The Works

Art / Denise Vitollo

:: Three Works ::




From the artist


:: Account ::

My pas­tel art­works explore col­or, and how it is influ­enced by light and shad­ow. My trav­els to loca­tions such as Bonaire, Bermu­da, and Cal­i­for­nia dur­ing the past few years have great­ly inspired my work and have assist­ed me in real­iz­ing my goal of con­vey­ing the intense pul­sa­tions and ener­gy I feel in the world around me. An avid boater, pad­dle board­er, and snorkel­er, I am obsessed with water and what goes on under­neath it, through it, and on top of it. Many of my works are about the peace­ful, med­i­ta­tive, and grace­ful move­ments of crea­tures that are found in fresh and salt water. Hav­ing spent my child­hood sum­mers on the Susque­han­na Riv­er, I have fond mem­o­ries of boats and all water-relat­ed activities.


Denise Vitol­lo holds a BFA in print­mak­ing and an MEd in art edu­ca­tion from the Penn­syl­va­nia State Uni­ver­si­ty, as well as an MFA in illus­tra­tion from Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty. When she is not paint­ing water, Denise loves to work in plein air. For the past nine years, she has par­tic­i­pat­ed in Plein Air Brandy­wine, and has been a plein air artist with Lan­dArt and Paint Snow Hill. She enjoys exper­i­ment­ing with mixed media in her stu­dio and on loca­tion. Often, she com­bines water­col­or and pas­tels, and print­mak­ing with pastels. 

Denise is a juried Asso­ciate Mem­ber of the Pas­tel Soci­ety of Amer­i­ca. She holds Sig­na­ture Sta­tus with the Philadel­phia Water­col­or Soci­ety, Degas Pas­tel Soci­ety of NOLA, Pas­tel Painters Soci­ety of Cape Cod, and the Mary­land Pas­tel Soci­ety. Over the past few years, she has been accept­ed to nation­al and inter­na­tion­al juried shows at the PWCS, Pas­tel Soci­ety of Amer­i­ca in NYC, Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Pas­tel Soci­eties, Degas Pas­tel Soci­ety, the Con­necti­cut Pas­tel Society’s Renais­sance in Pas­tel, Mary­land Pas­tel Soci­ety, and the Pas­tel Painters Soci­ety of Cape Cod. Recent­ly, she has received awards from the Philadel­phia Pas­tel Soci­ety, Philadel­phia Water­col­or Soci­ety, Con­necti­cut Pas­tel Soci­ety, Farm to Table Plein Air, and the Pas­tel Painters Soci­ety of Cape Cod exhi­bi­tions. Denise is the Vvice Pres­i­dent of the Philadel­phia Pas­tel Soci­ety, and is Work­shop Direc­tor for the Philadel­phia Water­col­or Society. 

She has taught at the col­lege and grad­u­ate school lev­els, and in pri­vate schools.  Her work can be seen on her web­site,  

Before & After

Nonfiction / Brianna Pike

:: Before & After ::

Before & After PDF





From the writer

:: Account ::

Up until two years ago, I was writ­ing pri­mar­i­ly poet­ry as it’s been my genre of choice since I fin­ished my MFA in 2009. How­ev­er, in the fall of 2018 I wrote a lyric essay about the birth of my son and my strug­gle as a new moth­er, and I dis­cov­ered this form opened me up to a whole new way of writ­ing. I am very inter­est­ed in the idea of grief, and much of my writ­ing, poet­ry and non­fic­tion, exam­ines grief in all its dif­fer­ent forms. Grief was the dri­ving force behind this essay and has been the focus of sev­er­al oth­er lyric essays I’ve writ­ten in the past year. The form of the essay comes from show­ing the con­trast between the “before” and “after” of grief and how it trans­forms spaces that one used to love and find com­fort in places that are, some­times, unrec­og­niz­able. I also see it as a kind of tour for the audi­ence through a place that was so impor­tant to me and to show how grief per­me­ates so many dif­fer­ent facets of our lives. The two columns also call back to stan­zas and allow a blend, struc­tural­ly, between poet­ry and cre­ative nonfiction. 


Bri­an­na Pike is a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Ivy Tech Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege. Her poems and essays have appeared in Paren­the­ses, Fish Bar­rel Review, Writer’s Resist Jux­taprose, Thim­ble, & After Hap­py Hour Review. She cur­rent­ly serves as an edi­to­r­i­al assis­tant for the Indi­anapo­lis Review​ and lives in Indy with her hus­band & son. She blogs at Find her on Insta­gram @Bri33081.

Two Poems

Poetry / Dear Anselm

:: Dear Anselm ::

Dear Anselm PDF




:: As in Leaving the Pyroclastic Volcano ::

As in Leav­ing PDF






From the writer

:: Account ::


Dear Anselm”

I took some emails I had writ­ten to my friend and decid­ed to turn some of them into a poem. I still feel guilty for not return­ing his MoMA mem­ber­ship card.

As in Leav­ing the Pyro­clas­tic Volcano”

The first pan­el was inspired by the stark land­scape of North­ern Ice­land. I imag­ined a broth­er and sis­ter hold­ing hands and wit­ness­ing a vio­lent tra­di­tion (a whale heli­coptered above the caldera of a vol­cano and dropped in). I guess it’s a metaphor for how adults treat the envi­ron­ment and what we pass to our chil­dren. The sec­ond pan­el is a kind of light Frue­di­an dra­ma between two gey­sers in Ice­land. This was inspired by a geyser that went dor­mant (the father) and the younger geyser (the son) who keeps blow­ing steam into the world. The third pan­el was writ­ten on the flight leav­ing Ice­land. I turned on the TV and clicked on the flight path and we were fly­ing above a place called “Hap­py Val­ley Goose Bay” and I loved the name so much, I had to put it into a poem. 


San­dra Simonds is a poet and crit­ic. Her eighth book of poems, a col­lec­tion of trip­tychs, will be pub­lished by Wave Books in 2022. Her forth­com­ing nov­el, Assia (Noe­mi Press, 2023) is based on the life of Assia Wevill.

What the Crow Knows

Fiction / Monica Kim

:: What the Crow Knows ::

We found the dead crow before my old­er sis­ter got into David Moon’s car but after the pow­er went out. 

We didn’t know why the pow­er went out, and if we did know, I don’t remem­ber now. It’s been ten years since that day. My sis­ter once claimed it was because of all the elec­tron­ics run­ning at the same time, com­pet­ing with the heat—the air­con, the Game­Cube, the desk­top com­put­er where she was mes­sag­ing David Moon on AIM—though she didn’t tell me this last fact until now. Andrew, at the time, said it was because of the apart­ment com­plex­es we all lived in, since every­one else’s pow­er went out too. And Hen­ry, of course, said he didn’t care what caused the pow­er out­age, he just want­ed to find some­thing to damn do. His voice cracked at the word damn, and he looked around the room as if his par­ents were there to gasp and pray over the words of an eleven-year-old boy. All I know is that we were play­ing Mario Kart on Andrew’s Game­Cube, with Andrew in third, Hen­ry in sixth, and me in eleventh, and just as I’d got­ten an item box with a black bul­let to rush past every­one else, the game cut and the tele­vi­sion turned black. 

We groaned. Hen­ry threw his con­troller onto the ground, even though it wasn’t his. Andrew got up and start­ed shak­ing the small square tele­vi­sion, then kicked the Game­Cube, which he could do, since it was his and he was the only one of us who owned one. I stretched my arms above my head, feel­ing the sweat already start to bead on the back of my neck. 

It was some­time in ear­ly June, a day that felt unusu­al­ly like the mid­dle of July, and we com­plained about the air­con that was now sud­den­ly shut off. Andrew scrounged around the liv­ing room and found the del­i­cate paper fans his mom brought from Korea and kept tucked away in a wood­en box under­neath the fad­ed tan couch. We slumped onto the floor, fan­ning our­selves with the pink and red and white fans lined with hangul and han­ja cal­lig­ra­phy. 

What do we do now,” Hen­ry whined, flick­ing the controller’s but­tons uselessly. 

Caleb,” Andrew said, turn­ing to me, fan­ning him­self so furi­ous­ly I thought his wrist might fall off. “Ask your noona what to do.” 

It was an unar­tic­u­lat­ed fact that Andrew was our ring­leader. It wasn’t just that Andrew’s fam­i­ly had more mon­ey than mine and Henry’s, that he was an only child, that he seemed to have friends out­side the two of us, where­as Hen­ry was pret­ty much indif­fer­ent to most peo­ple he met and I was too tongue-tied to ever start a con­ver­sa­tion with any­one. It was also that Andrew had a face most peo­ple, chil­dren and adults alike, but espe­cial­ly me, couldn’t say no to: uneven bangs that some­how endeared him to every­one despite every oth­er Kore­an Amer­i­can boy hav­ing the same hair­cut, the small dim­ple on his left cheek that widened when he smiled. 

Okay,” I said, get­ting up and walk­ing to Andrew’s par­ents’ room, where the shared desk­top com­put­er was. My old­er sis­ter, Jen­nie, was sit­ting at the desk, elbows on the wood-worn table. In front of her was the black screen of the dead com­put­er and her sketch­book with a new draw­ing I couldn’t see. 

All of our par­ents worked and fig­ured hav­ing Jen­nie babysit the three of us was much more ide­al than enrolling us in the only after-school pro­gram that catered to Kore­an Amer­i­cans in this tiny town. So, Jen­nie often sat at this com­put­er, sketch­book near­by, prob­a­bly wish­ing she was with her friends doing what­ev­er four­teen-year-old girls did. But instead, she was stuck look­ing after her younger broth­er and his two idiot friends. Some­times she bribed us with some of her babysit­ting mon­ey and left us by our­selves, mak­ing us swear that if we didn’t tell our par­ents she was going off to watch the high school soc­cer game because David Moon was play­ing, she’d let us have fif­teen bucks to order Bon­Chon Chick­en or buy Poké­mon cards or what­ev­er else nerds like us did these days. Andrew would mere­ly raise an eye­brow, ask­ing why we shouldn’t just take her mon­ey and tell our par­ents any­ways, while Hen­ry would widen his stance and cross his arms, and I’d look at my sis­ter with her hair curled and black eye­lin­er smudged around her eyes and won­der what hap­pened to the girl who used to play Game­Cube with us. 

Because you’ll get the Game­Cube tak­en away if you tell, she’d say to us, most­ly to Andrew, and then leave, tuck­ing how­ev­er many bills she had into my palm. 

Noona?” I asked, and she turned around, still hold­ing her pen­cil. “The power’s out. What do we do?” 

She looked out the win­dow; we both star­tled as a bird flew past, a black blur against the clear pane. 

I don’t know, go out­side or some­thing.” She waved a hand dis­mis­sive­ly, and made to turn back around, when I stepped forward. 

But what would we do out­side? It’s too hot to play Man­hunt or pre­tend to be Naru­to char­ac­ters or any­thing.”  

My old­er sis­ter rolled her eyes. “Well, duh. I don’t know, find a card game or board game or whatever.” 

She began to turn again, when I tugged on her pony­tail.  

Caleb‑a,” she hissed, using the Kore­an pro­nun­ci­a­tion of my name, which meant that she was real­ly, real­ly annoyed with me. 

Noona,” I said, cross­ing my arms, try­ing to copy Andrew. “If you hang out with us, I promise I’ll leave you alone for the rest of the week.” 

She closed her eyes, rest­ing her fin­ger­tips on her tem­ple. She looked like our mom in that moment, when Jen­nie and I would fight over who should set the table for din­ner. Why can’t Caleb do it for once, omma? Jen­nie would ask. Why does it always have to be the girl? 

Jen­nie opened her eyes, glanc­ing at the win­dow, and I won­dered if she was wait­ing for some­thing. Maybe anoth­er bird to fly by. 

Fine,” she final­ly said, tak­ing one last look at the dead com­put­er before stand­ing up. She ripped a page she was work­ing on from her sketch­book, then shoved it into her shorts pock­et. “But this is gonna take twen­ty min­utes, tops.” 


We brought our fans with us out­side, swap­ping hot air for hot air. 

Aren’t you afraid some­one will see us with these?” Hen­ry asked, as Jen­nie closed and locked the door behind us. “They look kin­da girly.” 

Andrew con­tin­ued to fan him­self. “Do you wan­na be super hot with­out one?” 

Hen­ry grum­bled some­thing but didn’t say any­thing more. Andrew’s word was Andrew’s word.  

Jen­nie shield­ed her eyes with a hand. “Alright, where to?” She didn’t look at any­one when she asked this, but we all knew she was talk­ing to Andrew. 

He shrugged. “We can just walk around.” 

Jen­nie sighed but led the way, walk­ing a few paces ahead of us, as if she couldn’t wait to be rid of us—which was prob­a­bly, most def­i­nite­ly true.  

There isn’t much of the walk I remem­ber, because we’d walked around the neigh­bor­hood prob­a­bly hun­dreds of times, scop­ing out the best places to hide for Man­hunt, the best patch of grass to kick a soc­cer ball back and forth, the best stretch of asphalt for races. I don’t know if the images stored in my head from this day’s walk are a col­lec­tion of images patched togeth­er into a mis­matched kalei­do­scope, or if their source is tru­ly from this odd ear­ly June day. But Jen­nie tells me these are the images she remem­bers, or at least the ones she draws, when she finds her­self obses­sive­ly replay­ing the day’s events, unable to cut her­self from the loop: the three of us, Andrew, Hen­ry, and I, kick­ing tiny dis­lodged chunks of asphalt against the backs of her bare legs—the open doors of neigh­bors’ apartment-houses—a glimpse of fur­ni­ture, the tat­tered flo­ral ottoman with a rip on the seam, per­haps from a cat, per­haps from some­thing else—up a set of neu­tral gray con­crete stairs, no rail­ing, to more looka­like apartment-houses—the same fad­ed yel­low, fad­ed tan, fad­ed blue—cutting across someone’s grass—running when we heard a dog bark—down a dif­fer­ent set of neu­tral gray con­crete stairs, return­ing a dif­fer­ent, back­ward way to Andrew’s place—coming across the dead crow splayed at the foot of the black dumpster. 

Every­one remem­bers find­ing the crow in a dif­fer­ent place. Jen­nie says it was at the foot of the black dump­ster. Hen­ry told me, ear­li­er today––before I talked to Jennie––that it was on Andrew’s doorstep. What Andrew remem­bers, I don’t know, because I haven’t talked to him in years. I don’t know if this is a blip in his mem­o­ry, if he thinks about this day as much as Jen­nie does and I now do, or if he doesn’t remem­ber it at all, if it’s like the day nev­er exist­ed for him. 

But this I know for sure: we all remem­ber who touched the crow. 

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a dead ani­mal. Road­kill was com­mon on these sub­ur­ban roads. But there was some­thing about this crow—its bent wing, its blood­less­ness, the open eye—that unnerved me. 

I don’t like this,” Hen­ry mut­tered, even as Andrew bent down. 

Hey,” Jen­nie said sharply, and Andrew’s head snapped in her direc­tion. “It might have the plague.” 

I thought that was a long time ago,” he replied. 

It was,” she agreed, arms now around her­self, as if she was cold. “But that doesn’t mean it isn’t cursed or any­thing.” She looked at me, and I knew what she was thinking. 

The crow had to be a bad omen. Kore­ans are, if not any­thing else, very super­sti­tious peo­ple, and Jen­nie and I were no excep­tion. We made sure all the doors were closed at night. We nev­er turned the fan on while we were sleep­ing, not even in the sum­mer months. When we had a bad dream, we made sure to wait at least twen­ty-four hours before telling all the details to our mom, and if we had a good dream, we made sure to tell her right away. We made sure our beds in the room we shared weren’t fac­ing the door. Even to this day, when I catch myself whistling at night, I’ll stop, afraid of see­ing the death­ly spir­it my mom said would sure­ly come, whom I always imag­ined as a kind of ghost girl ver­sion of Jen­nie, long black hair hang­ing in front of her face like a curtain. 

Well, we can’t just leave it here,” Andrew said, nudg­ing the crow with his sneaker. 

Sure we can,” Jen­nie said. “It’s real­ly easy. Here, watch this.” She start­ed walk­ing away, hands in pock­ets. “Easy!” she called back to us.  

Maybe we can put it in a shoe­box,” I sug­gest­ed, not want­i­ng to aban­don it, but also not want­i­ng to do any­thing sub­stan­tial about it, not want­i­ng to take sides between the two of them. 

Andrew point­ed in my direc­tion. Some­thing like pride welled in me. “Yes! Good one, Caleb. Your donsaeng’s smarter than you, Jennie.” 

Show some respect for your elders, Andrew.” 

He stuck his tongue out at her. 

We can use my shoe­box,” Hen­ry piped up, say­ing it in a rush, like he didn’t want to be left out. “I have it in my backpack.” 

Isn’t that for our class shoe­box project?” I asked. 

He shrugged. “I haven’t start­ed it yet, so it’s emp­ty. And I can always find anoth­er one at home.” Hen­ry only owned one pair of shoes, so I wasn’t sure how he was going to do that, but let it go. 

Okay, let’s do this.” Andrew fist-bumped the both of us. 

When Hen­ry returned with the emp­ty shoe­box, he bent down and placed it next to the crow. The four of us stared at it, its black feath­ers not quite blend­ing in with the black asphalt. 

So,” Jen­nie crossed her arms. “Before one of you idiots even thinks about touch­ing this, you can’t use just your hands. God knows what kinds of things are on it.” 

Andrew rolled his eyes. “Duh. We’re not dumb.” 

Jen­nie blew the wisps of hair out of her eyes. “Are you gonna do it, then?” 

Andrew shift­ed his weight from foot to foot, fid­get­ing with the hem of his t‑shirt. I real­ized, then, that Andrew was feel­ing some­thing I thought he didn’t have: fear. 

The next thing I knew, I took off my t‑shirt, feel­ing the sun against my bony, sticky, eleven-year-old back, wrapped my hands around the fab­ric, and picked up the crow. 

Caleb!” Jen­nie yelped, tak­ing a step back as I held it by the tips of my fin­gers. I thought it would smell––don’t dead ani­mals usu­al­ly? espe­cial­ly in the heat?––but the crow emanat­ed nothing. 

Both Andrew and Hen­ry gaped at me. I didn’t look at either of them as I placed the crow, gen­tly, into Henry’s emp­ty shoe­box. When I did look up, at Andrew—hoping to see, I don’t know, admi­ra­tion, maybe—he was look­ing else­where. In fact, Hen­ry and Jen­nie, too, were look­ing in the same direc­tion. At the same person. 

It was David Moon, senior star of the high school soc­cer team, Ivy League bound, beloved of all ajum­mas at church. His car idled as he got out, walk­ing, for some rea­son, toward us. 

What you guys got there?” David pushed his sun­glass­es to the top of his head. “And why’s your lit­tle broth­er got no shirt on, Jennie?” 

David?” Jennie’s voice squeaked. She coughed, clear­ing her throat. “Er—well—” 

He looked at her, up and down, eyes lin­ger­ing. We could all see her blush­ing. Then he turned to the three of us. “Is that a dead crow?” 

Andrew found it,” Hen­ry said imme­di­ate­ly, and Andrew glared at him. 

Cool,” David said, and Hen­ry looked like he wished he hadn’t giv­en Andrew cred­it. “Why’s it in a shoebox?” 

I lift­ed a fin­ger, as if to say it was me, but the words nev­er came out. David noticed the move­ment, and he smirked—though not at me, at Jen­nie.  

Cool. Like your sis­ter.”  

Hen­ry and Andrew both looked at me, as if to say, Jen­nie? Cool? But no one dis­agreed with David. 

Jen­nie shrugged in response. “Not that cool.” 

What are you guys gonna do with it then?” David asked. 

Hen­ry shrugged. “Should we throw it out?” 

No,” Andrew and I both said. Jen­nie opened her mouth as if to agree with Hen­ry, but closed it. 

Fine, fine, fine.” Hen­ry pushed the box into David’s hands. “Do you have any ideas?” 

He looked away, at Jen­nie, away again. “Yeah, I’ve got one, actu­al­ly. I’ll take care of it for you guys.” 

Andrew frowned, as if he couldn’t believe that David Moon, of all peo­ple, would be will­ing to take a dead crow from three eleven-year-old boys. “You sure?” 

Oh yeah,” he ruf­fled Andrew’s head, which might’ve made him mad had it been any­one else, but it was David Moon. “Your crow’s in trust­ed hands.” 

But what are you gonna do with it?” I asked. 

He clapped my shoul­der. “Don’t wor­ry, lit­tle Park. We’ll leave it up to God, right?” He fist-bumped all of us before head­ing to his car. 

At the driver’s side door, sun­glass­es back on his face, David turned back to us. “Hey, big Park, wan­na help me with this?” 

Jen­nie looked at me, at Hen­ry and Andrew, back at David. “Me?” 

Yeah, you, Jennie.” 

But I—” she cleared her throat. “I have to babysit them. You know how our par­ents are …” she trailed off as David turned his gaze on us. 

You guys are gonna be in what, sixth grade soon?” he said. “Aren’t you old enough to look after yourselves?” 

Both Andrew and Hen­ry puffed up their chests; yes, they were, indeed, actu­al­ly old enough to look after themselves—there were plen­ty of times when Jen­nie left us alone, after all. She was unwrap­ping and wrap­ping that draw­ing from ear­li­er. I couldn’t see the whole thing, but there was a cor­ner of a face, a boy’s face, I thought. 

Jen­nie didn’t have any babysit­ting mon­ey on her yet to bribe us with let­ting her go. But Andrew didn’t care that we weren’t get­ting any mon­ey from Jen­nie, at least not this time. He nod­ded at David. “Yeah, duh, we are.” 

Alright, then it’s set­tled.” He opened the door. “Jen, you coming?” 

No one ever called Jen­nie Jen. I frowned, but when she looked back at me, head tilt­ed to the side—is this okay?—I waved at her. She fist­ed the paper back into her pock­et and got into the pas­sen­ger side of David Moon’s car. 

Ear­li­er today, Hen­ry and I met at our local Paris Baguette for our once-a-year check-in. When we meet, it’s usu­al­ly to catch up on the details of our lives any stranger could find on our Face­book pro­files. It’s also to exchange any new infor­ma­tion we have on our old friend Andrew, who’d slow­ly dropped out of our lives in the way friends do, after he moved away before we all start­ed high school. Henry’s friends with him on Face­book, where­as I occa­sion­al­ly check his pro­file now and again, most­ly to see if he has a new girl­friend or not. Usu­al­ly, we leave after thir­ty min­utes of chat­ting over mediocre cof­fee and red bean filled breads. 

But this after­noon, after we asked each oth­er how we were, if I still had a boyfriend (no), if Hen­ry was still lead­ing youth groups at our old church (yes), if I would ever go back to church (no), if Hen­ry knew whether Andrew was still dat­ing a white girl and whether his par­ents dis­ap­proved (yes), I was expect­ing us to shake hands and walk our sep­a­rate ways, when Hen­ry ordered a sec­ond cup of cof­fee. It was unheard of. 

Caleb,” he said, after return­ing to our table. “Did you hear about David Moon?”  

I blinked. I hadn’t thought about David Moon since that day we found the dead crow. “No.” 

Well, you won’t believe this.” Hen­ry leaned for­ward, so I did, too. He looked around, eyes flit­ting from face to face—probably try­ing to make sure he didn’t rec­og­nize any­one, and that no one rec­og­nized him. “There’s alle­ga­tions against him. You know, sex­u­al assault allegations.” 

I blinked again, lean­ing back. “What?” 

Yeah. Sun­min Jeon, you know, the one who played piano for the church orchestra?” 

I shook my head. I hadn’t been to church since junior year of high school, and even back then, I only ever talked to Hen­ry. If Andrew had still been there, maybe I’d have talked to him too. 

Okay, well, she came back for the Class of 2010 Reunion, she was in the same grade as David, they were both in the church orches­tra. But appar­ent­ly she react­ed pret­ty bad­ly when she saw him, ’cause it’d been years—” Hen­ry was now ges­tur­ing with his hands, “—and then peo­ple noticed and asked what was wrong, and she told them. It hap­pened the first or sec­ond year in col­lege, when they were back home for the sum­mer and help­ing out with the orchestra.” 

It felt like there was some­thing stuck in my chest. “Shit,” I mur­mured. All I could think about was that image of Jen­nie get­ting into his car, play­ing on loop over and over again. 

Yeah. But that’s not even the whole thing.” Hen­ry leaned in even more. I start­ed to feel sick over the prospect of anoth­er woman—could it have been Jennie?—and it didn’t help that Hen­ry seemed to enjoy telling me about these women as if it were just anoth­er piece of the lat­est Kore­an church gossip. 

The oth­er day,” Hen­ry con­tin­ued. “After mass, I heard one of the ajum­mas talk to anoth­er ajum­ma about what a shame it was that David had hurt anoth­er girl. She was a lit­tle younger than Sun­min, maybe clos­er to your noona’s age?—” my leg start­ed shak­ing under the table at the men­tion of my old­er sis­ter “—and told some peo­ple a week or so after the reunion. Can you believe it?” 

I could. Hen­ry didn’t give me time to respond, though, before he leaned back in his chair, sigh­ing. “David Moon. It’s too bad—I always thought he was one of the good guys.” 

And what about the women? I want­ed to ask him. Do you feel bad for them too? How are they doing now? But he prob­a­bly didn’t have the answers, and even if he did, I wasn’t sure he’d tell me in a way that would stop my leg from shaking. 

Instead, I asked, “Do you remem­ber that day we found the dead crow?”  


Hours after I met with Hen­ry, I get ahold of Jennie. 

Caleb,” she answers on the fourth ring. “What’s up? I thought we weren’t gonna talk until lat­er?” Jen­nie lives in Cal­i­for­nia, work­ing on graph­ic design for some media com­pa­ny, while I’m still in New Jer­sey fin­ish­ing up col­lege, and we call each oth­er exact­ly on the fif­teenth of each month. 

Hi, noona,” I reply, wish­ing we still used old ana­log phones so I could fid­get with the cord. Instead, I keep tap­ping my fin­gers on my knee. “There’s some­thing I need to ask you about.” 

What is it?” There’s some sort of back­ground noise on her end—is she stuck in L.A. traf­fic? Eat­ing at the food court in Koreatown? 

I take a breath, curl­ing my fin­gers into a fist. “I talked to Hen­ry the oth­er day. He—he told me some­thing about David Moon.” 

Silence on the oth­er end. 

He, uh … at church … there are two women …” I stam­mer. Clear my throat. I start over. “I keep think­ing about that day we found the dead crow. Do you remember?” 

I remem­ber,” Jennie’s voice, though I can bare­ly hear it. 

Did … did some­thing—” I cough. “Did something—” 

I can’t fin­ish my ques­tion, but Jennie’s silence gives me the answer.  

While Jen­nie was sit­ting shot­gun in David Moon’s car, going who knows where, Andrew, Hen­ry, and I returned to Andrew’s. The pow­er was still out, so we found our­selves lying on the hard­wood floors again, splayed out as far as we could, hop­ing they could cool us down. 

What do we do now?” Hen­ry asked. 

My eyes were on the ceil­ing, but I could almost feel Andrew’s shrug from across the room. “Wait until the pow­er comes back.” 

But that could be hours.” 

You got any bet­ter ideas?” 

Instead of lis­ten­ing to them argue—or until their argu­ment could reach me, and I’d have to be the one respon­si­ble for com­ing up with some­thing fun to do—I got up and walked to Andrew’s par­ents’ room, where Jen­nie had been sit­ting in front of the desk­top com­put­er, sketch­ing something. 

I sat down in the chair, imag­in­ing her here. Scrolling through Myspace or Face­book and talk­ing to her friends, prob­a­bly com­plain­ing about us. What were she and David Moon doing togeth­er now? What was hap­pen­ing to the crow? 

Next to the key­board was Jennie’s sketch­book. It was closed, and my fin­gers hov­ered over the cov­er, hes­i­tant. DON’T TOUCH ANY OF MY STUFF Jen­nie would often say to me. I could imag­ine her rip­ping the sketch­book from my hands as soon as I touched it; but Jen­nie wasn’t here right now, to watch as I opened the sketch­book, flip­ping from one draw­ing to the next. 

There were a bunch of por­traits of her friends at school, in the cafe­te­ria, in class. One or two of David. One of Andrew, Hen­ry, and I with the Game­Cube. One of our par­ents. None of her­self. In the mid­dle of the sketch­pad was a torn-off page, hasti­ly ripped on the side. 

I touched the edges, care­ful not to give myself a paper­cut. Was this the draw­ing Jen­nie had in her pocket? 

I heard foot­steps in the hall­way and quick­ly closed the sketch­book, turn­ing around to find Andrew in the doorway. 

Your omma’s here,” he said, sim­ply, then walked away. 

When I got home that night and went to my bed­room, the one I shared with Jennie—hoping to give back her sketch­book with­out her dis­cov­er­ing that I’d looked through it—I found her lying on her bed, her back fac­ing me. 

Noona?” I asked, qui­et­ly.  

She didn’t say any­thing; I tried again, then a sec­ond, and then a third time. After the third time, I fig­ured she was asleep, and that’s when I noticed the draw­ings on the wall on her side of the room. 

They were all crows. Doo­dles, sketch­es, scrib­bles. Tiny ones, big ones, medi­um-sized. Vary­ing shades of black and gray. If I looked away, I swore I thought I saw their wings flap out of the cor­ner of my eye. It couldn’t have been a breeze, because the win­dow was closed. But when I looked at them head-on, they were still. 

Where do I even start?” Jen­nie asks, exhal­ing. I don’t hear any back­ground nois­es on her end of the phone anymore—she must’ve found some­where qui­et to talk. 

What do you remem­ber?” I whis­per, my voice so qui­et I’m afraid she hasn’t heard me—but Jen­nie starts talking. 

The pow­er went out that day. Do you remem­ber that?” I nod, though she can’t see me. “I was mes­sag­ing David on AIM, ask­ing him for help with geom­e­try home­work, ’cause he was one of the tutors my teacher put on a list, and I thought he was cute and liked watch­ing him play soc­cer, so I thought, I don’t know, why the hell not?” 

She says every­thing in a rush. My leg keeps shak­ing up and down, wait­ing for the moment her sto­ry turns. 

I told him I was babysit­ting you and Andrew and Hen­ry, then he asked for Andrew’s address, I gave it to him, the pow­er went out. I didn’t actu­al­ly expect him to show up. I real­ly didn’t. David Moon, a senior, and me, a fresh­man? God, every­one was in love with him.” 

You had a crush on him,” I say, a state­ment more than a question. 

Jen­nie exhales again, a bit shak­i­ly this time. “I did. I thought he was––I don’t know. But then, who would’ve believed me, right? He asked me to come with him, when he took that dead crow for us. And I said yes. I said yes, think­ing we’d just work on geom­e­try after. And, you know—part of me—” she paus­es, takes a breath, starts again. “Part of me, I know, was hop­ing for some­thing. A kiss, maybe. Some­thing small. But not that. Not what happened.” 

My hand is curled into a fist, fin­ger­nails dig­ging into skin. If only I had—what? Asked Jen­nie not to get into the car with David? Fol­lowed them, impos­si­bly? Asked why she was spend­ing longer times in the bath­room after that day? 

Caleb? Are you still there?” Jen­nie asks. 

I close my eyes. “Still here. Sor­ry. Just—a lot to process. There’s so much I didn’t know, or didn’t remem­ber, but think­ing back on every­thing now, it—it—some of it—” 

Is start­ing to make sense?” she fin­ish­es. “You were eleven, Caleb. I was your annoy­ing noona. You were my insuf­fer­able don­saeng.” 

I’m still your insuf­fer­able don­saeng.” 

She laughs, but it comes out gar­bled. “Then I guess I’m still your annoy­ing noona.” A pause. Sec­onds of silence pass. “You know—I’ve nev­er actu­al­ly real­ly told any­one what hap­pened next. I think a lot of peo­ple thought I was a prude ’cause I didn’t have my first boyfriend until after col­lege, but … well––” Anoth­er breath. I wish I was there, in Los Ange­les, to put my hand on her shoul­der, or give her a tis­sue, any­thing. But there’s a part of me that’s glad I’m not, so I don’t have to see her face crum­ple when she starts talk­ing again. 

He took me to the church park­ing lot,” she says. I can see it in my mind so clear­ly, years lat­er: the main lot, with its clean white lines. And sev­er­al hun­dred feet away, in a spot over­run with grass: the place of my first kiss. I’d snuck off at night to meet up with anoth­er clos­et­ed guy from a dif­fer­ent high school. We thought we were being hilar­i­ous­ly iron­ic, trans­gres­sive. But this was a dif­fer­ent place for Jennie. 

None of the ajum­mas or ajusshis knew about that spot, you know. So he knew there was no way any­one would see us.” She takes anoth­er breath. “So—yeah. That’s it. I don’t—I don’t want to get into the details.” 

I don’t need to know them,” I say, hop­ing it’s enough. 

There’s a sound on the oth­er end, like she’s blow­ing her nose. “I thought we were gonna bury the crow in the trees behind the park­ing lot. But he start­ed kiss­ing me—which, you know, I thought I want­ed, but then—it didn’t stop there. Even though I want­ed it to. To stop, I mean.” 

What do you say to your old­er sis­ter who’s just told you a ter­ri­ble secret? What do you do when she’s reliv­ing the trau­ma, when that day for you meant find­ing a dead crow and try­ing to impress your friend you had a crush on and for her meant some­thing com­plete­ly, utter­ly different? 

God,” she laughs, or cries, I can’t tell which. “It’s just so—I’ve spent so long replay­ing this day in my head. And now I’m final­ly telling someone.” 

You don’t have to keep going,” I say, gently. 

No, I—” she stops. “God, Caleb. What if I’d told some­one ear­li­er? You think the same thing wouldn’t have hap­pened to those girls?” 

I’m about to answer, when she con­tin­ues in a rush of words. 

There’s one part of me that says, You couldn’t have known. No one would’ve believed you any­ways. And then there’s the side that says, What if they did? What if one of them did? And then the oth­er side says, Look how they’re react­ing to them now. All the ajusshis and ajum­mas can talk about is David this, David that, how he was so suc­cess­ful and now it’s all col­laps­ing. They would’ve done the same to you ten years ago. They wouldn’t have cared about you. They would’ve told you to keep qui­et because no one can know that some­thing ter­ri­ble like this hap­pened to us, us upstand­ing church-going God-lov­ing Kore­ans. But then, what if one of the girls had heard about you, and decid­ed to stay away? What if it made all that dif­fer­ence? And then I come back with—but it shouldn’t have rest­ed on them, on us. It should’ve been on David.” 

There are half-moon cir­cles imprint­ed on my palm from where I’ve been dig­ging my nails into the skin. “You can’t blame it on yourself.” 

I know I can’t.” She laughs. “I know. I fuck­ing know. But I spi­ral some­times, Caleb, I spi­ral. But you know what some of the weird­est, creepi­est shit out of all of this was?” 


I don’t know what he ever did with the crow, but when I got home, I couldn’t stop draw­ing them.” 

I blink, remem­ber­ing the crows on the wall. “But you hate birds.” 

I do. But when I picked up my pen­cil, it was like my hand took over me. I think I went through an entire note­book. And then at school the next day, when David Moon opened his lock­er, a bunch of post-it notes flood­ed out.” 

My mouth hangs open. “Did you—”  

No, I didn’t even go near his lock­er that day. But I sure as hell hope he got a ton of paper cuts.” 

Wit­ness­es, I think. But I don’t say this out loud to Jen­nie. She might’ve been silenced, but they were try­ing to say something. 

When I got home,” Jen­nie con­tin­ues, dis­rupt­ing my thoughts, “all my draw­ings of the crows from last night were gone. All that was left was the tape on the walls.” 

Chills run down my arm. “Sounds like one of omma’s super­sti­tions.” 

Jen­nie laughs. “I know.” 

When we get off the phone, I lie down in my bed, star­ing up at the ceil­ing. Through the closed door, I hear one of my house­mates come in, rum­mag­ing through the pots and pans in the kitchen. For him, it’s a nor­mal day: class­es, work, stu­dent org stuff. For me, I can’t stop think­ing. Can’t stop the images swirling behind my closed eyes, dead crows and silence and Andrew and Hen­ry and David and Jen­nie and that hot June day that used to mean some­thing dif­fer­ent for me but now—now moves beyond that dead crow I picked up with my t‑shirt, sun beat­ing down on my bare skin and won­der­ing what would hap­pen next. 




From the writer

:: Account ::

What the Crow Knows” began as an inquiry into a memory. 

When I was in third grade, my friends and I found a dead bird on the side of the road. Unsure of what to do, my friends’ old­er sib­lings took charge—I remem­ber there being a shoe­box, a strange man who approached the sib­lings, and I remem­ber myself, my cousin, and my friend going back to his house and dis­tract­ing our­selves by watch­ing TV. I remem­ber being vague­ly wor­ried about the old­er sib­lings, but in the end they returned just fine, the dead bird hav­ing been tak­en care of.  

Part of this inquiry is a “what if”—what if this stranger wasn’t a stranger but an acquain­tance of a mot­ley crew of kids? What if the old­er siblings—just one old­er sib­ling in the sto­ry, Jennie—doesn’t turn out fine? What if the younger kids, who might not be ful­ly aware of the under­ly­ing pow­er dynam­ics between those old­er than them, remem­ber this day dif­fer­ent­ly than them? 

Part of this inquiry is also rumi­nat­ing on what hap­pens when we real­ize more sin­is­ter things had hap­pened retroac­tive­ly, and when our mem­o­ries of a cer­tain day or event don’t match up with the mem­o­ries of some­one else. It is also about, of course, con­fronting sex­u­al assault and trau­ma, and the lin­ger­ing con­se­quences of trau­ma of that assault and abuse––on the sur­vivor, on the survivor’s fam­i­ly, on the survivor’s com­mu­ni­ty; and what that means for a spe­cif­ic cul­tur­al com­mu­ni­ty. Part of that con­fronta­tion asks––what if there is no wit­ness? What if the only wit­ness is a dead crow?


Mon­i­ca Kim is a queer writer and orga­niz­er. Born in Korea, she now lives in Brook­lyn, New York. She won the inau­gur­al Jane Keny­on Chap­book Prize Award for her series of mul­ti­verse poems and her writ­ing has been pub­lished in the lickety~split, Pol­lux Jour­nal, Pine Hills Review, and oth­ers. You can find her on Twit­ter at @kimmonjoo.


