Butterflies

Fiction
Louisa Adjoa Parker


Photo Credit: Ray Wewerka/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Ray Wewerka/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

It begins on a beach, with stones crunching under my wet shoes and huge seagulls screeching and circling above me. The sky is blue, so it seems like a summer’s day although I’m cold—my skin and clothes are soaked with water. I am thin (thinner than usual?), and bones poke through the white fabric of my shirt. I am wearing black trousers that cling to my legs. Leather shoes that were once smart; expensive, well-made.

I walk as quickly as I can over the stones, taking fast breaths like those of an upset child. In the few minutes I’ve been aware that I’m walking, the sea has come in closer. It is now only a few feet away from me. It’s loud and roaring, the green-blue waves tipped with white foam like hot, frothy milk. I don’t mind if it goes over my feet; I’m already as wet as a person could possibly be. I don’t know why I am hurrying, or where I am trying to get to.

It’s as though I have suddenly begun here, as though I was dropped from a great height. Perhaps one of the angry seagulls carried me here in its orange beak from a far-off place, over sea and land. There is nothing behind being in this moment, apart from a frosted glass wall that I can’t see through. Yet this doesn’t seem to matter—what’s more important is the walking, keeping in rhythm with the wind and the sea. It all fits together just so, like a piece of beautifully crafted music. The sea, the wind, the shouting seagulls and the sound of my feet, an ageless rhythm, crunch, crunching over brown stones.

My thoughts are slowly coming back into focus, becoming like bright colours, vivid, sharp. I can think, whereas before there was nothing. Thoughts are forming themselves effortlessly. I am a man, I think, walking by the sea. I need to get somewhere, where is it? I am wet, and I am cold. I need to be warm.

Suddenly a woman appears further up the beach. She’s waving her arms, trying to get my attention. I realise with a shock that people may have been watching me from the lone white-washed house that is perched on top of the cliffs. I don’t like the intrusion. This is my beach, my patterns of sound.

The woman is getting closer. She has long grey hair in a side ponytail, wears a man’s shirt, spattered with paint, and jeans. She is smiling at me, the sort of smile you might have when approaching a hurt animal, wanting to help but scared to come too close in case it bites.

‘Hello, are you lost?’ she says. ‘Can I help you at all?’

Her voice is soft and the wind carries it away.

I open my mouth but no sound comes out. I don’t know what I would say even if it did. I don’t know who I am, or what I’m doing here. I’m tired of walking now—my feet are wet and sore. The woman has something pink in her arms. When she lays it across my shoulders I realise it’s a blanket. She takes my arm, leads me up to the house. I have nowhere else to be so I go with her, smiling so that she knows I won’t hurt her. We crunch together over the stones. She is silent, staring at me when she thinks I’m not looking.

*

When I wake up everything is white and clean. There is a smell of institutions: disinfectant and the stale smell of food. I am lying in a metal-framed bed, propped on a pile of hard pillows. The room is quite small, painted blue like the sky on my beach, only there are no clouds here.

I stay in the same position for minutes, hours maybe, wishing for a drink of water. I try to sleep again but it doesn’t happen. Eventually someone comes into the room; a woman wearing a starched blue dress, black tights, shiny shoes and a tired smile.

‘How are we feeling now?’ she asks, and doesn’t wait for my reply.

‘You were there for hours, you know, walking along that beach.’

She has chocolate-brown hair, fastened in a low bun on the nape of her neck. A beautiful, fine-boned face. Wide-spaced light brown eyes. Two deep laughter lines run down each side of her mouth, as if her face was once much plumper. She asks me to pull up my sleeve and fastens a cloth band around my arm. It gets tight as she pumps it up. My arm feels as though it cannot breathe.

‘What were you doing?’ she asks, chattily. ‘Your clothes were so wet and you caught a chill. You had hypothermia. We were worried about you for a while, but you’re doing fine now. Oh, that’s looking pretty good.’

She writes on some paper on a clipboard, produced from somewhere. ‘What’s your name?’

I don’t know the answer and am unable to speak anyway, so I say nothing. Instead, I shake my head to show her I can’t speak, then smile and meet her brown eyes with my own. I lay my head back on the pillows. The woman moves around me, smoothing my bedcovers, pouring a drink from the orange plastic jug on the table next to my bed. Someone has brought fresh flowers for me—the man who came from nowhere and cannot make a sound. They’re pink and purple with large waxy petals. For some reason, this makes me feel unbearably sad.

For days people come and go—nurses and brown-skinned doctors and a woman who asks me lots of questions that I cannot answer, and takes my picture with a large black camera. She tells me she is doing this so they can find out who I am. The bright flash hurts my eyes. They all ask me the same questions over and over again, but I can’t answer them. Who are you? What were you doing on the beach in that state, what had happened to you before you came here? It’s no good; I don’t know anything.

I spend my days lying in bed, staring at the tiny television on its black plastic shelf. Once I even see myself on the screen: the image of my gaunt face and unshaven chin send a shock through me like electricity.

When I see my face, I don’t recognise myself. When I first looked in the mirror I was surprised at how tired and thin and grey the face was, with purple-grey semi-circles like old bruises under my eyes. I look ‘foreign’, or at least that’s what I overheard one of the young nurses saying to her friend as they whispered about the strange man in room 14. I am strange, I suppose, not only to them but to everyone who sees me or hears about me on the news. I am no one, come from nowhere. What will happen to me when they decide it’s time for me to leave here I do not know. I imagine I will be given a little bag with some food and clothes in and sent on my way, to sleep in a box made of cardboard like the street people I saw once on my little window to the world, people who live on the margins, shadow men and women.

