Elephant Nannies

Billiard’s Pick
Diana Dominguez


At the elephant orphanage in Kenya,
dozens of gentle men
mother the elephants
made motherless by poachers,
exploding the myth
that maternal instinct
belongs to women only.

It’s one man to one elephant;
they feed, bathe, cuddle,
soothe, sing lullabies, and
sleep alongside their charges
ready to chase away
elephant versions
of monsters in the closet.

The bond is established early;
upon introduction
serpentine trunks caress
the nannies, imprinting
the unique smell
that will forever mean “mommy”
in their pachydermal memories.

“This one,” says a nanny,
gently patting the head
of his fearful, agitated charge,
“witnessed his mother’s murder;
it will be years before
he learns to trust me.”

“The drawback,” he says,
“of having a memory
like an elephant.”
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“I am currently an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Texas at Brownsville/Texas Southmost College where I teach primarily ancient, classical, and medieval literature and women’s studies. Both my research and creative writing activities focus primarily on giving voice to characters and historical people, especially women, usually overlooked or forgotten by traditional history or current news reports. I have presented creative and scholarly work at various regional, national, and international conferences, and published fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry, and scholarly work in regional and national publications.” E-mail: gypsyscholar[at]rgv.rr.com

The Ceasefire Symphony

Fiction
Rebecca Stonehill


Some people call me a traitor; others regard me as a hero. Yet I am neither. I am simply a musician doing what I know and love best.

The first time I ever held a violin in my hands was when I was seven years old. We were visiting my grandfather in Janin. He had played folk violin all his life and when we went to his house a few times each year, we would listen to him play. On this particular occasion, all my family were napping in the afternoon heat, but I couldn’t sleep. I tiptoed out of the bedroom and that’s when I saw it: grandfather’s violin lying in its half-closed case. Carefully, I lifted the instrument out and crept outside where I sat under the shade of a tree, staring at it. I wasn’t sure what to do, but thought of my grandfather and the way he positioned it under his chin and brought his other hand round, placing the bow on the strings. I did the same, drawing the bow back and forth until I was able to produce a familiar sound.

I don’t know how long my grandfather had been standing in the doorway, but when I stopped and turned, there he was, silently watching me.

For a while, he didn’t say anything and I thought he was angry. But then he walked towards me, smiled and said ‘So, you want to learn violin, Wasi?’

I didn’t know I wanted to learn until that moment but I found myself grinning and nodding my head vigorously.

Grandfather grasped me by the shoulders and led me back inside to the bedroom. He took the violin and bow from me and played a short, lively tune. One by one, my family woke up and began to protest. ‘Wasi is going to be a violinist! Wasi is going to learn the violin!’

My father grumbled and turned over. ‘Let us sleep, Abba.’

‘But Wasi is going to learn the violin! This is a wish come true for an old, dying man!’

I smiled. My grandfather always described himself in this way but the truth of it was that he was as strong as an ox. Many people even mistook him and my father for brothers. He began to play again, moving up close to my father who tried to swat him away like a fly. My grandfather chuckled. He turned back to me and winked. ‘Let’s leave these lazy people sleeping, Wasi. We don’t have a second to lose!’

And that was how it all began, fifteen years ago. Such an innocent beginning to what has become my life. No, more than my life. I cannot separate it with my very being. People have asked me to explain what it feels like when I play. The relationship I have with my violin. What it would feel like if I suddenly couldn’t play. If they have a child, I ask them to imagine somebody taking them away and not being allowed to see them again. ‘Surely you can’t feel as strongly as that?’ They are disbelieving. I shrug. I don’t have a child, but this is how I imagine I would feel. And when I play, it is as though the blood which has been restricted in my veins can suddenly flow freely again. My fingertips tingle and the moment I place the bow on the strings, something fuses, almost like electricity.

It’s difficult to travel around the West Bank, and although my grandfather lived only eighty kilometres from our home in Bethlehem, we couldn’t visit him often. So when I was young, my violin lessons were limited to a few times a year. I would wait impatiently for these opportunities, but I couldn’t practise in between and even when my grandfather did teach me, it was hard as a young boy to play on a full size violin.

When I reached the age of ten, grandfather presented me with my own violin. His eyes filled with tears as he placed it in my hands. ‘You have made an old, dying man very happy, Wasi. One day you will be a great violinist.’

It was on that day that I vowed to myself that I would make music my life and make my family proud of me. Particularly my grandfather. Even before that day that I first picked up his violin, I’d always been his favourite. My father once told me that grandfather, like me, had been shy and sensitive as a boy. It was hard to believe it now with his wide, welcoming smile and lively manner, but perhaps this helped explain our close relationship. And when I expressed an interest in playing the violin that, I suppose, sealed our pact.

As my proficiency grew by the year, so too did the violence in the West Bank. In one sense, we were all used to the daily skirmishes, so I can’t say that I ever felt that scared. I’d walk to school with my brothers and sisters past the Church of the Nativity with the busload of tourists outside; past the checkpoint with the Israeli soldiers and their guns; past the market stalls selling spices and fruit. And past the occasional burst of gunfire and distant thud of a bomb. But then the gunfire increased and the tourists dwindled. By the time I was fourteen, we had to take a safer back route to school over a pile of rubble and round a stinking garbage pit. Twice a week, I’d return home via the university where my new violin teacher, Mahmud Karim, taught. Grandfather had conceded that he could no longer be my sole instructor and whilst he continued teaching me to play from the heart, so my new teacher developed my technique.

It was a rule in our household that we were never allowed to discuss politics while we ate, but this nearly always broke down after the first five minutes or so. Emotions ran high so these debates were accompanied with raised voices and fiery arguments. Views in my family on the occupation ranged from allowing the Israelis to have a fixed number of settlements in Palestine to a more extreme hatred of anything linked with our Jewish neighbours and a desire to see the state ‘completely annihilated’ as my eldest brother put it. Talk like this scared and angered me. I wanted to scream at my brother, tell him that although our people had been wronged, it was a peaceful settlement we needed in place of all the bloodshed. Perhaps I was naïve. Yet in my mind a simple fact remained throughout: that violence could solve nothing and each time an act of aggression was responded to in kind, that we were one step further from a sustainable peace settlement. I know that my grandfather influenced my eldest brother’s thinking, for whilst not nearly so extreme in his opinion, he had lost much over the years: his beloved olive grove and his ancestral home in the hills above Nablus.

