The Rabbit’s Head

Fiction
Omid Fallahazad


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

At first, she didn’t want to leave the house. He had to threaten her, then entice her, both tactics involving how much screen time she would get on his iPad, and she finally yielded. He thought they needed to go for a walk, with all that was on the news, just to get some fresh air.

It had rained all night, soaking roof shingles and leaving the tree bark a shade or two darker in color. Now it was drizzling with the confused wind of late March. He took their umbrellas from the stand. She giggled when opening the umbrella. He, too, felt childishly giddy going through the motions—the soft, springy release button, the way the canopy opened with a flapping sound, the gentle pitter-patter of the first raindrops landing overhead.

But then a gust of wind blew from behind and snatched his umbrella. For half a second the handle was out of his grip, the umbrella suspended in the air like magic. The man clasped the handle just in time and drew it back. The girl screamed. The wind was lifting her umbrella too, pulling it until the yellow, duck-faced canopy popped inside out. The metal ribs rattled hard. He turned about and gave instructions, yelling. She managed to point the top of her umbrella against the wind. It instantly popped back into shape, dignified, as if nothing had happened. The wind suddenly dropped, and he recovered his umbrella, too. He told her to pay attention to the treetops, to watch for ripples in unmoved puddles, any sign that helped to read the wind. She listened intently.

“You stick to me if we see someone’s coming our way, you understand?”

She nodded.

“And don’t say hello. No hellos.”

She held the handle close to her face, white-knuckled, wide-eyed, and nodded again.

They walked through the long U-shaped suburban neighborhood without a word. On the outer side of the curve, the sloping lot, stood colonial houses, imposing and a bit too angular. Water sprouts were shooting from the pruning wounds of a large birch tree. There was a bicycle left on the pedestal of a stump near a mailbox post. Opposite, on the flat surface of the inner side, was a handful of snug ranch homes, each surrounded by a modest but manicured lawn and dark-soiled flowerbeds. A couple times, the man had to stop for the girl to catch up with him. No matter how slow he strolled, she kept falling behind. As he waited, he stared at the picture windows of the houses, drawn to the eerie serenity of their dim interiors.

“Faster,” he called, and twirled the umbrella handle. Large droplets flew off the rib tips in a helix pattern. The air smelled of pine cones. In fifty yards or so, they would reach the main road. Time to decide. Should they turn around and retrace their path through the neighborhood to get back home, or go ahead and complete the loop by taking the main road, which connected the two ends of the U? Similar lengths, but one with possible predicaments. Predicaments, if anyone else decided to come out during that hour, like the lean bandit man the other day. But even an eager jogger like the bandit man could do without such miserable, spitting drizzle. That was what the man hoped for.

The girl was in no rush. The sleeves of her parka were wet up to her shoulder seams. He could see why. She was carrying the umbrella bindle-like, drifting along the edge of the grass, talking to herself, or to the imaginary characters in her head.

He walked up to the main road and scanned the sidewalk all the way to the bridge over the muddy river. It looked deserted. Nothing moved in the rain-slicked, single-lane road either. Regardless, the decision had triggered a fluttering in his chest, and he knew it wouldn’t go away until they’d reached the next corner and veered off back to the safety of their neighborhood. She was still lagging behind by ten paces or so. There was no sign of the jogger.

Last time, he had appeared from the other side of the road, apparition-like, and crossed the empty street with nimble side strides. Red-faced, forehead glistening in sweat. Workout layering all in black, like a thin-limbed bandit, except that he had no mask, nor scarf. The man had acted by instinct, placing himself between his daughter and the jogger’s projected path. He had assumed that the jogger would jump over the curb into the bike lane to maintain some distance between them, but he didn’t. He stayed his course and came at them. It felt like watching the act of predation from the prey’s point of view. The man put his arm around the girl and made a shield of his body for her. The pull caused a stumble in the girl’s quick steps. But then she did the unexpected. In a singsong voice, she blurted out: “Hello!”

The response, a massive, guttural “Hi” that the jogger barked back at them, shocked the man. His body went slack. He saw a stream of sweat and spittle shedding off the jogger’s jowls, or so he imagined in his nightmarish replays of the encounter. It was like the old Gatorade commercials in which athletes’ blue and orange sweat went off flying into the dark. Dribbling sweat while dribbling the ball, all shot in an artistic rim light. A recent viral video showed how laser beams were employed in some darkroom lab to highlight airborne spittles issued from a person speaking. The phosphorus light traced the particles just short of the microbial level. Amazing how far they traveled, how many of the concentric circles they reached. Who knew that death would become the human body’s most easily transmittable trait? Death, not love, not intelligence, not happiness. Death and disease, spreading like a yawn.

