Sienna

Beaver’s Pick
Laura Mazzenga


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

I’m in therapy. Technically, it’s one incident that landed me here. The baby started crying, and it wouldn’t stop. I forced myself out of bed and pulled it out of the bassinet. I let it nestle in the crook of my neck, bounce in my arms, and spit down my chest. I don’t know for how long. It wouldn’t take formula. Shushing and humming seemed to infuriate it. Jake said he woke up and saw me, arms extended, shaking it like an old piggy bank.

The next morning, I sipped my coffee black and pretended to look through the bay window at a passing bird. I watched Jake fidget behind me in the reflection of the glass, trying to find his words. Finally he said “Um, about last night.” That’s why we’re here.

The office is in the same building where we consulted with a fertility doctor two years ago. It couldn’t be more different from that sophisticated suite we visited, with screens emerging from flat surfaces and espresso on demand. There was so much hope in that room, and whether or not it was false, I liked the feeling of being there.

Family therapy was my suggestion, but I’m questioning it with each minute that passes. It happens in a tiny room on the ground floor, with a drab color scheme of browns and grays. It smells of day-old soup. The therapist is a thin, fragile lady with round frames on her powdered face. She wears pastel cardigans and speaks in a soft voice that I imagine all therapists were instructed to speak to patients with. She sits across from us, behind a small, lamp-lit desk. There is a window behind her desk, too small for me to even fit through, which faces the parking lot. I see a dumpster just a few feet away and wonder if that’s where the soup smell is coming from.

She starts the session by asking how life has changed for us since we became parents. I hate her first question, but I run through the list. No sex, no sleep, no sanity. Today, I could barely find a bra under the heap of diapers and onesies and burp cloths my own stuff was buried under. I’d love a cocktail, a cigarette too. I could go on, but I already sense that these observations aren’t being received well. I stop myself and course correct, say something like “less time for me.” Jake nods and puts his hand on my lap, as if we’ve had this conversation before in private. He says that it’s been “particularly tough on Marla.” The therapist wants to know more about that, but I can’t find words that will satisfy either of them. What I really think, I am not ready to say. I think the baby and I have a mutual dislike for one another.

In the hall, I can hear the faint ding of the elevator, the sound of the doors opening and closing. I can’t help but envy the people out there, with medical problems that have solutions. Bad joints can be replaced with artificial knees and hips. Dermatologists can scrape off a troublesome mole. Plastic surgeons can laser off belly fat or chisel down a bumpy nose. But there is no cure for this. I want to go back to suite 306, where the pretty people are, with the lattes and the jazz music. Even if they will lie to me and tell me I have a chance at my own kid, I’d prefer it to this.

The shaking incident comes up halfway through the session, but only because I bring it up. Jake and the therapist had been waffling, dancing around it for twenty-five minutes, so I put us out of our misery. I shook the baby, I say. I am waiting for the questions to start, the same ones that have been swimming around in my own head, which I have no answers for. I expect I’ll be escorted out of therapy and taken directly to some inpatient facility to get my head examined properly. There’s no way I’m going back home.

But the therapist looks caught off guard by my admission, frozen for a moment, and then her eyes dart from me to Jake. Maybe she thought she’d have to slowly work that confession out of me, and I’ve taken that opportunity away from her. If there’s a certain choreography to these sessions, I’m certainly disrupting it. Jake shifts ever so slightly next to me, and I hear his chair squeak.

There looks to be a trace of empathy in the therapist’s eyes, but it’s intended for Jake, not me. She nods slowly and leans forward in her chair. She tells us that shaking is dangerous because babies’ craniums aren’t fully formed yet. They’re soft, so when you shake them, the brain bounces around in the head without anything to absorb the shock. Jake listens like he’s never heard this before, but of course we both already knew this. All new parents are warned of the dangers of shaking a baby. Is this what we’re paying $220 a session for, I joke. No one laughs.

Again, I have said the wrong thing at the wrong time. Jake is looking down, his neck a deep shade of crimson. His knee bounces, while the rest of his body is oddly still. I look past him, to the framed photos on the therapist’s desk. They are all of her and the same woman, in various places: sitting on the beach, at some event in cocktail dresses, lying on a hammock with a furry dog between them. No kids. I wonder how she could possibly be qualified to tell me not to shake my baby.

Session two, Jake does most of the talking. He has come prepared this time, summarizing the whole history of our failed attempts at IVF, and the subsequent adoption process. He is the person who keeps track of details. He knows all the dates, all the specialists and procedures, the amounts of money that corresponded with each exhausting step in the process. I remember less. I wanted a baby, more than anything, but the memory feels so distant it’s paper thin. It’s like when someone tells you of something you did when you were drunk. You were there, you know you did it, but you can’t touch the memory in any meaningful way. All of it, the miscarriages, the doctors, the poking and prodding and inserting, even the disappointment, feels like a distant dream. I can only remember suite 306, when I still believed I’d make a good mother.

What I had wanted was a baby of my own by 33. Preferably a little girl. I would name her Sienna. What I got was a three-month-old boy, a virtual stranger off a waiting list. He looked so alien—bald with bulging gray eyes that always drifted desperately beyond me. We named him Nicholas. By the time we got him, I was 36 and it was already too late. The grueling path we’d taken to become parents had already changed both of us. It had made Jake ashamed and passive. It had made me sarcastic and inconsiderate. One of us would have probably left if that baby hadn’t arrived when it did.