The only thing that brings me comfort is sound, the whirr and click of machinery in the night, music drifting in through windows from a radio outside, people’s voices and laughter. Sounds make sense to me when nothing else does. I want more of them but don’t know where I would find them.

Some days they take me into the small garden outside for a walk, and I can hear birds singing: coos and trills and caws, an orchestra. I sit on a bench and know the grass is underneath my feet—although I can’t feel it through the slippers—and look up at the sky; feel the sun warming my face. These are the best days.

Sometimes I hear music in my dreams, but that is rare. Usually my dreams are a chaotic mix of smells and big waves. There is the sense of the sea being close. Once I was on a ship which suddenly began to tip upside down and water came in. I was tumbling in dark water which filled my eyes and nose. But every time I told myself to breathe, I found I could. I don’t know whether my dreams are a clue to who I am, or a reflection of what I’ve seen on the television.

‘Memories’ is a word they use a lot. I remember the beach. I remember coming here. I remember yesterday’s lunch: mashed potato with no seasoning and tasteless grey meat swimming in gravy. But before this time: nothing.

‘Haven’t you got any memories at all?’ the young nurses ask. I suppose I must have memories, or at least I have knowledge, as most things are not new and surprising. Although I have not yet seen it, I know what snow is. I know what butterflies are. I know it takes the earth twenty-four hours to spin on its axis. I know how to brush my teeth, how to have a bath, how to read a paper. I know what children are, before I saw the few that came here to visit their grandmother, with their lively faces and neatly brushed hair, trying not break into a run in the shiny corridors. I know that I am lost now and I know one day it will all come back to me. I will come back to me. I know what it feels to walk in the moonlight with a beautiful girl. I know what it feels to love, to fuck, to feel a woman’s warm, soft skin against mine.

Yet memories in the sense they are talking about are out of my reach; they flutter close to me like butterflies, then dart off again as I move to grab them. I am fascinated by the idea that we are collections of memories, some shared with others, some private. Without them, do we cease to be a proper human being?

One of the nurses brings me a piece of paper and a pen. I take it from her, smiling, although I have no idea what I will put on it. Perhaps some words will come out, and I will remember how to speak.

She leaves me on my own and I stare at this small piece of paper, on which they are hoping I will paint a picture of who I am. I pick up the pen and draw, sketching black lines furiously without knowing what I’m drawing. When I finish I feel drained. I look at the paper. I have drawn a picture of a large piano, which makes little sense to me; it is just a dark shape on a white background which is trying to tell me something.

It causes a great deal of excitement when they see it. The nurse with the beautiful face seems particularly pleased, as though this will bring me back.

‘Oh, my goodness,’ she says, ‘you see, you do remember. This must mean something! I wish you could talk, we don’t even know what to call you.’ She bites her bottom lip in a way that makes me want to kiss her.

‘The doctors have named you Pierre, because they think you look French. Are you?’

Of course, I don’t reply. I open my mouth to try, but as usual, no sound comes out.

‘Let me go and tell them what you’ve drawn.’

Later that day she returns and leads me out of my room, along winding, empty corridors for what seems like miles, until we come to a lift. This takes us down, under the ground, where it smells of damp. When we come out of the lift we go to a room with a huge, walnut-brown piano standing on the concrete floor. Apart from the piano the room is totally empty.

I walk over to the piano, lift up the creaking lid and begin to play. My hands caress the keys. The room is filled with the sound I am making, crashing chords and trilling notes. I am lost in the music. I am no longer fully aware of anyone else’s presence, although a small part of my brain registers the fact that the nurse is crying silently. The sound is all there is. It holds a clue as to who I am. I have found something of myself.

I am crying too, the tears sliding off my nose, splashing like warm raindrops on the black and white keys.

 

pencilLouisa Adjoa Parker is a black history and fiction writer, and poet. She is of Ghanaian and English heritage. She has written various books exploring the history of black and ethnic minority people in Dorset, including Dorset’s Hidden Histories. Her first poetry collection Salt-sweat and Tears was published in 2007. Her poems have been published in various anthologies, magazines and blogs inlcuding Envoi, Wasafiri, Ouroboros, Coffee House Poetry, The Forward Book of Poetry 2008, Peony Moon and Out of Bounds: British Black and Asian poets. Her poem “Yellow Sheets” was shortlisted by the Bridport Prize. She is currently working on her first novel Letting the Light In, which was long-listed by the Mslexia Competition 2011, and for which she received a grant from the Society of Authors. Email: louisaparker3[at]hotmail.com

All Signs Point to the Hole in the Map

Fiction
Rebecca T. Florisson


Photo Credit: The Guy With The Yellow Bike/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: The Guy With The Yellow Bike/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I stay with you while you sleep. Sit up in bed beside you, pillow propped, reading a page and coming to the end of it and looking at you.

Hours. Your anxiety humming in me.

That you might—that it’s possible. That you will die like you think. That there’d be a me without you. And so every turn of the page I make sure of your breath and oft in-between.

You wake and twist tangled in the sheets to see that I’m watching over.

“I’m here. You were sleeping normal. Nothing strange.”

You start to cry. I close the book, tuck your hair behind your ears, the whispy dead-ends I keep meaning to clean up for you. Tug your hands away from your face. Rub the grey in your eyebrows and the frown set deep. You are red-faced and sticky from respiration and tears, hair curling wet in your neck. Smell of pencil-dust and sweet coffee and pungent, almost masculine sweat.

“They got me. They brought me down with them. I just want to live. Don’t let me die. I’m so scared. So scared.”

“You’re all right, mama,” I say. “We’re all right.”