But I said nothing. I was a coward. I kept my views to myself and listened to the heated words catapulting back and forth over our table. I simply went to school, studied hard and practised my violin. It wasn’t until my final year of school that the conversation took place that would change everything. I was at a violin lesson playing a Mendelssohn movement when I noticed that I was trembling. I stopped playing, and before I could help myself, I felt tears spilling down my cheeks. Mahmud Karim was shocked.

‘What is it, Wasi?’

I shook my head, but the tears did not stop. That day I had learnt that a classmate’s brother had strapped explosives to himself and blown himself up on a bus outside Tel Aviv, killing himself and fifteen Israelis. I wiped my eyes and sat down.

Mahmud Karim was looking at me intently, his face full of concern.

‘I am sick of all this violence, Sayid. I am sick of these land disputes, suicide bombs, street battles. All I want to do is play music, Sayid. But I can’t do that here in peace.’

My teacher stroked his beard. Not once had we discussed politics. I had no idea of what his opinions were and I suddenly felt embarrassed I had said so much.

‘You are a fine violinist, Wasi.’ He nodded his head as though to reaffirm this statement.

I felt heat rising to my cheeks.

‘You are a very fine violinist, and soon the time will come when we need to make some serious decisions.

‘What kind of decisions, Sayid?’

‘Put your violin down, Wasi.’

I did as he asked, laying it gently on the piano. I watched as he took a piece of paper from his bag.

‘I’ve been meaning to give this to you for some time. I didn’t know how you’d feel about it.’ Mahmud Karim handed me the piece of paper.

At the top, in bold letters, the word ‘AUDITIONS’ jumped out at me. I scanned down the page. ‘West Eastern Divan seeks talented young musicians from Arab nations and Israel to participate in yearly summer schools of concerts and mutual tolerance.’ I looked up, startled. ‘But this is also for musicians from—‘

‘Israel. Yes, I know. This is not a normal orchestra. But I believe you are good enough. And I believe the vision behind this orchestra matches your own. But it is you, of course…’ He paused and stroked his beard again. ‘It is you that must make the final decision.’

Dusk was falling outside. I could hear the distant screeching of brakes and the firm patter of fingers practising scales in the next room. I saw the face of my grandfather and heard his laughing voice. One day you will be a great violinist. You have made an old, dying man very happy, Wasi. I knew how he would feel about it, but I also knew that this was a decision I didn’t have to think about.

The next few summers passed in a whirl of Mahler, Mozart, travelling and new friendships. I shall never forget my first meeting with the boy I was to share a desk with. As I walked into the first rehearsal to the back of second violins, he grinned and held out his hand to me. ‘Amir,’ he said warmly. I took his hand and smiled back, relieved that I did not have to sit beside an Israeli at the start. I began to speak to him in Arabic but he held his hand up.

‘We have to speak in English here. That’s the rules.’

‘English? But my English…’ I faltered and felt myself reddening. ‘My English… not good.’

‘You’ll learn it quick enough. I’ll help you.’

I watched as he swiped a block of resin expertly up and down his bow.

‘Besides…’ He looked straight at me. ‘I don’t speak much Arabic.’

I almost fell off my chair and before I could help myself, my head had flicked sharply from his bow to his face to meet his intense, dark gaze. He grinned at me, almost apologetically, and shrugged. Thankfully at that moment, the conductor came into the hall to introduce himself to the orchestra and I was left to reel silently in shock. For weeks, I felt intimidated by Amir—by his superior playing technique and his command of the English language, which I was still struggling to communicate in. But more than feeling intimidated, I couldn’t help but fear him. Despite my feelings and my support for the orchestra, I had never met or spoken to an Israeli before. I had not been brought up to hate them, yet neither to be open to them. They were the distrusted neighbours. The land thieves. The settlers with the skull caps and suspicious eyes.

But Amir didn’t wear a skull cap. He wore blue jeans and football T-shirts. His family had lived in Tiberias for four generations and he railed against the politicians whom he said had made the Arab-Israeli conflict far worse. The strangest part of it all was that Amir didn’t look so dissimilar to myself and my friends with his dark skin and dark hair. It shocked me to admit it—he could have been a Palestinian. And what about me? Does that mean I could have been an Israeli?

The truth is, though I feared him initially, this anxiety was all on my part and my inability to relax with an Israeli. Amir was nothing but friendly. He helped me with my poor English and gave me sound advice on my playing. And slowly, he got me talking to the other Israelis. More importantly, he helped me to realise that we didn’t necessarily have to hold the same opinions to have a friendship.

I changed so much during those summers. I grew in confidence in myself, in my playing, in my beliefs and aspirations. Yet one thing remained constant. And that was the physical pain I experienced each time I thought of my grandfather. From the moment I told him that I had been given a seat in the orchestra, he stopped talking to me. He simply withdrew from my life. But what made it harder was that we still saw him the same amount as before. Either we visited him in Janin or he came to us in Bethlehem, but no longer did we share that affectionate, close relationship I had once treasured. Rather I was met with a sad, stony silence. At first, I tried and tried to talk to him. But he simply shook his head and sighed deeply as he turned his back on me, mumbling as he walked away, ‘You have broken the heart of an old, dying man, Wasi. I have nothing to say to you.’

It broke my heart to hear him say that. My beloved grandfather. Yet the strange thing was that although I knew he fundamentally disagreed with what I was doing, when I played, I continued to play for him. In each concert in Seville, Rabat or London, I searched for his face in the crowd and played to an imaginary figure sitting at the back of the concert hall with laughing eyes and noble face, willing him to be proud of me. In phone calls home, I would constantly enquire after him. The same, the same, came the reply of my parents.

It was towards the end of my third summer with the orchestra, during one of these phone calls, that when I asked the question, there was a different response.

My father paused. ‘Your grandfather is dying, Wasi.’

I couldn’t help it, but I found myself smiling. Those words that he always, always said yet were never true.’It’s impossible—‘

‘I know what you’re thinking. But this time… this time it’s different. He is eighty-three years old, son. It’s a good age.’

I gripped at the receiver until my knuckles turned white. I didn’t have to think about it. I knew that I had to go home immediately. Amir implored me to stay, saying that we only had three more concerts to go and they wouldn’t find another player at such short notice.

‘If I could say that I was staying because it was grandfather’s wish, then that is what I’d do.’

Amir stared at me with wide, sad eyes.

‘But it’s not his wish.’

‘And what does he wish?’

‘That I never joined this orchestra. Perhaps he was right,’ I heard myself adding. Did I really say that? After all this time, everything I’d gone through, was I now turning my back on it?