“Look at this!” the man called, standing before a rain puddle on the sidewalk.

At first, the girl couldn’t see what he saw. At her height, the reflection of the clouds masked everything. He held his umbrella above the puddle.

“What is it?”

“Look!”

But he lost it, too. He could only see a pine needle afloat pointing northward, compass-like. A little squinting, a little bending, and the grainy asphalt came to focus. A tooth-size piece of gravel. A few bits of wood chip, mulch or not, cinnamon-colored and fibrous.

“What is it?”

“A worm.”

“A worm?” She squatted down with a sympathetic moan.

“It’s dead,” he said.

“It moves.”

“Water makes it bob,” he said. “It doesn’t wiggle.”

She reached for a twig at the edge of the lawn.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go.”

“Wait, Daddy,” she murmured. He could hear her swallow as she prodded the flesh-pink worm with surgical focus. Her dark curls, raindrops beaded in them, covered the nape of her neck.

He began to walk away, irritated with himself for showing her the worm. Perhaps it was habit rather than impulse. Every walk was punctuated with pauses like that, to point out the living things: a bird, a bug, dandelions, shoots, bumblebees. Now that he thought of it, maybe it was more to marvel at dead things. Yes, the dead. The hollowed tree trunk oozing decomposed cork powder. Rustling dry leaves clawing the pavement in the wind. The squashed bird, bones and feathers matted up under the sun, turning into a dusty felt whose mere proximity made their skin itch. A long-legged frog’s carcass, so hardened black that he thought there must be something he could make from the leathery piece, a patch of armor or a knife sheath, if only he had inherited the artisanship of some ancestors from a buried civilization. Dead ants by the dozen, belly-up roaches, coiled spiders. Bees, curled up as if stabbing themselves in the heart with their stinger, in seppuku, maybe. Did they even have hearts, the bees? And if they did, could they die from a heart attack? Another peculiar thing he could puzzle over. How had his eyes managed to see such things in the first place? Like this dead earthworm, putrid pink in the bottom of a rain puddle. It could be mistaken for anything, for a stringy, red root, or a tender, leafless offshoot, snapped when the wind made branches cross sabers. Or even a piece of yarn, a snagged thread of a sort, discovered as giggling guests got out of their car and rang the bell, bottle and chocolate dessert in hand. It must have been a cold evening, a Christmas party, when the wife spotted the red snag on the husband’s ugly sweater and yanked it right before the jolly host opened the door and invited them inside. The snow buried the small piece of yarn, and now that the ice had melted away, it had re-emerged, soiled and faded in the puddle. It could have gone unnoticed, plastered to the pavement until its total disintegration by the elements, except that it hadn’t. More importantly, it wasn’t a snag. It was a worm, a dead one, and she was carrying it on her tiny stick, her face crinkled up in the needling drizzle.

“You’re bringing it? What for?”

“For a funeral, of course.”

A funeral? He smirked, dumbfounded, but then turned, alarmed by the syncopated pop, pop, pop of a car’s exhaust. He saw the vehicle in the distance, a white pickup truck about 500 yards away, on the bridge. It swerved violently to the opposite lane, and its fat tires under the extended fender flares hit the sidewalk curb. The wet surface of the road bled red with the reflection of the brake lights. It must be something in the current, or maybe the lapping river itself, that had caught the driver’s eye.

“Hurry up.” He grabbed the girl by the wrist, but she cried in protest, and he had to switch to her other hand, the one that held the umbrella, not the stick.

“Can you run,” he asked, “just to get to the corner?”

She couldn’t, not with her eyes glued to the worm dangling from the stick. The truck was creeping back to the left lane, straightening itself. He knew that they wouldn’t make it, that there would be some overlap, them being on the sidewalk and the truck passing by. He could hear the fizz of tires on wet asphalt louder, nearer. Mist clouds plumed around the truck, and he suddenly had another fit of anxiety, this time at the prospect of an accident: he saw a steel object, something polished like the head of a golf club, coming off the spinning truck, going airborne with an impossible trajectory toward his daughter’s skull.

“Run!” He pulled her and the truck kept coming towards them. Ten yards from the corner, they passed each other. He locked eyes with the driver. They looked puffy, menacing, a day-long wrangle in them. The stubbled young driver had one arm in a sling. And of course, there was a dark-haired woman in the passenger seat, disturbed-looking, clinging to the dashboard. The truck looked sleek and unused.