The Window Bride

Fiction / Carly Brown

:: The Window Bride ::

The day my sis­ter Anto­nia turned fif­teen, we took her to the win­dow. It was late June and the street out­side my uncle’s store smelled of veg­eta­bles gone mushy in the sun. Tin cans shone on the side­walk by my feet, shiny as locust wings. I kicked one with my shoe, watch­ing it bounce off a fire hydrant and roll under­neath a black auto­mo­bile parked near­by. Mam­ma would usu­al­ly have scold­ed me for that, but she was busy rety­ing the rib­bon around Antonia’s braid and smooth­ing down her new dress. The dress was a lacy thing that remind­ed me of our nice table­cloth, the one Mam­ma only brought out at East­er. It looked like you could rip it apart easily. 

There were sev­er­al women com­ing out of Uncle’s store, car­ry­ing bags of let­tuce and loaves of bread tucked under their arms, dab­bing their brows with hand­ker­chiefs and squint­ing in the sun­light. We pushed open the door and Uncle Sal­va­tore came out from behind the counter to greet us, dressed smart­ly as ever in a white coat and stiff collar. 

Buon­giorno, ladies,” he said, bow­ing to my sis­ter and me, as though we were fine women out for an after­noon stroll. Anto­nia and I gig­gled at being called ladies, although I sup­posed she was one now. 

He led us over to the store­front win­dow where he kept box­es of panet­tone at Christ­mas and crates of squash in the fall. There was a sin­gle chair there now, on a lit­tle raised plat­form, next to a bas­ket of lemons. Uncle’s store smelled like lemons that day, so he’d prob­a­bly cut some open already to make lemon­ade. I liked his store: you could spin on the high stools or get Coca-Cola in a tall glass and drink it with a straw, or you could order a Root Beer Float instead and watch vanil­la ice cream bob­bing in dark liq­uid until it dissolved. 

Anto­nia climbed up and sat down in the chair. She had her back to us so I could see drops of sweat slid­ing down her neck and dis­ap­pear­ing into the lace. Mam­ma thanked Uncle again for let­ting us do this. 

Fig­u­rati,” my uncle said. It’s noth­ing. Then he smiled at me and point­ed to a jar of can­dies wrapped in sil­ver foil. “Seems like I ordered too many caramels this week, Ros­alia. Can you help me with that?” 

I plunged my hand into the jar. The foil squeaked as I plucked one out and popped it in my mouth, let­ting the sug­ar sparkle on my tongue. 

Then I looked out the win­dow and saw that, out­side on the street, an old­er woman with a lit­tle boy in tow had stopped to stare at my sis­ter through the glass. Her skin was wrin­kled and browned like the inside of a wal­nut, like non­na before she died, and she had a blue silk scarf knot­ted under her chin. She looked Anto­nia up and down, per­haps with a grand­son or nephew in mind. 

My sis­ter wasn’t pret­ty like the women in mag­a­zines, with their cloche hats stuffed with flow­ers. They all looked sky­scraper tall and thin. My sis­ter was short, with plump elbows and a round face. She was shy, unlike me, and get­ting her to talk was often like pry­ing open an oys­ter shell. But she nev­er com­plained about any­thing and, of the two of us, she was the best at cook­ing lasagna, not to men­tion the fact that, to my extreme envy, she had also recent­ly mem­o­rized all the state cap­i­tals. But the old woman look­ing at Anto­nia now could see none of these things. 

I watched her nod polite­ly to my sis­ter and car­ry on down the street. 

Next came a man who looked a lit­tle younger than Father, maybe Uncle Salvatore’s age, with a nice suit and slicked-back hair glis­ten­ing in the sun. He stopped in front of the win­dow. I don’t know if Anto­nia was smil­ing at him, but he smiled at her before he walked away with his hands shoved in his pock­ets and his lips pursed togeth­er like he was whistling. 

It was then that I real­ized my sis­ter wasn’t going to sleep beside me any­more. Soon, I would walk to school on my own, brush my teeth on my own, sit in front of the radio, fid­dling with the dial as it gur­gled out sta­t­ic, on my own. Anto­nia would go live with a man like that slick-haired fel­low. I would only see her at St Leo’s on Sun­days. That was what hap­pened when Lena Maggiore’s sis­ter got married—Lena only saw her on Sun­days now. 

I turned away from the win­dow and walked over to the shelf, notic­ing peach­es piled up in a wick­er bas­ket. Two cents apiece, said a chalk sign in Uncle’s neat hand­writ­ing. I did some quick mul­ti­pli­ca­tion in my head. Two cents meant you could buy fifty peach­es for one dol­lar. Or you could buy two hun­dred and fifty peach­es for five dol­lars. Or you could buy one thou­sand peach­es for twen­ty dol­lars. But nobody would waste twen­ty whole dol­lars on that many peaches. 

I took one—its fur­ry skin in my palm felt like a liv­ing thing. There were dents in the flesh where my fin­gers had grabbed it. Then, with­out think­ing, I start­ed squeez­ing. I squeezed and squeezed it until its juices ran down my knuck­les, drip­ping down onto the wood­en floor. 

It wasn’t until I was squeez­ing so hard I could feel the seed in the mid­dle start­ing to press into my palm that Mam­ma turned round—”Rosalia!” She star­tled me by cry­ing out. “What are you doing? What are you doing?!” She swept over, swat­ting the seed out of my hand. It clat­tered to the ground. “Look at your dress,” she said, point­ing to the sticky stains on the hem of it. “What were you think­ing?” She turned to Uncle. “I am so sor­ry.” He waved away her apol­o­gy, but she fished into her purse and pulled out three cents. The coins clinked as she laid them on the counter. 

That’s too much,” I mur­mured, but nobody seemed to hear.  


The next morn­ing, Anto­nia said she felt sick and didn’t want to go to school. Mam­ma didn’t mind, espe­cial­ly since Anto­nia had done so well yes­ter­day and would be leav­ing school soon any­way. The fam­i­lies of two men had already vis­it­ed, ask­ing about my sis­ter, but most like­ly it would be nei­ther of them. Mam­ma said Anto­nia would mar­ry a young man called Giuseppe Sun­day who worked at Uncle’s in the storeroom. 

I knew this boy. He always had pow­dered sug­ar on his nose because his fam­i­ly had a bak­ery, and he brought over trays of can­no­li to sell at Uncle’s. They were not the best can­no­li in town, but they were good. My mouth watered think­ing of their crunchy gold shells filled with ricot­ta and choco­late chips. Giuseppe Sun­day was shy like Anto­nia. Nev­er spoke a word to me. I pic­tured them sit­ting across from each oth­er, silent, sweat­ing in the heat and star­ing at a tray of lasagna, gooey cheese bub­bling like the lava that I had recent­ly learned poured out of volcanoes. 

Since Anto­nia was sick, I was sent to school on my own. I car­ried my books pressed against my chest, enjoy­ing the stur­di­ness of my chalk­board and how the pages of the arith­metic book rip­pled in the wind. My teacher Mrs. Rag­gun­ti said I was quick with num­bers and some­times she called me up to demon­strate addi­tion and sub­trac­tion on the chalk­board in front of the whole class. I took pride in my care­ful hand­writ­ing: my 3s all pret­ty and curled like the lacy hem of a dress. I took pride, too, in how quick­ly the answers bloomed in my head. But, in six years, I wouldn’t go to school any­more. In six years, I would be fif­teen like Anto­nia and that meant sit­ting in Uncle Salvatore’s win­dow and agree­ing to mar­ry some­one like pow­dered-sug­ar nosed Giuseppe Sun­day. I told myself that six years was a long time, but I wasn’t sure about that. 

The wind picked up, car­ry­ing with it the sting of salt from the har­bor, and I hugged my school­books tighter into my chest. I tried to think of what my life would be like when I got mar­ried, but noth­ing came to mind. Oth­er girls at school mused about what they might wear on their wed­ding day or what they hoped their hus­band would look like. Giu­lia Messi­na said that she hoped her hus­band would look just like Dou­glas Fair­banks, the star of Robin Hood we’d seen at the pic­tures last year. It’s not that I was opposed to get­ting mar­ried, exact­ly. You don’t oppose the sun­set or the moon. They just are. They just hap­pen. But I didn’t want to leave school. 

I loved learn­ing about num­bers. And I loved count­ing up things in Uncle’s shop—cans of sar­dines, bags of flour. But the real­ly neat thing about num­bers was that, some­times, you could use them to count up noth­ing. I asked Mrs. Rag­gun­ti in class once, when she’d made me divide thir­ty by five on the chalk­board, what the thir­ty stood for. “Thir­ty of what?” I had asked. At first she was con­fused, but then she said that it was just thir­ty, just a num­ber. It could be thir­ty of any­thing: thir­ty dol­lars, or thir­ty girls, or thir­ty chick­en eggs. The class laughed at this, but I thought it was swell. When you’re doing arith­metic, you’re count­ing up any­thing and noth­ing at the same time. 

The breeze lift­ed my hair as I walked past Uncle’s store and gazed at it from the oth­er side of the road. I saw the sign hung on the door in Eng­lish and Ital­ian. Chiuso/Closed. I looked at the place where Anto­nia sat yes­ter­day, expect­ing an emp­ty chair. But it was not emp­ty. There was some­one there. 

A girl was sit­ting with her hands fold­ed neat­ly in her lap. Her white dress looked like Antonia’s, only the lace went all the way up to her chin. She had dark hair too, yanked back in a braid. I couldn’t see her face very well. Was it some­one I knew? 

I ran into the street to get a bet­ter look at her, and heard the screech and honk of an auto­mo­bile. I leapt out of the road as the dri­ver shout­ed curs­es at me. 

Mi scusi, sig­nore!” I called, but he was already off, smoke tun­nel­ing out of his exhaust pipe. 

When I turned back to the win­dow, there was nobody there. I pressed my fin­gers on the cold glass, peer­ing inside for some sight of the girl, but she was gone. The taps of the soda foun­tain shone like jewelry. 


I saw a girl today in the win­dow of Uncle’s store,” I said at dinnertime. 

Mam­ma looked up from her frit­ta­ta. “Who?”  

I didn’t rec­og­nize her,” I said. 

My sis­ter looked curi­ous but not threat­ened. Anoth­er girl in the same win­dow could be com­pe­ti­tion for the same eli­gi­ble young men, but Anto­nia didn’t seem to care. 

That can’t be true,” said Papa, but­ter­ing a roll. “Your Zio told me that only Anto­nia would sit in his win­dow this week. Gius­to, Anto­nia?”  

Anto­nia looked down at the veg­eta­bles jig­gling inside the frit­ta­ta. She shrugged. 

I will ask him,” Papa said, and the mat­ter was settled. 

It’s too hot for frit­ta­ta,” said Mam­ma, push­ing her plate away. “I should have made salad.” 


Uncle Sal­va­tore said he knew noth­ing of this girl. He said that unless some lit­tle girl broke into his shop to go sit in the win­dow, he had no idea what we were talk­ing about. I must have made a mistake. 

Un fan­tas­ma, eh?” He asked, nudg­ing me. 

At first I couldn’t remem­ber what the word meant, but then it occurred to me and I tried to laugh. Fan­tas­ma. Ghost

We bought a bag of toma­toes that Anto­nia would stuff with rice tonight when her new fiancé Giuseppe Sun­day and his fam­i­ly came for din­ner. As Mam­ma passed the bag of toma­toes to me to car­ry, I knew I’d spend all after­noon scoop­ing out toma­to guts in our hot kitchen. 

When we left the store, I glanced back at the win­dow and saw the girl again. There she was, sit­ting calm­ly in the chair, her hands laid across her knees. She didn’t look like any ghosts I’d heard of. She wasn’t trans­par­ent, but sol­id. And there was a faint hum of light around her. 

Mam­ma, there she is!” I shout­ed, drop­ping the sack of toma­toes and rush­ing towards the win­dow. But, by the time I reached it, she was gone again. 

Mam­ma stared at me with her hands on her hips, and then she jerked her head towards the toma­toes. I picked them up one by one, putting them back in the brown sack, feel­ing dizzy from the heat and what I had just seen. 

Enough non­sense, Ros­alia. After you help your sis­ter with din­ner, you should have a nap in your room,” said Mam­ma, as she pressed a palm onto my fore­head. “You don’t have a tem­per­a­ture, but I don’t want you to fall ill too.” 

I nod­ded, plac­ing the last of the toma­toes in the bag. It wasn’t non­sense. I had seen some­one there and, this time, I had rec­og­nized her. 

I still did not know what she was—a fan­tas­ma? A ghost? Or maybe an angel, like those that vis­it saints? But though I didn’t know what she was, I was cer­tain now who she was. 

The girl in the win­dow was me.  


At din­ner with Giuseppe Sunday’s fam­i­ly, I didn’t eat any­thing. I pushed Brus­sels sprouts across my plate and watched them knock into each oth­er like mar­bles. I mashed up the toma­to under my fork until it was prac­ti­cal­ly pas­ta sauce. My par­ents fawned over his par­ents, who frowned at our lit­tle apart­ment near the water­front. My father asked Giuseppe Sun­day ques­tions about how he would take over his father’s bak­ery one day. 

Giuseppe Sun­day seemed to enjoy bak­ing and talked for a quar­ter of an hour about why he pre­ferred to fry can­no­li in peanut oil, rather than short­en­ing. “It’s a bet­ter fla­vor in the end,” he said. His voice was qui­et, bare­ly audi­ble over the honk of horns out­side and the occa­sion­al screech of the seag­ulls. “And I think it makes bet­ter bub­bles in the dough.” But he admit­ted that he did not much like account­ing. He hoped to one day hire some­one “to help with the books.” 

Ros­alia is good at arith­metic,” said Antonia. 

The sound of my own name fright­ened me. But I felt flat­tered that Anto­nia had said this. I imag­ined sit­ting at the bak­ery counter with a pen­cil in my hand. Per­haps this bak­ery was my future: adding up how much we’d spent that week on sug­ar, how many can­no­li we’d sold. All that arith­metic I’d been doing at school—twenty-five divid­ed by five, thir­ty-two divid­ed by eight. Had it been prac­tice for this? All those noth­ings trans­formed into some­things in my head. Twen­ty-five bis­cot­ti. Thir­ty-two slices of black­ber­ry crosta­ta. I imag­ined spear­ing receipts in a row on a lit­tle spike at the end of each day. I thought of the door jin­gling as I called out to cus­tomers, “Come again!” 

Yes,” I said. “Yes, I could help.” 

Giuseppe gave me a small, encour­ag­ing smile, but then Papa burst out laugh­ing, Mam­ma fol­low­ing suit. 

Anto­nia, Giuseppe is speak­ing of run­ning his busi­ness, not school arith­metic,” Papa said and pat­ted Giuseppe Sun­day on the shoul­ders with such force that the small boy winced. 

My cheeks burned and I did not say anoth­er word for the rest of the meal. 


After din­ner we went to the liv­ing room. Mam­ma poured tea from her beau­ti­ful black pot with red ros­es, the one she brought over from Sici­ly. Giuseppe Sunday’s moth­er brought bis­cot­ti but they were hard as flint. Aren’t they sup­posed to be good bak­ers, I thought, suck­ing at a piece until it went gum­my in my mouth. 

When they start­ed drink­ing Marsala, I stood up. I said I had to use the bath­room, but nobody noticed when I kept going down the hall, towards the front door, down the stairs, into the orange and pink of ear­ly evening. There was a light, cool­ing breeze from the har­bor. Moth­er had tied a yel­low rib­bon into a bow at my col­lar and the wind made the loose ends rise up and flut­ter in my face. I swat­ted it away. 

Uncle’s shop was just around the cor­ner. I had to make sure of what I had seen. The girl’s face was nar­row­er than mine and she had more of a swell at her chest. But it was me. I knew it. 

Uncle once told me that we nev­er meet our­selves in dreams. If we do, it’s a sign that we will die. In dreams, we can meet kings, pres­i­dents, and cir­cus per­form­ers, long dead rel­a­tives, and famous base­ball play­ers. But we can nev­er meet ourselves. 

I round­ed the cor­ner and looked at the chair in the win­dow. Emp­ty. I was both relieved and dis­ap­point­ed to find nobody there. I stood in front of the shop for a few min­utes star­ing at the win­dow, but it was only when I turned to walk away that I heard mut­ed scream­ing and spun back around. There she was: the girl. And she was pound­ing on the glass. Her dark hair was wild around her shoul­ders and there were rib­bons on the floor, along with scat­tered lemons. She kept look­ing behind her, ter­ri­fied, like some mon­ster was about to charge out of the store­room and eat her. 

I rushed towards the front door and tried to tug it open. It was locked. 

I searched the ground for any­thing use­ful. I saw a sin­gle tin can, an apple core, and at the base of the fire hydrant—a smooth, flat stone. I grabbed it, wind­ing back my hand, like I’d seen boys in alley­ways do with their base­balls. Then I let it fly. 

The glass shat­tered, all of the shards tum­bling down like rain. Through the hole in the win­dow, the girl stepped out, glass crunch­ing underfoot. 

She didn’t look at me but ran right past, up the street, gath­er­ing her skirt in one hand so her ankles were show­ing. Then she turned a cor­ner and dis­ap­peared. I lis­tened for her foot­steps, but couldn’t hear them any­more. I could only hear sirens gath­er­ing, some­where far away. 




From the writer

:: Account ::

This sto­ry began with anoth­er sto­ry. One Christ­mas, my Uncle men­tioned, in pass­ing, that my Ital­ian-Amer­i­can great-grand­moth­er got engaged after her future moth­er-in-law saw her in a shop win­dow and liked the look of her. “That was the cus­tom,” my Uncle told me. “To put eli­gi­ble daugh­ters in win­dows.” My mind con­jured up an image of my great-grand­moth­er on dis­play in a store­front win­dow, next to tin cans and fruits and cakes. This idea, of stick­ing would-be brides in win­dows, was star­tling and unsettling—how it took objec­ti­fi­ca­tion to (almost) com­i­cal heights and made the mar­riage “mar­ket” literal. 

Sev­er­al months lat­er, when I went to write a sto­ry inspired by this anec­dote, I dis­cov­ered that it prob­a­bly wasn’t true. Nobody else in my fam­i­ly had heard of it. Indeed, nobody could even remem­ber my Uncle say­ing it that Christ­mas. I couldn’t find a record of this “cus­tom” in any books on Ital­ian-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties, and my part­ner, who is from north­ern Italy, knew noth­ing about it either. My Uncle, sad­ly, has passed away, so I can­not ask him where he first heard the sto­ry. Per­haps he made it up. Per­haps I made it up. Or mis­heard him, or mis­un­der­stood. But it is just strange enough that it could have happened. 

What is true is that my great-grand­moth­er, Lena, lived in Bal­ti­more in the ear­ly 1900s. She had a bad, arranged mar­riage. Appar­ent­ly I met her, once, when I was very young, but I can’t remem­ber it. Just as my char­ac­ter Ros­alia is haunt­ed by the mys­te­ri­ous girl in the win­dow, I am haunt­ed by Lena and by the image of her behind glass, look­ing out at passers­by. This image feels very pos­si­ble, indeed very real, to me, whether or not it actu­al­ly happened. 


Car­ly Brown is a writer and aca­d­e­m­ic based in Edin­burgh. Her sec­ond poet­ry pam­phlet, Anas­ta­sia, Look in the Mir­ror (Stewed Rhubarb Press), was released in 2020. She holds a Doc­tor­ate of Fine Arts in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Glas­gow and is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a his­tor­i­cal nov­el. Her web­site is

Bristlecone Pines

Fiction / Annalise Burnett

:: Bristlecone Pines ::

Aaron’s father used to tell him the sto­ry of his birth, in the mid­dle of a bliz­zard on the cold­est day of the year. Five and a half weeks ear­ly, he was born blue and shriv­eled, strug­gling to breathe. His par­ents watched him from the oth­er side of a glass wall as his weak lungs tried to cry, watch­ing his chest fall, not sure if it would rise again. Over and over again, the col­lapse of tiny ribs fol­lowed by the unex­pect­ed, habit­u­al inhale.

While his moth­er wait­ed in the hos­pi­tal, his father went home to care for his oth­er two sons and con­tin­ue the long fam­i­ly tra­di­tion of plant­i­ng trees on the moun­tain­side for each new mem­ber born. The land was cold and dark, but he hiked deep into the moun­tains, car­ry­ing a sapling, lit­tle more than a twig. When he arrived at the fam­i­ly grove, where the oth­er trees stood wait­ing for him, white with snow, he dug. He dug through the ice until he found the rocky ground beneath, and plant­ed Aaron’s tree there in the frozen ground.

And when I came back to that place and the tree was still alive, I knew you’d be okay,” Aaron’s father used to say.

Why those trees?” Aaron asked, because he liked lis­ten­ing to his father’s answer.

Because they live in life­less places,” he said. “Some of the old­est liv­ing things on earth are bristle­cone pines.”


Fall burns deep in the Col­orado moun­tains. The slopes turn amber with dead grass, and the ferns and shrubs fol­low in reds and browns. The only thing that does not change are the ever­greens, which dot the sides of hills, wait­ing to bear snow.

Aaron dri­ves home in his com­pa­ny car. He watch­es the moun­tains slow­ly rise above him, back­lit by stars. The emp­ty seat next to him is filled with fast food trash and emp­ty ener­gy drink cans. The back seat is filled with one over-packed suit­case and anoth­er case filled with phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal sam­ples. In this car, he refus­es to dri­ve above the speed lim­it. He goes from place to place, sell­ing med­ica­tion to doctor’s offices with­out any rush. Liv­ing on the road suits him—he nev­er has to be the same per­son for very long.

Since the last time he has been home, Aaron has had a year of low sales num­bers and tak­ing his own sam­ples in half-rate hotel rooms, feel­ing dizzy as he watch­es reruns of ’90s sit­coms. He keeps wait­ing for a phone call or an email that says he’s just not cut for this. Find a new job, best of luck. Every morn­ing he wakes up and doesn’t have to turn in his car, his sam­ple case, and his move home is a relief.

As he enters his home­town, every­thing is remark­ably dif­fer­ent and uncom­fort­ably the same. In his mind, the town and every­one in it exists as it did when he was a child. There are still the same stores and peo­ple work­ing in them, the same eb and flow of trav­el­ers. At the house, his father is still com­ing through the door, kick­ing off his hik­ing boots, a hint of smoke on his breath. He smells like the wilder­ness; he looks like it too with his hair that’s gone white ear­ly and his sun-cracked cheeks. His mom is cook­ing din­ner, healthy and hardy, and Emer­son and Jack are argu­ing over who gets to watch the TV, who gets to dri­ve to school the next morn­ing. Some past ver­sion of him­self is still wait­ing to be told that din­ner is ready in his room, read­ing old comics and ski mag­a­zines. He used to sit on the floor, pressed into the far cor­ner of the room, and wait for his father to open the door—he’d know him by his dark socks and fad­ed jeans—and call him in. Come on son, how was your day?

As Aaron pulls into his mother’s dri­ve­way, he reminds him­self. His father is cast across the moun­tains as ash; he has become gray snow. His sons have scat­tered with him.


A year ago, Aaron drove home with­out plan­ning to after ignor­ing phone calls from his father. He remem­bers watch­ing his father’s caller ID light up his phone as he sat in a meet­ing try­ing to sell an exper­i­men­tal treat­ment for nico­tine addic­tion. When he final­ly answered, it was his moth­er cry­ing on the oth­er end, and then his brother’s voice cut in.

Where the hell are you?”

He broke his rule. He drove as fast as he could, and still didn’t make it in time. Aaron remem­bers think­ing that his father didn’t end as he should have. He thought the man would hike for anoth­er twen­ty years, and then one day hik­ers would find him three days frozen in a snow drift, final­ly defeat­ed by the ele­ments he faced so often.

With­er­ing in the hos­pi­tal, refus­ing any kind of life-length­en­ing treat­ment, when there was no life­sav­ing avail­able, that is unimag­i­na­tive, unfit­ting, bor­ing. That is how oth­er peo­ple die, not his father.

Aaron learned after his death that his father had been two men. There was the Emmitt he knew, the man built of tall tales, who knew the hills and val­leys, who hat­ed maps, who named every peak, pass, and star. And there was the Emmitt who came back from the moun­tains and smoked and drank until he was kicked out of one bar and then went to anoth­er, until he couldn’t remem­ber his own name, much less his son’s.

Aaron learned that his father went to the doc­tor alone—received test results which were so def­i­nite they were shock­ing. He refused every treat­ment, remained him­self, or the two ver­sions of him­self. He didn’t tell any­one, didn’t think it mattered.

When their moth­er found him cough­ing up blood, that’s when she found out. From a white-coat­ed doc­tor, and by then she wouldn’t tell his sons for him.

Aaron received a call from his father, bare­ly strong enough to speak, five hours before he passed.

He had let them all go to voice­mail. One day he was huge, too huge to be real, the next day he was ash­es in an urn. That is what the three Beck­er sons said good­bye to.

There is noth­ing like the dri­ve home after a long absence, where you see every­thing for the first time, because the habit of ignor­ing it has gone away. The town looked small­er than he remem­bered, and so did the moun­tains, like it was all shrink­ing under­neath his feet. The house was the same when he stepped inside. The only change was more space, few­er clothes, box­es of old flan­nels and worn-out hik­ing boots wait­ing by the door. How long had his moth­er known?

Emmitt hadn’t want­ed the fuss of a funer­al, but they gave him one any­way. There was an annoy­ing num­ber of peo­ple there, to say good­bye to a man that had told no one he was dying. But what did they want, for no one to come? Every guest said the same thing, about what a shock it all was. They give timid hugs and eat cheese off of tooth­picks. Then they leave, and the house is just as emp­ty as it was before, scat­tered card­board box­es and emp­ty bot­tles that their moth­er had stopped throw­ing away.

That after­noon, as a fam­i­ly, they hiked up the moun­tains to that place there deep in the hills that only the fam­i­ly knows where the fam­i­ly is plant­ed. There is the Emer­son tree, the Jack­son Tree, the Aaron tree, and tow­er­ing over them all, the Emmitt tree. The fam­i­ly has cho­sen bristle­cone pines to plant in the name of each child for their har­di­ness. They exist in con­tra­dic­tion: to give them too much water, warm air, or lush soil would be to suf­fo­cate them. Here and only here, on the south­ern slope where wind cuts into stone, is where they have learned to endure. The Emmitt tree is its own incon­sis­ten­cy, taller than all the oth­ers. It looks like wis­dom and growth. They spread his ash­es at its base, and this is their only goodbye.


Home for the first time since the funer­al, Aaron rings the door­bell of his old house. His moth­er answers, and she hugs him in the foy­er. He catch­es the scent of flo­ral per­fume. That is new, not con­nect­ed to any mem­o­ry of her. He feels as though he is a din­ner guest and that he should have brought a bot­tle of wine or side sal­ad with him.

How long has it been?” she asks, and nei­ther of them answers. Even though it’s a Sat­ur­day, her eyes are lined with choco­late-col­ored lin­er. She’s wear­ing a pink sweater with a match­ing puffer vest over it. Warm but lay­ered, that is the rule of this place. He tries to remem­ber if her hair was that gray the last time, he saw her or if her face had so many lines. He thinks of how her skin looks like tis­sue paper, wait­ing to rip.

I’m glad you’re home.” A sin­gle look past her tells him that the house has been gut­ted. All that is left of the place is blank white walls and emp­ty rooms. “I’m mov­ing, and I need you to fig­ure out what to do with some stuff for me.”

Aaron doesn’t under­stand. For the sec­ond time, he has come home only to find that there is no home left. The place has moved out from under him. The white walls of their small moun­tain house have been scrubbed clean. Pic­tures of the fam­i­ly on skis, of scenic views, and fam­i­ly reunions have been loaded into unmarked box­es. The books have been stripped from the shelves, and all fur­ni­ture is miss­ing. Aaron has set his foot down into emp­ty space. He shouldn’t be sur­prised, but he is.

He sits at the kitchen table, across from his two broth­ers who have already arrived. Emer­son, a stiff pilot with red eyes, greets him with a loud “what’s up.” He gives Aaron a bone-crush­ing hand­shake, as if he wants Aaron to hire him for a job he’s not qual­i­fied for. The oth­er, the climber, looks up at him from under his over­sized beanie, nods. Jack, who wears drug rugs and lives out of a van, blog­ging and pick­ing his way up sheer rock for a liv­ing. He is sport­ing a scrag­gly beard. His fin­gers are hard­ened and swat with thin chip­ping nails.

There is a moment before they eat when they look at each oth­er and try to remem­ber. Aaron imag­ines his moth­er with­out gray on her hair, Emer­son smil­ing, Jack with­out a beard. He remem­bers fol­low­ing down the ski slopes in win­ter, claw­ing to catch up with them. Now they are strangers, meet­ing for the first time, sup­posed to know each oth­er from some­where else.

As he eats, Aaron looks at the last pic­ture on the wall. It is a pic­ture of his father Emmitt in full ski gear, with two poles in one hand, a cig­a­rette in anoth­er. He isn’t smil­ing, he’s just look­ing for­ward through his mir­rored snow gog­gles, about to throw the cig­a­rette into the snow, pull a mask over his face, and plunge down the moun­tain. Ski­ing always feels like falling, like the world is slip­ping out from under you, he used to tell Aaron when they stood togeth­er at the top of a slope. The more you fight it, the more you’ll lose your bal­ance, tum­ble into the snow.

I’ve already bought a con­do in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia,” their mom says, smil­ing like she has prac­ticed it in the mir­ror. “It’s right near the beach, sun­ny all year long, no snow blow­ers needed.”

Mom, this is our only home,” Jack tells her.

Look, here’s what you should do, Mom. You should take a lit­tle bit of mon­ey out of your retire­ment, just a lit­tle, and you should use that to buy a lit­tle con­do in, and then rent it out half the year,” says Emer­son, lean­ing over the table.

Already bought it,” she mut­ters, rolls her eyes.

And you live there in the win­ter. That way you can make nice new friends in a dif­fer­ent place, you don’t have to wor­ry about get­ting snowed in. And then in the sum­mer, you come back here. Rent the oth­er place out, make your mon­ey back.”

What’s the point of that if tourists would always be here?” Aaron asks Emer­son, accus­ing with­out mean­ing to. “We should just keep it.”

The three sons argue by nature of who they are like beta fish dropped in the same tank. Aaron can­not remem­ber the last time they all want­ed the same thing. They go back and forth, mak­ing grand plans for their moth­er, and talk­ing of how they will either rent the place, or that she could give it to Jack, how he would pay her back. Aaron tries to imag­ine him­self mov­ing back only to pay rent to his younger broth­er. He bites the inside of his cheek and argues for some­thing bet­ter. Just keep the house.

Dad would have kept it,” says Aaron.

She purs­es her lips, exhales hard. This is the right thing to say. “Your father would also leave emp­ty beer bot­tles and cig­a­rette pack­ages all over the house when he came home, and leave me to clean it all up, to stuff it in my purse so you boys wouldn’t see when you woke up.”

Aaron has nev­er imag­ined this ver­sion of his mom, the exas­per­at­ed wife she forced her­self to become. He tries to make his breath qui­et, so it doesn’t break the cur­tain of silence.

Your father was like that, wasn’t he. A year dead, and it’s still all about what he wants.”

The three of you don’t have any­where else, I know that. But don’t blame me for it. I’m choos­ing my own place now.” Her paint­ed on façade has melt­ed, and now her back is stiff, and her hair pulls itself out of its pins. Emer­son and Jack both lean onto their hunched arms, star­ing into their emp­ty bowls of chili.

Aaron mut­ters, so qui­et almost no one hears him, “What else will we have of him?”

What else will we—” she echoes in a breath voice, looks up at the ceil­ing. “What can we still want from him? He didn’t exist in the first place.”

Aaron knows that you become the place you live. He imag­ines his mom every night call­ing bars and hos­pi­tals, wor­ry­ing, relieved when he comes home, angry when he wakes up hun­gover. He imag­ines her wait­ing patient­ly by lamp­light, read­ing a book she can’t focus on. These habits would not be part of her fam­i­ly, it would not be some­thing that was acknowl­edged. To her sons, it was all vague and far away. They only knew it was some­thing their dad did over there, like golf or play­ing cards with friends.

She has been in this fam­i­ly longer than her sons, and there is no tree plant­ed for her, because she was not born into it.

She takes a deep breath. She has pushed her gray hair from her cheeks, and her voice returns to nor­mal. “If you love this place so much, buy it your­selves. I’m not com­ing back.”

There is noth­ing they can say to that. This is the place they fall back on in the qui­et of their minds. It has made and unmade them, and they have nev­er real­ly left.

She walks away with­out clean­ing the table and goes into her bed­room and clos­es the door. She isn’t mad, she is final, and that is worse. There is noth­ing left for them to do but move on.


They go to vis­it their father in the morn­ing, though there is noth­ing left of him. He is blown into the wind, dis­solved into the ground. All the remains are the trees that grew him, the bristle­cone pines. The tree plant­ed for him is taller than the oth­ers. It looks ancient and tired, but in its whole lifes­pan it is still young. It will out­live all mem­o­ry of Emmitt, the father, the drinker, the moun­tain man. When the town in the val­ley below is aban­doned and the moun­tains sink into the earth, in by inch, sliced by wind and rain, these trees will be here, enduring.

Of the six trees in the grove, three are plant­ed for peo­ple who are still liv­ing. They refuse to look like trees. They look like cer­tain­ty, sit­ting squat and stur­dy. They patient­ly inch their way toward heav­en, one cen­tu­ry at a time. They do not grow many nee­dles because they do not need them. The bark wraps around itself in coils. As Aaron watch­es them, he thinks of the cold­est day of the year on which his was plant­ed, when rocks and frozen ground were enough.


Aaron packs what is left of his life into card­board box­es. His room is stripped down only to the bed­frame. Book­shelves, the chair, night­stand, have all been sold away to pay for new con­do fur­ni­ture. Aaron holds a black trash bag in one hand and piles Pow­er Rangers fig­ures and Legos into it.

We could give those to some­one,” his moth­er says, stand­ing in the doorway.

Who would want them?” He knots the top of the bag and puts it in the hallway.

Have you sold it yet?”


There are some things which seem too hard to throw away. Old year­books and pic­tures of him on

the moun­tain, posters and old com­ic books. He buries his child­hood self into these box­es, which he will put in the back of his car and not think about, not unload until he finds some­place to put them.

You know you’re wel­come when­ev­er you want to come to Cal­i­for­nia, right?”

He smiles and thanks her, he gives her a hug as he looks at the naked walls of the room. It has become just anoth­er place he once lived. It looks like every hotel he has ever stayed in. He places each box in his car over the case of sam­ples. He lets them go unmarked, and the rest he places on the curb. He purges him­self of his­to­ry and feels guilty as he does it. Just before Aaron leaves, he says good­bye to his broth­ers. They nod at each oth­er, and they take one last long look at the house. Aaron loves the place and resents it.

For Christ­mas this year, we’ll have to all meet at Mom’s,” says Emerson.

I’m busy Christ­mas,” says Jack.

New Year’s then,” says Aaron.

I can make that work,” Emer­son agrees.

Aaron gets into his car and dri­ves out to his next sales pitch. He can­not endure any longer, but he is giv­en no oth­er choice.




From the writer

:: Account ::

The idea for this short sto­ry came about when my good friend told me about how in her fam­i­ly, they plant a tree for each new fam­i­ly mem­ber. She also told me that she had just learned about bristle­cone pine trees, which are some of the longest liv­ing trees on earth. I was fas­ci­nat­ed both by the idea of the endurance of the pine trees and the tra­di­tion of plant­i­ng a tree in the hon­or of each new fam­i­ly mem­ber. As I com­bined these two ideas in the sto­ry, I real­ized that it became a space to process the feel­ing of what it means to leave home and come back, as I have moved recent­ly from one place to anoth­er. I want­ed to explore a person’s com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship with their fam­i­ly after becom­ing an adult, see­ing how par­ents aren’t per­fect, and how your child­hood might be nos­tal­gic, but you can nev­er return to it. I also want­ed to explore the anx­i­ety of not know­ing what’s next in your life and the root­less feel­ing of ear­ly adulthood.

In ear­li­er drafts of this sto­ry, I thought that the pine trees were a sort of rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the fam­i­ly, which endures in spite of every dif­fi­cul­ty. Then I real­ized that the pine trees are not reflec­tive of the fam­i­ly mem­bers at all; rather, the pine trees func­tion as a sort of promise—that endurance and life can be found in all places.


Annalise Bur­nett is a writer and stu­dent cur­rent­ly liv­ing in the Atlanta area. She works with a small non­prof­it pub­lish­ing house.

Telling Stories

Fiction / T. E. Wilderson

:: Telling Stories ::

Every­thing is all my fault. Because she got yelled at by her boss yes­ter­day for being late, today––since she’s decid­ed to be on time––she wants to yell at me like I’m keep­ing her behind. What­ev­er. She makes me sick. I’m try­ing to curl my bangs, and I’ve got to lis­ten to her yelling up the stairs. So, I close the bath­room door. I hear her stomp­ing up the stairs, still yelling. That’s okay. I lock the bath­room door before she can get to me. Now she’s bang­ing on the door. So, I hur­ry up. A bit. But first, I take her tooth­brush from the hold­er, and swirl it around in the toi­let a few times before I put it back. Now I’m ready to unlock the door and go to school. 

P’Mona,” she says. “Are you try­ing to make me lose my job?” Then she pinch­es me all hard on the arm as I’m going down the stairs. 

I say “Ouch,” and remind her that I’ve got the num­ber to Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices writ­ten inside my shoe. 

You need to take those damn tap shoes off!” She spits as she’s talk­ing. “I don’t know why you got­ta wear them all over every­where, anyway.” 

I make a point of dra­mat­i­cal­ly wip­ing her spit spray from my cheek. “My tap teacher says I have poten­tial, and that I should let the shoes become a nat­ur­al exten­sion of myself.” I pick up my knap­sack and wait patient­ly by the door for Mama to find her house keys. 

