the brittle carpet of grey-brown grass. Each step, each breath, is an agonizing eternity, but the buck hasn’t spotted us.

My grandson is waiting for me to say something, so I nudge him in the back and whisper. “Get Ready.” He leans against the edge of the stand, aiming carefully, breathing slowly and deliberately. I realize he is afraid of my disapproval. He wants to do everything perfectly. He wants the moment to be perfect as much as I do, and I can almost feel his heart beat in time with mine and the prairie’s. The hammer is drawn back with its characteristic clicking noise, and Scott waits one breath, then two. The buck stops, swinging his head slowly from side to side, still oblivious.

One more breath. “Now,” I whisper urgently, when the buck is only thirty-five yards away. The gun roars and bucks, belching a spurt of flame and sending a faint puff of acrid smoke up into the crisp air. Scotty steps backward involuntarily, but I am there to steady him, even as he works the lever, chambering another shot instinctively in case it is needed. It takes one protracted second for the world to fall back into place and the echoes to fade. Below the stand, the buck is lying still in the grass. He is hit hard through the lungs, and even from here, we can see he has died almost instantly, a spray of hot blood staining his muzzle and forming a red halo on the dry grass in front of his head.

There is no hurry. We can sit for a few moments. Scotty tries to absorb it all. He has just realized the quintessential expression of his cultural heritage. The stories he tells his schoolmates won’t be about “almosts” anymore. I take the same moment, and sit on the stool with him on my lap. When we climb down from the stand, he is going to be too big to hold any longer.

The deer is lying with the immense curving outline of his left antler starkly visible against the horizon. The prairie is opening up, dancing with the sky, a tangy scent of fallen leaves, and the minty chill of a cold wind. I have seen so much here, learned so much on the stage of this land, seen it in all its moods. I know its fury, and its moments of joy. I can understand its complexity without being able to put it into words, and for the first time in a long while, I am earnestly and truly happy. I can understand what my Dad meant at the top of that ride, looking over Lake Cameron. This is what Heaven must be like. Soon enough there will be pictures and congratulations and back-slapping, people laughing in a warm kitchen on a cold day, drinking buckets of hot tea, and eating plates of sweet cookies. But now is the perfect moment.

One more time before getting down to begin the real work, I cast my eyes on the fields and woods and open space all around me. “Scotty,” I say, in an almost reverential whisper, “do you know what?”

“No Grandpa,” he whispers, still subdued and overwhelmed, “What?”

The next words come out of my mouth with a flood of emotion that I realize in an instant I have been holding back my entire life:

“The prairie has a woman’s heart.”

pencil

“I recently graduated from the University of Minnesota, Crookston, and am currently living in the Phoenix Metro area of Arizona. My two fondest ambitions are to earn an MFA in Creative Writing and, eventually, make a living in wordsmithery, which is my greatest passion. There is not a terrible lot to me outside of writing, but outside of this and literature, I do have a powerful affinity for Arabian Horses, opera, and the out-of-doors life.” E-mail: cuttinghorse240[at]yahoo.com

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Three Poems

Baker’s Pick
Liz Dolan


The Boy Who Swings on Our Line

My cauled eyes open to the fluttering
sheets fanned by my brother’s
ansty five-year-old soul. From the open window
I see as he swells my father’s overalls,
crooks the knees and bellows as though
with Dad he flags the six a.m. from Darien.
He puffs up breasts in my Peter-panned
school blouse. Luciferous boy. He snuggles
in my mother’s tea-rosed housecoat,
twists his V-necked Yankee shirt
about the line, now worn by his relief,
a baby brother. Beware of trucks, I whisper,
much too late. Does anyone know he is here?
He grasps my mother’s sage-scented hands
as she snaps each piece of bleached laundry
and pins it to his trapeze. I am not sure
if I want him to stay and play. I lie.
Go, release us all from your awful presence,
airborne shape-shifter, powerful child, so we
can smell fresh cotton against our pasty cheeks,
then melt crayons into bottle caps to shoot
scullies on the hard Bronx pavement again.