Your body is healthy. What’s happening with you. Something else.

*

Blue-cloud puddles in the tractor trails. Wheat in every direction. Yellow and awake-looking. Tall up, rolling with the wind, gusting somewhat fierce. Pulsing sough of it. I call you but you are not here. Not so close to the surface. As I guessed. You have strayed much farther into yourself.

Your childhood home stands at the end of the trail. It’s backed up against the hill, under the shade of the oaks, trunks white with some illness. You drew it when you were fifteen, the house burnt down right after, so the drawing is all I knew of it. The cracks you detailed and the grain in the door. On the porch, your mother’s soup-blotted apron and her left eye slightly bigger than her right. More true than a photograph. Your father’s face rubbed out.

I go up the creaking steps to the porch.

I say, “Hi Grandma,” before realising it’s only her cardboard form. She’s one-thirds of an inch thick and stapled to a wooden frame. Pushed into swaying motion by the wind. The front door stands cracked open. This is how I come into you.

My footsteps are muted on the carpeted stairs up to the first floor. I pass through the cramped corridor to your room at the back of the house. The corridor is crowded with replicas of Grandpa, cardboard broad shoulders, workman’s hands and a blurred face. Your door is unlocked and I pull it open towards me. Immediately, things start tumbling out.

Inside is a mess like nothing I ever saw. A hill of trash solid as a wall, coming up as high as my nose. I stand up on tiptoes in the doorway and I see that some ways towards the window, there is a depression in the heap.

I climb up, scrabbling for hold. Whatever I grab comes loose, and the piles shift in such a way as attempting to expel me back out into the corridor. A heavy wooden high seat topples over onto me and numbs my shoulder. Your leftovers try to sink me. I bruise my elbows and my neck tangling with a bicycle and a hula hoop, but I struggle through and in the end the wall collapses and landslides me into the centre of the room, which lies empty of trash.

Instinct. Tuck my chin, round my spine, roll and keep rolling and it’s a good thing too. I’m near flattened by a large round object. It keeps to a confined trajectory in the small open space, going round and round, at the same time languidly spinning around its axis. Pearl shine of the crust. Soap-bubble see-through and dark water inside.

You caught inside this moon.

Child-you I never knew, boyish cut of your white-blonde hair, afloat. Vomiting under water. Entrails heaved up. Gums bleeding pink-orange clouds and you catching your teeth in your palms.

Radioing your father’s voice, pushing through the skin of the moon, muted like hearing talk through the wall, “You’re shit. Die. Die now. Better off. You-less world.” And: “Useless. You.”

Promised myself. Find you. Find some way. Put my hands to the moon of you, eggshell crack or a keyhole. I will. Pull you out all slippery wet, slap breath into you. As you did for me. I promise, I’ll pull you back into this world.

*

I cut fruit in the morning. Kiwis that you like. As many as you want. Spoil you a little. Talking soft and giving you everything on a hint. Sorry for your big head sore from all that dreaming that you do.

“I can do it myself,” you say but you can’t be trusted with a knife. Dad hid the big ones, some place in his tool shed where you never come. One small peeler left in the house for vegetables and cheese and I keep it in an empty DVD box.

You fight us most days. Small things. Try to cheat with the medication. Take no pills but say you do. Dad counts daily and keeps track in a spreadsheet on his computer.

Sudden come-on of rage around mid-morning.You go for Dad’s face with your nails.

What do you see? What’s happening in that head of yours? Some jumble of horrors.

“That’s not him. That’s plastic, it’s plastic.”

Spittle in my eye when I get between. Elbow glancing off my cheek when you try to get past me, reaching over my shoulder, grabbing Dad’s thin dark hair, all the curl gone out of it just recent, dragging him by it. When you get mad your eyes get foamy. Soap eyes wet with rage and frothing up. I pinch your wrist between the bones until your hands go numb and you let go.

I tell Dad to go over to the neighbours for a few hours.

He says, “I would never forgive myself if—“

And I say, “That’s good. That’s good don’t worry,” to his sallow face, saggy with worry. Right skinny in a few weeks time, his flesh and some substance of him beyond flesh eaten since you started straying. “Whatever you think is best, Dad. Maybe the garden? Take a lawn chair, at least. Have a bit of a sit down.” At the same time, I listen with one ear at you tearing through the house.

From the window I see Dad kneeling on a piece of tarp between the red-leaf shrubs, weeding to pass the time.

You hide long in the bathroom and start throwing things from the cupboards when I knock. Thud of a shampoo bottle and the click-tic sound of a hairbrush bouncing off the door.

“Can I just get some goddamn space,” you shout. “You’re smothering me. Do you have to be so noisy. Shut up, I can’t even hear myself think, just shut up.”

Crunch of porcelain being shifted. Outside the door listening in. Know what you’re looking for. The tablets in plastic wrapper you put in the cistern of the toilet. That I found. You come out. Fight. Fight me.

A chapter-long nap in the afternoon and you are crying again. “Don’t let me die.”

“I’m watching over you, mama.”

*

I knock on the surface of your moon. It speeds up its orbit to escape me. Brushes the floorboards, scratch of wood against pearl crust.

Within, you cannot see out. Your teeth keep falling and you keep catching them and still they fall.

I call to you. Kind voice-over of the filth broadcast.

“I’m here, mama. Come on out. Come back with me.”

Does it open only from the inside? How can I take you out of your moon?

“Come back,” I say.

Planet-burst. Water gushing. And you fallen at my feet like spit-out. Not-breathing. The fish-slip of you, tiny-bodied child. Smallest self ripped to smaller. Your father’s radio voice continues to say horrible things. Put my hands over your ears, feel your bumpy skull. Kiss your wet hair, talk into the top of your head where you have an indent like a third ear.