I am still here though. There is a gentle tap on my forearm, and I realize they are both looking at me. Sorry, I say, I’m tired. This time, the therapist seems annoyed. She doesn’t smile, but instead she flops back in her oversized chair as if I’ve exhausted her too much to even sit up straight. It has always bothered me that the doctor gets the nicer chair than the patients. We are sitting on creaky high-backed chairs that wobble when we move. I notice a piece of cardboard shoved under the left leg of my chair. I don’t remember the chairs in suite 306 but I imagine they were ergonomically designed for women struggling with fertility. She says she would like to know how I see myself as a mother. I look at the clock above her head. Still fifteen minutes left.

I give my clumsy answer, trying this time to be honest. It’s been hard for me to see myself as a mother, I say. I still don’t feel like the baby is mine. The therapist writes something on her pad, then looks cautiously from her notes to Jake’s face. He does that close-lipped twitch that passes for a smile. It means I’ve said something less than satisfactory. It means “sorry about her.”

The therapist reassures me that people often panic when they finally get the thing they have wanted for so long. It’s overwhelming. She says it’s natural to feel depressed that being a mother is not what I thought it would be.

I suppose she is right. It’s not what I thought, because the baby isn’t mine. We all know it. On some level, even the baby knows it. I want to tell them that I feel lonely, and that every time I walk into the room the baby seems to detect my smell and wrinkle his nose like the room is filling with noxious gas. In my arms, he is a fussy, squirming thing, never content. I don’t want him, and he knows it. I want to run away, leave both of them, but I don’t even have the guts to do that.

Thanks, I say. I think you’re right.

On the way home, Jake cuts someone off on the highway, then curses under his breath when they honk at us. I am sure it’s because of something I did or didn’t say in therapy, but he won’t talk to me. I wish he’d yell, or do something to show that he’s in pain too. I’d give anything for a good fight. But he’d never do that. At some point, around the third miscarriage, he stopped saying what he was thinking.

Session three, I resolve to tell the truth. I won’t let Jake or this holier-than-thou therapist bully me into saying what they want to hear. I’ll be real and raw and fearless, no matter how much it hurts me, or how much it scares them. The only trouble is that we are doing some ridiculous show-and-tell exercise, which feels like another attempt to get us speaking from scripts. We’ve been asked to bring in photos of the baby and discuss our selections. We are to say how the photo makes us feel, why, and what we perceive as obstacles to our fulfillment as parents. The therapist warns us to avoid blaming language—“you” statements—and instead focus on our individual experiences/feelings as parents—“I” statements. I practice in my head.

I am not good at bullshit nursery school hand-holding exercises.

I find it impossible to express myself without getting steamrolled by two sets of judgemental eyes.

I want to run away and leave this entire nightmare in the past, before I do something I can never come back from.

Predictably, Jake goes first. Always prepared and eager to please, Jake has brought exactly the photo I expected he would. It’s a photo his mother took from the week we brought the baby home. In it, he’s sitting on the couch, cradling it robotically beneath the white muslin blanket it’s wrapped in. He is smiling, but I know that particular smile means he’s nervous. His mother is the type to stage photos with frilly pillows and accent pieces to “add dimension.” She’d been sliding around furniture and adjusting lighting. She’d put a vase of lilies in the background, making sure everything was perfect for the photo. The only thing she’d forgotten was me. Not that I cared.

This photo makes him proud to be a father, he says. It makes him want to be a better person for his family. Looking at it now, it occurs to me that the baby looks a bit like Jake. Just by chance, they have the same coloring. In the future, people will probably say things like “he takes after his father.” I don’t have the same Nordic features. I’m darker, with wiry hair, eyes that are a shade shy of black. I look like the one who doesn’t belong in the family.

When the therapist prompts him about obstacles and fears, he keeps his eyes on the photo, his voice shaking as he speaks. There is a worry in his heart that he will be raising this baby alone, he says.

“I feel like Marla is not giving this baby a chance,” he says.

I am stunned. Somehow Jake has found a loophole around the language rule. He found a way to attack me while using an I statement. I want to attack him back.

I never had a mother or anything that even resembled unconditional love.

I wanted to start my own family more than anything.

I can’t help my past, just like Jake can’t help that he was raised by a cow who wears pearl necklaces and talks down to busboys.

Instead I present the photo I picked. It’s a close-cropped photo from the christening ceremony, just before he was dunked. I hadn’t wanted to have a christening—we aren’t church people—but his mother insisted. He resembles a little old man in the white collared onesie I got him, and for once he appears content in the priest’s expert hands. It went as these things always do. The priest takes the baby, holds it underwater, everyone watches with bated breath, waiting for him to lift it out. Then the baby emerges, sputtering and crying, but alive and saved. The guests applaud, relieved.

What are you feeling, the therapist wants to know.