That’s bull­shit, P’Mona. That woman ain’t nev­er said that. What have I told you about always telling sto­ries?” Now she’s dumped out her entire purse on the hall table. I open the door, and step out­side, to empha­size who’s exact­ly wait­ing for who. “Besides, that tap­ping is annoy­ing as shit.” Besides, her house keys are sit­ting on the kitchen counter next to the cof­fee pot. She keeps yap­ping on and on, until she final­ly fig­ures out where she left her keys. When she comes out and locks the door, she wants to look at me like it’s still my fault. 

Shot­gun!” I say, as we head for the car. 

P’Mona, I don’t know why you always insist on yelling ‘Shot­gun’ when there ain’t nev­er but the two of us,” Mama says. 

It’s called sar­casm,” I say. When I climb into the car, she pops me one in the mouth. 

It’s called smart­ing off, and you need to watch your­self,” she says. It’s not my fault she doesn’t have even a basic sense of humor. It’s not my fault I’m already smarter in the eighth grade than she is, and it’s not my fault she knows a eighth grad­er is smarter than her. She choos­es to be bit­ter about it, and that leaves me no choice but to write her off as a sim­ple­ton. Besides. She’s bit­ter about a lot of stuff, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Most of the rest of the world is on my side. So, if her boss cussed her out, my guess––she had it com­ing. My dad had the right idea slip­ping out on her first chance he got. I don’t blame him for not being here. Real­ly, I don’t. I’m glad he nev­er came back around. It shows good judg­ment, and I admire that. How could he know whether or not I’d be just like Mama? Or, the polar oppo­site, which I am. He wouldn’t, so why take the chance? If I ever do meet him––or not even meet him, just if I come across him in life––like if I’m a check-in clerk at a hotel, and he shows up at the desk to reg­is­ter. I wouldn’t even tell him who I was, I’d just ask him if I could shake his hand. Mama says I’m a lot like him. Some­times she says too much like him. I don’t care when she says that. Actu­al­ly, I take it as a compliment. 

When she drops me off in front of school, I don’t say good-bye to her when I get out. I just close the door smooth­ly, to empha­size that I’m not the emo­tion­al­ly out of con­trol one. Then she yells through the car win­dow, “Don’t for­get I bowl tonight. Remind Mrs. Hick­man I’ll be late. You hear?” I just flash her the peace sign, and nev­er look back. But now, I’ve got to make a quick detour to catch a smoke before first peri­od. That’s how much she got on my nerves. 

Vicky and Kim are hud­dled at the bot­tom of the stairs behind the lunch­room, puff­ing away. They have their backs to me. As I go down the steps, they don’t even turn around. So when I get to them I say, “Damn, you guys. I coul­da been a teacher or some­thing, and you guys would be so busted.” 

Vicky turns around first. “Hey, P’Mona,” she says. “We knew it was you.” She reach­es out her pack of smokes, so I can take one. That’s what I like about Vicky and Kim. We all share our smokes auto­mat­i­cal­ly with­out keep­ing tabs. Kim’s mom is always find­ing her stash and throw­ing them out. So, she prob­a­bly bums more than Vicky or me. But I guess, in the end, it evens out. 

I so could’ve been the prin­ci­pal,” I say. “Not like any of us can afford to get bust­ed again this semester.” 

How could we not know it was you,” Vicky says. “Not like the whole world can’t hear you in those shoes from a mile away.” Vicky is the first one of us to get her peri­od. So now, she gets to be bitchy and blame it on PMS. “Why do you wear those all the time, anyway?” 

It’s total­ly my mom’s idea,” I say. “She thinks I’ll be, like, dis­cov­ered or some­thing, so she can become a stage mom and total­ly live off my danc­ing mon­ey. Or some­thing. Like Brooke Shields and her mom.” 

Brooke Shields is a mod­el. They earn way more than dancers,” Vicky says. 

I know,” I say. 

That’s so lame,” Kim adds. 

I know. My mom’s so lazy, she’ll find any way not to have to, like, work her­self,” I say, and roll my eyes for emphasis. 

She should be like my mom,” Kim says, “and just keep dat­ing men with mon­ey who take care of every­thing for her.” Kim’s mom looks like a Vogue mod­el. Plus, she looks like she could be in high school, and her hair is super long. I think Vicky’s just jeal­ous. My mom looks like an amphib­ian. She’s got these bug eyes, and on top of it she has these real­ly thick glass­es. And these big weird lips. I made a joke one day, when she had on this head-to-toe lime green out­fit, that she looked like Ker­mit the Frog on crack. She popped me in the mouth and told me she had plen­ty more of that crack if I didn’t watch out. Either way, count­ing on her to snag a man to set us up is a major waste of time. I don’t even know how she snagged my dad. The last time I asked her about him, she said he didn’t want to know shit about me, so what do I care about him for? I nev­er said I cared. I just want­ed to see what she’d say. Besides, I found out his name any­way, and I wrote it down. It’s Wayne Hen­ry Turn­er. And he lives at 1717 Live Oak Dri­ve in Sil­ver Spring, Mary­land. One day, when I was look­ing in Mama’s purse for smokes, I found a check fold­ed in her wal­let. It was for three hun­dred and six­ty-six dol­lars and fifty cents. And, it was super big––bigger than Mama’s checks, and it was all typed except for the sig­na­ture. It said, “Pay to the order of P’Mona Denise Turn­er Trust.” At the bot­tom on the “Memo” line, it said “By Court Order.” I wrote down every­thing that I could, before I heard Mama com­ing down the stairs. The next time I looked for the check, it was gone. 


The home­room bell rings, so we have to fin­ish our smokes real quick so we’re not late. Kim and Vicky both have home­room with Mrs. Anderson––skinny Anderson––that every­body likes. I’ve got Fat Ander­son, who nobody likes. She’s always smirk­ing at peo­ple, like she knows some­thing fun­ny. The only thing fun­ny about her is her breath, which always stinks. So today, after she calls roll, how come she has to say, “P’Mona, come up to my desk, please.” She gives me that dumb smirk of hers the whole way I’m walk­ing up to her desk. Then she hands me a note from the office. I don’t give her the plea­sure of look­ing at the slip right then. I don’t even look at it at all dur­ing home­room. She calls my name when the bell rings, but I total­ly make it out the back door before she can catch me. And, once I’m in the hall, I nev­er look back. I showed her. I look at the slip dur­ing my first peri­od Social Stud­ies class. It says I have to see the guid­ance coun­selor dur­ing my study hall. I’m think­ing it could have been worse. Besides, my study hall is right after lunch, so I can go have a quick smoke to cool my nerves before I go and meet The Freak. My guid­ance coun­selor, Mr. Piekars­ki, is such a freak. He thinks he’s all hip and cool and tries to talk and act like he’s everybody’s friend, but he’s not. He’s just a freak. Like when he’s try­ing to talk to you all seri­ous, it’s hard not to laugh. He’s got these huge Mr. Ed buck teeth, and glass­es with a fade tint that are twice the size of his face. Like some mad sci­en­tist who thinks he’s a rock star. And as obvi­ous­ly dam­aged as he is, if he had an eye patch, a wood­en leg, and a kick­stand, my mom still wouldn’t be able to snag him. So now you see what my life is like. And why, even if it wasn’t Thurs­day and I had to stay late at Mrs. Hickman’s, I’d be hat­ing this day. 

So, all through first and sec­ond peri­ods, I’m try­ing not to sweat it. There ain’t noth­ing I’ve done late­ly to get me called into the guid­ance office. But by third peri­od music class, it’s start­ing to bug me. We’ve been prac­tic­ing “Thriller” by Michael Jack­son, and I can play my part in my sleep. But today, I keep mess­ing up, and it’s piss­ing me off because I know I know it. Then, Mrs. Bigelow has to go and rub it in, say­ing, “Con­cen­trate, P’Mona. You know this piece.” I know I do, ya heifer. Why’d she have to call me out in front of the whole class like that? Then I made the mis­take of look­ing over at Claude. Some­times I think he’s secret­ly in love with me. For the most part I just ignore him when he looks all goo­gly at me. He’s not so bad, he’s just not super cool. Any­way, when I look over at Claude, he’s all bugged out like I just stripped naked and danced a jig. I don’t look at him again for the whole class. 

Final­ly, the stu­pid bell rings, and I bolt. I can hear Claude run­ning to catch up to me. “P’Mona. Hey, P’Mona, wait up!” he calls. 

Hey Claude,” I say, cut­ting my way through the hall to my lock­er. “What’s up?” 

Man, I can’t believe Mrs. Bigelow cracked on you in class.” His eyes are so big, I’m afraid he might be hav­ing some kin­da attack. Claude’s body is always let­ting him down over sim­ple things, so I’m not mak­ing this up. Like, he’s aller­gic to wool. And grass. Which makes win­ter and sum­mer two of his worst sea­sons. Plus, he has asthma. 

Don’t sweat it, Claude,” I say. “Even Monk had his off days.” 


Skip it,” I say. Like I said, Claude’s not super cool. “If you don’t know, you’ll have to wait until you’re ready to learn.” He just stands there, star­ing at me like a gup­py, while I spin the com­bi­na­tion on my lock. I open the lock­er door wide enough to dig in my knap­sack for a smoke, which I tuck up the sleeve of my shirt. I shut the lock­er, and Claude is still stand­ing there. 

Lis­ten,” I say. “No big whoop, alright. Thurs­days always suck. Why should today be any different?” 

Ohhh, yeah. Thurs­day.” Claude starts shak­ing his head, like I’ve just explained how the world almost came to an end but missed. Now I’m beel­in­ing to the lunch­room, ’cause if I’m gonna have a real good smoke before study hall, I can’t get stuck at the end of the lunch line. This means Claude, who is like a foot short­er than me, is near­ly run­ning to keep up. 

Hey,” he says. “I brought Scrab­ble with me today, because I was going to play at the library after school. But I could play with you over at Mrs. Hickman’s. Okay?”

Claude lives only a cou­ple of blocks from Mrs. Hickman. 

Lis­ten, Claude.” I stop just inside the lunch­room. “I so can’t think about that right now, okay? I’ll total­ly see you after school.” Claude says that I can think about it, so I flash him the peace sign, and make it to be twelfth in line. Claude is smart enough to be pres­i­dent one day. He has these com­plete hip­py par­ents who don’t believe in TV, so he reads all the time. He’ll read any­thing, includ­ing the dic­tio­nary. The library near his house has a Scrab­ble club that meets once a week, and he is like the undis­put­ed champ. So, the fact that he’d offer to give up the one day of the week where he’s like a rock star to ease my hell is total­ly cool. So when I say I think he’s in love with me, you know I’m for real. 

Lunch today is chipped beef, which means Thursday’s also crap­py food day, since Mrs. Hick­man gives me frozen pot pies on Thurs­days. At least I get my pick between chick­en, turkey, and beef. She always makes sure I have a choice, and she carves P, apos­tro­phe, M in the crust on top. So more or less she’s not the worst. Aside from the fact that her house smells like dead rodent. And, she’s always fart­ing, and blam­ing it on the dog. And, she doesn’t have a col­or TV, just this tiny black-and-white one you have to be almost on top of to see, so what’s the point? Basi­cal­ly her house is bor­ing as shit, and smells like it, too. She smokes Salems, though, and has like ten packs lying around the house ’cause she for­gets where she puts them once she opens them. So, I can palm as many as I want when I’m there, and she nev­er knows the difference. 

I sit next to Mis­sy and Muffy, ’cause they’re the least stuck up of the girls in my lunch peri­od. If I could be any­body else in the world, it would be Muffy. First of all, she can wear make­up to school. Not only that, her mom buys her make­up for her––and I mean the super expen­sive stuff at the depart­ment store. One day, she was touch­ing up her eye shad­ow in the bath­room, and she told me her mom bought it for her one day when they got makeovers togeth­er down­town. It was a kin­da shim­mery, princess blue col­or, and it came in a lit­tle case that looked like a gold clamshell. She even let me put some on. The col­or was Desert Twi­light, and on Muffy it looked just like it did on the mod­el in the ad in Cos­mo. I wouldn’t call Muffy pret­ty, but she’s tall, and kin­da exot­ic look­ing. She could total­ly make it as a mod­el, except for the fact that she wears her hair in a ’fro. Her mom has her enrolled in this mod­el­ing school uptown, and one day she brought her “test pho­tos” in to show every­body. She explained that these were the pic­tures she was going to put in her port­fo­lio, for when she was ready to go on “go sees,” which are basi­cal­ly what you call mod­el audi­tions. Mama said no way in hell was she was gonna pay for mod­el­ing lessons––even if I grew a foot overnight and woke up pret­ty. Mama also says that the only rea­son Muffy’s in mod­el­ing school is because she’s adopt­ed by these white folks that wouldn’t know black beau­ty if it slapped them in the face. Maybe so, but last sum­mer Muffy and her mom went to New York with some of her pic­tures and met with a bunch of agents. Muffy said that the lady at the top agency in New York said to call her when she grew to be five-nine, because she might be able to start in their run­way divi­sion. Mama didn’t have noth­ing to say after that. Any­way, I decid­ed to take mat­ters in my own hands. I went down­town to this funky store that has one of those pho­to booths in it. I took a bunch of pic­tures of myself, pos­ing like they do in fash­ion mag­a­zines. I had to go a few times before I had enough pic­tures that I thought were as good as Muffy’s, but the good thing is you get six to a strip. So, I had enough to choose from. I cut the best ones out and sent them to these mod­el­ing agen­cies I read about in Sev­en­teen. That was a few weeks ago, so I’m still wait­ing to hear. I fig­ure I can mod­el dur­ing sum­mer vaca­tions until I’m out of high school. Then, who knows? 

Mis­sy reach­es into her purse, and hands these Avon cat­a­logs to Muffy and me, announc­ing she’s now an Avon lady. I can­not believe I didn’t think of that shit first. Missy’s going on and on about all the sam­ples she’s ordered, and how much she’s already sold, but I’m stuck on the nail pol­ish page. I’m try­ing to fig­ure if I have enough mon­ey for the Cot­ton Can­dy and the Can­dy Apple. But more than that, I’m think­ing how much I could make if I sold my own damn Avon. 

I was gonna sell Avon,” I say. “But I heard it was run by the Hare Krishna.” 

No way,” says Mis­sy. “You’re total­ly mak­ing that up.” 

I’m not,” I say. “It was on 60 Min­utes, and they showed how they have like all of the Krish­na kids work­ing in the fac­to­ry.” Now both of them are look­ing at me instead of the cat­a­log. “Plus, they all have to work like twen­ty hours a day, and sleep in one room about the size of this lunch room, and sleep two to a sleep­ing bag.” I look up from them to see my freak of a guid­ance coun­selor pass by, and I real­ize I bet­ter smoke while the smok­ing was good. I gath­er all of my trash on my tray and get up to leave. But not before adding that if a new prod­uct doesn’t make it to stores, it’s because some Hare Krish­na babies went blind from the prod­uct test­ing done on them. 

No way,” Mis­sy says again. “I’m gonna ask my mom.” 

That sounds so sad,” adds Muffy. 

Okay,” I say, as I get ready to leave. “It may not be the Hare Krish­nas, but it was some­body just like them. I mean, it was on TV. Not like a bazil­lion oth­er peo­ple didn’t see it, too. Any­way, I’ll catch you guys lat­er.” As I walk away, I hear Mis­sy say, “No way. Hare Krish­na peo­ple don’t even wear make­up.” But, I nev­er look back to let her know I heard her. 


By the coat clos­et in the band room is a fire door with a dis­con­nect­ed alarm, so I head there for a smoke before my guid­ance coun­sel­ing freak­fest. I’m halfway to the coat clos­et, when I see Belin­da Buck­n­er dig­ging around in a knap­sack. It total­ly looks like a theft-in-progress, but like I care. When she looks up at me, I just give her a silent nod, and keep step­ping. I’m light­ing up, sit­ting with my back to the door, when it busts open and almost knocks me over. 

Damn,” I say, when I real­ize Belin­da has fol­lowed me. I fin­ish light­ing my cig­a­rette and scoot onto a step clear of the door­way. Belin­da leans toward me, point­ing her crooked fin­ger close to my face. 

If you tell any­body you saw me up in here, I’ma kick your skin­ny ass,” she says. I just roll my eyes. So, she steps clos­er and says, “I’ma kick your ass after school, you lit­tle cross-eyed snot. Don’t let me catch you after school, I swear!” And then she lets the door slam shut behind her. I don’t know who she’s call­ing cross-eyed, with those bowlegs of hers. Now my knee is bounc­ing up and down a mile a minute. Plus, this cig­a­rette is old and tastes like the bot­tom of my shoe. So, my plan to cool out a bit is shot, plus I’ve got to dodge Belin­da after school, because she is known to keep her butt-kick­ing word. I decide to cut my loss­es, and just head for the guid­ance office. 


I’m wait­ing for my guid­ance coun­selor to go over my file and get to the point of this moment in hell, when I real­ize he’s an even big­ger freak than I remem­ber. He’s wear­ing this gold chain around his neck, and this pol­ka dot shirt––which looks just as ridicu­lous as it sounds. It’s like this morn­ing he got dressed to go to the roller rink, and instead came to work. He hasn’t said a word since he told me to make myself com­fort­able when I came in about for­ev­er ago. As if mak­ing myself com­fort­able was pos­si­ble. I’m hop­ing I’m here because he has to check in with all of his new trans­fer stu­dents, to see how we’re adjust­ing. He’s look­ing through my file, eat­ing a Whop­per and some onion rings, and his eye­brows are mov­ing almost as much as his jaw. I kin­da think he might be try­ing to hyp­no­tize me. This goes on like for­ev­er. Any­way, he final­ly stops read­ing and puts his elbows on the edge of his desk with his two fin­gers point­ed up like a steeple. So, I’m guess­ing he’s being seri­ous with me. 

Well, I see here that your grades are okay––they could be better––but they’re pass­ing.” He stops to suck his teeth a cou­pla times. “What con­cerns me, is that your teachers––every last one of them––says that you could do bet­ter if you didn’t spend so much time in class flirt­ing with the boys.” 

His eye­brows go up, and he just holds them there. Which I guess means he’s wait­ing for a response, but I can’t move. I think I’m not old enough to have a heart attack, but I’m sure that right now I’m dying. I want to tell him that I need to go to the hos­pi­tal, real­ly, but I can’t move. At all. I can see that he’s talk­ing to me. But all I can hear is this whoosh noise in my head like when I swim under­wa­ter in the pool at the Y. I’m think­ing about what Mama is gonna do when she hears this, and I start to feel a lit­tle shaky. My eyes fill up with hot water. Mr. Piekars­ki folds his hands on the desk and leans over his Whopper. 

Andrea, is there any­thing you’d like to say about this?” he asks. 

I know my lips are mov­ing, but it takes a few sec­onds before I hear myself say “I’m P’Mona.” 

Oh. Oh! Excuse me,” he says, look­ing down at the file. “Let’s see now. Just one sec­ond.” He licks his fin­gers, clos­es the file, then pulls mine from the heap under his ham­burg­er. He opens it, and his eye­brows do their thing. Then he starts over. 

Okay, P’Mona. Sor­ry ’bout that. Here’s what we’ve real­ly got.” I can bare­ly hear him over the whoosh­ing and Mama’s cussing in my head. “So, while your grades are admirable, there are still some issues.” He rais­es one eye­brow, then the oth­er. “The feel­ing is, P’Mona, that expec­ta­tions of enrolling you in a Mag­net arts school where there is an empha­sis on cre­ative out­put would alle­vi­ate your need to express your­self by …” He paus­es for a long time, mak­ing these rolling ges­tures with his hands, like he’s for­got­ten what he was going to say. I just look at him. I’m not a mind read­er. “There were hopes that you would, you know, that it would alle­vi­ate, you know, your need for … fib­bing.” He folds his hands into a steeple again. “How do you feel about that?” 

I just shrug at him. 

Is there some­thing about the tran­si­tion that’s been par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult for you, P’Mona?” This time I don’t even both­er to shrug. “The feel­ing, P’Mona, is that if you can’t get this … tale-telling … under con­trol, well …” Now his eye­brows shrug at me. “The feel­ing is that, per­haps, you should start to talk to some­one on a reg­u­lar basis. To kind of sort this out, you know? Get to the bot­tom of this … need to fib.” 

I don’t know what my face did, but it must have been some­thing, because he adds all quick, “Oh, not me. The sug­ges­tion has been made that, per­haps, see­ing a coun­selor out­side of school might be a next step. As opposed to trans­fer­ring you to anoth­er school again.” He licks his thumb, sticks them in onion ring crumbs, then licks them off before he focus­es back on me. “What do you think, P’Mona?” 

I think I’d like to break his big, buck teeth and watch him swal­low them. But, I’m also think­ing I can’t say that. 

Is there any­one that maybe you might be com­fort­able enough to talk to about things?” he con­tin­ues. “A favorite teacher maybe? Or a rel­a­tive? Any­one? I’m just think­ing if you test it out with some­one you trust first, it might help. Just see if open­ing up a lit­tle bit seems help­ful to you. Would that be, you know, cool with you?” 

Now I’m think­ing he’s not try­ing to put me on about any­thing. They’re real­ly think­ing about sign­ing me up with a shrink. Then I’m think­ing Mama must know all about this, and that it was prob­a­bly even her idea. I’ve been framed. 

Mr. Piekars­ki is still look­ing at me all hope­ful, and I feel kin­da sor­ry for him, so I say, “Well, there’s Mrs. Hick­man, I guess.” 

He kin­da leaps up in his seat a bit, and he claps his hands togeth­er. “Great! Mrs. Hickman!” 

She’s kin­da my adopt­ed grand­moth­er,” I add. 

Alright. Alright!” His eye­brows are doing the Mex­i­can hat dance. “And how often do you see Mrs. Hickman?” 

I usu­al­ly see her once a week. She lives alone, so I usu­al­ly go and see how she’s doing. Kin­da keep her com­pa­ny and stuff. Maybe help her around the house if she needs it … That kin­da stuff.” 

Well, excel­lent, P’Mona. That’s just great. Just great. You see––this is progress.” He points his steeple fin­gers at me. “It’s won­der­ful to know that there is some­body you feel you can con­nect with. This is good. Real­ly good.” He pulls the fold­ers out from under his Whop­per and straight­ens them up while he’s talk­ing. I’m think­ing that for all of my trau­ma, I should get the rest of the day free. 

P’Mona, can we agree that the next time you’re with Mrs. Hick­man, you’ll try and share one thing with her? Just one thing that you might have oth­er­wise kept to your­self.” My foot starts to kick the leg of his desk out of reflex. 

It doesn’t have to be any­thing big, mind you. A dis­ap­point­ing grade, or even just how your day went at school. Can you do that? Just to see how it feels?” I tell him that I guess I could, but I don’t men­tion that hell’s got­ta freeze over first. Final­ly, the bell rings, which means I can bolt. 

Alright, P’Mona,” he says, walk­ing me to the door. “I look for­ward to our next meet­ing. We’ve made some real progress today. Real progress.” I slip free into the hall­way. I’m bare­ly ten feet away, when he calls my name. I don’t look at first, but then he calls my name again. I stop, and turn to look at him stand­ing in his office door. He’s kin­da bounc­ing on his heels, and when I look at him, he smiles and rais­es his hands high to give me a dou­ble thumbs up. I dis­ap­pear into the crowd, but I look back quick and see his thumbs still high above everyone’s heads. 

I don’t remem­ber plan­ning on going to the nurse’s office. But, when I get there, and the nurse comes from behind the desk to ask me how I’m feel­ing instead of rolling her eyes like she usu­al­ly does, I know I’ve done the right thing. I tell her I didn’t know what for sure was wrong, but I feel a lit­tle light­head­ed, and my stom­ach kin­da hurts. She brings me back to lie on one of those cots they’ve got for sick kids, and she puts a blan­ket over me. She shakes the ther­mome­ter a few times, then takes my temperature. 

You’ll be alright,” she says, then touch­es my shoul­der before she goes back to her desk. The fact that she’s being super-nice to me means I must real­ly be sick. 

The fifth peri­od bell rings, and I real­ize I’d fall­en asleep. I don’t open my eyes. I just lis­ten to the noise in the hall­way of every­body chang­ing class­es, won­der­ing when the nurse is gonna come and make me go to Alge­bra. Final­ly, I hear her foot­steps com­ing close. But then they stop and make a lit­tle squeak when she turns to go back to her desk. 

I’d almost fall­en back asleep when I hear some­one sneeze, and the nurse lets out a kin­da dis­gust­ed shriek. Then I hear Claude say, “I must be aller­gic to gauze.” I almost laugh out loud. The nurse tells him he can lie down with his head tilt­ed back until his nose­bleed stops. 

Last peri­od goes by quick, and I’m try­ing to fig­ure out how to dodge Belin­da after school. I’m won­der­ing if there’s any way to incor­po­rate Claude in my get­away plans, when the nurse comes and touch­es me again on the shoul­der. “P’Mona, the bell’s going to ring in a few min­utes. Time to get up.” I look over at Claude’s cot, and he’s adjust­ing his glass­es. “It’s close enough to the bell that you can go when you’re ready.” And she dis­ap­pears back out front. This is the break of a life­time, as far as I’m con­cerned, and I whis­per to Claude that I’ll see him on the bus. Then I make for the door, wav­ing to the nurse as I go. 

You feel­ing bet­ter, P’Mona?” she asks. 

Yeah, I think so,” I say, hand on the doorknob. 

Well, good. You’re look­ing a lit­tle better.” 


As I’m stand­ing at my lock­er, I decide that I’m not going to Mrs. Hickman’s. I’m just gonna go home. I can watch TV. And I’m gonna watch some­thing oth­er than old peo­ple TV. And make pud­ding. They’ve got a recipe for vanil­la pud­ding on the side of the corn­starch box. It’s easy to make, too. 

Claude and I are head­ing out, when I say, “Here’s the deal, Claude––I’m not going to Mrs. Hickman’s.” Claude looks at me like I just slapped him. “I’m gonna call her when I get home, and tell her that Mama got sick, and came home ear­ly from work. So you should total­ly go to Scrab­ble club.” 

Okay,” says Claude. “How are you gonna get home?” 

I’m just gonna walk.” It takes about a half an hour to walk home, which is why tak­ing the bus to Mrs. Hickman’s doesn’t com­plete­ly suck. “Besides, if I get on the bus, Belin­da might catch me.” Claude nods his head in agreement. 

Good plan,” he says. 

I wave good­bye to Claude as he heads for the bus, then I start home. 


When I get home, I call Mrs. Hick­man. I tell her Mama’s lying down, ’cause she came home ear­ly from work feel­ing sick, and I’ll see her tomor­row. I don’t know why Mama won’t let me stay home alone for more than an hour. I’m in the eighth grade, and it’s not like I’m scared. But she says she doesn’t like me being home alone. Whatever. 

The first thing I do is turn on the TV. My favorite game show––Match Game––is on, so I lie across the sofa and watch the end. Then I make pud­ding. I watch TV while it cools. Then the mail­man comes, and my Sev­en­teen came! Plus the cat cal­en­dar I saved up pur­chase seals from the cat food box to get! Plus the mini Bonne Bell Lip Smack­ers that I ordered! I nev­er get mail. Nev­er. Final­ly, the pud­ding is cool enough. I eat almost all of it, then I go back to read­ing Sev­en­teen. The last thing that I remem­ber, I’d fin­ished, and was look­ing for some­thing oth­er than news on the TV


I wake up to Mama shout­ing. “P’Mona! What in the hell? Have you lost your mind? You bet­ter have a good rea­son for not being at Mrs. Hickman’s. Well? What do you have to say?” 

I went to her house, and nobody was home … Maybe the door­bell is broke …” 

That’s bull­shit, P’Mona. That woman told me you called her.” 

I wasn’t feel­ing well. I even spent the last three peri­ods in the nurse’s office. You can check.” 

P’Mona, I can’t believe a word that comes out of your mouth.” 

I’m telling the truth …” 

You don’t know noth­ing ’bout the truth.” Mama said. She just stands there star­ing at me hard all hard, with her hands on her hips. I guess I hadn’t thought my plan all the way through. “Go to your room. And don’t come back down,” Mama says. 

So I do, and lie down on my bed. I’ve almost for­got about the pud­ding, the Sev­en­teen, the cat cal­en­dar, and the Lip Smack­ers. Now my eyes are fill­ing up, so I grab on tight to my pil­low. She’ll see. I’m gonna be rich and famous, and she’ll be lucky if I ever even talk to her. And, I’m gonna find my dad. He should know how suc­cess­ful his daugh­ter turned out to be. She’ll see. They’ll all see. I’m gonna make it. 

And this time––this time––I’m for real. 




From the writer

:: Account ::

As a child, I nev­er could tell a good lie. My face is one of those that gives away all my secrets. I had fan­tasies about “telling sto­ries,” whether it be about going to a friend’s house to real­ly skip out and meet a boy (nev­er hap­pened) or who I was talk­ing to on the phone (invari­ably, a boy I liked). I’d form my mouth to tell a cov­er sto­ry, but only truth would spill out. 

As I grew old­er and start­ed writ­ing, I thought many times about how I mar­veled at peo­ple who could lie with ease—including a very dear (patho­log­i­cal) friend. She’d con­coct whole fairy tales and I nev­er once called her on it. Then I began think­ing about what a bur­den it must be, keep­ing all those lies straight. That’s when I came up with my pro­tag­o­nist and wrote the bones of this sto­ry. I decid­ed that she’d lie as a defense mech­a­nism, as a way to inoc­u­late her­self from real­i­ty. She felt like a bur­den to her moth­er, which made her resent­ful, and that is why she act­ed out. Then I decid­ed to top off her mis­ery by giv­ing her a name that was a burden—P’Mona. Unnec­es­sar­i­ly dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to get straight and one that could nev­er be spelled with­out being told how.  

The one thing I con­tin­ue to won­der is if the liars among us believe their lies … or if they just don’t give a damn about their deceit­ful­ness. I want to think they have a rea­son, like P’Mona. Deep inside, I’m not so sure. 


T. E. Wilder­son is a New Orleans-born writer cur­rent­ly liv­ing in the Mid­west. By day, she is an edi­tor and graph­ic design­er. Her short sto­ries have appeared in Crack the Spine Anthol­o­gy XVII, The Louisville Review, Tish­man Review, The Notre Dame Review, and F(r)iction, among oth­ers. She holds an MFA in writ­ing from Spald­ing Uni­ver­si­ty, and is a 2019 McK­night Foun­da­tion Writ­ing Fellow. 


Fiction / David Stromberg

:: Panic ::

Well, I was sup­posed to be in Paris for a short stay, and I real­ly wasn’t try­ing to meet any­one. The com­pa­ny was con­sid­er­ing coop­er­at­ing with our French com­peti­tors, and I was the only one in the office who’d stud­ied even basic French. The idea was to meet rep­re­sen­ta­tives from dif­fer­ent depart­ments and, based on that, see how we could work togeth­er. It was my first chance to lead a project—and the French agreed—so I went. We nev­er real­ly set a time­line—and, I know it sounds crazy, but I think that’s part­ly why I end­ed up in an emer­gency room. 

As soon as I got to Paris, I called Mel—you know, my friend from busi­ness school, the one who went to work at one of the French banks and end­ed up mar­ry­ing a native Parisian—and she invit­ed me to her hol­i­day par­ty. That’s where I met Clémence. 

Mel lived in an old Parisian apart­ment over­look­ing the Bastille. Her hus­band had inher­it­ed it from one of his grand­par­ents and con­vert­ed it into a super-mod­ern Euro­pean loft.  I did­n’t know any­one except for Mel at the par­ty, and she was busy host­ing, so I spent a lot of time stand­ing in the cor­ner look­ing at the view.

Clé­mence walked by, giv­ing me this sweet apolo­getic smile. I smiled back and said, Hel­lo. She asked me, in per­fect Eng­lish, what I was doing there, and I told her. She said she knew Mel’s hus­band from high school and didn’t real­ly know any­one else there. Most of the peo­ple at the par­ty were from the cor­po­rate world, and she was an inde­pen­dent cloth­ing design­er try­ing to make a name for her­self, so she thought she’d come to net­work a lit­tle. But in the end she said she felt too shy. And that’s how we end­ed up talk­ing to each oth­er for most of the night. 

At the end of the par­ty I drunk­en­ly asked her whether I could kiss her. She said not tonight—but gave me her num­ber. I asked her whether she want­ed to come to where I was stay­ing for lunch the next day. She said she would. As we said good­bye, she had that sweet sad smile on her face again. I asked her why she was smil­ing. She said she was hap­py. I might sound mean, but my first reac­tion was a feel­ing of hor­ror, like, Oh no …  

So that was the first night. Actu­al­ly, I was so drunk that I did­n’t exact­ly remem­ber how the night ended—only that it end­ed very late. I man­aged to some­how get back to the tiny stu­dio apart­ment I was rent­ing just off the Canal Saint-Mar­tin. I woke up around ten o’clock and wasn’t even sure that what had hap­pened was real. Did I real­ly meet a woman named Clé­mence? Was she real­ly plan­ning to come over for lunch? 

So I wrote her a text message—like good morn­ing and how’re you feel­ing and do you remem­ber any­thing—and it turned out it was all real. She was com­ing over for lunch. 

Look: I couldn’t have known what would hap­pen at that moment. How strong the attach­ment would grow. I mean, how do you do that? You don’t even know that anything’s going to hap­pen at that point—you cer­tain­ly don’t know how it’s going to develop. 

All you’re think­ing as it’s hap­pen­ing is: this is inter­est­ing. Sud­den­ly you’re filled with all these feel­ings, out of nowhere, and just like that, you have an emo­tion­al life. And you just met this per­son two sec­onds ago. 

We had a nice lunch. I made mush­room-bar­ley soup with leeks and car­rots. I made us cof­fee. We talked—not as eas­i­ly as we had the night before, but still, there was some­thing nice about the awk­ward flir­ta­tion. And I guess that was the point. 

When we fin­ished she got up, and I got up, and we both kind of froze like we weren’t sure what to do next. I put my hand out toward hers, and she put hers out toward mine. We locked fin­gers light­ly and then leaned in to kiss each oth­er. It wasn’t pas­sion­ate. Just a soft, pro­longed kiss. Real­ly nice. 

She left. That should have been the end. It could have been the end. But it wasn’t.  

The next day she texted me and asked if I want­ed to come over after work—she was plan­ning on mak­ing pump­kin bisque. 

I have to tell you that she’s a very beau­ti­ful per­son. Not just physically—though I think she’d be con­sid­ered attractive—but there’s some­thing else. You can see it in how she moves: care­ful, con­sid­ered, slow. She’s got this sim­ple style—she can be for­mal and casu­al at the same time. You can tell when you see her that this is some­one special. 

So I said yes to her bisque. I went to work for meet­ings that didn’t real­ly go any­where. And then I went to her place. 

You have to under­stand, I had no idea how long I was going to be in Paris. I had noth­ing to think about oth­er than work. The com­pa­ny was pay­ing all my trav­el expens­es. There was noth­ing for me to be con­cerned about except what I was expe­ri­enc­ing at that moment. 

Clé­mence lived off the République in a tiny stu­dio where she also did her design­ing. We sat at a lit­tle bar that’d been attached to the kitch­enette and had wine and talked. It was the stan­dard get-to-know-you stuff that comes after a cou­ple of dates: where did you grow up, who are your par­ents, what made you pick your career. She told me that her dad was British and that was why she spoke Eng­lish so well. She told me about her deci­sion to switch pro­fes­sions from graph­ic to cloth­ing design. I told her that I’d always intend­ed to go to busi­ness school and work in finance. That sort of thing. 

She also told me that she’d been invit­ed to the hol­i­day par­ty because her best friend from high school—who’d died in a car acci­dent a few years ago—had been the sis­ter of my friend’s hus­band. And since her friend’s death, Clé­mence and the broth­er had become friends of sorts, and tried to see each oth­er at least once dur­ing the holidays. 

Her bisque need­ed a lit­tle salt but oth­er­wise it was good. We got through more than half of the wine bot­tle. The whole thing was very sweet. And it had this slow­ness that some­how made it feel safe. 

After­ward, we sat down on her futon bed to fin­ish the wine. You can imag­ine how that end­ed. The thing is that, on the way there, I remem­ber think­ing: go, have a nice time, and then go home. Don’t get involved in any­thing or give her the wrong idea that some­thing might be pos­si­ble between the two of you. You’re leav­ing. So don’t act like you’re not. 

But who remem­bers that sort of thing by the time you’ve shared a bot­tle of wine and are sit­ting togeth­er on a futon? And it had been a while since I’d been with any­one. There was this sweet per­son here who was open to shar­ing moment … who could remem­ber anything .…

It was real­ly nice to be with her that night. You know I don’t usu­al­ly talk this way, but it felt like some­thing deep had hap­pened, some­thing rare and spe­cial. I imag­ine there are peo­ple who can resist some­thing like that. I’m not one of them. 

So that’s how it start­ed. That first week was real­ly so easy. I’d been to Paris before but I didn’t know it well, and she showed me around all these dif­fer­ent areas that you wouldn’t see unless you were with some­one from there. Every evening after I fin­ished work I’d meet her at her stu­dio and we’d go to Belleville, to Oberkampf, to Mon­torgueil, to the Batig­nolles. It was real­ly some­thing to walk the streets of Paris with her. She seemed so at home. 

Paris in win­ter is dark and cold and dank. It’s a good time to have some­one in bed with you. That might have also con­tributed to our spend­ing so much time togeth­er. Though it wasn’t just that. We real­ly liked each other. 

One week turned into two, which turned into three. And most of that time I was with Clé­mence. A few times we went out with Mel and her hus­band, and my French col­leagues took us out once or twice. I also met some of her oth­er friends. But most­ly it was just us. We talked about our ambi­tions. I told her that I want­ed to go into prod­uct inno­va­tion, that it was a spe­cial­ized niche in the finan­cial indus­try which was hard to get into, that this was why I’d even accept­ed the French project. She told me that her inter­est in cloth­ing design had devel­oped from a poster project on pat­terns, that she was less inter­est­ed in glam­or than in using out­er pat­terns to help peo­ple become aware of their inner pat­terns. Our worlds were dif­fer­ent but they also felt some­how par­al­lel. And we were break­ing the rules of math­e­mat­ics through some kind of worm­hole that allowed us to cross paths some­where in the middle. 

But you can only do that for so long. And the trip start­ed drag­ging out. 

