The Work

Art / Aaron Burch 


:: Pocket Knife Buffalo ::




Pock­et Knife Buf­fa­lo; 2023; Water­col­or; 5″ x 8″

From the artist

:: Account ::

My pri­ma­ry goal with my art is to enter­tain myself. To make myself laugh, ide­al­ly. 

I start­ed draw­ing and paint­ing again ear­ly in the pan­dem­ic. I drew a lot as a kid—cartoon char­ac­ters, sports heroes, favorite com­ic book panels—but had bare­ly even doo­dled in twen­ty, maybe twen­ty-five years. And it felt a lit­tle like pick­ing right back up where I’d left off! Like rid­ing a bike, like the pat­terns and rit­u­als of the church ser­vices of your youth. My hands felt like they knew what to do—the art seemed bet­ter than by some­one who was “just start­ing,” I had a pret­ty good eye and also spa­tial awareness—but also my “style” was still not what I wished it were. I wished could just draw—from my imag­i­na­tion, not only from what I was look­ing at—and also that I could draw… well, cool­er. I need­ed ref­er­ence images con­stant­ly, for every­thing, and every­thing came out kin­da car­toony, goofi­er than I’d prefer.

In all those years since though, I’d grown up, I’d matured, I’d devot­ed so much of my life to writing—doing so myself, edit­ing, teach­ing. As I’d let go of the kind of writer I wish I were and embraced the things I do best—as I became more myself—I got bet­ter. 

And so, with my art, I leaned into myself, my per­son­al­i­ty. I smile, rather than get frus­trat­ed, at some of the goofi­ness. I use ref­er­ence images con­stant­ly, but I com­bine two, three, four dif­fer­ent ideas in ways that feel like encap­su­la­tions of myself, and also that make me laugh. I draw skulls because they’re look cool even if—maybe espe­cial­ly when—they aren’t per­fect, and I mash them togeth­er with oth­er things I love—Oreos, buf­fa­lo, piz­za. I draw tiki mugs that look like skulls, or anatom­i­cal hearts, or fists. I draw tat­too-style pock­et knives with buf­fa­lo blades and Mt. Rainier in the back­ground because I love tat­toos and knives and buf­fa­lo and the Pacif­ic North­west. 


Aaron Burch is the author of an essay col­lec­tion, a nov­el, and a short sto­ry col­lec­tion; the edi­tor of a craft anthol­o­gy, a jour­nal built on spon­ta­neous sub­mis­sion calls, and anoth­er jour­nal for longer short sto­ries; a teacher; and a bit of a painter where his main goal is often to make him­self smile, which “Pock­et Knife Buf­fa­lo” very much does. 🙂

Interviews: An Introduction

Introduction / Lauren Brazeal Garza

Lau­ren Brazeal Garza

In our 10th year of Pub­li­ca­tion The Account: A Jour­nal of Poet­ry, Prose, and Thought is open­ing a new Inter­views sec­tion. Cham­pi­oning this new ven­ture is the bril­liant Lau­ren Brazeal Garza. 

Our inau­gur­al inter­views sec­tion fea­tures Lau­ren in dis­cus­sion with for­mer Account con­trib­u­tors Jen­nifer Givhan (poems in our 2020 issue), and Jen­ny Mol­berg (poems in our 2022 issue).

Lauren’s thought­ful intro­duc­tion below. 



Lau­ren Brazeal Garza: The Account Mag­a­zine is a jour­nal that has always con­sid­ered the author’s own account of their work along­side their writ­ing, so it was the real­iza­tion of a dream to begin an inter­views fea­ture for this issue. I was for­tu­nate to have con­ver­sa­tions with two for­mer con­trib­u­tors to The Account: Jenn Givhan and Jen­ny Mol­berg, who have both recent­ly released col­lec­tions of poet­ry, Givhan’s Bel­ly to the Bru­tal (Weslyan Poet­ry Series) and Molberg’s The Court of No Record (LSU Press). Over the course of the sum­mer, both poets shared insights into their craft, explor­ing how themes of sur­vived trau­ma and bear­ing wit­ness man­i­fest with­in each collection.



Jen­nifer Givhan in con­ver­sa­tion with Lau­ren Brazeal Garza

Pur­chas­ing infor­ma­tion on Bel­ly to the Bru­tal, Jen­nifer Givhan 


Jen­ny Mol­berg in con­ver­sa­tion with Lau­ren Brazeal Garza

Pur­chas­ing infor­ma­tion on The Court of No Record, Jen­ny Molberg 



Lau­ren Brazeal Garza received her M.F.A in poet­ry from Ben­ning­ton Col­lege, and is com­plet­ing her Ph.D. in lit­er­a­ture from UT Dal­las, where she is also a cre­ative writ­ing instruc­tor. She is the author of the full length col­lec­tion Gut­ter (Yes Yes Books, 2018), a mem­oir-in-verse about her home­less­ness as a teenag­er. She has also pub­lished three chap­books of poet­ry, most recent­ly, San­ta Muerte, San­ta Muerte: I Was Here, Release Me (Tram Edi­tions, 2023), a series of fic­tion­al inter­views with ghosts. Her poet­ry, lyric essays, and fic­tion has appeared in Poet­ry North­west, Waxwing, and Verse Dai­ly among many oth­er jour­nals. She can be found haunt­ing her web­site at

On “Belly to the Brutal”

Interview / Jennifer Givhan

Jennifer Givhan

Edi­tor Lau­ren Brazeal Garza: Jenn Givhan was kind enough to offer an account of her her wrench­ing and often heart­break­ing fourth book of poems, Bel­ly to the Bru­talDur­ing our inter­view, Givhan gen­er­ous­ly touched on ideas of moth­er­hood (and how it changes time itself), gen­er­a­tional and car­ried trau­mas, what it means to be haunt­ed, and the process of writ­ing as a means of spir­i­tu­al survival

Your most recent col­lec­tion, Bel­ly to the Bru­tal, explores ideas of lin­eages of trau­ma and how trau­ma can be inher­it­ed. Can you tell us more about what inspired you to speak to this impor­tant top­ic with­in the col­lec­tion and/or indi­vid­ual poems?

When I was a new moth­er time didn’t make sense. It stretched, it stuck. It grew pon­der­ous. Heavy at times. Gauze thin at oth­ers. Moth­er­hood is a time machine. Now that my chil­dren are teens, I feel the weight of their mat­ter pulling me, stretch­ing the fab­ric of space­time toward their cen­ters of gravity.

Root­ed in my Mex­i­ca cul­ture, my work explores cycli­cal exis­tence, empha­siz­ing the intri­cate rela­tion­ship between women, chil­dren, nature, and the spir­its that inhab­it spaces between time and language.

All of these hid­den or under­bel­ly expe­ri­ences speak of what trav­els through the cells, the inner work­ings, what’s in the DNA, what we pass on in the unspo­ken as well as stories.

My work delves into the unspo­ken, the omit­ted and for­got­ten, the buried and record-struck. I’ve long advised writ­ers to say the damn thing—and I try nev­er to shy away from the unsayable. Secrets in our house and my mother’s house and her mother’s before that meant a girl­child harmed and I’ll nev­er abide by keep­ing things hid­den that need to be blood­let and the poi­son pulled out. I’ll nev­er be shamed or harassed into silence. And yet—we can make omis­sions as writ­ers for the haunt­ing spaces they cre­ate in their wake—the sense that what once lived there has moved on—narrative, mem­o­ry, or pain. Louise Glück says that “delib­er­ate silence” is “anal­o­gous to the unseen… to the pow­er of ruins… [which] inevitably allude to larg­er con­texts; they haunt because they are not whole, though whole­ness is implied.” Some­thing of their spir­it is still intact in the work. The ruins of what might have been linger. Even that which stays buried can be redeemed. 

All of this relates, for me and my poems, into what we car­ry through the DNA. Wounds through the womb.

Our genet­ic mem­o­ry car­ries tales of trau­ma and tri­umph, passed down from our antepasa­dos, con­nect­ing us in ways both tan­gi­ble and intan­gi­ble. Sci­en­tif­ic rev­e­la­tions sug­gest we car­ry trau­ma in our genes, echo­ing our ances­tors’ expe­ri­ences. The lan­guage of our lin­eage can bind us to our past for bet­ter or worse, as San­dra Cis­neros and Glo­ria Anzaldúa have expound­ed in their sem­i­nal works. For some, soci­etal dis­crim­i­na­tion against ances­tral lan­guages has led to cul­tur­al dis­con­nec­tion and rootlessness.

The fact that we actu­al­ly car­ry trau­ma in our DNA haunts me. It expands hor­rif­i­cal­ly like an imag­i­na­tive bomb in my brain… to think of all the world’s hor­rors with­in us, claim­ing us, and not let­ting us go, and that this is cel­lu­lar, in the blood…

But there is a sav­ing take­away. As soci­ol­o­gist Avery Gor­don in Ghost­ly Mat­ters argues: “The way of the ghost is haunt­ing, and haunt­ing is a very par­tic­u­lar way of know­ing what has hap­pened or is hap­pen­ing. Being haunt­ed draws us affec­tive­ly, some­thing against our will and always a bit mag­i­cal­ly, into the struc­ture of feel­ing of a real­i­ty we come to expe­ri­ence, not as cold knowl­edge, but as trans­for­ma­tive recognition.” 

The key word here is trans­for­ma­tion. When the ghosts of our past or our ances­tors’ pasts come to us, in means that some­thing needs to be done, some­thing needs to change. 

In our poems, as in our lives, we have the mar­velous abil­i­ty to trans­form real­i­ty, as well as to see the trans­for­ma­tive real­i­ty that already exists (around and with­in us). 

So while our genes car­ry our Ancestor’s trau­ma, we must also be echoes of their joys. I have start­ed try­ing to cap­ture this in Bel­ly to the Bru­tal, but I sense the next jour­ney of my poet­ic path is to keep cap­tur­ing the joy onto the page.

In this col­lec­tion, ideas of wound­ing, being wound­ed, and the wound are woven in almost every poem in this col­lec­tion. These man­i­fest both as phys­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal, and spir­i­tu­al injuries. Can you speak to how this theme developed? 

As writ­ers, per­haps more than aver­age folks, we like­ly have a deep, abid­ing sense that in some way, we’re already all bro­ken. Or, we’ve all been bro­ken at some point. And that the nar­ra­tives we’re writ­ing and revis­ing and recre­at­ing in our poems draw from that foun­da­tion­al frac­ture. As Leonard Cohen sang, “There is a crack in every­thing. That’s how the light gets in.” 

In my poem drafts I tend to write the same beat­ing heart over and over. Cheryl Strayed calls it the sec­ond heart and writes about get­ting down on the floor to pull this sec­ond heart from one’s chest onto the page. I think of “The Two Fridas” by Fri­da Kahlo, each with a heart, one broken. 

Tony Hoagland calls the flood sub­ject or foun­da­tion­al frac­ture one’s “myth­i­cal wound.”

Kim Addonizio writes in Ordi­nary Genius, “I had dis­cov­ered the thing I want­ed to keep close to me for the rest of my life, and if I did that, my tute­lary spir­it would watch over me, would teach me what I need­ed to know… This is your genius: your own pro­found desire to write.” Desire will only get us so far. It’s when we put our “ass to the chair,” she says, that our demons will show up. The demon, then, for some of us, is what­ev­er holds us back from writ­ing the thing we’re meant to write. That keeps us scrub­bing floors both lit­er­al and metaphor­i­cal rather than sit­ting down at the key­board and, as Hem­ing­way famous­ly said, bleeding. 

Addonizio’s demons res­onate with my own, which spew ven­om in my ears, even after pub­lish­ing five full-length col­lec­tions of poet­ry and two nov­els; my demons taunt: I’ve been writ­ing the same damn poem over and over—I should be more polit­i­cal. No, wait, I should real­ly be more per­son­al. But some­how uni­ver­sal, and not nar­cis­sis­tic. I’ve been accused of con­fess­ing. I should be more eso­teric. I’m lost. I’m floun­der­ing. I can­not scratch my way out. To hell with it, I give up.

Except, for me, giv­ing up has too often meant more than nev­er writ­ing again. 

So writ­ing has been survival. 

I must con­tin­ue writing. 

And what almost invari­ably comes is my deep myth­ic wound, in what­ev­er form: Heart­break that stems from my first love hav­ing a baby with anoth­er young woman—when I’d lost our baby to miscarriage. 

No mat­ter what else I write. The myth­ic wound often finds a way of needling itself through. 

I’ve healed again and again. I write myself into heal­ing again and again. 

But the sec­ond heart that con­tin­u­al­ly needs excis­ing every time I begin a new project is this: I want­ed to become a moth­er and couldn’t. And then I could. 

After strug­gling for years with infer­til­i­ty, I adopt­ed my son when I was twen­ty-three years old—this was sev­en years after the trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ences at the Clin­i­cas de Salud with my high school boyfriend. 

In my life, I trans­formed my reality. 

Lat­er, I wrote a nov­el about a young woman who gives birth to a stillborn—and then comes to believe that a baby doll she names Jubilee is the daugh­ter she lost. The sto­ry was inspired by Reborns, dolls that are cre­at­ed to look just like “real” babies, and that can be cus­tom ordered to look just like chil­dren who have grown up or passed away; they are “reborn.” Reborns fall into the uncan­ny val­ley and are often described as “creepy,” though I see them as a beau­ti­ful transformation.

When I couldn’t have chil­dren, when my body wouldn’t coop­er­ate, when the lines wouldn’t trans­form into a pink cross, or when the pink cross did appear but then the bright red pop­pies began their painful stain, I made myth. I became a moth­er in my poems and my babies were alive and the blood flow­ing out didn’t mean dead

When I adopt­ed my son and I had no idea what I was doing and felt like a body snatch­er like a thief like an imposter and his col­ic-stressed body and his sleep­less-help­less body kept us both in per­pet­u­al dream­state and I was afraid always he’d wake some day and scream You’re not my real moth­er, instead, we cre­at­ed myth. We became myth­i­cal, to each oth­er. In our mutu­al need. The myth of moth­erlove car­ried us; it car­ries us still, through thick real­i­ty, through thick real­i­ty we learn each day to love. 

Whether I have a sto­ry or poem or spark in mind when I begin writ­ing, every jour­ney­ing onto the page begins for me as a plung­ing down­ward, into the heartgut or through it, and there I must begin digging.

I don’t know if the wound will ever heal. But I’ve cre­at­ed so many beau­ti­ful things from it that even if I die with this hole in my heart, it’s a hole that’s sprout­ed whole ecosys­tems that’ve fed those I’ve loved. 

An over­ar­ch­ing theme in The Account Mag­a­zine is the act of offer­ing “an account”—of bear­ing wit­ness, or car­ry­ing and offer­ing tes­ti­mo­ny. How do you see the poems in Bel­ly to the Bru­tal  inter­ro­gat­ing these ideas?

Most of my work deals with the mon­strous in some way. Bel­ly to the Bru­tal grap­ples with mon­strous moth­er­hood. Moth­er­ing through men­tal illness. 

Some­times the mon­sters don’t need our slay­ing, but our compassion—our empa­thy and under­stand­ing. Some­times the mon­sters are not mon­sters but cap­tive to the dark pow­er wrecked upon them. Some­times, they need us only to wit­ness. To see them.

This newest col­lec­tion was about extend­ing that same com­pas­sion I give out­ward mon­sters to myself. See­ing the seeds of trau­ma grown into vio­lence with­in me—and for­giv­ing myself. But first, I had to bear witness. 

And it was damn painful at times. 

Of writ­ing mon­sters, Karen Rus­sel writes of hav­ing empa­thy for them: “Poor moth­er­less thing. Look at it looking.”

I want­ed to show how even moth­ered things can be acci­den­tal­ly moth­ered into vio­lence that needs root­ing out. How machis­mo cul­ture, how the vio­lences enact­ed upon girls and women… how that can all con­tribute to unin­ten­tion­al­ly pass­ing those on as norms. And how one moth­er needs to be brave and self-aware enough to stand up and say, Bas­ta. Enough. To stop those cycles of vio­lence from repeating. 

So the moth­er at the end of my col­lec­tion births her­self anew, as Fri­da Kahlo in her vis­cer­al paint­ing, birthing her own damn self. And in my col­lec­tion, the moth­er does it when she births her daugh­ter and real­izes that she has a chance to remoth­er her­self along­side her daughter. 

In bear­ing wit­ness to my children’s lives, I was able to wit­ness, again, my own child­hood and my mother’s strug­gle from a new lens that lent me empa­thy and grace I couldn’t feel when I was hurt­ing with­in it.

Jen­nifer Givhan is a Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can and Indige­nous poet and nov­el­ist from the South­west­ern desert and the recip­i­ent of poet­ry fel­low­ships from the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts and PEN/Rosenthal Emerg­ing Voices.

Her newest poet­ry col­lec­tion Bel­ly to the Bru­tal (Wes­leyan Uni­ver­si­ty Press) and nov­el Riv­er Woman, Riv­er Demon (Black­stone Pub­lish­ing) both draw from her prac­tice of bru­jería. Her lat­est nov­el was cho­sen for Amazon’s Book Club and as a Nation­al Togeth­er We Read Library Pick and was fea­tured on CBS Morn­ings. It also won an Inter­na­tion­al Lati­no Book Award in the Rudol­fo Anaya Lati­no-Focused Fic­tion category.

Her poet­ry, fic­tion, and cre­ative non­fic­tion have appeared in The New Repub­lic, The Nation, POETRY, Tri­Quar­ter­ly, The Boston Review, The Rum­pus, Salon, Ploughshares, and many oth­ers. She’s received the South­west Book Award, New Ohio Review’s Poet­ry Prize, Phoebe Journal’s Greg Grum­mer Poet­ry Prize, the Pinch Jour­nal Poet­ry Prize, and Cutthroat’s Joy Har­jo Poet­ry Prize.

On “The Court of No Record”

Interview / Jenny Molberg

Jen­ny Molberg

Edi­tor Lau­ren Brazeal Garza: Jen­ny Molberg’s The Court of No Record sear­ing­ly draws inspi­ra­tion from court pro­ceed­ings and crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tions, show­ing how the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem ulti­mate­ly fails women. Dur­ing our inter­view, she offered won­der­ful insights into the cre­ation of the col­lec­tion, touch­ing upon erasure—and how vic­tims of crime are often called upon to erase them­selves and their truth in per­suit of jus­tice, the banal­i­ty of evil and silenc­ing, and how poet­ry bears wit­ness to the unsayable. 

Your most recent col­lec­tion, The Court of No Record, explores ideas of trau­ma and how trau­ma can inhab­it and even erase one’s entire iden­ti­ty. Can you tell us more about what inspired you to speak to this impor­tant top­ic with­in the col­lec­tion and/or indi­vid­ual poems?

In an essay I return to again and again, Sol­maz Sharif’s “The Near Tran­si­tive Prop­er­ties of the Polit­i­cal and Poet­i­cal: Era­sure,” she writes, “After all, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of era­sure as a poet­ic tac­tic in the Unit­ed States is hap­pen­ing along­side a pro­lif­er­a­tion of our aware­ness of it as a state tac­tic. And it seems, many era­sure projects today hold these things as unre­lat­ed. Still, when it comes to era­sure, this very form of palimpsest, the ghost is not only death or the degra­da­tions of time—the ghost is the state itself.” 