During that sliver of silence, when the baby was underwater, I could finally breathe. I felt the air fill my lungs completely, and my heart expand. Relief stretched over me like a warm blanket. I never wanted it to end. Looking at the photo, I can almost inhabit that moment again. I run my fingers over the baby’s glossy image, his face and hands, the lip of the water basin just barely visible at the bottom of the photo. I’ve been chasing that moment for weeks and months, but I can’t get there.

“I think Jake is right. I cannot do this,” I say.

They tell me I am strong. That I am so much more capable than I think.

There is nothing you cannot do, the therapist says.

You have everything you could ever want, Jake says.

Those are not I statements, I want to point out, but the therapist is relentless with the script. Why. The next question is why do you feel that way.

Most nights when he cries, I squeeze him so tight that he can’t make any noise. I feel his arms struggling to free himself, fighting against me like a weak little puppy. The more he struggles, the harder I squeeze. Sometimes I feel bad after. Other times I’m just more angry. But I always let go, eventually.

“I don’t trust myself,” I say.

There’s something in me that’s growing stronger, more powerful everyday. It’s suffocating that other part of me, the tender, loving part. The part that would let go and stop myself before it’s too late. Every day the hopeful girl from room 306 gets smaller and smaller. And the angry, orphaned, resentful, infertile version of me expands to take her place. Soon there won’t be any way to contain her. Soon the old me will be gone.

“I’m scared that something will happen, something of my control. I will hurt it.”

I’ve said it, I think. It’s all on the table now and there’s no taking it back.

The therapist takes a long breath, removes her glasses and uses the corner of her cardigan to wipe a smudge. When she puts them back on, her face is rearranged, from confusion to understanding. I sense a shift in the room and automatically I feel better, an ounce lighter. Jake has turned his head to look at me, but I’m pretending I don’t notice.

The therapist rarely takes notes, but now she’s scribbling on a pad, nodding with more certainty as she goes.

“I’m writing you a prescription,” she says.

She slides it across her desk but I don’t touch it. The letters are long and neat, but my eyes won’t focus. I’ve been on plenty of meds in my life. Clomiphene citrate. Xanax. Bromocriptine. Paxil. I am certain there is no prescription for fear that I will strangle and kill my baby.

Lack of control is a common struggle, she says, and it’s typical among new parents.

I want to interrupt her. She’s misunderstood, again.

But now Jake has chimed in to agree. He is nodding and squeezing my hand in that really genuine way and I can feel his relief that we have finally found the source of my neurosis and a pill that can fix it.

The photo explains a lot, she goes on. You’re afraid that you’ll fail as a parent and leave your child in a vulnerable position. That some kind of harm will befall him because you aren’t doing enough. “That’s why I recommend these exercises,” she says, clearly proud of herself for her unfounded diagnosis.

I am so pissed off that one hot angry tear slides down my cheek, followed by another, then another. Jake tenderly wipes them away. The therapist beams and praises my vulnerability. She says that the raw emotion I’m sharing is where healing becomes possible. I think she might actually start clapping. Jake gathers me in for a hug. I love you, he whispers. It’s going to be okay. He hasn’t said that in months. When we separate, his smile is toothy and pleading. It begs me not to correct him.

I give a brave nod and swallow my feelings, tucking the photo into my back pocket. I can’t bring myself to pick up that Rx paper from the desk, but Jake’s eager hand extends to take it before I have a second to waver. We stand and say goodbye, Jake holding onto me tighter than he did on the way in.

Thank you, I tell her, smiling through tears.

Inside I am screaming, as the last trace of that hopeful mother-to-be fades away.

pencil

Laura Mazzenga is an MFA student at San Diego State University and the associate editor at Fiction International. She writes short fiction and non-fiction, and is currently finishing her first novel. Email: lrmazzenga[at]yahoo.com

Three Poems

Beaver’s Pick
Jenny Hockey


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

Waking Up in Someone Else’s House

7.15, not too bad
and bright North Sea light
edging through the shutters.

The floor will be cold, I know—
not the floor but a granite hearth
under my side of the bed.

Nose into socks and tread right round
to the door. All the lights still on. Heating
not yet. But sun tumbles down the stairs

and a city discovers the shape of today.

Into the kitchen, a crunch of crumbs
and ease the curtains back, set Remy
scrabbling in his cage.

An odour of something
under the floorboards, here and there—
a kindred rodent at peace

Find a clean cup.

 

Unreliable Witness

I know that I cried—
I was your child,
but whether the nurse
took hold of my hand
or I took hold of hers
I forget.

I know she called me at 3 am

when the four-lane road
to the Humber Bridge
was mine.

Did she say you were poorly?
I know she lied, your pillowed face
already wax,

your forehead
skimmed by my lips
in the end.

 

Cambridge, June 1969

Elder thickened daily in the yard,
putting pressure on the windows.
It needed hacking back.

I was elbow deep, awash
in tiny bibs and socks,
cold feet on the quarry tiles.

Elder thickened nightly in the yard
muffling the strains of May Ball bands
a thousand miles away.