The orchestra’s founder and conductor whom we all respected enormously took my departure stoically. He was used to such occurrences. Two weeks before, three Lebanese musicians had announced they could no longer play in the orchestra because of the worsening situation in their home country. ‘You’re welcome back here any time, Wasi. We shall miss you at the last concerts.’

I nodded miserably.

My grandfather had moved into our home in Bethlehem to be cared for. When I crept into the bedroom and perched on a chair beside the bed whilst he slept, I was shocked by his transformation. He didn’t need to have his eyes open for me to tell that the laugh had gone from them. I sat there for some time, watching his chest rise and fall unevenly in the dim room. I must have dozed off, for when I heard him speak, his words blurred in my dream.

‘Who’s that?’

Startled, I sat upright. ‘It’s me, grandfather. Wasi.’

‘Wasi?’ He grunted and emitted a rattling cough which echoed around the room. ‘Fetch me some tea.’

I jumped up and ran to the kitchen. This was the first time he had spoken to me in three years. When I returned, I saw that he had heaved himself upright and was staring at me with a strange expression on his face. I placed the glass to his lips and helped him to take a few sips.

‘Not enough sugar,’ he growled.

I was about to get up again, when he waved his hand impatiently through the air and told me to stay.

For some time, he said nothing and continued to sip at his tea. Eventually, he cleared his throat. ‘Why are you here?’

‘Why? Because you’re not well. And… and I wanted to be with you.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with me. Your father dragged me here against my will.’

‘But you always say that you’re dying.’

He turned his head and stared out of the window. ‘Well, this time I’m not. I’m fine.’

I looked down at my hands. The hands that a few days previously had been coaxing music from my violin yet were now lying in my lap.

‘So.’ He coughed again, a painful, rasping choke. ‘What do you hope to gain from playing in this orchestra of yours?’

‘I… it’s hard to explain, grandfather. But by creating music, we all speak a common language. And it’s a language where there is no hatred and no divisions—‘

‘Pah! You are such an idealist!’

‘So what if I am?’ I found myself raising my voice. I had never done that before to my grandfather and paused till I felt calm again. ‘I know I am. But is there anything so terrible about that? I want to live in a less violent world. When we musicians eat together, sometimes there are frictions and awful political arguments and we question why on earth we are there. But then we start to play and all that tension dissolves. We simply become musicians. Grandfather, by playing together in this way we become humans. We are not Palestinians or Israelis or Egyptians. Just musicians who agree that there is no military solution to this conflict.’ I looked at him imploringly but his face was hard.

‘And have you made friends with any of them?’

‘Them?’

‘Yes, them. Israelis.’ He uttered the last word quietly, as though he felt sickened by the taste of it in his mouth.

‘I have a good friend. Amir. He believes that the Palestinians have been wronged.’

My grandfather raised an eyebrow and motioned for more tea to be poured. After taking a sip, he rubbed his temple roughly and shook his head back and forth. ‘Should you be playing in a concert tonight, Wasi?’

‘Yes,’ I said quietly. ‘I missed one last night, there is another tonight and the final one is in two days in Paris.’

‘And tell me, you missed all this for me?’

I nodded. ‘Yes, for you. I was so worried. I wanted to be with you.’

I watched grandfather as he shook his head again sadly.

‘I don’t know if you can understand this grandfather, but when the orchestra plays together, we are like a family. A large, wronged family of eighty people. It is a truly humbling experience. I’m not saying this orchestra will solve the Middle East’s problems—I’m not so naïve as that. But it is a step, a very small step towards tolerance. Surely that’s important? Surely you can understand why I do this?’

Grandfather looked at me intently. ‘No,’ he replied slowly. ‘No, I will never understand.’

My head dropped into my hands and I began to sob quietly.

‘But for you, Wasi, only for you, I will accept.’

I looked up at him.

His rheumy eyes had filled with tears. ‘Perhaps if the world had more people like you in it, perhaps—‘ He held his hand up. ‘—the world might not be in such a mess.’

I drew my chair closer to his bed and took his hand in mine.

‘I want you to go back and play in your final—‘

‘No! I want to stay with you!’

‘No,’ he said firmly. ‘I want you to go.’ He took my head between his hands. ‘Grant a dying old man one last wish. Will you do that for me?’

Tears spilling down my cheeks, I nodded.

‘And now leave me, Wasi. I must sleep.’

Slowly, I pushed my chair back and stood up. Just before I left the room, he called my name. I turned round and looked at his shrunken figure in the bed.

‘What was the name of your Israeli friend again?’

‘Amir.’

‘Amir,’ he repeated slowly. ‘Shake his hand for me, will you?’

I nodded slowly and, taking one last look at him, crept silently from the room.

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Rebecca Stonehill is from Cambridge, England but she is currently living in Bangalore, India where her husband has been posted with work. Here, she is getting to grips with the heat, helping her two little girls adapt to life in India, finally finding more time to write and eating an inordinate number of mangoes. E-mail: rnarracott[at]googlemail.com

We’re Not Common

Fiction
Tara Kenway


Plunk.

Keeping her eyes fixed on me, my mother let the sugar drop into the cup. It sunk to the bottom with a small splash, a few bubbles gasping to the surface, and finally I understood.

That Sunday morning I had been cutting up soldiers for Violet, my daughter.

“One soldier, two soldiers, three soldiers,” we counted, my daughter giggling. “Frrrreeeee soldiers,” was accompanied by a little saliva shower for her piece of military bread.

The phone rang and I left Violet in her high chair to smear butter on her hand.

“Hello?”

“Carrie?”

“Speaking.”

“It’s Pat. Your mum’s mate.”

I could imagine my mother’s disgust—being referred to as someone’s mate. “How are you? How’s Terry?”

“I’m fine. He’s fine. We’re all fine.” She paused, the line crackling in discomfort. “It’s your mum, Carrie. She’s had a stroke.”

“What? When?”

“Last night. She tried to call but there was no answer so she got the doctors to call me.”

I sighed. Another one she’d never let me forget. “Does Luke know?” I glanced over at Violet.

“Not yet. I was going to call him after you.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll do it. Where is she now?” I glanced at Violet, who was now sticking her soldiers butter-side down to her bib, all lined up, standing at attention, waiting for their orders. She gave me a big grin when she noticed I was watching her. I stuck my tongue out. She giggled, and went back to her soldiers.

“She’s in hospital,” Pat was saying, “but she’s okay. Her left side is a bit dodgy, but nothing major. They’re keeping her in to be safe.”

“Have you already seen her?”

“First thing this morning. She’s in St. John’s.”

“Cheers Pat. I guess I’d better go and see her.”