In the wake of inti­mate part­ner vio­lence, with expe­ri­ences of past trau­ma and sex­u­al assault press­ing their hands against my inner mir­ror, I found myself in court, sev­er­al times, try­ing to artic­u­late my Truth against what the court allowed me to speak of the truth. The whole sto­ry, the con­text of a sit­u­a­tion, the big pic­ture of the Truth, I’ve learned, is alarm­ing­ly irrel­e­vant to the U.S. court sys­tem. It’s inter­est­ing that you use the word “erase” in this ques­tion, as I wrote many of these poems as an out­cry, a reac­tion, and a defense of the self I knew, fight­ing against what a tox­i­cal­ly mas­cu­line cul­ture, and a “jus­tice” sys­tem want­ed me to erase of myself. In the midst of trau­ma, I often had the sense that I, as I had once known myself, was slip­ping away, buy­ing into the gaslight­ing waged against me, until my own per­cep­tion of real­i­ty became mud­dled, like I was look­ing at a famil­iar lake through thick fog.

After the events that were the impe­tus of this book (which, iron­i­cal­ly, are dan­ger­ous to direct­ly address in writ­ing), I was left with near­ly 400 pages of court tran­script. I want­ed to cre­ate, in Sharif’s words, a kind of palimpsest with that text, where I could write the truth over what hap­pened to me—a com­plete and vio­lent dis­re­gard of my truth, a state-sup­port­ed silenc­ing. In writ­ing these poems, I had expe­ri­enced enough self-era­sure, so I want­ed to insert, to foot­note, to make addi­tions to the text of trau­ma. I want­ed to paint over the exist­ing por­trait of me, because it wasn’t the truth; in doing so, I felt that I was prob­a­bly speak­ing towards the expe­ri­ence of many oth­er sur­vivors who are unsafe in telling their sto­ries. I want­ed to write in a kind of sec­ondary lan­guage to any­one who had expe­ri­enced inti­mate part­ner vio­lence, abuse, and assault—to cre­ate a court­room where we might be heard, an under­ground record of the actu­al truth. 

Han­nah Arendt spoke of the banal­i­ty of evil. Many of the poems in The Court of No Record explore this idea though their form and technique—particularly in the sec­ond sec­tion. Can you speak to how this evolved as you wrote the collection? 

I think this ques­tion is a per­fect segue from the first—in order to cre­ate a truth­ful court­room set­ting, I had to play into the banal­i­ty of its silenc­ing, to use form and lan­guage that spot­light­ed its some­times-absurd eva­sions of the truth, and to invent char­ac­ters that embod­ied the relent­less silenc­ing of sur­vivors. For exam­ple, when I wrote per­sona poems from the per­spec­tive of the abuser’s lawyer, I wrote most­ly in misog­y­nis­tic vers­es from the Old Tes­ta­ment, as this mir­rored the expe­ri­ence of being shamed and humil­i­at­ed for liv­ing in a female body and speak­ing out against abuse. When I wrote the sec­ond section’s “evi­dence” poems to cap­ture the undoc­u­ment­ed evi­dence of abuse or assault—the invis­i­ble proof of memory—I used Ade­laide Crapsey’s cinquain form, a high­ly for­mal syl­lab­ic verse, to show that evi­dence of abuse can be proven in exact mea­sure­ments, but is all too often dismissed. 

The fact that I had to be care­ful about what I was saying—that I need­ed to, in Emi­ly Dickinson’s words, “tell it slant” in order to pro­tect myself and others—created a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion to writ­ing in fixed form. That is, I need­ed to write from the mar­gins of my own expe­ri­ence rather than in a Con­fes­sion­al mode—there were intrin­sic for­mal con­straints. I looked to the work of female foren­sic sci­en­tists, dream lan­guage, and metaphor (like the dogs in the book’s sec­ond sec­tion, or in “Bitch as Sheep­dog”) to get to the heart of the vio­lence and silenc­ing I had experienced.

In terms of how the banal­i­ty of evil evolves in the book, I was cog­nizant about the way the sec­tions grew out and away from each other—the first address­es cul­tur­al obses­sion with vio­lence against women, the sec­ond con­fronts the court sys­tem, becom­ing more per­son­al, and then in the third, I adopt the “bitch per­sona,” a voice that allowed me to more open­ly rail against those dam­ag­ing sys­tems, let­ting a sense of humor and defi­ance into the voice. Writ­ing poems like “Bitch Inter­rupts a Wed­ding” and “Bitch Under a Tree Eat­ing Wendy’s,” I want­ed to take back my own voice, inhab­it­ing the sex­ist lan­guage that had been waged against me, to grap­ple with the fact that my own inter­nal­ized tox­ic mas­culin­i­ty had led me to believe that speak­ing up for myself made me a “bitch”. 

An over­ar­ch­ing theme in The Account Mag­a­zine is the act of offer­ing “an account”—of bear­ing wit­ness, or car­ry­ing and offer­ing tes­ti­mo­ny. How do you see the poems in The Court of No Record inter­ro­gat­ing these ideas?

Lau­ren, thank you for these thought­ful ques­tions and thank you and the entire staff at The Account Mag­a­zine for doing such impor­tant work—seeing poet­ry as tes­ti­mo­ny is inte­gral to my own cre­ative process, and so many of the poets I cher­ish and return to. With The Court of No Record, the idea of an “account” is cen­tral to the book’s exis­tence. The great Björk comes to mind: “You shouldn’t let poets lie to you.” “Lying,” or bend­ing facts to get at the emo­tion­al truth of a sit­u­a­tion, was one of my ear­li­est lessons in poet­ry, and one that I began to inter­ro­gate as I was writ­ing this book. In writ­ing these poems, I sought Truth-with-a-cap­i­tal‑T, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly bal­anc­ing the fact that speak­ing the Truth about my per­son­al expe­ri­ences with abuse was not safe for me. This leads, I think, to a ques­tion about the author-speak­er divide—it’s dif­fi­cult not to con­flate the two—but that con­fla­tion can lead to a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion for the author, which I’ve unfor­tu­nate­ly learned through first­hand expe­ri­ence. How can poet­ry tell the Truth while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly keep­ing the poet safe? How can writ­ing serve as tes­ti­mo­ny in a sit­u­a­tion where wit­ness is a dan­ger­ous act? As a long­time dis­ci­ple of the poet­ry of wit­ness, the work of such poets as Car­olyn Forché, Paul Celan, Muriel Rukeyser, Czesław Miłosz, Yusef Komun­yakaa, and so many oth­ers (I could go on and on), I repeat Forché’s words on resis­tance in the poet­ry of wit­ness like a prayer: “If we have not, if we do not, what in the end, have we become? And if we do not, what, in the end, shall we be?” 

Poet­ry, unlike oth­er forms of writ­ing, allows an embod­i­ment of the unsayable on the page, through metaphor, neg­a­tive space, eli­sion, and oth­er tech­niques. With these poems, I want­ed to embody the silenc­ing that often occurs, per­son­al­ly, cul­tur­al­ly, and legal­ly, when sur­vivors speak their sto­ries. I want­ed to, as Forché writes, look beyond the per­son­al and the polit­i­cal to “the social”: “a place of resis­tance and strug­gle, where books are pub­lished, poems read, and protest dis­sem­i­nat­ed.” I hope that these poems con­tribute to an often-silenced dia­logue about inti­mate part­ner vio­lence, gen­der-based vio­lence, and emo­tion­al, psy­cho­log­i­cal, and phys­i­cal abuse—that they both serve as tes­ti­mo­ny and bear wit­ness to a larg­er soci­etal prob­lem. Though the sub­ject mat­ter is dark, in the end, I hope that read­ers can feel hopeful—that to write into the canyon of silence is pos­si­ble; that, when able, if we can speak against the pact of silence that so often accom­pa­nies abuse, we can cre­ate a bar­ri­er of safe­ty; and that, in con­fronting and inter­ro­gat­ing com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of vio­lence against female bod­ies, the pow­er of tox­ic mas­culin­i­ty will be diminished.

Jen­ny Mol­berg is the author of Mar­vels of the Invis­i­ble (win­ner of the Berk­shire Prize, Tupe­lo Press, 2017), Refusal (LSU Press, 2020), and The Court of No Record (LSU Press, 2023). Her poems and essays have recent­ly appeared or are forth­com­ing in Ploughshares, The Cincin­nati Review, VIDA, The Mis­souri Review, The Rum­pus, The Adroit Jour­nal, Oprah Quar­ter­ly, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She has received fel­low­ships and schol­ar­ships from the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts, the Sewa­nee Writ­ers Con­fer­ence, Ver­mont Stu­dio Cen­ter, and the Lon­gleaf Writ­ers Con­fer­ence. Hav­ing earned her MFA from Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty and her PhD from the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Texas, she is cur­rent­ly Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor and Chair of Cre­ative Writ­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cen­tral Mis­souri, where she edits Pleiades: Lit­er­a­ture in Con­text. Find her online at


2 Poems

Poetry / Lisa Fay Coutley


:: Letter to Future Me While Rewatching Game of Thrones ::

All the small centers of the center
leak now. People dress themselves
in endings. Tell me you haven’t
washed the snow from my hair.
I’m still cross-legged in the angry
age of our little epoch, blaming
the girl who turned herself clock
to get us this far. I hope you will
still be foolish enough to forgive
who we love, & that I am finally
among them. Today is when I
gave us a name you’ll braid white
down either side of our future
face. I cannot stop craning to see.
I spend so much time with you now
I hardly touch me anymore. Pleasure
is the smell that refuses to cast its
inevitable goodnight. Big spoon me
in the street. Your palomino knows
someday I’ll pull in that gravel drive.
Already I’ve named the pines for sap
tacking animal hair from my hands
to yours. Every center, like I’ve said,
ignores its eye. Did you stop fighting
artifice? Have you let yourself best
friend your assigned AI? How lonely
are you there, scoffing at the nature
of my reductive inquiries. Of course
the woman who succeeds me shall
be smarter than I. So yeah. Anyway,
the one thing I know won’t change
is everyone—you included—wants
a woman who saunters out of a fire.

:: Letter to Future Me Regarding Our 11s ::

Your face will slacken someday. Even
if it’s that day. That day that comes

more in the mirror now
than in bed or under running 

water scalding as mother
said. Should’ve slept with your bra

on if you wanted a man. These days
sagging alone, I watch the whole

Game of Thrones just waiting
for that tragic moment Wylis

holds the door. I am, after all,
yours. Your braless daughter,

Sad Mom. Doesn’t that just burn
your jaws? I know. Shh. Future me—

are you listening to the temperature
of my voice? My barometric

pressure? Do you know how
many heavy rains I’ve needed you.

From the writer


:: Account ::

Over the years I’ve writ­ten let­ters I’ll nev­er send, let­ters to my dead, let­ters to lovers, let­ters from an earth­bound poet to an astro­naut in space (and back), who were both, of course, parts of the speaker’s self need­ing dis­tance to be seen/to see clear­ly, to try make sense of what it means to be alive. Always they’ve been let­ters of miss­ing. Recent­ly, the per­son I’ve been missing—who I was afraid I might nev­er see—was me, specif­i­cal­ly Future Me. If I wasn’t wor­ried she wouldn’t arrive, I was wait­ing impa­tient­ly for her, as if mov­ing through trau­ma and grief and an espe­cial­ly dif­fi­cult year could have an end goal dressed in a bet­ter ver­sion of me wait­ing at the oth­er side of the seem­ing­ly nev­er-end­ing tun­nel. The heavy­hand­ed and all-too-famil­iar metaphor aside, I’ve been writ­ing to her as a way to make a list, maybe, of what I might like to see in my future (or not), and then she wrote back. This work, I guess, is a flare sent into dark­ness, and I’m mak­ing room for it because even if I can’t see clear­ly just yet, still, I have to tend the desire to keep look­ing. This is how I know to look.


Lisa Fay Cout­ley is the author of HOST (Wis­con­sin Poet­ry Series, forth­com­ing 2024), teth­er (Black­Lawrence Press, 2020), Erra­ta (South­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty, 2015), win­ner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poet­ry Open Com­pe­ti­tion, In the Car­ni­val of Breath­ing (BLP, 2011), win­ner of the Black Riv­er Chap­book Com­pe­ti­tion, and Small Girl: Micromem­oirs (Har­bor Edi­tions, 2024). She is also the edi­tor of the grief anthol­o­gy, In the Tem­pered Dark: Con­tem­po­rary Poets Tran­scend­ing Ele­gy (BLP, 2024). She is an NEA Fel­low, Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Poet­ry & CNF in the Writer’s Work­shop at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Oma­ha, and Chap­book Series Edi­tor at Black Lawrence Press.


2 Poems

Poetry / Denise Duhamel



I’m dead by now—car crash or bad fall. Or I’m still here, but feeling dead inside, yelling at 
Target cashiers or maybe staying home, my Tower Vodka delivered by Total Wine. I have more 
cringy stories or stories swirling about me. I might have slept with a student by now or a dean 
who’s a drunk like me. I might have been fired, actually, claiming my dismissal was all someone 
else’s fault. I never developed the good habit of flossing daily or trying to get eight hours of 
sleep in a row. I might have drowned in a pool or the ocean or a bathtub. I might have pissed 
myself in public. I have surely forgotten the rent check, credit card payment, lost my voter ID. I 
might have stopped writing poems entirely, with excuses about why they are stupid. I might have 
stopped reading them too. Or there I was, until I wasn’t—a high-functioning, lampshade-wearing
jokester who tripped on a step and hit her head, who tore through that stop sign on her way 


During quarantine
a lizard so green
she looked like a toy
latched onto the screen
door of my balcony—
she must have climbed a tree.
The sound of her scared me.
My blinds closed, I thought she
was someone trying to break in.
I peeked through the slats
ready to scream,
ready to dial 911.
The foot-long lizard
had climbed as far as my knee
and I shook her off, gently,
afraid she would rip the mesh.
I kept talking to her
the whole time. I was so lonely
that Florida winter, I almost
invited her inside.
She had matching lime green
eyes. When I googled her later
I learned she was a Cuban Knight.
Clearly she was able 
to fend for herself. Still I mashed
a banana and served it to her, 
al fresco, on my best earthenware. 

From the writer


:: Account ::

These poems are from a series in which all the titles con­tain the word “in which.” I began this series as a way to imag­ine oth­er out­comes to my life or what might have been—a prose poem, for exam­ple, in which I nev­er became sober and am pos­si­bly dead. But the “in which” was also expan­sive enough to bring me to glimpses elsewhere—private moments of shame or lone­li­ness, imag­i­na­tive leaps into the inner work­ings of my body. For me, it’s been a mag­i­cal lit­er­ary device, the “which” like a “witch” cast­ing her spell. The work in this series has gone in sur­pris­ing direc­tions, the titles teth­er­ing me down. I find it increas­ing­ly lib­er­at­ing to state my premise in the title, to let the title do a lot of the work to ground a reader.


Denise Duhamel’s most recent books of poet­ry are Sec­ond Sto­ry (Pitts­burgh, 2021) and Scald (2017). Blowout (2013) was a final­ist for the Nation­al Book Crit­ics Cir­cle Award. She is a dis­tin­guished uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor in the MFA pro­gram at Flori­da Inter­na­tion­al Uni­ver­si­ty in Miami.

2 Poems

Poetry / Joanne Godley


:: The Hardest Read ::

Inspired by The Delectable Negro: Human Consumption and 
Homoeroticism Within US Slave Culture, by Vincent Woodward,
and after Catherine Pierce

In protest, I say the word delectable.
Woodward’s text-title has, for me,  
rancid-washed this word’s flavor. 
In protest, I repeat the word, delectable.
Craggy letter-bits stick in my craw.
Once a pleasing and delitable word,
for me, is delectable, no more.
I spit it out.  

In protest, I say the word, Negro,
and find me shadowed in a corner,
flirting with views past and upon me.
Years ago, at Thanksgiving, my brother asked, 
Why don’t they sell Negro turkeys?  
 No one in our family ate the white meat.

In protest, I say the word, voyeur.
I stare out the window onto the street
lush with jacarandas. My new country.
The purple canopied calles of my neighborhood,
are named for poets and statesmen.
Maimonides. Arquemides. Lamartine.
In protest, I say, I have done the thing.
This fucking thing. I crawled out
of the beast’s belly and slithered away. 
Breathing. Human. Black.
Gut juices painting my path.

My dreams creep back, 
enter my bedroom with caution, lest I relapse.
In protest, I reclaim the word ease.
I say the words copiousness and abundance,
in near disbelief. 
I nap, voraciously.
I am overdue for a leaching.
In protest, I say the word sinuousness.
I say the word luminescence.
I remember night-quiet, wintered Philadelphia,
ice-sliding Osage Avenue with R.,
translucent spears clinging to skeletal trees 
and telephone lines.

My grandfather steepled churches 
using wood gathered from the Great Dismal Swamp.
Watch me maroon, fellow maroons. Watch me prosody.
Watch me cacophony while incognito,
persnickety into clandestine.

I am the right brand of paranoid.
And with perfect tastebuds, no delectable for me.
Watch me polish the ‘I’ in thrive.

:: Gone ::

an Expatriate’s CV1
                                                                 1I was born
I was born  I burst                                bookish     into poetry & charismatic color
nearly blacklisted			      but hallelujahed by countrymen not my own
swam under sprouting clouds		           I was born
testing    testing			              in a place Neruda dubbed ‘Dawn’s Rosy Cheek’
I spoke Yiddish soon after		      I was born
schvartze means Black  		      I was born
I hankered for chitlin’s & oxtails   enjoyed forbidden fruits
I wailed the blues			      with an ear for opera  but no peonies or peace lilies for me
I grooved with Pete Seeger	      I worshipped Paul Robeson &
we marched we protested		      we believed                                       we patienced
I lusted for excellence		      I sought success (American style)
I was born justice-oriented	      for all
like King  I was born dreamer	      Like Langston I deferred dreams   too
After reading We Charge Genocide
at age 9				                      I plotted expatriation at the age of 10
realized I was born in a place ripe
with false promises & hoods	     my country tis of thee   sweet land   				
I embraced your values 		     I drank your tea
then dropped your mic		     this caged bird flew because
this country that birthed me	       the Amerikkka I know
does not love me back   		     does not want me Black

From the writer


:: Account ::

In 1951, the Civ­il Rights Con­gress pre­sent­ed a book-length peti­tion to the Unit­ed Nations enti­tled, We Charge Geno­cide, The Crime of Gov­ern­ment Against the Negro Peo­ple. This book doc­u­ment­ed (with graph­ic pho­tographs) hun­dreds of lynch­ing cas­es of Black Amer­i­cans known to have occurred in the eighty-five years since the end of slav­ery (the num­ber is esti­mat­ed at 10,000 indi­vid­u­als.) I hap­pened upon this book at the age of nine. I was a vora­cious read­er and had been giv­en carte blanche to read any book in my par­ents’ library. I was aghast and won­dered what could pos­si­bly pro­voke a per­son, or groups of peo­ple, to levy such cru­el­ty on oth­er human beings. I promised myself, that, giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty, I would leave the Unit­ed States to live in anoth­er soci­ety. As I grew old­er, I devel­oped a sense of dual self-per­cep­tion, of which WEB DuBois spoke, “It is a pecu­liar sen­sa­tion, this dou­ble con­scious­ness, this sense of always look­ing at one­self through the eyes of oth­ers, of mea­sur­ing one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused con­tempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, – an Amer­i­can, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unrec­on­ciled striv­ings; two war­ring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asun­der” (Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, p. 2). This dual self-per­cep­tion was anoth­er rea­son for my leav­ing the U.S.

The con­cept of flight fig­ures promi­nent­ly in my poet­ry, par­tic­u­lar­ly, once my path to expa­tri­a­tion became clear­er. I have grown inter­est­ed in the con­cept of maroon­age and have researched exten­sive­ly the his­to­ry of maroons (enslaved peo­ple who fled their bondage and sought refuge in swamps or hills) in the U.S. and the Caribbean. I have also done research on the African Amer­i­can folk­lore about the ‘fly­ing Africans’, Blacks who escaped enslave­ment through flight.


