Closure

Beaver’s Pick
Alex Shishin


Photo Credit: Jamelah E./Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

In February, Bart Kozlov, a professor at Ikeshita Women’s University, learned that Emiko Toyohashi, taking her Semester Abroad in America, was having homestay trouble. The homestay family’s emails said Ms. Toyohashi had gone mad; she had locked herself in the guest room and had not eaten for days. The English Department chairwoman was departing for Los Angeles to bring Ms. Toyohashi back home to Nagoya.

There was still time for Ms. Toyohashi to enroll in classes at Ikeshita Women’s for April. The chairwoman informed Bart that Ms. Toyohashi was assigned to his English Composition seminar and his American Literature lecture class. “This is her fifth year. She is severely short of credits, as you know. Have you worked with her before?”

“Never,” he said.

“Do your best, Kozlov-sensei.”

Upon entering the seminar room, Bart felt Ms. Toyohashi’s glittering presence. Her hair, dyed fiery red, seemed to reflect in the sheen of her white mini-dress. Long red fingernails accentuated her small hands. Her lightly freckled face bore an expression of somnambulant vagueness. She sat rigidly at her desk, surrounded by a dozen chatting young women.

His ex-wife, a fellow American, also glittered, he recalled. She had run off with a blond tennis-playing millionaire a decade before.

Bart wrote his name as Bart and Bartholomew Kozlov on the whiteboard.

“Bartholomew,” Ms. Toyohashi said.

“Good pronunciation!” he said.

Ms. Toyohashi nodded but did not smile.

In her first in-class essay, Ms. Toyohashi wrote, “I want to work in a boutique. It is my dream.” She concluded, “I am making my parents sad.” On the other side of the paper she wrote, “Dear Professor Bartholomew Kozlov-sensei: “I am sometimes away because I am unstable. I also catch a cold easily. I am sorry. Please excuse me.”

She was gone the next week and the week following. Ms. Toyohashi was splendidly groomed from head to toe when she returned, but her face was blank. He guessed she was sedated; his girlfriend, Tsuki Ogori, an orthopedic surgeon, had told him in Japan doctors treated psychological illnesses mainly with drugs and not talk therapy.

Ms. Toyohashi gave him two make-up essays for English Composition and a note saying she had read “Fever,” one of the two Raymond Carver stories assigned for the American Literature class. The other story was “Jerry and Molly and Sam.”

The essays, likely written under sedation, were just comprehensible. In the first she wrote about becoming a flight attendant. In the second she wondered if she could be a fashion designer.

At the close of the semester Bart had his English Composition students write an in-class essay on a theme of their choice. Ms. Toyohashi was not there.

That afternoon there was a knock on Bart’s office door. Ms. Toyohashi entered, redheaded, bleary-eyed and mini-skirted. “May I write the essay?” she asked.

“Sit at this table, Ms. Toyohashi,” Bart said. “Here is paper. Here are pencils and erasers. Take all the time you want.”

She wrote nervously for half an hour, often erasing or scratching out words and whole sentences. She stood as he read the paper.

Her essay was about free schools, jiyu gakko in Japanese. Free schools were for truants and dropouts: girls and boys who had escaped regular schools because they were bullied or misunderstood. Though somewhat loose in organization, the content and her command of English were good.

“You’ve passed English Composition,” he said and handed her the paper.

Ms. Toyohashi appraised Bart with a puzzled look.

“You passed. You may go, Ms. Toyohashi.”

She did not move. Then she smiled. Bart smiled.

“Don’t miss American Literature this Friday,” he said. “Okay?”

“Okay,” Ms. Toyohashi said. “Goodbye.”

The final paper for American Literature, an in-class open book essay in English, was the only major project for this class. Because it was a make-or-break assignment, Bart spent three weeks reviewing the theme. He was worried because during that time Ms. Toyohashi was absent.

There were thirty-two students in the American Literature class. Ms. Toyohashi was there on time and sat in the back. She was the last to leave. He face was blank when she handed in her paper and thanked him.

Bart read her paper first. It started out by saying that “Fever” was unrealistic. The protagonist’s wife had run off with his colleague and friend and he was too nice about it. He and his wife were too nice to each other. The children were too nice. His girlfriend was too tolerant. Mrs. Webster, the housekeeper, had a too easy time of taking care of the children whose mother had abandoned them. On the other hand, “Jerry and Molly and Sam,” a story about an alcoholic man cheating on his wife, was very realistic because it was filled with bitterness and cruelty. The part she found most poignant was where Betty tells Al: “I know you don’t love me any more—goddamn you!—but you don’t even love the kids.”

Bart was shocked by what he read next. It was about her homestay family’s domestic unrest: the parents shouting from morning and into late at night, the slaps, the tears, the broken dishes, the unhappy children who threw tantrums. She felt unsafe outside the locked guest room and deeply regretted missing her classes, which she enjoyed. She concluded: “I have not told anyone else. Because I don’t want to cause more trouble. Who would believe me anyway?”

Over dinner, Tsuki, said, “She was not the crazy one! You have a duty to report this before another homestay student is abused.”

The department chairwoman said, “Let me keep Ms. Toyohashi’s paper for a while, Kozlov-sensei. Only until I take care of this matter. Please, sensei, keep this to yourself. It could hurt our Semester Abroad program. I’m glad Toyohashi-san passed your classes at least.”

“Not any others?”

She shook her head.

Prior to spring break, Ms. Toyohashi came to Bart’s office. “Sensei, I want to do a tutorial with you on Raymond Carver next semester,” she said.

“Certainly,” Bart said. “Your Carver essay showed you have a good command of English, a fine eye for details and a good mind for literary analysis. It all needs to be refined, of course.”

“Can we start with ‘Preservation,’ sensei? About the man with no job who spends all his time on the couch. My boyfriend is like that. He is always in his room. He never leaves the house. I try to help him.”

“That is really good of you!” Bart said.

“Sensei, I want to teach in a free school. I know I’d do well there because I’m an outsider.”

“I am too,” Bart said.

“Eh?”

“I found solace in reading Carver at a time when I felt I didn’t belong at my university. Ironically, I married a woman who acted as though she owned the place. When I came here I knew this was where I belonged. My ex-wife hated our university, hated Japan, and hated everyone I cared for. Finally she hated me.”

“Poor sensei!” She said. “I will always be your friend.”

“Thank you, Ms. Toyohashi. I need to catch the bus.”

“Me too! We must hurry!”

It was raining and only Bart had an umbrella. When they reached the bus stop the bus had already departed.

With the umbrella between them they were both getting wet. There was no other shelter. Bart remembered that Ms. Toyohashi was prone to colds. There were taxis close by. He also remembered the administrative admonition to the staff not to take taxis with students.

“We’re taking a taxi,” he said.

In the taxi, Ms. Toyohashi asked, “Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Yes. A doctor.” He told her which national hospital she worked for. “She is also a professor.”

“I want to meet her!” Ms. Toyohashi said. “Could I meet her today, sensei?”

Bart called Tsuki on his cellphone and then told Ms. Toyohashi, “She wants to meet you. She’s at our usual café.”

Tsuki was waiting at their usual table. She had changed into blue jeans and blue work shirt, and had unfurled her long straight hair. Today she was wearing the gold necklace Bart had given her for her birthday. She stood when they entered. The women bowed to each other and introduced themselves.

“You’re beautiful!” Ms. Toyohashi said.

“Thank you! So are you!” Tsuki answered.

Rapport established, Ms. Toyohashi poured out her life story to Bart’s girlfriend. Bart listened.

“I am unstable and I know why,” Ms. Toyohashi began. She never liked her parents’ business, yet she would inherit it because she was an only child. Her parents told her to study law. She failed to get into every law department she applied for. She was only accepted for English at Ikeshita Women’s University. It was located not far from her home and carried a good regional reputation. Her parents should have been pleased, she said, but they were disappointed. At the university she became bored. “I can never do what people tell me to do,” she said.

In his office that autumn, doing Raymond Carver with Ms. Toyohashi, Bart asked, “Do you understand why Carver chose the title ‘Preservation’ for this story?”

“Yes. The man is sad because he cannot find a job. He stays on the couch because he does not want to be hurt any more. But by preserving himself that way he becomes like the mummy man from the peat bog. Sensei, why don’t you marry Tsuki-sensei? Don’t you love her?”

“We love each other very much. But we were both betrayed and went through painful divorces. We’re like the man in ‘Preservation,’ I guess.”

“I kissed my boyfriend for the first time,” Ms. Toyohashi said and covered her mouth.

At the weekly English department meeting in late January the chairwoman announced that Ms. Toyohashi’s mother had written to say that the family would no longer be paying tuition. Privately she said to Bart, “Emiko-san disappeared a few days ago. Her parents are frantic. Please find her. We know she was close to you.”