The man and his daughter turned the corner, the noise quickly fizzling out behind them. From there he could see his lawn, cocooned in the quiet of the U-shaped neighborhood.

“I dropped it,” the girl whimpered. “I dropped the worm.”

“Look there.” He pointed at another puddle, this one on the neighborhood’s sidewalk, elongated and murkier than the first one. The girl immediately squatted down next to the water and began scraping the mud with her stick. The man’s toes felt cold in his dampened shoes. He checked his pocket for his phone, then remembered that he had left it at home on purpose, not so much to protect it from the rain but to save himself from the news. He’d had enough of the news. If it wasn’t the charts and radiating maps, it was bystander footage of refrigerator trucks and body bags forklifted onto them, or selfies of racoon-eyed nurses during their “mask break,” or scenes of burials with undertakers in all-white, resembling a moonlander crew. That could drive anyone insane, could force them out of their homes, drunk or not. And if you’re in the middle of a domestic fight, driving recklessly on an empty road, a muddy river was an invitation to darker thoughts. Better keep certain things out of people’s heads. Dissection wasn’t meant for everyone. Leave some stones unturned, some stuff unstudied, like the rabbit’s head.

He had come across the bloody head about a week ago, during one of their furtive walks. It sat on the sidewalk, its exposed front teeth just an inch from a pea pod of dark droppings. The head was missing the lower jaw, so cleanly severed it looked like a pencil drawing in a zoology textbook. He rerouted the girl to avoid the scene. But the eerie mystery of it, the Wiccan composition, bothered him. Why the droppings? Were they the predator’s? A coyote’s, perhaps? How could the rest of the carcass vanish without a trace of blood, without a tuft of fur?

Pop, pop, pop. The noise had returned. He eyed the main road. The girl was trying to dislodge a rock with the ferrule of her umbrella. Rain dripped from her springy curls. The loud engine sound caromed through the nearby houses. He saw the pickup truck drive by again, churning up mist clouds, tires hissing on wet asphalt. He saw the woman’s face. It was squished against the side window, not in a playful pig snout but in profile, cheek flattened on the glass, an eye contorted shut. And he registered the movements, the flailing hands fighting his arm that repeatedly hacked at them. That, he saw.

He came over to the girl. Under her umbrella, she was absently cooing at some living things. He picked up the wet rock and returned to the corner. The truck had stopped on the bridge in a peculiar position, two wheels on the road and the other two propped up on the curb. The rear windshield wiper was running fast. The door on the passenger side opened and closed. The man could make out a deadened yelling. Again, the door flung open, and the woman’s head and shoulder appeared with a jerk and disappeared inside the car. That happened a few times, like a cuckoo clock, each time the torso swinging out with a greater force until her hips were pushed off the seat, suspended in the air. But she hung on to the cab, hands clinging to the frame and heels hooked behind the sill.

Hey,” the man yelled, taking a couple steps forward. The woman found a moment to pull herself back inside and slam the door shut. Whether or not the driver was watching him in the rearview mirror, he could not tell. He squeezed the wet stone in his fist, muddy water dribbling through his fingers.

“Daddy, Daddy!”

He waited still. The truck door stayed shut. Then the red and white taillights came on in succession, a sign that the driver was working the gearshift.

“Daddy, hurry up,” his daughter called.

He glanced at the first house, the one closest to them, at the shut, quiet door behind strands of water dripping from the eaves.

“Daddy. Daddy.” The girl was walking to him. “I need to save them.” She had left the umbrella by the puddle. In the muddy cup of her hands, he saw the worms, two dirty filaments of flesh twitching violently.

“Away from the road,” he waved her off. “Go, get your umbrella, go!”

“I need a jar.” She gave him an exasperated look. “Why don’t you listen, Daddy?”

He cocked his head in the direction of the bridge. He didn’t know what to expect—a screeching over-steer for takeoff, or a slow, reluctant dispatch. He wasn’t sure how to account for any of those possibilities.

“I’m going home,” the girl announced and marched off, leaving her umbrella on the ground. It looked like a spinning top at rest. Her parka glistened wet all over. The man waited at the corner, listening to the drum of rain. Finally the truck moved and tires slowly came off the elevated curb, one at the time.