Joanne God­ley lives in Mex­i­co City, hav­ing emi­grat­ed from the U.S. a year ago. She is a physi­cian, writer, poet, and a first year MFA can­di­date in Poet­ry. She is a Meter Keep­er in the Poet­ry Witch Com­mu­ni­ty and an Anapho­ra Arts fel­low in both poet­ry and fic­tion. Her poet­ry has been pub­lished in the Belle­vue Lit­er­ary Review, Man­tis, Light, FIYAH, Pratik, among oth­ers. She was twice nom­i­nat­ed for a Push­cart prize. Her prose has been pub­lished in the Mass­a­chu­setts Review, the Keny­on Review online, Juked, Mem­oir, among oth­ers. Her poet­ry chap­book, Pick­ing Scabs from the Body His­to­ry,fea­tures poems of wit­ness and resis­tance. Her web­site is:

2 Poems

Poetry / Andrew Hemmert


:: The Liquor Store Delivery Driver Considers Ornithology ::

A swift flies like a bat made of straight razors. In summer 
I watch them sweep and curve through the mazes of moving cars, 
chasing the proliferating insects—mosquitos and caddis, 
black flies whose guts rorschach my windshield in yellows and greens 
and always the swifts behind them, like hunger given weight
and weightlessness, like hunger given speed. The way they fly, 
it seems they do not remember the ground is there. 
And nothing makes me feel grounded like watching them. 
Watching them, I might as well be a cattail by a retention pond 
or a shopping cart sunk in that retention pond, or a pond 
full only of oily overflow and no red fish darting
through reeds. When a swift doubles back its belly feathers shine 
like surgery. I am driving my car full of liquor 
into the city, under the swifts’ oblivion joy. 

:: The Liquor Store Delivery Driver Considers Quitting ::

Leaving feels like something for which there should be some ritual. 
On my last day at the store, a brand-new driver was t-boned 
in an intersection. I went to get him. Parsed his story 
from those of the witnesses, peeled the company decal 
off the totaled delivery car. The other driver 
though stumbling refused an ambulance. My driver spent 
the ride back to the store with his head in his hands. The ruined 
car we left in a restaurant parking lot for the morning.
What ritual for this? In the end I spent too much money 
on a bottle of rum and drove home under open skies. 
I left my uniform—a black t-shirt, a matching hoodie, 
a fake-gold magnetic nametag—lying on the counter, 
what else is there to say about it. A job is not a life. 
I went out into the night wearing only my own clothes.

From the writer


:: Account ::

When I moved to Thorn­ton, Col­orado, my first job was deliv­er­ing liquor for a local liquor store. These deliv­er­ies were pri­mar­i­ly res­i­den­tial, not retail. I’d been a patron at the store for a few months pri­or to receiv­ing their email adver­tise­ment seek­ing deliv­ery dri­vers. Hav­ing been out of work for near­ly two years at that point due to the pan­dem­ic, I was eager to con­tribute to the household’s finances in what­ev­er way pos­si­ble. And hav­ing at the time recent­ly com­plet­ed my first Covid vac­cine reg­i­ment, I felt rel­a­tive­ly com­fort­able return­ing to a retail envi­ron­ment. Now, a year since hav­ing left that posi­tion, it’s still hard to cap­ture the reg­u­lar absur­di­ty of being part of a liquor store deliv­ery depart­ment. I’d antic­i­pat­ed that the job would pro­vide me with count­less sto­ries I could use as fod­der for poet­ry or fic­tion. And I’m still try­ing to fig­ure out how to chis­el most of those sto­ries out. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, dri­ving fac­tors heav­i­ly into the expe­ri­ence of these poems. And dri­ving has been a major theme in my pri­or books. But this was my first oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cuss dri­ving in the con­text of per­son­al labor.


Andrew Hem­mert is the author of Bless­ing the Exoskele­ton (Pitt Poet­ry Series) and Saw­grass Sky (Texas Review Press). His poems have appeared or are forth­com­ing in var­i­ous mag­a­zines includ­ing The Cincin­nati Review, Cop­per Nick­el, The Keny­on Review, Prairie Schooner, and The South­ern Review. He won the 2018 Riv­er Styx Inter­na­tion­al Poet­ry Con­test. He earned his MFA from South­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty Car­bon­dale, and cur­rent­ly lives in Thorn­ton, Colorado.

Kill the Birds

Poetry / Carolina Hotchandani


:: Kill the Birds ::

I live my life as the heroine 
of a novel I am authoring.

Hers is the story of a woman who moves 
from Chicago to Vermillion, South Dakota, 
to follow her husband’s job.
It comes with better benefits than hers.

The story she tells could be my own,
or it could be the story of insurance
and the things insurance makes us do
when we feel the soft spot 
on the baby’s skull and imagine the world 
impressing itself upon that head.

I could console myself:
the new insurance is spectacular.
It slays fears like a great, muscular hero,
thundering into the scene astride a horse,
making me blush like a virgin in an 18th-century novel—
a foil for the heroine I’d been molding.

At the university where I begin to work,
my students ask for leave to go pheasant hunting.
Their hunting excursions are sacred, they say—
religious rites, or practically so.

Miss class. 
Kill the birds.

Confer upon a lost life 
a meaning. A pheasant 
knocked out of flight,
hurtling over the snow, 
will be your glory.

What’s vermillion, I wonder,
about this white, white town.

Outside my window, the striped cornfields
write new lines onto my brain.

How dare they, I think.
I’m the writer, after all.

One day, walking along the gravel driveway,
I spot a dead fox—
a splotch 
on the snowed-over corn stubble.


From the writer


:: Account ::

I am intrigued by how we relate to the fic­tions that we con­sume and write—how we project our­selves onto char­ac­ters and, if we are writ­ers, how we can become moved by our own cre­ations, as if they were not enti­ties we’d brought into being our­selves. Mary Shelley’s Franken­stein had a pro­found influ­ence on me in my youth, and as I grew into adult­hood, I revis­it­ed it, read­ing it as a por­tray­al of how the artist’s cre­ation can be a mon­strous mir­ror, a beloved, a ther­a­pist, a sin­is­ter twin. Writ­ers often speak of writ­ing as ther­a­peu­tic, but I’m espe­cial­ly tak­en with the ways that writ­ing can haunt and cast strange shad­ows on “real” life.


Car­oli­na Hotchan­dani won the 2023 Peru­gia Press Prize for her debut poet­ry col­lec­tion, The Book Eaters, released this past Sep­tem­ber. Her work has appeared in AGNI, Alas­ka Quar­ter­ly Review, Black­bird, Beloit Poet­ry Jour­nal, Cincin­nati Review, Poet­ry North­west, Prairie Schooner, West Branch, and oth­er jour­nals. She is a Goodrich Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish in Oma­ha, Nebraska.

3 Poems

Poetry / Katherine Indermaur

:: In the First Days of Pilgrimage ::

O make of me your holiest echo
Shape me by my wandering       may all
I’ve kept close on this earth be shorn from me
Like dust from mountains’ uplifted arms
May I crawl ever closer to your name  

:: At the Shrine of St. Thecla ::

For days I too sat by the blue window   asking
Nothing    Lord    only waiting to be struck
a tongueless bell    but you arrive gentle
As newborn lambs’ shepherd     you  
Kneel gentle as the lioness with her cubs 
Amid the closing in of bloodthirsty men 
Gentle as the tune the nightwatch soldier hums
As the plum tongue his armor entombs

:: Absolution That Begins and Begins and Begins ::

There is nothing beautiful left in me
When I reach the mountaintop
No desire       no forgiveness
Every stone    face    star
Up here bare as distance 
I pitch me out of reach

From the writer


:: Account ::

These poems come from a man­u­script that takes up the true sto­ry of Ege­ria, a female Chris­t­ian pil­grim who trav­eled from her home in west­ern Europe to the bib­li­cal Holy Land in the 380s AD. Some of her orig­i­nal trav­el writ­ing has sur­vived to today. One of the ear­li­est female moun­taineers, Ege­ria is the first known woman to sum­mit Mount Sinai and Mount Nebo. She was not, so far as his­to­ri­ans under­stand, a wealthy woman, but the rights women held in the Roman Empire at that time enabled her to trav­el rel­a­tive­ly freely, and occa­sion­al­ly with a mil­i­tary escort to ensure safe­ty. (The very same Roman Empire that exe­cut­ed Jesus adopt­ed Chris­tian­i­ty as its offi­cial reli­gion less than three cen­turies lat­er. Ege­ria would have been born about twen­ty years after this change.) These spare poems explore Egeria’s pil­grim­age. They are both filled with and emp­tied by the desert land­scape in which Ege­ria finds her­self, and which would have been incred­i­bly for­eign to her.


Kather­ine Inder­maur is the author of I|I (Seneca Review Books), win­ner of the 2022 Deb­o­rah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize, and two chap­books. She serves as an edi­tor for Sug­ar House Review and is the win­ner of the Black War­rior Review 2019 Poet­ry Con­test and the 2018 Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets Prize. Her writ­ing has appeared in Eco­tone, Elec­tric Lit­er­a­ture, Fron­tier Poet­ry, the Jour­nal, New Delta Review, Ninth Let­ter, the Nor­mal School, and else­where. She holds an MFA from Col­orado State Uni­ver­si­ty and lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.


Poetry / Adriana X. Jacobs


:: Deformation ::

A mother falls through a bed of chalk flowers, pulling her child behind her. A store 
crumbles, spilling votives into the street. The rats pour out of a manhole cover, 
shedding future plagues. And after they clear, a mailbox tips over. The polaroid of 
the family cat falls into the void (they will find him in a thousand years). The glossy 
beetles slide off their pins and take flight. Someone painted “everything will be ok” 
on the bridge. This is how it will be when it is over. The morning news and missing 
faces stitched together. While the wires hold together. Branches covered with the 
luggage of layovers. The restaurant laid out for missed reservations. And under the 
sink, poached chicken in duck fat waiting to be served. There will be no theory for 
the shells in the child’s pocket. For the threads of neon green and yellow, stems of 
flowers stripped from the pavement, migrating into the lower strata, and staying 
there, like a tear on a chin. One of the els collides with the legs of a cockroach to 
form an ancient language. The legs of the k will keep on going, like one of those half 
bodies still walking ahead. 

From the writer


:: Account ::

Defor­ma­tion” comes from a poet­ry book man­u­script I have been work­ing on that is inspired by video games like The Last of Us, Plague Tale: Requiem, and Death Strand­ing. Both the book and this poem imag­ine a left­over world care­ful­ly explored and picked over by those who remain. A few months into the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, I read an arti­cle about the clo­sure of restau­rants in New York City and the future of the food indus­try. The line that stood out for me con­cerned the preser­va­tion of par-cooked chick­en in duck fat. The chef wasn’t sure that this would work, so I took this as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to try a dif­fer­ent method and poach the chick­en instead. I imag­ined some­one stum­bling into the restau­rant kitchen decades from now. Maybe they would be hid­ing or return­ing to a place full of good mem­o­ries of anoth­er time. They would find air-tight bags of chick­en encased in duck fat and maybe have the best meal of their life. Or the rats would get to it first. This image became the ker­nel of “Defor­ma­tion,” which approach­es cri­sis as a seis­mic event, rear­rang­ing mem­o­ries, rou­tines, lan­guage. But in most of my poems, this process is nev­er com­plet­ed; rather, I am inter­est­ed in the space and time between break­down and repair, the state of being in cri­sis, at the edge of greed and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, gen­eros­i­ty and violence.


Adri­ana X. Jacobs is a poet, schol­ar, and trans­la­tor based in Oxford, Eng­land and Brook­lyn, NY. Her poems have appeared recent­ly in Black­box Man­i­fold, Asoophit, Place de la Sor­bonne, Poet­ry Dis­patch, and Tupe­lo Quar­ter­ly. Her trans­la­tions from Hebrew include Vaan Nguyen’s The Truf­fle Eye (Zephyr Press), win­ner of the 2022 Harold Mor­ton Lan­don Trans­la­tion Award, and Mer­av Givoni Hrushovski’s End— (Car­rion Bloom Books, 2023). She is the author of the poet­ry zine After­life is Sweet (rinky dink press) and the chap­book The Turn­ing (forth­com­ing, Danc­ing Girl Press). She teach­es Hebrew and com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford.

Good Men

Poetry / Sarah Kersey


:: Good Men ::

for JWH

I keep changing. This is
The wind applauds my red motorcycle
as it breaks 50 mph before
it sputters out on the side of the road,
gravel gray like gospel. Shattered.
Do you need help?
Tenderness reduces to copper,
calculates what I owe. I’ve climbed
into beds, onto faces, on top of waists,
now into this white pickup truck.
Bikers help each other.
When I told the elders I no longer
wished to be known as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses,
you, a good man, the only man I love,
cried into the Zoom screen; as if
the weather had changed 
to cool morning mist.
You knew everything I’d lost and wet all of it
so I wouldn’t crack.
Listen to me, you said.
I was going to be alone.
Kicking off gravel caught in my boots,
I got into the truck.
Next time, the man said,
take off your helmet.
It will signal to other bikers that
you need help.

From the writer


:: Account ::

Every year since Sep­tem­ber 2014, I always attempt to write a poem about one of the great­est loss­es I’ve had in my life. I was attempt­ing that poem last year when it became too dif­fi­cult to con­tin­ue the draft. At around that time, I took a poet­ry work­shop called Poet­ry and Inti­ma­cy, which was led by Taneum Bam­brick. One of their prompts was to write about an inti­mate moment between strangers. “Good Men” is the result. It’s based on my actu­al expe­ri­ence of run­ning out of gas while rid­ing my motor­cy­cle in New Jer­sey, and a man who stopped on the side of the road to help. I was also stuck on a sep­a­rate draft of a poem about my dis­as­so­ci­a­tion from the Jehovah’s Wit­ness­es in Decem­ber 2021. All these loss­es merged in my brain, on and off the page. Yet, this poem embod­ies a hope I’d nev­er pre­vi­ous­ly imag­ined for myself, even as I wres­tle between my old and new self, my old and new beliefs.


Sarah Kersey is a poet and x‑ray tech­nol­o­gist who lives right out­side Boston, MA. She has received sup­port from Tin House Work­shop. Their debut chap­book Anacru­sis is forth­com­ing with New­found in 2024. She tweets @sk__poet.



The Best Thing About Poetry Isn’t Poetry

Poetry / David Kirby


:: The Best Thing About Poetry Isn’t Poetry::

When I take my morning walk, I used to wave at every car that came my way, but only half of 
the drivers waved back, so I stopped waving, but the half that did wave became
accustomed to my friendly greeting, and now they wave at me before I can wave at them,
so I don’t know what to do. I do know I wouldn’t be having these problems if Frank O’Hara were my friend. Ashbery said O’Hara “gave you the feeling of belonging to an exclusive club with him, as if you
had hooked into some big, secret continuum of life. Frank had a personal kind of idea
about things, which made you feel you could think independently, too.” And according to Ginsberg, O’Hara’s “feelings for me seemed to vibrate with my feelings for
myself. I think he saw my ideal self-image; he articulated it and made it sound right.” Remember your first set of friends? When you were a kid, you’d go to their houses for dinner and learned not only about different
foods but also different ways of doing things. You learned that capers weren’t fish eyes but flower buds, that garlic was an actual vegetable
and not a hard dry powder. Sometimes you saw grown-ups drink wine for dinner instead of milk or Pepsi, and when they
gave you a sip, you didn’t like it, but you knew you would. Then there was the time you saw Ryan Mattingly’s dad pat Mrs. Mattingly’s butt in the kitchen
and waited for her to scowl at him the way your mom would, but she smiled instead. Some of my best friends ever are the ones I argued with most, such as Ed, Dennis, and Ken, my
grad-school roommates. Grad school had two effects on us: it made us think we were smarter than we were, and it
furnished us with quotes to use like rapiers as we feinted and lunged in our nightly duels,
a favorite being Blake’s “Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau / Mock on, ’tis all in
vain. / You throw the sand against the wind, / And the wind blows it back again.” Somebody, Ed or Dennis, say, would say, “Would somebody explain to me what structuralism is
so I’ll know whether or not I’m a structuralist?” and someone else, maybe Ken or me,
would say, “You’re wasting your time. Just say what you like and why you like it,” and
whoever said the first thing would say “Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau!” and the
talk would go on forever because we weren’t contradicting each other, Blake was. A good quote attributes the animus to someone else, not you. Or it’s like a potholder you use to
pick up the argument when the argument’s too hot to handle. Mainly, though we spent our afternoon sitting on the floor of the library swapping books of
poems and reading aloud to each other in stagey whispers, our backs against the stacks
like harvesters in a painting by Millet taking a break from the soul-numbing grind of
work. Those guys are all married now. Or re-married. And far away. I never see them any more. I see them every day. Isn’t that how friendship works? Thank you, poetry! Thank you for my friends and the friends to come. When you’re young and you tell people you’re going to study art and poetry, they look at you as
though you’re crazy. When you’re older and you tell people you studied art and poetry,
they say, “I wish I’d done that.”

From the writer


:: Account ::

Ever get the feel­ing that your favorite poets are writ­ing the same good poems over and over again? I start­ed think­ing that way about my own work a few years ago, so I tried some new tricks: short­er poems, longer poems, dif­fer­ent for­mats, edgi­er syn­tax. Painters and song­writ­ers rein­vent them­selves all the time, so why not poets? At the same time I decid­ed to stop think­ing in terms of good, bet­ter, best. The thing is to be dif­fer­ent. If that leads to work you or your read­ers like, fine, but if it doesn’t, with­out a doubt these changes will lead you to some­thing new and then to some­thing even new­er, a way of writ­ing you haven’t come close to imag­in­ing. Remem­ber, poet­ry is the long con, and rein­ven­tion means you’ll stay in the game that much longer. I call some of these new poem types “Gins­bergs.” That doesn’t mean that they read like Gins­berg poems, just that that old bear’s spir­it freed me to take chances.


David Kir­by teach­es at Flori­da State Uni­ver­si­ty. He is the author of Lit­tle Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which the Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment described as “a hymn of praise to the eman­ci­pa­to­ry pow­er of non­sense” and which was named one of Booklist’s Top 10 Black His­to­ry Non-Fic­tion Books of 2010. Enter­tain­ment Week­ly has called Kirby’s poet­ry one of “5 Rea­sons to Live.” In 2016, Kir­by received a Life­time Achieve­ment Award from Flori­da Human­i­ties, which called him “a lit­er­ary trea­sure of our state.”





2 Poems

Poetry / Louie Leyson


:: pinay cyborg manifesto ::

I’ve been sick with woman’s want
to become beyond body—closer to chrome

glint & pearl oil than blood, than organ. this is how
I understand perfection after years watching

lola tuck herself beneath shadow, bending
like soft metal in her mistaking of bronze

for burning. my lipsticked titas under willow trees,
a collective absence of bone. each brown, full

limb a bruise refusing to heal, each charcoal
shade a fruitless makeshift cast. august a lesson

in how the injured pinay body has parts too rooted
to the human. when nanay said I wish she was born

whiter she meant wishing I entered this world intact,
born a heap of gleaming silver. & how could I

blame her? after so many motions to smooth the lines
rippling the round lake of her face, drawn from the wisps

of a father’s smoke. we both know the cyborg
is an unholy thing, spared edenic origins & therefore

cannot die. there is nothing she dreams of more
than to reach that point of endless healing, to spend

hours submerged in freezing water but still swim up,
intact. to drive through agate swaths of fire but still

speed out, old toyota charred to nothing, skin painted
ash like dove belly. perhaps there’s already

a cyborg quality to the pinay’s long survival, which
to this point has been bulletproof. I don’t know

titanium sturdy enough to withstand the plain hurt
of centuries, coalescing to meet my nanay like wounds

from ancient lives. pained, we keep peeling tamarind
for sinigang. keep gathering okra, patis, chilli pepper,

taro. isn’t that bionic? isn’t that miraculous?