I was swagging nappies
on my shoulder, losing pegs
among the weeds.

pencilJenny Hockey‘s poems range from the sad to the surreal to the celebratory. A retired anthropologist, she takes an oblique view of the ups and downs of everyday lives. In 2013 she received a New Poets Award from New Writing North, Newcastle, UK and, after magazine and anthology publications from 1985 onwards, Oversteps Books published her debut collection, Going to Bed with the Moon, in 2019. Twitter: @JHockey20 Email: j.hockey[at]sheffield.ac.uk

Island

Beaver’s Pick
Jerri Jerreat


Photo Credit: robmadeo/Flickr (CC-by)

When you live on an island, you need to practice Buddha-like views on life.

The ferry will be on time, but you will arrive seconds too late. The ferry will be an hour late, and you will be racing to the market with fresh eggs and your sauces tucked all around you.

Om.

The garden will thrive and you will bake gorgeous quiches and exquisite salads to sell at the university. Or there will be heat wave after heat wave and the well will dry up. Or rabbits will eat all the leaves of organic beets and heritage carrots. A thunderstorm will beat your tomatoes into bursting; rows of squash leaves might turn white with mold.

Om.

Your partner will be a great support to you, both reading aloud from farming books at Toronto cafés for a year beforehand, excited for this challenge you truly believe in. He will learn about sheep, and care for thirty—plus twenty chickens—and you will laugh together over silly sheep stories. You will take classes in spinning, weaving and dyeing wool, then hang it up like art around your open kitchen/living area in the fixer-upper cabin that you purchased from the last farmer who failed.

Or your partner will begin to curse the sheep and kick them, tell you the chickens are your job now, and complain the wifi is never working and how the hell did you talk him into living god-knows-where with no f—ing Internet?

Om.

When you live on an island you must learn to breathe. Slowly, deeply. Five slow breaths in, five to exhale, pause. Repeat.

You will learn to drive a standard on a twenty-year-old truck, and to rebuild a chicken pen after foxes made away with all the chickens except the only one who won’t lay. You will learn to hand dig a post hole, put in a post, shovel cement around it, and breathe. You will stretch chicken wire around your large garden, then around your chicken pen. (Also along the broken fence where the sheep keep disappearing and which your partner will not repair.) He will no longer cook joyfully with you, experimenting; will come to think in terms of gendered work, which was not The Deal. You will work at learning to enjoy running a farm alone as part of your own personal journey to completeness.

Om.

 

When you live on an island you will read library books on truck engines in the second year and tinker with the ornery steering problem, though it’s likely a power fluid leak. If your partner has difficulty turning when he makes his fast Friday night trip to the city, claiming he has business in the city and will just crash on his old friend’s couch, again—and the truck can’t make that ninety-degree turn to the ferry at high speed, well he—

—should have practiced his Buddha-like views of life.

Om.

pencil

Jerri Jerreat‘s fiction has appeared in Feminine Collective, The New Quarterly, The Yale Review Online, The Penmen Review, and The Dalhousie Review among others, and was featured in anthologies published by World Weaver Press and Edge Publishers. Her play was a finalist at the Newmarket National Play Festival in 2019. Email: jjerreat[at]gmail.com

It Will Happen to You

Beaver’s Pick
Jeff Bakkenson


Photo Credit: Jennifer Boyer/Flickr (CC-by)

“It will happen to you,” Meghan’s dad Tom, Josh’s father-in-law, once told him. Tom was standing suit and tie in front of the open freezer. He’d forgotten to get ice for the party, and now there was no time to go back out before church. So it must have been Christmas. Meghan and her sister Colleen’s footsteps ran in both directions along the hallway between their bedrooms and the upstairs bathroom. Mary, Josh’s mother-in-law, or future mother-in-law at that point, stood at the top of the stairs.

“You didn’t make a list?”

“If I could remember a list, I wouldn’t need a list.” He raised his voice as Mary turned towards their bedroom. “We can stop by Walgreens after church!”

She raised her voice back. “We’ll be late to our own party!”

Tom looked around for allies and found Josh trying to blend into the couch. “You think I’m kidding, but it will happen to you.”

A spray of magazines lay across the coffee table. Tom was constantly rearranging them, tugging their corners into alignment on an undescribed grid. Sometimes in the middle of a conversation, a headline would catch his eye, Sports Illustrated, Golfweek, and he’d lick his finger and gently, still nodding along as you spoke, open to the first page. Not to the article, not the table of contents, just two full-page ads facing each other, and he often wouldn’t get up again until he’d read the magazine straight through or fallen asleep trying.

Probably he’d been sick even then, before Meghan and Josh were married. After a second exam, he called the family together to tell them the secret he hadn’t known he’d been keeping. Or maybe he’d known on some level, thought Josh. The body knows, right?

A procedure was scheduled, and life continued with deliberate normalcy, which was why the morning of the procedure found Meghan and Josh following a guide named Mehmed on a tour of downtown Sarajevo. Why Sarajevo? everyone asked. Because it was cheap.

“Until you hear sniper’s bullet,” said Mehmed. “You do not think this is happening here.”

Despite their best efforts, they kept finding themselves checking their phones to make sure they’d have enough time to call home when the tour was done.

Mehmed’s memories took the form of snapshots vivant as he asked them to imagine families lined against a wall waiting for water. Lives remembered for their premature ending. “Here is Markale Market, site of massacre 5 February 1994, and also 28 August 1995.” “This Bosnia Dragon Street, where sniper shoot.” And once, a literal Polaroid, pulled from the crossbody pouch he wore at his belly button, of two young men sitting against a sofa pushed onto its side. “This is my cousin Harun. Lived by Markale Market.”