I’d orig­i­nal­ly booked my plane tick­ets and sub­let for a three-week trip. But work was going well, and it looked like we were actu­al­ly find­ing some com­mon lan­guage and shared goals. I sug­gest­ed that the French com­pa­ny could work with us to devel­op a new finan­cial product—conceptualize its pur­pose and gauge its mar­ket poten­tial and maybe even co-patent it—while apply­ing our coun­tries’ tax laws to pro­mote the prod­uct in our own mar­kets. The French liked the idea, but it meant com­ing up with a min­i­mal blue­print for that poten­tial prod­uct, and that’d take more time. 

I shared the good news with Clé­mence. I told her that I need­ed to quick­ly find a place to stay and asked her what areas I should con­sid­er. We’d been sleep­ing at her place half the time and at mine the oth­er half—and it did occur to me that she might think I was try­ing to insin­u­ate that she should invite me to stay with her. But real­ly I just want­ed her input on where I should look for a place. And I trust­ed her to resist the temp­ta­tion to invite me to stay with her. 

She smiled the way she had on that first night. And then she said that, if I want­ed to, I could stay with her. 

She was very cool when she said it—I remem­ber we were drink­ing wine at a bar in the Haut Marais before going to dinner—and even though I knew she might say it, I was still sur­prised. It wasn’t about sav­ing money—she knew the com­pa­ny was cov­er­ing my expens­es. And it’s not like we were mov­ing in together—because any­way I was leav­ing as soon as this part of the project was done. I didn’t under­stand why she made the sug­ges­tion. But I couldn’t ask her. I was afraid to know. 

What I felt very strong­ly was that get­ting clos­er than we already were was dan­ger­ous for us both. You don’t want to get so attached to some­one you’re going to leave. It was one thing to spend time togeth­er, to even sleep in the same bed night after night, but it was a whole oth­er thing to only have one liv­ing space. Even for a short amount of time. This was a romance, not a rela­tion­ship, and there had to be some boundaries. 

The thing is that I didn’t know how to say any of this. I’m not sure I even knew I felt this way. I just had this sense of dread. And it made me feel guilty. 

We left the bar and went to din­ner at a lit­tle gourmet restau­rant near­by. We talked about oth­er things—her recent ideas for a new col­lec­tion and the need to redesign her label—but the whole time I kept think­ing about her invi­ta­tion and what it meant. 

We went back to her place—she lived clos­er to where we’d had dinner—and on the way I tried to express my hes­i­ta­tion. I told her I appre­ci­at­ed her invi­ta­tion but that I real­ly hadn’t meant to sug­gest that. She smiled again and said she believed me and that it real­ly didn’t wor­ry her. 

As we walked, I found myself hav­ing to put my feel­ings into words that were clos­er to what I actu­al­ly felt—though I didn’t want to hurt her. I said that I was com­mit­ted to my job and intend­ed to go back as soon as I was done with the project here. She said she under­stood and that maybe there’d be some unex­pect­ed change. Maybe I’d find a way to stay at my job while also stay­ing in Paris a while longer. I told her it was unlike­ly because my job was in Amer­i­ca. She smiled and said that I was already stay­ing longer than expected. 

When we got to her place we went straight to bed and made love. It was very strange. It’s not like we were in a lov­ing mood. We were basi­cal­ly arguing—but some­how there was no out­right anger. There was con­fu­sion and there was frus­tra­tion. She had this hope that she’d revealed, and she decid­ed to hold onto it no mat­ter what I said. And I just want­ed her to hear me and to accept that I was going to leave. I think that’s what I real­ly wanted. 

But she wouldn’t. When we were done we lay in bed and talked some more. She said that she didn’t expect any­thing from me except not to pre­sume how the whole thing might end. Just to let things devel­op how­ev­er they devel­oped and to give myself room to accept what I hadn’t con­sid­ered beforehand. 

I can’t explain to you what that com­ment did to me. It’s like I could see two ver­sions of the future extend­ing out of me—one that extend­ed only from what I planned for myself and anoth­er from what was hap­pen­ing at that moment with Clémence—I saw an entire life with her in this place. I saw that poten­tial, I felt it, it entered into my heart. And then I got scared as hell. And start­ed crying. 

I was shak­ing and Clé­mence took my hand. She asked me: “What hap­pened?” I said: “I real­ized some­thing.” And I just kept cry­ing. She asked: “What is it?” It took me a few moments to catch my breath enough to say what I felt. “I always thought,” I said, almost pant­i­ng, “that I was afraid of death. But now I real­ize that I’m actu­al­ly afraid of life.” I buried my head in her arms and the tears just flowed and flowed. 

I know I’m cry­ing again, but it was very very pow­er­ful. I don’t think I’d ever faced such a deep fear in front of any­one. I’m not sure I’d ever faced one with myself. And I can tell you that it wouldn’t have hap­pened if I hadn’t trust­ed Clé­mence so deeply. That was the thing about her. You could trust her with your life. She was a deeply good per­son. How many peo­ple like that are you ever going to meet? 

So I end­ed up mov­ing into her place. I just couldn’t see myself hav­ing an expe­ri­ence like that and then walk­ing away. I fig­ured she was right. I’m here now and that’s what counts and who knows what the future will bring. I was work­ing to devel­op these ideas with the French. Things were going well. I could just as well leave when I was done—what did I need to rent some oth­er apart­ment when I could take the chance to spend some time with some­one so spe­cial? There was no need to insist on being sep­a­rat­ed from her when in all like­li­hood we were going to be sep­a­rat­ed any­way. What harm could come from being with some­one so good? 

That’s what I told myself. I had no idea then how much being with some­one good could hurt. 

Things at work were going well. I’d sug­gest­ed devel­op­ing per­son­al trav­el loans that would cre­ate direct lines of cred­it with air­lines, hotels, and car rental companies—like mort­gages or car loans that fun­nel resources from these com­pa­nies back to their con­sumers in return for inter­est. The idea was to use pro­ject­ed over­stock and can­cel­la­tions to cre­ate lim­it­ed num­bers of loans. Our com­pa­nies would work with trav­el providers in our respec­tive coun­tries to pre­pare pack­ages that min­i­mal­ly exposed them to loss while using their excess ser­vices to cre­ate debt-dri­ven income. I have to admit, even I was sur­prised that no one had done this yet. 

The French loved the idea and had me work direct­ly with their inno­va­tion department—which has been in the glob­al mar­ket much longer than ours. We set our goal at prepar­ing a pitch for the prod­uct that we could each present to trav­el providers. I report­ed the progress to my boss, and she said I could get my name on the inter­na­tion­al patent. That’s a real­ly big deal. 

Clé­mence was work­ing on her new col­lec­tion, and I helped her devel­op her own mar­ket­ing plan. She want­ed to rent a lit­tle show­room, and I helped her pre­pare a bud­get. She had some mon­ey from her par­ents that she was liv­ing from, but she also knew that she had to turn her project into a busi­ness and earn some income. I sug­gest­ed she should lim­it her goals to what she could real­is­ti­cal­ly reach—and to be patient. 

We were a work­ing cou­ple. Our days were filled with pro­fes­sion­al wor­ries, and at night we enjoyed our few tired hours togeth­er. We went out for drinks and din­ner, we watched movies, some­times her friends invit­ed us over and we went. Paris is a great place for hav­ing a sim­ple city life. It’s so beau­ti­ful that the whole expe­ri­ence is just enough by itself. 

Before I knew it I’d been in Paris for nine weeks—six of them liv­ing with Clé­mence. And at that point I also real­ized that the project was going to end soon. It was an abrupt real­iza­tion because pulling togeth­er data from dif­fer­ent indus­tries had gone slow­ly, but the analy­sis and con­struc­tion of the trav­el pack­ages went much more quick­ly. By the time I real­ized this, we were going to be done in a cou­ple of days. So just as Clé­mence and I were  get­ting into a rhythm—I had to start prepar­ing for my departure. 

Clé­mence and I were liv­ing togeth­er, so it wasn’t like I could go home and think things over. We were liv­ing in a tiny stu­dio. There was no room to think. 

The French com­pa­ny was based in Mont­par­nasse, near that big ugly tow­er, so I decid­ed to walk home to the République—which is about an hour’s walk. I left a lit­tle ear­ly, it was the begin­ning of March, so there was actu­al­ly some sun­light left in the day. I walked out and saw this beau­ti­ful street in front of me, in this mag­i­cal city, with all this activ­i­ty right there. I didn’t under­stand how I was going to leave it all. I’d only been there two months, but it felt like I’d been liv­ing there my entire life. 

I remem­ber real­ly well the route I took on that walk home. I went down the Rue de Rennes and then turned onto the Rue du Four then end­ed up on the Rue de Buci and then the Rue Saint-Andre des Arts. I remem­ber I left like this area was so touris­tic, and then I laughed because I was a tourist too. But I also felt like I was going to miss being able to just walk through here. 

I crossed the Pont Saint-Michel and saw the Notre Dame off in the distance—and it wasn’t like I was going out of my way to see these sights. It was just my walk home. And in the last rays of the after­noon sun there was just this amaz­ing warm bril­liance to the whole thing. I didn’t know what I was going to do back home with­out all this. 

And then obvi­ous­ly I real­ized that the city was the easy part—what was I going to do back home with­out Clé­mence? I loved this woman. And it made me want to cry. 

The whole rest of the way to her place I thought about the var­i­ous options that we had, and it seemed pret­ty straight­for­ward: either I stayed, or she came with me, or we did the long-dis­tance thing until one of us could join the oth­er. All we had to do was fig­ure out which of them was best for us. 

By the time I got home I was prac­ti­cal­ly excit­ed about the fact that I was leav­ing soon. It felt like this weird lim­bo that we’d been liv­ing in was actu­al­ly going to take some prac­ti­cal form. Our time togeth­er hadn’t had any struc­ture, and now we’d have a chance to give our rela­tion­ship a real frame­work. We’d just been sort of float­ing from day to day, each of us doing our thing, and being together—but there’d been no vision, no direc­tion, no plan. Now there was no way to ignore the fact that I was leav­ing, and we were actu­al­ly going to have to think about what we meant to each oth­er, and what that meant for each of us going forward. 

Well, that con­ver­sa­tion did not go as opti­misti­cal­ly as I’d imag­ined. She start­ed cry­ing. And it wasn’t like just reg­u­lar crying—I mean like the sad-that-you’re-leaving kind of crying—she was cry­ing with this deep sad­ness. Like some­one was about to die. 

I’m alive,” I kept telling her, “and you’re alive. Why don’t we just first be grate­ful that we’re alive.” 

But she just cried and cried. We were sit­ting on the futon and she leaned into me and put her arms around my waist and just kept crying. 

I didn’t know what I should do or say. I felt guilty that she was cry­ing and I was just sit­ting there, and sud­den­ly I start­ed feel­ing this deep sadness—I don’t know how else to describe it except to say it felt elemental—and I just start­ed cry­ing too. 

In my head I told myself that I was just cry­ing to make her feel bet­ter, so she wouldn’t have to feel like she was the only one who was sad about our sep­a­ra­tion. And I was sad about the fact that I had to leave. But I was also think­ing ahead, about our next steps, about the future that we could build together. 

But as we sat on the futon, cry­ing togeth­er, all the thoughts I’d had about our future some­how start­ed to dis­ap­pear. It felt like there’d nev­er been a future and maybe not even a past. It’s like the mem­o­ries that we had of the time we spent togeth­er just evap­o­rat­ed. There was just this sense of a now that was full of the feel­ing of death. It’s like we were sit­ting right there on the futon and dying together. 

I’m not say­ing it felt like an out-of-body experience—but you know how some­times there’s no way to explain some­thing oth­er than with words that already exist? So in a way it was like an out-of-body experience. 

I squeezed her and asked her why she felt so sad. She said she hadn’t had a friend like me since her best friend who’d died. She said she loved me and I told her I loved her too. 

I tried to steer the con­ver­sa­tion toward some­thing more concrete—like our plans for the near future. I had to reserve a tick­et back and I told her it might be good if we made a plan for her to come vis­it. She’d nev­er even been to America. 

She hes­i­tat­ed. She said she want­ed to come, but that she had to work on her col­lec­tion. It was the only anchor she had, and she’d just start­ed mak­ing plans for a show­room. She couldn’t just get up and go to anoth­er coun­try. She had to think about when she could come. 

You can imag­ine my con­fu­sion. All I want­ed was for us to have some point of con­tact that we knew we’d have in the near future. And all she want­ed was to stay in Paris. I couldn’t stay—that was clear—and so sud­den­ly I saw that it meant we were break­ing up. 

When I real­ized this I start­ed cry­ing. Not for her. For myself. “I don’t want to lose you,” I said. And she said, “I don’t want to lose you either.” “So what do we do?” I asked her, cry­ing. And she said, “We try not to come to any conclusion.” 

And I just began to cry hys­ter­i­cal­ly. I mean real­ly hysterically—like with my jaw shak­ing out of control—and I couldn’t under­stand what was hap­pen­ing to my body. It was too much unknown. 

We hugged and cried and fell asleep just like that, on the futon, with­out even open­ing it up. We slept fold­ed into each oth­er all night, and in the morn­ing we woke up with our mouths sticky and our teeth unbrushed and lines of dried salt down our faces. 

We got up and cleaned up and I made us cof­fee and some­how we man­aged to make it through the morn­ing. When I left for work I didn’t even both­er chang­ing my clothes. 

That day I got an email from my boss say­ing the French com­pa­ny had updat­ed her on our progress and that she was look­ing for­ward to hear­ing more of the details when I returned. I wrote her back say­ing I was plan­ning to return by the end of the week and that I’d see her in the office first thing Mon­day morning. 


Clé­mence and I had two more days togeth­er. They were qui­et days—almost silent—we went out for drinks and din­ner but we didn’t talk the way we had before. She cried some­times. I didn’t cry again like I had that time, but I was sad. She was a sweet per­son and all I want­ed was to be in her presence. 

I think I was also mad that she refused to plan to come and vis­it me. I under­stood her rea­sons, but I was still mad. And I think that helped me not fall into the same sadness. 

We got through those two days, and then the time had come for me to go to the air­port. I’d ordered a taxi and it came to pick me up. We went down­stairs togeth­er and tried to say good­bye. But I could­n’t say the words. My jaw start­ed shak­ing again. You have to under­stand that I’d nev­er expe­ri­enced any­thing like that before. My body had nev­er been out of con­trol that way. 

I don’t know what to do,” I said, hold­ing onto her. “It’s like I’m scared of leav­ing you.” “It’s all right,” she said, “I’m with you.” And I just kept hold­ing onto her while my jaw shook. “I don’t know what’s hap­pen­ing,” I said. “It’s all right,” she kept say­ing. “I’m with you.” 

She reas­sured me enough to get into the taxi. Once I was on the road I felt this shift, like trav­el­ing split you into all these dif­fer­ent parts, and you didn’t even know exact­ly who you were. I just went into this trav­el­ing mode because the whole thing just felt crazy anyway. 

I slept most of the flight back, and after I land­ed I took a cab home. When I turned my phone back on I saw an email from her that just said: “Love.” In the cab on the way back I hit reply and wrote: “So much.” Then I hit send. 

I put the phone in my pock­et and watched the road. All these build­ings, all so straight, so dif­fer­ent from Paris. Amer­i­ca was made different. 

I called up a cou­ple of friends—I called you—that was when we made our plan to meet up for a drink Wednes­day. But I didn’t make it that long. I bare­ly got through Mon­day in the office. I man­aged to update my boss on every­thing we’d accom­plished with the French com­pa­ny. And when I got home I thought about call­ing Clé­mence. But the idea of hear­ing her voice was sud­den­ly so scary that I felt the tears welling up again. It’s like I’d been infect­ed with this cry­ing dis­ease. This sadsweet feel­ing that I had no idea how to handle. 

It was around sev­en in the evening when my phone buzzed. I saw it was an email from her and I hur­ried to open it up. It said: “I don’t know how to love you and let you go.” 

I still can’t tell you why, but that sen­tence was too much for me. I start­ed hyper­ven­ti­lat­ing. I didn’t know what to do—so I called you. You didn’t answer, I fig­ured you were feed­ing the kids or putting them to bed, but I knew I had to do some­thing. I couldn’t breathe and I felt like I was going to die. So I called an ambu­lance. They picked me up and brought me to the emer­gency room. They gave me a tran­quil­iz­er. I’m feel­ing a lit­tle calmer now. 

I’ve nev­er had any­thing like this hap­pen, you know? I still don’t know what actu­al­ly hap­pened. I just don’t under­stand. I heard the words the nurse told me, it’s just a pan­ic attack, I know what each one of the words means. But I don’t under­stand what they mean togeth­er. Why attack? Why pan­ic?




From the writer

:: Account ::

This sto­ry is part of a cycle that con­sid­ers the ways that encoun­ters with oth­ers affect our emo­tion­al con­sti­tu­tions more deeply than we real­ize at a giv­en moment. I want­ed to record, in fic­tion­al form, the cir­cum­stances lead­ing up to our real­iz­ing some­thing has hap­pened—but when we don’t yet know what. I also want­ed to cre­ate an homage, some­times more obvi­ous than oth­ers, to how lit­er­a­ture affects us in our lives: how it enters our con­scious­ness­es and changes who we are from the inside. In this sto­ry, I turn Sylvia Plath’s “John­ny Pan­ic and the Bible of Dreams” inside out, with the voice being giv­en to a “patient” who is cop­ing with his first-ever pan­ic attack.   

From a craft per­spec­tive, in approach­ing this expe­ri­ence from the “inside,” I asked myself a rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple ques­tion: How do writ­ers con­vey events to read­ers? The pre­sumed answer to this ques­tion will almost always deter­mine the form and mode of a fic­tion­al work. No one can attempt to write any­thing with­out, con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly, apply­ing some mod­el. A lit­er­ary work is, in the end, addressed to a per­son who is meant to be reached—and in fic­tion, the per­son addressed in a lit­er­ary work is not iden­ti­cal to the one read­ing it in the real world. This is where the slip­page occurs, mark­ing the begin­ning of what I call abstract writ­ing

With this in mind, I want­ed to con­sid­er how sto­ry­telling is shaped by the fact that the peo­ple to whom we speak are usu­al­ly peo­ple we know—and this spe­cif­ic rela­tion between speak­er and lis­ten­er is the sto­ry­telling ele­ment that I began to abstract. When you speak to some­one you know, you don’t have time to go into every pos­si­ble detail of your sto­ry, because your time with them is lim­it­ed. You only say what’s most rel­e­vant to con­vey­ing the main events. But this kind of abstrac­tion requires read­ers to place them­selves in the shoes of some­one who is not direct­ly represented—the per­son lis­ten­ing to the narration—and to inter­po­late them­selves into the fic­tion­al world. This chal­lenges read­ers to enter into a dia­logue with the fic­tion, and to con­tin­ue it in their own lives. In this way, I invite read­ers to take part in the cre­ative project of fic­tion: to enter the sto­ry and to explore, in their own time and on their own terms, what it means to make lit­er­a­ture part of reality. 


David Stromberg is a writer, trans­la­tor, and lit­er­ary schol­ar. He has pub­lished fic­tion in The Woven Tale Press, Atti­cus Review, and the UK’s Ambit, non­fic­tion in The Amer­i­can Schol­ar, Lit­er­ary Mat­ters, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books, and trans­la­tions in The New York­er, Asymp­tote, and Con­junc­tions. In 2019, he pub­lished a series of per­son­al reflec­tions in Pub­lic Sem­i­nar about grow­ing up on the eth­nic and cul­tur­al mar­gins of Los Ange­les. He is the author of four car­toon col­lec­tions, includ­ing BADDIES (Melville House, 2009), and two crit­i­cal stud­ies, most recent­ly IDIOT LOVE and the Ele­ments of Inti­ma­cy (Pal­grave, 2020). He is edi­tor to the Isaac Bashe­vis Singer Lit­er­ary Trust, and an edit­ed col­lec­tion of Singer’s essays is forth­com­ing from Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press. His spec­u­la­tive novel­la-length essay, A Short Inquiry into the End of the World, was pub­lished in The Mass­a­chu­setts Review’s Work­ing Titles series. 

Fall, Buck, and Scale

Fiction / Ken Post

:: Fall, Buck, and Scale ::

​​Muf­fled steps, occa­sion­al grunts, and blue­ber­ry bush­es whapped against their legs, punc­tur­ing the silence. Mon­ty fol­lowed as Don pushed through brush. Nobody said a word. Heat and sweat built inside Monty’s rain gear as it rose from behind his knees, chim­neyed up through his groin toward his armpits, and vent­ed out his neck. He self-bast­ed in his rub­ber out­fit as he entered anoth­er thick­et. Every mus­cle in his body fixed on the next step he took. Per­spi­ra­tion burned his neck and stung his eyes. 

Don packed a chain­saw across one shoul­der. It bobbed up and down on his back as he marched across the uneven ground. Matt was a half-dozen steps ahead of Don, shov­ing branch­es out of his way with one hand, the oth­er hand cling­ing to an aer­i­al pho­to clad in a heavy-duty Ziploc bag. At the back, Mon­ty car­ried the .375 rifle for brown bear pro­tec­tion. He wished these guys would slow down. 

It was like a sea of leaves and a lat­tice of veg­e­ta­tion they pushed through, climbed over, or crawled under. Peri­od­i­cal­ly, a sil­ver hard­hat or a bright yel­low Helly Hansen rain coat was vis­i­ble before it dis­ap­peared back into the ver­dan­cy burst­ing forth in a for­est with over one hun­dred inch­es of rain a year. 

Mon­ty entered a small open­ing next to a trio of tow­er­ing spruce trees. Matt and Don stared at an aer­i­al photo. 

We’re almost there,” Matt said. 

They were not lost; they knew exact­ly where they were. It start­ed with the pin­prick Matt made in the aer­i­al pho­to before they left camp. Fif­teen min­utes ear­li­er, the heli­copter had descend­ed into the clos­est muskeg to the photo’s tiny pin­hole, and they were now trav­el­ing north­east to that spot. 

What’s ‘almost there’ mean?” asked Don. He looked at Matt with an expres­sion­less stare. Don was the faller—he cut down the trees and bucked them into six­teen foot logs. He wore an alu­minum, wide-brimmed hard­hat sit­ting low on his head, as if his head had been machined to fit it. All you could see were a few wet strands of hair with almost no trace of fore­head vis­i­ble. His gray eyes and aquiline nose gave him a sharp, pierc­ing look. 

Five, ten min­utes, maybe.” 

Mon­ty placed the gun against a tree. “Do you guys always walk this fast?” He used the inter­lude to catch his breath. 

Matt, a sinewy six-foot-three, with a black beard car­pet­ing his face, and Don, a fire hydrant of knot­ted brawn, were the odd cou­ple of the woods. The one thing they had in com­mon was their abil­i­ty to maneu­ver across roots, ravines, down­fall, thick­ets, and stream cross­ings. How the hell can two guys be so dif­fer­ent but trav­el so quick­ly? Mon­ty was the guy with the gun, and it was all he could do to fol­low them. 

We actu­al­ly slowed down,” Matt said, “to make it a bit eas­i­er on you.” 

Won­der­ful.” Mon­ty had been warned when he accept­ed the For­est Ser­vice job in Sit­ka and been hand­ed his Nomex fire-retar­dant heli­copter flight cov­er­alls and a sleep­ing bag. He had bumped into a beard­ed dude on his way out the door. As he walked out, the guy asked, “Where you head­ing, cowboy?” 

Tim­ber sale prepa­ra­tion in Gilbert Bay.” 

Oh.” The man gri­maced. “You must have drawn the short straw. Good luck.” 

It wasn’t imme­di­ate­ly clear what the man meant, but he under­stood now that he was work­ing with Matt and Don. He was their rifle bear­er and go-fer who held the “dumb end of the tape” when Matt measured. 

Matt wad­ed into a thorny devil’s club patch, their leaves yel­low-tinged and droop­ing. The saw was back on Don’s shoul­der and he dis­ap­peared into the devil’s club. Mon­ty picked up the gun and trudged on, hop­ing they arrived at the pin­prick soon. 

A few min­utes lat­er, Matt held up his hand. “Okay, I think we’re almost there.” 

Mon­ty cra­dled the rifle in his arm, mak­ing a con­scious effort to keep the muz­zle point­ed away from his part­ners. “Looks like the same stuff we’ve been walk­ing through for the last five minutes.” 

Agree, but we have to go to the ran­dom­ly select­ed plot. Oth­er­wise, we might as well just stop at the most con­ve­nient spots, and that would mess up all the sta­tis­ti­cal sam­pling.” In For­est Ser­vice par­lance, Matt was the “scaler,” the per­son who mea­sured the trees, looked for rot, and checked the qual­i­ty of the wood. He was much more; Matt man­aged the small camp, planned the crew’s work, and was a mas­ter for­est navigator. 

Screw the sta­tis­tics. I’m get­ting cold. Let’s go kill some trees.” Don shoul­dered the saw and start­ed off to the area Matt indicated. 

Matt kept walk­ing and looked at the trees. “Okay, this is going to be the cen­ter of the plot. Mon­ty, take this can of spray paint and shoot a dot on each tree I tell you to.” 

Mon­ty turned to look at all the trees around him. “Which tree do you want me to go to?” 

Just start walk­ing and I’ll direct you.” 

This one over here?” Mon­ty pat­ted the tree and paused at the base of a forty-inch diam­e­ter spruce and looked up at it. The first branch­es were thir­ty feet above the ground, and they kept going up like a giant beanstalk. Moss shroud­ed the limbs and hung sus­pend­ed in clumps. 

Yeah, spray that one.” 

What about that big suck­er behind it?” Don said. 

Matt eye­balled the tree. “Nah, that’s out.” 

Spray it any­way. That’s one beau­ti­ful tree.” 

Mon­ty hes­i­tat­ed and looked back at Matt, who shook his head side­ways. “Leave it.” 

For the next ten min­utes, Mon­ty walked in a clock­wise direc­tion spray­ing trees. Sweat built up again as he made his way through devil’s club, skunk cab­bage, and blue­ber­ry brambles. 

After Mon­ty accept­ed the job offer, it occurred to him he could qui­et­ly walk off and nev­er join the crew in Gilbert Bay. Things would be okay—they would find some­body else to do the work. But he didn’t want to aban­don it. He had dis­ap­peared much of his life, an invis­i­ble pres­ence in every­one else’s sto­ry. Too shy at first to make many friends grow­ing up. Too accom­mo­dat­ing to those who didn’t deserve it. In col­lege, he moved past the uneasy first days of dorm life, try­ing to fig­ure where he fit in, but the specter of being on the edge of the stage still hovered. 

Okay, that does it,” Matt yelled. 

Let’s get to work,” Don said. He point­ed to the first tree he was going to cut and ges­tured for Matt and Mon­ty to stay back of him in a safe­ty zone. Don pulled the cord and the motor emit­ted a WAAAAAAAAA! that blot­ted out the rest of the world. 

Mon­ty and Matt took refuge fifty feet back, behind an old hem­lock. Don cut a large wedge in the face of the tree, and chips sprayed out in a white stream, pil­ing up rapid­ly near his feet. He set the idling saw down and ges­tured to Mon­ty. “I’m gonna let you have the plea­sure of knock­ing your first wedge out of this tree.” 

Mon­ty walked to Don, who pulled a small ax from his pack. 

Take this and give it a whack, Mick­ey Mantle.” 

Mon­ty grabbed the ax and took a base­ball swing with the blunt ax head. A hunk of pie-shaped wood land­ed in the chip pile. 

Nice job. We’ll make a log­ger out of you yet. Now head back there with Matt behind that tree until I’m done.” Don read­ied for the back cut and turned around to check on them before start­ing. The saw bit into the tree, eat­ing through nine inch­es of wood in less than a minute. He pulled nar­row plas­tic wedges out of his pack and drove them into the cut with the ax head. Watch­ing the top of the tree, Don pulled the saw clear and backed away. The tip­ping point of a 150-foot col­umn of wood weigh­ing forty tons, changed. It thun­dered down, smash­ing two small­er trees in half. Large branch­es thud­ded to the ground, the weight and momen­tum yank­ing the tree six feet from the stump. The final crash shat­tered limbs and shook the ground. An eerie silence fol­lowed as spruce nee­dles and stray fil­a­ments of moss fil­tered down. 

Right on the mon­ey,” Don said. 

The limbs of the downed tree faced them, spread like giant fans. Don fired the saw up again, walked down the length of the tree, and cut them where they attached to the tree. A geyser of chips and blue exhaust. 

While the tree was limbed, Mon­ty count­ed the stump’s rings—all 397, give or take a few. The fall­en tree looked like a har­pooned whale about to have its blub­ber removed. Ahab, with his chain­saw, had limbed the tree almost to its top. Mon­ty turned away and looked off through the woods. Moments before, this was a liv­ing organ­ism pulling nutri­ents, water, and light into its bulk. His job was con­vert­ing it to two-by-fours. 

Work­ing in Alas­ka after grad­u­a­tion was a huge leap com­pared to Monty’s nor­mal incre­men­tal steps. But the offer was too good to pass up. Dur­ing his first sea­son­al stint in the woods ear­li­er in the year, he tast­ed Alas­ka: breath­tak­ing scenery, fly­ing in heli­copters, camp­ing in the depths of the wilder­ness. His last crew was a band of adven­tur­ers like a cast in an epic-scale play. He want­ed more of all of it. And he need­ed the mon­ey after an unin­sured drunk totaled his pick­up truck. At Gilbert Bay, he wasn’t sure of any of it. 

Matt looked at Mon­ty. “Our turn. Take this and work your way along the tree.” Mon­ty grabbed the end of a fifty-foot log­ging tape which unspooled from a blue alu­minum case attached to Matt’s suspenders. 

Mon­ty stum­bled and climbed over the pile of limbs until Matt yelled, “Stop! Mark it!” Mon­ty chopped a deep gash into the fis­sured bark. Halfway along the tree, Mon­ty noticed the quiet. 

Don had retreat­ed, watch­ing their work from atop the stump, large as the cof­fee table back in Monty’s home in Indi­ana. He reclined with one arm back prop­ping him up, and the oppo­site knee up. A cig­a­rette perched in his mouth as he exhaled and tilt­ed his head back like a wolf about to howl. A cloud of smoke float­ed upward into the mist and dis­si­pat­ed. He had the con­tent look of a man who just got laid.  

Matt was busy tak­ing notes and noticed Mon­ty arrive at the tree top, half a foot­ball field away. He looked in Don’s direc­tion and shout­ed, “You’re up!” 

Don flicked the nub of the cig­a­rette butt into a skunk cab­bage patch, hopped off the stump, and grabbed his saw. A few pulls and the saw rum­bled to life as Mon­ty and Matt pushed foam ear plugs in. Don cut chunks of tree out at every mark Mon­ty made. Matt inspect­ed the tree at each cut, scrib­bling in his yel­low note­book about wood defect, qual­i­ty, and volume. 

After sev­er­al more trees were cut down, Matt looked around and scratched his head with the brim of his hard hat. “I guess it’s time for lunch.” They hud­dled under a large spruce pro­vid­ing a roof over them from the mist. 

Damn, I’m hun­gry.” Sev­er­al large plas­tic bags emerged from Don’s pack, laden with sand­wich­es, can­dy bars, apples, crack­ers, cheese, and cans of pop. 

Mon­ty and Don used the spruce as a back­rest, and Matt sat on a large root. They gob­bled their lunch­es and the talk turned to the remain­ing work. The chat­ter fad­ed, and Matt laid down in full raingear with his pack under his head. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m ready for a nap.” Tak­ing a cue from their boss, Mon­ty and Don stretched out as well. 

Don rolled up his chain saw chaps and used them as a pil­low. “Best part of the job.” 



Mon­ty awak­ened to a hard driz­zle. He tried to remem­ber why he need­ed to keep prov­ing him­self, and won­dered how many sea­sons it would take before Matt and Don ever thought he was any­thing oth­er than a go-fer for them. 

Well, I guess lunch break is over,” Matt shiv­ered as the last chill from the nap passed. 

Don groped for his saw and eyed the spruce shel­ter­ing them. “You’re next,” he said to the tree. 

The cut­ting con­tin­ued until every large tree in the plot was down and denud­ed. Mon­ty count­ed twelve mas­sive trees on the ground, with sev­er­al oth­er small­er trees shat­tered, top­pled over, or oth­er­wise mashed by the behe­moths dur­ing their brief fight with grav­i­ty. The for­est floor lit­tered with cut limbs, emit­ted the pun­gent smell of fresh­ly cut spruce and hem­lock trees. The car­nage last­ed six hours, and it was too late to do anoth­er plot that day. Mon­ty sur­veyed the destruc­tion sur­round­ing him. It would take a cen­tu­ry to fill the hole in the for­est they cre­at­ed. Word­less­ly, they packed up their sod­den gear and walked out the way they came, back toward the land­ing zone. 

Not far from their pick­up point, Matt point­ed at the ground. “Check that out.” A large, steam­ing pile of bear scat lay in a mound ten feet in front of them. They fell silent know­ing the bear couldn’t be too far off. 

Did you hear or see any­thing?” Don asked. 

Noth­ing,” Matt answered. 

Me nei­ther,” Mon­ty added. 

They all paused and looked around for any sign of the bear that left behind the heap of semi-digest­ed grass and berries, insert­ing an excla­ma­tion point of fear into their march. 

Mon­ty, keep that rifle ready and your eyes peeled,” Matt said. 

Did you remem­ber to load it?” Don asked. 

Mon­ty gave Don a wry smile. “I’m ready, the safety’s off, I have four rounds in the mag­a­zine, none in the cham­ber, and three more in my pock­et. Any­thing else?” Their sched­ule had them work­ing “ten­ners”: ten days in the woods in between four days off in Sit­ka, for the next three months. If this crap kept up, it was going to be a long season. 



On the next ten­ner they slogged along­side a swollen creek to their next plot. 

Shit, that didn’t go as planned.” The tree Don cut tot­tered and wob­bled before dump­ing the butt end into the ground next to the stump. The top was sup­posed to clear a large spruce about a hun­dred feet away. Instead, it hung up in the spruce at a sev­en­ty-degree angle with the miss-cut spruce mak­ing a very large hypotenuse. 

Can you cut the bot­tom and get the top to drop out?” Matt asked. “That could do it.” 

Let’s take a clos­er look.” Don walked to the tree where the cut spruce was hanging. 

Matt and Mon­ty fol­lowed Don to the tree. Don stared up at the tree, scan­ning for some hid­den clue unlock­ing this large wood­en puzzle. 

What do you think?” Matt said. 

Mon­ty,” Don com­mand­ed. “Go get my saw, wedges, and ax.” 

Uncer­tain, Mon­ty looked at Matt. It didn’t look safe to cut the tree, but Don was con­fi­dent. Maybe too confident. 

Don’t be such a wee­nie, Mon­ty,” said Don. “Get the god­damn saw.” 

Matt’s face pinched with an unchar­ac­ter­is­tic taut­ness to it, “Do you think this is a good idea?” 

Don’s plan was now appar­ent. Mon­ty real­ized Don was going to take down the stand­ing tree with the cut tree loom­ing over the top of him, hop­ing both trees came down together. 

Just like domi­nos,” Don said. 

The only dif­fer­ence is you die if you lose this game,” Matt added in a mea­sured tone. 

Always with the dra­ma, Matt. I’ve done this before—don’t like to make a habit of it though. Mon­ty, go get the saw.” 

Mon­ty stayed root­ed in place, not sure how this was going to play out. The woods were silent; no thrush called, no breeze flut­tered the blue­ber­ry bush­es, no pat­ter of rain. 

We don’t need this fuck­ing tree, Don.” 

It is part of the plot, right? 

Yeah, but we don’t need to take a tree with this lev­el of risk. You’re not crazy, are you?” Matt asked. 

Maybe I am crazy, or maybe it’s a cal­cu­lat­ed risk.” 

Well Don,” Matt said, “I don’t like your math.” 

The tree is com­ing down; it’s part of the code.” 

What code?” Matt asked. 

All trees come to the ground—that’s the code.” Don gave Matt a pained look sug­gest­ing he didn’t care if Matt under­stood or not. Don looked again at Mon­ty. “Are you get­ting that saw or not?” Mon­ty went to get the saw. 

You are crazy. You know that, don’t you? I could fire you for this, right here too.” 

Fire away, the tree is com­ing down.” Don rum­maged in his back­pack and pulled a fist-size spool of para­chute cord out. “Here’s how this is going to work. I’m going to tie one end of this cord to my sus­penders, and Matt is going to hold the oth­er end. The two of you will be behind that big hem­lock over there.” He point­ed to a shag­gy, moss-cov­ered trunk. “If you see any­thing fun­ny, pull the cord, and I’m gonna run like hell to where you are. That tree is under a shit­load of ten­sion from the one hang­ing up in it so when I start my back cut, I’m gonna real­ly let loose with the saw. It should go right over with that tree lean­ing on it.” 

Don yanked the pull cord of the saw and it roared for a sec­ond and slowed to a low-throat­ed growl. Matt and Mon­ty scur­ried to the hem­lock trail­ing the cord, the life­line to Don. Don drove the saw into the tree with a vengeance. A large wood­en chunk plunked out and fell to the ground among a pile of wood­chips. The tree hadn’t moved, but the dan­ger­ous back cut was about to begin. Don looked at the tops of the com­min­gled trees and back to Matt and Mon­ty. Matt gave a “thumbs up” and Don began the back cut as Matt fin­gered the cord in his hand. Don imme­di­ate­ly pressed the saw’s trig­ger and it ripped through the tree. There was a loud crack, but the tree appeared immov­able. The tree made a pop­ping sound and began to teeter. For anoth­er microsec­ond, Don gave the saw every­thing it had. The mass of branch­es at the top of the tree lev­ered the tree over, and Don tugged the saw from the tree and hur­ried to the big hem­lock for safe­ty. Don squint­ed at Matt who still had the cord in his hand, their eyes locked momen­tar­i­ly, and they watched the con­clu­sion of his work. 

The trees top­pled side by side in a cacoph­o­nous crash. The ground shud­dered and a Whumpf! car­ried across the for­est floor like a shock wave. Large limbs crashed to the ground near where Don stood moments before; any of them could have crushed him instant­ly. Mon­ty and Matt approached the stump, like two bystanders at a car crash. 

Don fol­lowed, streams of sweat drip­ping from under the brim of his hard­hat. Don hand­ed Matt his end of the cord. “So,” Don said, “let’s fin­ish the plot.”