:: a conversation between two choirs ::

ave, ave, ave maria. i am trying to find the root
of silence, like a voice that carries another voice
inside. mary thy praises we sing to the backs of a hundred
upturned heads. like tulips asleep inside the pillow
of your fist. in heaven the blessed crouch to dirty
dance atop a fruitless garden. a stone that falls in winter
& the intact walls of its crater. erupting from our chests
a bird named alleluia! alleluia! how stones make perfect bowls
out of snow. oh lord you arrive & sorrow goes like sparrow heads
buried in holy bark. is there anything more sharp than below
zero quiet. sun on the blood on the wood of the cross, bright
on bright on bright. is anything born from an absence
of mouths. on the pew i shake like a root in the rain.
from the soundlessness of a dead bug. twelfth Sunday
of ordinary time. mistaking a womb for the cave
of my throat. or was it during lenten season.
entombing the wound of my tongue
when you come. holy spirit i too burn like the wick
of a violent candle. a violet candle lit up & noiseless
in its yearning. yes, yes that’s what i always
meant. amen.

From the writer


:: Account ::

I was tired of want­i­ng word­less­ly. I need­ed some con­text, a tex­ture upon which to con­tem­plate desire, and so I wrote these poems. Desire, then, dic­tates the tone of these poems. Much of it restrained, as queer desire often is. There is so much on earth to long for. I need­ed to put that long­ing down, build it a bed in which to sleep through the night.

In her sem­i­nal essay “A Cyborg Man­i­festo,” Don­na Har­away writes, “Cyborg imagery can sug­gest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bod­ies and our tools to our­selves.” Since first encoun­ter­ing this, I’ve obses­sive­ly fig­ured the cyborg in my own work as a utopi­an shapeshifter, or as a nar­ra­tive machine with which to pro­pel our­selves from the dam­ag­ing mytholo­gies that have been instilled in us since child­hood. In “pinay cyborg man­i­festo” specif­i­cal­ly, I allude to mytholo­gies around what con­sti­tutes an ide­al Fil­ip­ina that have been informed by cen­turies of occu­pa­tion, patri­archy, and vio­lence. “This is a dream not of a com­mon lan­guage,” Har­away also writes, “but of a pow­er­ful infi­del het­eroglos­sia.” It is through the cyborg’s poten­tial towards this “pow­er­ful infi­del het­eroglos­sia” that I find new and lib­er­at­ed modes of pos­si­bil­i­ty, of exist­ing at last as myself in the world.


Louie Leyson is a UBC grad­u­ate and writer who lives on the unced­ed ances­tral ter­ri­to­ry of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Wau­tuth Nations. Their work has been nomi­nat­ed for the Push­cart Prize and Nation­al Mag­a­zine Awards. You can find their works in Cat­a­pult, The Mala­hat Review, Palette Poet­ry, The Rup­ture, Nat. Brut, Pleni­tude, and else­where. Their twit­ter is @aswang­po­em, their insta­gram is @cyborg­saints.



In the Dark Heaven of an Hour

Poetry / Joshua Robbins


:: In the Dark Heaven of an Hour ::

What if we can do no better
                                                   than this: on our own
	      and the only witnesses to the gravel
and weeds we are meant to become,
                                                                  but, for now,

                            listening instead	
for the world to play the infinite
	       song of its last breath
                                                      as space

gathers like the crowd
	       at the edge
                                of police strobes
and caution tape

	       where the mini-mart sign’s buzz-glow
casts the assemblers’ shifting shadows
	       onto hot asphalt

and moon-washed oil slicks
	       uniform in their stillness
after the first good rain in months has receded

	       just as soon as it fell,
                                                       just as the body
of the late-shift cashier inside the store
	       fell out of dream

hearing the entrance bell’s
	       like the declamatory end rhyme
of an unfinished poem

	      penned in his notebook’s margins
before dozing off,
	      as if he knew the night

could not do
                       without us
	      reflected hours later
in the doors’ glass we stared through

	      as though through
                                                  our own sleep
broken by gunshots at the end of our street
lined with oblivious crepe myrtles devoted, in a way I cannot understand, to this world, which no pale god watches tumble through the universe as he rocks on his heels somewhere in the dark heaven of an hour before bed and too late to do anything to stop the thief in the night who pulls his trigger twice and puts one in the gut and one in the chest of the man on the other side of the counter, who might have told us how we are more than fragmented ruins or shards of the ordinary things one gives one’s life to and which were already gone for him that moment he looked up and out and past this world that kills as calmly and deliberately as a perfect final couplet might if we could read it now or after we’ve all had a drink or a smoke on the porch to calm the nerves, we’d say, before morning yields to the traffic’s groans, as we shield our eyes and drive off toward nowhere.

From the writer


:: Account ::

This poem is an ele­gy for a young man work­ing the late-night cashier shift at a neigh­bor­hood con­ve­nience store near our house. He was shot and killed in a rob­bery. Even as I call this poem an ele­gy, I do won­der if I throw the term around too loose­ly here. Per­haps I like to think the con­tem­po­rary ele­gy has tran­scend­ed the stan­dards of the Roman­tics and Vic­to­ri­ans and even the rebel­lious Mod­ernists? Or per­haps even today’s ele­gy can­not escape the trap­pings of the ele­giac tra­di­tion, Freudi­an sub­sti­tu­tion and com­pen­sato­ry return, a lay­ing on of flow­ers, etc. But how to write an ele­gy in this case, in this moment, that does not abstract the sub­ject of the poem for the sake of ampli­fy­ing or illu­mi­nat­ing some so-called “truth” only deliv­er­able by the speak­er or poet? I’ve tried to write an ele­gy that isn’t con­cerned with what’s true or com­fort­ing as much as it is with assim­i­lat­ing grief into the real­i­ty of the moment rather than into solace and under­stand­ing. Shades of Levis here, but the trag­i­cal­ly mur­dered kid, who I did not know, was not put on this earth to be an exam­ple of some­thing else in my ele­gy. And so I am try­ing to put the fact­ness of the kid behind the counter before you, so you won’t mis­take him for any­thing else, this kid need­less­ly dead, because it is only by mak­ing the poem assim­i­late into its real­i­ties of its moment—police tape, rain, pover­ty and vio­lence, sub­ur­bia, reli­gious doubt—that any space to imag­ine his death in the abstract is removed. And then, after­wards, per­haps, it is pos­si­ble to move from the poem to a con­sid­er­a­tion of the socio-polit­i­cal actu­al­i­ties we must resist.


Joshua Rob­bins is the author of Praise Noth­ing (Uni­ver­si­ty of Arkansas Press, 2013), part of the Miller Williams Series in Poet­ry, and Escha­tol­ogy in Cray­on Wax (Texas Review Press, 2024). His recog­ni­tions include, among oth­ers, the James Wright Poet­ry Award, the New South Prize, and a Wal­ter E. Dakin Fel­low­ship in poet­ry from the Sewa­nee Writ­ers’ Con­fer­ence. He teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of the Incar­nate Word and lives in San Antonio.

Counterpoint For Prophetic Voices 

Poetry / CJ Scruton


:: Counterpoint For Prophetic Voices ::

god and satan are not a part
of your body // yet
                                                                                  in most bible stories //
until they agree to invade // test some things out // see what will move you what will pull or break // if I say you’re not there // loudly // eventually it will come to be true // if you floated in a saltbath with headphones and a mask still there would be voices music // would you // listen // tenderness unnests in the body from places // we can point to // endocrine system // brain // cardiovascular response // we call heart ache // the feeling of clenching fistsized // reminder you haven’t taken // breath of real depth // for weeks // listen // to me I’m telling you // there is stone where once there was shade // you were not wrong not // about this // I told you // love is not a dead letter we hold // unreturned // when there’s nowhere // to arrive

From the writer


:: Account ::

A good account traces an arc, a motion, a work’s act of arriv­ing. But after years, I still don’t know what to do with the fact that I don’t have a clear arc in my life for arriv­ing to queer­ness or transness. There are fuzzy sto­ry-mem­o­ries, out-of-sequence images I can recall, but the real­i­ties of my own body and iden­ti­ty often feel almost as if they snuck up on me, a res­cu­ing hand held out in waters I had no idea I was sink­ing in. It’s a sto­ry of bod­ies, a clear one—to me—but a sto­ry that most sto­ries would miss since the words for it tend to make them­selves elusive.

Through the process of tran­si­tion, I’ve increas­ing­ly been drawn in poet­ry to forms that sug­gest gaps, missed trans­la­tions, mean­ings that seem obvious—and per­haps are obvi­ous, by log­ics out­side human language—but that don’t always get to be record­ed clear­ly in writ­ing. That resist this urge to tell the sto­ry per­fect­ly, choos­ing exact­ly the right words.

It’s an exer­cise in trust, in vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty: know­ing that I can’t say the full sto­ry, and know­ing what vio­lence can occur when oth­ers are allowed to write the sto­ry of mar­gin­al­ized people’s bod­ies for them. Know­ing how often peo­ple want to write a nar­ra­tive that’s con­ve­nient for them first and fore­most. But through these poet­ry exper­i­ments, I have also been accept­ing that open­ness and ques­tion­ing is often the only way to escape pre­scribed nar­ra­tives for what our bod­ies can be and do.

It’s an intox­i­cat­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty to try and estab­lish trans rights in clear, “log­i­cal” lan­guage that will make trans­pho­bes under­stand or change their minds. Except that pur­suit doesn’t work. Even when we express our­selves as clear as day, they act as if our bod­ies and sto­ries are blank pages for them to fill in. The pres­sure to assim­i­late, to express truths in a way that will be accept­ed, acceptable, will nev­er actu­al­ly work. The extend­ed hand we reach for here is not a life­line, but a snake, a tensed coil of fangs.

The prob­lem I’m try­ing to parse out, then, is find­ing lan­guage open enough to leave room to explore my own feel­ings and embod­i­ment with­out total­ly suc­cumb­ing to the fear of such vio­lences. And some­times, this requires fac­ing those fears head-on. What if I am the mon­ster, or let myself be? What if I want to know the past and future of my body, but admit this knowl­edge is impos­si­ble? In my poems I’m explor­ing what hap­pens when I lean into the lack of clear, sin­gu­lar nar­ra­tives for queer and trans embod­i­ment but also invite more pos­si­bil­i­ties of being known by myself and oth­ers in community.


CJ Scru­ton is a trans, non-bina­ry poet from the Low­er Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er Val­ley cur­rent­ly liv­ing on the Great Lakes, where they teach and research ghost sto­ries. Their work has pre­vi­ous­ly appeared in Shenan­doah, New South, Quar­ter­ly West, and oth­er jour­nals. Their full-length man­u­script has been a semi­fi­nal­ist for the YesYes Books Pamet Riv­er Prize and a final­ist for the Wil­low Springs Books Emma How­ell Ris­ing Poet Prize.

A Boy Free on Christmas Morning

Fiction / Enit’ayanfe Ayosojumi Akinsanya


:: A Boy Free on Christmas Morning ::

            It was a day in Octo­ber, 2005. And like all days in Octo­ber in a prop­er aca­d­e­m­ic year, the term had just begun, new schemes of work writ­ten in chalk on the boards, old friends recon­nect­ing, and new bonds get­ting fas­tened. Old class­mates embraced and shook hands and clapped backs and shared sto­ries from the hol­i­day. They paused in their high laugh­ter and plo­sives only to dust out their lock­ers, clear the walls of cob­webs and the floors of lit­ter, and copy down the new timetable. It was a glit­ter­ing, unbro­ken air.


            The call had pierced through the stac­ca­to din—behind which he had grate­ful­ly slipped—through the thick­ness of his thoughts, and reached him like an arrow. He whirled around, his heart bad­aboom­ing like drums. It was Christo­pher Ayomikun. Of course, it was Christo­pher Ayomikun. Only Christo­pher Ayomikun barked out his name like that. Only Christo­pher Ayomikun cared enough to see him. He wait­ed in his seat. Christo­pher Ayomikun swag­gered up, one cor­ner of his mouth lift­ed as usu­al in a sneer. Tomi­wa wait­ed, his arm rest­ing on the slight swell of his well-worn duf­fel bag, which slouched almost weight­less­ly into his lock­er. Run­ning to the bus stop every morn­ing and every after­noon with it on his back posed no prob­lems for him. He had so few books.

            “Hey, Tomi­wa.” Christo­pher Ayomikun final­ly stopped by his desk, stand­ing too close for com­fort, stretch­ing out his hand. “How are you?”

            Tomiwa’s eyes slid down to the prof­fered hand. He gaped. It was sur­pris­ing enough that Ayomikun had  called him “Fagstard” as usual—Christopher Ayomikun had an ani­mat­ed imagination—but what was even more aston­ish­ing was Christo­pher Ayomikun offer­ing him—him—a hand­shake.

            “Well, well, well, are you going to shake my hand, or are you going to dis­grace me in front of the whole class?” Ayomikun asked. The nois­es in the class­room had dimin­ished into a steady, sin­gle thrum­ming; peo­ple were already begin­ning to watch. The boy cradling his old bag dared not look around to see, but he felt the hun­gry eyes, as strong­ly as he did each time Christo­pher Ayomikun engaged him inside or out­side the class­room. Christo­pher Ayomikun spoke again, “Come on, pal, this is a new term. Old things are gone. I’ve real­ized how child­ish I have been. Let’s start afresh.”

            His voice had tak­en on a soft­ness; his eyes, too. His sneer was also stretch­ing into a smile that looked sin­cere. And, as if “Tomi­wa” had not been enough, he had called him “pal”. Tomiwa’s mud walls were crum­bling. His heart lift­ed. He took Ayomikun’s hand, care­ful­ly at first, and then more con­fi­dent­ly, his fin­gers curled around Ayomikun’s firm palm. “Good morn­ing,” he mum­bled, feel­ing stu­pid; he wasn’t sure that was what he was sup­posed to say. He felt as in a dream. Some­thing ice-cool and sweet, like glu­cose, was spread­ing inside his chest. He won­dered if he should look around the class and smile tri­umphant­ly at the increduli­ty that must be past­ed on those faces. He stopped won­der­ing and looked around. They were all gaw­ping at the scene: his hand in Ayomikun’s, Ayomikun’s cov­er­ing his in a full firm clasp. A mir­a­cle kin­ship. He felt like scream­ing. He part­ed his lips, not sure what it was he would utter, but just then Christo­pher Ayomikun screeched and, with a vio­lent jerk, flung Tomi­wa’s hand off. It smacked against the desk. He spread out his arms like an actor and addressed the class.

            “See? I told you. Fagstard is not a mon­ster. You can actu­al­ly shake his hand and he will not rape you senseless!”

            Then he burst into gales of laugh­ter; some boys joined in. Tomi­wa rec­og­nized them as the ones who had way­laid him on his way home from school, once, twice, three times, and beat­en him up for walk­ing like a girl. They were like Christo­pher Ayomikun—tall, big, mus­cu­lar, things he was not. Because of them, he now ran instead of walk­ing. Because of them, he had stopped going out to the can­teen dur­ing break, just so they couldn’t see him walk­ing and have cause to beat him again. Not that he had the lux­u­ry of fre­quent­ing the can­teen any­way; his pock­et mon­ey was N20, every day. Includ­ing those days they had Junior WASSCE lessons and closed at 6 pm.

            Christo­pher Ayomikun’s laugh­ter slowed and lowed to spo­radic hic­cups, but the rest of the class—even the twin girls that were vot­ed “Most Qui­et” last term—had tak­en up the mirth and were all dou­bled over. Tomiwa’s heart sank. His palm stung. Sweat broke down his back and tem­ples, despite the sun­less­ness of the morn­ing. Goose pim­ples rose on his skin, as if some­one had splashed water on him and pushed him into a basin filled with raw rice. His eyes welled up.

            This was indeed a new term. He might not sur­vive it. Some­body shook the bell for assem­bly time. The class made for the door, girls and boys press­ing against him, push­ing past him, some scream­ing when they came in con­tact with him, the girls look­ing as if they want­ed to spit, some of the boys hold­ing their hands over their behinds, their eyes dis­tend­ed in mock ter­ror. He tried to slip past them but in his haste, his already squig­gly zip­per ripped open and his rat-eat­en books spilled out to the floor. His class­mates watch­ing from the cor­ri­dor erupt­ed in loud laugh­ter. He sank to the floor, will­ing it to yawn open and take him.

            “Clum­sy homo,” they chant­ed and dart­ed their eyes around in case a teacher or a pre­fect was coming.

            Where he sat on the floor, the boy hugged his split bag to his chest and wept.


*                                      *                                    *


            Tomi­wa was the first of two sons. Born to a gar­den­er in the rus­tic town of Ije­bu-Ode, he learned ear­ly enough to occu­py spaces like a thin shad­ow. His father raked lawns, plant­ed alla­man­da bush­es, trimmed sun-bleached flow­ers for a stingy rich fam­i­ly, and col­lect­ed N4,000 pay at the end of the month. Some­times, the salary would come. Some­times, it would come late. And then there were times it would not come at all. Dur­ing these times, it was hell for Tomi­wa, his lit­tle sick­le-celled broth­er, Eni­tan, and their moth­er. She had a makeshift kiosk in front of a weath­er-beat­en bun­ga­low, where she sold soap and sweets and match­es and cig­a­rettes. There, they had rent­ed a one-room apart­ment, and they owed the can­tan­ker­ous land­lord N15,500.

            Tomi­wa’s father, on those days of no pay, would arrive home in the dead of night and in a sog­gy whiff of alco­hol stench, his shirt front stained with beer vom­it, his face grotesque, his lips loose and his eyes bulging. When Tomiwa’s moth­er con­front­ed him about where he had been and what he had been up to, he beat her up. His stag­ger­ing and sway­ing did not dull his punch­es; they could have smacked holes in any liv­ing body. His words slur­ry, his artic­u­la­tions blur­ry, he would rain curs­es on his wife, his chil­dren, his rich employ­ees and the poor coun­try as a whole. Then he would resume beat­ing his wife, hold her by the neck, yank and tou­sle her hair, and force her down to her knees. Where is my food? No food! Why did­n’t you cook? No mon­ey! Must you wait for me before you cook? You have too many debts? No sales? Unfor­tu­nate woman! Oloribu­ruku obin­rin! Your legs are bad! My life scat­tered the day I mar­ried you! These played out in front of Tomi­wa and his lit­tle broth­er, who always burst into loud cry­ing and so stopped Tomi­wa from cry­ing loud­ly as well, for he would have to hold his broth­er close and con­sole him.

            Then, a Sat­ur­day came. His broth­er had a crisis—the fourth that month—and his moth­er had to rush him to a small, unreg­is­tered clin­ic. Tomi­wa watched her clam­ber onto the pil­lion of an oka­da, his heart pal­pi­tat­ing where he sat wash­ing his over-patched school uni­form beside the house. He had just wrung the soap out of his shorts when his father called him in and told him he would have to drop out of school. Tomi­wa stood and stared, the foam dry­ing on his hands.

            “Baba, what did you say, sir?”

            His father coughed. Tomi­wa noticed the new drawn shade in his eyes, the new­er unsight­ly criss­cross of veins on his fore­head. He had always looked sick, from exces­sive drink­ing and work­ing in the sun, but not this much. Tomi­wa wished things were dif­fer­ent for his father, for them all.

            “E pele, sa,” he said in concern.

            “Do you have owu ele­po in your ears?” his father shot at him. “I said you will have to stop going to school. I don’t have the strength to send you again.”

            The world spun rapid­ly inside Tomi­wa’s head; all of his life gath­ered up in his throat. He propped his wrist against his lips, sur­prised by the sud­den­ness of his own cry­ing. Per­haps it was the way his father had shout­ed it. With­out think­ing, with­out choos­ing to be dra­mat­ic, he sank to his knees and start­ed wring­ing his hands in plea. He thought lit­tle of his actions, of what his father would see. All he knew was that he was plead­ing to be allowed to con­tin­ue in school.