Miracle of miracles, Harun himself came hustling out of a cafe a few minutes later. He kissed his cousin and walked alongside him for the remainder of the tour, nodding whenever anyone spoke.

He nodded vigorously when Mehmed explained the city’s ethnic divisions.

“Bosnian Serb is in hills, shooting. Bosniak is me, shot.”

As they walked around the presidential palace, Mehmed pointed out damage left by mortar fire, as well as skyscrapers rising down the street. Meghan stood in front of Josh and leaned against him.

“This finished our tour,” he said. “But I leave you with one idea. My name Mehmed Banjac.” He pointed to his cousin. “His name Harun Banjac. Mehmed and Harun are Bosnian’s first name. Banjac is Serbo-Croatian’s last name. So Bosnia Herzegovina is both Bosnian and Serbo-Croatian.”

Both men smiled. Josh went into his wallet and tipped Mehmed in convertible marks, and as Harun nodded one last time, Josh tipped him too.

A cafe across the street offered WiFi and seemed as good a place as any to FaceTime from. They ordered thimble cups of coffee and sat side by side on wicker chairs, Meghan holding her phone out in front of them. But Tom didn’t pick up. Meghan called again, no answer. She tried her mom, then Colleen, Josh with his own phone ready in case he found a way to help. He watched her cycle again through her mom, dad, and back to Colleen. They confirmed the time difference and she tried again. Nothing. By the time Colleen called back, the procedure had already begun. Whoops, sorry. Enjoy the day, and we’ll let you know how it goes.

They sat blankly for a while. When the time allotted to the call expired, they gathered their things and walked to the car they’d rented to drive down to the coast.

They’d already had the conversation about not feeling guilty for keeping their trip. They’d had the conversation about the difficulty in not feeling guilty despite that being the correct response, and they knew to push the guilt down until they could barely feel it. They were at the point where they could look at each other and say, “I know,” and have that be a whole conversation about their guilt.

At first Meghan looked like she was having trouble swallowing. Once they’d left the curving roads of the city center, she hunched over her phone firing off volleys of texts. The procedure, Tom had told them back in that other world before the procedure began, could take a short time or a long time, depending on what the surgeons found and where they found it. Then, depending, further treatment would be advised.

“It probably didn’t even occur to them because it’s such a routine procedure,” said Josh.

“But didn’t he want to talk to me?”

“Maybe they thought it would make you worry more.”

“I’m not worried. I’m mad.”

Pocket cemeteries dotted the slopes as the city slowly faded into forest. Meghan put down her phone and rubbed her eyes. The highway switchbacked up and up and finally down the other side of a woody mountain, glances of the next valley stealing through the trees, and another mountain beyond it. On the valley floor, they passed a village set around a gleaming slab stitched with consonant-choked names.

“Didn’t Mehmed say the -ic means they’re Serbian?” asked Josh.

“Maybe we’re in Serbia.”

“Check the book please?”

The book, a Rick Steves travel guide, had an inset after the section about Sarajevo. Meghan read aloud, “As you leave Sarajevo, you will see memorials for the Serb fighters who laid siege to the city. While this seems confusing to us now, remember that the conflict… good people on both sides, etc.”

They stopped for lunch in Mostar and ordered a mixed grill plate at a restaurant overlooking the famous humpbacked bridge. A metal cross stood on a hill above, a memorial, said the book, to the fighters who’d used the vantage to fire down into the city. The bridge was a reconstruction.

“I’m kind of done with the war stuff,” said Meghan.

“Me too.”

Their waitress brought out two mounded plates, then two plates more, and two more after that.

There’d been a misunderstanding. Josh waved his hands over the table.

“No more, please.”

“Yes,” she said. “Is more!” She laughed from the back of her throat and brought out a final plate.

They ate what they could of the sausage, another sausage, chicken, thin beaten steak, french fries, raw onions, tomatoes, lettuce, and rice. Meghan’s phone buzzed with a waving emoji.

“She has to text every thirty minutes whether or not there’s news,” she said. “At least this way we’re still in the loop.”

Josh scrolled through his own messages. The last time he and Colleen had texted was on her birthday. The time before that was on his.

“Does she know you’re upset?”

When the bill came, the price was double the price in the menu. The waitress stood over them, waiting.

“Where does it say per person?” asked Josh, but she seemed not to understand.

He relieved himself of a wad of bills while Meghan let Colleen know she might be out of phone range.

Someplace between Mostar and the coast, the woods became scrubby hills. The sky cleared. Meghan played bongos on the dashboard. She folded her arms and picked at her teeth.

“Why is everything here cash only?” she asked.

“It’s real money.”

“So’s a credit card.”

A while after that, Josh heard her humming.

“What are you thinking about?”

“Not thinking, just humming.” But then, “It’s taking a long time, isn’t it?”

The road passed from Bosnia to Croatia, back into Bosnia for a few miles, and then back into Croatia. At each crossing, they stopped and had their passports stamped. At the final crossing, Josh gave a man in a kiosk the rest of their marks, and he gave them a smaller stack of kuna in return.