“Listen to my pulse,” I say into the dent. Steady-fast not-lying. “This is me, mama. Here. Me. Hear me instead.”

*

The nights are worst. Windows closed on your insistence, to keep your spirit from escaping while you sleep. My face stuffed up with the smell of you and old tissues.

Can’t wake real you. Known-mama. Only when you want. And you don’t want to wake. You long to go deeper. To some Before. Before me. You go under deeper deepest to escape me. The trapping of motherhood, grown inside like an illness incubated for all of my 24 years.

Recently at breakfast you said to me, “If I’d known then what I know now, I wouldn’t let you get born. We’re all given up. God won’t hear us. He won’t hear you.”

We’ve shared dreams since I lived in you. Through the red cord of blood, ribboning through you and me. That cord now stretched and see-through in places and you going for the sharp things, the hurtful things. Cutting at what’s us. You’d have me untethered.

Your lashes clumped and your breath rancid. Coffee and mint soured. I count in-out, in-out for you. If you wander much farther, I don’t know how to recall you.

Three hours into the night, you start battling the sheets. Mewling. What sits bad in my stomach. You wake but not all of you. You don’t know me. Your eyes crawling up and down, swimming and trembling. Looking at me straight on and snarling from fear. Spit-strands from your teeth to your lip and dripping over your chin. Through the hole of Me, you look into another world. An outside. Outside of me.

“Enough now,” I say, holding your wrists and trying to keep hold. Your flailing knocks the alarm and your mineral stones to the floor. Your nails try to get at my eyes. I only hope Dad can sleep through this on the couch on the other side of the door. He’ll drop. Looking like he might at any time.

“Shhh, quiet down.” We have to protect Dad a little. Who is looking after him?

You get loose and catch my ear, snake-bite fast, yanking hard as wanting it to come off, before I get you again. That’s all right. It’s all right.

“I’m here,” I say. “It’s just me.”

After a while, you calm down and I rub your wrists where I squeezed too tight.

Crying again. On and on.

“Best get up for a bit, mama. Walk around, do some stretching. Shake your arms and legs, shake it off.”

You take a turn of the room while I redo the bed. Fresh sheets. I never washed and ironed so much as these past few weeks. Open the windows for a few minutes. Blessed chill in the breeze.

“No harm done,” I say. “I’ll do a load tomorrow. They promised sun. It’ll be dry in no time at all. Smells so much better when it’s aired outside, right? Better than the tumble dryer. Something so fresh.”

“I don’t know how much more—” you say. “I wrote you a letter. Do you want it now, or—”

“Hold onto it for now, okay.” Wrestle your pillow into a new casing. Realise it’s inside out.

“It’s in my nightstand. So you’ll know where—”

“You’re not going to die.”

“No one can know that. They’ve shown me. What they can do. They’re just toying with me. They’re just laughing while I’m suffering. They took me down into the tunnels and now they can get at me any time. Dumping information in my head. And then I say to myself, this is not mine. I can’t know that. Wham! It goes away. But it doesn’t go away.”

Tuck in the blanket in the corners as you like. Straight lines. Wish I could look into you, the workings of you. Come into you and take out whatever is hurting you.

“I don’t want to sleep anymore,” you say. “They take me down there when I sleep.”

“Let’s take a walk. Get some air into our heads.”

 *

You are wet all through. I rub your short hair dry with my vest. Snot-like gunk gooping out your ears, falling to your shoulders.

“Can you still hear him?” I ask. Only thing I hear is the wind under the eaves of the house and the slop-slop of the last water gushing from the cracked moon.

Child-you shrugs. Looks at me steady on.

“Well?” I prompt.

“Always,” you say.

I carry you on my back to the door. Knobbly-kneed and trembly thing you are. The trash less of a wall now and more like hills set loose. I slip through puddles of dark water. Grip you tight afraid to drop. Crack of the spine of a book underfoot, the wheezing sound of a dog toy flattened and regaining breath.

The house seems more dangerous now that I’m bigger than you. You cling like a monkey to my back, quiet at first. Suck on your teeth, check they’re still in your head.

We squeeze between the cardboard Grandpas through the corridor.

“Say something,” I say.

When you start your gabbing there’s no end to it. Putting forth things too sophisticated for your seven years. About motherhood. How you had your own name before you became ‘mama’.

I tune you out. Focus on getting to the end of the corridor. Everything uphill-feeling. Calves burning. Bumping shoulders with cardboard Grandpa, send him rocking backwards and then forward towards us as aiming to strike back. We get to the top of the stairs and it’s a slippy way down, carpet come loose from the wet we’ve tracked. Skittering. Feeling weak. Preyed-upon.

Bluish mist between the walls like smoke in a barroom but colder. The front door is stuck. The handle turns but it won’t open.

“I can walk,” you say. “Put me down.”

I put you down. Red slippers. Skinny in flaring jeans and a striped shirt. Your hair dried and curling in your neck where it was wet. Tanned and every inch of you storing stubbornness. Bracing yourself for something. Making ready to lash out any time.

Getting back, I came prepared. Seeing you up close 24 years and I know. The things I know about you.

We start down the hall, go into the dining room. There, hills of trash, plastic recycling, clothing, and glass bottles. The detritus of you. Food-rot smell constant, something almost sweet in the air. Insist you hold my hand that of course you don’t want. A path meanders through and around the piles, runs in a circle around the large dining table and branches off into three more paths. No windows. Half-dark and the floor warm as heated by the sun.