 

What Is Hardest

is being the last to go
outliving husband, siblings, daughter
and Mary Monk with whom she consumed
scampi and pasta e fagioli at Meoli’s after mass.
At 95 she still fricassees chicken, grows plump
crimson tomatoes and bright green snap peas,
ties the last knot in a rug
she hooks and knocks off Maeve Binchy
in an afternoon. She pines for her peers,
her memory menage, who torched along
with Sophie Tucker, the last
of the red hot mamas, Some one of these days,
you’re gonna miss me, honey. They had to
take turns sleeping in creaky beds
at Aunt Kate’s during the depression,
relished Mickeys exploded over trash-can fires
in the gold-paved gutters of the then not-so-big apple
On the calendar, she marks Mary’s anniversary,
the feast of the Conversion of Paul, a lightning-bolted
profligate, blinded, then thrown by his horse,
whom Jesus asked, Saul, Saul, why dost thou persecute me?
She sighs, nods, even though
she can no longer walk to the market alone
her purse purloined once
her eyes misjudging the height of curbs.

 

Caught Unaware

When he rested his first born
against his solid chest
bare flesh against bare flesh
he knew she was the sweet
that would feed all his days.
He doused his last smoke,
dumped his last Dewar’s
ferried her in a shopping bag
to present her to his sister.
Then father and daughter
feasted at Shepherd’s Lake, heard
carillons chime Abide With Me
as they inhaled the mauve heave of
May’s earth, watched a vermilion sun
settle like butter between hollows
of screed hills where skeet shots
cleaved silence and red-winged blackbirds
squabbled like kin below.

pencil

A Pushcart nominee in both poetry and fiction, Liz has published poems, memoir and short stories in New Delta Review, Rattle, Harp Weaver, The Cortland Review, Illuminations, and Natural Bridge, among others. She has received a fellowship and grants from the Delaware Division of the Arts. She is one of eight DE poets recently chosen for the master’s level retreat with Fleda Brown, DE Poet Laureate. Her work in Mudlark was chosen for The Best of the Web by Web Del Sol. Liz was recently accepted as an associate artist in residence with Sharon Olds at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. Philadelphia Stories has requested her presence on their poetry board and she won a prize in “The Art Of Storytelling Contest” from the DE Museum of Art. E-mail: lizrosedolan[at]comcast.net

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The Summer Before Eighth Grade

Creative Nonfiction
Francine Marie Tolf


I’m at Inwood Pool on Jefferson Street, west of the fast food restaurants—Dog ‘n Suds, Franksville, Kentucky Fried Chicken—and used car franchises (“Bill Jacobs wants YOU to buy a Chevy!”) that line my hometown’s main drag. It’s the summer of 1971. I am twelve years old, wearing my first two-piece bathing suit. It’s blue and white, with fake plastic zippers on the top and bottom. My body is hard and taut-bellied and tanned. I take no pride in it. But I like my swimsuit, from which my belly button peeks out, because it has padding on top and makes me look slightly less flat-chested than I am.

It’s nearing nine p.m., which is closing time, but the pool is still crowded. A group of teenaged girls, confident and flirtatious in their neon-colored bikinis, are laughing by its edge, combing their long hair, made blonder by Sun-In. Boys my age are roughhousing by the diving boards. I’m not a good swimmer, but I can do what I call the breaststroke, paddling my legs and arms through the water like a frog. Sometimes I flip over on my back and meet a sky just beginning to deepen to lavender. Tall lights guarding the pool float like white jewels at the edge of my vision. I dive underneath, where even Inwood’s water, so full of chlorine your throat aches from it, holds silence and mystery. I love to resurface then, pop up from that netherworld of stillness and rippling shapes into splashing and happy screams. I like being able to dip at will into one world, then the other.