He watched the truck for a few more seconds, a last attempt to decipher any characters on the license plate. Pointless. Then he turned and started toward the yellow umbrella. A mellow gust of wind got ahead of him and teasingly tossed it into the puddle. About four houses farther, the girl had stopped to pack some more dirt around the worms in her hand. The man was in no rush. For once, let her be the one who had to cool her heels. Just as he reached the umbrella, the wind picked it up again and sailed it over onto the neighbor’s lawn. Uneasy, he invaded the lawn, but the wind swept the umbrella again, and it landed behind a sphere boxwood. Well, there was life and there was death, and there were all things in between, ridiculous things. Better get a hold of this umbrella before it turned into a circus. This time, he zeroed in on it with open arms and a wide-based gait, as if trying to catch a wild turkey. He snatched the handle, and, much relieved, shook it and collapsed it closed. Things in between, whatever it meant, he needn’t get doubly drenched like that.

When he returned to the sidewalk, he saw that the girl had stopped again, this time one house before theirs. She was holding out her arms, showing her precious finds in the palm of her hand to a bent-over, beaming bandit man.

pencil

Born and raised in Iran, Omid Fallahazad is a bilingual writer. His works of fiction in Farsi include a novel and two short story collections, all published in exile. He has also been a contributor in a number of Iranian diaspora publications and media outlets by giving interviews and as a writer of reviews and essays. His English writings have appeared in literary journals and anthologies such as Paul Revere’s Horse, World Literature Today, Tremors, and My Shadow Is My Skin. His short fiction, “Arrested,” won a prize and was published in Glimmer Train Magazine in 2016. Email: omid.fallahazad[at]gmail.com

Permission

Flash
Natalie Schriefer


Photo Credit: Michael Muccioli/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

I didn’t mind, at first. Answering phones. Making copies. The silence between semesters, the students on break, the professors’ doors closed. I was five dollars above minimum wage, after all. I could walk to the beach during lunch, search for sea glass, ships.

I drowned my doubts in TV. In Futurama reruns.

Eleven days after my grandfather died, I reached the bureaucrat episode. We are who are, Hermes sang, and he was a bureaucrat. I wasn’t. Fresh off bereavement leave, I knew I wasn’t a secretary, a receptionist, an administrator. I was an editor. I wanted my own business. I wanted clients and retainers and contracts. I wanted my grandfather back.

That night I lay awake, cocooned in a rainbow of blankets. Moonlight arced along the curve of the blinds. My neck ached from hunching over my desk, and in the quiet, massaging the base of my skull, I couldn’t avoid what Futurama hadn’t meant to ask: What was I waiting for?

I built a website the next day. I printed fliers. Sent emails. Set rates.

Two weeks later, I gave my notice. A month later, I was free.

pencil

Natalie Schriefer received her MFA from Southern Connecticut State University. She started working as a freelance writer and editor in 2016, and has yet to look back. You can find her on Twitter @schriefern1. Email: schriefern[at]gmail.com

Two Poems

Poetry
Timothy Pilgrim


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

Montana Watercolor

I dip my brush, paint a depression
turned from fawn to gray,
beyond the wheat, next farm down.

Re-dip, add old age, barn, weathered,
sagging—rafter rot most likely—
roof caved. Good lives faded

like Big Sky mist, a still-white,
blizzard-frozen, drifted to edge,
off canvas, across road, piled on fence.

My plan—four paintings, montage,
a single homestead gone to ruin.
These two, large, plus hope,

gold sun-streak daubed small
through corral, past manure pile
to muddy stream. Last, the ravine,

willowed, wending, steep. Chickens,
sheep, strayed, the moving van,
blackest black. Children, inked waves

from truck bed, huddled in back.
Memory complete, almost dry,
I rinse my brush, put it away.

 

Grief

from the loss of her
comes over me in waves,
a tsunami intent on some island

already struggling to stay
above sea level after a convoy
of icebergs melt by. Or like a tidal bore

not holding its breath twice a day,
headed upriver, murky torrent
choking sawgrass, anemic, half dead

from salt left to cake both banks.
Or, perhaps, disbelief any sun will rise,
casually dispense heat sufficient

to dry blood, the grieving heart
pinned like her wet virus mask
on some tattered clothesline—

in wait for a wolf to lope by,
pause at the scent, leap,
rip red, run, feast.

pencil

Timothy Pilgrim is a Montana native, Pacific Northwest poet and 2018 Pushcart Prize nominee. He has over five hundred acceptances from journals such as Seattle Review, Santa Anna River Review, Windsor Review, San Pedro River Review, Hobart, Toasted Cheese and The Bond Street Review. He is the author of Mapping Water (2016) and Seduced by Metaphor (2021). Email: pilgrimtima[at]gmail.com

Ironing Day

Poetry
Vicki Mandell-King


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

In bygone days, it was not just this drudgery
that could make a housewife want to run away.

Still, this is a weighty thing—

the heat, the steam, the heft of the iron,
the effort to press down,
smoothing out to crispness.