“So everyone no doubt knows about the taxi and us meeting here,” he said to Tsuki at their usual café. “They presume I know where to find her. I haven’t a clue.”

“She may find you,” Tsuki said. “I’ll keep an eye out for her.”

Thanks to serendipity Bart found Ms. Toyohashi sitting on a bench and reading in Sakae, Nagoya’s downtown. She was wearing blue jeans and a denim jacket. She had stopped dyeing her hair.

“Bartholomew-sensei!” she exclaimed and stood.

“Are you hungry, Ms. Toyohashi?” he asked.

“Yes, very hungry.”

“I’ll treat you to a good lunch on the ninth floor of that department store over there,” he said pointing.

On the ninth floor Bart showed her around the various restaurants.

“I don’t belong here,” she said. “I feel like a Raymond Carver character.”

“Me too,” Bart said. “But we are hungry Raymond Carver characters. Let’s take another look around. When you find a restaurant that feels right let’s eat there.”

Over lunch she said, “Oh, by the way, I like ‘Fever.’ The people remind me of my parents. My mother and father are gentle. They have never punished me. They only look sad when I do something they don’t like.”

“They are very worried about you. Don’t you want to go home?”

“Bartholomew-sensei, I slept in Internet cafes and ate cheap food because I didn’t want to go home. I left because my parents wanted to put me to work in the business right way. Yesterday I found a job at a free school in Osaka. I start in April. I don’t know what I’ll do until then. I know they’ll tell me to forget the free school and work in the business. I can’t go home.”

Bart did not know what to say. Ms. Toyohashi ate her sushi slowly and with delicacy.

“Maybe Tsuki can help you,” Bart said. “Like write a letter to your parents explaining you have found meaningful work that will help society.”

She put down her chopsticks and looked up.

Bart called Tsuki on his cellphone. She was on her lunch break.

“You’ve done a brilliant job, darling!” she said. “Now let me take over. Hand Emiko-san your cellphone.”

After the next department meeting the Chairwoman told Bart not to worry about Ms. Toyohashi. She was safely at home.

The grateful parents, meanwhile, had sent Bart and Tsuki lavish gifts and invited them to dinner.

The parents were non-stop talkers. They were jovial. They were witty. They were captivating. They were the kind of gregarious people, Bart thought, who could, without meaning to, perpetually upstage a child trying to find herself. Ms. Toyohashi, like her mother, wore a kimono. Unlike her mother, she did not say a word or look at Bart and Tsuki.

Her mother and father told wildly vivid anecdotes about their travels around Japan. They had been to all forty-eight prefectures and even to the disputed islands above Hokkaido. Bart was dying to tell them they were brilliant storytellers and they had no doubt inspired their daughter’s interest in literature. It would break the ice for a talk about her future.

Suddenly it was over. Tomorrow was busy day. Before Bart and Tsuki knew it, they were in their shoes and the family was kneeling at the genkan and bidding them sayonara.

Months passed without a word from Ms. Toyohashi. Bart fretted to the point where Tsuki had to ask him if he was in love with her. He answered apologetically he only wanted closure.

One spring day it occurred to him that he was not entitled to closure. Ms. Toyohashi was none of his business.

In June he married Tsuki, his longtime girlfriend.

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Alex Shishin is an award-winning fiction and non-fiction writer widely published in print and online.  Shishin’s non-fiction includes the travel memoir Rossiya: Voices from the Brezhnev Era. His novel Nippon 2357: A Utopian Ecological Tale and other ebooks are published by Smashwords. Originally from San Francisco, he is a university professor in Kansai. Email: magwitchv70[at]gmail.com

Anniversary Waltz

Beaver’s Pick
Donna Pucciani


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

November 24, 2016

I’ve always hated
the dark of November, the suddenness
of night at four in the afternoon,
after custom has dictated
the changing of the clocks.

As it happens, we were married
forty years ago this day, while
the world was still light.
The autumn afternoon slanted
our shadows on a leaf-strewn lawn,
colored us through the stained glass
of the university chapel.

We never feared the night,
never even thought of
the blunt forces of darkness.
Now I’ve learned to hold my breath,
awaiting the inky tentacles of time
to squeeze the life out of our
blissful dailiness.

We’ve spent the past in noisy classrooms
of adolescents resisting Chaucer.
What we know now are
four decades of drifted leaves,
friends and cousins falling
in the wind, backlit by a setting sun.
The real pilgrimage begins here,

in our small house silhouetted
against a reddening sky and the arthritic
fingers of surviving trees. Our eyes
tire of the light, perhaps readying
to frame the arc of a harvest moon.
We are a floater in the eye of winter,
its aura reflecting the whiteness
of our breath.

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Donna Pucciani, a Chicago-based writer, has published poems on four continents.Her work has been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Italian and German, and has won awards from the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, the Illinois Arts Council, Poetry on the Lake, and others. Her seventh and most recent book of poems is Edges (Purple Flag Press, Chicago). Email: dpucciani[at]yahoo.com

Travelling With Ashes

Beaver’s Pick
Gwenda Major


Photo Credit: Enkhtuvshin/Flickr (CC-by)

When Bob dropped down dead as he was hoeing between the rows of leeks, the last thing on Ellen’s mind was the trip to Budapest. And yet here she was, sitting on the balcony of the Hotel Gellert with a cup of tea and looking down on the huge squat tourist boats gliding along the sparkling Danube below.

“Do you think Dad realised how noisy it would be when he booked this hotel?” Rebecca sipped her tea and sighed again as a long yellow tram squealed and creaked its way off the Freedom Bridge and on to the riverside rails. Rebecca had been doing a lot of sighing since she and her mother had arrived on Tuesday.

“I don’t know love—but it wouldn’t have bothered him anyway. You know how he loved to watch traffic. Just look—you can see trams, cars, buses, boats and bikes—and there’s even a metro entrance over there. He would have been in heaven.”

“Mum—that’s inappropriate” Rebecca chided, frowning. She’d also been doing a lot of frowning in the last few days.

“Sorry—just a turn of phrase.” Ellen did not want to get into a pointless argument about semantics with her daughter. There was enough tension in the air already. “Can I get you another cup of tea? And aren’t you glad I packed the travel kettle? Why is it they never have hospitality trays in the rooms?”

“No, thanks—the tea just doesn’t taste the same—I suppose it’s the water.”

Rebecca had always been hard to please, reflected Ellen. Even as a little girl. I don’t want that dress, I want this one. I don’t want gravy on my vegetables, just on the side. I don’t want to see a film, I want to go ice skating. Contrary by nature. Bob doted on her of course. Couldn’t do enough for her. And Rebecca had always known she could wind him around her little finger. Just a pout or a frown and she’d get her own way. Ellen had given up arguing with Bob about it after a while. Saw it was useless.

 

The sad thing was that Bob had always wanted to see Budapest. “One of the best public transport systems in Europe,” he’d said. And had then added in a tone of wonderment, “and eighty percent of the city was destroyed after the Second World War.”

The Hotel Gellert was his choice too. Naturally he wasn’t to know he would die from a sudden massive heart attack only two weeks before their departure date. Which was a blessing really. No one wants to dwell on their imminent mortality do they?

Ellen had initially thought that setting off only days after the funeral seemed a little hasty. Lacking in respect somehow, but Rebecca had persuaded her—“Dad would have hated the idea of wasting the flight and the hotel booking,” she said. And going together meant they could share memories of Dad, make it a sort of tribute to him. Ellen had her doubts on that score too but said nothing. But when she mentioned she was thinking of bringing some of Bob’s ashes with them, Rebecca reacted with horror.

“I thought you said he always wanted his ashes spread at Morecambe—on the sea?”

“Well yes he did—where his family spent their summer holidays. And I will—most of them. I just thought it would be a good idea to bring some with us, so that a small part of your dad will have made it to Budapest after all.” In actual fact Bob had never given any indication of where he wanted his ashes spread—he hadn’t quite reached that age where it seems sensible to consider such matters. Ellen had thought the little white lie might be helpful to Rebecca, give her a focus for her grief. She should have known better of course.

Ellen stuck to her guns this time but then Rebecca went and googled ‘travelling with ashes’ and discovered it was recommended to carry a copy of the death certificate as well as the cremation certificate, plus a statement from the crematorium confirming the ashes belonged only to the person named. As if you would mix them with someone else’s, Ellen thought. The advice went on to say it would also be a good idea to inform the airline and possibly even contact the embassy in your destination country. “So you can see it’s out of the question mother,” Rebecca concluded with a note of satisfaction.