I do my frog paddle across the pool one last time, gracefully as a mermaid, I am thinking, when it happens. Legs wide apart, I feel a hand grab my crotch, shove underneath my suit, and pinch me hard there, where no one has ever touched me. I snap my legs shut, whirl around. No one. Or, rather, everyone. I make it to the side of the pool and clutch the ladder, looking at all the faces, all the bodies, around me in the water. He’s watching me. He’s watching me right now, probably with his friends, and I’ll never know who he is. I want to cry, but I act like nothing happened. I climb out of the pool, feeling the film of his smirk on my skin. He mustn’t know he’s humiliated me. I join the two sisters I came with and start goofing around loudly, just in case he’s still watching. I want what happened to me, the shock of it, every cell of my body crackling into an unscreamed No! when those fingers pushed their way into that private part between my legs, to melt away like the lavender melting into this soft black summer sky. I don’t tell anyone what happened.

*

This is the summer I learn from my best friend, Patti, about oral sex. Patti gets most of her sexual information from Karen Kirsten* and TC McShane, girls two years older than us who live on Patti’s block on Audrey Street. TC has light orange hair and pale blue eyes, as if they were washed too many times. Patti thinks she is pretty, a genuine strawberry blond, but I think TC looks a little spooky. Karen has long greasy hair and a languorous manner around boys. She isn’t popular, she isn’t even especially pretty, but she has her own lazy kind of confidence. Karen taught Patti an exercise that’s supposed to make your breasts (or boobs, as Karen puts it, a word I can never bring myself to use) bigger. Arms shoulder high, elbows bent, you repeatedly thrust your elbows back towards your spine as you recite: “We must! We must! We must develop our bust! The bigger the better, the tighter the sweater, the boys depend on us!” Sometimes, Patti and I do this exercise together, giggling hysterically.

It’s Karen who tells Patti about a book titled The Perfect O. She makes Patti guess again and again what the perfect O is. Finally, Karen tells her. And Patti tells me one Saturday night, when I am sleeping over at her house, as I often do. We’re in her bedroom, where every available space is covered with pictures Patti’s clipped from cards and magazines. There are puppies, kittens, angels, flowers, little girls whose sweet, chalky faces grace the packages of a certain brand of toilet paper, and four pictures that Patti sent away for of the same thatched cottage in summer, fall, winter and spring. She’s tacked up on her bulletin board one of the cards (a teacup poodle sitting in a high heel) from the box she bought at Something Different, a novelty store on Jefferson Street we visit at least twice a week after school. There, we exclaim over candles, beaded coin purses, and key chains with animal carved out of what looks like jade that cost only $1.50. We’re going to buy key chains for ourselves next week, an elephant for Patti, a turtle for me.

We’re changing into our nightgowns when my best friend discloses her new knowledge. “They put their thing in your mouth. It feels so good for them, it’s called the perfect oh. And the girl’s mouth is round, like an O. So that’s another reason it’s called that.” I can’t believe it. I can’t believe any girl would do such a thing. I wish Patti, who seems more amused than disturbed, hadn’t told me.

Actually, I have only a vague idea of what a boy’s “thing” is. I have no brothers, only five older sisters. The few times I’ve ever played with boys were when I was younger, when neighborhood kids got together to play Red Rover or frozen tag in the Quigleys’ big yard next door to my house. I’m too old for that now. I have never seen a boy naked. I know they have to raise the toilet seat when they pee, but I’m not exactly sure why. I would die before asking anyone. The book that my mother left in my room for me one day is not very helpful about answering such questions. It is a Catholic book with tepidly drawn illustrations. I learn that masturbating, which is described quaintly as “pleasuring oneself,” will not make me go blind, but that it is a selfish act, and wrong. I learn that I may soon begin menstruating. There are passages about eggs and sperm that bore me. I want to know what’s between a boy’s legs. No, I don’t. Whatever it is, is alien and scary. I don’t want to know.