Meghan read some more from Rick Steves. “Apartment Maria lies steps from the Old Harbor and a secret swimming hole. Nikola is a conscientious host who enjoys helping his guests. Mention this book for a 10% discount.”

Another time she asked, “Are we sure we weren’t wrong not to be there?”

The hills in Croatia were lower, chalkier. There were no more villages with roadside memorials. They rose, descended, rose, and suddenly the ocean appeared, glittering away towards the walled city of Dubrovnik. They pulled to the side and got out to take pictures.

“Fuck!” said Meghan. She sprinted back to the car, found the baggie with the Croatian sim card, and switched it for the Bosnian one. Her phone buzzed with an overdue heart emoji.

At five, 17:00 on the clocks in Dubrovnik, they returned their rental car and caught the last ferry of the day for Riba, an island appearing as the first of a series of smudges stretching out into endless water. They sat on the top deck, bags at their feet. In front of them, a castle passed from left to right along the shoreline.

“What are we watching?” asked Josh.

“Dunno. Check the book.”

The women sitting next to them spoke Croatian. At least Josh assumed it was Croatian. He was a tourist; it was okay not to be sure. There was something comforting, finally, about listening to a voice you didn’t have to understand.

Because enough with this stuff at weddings about, I don’t feel like I’m losing a sister so much as gaining a brother. It was like that thought experiment where you replace all the parts of a boat one by one. At what point does the old boat become a new boat? And at what point do you, let’s say you’re a screw drilled in midway through the restoration, begin to understand why the sails and the rudder pull in opposite directions, what foundational assumptions and unsettled arguments they use to navigate each other? Because whatever else happened, today would be a permanent fixture in that relationship.

Riba was shaped like a goldfish cracker with a walled town at the head and a beach at the tail. Meghan’s phone buzzed just the dock came into view, and she threw her arms around Josh. The surgery was done.

They breathed deeply in and out together.

Josh asked, “You’re doing okay?”

“Better.”

As the crowd gathered on the dock inched closer, they basked in the glow of having been through a close call and coming out the other side still themselves.

“Did they say how it went?”

“He’s still asleep. The doctor will talk to everyone when he wakes up.”

“Then wake him up already!”

Nikola was waiting in the shade of the old city gate. They walked a short distance to Apartment Maria, which was really just a room on the third floor of his house.

Nikola led them upstairs and then back down to the kitchen on the second floor, where a bottle of wine and a scatter of brochures waited on the table. He poured into three glasses.

“The bottle say, Desire is stronger than love, but here there is both.

Meghan went back upstairs to FaceTime Colleen while Nikola shuffled through his brochures. If they wanted to rent a boat, if they needed a guide, his friends had the best prices.

“Now you pay please,” he said. He set a calculator on the table between them, making a show of punching in the room rate times three.

“We have the Rick Steves book,” said Josh. “The ten percent discount.”

Nikola was confused.

“Rick Steves?” asked Josh. “Just a second.”

He mussed around in his backpack and came up with the book and the line about the discount. Nikola shook his head.

“I never have discount.”

“It says so right here.”

Nikola flipped to the author’s photo at the back. Josh thumbed back to the page with Nikola’s name on it.

“This is you, right?”

“You bring this book.”

And a shrug for good measure, as if to say, We have our own set of rules. Like the war had permanently severed them from the outside world. Josh counted out kuna and dropped the money on the table.

“This is my house,” said Nikola.

“Take it or leave it. Do you know this phrase?”

He gave what he felt was a convincing look, and when Nikola reached for the money, turned and ran upstairs.

Meghan was sitting on the bed, phone in her lap, looking out the window. Josh felt a bounciness as he stepped into the room, like his feet were still climbing.

“He’s awake?”

Meghan shook her head. “Nobody’s picking up.”

“Maybe he’s just not awake yet.”

“It’s the same thing all over again.”

It’ll happen to you, Tom had said. Meaning what, exactly? It was like even when they won, they lost. Josh sat on the bed and put his arm around Meghan. The window was a vision of what they were missing, a cobblestone street lined with whitewashed and red-roofed houses, shining for a few more minutes in the summer sun. Below them, a car stopped to let out a man in a leather jacket.

“Do you think they found something bad?” asked Meghan.

According to the guidebook, a path behind the apartment led to a door in the city wall and a stone staircase leading into the water. If they left now, there was daylight left to find the door, leave their clothes by the wall, and sidle down the stairs until the water buoyed them away.

“Josh?” said Meghan.

The water would be warm, and still, and clear. They’d pinch their noses, close their eyes, and slip below the surface.

There was a knock at the door, and Meghan turned to face it.

Josh stood.

“Hello?”

In the darkness, surrounded by water, each would be a universe gently sinking. As pressure pounded their ears, their chests quivered, and finally they’d rise, gasping at each other on the surface. A sense of clarity, that trusty fight or flight, and together they’d swim back to shore.