“That’s ridiculous” Ellen had argued. “I’m only bringing a token amount, not the whole contents of the urn. Nobody will be any the wiser.” She was quite firm about it so there was nothing Rebecca could do—except sulk. Which she did and was still doing—on and off.

 

Ellen gazed across at Gellert Hill. She’d read that Saint Gerard had been thrown off from the top in a barrel in the eleventh century, poor man. And further down was the entrance to the caves that had been a chapel and then a field hospital for the Nazis. It seemed Budapest had been invaded by all and sundry over the centuries. So much misery and pain. No wonder a lot of the Hungarians looked glum. Not surprising after what they’d gone through.

Rebecca didn’t seem very interested in the history which was a shame. She seemed to have decided that her being there at all was an act of great sacrifice on her part and that she was only doing it for her father. Whereas Ellen suspected she hadn’t been able to resist the idea of a free holiday—especially after her split with Mark. Maybe I’m being uncharitable she thought—but I do wish she would stop finding fault with everything. Like the hotel for example—the exterior of the Gellert was unquestionably magnificent, rising in its Art Nouveau splendour above the banks of the Danube, but it couldn’t be denied that the rooms were very dated and on the edge of shabby.

“Just look at that bath, Mother,” Rebecca had declared, pointing at the brown water stain below the taps. “And that shower head isn’t fixed on the wall properly.” Within minutes of arriving she had started to make a list of all the defects: the chipped tiles around the toilet, the rough surface in the bath where the enamel had worn away, the threadbare areas of the carpet, the dreary curtains. “I’ll do a review on TripAdvisor when we get back,” she said with grim satisfaction.

“Faded grandeur,” Ellen attempted in the hotel’s defence. “I agree it could all do with an update but I like it.” She wandered around on her own on the first morning, taking in the marble pillars, the luminous stained glass on the stairs, the wrought iron work and wood panelling. It’s like stepping back in time, she thought.

For the first few days they did the tourist round—a tour of the city on an open-topped bus, a cruise on the Danube, a trip to Margaret Island in the river with its water fountains and parks and a funicular ride up to the Royal Palace and National Gallery. On each trip Rebecca would murmur, “Dad would have loved this” or “poor Dad, he’ll never see this now” with a sniff and a wistful look. But she refused to accompany her mother into the famous Gellert baths next to the hotel, saying it would be a breeding ground for bacteria, so Ellen found herself sitting alone in the hot outdoor pool watching the dappled sunlight dance on the water. Later on she padded down to the tiled splendour of the thermal pools. I feel like an ancient Roman, Ellen thought to herself as she stretched her legs luxuriously in the forty-degree water, smiling indulgently at the sly kissing cherubs above the tiled doorway.

 

On their fourth morning Ellen crept out of bed at six and dressed quickly and quietly in the bathroom. She thought about leaving a note for Rebecca but decided she’d be back before she was missed. She eased the door open carefully and walked softly down the wide corridor. There was nobody about. Rather than use the lift she tiptoed down the graceful staircase to the lobby where a sleepy receptionist nodded at her without curiosity. Outside Ellen paused for a moment, breathing in the fresh chill air with its hint of sulphur. A hazy mist floated over the metallic surface of the Danube. It was very quiet. Ellen crossed the road and started climbing the steep concrete steps that wound up Gellert Hill. After ten minutes she reached a spot where there was a view down over Freedom Bridge and right along the river towards the Chain Bridge and the Parliament buildings. Her heart was pounding with the effort of the climb but her mind was clear. Carefully she took out the little Tupperware box from her pocket and prised open the lid.

No one can ever know what goes on inside a relationship, Ellen thought, and she had no intention of trying to tell Rebecca now. She had her own image of her father and that was only right. Bob had not been a bad man but he had been a difficult man, a bully who lacked empathy and consideration, a man who had never made Ellen feel wanted or happy. Perhaps she had been wrong to stay with him all these years. She accepted she was partly to blame.

 

Ellen shook out the contents of the little box on to the grass that sloped down on the other side of the railings. The ashes descended in a powdery cascade and then lay in a silvery sheen on the dewy grass. “Goodbye Bob,” she murmured. Ever since the funeral Ellen had still half-expected to hear his car on the drive and his voice shouting, “I’m home.” But now she finally knew he was gone. The sense of relief was overwhelming. Ellen gently tapped out the last of the ashes—let the bad go with the good. And then, taking one last look at the view, she turned and made her way cautiously down the uneven steps back to the hotel.

“Where on earth have you been mother?” Rebecca’s voice was shrill. “I was worried sick. I was just on the point of phoning Reception to report you missing.”

“Don’t be silly, Rebecca. I wasn’t missing. I just thought I’d go and spread your father’s ashes quietly on my own. I didn’t think you’d mind—we can do the rest together at Morecambe when we get home.”

For once Rebecca seemed to have little to say. Sitting up in bed in her pyjamas she looked more vulnerable and much younger. “What were you thinking of mother?” she wailed.

Deliberately misunderstanding her daughter Ellen replied, “Well, actually I was thinking how nice it would be to do one of those river cruises. After we get home I might look into it for next year.”

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Gwenda Major lives in the South Lakes area of the UK. Her passions are genealogy, gardening and graveyards. Gwenda’s stories have featured in numerous publications. She has written four novels and two novellas; three have been either longlisted or shortlisted for national competitions. Email: gwendamajor[at]hotmail.com

That Yellow Sun

Fiction
Jay Merill


Photo Credit: broterham/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

That yellow sun, so hot, so blinding. It blocked all thought though I could still hear the scream. I held my hand up over my eyes, trying to see things: the beach, that drifting sand, odd bits of dried-out wood, the sea with frills of foam. They seemed to fade to nothing. But the scream went on. At the time I didn’t realise it was coming from me.

Liane recalls these details and talks about them later at her new apartment just off the Fulham Road, sitting with friends over drinks. How it all had been, how she’d felt then, married to Franz. ‘What is love?’ she finds herself asking. Then she’ll give a shrug, the shrug saying probably you won’t know, nobody will. ‘Well, happiness then. What is happiness?’

‘I’d had that accident, cutting my foot badly. Blood was just oozing out onto the sand. Then you know, I’ve always wondered, maybe it wasn’t an accident. I could have done it on purpose, I was in that much of a state. But it’s all such a jumble. The glint of glass on the dune, the surge of red, also the pain. I was so angry with Franz and so desperate for him to love me. That much I did know, though I was confused about everything else. Maybe it was like this—I saw the shard of glass, my own naked foot, and thought, I’ll take the misery out on my own body, or, I’m going to punish Franz. Though I’m not saying it wasn’t an accident, it could very well have been.’

Liane talks a lot about that day, says she can still feel the prickly sweat of her body and the agony in her cut foot. Can even recall how the sand on which she lay had a ribbed surface embedded with curved lines of shells. Looking up suddenly she had watched as three grey birds went flying through the sky. Behind it all, her own agonised cries.

She shrugs, spreading her hands helplessly as she comes to that part of the story when she’d screamed alone on the burning slope of sand and Franz hadn’t come to her. Her eyes wince and darken as she lifts up her wineglass, replaces it, then picks it up again. Next she takes a piece of cheese from the central plate, then a biscuit or a wedge of bread. She chews a little, dabs at scattered crumbs, pours more wine from the bottle. Her eyes are everywhere. She looks at the wall, looks at the untidy pile of plates. From object to object she goes, her voice rising and falling.

‘It used to be so hard to swallow,’ Liane says. ‘But really, you know, that day was the start of things beginning to get better, even though there was worse to go through first. If that makes any sense.’

Outside it’s getting dark. The lights in the flats on the other side of the communal gardens are going off one by one. Her balcony door is still open. Breeze comes in, and it feels good. Liane sighs, leans back in her seat. As though to locate herself in the present she flicks her hand through her hair and smoothes one finger along the edge of the table. All solid, all in order. Good. She continues with her story:

‘These friends, Andy and Nina, were with us for the weekend. Franz and I were having a row which lasted the entire time. They were upset by us I think.’ And she laughs saying, ‘That was nothing, rows could last two weeks or more, or they’d subside and start up again, blowing in all different directions like the wind can up there in the Frisian Islands.’ She catches the side of her finger on her collar, the nail snags, she makes a face.

‘I crashed into the soft powdery dune and lay in a crumpled heap but with my bleeding foot sticking out straight. Blood gushed out and got absorbed in the sand. So dramatic. My blood, I thought. And the pain was terrible. Had I meant to do this to myself or just fallen on the glass? Part of my screaming was the terror at the not knowing. I so longed for Franz to come, but the row between us had been bad that whole day and he did not. In the end it was Andy and Nina who came back for me, just the two of them. Actually, I think that day was the crossroads. I turned away from Franz. I’d always been hanging on you see, waiting for things to get back to what they’d been at first, or move on to some new bright point, but this was the moment I let go of all hope. And you know something, I started to become stronger.’