*

Patti and I have invented a game we call Chinese Torture. This game is different from the many others we have come up with involving ping pong balls, or acrobats, even an updated Barbie board game we made ourselves. We play Chinese Torture on Saturday night, when I sleep over at her house. If it’s my turn, I lie on the bed, while Patti runs her fingers as lightly as possible all over my body. We never touch parts that are covered by our nighties, only what’s exposed. To succumb to a touch that delicate, the shadow of a tickle all over my skin, is crazy-making, but also enjoyable. We never go further than that. I love Patti, but I love her as a friend. Her body does not interest me. Yet I know something’s wrong about our game. It has to do with the crazy-making part, how that makes the touch of my best friend more enjoyable. It’s dirty, like the way I sometimes feel when I see pictures of scantily clad women on album covers and in magazines. My older sister, Myra, has the sheet music to “You Only Live Twice.” The picture on the cover shows James Bond sitting in a pool surrounded by seven or eight girls posed seductively in tiny bikinis. It attracts me, that picture; I want to be one of those girls just barely dressed, kneeling by James Bond. No, I don’t, I don’t I don’t. I want to be ten years old, playing frozen tag in the Quigleys’ yard. That’s what I want.

*

Sex has two sides to it, and adults only acknowledge the good side, the surface. That Catholic sex manual, for example, for all its lame illustrations, treats sex like a holy mystery. So does my mother. She takes me aside one day after I have blurted out something I didn’t mean to, and explains to me gently but gravely that sex is a beautiful act that should only take place between two people who are married and love each other. She dodges any specifics about the act itself, but she assures me of its beauty. What I learn from my friends about sex doesn’t sound beautiful at all. I think of an afternoon last spring when I am walking home from school with Julie Bauer. Julie tells me about a party where St. Raymond girls (we are St. Patrick girls) let eighth grade members of their basketball team feel them up. “Then, they let them stick their hands down their pants. What sluts! The boys are just using them.” Julie is fond of talking about girls who are just being used.

There’s that part of sex, the stuff that really happens; there’s the Holy Mystery part that I don’t get at all; and there’s sex in books. Katherine, by Anya Seton, is currently my favorite book, and my favorite part of it is when John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, kisses Katherine for the first time: Fire shot through her, and as she gasped, her lips opened under his. In that instant she felt the hardness of his body under the velvet surcote and melting sweetness flowed through her bones, depriving her of strength. Later, the duke carries Katherine away on his stallion to a castle where they make love in a tower room fragrant with reeds strewn on the stone floor. That’s how it should be, I say to myself. Such descriptions turn my insides to water, but not in a dirty way. Not like the James Bond sheet music picture. I like that phrase, “the hardness of his body under the velvet surcote.” I’d like to feel a boy’s body hard against mine.

One day this summer, not long after what happened to me at Inwood, I’m chased by Patti’s older brother and two of his friends. One of them is Toly Sandretto, tall, lanky, and very cute. It starts out as a game in a wooded lot not far from Patti’s house, something involving dares. Patti and I run away together, but we get separated. I end up cornered on the top steps of an old house where no one lives, the three of them, Mike and Toly and Andy, at the bottom of the porch, teasing and lunging for me. Without warning, the universe tilts. They are bigger than me, these three boys. I see nothing but taunting in their faces, which are blurring together. When Toly tries to grab me, I kick out instinctively. I don’t make contact, but Toly backs away, startled. “Damn! What’d you do that for?” When I see that he’s genuinely alarmed, for his sake, or my sake, or both, the neighborhood tilts back, rights itself. It’s just them. But my whole body is shaking.

*

I am deeply ashamed of my thoughts. If my mother, whom I love more than anyone in the world, knew I had them, I’m sure she would be stunned and sorrowful. I feel more and more as if there are two sides to me: the bright surface and the netherworld. The brightness is what my teachers and family and friends see. The netherworld is full of murky imaginings and dirty pictures that I must never, never disclose to anyone, not even the priest at Confession. I would rather die with sin on my soul than have to describe these things. I pray to God the Father, I pray to Jesus, but it is Mary I feel closest to. Sometimes I go into St. Patrick’s Church and kneel at the railing at the left of the altar where there is a statue of her, pure and white and tranquil. Not like me. I start checking things over and over before bedtime: whether the dresser drawers are shut just so, whether my pants are folded correctly. Sometimes when I’m lying in bed, I get up and go downstairs to make sure all of the kitchen cabinet drawers are shut. Then, even after I have checked, I get out of bed again to make really sure. I’m tired, but I do it.