“Be nice to her, pet. She’s fragile.”

The suburb where I grew up was one of the nicer ones in London. At least it was when I was a child. The only strange thing that happened was some man flashing me and my brother, Luke, as we cycled home from the park one day. I didn’t understand what was happening as I was only six and was more worried about missing The Muppet Show. My brother, being older, shouted at me to keep up with him as he zipped down the road.

As we were putting our bikes in the garage, sweat trickling down my back, my brother grabbed my arm. “Don’t tell Mum about this,” he hissed. “She’ll stop us going to the park if she knows.”

I nodded. Losing park privileges was not an option. My mother had become somewhat neurotic since my father left, and we relished the opportunity to stay out of the house, leaving her alone to curse what life had done to her.

My brother bounded up the front steps two at a time, me trotting behind him. My mother yanked the door open before Luke even had a chance to put his key in the lock.

“When I say be back by seven, I don’t mean seven on the dot. I mean 6.50!” She gave my brother a swift clack around the head—he was the oldest and therefore meant to know.

My brother rubbed his head but stayed silent.

We went into the lounge, and turned on the TV. I prised my shoes off and sat on the floor, near my brother’s feet. He was muttering to himself from the sofa.

“Why doesn’t she just say 6.50?”

“What?” I asked.

“Nothing.”

My mum came in. “So what would their highnesses like for dinner?” She was beaming, content now the babies were back in the nest.

“Chips!” I said immediately.

“You can’t have chips every day. Try again,” my mum replied.

“Spag bol?” my brother suggested.

“Fine.” She frowned at me, suddenly noticing how red I was from cycling. “Do you feel alright Caroline? You’re very red.”

My brother pressed his foot on my fingers in warning.

“Yeah, we had a race on the way back.”

My brother’s foot released its pressure.

“Hmm. You’ll find there’s an ‘s’ at the end of yes, Caroline. We’re not common.” She went back into the kitchen.

I glanced at my brother, who mouthed at me “We’re not common,” putting on his snooty face. I started giggling, stopping only when my brother got bored and started crushing my fingers again.

We’re not common.

My mother’s favourite expression. Never said in company of course, but the fundamental phrase of our upbringing. Maybe she thought if she said it enough we’d take it to heart. Her parents had to focus on having food on the table each night—my mother had the luxury of being able to focus on other things.

Once Luke and me had been having a contest at the park, to see who could spit the furthest. We waited for an old couple to pass by so we could continue spitting into the lake. Luke watched them shuffle by, arm in arm.

“We’re not common,” Luke suddenly said, as I was busy trying to get as much saliva in my mouth as possible.

“What?” I gurgled.

“We’re not common,” he laughed, and spat a good metre-and-a-half into the lake. He slapped me on the back, making me swallow my supply.

I laughed because he was, not really knowing why.

She refused to speak about my father, saying she wanted us to make up our own minds, but seeing as he had left one Saturday before the morning cartoons, neither of us thought much of him. I used to entertain daydreams where he’d pull up on his motorbike and we’d drive down to the coast, sitting on the beach eating chips, vinegar running down our fingers. But he disappeared, and that is what I could never accept. I couldn’t understand how a parent could do that. Many years later, after I had Violet, I couldn’t imagine a circumstance which would make me leave her behind, and yet that’s what my father did. Me and Luke never spoke about it either. The couple of times I tried he cut me off with “He’s gone.” He said it with such finality I let it go.

All of this came to a head with that call from Pat, my mother’s best friend. They’d been friends since they were sixteen, spending weekends driving down to Brighton on their scooters, sitting behind their boyfriends, wearing their helmets on their arms like handbags. Pat’s husband was known by everyone as a lovely bloke.

“You know Terry, don’t you?”

“Yeah, he’s a lovely bloke.”

A typical conversation. Being a little naïve I didn’t realise that a lovely bloke was also what people said about the Kray brothers. Lovely blokes as long as you’re on their right side. Get on the wrong side and suddenly they’re not so nice, making you concrete boots and chucking you in some dank part of the Thames. God only knows how many are at the bottom of the river, feet encased in a concrete cube, swirling with the current, bobbing around, fish nibbling at their faces.

When I saw her she was sitting up in bed, a cup of tea on the table beside her. Other than her hair being a little messy she looked the same as always.

“How many times have I told you not to stare, Caroline?” she said in greeting.

I gave her the obligatory kiss on the cheek, her skin smelling faintly of roses.

“Mother. How are you feeling?” I sat on the chair at the end of the bed.

“I’ve been better.” She kept fidgeting with the sheets, rolling them up and down with her right hand. “Where’s your brother?” she asked, glancing behind me.

“At work,” I replied. “He said he’d be in later.”

“I could be dead by then.”

“We can but hope.” I smiled.

She glared at me. “You’re so much like him sometimes,” she muttered.

“Who?”

“Your father.” She wiped away the saliva from the left side of her mouth with a distasteful look.

“How’s that?” I asked, surprised. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d mentioned him.

“Making stupid jokes at the wrong moment. Never knowing when to be quiet. Never knowing the right thing to do.” She looked around the ward, as if it held an answer to a question she hadn’t yet asked.

“Common?” I asked. I’d heard all these criticisms before, grown up with them.

“All I’ve tried to do is give you two the best, and neither of you have a bloody clue. I wanted to give you a better start than I had. None of that playing on street corners, letting boys kiss you for five pence.” Her Cockney accent was coming out. “Getting knocked up at sixteen, your family sending you away to have the baby and then leaving it behind.” Her words were starting to slur slightly and I thought about calling the nurse, but she kept talking. “Knowing your husband’s sleeping with your best mate and not being able to do anything about it.” Her eyes teared up as she looked at me. “I should’ve left him before you two came along. That was my chance but I let it slip by. First your brother and then you. Two stones around my neck. My mother rabbitted on about that’s how life is—you do the best with what you’re given and that this was my cross to bear, but I couldn’t. I refused. He was no model for you and Luke to grow up with. Chasing skirt, eating jellied eels. I wanted better than that.” She looked out the window, fixating on something I couldn’t see. Her eyes snapped back into focus as she turned back to me, her tears gone. She waited a few long seconds before continuing. “So I spoke to Terry.”

Terry—he’s a lovely bloke.

“He always did have a soft spot for me.” She gave a smile I hadn’t seen before.

“What did you do?” I asked, feeling slightly sick, already knowing the answer.

She didn’t reply. She took her cup of tea, and held it delicately in her right hand. With her left she took a sugar cube from the dish and, looking at me, dropped it into the cup.

Plunk.