Outside in the London street darkness settles. A few night sounds can be heard—the slam of a car door, occasional laughter, music here and there in snatches. There’s the soft zoom of a plane overhead, and the sudden swoosh of night wind. The late-talking hour.

Liane is an architect, when she’d married Franz she was just starting off. Franz had an import-export business. They’d met when Franz had come to London from Rotterdam and he’d moved in with her after only a few weeks. Then later, they’d bought a little house, a rundown sort of a place on one of the Frisian Islands where they’d first gone on holiday together. Terschelling. They had cycled through the pinewoods. Dreamlike echoes, bird cries. Liane remembers rambling through a wild marshy part of the island purplish pink with orchids. And they’d walked hand in hand, so necessary to keep on touching then. Just ahead of them, a tall spiky grassed bank in the shadow of which they had sex. Easy and happy. Liane says she’d felt blended in with nature. All this before the island had come to mean grief, because her marriage was grievous.

After the time of the cut foot Liane began to leave Franz by stages, trying out being separate in her mind before making the real ending happen. Franz noticed no changes, living to the full his blithe London existence. Liane’s first stage of leaving was going out herself whenever Franz went out. It got more frequent. Franz was never home. He went away for the weekend, most weekends. So Liane did too—not that he knew. Franz’s business was doing well. Now he had money he had flings, the two seemed to go together with him. Another stage in the leaving was giving up caring about his infidelities. She used to be in a torment and rage. Franz had told her, ‘But you’re my best girl.’ Liane repeats this odious phrase of his to friends in the late night recollections. She’d been desperate, and then she wasn’t any more. Franz was away on business quite a lot, going to Brussels and Rome. On one of her weekends away Liane had a one-night stand herself, later she began an affair. In this way she had started on her new life. At last she said to Franz they should have a trial separation, that she couldn’t bear things as they now were. How were they? Franz had raised his eyes as though asking this question. ‘You’re my best girl,’ he reminded her. Liane said she thought he should go to Terschelling and fix the house up when he wasn’t away on business. She agreed to go out to him every couple of months and they’d see how things went.

Liane in the bright kitchen of her new flat entertaining friends. They sit at the table sipping wine, chatting, later they loll around in the cushiony living area, addressing issues, enjoying the night. Liane says things like: ‘What is for real? What is fooling?’ What she keeps going over is Franz’s attempted suicide. She’ll never give up trying to understand that.

She says, ‘How could he have done that to himself? When he looked down at his arm, did he hate that arm?’ Liane uses her own arm as a model; taps at it, asks: ‘Did he say, Arm you’re not going to be any more, you’ll be dead?’ Her little performance gets her a laugh. She’s hardly expecting anyone to come up with an answer.

Terschelling. That yellow sun. Liane had gone up to the island for two weeks. Franz had renewed hopes. He’d given up his mistresses now he told her in a voice bold and emphatic. There was just this one tiresome woman who was hard to drop, one who hounded him. But there was really nothing in it, he just saw her now and again. Franz looked hopefully into the amber eyes of Liane. The greater his hope the more she had to disillusion him so the greater her coldness. The sex between them was distant in her case, desperate in his. The greater his renewed hope the more he was capable of blotting out her indifference, so the more she had to punish him with a show of apathy. Liane says she got some sort of pleasure out of the idea he loved her and couldn’t let go; that she was becoming addicted to his hopeless zeal. ‘Was I just craving retribution for the years when things were safe for him and when he hardly noticed me?’

Liane feels at ease in her Fulham Road flat, friends round, soft music on, balcony door left open all weathers. She’s been with clients all afternoon in her office at Mansion House. It’s good being part of the noise and rush of the centre when you know you’ve got your peaceful nook to come back to at the end of the day. Here, where it’s all quiet sociability, a place for night-chat, she works through the details of the past.

‘Out there in Terschelling it’s a different life experience, such a beautiful spot. There you can find another kind of happiness and I’ll tell you about that in a while. But what’s right for one time may not be right for the next. And I didn’t feel comfortable on the island after things fell apart with me and Franz and he went to stay in the house full time. Franz thought I was punishing him, and partly I suppose I was. Yet he didn’t seem to imagine what it would be like if we were to stay together. Strange he wasn’t able to foresee a life of despair, of bitter recrimination, when by now we could hardly bear to see one another do a simple thing like walking on the beach.

I always went carefully after that accident, skirting the dunes, stepping round sharp stones, blobs of scum, tangled seaweed. Everything. Franz was more casual, missing the bad bits naturally but yelling if he didn’t. It’s scary how much we annoyed one another with our different styles. I can see Franz walking moodily, kicking up foot-loads of sand, feeling, I’m sure, that this glitch in the relationship was all my fault. He said I mustn’t leave him. It hardened me. When we had sex those days it was tense because this was the way I reminded him that I had nothing left for him. I held back, refusing to be fluid. When I went away, back to London, he took to brooding, did drugs, slept during the daytime, refusing to accept it really was over between us. He spent so much emotional energy in the effort of hiding from the inevitable ending. We walked separately in a state of tension, tormented by pity and dislike. I remember wondering if there could be a resolution or whether we were doomed to go on like this forever.

I’d bought a beach ball, gaudy, red-and-blue-striped, a light air-filled ball. We threw it between us without enthusiasm, and it was always just out of reach, slipping to one side, falling. Was it the wind doing that? So light that ball, no substance to it, and there was this smell of soft perishable plastic.’

In the living room of the London apartment Liane lies back on her sofa, legs thrown over one of the arms. Friends recline on various chairs, the sky outside passing from pearl to grey to black.

Liane: ‘What is for real and what is only fooling? Even if Franz had said, Arm you’re gonna be dead, he mightn’t have really meant it. Most likely of course, he never thought about his arm at all or any other part of his body. But I was afraid, because even if he was only acting the part of being suicidal he still might have killed himself. He was in a bad state. You know, suppose he was acting all the time, and just meaning to punish me, or punish himself, then oops, the breath was gone, the arm inert, and it had happened. All over, meant or not. Drowned. Silky-salty water lapping round him, making the pink parts of his body look pinker, a swirl of loose sand shaly against his knees. Franz lying down in the water and saying he was going to kill himself. Out of malice, out of hate, out of anger, out of pain, out of terror, out of what? Well, for one thing, as if to say, You’d love me then, you’d be sorry. And you know something, a terrible part of me needed to know that he really was going to do it—that insecure, worst part that wanted to believe he couldn’t live without me.’ And Liane recognises there is still that in her which needs to know she really has been loved. As if this will make her into one of the lucky ones, a success story, no matter what.

‘He said his life was empty, that he was going to end it, but as for me, when I saw him lying there, helpless with resentment, I knew I would never love him again and also that I had to be strong, to get both of us past this terrible moment. The sad thing is, this threat of suicide was the last emotional experience between us, a great force which drove both of us, almost a bond, and maybe neither of us really did know whether it was genuine or a sham.

Franz said to me, ‘You don’t want me any more.’ He said, ‘You just want to destroy me. You don’t care what happens, do you?’ He said, ‘I’m going out into the sea, the North Sea, and I won’t be swimming! I’ll be drowning. Drowning! Then you’ll be satisfied.’ His face which had gone a dark beetrooty brown, looked frightening, unresponsive, sealed off from any possibility of hope. He took off all his clothes and left them on the sand in a careless heap and waded out. I called him back, called and called till my voice went hoarse.’

Tears have come into Liane’s eyes, remembering. ‘He just kept on walking, as though he couldn’t hear me. I thought, he’s really going to do it. He didn’t falter though he must have been able to hear me calling. Didn’t even look back, you know, and the water out there was getting so deep. Not even when I called his name would he turn round.’ Liane’s hands start to shake with the memory. ‘I could not believe it. That Franz would do a thing like this. But on the other hand I had to put the idea it might just be a game out of my mind. It would have seemed too churlish not to have taken him seriously. Maybe that’s what he wanted, I don’t know.’

Liane takes a sip of her wine. ‘If it was a game it could have been a dangerous one, tempting an accident, flirting with it. People can die in a game if they’re crazy enough. To hell with intention.’

‘He’d chosen a stretch of water where the current was strong. If you were a cynic you could say he knew I knew that. One part of me hated him, for being out of control or being too controlled, whichever it was. The main thing was, I hated what was happening. He went out further and further and still I was shouting and still he never looked back and didn’t start swimming. And then I went in after him. I cried out, “Franz, you’re not to do this thing. I don’t want you to. I’m sorry.” Yes, I had to say things like that. I told him I loved him and I said I’d stay with him, that it wasn’t all over. I had to.’ She wipes sweat from her face.