*

I read a lot this summer. I read The Diary of Anne Frank, finishing it one afternoon when I’m by myself in the living room. I feel sick inside. I don’t understand why God didn’t end the world before the Holocaust happened. I pray hard to the Holy Spirit, that mysterious part of the Trinity that inspires no love in me, but supposedly gives courage to people. I pray that if tested, I’d be brave enough to hide Jews in my house. I don’t think I would be that brave, but I want to be, fiercely.

Another book I read is The Bell Jar, a paperback one of my sisters bought for a college literature class. Many of these college books are boring, like The Human Ape or Tess of the d’Urbervilles. But The Bell Jar is interesting and funny. Then, it turns dark. Esther talks about how she’s never sure when the bell jar’s going to come down on her again, how she has no control over it. I know exactly what she means. Sometimes pictures come into my head, and I can’t get them out. Sometimes a kind of hopelessness mixed with dread comes over me without warning. Then, it’s like being under Esther’s bell jar, unable to escape. It might last for an hour, or it might last for two days. No one else knows about this. All they see is my bright side, my good side. I don’t know how to reconcile my surface with what’s underneath. I contain two worlds, but it’s not like the pool at Inwood where it’s fun to dip from one into the other. I want to stay on the surface of myself, be the brightness everyone sees, but I can’t, I keep slipping into the darker part.

*

Patti and I practice our cartwheels and front handsprings almost every day. We make up cheers. Cheerleading tryouts are the first week of school, and we want badly to make the eighth grade team. We are not popular, but maybe we would move into that elect circle if we were cheerleaders. My mother says nothing, but I know she is disappointed that this means so much to me. This is frustrating; why can’t my mother be like other mothers who want their daughters to be popular? Yet a small, still part of me doesn’t want to be a cheerleader at all. It knows what makes me happiest is being outside, and reading, and drawing. It knows that even though I talk with Patti about my crush on brown-eyed Mark Hayes (Patti has a crush on blue-eyed John Kinsler) I don’t really want anything to do with Mark physically. It feels, that part of me, like a small, true flame deep in my core, truer than the bad thoughts that come to me, steadier than the joyless moods that descend on me.

I lie in bed one night and think about this. It is an immense relief to suspect that maybe the essence of me is not bad, but good. I will be thirteen in two weeks: a teenager. I wonder if I will feel different then. Confirmation didn’t make me feel any different, even though the nuns and priests said it would. First Communion, so far in the distant past I can barely remember my little prayer book with the raised golden cross, didn’t, either. But maybe becoming a teenager really does change you. Maybe this time, I will feel different.

*Some names have been changed.

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Francine Marie Tolf’s poetry and prose has appeared in over forty journals. Her first collection of poems, Blue-flowered Sundress, was published this year by Pudding House Press. She has been awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, a nonfiction fellowship in the Loft Literary Center Series, and, most recently, an emerging artist fellowship from Blacklock Nature Sanctuary. Her second collection of poetry (Plan B Press) will be published in the spring of 2008. E-mail: tolf0001[at]umn.edu

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Hero

Creative Nonfiction
Kim Morris


I was on the train, going to work; it was early; I was considering how obviously the blue of my slacks clashed with the black of my shirt now that I was here, in the light of the morning, instead of in the dark of my apartment, and then I looked up and I saw Jake.

I was suddenly eighteen years old again, frustrated, angry, on the verge of crying. He made his way towards me while I told myself that I’m thirty-three, dammit, I’m supposed to be a fucking adult now. But, still.

We started making small talk. Brown Line construction sucks. Where do you work now? And then there was this awkward silence where we just stared at each other.

See, Jake wasn’t really my friend in high school. I knew him because he was a friend of Mike’s, and Mike really was my friend in high school.

Mike and I—we’d known each other since grade school, because we lived on the same block. But it wasn’t until senior year in high school that we became friends, real friends, because we were stuck in these mandatory grief counseling sessions. We had both lost our dads—which is what the grief counselors at school said we should call it, “lost.” Like, “Huh. I put my dad here yesterday but now he’s gone. Where did I lose him?”