            His father sneered at him, a cold sneer that froze Tomi­wa in his move­ments. His father’s blood­shot eyes ran up and down him, until he thought he was about to spit on him.

            “How did I end up with a son like you sef?” his father said, and start­ed hack­ing again. His cough­ing shook his body.

            “E pele, sa.

            “Kneel­ing and mov­ing your hands like a girl.” He spat the phlegm in Tomi­wa’s direc­tion. Anoth­er fit seized his wil­lowy frame.

            Tomi­wa scram­bled up to get him some water.

            “Stop there, my friend!” his father barked. “Where you think say you dey go?”

            “Nowhere, sir.” Tomi­wa shiv­ered, stuck, con­fused, afraid to use his hands lest he did some­thing to fur­ther enrage his father.

            “My ears are full. I hear how you laugh like an idiot when those home­less boys on our street touch your body. I am warn­ing you. No child of mine will bring abom­i­na­tion into this house. E bet­ter make I kill that son with my bare hands than let him see that day.” He launched into anoth­er raspy paroxysm.

            Tears bloomed into Tomiwa’s eyes again, but he fought it. He had to kill vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. Boys didn’t cry, his father once said. “E pele, sa,” he said again. This time, he felt the sym­pa­thy for his father more keen­ly. He moved uncer­tain­ly towards him, his hand stretched.

            “Get out of my sight!” his father blared, eyes flashing.

            Tomi­wa ran out, his eyes sting­ing, and for a while he couldn’t see his white vest as he washed it.

            His father left work and took ful­ly to drink­ing and owing a pile of mon­ey at the local bar in town. Often, in the mid­dle of the day, furi­ous ser­vice girls would drag him home and demand pay­ment from Tomi­wa’s moth­er. There were after­noons Tomi­wa and his moth­er found him crum­pled in the gut­ter, bab­bling old hymns. How his moth­er stood alone and Eni­tan did not die of his crises, and how Tomi­wa did not drop out of school, Tomi­wa could not say. But he wished he had dropped out anyway.


*                                      *                                    *


            Drop­ping out dan­gled in his mind—a fresh offer at escape—that day in Octo­ber. The day he prayed the floor of his class­room should open and gulp him in. The same day Abdul came into his life. Abdul was a youth ser­vice corps mem­ber new­ly post­ed to the com­mu­ni­ty school. Tall, firm-jawed Abdul, with a wide fore­head and wider shoul­ders and a lit­tle stut­ter that made the stu­dents find his every word even more pre­cious. When he stepped into their class that morn­ing, after the first three teach­ers had taught and left, he told them he came to teach Math­e­mat­ics and Math­e­mat­ics only.

            “I can solve all prob­lems. Care­ful—all arith­meti­cal prob­lems. Don’t bring your life’s prob­lems to me. Don’t bring your boyfriend-and-girl­friend issues to me.”

            A rip­ple went through the class.

            “Those ones are prob­lems I can’t solve. I have those prob­lems, too, you hear?  So make every­one go solve their prob­lems on their own, abeg. Gov­ern­ment no dey pay me allowee for that one.”

            The class burst into laugh­ter. Except Tomi­wa, who was still mop­ing over his ruined school bag. Abdul smiled and turned to the board.

            After school, a school pre­fect accost­ed Tomi­wa and told him Abdul want­ed to see him in the staff room. Stiffly, his mind blank, he made for the detached build­ing. Abdul sat, a Pace­set­ters nov­el held open with his thumb, and asked Tomi­wa his name. “And also tell me why you were look­ing moody dur­ing his class in the morning.”

            Tomi­wa part­ed his lips to speak, but it was tears, not words, that broke free. It annoyed him, that he was cry­ing before this stranger-teacher in tight white vest and green kha­ki pants. It was like a scene from all those TV melo­dra­mas his class­mates always chirped about dur­ing Free Peri­od. He pressed his hands to his face. He felt like scream­ing at him: Leave me alone!

            “Noth­ing, sir,” he mum­bled. “My head was aching. My name is Tomi­wa Arogundade.”

            The cor­p­er gawped.

            Lat­er, as Tomi­wa walked home through the bush­es flank­ing a lone­ly path, Christo­pher Ayomikun and his boys leaped out at him, their check­ered shirts undone and tied around their waists to reveal off-white sin­glets, long lithe canes swish­ing to and fro in their hands. Tomi­wa stag­gered back­ward. They had nev­er brought canes before. He wished he knew any oth­er route home, but this was the only lane. The boys sur­round­ed him, leer­ing and sneer­ing and whistling. He thought of his moth­er pray­ing into the night on her knees, reel­ing out psalms after psalms for divine pro­tec­tion from evil and its doers. Tomi­wa had man­aged to mem­o­rize only Psalm 23 com­plete­ly. He reached for it now like a tal­is­man. He mut­tered it earnestly.

            Christo­pher Ayomikun detached him­self from the cir­cle and neared Tomi­wa with his cock­sure swag­ger. Tomi­wa stared. He should run. These were peo­ple with height­ened preda­to­ry skills. These were peo­ple who grew up watch­ing too many Amer­i­can and Chi­nese films. The silence, punc­tu­at­ed by the twit­ter­ing of bush birds, stretched on for too long. They lolled the canes in their hands and peered at him thin­ly, like lizards. Tomiwa’s heart start­ed throb­bing again, and when Christo­pher final­ly spoke, it was like some­one splashed a buck­et of ice cubes down his shoulders.

            “Hey, Fagstard, how about we get your dis­gust­ing rosy ass pro-per-ly whipped?”

            Tomi­wa held onto his loose bag. “Please. E jo. I don’t want any more trou­ble. Let me just go home.”

            “Hey, hey!” Christo­pher Ayomikun threw his hands about in that the­atri­cal way com­mon with pul­pit clowns. “The sis­sy pleads!” He made a face and aped Tomiwa’s words.

            “Come on, Chief CA!” one of the oth­er boys screeched. “Why we dey waste time?” Some­body fit come and inter­rupt na. Make we naked this girlie and see wetin him been dey cover!”

            Tomi­wa went numb.

            “Well, well, well,” Christo­pher Ayomikun starred his role again, hands on hips, “you are about to regret ever being born into this world, you abom­i­na­tion.” He revolved on his heels. “He’s all yours!”

            They yelled in uni­son, their canes raised high, and raced toward Tomi­wa, who stood trans­fixed in the mid­dle of the path. It was over. It was beyond him what atroc­i­ty it was they were going to do to him this time. He closed his eyes, like when the lights of the world go out, slumped to the ground, and wait­ed for the onslaught.

            He could not see any­thing, but he heard a sud­den silence. Some­one had bound­ed into the road. They all stiff­ened in their tracks. The fig­ure approached steadi­ly, unflinch­ing­ly. A tall broad fig­ure. White vest. Green pants. A green cap.

            “It’s Cor­p­er Abdul!” some­one screamed.

            Tomiwa’s ear­lobes thud­ded with feet. They all melt­ed into the bush, leav­ing behind their weapons and a few san­dals. Tomi­wa opened his eyes and looked hard through the wink­ing green of his vision. It was Cor­p­er Abdul. The man pulled him up. Tomi­wa glanced up through the trees to send his thanks to what­ev­er god was there. He watched his sav­ior van­ish in a blur of white and green, and he didn’t know what next to feel, to do.


*                                      *                                    *


            Abdul gave chase, briefly. He caught none of the boys. They had moved through the for­est like light­ning through slip­pery clouds.



*                                      *                                    *


            “Are you hurt?”

            Tomi­wa shook his head no.

            “Are you not that boy in JSS3 A?”

            Tomi­wa nod­ded, feel­ing self-pity­ing­ly young and helpless.

            “Where do you live?”

            “Just before the busy road.” He point­ed vague­ly. The numb­ness was begin­ning to clear.

            “Hmm. The Cor­pers’ Lodge is not too far from there. Let’s walk together.”

            He nod­ded, his tongue glu­ing itself back to the roof of his mouth.

            They start­ed walk­ing; their foot­falls crunched the crisp Octo­ber-dried leaves under­foot and echoed in the trees. The silence grew too loud.

            “Hey, broth­er, I don’t know you much.”

            The man sound­ed a lit­tle force­ful, as if he had rum­maged and rum­maged around in his brain to find the least embar­rass­ing way to con­tin­ue the con­ver­sa­tion, and so wouldn’t con­done anoth­er list­less response. Per­haps it was his bari­tone. Per­haps it was his broad shoul­ders. Per­haps it was his clear open face, which gave the sen­sa­tion of star­ing into a cloud­less sky. Or per­haps it was sim­ply that the man had called him “broth­er”, but Tomi­wa sud­den­ly found his tongue uncling­ing from the roof of his mouth, like a weight in flight.

            “I real­ly don’t know much about you either, sir,” he said.

            Abdul smiled, appar­ent­ly encouraged.

            “I fin­ished from Obafe­mi Awolowo Uni­ver­si­ty. Depart­ment of Math­e­mat­ics. I am Yoru­ba, from Lagos, and serv­ing in a Yoru­ba town. I am one of the luck­i­est, I guess.”

            Tomi­wa gig­gled, a lit­tle amused, a lit­tle stunned by himself.

            “Okay, sir.”

            A bird cried.

            “So…when did all this rub­bish start?”

            Tomi­wa watched a lone lizard slith­er through a clump of bit­ter leaves. “Since I came into the school, sir. Three years ago.”

            “Ya Allah!

            Tomi­wa smiled, wry­ly amused, think­ing of what his moth­er was most like­ly to say if he ever told her about this part of the con­ver­sa­tion: she would snap her fin­gers and quote “do not be unequal­ly yoked with unbe­liev­ers”. His moth­er, he had often guilti­ly thought, was an incu­ri­ous, unin­tel­li­gent, faith­less worshipper.

            “But why did­n’t you report them to the school authorities?”

            “I did, sir. I did. The vice-prin­ci­pal him­self has pun­ished them over this issue. But they way­laid me again and beat the day­lights out of me and swore to kill me if I report­ed them again.”

            Abdul stopped. “And you believed them?”

            Tomi­wa nod­ded, his eyes heavy and shadowed.

            “This is unac­cept­able!” Abdul bawled. Then he caught him­self, as if he would have said more. He inhaled deeply. “Your parents—what about them?”

            Tomi­wa thought about his father’s beer-dark face, his moth­er’s blank exhaust­ed stare and his broth­er’s pained breath­less look.

            “I…um…couldn’t approach them. I did­n’t want them involved.”

            “To your own detriment?”

            For a while, Tomi­wa thought Abdul was going to slap him. He had raised his voice and a new ener­gy had entered him. But he only walked on, his face turned away.

            “I over­heard one of those imps call­ing you some­thing,” Abdul said. “I could­n’t hear it clear­ly. What was it?”

            A new, heavy silence fell.

            “They…call…me…Fagstard.” Tomi­wa’s voice trembled.

            “Fag-what?” Abdul’s face crum­pled into lines of utter confusion.

            “Fagstard, sir.”

            Abdul scratched his head. “Well, my broth­er, help your big broth­er out o. ‘Fang’ I know. ‘Cus­tard’ I know. But which one is ‘Fagstard’? They did not teach us this in school o.”

            Tomi­wa smiled sad­ly, touched by Abdul’s dis­cre­tion, his delib­er­ate avoid­ance of words that hurt like knives, but he also wished Abdul had hurled those words anyway.

            “Sir, I use the dic­tio­nary a lot. I am sure Ayomikun formed the word out of a join­ing of the words ‘fag’ and ‘bas­tard’.”

            A shad­ow fell between Abdul’s thick eye­brows. “No, Tomi­wa. You can’t be so sure about that.”

            Tomi­wa took a deep calm­ing breath before he spoke. “It’s okay, sir. I know what I saw in the dic­tio­nary, and I also know what I saw in Christo­pher Ayomikun’s eyes each time he called me by the name.”

            “Well, that’s not your name. It is foul. Christo­pher has to know that. You don’t deserve it. No one deserves to be called such non­sense.” Abdul kicked at a stone; his feet moved more quick­ly. He seemed to be gulp­ing air. After a while, he spoke again. “At least you know what they call you. Some of us, we don’t know the name of what we are. Even Ayomikun does not know yet what he is. The day he finds out, he will see that he is some­thing much worse than he could ever imagine.”

            Tomi­wa tugged at a tall stalk over­hang­ing the path. He won­dered what Abdul meant by that. He want­ed to ask for elab­o­ra­tion but Abdul was still speaking.

            “Back then on cam­pus, we had this room­mate. A fun­ny, gen­er­ous chap like that. He walked sway­ing his hips. He had a high-pitched voice and if you were not care­ful while lis­ten­ing to him from a dis­tance, you would con­clude it was a girl speak­ing. He hard­ly ever spoke with­out twirling his fin­gers and mak­ing dra­mat­ic faces. We called him ‘Mr. Pep­per’. He would cook and all of us would eat even more por­tions than he, the own­er of the food, would eat. He always left his cup­board open. You could pick any food item you want­ed from it. He always smiled and made us laugh by exag­ger­at­ing his walk. He said the only rea­son he did that to cre­ate laugh­ter was because we didn’t see him as mere enter­tain­ment. There was a time like that when peo­ple tried to talk him down because of his girli­ness. See eh. We all rose to defend him o. Very bril­liant boy. Grad­u­at­ed with a first-class. And he was a musi­cian, too. Would play this love­ly black gui­tar on rainy nights.”

            “Wow,” Tomi­wa said, gen­uine­ly wowed. Hear­ing about some­body that was almost exact­ly like him felt like redemp­tion itself.

            “Yes. Wow.”

            But Tomi­wa won­dered, “Cor­p­er Abdul.”


            “Would you have defend­ed him like that if he had been stingy, dumb and unfriendly?”

            Abdul cocked his head side­ways and scratched it again. Then he con­fessed, “I’m not sure oth­ers would have defend­ed him. They were like, ‘Who will now cook for us?’ But I would. I know would. I just liked him. No reason.”

            Tomi­wa plunged into ques­tions. “So how did he end up? Was he your set? Where was he post­ed to?”

            Abdul smiled, and Tomi­wa thought he saw a hint of sad­ness in the smile.

            “What, sir?” he asked.

            “Ismail is dead.”

            Tomi­wa stopped walk­ing. Abdul also stopped walk­ing. The trees sighed.

            “How… How did he die?” Get­ting those words out was like self-torturing.

            “There are some things that can’t be explained to you now.” Abdul spoke briskly. He looked rue­ful, as if he thought he had said way too much.

            Tomi­wa gazed at the foot­path. “Did he die because he was like me?”

            Abdul slipped into silence, a long, long silence. Final­ly, he said, “You are not ripe to know some things, my dear. But one day, I promise, you will know.”

            He looked like he want­ed to add some­thing, but they had got to the busy road, mar­ket and vehic­u­lar nois­es spoil­ing the air. And Tomi­wa thought about all the times he had tried to drink up his mother’s kerosene or chew up her bar soaps, and how on each attempt his lit­tle brother’s face had flashed into his mind, thin and sal­low, and he won­dered just how much was left to know. Abdul wait­ed and watched him cross to the oth­er side and dis­ap­pear into a corner.


*                                      *                                    *


            After that after­noon, Christo­pher Ayomikun and his boys were locked into inter­minable coun­sel­ing ses­sions with Abdul in the staff room, after school, repeat­ed­ly, and they no longer ambushed Tomi­wa on the path home­ward, nor harassed him as fierce­ly as before in school. After that after­noon, Abdul start­ed send­ing him a flask of food every lunch break and, after clos­ing, they walked the lone­ly path togeth­er and talked freely about all of Abdul’s past girl­friends and the cur­rent one who was in her final year at the Ogun State Uni­ver­si­ty and who vis­it­ed Ije­bu-Ode twice in a fort­night. But it was this first after­noon, this first walk, this first con­ver­sa­tion, this day in Octo­ber, that Tomi­wa would always remem­ber. The moment Abdul, a young man with no illic­it inten­tions, held him by the hand and picked him up from the dust. He won­dered what Abdul had seen. Abdul had cer­tain­ly not seen just a boy who liked boys. He had not seen just a boy being bul­lied and who need­ed his help. He had not seen just a help­less boy. Abdul had seen a broth­er. A full human.

            And from that episode, Tomi­wa was strength­ened. Ele­vat­ed. Human­ized and for­ti­fied. One day, it slipped out of his mouth, that famous­ly await­ed ques­tion of: “Where do you live in Lagos, sir?” And Abdul had hur­ried­ly told him where, his lips stop­ping soon­er than the words had come out, as if it had slipped out of him, too.

            Months lat­er, as the year wound down into Decem­ber and the har­mat­tan descend­ed in all its cold and dry­ness, Tomi­wa would still remem­ber that day in Octo­ber. He would see girls rub­bing an extra sheen of gloss on their lips and think of the first time he had rubbed on lip­stick. It was his mother’s. A pur­ple shade. And it was, like this, Christ­mas­time. His moth­er had seen it on him, and he had won­dered what she was going to do to him. But she had mere­ly laughed and asked him not to use that shade of lip­stick any­more because it didn’t suit his skin col­or. He had been sur­prised, but his sur­prise had been faint and fibre­less; his moth­er had always regard­ed his dif­fer­ence with the calm­ness of a wise silence. She had nev­er judged him, nev­er react­ed to his authen­tic being with the hor­ror of oth­er peo­ple. He would take this mem­o­ry, this lack of hor­ror, and with it go and vis­it Abdul in his home in Lagos to spend Christ­mas. Abdul, shocked to see him, would ask him—How!—and Tomi­wa would laugh a bel­ly laugh and slump against him in the weak­ness of that laugh­ter and tell him that he had lied to his par­ents and broth­er that he want­ed to spend Christ­mas with his mater­nal aunt in Lagos, a staunch Deep­er Lif­er who detest­ed phones and com­mu­ni­cat­ed only by let­ters. And Abdul would laugh deeply, shoul­ders shak­ing, and smack the boy’s head and call him, “Omo kata”—mis­chie­vous child—and wel­come him “into my hum­ble abode”. Tomi­wa would look around the siz­able room, the walls bare of pho­tographs, the air full of a dis­tinct­ly sin­gle scent, and would won­der about ask­ing whether Abdul lived alone and his girl­friend now vis­it­ed him often, whether she lived in Lagos as well. Then he would look at Abdul in his sin­glet, his broad chest taper­ing down to a small, dim­pled waist, his mus­cles step­ping out more obvi­ous­ly than they did in his NYSC shirt, and decide not to ask any­thing at all.

            Abdul would cook spaghet­ti and fried eggs, which Tomi­wa would find delight­ful­ly deli­cious, and they would sit on the mat­tress and eat it togeth­er. Over the meal, while the street chil­dren fired their bangers past the open win­dow, they would remem­ber Christo­pher Ayomikun and the rest of the class, and cack­le away into the night. After many hours of talk­ing and laugh­ing and yawn­ing, while in bed with him, Tomi­wa would think of sleep­ing and fac­ing him. He would imag­ine Abdul breath­ing into his face. He would shut his eyes and savor the sen­sa­tion. After a while, he would open them and lie in the oppo­site direc­tion of the bed, so that his face nes­tled close to Abdul’s warm feet. Abdul’s feet were always warm. Abdul would stir awake, look at him and give a faint smile of reas­sur­ance. In that smile was You are safe with me.Tomi­wa would mar­vel, once again, at this unshift­ing open­ness. He would wrap an arm grate­ful­ly around Abdul’s right foot and hold it close to his cheek.

            And sleep hap­pi­ly into Christ­mas morning.