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Jeff Bakkensen lives in Boston. Recent work has appeared in A-Minor Magazine, Oblong Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, and The Antigonish Review. Email: jeffrey.bakkensen[at]gmail.com

Light-Up Shoes

Beaver’s Pick
CJ Maughan


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

Krista finally found them. Kneeling on the orange department store carpet, she pulled the black shoe box from the shelf and brushed the dust off the top. The lid flapped open and revealed the size eight shoes that she was searching for.

There were ruby gems embedded in the heels and there were pink stripes lapping at the tongue. Stars, rainbows, and sunlight danced along the sides. These images were the solemn promise of Velcroed possibilities. Yes, you can jump higher, run faster, longer, better than all the things. These shoes are made of magic. These shoes will make you magic.

Krista unzipped her windbreaker, tossing it aside, and slipped her feet into the shoes. The lights in the heels flickered as she stood. She wiggled her toes. There was room to grow and room to run. It would require a test, of course, and there was only one way to know their true power.

The fresh rubber squeaked, leaving a black mark where she ground her toe into the white tile of the store aisle for good luck. Heels to the block, knees to the ground, elastic in her veins—she took off.

Pumping her arms as the shoe lights flashed along the whites of the floor. Reflecting through eternity in the long store wall mirror. She saw a glimpse of herself, a blur of lights and a white shirt. Her hair billowing behind her. Her legs strong and quick.

She ran down the walkways and the aisles. She skirted around registers. She darted around strollers and jumped through clothing displays. She spun through jewelry racks and sashayed across the escalator track.

She didn’t see the ruby-lipped, ice-haired girls stepping off the elevator. The shoes were fast; they only knew two speeds: fast and faster. They did not know how to stop once started, but still, she tried.

Krista locked her knees; the ice queens watched, wide-eyed and jagged, but it was too late. Together they entered the realm of confusion, slamming into each other with a force greater than each of their lives. Blackness reigned. Terror threatened. Voices cried out. The ceiling was the floor. The floor was the ceiling.

Krista bravely jumped first to her feet. Her lungs sore, her knees scraped, but her pride intact. “Sorry,” she said, wanting to run away, but schoolyard lessons kept her locked in place.

The less-blonde girl helped the other blonde girl up from the floor. “Jesus Christ, watch where you’re going, kid.” They bent and gathered the impossibly tiny hangers that held the impossibly tiny clothes.

“Are those for your dolls?” Krista asked.

The girls held up the hangers and looked at each other. “They’re bras, kid. Haven’t you ever seen one before?”

“God, the dumb kid has never seen a bra before. How old is she you think?

“Eleven?”

“Barely.”

Krista didn’t understand.

The girls looked down at Krista, closely inspecting her white shirt. “Hey kid,” the more-blonde girl said. “You’re giving the boys a free show, you know.”

Krista shifted her feet nervously and the lights danced across the floor once more. And then there was the worst sound of all: laughter.

“Oh my god, I just saw. She’s wearing light-up shoes!”

“They still have the price tag on them!”

“Are you shopping with Mommy today? Maybe if you’re good, she’ll buy you a pretzel.”

“I think I was five the last time I wore those.”

“I know, right? What a baby.”

Krista looked down, surprised by her own feet. The lights flickered as she moved.

“See ya later, little kid,” the girls said. As they swung their hips away, Krista watched the big, bold words they left behind in their wake. She reached and touched each of these words. They were words that she never before thought about. Boys. Too old. Free show. Bra.

But there were also other words. Krista looked around, surprised to realize that she didn’t see them the first time. Embarrassed. Naked. Under-dressed. Unable and undeserving.

Ugly.

Krista crossed her arms across her chest. She didn’t understand why, but she wanted her jacket. She wanted her mother and she wanted to go home. The lights on the shoes were now a dim glow of their shadowy past.

She passed the tall mirror again and watched herself walk past. Slowly now, a distinct shape took form. Yellow hair that frizzed into a triangle. A stomach that rounded the edges of her jeans and something, two somethings, up top that she hadn’t noticed before.

“There you are,” Mother said. “I turn for one minute and you run off. I’ve been looking everywhere.”

Krista stared at the shoe box on the ground, its lid turned open like the soft pages of a book.

“Take those off,” Mother said, pulling out her cellphone as it rang. “Hello? Yes, I’m still here. Just shopping with Krista. She’s being impossible.” Mother pointed at Krista’s feet. “I’m serious. Take those off. You’re way too old for those. Yes, yes we’ll be home soon. I just need to get her a bra and then we’ll be done. No, her teacher said something. She said the boys in the class…”

Krista didn’t hear the rest. She didn’t need to know. She pulled the shoes off one by one and slowly closed the box on her childhood. The lights from the shoes flickered as she stuffed the box on the shelf. She didn’t bother looking back to watch them stop.