The real deal was that my dad died of a heart attack, suddenly, on a really rainy April Monday. Mike’s dad died in the line of duty, busting a drug house. The papers were all over it: Local Hero Gives Life for Safety of Community. Our local paper had a thing for long headlines. But if anyone deserved a long headline, it was Mike’s dad. Everybody loved him. He was
a hero. And after he died, Mike’s dad became mythical.

Mike and I had grief counseling sessions every other Wednesday after school. Just us two, sitting in those chairs that have the desk attached to it on the right side, and by desk, I mean, a tiny table that jutted out from the arm of the chair, that wasn’t big enough to fit a notebook on, and which was obviously made by someone who assumed that everyone was right-handed, which Mike was not. There were cartoon drawings of happy people on the walls. There was a list of the stages of grief: Denial and isolation, anger… I know there are a few more, but really, I never got past anger.

We were taught coping skills, which involved saying things like, “I am sad that my dad died, but I know he loved me.” Or “I have many people around me who love me and support me.” The grief counselors looked at us with wide opened eyes with tons of pity in them. They often said things like, “Aw. That’s okay.” “It’s okay.” “You’re okay!” Mike and I ended up becoming world-class eye rollers.

We’d go to McDonald’s after these sessions and just rip apart everything we were told. This one time, we were sitting in a corner booth and Mike said to me, “It sucks that they’re gone. No one ever says it. But it sucks.” I remember looking at him—his brown, intense eyes, his chiseled cheekbones—and feeling relieved. And connected. Finally, someone said it out loud. No one else ever said it. They always said, “It’ll be all right,” or “Take care of your mother.” But no one ever just looked us straight in the eye and said the truth—I mean, it really sucks when your dad dies. And there’s really nothing else to say other than that.

Another time at McDonald’s, Mike said to me, “You know, you don’t have to talk about it. It’s okay to keep some things to yourself.” We had just come from a particularly grueling session where the counselors were all, “How does that make you feel, Kim?” “What does that make you think?” And I just sat there and stared back at the questions.

I didn’t want to talk about how worried I was that I wouldn’t be able to buy the right present for my mom for Christmas. I didn’t want to talk about how I didn’t want to go to my friends’ houses because they had dads. I didn’t want to talk about how my dad wasn’t going to be at my high school graduation or my college graduation or my wedding or anything else that was going to make me me and I certainly didn’t want to talk about how I didn’t know how I was going to make me me anymore.

But, I could say these things to Mike. And you know what he said when I said these things to him? He said, “I don’t know how to do that either. I don’t think we’re supposed to know right now, though.”

It was like walking into a bubble and sewing up the side, this friendship with Mike. We could sit in there and watch the world, but the world couldn’t get at us. We could just be. Sometimes Mike and I would go sit on the monkey bars at the playground at the elementary school, stare up at the sky, and discuss who we were going to be. Other times, we’d sit on my front lawn and talk about where we were going to live. We’d stick blades of grass between our fingers and blow through them, making an annoying whistling sound that cracked us up like crazy.

And then there were always all those teenagery things to do, which in Bolingbrook, Illinois, in the ’80s, meant drinking and driving. Our drinking revolved around Miller Genuine Draft. Our driving revolved around the back roads. Everyone at school always said, “We should go to the back roads.” It was the response to any question or problem. “I flunked my geometry midterm.” “We should go to the back roads.” “I got my period.” “We should go to the back roads.” “My face is breaking out like a pizza.” “We should go to the back roads.”

The back roads was a stretch of gravel road that dead-ended into a tree. The popular game was Sprints. This game was saturated with teenage logic, by which I mean, dumb as fucking shit. It involved at least three beers, driving your car from a predetermined start line, flooring it to just before the tree at the dead end, pulling a 180, and hauling back to the line. Winners were the ones who went the fastest but also kicked up the most dust at the far end. Mike was the king. Not only could he kick up the most dust, but he could do it in a way that made gravel and stones and dust shoot into the air like a lady’s fan snapping open.