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Tara Kenway is a Paris-based writer who spends her time reading, writing, running and begging her cat to let her sleep later than 6am. For the latter she has little success. E-mail: tkenway[at]gmail.com

The Painful Art of Wrestling

Fiction
Simon Barker


John sat in a pew in the Catholic church with his brother and sister and watched his mother get married for the second time. The service was conducted by Father Patrick who carried the stub of a hand-rolled cigarette wedged behind his ear. John’s uncle, Sid, was giving away the bride. Sid was a detective sergeant and he was wearing one of the shiny suits he normally wore to work. Sheila, the bride, was dressed in white. Sid had insisted she wear white because her first wedding had been in the registry office and she’d worn a brown suit. Sid hadn’t forgiven her. This time would be different. As the service progressed John noticed his mother inching further and further away from Roger, the man she was being married to. Roger was wearing his police uniform.

John sat very still. Next to him his little brother, Greggie, giggled and during one of the hymns undid the buttons of his fly. Normally John would have punched him. But before he had a chance the baby started screaming and his sister, Chrissie, had to push past him to carry it outside where its scream wouldn’t compete with Father Patrick’s emphysemic voice.

Once the service was over it turned out that there weren’t enough cars. John and the other kids waited on the church steps in the sun while the adults drove off to the RSL club for the reception. They waited there on their own for what seemed like hours. None of them could tell how long because they had no watch. John thought they’d been dumped. When they were finally brought to the club the adults were drunk. A band was playing and somebody was singing Moon River.

“Aren’t we all having bonza time?”the compère asked at the end of the song. They were all having a bonza time.

John sat in a corner of the club while Greggie helped himself to a schooner of beer he found on a window ledge. Chrissie walked about the carpet holding the baby like a pet pig. Father Patrick fed money into the poker machines as if he was dispensing liturgical wafers. John watched his uncle—pink in the face from Dinner Ale—propose a toast to the New South Wales Police Force. The wedding party posed for the police photographer and the scene made a picture like the paintings on glass outside pubs.

As soon as the reception was done, John’s mother flew to the Gold Coast for five days of honeymooning. In their mother’s absence Sid took the kids back to the house in Victoria Street where they’d been living since their father died. They were each allowed one bag. Sid waited while they packed. Then he drove them along Oxford Street and through Paddington to Roger’s house in Bondi and introduced them to the housekeeper he’d hired, Mrs Richards. Mrs Richards was a bloody old bag and Greggie told her so. But she didn’t take telling. She grabbed hold of Greggie’s ear and dragged him to the bathroom where she washed out his mouth with soap. John had heard adults say, Wash your mouth out with soap, when a child had used a swear word, but he’d never known it to be done so he was impressed. If it had been Chrissie’s mouth he would have kicked Mrs Richards in the shins and made her stop but since it was Greggie he didn’t bother. Greggie annoyed him, even though he was right about Mrs Richards.

The other thing Sid managed during the honeymoon was to hire two men with a flat-topped truck. They turned up one morning at the unoccupied house in Victoria Street. Over the years Bill had pretty much filled the place full with his collection of stuff—his books, his photos, his pamphlets, his banners, his old copies of Tribune and Australasian Post, the paintings he’d been given by various people as well as paintings of his own for which there was no longer any room in the cellar of the pub where he’d painted them. A great load of rubbish, Sid called it. Sid gave instructions to the men that it was all to be taken to the tip, even Bill’s clothes. They could flog off the furniture for what they could get, but first they had to clear out the rubbish. Sid gave the cat an almighty kick so that it skidded down the yard to the back fence and scrambled away. If there was one thing he couldn’t stand it was blasted cats.

Sheila looked very unwell when she returned. Chrissie asked her what was the matter and she said there was nothing the matter, she was fine. She got stung by a jellyfish when she was swimming. That was why she had the mark. But it didn’t hurt. It looked bad but it didn’t hurt.

Mrs Richards was paid in cash and left in a taxi for the racetrack. “Did you have a good time while I was away?” Sheila asked the kids. The kids looked at her blankly. They had never known their mother to make jokes before.

Sheila and her new husband slept in the front bedroom of the three-bedroom Bondi house. The back bedroom was for Roger’s gymnasium. There he kept a set of dumbbells and a punching bag that swayed eerily from a chain. The walls of the gym room were painted black and the door was locked, even when he was inside. John said this was to stop anyone seeing him use his skipping rope. But nobody asked him why he kept the door shut. That left the middle room for the kids. They slept in bunks, except for the baby who was not out of his cot.

Bill, Sheila’s first husband, hadn’t been much for routines. He’d get up early and go to work when he had to. But some days he didn’t get up at all and other days he’d get up but there was no work to go to. The building industry was like that.

Roger was different. Roger always got out of bed in the dark and exercised for an hour in his gym. After that he’d eat a steak and three eggs. Then he showered and shaved and brushed his teeth. Having dressed in his uniform, he left the house and unlocked the garage. Inside the garage he kept a bass drum that belonged to the New South Wales Police Band. Roger never claimed to be musical, but he’d got it into his head that banging the bass drum would tone up his forearms and that would improve his right cross, which used to be the weak point in his repertoire of punches. His right cross was a beauty now. He’d bought himself a record player too. He’d drop his favourite disk onto the platter, grab the mallets and off he’d go.

By the end of each practise John would be stretched flat on his mattress with a pillow over his head. The baby would be screaming. Sheila would be thinking about having a migraine, and Greggie would be out of bed on the linoleum marching on the spot in his striped pyjamas.

Roger left the house unannounced. At night his routine was reversed. The banging came before the punching. The rest of his time he spent watching TV and drinking coke. He liked to rest in his La-Z-Boy Reclina-Rocker, his feet propped on the cantilevered extension. Sheila would fetch him a tray with a family-sized bottle and one of his favourite tall glasses, one decorated with line drawings of boxers. The Coca-Cola Company was running a competition at that time. Roger would prize off the cap with his teeth and then gouge out the cork lining to expose a hidden name. Whoever found two matching names was a lucky winner. Hardy and Laurel. Costello and Abbott. Juliet and Romeo. Roger’s unmatched caps were kept in an album waiting for their partners. Roger tested each glass against his cheek. He kept them refrigerated. If the chill wasn’t biting he’d bellow for a replacement. “Always take the one at the back of the fridge. Remember that.”

Sheila had never been much chop as a cook, but it hardly mattered. Roger shovelled down whatever he was given. If it was baked and if it had once been four legged it would do. Coke was the only thing he fussed over.