From the writer


:: Account ::

HISTORY: There is homo­pho­bia in Nige­ria and there are severe cas­es of queer people—especially the young—getting bul­lied, dis­pos­sessed and, in extreme sit­u­a­tions, killed. It is crim­i­nal to be homo­sex­u­al or bisex­u­al in Nige­ria. Most queer peo­ple can­not come out to their loved ones as who they real­ly are. And it is hard­er for chil­dren whose sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion is already assumed because of how they present, for instance, effem­i­na­cy. Such kids are often lone­ly and mis­un­der­stood, and it takes only a mir­a­cle to find a friend out there.

SKETCH: I drew out this sto­ry around a sit­u­a­tion I had in ear­ly sec­ondary school (or what is called “high school”). I was bul­lied by school­mates who thought my effem­i­na­cy was an excuse for them to ridicule and malign me. To fur­ther sat­i­rize homo­pho­bic slurs and attacks, I thick­ened the main char­ac­ter with oth­er nuances going on in his life that con­tribute to his dis­il­lu­sion­ment in human kind­ness. I delib­er­ate­ly sketched it around a rare friend­ship curve, an avun­cu­lar guid­ance that is high­ly con­tro­ver­sial espe­cial­ly in a world still uncom­fort­able with, and igno­rant about, homo­sex­u­al­i­ty. But the old­er man in this sto­ry is straight and not abu­sive; I only want­ed to show the grit­ti­ness of an asex­u­al pup­py crush.

MARKER: I set the sto­ry in Nige­ria, where homo­pho­bia and the bul­ly­ing of effem­i­nate men still rage on. But it is such a uni­ver­sal­ly rel­e­vant con­flict that I have had most of my for­eign beta read­ers say they could relate to every emo­tion. I set it in the years pre­ced­ing the pass­ing of the anti-gay law by the Niger­ian gov­er­ment (mean­ing the years before 2014). I did this to min­i­mize the exces­sive hor­ror val­ue of the sto­ry. I wrote the sto­ry using a third-per­son point of view, osten­si­bly to make the read­er watch with a safe detach­ment but actu­al­ly to mag­ni­fy the sheer hor­ror of bul­ly­ing and lone­li­ness. The only  grave trig­gers in the sto­ry are homo­pho­bic slurs used by the antag­o­nists. The rest is a beau­ti­ful sto­ry of friend­ship and redemp­tion. I did my best to use plain Eng­lish throughout.

REPOSITORY OF INFLUENCES: I did not use exten­sive mate­ri­als for research for this sto­ry. All I had to do was take a look into my own ear­ly teenage, the strug­gles as an effem­i­nate Niger­ian child, my expe­ri­ences. The sto­ry is also heav­i­ly influ­enced by my deep, eager hunger to see some jus­tice hap­pen to the lone­ly, bruised queer child out there. I hope the sto­ry gives some kind of light to some­one out there.


Enit’ayanfe Ayoso­ju­mi Akin­sanya was born and raised in Nige­ria. He is the first-place win­ner of the 2022 Arts Lounge Inter­con­ti­nen­tal Lit­er­ary Award for Non-fic­tion, first-place win­ner of the 2022 inter­na­tion­al Itanile Sto­ry Award, a major final­ist for the 2018 Nation­al GTB Dusty Man­u­script New Nov­el­ist Award, and a top final­ist for the 2023 Afriton­doShort Sto­ry Prize. He is twen­ty-eight years old and the author of “How to Catch a Sto­ry That Does­n’t Exist”, a col­lec­tion of queer sto­ries pub­lished in 2022. He lives in Nige­ria. He tweets at @OsumareAy­o­mi.

Houses in the Sky

Fiction / Nicola Koh


:: Houses in the Sky ::

Okay, sure, fourteen’s a bit old to be build­ing tree­hous­es. But a) I’d nev­er had one and Sal­ly Long said I’d been deprived, and b) this wasn’t going to be just a few rot­ting planks nailed to a branch, this was going to be the best god­damn tree­house east of the Mis­sis­sip­pi. After all, our par­ents were archi­tects at the best firm in Min­neso­ta, and we researched for months, trad­ing design ideas and learn­ing to sketch.

            It was code­named Oper­a­tion House in the Sky and kept strict­ly clas­si­fied. It was going to take a lot to con­vince said par­ents; specif­i­cal­ly, my mother.

            The Mater­nal­ly Ori­ent­ed Parental Unit came from Malaysia, a coun­try where kids appar­ent­ly had no rights. There were zero dis­cus­sion about eight pm cur­fews, the two hours a week allot­ted for video games (pend­ing good behav­ior), or the list of chores which could have tak­en a whole toi­let paper role. We got top grades and won awards, or else. Any sniff of dis­si­dence result­ed in hours-long lec­tures on ingrat­i­tude, self­ish­ness, and my-house-my-rules.

            When I’d point out my moth­er nev­er pushed her sub­or­di­nates half this hard, she’d say, “With them, there’s too much to fix. You’re like a pot with only a few cracks, so of course I want to fix the ones that are there.

Sal­ly thought the best time for me to bring up H.I.T.S was around my birth­day in late July, when she’d be more amenable to requests. I said she’d just think it imper­ti­nent to ask a favor on the anniver­sary of the twen­ty-three hours it took to pop me out. It turned out to be moot either way when ear­ly in the month, the moth­er yelled at me and my broth­er to come to the liv­ing room. We assem­bled, exchang­ing the uni­ver­sal look for what the hell did you do this time.

            My moth­er hat­ed that liv­ing room: trape­zoid with a ten-inch depres­sion that pro­vid­ed less sep­a­ra­tion than a place to trip and a faux-mar­ble fire­place with Gre­co columns designed pre­sum­ably by some­one who’d only watched Disney’s Her­cules. When she sum­moned me and my broth­er there, it was almost cer­tain­ly sit­u­a­tion critical.

            “You two are los­ing touch with your roots.”


            “We’re tak­ing a trip back to Malaysia.”

            Shit, shit, shit.

            The H.I.T.S timetable was offi­cial­ly in tat­ters. For that mat­ter, so was sum­mer. Hell, my life might be at risk—no exag­ger­a­tion. I’ve been chased by packs of mon­keys, twice, and the last vis­it I’d spent three days in the hos­pi­tal with food poi­son­ing where the nurs­es poked me five times look­ing for a vein. We were also warned to be care­ful to wear our bags away from the street because peo­ple on motor­cy­cles might snatch it while you were walking.

            Even sans out­right tragedy, the prog­no­sis was grim. Flights so long we’d be at gen­uine risk of deep vein throm­bo­sis. Days of shit­ty-long jet­lag, the first in the mid­dle of an eight-hour-min­i­mum wel­come by the fam­i­ly (which for Eurasians means cousins, aunts, uncles, sec­ond cousins, and some­times den­tists), where we’ll be con­stant­ly told we look tired and should get some rest, but won’t actu­al­ly be allowed to, and receive the mul­ti­ple ver­dicts on whether we need­ed to eat more or less. Then it’s sweat­ing non­stop for weeks while eat­ing gameshow-weird food and vis­it­ing one site after anoth­er full of great cul­tur­al rel­e­vance and noth­ing actu­al­ly inter­est­ing. Not to men­tion at least ten giant fam­i­ly din­ners and the days-long marathon of goodbyes.

            But Sally’s voice float­ed into my head. Lose the bat­tle, win the war. She’d said that when the moth­er vetoed an Ari­ana Grande con­cert in May and again when I was for­bid­den from pierc­ing my ears. It was attrib­uted to Sun Tzu the first time and Aris­to­tle the sec­ond, but it was almost cer­tain­ly from a meme. It did make sense, though, not that I’d tell her. So I just nod­ded and asked when we were going and what I should pack. My father and broth­er may have stared like I’d gone cer­ti­fi­able, but my mother’s lips curled ever so slight­ly in surprise.

            Three cul­tur­al-hori­zons-broad­en­ing expe­di­tions in, how­ev­er, I was start­ing to won­der if the war was real­ly worth it. By the fifth, I was ready to dump Sal­ly in one of the many mud­dy rivers, prefer­ably one espe­cial­ly full of snakes and eels.

            The trip in ques­tion was a vis­it to my mother’s child­hood home in some rail­road vil­lage a thou­sand miles from moder­ni­ty. Every­thing smelled like mud and cow dung and was sur­round­ed by sprawl­ing bush­es and trees with leaves so green they shone. My moth­er didn’t know who was liv­ing there in her old house, so we just walked around it. It was bare­ly more than a hut raised on con­crete stilts in a dirt clearing.

            “Don’t get too close, cobras like to nest under these hous­es,” she said, like it was a per­fect­ly nor­mal thing to say.

            There were two bed­rooms, a liv­ing room, and a kitchen, with a table out back on a slab of con­crete serv­ing as a din­ing room, shel­tered by walls and a roof made of rust­ing tin sheet. My moth­er often told us how my grand­moth­er favoured my uncle. She’d make her and my aun­ty mop while he sat and read the news­pa­per, only mov­ing to raise his legs for them to get under him. She espe­cial­ly brought this up when we com­plained about our hours-long sets of chores. She’d nev­er men­tioned how lit­tle there was to mop.

            “How come the gov­ern­ment didn’t let Grandad have a bet­ter house?” my broth­er asked.

            My moth­er shrugged. “He was just a rail­road con­duc­tor. They didn’t get paid much. He would fight with Grand­ma a lot because she was care­less with the money.”

            In a house that small, where did you hide from yelling?

            “Can we go?” I asked.

            “Look at those vents,” my moth­er said, point­ing to slits about three-quar­ters of the way up the house. “Such a sim­ple and effi­cient way to keep a house cool.”

            My moth­er loved shit like that. She paid her way through col­lege and then got a full ride to Cor­nell for her Mas­ters in Archi­tec­ture. After my father joined her in Min­neso­ta, peo­ple often asked him how he could leave his home and fam­i­ly to be with a new wife.

            He’d say, “Have you met her?” My mother’s will is tsunamic.

            It was hours before we final­ly got back to my aunty’s house in Kuala Lumpur. I flopped on the bed, got out my iPad, and Face­timed Sal­ly. “How’s civilization?”

            Sal­ly snort­ed. “It’s not like you’re liv­ing in the jungle.”

            “It’s prob­a­bly less swel­ter­ing in the jun­gle,” I said, jab­bing at the tem­per­a­ture but­ton for the A.C. “My par­ents tried to make me eat chick­en feet.”

            “Ew,” Sal­ly said.

            “They already made me eat the fish head curry.”

            “Fish head??”

            “It was huge, too. I tried to make it talk, but my moth­er told me not to ‘act the child’.”

            “You should have tak­en a picture.”

            I snort­ed. “With what? They gave me a flip phone to use.”

            “Oh, gross. That’s worse than chick­en feet.” Sal­ly sighed. “Still, I wish I was some­where cool like Malaysia.”

            “Trust me, cool it is not,” I said. “In any sense.”

            The moth­er start­ed yelling from downstairs.

            “More famil­ial oblig­a­tions?” Sal­ly asked.

            I shrugged. “Probs screwed up the homework.”

            “Home­work?” Sal­ly said. “Gab­by. You’re. On. Vacation.”

            “Tell that to Drill Sargeant Chili Padi,” I said. “We’re writ­ing reports on Malaysian life.”

            “Good lordy, have fun with that,” Sal­ly said. “And keep but­ter­ing up your mother.”

            “I still say we just plant a tree in your yard. It’ll be faster.”

            The mother’s yells were grow­ing loud­er and decid­ed­ly less patient.

            “Get out of here,” Sal­ly said and hung up.

            Turned out the Por­tuguese col­o­nized Mela­ka not Penang; Malaysia’s inde­pen­dence date was 1957, not some long-ass time ago; and the Dutch and British East India com­pa­nies did not trade ter­ri­to­ries like Poké­mon.

            “Even your gram­mar is atro­cious,” my moth­er said, whip­ping out one of the dozens of red pens she seemed to have sequestered in every bag, pock­et, prob­a­bly the lin­ings of her clothes. After ten min­utes, the pages were more red than black.

            “You might as well rewrite it,” I noted.

            “I’m not doing your work for you.”

            “You did that audi­to­ri­um project.”

            Last Spring our class had tak­en part in a city­wide con­test to design a mod­el auditorium.

            “You know all the par­ents did it,” she mut­tered. “Espe­cial­ly Mr. Long.”

            The last, at least, was true.

            After anoth­er five min­utes, I said, “Can we go to 1‑Utama again?”

            “We didn’t come here to go to malls.”

            “Did you know it’s twice the size of the Mall of America?”

            “You looked that up, but you can’t spell Tereng­ganu properly.”


            “No means no.”

            Sal­ly nev­er had this prob­lem. When I wasn’t allowed to watch Hunger Games until my moth­er vet­ted it, Sal­ly told me dri­ly that Mr. Long wouldn’t have cared if she’d watched Saw. When I was ground­ed for get­ting a B‑plus on midterms, she informed me air­i­ly she got thir­ty dol­lars for an A and twen­ty for a B.

            “Do you get twen­ty-five for an A‑minus?” I asked.

            She sniffed. “Dad­dy says minus­es are just what teach­ers use to annoy their students.”

            When I final­ly returned State­side, Sal­ly and I went to the Coney’s Cones road­side shack to get ice-cream.

            “You have no idea how good this tastes,” I said.

            “It’s just a reg­u­lar old twist.”

            “Malaysian ice-cream sucks,” I said. “Their cows must be deficient.”

            “Aren’t Asians lac­tose intol­er­ant?” Sal­ly said. “Maybe that’s why you fart up a storm every time we come here.”

            “I do not.”

            “It’s the worst.”

            I shoved her almost off the rail­ing, but she stead­ied her­self and stuck out a straw­ber­ry cov­ered tongue.

            “Also, how are you not the slight­est bit dark­er?” she said.

            “The moth­er made us wear buck­ets of sun tan lotion.”

            “One day on the lake, and I still got burnt,” she said, turn­ing her back to show me.

            I traced the burn. “Ouch.”

            “Also, we’re in trou­ble,” Sal­ly said after a moment, strange­ly breathily.


            “Our audi­to­ri­ums made the finals.”

            The burn was the shape of a bird, I decid­ed. It tin­gled on the sticky tips of my fin­gers as if it were electric.

            “So what do we do when our par­ents find out we chucked theirs?” Sal­ly said eventually.

            I shrugged. “Ours were better.”

            Sal­ly gig­gled. “Daddy’s was sooo bor­ing. How is he even a real architect?”

            “The big­ger thing to wor­ry about is H.I.T.S.”

            “You’ve got to talk to your mom. Today.”

            “Dude, I just got back.”

            “To. Day.” Sal­ly turned around and wiped my cheek. “You’re such a slob.”

            She jumped down from the rail­ing. At the traf­fic light, she turned to salute me. When she dis­ap­peared around the cor­ner, I touched the place where she’d smeared ice-cream on my cheek.

            At nine-thir­ty, I found my moth­er fold­ing clothes in the kitchen. “Hey, Ma?”

            “What?” my moth­er said, not look­ing up.

            “Can Sal­ly and I build a tree­house in the oak?”

            She stared at me. “Are you mon­keys? Decent peo­ple live on the ground.”

            “It’s basi­cal­ly a req­ui­site for a sub­ur­ban Amer­i­can childhood.”

            “If Amer­i­cans walked on their hands, would you do it too?”

            I chose not to point out that I was, de fac­to, Amer­i­can. “We’d make it real­ly cool.”

            She huffed. “Every­thing with the Amer­i­cans is cool this, cool that.”

            “I mean sophis­ti­cat­ed,” I said. “Like a mod­el house. All our own design.”

            My moth­er paused with a t‑shirt in her hand. For all the ser­mons on grat­i­tude, I knew she hat­ed our house. The lay­out wast­ed space, it couldn’t hold heat for shit, the walls were paper thin, and the exte­ri­or was a 50s cook­ie cut­ter sub­ur­ban style that was out­dat­ed before the hous­es were fin­ished. And the liv­ing room: the way she glared at it when she thought I wasn’t looking.

            “It could be the best tree­house in the Mid­west. They’d prob­a­bly talk about it on MPR.”

            “Why must every­thing in this coun­try be best, great­est, most,” she muttered.

            But I could see it work­ing behind her eyes. After fold­ing a pair of jeans and two shirts, she said, “I’ll think about it.”

            The next morn­ing, I patient­ly chased corn flakes around my bowl until they start­ed to break while my moth­er was on the phone for almost an hour. When she sat down and start­ed but­ter­ing slices of toast with infu­ri­at­ing­ly care­ful strokes, still I kept grave­yard quiet.

            “About this tree­house,” she said, finally.

            “Hmm,” I said with a non­cha­lance I def­i­nite­ly hadn’t prac­ticed for an hour.

            “We can build it.”

            “Oh, cool.”

            I washed my bowl with ago­niz­ing delib­er­ate­ness, then went to fetch our design. It was a thing of beau­ty, print­ed with actu­al blue­print on pro­fes­sion­al 36-by-24 inch sheet, dia­grams and exten­sive notes.

            “What is this?” my moth­er said. She looked at it for a sec­ond, then frowned. “No, that won’t work.”

            She flipped it over and start­ed sketch­ing. It looked noth­ing like our design.

            My throat clenched. “Why not?”

            “Too com­pli­cat­ed to explain.”

            “Can we at least try?” I asked.

            “Why set your­self up for fail­ure?” my moth­er muttered.

            I real­ized then our fatal error. We’d been so focused on the need to con­vince my moth­er to build the tree­house, we for­got we had to also con­vince her to let us build the damn thing.

            And just like that it was all in smoke. H.I.T.S mis­sion report: failure.

            My moth­er went through four drafts and ten revi­sions to her final design. Twice we had to build the imposter tree­house then tear it down because of some triv­ial flaw or another.

            “Still work­ing on that?” Sal­ly asked, nod­ding at the bones of the lat­est attempt.

            We were sit­ting on the lawn, which was grow­ing unruly because no one had time to mow it. I plucked dan­de­lions and blew their spores out.

            “We’ll prob­a­bly be going at the stu­pid thing until the zom­bie apocalypse.”.

            “At least you’ll have a place to hide. Dad­dy refus­es to build a bunker.”

            “You can chill with us,” I said. “My broth­er will want to fight the zom­bies anyway.”

            She start­ed mak­ing a chain of dan­de­lion stems. “I don’t know. Your mom would get on my case about how I shoot them.”

            “Right between the eyes. Or no dessert.”

            “She’d even nag the zom­bies,” Sal­ly said. Her voice went low and stac­ca­to. “Backs straight! Stop limp­ing! Chew the brains before swallowing!”

            I fell over laugh­ing. “Oh my god, don’t let her hear you,” I wheezed. “I’ll be ground­ed for a year.”

            “You got spores,” Sal­ly said when I got up. She start­ed comb­ing my hair.

            My spine shiv­ered. “At least it adds color.”

            “Dude, your hair’s gor­geous. It’s so black and shiny.”

            “But you have the best hair,” I said.

            Sal­ly fin­gered one of her locks, so pale it snatched the reds of the set­ting sun.

            “Yours is bet­ter,” she said.

            I start­ed to protest, but Sal­ly point­ed to the tree­house. “Your mom’s calling.”

            “What, Ma?” I shouted.

            “Come hand me the lev­el,” my moth­er yelled.

            “Give me a minute.”


            Sal­ly looped the dan­de­lion neck­lace over my head.

            “You’d bet­ter go. Got­ta fin­ish that thing before the zom­bies get here,” she said, wink­ing as she got up.


            “O.K, Ma!”

            When I brought her the lev­el, my moth­er looked at me quizzi­cal­ly. “What are you wearing?”

            “Noth­ing,” I said.

            I tried to take the neck­lace off gen­tly, but it broke.