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CJ Maughan is a former chemist who realized she was much better at writing fiction than lab reports. She is oddly fascinated with melancholy and tends to prefer stories that are depressingly beautiful. Her debut novel, Eighteen, won the 2018 League of Utah Writers Golden Quill award for adult fiction. Twitter: @CJ_Maughan Email: hello[at]CJMaughan.com

Love Means Nothing

Beaver’s Pick
DS Levy


Photo Credit: Dustin Gray/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The Tennis Champ of the Whole Wide World drills forehands at the backboard with the accuracy of a cold-hearted laser beam. The green wall with its imaginary net issues a dull echo: Thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump. The Tennis Champ of the Whole Wide World could drill like this all day. She’s a machine that never misses. Before the yellow ball ricochets off the backboard she’s already got her Ultra-Lightweight Composite Professional Tennis Racquet Endorsed by The Tennis Champ of the Whole Wide World’s extra-wide head poised to pounce. Overhead, the sun crosses. Her shadow dances west to east, the pleats on her white tennis skirt flounce up and down. Geese fly high overhead in pattern. The moon rises. Lightning bugs dodge her blistering forehands. Orion cinches his belt a little tighter. The Big Dipper looks like a ball-hopper she doesn’t need. Her boyfriend walks down the asphalt path. She hears his sneakers before catching a glimpse of his shaggy brown hair. He laces his fingers between the chain-link fence, pokes his nose through and whispers: “Are you ever, ever coming in?” The Tennis Champ of the Whole Wide World says yes, no, maybe. When you’re a winner, you have to stay on top of your game. Everyone wants to knock you off the trophy perch. “In tennis,” she reminds him, “‘love’ means nothing.” And when he trudges off into the dark, she blasts the nap of the fluorescent ball and the hollow ping it makes echoes in the darkness. The Tennis Champ of the Whole Wide World isn’t willing to lose—not even her own cold, uncompromising heart: Thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump.

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DS Levy’s work has been published in New Flash Fiction Review, Little Fiction, MoonPark Review, Cotton Xenomorph, The Alaska Quarterly Review, Columbia, Brevity, and others. Her collection of flash fiction, A Binary Heart, was published in 2017 by Finishing Line Press. Email: deblevy[at]frontier.com

Five Poems

Poetry
Bibhu Padhi


Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks/Flickr (CC-by)

Sickness: Morning

A dry mouth troubles this
body, the mind is stuck
to the taste of sand.

The salt-taste is long gone
into some other mouth,
its residence far from mine.

Drops of Hanneman and Nash
are believed to be an assurance
against further loss, any savage rite.

But the body, now getting slowly
introduced to a tired unevenness,
looks for consolation elsewhere.

Limbs go cold, like winter,
curled around themselves
to restore warmth and peace.

I go slow with things, like a leaf, pray
for a return to the basics, even as
the mind is a prisoner of disbelief.

 

Mother

I recall the day I saw you for
the first time. The white cloth on you
shone like the stars, like sunlight on

northern snow. You lisped my words
in numerous ways, so I might repeat the same,
my joy filling rooms and corridors

in magnificent forms. I wonder
if you taught all your children
the signature of your pain.

Would you mind if I misspelt a word
that was attached to your name.
Something tells me you will not;

you always misspell my name.
Mother: Today, you seem to be far
From me, in another sphere,

Under another name. Do you see me
From where you are? Do you feel worried
because I am nowhere near you—

thrown away by a wind that shakes
hills and plains, the sea’s divinity? Are you
still in the sea, the hills and the plains?

 

Once More, Faith

However you try, the surrender
is hard to come. All aspirations
have touched only the periphery
of the place where she is believed

to stay, have stayed back with you
or dissolved in the long night sky.
The stars might have seen these
just as the heart somewhere here.

How does acceptance come,
in which miraculous way, which
modes of faith and submission,
which postures of prayer?

You have merely heard about
the subdued matters, the last
line of giving oneself away,
the first words of superior grace.

Waiting is not the only answer.
It should have been over by now,
given you enough to live with
and distribute, to live for.

 

Nothing Shows Clear

Summer is large over the small
town. March is hardly here.

Margosa buds have shown themselves
earlier than it has been in years.

I touch my dumb eyes behind which
another pair rests, ready to take over.

How far is meditation from a mere
closure of the eyes, a stiff brown gaze,

the inspiration of the first view
of transparencies, heaven’s gate?

The answer seems nowhere near, like
the last winter, the first rains of the year.

 

Thinking the Now

What comes is only other than
what you thought you would receive.
The struggle for the whole continues
beyond the boundaries of reason.

Some say that is how things come,
even delay in arriving where
they are awaited by eager hands
and minds, all that is darkened

by the world’s grim ways, useless
intent for passions and possessions,
blocked by the mind’s old habit of
looking back and discovering the lost.

You have to be cautious in choosing
things, shed your past and memories, all
that you held so proudly as your own—
your body’s performances, mind’s dreams.

You must know that you might lose
what is with you now, under a sheet—
the half-line that would not come
to completion, the likelihood of its loss.

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Bibhu Padhi has published eleven books of poetry. His poems have appeared in distinguished magazines throughout the English-speaking world, such as Encounter, The Contemporary Review, The Poetry Review, Stand, The Rialto, The American Scholar, Colorado Review, Confrontation, Mid-American Review, Poet Lore, Poetry (Chicago), The Southwest Review, TriQuarterly, The Antigonish Review, The Toronto Review, Queen’s Quarterly, The Bombay Review, The Illustrated Weekly of India, and Indian Literature. They have been included in numerous anthologies and textbooks. Three of the most recent are Language for a New Century (Norton), 60 Indian Poets (Penguin), and The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (HarperCollins). Email: padhi.bibhu[at]gmail.com

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