‘And still he wouldn’t look back. He was much further out than I was. I was up to my neck, I couldn’t get out that far, you know I’m a poor swimmer. And I wasn’t sure if he could still hear me. I felt sick agony as though it was all over. Then, on the beach which seemed so far away now, I saw moving shapes. Silent and unreal, silver shadowed. Two moving shapes. With the agony inside me I waded back towards them shouting as loud as I could. And they heard me. It was two Australians, guys here on holiday. They swam across. By this time Franz had slipped down under the water. I couldn’t even see him. Whole minutes went by and I thought that was it. But the guys got him out. Thank God, they got him, and they hauled him back to the beach. He’d gone so white I thought he was dead anyway. But they lay him on the sand; pumped the water out of him. He just lay there completely still. He was ok though. Thank God for that.’

Very few lights are still on in the flats across the gardens, but now and again you can hear spurts of music, talking, coughing, as people pass close by. Once or twice there’s the quick burst of a car horn from the Fulham Road, discordant, high-toned, and now as it gets later, the wind shudders making the curtains puff out. There’s the rustle of leaves on a nearby tree, the occasional hum of a plane overhead. Shifting sounds settling us into night. Liane’s voice gets softer, goes back further.

‘I have an earlier memory of us. Me and Franz on holiday. I never wanted to leave this place. Before we bought the house, it was. We were stretched out at the base of this embankment in a band of shade. We lay where we were on spines and prickly tangles, not minding, postcoital, coming to. Finally we got up, arms still wrapped around one another because we couldn’t let go. It took us a while to climb to the top of the bank this way as we kept on toppling and having laughing fits. At last we made it and sank down out of breath. Pinkish haze of flowers all around us, that yellow sun. Below us the long line of the sea stretched grey-blue to the horizon, ending in mist. Terschelling, with its own kind of perfection, its power. Being there can absorb all the possible questions, can make you think of nothing. You have this sheer unburdened happiness, you feel quite free.’

pencilFiction by Jay Merill is published or forthcoming in 3 AM Magazine, Berfrois, Epiphany, Hobart, The Irish Literary Review, Per Contra and Prairie Schooner. She is a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee and the winner of the Salt Short Story Prize. Further work has appeared recently in Anomalous, Citron Review, Corium, Foliate Oak, The Galway Review, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Literary Orphans, SmokeLong Quarterly, Spork, tNY, Wigleaf and other great publications. Jay lives in London UK and is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing. She is the author of two short story collections published by Salt—God of the Pigeons and Astral Bodies—which were nominated for the Frank O’ Connor Award and Edge Hill Prize. Email: jaymerill[at]talktalk.net

Alcaics: on a hashtag

Beaver’s Pick
Judith Taylor


Photo Credit: baldeaglebluff/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: baldeaglebluff/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

What happened? Who knows? No one can read a mind
scroll back the thoughts like seismograph traces, see
just where the quake struck. We are left here
sifting the wreckage for scraps, for reasons

—some prop that gave way, broke under sudden shock,
brought down the whole house. Then we could make ourselves
safe, make our own house safe: the next quake
won’t pull us down, we’ll be ready for it.

It’s that we’re human. That’s what we do. We make
home, shelter; fire, hearth. Structures to keep us safe.
Crops, pasture, fields hacked out of dark woods;
calendars, numbers against the vast sky

that drifts above us. Patterns of when and why:
verse; music; carved stones. Pictures and glossaries.
Faith, hope and love. Just law and mercy.
Everything keeping us sure of our selves,

each other’s selves. So much we can only take
on trust, and walk as if we believe there’s ground
to bear our weight. We have a place here,
that’s what we say in the frightened, quiet time

we try so hard not ever to give ourselves.
We have a home; if not a place, a tribe.
Kith, kin. Or one heart somewhere for us.
Structures we build on a spinning planet

we need to tell each other we trust in still.
If one looks down, looks over the edge, we might
all fall. We need these explanations
—not why a house tumbled down, but why ours

still stands. That hashtag, something we need to hear:
depression lies, we tell ourselves. Something struck
this house or that; some monster drew this
person or that to their self-destruction.

Sounds like a glib line, telling you what you feel’s
false: silence once more slapped over what you know.
More, though, it’s our own mind we talk down,
begging it, almost, to give us good news

tell us we’re part of a world we think true,
can live in, can think we belong in.
We build the house still, tremulous as the ground is.
Stay, please, we say. Stay. Help us to keep it standing.

pencilJudith Taylor comes from Perthshire and now lives and works in Aberdeen, Scotland. Her poetry has appeared widely in magazines and she is the author of two pamphlet collections — Earthlight, (Koo Press, 2006), and Local Colour (Calder Wood Press, 2010). Her first full-length collection will be published by Red Squirrel Press in 2017. Email: j.taylor.09[at]btinternet.com

Baby’s Breaths

Beaver’s Pick
Greg Metcalf


Photo Credit: Ari Landworth/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: Ari Landworth/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Your baby is pulling down your shirt and exposing your bra strap. Maybe you’re used to his hand there, gripping, maybe the feel of his strength—is it a boy?—satisfies some primal need, proof of life. Do you watch him sleep and not just because you love him? How long do his pauses between breaths last before your eyes come wide open? We all pause between breaths when we’re content, when we’re happy. You haven’t, have you, since you had him? Wrapped tight with angst and loneliness. You’re lonely when another person is as close as could be, close and clutching, tugging at your clothes to get to skin. Lonely with your responsibility. All ease has been flushed from you and sleeps swaddled, oblivious except when he cries and that is on you. Are you jealous? Is that why you woke from that nightmare, rushed to where he slept, eyelids vibrating, scooped him up, woke him, squeezed him, and rocked him while both of you cried? Nothing will ever harm you, you promised, but this is just another thing you’ve committed yourself to for eighteen years and more: making promises, explicit and implied, that you don’t have the power to keep. He pinches the loose skin of your side against your bra strap, but you like the pain. The force in it. In a baby book, you read that infants have the strength, right from birth, to hold their weight with that grip. You attempt to ease your fears with this useless trivia; as if, if it comes to it, you could always dangle him from somewhere while you solve any problems that arise. From the time you were ten, you’d always wanted three: a boy, a girl, and then nature could decide, but now all you want is to have him to hold and feed, to listen to him continue breathing. Your husband is a sudden invader. You duck from the window at the sight of the mailman. The urge to love him is sometimes so powerful you can’t help contemplating the logistics of putting him back in. He’d have your heartbeat again, your oxygen, diffusing into him, and you wouldn’t have to worry about your baby breathing ever again.

pencilGreg Metcalf is the author of Flowers on Concrete, a novel, Hibernation, a YA thriller, and the memoir Letters Home: A WWII Pilot’s Letters to His Wife and Baby from the Pacific. He has three other completed novels, unpublished to date. His short fiction has appeared at Boston Literary Magazine and Metazen. He is a contributing author in Indiestructible. He blogs at My Free Sentences. Email: hershelaa[at]aol.com

Into the Dirt

Beaver’s Pick
Matthew Everett


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

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

I pressed the camera to my face. The Wichita Mountains stood, old and sleeping, on the other side of the lake, smeared across the right half of the sky. The tops were white, even in August, and melted into patches of red and brown and green that slid down the slopes, into the silence of the lake. My other eye squinted as I pulled them into a place where I could see. They huddled in my camera, and I pressed the shutter.

Tiki was nearby, sniffing his way down a line of walnut trees by the road. He flitted from trunk to trunk, pausing, front paw dangling and nostrils pulsing, before trotting on to the next.

I wound the film and looked down at the window. Six pictures left.

I looked around. Little houses dotted the gravel drive, sleeping beneath wide, rustling trees. I started toward the lake, and a few roads over, I came to the docks that Holly and I used to swim under, when it was warm. We’d bubble up in one of the empty boat shelters and let our toes dangle in the water, and imagine that little fish were listening to our garbled voices talking. But none of them were empty today. I looked down the last road and hurried across.

The grass on the other side kissed my bare feet and ironed out the little gravel-shaped dimples on my soles. The dock groaned as I stepped out onto it, and the top of its wooden body was hot and dry and dusty. I turned right and walked toward water, weaving my way between the uneven nails that jutted up from the beams. At the end of the dock, I stopped.

A small boat, flat and aluminum, bobbed in the shade of the shelter arching over it. I put the camera to my face, but through the lens, it looked dull and colorless. I frowned.

Tiki had followed me and was lying down, panting and watching me. The shadow beneath the awning hugged me as I walked into it. I stepped into the boat, and it shifted under my feet. In the steering wheel was a small web, rocking and recently-fled. I bent down and saw a little brown spider huddled beneath the rim. His shoulders were hunched and angry, waiting with smiling eyes for my departure. I pulled my camera back to my face and took a picture.