Back at camp, their hair was still damp after using the propane-fired show­er. Din­ner call was not far off. The tin stove radi­at­ed warm air across the wall tent. The tang of wood smoke mixed with the funk of dry­ing, dirty pants and shirts hang­ing from nails in the wood­en tent frame. 

So am I fired?” Don was play­ing soli­taire on a small fold­ing table, each card snap­ping on the table as he played it. His shirt was off, reveal­ing a hair­less but pow­er­ful physique. Sus­penders hung down in a loop from his pants to the floor. 

No,” Matt answered. “I know one thing for sure, though.” 

What’s that?” 

You’re one crazy asshole.” 

I’ve heard that before,” Don said as he set a king down. 

You seem proud of that.” 

Not proud or ashamed if you want it straight up. It’s just me. That’s the way I am.” 

Matt set an aer­i­al pho­to down, rose from his bunk and stood in front of Don. Mon­ty, not sure what was going to hap­pen, put his book aside and watched for any sign of trou­ble. If it came to that, he knew he would have no choice but to join in. Don was much short­er than Matt, but there was no way Matt’s lanky body could han­dle Don’s strength in tight quarters. 

Don played anoth­er card and looked up at Matt, stand­ing in front of him. “What?” 

Promise you won’t pull any more shit like you did today.” 

Don looked at a card, wait­ed a few sec­onds. “Agreed.” 

Matt put out his hand and Don, still seat­ed, shook it. Matt walked back to his bunk, picked up the pho­to and stud­ied it while Don played anoth­er card. Mon­ty, wit­ness to this back­woods détente, picked up his book on the mat­tress and tried to find the place he left off. 



The rest of their ten-day tour in the woods was unevent­ful, with each pass­ing day a few less ticks of day­light. More than ever, the four days off seemed to be a pause, an exha­la­tion, every­one on the crew need­ed. The float plane swooped them away from Gilbert Bay, and forty-five min­utes lat­er it tax­ied on the lapis-col­ored water of Jamestown Bay in Sit­ka. Don, Matt, and Mon­ty and two oth­er crew mem­bers helped unload their gear from the plane and put it in a big pile of duf­fle bags, back­packs, and emp­ty fuel jugs on the dock. Don’s two large chain­saws dom­i­nat­ed the pile; he nev­er left them in the field and babied them like they were twin Stradivari. 

It was Thurs­day after­noon and Matt said to Don, “See you at 8:00 a.m. on Tues­day, right?” It was as if Matt had an unset­tling doubt about Don return­ing to the crew. 

Don placed his saws and a duf­fle in the back of a rust­ed Ford pick­up with one head­light miss­ing and opened the door of the truck. “Yup,” was all he said before the truck fish­tailed out of the park­ing lot. 

See what I have to deal with,” Matt said. 

How come you didn’t fire him?” Mon­ty asked. 

Good fall­ers are in short sup­ply. Don’s one of the best. He knows it too.” 



The late Octo­ber sun­light had lit­tle effect on the chill air pool­ing around them. Don, Mon­ty, and Matt walked out from the for­est with the sound of the approach­ing heli­copter. They crouched in the open and watched it cir­cle overhead. 

The heli­copter set down in the tiny muskeg at the base of a steep hill that led up to the pre­cip­i­tous flanks of a moun­tain. Its rub­ber pon­toon floats rocked gen­tly for a few sec­onds while the rotors flashed over their heads. Eli, their beard­ed heli­copter fore­man, jumped out with his hel­met visor down, hand­ed every­one Nomex flame-resis­tant cov­er­alls, and stowed the rifle under the bench seat in the back. Don suit­ed up first so he scoot­ed into the mid­dle with his pack in his lap. Matt and Mon­ty took seats by the door latched shut by Eli. There were three hel­mets on the back seat and each of them put one on, but only two hel­mets, those of Matt and Mon­ty, could plug into the two avail­able inter­com jacks. Eli climbed in, grabbed his clip­board and did a quick load cal­cu­la­tion. He gave Kirk, the pilot, a thumbs-up they were good to go. 

The heli­copter ascend­ed slow­ly and cleared a hud­dle of short, scrub­by trees. It climbed a bit more and trem­bled, like a May­tag on spin cycle, instead of con­tin­u­ing to glide upwards. They sat there sus­pend­ed momen­tar­i­ly, but the shak­ing only got worse until it became a hard shud­der. Kirk fever­ish­ly worked the con­trols. Matt and Mon­ty looked out the win­dow know­ing some­thing was not right. A red light flashed on the con­sole, fol­lowed by a loud alarm buzzing. Small trees loomed below, and the heli­copter began a very slow descent—each pass­ing sec­ond frozen in time. 

Kirk yelled into his mic, “We’re too heavy. Throw your packs out!” 

Mon­ty and Matt opened their doors and tossed their packs out the door. Don, with the biggest pack of all, couldn’t hear with­out an inter­com hookup, and was try­ing to under­stand what they were doing. Mon­ty ripped the pack out of Don’s lap and flung it out the door. For good mea­sure, he reached under the seat and heaved the rifle out the door too. 

The heli­copter stopped its descent, flut­tered momen­tar­i­ly and slow­ly rose. Mon­ty breathed a sigh of relief. But not enough weight was shed. It lurched for­ward to anoth­er area of the muskeg. If the heli­copter set­tled into the trees, the rotors would rip off, spew­ing met­al shards. When the chop­per hit the ground like a wound­ed duck, it would flop around with an angry tur­bo-charged engine attached to it. In front of them was a wall of taller spruce the heli­copter could not clear unless some­thing rad­i­cal hap­pened. Everyone’s eyes, wide with fear, were on the trees not far below. Kirk’s right hand clung to the Cyclic stick and his left hand on the Col­lec­tive con­trol. He tried to wres­tle a mechan­i­cal beast at the lim­it of its capa­bil­i­ties, strain­ing for the last bit of lift left in the rotors. 

Mon­ty opened the door and looked down at the spots between the trees and fig­ured it couldn’t be more than twen­ty-five feet down. It was a sim­ple deci­sion. They were going to crash and pos­si­bly die unless more weight was unloaded. He unplugged his hel­met from the inter­com, stepped out on the pon­toon and jumped. As soon as he did, the heli­copter popped up in the air like a cham­pagne cork, shot out over the trees, and disappeared. 

Mon­ty sunk a foot into the cush­iony muskeg and his rub­ber boots were still stuck in the peat while he lay on his side with his stock­ing feet. He had done a parachutist’s land­ing to help absorb the shock of his fall, some­thing he had learned from a few token sky­div­ing trips in col­lege. He lay pant­i­ng, star­ing up into an azure sky, men­tal­ly check­ing if all his body parts were still there. Except for an aching ankle, he was intact. He wres­tled his boots out of the mud and put them on, stand­ing up slow­ly, sus­pi­cious of a hid­den injury. Limp­ing slight­ly, he wan­dered the muskeg retriev­ing the dis­card­ed gear. The rifle was embed­ded, bar­rel down, two feet into the mud. 

A pow­er­ful thirst and chill hit. He grabbed his water bot­tle and drank when the radio in Matt’s pack called his name. 

Mon­ty, Mon­ty, are you okay?” Matt’s voice had a ten­sion he had not heard before. 

Mon­ty undid the pack straps and pulled the radio out. Before he could respond he got anoth­er call. 

Mon­ty are you there?” 

I’m a bit dazed and have a sore ankle, but I’m okay. Where are you guys?” 

We dropped off Don, Eli, and a few items in a muskeg down the hill to light­en our load and did a quick check of the heli­copter. Every­thing seems to be work­ing good though. We’re gonna come get you ASAP.” 

Mon­ty looked around the muskeg; the trees stood like silent ghost sol­diers in a field, and he sat on Don’s pack, not car­ing what squished. His ass was already wet, but he didn’t want to sit back down on the damp, cold ground. He felt grog­gy, like the tail end of a hang­over set­tling on him. The adren­a­line rush was fad­ing, and he won­dered if he was going into shock. “How long before you get here?” 

We’re in the air now. Should be there in five, max.” 

I’m not going any­where, but I’m start­ing to get cold. You sure you can find this place again?” 

There was a pause and Mon­ty real­ized how fool­ish his ques­tion was. A muskeg Matt couldn’t find? There was no way that could happen—his mind was like one large aer­i­al pho­to. Matt nor­mal­ly gave a sharp retort to a chal­lenge about his abil­i­ty to recon­noi­ter, but giv­en the cir­cum­stances he said, “I don’t think I’m ever going to for­get that spot. Hang on, we’ll be there in a bit. I have blan­kets and a first aid kit too.” 

Mon­ty draped his yel­low Helly Hansen over him­self and pulled the hood up. Light slant­ed through the trees, leav­ing thawed lines across the frost. “Okay, see you in a bit.” 

The heli­copter appeared from behind a low ridge. He saw Matt point to him from inside the Plex­i­glas bub­ble as the heli­copter cut over the trees at a sharp angle. The heli­copter touched down, and Mon­ty took a step before he saw Matt hold up his hand to stop mov­ing. This time, Kirk shut the heli­copter down and nobody moved until the blades ceased turning. 

Matt approached like he was star­ing at an alien. “You okay?” 

The deci­sion hap­pened quick­ly, but the fall to the ground seemed to sus­pend him momen­tar­i­ly in the air like an out-of-body expe­ri­ence. In some ways it seemed like a dream now. “All things con­sid­ered, I guess I am.” Mon­ty reached down to pick up a pack. 

Don’t make any sud­den move­ment; you may have some inter­nal or spinal injuries.” Matt was by his side and put an arm around Mon­ty to escort him to the helicopter. 

I can do this. Let’s just take it slow because I think I rolled my ankle.” 

Kirk walked over to Mon­ty. “I’ve got 6,000 hours in a chop­per but nev­er had a per­son jump out of one before. You kept that ship,” Kirk ges­tured with his thumb over his shoul­der, “from going down. Damn­d­est thing I’ve ever seen.” 

It would be hard to explain to any­one. A per­son casu­al­ly steps out of a heli­copter, like drop­ping down a rab­bit hole, not know­ing how bad­ly he was going to get injured. It seemed so unheroic; five peo­ple were hit­ting the ground in a crash if one of them didn’t do some­thing. Only he, Eli, and Matt were eli­gi­ble can­di­dates since Kirk was nec­es­sary and Don was in a mid­dle seat. Monty’s door was still open from throw­ing the rifle out, so that made the deci­sion clear. Mon­ty sur­prised him­self with the ease of his decision—more a reflex than any­thing else. 

Matt ush­ered Mon­ty into the heli­copter. “Let’s head out. We can sort this out back at camp.” 



Mon­ty lay on his bunk with an ice pack on his ankle, a cup of hot cocoa steam­ing on an upturned crate next to it. Tylenol dulled the ache creep­ing into his ankle. 

Eli and Kirk, both still wear­ing their Nomex, pulled the tent flaps aside and came in. 

So what the hell hap­pened up there?” Matt jammed anoth­er piece of wood into the stove and strad­dled a fold­ing chair backwards. 

Eli and I have been try­ing to sort it out,” said Kirk. “Near as I can tell we were still with­in the load limit—just bare­ly. I checked Eli’s cal­cu­la­tions. And no sign of mechan­i­cal issues.” 

Eli sighed but said noth­ing. He looked addled, as if his body had stopped vibrat­ing and a qui­et thrum­ming had over­tak­en it. 

There must have been just enough of a down­draft off that peak,” Kirk point­ed in the direc­tion of the moun­tain, “and we were so close to the hill­side it was like an invis­i­ble riv­er flow­ing that made it hard for the chop­per to gain lift.” Kirk fid­dled with a zip­per on his flight suit, open­ing and shut­ting a pock­et. “Imper­cep­ti­ble. Nev­er seen any­thing like that.” 

Mon­ty couldn’t help but think back an hour ear­li­er. He had felt that cold air, but all it did was chill them while they wait­ed for the heli­copter. He had no idea it would be such an insid­i­ous force. Would they have died? No way to tell. Maybe burned or maimed; being swathed in ban­dages and splint­ed in a crit­i­cal care ward unnerved him. 

Don sat up in his bed, mat­tress frame springs groan­ing. “That high dive you took saved us from seri­ous­ly deep shit.” 

Mon­ty was so tired he could bare­ly keep his eyes open. In his bewil­dered state it dawned on him he wasn’t sens­ing friend­ship. It wasn’t cama­raderie. As near as Mon­ty could tell, it was kin­ship. The prim­i­tive form of belong­ing to a tribe. They toiled in the dark for­est, slept in the same tent, and broke bread at the same table. Con­nect­ing all those dots didn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly lead to friend­ship. At this point, Mon­ty would take it. 



Lat­er that week Matt was look­ing through the stere­o­scope star­ing at aer­i­al pho­tos and he pushed the scope over to Mon­ty. “Check out this plot we’re going to tomor­row. What do you think is a good route?” 

It took Mon­ty a minute for his eyes to adjust to stereo vision. He saw a pos­si­ble route up a small ridge from the land­ing zone. “I think this way could work,” as he traced a line with his fin­ger for Matt. 

Matt pulled the stere­o­scope back, “That’s what I was think­ing too.” His ever-present red grease pen­cil marked the route. 

The fol­low­ing night, Don was sharp­en­ing his chain­saw on a home­made bench in their wall tent. The famil­iar zzzzzt, zzzzzt, zzzzzt of the file on the chain stopped. “Why don’t you come over here and I’ll show you the fine points of sharp­en­ing a saw. Might as well learn from a pro.” 



At the begin­ning of Novem­ber, leaves laid in bunch­es on the ground, cov­ered in the morn­ing frost. It was too dark to work more than a few hours, and camp was shut­ting down now. In the past three months they criss­crossed this val­ley dozens of times by air, and cursed their way across it on foot. 

The heli­copter rose from the muskeg for the last time. It moved faster, skim­ming over the trees and pick­ing up alti­tude. Mon­ty was between Don and Matt in the back seat, their gear lashed to the pon­toon racks. 

Mon­ty watched as the val­ley unfold­ed below, rec­og­niz­ing the creeks, ponds, and ravines. Obsta­cles to avoid, not admire. He wished he had stopped more often, soak­ing in this spe­cial place of unend­ing soli­tude. He paid par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to the muskegs since the heli­copter left them there to begin the jour­ney to each plot. Many of the muskegs were named based on their shape—the Air­port because it was so large; the Catcher’s Mitt was cir­cu­lar; and the Nee­dle was so hard to find. Then there was Shit­hole, where the steam­ing bear scat stirred their fears. 

Mon­ty craned his neck, search­ing for oth­er land­marks to give con­text to the immen­si­ty of the land­scape. Rain ran in streaks across the Plex­i­glas dome of the heli­copter and once or twice, Mon­ty thought he saw a plot, but it was hard to tell since the plot was a speck among the broad expanse of green. The only tell­tale sign was the tiny clear­ing and the white of fresh­ly cut stumps vis­i­ble below. 

Don was eat­ing a Her­shey bar and hold­ing a half-eat­en apple in his oth­er hand. He noticed Mon­ty look­ing at him, stopped in mid-chew, and gave him a thumbs-up with the Her­shey bar. Matt had an aer­i­al pho­to in his hand, com­par­ing it to the real thing on his side of the heli­copter. He saw the thumbs up and glanced at Mon­ty. Matt gave a quick nod and looked back down at his photo. 

The heli­copter passed the last of the trees and was over slate-col­ored water. The val­ley was gone. 




From the writer

:: Account ::

I worked as a heli­copter fore­man for an Alas­ka tim­ber crew for one sea­son and want­ed to cap­ture the hard work, the cama­raderie, and the raw feel­ings that build liv­ing in very close prox­im­i­ty for weeks on end. It’s more than a tale about peo­ple since the land­scape is so awe-inspir­ing it’s almost anoth­er char­ac­ter in the sto­ry. The valley’s fate is in the hands of the tim­ber crew.


Orig­i­nal­ly from the sub­urbs of New Jer­sey, Ken Post worked for the For­est Ser­vice in Alas­ka for 40 years, includ­ing many sea­sons on a mil­lion-acre island with more brown (griz­zly) bears than there are peo­ple. He writes short sto­ries dur­ing the long, dark win­ters. His fic­tion has pre­vi­ous­ly appeared in Cirque, Red Fez, and Poor Yorick and is forth­com­ing in Woven Tale Press and Kansas City Voic­es. The sto­ry, “Eno­la Gay,” in Red Fez, was nom­i­nat­ed for a 2020 Push­cart Prize.

The Rope-a-Dope Gambit

Fiction / Sunil Freeman

:: The Rope-a-Dope Gambit ::

Joy Jack­son had heard an occa­sion­al insult over the years, but nev­er “This will be quick.” She’d seen the white boy and woman as they approached, stop­ping just a few yards from her. The woman, pre­sum­ably his moth­er, said she’d be back, then some­thing about din­ner plans. The boy stared at Joy as the woman turned and walked away. Then he called back, more than loud enough for her and the dozen or more peo­ple who had gath­ered: “This will be quick.” She knew what he was think­ing, saw it in both their glances even before he spoke: Black girl play­ing chess means an easy win. The assump­tion no longer sur­prised her. But the loud con­tempt? In front of so many peo­ple? It stung. 

She had arrived at noon, an hour before the game was to begin. She liked to take in the sounds and rhythms of the city, clear her mind, and drift into an almost med­i­ta­tive tran­quil­i­ty before find­ing the sharp focus she’d soon bring to the chess­board. As good for­tune would have it, the orga­niz­ers had decid­ed to play a few games at Dupont Cir­cle when ren­o­va­tions had tem­porar­i­ly shut the old school build­ing. The place was a mec­ca for chess lovers, in the heart of the city just a mile from the White House. It was a per­fect blue sky Sat­ur­day right on the cusp of autumn, her favorite season. 

A steady stream of peo­ple wan­dered through the park. Tourists peered at guide books and snapped pic­tures. Dozens of peo­ple lis­tened to head­phones, read books, talked with friends, or just relaxed on bench­es that cir­cled the foun­tain. Far­ther back, almost to the road, a drum­mer played shift­ing rhyth­mic pat­terns on his array of plas­tic buck­ets. Pigeons flocked to the foun­tain or wad­dled around look­ing for stray crumbs of crois­sants, muffins, any­thing. Squir­rels in trees looked war­i­ly at two unleashed dogs. 

Joy had been there a week before after find­ing Mikhail Botvinnik’s One Hun­dred Select­ed Games just off the Cir­cle at Sec­ond Sto­ry Books. She spent the after­noon study­ing analy­ses of games from the 1920s into the ’40s by a world cham­pi­on who once taught future grand­mas­ters like Kas­parov and Kar­pov. Botvin­nik had an engag­ing writ­ing style and he gen­er­ous­ly shared his reflec­tions on games with Alekhine, Capa­blan­ca, and oth­er leg­endary play­ers who had been his con­tem­po­raries. This alone was worth the price of a used paper­back, but his book offered much more than a win­dow into that dis­tant era. Botvin­nik deep­ened her under­stand­ing of the Ruy Lopez, Sicil­ian Defense, Queen’s Gam­bit Declined, and sev­er­al oth­er open­ings. She played some of them often; oth­ers she planned to try some day. 

Read­ing Botvin­nik, Joy felt con­nect­ed across decades and con­ti­nents to an enor­mous com­mu­ni­ty, part of which had gath­ered right there in the city park. She saw class­mates, her old­er broth­er Bri­an, some fam­i­ly friends who had come to show sup­port, and a mix of acquain­tances and strangers. Curios­i­ty had attract­ed new­com­ers. They had heard the buzz about the shy, unas­sum­ing girl who was crush­ing most of her oppo­nents, even beat­ing some high­ly ranked adults. 


Peo­ple who got to know Joy saw her as an intro­vert, a qui­et 13-year-old who did well in school, knew the staff at the pub­lic library, and was rarely seen with­out a book or two. Bri­an, a senior who played tenor sax at Duke Elling­ton School of the Arts, had always been the out­go­ing child, pop­u­lar in and out of school. He’d gone from clar­inet to sax five years before. The switch, when it hap­pened, seemed pre­or­dained, as if he’d grown into his true self. He loved the instru­ment, prac­tic­ing for hours and study­ing tran­scribed John Coltrane, Son­ny Rollins, and Wayne Short­er solos. 

Some evenings he sat in with the old pros on jazz nights at West­min­ster Pres­by­ter­ian. A pianist, after learn­ing who she was, told her: “Your brother’s going places if he keeps at it like this.” That was the night Bri­an took a big solo on Charles Mingus’s “Bet­ter Get Hit In Your Soul.” The band was on fire, breath­ing life into the Bib­li­cal psalm’s com­mand­ment. They made a joy­ful noise that rocked the chapel, wash­ing away, at least for a while, what­ev­er wor­ries need­ed to be gone. 

Joy kept a low pro­file, hap­py to leave the spot­light to Bri­an. Intro­vert. The word, once applied, felt just right. She liked the image it con­jured of a per­son com­fort­able with soli­tude; she wore it well. Bran­don and Grace Jack­son had seen their chil­dren grow in dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent paths, each find­ing a tem­pera­ment that fit nat­u­ral­ly. “I think you might enjoy chess,” her father had said on her ninth birth­day. She was imme­di­ate­ly hooked by a sense of mys­tery, the won­der of hav­ing such an ancient game right there in their home. Soon she was drawn to the com­plex lines of attack and defense, the many open­ings and tac­tics to study. 

She loved the way her breath slowed, how stray thoughts dis­ap­peared as her focus on the chess­board sharp­ened, how she could feel her pulse beat­ing as she planned an attack, then watched the metic­u­lous­ly plot­ted sequence of moves fall into place. She knew all too well the jolt of adren­a­line when—too late!—she detect­ed an unavoid­able knight fork. Her heart pound­ed as she nav­i­gat­ed around obsta­cles to push a pawn to the end rank where it would become a queen. 

Some­times it felt like she was glid­ing, a con­trolled con­fi­dence smooth as the Smokey Robin­son songs her par­ents loved. Oth­er times, a jum­bled mess. All this pow­er­ful ener­gy was dri­ven and con­trolled by her mind. It was a bit addic­tive. As Joy gained con­fi­dence, she began to read about the great play­ers and their his­toric games. New worlds opened for her to explore. Chess had become an inex­haustible gift with ever greater rewards the more she learned. 

She joined the youth chess league a year after those first games with her father. Word began to spread about the girl whose well con­cealed traps caught even advanced play­ers by sur­prise. At home, she now con­sis­tent­ly beat him. Her moth­er did lit­tle to hide her amuse­ment at this turn of events. “Who’s win­ning?” she’d ask, tak­ing a break from grad­ing high school writ­ing assign­ments. He’d sigh, then offer a word­less grunt. It became a run­ning joke, with Brian’s sax more often than not wail­ing coun­ter­point from his bed­room upstairs. 

The Jack­son fam­i­ly roots in the city ran deep. Their ances­tors on both sides had come up from Raleigh, North Car­oli­na in the lat­ter part of the 19th cen­tu­ry. Brandon’s father had been friends with Mar­i­on Bar­ry since the days of Pride, Inc. That was a decade before Barry’s reign began as “May­or for Life.” Long before all that went down went down. The nation’s cap­i­tal had been known as Choco­late City, at times more than 70% Black, back in the day. Neigh­bors knew each oth­er, shared a com­mon his­to­ry, and cre­at­ed a home-grown cul­ture in close-knit com­mu­ni­ties that had forged tight bonds under the painful weight of legal segregation. 

Bran­don attend­ed Dun­bar High School and went on to Howard Uni­ver­si­ty, ulti­mate­ly grad­u­at­ing from the law school. He had worked in labor law almost twen­ty years. It pro­vid­ed a com­fort­able home life when com­bined with Grace’s job teach­ing Eng­lish to seniors at Dun­bar. Not near­ly as lucra­tive as cor­po­rate law, but more than enough. He was, as Grace liked to say, one of the good lawyers. 

Bran­don had imag­ined Joy would take to chess, sensed she’d be good at it, but had not antic­i­pat­ed what was hap­pen­ing. They enjoyed their games togeth­er, but both knew it was time to find more chal­leng­ing oppo­nents. Word quick­ly spread through the grapevine that Bran­don and Grace Jack­son were seek­ing chess play­ers for their daugh­ter. They soon learned about James Gilmore. 


They looked online after hear­ing his name a third time. The Google search brought up arti­cles in neigh­bor­hood news­pa­pers, a fea­ture in Chess Life, mag­a­zine of the U.S. Chess Fed­er­a­tion, seg­ments on local PBS and NBC TV chan­nels, and an item in the Sun­day Wash­ing­ton Post magazine. 

James Gilmore was a Black man, about 50 years old, who lived and played chess at Dupont Cir­cle, pock­et­ing $5, $10, or more for a game or short les­son. It had been sev­er­al years since he last had a per­ma­nent address. Lessons with James often con­sist­ed of him patient­ly ana­lyz­ing the game that had just tran­spired, show­ing crest­fall­en oppo­nents just how and why they lost. Many drove or Metro’d in from the sub­urbs, oth­ers from every quad­rant of the city. He even played a few ambas­sadors, vis­it­ing dig­ni­taries, and embassy work­ers from around the globe. 

James had range. To max­i­mize his income, he spe­cial­ized in “blitz” games that last­ed no more than 10 min­utes. Dupont Cir­cle was home to a sub­cul­ture of chess hus­tlers who could beat almost any­one. James was sim­ply the best. Unlike the oth­ers, he also played clas­sic tour­na­ment-lev­el chess in cities along the east coast. Over the years he had won two tour­na­ments and he always fin­ished among the final­ists. Even high­ly ranked play­ers who avoid­ed the live­ly Dupont Cir­cle chess scene acknowl­edged that James Gilmore was one of the best in the entire metro area. 

Grace and Bran­don read the arti­cles and watched James play and phi­los­o­phize on YouTube videos. One warm April day they board­ed the Metro with Joy, des­tined for Dupont Cir­cle. He saw them join the small crowd that had gath­ered to watch as he dis­patched one oppo­nent after the oth­er. He fin­ished a sec­ond blitz game, then beck­oned them. 

We can for­get about the game clock,” he said, sur­pris­ing almost every­one. “Let’s just play.” He com­pli­ment­ed her best moves. He stopped the game when she made a mis­take. “Are you sure you want to do that? If you move there, I’ll do this,” play­ing out the next few moves. They played and talked for more than an hour. Chess talk, then rem­i­nis­cence with her par­ents about the North Car­oli­na roots they all shared, rel­a­tives who nev­er moved north, then more chess. All the while a small crowd of impa­tient cus­tomers wait­ed for their chance to play. 

James refused their mon­ey when it came time to leave. “Nah, that’s alright. I’ve real­ly enjoyed this. I hope y’all will come back.” The Jack­sons intend­ed to revis­it the issue of pay­ment at a lat­er date, but they knew to defer to him on that first vis­it. They were on his turf. Though it was nev­er spo­ken, they all under­stood that James had passed a test that after­noon, as had Joy and her parents. 

The next week she returned with her moth­er. Instead of cash, Mrs. Jack­son brought a gen­er­ous por­tion of the sweet pota­to pie they had dis­cussed at their first meet­ing, the recipe her moth­er taught her long ago. Mrs. Jackson’s sweet pota­to pie was an offer he did not refuse. 

Joy’s par­ents didn’t accom­pa­ny her the fol­low­ing week. Bri­an was eager to check out the chess guy he’d been hear­ing about. He brought his sax to try street busk­ing after her ses­sion with James. They’d enjoy the after­noon togeth­er, sib­ling time out in the city. James spent almost an hour with her, stop­ping to explain a few moves as he had done before. 

Bri­an saw his sis­ter in a new light that after­noon. James clear­ly was the star, but peo­ple noticed how he shift­ed gears for her. How his quick stac­ca­to pat­ter gave way to a slow­er, more reflec­tive side they had nev­er seen. The buzz spread­ing through Dupont chess cir­cles had become: “Oh my God. He stopped the clock.” It was usu­al­ly fol­lowed by: “Who is she?” Anoint­ed by James Gilmore, Brian’s shy lit­tle sis­ter was becom­ing a celebri­ty on Dupont Circle. 

I’m sor­ry. My par­ents asked me to do this.” Joy hand­ed James a $20 bill at the end of their last game. “They said they pay for music lessons, so it’s not right for you not to get at least some pay­ment when­ev­er we play.” 

If they insist,” James accept­ed the mon­ey. “But please be sure to let your moth­er know how much I enjoyed her sweet pota­to pie. That was …” he paused, search­ing for a word. “I believe that was the best sweet pota­to pie I’ve ever had.” 

Should I tell her you’d like more?”

Just tell her I liked it. Tell her I liked it a whole lot.” He said it to both of them like the words were music. Said it with a smile, so it was as if they were all in on a secret. James’s future def­i­nite­ly held the promise of more sweet pota­to pie. 

Joy was relieved to have the ques­tion of mon­ey resolved. She had been ner­vous all day in antic­i­pa­tion of the con­ver­sa­tion. “Well, I should be get­ting back to work. Good luck with the music. I’ll enjoy it while I play these guys.” James turned to face his new oppo­nent. Joy and Bri­an found an open grassy area set back from the cen­tral foun­tain but near one of the side­walks that bisect­ed the cir­cle. Bri­an put a dona­tion box on the ground, assem­bled his instru­ment, and began to play. He cleared just over $60 in two hours. 


Joy vis­it­ed James almost every week after that, some­times with Bri­an, some­times with her moth­er or father. Every now and then they all arrived togeth­er to enjoy the chess and hear Bri­an play. 

The pow­er dynam­ics that ruled most aspects of city life held no sway at James’s small cor­ner of the Cir­cle. Some oppo­nents came with no expec­ta­tion of win­ning. They only want­ed to enhance their bohemi­an hip­ster cred by play­ing the famous chess guy at Dupont Cir­cle. For them, even a loss was a win. It was proof of authen­tic­i­ty, a prized nugget of per­son­al infor­ma­tion to slip into con­ver­sa­tion at a par­ty or on a date. He enjoyed those games. They were upbeat, albeit lop­sided, win-win encoun­ters where every­one left feel­ing happy. 

Oth­er oppo­nents assumed their pro­fes­sion­al cre­den­tials (although not in chess), their grav­i­tas, and their supe­ri­or grad­u­ate degrees would give them the advan­tage over a slick chess hus­tler. He enjoyed teach­ing them a les­son. Some of them nev­er got over the con­fu­sion, return­ing over and over. After his sec­ond defeat, one such man looked, for all the world, like he thought there was a glitch in the uni­verse. As if he had stum­bled onto some quan­tum physics mys­tery, a por­tal to oth­er dimen­sions, right there on Dupont Cir­cle. He couldn’t wrap his mind around the sim­ple fact that James was a much bet­ter chess player. 

One after­noon Bri­an watched as Joy and James set­tled into a leisure­ly game and les­son. He first asked about their par­ents, then how they were doing in school. They even­tu­al­ly start­ed to play chess. As usu­al, a few peo­ple were wait­ing for their chance to play against him. James kept no sched­ule, had no appoint­ment cal­en­dar. He chose how to spend his time just as freely as he decid­ed his moves. 

We’re all wait­ing here and you’re giv­ing her all this extra time. It’s not fair.” 

The obser­va­tion that “life is unfair” lands with spe­cial author­i­ty when deliv­ered by a man who has no known street address. James had been on the los­ing side of “life is unfair” for much of his life. That wasn’t the only rea­son he loved chess, but it played a part. He rec­og­nized the absur­di­ty of the moment as he spoke the words. The young man knew he had blun­dered. The rest of the group turned on him with eye rolls, glares, a “hey man, shut up” fol­lowed by “bad move, bro.” That set off waves of mock­ing laughter. 

James turned away, leav­ing him to pon­der the error of his ways. Smil­ing, he asked Joy: “What do you think? Life is unfair. Isn’t it?” 

In all fair­ness, Joy and Bri­an were sur­round­ed by mate­r­i­al com­fort, lov­ing par­ents, music, chess, books, and home cook­ing. Still, they both had been fol­lowed by pri­vate secu­ri­ty guards in stores. Their par­ents had giv­en them “the talk,” the painful con­ver­sa­tion about how best to avoid get­ting killed by trig­ger-hap­py cops. 

Bri­an and his friends had been stopped twice in the so-called “jump outs,” plain­clothes police jump­ing out of unmarked cars to stop and frisk folks who were just mind­ing their own busi­ness. The peo­ple accost­ed always hap­pened to be Black. The chief of police claimed the jump outs had end­ed long ago, but local news reporters found more than a dozen neigh­bor­hood kids who claimed to see them all the time. 

Whom to believe, a bunch of chil­dren, some still in ele­men­tary school, or the chief of police in the nation’s cap­i­tal? She spoke again to reporters when the evi­dence became over­whelm­ing. Peo­ple across the city eas­i­ly saw through her attempt at dam­age con­trol. The para­phrased gist of it: Oh, you mean those actions the chil­dren were talk­ing about? Our vice squad some­times does engage in law enforce­ment activ­i­ties that could appear to be sim­i­lar. But like I’ve already said, we no longer do jump outs. We dis­con­tin­ued the prac­tice sev­er­al years ago.  

Dri­ving while Black. Walk­ing while Black. Breath­ing while Black. 

Yes,” Joy agreed with James, “life is unfair.” 

The sto­ry of “Bad move, bro,” and “Life is unfair” was repeat­ed dozens of times over the next few weeks, seal­ing its place in the shared com­mon lore, the real people’s his­to­ry of Dupont Circle. 


This will be quick.” The arro­gant sneer from a kid who looked to be her age. Voice like a slap to the face. The charged silence held for a long moment. Maybe three sec­onds, maybe four. Her friends flinched. Some looked to her, con­cerned. She tensed, lock­ing down the jolt of rage. She would not show him anger or pain. 

Bri­an broke the silence: “We’ll see about that.” His voice com­mand­ed atten­tion, not shout­ing like the boy, but loud enough for all to hear. 

Watch­ing it unfold, keep­ing a tight hold on her emo­tions, Joy thought it played out like a taut scene in a gang­ster movie. The fool­ish boy had lost the instant Bri­an spoke. Thank God he was there, and that her par­ents did not have to see it. Undoubt­ed­ly they would hear. The thought almost broke her. She blocked it from her mind. This was not the time. 

Bri­an shot her a glance that turned into a sly smile, like they were shar­ing a joke. All eyes were on them. Then he looked straight at the boy. He wait­ed two beats—perfect timing—and said: “This might be real quick.” He put the accent on “real,” stretch­ing it out long and slow. Like what a sax­o­phone might do with a cher­ished turn of a phrase. He smiled, then laughed. 

Peo­ple began to chuck­le in antic­i­pa­tion; bursts of snort laugh­ter sound­ed from the back of the crowd. Most every­one under­stood that what­ev­er hap­pened next, peo­ple would talk about this after­noon for years to come. 

Watch­ing the boy, who looked rat­tled, Joy thought of the old joke. Some peo­ple make things hap­pen. Oth­ers watch things hap­pen. And some peo­ple say: “What hap­pened?” Bri­an had saved the day and set the stage. She was about to make some­thing happen. 

She want­ed to smack him down so fast he wouldn’t know what hap­pened. Throw it right back. “That was quick.” She guessed he knew to avoid the Scholar’s Mate, the clas­sic four-move humil­i­a­tion play­ers suf­fer when they learn the game. It’s a suck­er punch check­mate con­struct­ed with queen and bish­op. Los­ing to the Scholar’s Mate is a rite of pas­sage; few vic­tims fall twice. Her father beat her once with the Scholar’s Mate four years ago. “You’ll win some and you’ll lose some,” he con­soled her. “One day you’ll beat me.” 

As Joy saw how her broth­er owned the moment, con­found­ing the boy with a deflec­tion of bad ener­gy that played out almost like Tai Chi, her own impulse turned. She would act as if she bare­ly under­stood the pieces, let alone forks, dis­cov­ered checks, pins, and the intri­cate chore­og­ra­phy of bish­op and knight check­mates. She would par­ry his attacks, gauge his skill lev­el, and cal­i­brate her response. She would drag it out. Make it slow. He would strug­gle to con­trol the game, grow ever more con­fused, then final­ly under­stand what was happening. 


We wear the mask,” Paul Lau­rence Dun­bar wrote in 1895 of life as a Black Amer­i­can. His open­ing stanza: 

          We wear the mask that grins and lies,  
          It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—  
          This debt we pay to human guile;  
          With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, 
          And mouth with myriad subtleties.



Play­ing the white pieces, the boy moved his king’s pawn for­ward two squares. She respond­ed in kind. Then each moved one knight, fol­lowed by the oth­er. She appeared to be mim­ic­k­ing him as the Four Knights Game took shape. It’s a per­fect­ly descrip­tive name, four knights poised around two cen­ter pawns, each side mir­rored by the oth­er, from which to proceed. 

She eas­i­ly blocked his clum­sy attacks, main­tain­ing crit­i­cal defens­es but oth­er­wise let­ting her pieces wan­der the chess­board as if they were out for a leisure­ly Sat­ur­day after­noon stroll. Point­less moves that did lit­tle more than take up time. All the while she play­act­ed like some­one unfa­mil­iar with the game. She grew dis­tract­ed, smiled as if remem­ber­ing some old joke. Some­thing her moth­er said that made her laugh. Some­times she stared at the board, eye­brows scrunched up as if in con­fu­sion. Strik­ing that pose, she looked as if she had nev­er played chess, as if she couldn’t fath­om how to proceed. 

Some in the crowd were con­fused. Whis­pered queries were met with shrugged respons­es that said: “No clue.” Was this the same girl they’d heard about, the one who dom­i­nat­ed her oppo­nents? What the hell was going on? Some wan­dered off toward the tra­di­tion­al Boli­vian group that had start­ed to assem­ble. Gui­tars and flutes played haunt­ing­ly beau­ti­ful songs from the Andes. Joy closed her eyes to enjoy it, her mind seem­ing­ly miles away. The chess crowd thinned out as a few more opt­ed for music or sim­ply left to get on with the day. Oth­ers took their cue from Bri­an, who smiled as if he knew exact­ly what was up. 

Just then James joined the group, nod­ding a silent greet­ing to Joy, Bri­an, and a few oth­ers. They quick­ly made room for him at the front. His arrival set off a rip­ple of hushed mur­murs, whis­pers of “Oh my God,” and “That’s him. That’s the guy.” Nudges, glances, raised eye­brows. Even those who’d nev­er heard his name caught the new charge in the air. James was here. He scanned the board, puz­zled by the bizarre sto­ry it hint­ed at. He knew how good she was. He shot her a quizzi­cal glance. Her smile car­ried just a trace of a wink. He half whis­pered to him­self, “Well all right,” and stood back to watch what would happen. 