You clamber up on the table. With your feet pushing bottles and books to the floor.

“I don’t know,” you say, turning. Turning again, haltingly. Elbows close to your sides.

“Do you have some instinct? Of home?”

“I don’t like this game,” you say. Look at me, accusing.

“Don’t worry, I know how to get back,” I say. “Do you remember last year? You stuffed a chicken. Yelled at us when we didn’t help. We were confused at the fuss. Turns out you thought it was Dad’s birthday but that was next week. We thought you’d explode, but you laughed and Dad ate so much he couldn’t sleep.”

Your eyes go wide. Some ways down the path to the right, deep covered in a heap of glass, a light comes on.

Signposting our return.

Lights gone dark in you, I’ll switch them on.

You’re quicker than me. Jump in the pile and dig for the light. I worry you’ll cut yourself, or slip, bottles rolling and tic-tic tingle resounding.

You dig it out. Small bottle, brown as for medicine. Unlabelled and the light inside stronger than I’d thought now it’s been uncovered. But flickering. Flash glare strong enough to hurt all the way to the back of the skull when looked at head on. You wipe the table top with your palm and put the small bottle down. Breathing fast. Put your hands into fists and press your wrists to your temples. Like you do when you despair.

“We’ve got some ways to go. Let’s get on,” I say, start back towards the hall. Uneasy. Near-trip a bottle underfoot. You follow a little ways behind me. Slip-slap of your red plastic slippers.

“You tired? I can carry you for a while, if you want.”

You don’t want. Too proud for carrying.

*

Your hair looks lovely today. Nicely done up with the glittery-clips I wore as a girl. That’s a thing you’re doing now. Your grey-blonde hair lights up in the early light. Woolen vest and furry boots. Small waist. Taller than me by a head and more beautiful. Big brown eyes and something striking about you. Cleverer than most anybody I know.

Your eyes are clear with a false bit of shine. You float in and out. Your sweet self brain. Bruised from all that inflicting. Some other place more real to you than the blue hills around us, smokey with dew. The natter of travelling geese over our heads and your hand cold in the crook of my elbow. Humming psalms under your breath, the first few lines of one and then you start in on another. Been a long time since you sang them in church but now you want to return to God.

Do I love you? Impossibly much. Sometimes not at all.

 

In the afternoon, I take a shower. Mix conditioner and shampoo together to get done as quick as able and by the time I come out you’ve sneaked off. Taken the car. Now Dad is the one of us who stays calm.

“I’ll bring her back,” he says. “Stay near the phone. How about you get started on the potatoes. Take your mind off.” Touches my shoulder most kind, never squeezing, hands too strong for measure.

Dad has read the letters you wrote. He borrows the neighbour’s car and the lake is the first place he looks.

You’re a strong swimmer and it’s a calm day and the lake is shallow. Pond, more-like. Risk of catching cold more than anything else. My fear is too deep to grasp the lack of risk. It’s the feel of the Maybe. That you want.

I peel more potatoes than we can eat. I feed the dog. Vacuum the living room and iron Dad’s shirts for work that he hasn’t worn in weeks now. Finally, the grind of wheels on the drive. I fill the kettle and break some matches before one lights.You come in wrapped in Dad’s coat and a plaid blanket.

Dad pulls out a chair and puts you at the kitchen table. He’s quiet, half an eye on me, looking like he’s making ready to jump between.

“Don’t mind about me,” you say, thick-eyed from all the weeping. I slam down the tea pot on the counter with such violence the lid comes off. A gush of hot water down the sides and my hands scalded. I’m wrecked on no sleep, thin-skinned and trembly with anxiety transferred just being near you.

I cross my arms over my chest, hands in my pits to halt the shakes. You and Dad at the table. You’re looking at your hands.

“If you do that again, I’ll leave,” I say. Wanting to shock. Shock-hurt. “I’ve an apartment and a life to get back to. You don’t— You shouldn’t—”

Your cheekbones splotchy and puffed. Dad nodding and locking eyes with his tea, as if taking full blame.

“I’ll leave. I will,” I say again.

No, I think. That was my chance.

*

“I had a purple dress and everybody at school thought I looked like a right fool in leggings instead of jeans. So I came home all upset and you took me to the video store and we got a stack of scary films for sixteen and older although I was twelve. We watched them back to back through the night, you and me, Dad couldn’t sit out all the gore. Come morn, nothing was scary anymore.”

In the kitchen, in the grey threads of a mop leaned up against the side of the fridge, little lights come on. Shimmery little things like Christmas lights, glinting like getting winked at.

Not once do I look behind me. Your pitter-patter reassurance enough, and your breathing and the way you snort when items tumble from the piles onto our path. Too raw, the rooms back there, pains looking at. Looking more than looking, a taking-inside.

Your mother’s pantry underneath the stairs and you’re dragging your feet. Feeling a story come on and wanting none. You’d close your ears to me if you could. As you wanted with the other voice.

Thankfully here, a light is already on. Under the shelves with preservatives and cleaning products, there’s a dollhouse with red-brick painting and warm fire from the windows. The first home you had with Dad. Again you are quicker. Your small hands locating directly the click mechanism under the eaves of the roof. The facade opens outwards and inside lies a baby-doll, eyes closed in sleep. Three candles burning at its feet.

You lift the bundle out, sit down cross-legged and turn the baby over on your knee, unclasp the onesie at the neck. Open it partways. You hold up the doll for me to see the bruise-like birthing mark on the right shoulder. Mine.

“You were a sweet thing,” you say, nostalgia looking off on your young face. “Everybody was at your crib, cooing at your tiny nose. You were born too early, so tiny I didn’t dare hold you. Didn’t hold you for a long time. The thought of it made my skin crawl. Not that I might hurt you with squeezing, but that you needed me.”