After a week or two John considered the situation his mother had got them into and decided that life stank. Even school was better than home now. After the last school bell instead of going home he’d wander down to the sub-branch of the city library with his friend, David, and sit with the old men who slumped behind their newspapers and coughed. In the dusty silence the pair of them would piss away their time flicking through war magazines. Once the library had closed they’d wander back to David’s house in Brougham Street. Sometimes John would stay there for dinner. Dinner would always be curry. David’s father never cooked anything else but curry and his mother never cooked. His mother was usually at work or if she wasn’t at work she was too drunk to cook. John would catch the bus back to Bondi.

If Roger noticed him missing dinner, he didn’t say. As far as Roger was concerned he could starve, just so long as he took care of the drum. That was the thing Roger had told him was the most important. It was John’s job each night to take the instrument down from its rack in the garage and rub its lacquered shell with a lamb’s wool pad dabbed in beeswax then polish the silver plaque with Silvo. An engraving on the plaque recorded the generosity of the drum’s donor, Col. E. Campbell. Roger inspected John’s polishing during the television commercials. He fitted his black-framed spectacles and flared his nostrils. If the plaque’s reflection wasn’t sharp enough for him to count his nose hairs he’d order John to repolish it. John grew to hate Col. E. Campbell.

The weekends were the worst. Roger would turn the TV up loud and tune into the wrestling. Saturday was the day of wrestling. Often Greggie watched with him, but from a mat a few feet off to the side of the La-Z-Boy, avoiding at all costs crossing Roger’s line of sight. Roger’s line of sight was a deadly beam capable of searing him in two.

On one Saturday morning during the wrestling Chrissie came bouncing home from the local tennis court, her hair stuck to her forehead with sweat. She was terrifically excited. She’d just played her regular match and she’d won. It was normal for her to win. But this time she’d won against one of the boys. The boy’s friends had laughed at him and he’d thrown a tantrum and the coach had run after him to sooth his feelings, but not before saying to her, out of everyone else’s hearing, “You’re a champ, Love. Keep it up.” When she came into the lounge room she was so excited she almost stepped into Roger’s deadly beam and only pulled back at the last second by squeaking her toes on the linoleum and hopping two-footed in reverse. Roger frowned without turning his head. She mouthed silently to Greggie to come outside so she could boast to him about the match. But he refused to leave the wrestling. She went into the bedroom and told John, but it wasn’t satisfying because he didn’t take his head up from his book and probably wasn’t listening. So she went out again and started tapping a ball against the side of the house. She couldn’t help herself. She was wound up. She swivelled about and slammed the ball at the garage door making it rattle. It was too good not to let anyone know. After three loud impacts Roger shouted from the TV room.

“Cut it out!”

But Chrissie didn’t hear. In her fantasy she was serving for the match. Greggie could see her through the window walking back to the gate.

Wack.

“Ace!” he heard his sister call out.

The final rattle must have broken Roger’s beam. He left his chair, went outside and made a careful inspection of the roller door while Chrissie bounced from one foot to the other halfway up the drive. Then he strode towards her and grabbed the racket. “Are you deaf?”

“No,” she said, puzzled.

He walked back inside. A minute later he re-emerged with the racket and with three silver trophies. They were the trophies that had been presented to his stepdaughter for victory in the district under-eleven, under-twelve and under-thirteen years girls’ tennis competitions. They were ugly, cheap bits of silver-coated plastic. But they were more precious than anything else in the world to their owner. Roger lined them on the concrete drive in front of her and for a second they both stared at the things in silence, the three little silver girls in flowing tennis skirts, frozen in time as they rushed to return a ball.

Then Roger stomped on them. Chrissie watched in disbelief while he stomped on each statuette until it was in bits. He gripped the Dunlop Junior Champion tennis racket. It was her last ever birthday present from her dead father. Never mind that it was stolen merchandise. She had used it every Saturday. Roger gripped it in his horrible great hand and volleyed the concrete repeatedly, until he’d reduced the gift to a flail, then tossed it over the neighbours’ fence. Chrissie started wailing. Roger walked back to the TV room, sat down and gouged the cork from another Coke cap.

Romeo, the hidden message said.

He smiled, opened his album, found the cap with the name of Romeo’s true love in it and popped the pair of them into his fob. There’d be a prize for him next week.

Outside Chrissie went into hysterics. She sat on her arse and cried her eyes out. Whether she expected anyone to come to her aid or not, nobody paid any attention. Greggie didn’t hear, John kept reading and Sheila made herself voluntarily deaf from anxiety. In the end Chrissie collected the bigger trophy pieces—the broken limbs, the half a pedestal and the torso—gathered them in the front of her skirt and retreated to her bedroom where she sat quietly sobbing on one of the bottom bunks. John lay on top doing his English homework. He hadn’t registered when Roger had entered a few moments before to pillage the trophies.

Muttering the text of Macbeth to himself he resolutely ignored his sister until eventually the sobbing died down. Then Chrissie glanced at the window and caught sight of the three dustless circles on the sill and cried again. John chucked his Arden Shakespeare at the lino. “Can’t you go and bawl somewhere else?” he demanded.

Chrissie gave him a heartbroken look and slowly unfolded her skirt to reveal the pieces.

John observed them from his bunk. “What happened to them?”

Chrissie had trouble getting out any words. “Roger… Roger…”

“What?”

“Roger… Roger… busted… them.”

John sat up and seemed to look interested. “What’d he do that for?”

“I… don’t… know. He… hates… me.”

Chrissie sobbed out the details of the story while John waited with uncharacteristic patience. When she’d finished he put on his shoes and left the room.

Chrissie sat on the bed with her skirtful of shards and sniffed. John must have gone out the front yard to have a look, she thought. She stared out the window at the neighbours’ lonely palm tree. The birds in the tree were fighting noisily. She felt wretched. She made up her mind that she’d never be happy again. Then she heard the garage door roll up and the music of Colonel Bogie playing on the gramophone Roger used for his drum practice. From habit she expected to hear the drum, and she winced, but the drum didn’t bang. It wasn’t Roger’s practise time. The wrestling was still on. He was glued to the TV. Instead she heard someone else making music. It was John. He was singing. He sang loudly and tunelessly but kept in time with the record.

“Hitler… had only one… left… ball!”

Chrissie spluttered with laughter so suddenly that snot flew out her nose.

“Rudolf… had two but ve… ry small.
Himmler… had something sim’lar.
But poor old Goebbels… had no balls… at all!”