When I climbed out of the boat, Tiki was standing next to me, looking down into the water. His reflection panted back at him, then broke apart as he leaned down to paw at a passing pair of fish. I clicked my tongue as I walked back up the dock, and he followed me, out into the sun.

At the road, I studied the walnut trees, the way their leaves grew out over the gravel. Houses ran in uneven rows in either direction. Ms. Beverley’s stood nearest to me. On her porch, a chair lay broken on its side, its body covered in a dry, brown mold. I looked up the road, and back down. The dust kicked up in the quiet wind, coating the roofs and the leaves of the walnut trees. Everything was dirt.

It was louder out back. Cicadas spoke across the trees with angry voices, and beyond the bend in the road, a lawnmower rolled in sharp, roaring circles across a dry stretch of grass. I walked toward a row of sunflowers that blinked and sprouted from the dirt behind her house.

 

“I wish you wouldn’t sit back there, Elma. Makes me feel like a damn chauffeur.”

“Watch your mouth,” said Grandma, “There’s a little sunflower in the car.” She ran a hand through the hair on the back of my head, which I didn’t think was quite as yellow as sunflowers.

“Just make sure she doesn’t spill any of that on my seats. I swear to God if she spills that again—”

“Why don’t you be quiet,” she snapped. “Let the girl enjoy her pickles.”

I pulled the camera from my pocket, found two days before, next to Christmas ornaments in her attic.

“Do you think it works?” I asked Grandma, who was still glaring at my father in the rearview mirror.

She tore her eyes away and smiled. “What, sweetheart?”

“Do you think it still works?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Let’s see.” She pulled it from my hands and turned it over. She pointed at a window next to the lens and tapped her brittle nail against it. “Says here there are seven pictures left. You’ll have to finish the roll before we can find out.”

She handed it back to me. I set it on the seat next to me and shoved my hand back into the jar wedged between my legs. I pulled a pickle out and watched it slip from my hands onto the floorboards. My father turned around and saw it lying in a shallow puddle of itself. The truck braked hard.

“God dammit, Maggie,” he said as he unbuckled his seatbelt to swat at my face. “What did I just say?”

 

The sunflowers stared at me. They were just taller than me, and stood in two wide, shallow rows. Black pupils and bright yellow irises that watched me without blinking, like they’d forgotten who I was. I took a picture.

A white truck rolled into the edge of my vision, coming up the road that hugged the west edge of the lake. I clicked my tongue again at Tiki. “Let’s go.” He stood and raced after me, back toward the house.

The white truck was in the driveway when we arrived. A missing tailgate and empty bed. I walked around to the passenger’s side and the window was open. The dashboard was cracking and sun-bleached, and crumpled receipts and little paper straw wrappers lay scattered across the floorboard. Shadows from the branches hanging over the house fell in ripples across a dogeared Bible on the passenger’s seat. It was open to a page with words just big enough to read. I squinted and read the little letters at the top of the page. Proverbs 6:16. I took a picture.

Tiki watched me climb the stairs of the front porch, and paddled off in search of new shade. I pulled open the screen door and went inside.

My father’s voice filled the front room.

“Why don’t you let me do it? Let me take a look.”

“It’s not the accounting, Oliver.” The man was soft-spoken and stood in an apologetic way. His back was facing me. He was three or four steps from the door, and his hands slid into his pockets as he listened to my father’s resurging confusion.

“Well, what the hell is it then?” My father’s shoulders hunched as he spoke.

The man coughed and adjusted his tie. “It’s just that we don’t have any money.” A fist slid out from his pocket, and opened into an insistent palm.

My father scoffed. “I don’t remember the last time anything like this happened. Have people stopped coming? Stopped giving?”

“Well, attendance is down, but that’s only part of it. People just don’t have anything to give.”

My mother walked in from the bedroom beyond the kitchen. “Brother Bryan! I thought I heard someone talking in here!” She tore her eyes from the man and glanced at my father, then back at the man. “Please,” she said after a long moment, “sit a while! Can I get you anything? Coffee?”

“Hello, Laura. It’s good to see you. We missed you Sunday.”

My mother tilted her head to the side and laughed. “Oh, we went up to see some family in Fort Cobb,” she said. “Their youngest was getting baptized. Just a beautiful sermon.” She glanced at the time. After a moment, she added, “Nothing near as good as yours, though. Can I get you some coffee?”

“Thank you, but I’m not staying long.” His smile was gentle and warm, and I watched it float over toward my mother.

She looked at my father and his crossed arms. “Is everything all right?”

“I was just telling Oliver we might have to cancel the pageant next week.”

“Why’s that?” My mother’s voice lilted up.

“The church’s revenue is drying up. I know everyone looks forward to the bazaar and the kids’ choir recital, but all that costs money, and right now we don’t have much of it.” The man looked at his shoes.

I took a few steps forward, out from the hallway and into the living room. I spoke. “Are you going to cancel the choir recital, too?”

The man turned around and noticed me. “Hey, Maggie,” he said. “You’re so tall. You’ll be as big as your sister soon.” His eyes glinted and he forced his face back into a smile. “How are you?”

“Are you going to cancel the recital?” I repeated.

“Well,” he said, running a hand down his cheek that fell back to his side after a moment. It looked like he was holding invisible flowers. “We might have to.”

“Maggie, honey, why don’t you go in your room and play?” My mother was leaning past the man, eyebrows raised.

“It’s okay, Laura.” He squatted in front of me. “Yeah, we might have to cancel it.” He looked at one of my eyes, then the other. “But I think I speak for everyone when I say I hope that doesn’t happen.” He reached out to tuck a piece of my hair behind my ear.

“Really, Bryan, I’m sure if you just let me take a look—”

“I don’t think there’s anything to look at,” said the man, looking at my eyelashes, before standing and turning toward my father. “But if I hear anything else, I’ll give you a call. I just thought I’d tell you while I was in the area. I’m meeting Mae in a little while up in Lawton, though, so I’d better get going.”

My mother pushed herself from the side of the doorway she’d been leaning on. “Please let us know if there’s anything we can do.” She ran a hand across her forehead and then straightened her hair. Her mouth was open, and I saw her tongue lying just behind her crooked teeth. Her breaths seemed spaced out.

The man smiled. “Of course.” He turned to my father and extended his hand, which my father shook, forgetting to smile.“See you Sunday,” they said. My father watched him watch my mother.

The man buttoned his jacket and raise his hand into a still wave. “See you, Laura.” He turned toward the door, reaching for the handle. He pulled it open, and August started to seep in. He caught me staring at him. “Goodbye, Maggie,” he said, without blinking. He stepped out into the loneliness of the sun.

Almost before the door shut, my father spoke. “Jesus, Laura. You’ve got to be kidding me.”

My mother didn’t say anything. She picked up a pack of blue Pall Malls resting on the TV cabinet.

“I don’t know what your problem is,” said my father. “Every damn time he comes here, you’re a little schoolgirl, fawning over him.”

My mother walked to the couch and sat on the end farthest from the door. She pulled a cigarette from the pack, which she tossed on the coffee table, and picked up the orange lighter next to it. My father glared. She flicked the lighter three times and breathed in until the cigarette started to glow. She threw the lighter next to the pack.

“Go ahead, just ignore me.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I watched her tongue moving below her brain. As her cigarette hand emoted, her other hand crossed her body and hid under her right arm—her cigarette arm—which stood, crooked at the elbow. She was looking out the window.

“Oh, don’t start with your ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ bullshit. Jesus, it’s like you’re in love with him.”

“He’s just a nice man, is all,” she said, blowing a thin stream of smoke from the corner of her mouth. Her left arm came out and brushed some hair off her forehead before returning to its hiding place. “Which is more than I can say for you.” She looked at him for the first time.

“You can’t get all starry-eyed every time he waltzes in here. Into my house. Jesus Christ.” His hands were shaking, and he was looking at her. “You can’t.”

My mother looked back out the window, at a place I couldn’t see, but I could see the lake in her eyes. Her fingers shifted as they felt the heat creeping toward them. Her hair was still, and she looked very small. I thought of the way she looked when she used to push Holly on the swings at the park, and the way her cigarette danced on the corner of her turned-down mouth, how slowly it burned. I wondered if we kept her from running away. I pointed my camera at her and took a picture.

My father looked at me. “Maggie, go to your room. I don’t know why you even use that damn thing. It’s just a disposable. Film’s all washed out by now. Probably doesn’t even have any.”

I went outside.

*

When I woke up, I lay in bed for a long while, looking at the ceiling and carving little moons in the back of my hand with my fingernails. A sponged pattern ran in semicircles toward the bedroom door, like waves against the beach. A white-blue light was pouring in from the telephone pole outside. I rolled on my side, then sat, half-up, on my elbow.