            It was two more months before the moth­er was sat­is­fied. Two half-lev­els, a sloped roof, gen­tly pol­ished wood. And as much as I hat­ed to admit, it was a vir­tu­oso in Amer­i­can tra­di­tion­al minimalism.

            Sal­ly and I vol­un­teered to be the tri­al mon­keys. She said she was only com­ing along to indulge me, but I could tell she was just as gid­dy. Sur­round­ed by all that red and amber and gold, it was like being cocooned by fire.

            “I don’t know why more peo­ple don’t sleep in trees in the Fall,” I said.

            “Because it’s freez­ing?” Sal­ly said. “How are you only wear­ing one sweater?”

            “It’s not that bad. Must be my trop­i­cal blood.”

            “You’ve been to Malaysia like what, four times?”

            “Blood doesn’t for­get,” I said, solemn­ly. “Or so the moth­er claims.”

            “I’ll nev­er under­stand her,” she said. “No won­der you’re so weird.”

            “Says the girl who eats every­thing in her sand­wich one-by-one.”

            “It tastes bet­ter that way,” she said. “Also, we should be tak­ing pictures.”

            “Why live life through a camera?”

            “Wow, now you’re even sound­ing like her,” Sal­ly said. “And the point of pic­tures is to make oth­ers jealous?”

            She bus­ied her­self choos­ing the right fil­ter and cap­tion. “You see the way Carl’s been look­ing at you?” she said, peer­ing at me from the cor­ner of her eyes.

            I shrugged “He’s got the yel­low fever bad.”

            “I mean three Asian girls in a row. But he is on the bas­ket­ball team.”

            “That’s because he’s already six feet. He can bare­ly toss a ball into a canyon.”

            Sal­ly snort­ed. “So you’re not inter­est­ed in him?”

            “No dat­ing until I’m out of col­lege with a job, remem­ber,” I said. “Prefer­ably with a doc­tor­ate or two.”

            Sal­ly snort­ed. “Yeah, but if you could date him, would you?”


            Sal­ly nod­ded. “Yeah, I wouldn’t date him either.”

            There seemed to be an empha­sis on him. My stom­ach clenched unpleasantly

Around eight, my moth­er came by to tell us to go to sleep.

            “Oooh, bed­time for the baby?” Sal­ly gig­gled until I shoved her over.

            We got out our sleep­ing bags. “This thing smells like hot dogs,” I said.

            “Tell your mom not to shop at Good­will,” Sal­ly said.

            We talked for bare­ly ten min­utes before Sal­ly fell into inco­her­ence. But I couldn’t get myself to sleep. My breaths mist­ed above me, but I some­how felt uncom­fort­ably warm, like there was a heat gnaw­ing through my chest. I wres­tled my way out of the sleep­ing bag.

            Sally’s face was a pale glow, cheeks trem­bling with every snore.

            I nudged her awake.

            “Move over,” I mumbled.

            I crawled in and set­tled on my side, face-to-face with her, the bag squeez­ing us tight enough that our breasts just bare­ly shift­ed against each oth­er with every breath. When I opened my eyes, hers were fixed on me, almost emer­ald in the dark.

            “Hi,” Sal­ly said. Her voice was quavering.

            It felt like hours before I leaned clos­er. I could smell the gar­lic from spaghet­ti din­ner on her breath.

            The only time I’d ever kissed some­one it was rough and wet and gross. Some cousin of a girl from school at spin the bot­tle. I left the game mak­ing a face.

            These kiss­es were rough, and wet, and beautiful.

            In the morn­ing, after we’d dropped Sal­ly off, my moth­er asked, “Did some­thing hap­pen last night?”

            “No,” I said.

            “I’ve nev­er heard you two be so quiet.”

            “Why do you always have to inter­ro­gate me?” I said, foolishly.

            She pulled over. “You’re hid­ing some­thing, and I do not like it.”

            “Noth­ing happened.”


            “Oh my god. We kissed, okay?”

            “Oh,” my moth­er said, start­ing the car again. “I was wor­ried it was drugs.”

            I couldn’t believe it. I texted Sal­ly—my mom guessed and shes not flipping?

            —holy shit. maybe the zom­bies got her

I start­ed plas­ter­ing the reply box with laugh­ing emojis.

            “Of course, you can’t date.”

            The words didn’t reg­is­ter for a moment. “What?”

            “You know the rule, no dat­ing till after college.”

            My blood turned ice even as my skull felt like it was on fire. “That’s bullshit.”

            “Watch your language.”

            When we got back home, I lay on my bed and stared at the ceil­ing. I was so numb. I stared at the line of laugh­ing faces on the unsent text, then delet­ed them one by one.

            The next day, Sal­ly found me at my lock­er. When she leaned into me, I backed away.

            Sal­ly flinched. “What the hell?”

            “It’s…” I said. “I mean…”

            Sal­ly bit the cor­ner of her lip. “It’s your moth­er isn’t it.”

            I couldn’t look at her.

            “Oh my god, Gab­by, stand up to her for once in your life!”

            “You don’t under­stand,” I said.

            “Yeah, I don’t,” Sal­ly said. “It’s the twen­ty-first fuck­ing cen­tu­ry. What kind of fas­cist bans a teenag­er from dating?”

            My head snapped up. “Look, I’m sor­ry my moth­er isn’t some pushover you can bat your eyes at and get what­ev­er the hell you want!”

            Sal­ly blinked slow­ly, like a lizard. “My dad’s not a pushover. He’s just not certifiable.”

            “My moth­er only wants what’s best for me.”

            “That umbil­i­cal cord looks real good on you,” she said, turn­ing to leave.

            “God help us all if you don’t get your way for once!”

            Sal­ly stiff­ened, then kept walking.

            The silence between our two desks start­ed to grow thick­er than smog, then spread through the whole class­room as every­one ner­vous­ly gauged the sit­u­a­tion. Halfway through Wednes­day, Ms. Walk­er asked Sal­ly to switch to a dif­fer­ent desk. She moved with­out a word.

            If school was a cold war, home was full nuclear. My moth­er and I screamed our throats ragged as the bat­tle­fronts mul­ti­plied. My ridicu­lous extra home­work. How Amer­i­can­ized I was. How many times I’d been ground­ed for miss­ing a smudge of dust. How, when peo­ple at church asked me how I was, I would respond, “You know, just sur­viv­ing the slave­mas­ter. Wa-pish.”

            When I called her a bitch, my mother’s eyes widened far enough for her eye­balls to roll out. Pass­ing my brother’s room on the way to storm­ing to mine, he was cow­er­ing on his bed.
            “What the hell are you look­ing at?” I snapped.

            The only time my moth­er and I paused hos­til­i­ties was when my father gin­ger­ly brought up fam­i­ly ther­a­py, and we con­cur­rent­ly let him know our shared pieces of mind.

            Mean­while at school, I’d tak­en to wear­ing gobs of con­ceal­er so no one could tell how much I was cry­ing. I laughed loud­ly at the weak­est jokes. Sal­ly still wouldn’t look at me.

            When my moth­er con­front­ed me about my plum­met­ing grades, some­thing broke.

            “I hate you,” I said.

            Her head snapped back, like she’d been elec­tro­cut­ed. “What?” she stammered.

            “You’ve ruined my life.” My voice was as monot­o­nous as an answer­ing machine. Press “1” for How Gab­by Real­ly Feels. “I. Fuck­ing. Hate you.”

            When I passed my parent’s bed­room that night, my moth­er was sob­bing on my father’s shoul­der. He was plead­ing silent­ly for me to say some­thing. I rolled my eyes and went to bed.

            Then a few days lat­er, at lunch in the cafe­te­ria, an announce­ment on the P.A from Vice-Prin­ci­pal Colne. Our mod­el audi­to­ri­ums had won prizes for the city com­pe­ti­tion. My chest clenched. Build­ing those with Sal­ly felt like an episode from some show we’d watched obses­sive­ly then abrupt­ly for­got about.

            “Our own Sal­ly Long’s placed third, and Gabrielle Deli­ma placed second!”

            I glanced at Sal­ly, two tables away, but she didn’t turn around.

            “Please give them a big round of applause.”

            The cafe­te­ria clapped awk­ward­ly. Sally’s voice sliced through the silence that followed.

            “It’s because she’s Asian,” she was say­ing. “Affir­ma­tive Action bullshit.”

            A meat­ball sailed through the air and splat­tered on the back of her head. It took me a moment to real­ize I’d been the one who’d thrown it. Sal­ly whipped around just in time for mari­nara sauce to explode all over her face.

            “Don’t you dare talk about me that way!” I screamed.

            Sal­ly grabbed a glob of spaghet­ti and hurled it back. Sal­ly, per­fect in every way but this: the noo­dles missed me by a mile and struck the the­ater kids.

            “It’s called free speech!” she screamed. “Look it up!”

            Any­thing else she might have said was lost in the ensu­ing mael­strom of food. We stood unmov­ing through it all even as pieces of boiled broc­coli and dis­in­te­grat­ing meat­balls splat­tered on us, and milk and pop soaked our clothes. Nei­ther of us would be the one to look away as fury redou­bled between our eyes like micro­phone feedback.

            “What the hell was that?” Vice-Prin­ci­pal Colne said, nine­ty min­utes lat­er, furi­ous­ly dab­bing an orangey grease spot on his shirt.

            “She start­ed it,” Sal­ly said.

            “She insult­ed me,” I shot back.

            “I don’t care,” Colne said. “Who start­ed what. Who said what. Deten­tion, two weeks.”

            He silenced our protest with a slash of his hand, then ges­tured toward the door. Mrs. Long and my moth­er walked in. They sat on either side of us, avoid­ing our eyes as they gave the stan­dard words of con­tri­tion and promis­es of good behavior.

            “Now apol­o­gize,” Colne said to us.

            “Sor­ry,” we muttered.

            “Not to me,” Colne said. “To one another.”

            Sal­ly froze too.

            “Look at each oth­er,” he said.

            It was the first time in weeks that I’d been this close to her. I’d for­got­ten how green her eyes were. Con­ceal­er was flak­ing beneath them.


            I was sur­prised how much it sound­ed like we meant it.

            Sal­ly looked away. “Good aim. You should try­out for softball.”

            My lip twitched. “Maybe if they got bet­ter uniforms.”

            When we got home, I start­ed toward my bedroom.

            “Wait,” my moth­er said.

            “Can I at least take a nap?” I said.

            “Please?” she said softly.

            I froze mid-step. I couldn’t remem­ber my moth­er ever say­ing that to me. When she col­lapsed into the sofa in the liv­ing room, I approached war­i­ly and sat down on the arm on the oppo­site side.

            “I want­ed to nur­ture you. Pro­tect you. Push you,” my moth­er said. Her eyes were spi­der-webbed with blood lines. “I thought that’s what a moth­er is sup­posed to do.”

            She leaned for­ward, star­ing at the fire­place, clasp­ing her hands on her knees, as if pray­ing. “Grow­ing up, I felt so alone. Grand­pa was always gone for work and Grand­ma bare­ly paid atten­tion to me.” She looked at me again. “I nev­er want­ed you to feel that way.”

            “What’s that sup­posed to mean?”

            “I just want you to under­stand. I get so caught up in it. You and your broth­er are my joys. You’re the best things I ever made.”

            “Destroyed, more like.”

            “Some­times I want to shield you so much I for­get you have to breathe,” she said. “But I’m try­ing, Gabrielle. I’m try­ing to be better.”

            I stood up. “Too late.”

            In my bed­room, I looked up Sally’s Insta­gram. Only five pic­tures down, there we were, in the tree­house, Sal­ly grin­ning like it was her birth­day and me look­ing like some­one who hadn’t quite fig­ured out smil­ing. The cap­tion said: #BFFs <3

I texted Sal­ly. —can I call?

            A minute lat­er the phone buzzed. —yeah

Hey,” she said. “How much trou­ble you in?”

            “Not sure. The moth­er bot didn’t even yell at me. Must be out of juice.”

            “Mine went full soap opera. What are peo­ple going to think about us?

            I gig­gled. “I miss you.”

            “Me too.”

            “I want to be with you. No mat­ter what my moth­er says.”

            There was silence on the oth­er line.


            “It’s just…” Sal­ly said. “I don’t know. You real­ly hurt me.”

            “I’m sor­ry,” I said. “We hurt each other.”

            “Yeah,” Sal­ly said.

            After a minute I said, “You still there?”

            She exhaled. “My dad’s tak­ing a posi­tion in Chicago.”

            My throat shrank. I could bare­ly whis­per an oh.

            “Yeah,” she said. She paused for a minute. Her breaths came soft and shal­low. “Maybe it’s best… Maybe we just shouldn’t let any­thing happen.”


            “I’ll…” Sal­ly said, “See you around, I guess.”

            I didn’t let the phone drop from my ear even when the two beeps of the hang-up tone came, like the last beats of a heart.

            Any­time now she’ll call back and say it was a mis­take. We were BFFs.

            The snow-coat­ed roof of the tree­house turned gray, then red, then a bruised pur­ple. Best friends for­ev­er. She had to call back.

            How could for­ev­er end like this?

            The tree­house was glow­ing in street­light amber when my moth­er came to sit on the edge of the bed.

            “You win,” I said. “Con­trol my life all you want. I don’t care. Noth­ing mat­ters any­more. Not a sin­gle god­dam thing.”

            “I’m sor­ry,” she said.

            It took me a moment to com­pre­hend what she’d said. That impos­si­ble word had pulled some kind of plug in me, and the rage build­ing in my chest drained in a rush.

            “I’m going to make din­ner,” my moth­er said. “I’ll leave some in the fridge.”

            It was past mid­night when I final­ly crawled out of bed. My moth­er was work­ing at the din­ing table.

            “What’s that?” I asked.

            “We’re redis­trib­ut­ing Mr. Long’s remain­ing projects.”

            “Oh,” I said, sit­ting down. The tree­house looked gray and dead. I tried to pic­ture the red and gold of that autumn day back onto it, but I couldn’t. I start­ed cry­ing. Her lips had been so warm.

            “That damn tree­house,” my moth­er said suddenly.

            “Huh?” I said, rub­bing my eyes.

            “It’s crooked.”

            “Doesn’t look it,” I said.

            “A seri­ous struc­tur­al flaw.” She sighed. “Too com­pli­cat­ed to explain. We will have to tear it down.”

            She glanced at me as she said it. “Ah,” I said. “Guess so.”

            The next day, wrapped in a dozen blan­kets, we shiv­ered in front of the fire­place, our coats pool­ing water by the door, nei­ther of us say­ing any­thing. When­ev­er the fire start­ed to fade, I grabbed anoth­er piece of the tree­house and shoved it into the flames. Each piece glowed brighter and brighter, then crum­bled. Like a promise, like a dream.

From the writer


:: Account ::

The germ of this sto­ry was the phrase start over bounc­ing around my head which had me won­der­ing what kind of sto­ry would revolve around that. It was while tak­ing my first MFA class, almost a decade ago, taught by the ines­timably bril­liant and nur­tur­ing Deb­o­rah Keenan, who pro­vid­ed more prompts in a class than you could work through in a year, so many that I was now mak­ing one up on my own. And maybe it was because, while severe­ly depressed and on an ill-fat­ed jour­ney with hor­mone replace­ment ther­a­py, I found myself exor­cis­ing demons around my rela­tion­ship with my moth­er, but the sto­ry I imme­di­ate­ly fell into was about deal­ing with a per­fec­tion­ist father who kept scrap­ping any­thing his kids did that wasn’t up to stan­dards and telling them to start over.

     But as much as the heart of the sto­ry was drawn from my own life, the details weren’t. And in a way it prob­a­bly felt like when a friend tells a sto­ry that you sus­pect has all the impor­tant bits obscured.

     Some­one once told me that writ­ers have to ask them­selves: where’s their skin in the game? Because there are some sto­ries you can’t tell by wad­ing in the shal­lows. So the gener­ic Asian father became a Malaysian Eurasian moth­er, the trip to Malaysia was stuffed with details that could be auto­bi­o­graph­ic, and the con­flict between par­ent and child became the embod­i­ment of all the anger and hurt that I felt grow­ing up. What remained fic­tion­al, such as grow­ing up in the U.S. for exam­ple, did so as a vehi­cle for the sto­ry, not a way to hide.

     One mys­te­ri­ous thing is how I masked my moth­er at a time when our rela­tion­ship was strained. But in the months that fol­lowed, maybe after hav­ing got­ten all that out in that class, I found myself able to move past the hurt she caused by her mis­takes to appre­ci­ate the love that was behind it, and some­how freer to be hon­est about the hard truths of our rela­tion­ship. In the orig­i­nal, the end­ing involves Sal­ly dying and Gabby’s father dis­man­tling the tree­house and ask­ing if they can start over with the plans the girls made, per­haps some kind of wish ful­fill­ment on my part. The new end­ing feels a lot clos­er to the nature of my own accep­tance of my mother.

     And maybe that’s a les­son: art imi­tates life, but some­times as writ­ers we have to let it.


Nico­la Koh is a Malaysian Eurasian 16 years in the Amer­i­can Mid­west, an athe­ist who lost their faith while com­plet­ing their Mas­ters of The­ol­o­gy, and a minor god of Tetris. They got their MFA from Ham­line Uni­ver­si­ty and were a 2018 VONA/Voices and 2019/20 Loft Men­tors Series fel­low. Their fic­tion has appeared in places like the Mar­gins, Brown Ori­ent, and A‑Minor Mag­a­zine. Amongst oth­er things, they enjoy tak­ing too many pic­tures of their ani­mal fren­e­mies, craft­ing puns, and lis­ten­ing to pub­lic domain audio books after injur­ing their neck read­ing (which feels like some kind of lit­er­ary wound of hon­our). See more at



Fiction / Wayne Mok


:: Oblation ::

            I would often dream about John Calvin. That might be a weird thing to dream about, but I had just returned from sem­i­nary abroad after fin­ish­ing a the­sis on John Calvin’s Chris­tol­ogy. In my dreams, I would see him stand­ing behind the pul­pit of the church in Gene­va, arms high, nose in the Bible, preach­ing to a crowd­ed room of peo­ple trans­fixed on him. He wasn’t a tall man, but there was a sense of urgency, almost anx­i­ety, in the tone of his gut­tur­al voice. In those dreams, I would be in the front pew look­ing up, tak­ing in every last word that came out of his mouth like I was sip­ping on pure water from an ancient spring. Occa­sion­al­ly, the dream would turn into a night­mare. One moment, I’d be sit­ting in the front pew, but the next, I’d feel out of place, con­scious that I didn’t belong—my black hair, yel­low skin, flat nose, Asian eyes—and I’d be dragged out of the church by the con­gre­ga­tion, thrown out onto the street. Calvin him­self would close the church doors, say­ing some­thing to me in a lan­guage he knew I did not under­stand. It didn’t hap­pen often, but when it did, I couldn’t help but be dis­turbed by what it might’ve meant.

            The the­sis on Calvin won the Bavinck Prize that year. The pan­el praised the piece and espe­cial­ly applaud­ed the appli­ca­tion I drew out for the church and social jus­tice. One pro­fes­sor said he would talk to an edi­tor he knew to see if they would be inter­est­ed in it. The same week the prize was announced, the vic­ar from my church in Hong Kong called. He heard the news and asked if I was inter­est­ed in a job. He was plan­ning to retire in a few years and was look­ing for some­one who could replace him then. It seemed like a sign from God and I accept­ed the posi­tion on the spot.

            I first encoun­tered the home­less man a few months after I returned to Hong Kong. The Christ­mas Eve ser­vice just end­ed. I had preached on the birth nar­ra­tive in the Gospel of Luke and talked about Calvin’s con­cept of the accom­mo­da­tion of God; it was my best ser­mon yet. At the end of the ser­vice, a mem­ber of the con­gre­ga­tion came up and said that he saw Jesus descend­ing into the sanc­tu­ary as I was preaching.