Chrissie laughed and cried at the same time, wiping her nose on the back of her hand. Dad—her dead dad—had sung this when they were living in Victoria Street. She’d heard him in the shower. He was the sort of man who swore all the time and didn’t care if his kids swore. But Roger never swore, not once. Even funnier than the singing was the sight of her brother’s head. She saw it through the window going up, down, up, down, as if he was trampolining, except with a deep boing-boing sound that Chrissie realised could only be one thing. The drum. John, her big brother, was singing one of her dad’s dirty songs and trampolining on Roger’s drum. At the end of the second chorus there was an almighty rip and the head didn’t come up again.

Roger came out of the house with his Coke still clutched in his hand. He stared at the punctured drum resting on the lawn beside the garage as Colonel Bogie wound up. John was standing in the middle of it, his legs emerging from the cylinder as if he too was some kind of trophy. Roger didn’t say anything. It took him a full minute to comprehend the enormity of what had happened. Then he turned to John. “You little cunt,” he pronounced, and shoved him towards the garage.

Chrissie, who’d been watching from the bedroom, ran out and tried to intervene but Roger knocked her sideways and before she could climb back on her feet the garage door was shut. Inside Roger put his Coke down so angrily half of it shot out of the glass. He could barely manage to place the record player’s arm back onto the vinyl he was so angry. He turned the volume to eleven. As the needle generated monstrous crackles he took up the two drum mallets and stared at John.

“You break police things,” he said, twirling the mallets in John’s face, “they break you.”

And with that he started drumming. John put up his hands to shield himself. But it did no good. Roger drummed all over him, his head, his shoulders, his face, his limbs. He was in a fury. Words couldn’t describe the way he felt about that drum.

Chrissie screamed through the grimy garage window. But Roger didn’t miss a beat. She ran into the house. “Mum! Mum! Roger’s belting John with the drumsticks!”

At first Sheila didn’t seem to understand. She stood in a trance. Chrissie shouted at her and shook her until finally she shuffled out to the garage. Just as she caught sight of Roger through the window, one of his mallets struck John square on the nose and blood sprayed across the shed onto the pane of glass. Sheila seemed to snap. She wrenched vainly on the locked door and then screamed at the top of her voice for Roger to stop. Roger ignored her. He started to puff with the effort he was putting in. Blood from the bleeding nose spattered the pair of them. But Roger stuck resolutely to his task until John fell to the floor. Then he lifted the gramophone needle, refreshed himself with Coke and said hoarsely, “We haven’t finished yet, son. You’ve got plenty more coming to you.” And away they went.

Chrissie was calling out, “POLICE! POLICE!” But then she realised the absurdity and stopped. There wasn’t a peep out of the neighbours. Inside the garage Roger kept on drumming until John lay clutching his face, unable to pick himself up any more. The performance over, Roger came out, relocked the door behind him and went back to the TV. He was unappeased. While he’d been dealing with John he’d missed the effing tag-team match, his effing favourite.

The garage stayed locked for the rest of the day. Roger changed his shirt and ordered Sheila to rinse out the blood. At dinner he and the remains of his stepfamily sat in silence, apart from the sobs now and then escaping Sheila’s pressed lips. Roger shovelled down his roast lamb and when he noticed that neither Sheila nor Chrissie was touching her food he ordered them to eat. Sheila watched the pink juice ooze from the meat as Roger attacked it and she felt sick. Greggie tittered in embarrassment at his mother’s grief. Chrissie managed to get him a swift kick under the table. After viewing Deadly Ernest’s Creature Feature on the TV Roger summoned Sheila to the bedroom. Everyone needed to be taught a lesson. The entire family.

During the small hours of the night Sheila lay awake in the darkness and listened. She strained to hear any sound of John in the garage. She could hear nothing. It would have been a relief if he’d groaned or cried out. What did it matter about her? She’d manage. It was the children she couldn’t bear thinking about. But all night until the hour Roger left the bed she heard nothing.

Roger did double exercise in the gym that morning. He couldn’t stop thinking of the crime that had been committed on the drum. In his mind it seemed like a monstrous act of cruelty, an outrage. He went to the garage and unlocked it.

“Out,” he ordered. “Clean yourself up.”

John, when he appeared, looked like Banquo’s ghost. Blood had dried on his cheeks and all the way into his ears and his hair. Sheila could barely look at him.

“Leave him alone,” Roger told her. “He can clean himself up.”

John made no effort to clean himself up. He sat at the dinner table that night spilling his food and choking. Roger concluded it was a ploy and ordered him to his room. Sheila was told to stay and eat.

When Roger finally left for the station on Monday Sheila picked up the phone and, with her hands shaking, tried three times to dial her brother. She burst into tears when she heard his voice.

“I want to go home!” she cried.

Sid was amused at this. His sister was such an idiot. “What do you mean you want to go home? You’re at home now, aren’t you.”

“No, I want to go back to our old place.”

“What? You can’t go back there. You just got married.”

“I don’t want to be married.”

“You don’t want to be married? You should’ve got married in the registry office again. You got married in the church this time. Properly. That’s it.”

Sheila tried to explain about John but Sid cut her off. “Look, Sheila, what’d I tell you?”

“I don’t know.”

“I told you what that kid needs is a good hiding. Didn’t I tell you that? You’re too soft on him. You wait—it’ll do him the world of good.”

Click.

Sheila went back into the bedroom where John lay on the bed. There was no problem hearing him now. He breathed loudly, as if he was eating the air. She looked at him and broke into more sobs. “What are we going to do?” she choked.

Not that it was a real question. She was too upset to ask a real question. But John looked at her coldly and said, “Call David’s mum.”

Sheila didn’t seem to understand.

“Call David’s mum,” he repeated.

He watched the expression on his mother’s face. He hadn’t mentioned David’s mother since the great row when he’d heard her scream at his father that she never wanted to hear that woman mentioned again. That woman being David’s mother.

“Call her,” he insisted.

“But I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because.”

“Because why?”

“Because we’re not on speaking terms.”

It was all she could manage to say.

John stared at her. He watched her teetering on the brink, looking helpless. “Call her,” he said again, and that seemed to do it. With her head cast down she turned towards the room with the telephone and, as she moved away, John felt suddenly and unexpectedly restored to power.
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Simon Barker is an Australian who comes from Sydney but has lived in both Melbourne and California. Among other things he has worked as a bus conductor, an opera ticket seller, a librarian and (unwittingly) as a typist on the Star Wars Project. His fiction has appeared in Overland, Fieldstone Review, Eclectica, Word Riot, Istanbul Literary Review, Ranfurly Review, Antipodes and Identity Theory, and is due to appear in Cantaraville and decomP. E-mail: submission7[at]me.com

Foolish Creatures

Flash
Frank O’Connor


When the war was over and all the shelling stopped, Dan Barley set up a balloon animal zoo in a broken chemical factory. He displayed them on carefully labeled shelves: a fine translucent African elephant in blue, a red and green giraffe, infinite sausage dogs. He kept them tethered with string and fed them regular doses of helium from a baby bottle. Pins, knives and all other sharp objects were banned.