“Holly,” I said into the stillness of the room. “Are you awake?” Everything was quiet.

I slid my legs out of bed and walked to the window. A speck of light glinted off Tiki’s collar from the little wooden overhang where he slept. My hands felt empty. I went to the door and pulled it open, slow and careful, and slipped out into the hall.

Grandma’s room was to the right. I pressed an ear to the door and heard a muted snoring that grew as the door swung open. She was sleeping on her back, mouth loud and wide. Her dresser stood against an empty wall and reflected the blue window, scattering it across the floor like sand.

The top drawer creaked as I opened it, but she didn’t move. Inside, a little silver-colored box lay waiting for me, and it sparkled as I pulled it up and turned it over in my hands. Along the edges, engravings wound into each other like vines. I opened the lid, and saw dozens of little jewelries sleeping on top of each other, perfect and unwakeable. I sunk my fingers into them and felt them roll over and hold me.

I pulled each piece out and laid it on the dresser top in neat, even lines. I scanned the rows and looked for something delicate and beautiful. I didn’t really know what I wanted, but I took a pair of green and bronze earrings—thin brown chains suspending tiny emeralds that smelled like trees and old metal. I dropped them in my pocket and filled the box up and lowered it back into place. The drawer shut with a soft thud, and I looked at the bed.

Her shadow stood beside her on the wall, holding her in her stillness. After a moment, I went closer, into her shadow, and saw her upper lip crooked into a sort of satisfaction, floating through an unthinking contentment. I could see that she was somewhere else, or almost there, far away from me and Holly and the lake. Far away from her daughter’s cigarette arms, in a place where she didn’t have to worry about hearts that weren’t her own.

I went outside.

The moon was bright and empty. I turned left, then left again, toward the back of the house. Across the yard, I saw the sunflowers shivering, unaware but together in the openness. Their eyes looked up, soaking in the substitute beauty of the moon. I walked toward the woods, toward the little house where Tiki slept. He stood as I got closer, and shook his fur in tight, rapid circles. “Hey, Tiki,” I whispered. He trotted toward me and nuzzled against my leg. I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth, and he followed, sniffing the air as he floated into wakefulness. I watched him blink, several times, slower each than the last. He shook his fur and his collar again.

We went toward Ms. Beverly’s and past it, and walked until the woods were all we could hear. We came to a creek, and I looked back at the way we’d come. Tiki was in front of me. He heard that the leaves weren’t crunching anymore, and stopped to look at me. The moon was coming in harder now, high and bright.

Tiki walked over and sniffed at the cypress tree between us. I looked at my feet and bent down and pushed my fingers into the dirt. It was warm. I pulled up a handful and pressed it to my face and it smelled like rain.

I set the dirt beside me, and started to pull up more handfuls. My shadow held the growing pile until there was a deep hole in the ground, and I heard the earrings stirring in my pocket. They blinked at me as I pulled them out into the openness, fast at first, then slower. The moon came through the tree branches, and fell in broken stripes across the earrings. After a few moments, I tilted my hand and watched them fall, down my palm and across my fingertips, into the earth.

Alone and crumpled up, they looked happy. I scooped some dirt into my hands and poured it on top of them. The heel of my palms pressed the dirt into itself, until it felt firm.

Tiki whined at the darkness. He blinked at me as I stood. We walked with our shadows back toward the house.

*

Impatient rain woke me up.

I turned on my side and saw Holly crouching on the dresser, her hands gripping an imaginary rifle pointed at my face.

“Bang! You’re dead.” She giggled and jumped down. “Bang bang bang.”

“Hi,” I said, wiping my eyes.

“Hi,” she said. “Wanna play?” She tossed the gun aside and walked toward the boxes of Barbies that lined the shelf by the window. She started on the end and went down the line, enumerating, without waiting for my response. “This one’s Holiday Barbie, and this one’s Groovy Barbie, and this one’s Crystal Barbie.” She didn’t pause. I watched her walking down the shelf, pointing her short fingers at each one with a passing obsession. “…and this one’s Loving You Barbie.” She stared at the last one for a long while, smiling, and didn’t look at me. Still smiling, she took a deep breath and held it. She did that a lot, when we were waiting in the checkout at Taft’s or sitting in the car after church, but I never asked her why.

“How do you play with them if you never take them out of the box?”

“Well, I don’t want to break them!” she said, exhaling and tearing her gaze from the dolls. She smiled. “When they’re in the boxes, they’re safe.” Her voice, which was always a little louder than it should have been, was sunny, and sounded like our mother’s. It was young, too, and I looked at the dust that had settled on top of the boxes.

From the living room came a loud and sudden slamming. I heard my father’s footsteps pounding toward the bedroom beyond the kitchen, before returning to the living room. “Where is she?”

“I don’t know.” Grandma’s voice was small next to his.

“You’re lying to me. She doesn’t work today and her car is gone. Where is she?”

“I told you, I don’t know.”

“What did she say when she left?”

“I don’t remember.”

I opened the door and saw Grandma standing, facing him but unmoving. My father yelled more, faster and louder, but I couldn’t understand him. Grandma walked into the kitchen and pulled the phone off the hook. “I’m calling the police,” she said. Her hair was white like the moon.

“You do that. I’ll find her myself.” The front door slammed behind my father. I heard an engine pull out onto the road and speed off.

I went back into my room, where Holly was looking at her boxes and holding her breath. I imagined my mother in someone’s living room. I imagined her smoking, and I saw her tongue dropping her cigarette and her mouth kissing a shadow. I could see the house catching fire and burning for a long time.

The front door slammed again, and I heard Grandma’s car starting up. The gravel cracked under well-worn tires as she backed out and left.

I went into the front room. The rain was louder there, and the house was empty. I went to the kitchen window and looked out into the backyard. The air was thick with rain. My throat felt like hard, like empty mud. I couldn’t see Tiki.

Holly came into the room, skipping, small and unaware. “Maggie, is there any milk?” She stopped in the doorway.

I turned toward her and walked to the fridge. I pulled open the door and peered inside. “No,” I said, “But Momma said she was going to get some more tomorrow.”

The heavy door clanged shut, and the pictures on the fridge fluttered as she nodded and disappeared back into our room, limbs bouncing at her side as she went.

When she was gone, I went back to the window and looked into the rain. I squinted, but I couldn’t see Tiki. I went to the windows in the living room and saw mud streaked out into the road in opposite directions. My camera was lying on the TV cabinet next to my mother’s cigarettes, and I picked it up. There were two pictures left.

I cracked the door open and put my hand in the rain. It was hot. I put my camera in my pocket and walked out into it.

The rain was falling heavy on my shoulders, and the world smelled like trees. I walked to the place where Tiki was sleeping. He didn’t hear me coming, so I said his name once, then again, louder. His tail beat against the dirt and woke him up. He stood and stretched and walked, warm and tired, toward me. We walked farther from the house and turned right, into the trees.

We were loud as we went, stepping through the wet, heavy leaves. Two pictures left. A clearing went past us and dissolved into denser trees. Tiki led the way, and I lost sight of him as he dipped out of view beyond a clump of forest. But I found him, waiting for me near a redbud branch on the ground. It was split by lightning and lay half-clinging to the rest of itself. Tiki hopped across the branch, toward another tree a few yards past it.

I took a necklace and put it here, in May. A turquoise necklace with three little cornstalks on the back of the pendant. Holly used to tell Grandma that it was her favorite, and I put it in the ground, here. I was walking home, but I stopped and went back and dug it up to look at it again. I could remember watching the clumps of dirt fall fast and quiet as my fingers ran down it. I remembered bringing it close to my face, feeling the chain kissing my cheek. It was cold and felt like the moon. I wanted to hold it forever.

In the rain, the tree looked the way I remembered it, except for the branch. I wound my camera and took a picture.

My clothes were sticking to my body now, and I wiped a river of hair clinging to my forehead. My mouth opened to breathe the wet air.

I looked around. Tiki had gone.

I walked toward the redbud, and it stretched up beyond a place that I could see. I looked at the branch. White wood ran, dead, from the trunk into the dirt. I went closer and looked at the ground. A few months. Where was it? I pushed my fingers into my head but I couldn’t remember. Where was it?

The dirt looked at me and didn’t blink, and I started digging. I didn’t know where I was supposed to start. My hands plunged into the ground like the ocean on my ceiling. All there was was nothing, and my hands were wet. Brown-red clung to the underside of my fingernails. Everything smelled like rain.

I stood and walked toward the way that Tiki had gone, up a hill that was steep and wet. I wanted to go home now. I yelled his name, but he didn’t come. I clicked my tongue. All I could hear was the rain. “Tiki?” I yelled.