Some place inside, you have given over to me already. Lit up always. And I didn’t know. That I took place in you. Such hope. Suddenly I’ve such hope.

And so I do, finally, look back.

Startled to see the back of us lies quiet. Darkness closing in, closer.

“Where did we just—? We came that side and—” What was kindled in those heaps is no longer lit. Reeling. In a trot to the hall and back to the pantry, tripping over your legs stretched out.

You’re still sitting there. You lick your fingers and press out the first of the three candles in the doll house and the two after that. Calmly, hopelessly during our walkabout, you have extinguished the lights.

You do up the garment on the doll and put her back in the house.

“Well then, that’s that,” you say, rubbing your palms on your flaring trousers. I make a grab for you but the skin of your arms is slippery as when you tumbled from the soap-bubble moon. As were the moon growing back around you.

“Just come with me,” I say. “Stick close to me and we’ll find a way out. I’m not lost. I can get us out.”

“You go on without me,” you say. You pull a strange face like something’s stuck in your mouth and you spit into your hand. A bloody tooth. Looking at me, smiling slight with your mouth closed. “You can’t keep me safe. You can’t keep me.”

*

During the night a dry freeze comes on strong enough to make the windows shiver. They re-settle in their frames with cracking and squeeing.

You want to go away. To the hospital where our neighbour went after a breakdown from work. Dad takes it hardest. You’re a faraway woman, reappearing now strong when you hold his hand, decide for yourself what’s best. Least danger of damage. Wandering off. Going. Which roads will you take on your return? Will you find us again in this life?

“How long?” Dad asks. Winter is a long season to wait, without a promise of return.

“Let’s just see,” you say. Smiling closed-mouthed as child-you did without teeth. Plain as day. Were you always this brave?

I press a kiss to the spot where your cheek meets chilled ear, where you smell of days-old perfume, garlic and Italian herbs of last night’s pasta and the sour-stressed scent of coffee and no rest. The kind of kiss you give to people who are part of you.

pencilSince graduating uni a few years ago, Rebecca has worked a job as an animal caretaker in Scotland, done wedding photography in India and chopped wood on a farm in France. She’s now returned to the Northern part of Europe, which has a bit of a freeze going on at the moment. She cycles to work every day, snow or no snow, and daydreams that she passes the office and keeps on cycling. Email: rebecca.florisson[at]gmail.com

Basic Skills

Flash
Roger McKnight


Photo Credit: Caren Litherland (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Caren Litherland (CC-by-nc-nd)

Jake Bauer’s Jiffy Buy got stranded on a bad block. No essential services or decent parking. So the company had hired Jake to bring in customers. Like always, he’d started his day shift in the early morning darkness. Now he was standing idly at the till looking out on the fading December day. The glow from speeding cars reflected off the storefront windows, while the few stragglers outside hurried on, bent over against the wind.

Across the street Jake spotted a one-legged guy in an Army fatigue. He scooted along in a rickety wheelchair, guiding it with a long, skinny leg and spinning the wheels by hand. At the corner the fellow eased over the low curb and out into traffic, navigating between honking cars and freezing slush till he struggled across to Jake’s side. He used his leg to maneuver up over the curb.

On the sidewalk, the guy looked up at Jiffy Buy’s neon, as the first snowflakes started falling. They fluttered down, turning red and blue in the flashing light. Then he turned and studied a help-wanted sign Jake had just put up. Cashier Needed. Good Customer Service. Basic Math Skills. Ability to Stand for Long Periods. He pushed the automatic door opener and wheeled in from the cold.

Jake studied the guy’s stump, with the pants leg folded under it, and his hands, calloused from spinning the wheelchair. “Whadda ya need, pal?”

“A job. I’m Al.”

“Tough times? Pawned your prosthesis?” Jake asked.

Al nodded.

“Gulf War? Iraq?”

Al stroked his graying stubble. “No, ’Nam.”

“Afghanistan here.”

Al nodded again. “Figures.”

“I was tempted, but hung onto mine,” Jake said. He lifted his right arm and showed an artificial hand.

“I can work.”

“We need somebody can walk.”

Al glanced at the cash register. “You run that thing with one hand?”

“It’s hard,” Jake agreed, “but I can walk to it. You can’t.”

“Your sign says stand. All I need’s a chance.”

“Hours of standing. Can you?”

Al clucked his tongue.

“Meaning no,” Jake guessed. He went on studying his shabby visitor and thought about their downtrodden block. “Go redeem your limb,” Jake said and gave him a wad of cash. “Come back tomorrow.”

“See you then.”

The flakes started pecking more angrily at the windowpanes. Rush-hour traffic was still flying by, workers heading off for better places, Jake thought. At eight he turned out the Jiffy Buy lights. The snow was sticking now, so he followed Al’s wheel tracks. As Jake crossed the street, motorists slowed for him and nobody honked. Their car tires obliterated the trail Al had left in the deepening snow. Jake walked on, never looking back at his own tracks.

pencilRoger McKnight is a native of downstate Illinois; he now lives in Minnesota. He teaches Swedish, but he writes mostly in English. He has degrees from Southern Illinois University and the University of Minnesota. He has worked and studied in Sweden and Puerto Rico. He has published some in smaller journals along with one novel, Out of the Ashes (2014) and a book of creative non-fiction, Severed Ties and Silenced Voices (2009). Email: rmcknigh[at]gac.edu

Public Path

Flash
Dorothy Mahoney


Photo Credit:  sfgamchick/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: sfgamchick/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