This one spring day, after one of our grief counseling sessions, Mike and I headed out to the pond in the woods at the end of our street.

“Do you think they’re watching us?” I asked him when we got there. I sent a flat stone sailing across the pond.

“Who?”

“Our dads.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Really? ‘Cuz sometimes I feel like my dad is around. Like he’s standing just outside my peripheral vision, watching out for me.”

“Yeah? I think that’s your mind playing tricks on you.”

“No—tricks would be feeling like your dad was watching out for me.”

“My dad’s not looking out for anyone.”

“Are you kidding? Your dad would watch out for everyone if he could.”

“No, he wouldn’t.”

“Sure he would. He’s probably got some kind of angel police force rallied, with bullet-proof cloud vests.”

“Kim—”

“He’s probably figured out how to use harp strings for handcuffs and he’s probably built an express chute to heaven’s jail, which of course is hell. I bet he’s police chief of heaven right now.”

“Kim. My dad killed himself.”

I turned and looked at him. Mike whipped his stone across the water. “Mike, no way. Your dad—”

“No.”

“But he was saving—”

“No.”

“Mike, your dad, he wouldn’t—”

“Yes, Kim. He would.”

You know, at the time, I didn’t really get what was happening at that moment. I mean, yeah, I know, we were skipping stones across the pond, I get that. But it wasn’t until years later when I thought about that moment and what that must’ve been like for Mike—saying that out loud, listening to himself say what his dad wasn’t. At seventeen, I didn’t get it. Now, though? Now I know that the weight of information can sometimes be heavier to carry than a house.

We ended up at the back roads that night. It was a Friday. I remember it distinctly, of course, now I do, but at the time, I remember being surprised at how crowded it was. There were about fifteen cars lined up on either side of the gravel road, probably about two to five people and a case or two of beer in each car. People were everywhere. Music was blasting from everywhere.

They started Sprints. First Billy went. Then Tommy. Then Mike went. I could see his car jamming down the road. From where I stood it looked like the tree was moving closer to Mike. The taillights got smaller. The dust from the road was flying around in the air. And then I realized that I should be seeing his brake lights down there, the beginning of his 180. I looked around at the people smoking pot on the hoods of cars, drinking beer while leaning against taillights, pissing in the cornfields. Then I looked back at Mike’s car. There should be gravel now, the lady’s fan, where was it? I heard Led Zeppelin and that stupid song from Dirty Dancing. And then, the world went absolutely quiet. Everyone stopped in midaction, like we were instantaneously frozen. I felt the beer bottle in my hand slip to the ground.

If you had happened upon that scene at that moment, you would’ve been mystified at the tree growing out of the center of that car. It looked more like a science experiment, or like someone at the arboretum got all artsy on Car and Nature Night.

And then there was chaos. I could hear girl-screaming. And crying. I heard a lot of oh shits and fucks. Something smelled like burning rubber. Someone was yelling get help, get help, get help, like the repetition of the demand would magically make someone helpful appear. People were running down to Mike’s car.

I stood there. I stood there staring down the road at my friend’s car smashed into the tree with the long arms and I knew that Mike wasn’t hurt and I knew that he didn’t need help. He was gone. Really gone. That’s when I went numb.

Those good old grief counselors, they beefed up their minions and swarmed the school. You could sneeze and your teacher would send you to the grief counselor. There were so many repetitions of “That’s okay” and “It’s okay” and “You’re okay” going around that I started seeing the words ooze out of the walls. There were reporters asking about what was now called The Accident. There were studies done on the relationship between teens and alcoholism. The Student Government Association launched a colossal campaign telling us how bad it was to drink and drive. There were candlelight vigils and remembrance services and various dedications, most of which involved planting trees and flowers. There were shaking heads and tsking and lots of, “He was taken too soon.” But never once, during any of it, did I hear anyone talk about what I was thinking.