Nev­er let them tell you he was just a smil­ing Black man, a great box­er, and every­one loved him.” Grace Jack­son had been on a mis­sion to counter the white­wash­ing of Black his­to­ry ever since sit­ting through yet anoth­er bland mid-Jan­u­ary pro­gram cel­e­brat­ing the I Have a Dream speech. Approved speak­ers nev­er talked about the last two years of Dr. King’s life. Peo­ple knew bet­ter than to recall him denounc­ing the war in Viet­nam, con­demn­ing “the great­est pur­vey­or of vio­lence in the world today: my own gov­ern­ment.” The speech at River­side Church on April 4, 1967, exact­ly one year before that ter­ri­ble day in Memphis. 

Ali was anoth­er coura­geous icon whose con­tro­ver­sial past was rarely men­tioned. Grace showed Joy and Bri­an pic­tures of him stand­ing tri­umphant­ly over Son­ny Lis­ton. So fero­cious. So young. The news film of him refus­ing to fight in Viet­nam. The sum­mit  meet­ing of Black ath­letes step­ping for­ward to sup­port him. Bill Rus­sell, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jab­bar, known as Lew Alcin­dor back then, Washington’s own Bob­by Mitchell, and oth­ers. The years he could not box. 

They watched When We Were Kings, the doc­u­men­tary about the “Rum­ble in the Jun­gle” between Ali and George Fore­man. Grace described how Ali’s stature had grown beyond all imag­in­ing in the years of exile from the ring. After refus­ing the draft and pay­ing a price for his stand, he was admired around the globe. Joy could bare­ly watch the fight. She winced at the bru­tal body blows as he leaned against the ropes, tak­ing the punch­es. She mar­veled at his steady flow of insults through it all. “They told me you could punch, George. That all you got?” Fore­man, enraged and exhaust­ed, swing­ing wild­ly before Ali stunned him, stunned the whole world. The eighth round knock­out punch. 


Joy set­tled into a defen­sive game, a chess­board rope-a-dope, minus the pun­ish­ing bat­ter­ing. The insults were silent, but vis­i­ble enough for James, Bri­an, and oth­ers to see. Even the boy might even­tu­al­ly under­stand. He strug­gled to gain the elu­sive advan­tage he assumed was his for the taking. 

Joy allowed him to cap­ture a few pieces but was care­ful to grad­u­al­ly win back more. She left a bish­op unde­fend­ed just to observe his preda­to­ry glee. She looked shocked when he greed­i­ly seized it. She planned a knight fork, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly attack­ing his king and a rook. Then she pre­tend­ed not to notice the well-placed trap for two slow min­utes before gasp­ing with sur­prised delight as she took the rook it yield­ed. She almost laughed at the thought of how des­per­ate­ly he must have hoped she wouldn’t see it. How he must won­der why his game couldn’t gain trac­tion, why he was floun­der­ing against this girl who looked so clue­less and non­cha­lant. They trad­ed queens. 

The game had stretched on for more than an hour, rolling along on a stream of mean­ing­less moves. It was time to end things. Joy had enjoyed watch­ing him fid­get. She could sense him shift­ing first from con­fu­sion to annoy­ance, then con­cern and dis­be­lief, which final­ly gave way to pan­ic. The boy’s posi­tion was hope­less. He was down to one rook, one bish­op, and two pawns com­pared to her four pawns, two rooks, a bish­op and knight. A com­mand­ing lead. That was when he sur­veyed the board, put on a cocky smile, and deliv­ered the sec­ond worst insult of the day: “Draw?” 

Draw” was the straw that broke the camel’s back. She didn’t even try to sti­fle the laugh. “Nah. That’s all right. It’s all good.” James cleared his throat loud­ly when she start­ed to move a pawn toward the end of the board. She would not look at him. She advanced the pawn three times to become a queen. Next, the boy was forced to move his king when she checked it with her new queen. That’s when he lost his lone rook, sud­den­ly exposed on the same long diag­o­nal. Soon only his king remained. 

Onlook­ers didn’t need to know chess the­o­ry, clas­sic end­ings, or tac­tics to under­stand what the chess­board showed. Didn’t have to know the dif­fer­ences between kings, queens, and knights. Didn’t need to watch online super­stars like Mau­rice Ash­ley, Tania Sachdev, or the Botez sis­ters. The rout was obvi­ous to every­one but the woman who had just joined them, walk­ing at a fast clip. She stormed to the front shout­ing: “We’re going to be late.” 

She scanned the chess­board, then looked at the boy. “Just check­mate her already. We’re run­ning late.” The laugh­ter star­tled her. She looked from the crowd back to the boy, then glared at Joy. She stared at the board again. Ever so grad­u­al­ly, embar­rass­ing­ly slow­ly, the woman began to under­stand that the white king did not belong to the Black girl. Her mouth still open, she fell silent. 

Joy had locked a fixed stare on the board, refus­ing all eye con­tact after declin­ing the draw. She picked up her next pawn and moved it for­ward. James cleared his throat even more emphat­i­cal­ly. The boy’s king was reduced to aim­less doomed moves. He appeared to be par­a­lyzed except when phys­i­cal­ly mov­ing it. Just anoth­er wood­push­er stum­bling toward defeat. He did not know how to resign to a Black girl who should have lost long ago. 

Joy final­ly glanced at James. He shook his head almost imper­cep­ti­bly, a beseech­ing look. He whis­pered two word­less syl­la­bles: “uh uh.” No. James knew all about chess play­ers who need­ed to learn some humil­i­ty. He under­stood that the boy deserved a whup­ping, and Joy had just deliv­ered one. Now it was time to end it with a check­mate. This was not Judit Pol­gar teach­ing Gar­ry Kas­parov a les­son and exor­cis­ing (most of) his sex­ism. This was not Phiona Mute­si, “Queen of Katwe,” rep­re­sent­ing Ugan­da at inter­na­tion­al tour­na­ments. This had become a slaughter. 

Trapped by his own pride, the boy refused to resign, so Joy would have to fin­ish it on the board. She want­ed to crush him, want­ed anoth­er queen. Maybe three queens. She want­ed to make his king run around the board. But when she looked to James, he shook his head. Anoth­er queen would be overkill. Joy sighed, shrugged her shoul­ders, and con­ced­ed to his request. With a queen and two rooks, she didn’t even need to herd the hap­less king to the side of the board. One rook on each side locked it on a sin­gle nar­row file. She made the king walk one step in that cor­ri­dor of shame. She end­ed it with her queen. 




From the writer

:: Account ::

I played a lot of chess in my ear­ly teens, usu­al­ly at the Boys Club in Sil­ver Spring, Mary­land, a sub­urb of Wash­ing­ton, D.C. I wasn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly tal­ent­ed, but thor­ough­ly enjoyed the game. About 25 or so years ago I read about a very tal­ent­ed Black girl in her ear­ly teens. One day an oppo­nent took one look at her and told his moth­er the game would be over quick­ly. The girl, appalled by the racist insult, decid­ed to beat him slow­ly. I imag­ined the ensu­ing game would have played out in a very cin­e­mat­ic way. That one game, with back­ground sto­ries, the play­ers’ fam­i­ly lives, etc., could have eas­i­ly been a full-length fea­ture movie. Mak­ing a movie wasn’t an option, but the inci­dent also seemed ide­al­ly suit­ed for a short story. 

I’m not Black, but did feel a con­nec­tion to the girl, just not by my lim­it­ed skill at chess. My moth­er was from India, and my father was a white Amer­i­can. That’s a whole oth­er sto­ry about young vol­un­teers meet­ing at the Kuruk­shetra refugee camp in the time of India’s inde­pen­dence and par­ti­tion. I’m often mis­tak­en for Mid­dle East­ern. On sev­er­al occa­sions Ira­ni­ans have assumed I speak Farsi. 

I’ve had severe anky­los­ing spondyli­tis, a form of arthri­tis, since my teens, and walk with a cane. Between hav­ing a vis­i­ble dis­abil­i­ty and being eth­ni­cal­ly “oth­er,” I’m well acquaint­ed with microag­gres­sions. Some peo­ple assume I must be stu­pid, or a ter­ror­ist. It’s annoy­ing, and on rare occa­sions it’s fright­en­ing. Undoubt­ed­ly some per­son­al expe­ri­ence came into play at the thought of a right­ful­ly angry girl crush­ing and humil­i­at­ing her racist opponent. 

Sev­er­al years ago I learned about Tom Mur­phy, the man James Gilmore is loose­ly based on. I want­ed to hon­or peo­ple of extra­or­di­nary tal­ent who con­tribute a lot to the vibrant life of a com­mu­ni­ty. It felt like James should play a sig­nif­i­cant role in Joy’s chess life. It was impor­tant that her par­ents and broth­er should rec­og­nize his gifts and find a con­nec­tion, across class lines, with him. It also was nat­ur­al to bring local and nation­al his­to­ry, cul­ture, and pol­i­tics into the sto­ry. I always pic­tured Dupont Cir­cle as the set­ting, so decid­ed the fic­tion­al old build­ing would be closed for renovation. 

Watch­ing the Queen’s Gam­bit series made me revis­it and final­ly try to write the sto­ry. I was born in 1955, so was at the peak of my chess phase in 1968 when the series end­ed. It hit a lot of chords, recon­nect­ed me with a pow­er­ful and (most­ly) joy­ful time in my life, and rekin­dled my love of chess. 


Sunil Free­man’s essays have appeared in Del­mar­va Review, Gar­goyle, Wash­ing­ton­ian, Jag­gery, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He has pub­lished poems in sev­er­al jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Delaware Poet­ry Review, Min­imus, Gar­goyle, Kiss the Sky: Fic­tion & Poet­ry Star­ring Jimi Hen­drix, and Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Wash­ing­ton, D.C. He has pub­lished one poet­ry col­lec­tion, That Would Explain the Vio­lin­ist (Gut Punch Press, 1993), and a chap­book, Sur­re­al Free­dom Blues (Argonne Hotel Press, 1999).

Angry Queens

Fiction / Amanda J. Bradley

:: Angry Queens ::

Maya fin­gered a long string of wood­en beads, won­der­ing if she’d ever actu­al­ly wear them back in New York. Are they exot­ic but earthy or just cheap and tacky? Near her in the stall of the open-air mar­ket, Sadie hag­gled with an old­er Jamaican woman, who was ample, with a green and red scarf scoop­ing up her braid­ed hair, gray­ing at the temples. 

I’ll give you five dol­lars for all three.” 

No, woman. Five dol­lars for one. That’s a good price.” 

For three or I’ll walk,” Sadie said. Maya could tell she meant it. Upper East Side. Nan­nies. Sum­mers in the south of France. Sadie had more mon­ey than God. This trip to Jamaica was slum­ming it for her. Sadie’s job entailed some sort of phil­an­thropic some­thing or oth­er she chose to do. Although Maya had known her since col­lege, she had yet to fig­ure out which insane­ly wealthy Amer­i­can fam­i­ly Sadie was a twig on a branch of, although she knew it was one of them. It made Maya a lit­tle sick to her stom­ach to hear her friend insist­ing on three beau­ti­ful­ly hand­craft­ed wood­en trop­i­cal fish for half the price of one, so Maya put the beads back and turned around to face them. 

You about ready?” Maya asked. 

Yes,” Sadie said too clear­ly, accen­tu­at­ing the s with a hiss, and then looked at the woman ped­dling wares to give her one last oppor­tu­ni­ty to take her offer. 

Five for two,” the woman said, sweep­ing her eyes over Sadie from head to foot in a slow, delib­er­ate way, a half-dis­guised sneer in her gaze. Sadie pursed her eyes, one hand on her hip. 

That’s very gen­er­ous,” Maya said to her friend. 

Fine. You dri­ve a hard bar­gain.” Sadie dug through her purse then flipped a five-dol­lar bill out of it, stick­ing it out at the woman with her thin, white, gold-ban­gled arm. The woman took it, tucked it into a pouch around her waist, and hand­ed the fish to Sadie. 

I would like a bag.” 

No bag.” The woman ambled around so that her back was fac­ing Sadie to arrange items on the shelves where she’d removed the two fish. 

I’m hun­gry,” Maya said, pulling Sadie away from the mar­ket. “Let’s find some­thing to eat. Do you want to return to that café we went to yesterday?” 

Sadie was still fum­bling with stuff­ing the fish in her purse, but man­aged to focus long enough to respond, “Let’s try some­where new.” 

Okay. Head to the strip?” 

Yes. That’s good.” The two women adjust­ed their strides to walk toward the heart of Mon­tego Bay. Back in New York, men tend­ed to gawk at Sadie more. She was tall, extreme­ly thin, her mus­cles light­ly toned, with a small nose, big eyes, and flaw­less peach skin. Her hair looked healthy and swingy and ranged through­out the year from blonde to light auburn, depend­ing on Sadie’s mood at the salon. Sadie took advan­tage of the perks of her mon­ey and had a per­son­al train­er, a per­son­al chef, a pri­vate hour of swim­ming at the pool in their build­ing. By con­trast, Maya felt pudgy and mot­tled and brown. 

But here in Jamaica, both women had noticed Maya got most of the male atten­tion. Jamaican men whis­tled at Maya, served Maya’s drink first at the restau­rants; all winks and nods went in Maya’s direc­tion. After a man had approached Maya as she and Sadie sat perched on stools sip­ping pineap­ple juice and coconut rum, the bar­tender had told her, “We love the light brown ladies here. Where you from?” Maya was from Queens, but her par­ents were both Filipino. 

As Maya and Sadie strolled to find a place for din­ner, the men they passed whis­tled at Maya, made grand ges­tures in her direc­tion with their hands as if she were a celebri­ty or roy­al­ty, blew kiss­es her way. Sadie didn’t mind; she was rarely fazed by much of any­thing. Maya did not want the atten­tion. She cast her eyes down­ward, their advances mak­ing her uncom­fort­able and wary. She was relieved when the women final­ly took a seat at an out­door table of a restau­rant on the main drag. Maya ordered a Red Stripe, Sadie a daiquiri, and the women relaxed into the ear­ly evening heat. 

What is Tom doing while you are away?” Maya asked her friend. Maya knew Tom the same way she knew Sadie: they’d all gone to a small north­east­ern lib­er­al arts col­lege togeth­er over a decade ago. Maya had been in love with Tom since the night they’d some­how end­ed up cou­pled as a team for a dance marathon. They’d danced all night, tak­ing turns reviv­ing each oth­er when one or the other’s ener­gy flagged, and they’d won ear­ly the next morn­ing when the last rival cou­ple final­ly con­ced­ed defeat. Maya and Tom had gone to break­fast togeth­er at a din­er near cam­pus. He’d been such a gen­tle­man, giv­ing her his jack­et on the walk across cam­pus into town, offer­ing to pay. Sadie had no idea Maya loved Tom, but Sadie was obliv­i­ous that way. 

Work­ing, as usu­al. He prob­a­bly won’t notice I’m gone unless the kids remind him.” Maya knew this was patent­ly false. She saw how Tom looked at Sadie when they all went to brunch or din­ner or a muse­um or con­cert. Maya usu­al­ly brought her broth­er or a friend from work to these out­ings so she would feel less like a third wheel. “When are you going to let me set you up with some­one to date?” 

I am hap­py with my life, I’ve told you,” Maya said. “I do not need some belch­ing, snor­ing man to clean up after and cook for. I like my job and my independence.” 

How can you like that job? It sounds so depress­ing. I mean, how can you leave it at work instead of cry­ing into your wine every night? Those help­less peo­ple in their dingy apart­ments! How do you stand it?” Sadie’s dis­dain for Maya’s social work clients was the one thing about her friend that real­ly made her bris­tle. Maya under­stood that Tom adored Sadie, so she for­gave that Sadie had won the man. Maya did not cov­et her friend’s wealth; she’d always felt mon­ey was a lit­tle wicked. Maya was grow­ing accus­tomed to the fact that she would prob­a­bly not have chil­dren, so she did not begrudge Sadie’s bright-eyed, sandy-haired brood. But her friend’s dis­dain for her clients real­ly angered Maya. 

Not every­one was born into a world of oppor­tu­ni­ty, Sadie. Have you no compassion?” 

I do have com­pas­sion. That’s why I’m ask­ing how you don’t cry your­self to sleep at night with so much sad­ness and pover­ty in your face all day,” Sadie protested. 

Ignor­ing the prob­lem is not the way to fix it.” 

I don’t ignore it. I give a great deal to caus­es that aim to end poverty.” 

You keep your dis­tance from it, though. You don’t under­stand the dai­ly strug­gles, the sys­tems and cycles of abuse in place.” 

Caus­es need workers—people like you, but they also need funds from peo­ple like me.” 

Well, then get off my back about how I can stand it if you think it’s a worth­while job.” 

Done.” Sadie said, turn­ing her eyes toward the dis­tant hori­zon behind Maya’s head. It was a famil­iar pose of hers and often made Maya think of an angry queen. A great rum­ble of engine noise clam­bered into hear­ing range and con­tin­ued to grow loud­er. Every­one on the patio adjust­ed their line of sight to see where the rack­et was com­ing from. A series of what appeared to be mil­i­tary Jeeps round­ed the cor­ner at much too high a speed for the small­ish road, and mus­cu­lar black men with long dreads secured back, ban­doliers of bul­lets hung like sash­es across their chests, and enor­mous black auto­mat­ic rifles in their hands clung to the bars of the Jeeps pre­car­i­ous­ly. One, two, three, four Jeeps trucked their way around the cor­ner and down the way, stern faces of the men aboard not even glanc­ing at the tourists ogling them from the restaurant’s patio. 

Well, that was a sight to behold!” Sadie said, the rare gleam of excite­ment in her eye. 

I won­der where they are going. What is the gov­ern­ment like here? Is there a mil­i­tary action under­way? Should we have researched more what the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion is right now?” Maya’s ques­tions tum­bled out rapidly. 

I’m sure it’s noth­ing,” Sadie said. “They are prob­a­bly just going from here to there, and that’s how they do it—with style.” Maya admired her friend’s non­cha­lance. She used to inter­pret it as brav­ery but late­ly had begun to under­stand it was gen­uine indif­fer­ence. Maya felt she would be hap­pi­er if she could siphon off just a tiny bit of Sadie’s lack of con­cern for dan­ger or suf­fer­ing or the ills of the world; Sadie had enough to spare. “Are you fin­ished with your din­ner? We should scoot if we’re going to catch the sun­set from the beach.” Maya began rum­mag­ing around in her purse, and Sadie added, “I set­tled up for us when I went to the restroom.” 

You didn’t have to do that,” Maya said. She real­ly hat­ed how often Sadie picked up the tab, even though it made sense for her to and even though Sadie could not care less about pay­ing for her friend. 

Let’s go,” Sadie said, ris­ing from the table. 

Maya and Sadie had hap­pened to be on the beach as the sun went down their first night in Jamaica. The sight had been so spec­tac­u­lar that they decid­ed to make a point of wit­ness­ing the sun­set from the beach every night they were there. Now they bus­tled back along the sandy road toward the beach near their hotel to make it in time. They plopped in the sand sev­er­al yards from a cabana serv­ing drinks and play­ing reg­gae from loud­speak­ers; a breeze blew in off the water. The sun sat perched in the sky, a giant pink orb. Sec­onds lat­er, the orb had dropped to straight ahead, rest­ing on the hori­zon, a tor­rent of bright orange and pink, cast­ing a laven­der pall over the ocean, and then mere sec­onds lat­er, it was a half cres­cent, a bare­ly vis­i­ble sliv­er and then gone. It couldn’t have tak­en more than a minute for the sun to dis­ap­pear in one swift motion, drop­ping the friends into twi­light. It sim­ply fell out of the sky. Watch­ing it, Maya felt her breath catch at how quick­ly beau­ty could dis­ap­pear, just like that. She glanced at Sadie’s pro­file, and won­dered if she were think­ing, too, all the usu­al schlock about how quick­ly life pass­es, and how we are left with only the fleet­ing mem­o­ries of the spec­tac­u­lar events that make up our lives until we, too, cease to exist. Prob­a­bly not. She’s prob­a­bly think­ing, “Well, that was pret­ty.”  

Well, that was pret­ty,” Sadie said. Maya was dread­ing going to bed because every night Sadie had been sneak­ing out of their hotel room once she thought Maya was asleep. Maya then would read her book and slap her face against the pil­low in frus­tra­tion and shift posi­tions repeat­ed­ly, wor­ry­ing about her friend before she final­ly man­aged to sleep. Where did she go? What was she doing? Was she safe? To try to tire her friend out tonight, Maya sug­gest­ed they go danc­ing at a club. She knew from the many wed­ding recep­tions they’d attend­ed togeth­er that this would mean Maya sip­ping drinks at the bar, grown self-con­scious since her dance marathon days, and Sadie danc­ing lav­ish­ly for many hours, but Maya liked the idea of wear­ing her friend out tonight and get­ting a fuller night’s sleep her­self. “Let’s have one more drink then hit the hay,” Sadie said. 

Maya’s face was turned toward the win­dow on her pil­low, away from Sadie’s bed. She was secret­ly plot­ting to fol­low her friend tonight to see where she went out of sheer curios­i­ty. After some time of still­ness had passed, Maya heard Sadie slip out of bed and wan­der over to peek at Maya, who kept her eyes closed, lis­ten­ing. She heard Sadie dress and apply lip­stick, brush her hair in the bath­room, then slip out the door. As soon as she was gone, Maya threw on jeans and a pair of ten­nis shoes, grabbed her key card and wal­let, and snuck out behind her friend. She decid­ed to take the three flights of stairs, fig­ur­ing Sadie took the ele­va­tor, and Maya rushed down them as quick­ly as pos­si­ble, know­ing she was a minute or so behind Sadie. As Maya exit­ed the hotel and stepped out into the fresh ocean breeze, she quick­ly glanced at the beach direct­ly across from the hotel. No signs of Sadie. There was only one direc­tion down the one street with any nightlife, so Maya quick­ly scanned for signs of Sadie’s slim fig­ure and spot­ted her friend’s long stride head­ing toward the nightlife. 

Maya clam­bered down the steps and fol­lowed Sadie at a dis­tance, ready to side­step into the shad­owy palm trees lin­ing the street if her friend glanced back. But she nev­er did. Sadie sud­den­ly dart­ed across the street, wav­ing at some­one. Maya fol­lowed the direc­tion of her wave with her eyes and saw two young men out­side anoth­er hotel who appeared to be wait­ing for her near the lob­by. One of the men was tall with long, dark hair and was cov­ered in tat­toos. He wore ripped jeans and a con­cert t‑shirt with the sleeves cut out. He had some kind of leath­ery-look­ing black thing around his neck. The oth­er man was short­er, prep­pi­er. His hair was cut short and remind­ed Maya of Matt Damon in The Tal­ent­ed Mr. Rip­ley. He wore a pink polo shirt and kha­ki shorts with brown san­dals under mus­cu­lar calves. They were clear­ly togeth­er, but by appear­ances had noth­ing in com­mon. Maya won­dered if they were prostitutes. 

Sadie strode up the steps, put her arms out, one hand touch­ing each guy, and pulled them through the door of the lob­by. Maya crossed the street to see into the lob­by bet­ter. She watched the three of them enter an ele­va­tor. Maya remained where she was and wait­ed, con­sid­er­ing what to do. Soon, she heard a light swoosh sound above her and looked up to see Sadie and the tat­tooed guy step­ping out onto the patio of a hotel room. They were all over each oth­er, and he was remov­ing Sadie’s shirt. Maya turned away and swiveled to head back toward the hotel. 

As she walked, Maya tried to iden­ti­fy what it was she was feel­ing. All she could think of was Tom’s face as he set­tled his jack­et around her shoul­ders after they’d won the marathon, how he’d lis­tened so intent­ly as Maya had explained at the din­er why it had been so impor­tant to her to win the mon­ey for their char­i­ty of choice. Her father had been suf­fer­ing ALS then, before he’d died, and she had want­ed to raise mon­ey for ALS research. Tom had been so shocked to hear about her dad, so sym­pa­thet­ic. He’d asked her to tell him about her father and what their rela­tion­ship was like, what her fond­est mem­o­ries from child­hood were of him. He had real­ly listened. 

But the next time she and Tom were togeth­er, it had been like noth­ing ever hap­pened. Tom nev­er men­tioned Maya’s father to her again, nev­er asked how he was, didn’t even know when he died. The sud­den epiphany dawned on Maya as she walked the ocean­side street that Tom and Sadie real­ly were per­fect for each oth­er. Nei­ther of them cared about much of any­thing. Maya sus­pect­ed if she told Tom about Sadie and the tat­tooed man, he would lis­ten intent­ly and then act as if the con­ver­sa­tion had nev­er hap­pened. It would not eat away at him or cor­rode their rela­tion­ship or change any­thing whatsoever. 

Maya neared the hotel and decid­ed to go sit on the beach for a while before return­ing to the room. The cabana was closed now, and not many peo­ple were around at all. A cou­ple walked togeth­er down by the water, some peo­ple were milling about up by the hotel, but Maya felt more alone than she had in days, in years maybe. She found a spot by sim­ply stop­ping when it occurred to her to, and she sit­u­at­ed her­self on the soft sand. The world is ugly. Beau­ty is painful because the world is ugly, not just because beau­ty fades. Maya crossed her ankles and leaned back on her stretched arms. She dropped her head back to view the cas­cades of stars in the black sky. 

A tall man in shorts and a Hawai­ian shirt seemed to appear next to her out of nowhere and asked if he might sit. Maya found she could not care less whether the man sat next to her or didn’t, whether he kept walk­ing or she said yes or no, whether he smiled at her or spoke to her, or if she went back inside. She gazed up at the man blankly. He sat down. 

Where you from?” he asked. “You are beautiful.” 

New York,” she replied. Maya laid back in the sand, and the man leaned down next to her. She closed her eyes. He stuck his tongue in her ear. She didn’t care. 




From the writer

:: Account ::

Jamaica Kincaid’s book A Small Place, about colo­nial­ism and white tourism to her home coun­try of Antigua, was very much in my mind as I wrote this sto­ry. I first read that book long after I had made trips to the Bahamas and Jamaica, and it was eye-open­ing to me. I want­ed to show through a sto­ry the per­ni­cious­ness of wealthy white priv­i­lege, which is why the sto­ry opens with the well-to-do Sadie hag­gling rude­ly with a Jamaican arti­san. Maya is the more relat­able and lik­able char­ac­ter, but by the end of the sto­ry feels over­whelmed by Sadie’s and Tom’s non­cha­lance as peo­ple who have the priv­i­lege of not hav­ing to care about much. When Maya wit­ness­es Sadie’s mis­treat­ment of Tom with the oth­er men in Jamaica, Maya has an epiphany that Tom real­ly wouldn’t care that much any­way. This breaks Maya. 

More gen­er­al­ly, I am inter­est­ed in the bru­tal­i­ty of the world: inequal­i­ty, unfair­ness, vio­lence. I want­ed a sense of that bru­tal­i­ty high­light­ed in the sto­ry, too, and set in con­trast with the world’s beauty. 


Aman­da J. Bradley has pub­lished three poet­ry col­lec­tions with NYQ Books: Queen Kong (2017), Oz at Night (2011), and Hints and Alle­ga­tions (2009) and has pub­lished fic­tion, essays, and poems wide­ly in antholo­gies and lit­er­ary mag­a­zines such as Pater­son Lit­er­ary Review, Chi­ron Review, Lips, Rat­tle, The New York Quar­ter­ly, Kin, The Ner­vous Break­down, Apric­i­ty Mag­a­zine, and Gar­goyle. She lives in Bea­con, New York, and her web­site can be found at

Traveling the Red Road: The Life of a Menstruant

Nonfiction / Rachel Neve-Midbar


:: Traveling the Red Road: The Life of a Menstruant ::

I am bleed­ing the day he disappears. 

A wave of cramps hits me, mak­ing me nau­seous. This body, my body—my body that bleeds—how has it led me to this con­strict­ed place?  


Thy soule foule beast is like a men­stru­al cloath,
Pol­lut­ed with unpar­don­able sinners.” 

—Barn­abe Barnes, The Devil’s Charter


Blood is mag­ic
Blood is holy
And whol­ly riv­et­ing of our attention.” 

—Judy Grahn, “All Blood is Men­stru­al Blood” 


All the kids on Brook­side Cir­cle play togeth­er. I am per­haps four years old. A. and I are kneel­ing at the edge of the road, draw­ing with chalk on the con­crete. A. tells me her moth­er pees blood. “No,” I tell her, “Mom­mies don’t pee blood.” She offers to show me and takes me into her house at the end of the block. We remove our shoes in the front hall and walk up the stairs. A. enters her mother’s bath­room first and then motions me to join her. We look togeth­er into the bowl of a beige toi­let where a bit of paper stained with the small­est whiff of blood floats in the water. “Will she die?” I ask. 


the flow­ers,” “the cours­es,” “the terms,” “the mis­ery,” “month­ly dis­ease,” “the time of her wont­ed grief,” “excre­ment,” “those evac­u­a­tions of the weak­er sex,” “the moon,” “weep­ing womb,” “pack­age of trou­bles,” “jam & bread,” “on the rag,” “too wet to plow,” “a snatch box dec­o­rat­ed with red ros­es,” “can’t go swim­ming,” “tide’s in,” “tide’s out,” “fly­ing bak­er” (a Navy sig­nal mean­ing “keep off”), “rid­ing the red tide,” “the red flag is up” 

—Houp­pert, The Curse 


When my sis­ter gets her first peri­od, she is per­fec­tion, light. In the guest bath­room: right across from the TV-room where my moth­er is always splayed in her orange easy chair. Just the right age for a good girl: thir­teen and a half. “Mom­my, Mom­my,” she calls, “I got my peri­od.” How my moth­er touch­es her, “Hon­ey I’m so proud,” smiles, takes her into her room to get belt and pad. Our father is equal­ly proud as he has her dress in Dan­skin, put up her hair. He then spends hours pho­tograph­ing her, over and over: pro­file, chin up, chin down. “Now take down your hair.”   


The word ‘taboo’ itself even comes from a Poly­ne­sian word that both means ‘sacred’ and ‘men­stru­a­tion’”  

Why Are Peri­ods Still a Taboo in 2018? 


I know it’s the time for bad girls when mine comes just two months lat­er. Only twelve, the age for sluts, for trash, for oth­er dirty things. In the upstairs kid’s bath­room.    

Maybe I wasn’t born for joy because just before I dis­cov­er the red stain I am joy­ful at a sixth-grade square dance. Do-si-do. Just once allow­ing myself to fly around the gym not wor­ry­ing how I look. And then this. “Don’t for­get,” my body whis­pers, “don’t for­get what you are.” 

So, I tell no one, stuff my under­wear full of toi­let paper, go on as usu­al, a secret between my legs. 


The duplic­i­ty of blood as both the source of life and the cause of cor­rup­tion was con­cen­trat­ed most in medieval and ear­ly mod­ern per­cep­tions of men­stru­al blood. Despite the men­stru­at­ing body’s func­tion as an exem­plary mod­el for nature’s expul­sive and self-reg­u­lat­ing pow­er, men­stru­al blood itself car­ried the period’s anx­i­eties about woman’s moral duplic­i­ty and bio­log­i­cal weak­ness. Men­stru­al blood and men­stru­at­ing woman were thought to be cor­rupt­ing: they could bring mad­ness, dis­ease, and death to those who touched or looked upon them….”

—John­son, Decamp, Blood Mat­ters 


I’m not real­ly sure what hap­pens to you if you swim while men­stru­at­ing. Prob­a­bly it’s lethal if my mother’s reac­tion is any indi­ca­tion. So, because of a swim invi­ta­tion, I final­ly tell my secret. 

I arrange myself in the guest bath­room, call, “Mom­my, Mom­my.” She does ask me what the bloody wad of school paper tow­el is in the toi­let. “Noth­ing,” I mum­ble and push the flush­er. Then, yes, the belt. Yes, men­stru­al pad that cov­ers me from naval to back­bone: though those don’t last too long. It’s 1975. Tam­pons will be pos­si­ble. Swim­ming too. Even­tu­al­ly even for my mother. 

But, no. No Dan­skin. No Leica lens. Now in the moments my father gets close enough to me he lifts my arm and yanks on the new hairs grow­ing there. And laughs. If I fight him off, he takes a pinch of new­ly bud­ded breast. And laughs harder. 


I have peri­ods now, like nor­mal girls; I too am among the know­ing, I too can sit out vol­ley­ball games and go to the nurse’s for aspirin and wad­dle along the halls with a pad like a flat­tened rab­bit tail wadded between my legs, sop­ping with liv­er-col­ored blood.” 

—Mar­garet Atwood, Cat’s Eye 


The sum­mer after my sec­ond year at Sarah Lawrence I meet D. and start to keep kosher and Shab­bat. The paper­work is com­plete for my junior year abroad, and some­time that sum­mer I will leave for Israel. I tell myself I am look­ing for free­dom inside a sys­tem of law, but real­ly I am look­ing to run as fast as I can into some oth­er life.   

I fol­low D.’s fam­i­ly to a cot­tage on a lake in Penn­syl­va­nia. My oth­er­ness is always on dis­play. They don’t like the way I pro­nounce “Torah.” They don’t like my bare feet, and when I walk around the house in socks they say I dress like a mourn­er. His lit­tle sis­ter asks if I am a shik­sa.   

When I men­stru­ate I take a tam­pon from the box hid­den in my clos­et. I care­ful­ly wrap what is used in toi­let paper, set it in the bas­ket. One morn­ing his moth­er takes me by the arm and pulls me into the bath­room. She shows me a pile of old news­pa­per inside the bath­room cab­i­net. She is 5’10,” Euro­pean; upright and prop­er, her gir­dle always in place, even under her bathing suit. In her accent­ed Eng­lish she tells me I must wrap my used tam­pons in news­pa­per. No one can know. “No one needs to see that.” She is almost spitting. 


OED. taboo | tabu, adj. and n. 
Ety­mol­o­gy: < Ton­gan ˈtabu  
     The putting of a per­son or thing under pro­hi­bi­tion or interdict. 


Women’s reg­u­lar bleed­ing engen­ders phantoms.” 



D. lat­er fol­lows me to Israel, asks me to mar­ry him. I want to say, “Wait.” I want to say, “I don’t know who I am.” But I see how much he needs me. 

I am 21 years old.  


Leviti­cus 15:19 states: “A woman who has a flow of blood in her body shall be a ‘nid­dah’ for sev­en days, and all who touch her shall be rit­u­al­ly impure until sun­down.”  

Leviti­cus 18:19 states: “A woman in the rit­u­al­ly impure state of nid­dah, you shall not approach for sex­u­al relations.” 

The first verse refers to the laws of rit­u­al impu­ri­ty (tumah v’taharah), most of which are no longer applic­a­ble today. 

The sec­ond verse, how­ev­er, appears in the list of the most severe­ly for­bid­den sex­u­al rela­tion­ships, such as adul­tery and incest, which remain ful­ly rel­e­vant to this day. 

A woman ceas­es to be niddah—and returns to a state of rit­u­al puri­ty (taharah)—by con­firm­ing that bleed­ing has ceased (hef­sek taharah), count­ing sev­en blood-free days (shiv­ah neki’im), and immers­ing in a prop­er mikveh.” 

The Nid­dah Status


C. is my kallah teacher. She has a face creased to smile and she smiles a lot. She is also a very strin­gent woman, care­ful in her prac­tice, and she pass­es that care­ful­ness on to me. In the weeks lead­ing up to my wed­ding I vis­it her twice a week. She teach­es me how to keep the laws of fam­i­ly puri­ty: how to under­stand the work­ings of my body, to come close to my rhythms and join togeth­er with them, to watch for stains, to exam­ine, to check, to pre­pare and final­ly, to immerse my body deep in liv­ing water and return each time to myself. 


The night before my wed­ding, I walk to the mikveh with my moth­er and C. I take my time prepar­ing. I have nev­er before giv­en myself this permission—this con­cen­tra­tion. What can I tell you about this care­ful­ness, atten­tion to myself with no one to wit­ness, no one to watch, no one to ridicule? No one look­ing to see how deep and long I bow dur­ing shmona-esrei, no one to taste a good meal I’ve pre­pared so I can see the plea­sure in their eyes. Here in the mikveh bath­room there is only me. Does God care if I comb my eye­brows? I have no idea. I only know that in the warm liv­ing water His hands reach around me, cra­dle me as I loosen my fin­gers and half open my eyes so the water can touch every part of me at once. I bow my head, fold my hands across my breasts, “Blessed are you, God. Blessed.” 


My moth­er asks me after if I feel dif­fer­ent. “Yes,” I answer and she looks sur­prised. We don’t say any­thing else.  


The next morn­ing I rise ear­ly. I go to the apart­ment in Jerusalem that D. and I have rent­ed to make up our bed. I am fast­ing and it is sum­mer, so I take a taxi to the Kotel where I pray for hap­pi­ness, for peace. Yes, per­haps that would be enough. 

It would be enough to hang some dress­es in a clos­et. To open that clos­et in the morn­ing and choose what to wear. Final­ly to just be home. 

After a long Viduy at the Kotel, I make my way west and south to the Bay­it Veg­an neigh­bor­hood, to the Holy­land Hotel. There I will stand under the chup­pah.   


The Halakha details strict rules gov­ern­ing every aspect of the dai­ly lives of Jews, includ­ing the sex­u­al lives of mar­ried cou­ples. Jew­ish law express­ly for­bids any phys­i­cal con­tact between spous­es dur­ing the days of men­stru­a­tion and for a week there­after. Accord­ing to stip­u­lat­ed rit­u­al, an Ortho­dox Jew­ish wife is respon­si­ble for ensur­ing that she is no longer exhibit­ing vagi­nal bleed­ing by swab­bing her­self care­ful­ly with a linen cloth for each of the sev­en days fol­low­ing the overt ces­sa­tion of the men­stru­al flow. The sev­en clean days after men­stru­a­tion cul­mi­nate with the wife’s oblig­a­tion to immerse that night in the Mik­vah, the rit­u­al bath. It is only at the end of the Nid­dah inter­val, after the rit­u­al bath, that spous­es are per­mit­ted to phys­i­cal­ly touch one anoth­er. This ‘‘two weeks on/two weeks off’’ pat­tern of con­tact char­ac­ter­izes mar­i­tal life until menopause, with two notable time frame excep­tions: preg­nan­cy and nurs­ing (until post­par­tum men­stru­a­tion resumes), when unin­ter­rupt­ed con­tact is per­mit­ted. These ‘Laws of Fam­i­ly Puri­ty’ rep­re­sent an inte­gral aspect of iden­ti­ty as an Ortho­dox Jew.” 