A poem finds you on the internet, accidentally. You read it several times and again. Like licking a fork and then the plate when no one is looking, take the last smear of chocolate cake onto your tongue, wishing there was more. You search his name. He stopped writing to remodel homes and paint. Later someone finds him and he starts writing again, 300 poems in three years. He suffers several strokes, can’t write, dies of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head on a public path. You copy and paste the poem. Mourn someone you never knew.

pencilDorothy Mahoney has two books of poetry published by Black Moss Press, and a
rumpus of dog poems coming out in 2016 with Palimpsest Press. She is currently writing one hundred word stories. Email: manfredthesheepdog[at]hotmail.com

Gray Hoodie

Flash
Jenny Irizary


Photo Credit: Amanda Sage/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Amanda Sage/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The lunch period I walked out of the men’s room in my gray hoodie was the first time someone flirted with me sincerely. It was the only brand name sweatshirt my parents bought me, twenty dollars with tax from Walmart. Usually I wore the hand-me-downs my dad’s coworkers sent home with him in black garbage bags. I could sew, and anything can be made to fit, and the shit stains I could cover up with Sharpie quotes from vampire fantasy novels. I was that kid. So that already oversized gray sweatshirt was stretched out and hung lank over my breasts by the time I left the bathroom with my nose wrinkled at whatever week-old asparagus leftovers my classmates had peed onto the doorless stall walls. Honestly, aside from the risk of my nipples poking through the fabric, it wouldn’t have mattered much if the sweatshirt had been tighter; I was flat-chested anyway. But since the zipper began below my hips, already hidden by low-slung jeans, I looked “like a new boy,” as my friend Emily said later. Of course, she meant that she had mistaken me for a boy that was new to the school, not someone new to boyhood itself. She bounced up to me with a bigger smile than when she just wanted to gossip about Broadway musicals, so I thought that maybe today was special. Like other kids hadn’t shaved her pink fuzzy binder or flushed her faux fur jackets down the toilet for once. I had barely strutted out of the restroom, hadn’t had a chance to let my lookout know that he didn’t have to redirect guys who needed to piss towards the bushes behind the basketball court, when she said, “Hey, what’s your name?” in what I think was supposed to be a lilting tone. As I took down my hood, she grimaced. “I only saw your lips before; you looked like a new boy.” And just like that, my hips and flat tits re-materialized. At least for a brief three minutes in the junior high’s dirtiest bathroom, I got to be handsome on my own terms, even if Emily felt deceived and laughed about it later.

pencilJenny Irizary grew up in a cabin in the woods along Northern California’s Russian River, the only Swede-Rican for miles. She holds a B.A. in Ethnic Studies and an M.A. in literature from Mills College. Email: jennyirizary[at]gmail.com

The Ski Rope

Flash
Windy Lynn Harris


Photo Credit: Lisa Donoghue (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: Lisa Donoghue/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Maxi looked down at her bare feet. The AstroTurf her grandfather had stapled to the dock was itchy and ridiculous. The wooden planks looked like they’d grown grass. The ducks thought it was marvelous, though. They’d cover the dock each morning, preening and napping, leaving feathers for her to collect.

Her toes pulled at the green plastic blades of not-grass, avoiding the blobs of sun-whitened duck poop. Her grandfather started the boat and tossed her the rope. Her left hand quaked a bit, like it had the day before. She shook her fingers behind her where her grandfather wouldn’t notice, then slid one foot into the faded wooden ski beside her. This year, it finally fit. She tested the cracked vinyl foot cup as her grandfather eased his boat away from the dock.

Legend had it that Maxi’s mother could start from that same spot, standing tall, her right foot tucked into that slalom ski. She would hold the rope handle tightly and lift her thumb into the air, a signal for Maxi’s grandfather to hit the throttle. Her mother would watch the length of rope rush its way through the water as the boat picked up speed. The moment the slack tightened to a vibrating string, she would leap off the dock and land on the water in the perfect skier’s recline, face to the sun, like she owned the lake.

Maxi has never seen her do this.

The stories she’s heard about her mother’s days on the lake all starred a woman she wouldn’t have recognized, a historical figure that later morphed and gnarled into the oddly shaped woman Maxi had known as Mom. Her grandfather had hired an endless array of people in white lab coats, and one in particular who brought Maxi foil-wrapped caramels, but the army of doctors had not been able to outsmart the blueprint in her mother’s DNA. Last fall, it had ended in a whisper-quick goodbye.

Her grandfather idled his boat and waited. Maxi knew the girl her mother used to be played the oboe and wrote poetry. She sat still in the pew at church and sang along with the hymn book. One day, she even swam the whole way across the lake while her father rowed a small dinghy beside her.

Sunshine glinted off the peaks of lake-ripples. Maxi adjusted her grip and took a deep breath. She stood tall at the end of her grandfather’s dock and wondered if she would be able to jump when the rope went tight. She wondered if she was anything like her mother in any of the ways that mattered to her grandfather. And she wondered about her mother’s hands.