Children arrived, hesitant at first. They trailed in from disused cellars, rubbish dumps and sewers. They came from the burning remains of other people’s houses. They were dusty, heartbroken and frightened. Dan took requests: sheeps! moo moos! His elbows carved the air while he worked on the new ones. The children squealed and squeaked in imitation. ‘And he will never deflate’ he whispered as put the final knot into a shimmering gorilla named George.

One morning the children knocked against the corrugated sheeting and were answered with silence. They pushed into the zoo to find it ransacked, destroyed and empty. Dan’s pocket watch lay crushed under a boot print. Tiny cogs glittered in the dust. The children had been expecting this. They weren’t surprised. They just set about hunting for any remaining animals.

Everywhere was checked: the pipes and rusting vats, the machines, ovens and bathrooms. It was some time before anyone thought to look up. And there they all were, still alive. A mass of colors, floating against the grimy glass ceiling, trying to escape to the sky and freedom. Foolish creatures.

The children used scaffolding and intuition to coax the animals back down. They slipped them under tiny arms, held them tight in grubby fingers and squeezed them into plastic bags. They brought them home and looked after them forever.

Even when they got smaller and smaller.

Even when they wrinkled up and collapsed.

Even when nothing remained of the whole project but dreams and patches of rubber.
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Frank‘s work has appeared in Flashquake, Pequin and Monkeybicycle, among other pages. E-mail: frank[at]seahorse-design.com

Mumbai Local

Poetry
Ajay Vishwanathan


My nose sweat dangled long
under the scorching Mumbai sun
till I puffed it away
with a tired heave
when I finally saw a train
that didn’t have people
suspended from window bars,
simmering from crammed doors
like an over-boiled frothing vessel
of fat-free milk,
squeezed onto each other,
clinging with one hand
to the first shirt collar
they could clasp,
precarious briefcases
in the other,
their feet almost scraping
the concrete platform.
As the train stopped,
I stood there helpless;
I couldn’t get in
because it was a
Ladies’ Special.
I sighed and took
an auto rickshaw instead.
More expensive, terribly wobbly
but I could at least see the
exits on either side.
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Two-time Best of the Net anthology nominee Ajay Vishwanathan, published in over forty literary journals, including elimae, Haggard and Halloo, Orange Room Review, and Centrifugal Eye, lives in a world of words and viruses. He has an obsession for one, shows appreciation for another. His world is based in Georgia. E-mail: ajayvishwanathan[at]gmail.com

Halloween, 1996

Poetry
Ryan Quinn Flanagan


Some girl at the Halloween party
asked me if I had come
as an unemployed bum,
and I commended her on her costume
and the bravery it took
to come as someone who couldn’t
have kids.

She broke down in tears
and everyone thought me
a bad guy,

but I was a bad guy
so it was just as well.

The rest of the costumes
were pretty predicable:

Four witches
three vampires
two sexy nurses
and a six-pack turned to five
when one fell ill
and couldn’t make it.
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“I have recently been published in Quills, Vallum, The New York Quarterly, and The Antigonish Review. I also have pieces appearing in the anthology Lake Effect and have a full-length poetry book in print entitled Pigeon Theatre.” E-mail: cyanogen_rqf[at]hotmail.com

Downpour

Poetry
Terri Kirby Erickson


He’s there every morning:
under a bridge, by the curb,

on the sidewalk. You ignore him
like a pile of old rags you keep

tripping over, vowing to toss.
But his body smells of birds caught

in drain pipes, rotting into bone,
and his mouth is a cave filled

with bats’ eyes, staring. So you
flinch when his hand reaches out,

jagged nails clawing the air
as if to save himself from falling—

walk faster, shaking misery
off your clothes like drops of rain.
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Terri Kirby Erickson is the author of a collection of poetry entitled Thread Count. Her second collection, Telling Tales of Dusk, will be published by Press 53 in September 2009. Her work has been published by or is forthcoming in Bay Leaves, Blue Fifth Review, Broad River Review, Christian Science Monitor, Dead Mule, JAMA, Long Story Short, Muse India, nine anthologies by Old Mountain Press, Parent:Wise Austin, Paris Voice, Pinesong, Pisgah Review, Relief, Silver Boomer Books, Smoking Poet, Still Crazy, Thieves Jargon, Wild Goose Poetry Review, Voices and Vision: A Collection of Writings By and About Empowered Women, and others. E-mail: tkerickson[at]triad.rr.com

Mea Culpa

Poetry
Tyler Cummings


To the pens
with dried up points
or unclicked tails.

To the mothers and fathers of mine,
to the siblings I never call, and
the things I was doing
while I wasn’t around.

To the people I see but don’t talk to, and
the words that are a better fit
but take too much time to think of.

To the early hours of the day
that sit on the edge of my bed
and sneak their shoes on,
slipping out the door and
sounding an unset alarm clock—
to the 16-hour day I traded
for a 24-hour pillow.

To the dreams I’ve woken up before,
to the melodies I’ve forgotten.

To the ways I could have been and
the healthy foods and empty glasses, or
the homeless veterans with cupped hands.

To the half-loved skin—
its dormant shyness
bare and trusting.

To those once held—
the embodiments of a nested mallard’s wings,
their bills the shape of orchids
that bloom hidden under docks, and
dams that were built in ode to fear.

To your time
and care,
to your beauty.

To the unwashed laundry that moans until it’s ruined,
to folk singers I love but don’t pay to see,
to the advice I misuse,
the ideals I manipulate.

To the things I’ve forgotten to try—
to the venoms of a Colorado river toad,
to calamari and saying hello.

To the silence of eyes met,
the birthday cards, the chirps of birds
behind a closed bedroom window,
fresh air and breathing deeply,
homemade food, homemade comfort;
to selfless incentives,
to slowing down,
to the past, to tomorrow,
to the dirt under my fingernails, and
to the friends,
to the friends—

like museums filled with twelve-second glances
and tired legs,

I’m sorry I abandoned you.
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Tyler Cummings is currently studying psychology and literature. He actively writes poetry, prose, and short stories. E-mail: tylecc[at]hotmail.com