But today, Jane tells me she will
wash and iron new sheets for company.

When I protest that lovemaking,
and all the snores and dreams
in the toss and turn of night
will wrinkle and rumple them—

she scoffs, Then why dust, why mop?

After a pause, she turns pensive, adding
in her matter-of-fact way of speaking true,
It’s the small things that bring pleasure.

pencil

Vicki Mandell-King has been writing poetry most of her life, even during a thirty-year career as an Assistant Federal Public Defender. Her poetry has been published in numerous respected journals. She has three published collections, titled: Tenacity of Lace, Shrinking into Infinite Sky, and Hurry, Open the Gates. Her fourth collection, Singing My Pockets Empty, is in the process of publication by Main Street Rag. Email: vmkengage[at]hotmail.com

Four Poems

Poetry
Joanne Holdridge


Photo Credit: Thirteen of Clubs/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Giving This Back

In my grandmother’s kitchen
alone with you
you cut my hair.
Trembling with fear, not desire
I stumble through the words
while your hands linger in my hair
brush against my shoulders
make this haircut one long
painful seductive act.

I tell you I don’t want
to suck you off in the back
of your van, in your apartment
when your wife is out
anywhere at all anymore.
Except those aren’t the words
I use because I’m fourteen
and I don’t know what to call
what you made me do
only know that with you
I feel like a dry chewed-on bone
buried in hole after hole
hidden and alone.

You put your hands over your heart
say you’re crushed, you’re hurt
can’t believe I won’t
anymore, you still want me
and I feel guilty, trapped in your pain
even while my mouth is glad
it won’t have to touch you anymore.
When you finally put your scissors away
pull your keys out of your pocket
head out to the driveway and your van
you say I remind you of the Dylan song
“Just Like a Woman,” how I break
just like a little girl.

I’ve carried this memory, humped it
swam leagues underwater with it
hurtled it out into space
only to have it return like a honing beacon
but now finally I’ll say out loud
what I have long known
of course, I broke just like a little girl
I was a girl, I broke.

 

Accidents, After the Fact

A woman driving and talking on her cell phone
almost hits me while I’m on my bike
I stop in time instead and fly,
judging by the bystanders’ reactions,
spectacularly over my handlebars
not a bad way to go all things considered

amazingly I’m barely hurt
just torn jeans, scrapes, bruises
glasses stuck in my left cheek
my husband takes me to the ER
where they are kind and efficient
my face only needs a couple of stitches

all lucky and a gift I report to my baby brother
while he grills me in our father’s voice
on how exactly this happened
makes me show him with a fork and knife
where I was, where the car was, how precisely
I ended up with my face in the street

explaining to my brother’s satisfaction
much more time consuming than falling was
but he can’t seem to stop asking
so desperate is he to find some way to undo it
affix blame, rationally understand
why I wasn’t more damaged

until I can hear like a hive of bees
my father muttering to himself over and over
why he didn’t finish college, hire the right contractor,
fix the retaining walls before they collapsed, all the ways
he could have not gotten my mother pregnant with me
after she was

 

One Step Ahead

Moving to Florida for the winter
convinced my grandmother she might
not have to die after all

the sun was still strong there
leaves thick and green
grapefruits hung heavy on the trees
“Mortality,” she whispered, hanging tight
to my smooth hands with her knobby arthritic fingers
“might not be what I’d imagined,” I nodded

wanted to ask what she meant
but she had already dropped my hands
shrugged off the rumors of sickness and death

and slipped away to drive her boat of a Chevy Impala
as close to the sea as she could without
actually stopping or getting her feet wet

 

To My Grandfather All These Years Dead

When you saw me standing at the end of the dock
new in my womanhood, sure I was alone
you didn’t call to me from the porch
or tell me to put my clothes back on
but watched me strip them off
and stand for a moment or two
debating whether to get wet or not
then the clean dive into cool water

For years I wished you had said something
told me my body was my own
that you regretted silently watching
but telling me later not to let my grandmother
catch me doing that kind of thing
but now I feel only wet-eyed gratitude
at least once before you died
you saw me and didn’t turn away

pencil

Joanne Holdridge lives in Arlington, MA and has recently published poems in Coal City Review, Illuminations, New American Writing, Poem, Talking River Review, and Willow Review. She has work forthcoming in Mudfish and The Midwest Quarterly and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Prior to Covid-19, she spent winters on skis in northern NH and taught poetry and literature classes to ESL students at Bunker Hill Community College for thirty years. Email: joanne[at]meltzer.net