            As a year­ly tra­di­tion, the church gave out gifts to every­one who attend­ed the ser­vice. The box was wrapped with a fes­tive print of baby Jesus in the manger. Inside was a mug with a Bible verse print­ed on it. On my way out, the vic­ar hand­ed me one with a sly smirk on his face, “We need to get rid of these—the sex­ton needs space in the store­room for the new nativ­i­ty scene.”

            I took it.

            “Want another?”

            I shook my head, “I don’t know what I’d do with it.”

            The night sky was bright, illu­mi­nat­ed by the lights of Hong Kong push­ing against the dark­ness long for­got­ten. A large crowd streamed past the church towards the MTR Sta­tion on their way to the fes­tiv­i­ties that would run late into the night. I straight­ened my cler­i­cal col­lar and head­ed towards home.

            Halfway across a desert­ed foot­bridge on my usu­al route home, I saw him. A pair of feet with frayed socks stuck out from under­neath a flat­tened card­board box. A damp T‑shirt was draped over the rail­ing. As I walked clos­er, I was struck by a sour stench—like that of urine mixed with beer. I cov­ered my nose. An emp­ty take­out box lay open reveal­ing a used pair of chop­sticks, some chewed up meat, and a few tooth­picks. The man’s head rest­ed on a pair of old shoes.

            My ini­tial instinct was to walk past the man, but as he twist­ed and turned under his card­board box, try­ing to find his way into sleep, I felt some­thing. It was dif­fi­cult to name it at the time, but I deduced it was prob­a­bly some­thing like com­pas­sion, or char­i­ty, or maybe even love. It was Christ­mas after all.

            I tip toed over, bent down, and lay the gift next to his feet, care­ful not to touch him. Just before walk­ing down the steps at the end of the bridge, I looked back. The neat­ly wrapped gift stood in stark con­trast to the filth that cov­ered every­thing about the man. The Apos­tle Paul had once said, “A man reap what he sows,” and I couldn’t help but won­der what the man did in the past to deserve his present life. The roar of the street and the chat­ter of the crowd below was almost deaf­en­ing. A tram passed by under­neath with Christ­mas car­ols blast­ing on its speakers.

            That night, I had a night­mare. I was sit­ting in the church at Gene­va in my cas­sock, man­u­script in my hands, ready to preach on the Beat­i­tudes from the Gospel of Matthew. At some point dur­ing the first hymn, I looked down at my man­u­script and real­ized that it was all in Latin—I didn’t read Latin. The next moment, the pul­pit was emp­ty and the con­gre­ga­tion, includ­ing Calvin him­self were all look­ing in my direc­tion. I start­ed to pan­ic. An uncom­fort­able heat rose with­in my chest and ascend­ed into my neck. My cheeks took on a red flush, my hands start­ed to trem­ble, and my abdomen tight­ened. I man­aged to stand up and pro­ceed­ed to walk towards the pul­pit, but before I arrived, some­one was already there. I couldn’t make out his face, but I some­how knew exact­ly who it was—it was the home­less man. He wore the same damp T‑shirt and pair of old socks that I saw on the bridge.

            The man then opened his mouth to preach in Latin, with a voice far deep­er and more force­ful than that of Calvin’s, “Beati pau­peres spir­i­tu quo­ni­am …” As his deaf­en­ing voice echoed through­out the church, I felt an urge to run. I gath­ered my strength and ran down the cen­ter aisle towards the exit, but just before I could reach the doors, I felt my abdomen and groin give way. I woke up drenched in sweat. I pulled off my blan­ket and got out of bed, but my pants were so wet it felt like I just got out of the pool. Half-con­scious, I stood there try­ing to fig­ure out what had hap­pened before I caught a whiff of an odor and glanced at my bed—I had peed my pants.

            As I was in the show­er clean­ing myself off, I thought about the dream and what just happened—was God angry that I gave the home­less man a cheap gift? Was there some­thing spir­i­tu­al going on with the man—demonic pos­ses­sion? Did he need my help? Was God speak­ing to me? I had no clue, but the more I thought about it, the more I knew I need­ed to vis­it him again. I need­ed to find out. I put on a set of fresh­ly ironed cler­i­cal clothes and went to see the man, with a hunch that the vis­it would make things right, somehow.

            He was sit­ting on his card­board box, cross-legged, sip­ping on a bot­tle of beer while eat­ing a steamed pork bun. A Chi­nese man with a big face, dark skinned with unkempt greasy hair, he was dressed in the same red­dish-brown T‑shirt, car­go shorts, with a dif­fer­ent pair of socks this time, but the same hor­rid stench. The mug from the church was at his side, full of cig­a­rette butts emit­ting a con­stant stream of smoke like incense in a censer. The Bible verse print­ed on it felt odd­ly out of place.

            I point­ed at the mug, “I left that there for you.”

            He turned his head, “What?”

            “It was a gift.”

            He looked at it, before tak­ing a sip of his beer. “What about it? You want it back?”

            “No, but you shouldn’t be using it for cigarettes.”

            He shook his head and downed the rest of his beer. In a swift motion, he whacked the mug with the emp­ty beer bot­tle. The mug skid­ded on the con­crete floor before hit­ting a met­al rail. Upon impact, the mug shat­tered into pieces, send­ing cig­a­rette butts fly­ing across the rest of the bridge.

            “Get lost,” he yelled.

              Stunned by his response, I ran as fast as I could in my cas­sock to the oth­er side of the bridge and felt a shard of the bro­ken mug crack beneath my foot.

            At staff meet­ing lat­er in the week, I shared about the man. The vic­ar nod­ded in approval. “It is our call­ing as min­is­ters to rep­re­sent Christ to the poor,” he said, sip­ping instant cof­fee from anoth­er Christ­mas mug. Though his com­ment affirmed my intu­ition that I did the right thing, the more I thought about the man, the more dis­gust­ed I felt—the way the man dressed, the way he spoke, his lack of man­ners and respect, not just for me, but for God, even his stink. I knew that it was wrong to not help some­one in need, but I couldn’t help but think the man didn’t want my help, in which case, there prob­a­bly wasn’t any rea­son to vis­it him again. 

            In the fol­low­ing weeks, mirages, or per­haps you can call them visions, of the man, began to appear wher­ev­er I would go. He would be out­side the super­mar­ket beg­ging for loose change. He would be sprawled out on the bot­tom deck of the tram. He would be smok­ing in the park, loud­ly com­ment­ing on the play of casu­al foot­ball teams. These visions became more and more fre­quent, and I kept try­ing to ignore them, until one day after work as I was leav­ing the church, I had a vision of him there at the front of the chapel, ine­bri­at­ed, loung­ing by the altar, burp­ing after tak­ing a swig of wine out of the chal­ice. God was sure­ly say­ing some­thing, like he spoke to Samuel in the night. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I knew that the only way to find out was to see the man again.

            The man was there lying on flat­tened box­es. A blan­ket was pushed to the side, soak­ing up runoff from the rail­ings. A bro­ken umbrel­la faced the street, shield­ing off the mild rain. Neon signs illu­mi­nat­ing the bridge gave the night a red­dish-green glow. His stink seemed to be inten­si­fied by the humid­i­ty, mak­ing each breath that much hard­er to bear.

            He sat up and wiped his face with the sleeve of his shirt, “What do you want?”

            I point­ed towards the church, “I’m a min­is­ter there. I want to help.”

            He ignored me and reached for a pack of cigarettes.

            I pulled out a paper bag from my brief­case and put it on the ground in front of him. He took the bag, pulled out a bot­tle of water, and then a chick­en avo­ca­do sour­dough sand­wich I picked up from an expen­sive sand­wich place down the street. He held the sand­wich close to his face, and then sniffed it, like an animal.

             “I don’t eat gwei­lo food,” he said, set­ting it down on the floor.

            “Sir,” I said, try­ing my best to con­vey respect, “I’m try­ing to help.”

            He shook his head and chuck­led, “I know your type; you don’t want to help.” He tossed the sand­wich at my feet. “You know what will help? Tsing Tao, cig­a­rettes, fried rice …” he paused for a moment, “and a Mark Six tick­et.” He roared with laugh­ter and pro­ceed­ed to pick up the water bot­tle, “I’ll take this though.” I walked away, annoyed at the man, and if I was being hon­est, at God.

            That week, the mild rain strength­ened into a typhoon. Streets start­ed to flood and there were land­slides in rur­al areas. Schools were closed, work halt­ed, peo­ple stayed home. The news report­ed that it was the strongest typhoon record­ed in half a cen­tu­ry. Per­haps it was cab­in fever, but a week into the storm, my apart­ment began to smell like the home­less man. That same nasty stink. At first, I thought it was a clogged drain or a plumb­ing issue caused by the rain. I plumbed the toi­lets, snaked every drain, checked for leaks, but to no avail. I took out the trash, cleaned out the fridge. I spent the rest of the day clean­ing and san­i­tiz­ing the entire apartment—I vac­u­umed and mopped, wiped down every sur­face, cleaned the mold out of the grout in the bath­room, scrubbed the kitchen down along with all the grime from the past year. I even threw out any­thing remote­ly close to old into large garbage bags and resealed my win­dows and doors to ensure noth­ing could get in. Still, the scent lin­gered. It was as if his pres­ence infil­trat­ed every cor­ner of the apart­ment, not want­i­ng to leave.

            That night, exhaust­ed from the clean­ing, I fell into a deep sleep. It was the same dream. I was sit­ting in the first row of the chapel as usu­al, lis­ten­ing to Calvin as he preached, but this time, Theodore Beza, John Knox, and younger the­olo­gians like Charles Hodge and Abra­ham Kuyper were there was well. The greats. Con­scious of their pres­ence, I was ner­vous, but also excit­ed about being there, when the stench hit me. That God-awful stench. I looked around. Oth­er peo­ple smelled it too. Peo­ple pulled out hand­ker­chiefs and cov­ered their faces; oth­ers tried to fan the smell away with their hands. The stench con­tin­ued to inten­si­fy. An old­er mem­ber of the church faint­ed in her seat, and moments lat­er, a young child vom­it­ed on a pew. A few peo­ple in the back tried to open the doors, but they were locked. No one could get out. The crowd start­ed to rush towards the door, ram­ming them­selves against it, try­ing to break the lock. The church Fathers stood in hor­ror at what was going on, bewil­dered at the situation.

            I, too, made a run for the door, but stopped when I real­ized that the stench was com­ing out of my mouth. Every breath I exhaled emanat­ed a smell so sick­en­ing that it trig­gered my gag reflex. I tried to hold it in, but my abdom­i­nal mus­cles and diaphragm con­tract­ed vio­lent­ly, send­ing a burn­ing sen­sa­tion up my chest and into my throat. Expect­ing food or bile to come out, I knelt on the ground and bent over, but instead, all that came out was more of the smell, an end­less stream of putrid odor that smelled like skunk mixed with rot­ten cabbage.

            At some point, the chapel cleared out. I was on my knees in the mid­dle of the aisle, alone, when I heard some­one walk­ing towards me. I looked up—it was the home­less man. It was him. He was behind all of this, that damned human being. My imme­di­ate reac­tion was to get up and tack­le him to the ground, but my body ached so much I couldn’t move. As he moved towards me, the stench strange­ly began to fade, and instead, there was a faint trace of anoth­er scent. I wasn’t sure exact­ly what it was, but it was an allur­ing scent—not just a scent you appre­ci­at­ed like that of a rose or lily, but an aro­ma that whet­ted your appetite and made you hun­gry. Not before long, he was stand­ing over me. The stench had van­ished and the fra­grant scent by that point was over­whelm­ing. The nau­sea was gone and I felt famished—stomach growl­ing, mouth drool­ing, dying for food with a hunger that peo­ple prob­a­bly only expe­ri­enced in a famine, and I woke up, starving.

            I checked the time, got dressed, and went down to the restau­rant down­stairs. It was Thurs­day after­noon. The wind and rain seemed be let­ting up. Shops had reopened and peo­ple returned to the streets just in time for the East­er week­end ahead. I opened the door and entered the fra­grance that filled the restaurant—Yangzhou friend rice—the tra­di­tion­al Can­tonese type with eggs, peas, bits of char siu, prawn, and scal­lions. I placed an order. As I wait­ed, I stood at the counter of the restau­rant watch­ing as the chef stirred the rice in his wok, I thought about the ser­mon I was prepar­ing for the week­end on the Para­ble of the Ban­quet. I won­dered what that feast would be like, and whether it’d be any­thing like a Chi­nese ban­quet. Who would be there? Would I? What about the home­less man? Per­haps it was guilt, or maybe the voice of the Spir­it, I placed a sec­ond order.

            I stepped out onto the street, when the sky began to crack, releas­ing buck­ets of water splash­ing onto the side­walk. Fall­en leaves, branch­es, and lit­ter were scat­tered all over. I held onto the bag of food with one hand. With the oth­er, I opened my umbrel­la, shield­ing myself from the skies that roared above.

            There were two umbrel­las this time, both bro­ken, posi­tioned against the rails. The thun­der­ing rain, the neon signs, the fra­grance from the restau­rants, and exhaust from the busses and trucks all seemed to cur­tain the space around us.

            He lift­ed his head. “You again. What do you want?” he asked, rub­bing his eyes with both hands.

            “I’m hun­gry,” I said, “Want to eat?”

            Unex­pect­ed­ly, he sighed, in the way old Chi­nese men do and said, “Come sit.” He shift­ed his belong­ings aside and made space on the cardboard.

            I hesitated—reasons not to flood­ed my mind—but in the moment, it was the only thing that felt right. The card­board was cold and wet. I took out a box of food and set it in front of him, “What you asked for.” He popped off the lid. The aro­ma of the rice filled the space between us. He smiled, show­ing his stained teeth before tak­ing a spoon to dig in. He scooped each por­tion of rice with a gen­tle swoop; rais­ing the spoon up to his mouth, he closed his mouth around the spoon, mak­ing sure to catch every grain, then chewed.

            I opened my box and began to eat, spoon after spoon of fried rice. The aro­ma of the scal­lions and heat from the oil filled my nos­trils, the bits of bar­be­qued pork and chopped up bits of prawn tick­led my tongue. I chewed metic­u­lous­ly after each bite, slow­ly fill­ing the deep recess­es of my stom­ach. The rain con­tin­ued to drown out all that was around us. After what felt like a long time, I was stuffed. I thought I had eat­en a lot, but there was still food left in the box.

            “You want that?” he asked. I shook my head. He took my box, closed its lid, and put it by his bags.

            By this point, I was tired. I need­ed to work on my ser­mon so I decid­ed to leave. But as I attempt­ed to push myself off the ground, I felt a deep sense of exhaus­tion as you would after run­ning a marathon. Even the act of try­ing to get off the ground felt like an impos­si­ble task. I leaned back against the rail­ing and tilt­ed my head towards the sky. The rain splat­tered on my face, sting­ing my eyes. I opened my mouth, hop­ing to catch a few drops of rain to alle­vi­ate my thirst.

            I heard the man crack open a bot­tle of water. “Drink,” he said, hold­ing out the bot­tle to me.

            I took the bot­tle. The first sip was bit­ter, remind­ing me of the first time I tast­ed wine at the Eucharist. I spit it out onto the floor. I scraped my tongue against my molars, hop­ing to get rid of the taste. The bit­ter­ness sunk in, burn­ing my tongue and the walls of my mouth. “It’s bit­ter,” I point­ed to the bottle.

            “Just drink it.”

            “You’re mad,” I set the bot­tle down on the floor. The bit­ter­ness trig­gered the mus­cles in my throat, which con­tract­ed, and I start­ed to cough violently.

            The man picked up the bot­tle. It had now accu­mu­lat­ed a lay­er of con­den­sa­tion, mak­ing the bot­tle glow as it refract­ed light from the ceil­ing pass­ing through it. He gazed into my eyes intent­ly, and hold­ing out the bot­tle, he repeat­ed, “Drink it.” In that moment, as I was chok­ing on my sali­va and regur­gi­tat­ed food, cough­ing vio­lent­ly to the point where it felt like my lungs would come right out of my mouth, I had a moment of insight: if I didn’t drink this, I was going to die here on this bridge. I took the bot­tle from the man and began to drink, swal­low­ing large gulps. The liq­uid tore at every tis­sue in my mouth and esoph­a­gus, claw­ing like scorpions.

            The taste of the water grad­u­al­ly trans­formed. Each sip seemed less bit­ter, but also eased the sting. I con­tin­ued to drink. Three-quar­ters way through the bot­tle, the water had not only regained its neu­tral fla­vor, but acquired a sur­pris­ing sweet­ness to it. I felt my body regain strength, absorb­ing the water one mol­e­cule at a time. I set the emp­ty bot­tle down, the sweet taste lin­ger­ing in my mouth.

            As I sat there next to the man, silent, watch­ing the last drops of rain waver before find­ing their way off the edges of the rail­ings, I thought about the gift—what hap­pened to the pieces of the shat­tered mug? Did they remain there, ignored by pedes­tri­ans? Where they cleaned up and dis­card­ed? Were they washed away, bit by bit, by the thun­der­ing rain? At that point, over­come with a sense of release, I couldn’t help but close my eyes, stretch my arms wide as if I were reach­ing for the ends of the uni­verse, and yell at the top my lungs.

            The rum­ble of the sky eased into a gen­tle growl. The veils of rain lift­ed, reveal­ing rays of light from the build­ings, shop signs, and street­lights. A dou­ble-deck­er bus hummed past, its sus­pen­sion squeak­ing. The clat­ter of pedes­tri­ans, chil­dren, and shop­keep­ers res­onat­ed, accent­ed by clang­ing dish­es and cups, gen­tle gusts of kitchen exhaust, and the faint clicks of cross­walk signals.

            I stood up and looked down at the man. His eyes were closed and his body inclined against the rails. The rise and fall of his chest pro­duced a gen­tle snort. Every so often, he’d wake him­self up with his own snor­ing, but then he’d catch his breath and fall back into a lull. I noticed the wrin­kles that lined his face, the streaks of white in his greasy disheveled hair, the cracked skin on his hands. He seemed old­er, frail­er, more worn out than when I first met him. As I walked down from the bridge into the night, I looked up at the sky. It had cleared up, reveal­ing a vast black can­vas glis­ten­ing with specks of shim­mer­ing dust. A thin film of water glazed the street, reflect­ing the bright sky above.

            I nev­er saw the man after that. The next time I crossed the bridge, it was clean as a whis­tle, no trace that any­one was ever there. Some­times I’m not even sure what happened—it felt like it was all just a dream. Even to this day, I’m not sure where he came from or who exact­ly he was. Nei­ther do I know whether there was any­thing I could’ve done to help him except bring him a box of fried rice. But I do know, now, that he had done for me some­thing that I could’ve nev­er done for myself.

From the writer


:: Account ::

I wrote this sto­ry short­ly after work­ing for a faith-based home­less ser­vice in Hong Kong. Dur­ing that time, I was exposed to the long-last­ing socio-eco­nom­ic rem­nants of British colo­nial­ism, the per­pet­u­a­tion of sys­temic injus­tice often through reli­gion, and the imbal­ance of pow­er between the rich and the poor in the city. At the same time, I saw great wealth in a com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple who did not have much, and beau­ty as they reclaimed the faith of the gwei­lo as their own. The expe­ri­ence forced me to con­sid­er my own faith and iden­ti­ty, so shaped by my life in the West, yet felt in many ways bank­rupt com­pared to those whom many of us would want noth­ing to do with—poor, old, for­eign, out­siders, neu­ro­di­ver­gent. Even though it’s all too easy for many to ide­al­ize pover­ty from a com­fort­able dis­tance, I think some­times, it’s that ini­tial gaze that makes us won­der whether what we need is often found in the places we least expect.


Wayne Mok is orig­i­nal­ly from Hong Kong and now lives in Syd­ney, Australia.