During my awkward silence with Jake on the train, I considered telling him what it was I was thinking during all that shit that happened after Mike died. I think about telling him that Mike could’ve taken that 180 with his eyes closed. That out of all that beer and all that weed at the back roads that night, Mike didn’t have any of it. But, I didn’t say any of that to Jake. Instead, I said, “You know, it sucks that he died.”
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“I live in Chicago. I spent six years in a two-year master’s degree program for creative writing because I didn’t want to work in a cubicle farm. As it turns out, the cubicle farm is very grey. I was a bike messenger, a teacher, an elite-level ice cream eater. Now I’m on the story development team for 2nd Story, a hybrid of storytelling, music, performance, and wine drinking. I’m an editor. I race my bicycle. It’s fun.” E-mail: kim_mrrs[at]yahoo.com

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Flower-Eater

Fiction
Brandi Wells


I sit on the cracked sidewalk by my mother’s flowerbed. Daisies and clusters of three-leaf clovers push through thick brown grass that only seems to thrive in our yard. The clovers spring up bright green, healthier than the daisies.

The first clover I swallow whole, without tasting. The second one I chew. It’s sour, puckering my mouth, until my tongue curls up and retreats down my throat.

I worry the neighbors will see. They’ll tell my parents. I’ll be declared unruly, my mother will be judged unfit, and we’ll be forced to move out to the country where I will have to pluck chickens and plant rows of corn.

I become discreet. I pull the heads off the clovers and check the undersides for bugs or pieces of spider web. I slip them in my pocket, into a plastic bag I stole from the junk drawer in our kitchen.

Later, I sit in my room, on the middle of my bed, eating them one at a time. I keep the bag hidden under my pillow in case my mother walks in.

Discretion gives way to need and I stuff them in my mouth handfuls at a time. My teeth grind through the clovers and I swallow them, licking the insides of my cheeks, savoring the sour flavor.

Of course, my mother walks in. I hold the plastic bag in my lap, trying to cover it.

She sees.

I open my mouth to explain and there it is, proof. Bits of half chewed clover are stuck between my teeth, curling around my gums. Green pieces are still plastered to my tongue.

I can’t explain. I start several times:

“I just wanted to…”

“They’re only…”

“Well, God made clovers.”

She pulls me down the hallway yelling, “Filthy yard chicken that’ll eat anything off the ground!”

I hold onto her arm so it’ll be easier for her to drag me. She jerks me down the porch steps to the same flowerbed where I gathered my clovers. She picks one of the daisies, an innocuous little daisy surrounded by clover and dry grass.

“Eat it,” she tells me.

I stare at her. She holds the flower, twirling it around so the petals spin like a pinwheel.

“Eat it,” she repeats.

I take the flower by its long green stem. Bits of wet clover are stuck to the backs of my palms and crammed under my nails.

I nibble the edge of a white petal and it is bitter, not sour like the clover. It would be bland except for the overpowering bad.

I shake my head.

She pops me—hard across the face.

I stumble backward and squat on one knee.

“Finish it,” she tells me.

She leans over me, dark eyeliner smeared beneath her eyes and great craggy holes in her cheeks where blackheads have disappeared.

I bite the flower off its stem and try to swallow it without chewing, just choke the whole thing down. I gag and she pops me again. The smack resounds with a hollow thud inside my cheek. The flower comes back up, thick and gooey with syrupy Kool-Aid spit. I catch it in my hands and shove it back in my mouth, chewing it this time, gagging and swallowing it down in soft broken pieces.

My mother stands there, nodding at me. She is tall, so much bigger than I am. And when she is older and smaller, back shriveled with age, she’ll remain to me, as she is right now.

I do not know if she wants me to taste the bitterness of the flower or if she means to wash away the clover. I think it is probably both. She’ll spend a great deal of my childhood washing away those things I love and instilling in me the bitterness I will carry with me, so close to my bones.

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“I am a student at Georgia Southern University, pursuing a B.A. in Writing and Linguistics. I have a flash fiction published in Ghoti Magazine and have short stories forthcoming in Vulcan and Storyglossia.” E-mail: unforgiventoo_666[at]hotmail.com

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