—Guter­man, Archives of Sex­u­al Behav­ior  


The first mikveh night about a month after we are mar­ried, I come home to find fresh sheets on the bed, a spaghet­ti meal, a beau­ti­ful note of love and hope for our future fam­i­ly. D. is wear­ing my short, black-silk kimono. It makes his green-gray eyes shine. Wow, I think as I fall into his arms, I could get used to this mar­riage thing.   

That is the first and last time. I nev­er see this ver­sion of him again. 


I remem­ber the still­ness, the still­ness of thun­der left behind, the still­ness of knees held tight togeth­er, breath exhaled once, twice. 

Over time, each sec­ond, sweat on my palms. Bro­ken records stored in a clos­et, their shards gleam in the dark­ness, each groove a year of life. Moments on the floor, sur­round­ed by books writ­ten in a lan­guage no one even reads anymore. 

Don’t move or you’ll upset some­thing. Wait. Don’t speak. Some­one might think well of you. Hold your breath and time will stop, a sun held between my two palms, no big­ger than the space between my fin­gers.   

There is always that still­ness. Qui­et quakes in my chest, drips down my back. A chair flies across the room, hits me right on the tem­ple. For some rea­son I live. Make-up cov­ers the bruise, cov­ers every­thing. He hands me a glass of some­thing dark to drink. It changes from pur­ple to black, a sun drop­ping to the bot­tom of an ocean. 

Was it me who pushed back the entire wall of my house to become the doll inside?  


From the diary of Jane Sharp in 1671:  

some­times flow too soon, some­times too late, they are too many or too few, or are quite stopt that they flow not at all. Some­times they fall by drops, and again some­times they over­flow; some­times they cause pain, some­times they are void­ed not by the womb but some oth­er way; some­times strange things are sent forth by the womb.” 

—Sara Read, Men­stru­a­tion and the Female Body in Ear­ly Mod­ern Eng­land 


Twice I have hem­or­rhaged, left bath­rooms look­ing like mur­der scenes.   


I will tell you about the sec­ond time first. It’s the eas­i­er sto­ry. It’s an after birth sto­ry, from the time right after my youngest son was born. My hor­mones mis-cal­i­brat­ing, my uterus six weeks after the C‑section, just start­ing to return to itself, sud­den­ly fill­ing with blood bal­loons like a wash­ing machine gyrat­ing too much soap. 

In my paper gown in the exam­i­na­tion room the Dr. tells me to take off my under­wear, sit on the chair that becomes a bed with stir­rups. How can I undress when I am gush­ing blood like a faucet? When I glance down, he says with so much kind­ness, “Don’t wor­ry. I have seen everything.” 

Lat­er when I walk into the oper­at­ing room for the D&C, the Dr. is wait­ing for me, capped and gowned all in white, his hands clasped in front of him­self, sway­ing slight­ly as if in prayer, he looks like a groom, com­plete­ly kit­tled, wait­ing for me under the chup­pah. What would my life be like if I had mar­ried instead this kind man?  



“we need a god who bleeds now 
a god whose wounds are not 
some small male vengeance”

—Ntoza­ke Shange, “We Need a God who Bleeds Now” 


red light,” “red let­ter day,” “my red­head­ed friend,” “cher­ry in the sher­ry,” “the red king,” “trav­el­ing the red road,” “the red sea’s out,” “the reds are in,” “bloody mary,” “the chick is a com­mu­nist,” “white cylin­der week,” “moth­er nature’s gift,” “it’s rain­ing down south,”  

—Houp­pert, The Curse


The first time I hem­or­rhage I am in my mother-in-law’s house. I am ten weeks preg­nant. My arms are already full with a two year old and a ten month old. I car­ry them up and down the steep stairs to the attic where we sleep. Some­thing hurts. I am exhaust­ed. I can’t do any­thing but sit all day, let­ting the girls play at my feet. Some­thing is wrong. Some­thing is wrong with this preg­nan­cy. A pull. It hurts. 

Final­ly it tears. Some­thing tears inside my abdomen. The pain is excru­ci­at­ing. I set the girls down, run to the bath­room. There is blood every­where. I clean up as best I can and go down­stairs to tell my moth­er-in-law that I think I am hav­ing a miscarriage. 

She looks at her watch, tells me we can’t go to the hos­pi­tal for a few more hours, until her hus­band comes home to watch my twelve-year-old sis­ter-in-law. I feed my girls din­ner, get them tucked in. 

On the dri­ve into Man­hat­tan sev­er­al hours lat­er she tells me “it’s all for the best.” But I know she is wrong. I am twen­ty-four years old, moth­er of two, and her son blames me for every bad thing that hap­pens to us. Every­thing. Both big and small: when he los­es his driver’s license from too many tick­ets. When he fights with some­one in shul. From our mon­ey prob­lems to his own desire for oth­er women, every­thing is my fault.  I can’t imag­ine what he will do to me if I lose this pregnancy. 


taboo: adj. (syn.) ille­gal, restrict­ed, unmen­tion­able, unacceptable 


The baby isn’t dead, though I won’t find this out until the next day. At NYU Med­ical, the bed they give me is bro­ken, the floor is cov­ered with blood. Not mine. I am no longer bleed­ing.   

The Dr. who exam­ines me tells me my cervix is still closed. Mat­ter-of-fact­ly she explains this means: 1. that the fetus was already expelled and my cervix then closed right back up after her like a slammed door. Or 2. that I have yet to expel the lit­tle life and that she will find her way out in the next few days. Or 3. that I am still preg­nant. “So why all the blood then?” I ask. She shrugs.  

No blood test, no ultra­sound, I ride back to Queens, absent­ly lis­ten­ing to my moth­er-in-law talk about the man in the bed next to mine who had slashed his foot on a can top when he stepped on his kitchen garbage. For­ev­er after, as long as I will know her, she will very care­ful­ly insert the top back into the emp­ty can before throw­ing it away. She will tell any­one who is will­ing to lis­ten that you can’t be too care­ful with the torn top of a can. 

The next day I drink a half a gal­lon of water and trav­el alone back into Man­hat­tan for an ultra­sound to see my daugh­ter. No, she is not lying qui­et­ly inside me. She is not suck­ing her lit­tle thumb. On the screen my daugh­ter is upright and break-danc­ing just above a pla­cen­tal tear. 


Many medieval Jew­ish mys­tics saw men­stru­a­tion dif­fer­ent­ly. Accord­ing to a sec­tion of the Zohar, the most pop­u­lar work of medieval Kab­bal­ah, the menstruant’s title of nid­dah tells us that ‘God flees from her.’ God aban­dons men­stru­ants because God can­not suf­fer impu­ri­ty. The nid­dah repels the forces of the holy, and her spir­i­tu­al vac­u­um is imme­di­ate­ly filled by the forces of evil and impurity.” 

Zohar, 3:226a (RM


There is always some­thing we woman can’t do, some­where we can’t go, some­thing we can’t touch because we men­stru­ate. We are not allowed to touch the Torah, even when it’s “dressed,” mean­ing there is a bound­ary between the holy vel­lum and our taint­ed fin­gers. We can­not dance with the holy scroll on the hol­i­day of Sim­chat Torah, even if we have gone to the mikveh and are as rit­u­al­ly clean as our hus­bands. Why? Because then “peo­ple will see” who is in nid­dah among the women and who is not and that is “immod­est.”   

My hus­band loves the idea of my immod­esty and when­ev­er he wants to ridicule me and set me in my place he brings it up. My immod­est dress, my immod­est speech, my immod­est behav­ior. When I wear san­dals that “show my toes” or a dress in a shade of red, when I stick my tongue out at him in the street, when I use the word “putz” at a fam­i­ly party—any of these and many more are rea­sons to pun­ish me. 

He trav­els often, leav­ing us alone for weeks at a time. He nev­er needs to be home for any rea­son because I am always there.  My men­stru­a­tion gives my hus­band com­plete con­trol over me, it ren­ders me weak, dirty, dif­fer­ent. This is the tool of his pow­er.   


And when I am “immod­est”? Yes, there are pun­ish­ments. Some­times it is the set of his jaw, a cold stare. Some­times it is a chilly silence that can last for days or weeks. It might be the hav­dalah wine thrown in my face in front of the chil­dren when I sing too loud­ly or my cred­it cards cut to pieces if I buy some­thing with­out per­mis­sion. Or it might be a back­hand to the face or being thrown to the base­ment floor, his hands around my neck if I smile too warm­ly with the dish­wash­er repairman. 


How often does he show me his back on mikveh nights? After all the effort of bathing and the dress­ing, the undress­ing, the dunk­ing, the dress­ing once again only to find him already asleep, turned away from me. 


“Come you spirits  
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, 
And fill me from crown to the toe, top-full 
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood, 
Stop up th’access and passage to remorse, 
That no compunctious visitings of nature 
Shake my fell purpose, not keep peace between 
Th’effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts, 
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers” 

—Shake­speare, Mac­beth, (1.5.41–49)


Con­tact with [men­stru­al blood] turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become bar­ren, grafts die, seed in gar­dens are dried up, the fruit of trees fall off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a hor­ri­ble smell fills the air; to taste it dri­ves dogs mad and infects their bites with an incur­able poi­son.”  

—Pliny the Elder, Nat­ur­al His­to­ry: A Selec­tion 


I just want him to stop being so angry. I pray for this every week when I light my Shab­bat can­dles and again when I burn a small piece of chal­lah dough. In the mikveh I dunk sev­en times instead of the reg­u­lar three and pray final­ly, final­ly, for peace. 


And then comes the day he dis­ap­pears. He does call—once. I ask him where he is, but he won’t tell me. Instead he tele­phones our daugh­ters, tells them he is in Hawaii.  

Usu­al­ly he tele­phones con­stant­ly, but he doesn’t call again. I wait. Every day. I am ice inside, walk­ing ice as I pack the kids’ lunch­es, as I fold laun­dry, as I take care of the com­pa­ny bank­ing, watch the trad­ing accounts. I know he can’t be alone; he always needs some­one to talk to. 

But he doesn’t call. Not Tues­day, not Thurs­day. Not before Shab­bat to wish his chil­dren a good week.  

My clean days come and I don’t check; my mikveh night arrives and I don’t go. When he final­ly comes home I am still in nid­dah. I tell him this when he reach­es his arm out to bring me close and says, “Babe, come to bed.” 

Lat­er that day he reveals that he wasn’t in Hawaii alone, that he is in love with some­one else, has been for the past eigh­teen months. It turns out she is the con­sul­tant he hired to help us locate gold mine deals in Neva­da. It turns out there are no deals in Neva­da. It turns out I have been pay­ing $5,000 a month, about $40,000 total of com­pa­ny mon­ey, to his mis­tress, and that it was me who put through and signed the wire trans­fer orders. 

I ask him to leave. 


we need a god who bleeds 
spreads her lunar vul­va & show­ers us in shades of scar­let 
thick & warm like the breath of her” 

—Ntoza­ke Shange, “We Need a God Who Bleeds Now” 


In the dream we are as we are now, aged, lay­ered, yet our pas­sion grows as it always did, our appetite for each oth­er in my cries that still echo thir­ty years lat­er down from the long cor­ri­dor of a col­lege dorm, our desire takes root, intact and as you reach your hand between the part­ed branch­es of my legs there flows a Nia­gara of blood—the blood that so repelled you shoots forth, an artery opened, pushed out of me with each heart­beat, a riv­er that moves the water-wheel that cir­cles between the secrets of life and death, and remains in that pun­gent place between, that place I am in now where my breasts hang, two tears upon my chest and my face is an aban­doned land. 


I am men­stru­at­ing the day we go to the Rab­bin­ut for the ghett. And I am acute­ly aware of it as the three rab­bis have me stand side­ways in front of their dais and hold my hands up to receive the fold­ed vel­lum doc­u­ment. “High­er,” they say, “high­er.” I stretch my hands over my head. I can feel their eyes mov­ing up and down my body.   


OED: taˈ­booness  n. the state or con­di­tion of being taboo. 

1974   Ver­ba­tim I. i. 4/1   The tabooness of fuck


Then come the years alone. My men­stru­a­tion starts to change, my peri­ods get­ting longer, stronger, last­ing for weeks with days when I can’t leave the house because I need to change my pad/tampon com­bo every hour.   


The moon ris­es full, over­whelm­ing the dark sky and all of us on the deck of this boat in Yafo port tonight. We are all women, pray­ing and med­i­tat­ing togeth­er. M., sit­ting next to me, tells me her sto­ry: how she left her par­ents’ reli­gious home for col­lege and nev­er went back. How after grad­u­a­tion she got a job on the sea and, for the next twen­ty years moved from job to job, from port to port, from ocean to ocean. “I have nev­er slept with a man who wouldn’t go down on me when I had my peri­od,” she tells me.

Incred­u­lous, I ask, “Not one?” 


My girls are get­ting old­er. They are young women. They reject the pill; spend long weeks hik­ing in the desert, work­ing on kib­butz, trav­el­ing the world with back­packs. They ask me to order them men­stru­al cups from Ama­zon. Small rub­ber bowls to be insert­ed inside: health­i­er and bet­ter for the envi­ron­ment. They tell me their blood will be used to water some organ­ic gar­den. I won­der, can they taste them­selves in each toma­to bite? 


I buy a pair of hik­ing boots, look at myself in the mir­ror. There are no lines on my face. 


I google “Tel Aviv clubs for the old­er set”; I google “Best online dat­ing sites in Israel.” A cat­a­logue of faces. What many of these guys are into, I learn, is mutu­al mas­tur­ba­tion via Skype. So many of them are wear­ing base­ball caps and shades—incognito and hold­ing their com­put­ers.   

One guy keeps nudg­ing me to meet in per­son. His face stands out, sculpt­ed and strong. F. writes in Eng­lish, already a relief. 

I haven’t dat­ed any­one except my hus­band since I was nine­teen. I slip into a filmy red blouse, spread Jo Mal­one Lime Blos­som along my neck and wrists and head to Tel Aviv. 


I have no idea where I am—a dark room, a night­light switch­ing from red to blue to the back­beat of what sounds like old dis­co. He touch­es me, kiss­es me, undress­es me. His arms are long, reach around me. The sand­pa­per of his hands moves over every part of my body. My eyes adjust and I see him, long lines of satin skin, taut and strong. And his cock. Thick, so heavy it doesn’t stand away from his body, beau­ti­ful­ly pro­por­tioned. He is talk­ing to me. Whis­per­ing that he doesn’t do well with con­doms, that he will lose his erec­tion. I am on my back on his bed; he is stand­ing over me. I think, “I want this.” I want this more than I have want­ed any­thing in my life. Acronyms like STDs and AIDS flit through my mind. Six chil­dren, all mine. Tomor­row. I will deal with the con­se­quences tomor­row. Tonight I just want the gift on this bare cock in me. “Yes,” I say, and as he slips inside, a fore­arm under each of my knees, he car­ries me through a door and into the life of my own desire. 


It’s like this every time we see each oth­er. Elec­tric. No con­ver­sa­tion, very lit­tle sleep. I would hap­pi­ly see F. every night, but he tells me he “has church.” Mon­day night church, Thurs­day night church. Lots of church. Really? 

We aver­age twice a week and I become a stretched cord of desire. I walk around the house wait­ing for him to call and when he does, I fly to the car, speed all the way to his lips, his hands, his penis. That beau­ti­ful cock that soon becomes a divin­ing rod to my uncer­tain men­stru­a­tion. Our sex calls my body to bleed. More time apart. But not like D. Not Ortho­dox apart. No, F. will still get his: in my hands, my mouth, against my ass. 


I fell off the roof,” “I’ve got my flow­ers,” “I’ve got my friend,” “I’ve got the grannies,” “lady in the red dress,” “Grandma’s here,” “Aunt Rosa is com­ing from Amer­i­ca,” My red­head­ed Aunt from Red Bank.” 

—Houp­pert, The Curse 


Final­ly the day comes when he calls and, as I get ready for a show­er, I see a small stain of blood in my panties. And I’m done. Done. It is, after all, the small­est stain and what is this? It’s not some God thing. No, it’s a most human thing. My thing. My body. And I am done with let­ting it stop me.   

I tell him nothing—shower and dri­ve to Tel Aviv. We are togeth­er for hours in his pitch-dark room, fall asleep in each other’s arms. The next morn­ing I leave very ear­ly to get home to my children. 


For the next five weeks I don’t hear from F. He doesn’t call and when I tele­phone him the phone rings and rings. When he final­ly invites me to Tel Aviv it’s to show me the stained sheets. Sheets he nev­er threw away, that have sat all this time in the cor­ner of his room. He holds up the cloth and informs me he wants no part of my “bad-lady juju.” 


Ntoza­ke Shange, we need a “God who bleeds.” Is she here? 


This is my blood. 

A lit­tle his­to­ry of the rules, of those who have them and of those who make them. 

The men­stru­al rev­o­lu­tion, in any case, is in progress. And it will prob­a­bly be the first in the world to be both bloody and peaceful.” 

—Élise Thiebaut, “The Men­stru­al Revolution” 


“The name—of it—is ‘Autumn’— 
The hue—of it—is Blood— 
An Artery—upon the Hill— 
A Vein—along the Road— 
Great Globules—in the Alleys— 
And Oh, the Shower of Stain— 
When Winds—upset the Basin— 
And spill the Scarlet Rain— 
It sprinkles Bonnets—far below— 
It gathers ruddy Pools— 
Then—eddies like a Rose—away— 
Upon Vermilion Wheels—” 

—Emi­ly Dick­in­son (J 656)


At last a man steps out of the cat­a­logue of faces, a man who sees me, who lets me know that I am seen. This is plea­sure of a whole new kind, a deep plea­sure. I am hand­ed drinks before I know I am thirsty. Noth­ing I do or say ever upsets him.   

He touch­es me, mas­sages me, loves me—everywhere: between my toes, the base of my hair­line, the place at where my back meets my but­tocks, which he calls “nabakoo.” It might mean “dim­ple” or “space”; he nev­er says. He does tell me, his voice thick with pas­sion, that noth­ing is more beau­ti­ful. He sees me beau­ti­ful and this makes me beau­ti­ful. His hands are huge, but they nev­er touch me with any­thing but gen­tle­ness. And they nev­er stop touch­ing me. In the street, in shops, every­where. And, wher­ev­er we go, peo­ple stop to look at our grey-haired hap­pi­ness.   


Two weeks after we start dat­ing, I am accept­ed as a PhD can­di­date at a uni­ver­si­ty in Cal­i­for­nia and from that time our rela­tion­ship forms itself around the knowl­edge that I am leav­ing. Four days before I am due to fly, my suit­cas­es most­ly packed, I begin to stain. I ask him if he has made love to a woman who is bleed­ing? He tells me he has not. Then he kneels in front of me, takes my hands in his. His face car­ries years, years of trav­el, of hard­ship, of life, but his eyes hold mine. “We are one body,” he says. “When you bleed, I am also bleed­ing.”  

He makes love to me then, holds noth­ing back, touch­es me every­where. If his penis is cov­ered with blood after, he doesn’t bur­den me with it, just steps away to wash and comes back to bed where he wraps his arms around me, braids his legs with mine into twist­ed roots.   


“thirty-eight years and you 
never arrived 
splendid in your red dress 
without trouble for me” 

—Lucille Clifton, “to my last peri­od”  


Our bod­ies shape-shift and writhe” 

—Darcey Steinke, Flash Count Diary


Noth­ing can pre­pare you for this.” 

—Mary Reu­fle, “Pause” 


I am new­ly arrived in L.A. for grad­u­ate school, stay­ing in a North Hol­ly­wood McMan­sion with friends, when the bleed­ing becomes full. The bed in the gue­stroom is mas­sive­ly pil­lowed, the sheets pris­tine. Luck­i­ly I brought a tow­el from home to tuck under me at night. Despite this, I still wake in the murky light before dawn, a fresh gush slip­ping from me. 

In the bath­room I reach down to remove my tam­pon and look at the full pad attached to my under­wear, the streaks of brown and pur­ple and maroon there, run a fin­ger over this sun­set of col­or. Some­times, when it was espe­cial­ly bad with D., I would lock myself in the bath­room, sit on the toi­let and lay my head down on my knees. The smell of me in those moments, the scent of how life and death could coin­cide inside me would bring me com­fort. Now, see­ing a streak of blood caught on my thumb, I touch it to my tongue before wip­ing it away, taste the salt and rust of me.   

Forty-three years of month­ly peri­ods. At fifty-five I am fac­ing the change. The first signs of per­i­menopause have start­ed to creep in, the heat and fog­gy brain, the exhaus­tion. But haven’t I always been chang­ing? Or has my month­ly flow kept me in rhythm, pro­vid­ed a back-beat to my life? And in this next iter­a­tion, who will this new woman, this new being be? Will I know her, rec­og­nize her bet­ter than I saw myself at 21? Or accept her as I nev­er did that girl of 12, a girl who iden­ti­fied inside a dime sized, rusty stain the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of every mis­un­der­stand­ing, every mis­take, every embar­rass­ment of her young life? And the biggest ques­tion: will I ever find it in me to for­give her? 






From the writer

:: Account ::

My jour­ney into this piece began in the first semes­ter of my PhD at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. I took a class in Shake­speare where­in we ana­lyzed each play via one word from the text. In addi­tion, we each need­ed to choose one word for our own semes­ter research. In an irrev­er­ent moment, on the day we need­ed to announce our per­son­al words, I chose the word “men­stru­a­tion,” not com­pre­hend­ing in that moment that I was com­plete­ly chang­ing the direc­tion of my research and my life. It didn’t take long to real­ize that I had inad­ver­tent­ly put my fin­ger on the very pulse of the most ancient and per­va­sive way a patri­ar­chal soci­ety has abused women. My answer could only be to tell my own sto­ry not only as an Ortho­dox Jew­ish wife but as a woman in mod­ern soci­ety. How do we undo misog­y­ny? We learned from #MeToo to share our sto­ries and find pow­er in solidarity. 


Rachel Neve-Mid­bar’s col­lec­tion Salaam of Birds won the 2018 Patri­cia Bib­by First Book Award and was pub­lished by Tebot Bach in Jan­u­ary 2020. She is also the author of the chap­book What the Light Reveals (Tebot Bach, 2014), win­ner of The Clock­work Prize. Rachel’s work has appeared in Black­bird, Prairie Schooner, Grist, and The Geor­gia Review as well as oth­er pub­li­ca­tions and antholo­gies. Her awards include the Crab Orchard Review Richard Peter­son Prize, the Pas­sen­ger Poet­ry Prize, and nom­i­na­tions for The Push­cart Prize. Rachel is cur­rent­ly edit­ing the AuntFlo2020 Project, an anthol­o­gy of writ­ing about men­stru­a­tion, and she is cur­rent­ly a PhD can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. More at

Here’s Your Terrifying Cat

Nonfiction / Brenden Layte

:: Here’s Your Terrifying Cat ::

I’m sit­ting in a rent­ed car in a park­ing lot, and I’m con­vinced that my cat is dying. I breathe and try to talk myself down and think I remem­ber there being a word like hypochon­dri­ac but for some­one wor­ried about some­thing oth­er than them­selves. If I take my phone out to look it up, I’ll end up search­ing his symp­toms for ten min­utes and for­get what I took it out for, so I don’t. Maybe the word I’m look­ing for is just anx­i­ety.  

An abridged list of my recent inter­net search­es: cat fast breath­ing, cat heavy breath­ing, cat heavy and fast breath­ing, cat pant­i­ng, cat pant­i­ng for no rea­son, cat pant­i­ng no exer­cise, cat flared nos­trils, cat pant­i­ng and cough­ing, cat not able to jump, cat heavy fast breath­ing and pant­i­ng, cat sleep­ing in dif­fer­ent places, cat trou­ble get­ting up, cat smells dif­fer­ent.  

Maybe it’s not a case of me hav­ing what­ev­er the word I’m try­ing to remem­ber is, or the fact that he is sick, but the real­i­ty that he’s not the ani­mal he was a year, or even a few months ago, and had been in one way or anoth­er for nine years before that. And between his age and how sick­ness has a way of aging us even more, there’s a real­iza­tion that he might nev­er be the ani­mal he was again. I reach over to his car­ri­er on the pas­sen­ger seat and awk­ward­ly angle my hand through a hole to touch him. He licks my fin­gers until my hand begins to hurt from the carrier’s plas­tic and I pull it away.  

I fid­get in my seat, try­ing to com­fort both myself and the scared ani­mal next to me, and I think maybe I should just try to find that word to dis­tract myself, but then my phone vibrates and it’s a num­ber I don’t know, which I know means it’s the vet. I answer and they’re ready to see him. I get out and go around the car to open the door and grab the pet car­ri­er, then wait awk­ward­ly by the door before putting him down on a gur­ney when it rolls out­side. The car­ri­er was cov­ered in cau­tion tape the last time I left this ani­mal hos­pi­tal with him four years ago. 

I apol­o­gize to the vet tech in advance for the chaos they’re going to deal with when they open the car­ri­er, then walk back to the car and start rolling a cig­a­rette. I won­der how far away I’m sup­posed to go from the entrance to smoke here. Next to the car, I’m about 15 feet from the tents they’ve put out for peo­ple to sit under because there’s a pan­dem­ic and we can’t wait inside. That doesn’t seem far enough. I know there are rules at human hos­pi­tals, and I try to remem­ber what they are.  

I start walk­ing and end up at the far end of the park­ing lot hud­dled on a small tri­an­gle of lawn, smil­ing at the few peo­ple who pass by to use the near­by dog park. Their glances linger and I feel a tinge of embar­rass­ment and the urge to tell them that I smoke like five cig­a­rettes a month and only when I’m real­ly anx­ious and it’s bet­ter than the alter­na­tives. Instead, I look toward the build­ing and think that my being out here instead of inside with the cat is not going to go well for them. Depend­ing on how long things take, it’s prob­a­bly not going to be great for me either. 

The Hal­loween week­end before the pan­dem­ic, my friend leaned toward me at a bar, telling me about the time she was called into an exam room for a real pain in the ass of a cat at the ani­mal hos­pi­tal she used to work at. Since it was Hal­loween week­end, a band duti­ful­ly wore skele­ton cos­tumes and played a Mis­fits cov­er behind her. My friend said that when she entered the exam room, she saw a gray and white cat half-cov­ered by a pile of tow­els in the mid­dle of the floor hiss­ing and attack­ing any­one that came close. It wasn’t just show­ing the fear­ful defense pos­ture that all ani­mals have when they’re scared, but was ini­ti­at­ing attacks with the pri­mal anger that crea­tures save for those they’re sure mean to destroy them. The kind of anger that says, “I’ll destroy you first.” The vet techs already in the room were hid­ing or pressed into cor­ners. At one point, she said, one of them screamed, “He’s already been tranq’ed three times!” In the com­mo­tion, she didn’t rec­og­nize him as a cat she’d met many times before. She told me that my cat calmed down after the fourth shot. 

When my cat does tricks and gets pieces of food as a reward, he picks each up with his paw and brings it up to his face and some­times he drops it. If cats could be exas­per­at­ed, I’d swear he is in those moments, but instead of tak­ing the short cut and just reach­ing his mouth down, he grabs the food with his paw and brings it up to his mouth again. My cat responds to come, sit, high five, lay down, and roll-over, all of which are about what you’d think except roll-over, which has the embell­ish­ment of a protest meow about halfway through. And final­ly, there’s jump, which involves him jump­ing through a hoop made from card­board and duct tape and meow­ing at the peak of the jump, this time with more pride than protes­ta­tion. It’s a good thing to show peo­ple to prove that he’s actu­al­ly good when they were just attacked and maybe have blood on their legs because we were out­side and they came in with­out me to use the bathroom. 

When I’m get­ting the cat to do tricks, he often decides that he’s had enough and just stops in the mid­dle of roll-over and lays on his back, tail wag­ging side-to-side like one of those art deco nov­el­ty cat clocks. It’s not that he lays in a stu­pid posi­tion, or at least it’s not just that. It’s that he looks to me and seems to be try­ing to find a com­pro­mise, meow­ing up impa­tient­ly while he’s halfway through this thing that has become part of his social con­tract. Wait­ing for me to tell him that it’s okay to be tired or just not feel like it any­more and stop.  

Some­times I joke, or some­body else jokes, about how dam­aged my cat would be if he were a human and then I feel awful because most of the peo­ple I care about are dam­aged and it’s actu­al­ly not that fun­ny of a thing to joke about. My cat’s name is Pablo. He’s named after the poet and also a pen­guin from a car­toon I’ve nev­er seen that a per­son I don’t talk to any­more watched. I did have a friend who had a ger­bil named after the drug king­pin if that’s what you were think­ing, though. I don’t talk to him any­more either. 

Because of the attack­ing peo­ple and the four tran­quil­iz­ers need­ed the last time he was at the ani­mal hos­pi­tal, it took hours for them to get a diag­no­sis and tell me that Pablo had a uri­nary obstruc­tion and need­ed to be catheter­ized for a few days. It took less time than that for them to learn that his cage had to be cov­ered with a blan­ket at all times because oth­er­wise he would slam him­self into the sides of it and try to fight his way through the met­al to get to any­one that walked by.   

When he got home a few days lat­er, the usu­al­ly vocal cat had laryn­gi­tis from hiss­ing and growl­ing and doing the cat ver­sion of mani­a­cal­ly scream­ing the entire time he was in the hos­pi­tal. His mouth still con­stant­ly opened, but noth­ing came out. He stub­born­ly kept doing it, either try­ing to will noise from his bat­tered throat, or maybe he knew that I knew what the noise would have sound­ed like if it were there, and he was fine with let­ting me fill in the silence.  

Pablo was adopt­ed and brought back a cou­ple times before I end­ed up with him and when I tell peo­ple this, they nod know­ing­ly before real­iz­ing what they’re doing and being polite and stop­ping. When I first saw him, he was just under a year old and play­ing with anoth­er kit­ten through a glass win­dow at the shel­ter. The game was him run­ning around the lit­tle room he was in, bound­ing through a cat tree, and stop­ping hard at the glass and then the kit­ten, no more than a cou­ple months old, would stum­ble and wave his paws in the air and then Pablo would rub the glass and start anoth­er lap. When they stopped and Pablo laid in the lit­tle bed they had in his room, I asked the woman work­ing at the shel­ter to see him. She opened the door and I reached in and our first phys­i­cal con­tact was him grab­bing my hand with a paw, bring­ing it to his face, lick­ing it, and start­ing to purr. It wasn’t until after this that I saw his paper­work and found out he liked to hide around cor­ners and pounce at peo­ple, and some­times got real­ly upset for no good rea­son, and also that he real­ly didn’t like guests. By the time I found all that out, it didn’t mat­ter. He was com­ing home with me. 

Maybe it’s because of how he is, at least to peo­ple he doesn’t know, but maybe not being good enough for peo­ple who are sup­posed to love you and take care of you can make crea­tures a lit­tle dif­fi­cult and prone to emo­tion­al out­bursts. Peo­ple don’t believe me when I tell them that Pablo often waits for me at the bot­tom of the stairs to my door when I go out and if I’m gone too long, he cries until my down­stairs neigh­bor sticks his fin­gers under the door to com­fort him and give him food. When I get home, he climbs me and des­per­ate­ly rubs his face into me, some­times until he drools, and meows until I cra­dle him so that he can lick me until he gets over­whelmed and cud­dles into my arms to doze off, limp oth­er than the vibra­tions of his purring. Some­times peo­ple don’t get the whole sto­ry because they don’t know how we act when we feel safe. 

Before he got sick, while we were trapped inside for the pan­dem­ic, I’d real­ly got­ten to know Pablo’s dai­ly rhythms and needs in a dif­fer­ent way than I had before. I knew what would keep his com­plaints under con­trol before they even came. What each lit­tle noise meant: a sur­prised, soft trill; a two-part meow that falls in the mid­dle before com­ing back up and fill­ing the room; a purr that seems to push the lim­its of the hap­pi­ness a crea­ture can expe­ri­ence. I was famil­iar with them before, but I began to antic­i­pate his needs and have some­thing resem­bling two-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion. I learned what each tail swish and head tilt meant, what sleep­ing spots were for short- and long-term stays, what toys he liked at what time of day. With this, he began to stay clos­er for longer peri­ods of time. The love and affec­tion from him used to be aggres­sive, but often brief. Now, he sought pets and begged to be picked up. Now he came close and cud­dled up more often, even going so far as to begin meow­ing at a cer­tain pil­low every night so that I’d lay it next to me for him to sleep on, his paws draped over my arm. At ease; con­tent even. 

I’m not in the park­ing lot much longer after the cig­a­rette before I get a call and find out that they can’t real­ly exam­ine Pablo because he’s attack­ing every­one, and I have to come back next week and give him some stuff before­hand that will sup­pos­ed­ly relax him. The good news is that there were no obvi­ous heart mur­murs through the mul­ti­ple tow­els they were hold­ing him down with. I guess no obvi­ous heart mur­murs is bet­ter than obvi­ous even through tow­els heart murmurs. 

Anoth­er week of Pablo’s chest heav­ing, and his body curled up next to the sooth­ing cool­ness of the toi­let or the sink. He has trou­ble mov­ing or get­ting up. When he tries to, his front paws strain to get enough of his body up to com­mit to the act. And when he tries to play or exert him­self, his eyes widen before long and he freezes and lays down right where he is, even if it’s not a spot he likes. He used to jump on top of the refrig­er­a­tor from the floor, now he needs a chair just to occa­sion­al­ly vis­it me on the counter where I work. When he tries to get into the bath­room sink, a favorite sleep­ing spot that he’s climbed into a thou­sand times, he comes up short and has to pull him­self up, or he comes up real­ly short, slides down the cab­i­net, and just lies where he falls. He sleeps all day, his only move­ment the rest­less­ness of try­ing to find comfort. 


After a week, I get up at 6:00 a.m. and give Pablo his sec­ond dose of the med­i­cine that the vet gave me that will sup­pos­ed­ly make him eas­i­er to deal with, and he does seem more docile than usu­al. I think about how easy it is for me to give the med­i­cine to him, and then think about how I can clip all of his toe­nails in a minute or two with him purring the entire time, hap­py for the close­ness and atten­tion. Most peo­ple that know him wouldn’t believe these things, but to me they’re just who he is. 

I walk to get the Zip­car I rent­ed; it’s ear­ly July and it’s the ear­li­est I’ve been out­side since the win­ter. We’ve been in a months-long series of heat waves, swel­ter­ing air crash­ing over and engulf­ing every­thing and then giv­ing us just a day or two to wring every­thing out before crash­ing down again. This morn­ing is cool. I dri­ve back home and pick Pablo up and drop him off to wait for news all day. 

I half­heart­ed­ly try to work when I get home. The lack of his pres­ence makes the apart­ment seem like a dif­fer­ent place. Final­ly, the vet calls. Pablo has asth­ma and seri­ous hyper­thy­roidism. It only took three tran­quil­iz­ers to exam­ine him this time. 

I’m back in the park­ing lot, wait­ing to pick Pablo up and wrestling with the pros and cons of treat­ment options. It sounds like he should be okay for a while but might slow down per­ma­nent­ly. Despite this, I can’t shake the thoughts about his death. They’ve been there a lot late­ly, not just these last two vis­its, but for months now. Part of me thinks it’s because death is such a nat­ur­al thing to fix­ate on right now, but it’s more than that. I had cats as a child, but their deaths nev­er occurred to me as a pos­si­bil­i­ty until they actu­al­ly hap­pened and the mourn­ing set in. When a creature’s well­be­ing is in your hands, it’s dif­fer­ent. There’s a sense of dread when some­thing goes wrong. A sense that when things change, it’s always for the worse and that it’s your fault and in the best-case sce­nario, you have to learn to care in a dif­fer­ent way, and in the worst, you might not have any­thing to care about anymore. 

But then I remem­ber how Pablo still jumped up on the counter to sleep next to me while I worked from home, even when he was sick. One day he was right up against me, upside down with a paw over his snor­ing face, con­tent until I made the wrong move and he nipped me and then vault­ed over a chair to the floor and dart­ed out of the room. And how one day he strung togeth­er a series of this noise he makes that I’d nev­er heard before I heard him make it—a meow that he holds as it gets high­er in pitch, then dives back into his throat and right back up again—and it sound­ed like he was hap­pi­ly ser­e­nad­ing me as I got home. Or that he some­how man­aged to rip off a huge piece of a spi­der plant that’s five feet off the ground when he could bare­ly move ear­li­er that day.   

I also think about the fact that although I’ve been treat­ed as ten­der­ly as he treats me by so few, ani­mal or human, I also know that he’d be damned if he’d let any­one or any­thing else do any­thing that made him uncom­fort­able for even a sec­ond with­out reper­cus­sions. One time my friend was too drunk to go home, and I woke up to him being attacked and yelling, “I am a per­son, you are a cat,” over and over again and either Pablo wasn’t into dis­cussing meta­physics at 6 a.m. or he’d had enough of the strange per­son on his couch and sim­ply didn’t care and wasn’t going to let a per­ceived pow­er imbal­ance stop him from fight­ing. And I start think­ing that atti­tude prob­a­bly applies even if the fight is between his will and his body. 

Maybe this will be what kills him even­tu­al­ly, and maybe his age is final­ly catch­ing up to him and it’s not pos­si­ble to run so hard or so with­out fear for­ev­er. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe hav­ing a favorite pil­low to set­tle into next to some­one you love instead of run­ning around all night is okay. Maybe slow­ing down a lit­tle is some­thing we earn, not some­thing we lose.  

It’s this that I’m think­ing as the vet tech approach­es me, hands me Pablo’s case, and says, “Here’s your ter­ri­fy­ing cat.” 