Someday she would ask the man smiling at her from the wheel of his boat about small tremors and twitch fingers, but not just yet. First, she would make him proud. Maxi put her thumb in the air and kept her eyes on the rope.

pencilWindy Lynn Harris’s short stories have been published in several journals including The Literary Review, Crack the Spine, and Arcadia. She is the Tips editor at The Review Review and runs a Market Coaching for Creative Writers program where she teaches writers how to professionally submit their work to literary magazines. She is currently working on her first novel, a war-of-the-sexes story that explores gender roles and gender identity, and our evolving definitions of both. Email: windy[at]windylynnharris.com

Check

Flash
Gretchen Dietz


Photo Credit: Judy van der Velden/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Judy van der Velden/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

It is important to check up on things. Calendars, to-do lists. Emails. Check the status of online shopping orders. Check the number of weeks in the semester. Check the number of minutes I jog, the number of laps I swim, the amount of time to cook the basmati rice. Check the balance on the bank account. Check the balance on the credit card. Check for fraud. Check the cupboards for tea. Check the plants to see if they need water. Check the record player’s needle to see if it’s worn. Check the record for smudges. Check the bathtub for mold. Check the current supply of household necessities—toilet paper, ice cubes, clean socks. Check the original 1970s thermostat and question its level of accuracy. Check the time. Check the mail. Check the purse for essentials—wallet, hand sanitizer, pen. Check the face for blemishes. Check the hair for renegade strands. Write a check for the rent and take it downstairs past the industrial dryer toward the brown door with two signs labeled “OFFICE” and open the tarnished brass letter slot. Drop it in. Listen for the faint whisper of sound as it lands on the cool tile.

pencilGretchen L. Dietz is working on a PhD in English at Miami University and the end is in sight. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Oklahoma Review and Lipstickparty Mag. Email: dietzgl[at]miamioh.edu

Lately I Have Been Reading Arthur Clarke

Poetry
Kristina Spear


Photo Credit: Joriel Jimenez/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Joriel Jimenez/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

You have nine billion names for God
written on each freckle
etched on each blemish of my skin.
A billion stars Arthur Clarke
would blot out.

Last night, again
the lines for a poem.
The nature of which
I cannot recall.

Possibly it was
your beard itching my lips
or the drop in my gut
as we hit that hill
going only fifty.

Perhaps it was
something else
entirely.

The way my feet can relax
on foreign sands
or my living among
absent strangers
as I comb their lives intimately,
eat from their utensils,
scent my hair with their soap.

Whatever poem
was asking to be writ
is buried beneath a night’s
dreams of
boxer dogs
Chicago
and the call of the stars.

pencilKristina Spear is a poet residing in Washington State. She enjoys cats, coffee and a number of other things. You can contact her at Kristina.e.spear[at]gmail.com.

Ferguson

Poetry
Erren Geraud Kelly


Photo Credit: Scott Lum/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Scott Lum/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

“a riot is the voice of the unheard” —rev. dr. martin luther king, jr.

mingus’ upright bass
rumbling anarchy like a
volcano

miles’ trumpet launching rockets
at the status
quo

billie’s voice like fire,
burning the rope, freeing
strange fruit from the
poplar trees

ella scatting like a
chainsaw,
cutting against
conformity

john coltrane saying “no”
to lethargy, releasing
god
from a saxophone’s
wail

jaco pastorious
slapping hate with
machine-gun electric
bass
making cops say “please, please, please,”
like james

herbie hancock making
harmony from black
and white keys
strong as molotov
cocktails

art blakey’s drums
shattering harder than
a
cop’s nightstick

keith jarrett telling
looters
to steal happiness
through sounds

joe williams
singing a balm of
peace

pencilErren Geraud Kelly has had in poems published in numerous publications in print and online in the United States and around the world. Mr. Kelly is the author of the book Disturbing The Peace, available on Night Ballet Press. Erren received his B.A. in English creative writing from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He lives in Seattle. Email: errenkelly76[at]yahoo.com

Two Poems

Poetry
Lowell Jaeger


Photo Credit: Carol Von Canon/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Carol Von Canon/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Crud-Muckers

Sturdy boys in overalls who’d risen early
to help with milking and mucking the barn…
their sisters who’d lit the stove before sunup,
baked biscuits and fried ham for farmer-fathers,
for hungry brothers, and for the hired hands…
Hicks, we called them. Crud-muckers. Hayseeds.

Loads of them herded on yellow buses.
Cow-eyed kids, grazing half-awake
through droning hours of penmanship.
Kids accustomed to manhandling machines,
plowing and disking rocky acres clean.
Cutting and baling hay. Bare wrists
freckled with scratches and scabs, shoulders
muscled lean. All this while the rest of us

ruled the playground and still pedaled Schwinns.
Help your little brother scrape all that dirt off his shoes,
Miss Kaiser commanded on the steps of our school.
That ain’t dirt, Ma’am, said older brother.
That’s good rich manure. Couldn’t help but note
that boy’s grownup face. Us town kids could brag
we’d seen the butcher hack up a side of steaks.
But couldn’t guess how cows happened in the first place.

 

Casket Flag

Worried her sleepless all night,
composing her class presentation:
The Proper Method to Fold the Flag.

Aching to demonstrate for us
what’s right, what’s proper…
Clutching the folded flag
close to her chest, her neck
crimson, she inhales, braces herself,
swallows hard, looks us in the eye.

After a military burial,
she begins, they fold the flag
a certain way.
She goes blank, then clears her throat.
And it’s given to the family.
Now she makes busy unfolding

and folding, explaining
step by step. The importance
of military decorum. The meaning
of her brother’s citations. Her

big brother. Only brother.
And she’s deadly serious
about letting neither stars nor stripes
touch the ground.
Never, she says, never.

pencilAs founding editor of Many Voices Press, Lowell Jaeger compiled New Poets of the American West, an anthology of poets from 11 Western states. His fifth collection of poems, How Quickly What’s Passing Goes Past, was published by Grayson Books in 2013. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Montana Arts Council and winner of the Grolier Poetry Peace Prize. Most recently Jaeger was awarded the Montana Governor’s Humanities Award for his work in promoting thoughtful civic discourse. Email: ljaegermontana[at]gmail.com