I ran up the hill. The woods disappeared and turned into wet asphalt that stretched left and right. Wide, shallow yellow lines ran along it. The grass panted beneath my bare feet. “Tiki?”

I saw him in the rainy road, tail up like a flag behind his bouncing body.

I clicked my tongue and yelled his name.

A pair of headlights came rolling through the tree-lined bend, followed close behind by a rain-flecked car, fast and dark and metal. Tiki smelled the pavement. I screamed. The car shook as it went over him, and his fur and his head spun in fast, loose circles.

I ran. Blood poured from a seam in his skull. His breaths were distant and panicked, and his eyes were draining into a place that I couldn’t see. I started to cry.

I tried to remember how he looked when he was little, the night we first found him. The way he looked when we took him inside and when we gave him a bath and when my mother said he could sleep with me if my father didn’t find out. But it wasn’t there. I felt his face falling out of my head. I couldn’t remember, and everything was rain. I looked at him. His blood was running clear against the road.

He couldn’t breathe anymore. I bent down to touch his face. It was wet and hot and I was crying more. I wiped my face and took a picture.

pencilMatthew Everett is a Kentucky native and first-time author that currently resides in Alabama. His unpublished work can be found on his blog.

Enormity

Beaver’s Pick
Rori Leigh Hoatlin


In Open Fields of Wildflowers - Lupine and Daisies IMG_2123
Photo Credit: John Britt

It surprised us when our Advanced Biology teacher, Mr. Reef, told us, “Millions of years ago glaciers cut through Hudsonville, Michigan. Everything, covered by water. Over time the glaciers melted into lakes, then those lakes trickled down to streams, and those streams sank into the earth creating the well-watered dirt we call muck.”

This surprised us. We attended Unity Christian High School and this was the first time I ever heard an adult say the world we lived in was millions of years old. We’d been taught to fight these sort of proclamations—how old the earth. We were taught to quote Genesis. One week, one literal week, was all it took for God because he could do anything. We must have been caught off guard. We didn’t expect this statement to come from our science teacher. He wasn’t looking for a fight. He didn’t ask us how old we thought world was. He gave us the facts.

This had been an impromptu field trip. The fifteen of us shuffled out of the classroom and boarded one of the six buses our school owned. We rode down Oak and Van Buren streets, past the fairgrounds and over the railroad tracks.

I looked out the window and surveyed my hometown, a flat place with the exception of a two-mile ridge of oak and maple trees to the west, a place made of muck fields—waterlogged mud that the Dutch were persistent enough to till. A place of celery, onions, and corn, wet all year long, but green in the spring. Purple and yellow wildflowers grew at the edge of the vegetable fields. Even on sunny days, the air smelled like a wet forest floor.

I tried to picture what it looked like “millions” of years ago. I imagined the land underwater. I imagined rivers cutting banks, foliage growing and dying. I reconstructed the enormity of the blue-and-white glacier, imagined that it covered the lowland. Wolverines roamed the tundra and howled at the black sky. But then again, there was probably nothing, just silence and ice.

At the time, I saw this trip as an escape from school. A moment when he taught us factoids about the earth, about our home. But it would have taken years for me to find out this information if he hadn’t given it to me. I wish I could return to that moment, poke myself in the ribs, and demand that I recognize its importance.

Would that version of me see?

Time opens up before me, a cavern of impossibly stretched space. We believed God made the earth in seven days. But Mr. Reef didn’t waver, he didn’t say God’s time might be different from our own and maybe seven days for God was millions of years to us. We knew what our arguments were and he knew them too. It was more important that we learn something new rather than regurgitate the same old lines we’d been fed. He needed to remind us that the world we lived in was older and filled with more complexity than we could fathom. He knew that at seventeen, we felt large. We were going to graduate and be a part of the world—he needed to remind that we felt grandiose, but in fact, we were very small.

pencilRori Leigh Hoatlin is a Teaching Fellow of English composition and literature at Georgia College and a Summer 2013 Teaching Consultant at The Lake Michigan Writing Project in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her work has previously appeared in Young Scholars in Writing, Prick of the Spindle, and is forthcoming in Steel Toe Review, Superstition Review, and Tampa Review Online. Email: hoatlinr[at]gmail.com

Relief

Beaver’s Pick
M.J. Walsh


DSC_1384
Photo Credit: Doug Butchy

We’re going to the beach, finally. A few days ago we tried, too hot. Yesterday we tried, thunderstorms. Today things have cooled down considerably and we’ll have to wear clothes over our swimsuits but it’s sunny and clear and we’ve got lots of sunscreen and extra towels to cover our freezing bodies when we emerge from the frigid north Atlantic.

So we’re going to the beach, finally! If I can ever find my sunglasses and lip balm. The weight on my head is reassuring; now show yourself, lip balm—my longest-running addiction, and last obstacle. Pockets? No. Beach bag? No. Bathrobe! Wait, let me run upstairs and check the bathrobe pockets! Jackpot! All set, let’s go. We need to get there early to get a primo spot, a circle with a radius of at least ten feet.

Good god, it’s stifling in the car. Perhaps we should keep the windows rolled up and sweat it out all the way to the beach, dump our stuff at the center of our perfect beach circle, and dive straight in to the ocean, like Norwegians, just emerged from a sauna. We’ll blink the salt from our eyes and splash around until our fingers prune or our ankles get numb then wander up to deal with our accoutrements, dripping.

We’ll have to find some hefty rocks to hold down the corners of each blanket. We’ll have to dry off and put on sunblock. We’ll have to try not to fall asleep after our second beer in the sun. Are the bathhouse and lunch bar open this early in the season? It is June after all, and if they can charge for parking, they can at least provide sustenance for the people who are forking it out. They do a decent coffee, for a beach, if memory serves.

First we have to get there. Not many people on the road today. It looks like smooth sailing for us. The roads are cracked and bruised from the fourteen-year-long winter we’ve endured. Some of the side streets are riddled with veins of newly-caulked pavement sealant. The smell of the tar mixes with flowers and pollen and freshly-cut grass, soon to be replaced with the smell of salt and sunscreen, the grit of the sand in our hair and the glare of the seagull, lusting after our potato chips.

We’re going to the beach, finally.

pencilM.J. Walsh is from Boston, MA. She works at a university library by day and writes by night. Email: ivivivivi[at]gmail.com

Callas the Great

Beaver’s Pick
Rupprecht Mayer


Royal Opera House Covent Garden---La Bohéme
Photo Credit: Andrea Puggioni

Yes, Callas. And she was great! You never got to see her live, on stage. And recordings from that time are so rare. Back in the day, singers used to sing for flesh and blood people, not just for recordings. Or CDs, whatever they’re called now. But those few live recordings that exist, they really capture the atmosphere. The space, the audience. You really feel the dialogue between the artist and her audience. We adored her, we followed her. Everywhere. Milan’s La Scala, in 1955; then in 1959, in Edinburgh. We were there! Walter and I, I mean. My late husband, you knew him? Of course you knew him. You’ve heard him; you’d recognize his voice. No, he never sang himself. But in Lisbon, during La Traviata, 1958, if I’m not mistaken, the coughing during the “E strano” aria? That was him. Maybe you weren’t paying attention. I can understand that. But in this immortal Tosca recording from 1965, in Paris, you definitely heard him. By that time his coughing had become so distinctive, almost a kind of barking. Unmistakable! I listen to these records over and over again. Callas, di Stefano. And my beloved Walter’s coughing! Soon afterwards I had to take him to Davos. The lungs. He never came back.

Today’s recordings? No comparison. So sterile. Nothing but studio. And you know what? Now they’re beginning to delete the sounds of the audience from those old recordings. They simply run them through computers, they say. The other day, my niece gave me a CD as a present, with the famous concert at Covent Garden, 1965. You know. That was just before Davos. I waited to hear my dear Walter’s five coughs in the “Caro nome” aria. But they were gone! Deleted! You can’t do this to an audience. What a lack of piety. My poor Walter. Great as Callas was, but I can do without stuff like that!

pencil

Rupprecht Mayer was born 1946 near Salzburg. After some 20 years living and working in Taiwan, Beijing, and Shanghai, he recently resettled in Bavaria. He translates Chinese literature and writes short prose and poetry in German and English. Publications: English versions appeared in Atticus, Bicycle Review, Frostwriting, Hobart, Mikrokosmos/Mojo, NAP, Nano Fiction, Ninth Letter, Orange Quarterly, Postcard Shorts, Prick of the Spindle, Radius, Whole Beast Rag (forthcoming) and Washington Square Review. For more of his work, see his website. Email: rupprecht_mayer[at]hotmail.com