From the writer

:: Account ::

The first notes that would become this piece were writ­ten dur­ing what we now know were still the ear­ly months of the COVID pan­dem­ic. Watch­ing the unimag­in­able suf­fer­ing of so many, it felt strange to be wor­ry­ing so much about the health of an ani­mal that, part­ly through the nature of pets and part­ly through his par­tic­u­lar atti­tude toward most humans, only real­ly mat­tered to me. At least in any kind of seri­ous way. The idea that my remain­ing time with him could be lim­it­ed, or even end­ing soon, real­ly shook me. I’ve always had pets and loved a few of them a great deal, but Pablo is the first one I’ve been mature enough to love in a way that isn’t self­ish. I care about him not as a play­thing or a dis­trac­tion, but as a crea­ture wor­thy of a cer­tain lev­el of dig­ni­ty, and there was a feel­ing of help­less­ness in not being able to pro­vide that while he was sick. The core of this sto­ry is just that—what it’s like to watch some­thing you care about grow old, but I also want­ed part of the piece to be about the ways that I’d also changed since I’d adopt­ed him, and how steady and com­fort­ing of a pres­ence he has been over those years. 


Bren­den Layte is an edi­tor of edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als, a lin­guist, and a writer. His work has pre­vi­ous­ly appeared in places like Entropy, Ellip­sis Zine, and Pit­head Chapel. He lives in Jamaica Plain, Mass­a­chu­setts, with his girl­friend, some gold­fish, and Pablo, the ter­ri­fy­ing cat at the cen­ter of this piece. 


The Chino Center for Oral and Facial Surgery

Nonfiction / Silas Jones

:: The Chino Center for Oral and Facial Surgery ::

Today, my dad got his tooth pulled. He had an abscess. Now, he’s lying down. It’s so fuck­ing hot here. Here equals Ari­zona. All day, I’m wait­ing for the Ari­zona air to cool off and try­ing to decide what to put in the card­board box I’m mail­ing home to my apart­ment in New York. A wig from col­lege, my CD col­lec­tion in two fat black leather binders, a cou­ple half-full jour­nals. My flight home is on Sun­day and I don’t want to check a bag. All week­end, I’m wait­ing to leave. 

How to get to The Chi­no Cen­ter for Oral and Facial Surgery (It’s way out on 89): Pass the church that used to be a movie the­atre. Take the exit after Glass­ford Hill, the one that swoops you around to face Ante­lope Val­ley. Notice for the first time since being back at dad’s that Ante­lope Val­ley is fill­ing up with hous­es, iden­ti­cal, unfin­ished, with tem­po­rary blue tarp roofs weighed down with black stacks of shingles. 

Behind the hous­es, there’s Min­gus Moun­tain, and behind that, there’s the Verde Val­ley. My sense of direc­tion is like those children’s books with acetate over­lays that can be peeled away one by one to reveal: the hold of a pirate ship, the inner work­ings of an oil rig, the anato­my of the human body. 

Peel back Ante­lope Val­ley, peel back Min­gus Moun­tain, peel back Verde Val­ley and see a 1000-year-old stone vil­lage beside a 50-year-old heap of grey tail­ings from the cop­per mine up the hill. Peel back the Mogol­lon Rim and see the woods on top of it, see the San Fran­cis­co Peaks. Peel back the San Fran­cis­co Peaks and see a wilder­ness of pur­ple cin­der cones with Pon­derosa pines grow­ing straight from their peb­bled, vol­canic flanks. Behind them, the Paint­ed Desert and Black Moun­tain and then the Ver­mil­lion Cliffs, their feet buried in umber bad­lands. Peel back the Glen Canyon Dam and see Escalante and the white sand­stone piled in mile-high drifts out along State Route 12. 

On the car ride home, my dad speaks to me through a wad of bloody gauze. 

Wait, flip back five or six lay­ers and return to the Mogol­lon Rim; he says he’s con­sid­er­ing mov­ing up there. He’s think­ing about Payson. He’s think­ing about Pine or Straw­ber­ry. Hell, what about Hap­py Jack? Up there, it’s cool­er and the devel­op­ment is under con­trol. It rains still. He’s think­ing of mov­ing to the last intact colo­nial town in Mex­i­co. There’s no air­port; that keeps the riffraff out. We get off 89 and whip around a new traf­fic cir­cle pinned down at its pea-stone cen­ter by a giant, bronze stat­ue of a cowboy. 

The Oral Sur­geon was wear­ing square-toed cow­boy boots and teal scrubs and a wed­ding band made of grey sil­i­cone. I won­der if, after he pulls his hand out of the last mouth of the day, he trades the sil­i­cone ring for a gold one before dri­ving home to Ante­lope Valley. 

How are you relat­ed to the patient?” he asked me when I came to grab my dad. I look at his cow­boy boots and weigh my options. I’ve made enough mod­i­fi­ca­tions to my body that I look, I think, approx­i­mate to boy; my ID says Sophie. 

I’m his, uh, daugh­ter,” I said, trot­ting after him to a small room where my dad was reclined, fuck­ing with his IV. The oral sur­geon stands with his hands on his hips and looks at me. Behind him, there’s a framed por­trait of his fam­i­ly: a blonde wife and three small brunette daugh­ters posed in East­er dress­es beside Gran­ite Creek. In the building’s front office, less than an hour ear­li­er, my dad looked up from paper­work to point to an iden­ti­cal pic­ture and said too loud­ly, “Are they scoops or what?” Scoops is what my dad calls Mor­mons. Scoops miss­ing from their brains. 

The scoop sur­geon was wear­ing a mask and so was I, but my dad wasn’t. He looked acti­vat­ed some­how. I adjust­ed my eye­brows to express calm obliv­i­ous­ness to any embar­rass­ing resid­ual dis­ori­en­ta­tion he might be expe­ri­enc­ing. I smiled behind my mask and tried to look like a daughter. 

When your father was going under, we noticed some irreg­u­lar­i­ties with his heart­beat,” the sur­geon said. I reori­ent­ed my eye­brows to show an appro­pri­ate amount of con­cern plus casu­al dis­re­gard, for my dad’s sake. “Your dad says he exer­cis­es all the time and that he’s a healthy guy,” the sur­geon said. 

He is,” I said. 

I am,” my dad said. 

Well, it’s some­thing he should fol­low up with his pri­ma­ry care physi­cian about,” said the sur­geon (the scoop). He held his hand in a fist; “the heart is like any mus­cle.” He opened and closed his fin­gers, squeak­ing his sil­i­cone band; “it tires, it gets spas­my.” I made a hum­ming sound. 

Okay,” I said. 

A nurse showed my dad and then me how to irri­gate the hole where his tooth used to be. I won­der what they’ve done with it. She loaded my dad into a wheel­chair and I held the door for her, all daugh­ter­ly. My dad slid into the pas­sen­ger seat of my Sub­aru, told the nurse that he can han­dle his drugs, thank you very much, and then we drove away. 

The devel­op­ment out here is just out of con­trol,” he says sev­er­al times between the Surgery Cen­ter and home. There’s blood dry­ing on his lips. 

Yes­ter­day, my dad and me went for a bike ride through the raw pink gran­ite boul­ders beyond Glass­ford Hill. The rocks emerge glit­ter­ing from the erod­ing slope in a tum­ble, like mud squeezed in drips from a toddler’s tight lit­tle fist and left to dry in pil­lars and blobs. There are miles and miles of them. The trail is long, wide, and flat; it used to be a rail­road for the mine. We ped­al past four pairs of dads and daugh­ters. The daugh­ters are learn­ing how to ride bikes, or how to enjoy it. Bik­ing care­ful­ly behind my dad, I feel like the old­est mem­ber of a club. 

At the end of the trail, you can see out across Ante­lope Val­ley. To the west, you can see almost out to King­man, out to Bagh­dad and Search­light. Cow­boy towns. Peel them back and see the Mojave; see Cal­i­for­nia (on fire), see the Pacific. 

The land beyond the trail has been cleared and lev­eled and mea­sured out in squares. In the thin strip of shade cast by the near­est gran­ite spire, some kind of bad-look­ing machin­ery is parked. I can hear the beep­ing of some­thing back­ing up. It’s been rainy this sum­mer, and Glass­ford Hill is like Ire­land: green and empty. 

After I get him home from the Surgery Cen­ter, I make my dad a man­go smooth­ie. With it, he takes two Tylenol and three ibupro­fen because the scoop won’t give him opi­ates. Then, he goes to sleep. I dri­ve to CVS and buy ice packs and navy blue liq­uid eye­lin­er that I spend all after­noon try­ing to put on right. When I am not yelling down the stairs to ask my dad if he wants any­thing, I am as qui­et as pos­si­ble. He’s read­ing a huge book called Nixon­land, or maybe he’s sleep­ing. I avoid him because it feels like the kind thing to do; I don’t want him to see me see him in pain. I wor­ry I’m being inattentive. 

I used to date a boy with an ill­ness that required him to sit on an IV drip once every six weeks. He was real­ly sick, but he was also real­ly rich, so the treat­ment was admin­is­tered by a home health aide in the rec room in the base­ment of his par­ents’ brown­stone. The home health aide was an old­er black man in navy blue scrubs and match­ing crocs named Wil­son. The needle’s fold­ed plas­tic sheath looked like a but­ter­fly alight­ed on my boyfriend’s arm. It stayed there for hours. I stared at the TV. I was unsure of how much my boyfriend want­ed to be touched, or of how much was appro­pri­ate to touch him. I didn’t ask. Wil­son sat on a plush ottoman and when my boyfriend’s dad appeared with an arm­ful of hot sand­wich­es drip­ping oil, Wil­son chose turkey. 

Last time I saw my ex-boyfriend, we wan­dered end­less­ly around Fort Greene instead of sit­ting down for a beer like we’d planned because he was in so much pain he said he couldn’t stop mov­ing. He fin­ished a pack of Marl­boros; he start­ed anoth­er. We bought a six pack at a bode­ga and split it, and then we split anoth­er one. When the side­walk was busy, I fell into step behind him so I could watch him walk with a beer in one hand and his aching bel­ly flat beneath the oth­er. I real­ized I’d missed my chance to take good care of him. I put my hand on his back and steered him through a crowd gath­ered around a bad bike accident. 

I used to think he was a girl because when he gets drunk (relaxed) he is floun­cy and inse­cure. When he was sick in the rec room, he was too qui­et and still, sat on the couch with his sand­wich unwrapped and untouched in his lap. That’s how I knew he was a boy for sure. 

My dad keeps the win­dows of his house open all day and all night. Indoors, it is cool. Except today, it’s not. When the sun final­ly pass­es over­head, I escape onto the shad­ed porch. Behind the house, the Brad­shaw Peaks sling black shad­ows over the whole neigh­bor­hood. Hid­den in their wood­ed slopes are shal­low pits cleared by pio­neers a hun­dred years ago. Peo­ple call them mines, but they’re just hand-dug holes grad­u­al­ly refill­ing them­selves with pine nee­dles and crum­bling gran­ite and lit­ter. In front of the house, across 89, there’s a huge machine smash­ing bedrock into lev­el dust; they are build­ing a hotel. This neigh­bor­hood is a fire trap. 

I hear my dad come upstairs and I go back inside to ask him again if he wants soup, a milk­shake, an edi­ble from the unmarked jar in the fridge. There is sweat show­ing through his t‑shirt. He’s stand­ing per­fect­ly still over the kitchen trash can with his foot on the ped­al so the lid is stuck open, like a mouth. His jaw is slack and his eyes are trained on the wall. 

Dad?” I say, “dad?” and he doesn’t answer, just moves his lips like he’s talk­ing. It dawns on me; I am in one of those moments. In this moment, I am stand­ing half on the porch and star­ing at my dad who is star­ing at the wall. I am real­iz­ing that some­thing is real­ly, seri­ous­ly wrong. I am in the moment of every­thing get­ting fucked up. I am in the moment before every­thing changes. 

I’ve been in these moments before; see­ing my ex-boyfriend stag­ger back when he stood up too fast from tying his shoes; watch­ing my sister’s lumi­nous face grow small­er and green­er the deep­er she sank into the pond; leav­ing Andy alone for ten min­utes, ten min­utes I swear, to run to the phar­ma­cy for anti-nau­sea meds. They’d just had top surgery and had been throw­ing up for hours from the opi­ates. I was sup­posed to be tak­ing care of them. 

From those times, I rec­og­nized the sen­sa­tion of a life about to be dif­fer­ent. But those times, every­thing had turned out okay, stayed the same; my boyfriend caught him­self against the ban­is­ter, I grabbed my sis­ter by her wrist, Andy took the med­i­cine, kept some water down. 

Then, my dad straight­ened up. He opened his mouth wide and began to talk around the mov­ing shape of his own tongue. “They pulled the wrong tooth, those fuck­ers,” I stared into the red black space where his molar had been. They had pulled the right tooth. 

It’s fine, dad” I said, and then I helped him put his ear­ring back in. The scoop sur­geon had made him take the sil­ver hoop out of his ear and put it in a lit­tle dime bag. 

My dad hat­ed my ex-boyfriend, I think, but he won’t tell me for sure. They met once at my col­lege grad­u­a­tion and then a sec­ond time here, when my boyfriend flew out to vis­it and got imme­di­ate­ly sick from the dry air and high ele­va­tion. There was a dis­tance between them, even though I imag­ined they’d read the same selec­tion of non­fic­tion and nov­els that smart, sen­si­tive boys feel oblig­at­ed to: Von­negut and like, what­ev­er else. 

We had already been late for our flight home when my boyfriend slammed his fin­ger in my car door. From the porch, my dad saw it hap­pen and threw down a bag of frozen peas that left smelly, wet spots on my boyfriend’s cor­duroy lap. With­out tak­ing my eyes off 41 to Phoenix, I lift­ed a hand from the steer­ing wheel and rest­ed it on his head. He radi­at­ed heat. 

Please, don’t touch me right now,” he said. The fin­ger­nail turned grey and fell off and a few months lat­er, he dumped me. 

The oth­er night, perched beside him on a park bench, I asked to see it. His hands were long and bony and the same; his fin­ger­nails were uni­form. We sat for as long as he could han­dle, and then we kept walk­ing. He asked me if top surgery hurt, and I told him yes. 

You know how I am with doc­tors,” I said, “I’m a mess.” I looked at him to see if he thought I was a mess. He didn’t say anything. 

I don’t know what I would have done with­out Andy,” I said. I want­ed him to know; Andy is my best friend. Andy had been unafraid of the IVs and hos­pi­tal smells and asked good ques­tions of the nurs­es; they’d brought a pil­low for the Uber ride from the hos­pi­tal and made me a lit­tle snack plate when we got home and had done every dish. 

Andy got top surgery three months before I did, and I had done these things for them too. I want­ed him to know: I had run through the wet snow to get the med­i­cine, Pedi­alyte, and gin­ger ale, stuff I prob­a­bly should have thought to buy ahead of time. For a ter­ri­ble moment when I returned to the apart­ment, I was sure that they’d aspi­rat­ed on their own vomit. 

I didn’t tell him any of that. 

No one’s ever known how to take such good care of me,” I said. I laid it on thick. 

I thought about him after I cut my tits off, when I was watch­ing TV, high and nau­seous. Even though we hadn’t spo­ken in near­ly a year, I’d con­sid­ered call­ing him the night before, when I was so afraid I could hard­ly speak to the friends I’d invit­ed over. Andy noticed me wig­ging out and asked every­one to leave soon after we’d fin­ished the piz­za. I didn’t tell him any of that, either. 

You seem real­ly hap­py,” my ex-boyfriend said over his shoul­der. “Are you happy?” 

I am,” I said, scis­sor­ing two fin­gers togeth­er until he passed me a cig­a­rette, already lit and canoe­ing in the breeze off the riv­er. Peel back Fort Green and that big hill and down­town Brook­lyn and the cour­t­house and the Duane Reed. Peel back Jorale­mon street. We had walked all the way to his par­ents’ house; he was spend­ing the night there and meet­ing Wil­son in the morn­ing. We kept walk­ing until we got to the river. 

Once, on the way home from a par­ty at a spa­cious loft that belonged to one of his friends’ par­ents, I’d thrown up right exact­ly here while my boyfriend watched ner­vous­ly from far away. The par­ty had been all boys and their girl­friends. The loft had been all high ceil­ings and pol­ished stain­less-steel sur­faces across which our reflec­tions slipped and slid like an upside-down reflec­tion in a cere­al spoon. 

The win­dow to the fire escape was so large that when I want­ed a smoke, I sim­ply stepped through it like a door instead of hav­ing to clam­ber or crouch. I remem­ber how the wet met­al slats left stripes on my socked feet, the flip­book flash of car head­lights between the truss­es of the bridge. Peel back the bridge and see ??? I was drunk and didn’t yet under­stand how any­thing fit togeth­er or stacked up in the city. I threw up and my vom­it slapped the cob­bled street below, scat­ter­ing tourists tak­ing pho­tographs with Man­hat­tan. My boyfriend walked me back through filmy acetate lay­ers to his par­ents’ house. He washed my coat and my pants while I slept. 

I always knew you would tran­si­tion,” my ex-boyfriend said, offer­ing me anoth­er cig­a­rette. “Of course,” he added, see­ing my sur­prise in the glow of the riv­er. Peel back the riv­er, peel back the dock where we’d once caught a fer­ry out to the Rock­aways, peel back the finan­cial dis­trict, and Bat­tery Park, and then anoth­er riv­er. Peel back crowd­ed state after crowd­ed state until you get to the one where he and me met, at col­lege. Peel back the woods and wide main­streets and state­ly red brick and then peel back a few more fly-over states and see Ari­zona; see my dad on the porch read­ing Nixon­land, his cat sprawled beside him. 

At your grad­u­a­tion, when your dad got so drunk?” he said. 

Yeah?” I said. 

I was a real­ly good boyfriend then,” he said, “I took good care of you then.” I walked him back to his par­ents’ house. He told me he’d like to see me again, and then I walked home. He has a new girl­friend; they’ve been in love for like, a year. Peel back the fan­ci­est parts of Brook­lyn until you reach the Children’s Muse­um; turn left, and there’s my build­ing. The next morn­ing, I drove to vis­it my dad in Ari­zona. I texted my boyfriend from Penn­syl­va­nia; hi to Wilson. 



From the writer

:: Account ::

I’m very attached to the land­scape of the state where I most­ly grew up. I lis­ten to peo­ple I know from my life in New York talk­ing about dri­ving through Ari­zona on their way from L.A. to White Sands and I get real­ly grumpy. Then, when I end up in the actu­al land­scape, vis­it­ing home, I feel real­ly grumpy too. It’s hard to be there because there’s no water and so much smoke and so many bor­der patrol and the vio­lence feels so present in gen­er­al. I wrote this sto­ry about watch­ing a land­scape change, about see­ing rela­tion­ships change. I also grew up part­ly in Wash­ing­ton state and have always loved the way Carv­er throws around the toponyms I know from child­hood to estab­lish a scene. It reminds me of how my par­ents and uncles—outdoor guides and seri­ous know­ers of the West, hip­pie drug­store cowboys—talk about Ari­zona. I tried to do some­thing sim­i­lar here. 


Silas Jones’s writ­ing has appeared in Hobart and The Wilder Voice, and is forth­com­ing in this Fall’s Foglifter and in Ice Floe Press’s Pan­dem­ic Love anthology.

Names Are Always Changed to Protect the Innocent

Nonfiction / Chanel Earl

:: Names Are Always Changed to Protect the Innocent ::

So when I say that tomor­row my nephews, Peter, James, and John, will be inter­viewed by the police, and that after­ward it will be decid­ed if they will live with one or the oth­er of their par­ents, you know their names have been changed. 

And when I write that my friend Lazarus—who is sev­en years old and spent the last twelve months receiv­ing reg­u­lar injec­tions of chem­i­cal poi­son through a port in his chest—just returned from a trip to Dis­ney World, and decided—after los­ing his leg, his hair, and most of his body weight—to stop chemo, that his name has been changed too. 

So have the names of his par­ents, Phillip and Mary, who have four healthy chil­dren, and will soon have four in the ground. I’ll call the oth­er three—who nev­er took in their first breaths—Bartholomew, Tabitha, and Matthew, and—for my sake, not theirs—imagine a moun­tain of flow­ers on their graves. 

I sit and write in silence, and I know that Anna, Eliz­a­beth, and Thomas are asleep in the next room. Eliz­a­beth has strep throat, which has pro­gressed into scar­let fever. Just a hun­dred years ago I would have been up all night won­der­ing if this was our last, but I have been instruct­ed to relax because she took antibi­otics, and the doc­tor insists she can go to school tomorrow. 

I go to her when she cries. Her fore­head is still cov­ered with bright pink spots, and I place my hands on her face and whis­per, Every­thing will be okay. Our breath­ing aligns. Thomas rolls over. He is hav­ing a dream. And I know we are all going to lose each oth­er some­day, but I can’t believe that mat­ters right now because my name is Martha, and I am going to feel this moment, and the next, and always the next. 



From the writer

:: Account ::

Every­thing in this piece is true. One evening while pro­cess­ing the pain of my sis­ter as she went through a divorce, the pain of my friend whose son was dying of can­cer, and my own wor­ry about my four-year-old daughter’s scar­let fever diag­no­sis, I got real­ly worked up about the inno­cence of the chil­dren and par­ents involved in every one of these sit­u­a­tions. I ate ice cream, and cried, and made lists about what I could do to help. Then this came out. I have tried many times to turn this piece into a poem, adding line breaks and play­ing with the rhythm. Ulti­mate­ly, it is and remains a micro-essay about a moment in my life. A moment of grief, con­fu­sion, and the real­iza­tion of mortality. 


Chanel Earl is a recent MFA grad­u­ate, a moth­er of four, and an aspir­ing gar­den­er. Her work has appeared in print and online. For more infor­ma­tion about her and her writ­ing, vis­it

Three Poems

Poetry / Claire Wahmanholm

:: Meltwater ::






:: Meltwater ::



:: Meltwater ::





From the writer

:: Account ::

These poems are based on Lacy M. Johnson’s 2019 New York­er arti­cle “How to Mourn a Glac­i­er.” They would usu­al­ly be called “era­sures,” though I’d like to find a dif­fer­ent word for them since the poems—and I—don’t have the rela­tion­ship with the source text that often char­ac­ter­izes era­sure projects. I’m not inter­est­ed in using era­sure as a method of cri­tique or con­fronta­tion; I pre­fer to think of my inter­ac­tions as a kind of close read­ing. I see the era­sures func­tion­ing like any oth­er crit­i­cal essay on a text, except that I’m using only the lan­guage of the orig­i­nal source. 

My inten­tion was that the vis­i­ble words would point up a series of par­al­lel storylines—ones that are some­times more micro, and more macro, than the orig­i­nal. There are only so many things that can be made explicit/conscious at one time, so iso­lat­ing cer­tain words might be a way of untan­gling those threads and mak­ing each more vis­i­ble. In the case of Johnson’s orig­i­nal essay, she’s writ­ing about Okjökull while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly writ­ing about much more than it, and I see the lone­ly words as mak­ing that “more­ness” explicit. 

I am hop­ing that the project also makes a point about the way we read news, and our ten­den­cy to notice nar­ra­tives we’re already invest­ed in. The poems obvi­ous­ly say some­thing about me and my own pen­chant for see­ing grief in every­thing (as well as my impulse to put every­thing with­in the con­text of children). 

I saw the essay’s instruc­tion­al title as mak­ing an invi­ta­to­ry ges­ture to mourn, or to at least con­sid­er how mourn­ing looks for each read­er. I was com­pelled by the fact that my own mourn­ing, maybe, is already embed­ded in the orig­i­nal text, so that the essay is (poet­i­cal­ly) enact­ing the mourn­ing that it (jour­nal­is­ti­cal­ly) describes. I was try­ing to repli­cate on the page what I felt like my body was doing when I read the arti­cle, which was like a slow­ing down of my heart, or an uneven­ness in its beat­ing. Like large chunks of myself were being eat­en away. 

I was inter­est­ed in doing more than one era­sure (and iso­lat­ing dif­fer­ent words every time) to empha­size the cycli­cal nature of mourning—how we make minor adjust­ments with­out any sweep­ing over­haul, how it’s (appar­ent­ly) pos­si­ble to mourn the same things again and again but using dif­fer­ent words. I am hop­ing that the poems high­light the ten­sion between the appar­ent inabil­i­ty to communicate—the way we write arti­cles and arti­cles (and poems and poems), and noth­ing changes—and the impulse to keep try­ing any­way. And by mak­ing the high­light­ed words off-lim­its for the next poem, I was try­ing to show how the pool of words to draw from drains and drains. The way our vocab­u­lary dimin­ish­es and dimin­ish­es, we have few­er and few­er resources avail­able to us as we descend into grief.


Claire Wah­man­holm is the author of Night Vision (New Michi­gan Press 2017), Wilder (Milk­weed Edi­tions 2018), Red­mouth (Tin­der­box Edi­tions 2019), and the forth­com­ing Melt­wa­ter (Milk­weed Edi­tions 2023). Her work has most recent­ly appeared in, or is forth­com­ing from, Cou­plet, Ninth Let­ter, Black­bird, Wash­ing­ton Square Review, Good Riv­er Review, Des­cant, Cop­per Nick­el, and Beloit Poet­ry Jour­nal. She is a 2020–2021 McK­night Fel­low, and lives in the Twin Cities. Find her online at

Two Visual Poems

Poetry / Nance Van Winckel

:: Clearly ::


:: Auto Pilot ::




From the writer

:: Account ::

I’ve been work­ing on a kind of graph­ic nar­ra­tive about a char­ac­ter I call Admi­ral Dot. He’s full of hubris. He keeps try­ing, and fail­ing, to con­quer the skies. For the pages of his sto­ry, I begin with old pages from children’s books and oth­er pub­lic domain illus­tra­tions. Con­sid­er­ing these pieces my “can­vas­es,” I col­lage onto them and make many alter­ations as I crop and col­orize, etc. The text is my own, and gen­er­al­ly it evolves AS I rework the pages and think about poor old Admi­ral Dot and his world.


Nance Van Winck­el’s ninth poet­ry col­lec­tion, The Many Beds of Martha Wash­ing­ton, will appear in 2021 from the Pacif­ic North­west Poet­ry Series/Lynx House Press. She’s also pub­lished five books of fic­tion, includ­ing Ever Yrs, a nov­el in the form of a scrap­book (Twist­ed Road Pub­li­ca­tions, 2014) and Boneland: Linked Sto­ries (U. of Okla­homa Press, 2013). The recip­i­ent of two NEA poet­ry fel­low­ships, the Wash­ing­ton State Book Award, a Pater­son Fic­tion Prize, Poet­ry Soci­ety of America’s Gor­don Bar­ber Poet­ry Award, a Christo­pher Ish­er­wood Fel­low­ship, and three Push­cart Prizes, Nance teach­es in Ver­mont College’s MFA in Writ­ing Pro­gram, is visu­al poet­ry edi­tor for Poet­ry North­west, and lives in Spokane, Washington.

The Thing About Nature

Poetry / Wendy M. Thompson

:: The Thing About Nature ::

You lie smooth on your back, 
a long pier. 
Each bone is a cliff 
overlooking skin, fatty tissue, 
the best parts around the hooked jaw. 
The hairs at the back of your neck, 
small tufts of alumroot,  
were singed by the fire,  
along with feathers, claw,  
and cartilage. 
Smoky with ash, your teeth, and 
an upturned skull in the debris 
were the only evidence they found  
of global warming. 
Because there is never a soft way  
to indicate that  
          Man is responsible for the death of earth, 
they extracted the science first: 
a hair pulled from the lab, 
an entire species folded into extinction  
in the back of a  
leather-bound encyclopedia. 
What is science anyway but a wholly  
irrational, irrelevant, omnivorous,  
long-tailed thing? 
Instead, it was convenient to lie  
while looking for the 
match that ended the world:  
          an arsonist, white male, about 30,  
          wearing camouflage, holding a beer. 
It’s never the tire marks that  
mar your bed of sage, 
or the eventual highway that  
cuts across the height of your thigh, 
slicing through tendon, 
the fur still warm. 
                    New single family homes are being built in this development 
                    New single family homes are being built in this development 
                    New single family homes are being built in this development 
The deer that you carried,  
fractured by headlights, 
have migrated further east, onto  
new land  
slated for development. 
Every hour,  
the ocean drags you further away  
your mother, 
your children, 
until there is no name  
left in the sand but, always,  
bits of shell and the people  
who come  
to collect them. 
Perhaps one of them will listen  
deeply enough to hear you  
calling for your family. 
It isn’t an echo, 
it’s an owl. 
It isn’t an owl, 
it’s a hybrid car backing out of the driveway. 
Night constellations map the fibers 
of your many homes: 
a womb,  
a nest,  
a meadow,  
a new three bed / two bath house 
inside of a cul-de-sac 
that was just built in this development. 
The sky is a quilt,  
is a mirror  
through which you look,  
and ask your ancestors,  
          Who’s the fairest of them all: 
          the gophers that dig up my lawn 
          or my right as a tax-paying homeowner to kill them? 
Because after all is said and done,  
the wet membrane  
from which you crack, 
the yolk that runs down  
the scruff of your throat when  
you (try to) pick up women  
ten years your junior, 
the savage expression you hide  
behind giant luminescent wings  
when your coworker Eric  
claims full credit and is  
promoted over you, 
the sea cave that rages 
in your throat  
when your father tells you  
he’s getting remarried  
to a brunette your brother’s age, 
the territorial way you mark  
your job title,  
your woman,  
your assets, 
even the blood that fills your mouth  
when you make her 
lie smooth on her back, 
a long pier, 
each bone, a cliff 
overlooking skin, fatty tissue, 
your erect jaw and open teeth 
tearing through her best parts around  
the hooked jaw, 
is anything but fully human. 




From the writer

:: Account ::

I wrote this poem after think­ing about the inter­re­lat­ed rela­tion­ship between Amer­i­can mas­culin­i­ty, pow­er, prop­er­ty own­er­ship, and nature. There’s this way in which the struc­ture of Euro­pean set­tler colo­nial­ism orga­nized all four into a matrix of dom­i­na­tion, pos­ses­sion, and (over)use that con­tin­ues to shape our lives and world today. Through force and vio­lence, the con­quest of native inhab­i­tants, flo­ra, and fau­na led to the aggres­sive amass­ing of land and resources with the ulti­mate intent being max­i­mum extrac­tion and pro­duc­tion for prof­it. Today, dom­i­na­tion, pos­ses­sion, and (over)use reside as core tenets that define a man’s val­ue and worth in soci­ety: his abil­i­ty to dom­i­nate all liv­ing and non­liv­ing things using direct or indi­rect vio­lence, his abil­i­ty to amass great wealth or prop­er­ty at the expense of the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment, and his abil­i­ty to extract max­i­mum val­ue from what he owns or pos­sess­es. It is an unnat­ur­al way of life that has been made to feel and seem nat­ur­al. It is also the cause of tremen­dous detri­men­tal stress on our nat­ur­al world. 

I begin the poem describ­ing the human body as though exam­in­ing a non­hu­man ani­mal, sit­u­at­ing it in the midst of a land­scape that is per­pet­u­al­ly on fire and marked by human overde­vel­op­ment. Here, I want­ed to link us back to the world we work so hard to dis­tance our­selves from: one con­nect­ed to trees and plants and birds and preda­to­ry mam­mals. I then move to empha­size the way humans have ren­dered our nat­ur­al world unfa­mil­iar, exter­nal, and patho­log­i­cal, an emp­ty excess onto which we can build ever-expand­ing sub­di­vi­sions and cook­ie cut­ter hous­ing devel­op­ments. While we look at nat­ur­al dis­as­ters as vio­lent dis­rup­tions to our idyl­lic lifestyles, we rarely rec­og­nize the vio­lence that is present in our addic­tion to sub­ur­ban sprawl, to widen­ing and con­gest­ed free­ways and express lanes, and to the attack on nature when it shows up in the form of “inva­sive pests” in our back­yards.     

The rest of the poem inter­ro­gates how our man-made sur­round­ings have left us unable to imag­ine or reclaim our link­ages to our ani­mal kin and nat­ur­al world. Wildlife is dis­pos­able when it comes to build­ing new­er town­homes and sub­ur­ban devel­op­ments. And we find our­selves seek­ing out the calm­ing and heal­ing prop­er­ties of nature, dri­ving miles or fly­ing to pre­serves and oth­er wilder­ness sites far away to escape the mun­dane­ness and monot­o­ny of our every­day lives. In writ­ing this poem, I want­ed to stress the fact that we as human ani­mals have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to our nat­ur­al world, that our strained rela­tion­ship to/with nature must be appraised and reme­died, and that our prox­im­i­ty to non­hu­man ani­mals is a lot clos­er than we’d like to believe. 

I end the poem by play­ing with the notion of the “ani­mal,” a pejo­ra­tive term that we apply to humans who we per­ceive as behav­ing in ways that do not adhere to social norms or exhib­it accept­able deco­rum. Here, I cat­a­logue the ways that cer­tain expres­sions of raw human emo­tion, respons­es, and behav­iors are per­ceived as ani­mal­is­tic and can sig­nal our inher­ent wild­ness, chal­leng­ing us to con­sid­er how our instincts sit­u­ate us always close to nature no mat­ter how advanced and civ­il we strive to be. 


Wendy M. Thomp­son is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of African Amer­i­can Stud­ies at San José State Uni­ver­si­ty. Her cre­ative work has most recent­ly appeared in Palaver, the San­ta Fe Writ­ers Project, Rap­pa­han­nock Review, Jet Fuel Review, and Wac­ca­maw Jour­nal. She is the co-edi­tor of Sparked: George Floyd, Racism, and the Pro­gres­sive Illu­sion (Min­neso­ta His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety Press, 2021). 

Excerpts From Your Baby Book

Poetry / Catherine Theis

:: Excerpts From Your Baby Book ::

You sleep for an hour. 
The bird flutters by the window’s screen just as you stir awake. 
I feed you again, hoping you will fall back asleep. 
You are quiet now. 
You are crying now, matter-of-factly. 
There is always a touch of the menace in the imagination. 
It’s hard to understand. 

The loneliness of the long-distance swimmer is like the loneliness of the mother. 
I hear you cry in the film’s soundtrack. 
The short film is usually in black and white but your cry is always color. 

Poems, babies, I have milk. 
I have loaves of bread, wheels of aged goat cheese 
and a bruise you would hardly believe. 
I have a small barrel of red wine ready 
to be tapped after seven o’clock 
and an entire dishwasher of stemware piping hot. 
I have an advent calendar with twenty-five tiny doors opening 
into a hallway of pure celestial light—

The facts of today: 

I buy a singular persimmon nicked by your teeth. 

I bring permission to myself to begin again. 

I whip heavy cream for a dessert custard of persimmon. 

The custard so sweet I don’t add any sugar. 

Your bumblebee hat still fits, so. 

The slide at the playground an entirely new experience. Have we officially exhausted the swings? 

I hold onto your tiny torso while simultaneously letting you slide down. You look the part of a young bumblebee. 

We buzz on home under the pink toxic skies of Los Angeles. 

I buy a second persimmon from Bob’s Market. 

You get to work immediately, scoring its smooth orange skin with your luminous front tooth, a surprising ferocity. 

Your fist smaller than the globe of fruit.

Closer and closer you inch toward 

the spinning center of creation. 

Your preferred method of transport 

the whirling, lurching see-saw of swing. 

Your clothes grow tighter. Two colds, 

one with one cough. We wash blackberry 

stains from your booties every night. 

Birthday celebration? Champagne, 

oysters, blackberries?




From the writer

:: Account ::

I decide to write again out of the nothing. 

The appro­pri­ate amount of time has passed. I have griev­ed enough for my body. The world glows in spring­time green. I almost for­get how quick­ly the hem­or­rhage began, how many pints of blood I lost that day or how the doc­tors and nurs­es didn’t even have enough time to warm the trans­fu­sion blood. I’m O pos­i­tive. One of the ancient blood types. Var­i­ous mys­tics and heal­ers have sug­gest­ed to me that it’s ben­e­fi­cial to eat red meat and greens. This doesn’t sur­prise me. I’ve picked my fair share of bit­ter dan­de­lions from the rocky moun­tain­side with the wind blow­ing up my black skirt. I do try to eat a nice steak at least one a week. Just like I try to write at least once a week. Also raw oys­ters. What­ev­er min­er­als I’m miss­ing, I crave the creamy flesh of oys­ters like you wouldn’t believe. 

I read some­where that the preg­nant woman’s brain shrinks, and that it takes a full six months after the baby is born to regain its orig­i­nal size. 

I have rough­ly two more months to go. 

My sis­ter tells me this is not true. A woman’s brain after hav­ing giv­en birth actu­al­ly grows in size. But we both get some ver­sion of the sto­ry wrong. I final­ly read an arti­cle that describes the loss of gray matter—specifically in the part of the brain that con­trols social interaction—as a process called synap­tic prun­ing. This prun­ing is not a loss of abil­i­ty but rather an indi­ca­tion that the brain is becom­ing more spe­cial­ized. In oth­er words, the gray mat­ter in the mother’s brain changes so that she becomes more attuned to the social cues of her baby and less atten­tive to the cues of those bit­ing flies around her. 

I always keep a fly­swat­ter with­in reach now. One hangs on a hook near the kitchen sink. One hangs in the laun­dry room. I saw anoth­er one on the din­ing room table just the oth­er day. 

That’s a cal­en­dar with the moon cycles,” I tell the baby, who eats his stuffed fire­fly we have named Blu for no oth­er rea­son than we like the sound of the word—blu. The baby sits upon a tuffet on the counter while I nar­rate the mak­ing of the cof­fee. Eat­ing his curds and whey, eat­ing his curds and whey. 

He moves his lit­tle neck. His eyes fol­low. Then his arms stir. He moves in pieces, in parts. A tiny red porce­lain spoon taps out cof­fee grounds into a red cof­fee pot. I nev­er noticed our fetish with red kitchen appli­ances and uten­sils. I’m let­ting his father sleep in this morn­ing. I can han­dle the first round, I think.


Cather­ine The­is is the author of The Fraud of Good Sleep (Salt Mod­ern Poets, 2011) and  the chap­book The June Cuck­old, a tragedy in verse (Con­vul­sive Edi­tions, 2012). Her recent pub­li­ca­tion is a full-length orig­i­nal play called MEDEA (Plays Inverse Press, 2017). Recent poems have appeared in Pre­lude and Quar­ter­ly West. Forth­com­ing poems in Fir­ma­ment.